Good Music We Can Know

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Baby Cart in the Land of Demons: Hideakira Sakurai- Lone Wolf and Cub OST (1972-74)

The six Lone Wolf and Cub films are, without a doubt, six of my favorite films of all time.  Based on the notably cinematic 1970's manga, and starring the glorious Tomisaburo Wakayama as Ogami Itto, the series depicts the nihilistic exploits of a father-and-child death machine, as they wander the Japanese countryside accepting assassin commissions and meting out utterly merciless revenge.

Because of their cartoonish nature and outrageous violence-- the constant challenge to top themselves by inventing increasingly bizarre ways to depict sword-deaths and blood-spray, the ubiquitous final-act battle wherein Ogami Itto must slay no less than an entire army or armies-- the Lone Wolf and Cub series has rarely been taken as seriously as art as it deserves.  While many of the great Samurai films-- nearly all of them, in fact-- explore the socio-political constructs and resultant injustices of feudal Japan (think Sword of Doom, Three Rebel Samurai, Kill!, Hara-Kiri, Samurai Rebellion, all of you-know-who's samurai efforts, from Seven Samurai to Ran), thus offering subversive elements of allegorical social critique and achieving a deep contemporary cultural resonance, Lone Wolf and Cub traffics very little in these waters.  The protagonists' identity is largely defined by their total rejection of the entire social contract. 

Itto characterizes himself and his son as "evil," or "demons."  Though his sensible, self-evident morality (and paternal devotion) often casts him as one of the only noble characters in the universe, he still represents an unusually nihilistic agent of death death death inevitable fucking death, remorselessly cutting through the landscape (while pushing a stroller), leaving nothing but wind blowing over silent corpses in his wake-- and so the demon comparison is, in many ways, a fitting one. There are no lessons learned, no morals reinforced, no power structures or social codes satirized in any but the most basic sense-- the polemic of every Lone Wolf and Cub is: mess with Lone Wolf and Cub and you will die. 

This fascinatingly simple premise, combined with a committed gonzo aesthetic of splorching, spraying, erupting blood, could result in jokey cult cinema-- somewhere between Riki-Oh and early Shaw Brothers (One-Armed Swordsman springs to mind)-- and that, honestly, would be enough.  Fortunately, it's much more than that, and Lone Wolf and Cub, for all its excesses and absurdity, is a devastatingly elegant body of work (particularly when director Kenji Misumi is at the helm).  Based on a comic book, it embodies much of what a comic book offers, and that includes graphic composition, graceful impossibilities, and psychological impressionism alongside all those surreal eruptions of belief-beggaring violence.  The Samurai genre is often spoken of as a cultural analogue to the western world's Westerns, and while it's not always a clean comparison, it certainly does make a lot of sense to discuss these ultra-violent, anachronistically mythic, and surprisingly graceful pop reconstructions of the Samurai flick in relation to Leone's similar treatment of the Western genre.

It helps that the films are anchored by Wakayama, a troll-like goblin-man with the body of a small sumo wrestler and all the grace, reserve, and dignity of a beautiful god.  With such a magnetic and quiet eye at the center of the storm, you scarcely dare laugh, even when Itto is slashing the tits off a carrot-throwing lady assassin, or striking a statuesque pose while his foe bazooka-sprays blood from his throat.

Contributing to the utter greatness of the series is the exquisite score, by Hideakira Sakurai.  Like the films, it's all over the place, tonally.  Barry-esque spy surf guitars and blaxploitation wah are thrust with inspiring confidence alongside spaghetti western weirdness, eerie psychedelic avant-garde soundscapes, giant pregnant silences, and whatever passes for "traditional" Japanese instrumentation.  It's amazing.  Today I'm sharing with you all the "Best of" Lone Wolf and Cub music, as compiled by La-La Land records (and now out of print).  It's a good collection of themes from each of the six films, a real treat-- though I do wish I could find a complete collection of all the Lone Wolf and Cub scores, because La-La leaves out a lot of the best incidental stuff, which is where Sakurai gets the most abstract, atmospheric and weird.  Sakurai deserves a dimension-x comp of this other stuff like Morricone got with Crime and Dissonance, if you ask me.  But this will have to do for now.

Please enjoy, then check out the films.  You will not regret your choice.


Monday, March 11, 2013

Coconut Ballet and Jungle Drums: Xavier Cugat- The King Plays Some Aces (1958) and Viva Cugat! (1961)

By 1958, Cugat's "hotter" numbers-- his mambos and the like-- were starting to trade warm rowdiness for cold slick muscle, and on LPs such as this, many of the compositions he had made famous a couple decades earlier were reappearing as brash plastic caricatures with a nagging "bigger is better" sensibility.   The slightly murky, languid sounds of the romantic 78 RPM era were giving way to comic-book brass explosions with a hi-fi polish.  If you want mambos as muscular and thrilling as a Batman fight, you could give Perez Prado a listen (particularly Dilo!), and you would get all that and more-- and it would be good, even grand.  With late-period Cugat, it just sounds strained.

The King Plays Some Aces has some of the symptoms of this disease.  Indeed, as a sort-of tossed-off long player padded with old, repackaged hits, it's potentially emblematic of many of Cugat's thoughtless failings as a populist entertainer first and artist of any integrity second.  It fairly reeks of squandered nostalgia.  But stay tuned for the twist: fortunately, because Cugat really is a magnanimous king and gifted bastard, this seemingly lesser work is, in fact, stocked with a fair share of notable aces.  Late Cugat may not have been a rightful king of the rowdy-ass mambos and rumbas and cha-cha-chas, but he still had that undeniable knack for the lush and exotic.  In this department, the larger orchestras and elaborate production can be employed in such a way as to suit him quite well.

Two real revelations: "Danse des Mirlitons" and especially "Danse Arabe," from, yes, The Nutcracker.  Deftly eliminating whatever Christmas associations we might have, these two glorious arrangements splendidly highlight their essential exoticism (and that of their source-- The Nutcracker, based on the writings of Hoffman, is an extremely exoticizing work at its core). They emerge seductive and a little eerie.

There's also"Baia" and "Adios."  These songs are great every time Cugat tackles them, and the notably novel arrangements, by Sid Ramin, are exquisite.  "Night Must Fall" is another ace, sounding a bit like a less taboo "Jungle Drums," and "Green Eyes" is another ancient chestnut revived for one more charming outing.  I also quite like the version of "Carioca" presented here, though I guess I know its only pretty good.

So if you skip past the merely mediocre and the stinkers, which for me (but not necessarily you-- depending on your tastes, you may feel I have over-emphasized the weaknesses of these selections) means "Mambo No. 5" and "Cuban Mambo," you actually have a somewhat secretly great album.  Afford it your ears if you are so inclined, and do please enjoy yourself.


Also, there's Viva Cugat!  I've written about it before (somewhat incompetently, but still) so I'll be brief now, but Viva Cugat! is probably the best and loveliest of the later-era Cugat LPs.  So incredibly highly recommended for those Exotica-lovers among you.

Viva! CUGAT! (192)

One Last Thing: There's been a fair bit of doom-and-gloom drifting about the blogosphere (RIP Mutant Sounds, you fine stallion-- and welcome back Mutant Sounds, in your newish incarnation) but I just want you guys to know that I smell no stink of death on me. I will be here as long as you keep reading-- you know, maybe not till I die, but for a while anyway.  Unless the pigs pitch a big enough fit, I guess.  I know my output has slowed down of late, but I assure you it is not the first signs of that tragic dry-rot, when you can tell that the proprietor of the blog is slowly losing interest. I just have a ton of shit to do these days, and there's nothing I can do to help that.  So it goes, I suppose.

Stay tuned for some cool stuff later in the week.