Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Lo and Behold: New and old Basement Tapes

There was no organisation/ I wanted to join/ So I stayed by myself/ and took out a coin/ There I sat with my eyes in my hand/ contemplated killing a man

Bob Dylan wrote these lines in 1967. At the time, he was holed up with The Band in their house near Woodstock, recording the tracks that would turn up on the most famous bootleg in the history of popular music, The Basement Tapes. Nothing To It, the source of the above lines, was one of the many songs Dylan wrote during this fertile period that never made it to tape. Till now, that is. Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes, an album of lost Dylan lyrics interpreted by contemporary recording artists, is set to release on 4 November.

The project was born in the autumn of 2013, when producer T Bone Burnett received a message from Dylan's publisher, asking if he'd like to do something with a box of lyrics the songwriter had penned in 1967. After confirming that he had Dylan's go-ahead, Burnett, as he later stated in The Guardian, "set out to come up with something that would do justice to Dylan and be true to the spirit in which the lyrics were originally written". He assembled a group of musicians who were, in his words, "music archaeologists": Elvis Costello, Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Marcus Mumford (Mumford & Sons), Rhiannon Giddens (Carolina Chocolate Drops) and Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes). The sessions resulted in more than 40 recordings, 20 of which are on the Lost on the River album.

The project was born in the autumn of 2013, when producer T Bone Burnett received a message from Dylan’s publisher, asking if he’d like to do something with a box of lyrics the songwriter had penned in 1967. Many of these musicians have had brushes with Dylan or his music in the past. A legendary songwriter in his own right, Costello has shared a stage with Dylan on several occasions. Burnett and Mumford collaborated on the Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack, an evocation of the Greenwich Village folk scene in the days before Dylan arrived and took over. (Burnett was also a guitarist in Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue back in 1975.) James sang Going to Acapulco, a Basement Tapes number, on the I'm Not There soundtrack, and both he and Goldsmith toured with Dylan in 2013 along with their bands. Even session drummer Jay Bellerose, a longtime Burnett collaborator, has a Dylan connection — he worked with Bob's son Jakob on the album Women + Country.

Four animated videos of Lost on the River numbers have been released, each featuring the original handwritten lyrics. When I Get My Hands On You, sung fetchingly by Mumford, is a straightforward love lyric, the kind that the Dylan of 1966 would've sneered at, but the Dylan of Nashville Skyline would probably have recorded. Married to My Hack opens like something off Tom Waits' Swordfishtrombones, with tremolo guitar, rumbling drums and Costello singing "Five in the morning, she'd fix my lunch/ put it in a paper sack". James takes the lead on Nothing To It, while Giddens gives an intriguing R&B edge to the Celtic-flavoured Spanish Mary.

Lost on the River will inevitably be compared to the original Basement Tapes, a daunting proposition for Burnett & Co. There's little that needs to be reiterated about Bob Dylan circa 1966, except that with Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, he was on a hot streak the likes of which had never been seen in rock 'n' roll before (or since). And then there was The Band; man for man, the most versatile bunch of rock musicians ever assembled. Levon Helm, the drummer, also played the mandolin; Garth Hudson, a strong contender for the best organist ever, could write horn charts and tinker with and play a bewildering array of instruments. Rick Danko played bass as well as the fiddle; Richard Manuel was on piano but also doubled up on drums. Robbie Robertson played lead guitar and wrote most of the songs. Manuel, Danko and Helm all sang lead. And this tells you nothing about the sympathy with which they played; the way instruments and voices intertwined and melded until it was difficult to separate organ from piano, and Danko's cries from Manuel's.

The music on the Basement Tapes was different from the "wild mercury" sound of Dylan's three pioneering electric albums. After nearly losing his life in a 1966 motorcycle accident, he repaired to West Saugerties, where his former backing group, The Hawks (soon to be known as The Band), had set up shop. When they'd backed Dylan in '65 and '66, their live sound was majestic and very, very loud. By contrast, the songs recorded in their basement in '67 were largely acoustic, relaxed and playful. They drew upon folk, bluegrass, country, blues and Appalachian ballad traditions — the real American songbook.

A collection of tracks circulated as an acetate among musicians in 1969; and several featured on the "Great White Wonder" bootleg. Finally, an official album was released by Columbia in 1975. By then, songs like Tears of Rage, Million Dollar Bash and You Ain't Goin' Nowhere had been covered by artists ranging from The Byrds to Fairport Convention.

The original Basement Tapes album only had 24 tracks, out of the 100-plus songs recorded. But now, if you're the sort who obsesses over such things, you'll have the opportunity of listening to a close-to-complete version of the sessions. Along with Lost on The River, November will see the release of The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete, a 138-track compilation with completed tracks, alternate takes and demos. It makes you wonder what else is still hidden in that basement. At the end of his 1997 book Invisible Republic, Greil Marcus writes of the elusive, history-evoking songs on the Basement Tapes: "Each performance makes part of a map, which like so many of the songs, and the territory they describe, remain unfinished." So let's celebrate the Basement Tapes, but also remain open to the possibility of new territories being mapped.

This piece appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

The Judge: Review

There was a time, back when "The Avengers" meant the old TV series, when Robert Downey Jr was good. Not just a star, you understand, but an actor. The freewheeling unpredictability of his acting in those early days was something to behold; stealing scenes in Short Cuts and Natural Born Killers, waltzing through the demanding physical comedy of Chaplin. Then came the drugs, the arrests, the bottoming out. Rehab followed: Wonder Boys, A Scanner Darkly, Zodiac. Finally, in 2008 came Iron Man, and Downey Jr. was a star again. Real acting would have to wait.

It's been a lucrative six years. Downey Jr's now at the heart of three gigantic franchises — he's done three Iron Man films, two as Sherlock Holmes, and one with the Avengers gang (the sequel's in pre-production). Still, one wonders whether Downey Jr sometimes feels the urge to something other than trade wisecracks and wear funny suits onscreen. The Judge suggests that he does.

It's a tale as old as Hollywood. Big-town lawyer, shark-like in courtrooms but unhappy in his moneyed, embittered soul, is called back to his hometown. He's initially disdainful of the people there, but they eventually teach him the true meaning of the law and the value of family and friendship, and so on. In its first 30 minutes, David Dobkin's film determinedly ticks off every lawyer/homecoming film cliché in the book. Distant, dismissive dad? Yes. Washout brother who never managed to leave town? Sure. Old girlfriend with a sharp tongue who still carries a torch for our hero? You know it.

Since this is that kind of film, it also stands to reason that although Hank (Downey Jr) returns to the homestead in Indiana as a result of his mother's passing, it'll take something more dramatic to make him stay. That circumstance duly arrives when his father, Judge Palmer (Robert Duvall), is involved in a road accident and accused of murder. Eventually, and very reluctantly, the judge allows his son to take on his case. As if that's not enough melodrama, the judge confides in Hank that he has cancer.

They say that if you're a doctor, you shouldn't operate on a family member. After watching this film, I'm convinced they should have a similar rule for lawyers. Hank and his dad turn the trial into one big Dr-Phil-family-therapy session. I kept hoping for something like the wit and sleight-of-hand plotting of My Cousin Vinny, but The Judge has bigger emotional fish to fry. We learn why Hank and his father haven't met in 20 years, and why his brother Glen is stuck with running a tyre store. It's not much of a revelation, but the film milks it for all it's worth, with Downey Jr and Duvall yelling at each other while a hurricane rages outside.

All this sounds terrible on paper, and it doesn't work on screen for the most part. But it does work just a little. Much of this is down to Downey Jr, who throws himself into the role as if he were acting in a much better film. His scenes with the 83-year-old Duvall, who's been playing crusty old codgers for 30 years now, have a Hollywood crackle to them — the sort of playacting that's easy to spot and difficult to resist. And they have strong support: Vincent D'Onofrio as Glen, Billy Bob Thornton as a smooth prosecuting lawyer, and the always-welcome sight of Vera Farmiga as Hank's old flame. As the film progresses and you realise it isn't going to become much starter, it's easier to sit back and enjoy the emotional manipulation and scenery-chewing. Predictable, hokey and melodramatic — but not a total loss.

This review appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

To Thine Own Self Be True: Basharat Peer on Haider

Midway through  Curfewed Night, his non-fiction book about growing up in Kashmir in the 1990s, Basharat Peer describes an incident that took place in the aftermath of the infamous Gowkadal massacre. On 21 January 1990, a group of Kashmiri protestors on the Gowkadal Bridge in Srinagar was fired upon by CRPF jawans. In the book, Peer draws upon the memories of one Farooq Wani, an eyewitness who survived by pretending to be dead and being carted off with the dead bodies. At the hospital, Wani remembers a teenager leaping from the pile of bodies, soaked in blood, shouting "I got no bullets. I got no bullets. I am alive." It's a moment worthy of a movie. What remains to be seen is whether Vishal Bhardwaj's Hamlet adaptation, Haider, which Peer has written the screenplay for, is a movie worthy of these moments.

Bollywood, so partial to pre-conflict-era Kashmir, has never been comfortable with addressing the militancy years in the valley. Only a handful of films — Roja, Mission Kashmir, Yahaan — have tried to tackle the issues that have plagued this region: terrorism, local unrest, army occupation. Few have been successful; of the Kashmir-set Hindi films I've seen, only the Srinagar segment of Onir's I Am manages to convey what it must be like to live in a militarised state. Haider, therefore, has a lot riding on it. In the first place, it will be compared to Bhardwaj's earlier Shakespeare films, Maqbool and Omkara, landmarks of modern Hindi cinema. It may also have to shoulder the burden of being a one-size-fits-all representation of the Kashmir issue — not least because its screenwriter is a journalist who's written passionately about the valley and its problems.

When I met Peer at a café in Nizamuddin East, he brushed off concerns about the added scrutiny the film might have to undergo. "You can't get the entire story of Kashmir in one film," he said. "It's not reportage, but it's informed by reality. We're trying to be true to Shakespeare, and we're trying to be true to Kashmir." His involvement with the project happened by chance, when Bhardwaj read a copy of Curfewed Night and decided to set his third Shakespeare film in Kashmir. He called Peer up and asked him if Hamlet or King Lear made more sense as a Kashmir story. Peer immediately suggested Hamlet; as he told me later, "Kashmir is a place where ghosts speak." Bhardwaj asked him to try his hand at a treatment, and upon hearing the results, hired him as screenwriter. Peer flew to Bombay, and in just 10 days, they'd worked out a broad structure for the film.

Peer had written as a journalist for publications ranging from Granta to the New Yorker, but he'd never attempted a screenplay before. In the beginning, the dialogue he wrote was long, descriptive. But as he progressed, he realised that "the visuals convey so much that you have to be very precise in your choice of words". He worked closely with Bhardwaj on the screenplay, writing drafts which the director would then revise. Sometimes, Peer would have to rein in Bhardwaj, whose Urdu writing style (Maqbool,  Dedh Ishqiya) tends towards the ornate. "I'd have to tell him 'He's a Kashmiri lawyer, he can't sound like Vishal Bhardwaj. You're a poetic man, you're friends with Gulzar...'"

Part of the fun of Bhardwaj's Shakespeare films is spotting the references to the original texts; in Maqbool, for instance, the witches of Macbeth turn up as sycophantic policemen. There are several ingenious parallels to Hamlet in Haider, some too pivotal to reveal, others already in the public eye — like the musical number "Bismil", a Bollywood version of "Mousetrap", the play-within-within-a-play that Hamlet stages. In the film, Haider is a student at Aligarh Muslim University (Peer studied there as well) who returns to his home in Kashmir to find his father dead and his mother, Ghazala (Tabu), married to his uncle, Khurram (Kay Kay Menon), a lawyer who's also involved with a brutal counter-insurgency militia. Shraddha Kapoor plays Arshia, a combination of Ophelia and Horatio — which will hopefully play out better onscreen than it does on paper — while Irrfan Khan is the Ghost, or, at least, a ghost.

Though it's been adapted on film more often than any other Shakespeare play,  Hamlet has rarely been given political overtones on the big screen. (The windswept 1964 version by Russian director Grigori Kozintsev is, to some extent, an exception.) Haider should correct, possibly even overcorrect, this. While writing the screenplay, Peer, a film buff, re-watched certain films with a sharp political core, like Michael Winterbottom's Welcome to Sarajevo  and Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers. The latter in particular reminded him of growing up in a militarised state. "The first 10 minutes of Battle of Algiers, the surrounding of the Casbah, similar things used to happen in Kashmir," he said. He was clear from the start that Haider, even with mainstream trappings, would remain a political film. "I'm a political writer. I can't think about Kashmir in any other way. I think Vishal knew that. Bollywood is not the most liberal forum for politics, but what we tried to do was push the limits."

This piece appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Deliver Us From Evil: Review

In 2005, Scott Derrickson directed The Exorcism of Emily Rose. This genuinely scary film with a surprisingly strong cast seemed to mark the director out as someone who could inject fresh energy into a genre in perpetual need of revitalisation — the horror film. But Derrickson's subsequent career hasn't been as promising. He directed the unnecessary remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still and the grisly Ethan Hawke horror flick Sinister. Now, with Deliver Us from Evil, he returns to exorcisms, with diminishing returns.

The film opens in Iraq, where we see a group of U.S. soldiers in a gun battle, and follow two of them into a cave. Five minutes later, after it's been vaguely established that there was something horrible hiding in the darkness, we've yanked over to a rainy, dismal NYC straight out of David Fincher's Se7en. Ralph Sarchie (Eric Bana), a cop with an intuition, or "radar", for criminal activity, answers a domestic violence call with his partner and ends up chasing a deranged ex-armyman. Soon after, they're called over to investigate an incident at the zoo where a woman, after throwing her boy into the pit surrounding the lion enclosure, behaves like she's possessed. In the enclosure is a man with a scarred face. Is this person linked in some way to the wife-beater? Could they be the soldiers from the opening scene? It's almost too easy...

As Sarchie tries to make sense of the increasingly otherworldy events that keep occurring around him, we're introduced to the other film's other lead. We first see him in a leather jacket, jogging, then ducking into a bar, having a drink and being hit on. When it turns out that he's a Jesuit priest, the movie's evangelical agenda becomes clear. When you have Edgar Ramírez, an actor striking enough to be transfixed by his own naked body in Carlos, playing a man of the cloth, what chance does Satan really have?

Anyway, Sarchie and Mendoza team up, like big city cops and exorcists often do. By this time, the detective has begun to lose the plot — much like the film itself. Bizarre narrative red herrings are thrown at the audience, the most prominent being the references to the music of The Doors. Their lyrics appear at crime scenes and Sarchie keeps hearing snatches of their songs, but we're never told why. I kept hoping the film would find a way to blame the Satanism on Jim Morrison, but Derrickson takes his exorcisms and possessions very seriously.

Deliver Us from Evil is, for a while, and in the most unsubtle way possible, quite scary. Imagine someone jumping out of the dark at you every five minutes for two hours, and you have some idea of Derrickson's idea of suspense-building. Time after time in the film, the lights flickered, the violins on the soundtrack started screeching and I steeled myself for the sudden appearance of a blood-streaked face or a contorted body (or, on one memorable occasion, a gutted cut arranged like Christ on the cross). As one can imagine, this became more wearying than scary after a while.

Incompetence envelops this film like a fog. The writing is TV drama cliché: how's anyone allowed to say "There's a darkness growing inside of me"? The action scenes are poorly lit and chaotic; the soundtrack — when it isn't The Doors — is jaw-clenchingly obvious. McHale overdoes the comic sidekick shtick, Bana is scarcely believable as a New York City cop, and Ramírez just about manages not to look silly shouting Latin phrases in a Spanish accent.

Derrickson ends his film by inviting a foolhardy comparison ­— he references The Godfather's baptism scene. I'd advise a rewatch of that film over Deliver Us from Evil — there's more authentic horror in Michael's false assurance to Kay than in the entirety of Derrickson's film. Then again, I'd recommend Dude, Where's My Car? over Deliver Us from Evil.

This review appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Puns, trains and automobiles

In September 2013, Bombay Bassment's drummer Levin Mendes and ex-Aftertaste vocalist Keegan Pereira teamed up to work on a couple of tracks. They ended up forming Laxmi Bomb along with bassist Ruell Barretto and keyboardist Joaquim Fernandes. The band released its first EP, H, in March this year. That five-song collection — a tribute of sorts to the city of Mumbai — had nods to modern electronic music, disco and '90s Bollywood pop (mercifully, it was sample-free). Now, with the release of their second EP Mah'Bharat, Laxmi Bomb is gently expanding its horizons.

The band started live-testing the tracks that comprise this EP around five months ago. Their modus operandi, according to Mendes, is to work out a track's kinks during their performances and only then record it. "The way we work is, we compose a track, play it live so we can get an idea of how it's perceived," he said. "After about three or four months, when we're completely set with the track, we go to the studio and cut it."

Mah'Bharat's opening track, Love Day Loot, opens with a plinky synth figure that'll warm the hearts of anyone who loves Gupt-era Viju Shah. Apart from this, however, the Bollywood influence is more muted on this EP as compared to the first. Instead, the group manages to show off an impressive amount of stylistic variation while remaining within the ambit of their gently rocking electro pop sound. Keralight alternates between a sarangi and wash of keyboards and an ominous section that recalls the group's first single Major Major. Andaman Eve, a video of which has recently been released, has close harmonies and a sepia tone somewhat reminiscent of Beirut's Scenic World. 

As can be inferred from the song titles, the EP is informed by the band's visits to various parts of the country: Kerala, Shillong, the Andamans. "We started travelling to different places for gigs and personal vacations, and that ended up inspiring some of these tracks," Mendes said. Another difference between the two EPs is that while H was primarily conceived by Keegan and Mendes — the two other members arrived when the album was "70-80% sorted", Mendes said — Mah'Bharat has contributions from all four members. Most tracks come together with Pereira taking responsibility for the words and Mendes working out a basic melody before throwing it over to the band. "Because we're a four-piece act, I restrict myself from completing tracks," Mendes said. 

You can hear the fruits of this approach in Mah'Bharat. The songs sound more like there's a band playing, rather than something electronically pieced together. Barretto's bass now features more prominently; it combines especially well with Mendes' drumming on "Shillong Train Running" (the reference is to the Doobie Brothers' "Long Train Running"). The only drawback — a minor one — is the triteness of some of the lyrics: "Born steel with the thoughts of a man's appeal/ born steel with a hunky-dory back deal" walks the thin line between nonsense verse and plain nonsense.

Having debuted Mah'Bharat at Blue Frog in Mumbai last week, the band will continue to work on new tracks, which will probably turn up on another EP. (Mendes and Barretto will be especially busy in the coming months – their other band, hip-hop/rock/reggae outfit Bombay Bassment, is set to release its long-awaited debut album.) They also plan to record the debut Laxmi Bomb album and release it by the end of 2015. It should be worth the wait. Like its album art, which shows a modern-day cheerharan, Mah'Bharat approaches the past with humour and a refreshing lack of reverence.

This piece appeared in The Sunday Guardian.