Archive for June, 2010

1960s Polish music videos

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

A few weeks ago I was browsing the web looking for fake Beatles songs, one of my favorite musical genres, and unexpectedly happened upon the awesome video for “Nie zadzieraj nosa” by the Polish group Czerwone Gitary. A quick glance at the sidebar made it clear that I would spend the next few days poring through a treasure trove of old Polish music videos. Here are the highlights of my findings, with the understanding that I know nothing about the Polish language or culture. If you don’t have all day to watch them all, my personal favorites are in bold.

“Nie zadzieraj nosa” itself really is a superbly crafted and performed fake-Beatles song. It’s perhaps just a touch too regular to be a real Lennon-McCartney, but all the idioms are spot on. Just watching their evident joy (especially the guy on the right) at performing music this awesome makes me smile.

Czerwone Gitary apparently still exists and is one of the most popular Polish bands of all time, but unfortunately for me they seemed to grow out of their faux-Beatles phase pretty quickly and transition into more of a folk-rock style. Another 60s band that seems to have followed a similar trajectory, with even more of a folk influence, is Trubadurzy. “Znamy sie tylko z widzenia” is worth watching just for the bass balalaika and (slightly) fancy footwork, but the video I’m obsessed with is “Kasia”. The song itself is a great earworm, a simple six-line verse sung over and over (with different words), and I can’t get over the charm of the video – the cinematography somehow making it seem like they’re all six inches tall, the fact that it takes five seconds for them to decide where the beat is despite the fact that they’re lip-syncing, the apparently terrified bass player, the barely-adequate dance steps. I must have already watched it thirty times. Trubadurzy seems to have then gone through a brief more rocky phase (“Usmiechajcie sie dziewczeta”) before descending into gloopy folkiness.

Another contemporary band worth checking out is Skaldowie, featuring a charmingly nerdy heartthrob. “Medytacje wiejskiego listonosza “ is rather Monkees-like both in its song and its video, while the video for “Śpiewam bo muszę” reminds me of the Monkees again, but in some sort of weird dystopia. The singer pulls a prank on everyone by dressing up in a polar bear suit… then removes its head while solemnly declaiming the rest of the song. Righto.

Perhaps the most reliably entertaining videos of the bunch for me belong to Alibabki, a group of six women singers with rotating membership. “Kiedyk pasła bydło” seems like a rocked-up version of a traditional tune or something, including those awesome piercing open Eastern European vocal harmonies, but its most arresting feature is the occasional banshee shriek, which I assume is meant to be laughter because it is always followed by a broad and very unconvincing smile. My favorite is “Niech wie jak jest”, with a very nice bittersweet chord progression and a gently burbling accompaniment that somehow reminds me of early R.E.M.

Most of the groups here seem to have lasted forever, or at least decades, constantly changing their musical style to fit with the times (which makes them less interesting to me once they hit the 1970s). I wonder if this is at all correlated with Poland being a Communist state then, or if it’s just sampling bias. The best example is Czesław Niemen, “arguably the most acclaimed Polish singer of all time”, whose career you can follow from a Twist and Shout-style raveup (“Ciuciubabka”, featuring Alibabki again — with the bonus that you can pretending they’re singing “Chewbacca”) to It’s A Man’s World-style wailing (“Io Senza Lei”) to electric gospel (“Jednego serca “) to early electronica (“Mleczna Droga”).

These are the videos that grabbed me the most, but this is just the tip of the iceberg — there are literally hundreds more. Go spend a day checking them out; I’m moving on to Yugoslavia.

China Miéville: Kraken

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

Number two in my package of books from amazon.co.uk. As I mentioned before, I love some but not all of Miéville’s books, and this one looked enough like it was right up my alley that I was sufficiently excited to order it from England before the US release date. And… it was pretty good.

My opinion of it sort of went through a U shape. It starts out as kind of a romp. A preserved giant squid has disappeared from a London museum and all sorts of crazy supernatural cults are getting involved. But somewhere around the 25% mark I stopped looking forward so much to picking it up again. For one thing, it just felt kind of overstuffed. There are like six major players, and I kept wishing there were more like four. Although I usually like big messes of books, and I’ve enjoyed Miéville’s unfettered creativity in his other works, here I felt more suffocated by the number of groups involved, not to mention the n-squared issue of keeping track of how they were all interacting with each other.

My other issue is that all of the secret underground supernatural stuff, despite a lot of it being pretty original (e..g, one major villain is a sentient face tatooed on someone else’s back), wore on me after a while. Maybe I’ve just read too much of it, but I spent a lot of the novel feeling like I was reading Miéville’s Neil Gaiman impression that he was tossing off between real books.

But with about a quarter of the book to go, the pace really picks up, there are some awesome set pieces, and most importantly, all of these pieces of the plot actually fit together in a satisfying way. So overall I’d say I enjoyed it — in particular some of that overstuffedness makes more sense in retrospect after seeing where it all leads to — but it wasn’t quite the awesome experience that I know it’s possible to get when I pick up a China Miéville book. I’d put it below Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and The City & the City, but above Iron Council, which I didn’t even finish.

David Mitchell: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Monday, June 14th, 2010

I first encountered David Mitchell through his debut “novel” Ghostwritten, an intricately linked collection of short stories that really tickled my structural fancy. Of course, he is now mostly known for Cloud Atlas, another linked set of stories that span from centuries in the past to millennia in the future with impressive facility. In between he’s written another couple of more conventional novels, which I have not read.

This is his latest, and I was actually excited enough about it to place an order from the UK, since it was released a month earlier than the US and so was China Miéville’s Kraken, about which more in a subsequent post. It’s a historical novel, and much has been made of the fact that it’s supposedly Mitchell’s first, but honestly his previous work already has many historical elements. It takes place around 1800, largely on a small artificial island outside of Nagasaki where the Dutch trade with Japan.

The historical stuff works well. It’s a very interesting time and place, and the writing is the sort of historical fiction that I like, demonstrating the setting with a nice amount of detail without hitting you over the head with it. The plot and structure are pretty odd, though. I don’t like to spoil much in these reviews, but I will say that the entire focus of the novel changes fairly radically multiple times, each of which caught me by surprise, and one of which made me pretty uncomfortable for a while. I guess Mitchell’s tendency to divide a novel into contrasting parts dies hard, even when writing a book that is more unified on the surface.

But it really does end up being one story, and once you get through the slower scene-setting chapters, it’s a pretty gripping one. I would still recommend Cloud Atlas or Ghostwritten before this one, and they will probably stick with me longer, but it was still an excellent book and I’m very happy to see that it’s already been a bestseller in England.