Monthly Archives: July 2009

The Prisoner: We Are All in the Village

“Where am I?”

“In the Village.”

“What do you want?”

“We want information.”

“Whose side are you on?”

“That would be telling….We want information.  Information.  Information.”

“You won’t get it.”

“By hook or by crook, we will.”

“Who are you?”

“The new Number Two.”

“Who is Number One?”

“You are Number Six.”

“I am not a number.  I am a free man!”

Thus began nearly every episode of classic British TV show, “The Prisoner”, created by and starring the late Patrick McGoohan, most recognizable to this generation as the evil king in Braveheart.  The show, a startling dark satire about the Cold War, politics, the identify of man and his relationship to society, was absolutely groundbreaking.  It feels like what might happen if G.K. Chesterton, in a really cynical mood, decided to write a James Bond novel immediately after hearing the story of Alice in Wonderland for the first time.  I first saw it shortly after finishing college, when I discovered that the local library in Waco had copies of many episodes.  I had heard references to it hear and there in years before that, and my curiosity was piqued.

I was instantly hooked, and devoured all 17 episodes as fast as I could get my hands on them.  And I still remember the day I finally got to see the finale, a hard to come-by episode.  In its last two hours, the highly-philosophical show abandons most attempt at traditional television and storytelling and explodes into almost purely symbolic dialogue and images.  Put another way, the finale follows a thread of a story but is possibly one of the most unsettling things ever written and broadcast.  When it was over, I sat on the couch, shocked, unable to move for probably 15 minutes or so.

The show is largely hailed as one of the true masterpieces of the TV age, and has been highly influential.  The Simpsons parodied the show twice, and the producers of Lost acknowledge the debt they have to the show, this year even giving Sawyer a Prisoner-signature line: “Be seeing you!”  A “reimagining” comes out this fall, with Sir Ian McKellan and Jim Caviezel.

Lately, I’ve been in a Prisoner mood again, thanks largely to my recent visit to Portmierion, the resort in northern Wales where much of the series was shot.  Portmierion IS “The Village”, and I have racked my brains trying to think of another real place that has become such an iconic part of a piece of visual media.  I mean, certain locations in New York City are important to many films, but I can’t think of a single place so tied to a single piece.  Here’s a look:

portmeirion

The opening credits show us a man determinedly quitting his job.  The setting and manor suggest he is quitting a sensitive, important job–perhaps he is a spy?  Why he is quitting is unclear, but he is upset and determined.  He goes home, is in the midst of packing for some long-awaited vacation when a mysterious man in a dark suit walks to his front door and pumps gas through the keyhole.  The newly-resigned man is knocked out.  He awakens, confused, in what seems to be his own apartment, but when he looks out the window he sees a bright and odd village instead of his busy London street.  He is in The Village, where no one is known by name but instead by number.  He is Number 6.  Number 2 is in charge.  Number 2 wants to know why he resigned.  Number 6 wants to escape.  There are hints of a Number 1 behind everything.  Nearly every week, there is a new Number 2, trying a new tactic to break Number 6.

As I said before, behind the plot there is commentary and satire on a man’s relationship to society, with key questions about individuality, personal freedom, the relationship to communtiy, education, politics, art, power, and many other ideas which would dominate the turmoil of the 60s.

Patrick McGoohan, who created the show as well as starred in it, said that there were only 7 episodes he wanted to do, and thus 7 that stuck to the core of his basic idea.  His network wanted more, and a deal was struck to make 17.

The first 13 of the 17 can be broken up into three basic plots.  Sometimes all three are present, sometimes just one.

1. Number Two tries a new tactic to break Number 6.

2.  Number 6 tries to break, humiliate, or outfox Number 2.

3. Number 6 tries to escape.

Then the last four episodes are a bit odd.  One is a western.  Another is a very entertaining spy story taking place back in the real world.  This episode was made in response to criticisms that the show was too intellectual and thus too confusing for the average viewer.  So McGoohan made a goofy, simple spy story, and at the end it is revealed that the story is a tale that The Prisoner is telling a group of children.  At the end he looks straight into the camera and says, “Good night–to children everywhere,” thus calling his critics a group of children.

And then we get to the two-part finale, which as I mentioned before are deeply weird.  Don’t believe me?  Try this clip from part one:

Number Two has forced Number Six to revert to his childhood self in an attempt to pinpoint the moment at which he became so rebellious, and is attempting to get him to confess why he resigned from his job while in that mindset.  But you wouldn’t get that from the clip (skip to the last minute to see the weirdest part).  Context and a study of the dialogue would help it make a bit more sense…but it’s still pretty insane.  And the last hour is even weirder, as Number Six is given the chance to lead a trial over some other numbers, one of whom is obsessed with singing a song based on the Valley of Dry Bones parable from Ezekiel.

Most of my favorite episodes fall outside McGoohan’s “7 Pure Episodes.”  The seven key ones tend to be just a bit stranger, with plots that kind of meander in order to make a point about art or politics or whatever.  The ones that fall outside those seven tend to adhere to more traditional television rules and are therefore more easily entertaining.  Not necessarily a good thing, but TV shouldn’t always be work (I think if you’re going to watch it it should give you something worthwhile most of the time, though.)  Some of those favorites include “A,B,C” in which the new Number Two induces Six into a dream state, and make that dream state enact a fictional party in which he is supposed to encounter three people (A B or C) who might have enticed him to retire.  Six, after a time, realizes what has happened and takes back his dreams in a thrilling climax.

Another favorite is “Hammer into Anvil”, in which Six decides to break a Two he finds particularly despicable.  Here’s a clip, just so you can see that the dialogue on a typical episode was a bit more normal:

I also like “Schizoid Man” and “Change of Mind”, but my favorite is probably the last hour, because it is so stunning, and the statement he makes about the fallenness of man so clear and powerful.  And a bit unexpected.  We are all prisoners, but what does freedom mean?

Do a bit of research on The Prisoner and you’ll find I’m not just blowing smoke.  Look past the dated look of the cinematography and the weirdness that at times borders on silly.  You’ll be glad you did.

Be seeing you!

The Best Records of the First Half of 2009

Well, we’re halfway through the year, and so it’s time to look back and ramble on a bit about the albums that I loved in the first half of this year.  There are some surprises here…at least I’m surprised.  Some amazing stuff so far!  So let’s jump in:

17974_thumb Best Album of 2009 So Far: mewithoutYou: “it’s all crazy!  it’s all false!  it’s all a dream! it’s alright!”

This record may very well end up being the best of the entire year.  It has taken me completely by surprise and has gotten under my skin.  mewithoutYou is somewhat of an anomaly for music associated with Christians, because they are actually original; I don’t know anyone who sounds like them.  They continue to morph from album to album, trying something different each time, but each CD featuring that unique mix of group chants, screaming, talk-singing, and complex lyrics and storytelling that the band has developed.  Some albums are heavier than others.

I have only jumped on the mewithoutYou train in the last two albums.  Brother, Sister is really good, and features some deeply catchy and affecting tracks, but with this new CD they really outdid themselves.  Gone are most of the crunchy guitars, replaced with folk arrangements that might be sung around a campfire if they didn’t have so many lyrics and big words.  And this combination of their unique talk-sing rock with folk sensibilities and folk tales from different cultural traditions has produced the most memorable musical experience of the year.  Everyone needs to get this album.

A warning first: these are not cookie-cutter Christian lyrics.  You may find some things offensive.  One song, dealing with temptation, produces a very vivid image about lust involving the term “birth canal.”  And the final song could fit as a sort of youth sing-along worship tune if it weren’t for the fact that many people would have a hard time with the band’s use of the term “Allah” for God.  (No, they’re not Muslims.)

Some stand-out tracks: “every thought a Thought of You”, the reggae-tinged opener.  “the Fox, the Crow, and the Cookie” based on an old fable about pride, which I really want to perform live someday, and which has an amazingly creative video that you can see here:

http://music-mix.ew.com/2009/06/mewithoutyou-the-fox-the-crow-and-the-cookie-exclusive.html

Also, I absolutely love “bullet to Binary (part two)” which starts as some sort of story about vegetables talking to each other and then transitions into this brilliant “reap what you sow” chant, including this line, “We all know we’re going to reap what we sow/so may we old-fashionably suggest/the unmarried not undress/we all know we’re going to reap what we sow.”  I don’t undersstand what “Timothy hay” is about, but it’s quite catchy.  “Cattail Down” is nice with its “You’re everyone else” chant, and the closer about Allah is also quite nice.  But none of the ones in-between are bad either.

Thought-provoking, emotional, catchy, and original, mewithoutYou’s latest may end up being the album of the year.

imagesBest Random Indie Album I am Surprised I Own: The Decemberists–Hazards of Love–This is the biggest surprise on my list, simply because I had heard the Decemberists before, including this entire album performed live on the NPR podcast from sxsw, and hadn’t really gotten into it much.

So why did I buy it?  Well…let’s see.  We’d been in the UK a month.  We finally found a place to live and got someone to take us to IKEA where we researched furniture options, only to return to Sheffield and find out we could not order online most of what we wanted.  Which meant another trip.  And no one wanted to take us.

So on bank holiday in early April, I caught a train to the station nearest the IKEA.  And discovered I was still three miles away or so.  On bank holiday, with little transport.  Finally found a bus station and took the bus to IKEA.  Did my shopping, paid for home delivery, and realized that this trip, to a place 45 minutes away by car, where I actually spent an hour of time doing what needed doing, was going to take about eight hours because of train scheduling.  So I was feeling frustrated and went into the nearby hmv with a £2-off coupon from the McDonalds Monopoly contest that I’d found on the ground, and decided “I’m going to buy a CD.”  And I picked that one.

So it was a “make myself feel better” buy.

I’m not proud.

But the music itself: Hazards of Love tells a story…that I’m not entirely clear on.  There’s a beautiful maiden, and there’s love, and pregnancy, and a shape-shifter, and a guy who kills little kids, and a weird queen, and the ghost of those kids, and in the end the lovers drown.  Okay.  It somehow comes across and not-too pretentious.  Well…mostly.  I mean, the first couple of minutes of the CD are basically complete silence…

But I love concept albums–I love when all the songs link together in some way, and I love the mix of  musical styles here, which makes for some haunting melodies.   The entire first 10 tracks are pretty amazing, but I do get a bit distracted for the last seven, as melody lines are repeated and ideas reprised seemingly ad infinitum. The guitar playing is perfect, and guest vocalists like Shara Worden from My Brightest Diamond definitely shine.  And it takes a special talent to write a song with lyrics as horrific as “The Rake’s Song” that is really catchy and sticks in your head before you realize what it’s about.  (To be fair, it is the villain singing.)  So, Decemberists.  You’re weird, but I like you.   Highlights: A Bower Scene, Won’t Want for Love, Rake’s Song

images-1Best Album That Would Probably Have Been on Here No Matter What, Knowing Me: U2–No Line on the Horizon

Granted, I’m a huge U2 fan, and so they’d have had to release like, I don’t know, an entire album of remixes of “Mofo” to disappoint me.  And the reviews from this album have been all over the place: Paste, which named How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb their album of the year back in 2004 or 5, gave it a pretty mediocre dismissal, but a couple of UK music magazines called it the best U2 album since Achtung, Baby, handing it 5 star reviews.

I tend towards the latter opinion here.  I never was a huge fan of U2’s 90s period weirdness, and though I understand the statement behind it, I think they went too far.  All That You Can’t Leave Behind had some absolutely stellar songs on it, but…forgive me…after the first five tracks, it’s kind of boring.  I rarely go back to those songs.  Atomic Bomb is a more lively collection of tracks, and I think stands up better than most people give it credit.  It was, though, nothing that groundbreaking.

What No Line does so well is combining all of the different U2 eras into one package.  They play to their strengths without sacrificing experimentation.  Instead of just trying something new for new’s sake, or just trying to be what everyone expects, they’ve decided to be themselves as they try something new.  A combination of approaches.

It is an album that demands multiple listens.  It has layers, both sonically and lyrically.  I dig the lyrics on this record more than recent U2 albums.  The title track, opening the CD, is an adequate opener that…I don’t understand.  Track 2, Magnificent, is just that and is a great example of classic Edge riffing.  And I have to say, one thing about this record is that The Edge is cut loose for the first time in a long while!  There are solos!  Lots of them!  And they’re good!

Track 3, Moment of Surrender, clocks in at 7 minutes and tells a story about a guy who seems to meet God while at an ATM machine.  I think.  It has a bluesy, slow burn to it and is quite new for U2 in several ways.  Love this track.

Next comes Unknown Caller, which is weird but good, followed by I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight, which is a pop song (as opposed to the previous rock tunes), and a catchy one at that.

Next is Get On Your Boots, which I think was a lousy choice for an opening single, but somehow, placed here in the middle of the record, the song is saved.  It just works better in the flow instead of isolated as a single.

Stand Up Comedy would be easy to pass over but I think you need to give it another shot.  Some great lyrics: “Stop helping God across the road like a little old lady.”

Fez–Morocco or whatever this is called is the album’s low point.  I’m not sure what they were going for, but…they didn’t get there.

White as Snow–A genuine ballad, like Love is Blindness but more wordy, is quite nice.

The albums two closers, Breathe and Cedars of Lebanon, are both classics.  The former is a weird guitar-heavy track where Bono does this fast speak thing, and the latter is an interesting closer, as much of the album speaks of hope and second chances and this is a pretty grim song.  But it works, and No Line is an overall strong album.

3356920401_a34f1b0f7eBest Rap Album With a Hit Single that Deserves to go Viral But Never Will: Rootbeer EP

The history of L.A. Symphony is a moving one to me.  A group of guys from the West Coast who banded together to do high-quality underground rap, and do it well, with a common bond of faith in Christ but a goal to be a bit more…let’s say…artistic than the average “Christian rap” album.  Friends with the Black Eyed Peas, discovered by an up and coming record label with a lot of money from a worldwide hit ready to make the Symphony stars.  The dream shattered when the label is bought out and the breakthrough album shelved.  Members drift away, CDs are released with dark thoughts…and then the guys come through it, faith and creativity stronger though the fame completely eluding them.

Two of those guys, Flynn Atkins and Pigeon John, have teamed up to form Rootbeer and have released a five song eponymous EP.  I love Pigeon John–his solo albums are probably my favorite hip-hop out there–and surprisingly, teaming him up with Flynn was actually a brilliant idea.  Every song on the EP is great, but the big single is “Pink Limousines,” which deserves to be a worldwide dance-club hit.  The track starts off with this sort of African bongo beat, but in the last minute the beat morphs for the last chorus, and I defy you not to jump up and down.

Similarly, Flynn has been putting out some small solo EPs on Gotee every couple of months, and I have to say I love, love, love the Dishes EP.  I could tell you what the song is about, but I’d rather quote the chorus: “I do the dishes/You know I love you/Take out the trash/you know I love you/Save all my kisses/You know I love you/My love’s like that, love’s like that.”  I sing it to Ira a lot.

B001KVW574.09.LZZZZZZZBest Compilation “Dark Was the Night”

The line-up of this CD reads like an indie fan’s dream festival line-up.   Put together for the Red Hot charity, which brings AIDS/HIV education and awareness around the world, this two disc set features all brand-new tracks by such luminaries as The National, My Brightest Diamond, Bon Iver, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Sufjan Stevens, members of Sigur Ros, and many others.  Members of bands team up for new songs–like Feist and Ben Gibbard of Death Cab.  And though I must confess I’ve never actually gotten through the whole thing–it is long–it  is a worthy cause and full of some solid songwriting.  If you know me, you’ll know the best thing about it for me is the existence of a new Sufjan Stevens track.  New music from him has been hard to come by the past couple of years, but here he contributes a nine minute opus called “You are the Blood.”  I believe it’s a cover, but he makes it his own.  He manages to do something entirely new while still sounding like Sufjan–which should be encouraging to those who fear that he might begin to repeat himself.  The song has heavy techno beats and ominous vocals and is beautiful and haunting and worth the price of the album itself.  But then, so are most of the rest of the songs.

welcome to the welcome wagon

Best “Speaking of Sufjan Stevens” Record–Welcome to the Welcome Wagon

So, technically this came out late last year, but it right at Christmas after everyone had already bought gifts, so no one really heard it until January.  The Welcome Wagon is the work of a Brooklyn pastor and his wife…and Sufjan Stevens.  It is made up of modernized versions of songs from a particular denomination’s hymnal and tradition, and some diverse covers–Danielson Familie, The Smiths, Velvet Underground.  It sounds like the brainchild of Sufjan without actually being him.  And it will make you very, very happy.  You can’t really listen to “But For You Who Fear My Name” with all the hand-clapping or “Sold! To the Nice Rich Man” and its deft lyrical turns without smiling.  I just don’t think you can.  You’ll want to sing along.

To be frank, I only really dig half the album, but that half I LOVE.  Not a huge fan of the songs with female lead, for the most part.  But I’ve never liked the Smiths, and the Smiths cover (“Half a Man”) is great!  They are coming to the UK for like one show and I’m sad I’m going to miss it.  Get this record!

So there are some of the great moments of 2009 so far.  With new Derek Webb and Mute Math records coming soon, there might be some stiff competition for best of the year. (Actually, I’ve heard the Derek Webb, and it may just make the latter half best-of.)  But if you want something new, I’ve just given you some things to try.  Enjoy!