2018 October 22 • Monday

Once upon a time I bought a Caterina Valente album. The impetus was that she sang "Poinciana" on it and after listening to Ahmad Jamal's famous recording of it a few hundred times, I wanted to hear other versions and I was curious about the lyrics.

And when I discovered that Bear Family, one of my favorite record labels, had released a box set of soundtracks for Caterina Valente movies, I thought it was exactly the kind of thing we needed here at Gutbrain headquarters.

So the 540th Soundtrack of the Week is going to be the music for the Caterina Valente vehicle Casino de Paris. The jazz/lounge/easy listening music is probably mostly by Gilbert Bécaud and Heinz Gietz though Bear Family's book also credits Paul Durand and Heinz Kiessling.

The first track is "Rendezvous", very much in the Glenn Miller vein in terms of sound and atmosphere and quite similar to "Moonlight Serenade". The lyrics are in French.

After that comes the very brisk and breezy German-language "Midinetten-Lied", followed by a goofy duet between Valente and a male singer. They both do a bit of scatting and the music borrows a bit from the vocabulary of cartoon music.

"Melodia d'Amore" is a satisfying easy listening number with a wavy melodic line that's a perfect fit for Valente's voice. No surprise that this was (apparently) released as a single and/or part of an EP. There are also two other versions of it here.

The next song, "Papa Piccolino (Ein Gold'ner Stern)", sounds a bit like other German songs I've heard, similar to some of the famous drinking songs but light and airy. There's also a French version, "La Chanson de Piccolino", and I guess an Italian one in "Pupa Piccolino".

A Latin influence makes it's way into "Komm' Noch Heut' Zu Mir", another sinuous melody that's perfect for Caterina Valente and is a bit similar to "The Carioca".

"Schreibmaschinenlied" is a feature for the male vocalist and makes use of a rhythm track created by typewriter. It's a mambo or a samba and similar to a Serge Gainsbourg song or two.

Then comes "El Bajon", which is kind of like a Spanish-language Andrews sisters song but with only acoustic guitar accompaniment, quite nice and toe-tapping.

A return to German-language, upbeat easy listening follows this with "Heut' Kauf' Ich Mir Die Welt/Country Girl".

"Sainte Catherine" is almost a rearrangement of "Midinetten-Lied" with French lyrics this time but it's similar without being the same.

We get another silly duet, this time with tap-dancing, in "Square Severine".

Latin percussion introduces the beautiful song "Ou Es-Tu Ma Joie", which is a fantastic feature for Valente's voice, often with very minimal accompaniment and at times pulling off some Yma Sumac-like vocal lines.

This movie and music are both from a different time that seems almost completely lost. But it seems like Caterina Valente was a pretty big deal back then. The images I've seen from the movie make it look very coloful and maybe it would be fun to watch.


2018 October 19 • Friday

The novel that Robert Bloch wrote after Psycho was called The Dead Beat and the first line is "Larry Fox waited for the downbeat", which is a pretty good first line.

I was hoping for a psycho-killer beatnik story and while The Dead Beat touches on that in places, it's more of a juvenile delinquent novel sprinkled with some some hip and slangy jazz cat lingo.

The best part is the beginning, with Larry Fox sitting in as a pianist for a combo playing in a roadhouse. Bloch is great on the atmosphere and the beginning of Larry's character development.

There's some very effective and economical descriptive writing.

"Larry fumbled through the cues and the cheap arrangements as the blue spot cut through swirls of smoke and air that was 80 proof by volume."

"Larry braced himself against the back seat and opened his mouth, but only to swallow darkness. And then he fell forward on the floor and the darkness swallowed him."

But once we leave the roadhouse milieu, the story shrinks and becomes more conventional. Larry sneers at the suburban squares with their "television worship" and "Frank Lloyd Wrighteousness" and one of these squares, the father of a teenage girl that Larry has an eye for, figures out that Larry is trouble right away.

This father character also makes some speeches about youth culture and the worship of youth, which Larry responds to with his own speech about adults always exploiting youth, sending them off to fight in their wars, for example.

The plot concerns Larry trying to shake down his ex-girlfriend for money and then, after getting beaten up, being taken in by a childless married suburban couple. Using their house as his headquarters, Larry manipulates his hosts and plans for both revenge and a bigger score.

It's a short book and a quick read with some nice turns of phrase, such as "ivory hunter" as slang for piano player. But it doesn't fulfill the promise of the opening pages, which seem to indicate something deeper, something closer to Jim Thompson territory, perhaps.

It's possible that Larry Fox's name is meant as a nod to D.H. Lawrence's The Fox, and a fairly flimsy case could be made for that, but I'm inclined to doubt it.


2018 October 17 • Wednesday

Another item of note on the Television's Lost Classics Volume Two Featuring Four Rare Pilots DVD is this adaptation of Erle Stanley Gardner's Cool and Lam series.

I wasn't familiar with them but I enjoyed the pilot quite a bit. Bertha Cool and Donald Lam have a detective agency. To sum them up as briefly as possible, they're both super smart, she's obsessively frugal and he's short.

This is going directly against the grain of the private detective character of the time and thank goodness for that. These two are the proverbial breath of fresh air.

The pilot episode is introduced by the team's creator himself.

Lam does most of the leg work in this case and his diminutive stature make him an easy target for a couple of much larger mean guys. He gets beat up a lot and the image of this sweet but diminutive fellow with some big bruiser looming over him is alarming.

Lam made me laugh out loud in one such theme when his antagonist says something about Lam being little and smart and Lam replies that he had a chance to be tall and stupid but blew it.

On the plus side, Lam is an extremely quick thinker and gets quite a bit of positive attention from women, at least in this episode.

Bertha Cool is also a great character and her fretting about saving every dime is consistently amusing. Both characters are very well played. The real mystery to me is why this series wasn't picked up. Was it too good? Too off beat?

The other point of interest here is that the pilot was directed by Jacques Tourneur.

To be honest, if it didn't have Tourneur's name on it I don't think I would suspect that it had been directed by such a luminary. It's perhaps a bit more shadowy than such television programs usually are and while it's solidly put together, its visual components didn't seem out of the ordinary.


2018 October 15 • Monday

For the 539th Soundtracks of the Week we're listening to Lele Marchitelli's music for Paolo Sorrentino's The Young Pope.

Actually the first thing on here is a solo vocal number by Korean singer Sumi Jo, who had also contribute an Academy Award-nominated song to Sorrentino's Youth. Called "The Dream", it's a haunting and beautiful piece, gracefully powerful.

Then we get into Marchitelli's score, which blends acoustic and electronic instruments in subtle and effective ways.

One of the best things about The Young Pope is the opportunity it gives for Sorrentino to compose images and create excitement and suspense with camera movement and editing. Marchitelli's music works with the visual element hand in glove.

Listening to it on its own, without the image, does lose something, though.

But "Fear of God" is a dreamy and satisfying piece of music. "Knowledge" increases the tension and creates a solid atmosphere of mystery, using mostly electronic instruments.

On the more light-hearted end of the spectrum are the bouncy "The Cardinals" and "Hair". The latter has a hint of Afro-pop, perhaps, an idea that's developed more in "Later".

"Sister Mary" is a cue that signals "goodness" quite clearly, and is written for Diane Keaton's character.

"The Blackmail" gets the dark and dangerous mood across just with piano and cello in a short but effective piece.

While most of the tracks on the album fit these profiles, a few stand out for doing something a little different, such as the swirling textures of "The Parents" and the slow, atmospheric, electric guitar-driven "Maddalena Ventura".

"Dreaming of You" and "Voiello Soul" also have great electric guitar sounds. I'd love to know who's playing it.


2018 October 12 • Friday

American television of the 1950s has always interested me in a general way. Two volumes of rare programming from that time have recently come out on DVDs and have some content that interests me in a more specifi way.

Television's Lost Classics Volume Two Featuring Four Rare Pilots was the first to appear in my mailbox and I went straight to the 1959 pilot for a Nero Wolfe series that was never picked up.

We lost our chance to have the best Nero Wolfe movie ever when the cast of John Huston's adaptation of The Maltese Falcon was never assembled for such a project.

Sydney Greenstreet would have been the best Wolfe ever and in fact did end up playing him superbly on radio. Humphrey Bogart would have the perfect match as Archie Goodwin, Mary Astor could have been a great Lily Rowan or any other character. Peter Lorre, too, could have played any part but would have deserved more screen time than being cast as Fritz or Theodore would have given him.

That never happened, though. Marlene Dietrich apparently tried to drum up interest in a Nero Wolfe movie with a circa-Touch of Evil Orson Welles as Wolfe and herself as a female Archie. I would have loved to see that, too.

But we're left with the attempts we have, and this 1959 pilot is pretty decent.

It begins promisingly with a cool opening credits sequence that has some similarities both in music and image to the original opening credits of The Avengers.

It's no surprise that the music is so good since it turns out to be by the great Alex North.

Whoever put the show together certainly knew the books. We start in the famous Wolfe townhouse on W. 35th St. Archie brings Wolfe breakfast in bed, Fritz is mentioned along with Wolfe's appreciation of his adding sage to his breakfast dish.

Wolfe is lazy and motivated by a need to pay several large bills. He casually decides that a death by natural causes reported in the newspaper is a murder, announces it publicly, gathers all the suspects in his office, demands that they all hire him as clients with fees prorated based on their incomes and solves the case more or less on the spot, having sent Archie out already on a fact-finding mission and then employing a typical bit of chicanery to flush out the guilty.

It's very true to the structure of the books, though I believe this particular story is original to the television program.

The writers wanted to get Wolfe's love of orchids in there but instead of taking the time and money to show us his orchid collection on the top floor they take Wolfe out of character to show him standing and holding an orchid while playing it Scarlatti, which he says he believes will improve its colors.

The young William Shatner is an excellent choice as Archie, though he's a bit too much the standard-issue stereorypically wolfish and devil-may-care freewheelin' guy. Certainly some of that is in Archie and the writers do also manage a neat moment near the end that demonstrates Archie's own intelligence and deductive skills.

Kurt Kaznar does a fine job as Wolfe and although he doesn't look like my idea of Wolfe, he has a good voice for the role.

It's a shame that there weren't more of these. I would have enjoyed them.
2018 October 10 • Wednesday

One of the reasons that Hank Williams was a proto-rock and roll star is that he was writing and recording hit songs that, in 1951, had lyrics like this: "I got a hot-rod Ford and a two-dollar bill / And I know a spot right over the hill / There's soda pop and the dancin's free ' So if you want to have fun, come along with me".

Those elements—fast cars, money, dancing/sex/courtship and sensual pleasure—would end up more or less defining and dominating most of rock and roll when the genre took over a few years later.

And so we're looking at an actual hot rod magazine from 1956, several years after Hank Williams died in the back seat of a Cadillac on the way to a gig.

The layout of the cover caught my eye, as it no doubt was intended to do. The graphic design of the interior pages is similarly robust.

There's an interesting article about solving the radio paradox. You need to listen to music while you drive but the antenna ruins the look of the car. Introducing the No-Tenna system!

This might be only the second hot rod magazine from this time that I've looked at, and like the other one there's a feature on some female hot rodders. This story is about two young women who tow their junker of a car from Fort Worth, TX, to a custom shop in California, have it redesigned to their specifications, enroll in a local college while they wait for the work to be done, and then tow it back to Texas!

And finally there's this mixed media advertisement presenting us with a literal realization of a metaphor.


2018 October 08 • Monday

A week ago Stelvio Cipriani passed away. He's been the composer of a couple of our Soundtracks of the Week in the past and now we'll do another of his for our 538th: La Notte degli squali.

The cover made me think that this was a Jaws rip off, but it's from 1988, which is kind of late in the day for that sort of thing. Reading the plot description on Wikipedia makes me think that it's kind of all over the place. It has a very low rating on imdb but I would probably watch it.

The score is very synth-heavy and pounding. The main title theme has a late-Goblin feel.

Cipriani juggles different rhythms and atmospheres with ease and cruises in and out of different melodic and harmonic ideas. "Cacciatore di squali" is a good example of how well he can navigate different kinds of dramatic terrain in just a few minutes.

Some of the other cues, such as "Bandidos", are agreeably similar to the music for Miami Vice, which was perhaps a conscious choice considering the popularity of both the show and its music at the time.

There's even something that sounds like a love theme, "David liz", with the melody taken up by trumpet. You hear it again in "Notturno d'amore", with the melody on synth this time.

It all sounds like it would be very effective in a movie and it's also very rewarding to listen to.
2018 October 05 • Friday

Well, here's a ridiculous book and artifact of a certain time and certain tendencies in certain streams of pop culture: John Quirk's The Tournament.

This is actually the third book in a series, but the front and back cover copy seem to be hoping you'll think it's the first. This accompanies a new design, a new publisher and a new presentation of the author, here John Quirk but in the previous two John Q.

I believe I picked this up in Cape Cod for twenty cents. It's interesting to see how the worlds of books and movies responded to the massive success of James Bond. By the time of The Tournament the whole genre was morphing into self-parody and this book is definitely heading that way.

Its purpose seems to deliver sex and violence with an irritating male protagonist who excels at and always attracts both. Peter Trees is a millionaire ex-commando (or something), often referred to as the Survivor, grins a lot, has lots of experience and knowledge and skills, yet is also strangely ineffective, quite early in the book being completely railroaded, captured, doped with truth serum and avoiding death only by a typically ludicrous maneuver that's as unconvincing as it is familiar.

The writing style is loose and sometimes melodramatic.

Martinelli closed the great double doors behind his back, using both hands. Martinelli, short, slim, lined, gray-haired, urbane, accustomed to the power of extreme wealth. Martinelli. After all this time, the face-to-face confrontation, Trees and Martinelli. Martinelli, the great manipulator; he was a five-foot-seven Italian giant. Martinelli, the international socialite, the dilettante Communist, the giver of sex parties. Martinelli, who had sent the assassins after Bottle and his fuel injector in the affair of the Chocolate Bunny. Martinelli, who had plied Roberto Alvarez with an elaborate orgy, seeking to seduce him from the rail spur in Guerra. Martinelli. Twice there had been conflict between the empires. Twice Peter Trees had one for Archangeli, and twice Martinelli had known the strange, coppery taste of defeat.

The first line is "Bullshots, that's what the men drank, the princes and their friends, consommé and vodka".

The immediate defining of "men" to be "princes and their friends" launches the reader on a snob appeal/luxury porn journey.

I was more interested in the backgammon angle, since I like backgammon and it's almost never the subject of a book or movie, unlike chess.

The Peter Trees books weren't very successful, it seems. There's a lot of sexist garbage, the most wearying example being a gorgeous lesbian character named April Rain (groan) who appears to give herself sexually to Peter Trees at the end of the book (of course).

The Tournament appears to have been meant to be read quickly and soon forgotten and if so, mission accomplished.


2018 October 03 • Wednesday

Deception, manipulation, distraction, misdirection and outright lying have been around longer than humans have and are never going away. Now that so many people in so many places are virtually connected via ubiquitous electronic devices, the number of opportunities for being fooled, swindled or just plain robbed has increased exponentially.

And there are still plenty of real world pitfalls to avoid, whether they manifest themselves to you as a shell game, a pigeon drop, a jam auction, change raising or some other such scheme.

If those phrases are new to you, I recommend R. Paul Wilson's book The Art of the Con, which is where I learend about them. It's an entertaining and educational guide to various grifts and confidence rackets, most still around today, some offered up for their historical interest and with some special attention paid to how they can flourish in the digital age.

One point that Wilson makes over and over is that he hopes to provide protection to the reader in the form of information. By reading about all these various cons and scams, many of which Wilson pulled off himself for his various series on BBC television—he always gave the money back to the "mark" and explained what happened and why—readers can get an idea of how easy it is to be fooled, how entire phony environments (the "con bubble") can be created to steal money from strangers.

Which is another point. Most con games are like being mugged, just without the violence. But Wilson mentions that if you recognize the con being pulled on you, it's a mistake to try to outsmart the grifters. If you think they're going to be chastened once you reveal that you're smarter than them and you were onto their trick from the start, they might just pull a gun or a knife or beat you up to take your money.

A common criticism Wilson says he faced is that his book is basically an instruction manual for how to cheat people. Certainly he does show how these things work, but he does it for the victims, not the predators. He asserts, and it seems like reasonable enough to me, that con artists already know how to do all this stuff. He learned it from them! Your only defense is knowledge, having a sense of the structure and psychology of these things, so when something doesn't feel right, you'll play it safe. You'll remember that when something seems too good to be true, then it probably is.

And it is fascinating and entertaining reading. One con had a few people set up their own counter and cash register in a large department store and take any customers who would pay cash for whatever they wanted to buy. A few hours in a busy holiday season would make them thousands of dollars and they can just walk away.

Another simple and easy one: pretend to be a parking valet when you're not.

As enjoyable as this book was, I'd recommend it even if it weren't so fun and compelling. No defense is perfect, no security is impregnable, but you can adjust the odds to be more in your favor just by having a sense of what to look out for. You don't have to be paranoid, but just assume that the easy money isn't easy and remember that there are people who will lie to you so they can cheat you and those people have absolutely no problem with that.
2018 October 01 • Monday

For our 537th Soundtrack of the Week we're digging into the vinyl again and out we come with Wild, Wild Winter, one of several post-Frankie and Annette teen romp movies. Frankie Avalon had left the beach for a Ski Party so it's only natural that the slopes would see some action from some of the other players again.

The A side is songs from the groups given prominent billing on the cover. The B side is score, mostly by Jerry Long. Maybe. It's a little confusing. Next to each piece, Jerry Long's name occupies the "composer's name" space, with the exception of the Main Title theme, which is credited to Chester Pipkin.

Under the track listing it says "Instrumentals Directed by Frank Wilson". It's not clear what "Directed" means in this context. Arranged? Conducted? Both? Something else?

Just to make it even less clear, in the liner notes is the assertion that what one hears is "background music by Frank Wilson and arrangements by Jerry Long", which is the opposite of what' it just said's written a few inches to the left.

So I don't know. But it's a nice record for the fans of this sort of thing.

The first song on the first side is "Two of a Kind" by Jay and the Americans. It's a typically groovy and catchy ‘60s pop number with a nice rhythmic shift in the chorus and pleasant placement of minor chords in the verse.

I love The Astronauts and their inclusion here is one of the reasons I bought the record. I don't think much of "A Change of Heart", though. I prefer their instrumentals and while this is a decent bluesy number with an insistent rhythm and of course their great guitar sounds, it's not an essential track from them. Nice to see them included, though!

After that comes another not-essential number, The Beau Brummels' simplistic "Just Wait and See". One nice feature of it is the descending scale that concludes the verses.

"Heartbeats" by Dick and Dee Dee is sunshine pop, a bit on the corny side but I bet it’s perfect for this movie. The band is solid and the blend of voices works really well. It’s not a mystery that they were popular at the time.

The first side ends with Jackie and Gayle's "Our Love's Gonna Snowball", a relaxed but intense love song and perhaps the only one to make a direct reference to the concept (such as it is) of the movie. They sound a bit like The Honeys.

Then we flip the record to hear the score or background instrumentals or whatever you want to call it, composed by whoever composed it, maybe Jerry Long, maybe Frank Wilson.

Except, of course, for the "Main Title", which is apparently by Chester Pipkin. It's a sixties pop instrumental lounge number with sleigh bells and a melody that sounds like it's played on harmonica.

“Latin Source" is a fleet, Latin-tinged number with piano and saxophone handling the musical statements but also a nice and unexpectedly spiky electric guitar solo.

"Wild Watusi" is, no surprise, a straight-up watusi with a good groove and some nice saxophone playing as well as a decent guitar solo and rocking piano work.

Then we have "Hawaii to Military", a love theme, apparently, with swelling backgrounds, gentle chimes and of course a flute. But then in comes the snare drum and it’s marching military time, alternating with some Mancini-ish combo writing and even bringing in accordion and harp from out of nowhere.

"The Chase" is at first that formulaic “silent-movie chase scene solo piano playing” but then the pianist starts playing stride and it ends with a funeral march, so something else presumably happens.

And finally, just to add even more confusion to the matter of who came up with this music in the first place, the "End Title", a reprise of the "Main Title", which was supposed to be by Chester Pipkin, is credited to Jerry Long.

Whatever the case, I hope that all fees went to the right people.