Music Review: Death (plus a Leonard Nimoy/Bad Brains mashup!)

Death has been getting a lot of attention since Drag City unearthed and re-released their 1974 EP. Jack White (White Stripes) said "When I was told the history of the band and what year they recorded this music, it just didn’t make sense. Ahead of punk, and ahead of their time."

The album (really half of a planned LP) is good but not great. Overall the songs are catchy, but they're following in the footsteps of better-known bands (e.g. compare to MC5's second album "Back in the USA", released 4 years earlier). "Keep on Knocking" is a great song, but "Let the World Turn" takes an unfortunate proggy turn and the album never really recovers.

Comparisons with Bad Brains are inevitable, since both bands stood out for being African-American when most of their musical contemporaries were white. The comparisons aren't really fair, though. Given the similarity to earlier bands (MC5, The Stooges), it's hard to claim that Death was novel. But Bad Brains earned their long-lasting influence with innovative music and frenetic energy that distinguished them from all the other bands that couldn't play as well or as fast. Compare any early punk or hardcore to the first single from Bad Brains in the late 70's:

(Forgive the unnecessary Leonard Nimoy mashup.) At least in my opinion, that song holds up pretty well 30 years later.

Still, Bad Brains were by all accounts not very nice (at least back then -- they're older and wiser now). But Death seems like they're pretty friendly guys. My favorite part of their story is how one of their sons re-discovered their music:
The Hackneys had never shared the details of their Death experience with their kids. “We had moved on in our lives and thought that chapter was over because we went through so much rejection with that music,” Bobby said. “We just didn’t want to relive it, and I especially didn’t want to relive it again with my children.”

But last year Julian heard the Tryangle single at a party in San Francisco and recognized his father’s voice. Soon after, Bobby Jr. did a Google search that revealed the Holy Grail status of the band’s only release. This news astounded Bobby Sr., who dug the master tapes out of storage last May for the first time in three decades and sat down with Dannis for a listen. The music “literally took our breath away,” Bobby Sr. said.

Movie Review: Rififi

I learned from Wikipedia that Truffaut loved Rififi, saying that "out of the worst crime novels I ever read, Jules Dassin has made the best crime film I've ever seen."

(Truffaut trivia: Spielberg cast him in Close Encounters as a scientist. The other scientist was played by Bob Balaban, who directed one of my favorite creepy films, Parents. I had a celebrity sighting of Balaban in an ice cream store a few summers ago. Small world!)

A lot of reviewers (e.g. Ebert) say that Rififi invented the modern heist genre. It doesn't feel much like Ocean's 11, though. The hero, "The Stephanois", is not particularly likable; near the beginning of the movie, he beats his ex-girlfriend with a belt. The action in the film is not stylized, but rather rough and tumble (which is a loose translation of the word "rififi"). The actual heist occurs in the middle of the movie, and it's almost a half-hour of silent, efficient thievery -- no humor, no surprises, just four men doing a thorough job.

Once the heist is done (spoiler warning), there's still almost an hour of movie left, in which "The Swede's" son is kidnapped. The Stephanois spends the rest of the movie getting him back, with most of the cast dying along the way (including Cesar the safecracker, played by the director). The movie ends with a surreal scene where The Swede's son cavorts in a car as he's driven home by The Stephanois who is bleeding to death from a gunshot wound. It's hard to tell if the careening shots of tree branches and tiny Paris streets are supposed to represent the viewpoint of the distracted five-year-old or the dying thief. Either way, it's a powerful finale.

The trailer doesn't really do the movie justice:

Rififi is worth seeing if you have any affinity for heist movies or film noir. See it before Al Pacino remakes it.

More expensive stuff tastes better

I'm not a vodka drinker but this NYTimes article was interesting:
By government definition, vodka is supposed to be a neutral alcohol without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color, and some believe that the differences among vodkas are so subtle that only connoisseurs can distinguish them. But a marketing genius and liquor baron named Sidney Frank decided in 1996 that with the right story line and marketing panache, Americans would buy steeply priced vodka. He came up with a refined name, Grey Goose, and a sleek bottle.
That may be just marketing, but higher prices actually make wine taste better:
Researchers from the California Institute of Technology and Stanford's business school have directly seen that the sensation of pleasantness that people experience when tasting wine is linked directly to its price.
Which leads to this anecdote from a long story about wine counterfeiting:
Rajat Parr, a prominent wine director who oversees restaurants in Las Vegas, told me that several years ago some of his customers ordered a bottle of 1982 P├ętrus, which can sell in restaurants for as much as six thousand dollars. The party finished the bottle and ordered a second. But the second bottle tasted noticeably different, so they sent it back. The staff apologetically produced a third bottle, which the diners consumed with pleasure. Parr closely examined the three bottles and discovered the problem with the second one: it was genuine.