Mixing Desk

From Coldplay to Jack Black

A holiday roundup of the year’s best music DVDs and box sets.

Now is the time of year to find the gift that says “I intend to maintain friendly relations by giving you this object and hope you will give me something of equal or greater value.” To this end, nothing beats box sets and DVDs. If you’ve already given the Dylan box set, try these:

Click here  to listen. Talking Heads’Once in a Lifetime makes a point about box sets before you even open it: It is proudly ungainly. Designed by Stefan Sagmeister and Matthias Ernstberger, the box set is a hardcover book, 5 1/4 inches tall (fine) and 17 inches wide (holy cats). (Pity the person who mails this to someone for Christmas.) The book includes 13 essays, three by Byrne, one each by Frantz, Harrison, and Weymouth, and others by fiction writer Mary Gaitskill and Rolling Stone’s David Fricke. The archival photographs are extensive and unfamiliar enough to make you feel as though you’ve never seen a decent photo of Talking Heads, and Bob Ludwig’s lucid remastering is the holiday spirit itself, especially for those of us still waiting to hear Remain in Light remastered. The song selection will explain the band adequately to anyone who doesn’t know them, and the rarities are all worthy. (Example: an alternate version of Fear of Music’s”Cities” with different lyrics, louder synthesizer, and even louder bass.) If it peters out at the end of the third CD, what doesn’t? An additional DVD contains all their videos, including Byrne’s short film for “Once in a Lifetime,” which looks both ancient (image quality) and depressingly advanced (concept). Bum note: The cover paintings of nudists by Vladimir Dubossarsky and Alexander Vinogradov resurrect the hideous “Ha, ha, look at the average people who don’t ironize their experience, so we’ll do it for them” condescension that Byrne started on True Stories. It’s the worst part of Byrne, and it became one of the worst threads in ‘90s culture. Once in a lifetime is too much for that crap.

Click here to listen. Somewhat unexpectedly, Germany produced two of the funkiest bands of the 1970s: Kraftwerk and Can. Hip-hop was built on Kraftwerk’s“Trans-Europe Express” and “Numbers,” and Can’s drummer Jaki Liebezeit ranks alongside American greats like Zig Modeliste of the Meters and Clyde Stubblefield of the JBs. Because Can’s rhythms are compatible with beat-centric subcultures and their song lyrics are rife with Higher Principles, the band has stayed in vogue for the last 10 years. Can DVD is the first widely available visual document of the band, giving us a portrait of their early days, living together in one house and wearing many flowing shirts. At a 1972 concert in Köln, singer Damo Suzuki sports a remarkable pink-and-red velvet jumpsuit; the band uses its phenomenal time-keeping skills to push a single note to ecstatic ends. “None of us were interested in personal expression,” late guitarist Michael Karoli tells an interviewer. “We did try to exclude the human being from the music.” What’s left after the humans leave is a lovely thrum.

Space Is the Place

Space Is the Place is a 1974 film just issued by Plexifilm on DVD, and it is, improbably, a pretty good introduction to the jazz musician Sun Ra. A pianist who wrote arrangements for big-band leader Fletcher Henderson in the late 1940s, Ra went on to form the Arkestra, legendary purveyors of ferocious playing, ritualistic spectacle, and shiny skullcaps. Ra’s massive discography never settles—traditional horn charts crumble into full-bore improvisations that rumble through time signatures and harmony, and his bad records are as common as good ones. Space Is the Place contains a half-hour live Sun Ra concert fleshed out to a full-length black nationalist sci-fi movie. The movie opens with Ra in an Egpytian headdress, talking to a robed figure with a mirror for a face. Ra has determined it’s time for black people to leave Earth, and he proposes to “teleport the whole planet here, through music.” (The otherworldly “here” is footage filmed in Golden Gate Park.) Cut to a Chicago gangster strip club in 1943 where piano player Sonny Ray (Ra) disobeys orders and starts pounding out atonal clusters. People flee! Glasses break! Smoke emanates from unknown places! It’s an effective and cheesy dramatization of the recurrent hostility toward free music. Director John Coney keeps the spectacles flowing, and the saturated colors, ecstatic noises, and ideology reinforce a rich sense of possibility. We eventually see the live show, but the narrative silliness is better: Sun Ra’s yellow-breasted spaceship; sex with nurses; tarot-card sessions in the desert; and Ra’s interstellar recruiting speeches: “You’re not real. If you were, you’d have some status among the nations of the world. So, we’re both myths … that’s what black people are—myths.”

Palm Picture’s Directors Label has issued three DVD collections of music videos, one each by directors Chris Cunningham, Spike Jonze, and Michel Gondry. Gondry is best-known for directing videos for the White Stripes, Björk, and Daft Punk, and his collection comes with a mission statement—”I’ve been twelve forever.” The work backs up this idea. His images feel unchecked by repression, like a child talking about his dreams at the breakfast table: Björk’s gorilla dentist extracts a 3-foot-wide diamond from her mouth, which she brings home in a giant tank. Daft Punk’s keyboard and guitar lines are “acted out” by disco dancers and skeletons. And most famously, White Stripes’ “Fell in Love With a Girl” is a performance clip rendered entirely in Lego. The extensive interviews with Gondry reveal how complex and precise the planning for these videos is. Instead of using science as a selfish, useless strike against mortality, Gondry uses the rational and methodical to bring the irrational and numinous to life. What if you could carry a car down the street? What if your suit was made of drums?

Click here to listen. An ancient proverb springs to mind when I think of Coldplay and Radiohead: A boxer and a painter may be friends, but two boxers, never. Why does this spring to mind? Because though people may hate Coldplay because they love Radiohead, Coldplay’s new live DVD makes the differences between the two bands look minimal. Each band makes consistently pretty, smart, and texturally varied rock that rarely gets aggressive enough to put anybody off. Their respective lead singers, Chris Martin and Thom Yorke, are fine-featured, lanky, and pleasantly unmacho boys from comfortable English backgrounds. They both take politics seriously: “Make Trade Fair” is written on the side of Martin’s piano, as well as the back of his hand; Radiohead named their latest album Hail to the Thief. The bands are dreamy and Romantic, and swapping songs wouldn’t be hard for them: Add a whine here, subtract a major chord here, and nobody would know. The biggest differences are that Coldplay outsells Radiohead in America 2-to-1 and visibly enjoy their job while the members of Radiohead are committed to the strategy of looking like they’d rather be doing something else. Martin makes no bones about the fun he’s having: When the band’s signature hit “Yellow” kicks in, he’s the kid who got to stay up late at the dinner party, bouncing across the stage. Considering how many times he’s played the song, it is impressive he can still punch the clock so happily. (The DVD comes with an audio-only CD of the concert and is packaged in both jewel case and DVD box formats, with identical contents.)

Click here to listen. Tenacious D’s The Complete Masterworks. School of Rock made the tornado that is Jack Black a household name. People love him, and I am glad. But Black seems to be following an arc that is close to axiomatic for great TV comics: great early work/rapid rise to ubiquity/onslaught of crappy movies/scattered roles that redeem artist. I am hoping that Black ends up like Bill Murray or Steve Martin and not like Mike Myers (or dead John Belushi), but it’s too early to tell. At the very least, the early work is now available. The bulk of Complete Masterworks is a live concert by Tenacious D, Black’s acoustic duo with Kyle Gass. The live concert does nothing for me, the tour diary even less. Doesn’t matter—the DVD includes the six original Tenacious D films Black and Gass made for HBO in 1999, documenting Tenacious D’s “reign” at a local coffeehouse, where the band acts the part of enormous rock stars while playing to seven very uninterested people. The disjunction makes it work: Their passionate belief in rock is hilarious and more sincere because it is not rewarded or encouraged. Once Tenacious D made a record with famous musicians like Dave Grohl and became a “real” touring band that could sell out venues in minutes, the tension evaporated. Spinal Tap already dealt with rock fame—Tenacious D was for the losers. For their shtick to work, Tenacious D needs to lose and then carry on regardless, and this is what the HBO films show. All six episodes are, in a letter, strokes of g.