Thursday, March 14, 2013

Waiting for the Moon

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: The Singing Detective (Music From the BBC TV Serial). Like John Waters and Woody Allen, Dennis Potter was as much a great music supervisor as a great writer/director--and in Potter's case, the song-curating and the storytelling were inextricably entwined, since with works like this, Pennies From Heaven, and Lipstick on My Collar, he essentially made lip-synch meta-musicals. Perhaps this narrative sensibility explains why the soundtracks for his shows and films hold up so well as standalone records; even as many of the particular scenes they illustrated have blurred or merged in my memory, this album, like those for both the TV and film versions of Pennies, has loomed large in my consciousness in a way no mere oldies collection could, much as the soundtracks of Radio Days and Cry-Baby weigh more heavily in my mind than the films they supported.

There's something to be said for Potter's astute individual selections, which include not just some definitive pop records by some usual suspects (Ink Spots, Mills Bros., Der Bingle) but a few revelatory jazz sides (Ellington's "Rockin' in Rhythm," Ambrose & His Orchestra's "Limehouse Blues"). But digested whole, the high syrup quotient of the selections--a lot of this sounds like little-old-lady music, and not just "Cruising Down the River," which was actually written by two middle-aged amateurs for a songwriting contest--would make this record unbearable if not for Potter's unmistakeable touch. It's hard not to notice upon relistening how much perversity and drama many of these cheery pop songs contain, at least as seen through the Potter lens: You can hear anew the barely veiled aggression of "You Always Hurt the One You Love" and "After You've Gone," the misogyny of "Paper Doll," the spectral ghoulishness of "Dry Bones," the queasy conformism of "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive" and "It's a Lovely Day Tomorrow," the macabre playfulness of "Teddy Bear's Picnic." And so on. There's even a record of these songs' B-sides that ups both the quirky novelty quotient and the weird, unsettling quality of this old, cheap, potent music.

I'm grateful, in short, that this record was my introduction to many of these songs; thanks to Dennis Potter's uniquely multilayered aesthetic, an inimitable cocktail of jaundice and joy, they've never sounded like mere easy listening to me.

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