I can cast a spell, of secrets you can tell: the best of Chaka Khan

CVS is responsible for saving lives — a pharmacy open late, eggs and half and half available when supermarkets have closed, and encouraging “Through the Fire.” Maybe that’s how Kanye West learned to love it. This middling R&B, adult contemporary, and pop single has had an impressive longevity, such that even before Kanye’s 2003 “Through the Wire” it might’ve been the first Chaka Khan song recognized by Gen X and Triassic-era millennials. Guess what? Through the polite flame of those twinkling synthesizers and non-existent rhythm, Chaka triumphs. Against 1985’s “That’s What Friends Are For,” I’d rather have “Through the Fire” on my side.

One of my favorite published essays examined Chaka’s post-Rufus solo career through 1984. At the time Spotify didn’t host most of those albums; now the essay serves a practical function. It’s not every solo career that kicks off with a statement as startling as Ashford and Simpson’s “I’m Every Woman,” a thunderclap of a single that registers as vividly as Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill” as declaration of independence. All these albums have their moments, though. I’d also include 1986’s expensive flop Destiny, boasting collaborations with Green Gartside (included below!) and Mike Rutherford and Phil Collins. During this era, just before Tina Turner expanded the commercial possibilities for black women over thirty, Chaka was alone. Of course these albums have gauche moments (have you heard her cover of “We Can Work It Out”?). “What Cha’ Gonna Do For Me” is a Ned Doheny cover, for god’s sake. But I learned then that the singer functioned as the auteur in the cinematic sense, no matter how involved he or she was in the writing.

Meanwhile I also have to deal with Rufus, the funkiest average mixed race band ever, even without a Stevie Wonder track that became their biggest hit.

1. I’m Every Woman
2. Ain’t Nobody
3. Through the Fire
4. Do You Love What You Feel
5. Tell Me Something Good
6. Clouds
7. I Feel For You
8. Sweet Thing
9. Move Me No Mountain
10. What Cha’ Gonna Do for Me
11. Got to Be There
12. I Know You, I Live You
13. This is My Night
14. Get Ready, Get Set
15. Papillon
16. Dance Wit Me
17. Love of a Lifetime
18. You Got the Love
19. Stay
20. Watching the World

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‘Pipelines spill and leak’

My monthly reminder that we still take seriously the construction of these pipelines. :

Two barrels, or 84 gallons, spilled due to a leaky flange at a pipeline terminal in Watford City on March 3, according to the state’s Health Department. A flange is the section connecting two sections of pipeline. Oil flow was immediately cut off and the spill was contained on site. Contaminated snow and soil was removed.

And:

The pipeline leaked 84 gallons of oil in South Dakota on April 4. That spill at a rural pump station also was quickly cleaned up and didn’t threaten any waterways. The state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources posted a report in its online database but didn’t otherwise notify the public. Its policy is to not issue news releases on spills unless there is a threat to public health or water.

Tribal leaders and attorneys say the leaks bolster their demands for further environmental review of the pipeline.

“We have always said it is not a matter of it, but when,” tribal attorney Jan Hasselman said after the South Dakota leak. “Pipelines spill and leak. It’s just a fact.”

One hundred-seventy gallons of oil doesn’t major, not when compared to, say, the 2010 spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But context, context. Last December, the Belle Fourche pipeline spill dumped almost two hundred thousand gallons of the awful stuff into a creek. Every time North Dakotans have been lucky: no threat to water or arable land for now. All it takes is one systemic failure to turn Fargo into Flint, and I’m not sure what the answer when Congress and the president’s views are no different from Scott Pruitt’s — you know, the filing clerk for the fossil fuel industry.

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Joy for its own sake: The Mountain Goats and Ibibio Sound Machine

The Mountain Goats – Goths

Applause for Matt Douglas, whose woodwind arrangements add color and an ironic elegance that’s never at the expense of the goth scene about which John Darnielle writes with precision and pathos. Musical detail adduces lyrical insights. Applause, too, for longtime producer Brandon Eggleston: you can every one of Jon Wurster’s sticks hit his cymbals, every purr as Darnielle hits the Fender Rhodes that has replaced the guitars. The casual prose that Darnielle has expended over the years in praise of Steely Dan culminates in the horn arrangement for “Paid in Cocaine.”

That last title is the giveaway. Instead of mythologizing Bauhaus or Siouxsie, Goths turns an affectionate eye to the second tier acts: the Sisters of Mercys and the Gene Loves Jezebels of the scene, condemned to a touring purgatory in which they’re further down the bill from Nine Inch Nails. “Robert Smith is secure in his villa in France/Any child knows how to do the spiderweb dance,” Darnielle points out in “Abandoned Flesh,” but Gene Loves Jezebel — when was their payday? To love them requires, in the words of one song, high unicorn tolerance. So does eking out a living in a cultural bracket commensurate with one’s income level, a pheonomenon with which “Shelved” is acquainted, down to the rippling Peter Hughes bass solo played high on the neck in homage to another musician; his initials are also PH and his first band was a considerable goth inspiration. Myths are necessary – required, as a necessity requires, to quote an American poet whom Darnielle no doubt admires. In Goths‘ shimmering evocation of a beloved subculture, myth maintenance takes work.

Ibibio Sound Machine – Uyai

Led by London-born Nigerian singer Eno Williams and her seven mates plus more help on backing vocals, mbira, and flutes have created for their second album an intoxicating hybrid of mutant disco and makossa: a collection of flippy floppy drum tracks and Bernie Worrell-infatuated synth washes and video game effects, with an ear for well-deployed echo and track lengths. Two weeks ago I raved about “Give Me the Reason”; there is more to savor. Williams’ mum drops a prayer in “The Chant (Iquo Isang)” while shakers shake and keyboards jab. On “Lullaby” Alfred Kari Bannerman plucks a high life figure over programmed and acoustic percussion. Many sounds aren’t programmed – credit Anselmo Netto on the cuíca, responsible for squeals and shrieks that on tracks like “Sunray (Eyio)” augur unexpected and delightful hairpin turns. Although Ibibio dominates the singing, the clarity of these tracks made me seek translations.

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Let me get over you: the best of Holland-Dozier-Holland

The greatest songwriting combination of the post-Porter era, Holland-Dozier-Holland perfected a verse-chorus-verse songcraft so seamless that you shouldn’t be able to spot the hyphens in this sentence. Artists from Vanilla Fudge to Soft Cell have been taking these songs apart, wondering why they work like mad. Helping this trio was the most powerful and most identifiable stable of singers in pop history. I could fill this list to surfeit with Supremes and Marvin Gaye numbers, and whenever Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops jabs at syllables with his sharp broomstick of a voice I wonder whether he wasn’t the era’s greatest singer, period. Diana Ross, a less powerful singer, nevertheless owns this list — a performer who could no more stand outside herself and examine her motives than Simon Le Bon write sentences with subject-verb-object structures. No wonder Kim Wilde remade “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” as hi-NRG; the original is hi-Hysteria.

In this list, I’ve included a few hits when they are apart or collaborations (even with Norman Whitfield’s name in the credits and in the grit all over its tread, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” has the flow of an H-D-H track).

1. The Supremes – You Keep Me Hangin’ On
2. Marvin Gaye – Can I Get a Witness
3. The Four Tops – Reach Out I’ll Be There
4. Martha and the Vandellas – Heat Wave
5. The Supremes – You Can’t Hurry Love
6. Martha and the Vandellas – Nowhere to Run
7. Freda Payne – Band of Gold
8. The Chairmen of the Board – Give Me Just a Little More Time
9. The Temptations – Ain’t Too Proud to Beg
10. The Supremes – Stop! in the Name of Love”
11. The Isley Brothers – This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)
12. The Temptations – (I Know) I’m Losing You
13. The Marvelettes – Please Mr. Postman
14. The Supremes – Where Did Our Love Go?
15. Dionne Warwick – You’re Gonna Need Me
16. Johnny Rivers – Baby I Need Your Loving
17. The Miracles – (Come ‘Round Here) I’m the One You Need
18. The Supremes – You Can’t Hurry Love
19. Jr. Walker & the All-Stars – (I’m a) Road Runner
20. Chris Clark – Whisper You Love Me Boy

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Best films of 1935

1. The 39 Steps (Alfred Hitchcock)
2. Alice Adams (George Stevens
3. Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale)
4. Sylvia Scarlett (George Cukor)
5. The Devil is a Woman (Josef von Sternberg)
6. A Night at the Opera (Sam Wood)
7. Top Hat (Mark Sandrich)
8. Ruggles of Red Gap (Leo McCarey)
9. David Copperfield (George Cukor)
10. Les Misérables (Richard Boleslawski)

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The Manchester dead and the primacy of pop

Men dedicated to mass slaughter don’t distinguish attendees at the Bataclan from Ariana Grande fans. But what made the choice of a Grande show particularly gruesome was demographics: Grande’s audience consists mostly of young women and gay men, two groups whose tastes are condescended to, mocked as frivolous. Deluxe and sensual, Grande’s music at its best was pop at its most essential. Pop matters because its purported ephemerality strengthens fan loyalty; it becomes the soundtrack of one’s teen years, of early adulthood. Pop, serious people claim, is what we’re supposed to mature away from.

Words fail:

Stuart Aspinall, 25, said he was trying to find his friend Martyn Hett after they were separated towards the end of the gig. Aspinall shared photos of the 29-year-old, from Stockport, on Facebook to help track him down.

He wrote: “The more news that is coming out, the scarier this is getting. There was an explosion at the Ariana Grande concert tonight in Manchester and I haven’t seen my friend Martyn since.”

Greg Southern told the Guardian he was sitting on the same row as Hett. “I don’t know him but he was on the row I was on. He was stood on the exit steps on the end of our row,” Southern said. He recognized him from photos shared on Twitter. “We were at the other side of the arena from where the explosion took place. The concert had just finished and the lights had just come on. There was this absolutely tremendous bang and everybody panicked at that point.”

The audience included many young teenagers, he said. “I was there with my boyfriend, but next to us there were maybe three groups who must have been young teens, 15 or 16. In the row behind was a mother with children. The majority of people were quite young.”

This Henry James devotee has spent a quarter of his writing life defending the primacy of the ephemeral. I’m not swathing the Manchester victims in kitsch; I’m mourning the deaths of the young men and women whose average age tells me that Ariana Grande occupied a place as essential as Radiohead do for their parents and older siblings. Had they lived, they might have recognized that their music listening would never again be so unencumbered by expectations; maturity often encompasses the expectation of maturity, which is a real drag. Grande called her last album Dangerous Woman. We’re less likely to make such statements as we set our anchors down in our late twenties, but in pop make believing is the real thing; the wearing of masks and the assuming of poses plumb the depths of our identities. To learn that the Manchester dead will remain in eternal impermanence ranks among the most heartbreaking developments with which their mourners must deal.

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Like Sunday morning: the best of Lionel Richie and the Commodores

No late twentieth century popular icon has suffered vacillations in critical ardor as severely as Lionel Richie. As singer and songwriter for the mildly funky Commodores, he showed far more interest in balladry and, interestingly, a polished studio kind of country rock that would lead to an Alabama collaboration, “Stuck on You” doing well on Nashville, and the 2012 sales phenomenon Tuskegee. Like most sales Goliaths, timing was key: Richie’s mildness and impeccable melodic instinct coincided with a renewed interest in MOR mush as disco waned commercially. When MTV’s acceptance of Michael Jackson and Prince and Richie’s surprising visual malleability proved fissile, Can’t Slow Down was the result: a diamond-certified sales monster that made Richie acceptable to grandmas of every ethnicity (i.e. my abuela, who turned sixty in 1984 and liked “Hello”).

As for the Commodores, Robert Christgau nailed it: pros “who understood funk’s entertainment potential the way John Denver understood folk music’s,” which meant their relationship to funk was theoretical rather than instinctual. This doesn’t smother the polite churn of “Brick House” and “Machine Gun”; put them against late seventies Isleys and they stick work, and the Isleys’ ballads could be worse than Richie’s. The shimmering electronic reminiscence called “Nightshift” works if you block out the words; if Talk Talk had released it in 1985 it would’ve resonated as sublime ephemerality, a synth pop act honoring forebears with whom it has nothing in common — like the Commodores did in their original.

1. Easy
2. Brick House
3. Stuck On You
4. Penny Lover
5. Can’t Slow Down
6. Lady (You Bring Me Up)
7. Running with the Night
8. Nightshift
9. Love Will Conquer All
10. My Destiny
11. All Night Long (All Night)
12. Still
13. Deep River Woman
14. Sela
15. Machine Gun

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The commencement address grind

As temperatures climb and boredom with criticizing the Trump administration increases, fellow liberals turn to a favorite hobby: self-immolation. Picking on students walking out of Vice President Mike Pence’s commencement address at Notre Dame is the latest example. Students are easy targets. They allow the old to abandon common sense, disregard empathy, and wipe their own memories of youth, for besides mayonnaise in food and chardonnay there is no custom to which the old person clings more zealously than sanctimony.

Until a couple years ago I believed in a ruthless literalism regarding free speech. If the Constitution said, “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech,,” it meant that no government body, federal or state, can infringe on our ability to speek freely. Public universities needn’t accept every guest who wants to speak; my understanding of the law is that the universities subsequently cannot restrict or review what the invitee will say. Moreover, protecting the speech of these invitees doesn’t require the rapt attention of an audience.

Those aging scolds have surely forgotten what a grind commencenent addresses are. At mine, the late Camilo Jose Cela raged like a summer storm about “las tonterias de la juventud.” I’ll give the Nobel laureate his due: he had no patience for self-empowerment banalities. Neither do the graduates. All they want is their fake diplomas and a handshake with the president, and I’ll even doubt this point – it’s at their parents’ insistence. This takes me back to Mike Pence. A commenter at Lawyers, Guns and Money got it right:

I am somewhat sympathetic to arguments that speakers invited onto campus by a student group should have the opportunity to speak without excessive heckling. (This doesn’t apply to someone like Milo whose presence on campus is a threat to students.) I am absolutely not sympathetic to the argument that students who have gone into significant debt and worked hard to earn their degrees should welcome being forced to listen to a speech by someone who wants to destroy their livelihoods and their communities.

Although written before the Notre Dame speech, the point stands. Pence, speaking at a private university where its administration could have done whatever the hell it wanted about accepting or rescinding invitations, signed bills as governor that endangered women and sought to make lives harder for gays and lesbians in Indiana, some of whom were in the audience. If they had jeered, I can understand an argument against disrepecting a guest. That’s not what happened. A commencement address is not a debate; they could not respond to him even if Pence stuck to the banalities mentioned above. Students owed him no courtesy, nor would exposure to the former governor of their state have nourished their intellects. Pence got to speak; his freedom of speech was impinged neither by Notre Dame nor the students. Those who walked out responded no differently than if they’d walked out of Alien: Covenant.

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Trump proposing deep cuts to social services

Remember, readers, that no difference existed between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton:

Donald Trump’s budget that is expected to be unveiled on Tuesday will include $800 billion in cuts to Medicaid — a move that underscores the President’s resolve to significantly downsize the federal program even as Republican lawmakers are clashing over the issue in Congress.

The $800 billion reduction, confirmed to CNN Sunday evening by a senior administration official, assumes that the GOP health care bill that the House passed earlier this month would become law, that official said.

The House legislation to dismantle the Affordable Care Act — President Barack Obama’s landmark health care law also known as Obamacare — would significantly curtail federal support for Medicaid.

Under that bill, in 2020, states that expanded the program would no longer receive enhanced funding to cover low-income adults, while states that did not expand previously would not be able to do so, starting immediately. Some 11 million adults have gained coverage under Medicaid expansion.

Here is the next battle, Democrats. These cuts will destroy people, and President Romney and President (Jeb!) Bush would have signed them

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Viva Las Vegas!

Two observations based on the Billboard Music Awards:

(1) Running through a hit-strewn preface that plays like an Obama-era catalog of very necessary vulgarity, Nicki Minaj lands on 2017 “No Frauds” and the David Guetta-produced “Light My Body Up” while Lil Wayne and Jason Derulo, the latter burdened by layers of coats and dreads, interject their love patter. The women look in charge; the dudes look like they want to squeeze into knee-high leather boots. None of this matters, though, for Minaj returns singing “You Lied” before a waterfall while nymphs writhe like the dancers on a 1970’s daytime revue. All that’s missing are carpeted stairs and a horn section with paunchy members wearing ruffle tux shirts.

(2) Ed Sheeran’s success shows that audiences do want narrative of some kind in pop. He’s a type we’ve dealt with many times before and looks odd besides the Chainsmokers — the way Dan Fogelberg did beside Kraftwerk in the mid seventies.

I contributed best and worst blurbs to Rolling Stone‘s coverage of the awards: Julia Michaels, Imagine Dragons, Camila Cabello, Miley Cyrus, and Lorde.

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Lucky lucky lucky: the best of Stock Aitken Waterman

I suppose the subtlest condemnation of the Mike Stock, Matt Aitken, and Pete Waterman is to place Donna Summer’s last American hit atop my list here’s an example of an artist who didn’t surrender a millimeter of her personality to the demands of the late eighties’ most terrifying trio. “No hitmakers since have been as brazen about making pop into a cheap, kit-built, product,” Tom Ewing wrote about Mel and Kim’s “Respectable,” a #1 hit in the UK and on the American dance chart. S-A-W unnerved Neil Tennant enough that in Chris Heath-written memoir Literally he argued with partner Chris Lowe over whether S-A-W produced music for proles or each time out wrung small but brilliant changes in their structures.

All the same, I’m shocked I have fewer songs on this list than expected.

1. Donna Summer – This Time I Know It’s For Real
2. Dead or Alive – You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)
3. Bananarama – I Heard a Rumour
4. Rick Astley – Together Forever
5. Hazell Dean – They Say It’s Gonna Rain
6. Kylie Minogue – I Should Be So Lucky
7. Mel and Kim – Respectable
8. Bananarama – Love in the First Degree
9. Debbie Harry – In Love With Love (Extended Version)
10. Princess – Say I’m Your Number One

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Don’t get fooled by Mike Pence

When party satraps chose vice presidential nominees, the head of the ticket ignored his running mate — why trust a stranger? “Hack” is too strong a word, for if we dismiss most of the vice presidents in our history as hacks then what else would you call James Monroe, Benjamin Harrison, and George H.W. Bush? Before the mid twentieth century only Martin Van Buren worked as his president’s most trusted counselor and official successor. The exceptions, those consulted on policy matters, don’t even get a mention: Garret Hobart, Calvin Coolidge (who actually sat in Cabinet meetings), perhaps crusty old John Adams himself. The Cold War and the cluelessness with which Harry Truman ascended to the presidency have strengthened the political positions of modern vice presidents, but as late as 1963 LBJ was complaining about what little there was to do; hell, vice presidents didn’t even get their own White House offices until Walter Mondale in 1977. Some presidents expect vice presidents to be coarse irritants: look at the career of Governor Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s running mate after insulting civil rights workers in Maryland and who after the election was the dummy for William Safire’s logorrhea.

In an office occupied by eminences like George Dallas, Charles Fairbanks, and Charles Dawes (who, portending his future, at least wrote “It’s All in the Game,”), it makes sense for Mike Pence to affect a demeanor somewhere between the greeter in a funeral parlor and gizzards left in the sun. A mediocre and dangerous governor of Indiana whom legislature was already treating with contempt before James Comey got frisky about Clinton indictment double talk, Pence repeats himself so much because he doesn’t know very many words; he knows words cohere into sentences, but sentences are troublesome. More troublesome is believing he’s innocent or a dupe. Josh Marshall:

It is fair to say that Pence probably wasn’t the active manager of the Transition process. But it’s probably fair to say that nothing would be more important to the transition process than learning that the President’s top foreign policy advisor was being investigated for being in the pay of a foreign power. Like, almost literally nothing. If he never learned about something that serious, he either made sure not to hear or had information kept from him by others. A similar pattern emerges with Flynn’s assurances about his calls with Russian Ambassador Kislyak: Pence’s public statements turn out to be false and it’s excused with the claim that he was left in the dark. There are many other examples.

The only way this seems plausible to me is if Pence were somehow so clean, so far from the center of the action, that the Trump crew knew not to tell Pence these things. That clearly seems to be the story Pence’s aides are trying to tell – possibly to insulate him from Trump’s ubiquitous corruption and lying and allow a smooth transition to a Pence presidency.

In early 1987, the American electorate was forced to choose between believing in Ronald Reagan’s culpability or in Ronald Reagan’s stupidity while tabling the question about the president being both culpable and stupid. With Mike Pence we’ve reached that point.

Unlike many liberal buddies, I don’t fear him. Should he become president, he will sign the horrors that Paul Ryan and Mike Lee and Mitch McConnell bring before his desk. This assumes, however, that his fractious party would be in any condition to pass legislation in 2018 or 2019. Without Trump at his side, Pence is a credulous non-entity, of no use to the rest of the country. He probably bores his wife. His deepest reading before becoming vice president was laundry bills — excellent preparation for the vice presidency.

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