I wear my diamonds on skid row: the best of Lana del Rey

Say this for Elizabeth Woolridge Grant — she has a hell of a talent for the memorable title. “Beautiful People Beautiful Problems”? “Fucked My Way Up to the Top”? “Diet Mountain Dew”? My favorite: “Music to Watch Boys To.” But I didn’t pay attention because for years my initial response to “Video Games” killed my judgment. “In eleven years of professional reviewing, I’ve never disagreed with colleagues so violently,” I wrote in the comments section when The Singles Jukebox lauded it in 2011.

Now I understand what made Lana Del Rey an artist of unusual force and concentration: the affected languor, the absorption of six generations’ worth of diva posing. A precise and smirking presence, Del Rey eschewed the self-pity of her progenitors; it’s as if David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive was one of her formative experiences. The precision of the arrangements by Dan Auerbach and Rick Nowels, acquainted with dozens of beautiful people with beautiful problems, aren’t so much Sven Nykvist’s lighting Liv Ullmann as Liv Ullmann directing her own scenarios. Other than providing the essential musical context formed by an acquaintance with Stevie Nicks, Madonna, Belinda Carlisle, and other stars whom the industry has also sought to underrate and discard, these men are accessories to Del Rey. Hell, it’s even the case with the Cedric Gervais remix of “Summertime Sadness,” her biggest pop crossover; when “You’re Still the One” got a cheesy hi-NRG remix in 1998, Shania Twain succeeded in sounding more like herself.

Why I accepted Marianne Faithfull and not Del Rey is a mystery. Like Madonna, I would add, she plays an object as subject; she doesn’t mind playing a character who gets used because the level of detail in her work — at every level — adduces how often she does the using. Her titles suggested a fabulous paradox, a woman who understood that to sell records in a streaming environment she had to market herself as product; she preempted attempts to dismiss her as a sex toy. “She looks like a glamorous version of an ordinary person,” Greil Marcus raved in a a recent encomium.

I’m tempted to slot “Beautiful People Beautiful Problems” as the summit of her career, so indelible is the melody, so ingenious is the recruitment of beautiful problematic person Stevie Nicks as co-vocalist. I intend this selection, as I do all my lists, as a selection, not a solution.

1. Fucked My Way Up to the Top
2. Love
3. Blue Jeans
4. Music to Watch Boys To
5. West Coast
6. Radio
7. Beautiful People Beautiful Problems
8. Summertime Sadness
9. Ultraviolence
10. National Anthem
11. Bel Air
12. Art Deco
13. Yayo
14. Diet Mountain Dew
15. High by the Beach

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In ‘Brad’s Status,’ dudes aren’t left off the hook without a fight

At first glance, Ben Stiller and Mike White collaborating on a project is the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of middle aged male angst. Brad’s Status, it’s true, doesn’t dispel its fog of melancholy. But writer-director White’s film about the head of a non-profit on a New England college tour with his son Troy (Austin Adams) while having what Troy says is a “nervous breakdown” strikes a few unexpected notes as the film eases into a conclusion similar thematically (but not tonally) to the moment in Hannah and Her Sisters when the Woody Allen character discovers the meaning of life in Duck Soup.

Thanks to the reams of often pedantic and too thorough voice-over, audiences learn that Brad (Stiller) suffers pangs of envy thinking about his friends from Tufts, all of whom on first glance are successful, influential people: a hedge fund owner (Luke Wilson); a gay director (White) to whose marriage Brad was uninvited; a retired techie (Jemaine Clement) enjoying two wahines on a beach in Maui; and, most gallingly, Craig Fisher (Michael Sheen), a permanent resident on political talk shows, offering cynical chatter for cynical people. His affection for wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer) has trouble with what he perceives as her quickness to settle, to making do. “Some guys have empires. What do I have?” he wonders. “I live in Sacramento.” On realizing that Troy, hoping for a music scholarship to Harvard, has gotten the date of his interview with the admission officer wrong, Brad has to swallow his pride: he rings up Craig, an adjunct with connections to the dean of admissions. Delighted with the beau geste, Craig even throws in an interview with a professor music whom Troy has long admired.

One of the film’s points, made without too much crayon underscoring, is how power is often a consequence of access. No matter how solid Troy’s grades or keyboard talents, he now has Craig as a sponsor, which may be enough to guarantee admission. But so self-absorbed is Greg that he can’t stop boring strangers with his kvetching, including a schoolmate of Troy’s three years his senior who’s a flautist and a government major at Harvard. She’s also Indian and has seen something of the world. To Greg’s oft-repeated question “When did it go wrong?” her reply essentially is, It’s always been wrong; you’re just privileged enough not to notice.

A specialist in delineating the ways in which American men embarrass themselves as well as introducing a hint of class consciousness, White knows this terrain (see The Good Girl, Chuck and Buck). Earlier this year Miquel Arteta directed a muddled and unsatisfying film called Beatriz for Dinner out of White’s script. At least Arteta has a decent visual sense. White’s approach abjures spontaneity: we know what his characters think and where he will take them before the first third of his pictures have ended. He doesn’t lack generosity – that’s Alexxander Payne’s original sin –  so much as imagination. Characters who don’t fit his schemas don’t belong in his world. The second Brad approaches a ticket counter hoping to get an upgrade we know he’ll get spurned in an abject manner. If a character meets two young women, you can set a stopwatch to the moment when we learn the character dreams of a threesome, although I am prepared to concede that most men I’ve met in real life, gay and straight, dream of threesomes.

Fortunately, White has learned enough as a director to stage conversations with some freshness – the encounters between Brad and the flautist, played by Shazi Raja, for example. His camera suspends jugment. To Stiller’s credit, Brad emerges as a man no more deluded than the average, redeemed by his genuine affection for Troy; he likes being with him, touching him, squeezing his hand (Stiller’s having played a more acerbic variant on this character in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg a few years ago helps).  Adams responds in kind; using his deep voice to make wry, squirrelly remarks, he gives the film’s best performance. And when Brad and Craig Fisher meet for dinner at last, White avoids showboating. Brad’s Status has spent ninety minutes building toward this confrontation between a pair of egotists, and White, framing Stiller and Shannon in classic TV medium shot, lets them discover the depths of their shallow friendship, if it ever was one: Brad, pleading and pricking Craig for signs of life, Craig affecting dumbfoundment so he can position himself as the mature person (Shannon, who played David Frost in the execrable Frost/Nixon, adds another rotter of modest intelligence to his gallery).

But it’s Brad and Troy’s jacket-cossetted perambulations in the soft light of a Boston autumn that lend White’s film its mild resonance. Despite its reluctance to push harder against its limitations and cable show insights, Brad’s Status understands that private intimacies compensate for disappointments without end. The only thing missing from the picture was a soundtrack by The National.


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There is no love anymore: the best of the Buzzcocks

What a well-named band. With songs that cut like saws and a sexual ambiguity that occasionally tumesced into statements banned by the BBC for explicitness, the Buzzcocks were the horniest of the punk bands. From “Orgasm Addict” to “Why Can’t I Touch It,” the Bolton quartet wrote songs lamenting the distance between themselves and their objects of desire. In the guitar cross talk between Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle in “Why Can’t I Touch It,” they keep themselves entertained, hoping they soften before…before what? I hear no pathology in the Buzzcocks. They kept the songs short because punk form contained their lust. Like the Psychedelic Furs, the messy splat of the bass and the thickness of the drums conjured bedrooms reeking of spunk; by 1981 the homo superior in his interior celebrated in Shelley’s solo breakthrough “Homosapien” sounded no closer to reality than the fantasy that made him an orgasm addict in his teens, thanks to the wobbly primitive synthesized backdrop. Shelley’s gift was to share private lusts to which the shame clung like incense on Benediction. Hence my coronation of “I Believe,” in which Shelley wrings every nuance in “There is no love anymore,” experimenting with syllable stress as if testing the ground for land mines. As the song lurches to its finish line at the seven-minute point, Shelley finds plenty.

1. I Believe
2. What Do I Get?
3. You Say You Don’t Love Me
4. Orgasm Addict
5. Homosapien
6. Ever Fallen in Love
7. Promises
8. Everyone’s Happy Nowadays
9. Shot on Both Sides
10. Totally From the Heart
11. Why Can’t I Touch It?
12. You Know You Can’t Help It
13. Noise Annoys
14. No Reply
15. Something’s Gone Wrong Again

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Singles 9/22

A disappointing week marked by middling singles by some of my favorite acts.

Click on links for full reviews.

Hyuna – Babe (7)
Camila Cabello ft. Young Thug – Havana (6)
Jazmine Sullivan x Bryson Tiller – Insecure (6)
Stormzy ft. Kehlani – Cigarettes & Cush (6)
Kelly Clarkson – Love So Soft (6)
U2 – You’re the Best Thing About Me (5)
Lil Peep ft. Lil Tracy – Awful Things (5)
Why Don’t We – Something Different (4)
Mollie King – Hair Down (3)
Natti Natasha x Ozuna – Criminal (3)
Leningrad – Ch.P.H. (2)
Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile – Over Everything (2)
Zayn ft. Sia – Dusk Till Dawn (2)

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On the NFL

It’s not as if I need fresh reasons to loathe professional sports.

To claim that there are politics-free spaces is to tacitly admit that you’re a privileged guy. If I kiss a boyfriend in a Starbucks, I worry about an infuriated customer waiting for me in the parking lot with a 2×4. We indulge athletes and Hollywood stars in all kinds of ways, venal and sordid. If black athletes want to use their power to challenge a system that breaks them in any number of ways – including, by the way, enforcing a kind of gag order whereby the black athlete’s supposed to shut up and show gratitude to the white owners and managers – then let them. Politics is like bacteria and Bieber –- a part of our lives. For Cuban pontificating on social media, I address this to you: if any cohort understands this, it’s you.

As for the president, surely he speaks from experience when he suggests these protesting athletes are ungrateful. After all, Donald J. Trump, son of a Klansman, knows much about unearned privilege. As my friend Josh said, the president is the world’s best spokesperson for chronic brain damage.

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The best of Paul Verhoeven

A prankster whose skill at manipulating a number of tones in mainstream films, Paul Verhoeven is only getting started if last year’s Elle was any indicator. In a spectacular example of missing the point, Siskel and Ebert dismissed Showgirls for its hatred of women. It’s not a great movie, but it’s way more conservative than their pan indicated. Verhoeven re-animates Joel Eszterhas’ script; and I find what Jaime N. Christley called its
“its determination to be freaky and loud and, occasionally, a little old-fashioned” charming. That goes double for Black Book, one of the essential Nazi films. Even a purportedly boneheaded summer blockbuster like Total Recall has more oddities than usual: the “two weeks” woman, the Hilton product placement, life and death dependent on a drop of sweat, and the walking zinger known as Sharon Stone. And the violence is sickening at a Tom and Jerry level: bad guys getting impaled with axes, bystanders used as human shields on elevators, three-breasted women shot in the back.

Now what?

1. Black Book
2. Elle
3. The 4th Man
4. Total Recall
5. Starship Troopers
6. RoboCop
7. Turkish Delight
8. Showgirls
9. Business Is Business
10. Soldier of Orange

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The best of Stanley Kubrick

Meticulous craftsmanship, a talent for emitting an ink fog of mystery, disinterest in romantic comedy—Stanley Kubrick attracts male cinephiles, all right (I suppose I can see the same characteristics in David Cronenberg, my introduction to Serious Cinema). I won’t use descriptors like “hot” and “cold” because they’re meaningless with a director as fascinated with light, composition, and characters moving in frames as Ozu; besides, it’s hard to watch Paths of Glory again without crying out to the screen, wailing at the injustice of it all, or to watch Lolita and not be amused by the crumbling of Humbert Humbert’s urbanity (Kubrick’s idea of a moral sense as well as the film equivalent of Nabokov’s prose).

With all due respect to Spartacus, Killer’s Kiss, and the bits of Eyes Wide Shut that didn’t play like The Dark Night of the Soul of a Hillstone host, I wanted a list as terse as even the best of Kubrick’s epics were. I can’t abide A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, or Full Metal Jacket. I accept the importance of 2001: A Space Odyssey to the development of film, especially after a recent re-watch before sitting down with Tarkovsky’s Stalker.

1. Paths of Glory
2. Lolita
3. The Killing
4. Barry Lyndon
5. Dr. Strangelove

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The sordidness of Graham-Cassidy

To quote All About Eve‘s Karen Richards, this beats the record for running, jumping, and standing gall:

The Medicaid delay would potentially apply to Alaska, Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota and Montana, based on their low-density populations. Those states would be allowed to opt out from the bill’s fixed payments if certain health spending conditions are met in the prior year or the HHS secretary determines the new funding system is insufficient. The chance to opt out would end in 2026.

It is unclear exactly whether all five states would qualify. A Kaiser Family Foundation analysis assumes Alaska and Montana would meet the requirements for exemption. Those that do would continue to get Medicaid funding in the current fashion.

In 2012, when the government pled for the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act before the Supreme Court, the late Antonin Scalia sloshed the words “Cornhusker Kickback” as if it were turpentine disguised as scotch. This concession to former Nebraska sentor Ben Nelson got removed eventually from the ACA bill but not before it had become shorthand for DC politics at its most sordid.

Now, I don’t oppose this kind of legislative flimflam. FDR, LBJ, and Reagan’s people wouldn’t have blinked. But to bribe Murkowski is a band aid for a long term problem that will roar to life in the late 2020s, presumably when Murkowski has retired or the arctic ice has melted in sufficient quantitles to set Alaska adrift. Even the White House isn’t pretending they know what the hell will happen to the poor and sick besides dying. Medicaid state directors know:

“The scope of this work, and the resources required to support state planning and implementation activities, cannot be overstated,” the directors said. “States will need to develop overall strategies, invest in infrastructure development, systems changes, provider and managed care plan contracting, and perform a host of other activities. The vast majority of states will not be able to do so within the two-year timeframe envisioned here, especially considering the apparent lack of federal funding in the bill to support these critical activities.”

These lamentations pale beside the need to satisfy a base that wants Congress to pass something lest the chisellers and Mexicans and whatever keep getting the free rides at the cost of jobs that white people would never take.

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He looked right through me, yeah: the best of Heart

Stars of a lucrative horror story during the eighties, Ann and Nancy Wilson recorded some of the crunchiest rock of the late seventies, belting persuasive anthems of post-teenage lust to an audience of guys unaccustomed to being objects. What made “Magic Man”and “Kick It Out” so perfect for Saturday night fevered FM listeners was how relentlessly they boogied; I’ve been at a couple of indie discos where the deejay dropped “Barracuda” around Pulp or whatever and it was perfect. Most of the tracks below I discovered thanks to several years of Spotify listening; with AOR radio gone as a format I reconstruct what Carter-era kids must have heard.

Remember: I grew up with the blowzy “What About Love” and “Alone,” hugely influential as power ballads: Roxette paid attention when the Swedes recorded “Listen to Your Heart.” The era couldn’t have been useless if the gentle “These Dreams” could hit #1, even if “All I Wanna Do is Make Love to You” looms like Barad-dûr in the distance.

1. Little Queen
2. Bebe Le Strange
3. Magic Man
4. These Dreams
5. Barracuda
6. Straight On
7. Even It Up
8. Kick It Out
9. The Battle of Evermore
10. Dog & Butterfly
11. There’s The Girl
12. Crazy On You
13. Alone
14. Down on Me
15. White Lightning and Wine

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Tough guys: Rostam and Kip Moore

Rostam – Half-Light

As Vampire Weekend’s former keyboardist, guitarist, and producer, Rostam Batmanglij was its most essential member, meshing with singer Ezra Koenig in a partnership responsible for thin, sumptuous, string- and harmony-based arrangements that roamed far afield. His second solo project lives up to this standard, with an unfortunate caveat: Rostam, as he bills himself, is no Koenig. Although lovely as a second voice, his thick vowel-heavy approach — a fog of yearning — gets wearying over three quarters of an hour. To compensate, he resorts to vocal filters that approximate the lo-fi Arthur Russell records he and too many in our generation revere. Nevertheless, Rostam’s first  official solo album offers pleasures. A spare drum machine and sequencer track about a young gay Jamaican with wanderlust named Rudy would have worked on a Vampire Weekend record, especially when a distorted string section segues into a female voice going “bah-bah” substitutes for the regular ol’ guitar solo. Batucada drums sampled from Paul Simon’s “The Obvious Child” give “Don’t Let It Get to You” a pulse. Stentorian percussion also enlivens “Bike Dream,” the album’s best track, a valentine to a pair of boys, one to kiss his neck and the other to  make breakfast, with shimmering Eno-esque melodies. I can imagine young gay adults in college pressing this album close.

Kip Moore – Slowheart

An enthusiastic beefcake best known for 2011’s slobbering crossover hit “Somethin’ ‘Bout a Truck,” Kip Moore has chugged along until now. Although I’m skeptical he’ll win new fans, Slowheart is his strongest album to date; the production by David Garcia and Luke Dick, who co-wrote many of the songs, is taut, and the band kicks ass. At the nadir of bro country’s cultural ubiquity, Moore’s released the toughest recent entry, like the T-rex appearing as the Cretaceous Period waned. Think Brantley Gilbert without the religious pretensions. A warning: Moore’s talent is for malice directed at women; when he shows empathy he’s a damp jockstrap or worse. Slowheart opens with a spectacular piece of country pop, the malicious “Plead the Fifth.” On the second track he’s howling about nose candy and someone whom he thought was special (this Joan Jett fan wears a cross around her neck) but turns out to be just another girl in a song. The oh-what-a-wonderful-world plaint “The Bull” depends on more crackerjack strumming. The John Mayer-indebted rhythm guitar snaps and curls on “Blonde,” which calls shit on a woman who “isn’t even true to your roots” but Moore sings as if he admires her for it anyway.

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The best of Spike Lee

Spike Lee presents me with a conventional obstacle: his most characteristic films often contain his most regrettable material, while on first glance the hack work like Inside Man doesn’t honor him. But the first decade’s work remains astonishing. If anything, Do the Right Thing isn’t “prescient” — it’s fucking NOW, nothing has changed, and on the evidence it’s not gonna. No matter how didactic and obvious Jungle Fever becomes, Lee’s editing rhythms and shaping of acting beats are his own. Hence, the supremacy of Malcolm X on my list. Remember when Smart People in 1992 actually remarked that Norman Jewison could have directed it? That’s how Lee terrified Hollywood in the Poppy Bush Interzone: they told each other these bedtime stories.

The surprise after a first-in-twenty-five-years second look was She’s Gotta Have It; I appreciate his male curiosity about women talking to each other about guys and sex. Speaking of guys and sex, Lee will never admit it, but the way Ernest Dickerson lights Denzel Washington in Mo’ Better Blues you’d think they want to stick their fingers under his undershirts.

I wish I’d written a thousand words on Chi-raq.

1. Malcolm X
2. Do the Right Thing
3. Clockers
4. She’s Gotta Have It
5. He Got Game
6. 25th Hour
7. Jungle Fever
8. Inside Man
9. School Daze
10. Mo’ Better Blues

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The best of the Coen brothers

Nine’s a good number, and notice that five of the finalists the Coens released in the last decade, during which their mordancy and fetish for concision meshed with their sharpening tragicomic sense. For a time Barton Fink, the first one I saw at the time, fascinated me, but I couldn’t figure out if the Coens held the tendentious screenwriter as a tragic hero or a voodoo doll to be stuck with pins (in John Turturro’s performance the seams are visible). This goes double for Blood Simple: if you don’t watch it in college, don’t ever watch it.

With their movies about obsessives (about killing, money collection, cats, songwriting, and, naturally, screenwriting), the Coens tend to excite male audiences, who themselves fetishize genre and obsession with minutiae. But I can’t explain the sourness of so many of the Coens’ alleged pastiches like Hail, Caesar! and The Hudsucker Proxy; their aerobicized good cheer finally plays like contempt. The willingness to cede autonomy to their characters gives the last decade’s work its charge. No Country for Old Men can’t shake the crap book on which it’s based, but the Coens do the smart thing and concentrate on process: how to hide money in hotel rooms, how to walk silently into rooms, and so on. I suspect they would delight in blowing up the world, hence the perfect, sad, terrifying A Serious Man.

1. A Serious Man
2. True Grit
3. No Country for Old Men
4. Raising Arizona
5. Fargo
6. Burn After Reading
7. Inside Llewyn Davis
8. The Big Lebowski
9. Miller’s Crossing

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