For the lover in us: Best of Babyface

Glancing at Babyface’s stats staggers me — you think Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis had a hit streak, remember what Kenneth Edmonds accomplished from 1988 to 2000. Sure he settled for the generic often — what kind of producer with his demand didn’t? Examined end to end, I can’t think of another songwriter-producer (and occasional singer) who limned the Clinton middle class’ systems of romance. He went no further than the usual tension between love and loss, but his fulsome melodic sense reflected his curiosity about understanding the politics of conventional romance. No doubt he needed the long vacation on a Polynesian island before resurfacing on Tha Carter III. His real comeback was 2014’s Love, Marriage & Braxton, as fraught and pained a romantic concept album as anything by Richard and Linda Thompson or Linda and Cecil Womack.

1. Babyface – It’s No Crime
2. Karyn White – Superwoman
3. Toni Braxton – Breathe Again
4. Madonna – Take a Bow
5. Bobby Brown – On Our Own
6. Whitney Houston – Exhale (Shoop)
7. Paula Abdul – Knocked Out
8. Mary J. Blige – Not Gon’ Cry
9. The Whispers – Rock Steady
10. Babyface- When Can I See You
11. Brandy – Sittin’ Up In My Room
12. En Vogue – Whatever
13. Babyface and Toni Braxton – Let’s Do It
14. Pebbles – Giving You the Benefit
15. Johnny Gill – My, My, My
16. Toni Braxton – You’re Makin’ Me High/Let It FLow
17. Aretha Franklin – Willing to Forgive
18. Babyface – And Our Feelings
19. TLC – Diggin’ on You
20. Whitney Houston – I’m Your Baby Tonight
21. The Boys – Dial My Heart
22. Bobby Brown – Don’t Be Cruel
23. Babyface and Toni Braxton – Hurt You
24. The Deele – Two Occasions
25. After 7 – Ready or Not

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Jonathan Demme – RIP

He loved quirks, often more than people, befitting a director who got his start as the delightful Roger Corman aficionado of Caged Heat and Crazy Mama. The cross-eyed lepidopterologist in The Silence of the Lambs, Mary Steenburgen’s squeal of delight in Melvin and Howard, the cut of Dean Stockwell’s suit in Married to the Mob. But Jonathan Demme loved people too. Behavior fascinated him. If his work has a leitmotif, it’s the primacy of performance: choosing what faces to show others becomes a means, finally, of expressing a self. The titles of his two best movies, Stop Making Sense and Something Wild, are instructive: we never stop making sense because no matter how much we may look like Jeff Daniels’ Charlie Driggs, buttoned up in a suit to impress the boss, the possibility for something wild gnaws at us, ready to show itself with the right catalyst. Think David Byrne, bobbing his head in a chicken dance in Stop Making Sense, steadily losing himself to the euphoria of his band’s music until the last third when he suits up again – in a bigger suit! – and is nuttier than ever. What I’ll remember about Demme are bits like the cutaway to street dancers and singers at a rural gas station in Something Wild, and the intensity of the concentration that New Order show in the video for “Perfect Kiss,” as if terrified they’ll play a bum mote.

An example of success inhibiting a muse and putting sand in the vaseline, Demme never recovered from The Silence of the Lambs. The first (and last) film to sweep the top five Oscars since 1934’s It Happened One Night, this adaptation of Thomas Harris’s novel has suffered from a backlash it never deserved; it was so damn omnipresent that it’s hard to remember how well Demme adjusted to suspense conventions. At its heart are a memorable performance and a remarkable one: Jodie Foster’s alert Clarice Starling, a heroine for the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill age, obligated to solve the mystery herself despite the predations of male townspeople and the polite disregard from the boss (Scott Glenn) who throws her into danger for his own amusement, in his own way more callous than Hannibal Lecter. As for Anthony Hopkins, playing the most famous screen villain since Norman Bates, if the performance looks camp now (and was then too), it’s not Demme’s fault and probably his intention: the psycho killer who quotes Marcus Aurelius and draws Florence’s Duomo from memory can only project his malevolent intelligence with prissy insouciance.

And that was that. For so long Demme had been a wonder – here was a filmmaker unparalyzed by that very American phenomenon of proving one’s seriousness of purpose. Until he summoned his powers for an excellent return to his earlier humanism called Rachel Getting Married (2008), the years after Silence constitute a ignominious record of prestige pictures (Philadelphia, Beloved) and stilted attempts at channeling the old manic energy (The Truth About Charlie, Ricki and the Flash). His documentary of Neil Young’s Prairie Wind tour has a mild, craggy charm. I was so disappointed in his career that I skipped his adaptation of Ibsen’s A Master Builder; I may watch it now, as well as give Swimming to Cambodia another shot – years ago I thought it got Spalding Grey’s tone but not much else; My Dinner with André‘s Wallace Shawn and André Gregory were more demented.

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A man paints a picture: favorite Brian Eno collaborations

A few months I took care of my favorite Brian Eno songs. I devote this list to songs he wrote or (co-)produced with others. By no means complete, this list reflects my own obsessions.

1. U2 – Lemon
2. Talking Heads – Born Under Punches
3. James – Sometimes
4. Ultravox – Dangerous Rhythm
5. U2 – The Unforgettable Fire
6. D.N.A. – Egomaniac’s Kiss
7. Roy Orbison – You May Feel Me Crying
8. David Bowie – No Control
9. Eno/Cale – One Word
10. Devo – Jocko Homo
11. EMF – Unbelievable (The Hovering Feet Mix)
12. Coldplay – Viva La Vida
13. U2 – With or Without You
14. Robert Wyatt – A Beautiful War
15. Contortions – Dish It Out
16. Depeche Mode – In Your Room (Apex Mix)
17. Passengers – Your Blue Room
18. David Bowie – Boys Keep Swinging
19. Talking Heads – Stay Hungry
20. Laurie Anderson – The Puppet Motel

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Estimates “off” regarding sea level rise

Remember when scientists thought the coasts were a hundred years from some kind of disaster? Well.

Based on new evidence, the Arctic Council — a cooperative effort among eight nations to monitor climate change — concluded that the Arctic warmed faster between 2011 and 2015 than any time on record, with glaciers and sea ice melting faster than expected. That means a United Nations estimate for sea rise, considered among the most conservative, could be off by as much as 10 inches.

The report is particularly ominous for densely populated South Florida, which sits downstream in the ocean’s vast circulatory system, said University of Miami atmospheric scientist Ben Kirtman.

“Along the Eastern Seaboard, and South Florida in particular, we get an excessive rise,” he said.

As I’ve explained before, doomsday will not consist of a tidal wave coming from the Atlantic and treating Florida like The Poseidon Adventure. Toilets won’t flush. Streets formerly on high ground will become flood zones. Sea creatures will appear farther inland. Life will become more expensive in Florida until the state reverts to the years before Henry Flagler, the railroads, and central air conditioning.

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‘Rumble Fish’ remains a stylized, histrionic curio

Lurid, finding a visual correlative for its absurd if not hysterical take on sibling love and rivalry — no, not The Godfather. Rumble Fish makes Rocco and His Brothers look as spare and uninhabited as a Bresson film. In the thirty-four years since its release, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 adaptation of the S.E. Hinton adolescent classic has survived its baffled reception; several critic friends claim it’s their favorite film. Makes sense: with Stephen H. Burum’s black and white photography and Stewart Copeland’s rumbling percussive score pumping up teenage kicks to Gone With the Wind-level melodrama, Rumble Fish and a multiplex audience don’t mix. Like Donnie Darko, My Own Private Idaho, and Harold and Maude it flourishes in solo screenings, an epic appreciated as a private, almost illicit pleasure.

In Bennys Billiards, a Tulsa pool hall, Rusty James (Matt Dillon) gets in fights and suffers exquisitely in the monochromatic light. His older brother, known only as The Motorcycle Boy, hangs offscreen for a while, gathering mystique like Orson Welles’ Harry Lime in The ThirdMan (Coppola gives Mickey Rourke his own suitably dramatic entrance). A few brawls later, the boys are ready for sodden homilies from their alcoholic father (Dennis Hopper, before Blue Velvet, blurring the lines between life and art).

Committed to a narrative treated with reverence but also, thanks to the histrionics of Copeland’s music and Burum’s camerawork, mistrusted, Coppola honors the secondhand kinks of Hinton’s novel, which owed more to the poses struck by beautiful youth in East of Eden, Los Olvidados, and The Blackboard Jungle than observed life. Rumble Fish is a better film than The Outsiders, during the shooting of which Coppola and Hinton were writing the screenplay for this project; it’s as if on the earlier film Coppola anticipated Spielberg’s approach to shooting The Color Purple by three years. Dillon and Diane Lane, who plays Rusty James’ girlfriend Patty, are at the peak of their early beauty. For Dillon, Rusty James was the culmination of several years’ worth of playing pouty-lipped toughs in undershirts; after Rumble Fish, The Outsiders, and another Hinton adaptation called Tex the previous year, he would land the role of the cabana boy on the make in The Flamingo Kid before coasting for the rest of the eighties, coming back only for 1989’s Drugstore Cowboy (after 1984’s Streets of Fire, another gonzo overproduction, Lane would have it worse).

Rumble Fish was not a hit, and, after the failure of 1984’s The Cotton Club, Coppola himself would flounder in journeyman projects. In fact, 2009’s fascinating curio Tetro aside, the early eighties was the last period when Coppola enjoyed the liberty to which the box office of Apocalypse Now and The Godfather films had entitled him. Rereleased in a typically sparkling Criterion edition, Rumble Fish holds up well.

Rumble Fish plays tonight at Coral Gables Art Cinema at 7 p.m. Miami Herald writer Rene Rodríguez will lead a post-screening Q&A

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The best of David Sylvian and Japan

When Bryan Ferry appears in a vision, you look for subsequent manifestations in soup bowls, hubcaps, clouds of vape smoke, and Negronis. Wedge haircuts were endangered species in 1994, so David Sylvian and Japan got me hard at the moment when his generation looked louche. But Ferry had released no new material in seven years, thus beginning my deep dive into New Pop, the New Romantics, and every UK artist who embarrassed grad students in the Clinton era. I bought Gentlemen Take Polaroids and Tin Drum, still beloved by Anglophiles and Britishes mesmerized by Japan’s admittedly mesmerizing Top of the Pops appearance playing “Ghosts,” rightly praised by Simon Reynolds as the most outrageous performance in the show’s history: four mascaraed fops playing their instruments with Keanu-like intensity as if afraid they’d zonk out. Listeners repelled by Sylvian’s voice won’t get far with Japan’s music. A proficient syntheses of Western assimilations of Asian music as opposed to respecting the integrity of Asian music itself, the songs on Japan’s breakthroughs flirt offhandedly and, to my ear, flippantly with totalitarian chic — forget Sylvian, in Sally Jesse Raphael drag, struggling with chopsticks while a photo of Mao glowers from the corner of the Tin Drum sleeve; they’ve got a song called “Rhodesia” for god’s sake, and readers who can parse “Oh, heartaches from Amsterdam/Masturbated over jilted bouquets/Approximation’s counting on a freight line” can speak to my lawyers or a linguistics major.

Still, David Sylvian has recorded a lot of compelling pastoral music, much of which he recorded solo after 1983 as a rhythmically pallid but colorful at a top line level, like a frieze. I jonesed for Bryan Ferry, others for Brian Eno and Jon Hassell collaborations; Sylvian’s music approximates them like Change did Chic’s. David Sylvian was still tops at the local bookstore where I worked at the dawn of the new millennium, specifically Dead Bees on a Cake and his two-disc comp, which is tighter than it has a right to be. I often play him when writing before bed.

1. Orpheus
2. Gentlemen Take Polaroids
3. Adolescent Sex
4. Fall in Love With Me
5. Forbidden Colours
6. Quiet Life
7. Nostalgia
8. Ghosts
9. The Boy with a Gun
10. Blackwater
11. Swing
12. Pulling Punches
13. The Art of Parties
14. Taking the Veil
15. Halloween
16. Methods of Dance
17. Wave
18. Talking Drum
19. Nightporter
20. I Surrender

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Dream in the dream with me: the best of English New Pop

I’m not sure Simple Minds nis best anything, especially after 1984, but the sun-rising-over-the-face-of-the-ocean opening of “New Gold Dream” heralds a brief golden age better than the rest of these selections. If New Pop crossed over in America at all, credit a rise in MTV subscriptions in 1982 and 1983 before hubris ended things. Note the number of times “ghost” appears as noun and adjective – these acts knew.

1. Simple Minds – New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84)
2. Human League – Open Your Heart
3. Culture Club – Time (Clock of the Heart)
4. Thompson Twins – Hold Me Now
5. Imagination – Just an Illusion
6. Gary Numan – We Are Glass
7. Adam and the Ants – Stand and Deliver
8. Spandau Ballet – To Cut a Long Story Short
9. Fun Boy Three – Our Lips Are Sealed
10. The Specials – Ghost Town
11. Talk Talk – Talk Talk
12. ABC – The Look of Love (Part 1)
13. Duran Duran – Planet Earth
14. Visage – The Anvil
15. Eurythmics – Love is a Stranger
16. Soft Cell – Say Hello, Wave Goodbye
17. The Jam – Ghosts
18. Japan – Ghosts
19. A Flock of Seagulls – Wishing (If I Had a Photograph of You)
20. Haircut 100 – Favorite shirts (Boy Meets Girl)
21. Tears For Fears – Mad World
22. Ultravox – Passing Strangers
23. The Beat – Stand Down Margaret
24. David Bowie – Modern Love
25. Roxy Music – Same Old Scene
26. Orange Juice – Rip It Up and Start Again
27. Magazine – Shot by Both Sides
28. Gang of Four – Damaged Goods
29. New Order – Ceremony
30. Bow Wow Wow – C-30, C-60, C-90 Go!
31. Haysi Fantayzee – Shiny Shiny
32. Pete Shelley – Homo Sapien
33. Scritti Politti – Jacques Derrida
34. Heaven 17 – Penthouse and Pavement
35. Dollar – Give Me Back My Heart
36. Grace Jones – Pull Up to the Bumper
37. PiL – Public Image
38. The Raincoats – Fairytale in the Supermarket
39. Bananarama – Shy Boy
40. Frankie Goes To Hollywood – Two Tribes

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Our mutual friend

The perspicacity and elegance of the current Oval Office occupant:

AP: Can I ask you, over your first 100 days — you’re not quite there yet — how do you feel like the office has changed you?

TRUMP: Well the one thing I would say — and I say this to people — I never realized how big it was. Everything’s so (unintelligible) like, you know the orders are so massive. I was talking to —

AP: You mean the responsibility of it, or do you mean —

TRUMP: Number One, there’s great responsibility. When it came time to, as an example, send out the 59 missiles, the Tomahawks in Syria. I’m saying to myself, “You know, this is more than just like, 79 (sic) missiles. This is death that’s involved,” because people could have been killed. This is risk that’s involved, because if the missile goes off and goes in a city or goes in a civilian area — you know, the boats were hundreds of miles away — and if this missile goes off and lands in the middle of a town or a hamlet …. every decision is much harder than you’d normally make. (unintelligible) … This is involving death and life and so many things. … So it’s far more responsibility. (unintelligible) ….The financial cost of everything is so massive, every agency. This is thousands of times bigger, the United States, than the biggest company in the world. The second-largest company in the world is the Defense Department. The third-largest company in the world is Social Security. The fourth-largest — you know, you go down the list.

So much winning.

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Keeping the house in order: MoPOP Pop Conference 2017

At the MoPOP Museum, about three dozen conference attendants and more than a few bemused tourists packed the cavernous planetarium-like chamber called the Sky Church to hear activist dream hampton and Robert Christgau testify. Voice often cracking with emotion, the self-styled Dean of American rock critics read from ““Who the Fuck Knows: Covering Music in Drumpfjahr II,” which chided colleagues whose work in the last year failed to address the horror of November 2016. He still had hope, he insisted; a lifetime of commitment to unionized labor and the power of organized action had born fruit with the millions-strong resistance to Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominations and his determination to kill people unblessed with good health.

So it was regarding “Sign O’ the Times: Music and Politics,” this year’s theme. “Is there a heaven?” Bryan Ferry sang in 1973. “I’d like to think so.” For a majority of attendees, this annual event offered solace as well as stimulation. Anxious, quiet chats with colleagues this weekend confirmed the news is bad, bad, bad for rock crit: more layoffs, more consolidations, more clickbait, which, to be clear, would have taken place had Hillary Clinton won. But for two full days and two half ones — the longest pop conference I’ve attended — we beat on, boats against the current. From Jalylah Burrell’s marvelous “Spurning the Soul Silo: Millie Jackson’s Freedom Songbook” and Tim Quirk’s “Tim Quirk, “What I Learned in Jail” to Annie Zaleski’s “November Spawned a Monster: Why Morrissey’s Tangible Acknowledgment of Disability Culture Remains so Radical,” which took a good look at the Smiths singer’s contradictory and maddening use of disability equipment for presentational ends of uneven quality, and Jose G. Anguiano-moderated panel addressing the many prisms—Mexican, queer, performative—through which to examine and enjoy the work of the late Juan Gabriel, the presentations bore the influence of a lifetime’s inquiry and passion. I learned from my co-panelists too: Sheryl Kaskowitz on the New Deal-era Resettlement Administration’s interest in community musical projects and Jeff Trevino’s study of North Korea’s Moranbong Band. And I haven’t even mentioned the erudition and wit of David Cantwell, Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Keith Harris, and Michaelangelo Matos, colleagues on the panel I moderated, “Red, White & You.”

“No one got this far by complaining about how much it sucks out there,” I wrote lat year. “We get to work.” More true than ever.

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Because y’all want more Reagan out of me

I’ll have a MoPop Conference post-mortem up soon. Here’s a copy of my paper “Mourning in America: How Ronald Reagan Smiled on a Low, Dishonest Decade”

Mourning in America

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Best of the Eagles

It took hours to cut the deadwood.

1. The Long Run
2. One of These Nights
3. Life in the Fast Lane
4. Journey of the Sorcerer
5. I Can’t Tell You Why

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My favorite sci-fi flicks

“Films that question reality and regard existence as infinitely strange” is my definition of sci-fi cinema, which encompasses Krystof Kieslowski’s 1994 masterpiece and one of Woody Allen’s best and most prescient comedies.

1. Metropolis
2. Aliens
3. The Man Who Fell to Earth
4. The Fly
5. Three Colors: Red
6. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
7. Children of Men
8. The Empire Strikes Back
9. Solaris (1972)
10. The Day the Earth Stood Still
11. Sleeper
12. Total Recall
13. Repo Man
14. Alphaville
15. The Truman Show
16. The Thing
17. Soylent Green
18. ET the Extra-Terrestrial
19. Ghost in the Shell
20. Seconds
21. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
22. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
23. The Terminator
24. Looper
25. 1984

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