I’m shitfaced, just laid to waste: the best of the New Pornographers

Inexhaustible devotees of the rush, instrumental filigrees, and semantic meaninglessness of power pop, the New Pornographers have nevertheless recorded an impressive canon of albums. Their love songs are valentines to being in bands or being fans; their idea of a bad time, to quote one of their indelibles, is to endure life through blown speakers. The New Pornos are a band that took the Raspberries’ “Overnight Sensation” as seriously as T.S. Eliot did the Upanishads. Carl Newman brought the tunes and vacuum-packed seals, Neko Case the heart, and Dan Bejar the inscrutability that would become legible on Destroyer’s recordings.

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The fifteen best Merle Haggard covers

I’m not the best person to write about Merle Haggard, not when David Cantwell, for example, exists. “. Possessing an excellent rhythmic sense, blessed with a voice that could turn wrinkles into trenches and the instinct to alternate between talk-singing and crooning — often in the same verse — and a songwriter of masterful economy, Haggard was country’s most towering figure after the death of George Jones,” I wrote in my 2016 obit, and guess what — he’s had no heirs. Rick Rubin corralled no contemporary artists into covering Haggard. Insofar as he could proffer a mythos, it proved resistant to the times: who wants to cover “Okie from Muskogee” when Toby Keith circa 2002 and Nashville’s disinterest in female artists reaffirm the glummest stereotypes about the genre? Never mind that I Am What I Am and Working in Tennessee are as stark and startling as a scarecrow on which crows roost — the equals of Johnny Cash’s final albums, which depended on mythos to substitute for waning abilities.

Anyway, these sixteen greats approach Haggard’s legacy the way I hear it: a wiry approach committed to a emotionalism that rides roughshod over notions of taste and politics.

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Oh lord, help us: Grammys 2020

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11:10 p.m. I’m fading. I must grade and read. But Bonnie Raitt remains a Grammy evergreen whose pluckings I’ll never tire of, especially covering John Prine.

11 p.m. We’re gonna be dealing with John Legend forever, Grammy watchers. Boy, is he smooth.

10:57 p.m. Did Sharon Osbourne read the nominations for Best Rap/Sung Performance because Ozzy misplaced his larynx between the East End of London and L.A.?

10:50 p.m. Why is Alicia Keys on a dais higher than the performers nominated and uh performing?

10:45 p.m. Is Quincy Jones up for any Album of the Year nods or

10:38 p.m. Boy! Smokey Robinson and Little Big Town can still harmonize! They present Song of the Year. Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy,” co-written with her brother, wins. “For all the kids makin’ music in their bedrooms today,” Finneas O’Connell avers, you’re next. I want to think this win for a marvelous song and an even bigger epochal pop radio moment augurs change. But I’m sure John Mayer’s pissed he wasn’t asked to be on “Old Town Road.”

10:35 p.m. Rosalía’s gonna be an American star. On what terms she becomes an American star depend on how Grammy frames her songs and performances.

10:32 p.m. I can’t think of a moment this evening when Alicia Keys hasn’t turned a musical moment into a lesson she can teach us about what she learned about herself.

10:24 p.m. The Grammys and the gospel tradition with its penchant for giving its believers the burial and sendoff they (and we) deserve — they mesh expertly.

10:20 p.m. A sequence reminding us about award histories reminds audiences about the uselessness of categories. We’re here for social media moments.

10:12 p.m. In the wake of the allegations against powerful Grammy men, I’m not sure if Demi Lovato represents the award show’s insurance policy.

10:08 p.m. GOD do I love Greta Gerwig’s “Vogue”-era Madonna suits.

10:01 p.m. All too easy to applaud this performance of a song designed for BTS, Kid Rock, etc.: a performance that had “Grammys” written all over it even in May ’19. But the ebullience with which Lil Nas X, BTS, etc. performed is the best proof that we need Grammys bullshit about The Universality of Music.

9:59 p.m. So…what if Lil Nas X didn’t exist and Jason Aldean or Sam Hunt had cut “Old Town Road”? How long would those comment sections extend?

9:57 p.m. The first Grammy performance in which the boy porno mags from My Own Private Idaho gleam on the wall.

9:55 p.m. Fuck the Grammys for following up Tyler with Ellen DeGeneres making white lady hip-hop moves to the accompaniment of “Shoop.”

9:51 p.m. Tyler, the Creator wins a Grammy. A self-identified queer rapper. And he dispatches his weeping mom with the same malevolent charm. And he gives a speech absent of self-affirmative nostrums. His timbre helps.

9:44 p.m. …and if the reaction shot is any indication they and Aerosmith still shock Smokey Robinson.

9:42 p.m. Know what? Hip-hop radio treats its icons over 30 so disgracefully — so ignominiously — that Run-DMC deserve this nostalgia move.

9:40 p.m. Kudos to opening their medley with “Livin’ on the Edge,” the only distinctive single in their Amazing-Cryin’-Crazy trilogy. Whether Steven Tyler realizes how John Roberts Furious Five, Donald Trump, and impeachment surpass his worse fears is another story; his expert wordplay has always struck me as a Hadrian’s Wall.

9:39 p.m. “Tonight we honor that livin’ on the edge,” we learn on a Grammy stage in which Alicia Keys and Kenny Loggins have bowed.

9:35 p.m. I didn’t warm to Billie Eilish’s album, figuring she’ll release a longform playlist commensurate with her post-adolescent sense of grandiosity. On the Grammy stage, county seat of reification, her weirdness is weirder: she’s doing Barbra Streisand as a Smiths ballad.

9:24 p.m. Ariana Grande has so much presence that this Dynasty meets Dangerous Liasions boudoir scene is intelligible after a glass of wine and a fourth of a chocolate chip cookie.

9:22 p.m. Singing “Imagine,” Ariana Grande gives side-eye to 1980s dreams.

9:21 p.m. The eighties will never go away. Reagan’s policies, sure. Checkered blazers, boom.

9:14 p.m. Wow. Tanya Tucker and Camila Cabello’s eight-minute segment was the evening’s most satisfying.

9:11 p.m. On a roll as Grammy winner for her 2018 album and essential Highwomen member, Brandi Carlile accompanies Tanya Tucker on “Bring Me Flowers,” and, I must say, Tucker’s craggy hot-toddy timbre works better live than on her well-meaning comeback.

9:10 p.m. The older man to whom Camila Cabello sings “My Oh My” is her father, and it earns the night’s warmest applause.

9:07 p.m. I have to wonder if even strong women like Camila Cabello approve introductions that adduce their dependence on other men; Cabello exists as an appendage to Shawn Mendes. And she sings “My Oh My” rather well.

8:59 p.m. This is an American Idol routine. Usher’s better than this, and his new Elle Mai duet proves it.

8:57 p.m. Oh — a ballerina.

8:54 p.m. Oh okay. Prince performances get clicks. And Usher can sing — and older and puffier he wears the Prince drag like Elvis did his ’50s material in 1969. Sheila E backs him. But is this necessary? By the way, Usher, strangely, one of the 2000s best-selling artists, does his contemporary cred no credit here.

8:52 p.m. Best County Duo/Group goes to a pink-suited oddity with long hair part of Dan + Shay for “Speechless.” His wife inspired the song.

8:50 p.m. Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani blink happily at Alicia Keys like Shriners in a Publix deli line.

8:48 p.m. First cup of coffee. Deciding whether to return to Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage.

8:45 p.m. Why would Usher “pay tribute to the legendary artist known as Prince” who’s been dead four years?

8:44 p.m. Watching Tyler with the world afire behind him is like listening to John Lydon on Dick Clark in this Year of Our Lord.

8:42 p.m. May Tyler always perform with a blonde wig.

8:40 p.m. I’m surprised Tyler, the Creator survived Trevor Noah’s awful introduction. I find the rapper’s tracks incommensurate with his song craft — IGOR made my top thirty with the full knowledge it’ll slip into oblivion next year — but he’ll do.

8:39 p.m. Chocolate chip cookies require three days for Soto to consume them. Just sayin’.

8:31 p.m. Best Pop Solo Performance goes to Lizzo for “Truth Hurts,” deserved. And her speech about reaching out has the spontaneity of a regular person.

8:27 p.m. The Jonas Brothers look as if they retained water for the sake of wearing terrible shirts. They owe much to Neil Diamond too: hard acoustic strumming, fireworks, indecipherable object of desire.

8:25 p.m. K-pop, John Legend, Lewis Capaldi — the Grammys namecheck ecumenicism without rewarding it.

8:22 p.m. Greil Marcus dismissed Kenny Loggins as a guy who couldn’t resist clapping; that’s Alicia Keys, delivering monologues as if she insisted on others to clap for her.

8:20 p.m. Alicia Keys, who can’t recite pieties without reminding you she’s telling you What These Pieties Are, and she’ll play boring piano parts too.

8:14 p.m. Do these zombies realize the men who run the Grammys are accused of sexual assault get mentioned the same day Kobe Bryant, accused of sexual assault, gets eulogized? Let’s celebrate his achievements, fine. The Grammys aren’t the time. Not the right setting.

8:13 p.m. Gunning for the Stevie Nicks award for Unnecessary Maternal Support, Stefani delivers a wedding cake performance. How ridiculous to think she had any interest in pop, futurity, staying current — she’s a Bridal Guide model.

8:11. “My friends Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani” play next, wreathed by Lady Liberty lights that illuminate the size of Shelton’s brain.

8:07 p.m. I’ve been hard on Alicia Keys. Paralyzed by forty years’ worth of award show ponderosities, she can’t even deliver a line about Kobe Bryant without sounding as if she were reciting Emma Lazarus. I suppose ‘everyone’ in L.A. knew him. Boyz II Men appear to sing a bit of “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday.”

8:05 p.m. When Lizzo plays flute, it’s like watching the late David Bowie play lead guitar.

8:03 p.m. Wearing an outfit that looks carved out of fishscales, Lizzo plays “Truth Hurts” with the confidence of a performer as long-term as Diana Ross.

8:01 p.m. “Tonight is for Kobe,” Lizzo announces, giving the blessing to the effacement of Bryant’s rape charge. Lizzo remains a singular presence: sincere, unabashed, conscious of playing a part (a fact detractors miss).

8 p.m. I can’t imagine these Grammys untouched by the death of Kobe Bryant, admired by the L.A. community of basketball fans.

The safeness of ‘Harriet’ and its biopic cliches

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Late into this film about the Underground Railroad’s most famous “worker,” the title hero turns to a group of frightened slaves she’s “stolen” and taken North and announces, “I’m Harriet Tubman, leader of this group. You do what I say!” Aglow in a sympathetic close-up, Cynthia Erivo projects determination. Yet this scene should feel more triumphant; instead, like most of Kasi Lemmons’ well-intentioned film, it plays like a Academy Award flashcard. Crippled by the inexorable momentum of the standard biopic’s rhythms, Harriet never startles: a movie about Tubman without a sense of danger.

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Singles 1/24

“Ukrainian electro-folk band” distills the essence of Wikipediworld but not Onuka and their “Zenit,” a lament that embraces the melodrama of Fever Ray, synthesizers whose chords suggest the multicolored depths of a-ha and Simple Minds, and vocals with the sense of wonder of a hymnal. My single of the week, with honorable mention to the title track from Selena Gomez’s fine album, FILV and a familiar but well-turned Megan Thee Stallion and Normani collaboration.

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