Singles 2/24

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Lookit all the “indie”! If the term means anything — my friend Inskeep insists it does — it’s a marker, a fading lodestar. “High Ticket Attractions” sounds as megabucks as the Rascal Flatts and Gaga below it.

As for the res, I used “Issues” as the peg on which to hang a rather curt dismissal of the word’s ubiquity, and I’m curious what people think of Kyle’s “iSpy.”

Click on links for full reviews.

The New Pornographers – High Ticket Attractions (7)
Spoon – Hot Thoughts (7)
Rascal Flatts – Yours If You Want It (6)
Lady Gaga – Million Reasons (6)
Red Velvet – Rookie (6)
Marian Hill – Down (5)
Amy Shark – Adore (5)
Kyle ft. Lil Yachty – iSpy (5)
The Shins – Name for You (4)
Seohyun – Don’t Say No (4)
Ansel Elgort – Thief (4)
Julia Michaels – Issues (3)
Sampha – (No One Knows Me) Like the Piano (3)

Everybody, get in line! The best of Talking Heads

It’s a testament to how well Talking Heads sold Robert Rauschenberg, two bassists, Fela Kuti, Jonathan Demme, big suits, loving the heartland, and condescending to the heartland that by the time I became a fan in the era of David Byrne’s Rei Momo and 1992’s double disc Sand in the Vaseline listeners treated them like split pea soup. The hip quotient? Enough to short a Commodore 64. R.E.M. got the top five hits and sold out stadiums; Talking Heads got Blockbuster rentals of Stop Making Sense. I overestimated Byrne’s Uh Oh because it’s all I had — the same way I would replay David Bowie’s Black Tie White Noise and Bryan Ferry’s Taxi a year later.

I can remember the moment when the Heads became hip again: at the dawn of 2002 when the DFA reminded listeners in frosted tips and baggy jeans that bands had fused rock and dance culture with more finesse than the Chemical Brothers. Singles like The Rapture’s “House of Jealous Lovers” started a conversation they couldn’t even finish, culminating in the eventual re-release of the essential and long out of print double live album The Name of This Band is...in 2004. By then it was odd remembering that obits like this got published not long before; it was like the GOP in 1968 remembering the LBJ slaughter of Goldwaterism four years earlier.

Someone buying music during the Reagan era should explain what happened to the band after the release of Naked in late spring of 1988 — memories can’t wait! Triggering the requisite positive reviews and top twenty placement, it withered on the chart and in esteem as soon as MTV stopped playing “(Nothing But) Flowers.” Was it a case of loving one Graceland too many? Did True Stories and the TIME cover story create a collective sense of “enough already”? The fine but slight Little Creatures (the first Heads album I owned) topping Pazz and Jop? A phenomenon not often reckoned with: fans assumed the Heads sold more records than they did while retrospective analysis concludes that, keeping the fate of Husker Du and the Replacements in mind, the Heads were shipping platinum in 1985 and 1986. They were the biggest college act in America until That Athens Band with an even more gnomic lead singer was hungrier about filling stadiums.

Maybe that was it. Exhausted by touring, dominating Manhattan boho generalism such that even Pete Townshend felt suffocated in 1982, chattering loudly about band unity during promotion while their leader was ogling Twyla Tharp and Robert Wilson, the Heads basked in their rather huge cult and no more; they had gotten this huge white cult to dance in the aisles, what more could they want? No wonder that by 1992 fans were like Qu’est-ce que c’est?

No matter. The fusion of Fela and paranoia that produced Remain in Light; the syncopation of rhythm guitar and staccato vocals on those early recordings; their sheer appetite — Talking Heads survives in my canon for this and other things. And I’m relieved I wasn’t around at the time.

1. Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)
2. Thank You For Sending Me an Angel
3. Pulled Up
4. Mind
5. I’m Not in Love
6. Don’t Worry About the Government
7. The Book I Read
8. The Great Curve
9. Slippery People
10. Road to Nowhere
11. Making Flippy Floppy
12. Creatures of Love
13. Crosseyed and Painless
14. Burning Down the House
15. Paper
16. Psycho Killer
17. Memories Can’t Wait
18. Take Me to the River
19. Television Man
20. Artists Only
21. Found a Job
22. (Nothing But) Flowers
23. Lifetime Piling Up
24. Uh-Oh, Love Has Come to Town
25. And She Was
26. Wild Wild Life
27. The Girls Want to Be with the Girls
28. Heaven
29. Girlfriend is Better
30. This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)

Miss bad media karma: The best of Britney Spears

Here’s to one of the most consistent record makers of the last fifteen years. As I wrote in 2011, “Britney Spears is the polymorphic essence of every disco dolly who’s so post-feminist/post-sexual/post-woman that to wonder whether she’s used or being used by the purported objects of lust she’s dancing/fucking is beside the point.” Her recombinant voice suggests she’ll do anything: subject as object, object as object, freak show as display of virginity. If he keeps releasing albums as strong as last year’s Glory, she’ll do fine.

1. Heaven on Earth
2. Seal it with a Kiss
3. Oops!…I Did It Again
4. Till the World Ends
5. Toxic
6. Piece of Me
7. Break the Ice
8. Hit Me Baby One More Time
9. Radar
10. Overprotected
11. Do You Wanna Come Over
12. Criminal
13. Get Naked (I Got a Plan)
14. I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman
15. (You Drive Me) Crazy
16. Everytime
17. Jut Luv Me
18. Perfume
19. How I Roll
20. Touch of My Hand

What the press briefing ban means

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Furious at truthful coverage, the White House barred the NYT, CNN, L.A. Times, Buzzfeed, and Politico from a press briefing. Along with the three traditional networks and The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, and Fox News, the three others media outlets allowed are — wait for it — Breitbart News, the One America News Network and The Washington Times.

I mean, fuck covering the White House in normal times. Continue reading

Australian adaptation of ‘The Wild Ducks’ doesn’t take flight

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The Daughter begins with a duck and ends as as bomb. This adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s theater warhorse The Wild Ducks looks promising: modern Australian setting, international casting. But accepting American Paul Schneider as Sam Neill’s son is only one of the challenges that writer-director Simon Stone can’t deal with. Its running time doesn’t allow the complexities set up in the first third to simmer, and when the last third calls for tragedy to strike the result is a muddle.

Having reached the age when companionship with a little sex in it matters more than money, mill owner Henry Nielsen (Geoffrey Rush) is engaged to marry his housekeeper Anna (Anna Torv). To celebrate the occasion, he invites son Christian (Schneider), who hasn’t been home in ages. Reuniting with his former best friend Oliver Finch (Ewen Leslie, giving the film’s best performance) forces him to confront several unpleasantries: the fact that Henry has shut down the mill, driving employees like Oliver into what British Commonwealth nations maliciously call redundancy (“It’s never too late to start again!” Rush chirps at an employee meeting in the film’s first scene); Christian’s own alcoholism; and a secret concerning Oliver’s wife Charlotte (The Lord of the Rings‘ Miranda Otto).

If you’ve read the play, you know the secret. How Simon stumbles towards these revelations frustrated me, but that’s not the worst problem afflicting this adaptation: the film is edited as if in a delirium. Starting with a montage, The Daughter spends the rest of its ninety-minute running time like a montage. Simon cuts scenes before the audience can register what’s happening and, worse, before the audience understands the characters’ relations with each other. For too long I couldn’t figure who Sam Neill was supposed to be; he doesn’t seem to have met the rest of the cast. The film’s refusal to engage the political implications of its scenario strands him. After hanging around for long periods drinking beer, peeping through windows, and growling, Neill emerges to offer fatherly succor in a key third act scene, but like the unfamiliar parish priest knocking on your door on the advice of neighbors the scene has no tug. Worse still is a classroom yell fest between Hedvig and Charlotte. Playing the detached, almost moon-faced pasha, Rush can’t call upon the full resources of his crinkled, sardonic timbre. He’s evanescence itself — when at one point he gets punched I expected the hand to go through him (The Daughter also boasts one of those scores in which a single piano note, buttressed by strings, resounds into eternity; often characterized as “spare” and “haunting” it’s the equivalent of a cheat sheet.)

Let me return to the duck, though: the clearest reminder that Ibsen bobs in this stew of overcooked potatoes and raw meat, which is to say the promising material won’t go down the throat and the carbs take up the slack. There’s also a shotgun, introduced in so hamhanded a fashion that Stone forgets he isn’t adapting Anton Chekhov. Still, Hedvig’s last moment – a confrontation with Oliver – sears, quite apart from what unfolds on screen. That’s a problem: I felt for the actress, not the performance. By the time The Daughter ends Geoffrey Rush’s first spoken line still rang in my head: “Put this thing out of its misery.”

GRADE: C-

Be good to me: Best of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis

By no means exhaustive, this post compiles the tracks on a private Spotify playlist. One of the many reasons why Todd Burns should be remembered alongside Jackson and Jefferson is running a magazine called Stylus that a decade ago ran a week’s worth of pieces on Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis as part of inducting them into our hall of fame. I contributed an essay on Alexander ONeal’s 1987 Hearsay, a record that matters to me like Thomas Hardy or Tender is the Night.

Go deep.

1. Janet Jackson – Control
2. The S.O.S. Band – Just Be Good to Me
3. Alexander O’Neal – Criticize
4. New Edition – If It Isn’t Love
5. George Michael – Monkey (Jam and Lewis Remix)
6. Johnny Gill – Rub You the Right Way
7. Janet Jackson – Go Deep
8. Force MDs – Tender Love
9. Ralph Tresvant – Sensitivity
10. Janet Jackson – Escapade
11. The Human League – Human
12. Usher – You Remind Me
13. Janet Jackson – The Great Forever
14. Alexander O’Neal – Innocent
15. El Debarge – The Other Side
16. Krush – Let’s Get Together (So Groovy Now)
17. Cheryl Lynn – Encore
18. Janet Jackson – Free Xone
19. Sounds of Blackness – Joy
20. The S.O.S. Band – The Finest
21. Alexander O’Neal – Sunshine
22. Herb Alpert – Diamonds
23. Cherrelle – I Didn’t Mean To Turn You On
24. Crystal Waters – Say…If You Feel Alright
25. Janet Jackson – Someday is Tonight
26. Karyn White – Romantic
27. The S.O.S. Band – Weekend Girl
28. Ledisi – Higher Than This
29. Luther Vandross and Janet Jackson – The Best Things in Life Are Free
30. Janet Jackson – Someday is Tonight

‘Thank you to your respective bosses’

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Hands up if you’re surprised that freshly confirmed EPA chief Scott Pruitt had the Koch brothers in essence write his energy policy as attorney general of Oklahoma:

The emails show that his office corresponded with those companies in efforts to weaken federal environmental regulations — the same rules he will now oversee.

“Please find attached a short white paper with some talking points that you might find useful to cut and paste when encouraging States to file comments on the SSM rule,” wrote Roderick Hastie, a lobbyist at Hunton & Williams, a law firm that represents major utilities, including Southern Company, urging Mr. Pruitt’s office to file comments on a proposed E.P.A. rule related to so-called Startup, Shutdown and Malfunction Emissions.

The publication of the correspondence comes just days after Mr. Pruitt was sworn in to run the E.P.A., which is charged with reining in pollution and regulating public health.

[snip]

“Thank you to your respective bosses and all they are doing to push back against President Obama’s EPA and its axis with liberal environmental groups to increase energy costs for Oklahomans and American families across the states,” said one email sent to Mr. Pruitt and an Oklahoma congressman in August 2013 by Matt Ball, an executive at Americans for Prosperity. That nonprofit group is funded in part by the Kochs, the Kansas business executives who spent much of the last decade combating federal regulations, particularly in the energy sector. “You both work for true champions of freedom and liberty!” the note said.

And we have this information only because an Oklahoma judge last week ordered the emails released.

I want to white out: the best of Big Star

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Ground zero for the most heterosexual subgenre in rock, Big Star still sound great because Alex Chilton and Chris Bell didn’t sound like men. With their whinnying harmonies and cracked leads, they were perfect glam era heroes if they’d ever had a chance to succeed — hell, even Lou Reed eked out a gold record in 1974. In their brief catalog they scored a dozen fervid, weird classics unmatched by Weezer, the Posies, Gin Blossoms, Matthew Sweet and every poseur with hair parted down the middle holding a Stratocaster. Get past the self-parodic title “Life is White” (I’m sure it is, Alex) and the Radio City track stumbles like a drunkard through a bar, a Bakersfield-Liverpool nexus with a harmonica doing god knows what; it’s dying to fucking pass out and it won’t. This explains Big Star’s penchant for misspelling song titles (“What’s Going Ahn,” “Kizza Me”): Chilton and Bell heard notes skewed.

My favorite sessions resulted in the miscellany optimistically called Third/Sister Lovers, released in an exemplary Rykodisc edition in 1993 that’s among my most played albums. From Tonight’s the Night to Here, My Dear, the era boasted many albums chronicling the collapse of a musician’s systems of belief; Third/Sister Lovers had the mixing board experiments with echo and tracking to match (“Kangaroo” invents Joy Division). In “Take Care” and “Thank You Friends,” Chilton played the weary troubadour shaking the dust off his sandals that I expect from Merle Haggard. Finally, fans don’t need to know a thing about Bell to hear the sexual tensions in his and Chilton’s harmonies. Think of Chilton imagining that Bell’s at the other mike as he sings “You Can’t Have Me.” Exceptions noted, Chilton’s the only figure in the mid 1970s writing love songs who didn’t succumb to received misogyny. I can’t imagine Neil Young writing “She’s a schemer and she makes me mad /But I love her a lot those lonely nights” (maybe David Johansen could); he was too much the formalist anyway to commit to feeling normal things.

1. You Can’t Have Me
2. September Gurls
3. Kizza Me
4. Kangaroo
5. Thirteen
6. O My Soul
7. She’s a Mover
8. Thank You Friends
9. Jesus Christ
10. The Ballad of El Goodo
11. In the Street
12. Holocaust
13. When My Baby’s Beside Me
14. What’s Going Ahn
15. Downs
16. Way Out West
17. Feel
18. O Dana
19. The India Song
20. Take Care

Troubadours and soothsayers: Jens Lekman and David Bowie

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Jens Lekman – Life Will See You Now

A decade ago, this Swede released Night Falls Over Kortedala, an album of singer-songwriter would-be pop whose romantic fables began and ended with jokes, usually at the expense of the Pagliacci singing them. Bona Drag-era Morrissey was the closest analog, given Jens Lekman’s weakness for adverbs and meter-breaking verse. In a not exactly prolific career, Life Will See You Now represents the conventional sort of tiptoe forward: the singer-songwriter discovers electronic instruments when he really should’ve been playing with them fifteen years ago. On “Dandelion Seed” and “Hotwire the Ferris Wheel” the results are not dissimilar to Grant McLennan’s solo debut Watershed or The Roches’ Speak — the essentially static music gets its melodies goosed by presets and programmed strings. Not only have I learned to love Jens Lekman’s voice, but I appreciate how its off key dolor is a correlatives to songs whose insight and quiet Linus-with-a-pet-blanket wit redress their own dolorous qualities. A troubadour, a ham, Lekman can sing “the lonely cry of the seagull/’Let’s do something illegal'” and not mind courting foolishness. He’ll plunder the Whispers for beats (“How We Met, the Long Version”) and Romeo Santos for lithesome guitar curlicues (“Our First Fight”).

David Bowie – No Plan

Comprising “Lazarus” plus three outtakes, this EP presents a Bowie more open about the final hurrah. Some might adduce this frailty as a sign of the late generalist’s “humanity,” although why we insist on insulting this man thirteen months after his death saddens me. Giving no fucks about admitting how in this age of grand delusion marriage saved his life, honest about the deterioration that would eventually claim it, Bowie nevertheless sounds like the oblique, slightly fuzzy of outline carbon-based life form he was at the apex of his powers. Even when he’s trying to be a cornball his fantastic band complements him with discordant notes. Enjoy it – as John Quincy Adams said on his death bed, “This is the last of earth.”

Best movies of 1946

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1. Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock)
2. Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau)
3. My Darling Clementine (John Ford)
4. Cluny Brown (Ernst Lubitsch)
5. A Matter of Life and Death (Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger)
6. The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler)
7. The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks)
8. Utamaro and His Five Women (Kenji Mizoguchi)
9. Gilda (Charles Vidor)
10. The Diary of a Chambermaid (Jean Renoir)

UNSEEN: Canyon Passage (Jacques Tourneur), Bedlam (Mark Robson), and a pair of George Marshall pics: The Blue Dahlia and Bob Hope in Monsieur Beaucaire

DESERVE REWATCHING: Duel in the Sun (King Vidor), The Killers (Robert Siodmark)