At last

Good news. However, note John Cornyn’s qualification at the end of this excerpt:

“We’re not mere supplicants to the executive branch, we are a coequal branch of government,” Cornyn said during discussion of his amendment in the Senate committee hearing last week. “So it is insufficient to say pretty please, Mr. President, pretty please, Mr. Attorney General, will you please tell us the legal authority by which you claim the authority to kill American citizens abroad?” (Cornyn also noted that just because he wants to see the memo doesn’t mean he’d necessarily disagree with its contents.)

At a Ginuwine show:

Steven Soderbergh’s Channing Tatum vehicle Magic Mike is a thrilling if somewhat dialogue-light film set in a male strip club in Florida, chock-full of bared male body parts and shots of women reacting to their being unveiled. Much of the movie goes by in a series of montages and hip thrusts, but at one point, the swirling action both stops and becomes absolutely spellbinding: Tatum (upon whose stripper past the movie is based) takes the stage at Xquisite to Ginuwine’s glitchy, Timbaland-produced debut single “Pony.” This public performance actually doubles as a one-on-one love scene in a way; Tatum’s character’s romantic interest, played by the steely eyed Cody Horn, gets to see the dance unfold and gets appropriately intrigued. (With good reason; Tatum flexes an impressive array of the moves he learned while grinding away in the exotic-dancer salt mines.)

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And then it was time for “Pony,” its Timbaland-supplied squawk overtaking the sound system before the band joined in. Ginuwine urged the crowd to get up out of their seats and disembarked the stage, hopping onto one of the barriers between B.B. King’s inner and outer bowls. Women surrounded him, cameraphones and adoration and sing-alongs at the ready, and while he didn’t take his shirt off—though he had changed into a tee earlier in the evening—his reception was no less rapturous. The back-and-forth of the pleading chorus went on for a while, Ginuwine basking in the adulation and the audience basking in the way he was soaking in it; the whole exchange probably could have lasted half an hour, and nobody would have minded, save the people scheduled to play the late show.

My favorite things

Expanded editions of Sugar’s two albums and one EP get the reevaluations they deserve. Siding with Bob Christgau, Dan Weiss posits File Under: Easy Listening as their masterwork, and certainly Bob Mould made no stronger case for his pop mastery (imagine “Believe What You’re Saying” getting a Richard Marx production); but bassist David Barbe’s George Harrison move doesn’t surpass B-side “Mind is an Island” (it’s “Only a Northern Song” competing with “Old Brown Shoe”) and Grant Hart earned a dismissal more incisive than “Granny Cool” (it’s Grandpa Cool wearing a cardigan on the back cover of 1989’s Workbook). On the other hand, Beaster is an airtight case for the efficacy of an EP, especially when “JC Auto” and “Feeling Better” by themselves crush full length albums with chain-wrapped tires.

I explained briefly a few months ago what those records meant to an eighteen-year-old man for whom Sugar were, to use Eric Harvey’s analogy, the Wings to Husker Du’s Beatles — only imagine if Wings had released two albums’ worth of “Jet.”

“Pink flamingos and Tide boxes”

Before triumphing as the Beltway’s favorite bad girl (Poppy Bush, ever the gentleman, said he used to laugh out loud at how devastatingly she skewered him), Maureen Dowd was a reporter. The Awl remembers her pioneering AIDS coverage. It also links to a terrific NYT magazine story about Manhattan nightlife in 1984. I hope she didn’t make up the quotes; they’re better than what Bret Easton Ellis conceived for Less Than Zero, his take on ealry eighties hedonism set in L.A.

Ignoble savages: Beasts of the Southern Wild

The title could refer to either the extinct aurochs — boar-like creatures that six-year-old Hush Puppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) imagines will trample the earth once the ice caps melt — or the bedraggled dwellers of the Louisiana bayou who ignore warnings about an imminent hurricane and awaken to find flora and fauna under several feet of water but Their Spirits Unbroken. Meanwhile Hush Puppy’s father, slowly (but not quietly) dying of a blood ailment, vacillates between scolding and protecting her. Winner of the Grand Jury prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Beasts of the Southern Wild is one of the rare films to dwell on topography for its own sake instead of the carapace under which incest and murder lurk in wait for actors looking for one-off Academy Award nominations. Alas, writer-director Benh Zeitlin loves the gators, cottonwoods, viscous mud, brown water, and caterpillars so much that the movie becomes a valentine for what to many of us is an absurd way to live. Of course there are people who munch on crawfish and drink High Life and laugh heartily through mud-streaked faces, but Zeitlin lingers on the merriment so long that his methods begin to look suspicious. He’s selling a Way of Life to blue state denizens. Often BOTSW looks like WPA-commissioned illustrations of the dangers of poor sanitation and not being connected to an electrical grid. The ponderous voice-over narration, a cross between Carlos Castaneda pensées and Terrence Malick portent, fails (as usual — when will directors learn?).

At the still point of this turning world is Hush Puppy, who thanks to Wallis is a discomfiting presence. Her hair a spiked, unkempt mass, a face as blank as Falconetti’s, she’s like the last survivor of a doomed race — too smart, in other words, for the jackanapes around her who deny her hospital care and food. Confining the movie to a child’s point of view lets Zeitlin off the hook for the wobbly narrative. Things happen without explanation. In a crucial scene Hush Puppy’s daddy (the good non-actor Dwight Henry) hisses that he can’t be moved from his hospital bed because the end is near; in the next he’s leading the group back to their hovel so that he can collapse again and the kids can swim towards a floating brothel island where Hush Puppy thinks she saw her dead mother. The brothel scene is well blocked, and I liked a moment between Hush Puppy and a dancer, who batters gator meat and dispenses advice from the hard knock life; but this is literally the way the last fifteen minutes of the movie unfold. Thanks to Zeitlin’s skill with oneiric textures and shrewd editing, it’s never dull and often beguiling; in frame after frame I wanted to know what the hell was going on.

Then the aurochs arrive.

Singles 7/27

It must have been dandy to be sixteen in 1996 when No Doubt, exploiting the infallible Rumours marketing strategy, unleashed airplay hit after hit from Tragic Kingdom, most notably “Don’t Speak,” the “Dreams” of my sister’s generation. Pop radio in early ’97 rested in an interzone as opaque and impenetrable as the one in which college radio resided during the Poppy Bush era before Kurt Cobain shook his golden locks: the boy bands were just passing Lou Pearlman’s height requirements; we were still months away from the ubiquity of “Fly,” “Semi-Charmed Life,” “MMMBop.” I got some fun figuring how many of the undergraduates I was about to teach for the first time had bought Brighten The Corners with their copies of Odelay at Sam Goody (none bought Toni Braxton’s “Un-Break My Heart”). A circuitous way of writing that apart from “A Simple Kind of Life” and “Hella Good” No Doubt didn’t move me. Even in their twenties the band sounded like cynics, a couple of albums away from an Eagles kind of rancidness. Gwen Stefani’s voice wasn’t lived in; she was trying too hard to have a good time. Planned evanescence is a joke anyway – on them.

Click on links for full reviews.

The xx – Angels (6)
Little Dragon – Sunshine (6)
My Name is Kay ft. Pusha T – Strangers (6)
Large Professor ft. Cormega, Action Bronson, Roc Marciano & Saigon – M.A.R.S. (5)
Usher ft. Rick Ross – Lemme See (4)
No Doubt – Settle Down (4)
Los Embajadores – Peso (4)
Shy’m – Et Alors (4)
Psy – Gangnam Style (3)
The Killers – Runaways (3)
Richard Hawley – Down in the Woods (3)
Amanda Palmer & the Grand Theft Orchestra – Want it Back (3)
Matt and Kim – Let’s Go (2)

If you build a house, then call me POLL

At the time I’d collected these songs I’d just become acquainted with the Bob Welsh-Danny Kirwan-Jeremy Spencer interregnum and Mystery to Me. I still need to check out those Peter Green records and the other funny-looking ones I’d spot in Camelot Music with big-nosed apes on the longbox art. But I’m happy to love 2003’s Say You Will almost as much as the hits, despite Christine McVie’s absence. I still rep hard for those Tango in the Night remixes. Check out the Arthur Baker remix of “Big Love,” with house keyboards and live Stevie Nicks vocals instead of Buckingham giving himself the varispeed treatment), and better, the trance-like, undulating extended remix of “Seven Wonders,” a Balearic sound ancestor.

1. Sara
2. Warm Ways
3. Go Your Own Way
4. The Chain
5. Little Lies
6. Hold Me
7. Monday Morning
8. Think About Me (single mix)
9. Seven Wonders (12″ extended mix)
10. Not That Funny
11. What Makes You Think You’re the One?
12. Second Hand News
13. Brown Eyes
14. Blue Letter
15. You Make Loving Fun
16. Thrown Down
17. Storms
18. Gold Dust Woman
19. Eyes of the World
20. Bare Trees
21. Book of Love
22. Songbird
23. Gypsy
24. The Ghost
25. Hypnotized
26. That’s Alright
27. The City
28. Love in Store
29. Silver Springs
30. Say You Will
31. No Questions Asked
32. Peacekeeper
33. Isn’t It Midnight
34. Never Forget
35. Goodbye Baby

These are the hands we’re given

I heard “Throwing It All Away” this morning. Even if you accept the argument that Genesis and Phil Collins had become indistinguishable with the release of the best-selling Invisible Touch, this ballad sounds different fron most Collins material. The nagging rhythm hook, the synth patch thundering over the chorus, the ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-AHH’s; the humility of the production — a Collins solo track walloped you with horns and percussion, for better or worse. This is a “prog” band essaying an adult contemporary hit in the year of “On My Own,” “The Next Time I Fall in Love,” and “That’s What Friends Are For.” It’s obvious to me now that the four other singles, ubiquitous to this day, strike poses: the go-for-the-jugular title track (there’s no way it could NOT have hit number one in 1986; it would have charted lower a year earlier or later), the deeper exploration of adult contemporary textures in “In Too Deep,” and the attempt at a yuppie “La Marseilleaise” called “Land of Confusion,” a song so confident that its success mitigates its sanctimony. “Our generation WILL GET IT RIGHT/We’re not just making promises that we’ll know we’ll never keep” is garbage out of the “Boys of Summer” mode unless you accept that, like the Don Henley hit from the previous year, it does keep its promises. Note how the band puts verse, chorus, and middle eight in the service of what is in essence a proto-Rhythm Nation musical bed. The thing moves. No wonder Patrick Bateman is a fan of this album.

For years my least favorite single, “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight” gets a sympathetic reading from Tim Finney:

In some senses the album is better than I remember, but only in senses that I was too young to articulate or care about at the time, so it would be more accurate to say it has characteristics I can now identify with approval: those snazzy programmed beats in the title track, and its across-the-board panache; the Moroderesque middle section of “Domino”, which I cannot remember at all, and now seems like some weird cross of Donna Summer’s ‘Once Upon A Time’ and Simple Minds’ ‘Empires & Dance’ (the joy and pain of rediscovery often boiling down to shifting reference points in the interim), the buzzing pomp and circumstance of “The Brazilian” which just about defies comparison with anything ever (if only because not all sounds which can be made should be) – unless it’s the theoretical possibility of what would have happened if Trevor Horn had joined Yes only after producing Frankie Goes To Hollywood.

In other ways, it’s lesser – most obviously in the vocals, Phil Collins frequently sounding pinched and strained, as if he was patched in from a toilet. But mostly, it’s not that the album is bad so much as that what moved 6 year old me doesn’t move 28 year old me quite so much – in particular, the middle-class agit-pop of “Land of Confusion” is nowhere near as evocative as I remember, though I still love the guitar riff that arrives at the end of the chorus (otherwise you can stick with Alcatraz’s superior dance-pop version, “The World We Live In”).

The song I was most interested to rehear, and the one which also stands up best today, is “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight”. Even going by a twenty year old memory, I had a feeling that the tune’s pitchshifting syncopated rhythm and cricket-chirp synths would connect with a current (and perhaps modish) weakness I have for opulent eighties stabs at greenhouse global lushness – see also Fleetwood Mac’s marvelous “Caroline”, in some ways this tune’s superior successor; on a different plane, the gentle but widescreen mysticism of the extended mix of the Commodores’ “Night Shift”.

I was right, and “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight” has a cracker arrangement, eerie and foreboding and excitingly disjointed and ultimately so epic that even the weirdly corny first section middle eight can’t hinder it much. It’s also a stout defence of the brave pomp of mid-eighties drumming. But what startled me on returning to this song was not how much it appealed to an older version of me; rather, it was the rush of remembered associations and feelings, like a familiar scent whose origin in memory you cannot place. This song, rather than the title track, bore the full burden of a six year old’s moralising treatise on the dangers of sexuality, becoming a tragic declaration of submission to the alluring enemy, laden down with dramatic irony (“don’t do it!” I had wanted to shout at Phil through the speakers, like I was watching a pantomime).

A fear of sexuality filtered through Moroder, Simple Minds, and Fleetwood Mac’s “Caroline.” This is the world I want to live in.

Not MY eighties

Now that there’s word of a remake covering, let’s take a second look at the first version. When a coke-addled Michael J. Fox dreams that a coma baby he saw on the cover of The New York Post talks to him, the conclusion is inescapable: the baby looks older than Fox. The central irony undergirding Bright Lights, Big City is how the 1988 adaptation deserves Fox’s lightweight performance. It’s a shallow adaptation of a shallow book without the saving grace of actors and situations that might deepen its sitcom vaporousness. Thanks to its casting budget, A-list supporting actors flit past, like waiters in a restaurant dining room: Jason Robards (amusing as a sozzled editor), Swoosie Kurtz, Dianne Wiest, William Hickey and John Houseman (looking more strung out than Fox). I don’t remember much about Jay McInerney’s novel twenty years after reading it except its reveling in the Absolut-fueled “decadence” of early eighties proto-yuppies. It had a you-are-there urgency.

Not the movie. It squeaked through all kinds of cogs to get made in the first place. Studio execs and writer-director James Bridges were aware of the thin ice on which they tread. Fox, hot after Back to the Future and The Secret of My Success (remember that one?), couldn’t be seen actually snorting coke. There were quarrels. Bridges won. We got our Fox coke-snorting shots after all. But this is the sort of movie in which in its last moments the hero munches on a loaf of bread and gazes at the WTC towers while in voice-over he says “You’ll have to go slowly. You’ll have to learn everything all over again,” oblivious to the easy, mocking irony of Donald Fagen’s cover of the title song. It even misses the self-mocking inflections from the novel’s most notable characteristic: its use of the second person point of view, as uncommon in 1984 as it is now. The music, provided by MAARS, New Order, and Prince among others, has no resonance; it could be traffic noise. Two performers escaped unscathed: Kiefer Sutherland confirmed his status as the go-to guy for smarm; and Bryan Ferry, who scored his only American Top 40 hit thanks to the exposure.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, less harsh on Fox than I am, is worth a read.

Coffee’s fer closers

The AV Club gives the Alec Baldwin scene from the film version of Glengarry Glen Ross a closer look:

All hail young, skinny Alec Baldwin. His character—inexplicably called Blake in the credits, rather than Fuck You—doesn’t exist in the play, and he only appears in this one scene. Yet he arguably sets the tone for the entire movie, providing a much more concrete sense of the pressure these salesman are under. Baldwin gives the monologue a marvelously practiced ring, as if he goes around performing it for various seedy offices around town; he’s the motivational speaker from Hell, determined to either increase productivity or inspire suicide. And Baldwin knows how to put his own arresting spin on Mamet’s famously repetitive dialogue. I read the shooting script long ago, and the line as written was “You think I’m fuckin’ with you, I am not fuckin’ with you”—quick, stabbing, emphasis on not. Baldwin transforms it into more of a slow ritual disembowelment, separating the two sentences with a curt head-shake that seems to nullify his victims’ entire existence. (I also love the way he shoots a glance at Levene’s crotch before asking, “You call yourself a salesman, you son of a bitch?”) Vocational terrorism has rarely been so delectable

I know at least two people who admiringly memorized this speech — the same year Jack Nicholson’s “You can’t handle the truth!” bit from A Few Good Men also tempted would-be megalomaniacs.

More figurative than musical

The best part of David Remnick’s New Yorker profile of Bruce Springsteen:

Patti Scialfa showed up after a while, trailed by two big, shambly German shepherds. A tall, slender woman in her late fifties with a startling shock of red hair, she was warm and smiling, offering water in the modern way; she also seemed a little nervous. Scialfa, like her husband, enjoys a magnificently cosseted life, but hers is a strange position and she doesn’t often talk about it publicly. At concerts, she performs two microphones to her husband’s left, a perfect vantage point from which to inspect, night after night, the thousands of hungry eyes directed his way. Scialfa has recorded three albums of her own. In the E Street Band, which she joined twenty-eight years ago, she plays acoustic guitar and sings, but, as she told me, “I have to say that my place in the band is more figurative than it is musical.” Onstage, her guitar is barely audible, and she is one of many supporting voices. Yet no one in the crowd is unaware that she is Springsteen’s wife––his “Jersey girl,” his “red-headed woman,” as the songs go––and, at any given theatrical moment onstage, she can flirt, rebuff, swoon, or dance. The E Street Band is an ensemble of characters, as well as musicians, and Scialfa expertly plays her role as Love Interest and Bemused Wife, just as Steve Van Zandt plays his as Best Friend. “Sometimes my frustration comes when I would like to bring something to the table that is more unique,” she said, “but the band, in the context of the band, has no room for that.”

So aware of her vestigial role but resigned (or indifferent) anyway, Scialfa is a worthy subject of her own profile, especially if a shrewd reporter examines the we’re-all-bros homosociality of the E Street Band through the lens of Springsteen’s lyrics.