Perhaps the last post of 2012. Appropriate.
Jordan questions the dearth of accessible criticism on Maxwell, a problem he lays on the artist’s fallow recording cycle and the fact that Maxwell released three of his four albums before 2001. More significantly, Jordan observes that Maxwell “leans adult contemporary at times and I assume he never really crossed over to rock critics in the first place.” We can’t underestimate the degree to which Maxwell’s pedigree may have created the context in which he was received. 1996’s Urban Hang Suite and to a lesser extent its two successors depended on members of Sade, Stuart Matthewman most prominently. His biggest pop hit to date remains the R. Kelly-penned “Fortunate.”
While the R&B community and aging yuppies never lost their devotion to Sade, I can remember few twentysomethings reclaiming Love Deluxe or Stronger Than Pride, as estimable as they were and are (the beatbox and washes of saxophone and piano on Urban Hang Suite‘s “The Suite Theme” would have Sade calling their lawyers if they weren’t involved in its creation); and, a paywalled Rob Sheffield notice for Embrya aside, if you were part of Rolling Stone in the nineties you didn’t ruminate much on albums appreciated by the R&B community and aging yuppies. R. Kelly is a special case: a star whose resumé includes production and songwriting credits for Michael Jackson and Aaliyah; a recognized, grudgingly accepted auteur. Plus, there’s D’Angelo. “The main problem with Maxwell,” Dream Hampton writes in a review of 1998’s Embrya, “is he’s not D’Angelo.” Accusing Maxwell of being a bore and a boor, Hampton pines for the album released in early 2000 to critical hosannas and popular success called Voodoo. A different ethos, Voodoo: the gunky mix foregrounds groove and falsetto like a Stax recording. Although I like Voodoo less than Now or Urban Hang Suite, I don’t find D’Angelo any less boorish or self-involved. Forget the words; what he’s saying is a bass line. The voodoo is the content.
So I’m not surprised there’s little exegesis of Maxwell before 2001. As the success of Miguel and Frank Ocean, and on a smaller scale Diddy Dirty Money’s Last Train to Paris, suggest, a generation of writers has grown up regarding neo-soul as pop music. If you’re in the mid to late twenties range, you grew up accepting what the Grammys and Billboard acknowledge as fact: Babyface, Dallas Austin, et al shaped the nineties. You heard Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu in your parents’ cars, Usher in your friend’s Jeep. R. Kelly wasn’t a freak filming and recording a multi-part celebration of his luridness — he was Marvin Gaye. And Sade is Sade, whose “Soldier of Love” we find startling because we’ve convinced ourselves she’s never been startling until this moment — that “Never As Good as the First Time” and “No Ordinary Love” and “Love is Stronger Than Pride” weren’t startling. When Maxwell released BLACKsummers’night in 2009 — to my ears his best album — this newly empowered subset ensured that little commercial traction was lost in the intervening eight years.
Fitfully entertaining for most of its length, dawdling only when Quentino Tarantino insists on a lame joke about nascent Ku Kluxers and their masks so that Jonah Hill can get a line; and when Christoph Waltz overacts through an explanation. He’s really not a very good actor, and he’ll start giving overscaled performances in small movies like Oliver Reed if he’s not careful (he’s better just chatting with Jamie Foxx). But Django Unchained doesn’t need the “cathartic” ending, especially when we know Django and Hilde aren’t getting out of Ole Miss alive, with or without her slave papers. It would’ve been a chilling coda if Tarantino dropped the games and let Candie’s men execute Django. Having manipulated audience sympathies and its blood lust, Tarantino must turn Django into the Terminator, but it’s facile, and neither the scene with the mine transporters nor the final shootout were particularly inventive in staging to deserve their inclusion.
Where it works is implicating the audience in the sadism of slavery while getting off on the pleasure of a stern, handsome former slave Django riding erect and tall on a horse. Watching this movie six weeks after Lincoln, what felt like an abstraction in the Spielberg film (it wasn’t the movie Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner set out to make anyway) is nightmarish in Django Unchained. For every vestigial cutaway like one to Waltz shaving the foam off some pints of beer, there’s one of blood splattering on cotton that register subliminally but firmly: the South’s cash crop was raised on the blood and sweat of forced human labor. In the conception of Stephen (Fetchit?) and as embodied in Samuel L. Jackson’s rattlesnake of a performance, we see how the system warped conformity into a pathology; Stephen the butler not only has Massah’s confidence but the confianza, as we say in Spanish, to enjoy Massah’s Grand Marnier and chair by the fire. He will sell out his race for the pleasure of Massah’s ear.
Massah, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is Calvin Candie, owner of the fourth largest plantation in Mississippi and of Broomhilda (Kerry Washignton), Django’s wife. Fluent in German, she’s the ideal house slave. Waltz and Foxx’s scheme is to masquerade as slavers interested in one of Candie’s mandingos and attempt to purchase her for a ridiculously high bid. Swollen, rolling his vowels, it takes a while to get accustomed to DiCaprio playing a satrap whose silken menace undergirds every sentence, but Scrunchy Face eventually gives his most entertaining performance since Catch Me If You Can; I didn’t expect his florid gestures to come off better than Waltz’s. But it’s soon after the discovery of the Waltz-Foxx sceme that Django becomes unchained. The most truthful script development — the execution of Django at the hands of rabid Southerners — would have most alienated the audience. But it would have at least mitigated a conclusion of puzzling unambivalence by reminding us that Django didn’t blink as these same men let dogs tear a slave — a man — to pieces an hour ago. Saving him would have cost Django his beautiful, blank, boring Broomhilda. In literature heroes who seek revenge usually die. It’s one thing for Tarantino to address the evils of slavery in a genre picture; it’s another for him to give “heft” to a putative genre picture by encouraging correspondences between it and a German myth.
Naturally no paper will carry this story:
On Jan. 1, 2000, the world awoke to find that little had changed since the night before. After years of hype around what was then called Y2K — the fear that computer systems across the globe would collapse, unable to handle the year shifting from ’99 to ’00 — the date change turned out to be a momentous non-event.
Next week, the United States is in for much the same, after months of frantic hype about the economic disruption that awaits if Congress and the president fail to reach a deal and the federal government goes “over the fiscal cliff.” (The difference between Y2K and the fiscal cliff being that computer programmers worked around the clock to ensure the former was a non-event.)
The so-called fiscal cliff is a combination of automatic tax hikes and spending cuts scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1. But the agencies responsible for implementing those changes, including the IRS and the Pentagon, are well aware that congressional and White House negotiators will most likely come to some sort of deal within weeks or months — and so they are planning to carry on as usual, according to a broad review of private and public government plans.
In other words, there will be no cliff. There won’t even be a slope. Congress and the president can have their public and private dramas, but the government officials responsible for carrying out their eventual orders have seen this movie before, and they know how it ends.
Cliff, baby, cliff!
My favorite Christmas song of the moment.
As we prepare to endure the bleatings of conservative relatives, let us rejoice in Joe Hagan’s reporting from this November’s National Review cruise. Among the edifying moments: Cal Thomas and Rich LOLwry looked restrained and practical next to their fellow cruisers.
This was a phenomenon that was common on the cruise—the conservative pundits and columnists from the National Review attempting to gently disinter their followers from unhelpful conservative propaganda. For people who believe in the truth of works like Dreams From My Real Father, a conspiracy-theory documentary that argues that Obama’s real father was a communist propagandist who turned Obama into a socialist Manchurian Candidate, this could be difficult work.
As Thomas downed the rest of his drink, Duane said the only way out of the current quagmire is a “revolution,” citing the famous Thomas Jefferson line about watering the tree of liberty with blood from “time to time.”
What kind of revolution did he have in mind?
Duane’s eyes crinkled into a big smile. “You ever heard of guns?”
His wife sat up: “How do you like the veal?”
“It’s awful,” Duane growled, poking at it. “I can’t hardly chew it.”
It looks like these post-Reagan revelers are taking seriously their leaders’ calls to figure out what went wrong in November:
Melissa O’Sullivan, the Alabaman wife of John, wasn’t buying the idea that Republicans had alienated minorities. “We’ve invited them to join us!” she insisted.
Susan from Princeton granted that the Republican Party is “lily white and it’s a problem and it is messaging and Mitt Romney screwed up royally.”
But Ms. O’Sullivan again took umbrage. As everyone went silent, she recalled a conference she attended in Australia in which a liberal nun (who “didn’t even have the decency to wear a habit”) criticized America for its “inner-city racism.” Offended, Ms. O’Sullivan recounted what she wished she’d said to this nun:
“Pardon me, madam, but I have been in your country of Australia for ten days and the only Aborigines I’ve seen have been drunk on the street, and at least if we were in my country they would be serving the drinks at this conference!”
Ms. O’Sullivan then warned against watering down the purity of the conservative agenda to placate minorities or, as she put it, rather succinctly, “the bastardization of the product.”
But leave it to Jonah Goldberg, son of Lucianne, whose intellect illumines the coming nights of liberal darkness, ask the right question.
“So therefore we should give up and burn our passports and stay on this boat forever?” said [Jonah] Goldberg with real exasperation.
The crowd erupted in cheers.
Yes yes burn your passports and stay on the boat forever.
A master at playing characters whose self-control hangs on a thread, Isabelle Huppert is well cast in writer-director Hong Sang-Soo’s In Another Country playing three of those characters. The film’s premise: a young screenwriter puzzles through these variations, all of which involve Huppert, a solicitous neighbor (Jung Yumi), a filmmaker (Moon Sungkeun), a horny neighbor (Kwon Hyehyo) and his shrewish pregnant wife (Moon Sori). Her puzzle is Hong’s pleasure — and ours. Just as we’re growing accustomed to Huppert as a director scouting locations in an eerily uninhabited Korean beach town, Hong transforms her into the filmmaker’s lover; then, in the most improbable and hence most delightful twist, she becomes a new divorcee seeking spiritual emoluments from monks and carnal delight from a gregarious lifeguard (Yu Junsang).
Using Junsang’s performance as the enthusiastic, rather dim young man as counterpoint to the loutishness exhibited by the other men in Huppert’s circle, Hong suggests the masculine patterns of behavior to which Korean women remain exposed. A banal question in halting English about where to find a lighthouse is interpreted as a come-on. Huppert’s anomic trampling through the customs of a foreign country is its own venal sin. In this triptych Hoo’s style is to restage locations — a beach, in front of the apartment, the lifeguard’s tent, a picnic table and barbeque — with subtle and often non-existent camera changes, although his characteristic long shots root the production in the mildest of irony (the bluehaired septuagenarians in the audience however were not amused). Formalist rigor mitigates the didacticism, and In Another Country eases into its conclusion in eighty-nine minutes.
From Rene Rodriguez’s interview with Quentin Tarantino: Q: The movie is akin to Inglourious Basterds in that it’s a kind of historical fantasy, only rooted in more reality. The graphic depiction of slavery is astonishing, like the scene in which Calvin Candie forces two men to fight to the death for his amusement.
A: I was always aware those things existed. Mandingo fighting, which is what we call it, was part of the underbelly of slavery. It would be a perfect vice for Candie to indulge in, watching two men are fighting to death like dogs. Part of the idea behind Candie was he owns one of the biggest cotton plantations in the South, but he’s a fourth-generation Candie. He doesn’t care about the agriculture and the cotton anymore. The plantation runs itself by this point. So he’s this petulant boy emperor, this southern-fried Caligula. He finds hobbies and vices and pleasures to indulge in to keep him entertained.
Q: There’s a scene in the film involving an early version of the Ku Klux Klan that may be the funniest thing you’ve ever written. The Klansmen have trouble seeing through their hoods. It’s like this sudden comedic detour in the middle of this dead-serious story. What made you think of it?
A: I wrote an indictment piece on the making of The Birth of a Nation a long time ago that maybe I’ll put in a book or something . I was trying to put myself in the place of D. W. Griffith and what it was like to be on the set of that movie every day. [Director] John Ford is one of the Klansmen on the horses, riding to black subjugation. So I started speculating that you can’t say John Ford didn’t know what he was doing. Everyone at that time had seen or heard a production of the Klan. The movie was based on one of the most popular plays of the day. So that meant Ford was down with it, no matter what he said. Not only was he down with it, he put on a Klan uniform and had to ride 24 miles an hour on a horse! I started thinking about the hood moving around on his face and how he could see. So when it came time to write that scene, I touched on that a little bit. I had to make a reference to it. Later I was reading the scene to a friend of mine, and when I got to that part, my friend bust out laughing so much, I realized I had really something there, and I needed to expand it.
1. Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream
Reminding Chuck Eddy of “mid/late ’80s starting-to-go-downhill Prince, only not as good,” Kaleidoscope Dream is a better record than Around The World in a Day: Miguel Pimentel’s rhythms can handle the psychedelic drag (although on the last track “politics” defeat him, and unlike Prince’s “America” no crazy-ass fuzz guitar solo can save him), and boy does he love sex. Or presents himself as a young man who loves sex — a crucial distinction. Art dealer chic is Miguel’s steez. On “Do You” and “Adorn,” he’s a curator in the least stultifying museum ever constructed. He can’t stop pointing out the beautiful colors and what they’ve done to the solarium; he can’t contain how excited he is that you’re excited. Confident but far from callow, he revels in joy: joy in performance, joy in what he’s getting away with. This is jazz, this is funk, this is soul, this is gospel, this is sanctified sex, this is player pentecostal.
2. Dwight Yoakam – 3 Pears
I wouldn’t say it’s much better than 2005’s Population Me, but, really, the self-production helps: the guitars crunch louder (“Rock It All Away”), the drums are more powerful (“Nothing But Love”), and Yoakam’s writing weirder (the sideways nursery rhyme “Waterfall”). The two songs overseen by Beck get in line. Still an asshole, with feelings.
3. Jessie Ware – Devotion
I’ve had a harder time defending Ware from skeptics than any other record on this list. Her fans don’t help. I don’t hear much R&B in her inflections. She’s closer to supper club lounge acts: Shirley Bassey without the camp. It’s easy to imagine her motionless behind the microphone, eyes closed, Method acting the melodrama of “Wildest Moment” or “Taking In Water, my favorite track. But she’s warmer than Bassey, and producers Julio Bashmore, Dave Okumu, and Kid Harpoon add sterling guitar work and storm clouds of electronic effects. If you thought Massive Attack’s Blue Lines a laudable but odd choice for a landmark British album, using Devotion for retroactive edifying might work. And I haven’t even mentioned her new Katy B collaboration.
I like to think Jeremih has a bit of Donald Fagen in him. Anyway, last Singles Jukebox reviews of the year, Amnesty edition. Click on links for full reviews.
Jeremih – 773 Love (7)
Donald Fagen – I’m Not The Same Without You (7)
Mykko Montana ft. K Camp – Do It (7)
Niki & The Dove – Somebody (6)
3D Na’Tee ft. Keri Hilson – I Want More (6)
iamamiwhoami – Play (6)
Sleigh Bells – Demons (5)
Delta Spirit – California (5)
Katie Got Bandz – We Ridin Round and We Drillin (5)
Lee Fields & The Expressions – Moonlight Mile (5)
Lonnie Holley – Looking For All (All Rendered Truth) (4)
Al Walser – I Can’t Live Without You (3)
Bogged down by other writing and occupational nonsense, I will simply post twenty of my favorite songs of 2012. I tend to avoid including singles whose albums also charted in my top ten, but I also tend to make exceptions: this year it’s for “Arch N Point,” which hooked me in April and unlocked the rest of Miguel’s Art Dealer Chic trilogy.
1. Eric Church – Springsteen
2. Todd Terje – Inspector Norse
3. Chairlift – I Belong In Your Arms
4. Tim McGraw – The One That Got Away
5. Santigold – Disparate Youth
6. JoJo – Demonstrate
7. Kelly Clarkson ft. Vince Gill – Don’t Rush
8. Solange Knowles – Losing You
9. Miguel – Arch N Point
10. Usher – Climax
11. Angel Haze – Werkin’ Girls
12. Kendrick Lamar ft. Dre – The Recipe
13. Hot Natured ft. Ali Love – Benediction
14. R. Kelly – Feelin’ Single
15. Dawn Richard – Automatic
16. Future – Same Damn Time
17. Drake – The Motto ft. Lil Wayne & Tyga
18. Dierks Bentley – 5-1 5-0
19. Dead Sara – Weatherman
20. Mykki Blanco – Wavvy
4. Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
The “politics” for which this album has gotten praise boil down to “Reagan and Obama both suck,” which is correct, but Mike gets no points for false equivalence. Likewise the “That’s why I’m giving honor to all these baby mommas” sentiment in “Untitled” is embedded in a verse that calls shit on mommas who won’t have those babies or remarry — and they best not notice Mike spending his dough at strip clubs. In short, he’s a confused guy. But with a timbre that’s clear when it needs to be and rapidfire when you least expect it (“Go” lasts less than two minutes), Mike presents himself as conflicted as he needs to be, hoping that this pose will get him to the next album. We hope.
5. Jens Lekman – I Know What Love Isn’t
What I wrote in September: “Not only have I learned to love Jens Lekman’s voice, but I appreciate how its thick dolorous qualities are musical correlatives to songs whose insight and quiet Linus-with-a-pet-blanket wit redress their own dolorous qualities…Lekman has a sense of humor about his querulousness — until he succumbs to a melody whose sweetness reminds him of the broken relationship, whose music box gorgeousness won’t mitigate the pain of singing it.” Note: I didn’t always like Lekman.
6. Kellie Pickler – 100 Proof
What on first listen sounds like a modest effort from a modest talent with a lot to be modest about deepens into a resonant song cycle that starts with a bawdy prayer to Tammy Wynette and peaks with a sex song in which a rocking chair serves as metaphor. And the title track is a killer.