Monthly Archives: March 2017

What we lost when we lost Merrick Garland

Thomas Geoghegan ponders what we lost when Clinton lost the election, didn’t flip the Senate, and couldn’t get Merrick Garland confirmed:

By a five to four vote, gerrymandering of congressional districts would have been struck down. Even more than “money in politics,” gerrymandering decides who controls the House of Representatives. A center-left Court might have made a redistricting system based on independent, non-partisan commissions the law of the land.

Of course, a liberal Court, would have been likely to reverse Citizens United. More importantly, it might have revisited an earlier, even more pernicious precedent, Buckley v. Valeo, the 1976 case that established that money is a form of speech. Now, if the Democrats ever do regain legislative majorities and pass campaign finance reform — say, at some point in the next twenty years — a conservative Court will cite Buckley and Citizens United to strike it down.

At some point, a center-left Court might have declared education a “fundamental” right. In Rodriguez v. San Antonio School District, a 1974 case, the Supreme Court ruled five to four that no such right existed under the Constitution, meaning public school children in different districts had no claim to equal state funding. Forty years later, in a far different world, there is even more reason to declare education a fundamental right. The enshrining of a constitutional right to public education would have been monumental. But now? It’s out of the question.

Or consider race discrimination. The 1976 decision in Washington v. Davis held that laws with racially discriminatory effects don’t violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as long as they don’t have a discriminatory purpose. In 2001, in Alexander v. Sandoval, the Court applied the same reasoning to narrow minorities’ ability to sue under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. A liberal majority could have reversed those decisions and made it easier for victims of discrimination to have their day in court. Instead, a center-right Court will continue with the status quo, and may well dismantle what’s left of the Voting Rights Act.

If Geoghegan is sad, think of someone like me who has never known a liberal Supreme Court; hell, my earliest memory of SCOTUS was a photo that flashed during CBS Evening News‘ coverage of William Rehnquist’s confirmation hearings as chief justice of the Burger Court’s last year, in which eight men and one woman looked older than sequoia trunks rotting in the sunlight.

Basta. In politics, absolutes are a joke that God plays on pundits. Still, read that list of probabilities.

WWI story ‘Frantz’ blooms beneath the queer gaze

As a camera object Pierre Niney is extraordinary, a china vase with an effete mildness. In Frantz, the star of Yves Saint Laurent plays a French veteran of the Great War who visits the family of the dead German soldier he’d befriended. What he meant to the unfortuante Frantz Hoffmeister and what happens when he interacts with his grieving fiancee (Paula Beer) is the premise of François Ozon’s uncharacteristically serious picture.

In the aftermath of 1919’s Treaty of Versailles, thanks to which the Allied powers saddled a humiliated Germany with billions in reparations, relations between the belligerents were poisonous. The families of the dead were reluctant to forgive. A violinist with a fey manner, Adrien (Nines) first charms then spooks Anna with anecdotes about his friendship with Frantz (Anton von Lucke, in flashbacks): how they talked about art in museums beneath the shadow of Edouard Manet’s Le Suicidé , for example. Quickly he wears down the Hoffmeisters resistance; his father, a doctor and burgher type who looks like one of the Mann brothers, evolves from “Every French man is my son’s murderer” to “Don’t be afraid to make us happy.” It’s possible that Hoffmeister like Anna can’t admit he’s smitten with Adrien. In its first half, Frantz performs an exquisite fan dance. Flashbacks show a friendship premised on deep affection that depended on its ephemerality for its intenseness. But Adrien controls the narrative; the co-lead died in a battlefield, after all, and no one can confirm his story (Pascal Marti’s creamy black and white photography evokes the memory of a golden past).

Imagining Ozon at the helm of a film almost devoid of the camp touches that have marked the French writer-director’s work since the late nineties is like imagining Roy Andersson directing a Hunger Games project. Nevertheless, this adaptation of Ernst Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby, itself based on Maurice Rostand’s play The Man I Killed, plumbs depths of feeling that Ozon’s career has heretofore avoided. He’s never made an essential film; he gestures towards Interesting Cinema as if the shows of fluency were enough. His diversions (Swimming Pool, Potiche, My New Girlfriend) are superior to his dramas (Under the Sand, A Time to Leave. Often bored by following through on the questions he raises, the prolific Ozon may assume he’ll answer them in a future project, released, inevitably, a few months later.

By focusing on Anna’s pain and growing attraction, Frantz eroticizes material whose political context was already fraught (Lubitsch released Broken Lullaby a mere fourteen years after Versailles). The film’s heart beats in the last third: a delicate, gently placed sequence in which Anna traces Adrien’s journey back to Paris. At a concert, finding the Manet painting, meeting amused and wary relatives, Anna has to figure out her feelings before suspicions catch up with her. The excellent Beer, giving one of the strongest performances in an Ozon film to date, makes this pain believable. The dead communing with the living (while Anna reads a letter aloud, Ozon double tracks the dead Frantz’s voice with Adrien’s); the homoerotic overtones in the relationships between soldiers, about which we know much thanks to the poetry of Wilfred Owen; the allegiances the living owe the dead — Frantz explores them with grace. And when Ozon switches from black and white to color in the final sequence the gesture feels earned.

GRADE: B+

Singles 3/31

I heard vibes on that Mountain Goats track but didn’t note the woodwinds, the song’s loveliest section. I was wrong. I couldn’t get the blurb corrected in time so I’ll leave it as it is until the change gets processed. “Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds” is a typically well-observed John Darnielle track, as inhabited as Juana Molina’s spooky “Cosoco.”

Click on lnks for full reviews.

The Mountain Goats – Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds (8)
Juana Molina – Cosoco (7)
Ride – Charm Assault (6)
Becky G – Todo Cambio (5)
Soulwax – Missing Wires (5)
Sebastián Yatra ft. Wisin & Nacho – Alguien Robó (4)
Juanes – Hermosa Ingrata (4)
Stargate ft. P!nk & Sia – Waterfall (3)
Martin Jensen – Solo Dance (3)
Enrique Iglesias ft. Descemer Bueno & Zion and Lennox – Subeme La Radio (2)
Alok & Bruno Martini ft. Zeeba – Hear Me Now (2)

A certain time, a certain place: Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Tango in the Night’

A few years ago I found this story about the recording of Tango in the Night, Fleetwood Mac’s fifth with Lindsey Buckingham and first with Stevie Nicks as a triggered Fairlight sample. Press around the album centered on Buckingham’s exit after the band announced its world tour, replaced by the hapless Billy Burnette and Rick Vito. So did Nicks’ stint at Betty Ford. Before the recovery that probably saved her life, however, she had partying to finish:

Fleetwood says that he and Nicks were doing more cocaine during the making of Tango than when they were recording Rumours — an album on which they seriously considered thanking their drug dealer in the credits. “Actually” he admits, “it was way worse on Tango In The Night. For sure.”

Skeptics wary of boomer experiments in eighties technology, rejoice: chimes, voice oscillators, and six-string pizzicatos dominate; Tango is a Swedish cuckoo clock of a record. Even the best tracks betray no sign of five people playing together in the same space. Realizing that Tango is half a Buckingham solo project to which bandmates contribute should reassure Tusk fans who loved his manic tracks on the 1979 recording but recoiled from the women. And Tango has finally proven to be as influential as Tusk. The billowing “Everywhere,”  written and co-written by album MVP Christine McVie, has popped up in Balearic playlists for at least a decade. In 2013 Classixx released “Hanging Gardens,” an elegant dance romp through motifs in “Seven Wonders” (if you haven’t heard the original extended mix, sit down).

The substitution of acoustic instruments for multi-tracked electronic textures and the strategic manipulation of harmonies suggests an album as riven with unresolved romantic discord as Rumours; studio tricks or not, McVie, Buckingham, and Nicks respond to each other’s work more successfully than any recording since 1977. For example, “Little Lies” lives and dies by its three-part call and response vocal in the chorus (for many an eighties kid Nicks’ nasal contribution was introduction and a who-the-hell-IS-that moment); and the way Buckingham gently props up Nicks for the coda he improvised for “When I See You Again” is more poignant than it has any right to be (look, asshole, you didn’t give me much to work with, he might have thought). Meanwhile I’m waiting for The War on Drugs or somebody to reproduce the queasy hybrid called “Isn’t It Midnight,” a McVie-Buckingham collaboration in which metal guitar shredding meets disquieting synthetic ripples.

As usual the size of the deluxe reissue assumes listeners won’t attend Trump rallies, read Edward St. Aubyn, or visit an aunt in her dotage, but I found several pleasures. First, those often astonishing remixes: Arthur Baker makes “Big Love” conversant in Chicago house; Jellybean Benitez adds martial drums and a delightful three-note keyboard hook to “Everywhere”; Stevie Nicks’ unabridged contribution to “Little Lies,” a pinched series of oohs and title embellishments over honking synth. This is reassuring. Nicks is there and not-there on this album in a way that delights me. She’s peculiar: one of the few singer-songwriters who is both the most conventional member, most prone to kitsch (Eagles fetish, New Age crap) yet guided by the weirdest visions. No way in hell would I want a Fleetwood Mac without her. However, “Welcome to the Room…Sara,” the only song she finished on her own, is gilded incoherence. Grant her this: she wrangled a credit on the durable “Seven Wonders” because she misheard a lyric. Star power, friends.

With two exceptions, don’t waste time with the B-sides and outtakes: “Down Endless Street” is a Buckingham bruiser with Fleetwood on drums, but “You and I,” reassembled after almost thirty years of bobbing as two discrete parts, hints at how the anticipated full-scale Buckingham-McVie collaboration might sound. As a chorus of overdubbed Lindseys yaps you-you-you, keyboards and guitars spin a latticework of desire and entrapment. “You/under strange falling skies/You, with a love that would not die,” Buckingham sings, the melody darkening with each word. Translation: What a beautiful spider web, I’m going to get eaten. The morning-after daze is McVie’s; the menace and self-absorption are his. Every time he sings “I” he pops a boner, as he should: it’s Buckingham’s favorite pronoun.

Tango in the Night creates a 1987 that never existed; no other boomer icon album sounded like it. The banality of its surface plays well on CD; its Henri Rousseau print sleeve, after all, has hung in many a pediatrician’s waiting room. I like to imagine how its ominous greens and flat, recessive depiction of an alligator — it only looks unthreatening — shimmered during the Bon Jovi spring. The British seemed to have thought long about it: the album went to #1 three different times. In the States it looked like a bomb after its #7 peak in early summer, but four top twenty singles and a chart span well into 1988 later it got certified triple platinum, Fleetwood Mac’s best-selling album post-Rumours. I hear “Little Lies” on recurrent eighties radio more than “Sara” or Mirage‘s “Hold Me.”

I suppose the band had the last laugh — until I remember that John McVie almost died of an alcoholic seizure and  it took two hacks to to fuck up Buckingham’s solos after he was, quite literally, chased out of the band by an exhausted Nicks, herself about to sink into another addiction, this time to Klonopin. But take “last” literally too. We’re still waiting for an album of new songs from this lineup. Savor Tango in the Night — it might be the epitaph.

Best singles of my life

1974: Elton John – The Bitch is Back
1975: The Isley Brothers – Fight the Power (Part 1) / Fight the Power (Part 2)
1976: David Bowie – Golden Years
1977: Fleetwood Mac – Go Your Own Way
1978: Sylvester – You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)
1979: Chic – My Feet Keep Dancing
1980: Change – The Glow of Love
1981: Earth Wind & Fire – Let’s Groove
1982: Evelyn King – Love Come Down
1983: Michael Jackson – Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’
1984: Shannon – Give Me Tonight
1985: Tears For Fears – Head Over Heels
1986: Janet Jackson – Nasty
1987: Expose – Come Go With Me
1988: Stevie B – Spring Love (Come Back to Me)
1989: Black Box – Ride on Time
1990: Madonna – Vogue
1991: PM Dawn – Set Adrift on Memory Bliss
1992: Utah Saints – Something Good
1993: New Order – Regret
1994: Warren G – Regulate
1995: The Pharcyde – Runnin’
1996: Pulp – Disco 2000
1997: Erykah Badu – On & On
1998: Natalie Imbruglia – Torn
1999: Backstreet Boys – I Want It That Way
2000: Destiny’s Child – Say My Name
2001: Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott – Get Ur Freak On
2002: Kylie Minogue – Love at First Sight
2003: Dizzee Rascal – I Lov U
2004: Ciara – Goodies
2005: The Killers – Mr. Brightside (Jacques Lu Cont’s Thin White Duke Remix)
2006: Ne-Yo – Sexy Love
2007: Kanye West: Stronger
2008: Hercules and Love Affair – Blind (Frankie Knuckles remix)
2009: Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Heads Will Roll
2010: Vampire Weekend – Giving Up the Gun
2011: Azealia Banks – 212
2012: Eric Church – Springsteen
2013: Mariah Carey ft. Miguel – #Beautiful
2014: Migos – YRN
2015: Years & Years – Shine
2016: Alex Antwandter – Siempre Es Viernes En Mi Corazon

But Trump is not a typical Republican!

I know homosexuals who thought Donald Trump would a fairer than normal president when it came to LGBT rights. Remember this story? ““He will be the most gay-friendly Republican nominee for president ever,” cooed Gregory T. Angelo of the Log Cabin Republicans, the most lickspittle organization in American politics.

Here’s the boom:

Trump rescinded the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces order, also known as Executive Order 13673, that President Obama issued in 2014. That order required companies wishing to contract with the federal government to show that they’ve complied with various federal laws and other executive orders. Notably, Obama issued that order in tandem with Executive Order 13672, which prohibited contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

This means that there is no way to enforce the LGBT protections granted in 13672 because that order relied on the documentation gathered by 13673. If the federal government doesn’t collect any information about whether contractors have policies protecting against LGBT discrimination and complying with other laws, then it has no way of ensuring that they are abiding by the other policies in place.

Yet “Mika” and “Morning” Joe insist that Trump has more in common with Chuck Schumer than Mike Pence. Voters elected him as a conservative, he’s running the country sitting in the Oval Office like one. Tie the party around his neck.

The motion: Madonna’s second singles

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Most ranged from average to pretty good. First singles like “Vogue”, “Like a Prayer,” “Live to Tell,” and “Music” and third singles like “Dress You Up” and “Human Nature” rewarded committed listening pleasure.

Here are Madonna’s second singles graded:

“Borderline”: The eponymous debut’s singles cause some confusion, if not quite commotion. “I Know It” and “Think About Me” excepted, every track got dance airplay. Is “Physical Atraction” the second single (even though it didn’t hit the Billboard Hot 100) or “Borderline”? Let’s go with “Borderline” for fairness’ sake. Note the glockenspiel, the rock-steady piano, which represent the borderline over which Madonna’s hysterical falsetto must leap — and does. GRADE: A

“Material Girl”: The casual mastery of mid-eighties Chic: adapting to Synclaviers and the rank ambition of their new boss. Or maybe Madonna’s imitating rank ambition. The ambiguity is troubling instead of beguiling; therefore the song doesn’t resonate beyond its clever gloss. GRADE: B

“Papa Don’t Preach”: Ah, here’s an example of tantalizing ambiguity. She keeps her baby, but papa’s still bitching, as any father who looks like Danny Aiello is wont to do. Since the song deals with Issues it got more attention than it deserved. Better than “True Blue” and “La Isla Bonita,” rather strained next to “Live To Tell” and “Open Your Heart.” GRADE: B

“Causing a Commotion”: The closest Madonna approached boilerplate. Not as giddy as the Expose hits with which she was competing in fall 1987; it does get frisky, if not exactly causing a commotion. Although it lingered at #2 for three weeks, “Commotion” remains the most obscure of Madonna’s big hits; it’s simply vanished. GRADE: B-

“Express Yourself”: In which Maddie turns into a gay man in drag, complete with basso vocal. The only self-empowerment anthem I ever want to hear, unsullied by “wisdom” and “self-knowledge.” She may not need diamond rings, 18-carat gold, or the pinstriped suit she wore in the Fritz Lang-inspired video, but she wouldn’t have sounded so assured if she was still selling her ass to Playboy and drumming for the likes of Stephen Bray. This is, in short, the real “Material Girl.” GRADE: A

“Hanky Panky”: Another obscurity, this one from Dick Tracy. Better than you remember, and if you remember it at all it’s cuz “Vogue” preceded it. The world needs more vampish odes to sadomasochism done with period arrangement. Awarded an extra half grade for novelty — nothing sounded like this on American top forty in 1990.    GRADE: B

“Rescue Me”: This track, recorded for The Immaculate Collection, is like “Hanky Panky” shadowed by a massive predecessor (“Justify My Love”). More Madonna-by-numbers, but since she’s sponged as much from gay club life as Bowie did from Kraftwerk and Neu! in 1977 it presages Erotica in the way that “TVC 15” did the Berlin Trilogy. GRADE: B+

“Deeper and Deeper”: …and here’s her “Sound & Vision,” rewiring the urgency of “Borderline” into a blue-blue-electric-blue Red Shoes saga: while her feet keep dancing, she can’t admit her goddamn papa was as right about her love life as he was about keeping the baby. This song is so 1992, just when I was discovering club life for the first time. GRADE: A

“Take a Bow”: Rather dated innocuous soul, with tinkly synths courtesy of cowriter/co-singer/co-producer Babyface. A gentler, approachable Madonna, for which the public duly rewarded her by keeping it #1 for seven weeks. GRADE: A-

“Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”: While Bowie never recorded anything as yearningly fascist as the Evita soundtrack, he never sang this well either. To which I say, “So fucking what?” Pop culture colossi like Madonna are as liberal as Richard Perle. Global adoration fills stadiums, not humanitarian impulses (okay, forget about Live Aid). That an icon as feral as Madonna admires a savvy but vacuous recruitment poster like Eva Peron is only the most piquant irony. The dance remix is no help. New Age banalities, here we come. GRADE: C.

“Ray of Light”: I’m not as fond of this as so many people are. “Swim” and “Sky Fits Heaven” would have made for more rewarding follow-ups to the wannabe arctic chill of “Frozen.” The beats twitter and flicker and Madonna yells her ass off in a most peculiar way (can’t throw away the thousands of dollars spent on opera lessons, you know) — as if Evita was a mistake. No one apparently warned her about The Celestine Prophecy either. Nevertheless, we critics said “comeback” and the public responded. GRADE: A-

“Don’t Tell Me”: Has anyone properly described how weird this tune is? Acoustic cowpunk and Massive Attack string section compete with Tracy Thorn-worthy melancholia. I’m amazed it hit the Top Five; so was, apparently, the public, since this was the last time her second singles would peak this high. GRADE: A

“Hollywood”: Its gaudiness is too insistent for this song to qualify as an unintentional yukfest. She sounds like the manicurist who moved to Culver City, was appalled by the rent, returned to Miami eight months later to move back in with her parents. She’s got mildly diverting stories to tell, but you’d prefer it if she finished painting your left pinky nail. GRADE: B-

“Sorry”: We return to the question which prompted this essay. Remember the opera lessons? She’s learned to propel the beat instead of singing over it or decorating it with redundant vibrato (she leaves that to the chorus of overdubbed Maddies). What a vibrant production. There’s so much going on — the hint of guitar twang (real? sampled?) in the chorus, the squelchy effects, the beat that pummels and ravishes like “Deeper and Deeper” and “Open Your Heart”‘s did — that we’re tempted to overlook the singer’s fetching vocal melody and her lyrics, which are, for once, revealingly throwaway in the Bernard Sumner tradition rather than attempts at profundity. If “Sorry” has got a flaw, it’s that it doesn’t go on long enough — a mistake none of the exemplary remixes redress. Since I love “Sorry” possibly more than any song on this list, I’d like to make a bold claim about the state of Madonna’s popcraft in 2006…but I won’t. Argue if you must. GRADE: A-

“Give It 2 Me”: Pharrell offers Madonna fumes. She inhales. GRADE: C+

“Girl Gone Wild”: The closest she came to the dinner theater routine to which Susan Kohner subjects herself in 1959’s Imitation of Life. GRADE: C

“Ghosttown”: Surveying a broken city over mournful organ, Madonna wonders if she’s the city. She’s trying again, but no one’s listening. GRADE: B.