Monthly Archives: March 2018

Worst Songs Ever: Oasis’ ‘Wonderwall’

Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.

Oasis’ “Wonderwall”
PEAK CHART POSITION #8 in March 1996

This was a hit. At my desk in the MetLife office building in Kendall, I heard the excitement in the deejay’s voice. To paraphrase him, he said, “This is Oasis, a rock group from England? You might remember them from ‘Rock and Roll Star’ last year. Her they are with…’WONDERWALL.'” On first listen I liked the strings. The pathos of Liam Gallagher’s singsong “There are many things that I/Would like to say to you/but I don’t know HOWWWWW…” But the chorus disappointed me. On and on it went, a drag. Was it songwriter Noel Gallagher’s attempt to place the Harrison-ist drone in a Western rock context? (Harrison, of course, had done it already in the Beatles with “It’s All Too Much” and “I Want to Tell You”). After the second set of verses and a return of the chorus, “Wonderwall” has nowhere to go yet insists on filling its allotted time of 3:45. Presto — cultural phenomenon! Continue reading

Songs of faith and devotion

“I’m not religious, but I feel so moved,” Madonna once sang, and on Passion Weekend that’s how these holy days unfurl for this former Catholic. The following prayers, laments, and supplications move me beyond measure.

1. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – Khena Ghalat Ghalat To Chhupana Sahi Sahi
2. Al Green – Jesus is Waiting
3. Bob Dylan – Every Grain of Sand
4. Johnny Cash – Why Me Lord
5. Aretha Franklin – Mary Don’t You Weep
6. The Staple Sisters – I’ll Take You There
7. The Velvet Underground – Jesus
8. Roxy Music – Psalm
9. Brad Paisley and Dolly Parton – When I Get Where I’m Going
10. Depeche Mode – Personal Jesus
11. Carrie Underwood – Jesus, Take the Wheel
12. The Killers – All The Things That I’ve Done
13. Prince – The Cross
14. George Jones – Family Bible
15. Randy Travis – Three Wooden Crosses
16. Amy Grant – Lead Me On
17. The Doobie Brothers – Jesus Is Just Alright
18. ZZ Top – Jesus Just Left Chicago
19. Big Star – Jesus Christ
20. Madonna – Like a Prayer
21. George Michael – Jesus to a Child
22. Lupe Fiasco – Muhammad Walks
23. Stephanie Mills – I Have Learned to Respect the Power of Love
24. Merle Haggard – Jesus Take a Hold
25. Nas – God Love Us
26. Stevie Wonder – Have a Talk with God
27. Talk Talk – New Grass
28. John Cale – Hallelujah
29. Van Morrison – Give Me My Rapture
30. David Bowie – Word on a Wing

A pair of Hong Sang-soo films show his wise, delicate touch

Delighted by revision as a narrative method, the Korean director Hong Sang-soo makes films that force audiences to judge the present based on the steady encroachment of the past. Populating these films with movie directors would open him up to charges of preciousness if Hong didn’t value a certain kind of drollery; his characters, the women particularly, think through their reactions with an understated wonder that’s a response to life’s little peculiarities. Making his films quickly out of improvised sets – restaurants, apartments, beaches, most prominently – gives them a found-object freshness. 2016’s Right Now, Wrong Then follows the herky-jerky courtship of a young woman in Suwon and a director she meets in a temple before Hong restarts the story using gradations as subtle as the haystacks painted by Monet in changing light. This bipartite structure reaps rewards if audiences have the patience to endure them, but Hong rarely writes scripts longer than a hundred minutes. Continue reading

‘Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?’

The ritual abandoned but the romance still exerting a pull, Good Friday has a stillness that attracts me years after I abandoned faith. Gerard Manley Hopkins, never one to take things easy, let alone still-y, has a sonnet for the occasion.

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief-
Woe, wórld-sorrow; on an áge-old ánvil wínce and síng–
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No ling-
Ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief.
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

Is it appropriate to say, “Happy Good Friday!”?

Worst Songs Ever: Jimmy Buffett – “Margaritaville”

Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.

Jimmy Buffett – “Margaritaville”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #8 in August 1977

Robert Forster dropped a bombshell. Asked in a 2006 interview about the contents of his iPod, the Go-Between mentioned Arctic Monkeys, Franz Ferdinand, Beth Orton — and Jimmy Buffett. “It’s really good stuff!” he crowed. “If I hear a cover band performing ‘Margaritaville,’ I’m in heaven.” Now, he knew yours truly was calling from Florida. But I have no reason to doubt his taste. In the interest of full disclosure, I offered, “He writes great melodies.” Longtime readers know I deploy that adjective sparingly. Blame proximity to a songwriting hero for coaxing twaddle out of me. I’ll concede “Jimmy Buffett occasionally writes good, wistful melodies” and leave it at that. Continue reading

Figuring it out: Toni Braxton, Yo La Tengo, and The Breeders

Toni Braxton – Sex & Cigarettes

On a bonus cut on her last album, Toni Braxton played a woman having casual sex for the last time with the husband whom she’ll miss for the rest of her life. Four years later, romance hasn’t gotten any easier: she’s dating a man who crawls into her bed stinking of sex and cigarettes. When her contralto plumbs its rich wine-dark depths, she summons more lust-inflected pain than many singers spend a lifetime realizing, and the songs written by Paul Boutin, Babyface, and Braxton herself are up to it. The profusion of light club beats match an ethos that sees hitting the town as a utilitarian function, and Braxton does more with them than Mary J. Blige did on The London Sessions, in part because when the melodies and beats flirt with the generic (“FOH”) Braxton sounds goofily thick. At times the instrumental bits are mournful garnishes: the organ on “Long As I Live,” the steel drum punching each chorus enjambment in “Missin,’ for example. Length: 30:39.

Yo La Tengo – There’s a Riot Going On

Of course it’s not required – the Hoboken trio stopped recording essential albums a decade ago, maybe longer. But their latest is the most ominously quiet of their career, particularly a middle stretch whose guitars and keyboards undulate too insistently for sleep.

The Breeders – All Nerve

Insouciance is their lodestar. A few letters cunningly arranged separate insouciance and indifference; I saw the latter at Pitchfork Music Festival 2013.

Worst Songs Ever: Mr. Big’s “To Be With You”

Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.

Mr. Big’s “To Be With You”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #1 in February 1992

At this point the anti-Nirvana narrative — that the Seattle trio didn’t quite destroy the pop chart — has been corrected such that the songs scraping the top ten in 1992 get offered as evidence. But Karl Marx analyzed the period after a revolution when the forces of reaction surge, like a dying man finding new strength when gripping the hand of a son or grandson. Hence “To Be with You,” a #1 song for three weeks in early 1992 sandwiched between Right Said Fred’s addled novelty “I’m Too Sexy” and Vanessa Williams’ sublime “Save the Best for Last,” which could’ve hit #1 in 1986 or 2000. Continue reading