I could give you a mirror: The best of Eurythmics

Not much chatter about Eurythmics these days — a pity, for at their prime they were among the more consistent singles artists of their decade. Annie Lennox’s infatuation with her vocal prowess and David Stewart’s guitar noodling and light bag of psychedelic tricks made them insufferable, I’ll admit; for a while he was the aging boomer rocker’s favorite producer. These days I admire their chillier early work. When I wrote about this exemplary comp I didn’t own Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This), a record of jagged synthesizer tracks in which Lennox flits between playing feminine subject and object as if she regarded Bowie’s “Boys Keep Swinging” video as ur text. As visual stylist only Madonna approached her wit and shipped platinum. Lennox’s roots in early seventies singer-songwriter piano rock made her realer than I wanted her to be, at least after 1992’s Diva.

Yet! Until I read Tom Ewing a few years ago I had no idea Britishers held their noses in the presence of Be Yourself Tonight, but I get it: the era of Paul Young and Motown nostalgia triggered revulsion for atrophied pop-soul. If I forget “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves” exists (the tackiest waka-waka guitar ever recorded?), “I Love You Like a Ball and Chain,” “Adrian,” and “Would I Lie to You” ably substitute. The only album from Eurythmics’ run that’s almost without merit is Revenge, a gross and loud ancestor of Steel Wheels — an album recorded for the excuse to sell out Wembley and grow mullets. “Missionary Man” has its merits, but its video is Lennox-Stewart and their band proud to live trudging through the slimes of 1986. My loathing for the title track aside, I’d slot Sweet Dreams as the best of the duo’s albums, with the retread Touch in third place. Squeezed between them is an odd out of time thing that did little business in England and none in America called Savage: a return to wigs and preening using the old technology but with four years’ accumulated craft. Sophie Muller’s videos show Lennox as an MTV Meryl Streep, imitating imitations of human beings.

1. Here Comes the Rain Again
2. You Have Placed a Chill in My Heart
3. I Need a Man
4. Would I Lie to You?
5. I Could Give You (A Mirror)
6. Who’s That Girl?
7. Missionary Man
8. The Walk
9. Sexcrime (Ninety Eighty-Four)
10. I Need You
11. Don’t Ask Me Why
12. The First Cut
13. I Love You Like a Ball and Chain
14. No Fear, No Hate, No Pain (No Broken Hearts)
15. Here Comes That Sinking Feeling
16. Julia
17. Belinda
18. Savage
19. Let’s Go!
20. Wrap It Up

It is now my duty to completely drain you: Nirvana

I have a vivid memory of driving home from the record store on my birthday in November ’91 with my best friend, jamming to the Nirvana album he’d just purchased. I’m pretty sure I made some comment like, “This sounds like some Slayer shit.” I hadn’t heard Slayer.

Looking for referents that explained the sheen given to noise, I stumbled. Rolling Stone awarded Nevermind three stars that season — in a review by Ira Robbins no less. Because we didn’t have MTV, I’ve no idea how ubiquitous the video was. Spring and summer ’92 were pretty great radio seasons, to which Nirvana contributed. By late spring “Come As You Are” was blasting out of cars in the parking lot next to Kriss Kross and “I Love Your Smile” and Joe Public’s “Live and Learn” and “I’m Too Sexy.” In this context Nirvana didn’t sound revolutionary; they sounded like a damn fine rock band, no more no less (and I loved Vanessa Williams’ “Save the Best For Last” too). The myth machine didn’t start, in my experience, until the months leading up to the release of In Utero.

I don’t hold it against Nirvana that the rock press licked their asses as soon as Kurt Cobain got cold, but I also haven’t listened much in the last twenty years. Hole speaks more to me: Courtney Love is a consistently fascinating singer and lyricist, bibulous private life notwithstanding. But there isn’t a month when I don’t sing “I love myself better than you,” one of the aptest taunts to appear in a pop punk tune. A few days ago, after several years’ distance, I re-listened and dug In Utero. Even with Scott Litt remixes this album conceded nothing to popular taste; at the time it was the most abrasive album to hit the top twenty since David Bowie’s Low sailed to #11 in 1977.

Finally, about the documentary: honoring the side of Cobain that put talent into his notebook doodles and his art into songwriting, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is twenty minutes too long and the interviews at times are inconclusive, slackening the film’s rhythm. But I hadn’t seen his early life conjured with this detail, his parents and stepmom given the chance to be people instead of caricatures, their motives as complex and mysterious as Cobain’s best material.

Songs:

1. On a Plain
2. Drain You
3. Verse Chorus Verse
4. Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle
5. Breed
6. Lounge Act
7. Sliver
8. Something in the Way
9. The Man Who Sold the World
10. Rape Me
11. Dive
12. Aneurysm
13. Pennyroyal Tea
14. In The Pines
15. Molly’s Lips
16. Floyd the Barber
17. Heart-Shaped Box
18. Very Ape
19. I Hate Myself…
20. Even In His Youth
21. You Know You’re Right
22. Smells Like Teen Spirit
23. About a Girl
24. Lithium
25. Territorial Pissings

Here come the fear

Three weeks after losing sleep to tatichardia and denial, I’m no closer to accepting what the pundit class regards as a normal election cycle. My instinct is to reject allusions to Weimar Germany as canned and lacking in imagination, like all hyperbole. Remembering the degeneracy of the Bill Clinton opposition and the way in which it fed the bombing of the Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City, Rick Perlstein wonders if it the so-called opposition party is up to the task of, well, opposing. The first step is recognizing the existential nature of the problem, and, according to Perlstein, the Democrats have already failed. Perlstein remembers the growing threat of violence in 1993 and 1994 precipitating the bombing:

I saw the word “terrorism” only once, in a self-congratulatory text about how initial suspicions of “Muslim terrorists” were overcome, fair-minded Americans turning their rage on a corn-fed American boy instead: another blessing, this opportunity to prove that America was not racist. There was no mention of right-wing talk-radio host G. Gordon Liddy advising his listeners the previous year to confront agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Fireams: “Go for a head shot; they’re going to be wearing bulletproof vests.” Or Newt Gingrich’s Republican revolutionaries taking over Congress via rhetoric depicting the federal government as an alien occupying army. Or Jesse Helms informing President Bill Clinton that if he visited North Carolina, he should bring bodyguards.

Or Bob Dole declaring on the floor of the Senate that he had to represent the 57 percent of the population that didn’t vote for Clinton; he made it clear that William Jefferson Clinton may have been president but not his president. Bill Clinton the GOP remembers now as a gentlemanly moderate oasis.

Meanwhile Trump’s nominee to run the Department of Education, whose brother is Blackwater founder Eric Prince, once said in public that changing school systems is a battle as fierce as the Israelites fighting the Philistines:

The Devos family has a long history of supporting anti-gay causes — including donating hundreds of thousands to “Focus on the Family”, a conservative Christian organization that supports so-called conversion therapy aimed at changing a person’s sexual orientation.

During the DeVos interview, the couple talks about a trip to Israel where they learned about a geographical region, called the Shephelah, where battles were fought between the Israelites and Philistines. Betsy DeVos then links this topic to education.

“It goes back to what I mentioned, the concept of really being active in the Shephelah of our culture — to impact our culture in ways that are not the traditional funding-the-Christian-organization route, but that really may have greater Kingdom gain in the long run by changing the way we approach things — in this case, the system of education in the country,” she says.

Only in the last week has a sewer like National Review awakened to the realization that it’s going to get eighty percent of what it wants from a Trump presidency; its writers put influence over policy during the election season, and not for the first time.

On November 6, I looked forward to retiring the Donald Trump hashtag.

Best films of 1957

Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander MacKendrick)
Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick)
Throne of Blood (Akira Kurosawa)
Night of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur)
Nights of Cabiria (Federico Fellini)
Bitter Victory (Nicholas Ray)
Men in War (Anthony Mann)
Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman)
What’s Opera, Doc? (Chuck Jones)
The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean)

What these cryptic signals mean: The best of the Mountain Goats

It’s a pleasure to compile a song list as vast as the Mountain Goats’. An admirer of Joni Mitchell and Boz Scaggs, John Darnielle has shown how narrative and sophisticated rhythms can generate a marvelous frisson when strumming an acoustic guitar. I became a fan with 2004’s We Shall All Be Healed enough to use it as the pivot for a year end essay. 2005’s The Sunset Tree is one of the most compassionate song cycles I’ve ever heard: Darnielle examines a childhood lived in fear as a result of a parent whose three dimensions don’t palliate his viciousness. Drummer, horn charts, H.P. Lovecraft, Bible verses, wrestlers — these are decisions and influences his songs keep assimilating. His curiosity and appetites astonish me.

Full disclosure: I consider John Darnielle a friend.

1. Against Pollution
2. This Year
3. No Children
4. Love Love Love
5. Estate Sale Sign
6. Autoclave
7. Foreign Object
8. Sax Rohmer 1
9. Home Again Garden Grove
10. Pale Green Things
11. The Young Thousands
12. Beautiful Gas Mask
13. Tallahassee
14. Lovecraft in Brooklyn
15. How to Embrace a Swamp Creature
16. The Diaz Brothers
17. Liza Forever Minnelli
18. You or Your Memory
19. The House That Dripped Blood
20. Dilaudid
21. Sourdoire Valley Song
22. The Legend of Chavo Guerrero
23. Letter from Belgium
24. Psalms 40:2
25. The Autopsy Garland
26. International Small Arms Traffic Blues
27. First Few Desperate Hours
28. Dance Music
29. San Bernardino
30. The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton

‘Manchester by the Sea’ understands grief, avoids therapy

I knew I was going to like Manchester by the Sea after the triumph of an early scene. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) rushes from Quincy to a hospital in Manchester too late to say goodbye to his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), dead of a cardiac arrest due to congestive heart failure. In the waiting area Joe’s partner collapses in tears. “Would you like a Kleenex?” the nurse asks. “I’m sorry,” the partner blubbers. “Oh, please,” she says too quickly, with a hint of sourness. I knew Manchester by the Sea was going to be a wonderful movie when a flashback reveals the source of Lee’s penchant for bar fights and losing his patience with tenants of the buildings for which he’s janitor. It would probably qualify as a spoiler to mention it. Suffice to say that its placement — without making a melodramatic point — almost an hour into its running time is a promise fulfilled: the film has confidence in its audience’s willingness to absorb horrors.

Six years after the limbo into which the lumpen and often great Margaret was condemned, Kenneth Lonergan returns with one of 2016’s best pictures. Manchester by the Sea is a rarity: an ebullient film about misery. Lonergan, one of Hollywood’s most prized script doctors and for whom grief is a muse, puts everything he has learned about building scenes since 2000’s You Can Count on Me. Minute to minute I didn’t know what the characters are going to do. Even when it threatens to turn into What What’s Happening to Casey Affleck Now> the film is the closest American example to date of what Mike Leigh achieves every couple of years in England: lived-in pictures with people acting in contradictory, infuriating ways, like the rest of us.

The immediate problem facing Lee is observing the terms of Joe’s will. Appointed the guardian of nephew Patrick, Lee wants him to pull up stakes and move to Quincy, a chilling prospect to Patrick. He’s a popular high school senior with a band and, to Lee’s fascination, a couple of girlfriends, with only one of whom is he sexually active, he assures his uncle (“Strictly basement business”). As played by Lucas Hedges, Patrick is casual, almost complacent about his good fortune; for Lee, like for many teens mourning is an obstacle, an inconvenience. His father’s death means changing a life that’s been so far good to him. Sometimes he plays for small stakes, like the insistence on keeping his father’s decrepit fishing boat. Although he’s reestablished ties over emails with the alcoholic mother whom Joe divorced, he’s more excited about being the reconciler than in the actual reconciliation, shown in a tense, brittle lunch scene in which Elise (Gretchen Mol) pretend they’re cool when it’s obvious that new husband Rodney (Matthew Broderick), a Christian too aware of what sobriety has cost him and Elise, thinks it’s not.

In every good drama the ghost of Jean Renoir flickers, a link to a cinema reminding audiences of what we already know: the truly terrible thing in life is that everybody has their reasons. Attuned to the decidedly un-tragic thoughts of its fully realized human beings, Manchester by the Sea shows men and women making do, muddling through. Boasting a silken Alan Arkin-esque timbre, Affleck has been a weird, ropey presence onscreen; he was compelling in Gerry and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford but gave the impression that he’s watching himself act while fixing a turkey sandwich. Further, pressure cooker performances like Affleck’s as Lee often register as exercises in restraint and not much else (Mark Wahlberg has given a couple of these in James Gray’s early films set in a working class milieu, and Joel Egerton in the recent Loving verges on the necrotic). Lonergan, however, writes Lee not as a stolid man who thanks to a dead brother and wily nephew Learns to Love Again but a seething guy of corrosive temperament who loves and has loved. Affleck is the perfect actor to deliver lines like the following, on Lee describing the condition of Joel’s corpse to Patrick: “He looks like he’s dead. He doesn’t look like he’s sleeping or anything. He doesn’t look gross, either.” In a small role as Lee’s estranged wife, Michelle Williams is a scythe, cutting through conventional notions of grief and that dreadful word “closure.”

To single them out strikes me as ungenerous. From the old tenant on the phone bemoaning a niece’s Bat Mitzvah (“I could slit my throat”) while in the background Lee inspects fixtures and Hedges’ unfussy depiction of normality to Ruibo Qian as the doctor who in flashback explains to Joe’s terrifying family how heart conditions work, the cast operates at an unimpeachable level. Lonergan no longer directs like a writer who has to direct. The whiteness of winter in Manchester, its church towers, and the clapboards of insurance agencies, isn’t used symbolically; it’s the scenery and topography of which Lee and the others form a part. Lonergan has a mind of winter, able, in Wallace Stevens’ words, not to think of any misery in the sound of the wind. When Manchester by the Sea ended, I wanted a sequel.

GRADE: A-

Singles 12/2

My second best week of 2016 is distinguished by my first 10 since 2010 (I would retroactively award several 10s though). No question that “We the People” benefitted from November’s slough of despond, but Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Mohammed, Jarobi, and the late Phife Dawg know better that even if the electoral vote total matched the popular vote a considerable portion of America still hates the ways of Muslims and gays and think black folks must go. This makes Miranda Lambert’s sunny plaint more plaintive and the xx’s “On Hold” more static.

Get to listening, y’all, and get to calling Congress.

Click on links for full reviews.

A Tribe Called Quest – We the People… (10)
Miranda Lambert – We Should Be Friends (9)
The xx – On Hold (7)
John Mayer – Love on the Weekend (7)
Blackpink – Playing With Fire (7)
Britney Spears ft. Tinashe – Slumber Party (7)
Common ft. Marsha Ambrosius – Lodestar (7)
Childish Gambino – Me and Your Mama (5)
Mickey Singh – Phone (4)
Sofía Reyes ft. Reykon – Llegaste Tú (4)
Stevie Wonder ft. Ariana Grande – Faith (4)
Davido ft. Tinashe – How Long (3)
Kiiara – Feels (3)

How to cope past the plague years

From the director of How To Survive a Plague comes a booklength narrative about AIDS. Andrew Sullivan’s review:

This was not a long, steady march toward success. It was a contentious, sprawling, roller coaster of dashed hopes and false dawns — a mini-series where major characters suddenly die and plot twists shock. Nine years into the fight against H.I.V., the average survival time had increased from 18 months . . . to 22. As late as 1994, after more than a decade of organization and activism and research, the activists had split between centrists and radicals, and the new class of drugs, protease inhibitors, were failing in early clinical trials. Worse, the deaths climbed in numbers year after year. AIDS was not an early crisis that finally abated; it was a slowly building mass death experience. The year with the most corpses in America was 1995. The darkest night really was just before the dawn.

Anyone born after 1980 can’t know how fear of contamination affects our ssxual habits, especially when plague victims fell around us.

‘An obscure knack – commemorating World AIDS Day

Despite the progress, so millions dead, including my uncle. Thom Gunn, one of the twentieth century’s great elegists, wrote some of the sharpest and most shattering poems about AIDS, many collected in the epochal The Man with Night Sweats. Here’s “Still Life”:

I shall not soon forget
The greyish-yellow skin
To which the face had set:
Lids tights: nothing of his,
No tremor from within,
Played on the surfaces.

He still found breath, and yet
It was an obscure knack.
I shall not soon forget
The angle of his head,
Arrested and reared back
On the crisp field of bed,

Back from what he could neither
Accept, as one opposed,
Nor, as a life-long breather,
Consentingly let go,
The tube his mouth enclosed
In an astonished O.

Raise a glass.

‘Sully’ tells a hero’s story without fuss – or subtlety

It stars Tom Hanks and is directed by Clint Eastwood – did you expect subtlety? The best I can say about Sully is its brevity: ninety-three minutes in which Eastwood weighs the consequences of United Airlines pilot Chesley Sullenberger’s decision to land an Airbus bound to Charlotte from New York City in the middle of the icy Hudson; every safety protocol indicated that despite the plane’s collision with Canadian geese it was safe to return to La Guardia. Sully’s extraordinary instincts made him a national hero in January 2009. As in many Eastwood-starring or -directed flicks from Dirty Harry to American Sniper, Sully’s independence is questioned by bureaucrats who want the easy thing, here represented by the National Transportation and Safety Board. That’s all there is to Sully – this and the craftsmanship of a eighty-six-year-old filmmaker lighter on his feet than ever and wedded to the fable as genre of choice.

The only bits of distraction in Todd Komarnicki’s screenplay are padding devices intended to humanize: flashbacks to Sully showing grace under pressure flying jets and, in a violation of a movie told from Sully’s point of view, the travails of a father and his grown sons rushing to board the ill-fated flight. The rest of Sully is a compendium of interrogation scenes between the pilot and NTSB functionaries, comic relief offered by co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), and pathos (Laura Linney as Suffering Wife on the Phone). A skeptical NTSB can’t fathom how none of the computer simulations can replicate what Sully did that winter morning; moreover, no evidence yet corroborates Sully’s claim that the left engine also expired. Much is at stake: a decision against him could cost Sully not just the credibility he has staked on a freelance consulting gig but his pension. But Sully, played by Hanks as a man whom self-confidence has made withdrawn and prickly, as if he couldn’t be bothered explaining himself, sticks to his story. “There was no time for speculating; I had to rely on experiences, he explains to Jeff. In a scene with a red flag waving that reads FORESHADOWING, he also says, “I’m not usually accused of being a bullshitter.”

I wish Sully had been accused outright, or at least tried to bullshit; Hanks is often good at flicking dry pellets of sarcasm. It would’ve been a different movie, of course, and this adaptation is one already itself accused of bullshitting about the NTSB’s prosecutorial zeal. To be fair to Eastwood, the robots have hearts of gold after all – how could they not? Millions know the story. More compelling is his recreation of the crash itself. With no music or, apart from those damn tourists, look-ma-I’m-acting, Eastwood shows how flight attendants’ determined professionalism and Sully’s split second decision as emanations from a shared work ethic. Training is not commensurate with experience, as Eastwood subtly underlines: the crew’s only heard “Heads down, stay down” in school while it’s Sully’s acquaintance with the rhythms of ailing jets and the vagaries of air pressure that allow him to beat any simulation coughed up by a computer. Eastwood, who’s directed two dozen films indebted to the terseness of Anthony Mann and mentor Don Siegel, is a product of experience and training.

Having reached this pitch of anxiety, Sully marches towards its predetermined conclusion: an exonerated hero, head high on his way to a lucrative book deal. There’s something to Eastwood’s doggedness. Year in and out he makes these pictures with relatively low budgets that are no more than what you see onscreen; second looks don’t reveal subtleties. Their strength is saying what they mean. Their weakness too. In September Sully became his second highest grossing opening weekend, surpassed only by 2015’s megahit American Sniper. No other director in film history has made so many hits at his age – and keeps having them. Audiences get it. While Sully “feels like a gloss on a richer study,” as Nick Davis remarks, a complex film would have conflicted with Eastwood’s commercial instincts. Hey – next November we may not even have an NTSB.

GRADE: B

Where I am today: the best of Brad Paisley

Until 2013 Brad Paisley was the most liked male country star by critics who didn’t write about country. His politics were right. He was easy on the eyes. No one disputed his guitar prowess. He wrote songs whose jokes didn’t put pathos on the curb. “And then he wrote that stupid song about racism,” as Al Shipley wryly put it. That song is “Accidental Racist,” on which I won’t spend a syllable longer criticizing.

Although he still does moderately well on country radio, he no longer scores instant #1s. To my ears his natural sharpness has dulled: where once an inexhaustible talent for writing songs about stuff like toothbrushes, water, and camouflage lent his albums some welcome suspense — I wondered what he’d get away with next — now I see the wrinkles and seams. I suspect critics who embraced him as a token because he wasn’t Toby Keith (whose own momentum has stalled) have moved on and it’s made Paisley sad. Meanwhile country has moved on to Sam Hunt and Thomas Rhett, whom I like with caution but whose commitments to hip hop and R&B come more naturally because they’re sluts who’ll hire any tunesmith who’ll guarantee hits that’ll pay the gel bills. But don’t count Paisley out.

In the list below I emphasized the Songs About Stuff, including a newly minted hit called “Today” that’s inspirational without the embarrassment of seeing The Power of Now on your lover’s nightstand.

1. Water
2. The World
3. Toothbrush
4. She’s Her Own Woman
5. Mud on the Tires
6. If Love Was a Plane
7. The Cigar Song
8. American Saturday Night
9. Whiskey Lullaby
10. A Man Don’t Have to Die
11. Some Mistakes
12. Time Well Wasted
13. Celebrity
14. I’m Still a Guy
15. I’m Gonna Miss Her (The Fishin’ Song)
16. Remind Me (w/Carrie Underwood)
17. Shattered Glass
18. Easy Money
19. Out in the Parkin’ Lot (w/Alan Jackson)
20. Letter To Me
21. You Do the Math
22. All I Wanted Was a Car
23. Beat This Summer
24. Today
25. The Pants