The best of David Sylvian and Japan

When Bryan Ferry appears in a vision, you look for subsequent manifestations in soup bowls, hubcaps, clouds of vape smoke, and Negronis. Wedge haircuts were endangered species in 1994, so David Sylvian and Japan got me hard at the moment when his generation looked louche. But Ferry had released no new material in seven years, thus beginning my deep dive into New Pop, the New Romantics, and every UK artist who embarrassed grad students in the Clinton era. I bought Gentlemen Take Polaroids and Tin Drum, still beloved by Anglophiles and Britishes mesmerized by Japan’s admittedly mesmerizing Top of the Pops appearance playing “Ghosts,” rightly praised by Simon Reynolds as the most outrageous performance in the show’s history: four mascaraed fops playing their instruments with Keanu-like intensity as if afraid they’d zonk out. Listeners repelled by Sylvian’s voice won’t get far with Japan’s music. A proficient syntheses of Western assimilations of Asian music as opposed to respecting the integrity of Asian music itself, the songs on Japan’s breakthroughs flirt offhandedly and, to my ear, flippantly with totalitarian chic — forget Sylvian, in Sally Jesse Raphael drag, struggling with chopsticks while a photo of Mao glowers from the corner of the Tin Drum sleeve; they’ve got a song called “Rhodesia” for god’s sake, and readers who can parse “Oh, heartaches from Amsterdam/Masturbated over jilted bouquets/Approximation’s counting on a freight line” can speak to my lawyers or a linguistics major.

Still, David Sylvian has recorded a lot of compelling pastoral music, much of which he recorded solo after 1983 as a rhythmically pallid but colorful at a top line level, like a frieze. I jonesed for Bryan Ferry, others for Brian Eno and Jon Hassell collaborations; Sylvian’s music approximates them like Change did Chic’s. David Sylvian was still tops at the local bookstore where I worked at the dawn of the new millennium, specifically Dead Bees on a Cake and his two-disc comp, which is tighter than it has a right to be. I often play him when writing before bed.

1. Orpheus
2. Gentlemen Take Polaroids
3. Adolescent Sex
4. Fall in Love With Me
5. Forbidden Colours
6. Quiet Life
7. Nostalgia
8. Ghosts
9. The Boy with a Gun
10. Blackwater
11. Swing
12. Pulling Punches
13. The Art of Parties
14. Taking the Veil
15. Halloween
16. Methods of Dance
17. Wave
18. Talking Drum
19. Nightporter
20. I Surrender

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Dream in the dream with me: the best of English New Pop

I’m not sure Simple Minds nis best anything, especially after 1984, but the sun-rising-over-the-face-of-the-ocean opening of “New Gold Dream” heralds a brief golden age better than the rest of these selections. If New Pop crossed over in America at all, credit a rise in MTV subscriptions in 1982 and 1983 before hubris ended things. Note the number of times “ghost” appears as noun and adjective – these acts knew.

1. Simple Minds – New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84)
2. Human League – Open Your Heart
3. Culture Club – Time (Clock of the Heart)
4. Thompson Twins – Hold Me Now
5. Imagination – Just an Illusion
6. Gary Numan – We Are Glass
7. Adam and the Ants – Stand and Deliver
8. Spandau Ballet – To Cut a Long Story Short
9. Fun Boy Three – Our Lips Are Sealed
10. The Specials – Ghost Town
11. Talk Talk – Talk Talk
12. ABC – The Look of Love (Part 1)
13. Duran Duran – Planet Earth
14. Visage – The Anvil
15. Eurythmics – Love is a Stranger
16. Soft Cell – Say Hello, Wave Goodbye
17. The Jam – Ghosts
18. Japan – Ghosts
19. A Flock of Seagulls – Wishing (If I Had a Photograph of You)
20. Haircut 100 – Favorite shirts (Boy Meets Girl)
21. Tears For Fears – Mad World
22. Ultravox – Passing Strangers
23. The Beat – Stand Down Margaret
24. David Bowie – Modern Love
25. Roxy Music – Same Old Scene
26. Orange Juice – Rip It Up and Start Again
27. Magazine – Shot by Both Sides
28. Gang of Four – Damaged Goods
29. New Order – Ceremony
30. Bow Wow Wow – C-30, C-60, C-90 Go!
31. Haysi Fantayzee – Shiny Shiny
32. Pete Shelley – Homo Sapien
33. Scritti Politti – Jacques Derrida
34. Heaven 17 – Penthouse and Pavement
35. Dollar – Give Me Back My Heart
36. Grace Jones – Pull Up to the Bumper
37. PiL – Public Image
38. The Raincoats – Fairytale in the Supermarket
39. Bananarama – Shy Boy
40. Frankie Goes To Hollywood – Two Tribes

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Our mutual friend

The perspicacity and elegance of the current Oval Office occupant:

AP: Can I ask you, over your first 100 days — you’re not quite there yet — how do you feel like the office has changed you?

TRUMP: Well the one thing I would say — and I say this to people — I never realized how big it was. Everything’s so (unintelligible) like, you know the orders are so massive. I was talking to —

AP: You mean the responsibility of it, or do you mean —

TRUMP: Number One, there’s great responsibility. When it came time to, as an example, send out the 59 missiles, the Tomahawks in Syria. I’m saying to myself, “You know, this is more than just like, 79 (sic) missiles. This is death that’s involved,” because people could have been killed. This is risk that’s involved, because if the missile goes off and goes in a city or goes in a civilian area — you know, the boats were hundreds of miles away — and if this missile goes off and lands in the middle of a town or a hamlet …. every decision is much harder than you’d normally make. (unintelligible) … This is involving death and life and so many things. … So it’s far more responsibility. (unintelligible) ….The financial cost of everything is so massive, every agency. This is thousands of times bigger, the United States, than the biggest company in the world. The second-largest company in the world is the Defense Department. The third-largest company in the world is Social Security. The fourth-largest — you know, you go down the list.

So much winning.

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Keeping the house in order: MoPOP Pop Conference 2017

At the MoPOP Museum, about three dozen conference attendants and more than a few bemused tourists packed the cavernous planetarium-like chamber called the Sky Church to hear activist dream hampton and Robert Christgau testify. Voice often cracking with emotion, the self-styled Dean of American rock critics read from ““Who the Fuck Knows: Covering Music in Drumpfjahr II,” which chided colleagues whose work in the last year failed to address the horror of November 2016. He still had hope, he insisted; a lifetime of commitment to unionized labor and the power of organized action had born fruit with the millions-strong resistance to Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominations and his determination to kill people unblessed with good health.

So it was regarding “Sign O’ the Times: Music and Politics,” this year’s theme. “Is there a heaven?” Bryan Ferry sang in 1973. “I’d like to think so.” For a majority of attendees, this annual event offered solace as well as stimulation. Anxious, quiet chats with colleagues this weekend confirmed the news is bad, bad, bad for rock crit: more layoffs, more consolidations, more clickbait, which, to be clear, would have taken place had Hillary Clinton won. But for two full days and two half ones — the longest pop conference I’ve attended — we beat on, boats against the current. From Jalylah Burrell’s marvelous “Spurning the Soul Silo: Millie Jackson’s Freedom Songbook” and Tim Quirk’s “Tim Quirk, “What I Learned in Jail” to Annie Zaleski’s “November Spawned a Monster: Why Morrissey’s Tangible Acknowledgment of Disability Culture Remains so Radical,” which took a good look at the Smiths singer’s contradictory and maddening use of disability equipment for presentational ends of uneven quality, and Jose G. Anguiano-moderated panel addressing the many prisms—Mexican, queer, performative—through which to examine and enjoy the work of the late Juan Gabriel, the presentations bore the influence of a lifetime’s inquiry and passion. I learned from my co-panelists too: Sheryl Kaskowitz on the New Deal-era Resettlement Administration’s interest in community musical projects and Jeff Trevino’s study of North Korea’s Moranbong Band. And I haven’t even mentioned the erudition and wit of David Cantwell, Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Keith Harris, and Michaelangelo Matos, colleagues on the panel I moderated, “Red, White & You.”

“No one got this far by complaining about how much it sucks out there,” I wrote lat year. “We get to work.” More true than ever.

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Because y’all want more Reagan out of me

I’ll have a MoPop Conference post-mortem up soon. Here’s a copy of my paper “Mourning in America: How Ronald Reagan Smiled on a Low, Dishonest Decade”

Mourning in America

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Best of the Eagles

It took hours to cut the deadwood.

1. The Long Run
2. One of These Nights
3. Life in the Fast Lane
4. Journey of the Sorcerer
5. I Can’t Tell You Why

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My favorite sci-fi flicks

“Films that question reality and regard existence as infinitely strange” is my definition of sci-fi cinema, which encompasses Krystof Kieslowski’s 1994 masterpiece and one of Woody Allen’s best and most prescient comedies.

1. Metropolis
2. Aliens
3. The Man Who Fell to Earth
4. The Fly
5. Three Colors: Red
6. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
7. Children of Men
8. The Empire Strikes Back
9. Solaris (1972)
10. The Day the Earth Stood Still
11. Sleeper
12. Total Recall
13. Repo Man
14. Alphaville
15. The Truman Show
16. The Thing
17. Soylent Green
18. ET the Extra-Terrestrial
19. Ghost in the Shell
20. Seconds
21. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
22. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
23. The Terminator
24. Looper
25. 1984

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‘Social issues’ ARE economic

An election battle over the mayoral race in Omaha has given the New York Times the excuse to run yet another story pitting “economic justice” versus “social issues”:

Not every liberal sees the issue as so clear-cut. Ms. Weingarten, who was a Clinton supporter, argued that the question of whether to focus on economic justice or social issues was “not an either-or” proposition. The red-and-blue-state tour that Mr. Sanders and the Democratic National Committee officials are on “conveys to the public that the Democratic Party is first and foremost a party of economic opportunity,” she said.

That back-and-forth is an extension of Democrats’ soul-searching after losing an election that they thought they would win. Many Democrats believe that Mrs. Clinton erred by not making economic populism more central to her campaign against Mr. Trump, relying instead on a mix of cultural liberalism and character attacks.

Just as the Republican establishment battled the nascent Tea Party over conservative purity after its 2008 loss, Democrats are enduring internecine strife over what it means to be a progressive.

For the love of god, not again. When a woman decides to get an abortion, bringing the pregnancy to term depends on whether she can afford to raise a child. When trans citizens fight for access to bathrooms, they don’t want to be killed. When gays and lesbians want marriage, they want the tax breaks and spiritual comfort that the institution brings (my skepticism about the latter is of no account). How are these three things not examples of “economic justice”? Running a candidate who opposes or is at best lukewarm about access to safe abortions depends on any number of factors,most importantly whether the voters in that district think the candidate understands the district’s problems. The rest is balderdash, an effort by political reporters to engage in false equivalency.

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‘The Lost City of Z’ a sober, cool look at obsession

In the last scene of The Lost City of Z, the wife of explorer Percy Fawcett (Sienna Miller) at last transports herself out of London: reflected in a large mirror at the foot of a staircase she has descended is the jungle into which her husband and son have vanished. This is the only bit of self-conscious poetry in a movie that treats narrative as a exercise in Euclidean logic. After all, the filmmaker is James Gray, who since opening his career with the crime films Little Odessa and The Yards has become an expert in expanding his way out of his constrictions to become one of the most resourceful and probing of modern American writer-directors. Presenting itself as a rebuke to a Joseph Conrad novel, The Lost City of Z wonders how men reared in the customs of the greatest colonial empire since Rome can with their education declaw their prejudices about so-called primitive cultures.

An alarmingly handsome Charlie Hunnam stars as Fawcett, a colonel in the British Army of 1906 for whom deer hunting (a stodgy affair captured in an opening sequence by Darius Khondji in which swollen men in tight uniforms sit atop their horrified steeds) and a sedentary life means an early grave. Ambition gnaws at him, and in Victorian England an undistinguished past that includes a drunken father means no status. Then the Royal Geographic Society summons him: he must lead an expedition into the hinterlands between Bolivia and Brazil for the purpose of mapping the British’s rubber claims. “I think you will find me capable of any sacrifice,” Fawcett says, thrusting his chin at the camera.  Accompanying him is aide-de-camp Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) and Willis, a native guide who as they journey up the river enthralls the group with accounts of a lost city; when your crew starts belching black goo, the mosquitoes are as large as tapirs, and indigenous tribes shoot arrows from shorelines, any scraps of pottery and faces carved into trunks will look promising.

Gray has already made one film in which the laws of the jungle loosen the bonds of family: 2007’s much underrated We Own the Night, in which loved ones are powerless to stop the decline of Joaquin Phoenix. That film also boasted an unusual intensity, vise-like in its force and concentration; it was serious about its subject, too serious too wink at, much less acknowledge, its audience, and, despite this, remarkably, no lapses into camp. Marshaling everything he’s learned about filmmaking, The Lost City of Z has the coolness of a fait accompli; unlike Herzog or Coppola, Gray and Fawcett’s obsessions do not fuse, which might explain a few of the confused reviews I’ve read. As the years pass and Fawcett commutes, like a bank manager visiting a remote branch, between London and the jungle, he is no closer to finding Z than at the start of his quest; he’s obsessed but not mad.

I’ve also read grumbling about the casting of Hunnam and the seriousness with which Gray takes Fawcett’s pieties about exploring the unknown and faith and all the rest. Without Hunnam’s sobriety, The Lost City of Z‘s sureness would look less persuasive. Playing a feminist with a simpatico husband who gets knocked down a peg after suggesting she’s up to the depredations of the jungle, Miller gives her best performance. Gray’s ear for the rhythms of speech give her and Hunnam’s scenes their charge (Gray is one of the few American writer-directors who can write). Robert Pattinson, disappearing into his beard, does self-effacing work and an assured bit of  Jonathan Pryce mimicry. One of the film’s most potent scenes takes place after Fawcett’s maiden voyage when the Society demands he address that august, pompous body. Tempers rise on learning about his conviction that the indigenous people had a civilization as advanced as the white man’s. The polysyllabic fervor and the teasing way in which the members and Hunnam goad and patronize and eventually come together is rather winning, like a session of Parliament seen by an observer, or the crowd scenes in Orson Welles pictures.

Although Fawcett’s children are dim, love-starved creatures, The Lost City of Z is not one of those movies distracted by Oscar-programmed confrontations between the iron-ribbed patriarch and his creations. Following the outlines of David Grann’s 2005 account, an aged Fawcett and his eldest son Jack (Tom Holland), at the behest a consortium of newspaper editors, set out a final time into the jungle in 1925, a final time because they are never heard from again. There’s no sense of loss. Inherent in tragedy is inevitability.

GRADE: A-

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Singles 4/21

A week of medium-intensity singles — I’ve never awarded so many 5s, although I’d bump “Think a Little Less” a notch this morning after succumbing to the sheen (the song’s, not Michael Ray, who’s no slouch himself).

Miranda Lambert – Tin Man (7)
Prince Royce & Shakira – Deja Vu (7)
Sheryl Crow – Halfway There (6)
Haloo Helsinki! – Hulluuden Highway (5)
Michael Ray – Think a Little Less (5)
Drake – Passionfruit (5)
Maggie Lindemann – Pretty Girl (5)
Tim McGraw & Faith Hill – Speak to a Girl (5)
Kendrick Lamar – HUMBLE. (4)
Kamaliya – Aphrodite (2)
Black M ft. Shakira – Comme Moi (2)
Little Mix ft. Machine Gun Kelly – No More Sad Songs (2)

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The party ain’t jumpin’ like it used to: The best of Usher

The most fluent R&B balladeer of the last twenty years, Usher Raymond IV has struggled lately. Like Brad Paisley, he flings himself at trends and subjects, hoping for a hit. In his case, his biggest album was his best: the juggernaut called Confessions, for a long time (i.e pre-Adele) my pick for last album released this century to get diamond-certified. Hope isn’t lost; 2012’s “Climax” is one of his plushest and most committed performances, and last year’s release showed signs of life. But he should stop hoping the Chainsmokers remember he exists.

1. U Got It Bad
2. Climax
3. Burn
4. That’s What It’s Made For
5. Do It To Me
6. Looking 4 Myself
7. Papers
8. U Remind Me
9. Simple Things
10. Missin’ U
11. Dive
12. Caught Up
13. Good Kisser
14. Throwback (ft. Jadakiss)
15. Lemme See
16. Here I Stand
17. U Don’t Have to Call
18. I.F.U
19. Nice & Slow
20. There Goes My Baby

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Best films of 1937

1. Grand Illusion (Jean Renoir)
2. You Only Live Once (Fritz Lang)
3. Easy Living (Mitchell Leisen)
4. Make Way for Tomorrow (Leo McCarey)
5. The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey)
6. Stella Dallas (King Vidor)
7. History is Made at Night (Frank Borzage)
8. Pépé le Moko (Julien Duvivier)
9. Lady Killer (Jean Grémillon )
10. The Prisoner of Zenda (John Cromwell and W.S. Van Dyke)

Anyone watched They Won’t Forget? The synopsis is remarkable.

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