Outside Reading — Neighborly edition

tomhanks

This Tom Hanks Story Will Help You Feel Less Bad by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

Taffy Brodesser-Akner is the ace of The New York Times staff of writers covering celebrity culture, often taking on more prickly subject and giving a telling prominence to the more challenging elements of their behavior, the sort of infractions against graciousness that are usually left untyped. Her profile of Bradley Cooper, published last year at the height of the A Star is Born publicity push, is already the stuff of legend. for her latest article, Brodesser-Akner is able to take a very different angle, essentially confirming the suspicion — or ratifying the hope — that Tom Hanks is, to paraphrase the headline that will be used in tomorrow’s print edition of Times, as nice as you think he is, or maybe even nicer. For so many reason, the article is a joy to read.

This Week’s Model — Billie Eilish, “Everything I Wanted”

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When a music artist is of an age that a high school locker assignment is still a typical area of concern, it compounds the tendency to assume every song is a confession. Rather than pure invention, they must be using their songwriting notebook as a stand-in for a diary, right? I know that’s a reductive view, detached from the realities of creativity, and yet it sometimes feels like the theory burns with authenticity.

The new Billie Eilish track, “Everything I Wanted,” is her first new music since the release her debut full-length earlier this year. When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? became one of those modern rarities, an album that endured beyond the flare of its initial success. Nearly eight months after it hit record stores, the album is a mainstay in the Top 10 of the Billboard album chart and has sold over two million copies in the U.S. Eilish registered hit songs and almost immediately leveled up to playing stadiums. “Everything I Wanted” sure seems like a direct response to all that stratospheric success, directly addressing the pressure she feels.

The song is edgy, enticing, emotionally raw, and built upon subtle reinventions of pop structure that suggest it hasn’t even occurred to Eilish that there are rules to break. In short, it’s an extension of the blithe innovation that got Eilish to the exalted perch she sit on now. Maybe the track isn’t autobiographical, but it sure is true.

The Art of the Sell — Young MC for Pepsi Cool Cans

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

pepsi cool cans

In the spring of 1990, Public Enemy released their third studio album, Fear of a Black Planet. The incendiary record continued the group’s leveraging of the thumping forcefulness of rap music against the bigotry-driven injustice perpetrated by the nation of millions engaged in a futile effort to hold them back. As much or more than the vaunted protest rock of the nineteen-sixties and early-nineteen-seventies, rap was the soundtrack to revolution. It reverberated with danger and possibility. The emergent musical form was simultaneously in the process of being ruthlessly consumed by the relentless forces of capitalism, which never met a rebellious force it couldn’t co-opt.

That same year, the epitome of a declawed rap star was cheerily making his way through the commercial landscape. In 1989, Young MC released his debut album, Stone Cold Rhymin’, which included the irresistible Top 10 single “Bust a Move.” Besides the enduring mystery of why about-to-be-married Larry would bypass his brother Harry for best man duties in favor of Harry’s closest chum, “Bust a Move” delivered Young MC a Grammy win (besting De La Soul and Public Enemy, among others) and a robust docket of endorsement deals. As Chris Rock noted in a comedy routine at the time, rap music had so quickly and thoroughly transformed from menacing to cuddly that even the Pillsbury Doughboy was spitting out rhymes. (The example sounds like comic hyperbole, but in this instance Rock was an accurate reporter.) And Young MC was eager to play along with the corporate taming of rap music, showing there wasn’t all that much distance between club jam and joyful jingle.

The team player ethos of Young MC was probably best demonstrated by his commercial for Taco Bell, for which he skillfully incorporated the chain’s “Run for the Border” slogan into a closing rhyme. But the ad I remember best found the fresh-faced rapper touting the designer packing gimmick employed by Pepsi, one last charge for supremacy in the waning days of the Great Cola War of the eighties. The commercial included the indignity of translating Young MC’s lyrics for the presumably square audience watching, as if he use of terminology like “hype receptacles” was going to require a kindly airline passenger stepping forward to explain she speaks jive. Mostly, though, the ad sticks in my mind because no matter how many times I saw it (and the thing was in near-constant rotation when it was current) I always expected the couplet “Cool cans are comin’, so don’t be afraid/ And if you get lucky, then you might get paid” was instead going to end with a different rhyming word that suggested the desired outcome for an individual actively seeking a partner for sexual congress. If still wish Young MC had delivered that version of the line. There’s more than one way to fight the power.

Playing Catch-Up — Greta; A Warm December; Veronika Voss

greta

Greta (Neil Jordan, 2019). Neil Jordan’s first feature film in six years is a trashy, inane thriller that’s miles removed from his best work. Except for the requisite appearance by Stephen Rea, it doesn’t even bear much resemblance to the Irish auteur’s previous gigs that seemed driven by paycheck considerations above all. In Greta, a New York City waitress (Chloë Grace Moretz) finds an unattended purse on the subway. Her good samaritan instincts kick in, and she returns the handbag to its owner (Isabelle Huppert), gleaned from identification found inside. Lonely since the death of her mother, the young woman accepts the overtures of friendship put forth from the grateful older lady who misplaced the bag. The situation quickly turns dark. Still in her early twenties, Moretz is an old pro at being terrorized onscreen, and her put-out exasperation plays well against Huppert’s default cold indifference. Jordan has a moment or two that he stages with amusing floridness, but most of Greta is remarkably rote.

 

warm december

A Warm December (Sidney Poitier, 1973). The second features directed by Sidney Poitier, A Warm December fits right into the template of dewy-eyed, tragedy-tinged romance that was set for nineteen-seventies filmmakers the moment Ali MacGraw tearfully explained to Ryan O’Neal that love forestalled the need for apologies. Poitier casts himself as Dr. Matt Younger, an altruistic physician with a penchant for dirt bike racing. On a trip to London, the good doctor meets Catherine Oswandu (Ester Anderson), the niece of an African diplomat. Her initial reluctance to bond too closely with the doctor falls away, and a whirlwind romance begins. Poitier is relentlessly charming in his role, and Anderson is radiant. As a director, Poitier’s visual language is sometimes overly reliant on bland, interchanging close-ups, but there’s a laudable sincerity to his storytelling. The film shifts into lesson mode as Catherine’s medical backstory emerges. Once again, it’s Poitier’s earnest nature as a storyteller that elevates the material above mere didacticism.

 

veronika

Veronika Voss (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1982). German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder overdosed on barbiturates and cocaine three months after Veronika Voss debuted, making it his final directorial effort to be released in his lifetime. (The drama Querelle opened in his home country a little more than three months after he died.) Inspired by the life of German actress Sybille Schmitz, is like a cross of Sunset Boulevard and Frances (the latter was released out the same year) with arch, European arthouse stylings thrown in. Veronika (Rosel Zech) is a movie star past her prime who desperation is further complicated by drug addiction. She’s basically incarcerated by ruthless figures posing as therapists, stringing her along with morphine shots in a long con to take all her money. Fassbinder’s storytelling is adequate, but it’s mostly a means to stage images so sharply beautiful and inventive in their manipulation of light that they’re practically magic tricks. Xaver Schwarzenberger provides the magnificent cinematography. Zech is impressively committed in the title role, but the film’s best performance belongs to Cornelia Froboess, who finds endless reserves of amused animosity as the girlfriend of a sportswriter (Hilmar Thate) who becomes wrapped up in Veronika’s damaged life.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #620 to #617

throwing house

620. Throwing Muses, House Tornado (1988)

Hailing from Boston and famously signed to esoteric U.K. label 4AD, Throwing Muses spent the first chunk of their recording career adhering to a release model more typical of British acts. Over the course of 1986 and 1987, Throwing Muses put out three EPs, making certain London shops always had new music to promote. But the shorter releases had a tougher time getting a foothold in U.S. record stores. When Sire Records picked up the rights to release Throwing Muses material in the States, a full-length effort was called for. House Tornado, the band’s sophomore studio album, arrived in late spring of 1988. Sire, pushing for a breakthrough in the band’s homeland, replaced the very 4AD montage cover art with a stark, stylized image of the band rocking out on a front lawn, as if they were the cool chick version of the Georgia Satellites.

It was folly to position Throwing Muses as straightforward rockers, but a lot of the material on House Tornado has a pleasing edginess to it. The fevered agitation of “Juno” and the galloping tempo of “Marriage Tree” position Throwing Muses as practitioners of an artier, more elusive version of the jangled nerve heartland rock that was the lifeblood of college radio through the mid–nineteen-eighties. They even approximate a Feelies type of jittery energy on “Drive.” The tangly fluidity of “Run Letter” is a better indicator of where Throwing Muses would head in the future, but most of the House Tornado is marked by a purposefully disconcerting sonic jaggedness.

As was usually the case with the band’s early configuration most of the songwriting was handled by Kristin Hersh, with a couple tracks set aside for her bandmate and stepsister, Tanya Donelly (referred to as “Tea,” according to the Sire Records press release that accompanied the album). “The River” finds Donelly in a sharp, tingly mode that aligns nicely with the rest of the record. “Giant” is more fascinating because of the way its shifting tempos and keening melody forecasts the sparer, more experimental tracks from Belly, the band Donelly formed when she finally decided that a token couple of songs per album wasn’t going to keep her creatively satisfied.

House Tornado didn’t cross over to the degree Sire Records hoped, but it did further establish Throwing Muses as college radio favorites. Realistically, there were few other places the band’s lovely discordance was ever likely to fit.

 

depeche black

619. Depeche Mode, Black Celebration (1986)

When Depeche Mode released Black Celebration, their fifth studio album, the ill-informed assumption was that the band was venturing into witch-and-warlock gloom. Lead singer Dave Gahan explained the album’s animating premise was more more mundane.

“It’s actually about how most people in life don’t have anything to celebrate,” Gahan said at the time. “They go to work every day and then go down the pub and drown their sorrows. That’s what it’s about: celebrating the end of another black day.”

The oblique lyrics on the album-opening title cut only hint at a commemoration of workaday persistence (“I want to take you in my arms/ Forgetting all I couldn’t do today”), but musically the track conveys Gahan’s sentiment ably. It’s a disco song for people too weary to dance, its redundant sense of straggling purpose a mirror of the clock-punching grind of the survived day. As a singular effort, it’s an intriguing piece of stealth art pop, with familiar dance music elements tempered by heavy-footed energy dampeners. Spread out across a whole album, the acknowledgment of spiritual exhaustion starts to infect the music.

“A Question of Time” is clunking dance music, and the fussy layering on “Sometimes” comes across as an unsuccessful attempt at forestalling studio boredom. “A Question of Lust” merely drifts, the mild salaciousness of the title obscuring an overall drabness to the song (“It’s a question of lust/ It’s a question of trust/ It’s a question of not letting what we’ve built up/ Crumble to dust”). And anyone who wonders what the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home” would be like if it were conceived as an incredibly tepid goth rock finds their answer with “Dressed in Black.” One of the few tracks that stands out is “Here is the House,” mostly because it stands as the clearest precursor to the aching pop that would make the album Violator into a major hit a few years later.

Black Celebration was a solid performer for Depeche Mode at the time of its release, though received somewhat indifferently by a music press that was feeling a bit uncharitable to the band at the time. They’d achieved some wider commercial success with their prior album, Some Great Reward, so it was time for reactionary counterbalance. The album locked in as an important part of the Depeche Mode canon, and a mere three years later Spin placed it at #15 on their list “The 25 Greatest Albums of All Time,” just ahead of Al Green’s The Belle Album and trailing George Michael’s Faith.

 

eddy killer

618. Eddy Grant, Killer on the Rampage (1982)

Eddy Grant was born in the British West Indies and emigrated to the U.K. when he was twelve years old, joining his parents, who’d worked and lived there for several years. Grant’s father was a trumpeter, but it was the experience of seeing Chuck Berry play live that inspired Grant to pursue a career in music. He started with the Equals, a band that scored a U.S. Top 40 hit in the late nineteen-sixties with the single “Baby Come Back.” A solo career followed, with occasional success in the U.K. and nothing more than a cult following in the U.S.

Grant’s fortunes turned with Killer on the Rampage, his seventh solo studio album. It was also Grant’s first album after choosing to return to his Caribbean roots by moving to Barbados. He opened Blue Wave Studios there, and Killer on the Rampage was one of the first products to stem from the new facility. Accordingly, the album is airy, agreeable reggae songs, or at least tracks that have clearly been influenced by island rhythms. Some political anger occasionally bubbles up in Grant’s songwriting (as in the bold, forceful “War Party”), but more often the tracks just bob along. There might be a attention-getting element somewhere in the mix, such as the hornet-buzz synths on “Drop Baby Baby” (which include the lyrics “My heart does the tango/ With every little move you make/ I love you like a mango,/ ‘Cause we can make it everyday”). The norm is closer to “I Don’t Want to Dance,” which comes frightfully close to the lightweight pleasantness of Huey Lewis and the News.

Released as the album’s first single, “I Don’t Want to Dance” was a smash in the U.K., topping the chart for three weeks, in between similar runs by Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” and the Jam’s “Beat Surrender.” Grant’s next single was the U.S. breakthrough that had long eluded him. “Electric Avenue” merged its reggae rhythm with a seething funk intensity, creating an utterly unique dance track. The single made it the runner-up spot on the Billboard chart, boxed out of the top position by the sixth and final week of Irene Cara’s “Flashdance… What a Feeling” at #1.

 

ultavox lament

617. Ultravox, Lament (1984)

The cover art for Lament, the seventh studio album from Ultravox, includes a photograph of the Callanish Stones, a circular arrangement of towering rocks in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland. With that in mind, I’d like to cede the initial analysis of the album to Andrew Johnstone, author of the 2010 book How The Neolithics Influenced Rock ‘n’ Roll. Of Lament, Johnstone writes:

The album saw the band move away from the synthesized pop of the New Romantic era, into one that featured a greater use of the guitar, so perhaps the inclusion of Callanish symbolized their return to what had been a more traditional means of music making, just as these sites, symbolize to some, a more naturally balanced time in our existence, of synchronicity with the landscape. 

Except for Johnstone’s perplexing deployment of commas, which I’ve preserved in case  my editing of the writing mechanics would disrupt some ancient code, the theory works fine for me. Ultravox, fronted by Midge Ure, was clearly consuming and reflecting the sounds of the day, and maybe offering a not-so-gentle reminder that they’d help shape the contours of the dance-driven pop music that was earning other bands greater global success. “White China” is similar to New Order, who were just starting to take major paddle strokes away from the post-punk dock, and “One Small Day” has a little INXS to it. And Ultravox performs it all with a great deal of stylish swagger, maybe best evidenced by the slithering “Heart of the Country” and the moony, puffed-up heartache of “When the Times Comes.”

As a perfect barometer of the cultural weather fronts around them, Lament includes “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes,” an exemplar of soaring, triumphant misery that was then the cooler edge of British pop. The track is exactly the sort of grand, tuneful wallowing that was earning devoted fandom for the Cure, the Smiths, and their eager copycats. Ultravox predated all those bands, of course, and the elders made it clear that they weren’t going to simply cede the floor to the upstarts.

 

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs

Outside Reading — Thank You for the Chicken edition

succession

Filthy Rich by Michelle Dean

HBO’s Succession was amusing and sharp-elbowed in its first season. For the recently concluded second season, the series engaged a creative turbo boost that rocketed it to delirious new heights. Writing for The New York Times, Michelle Dean shrewdly analyzes the base appeal of the show’s gladiatorial bouts between conniving tycoons. She also pinpoints the true brilliance of Succession as its accurate cynicism about the likelihood of real justice against the wealthy narcissists who carelessly toss around obscene amounts of money in their efforts to build and cling to power. Dean’s closes the article — and her argument — with an observation that is pure, simple perfection.

 

prince

The Beautiful One by Dan Piepenbring

As I’ve acknowledged before, I usually come to New Yorker articles several weeks after publication, and therefore well after they’ve made the social media rounds. So forgive me if my timing seems astray. Dan Piepenbring writes about his experience as the hired co-writer of Prince’s planned memoir, recounting the unreal feelings that came with being drawn into the icon’s orbit. In Piepenbring’s rendering, Prince is beyond fascinating: clearly brilliant (he often seems to be barely keeping up with his own mercurial mind), sweetly generous, committed to maintaining authority over his own work, and deeply self-protective. As much as any other remembrance, this article makes me feel the profound loss of Prince.

 

Even After His Victim Forgave Him, the State Would Not. Until Now. by Dan Barry

eric pizer
(source)

This news article from The New York Times details the case of Eric Pizer, a Wisconsinite military veteran who became the first person in nearly a decade to receive a pardon from the governor. Although the framing of the story emphasizes that Pizer only threw one punch in the incident that led to a felony conviction, reporter Dan Barry doesn’t diminish the consequences. The person of the receiving end of Pizer’s blow endured two surgeries to his broken nose, still has trouble breathing, and suffers from migraines. And yet Pizer emerges as a convincing example proving the dismal state of the broader U.S. justice system. He’s worked hard to make amends for a singular incident, seemingly building a respectable life out of hard work and earnest attempts to simply do better. The felony on his record stood as a practically insurmountable wall, and it stayed in place in part because the state’s actively idiotic Republican governor decided he wasn’t going to pardon anyone — not a single person — throughout his entire tenure. Presumably meant as a proof he was “tough on crime,” the practice instead ignored the reality that systems are fallible and occasionally merit. More to the point, the pardon moratorium is part of the ongoing, mostly right wing–driven fetishizing of incarceration that has created a desperately broken approach that incubates criminality rather than creates a pathway to rehabilitation. A few weeks ago, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was maliciously mocked for her comments on the need for wholesale reform of the U.S. prison system, but, as has usually been the case, she was was completely correct. We’re doing justice wrong.

This Week’s Model — Hazel English, “Shaking”

hazel english

Way back when, I showed up at my college radio station convinced that I needed nothing more to achieve music fan bliss than a bunch of brutish, sloppy dudes banging out raggedy rock songs using the foundational combo of guitars, drums, and bass. I wasn’t necessarily committed to a philosophy that aggressively favored loud, louder, loudest, in reverse order of preference, but I wasn’t far from that either. When I started digging deeper into the new music shelf, though, I quickly found that there was a different combination of elements before which I was even more helpless. Give me perfect, dreamy pop music with a casually charismatic female lead singer, and my soul was sure to be set atremble. And I can still reel from those old lovestruck feelings when the right track hits my ears at the right time in the right way.

Hazel English is an Australian transplant plying her trade in Los Angeles. Two years after a warmly received debut release, English is sprinkling out lovely new sounds like teensy diamonds. “Shaking” is English’s new single, apparently tied to a still mysterious forthcoming release. Airy and lithe, the song is a tender charmer. It has the sort of hook that sneaks up and then locks into place, as deeply embedded as a nervous system. Maybe I should be more sheepish about finding the song irresistible. But I simply believe some music deserves a swoon.