Beers I Have Known: Green Man Sunseeker Pils

This series of posts is dedicated to the many, many six packs, pony kegs and pints that have sauntered into my life at one point or another.

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I live in a state that does just fine by itself when it comes to beer, thanks. But I still miss the lovingly crafted brews of the little mountain town I left about a year ago. It can be especially hard to know that there are always new offerings slushing through taps and getting sealed into cans. Luckily, no matter how skittish the TSA may be about liquids onto aircraft, skilled travelers can figure out how to get a beer or two (or three or four or….) through. And there’s always a good reason to go back to Asheville. Since my partner-in-all-things recently completed the round trip, our Northern fridge is currently surprising well-stocked with Southern beers. Including among those cans and bottles was Green Man’s Sunseeker Pils. Like a lot of brews from the stealthy Western North Carolina innovators, it’s a beauty. It’s got the trademark pilsner crispness with just a hint of trendy sourness on the tongue. It begs to be sipped all day long while watching the shadows of the mountains creep on by.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Beers I Have Known” tag.

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That Championship Season: Braindead, Season One

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Mary Elizabeth Winstead has one particular expression that she delivers better than just about anyone else with an up-to-date SAG card among their personal belongings. Her wide eyes narrow a telling fraction as she surveys some bit of madness in front of her, skepticism and a whirring intellect operating in tandem as she sorts through the cognitive dissonance. Every subtle signal of her face shows that she’s graciously, warily pausing to give reality a chance to admit to the slipstream prank it’s trying to pull. Then, with a little exhale of emotion, she visibly accepts the upending of the plausible and starts in on the necessary mental recalibration for her new paradigm.

There has been ample display of this particular gift in 2016, in the face of unexpected bunkering and a potentially delusional castaway. Admirable as those endeavors might have been, this vital Hollywood resource was most effectively deployed in the service of the sadly under-viewed television series Braindead. In this election year that finds new ways to defy belief on a daily basis, Winstead is a helpful stand-in for us all.

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Created by Robert and Michelle King, who previously ushered The Good Wife into existence, Braindead casts Winstead as Laurel Healy, a fledgling documentary filmmaker from a gently dynastic political family. When she struggles to find funding for her latest film, she’s coerced into returning to Washington, D.C., where she’s employed as a constituent liaison by her senator brother, Luke (Danny Pino). Before long, she discovers the increasingly divisive environment in the U.S. government isn’t merely the natural evolution of a two-party system. The root cause is more fantastic. To reduce the situation to delightful simplicity, the extreme partisanship is attributable to an invasion of space bugs that burrow into the human, hollowing out the parts that allow for empathetic moderation. With the nation’s capital under siege from the stealthy grey matter chompers — the intergalactic insects like nesting in cherry blossoms — any chance at productive governance is shot.

In Braindead, the satire is thrillingly offbeat and yet thoroughly grounded in the reality of modern party politics. As opposed to much of the comedy that traffics in the stuff of news network punditry, Braindead is deft at skewering both sides of the aisle, in part because it doesn’t overtly seek the safety of entirely fictionalized issues. Practically every bit of cantankerous sparring is around the very topics that start the most heated Twitter battles. The creators obviously revel in exposing the hypocrisies of the right, but the left’s intellectual blind spots are given equal time in scorching punchlines. This isn’t a case of the “both sides do it” fallacy that the punditocracy uses to further fuel the discord. Instead, it’s indicative of narrative soundness. Choosing sides in the dramatic conflicts only serves to leave the storytelling problematically imbalanced.

The pivoting between sharp political banter and deliriously unhinged adherence to the rules of the slippery science fiction conceit leads to a more welcome imbalance, or at least spirited unpredictability. Some of the finest moments hinge on following concepts through in their logical illogic, occasionally issuing the snappy friction to instill some originality into otherwise well-worn tropes, such as the romance between Laurel and Gareth Ritter (Aaron Tveit), the right hand man to GOP Senator “Red” Wheatus (Tony Shalhoub).

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The cheeky inspiration of the show is built into every element, including the recap that opens every episode. An absolutely necessity in a time of season-long arcs built for binging, Braindead sidesteps the typical and spoilery Lego tower of clips by employing Jonathan Coulton to troubadour his way through a weekly hyper-verbal ditty that includes all the major plot points a newcomer or a forgetful returner could want. What’s already a meta flourish gets pushed to giddily inventive levels throughout the season, with instances in which Coulton gives up on the convolutions of Braindead and recounts the plot of another show altogether or tunefully tears down the proverbial fourth wall. It’s a cute conceit, but it’s more than that, too. It ideally establishes the tone of the show: clever, charming, and comfortable in its somewhat shambling, ego-free intelligence.

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When she recently accepted her fifth straight Emmy for playing Selina Meyer on Veep, Julia Louis-Dreyfus apologized for inadvertently breaking down the wall between politics and comedy. She had a point. The actual electoral landscape has become so bleakly absurd that it nearly defies satire. In a half-decade on the air, Veep has gone from scabrous send-up portraying a version of Washington that reveals truths by being so much worst than what could feasibly be happening within the halls of power to a comedy that’s astoundingly two steps behind the inane mayhem taking place in the name of the citizenry. Veep didn’t change; the United States changed around it.

While I don’t honestly know for certain that CBS has confirmed there will never be a second season of Braindead, the dismal ratings for the show seem to offer a guarantee that no contract extensions will be drawn up. That might be for the best. Much as I enjoy Winstead’s work on the show, society as a whole is probably better off if Braindead doesn’t have an extended run that wields a similar dark magic as Veep. If she had to offer an echo of the Louis-Dreyfus speech from the Emmy stage five years from now, the world would be in trouble deep. The 2016 presidential campaign has already decisively proven that satire is more fun to watch than it is to live.

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Previously…

An Introduction
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Five
Cheers, Season Five
The Sopranos, Season One
St. Elsewhere, Season Four
Veronica Mars, Season One
The Office, Season Two
The Ben Stiller Show, Season One
Gilmore Girls, Season Three
Seinfeld, Season Four
Justified, Season Two
Parks and Recreation, Season Three
Louie, Season Two
Togetherness, Season One

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College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 142 – 140

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142. Bangles, “Walk Like an Egyptian”

“Walk Like an Egyptian” was written by Liam Sternberg after he saw people awkwardly trying to keep their balance as they crossed the deck of a fairy, putting him in mind of the stiff figures in Egyptian hieroglyphics. Sternberg shopped a demo featuring Marti Jones on lead vocals. Toni Basil turned the song down, and Lene Lovich recorded it, though her version never saw release because she decided to take a sabbatical from the music business for most of the nineteen-eighties. So the demo track kept kicking around, eventually landing on cassette sent to producer David Kahne as he was considering material for Different Light, the second full-length studio album from the Bangles. Though a strong perception developed positioning Susanna Hoffs as the lead singer of the Bangles, the vocal duties were shared somewhat evenly be all four members of the band. That was true of “Walk Like an Egyptian,” with Hoffs, guitarist Vicki Peterson, and bassist Michael Steele each taking a verse. Only drummer Debbi Peterson was left out, the indignity compounded when Kahne opted for a drum machine track instead of her handiwork in the final version of the song. Perhaps understandably, she didn’t have warm feelings for the song. “‘Walk’ to me is a nice little novelty song…but I don’t feel like it’s us,” Debbie Peterson said. Whether or not it was properly representative of the band, “Walk Like an Egyptian” was the Bangles’ biggest hit, settling at #1 on the Billboard charts for four weeks and being designated by the publication as the top single of 1987.

 

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141. Men At Work, “Down Under”

Though the Australian band Men at Work were responsible for some of biggest hits on the U.S. charts in the early, their music initially baffled the major label honchos who’d signed them. Their debut album, Business as Usual, didn’t see release in the United States until some six months after it first started stirring up audiences in their homeland. “The record was rejected twice by the A&R department of CBS in America because they didn’t think there were any hits on the record – despite the fact that ‘Who Can it Be Now?’ and ‘Down Under’ were on it,” lead singer Colin Hay later explained. “They were idiots. Early on it was really quite difficult to get a release in America.” If “Down Under” wasn’t the band’s breakthrough hit, it was undoubtedly the song that defined them, in no small part because of its unashamed commitment to trafficking in pieces of their Australian culture likely to be somewhat perplexing to listeners in other parts of the world. Besides the famed vegemite sandwich reference, the song opens with the lines “Traveling in a fried-out Kombi/ On a hippie trail, head full of zombie.” For most, the translation of a helpful Australian was required to make that tumble of words into anything more than catchy gibberish. Though the song feels buoyant and celebratory, Hays notes it had a more politically pointed undercurrent. “The chorus is really about the selling of Australia in many ways, the overdevelopment of the country,” Hays said. “It was a song about the loss of spirit in that country. It’s really about the plundering of the country by greedy people. It is ultimately about celebrating the country, but not in a nationalistic way and not in a flag-waving sense. It’s really more than that.” The single became the band’s second to top the Billboard chart, staying in the peak position for three weeks in early 1983. Years later, it also brought about a legal headache when the band was named in a copyright infringement suit, claiming the song’s flute solo was lifted from the Australian standard “Kookaburra,” written by Marion Sinclair, in 1932. The band eventually lost the case, and Hay opined the stress of it all contributed to the death of his former bandmate Greg Ham, who played the disputed notes on the original recording.

 

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140. Yes, “Owner of a Lonely Heart”

In 1983, there wasn’t supposed to be a band called Yes. The prog rock giants broke up following the tour in support of their 1980 album, Drama, largely because several band members splintered off to pursue other projects, leaving the few remaining musicians feeling it was inappropriate to continue on under the established moniker. One of those new projects was a band called Cinema, formed in part by Yes alumni drummer Alan White and bassist Chris Squire. Once other Yes bandmates orbited into the project, the associated record label made the strong suggestion that they give up the pretense and reclaim their old band name (which the label surely felt was more famous and potentially lucrative). One of those returning cohorts was singer Jon Anderson, who was handed a mostly completed track shortly after he joined up. “The song was already finished, but there were no verses,” Anderson recalled. “They had tried some verses and it really wasn’t working. They had the chorus, they had the arrangement. I came in and all the songs were virtually put together, but there was a lack of choruses here, verses there.” He quickly lit upon the opening lines — “Move yourself/ You always live your life/ Never thinking of the future” — and was off from there. “Owner of a Lonely Heart” became the lead single from the 1983 album 90125. It also became the first song that Yes took to the top of the U.S. charts, spending two weeks there in early 1984.

 

As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown. The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.

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From the Archive: The Vanishing

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This clipping can be yours for a mere $150!

The review was written for my college student-run newspaper. I’d watched the 1988 Dutch original, so I’m not precisely sure why I neglected to note that the inferior remake was directed by the exact same person: George Sluizer. That seems like a pertinent detail for a film critic to share. 

The Vanishing is a prime example of how Hollywood can take a great idea and completely muck it up.

Based on an intriguing and unsettling 1991 Dutch film of the same name, The Vanishing involves a man’s obsession with his girlfriend’s mysterious disappearance while on vacation. Kiefer Sutherland gives a strong performance, convincingly capturing the man’s feverish intensity.

After a frustrating three years, Sutherland finally comes face to face with his girlfriend’s abductor (Jeff Bridges). Bridges offers to reveal what happened to her, but he insists that there is only one way to do this. Sutherland must experience what she experienced.

It’s certainly a chilling prospect, and many of the film’s best scenes involve Bridges’s methodical manipulation of Sutherland. Sutherland’s fixation on learning the details of his girlfriend’s ordeal makes him willing to do anything, and Bridges uses it to his advantage. Sutherland’s new romantic interest (played by Nancy Travis) adds excess baggage to the film and dulls the suspense.

The film really falls apart at the end. Rather than stick with the movie’s subtle yet creepy tone, the filmmakers choose to finish up with a predictable, excessive, completely unbelievable ending. Every supposed shock in the last twenty minutes of The Vanishing will be familiar to anyone who has ever watched a thriller or horror film before.

If the story still intrigues you, try combing the local video stores for a copy of the fine foreign film that initially told the tale. If you insist on seeing the Americanized version, just remember that an awful lot was added in the translation.

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One for Friday: Ben Lee, “End of the World”

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I remember a spring afternoon in 1997. I was standing in Strictly Discs, as fine of a record store as can be found in Madison, Wisconsin, as a learned music fan was browsing the new releases and chatting with the guy behind the counter, as learned music fans are wont to do. And the shopper’s stack grew larger, he was talking about the upcoming releases that he’d already had a chance to somehow hear, declaring that Something to Remember Me By, the sophomore full-length from Ben Lee was a masterpiece. I was filled with envy.

I’d happened upon Lee while I worked at the commercial radio station. I certainly didn’t hear his music on those airwaves. Instead, I bought his debut, Grandpaw Would, as part of my constant and haphazard plan to keep filling my collection with the sort of overlooked wonders that defined my college radio days. He was still a teenager when those first couple solo albums were released, but he had a way with language that I appreciated. While I was drowning in the leaden imagery of Pearl Jam and Live, Lee’s offhand, unassuming cleverness was a salve.

So I didn’t get to hear Something to Remember Me By early, but I did buy it the day it came out. At Strictly Discs, of course. I don’t know that I agreed it merited quite the superlative that I’d heard assigned to it, but it served as a pretty good summer soundtrack for me. And when certain lyrics really clicked — “I’m gonna tear down the main city street in a stolen police car/ Record the world’s trashiest song and make myself a star,” on “End of the World” — I was genuinely grateful that I’d managed to find Lee’s music in my exploring.

Listen or download –> Ben Lee, “End of the World”

(Disclaimer: Look, this song and album may very well be purchasable from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that compensates both the owner of the store in question and the original artist. If it is, you should do that. It’s really good. I’m sharing this here not to discourage you from supporting the artist, but indeed quite the opposite. Though I mean no harm, I know the rules. If I’m asked to remove this file from my little corner of the digital world by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request, I will gladly and promptly do so.)

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The Art of the Sell: “Basketball pro? No.”

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

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The primary motivation behind sharing this today is to acknowledge that I’m spending the bulk of this Thursday in my grown-up costume. That also helps account for the relatively low-content mode the space is in, I’m afraid. It’ll get wordier again next week.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Art of the Sell” tag.

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Laughing Matters: “The Desert Inn has heart!”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

What can I type? This is on my mind tonight.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

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September 2016
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