Spectrum Check

Considering it was a short week, I had a lot of material up at Spectrum Culture. The most challenging piece to write was my “Revisit” on Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill, part of my ongoing attempt to exhaust all of my pop culture touchstones for the site. I suspect the result reads as a little more unkind towards the film than my actual, official stance on it, but I went where the writing took me.

The other film I wrote on was a new documentary on Bettie Page. I picked it up because of the promise that the famously private Page would provide the running commentary. Fun as it was to listen to her, she wasn’t interesting or revelatory enough to fully make up for the other shortcomings in the filmmaking.

I also wrote on the music side of the site, reviewing the new outing from Shearwater, which I requested before I was aware it was a covers album. I probably wouldn’t have asked for it with that knowledge, but I’m glad I did. It reminded me of Lyle Lovett’s Step Inside This House in terms of standing as a collection of covers that offered as much insight into the artist as a batch of originals. I wish I could have found a way to cite the Lovett album in the review.

Finally, I pitched in exactly three sentences for the most recent edition of the Monthly Mixtape feature, writing about Neko Case unexpectedly covering one of my favorite artists on her new release. Well, on the bonus tracks for her new release, anyway.

One for Friday: Dream Warriors, “Wash Your Face in My Sink”

For all the fondness and pride I have when I look back at my college radio years, I’m also amused by all the instances when my alma mater station proved to be far from prescient. Given the span of years when I happily toiled as an undergrad in the poster-laden studios, I’d love to be able to report that we were truly among the first to play the bands that would eventually become a sacred part of the indie firmament. But I don’t actually remember us giving a whole lot of airtime to, say, Bleach before Nevermind. For a college station, we were solidly middle-of-the-road, far more likely to given saturation airplay to the new U2 than some upstarts called My Bloody Valentine (who names themselves after a evil miner slasher film anyway?). Nowhere did our shortcomings in gauging what was truly cutting edge and the sound of future come through than when it came to hip hop. Our deejays were largely baffled by Paul’s Boutique and I think it’s very possible that 3 Feet High and Rising never actually landed on one of our turntables (even the follow up, De La Soul is Dead, released well after the group’s bona fides were established, went largely unloved at my station). But we were All In on the Canadian duo Dream Warriors.

In our belated defense, we were hardly the only college radio station that succumbed to the grooving charms of Dream Warriors. During the spring and summer of 1991, the CMJ “Top Cuts” chart was strewn with tracks off their debut album, And Now the Legacy Begins. The single “My Definition of a Boombastic Jazz Style” was the one that was ubiquitous, but it seemed like some new deep cut was discovered and celebrated by the flannel-clad tastemakers every few weeks. The same was true at our station, where out of the blue a song that had been previously ignored was all over the airwaves. Technically, “Wash Your Face in My Sink” was the lead single, but I remember it bubbling to life after “Boombastic” had established itself as one of the songs of summer. I could be wrong: the Dream Warriors trip is a swirl of happy, zippy rhythms in my memory.

As implied, if selecting songs for our playlists was a bet on the future, then we pushed a lot of chips onto the wrong square with Dream Warriors. There were three more albums from the band, none of them making much of an impact. The last, the hopefully and sadly titled The Legacy Continues…, was released in 2002, only in their home country. As far as I can tell, all of the various members–the original duo and the couple extra warriors they picked up along the way–simply faded into obscurity after that. At least those scruffy kids in central Wisconsin over twenty years ago believed that there actually was a legacy getting underway. That’s something, I guess.

Listen or download –> Dream Warriors, “Wash Your Face in My Sink”

(Disclaimer: As the hyperlink above indicates, we’ve been through this once before. I do believe that And the Legacy Begins and the later “Greatest Hits” release that also contains this song are both entirely out of print as physical objects, of the sort that one could procure from one’s favorite local, independently-owned records store in a manner that duly compensation both the proprietor of said store and the original artist. The song is shared here with the understanding that doing so impedes no worthwhile commerce. Still, I will gladly remove the song if asked to do so by any person or entity with due authority to make such a request making such a request. As a bonus, I’ll even removed the earlier song I posted from the same album: a two-for-one special, in keeping with Black Friday sales mania.)

The boys next door, the mums and dads, newlyweds and nearly-deads

dallas club

In the film Dallas Buyers Club, when Ron Woodruff is told he has AIDS, he’s also told he has thirty days to live. Much is made of this countdown to mortality, with helpful onscreen title cards occasionally providing an update on how long its been since the pronouncement was made. It conveys the urgency of Woodruff’s dilemma, but perhaps in a way that’s unnecessary and even fussy. Surely the diagnosis itself, accompanied by honest dramatization of the era–the grinding helplessness of doctors, the immediate bigotry of Ron’s friends and colleague, the physical ravages of those afflicted–is enough to express the seriousness of the moment, even for those who don’t have long enough memories to call up a time when the letters HIV were tantamount to a death sentence. Therein lies the dilemma of director Jean-Marc Vallée’s film: it is well-meaning and even affecting, but it also dogged by a tendency to deliver its message in ways that weaken its overall impact.

Matthew McConaughey plays Ron, having undergone the sort of extreme physical transformation that automatically earns plaudits. He’s startling gaunt, but it’s his regained whiplash creativity of recent years that’s the truly impressive part of the performance. Toning down his wild-eyed tics in favor of a wired intensity, McConaughey signals the tenacity and invention that lead to Ron’s survival better than anything in the script (co-credited to Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack). When the doctors basically tell Ron that there’s very little they can do for him save orchestrate his inclusion in a drug study (in which he’s as likely as not to be receiving a placebo instead of actual medication), Ron takes matters into his own hands. Researching other innovative treatments happening across the globe and finding ways to bring the necessary drugs, proteins and other materials into the States, Ron becomes his own stealth physician. Eventually, he expands his operation to include anyone willing to pay a monthly fee and the Dallas Buyers Club is open for business.

This is precisely the sort of self-preserving scholarship and defiance of slow-moving authority that typified much much of the early response to the AIDS epidemic, when the President of the United States couldn’t even be bother to speak the name of the disease (and even when he finally did for the first time, did so in the service of moralistic hectoring, essentially arguing against sex education and treatment). The efforts of Dallas Buyers Club to dramatize this movement is commendable, and the filmmakers must believe they’ve got the perfect story to do it in Ron’s entrepreneurship of survival. A straight man who the film implies caught the disease after unprotected sex with a intravenous drug user, in some ways Ron has a longer journey to make, overcoming his own virulent prejudice to better serve the community he once disdained. The film initially plays up this element of Ron’s personality, but there’s not enough conviction to the storytelling to make that a meaningful throughline. Essentially, once he’s befriended a transgender patient (Jared Leto, far better than he’s ever been on film before), the personal growth is complete and largely forgotten about. Only Ron’s late-film rumination on whether he’s done anything of value in his life–in a scene that is hackneyed and dull–hints at anything deeper than the surface conflicts.

In its best moments, Dallas Buyers Club has a bit of flinty charm, an unchastened moxie that suits the actor in the lead role. Indeed, on the basis of the lackluster mechanics that are evident in the rest of the film, it’s entirely possible that it’s only the flecks of ingenuity it picks up from McConaughey, almost by osmosis, that makes the film work at all.

Top Fifty Films of the 60s — Number Five

 

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#5 — High and Low (Akira Kurosawa, 1963)
Director Akira Kurosawa is so strongly associated with samurai films–his signature films that it can be jarring to see him working with a story set outside of feudal Japan. Natural as that reaction might be, it’s also silly, of course. What marks Kurosawa’s filmmaking is a pure command of the mechanics of narrative, the differing levels of emotional intensity and an ability to shape and shift mood. That can translate to any story, any time, any place. John Ford and Howard Hawks may have prospered in westerns, but that didn’t make it strange when they triumphed with other styles of cinematic efforts. Like them, Kurosawa knew his way around the dynamics of a movie like few others, making it thrilling no matter what he leveled his artistic gaze at. Indeed, one of the reasons I am so completely taken with High and Low is that Kurosawa shows just how many different forms he can master within the space of a single feature.

In modern-day Japan, Kurosawa regular Toshirō Mifune plays a wealthy executive who becomes the target of a criminal endeavor just as he’s about to complete a major deal, using most of his personal fortune to do so. He receives a call claiming that his young son has been kidnapped. The criminals demand a sum that will essentially wipe out the executive’s ability to complete the deal. He’s prepared to pay up when his son arrives home, completely safe and with no sense of any problems. In short order, the kidnappers realize their mistake: they inadvertently captured the child of one of the executive’s servants instead of their intended quarry. They still have a child and presumably an enduring desire for money, so they ask for the exact same sum from the man, setting up a particularly sticky moral dilemma. There is still a boy in harm’s way, and the amount is precisely what the executive had been prepared to pay. But now the personal stakes are lowered, with the prospect of a very different sort of guilt if he chooses to ignore the demand.

This psychological back-and-forth represents only the first part of the film, which takes place almost entirely in the spacious apartment of the executive. Kurosawa (working with a trio of other screenwriters) teases out the conflicts and emotional underpinnings of the story like a master playwright, delivering something with the meticulous restraint and intricacy usually associated with the likes of Harold Pinter. For a creator who was best known for the startling momentum of swords and devastating hails of arrows, he has a perfect sense of how to get the same heightened impact out of drawing room debates. From there, the film expands past the apartment, becoming equal parts procedural, thriller and psychodrama, each different form taking turns and then intermingling. The whole time, Kurosawa builds the film with an assurance that is almost its most compelling element. No matter where it goes–how it shifts, what aspect of the story it focuses on–Kurosawa has the film is a tight grip, guiding it perfectly through its carefully considered plot. As tightly controlled as it is, High and Low also has room for little glints of playful style, signs that a master is in command and he knows a slow, steady hand is required when the time comes to deploy the lightning-fast trick. High and Low may use an entirely different set of props than were required for most of Kurosawa’s best-known films, but it’s clearly the work of same beautifully skilled filmmaker.

Beers I Have Known: Labatt Blue

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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Well before the craft beer revolution, the main way to aspire towards a classier night of drinking while still sticking with sudsy goodness was to grab an imported beer. There often wasn’t a lot of discernment coming into play when celebrating these beers. The fact that they had crossed international borders was enough to make us feel erudite. After all, I went to college in a town where most of my friends favored a beer from a brewery that was within walking distance. And since the closest international border led to The Great White North, we almost had a shifted local pride when the import we opted for was Labatt Blue. Given that the nickname for the canned version of our neighborhood brewery’s beer was “blue bullets,” there may have been an added kinship there, too.

Previously…
Point Special
21st Amendment Bitter American
Abita Restoration Pale Ale
Rolling Rock
Skull Splitter
Foster’s
Highland Thunderstruck Coffee Porter
Red Stripe
Rhinelander Bock
Samuel Adams Boston Lager
New Glarus Brewing Company Wisconsin Belgian Red
ABA Hoppy Saison
Hamm’s
Abita Strawberry Harvest Lager
Three Floyds Apocalypse Cow
French Broad Brewing Gateway Kolsch
Big Boss Brewing “High Monkey”
Stevens Point Brewery Whole Hog Pumpkin Ale
The Native Brewing Company The Eleven Brown Ale

College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1996, 18 and 17

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18. Rusted Root, Remember

Surely I’m not the only one who assumed that Rusted Root didn’t exist much past their fine breakthrough single, “Send Me On My Way,” right? Of course, there’s also no real reason I should have jumped to that particular conclusion given that one of the clearest truisms of modern music is that bands build around a mild, highly unthreatening penchant for genial jamming can last forever and ever if they want to. A new album every few years to keep the merch table stocked and a commitment to the festival circuit is all it really takes. Sure enough, they’re still out there. Remember was the group’s third album, and it seems to sound exactly the way anyone might expect it to sound. Though I would have been completely oblivious to its existence if not for this chart, it’s actually the band’s highly charting album, reaching #38 on the Billboard chart, a full thirteen places higher than its overall better-selling predecessor, When I Woke. Remember even managed to snag a gold certification. Craziness, I tell you.

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17. Crash Test Dummies, A Worm’s Life

This is another album that similarly resides entirely outside my personal sphere of reference, although it’s entirely possible that I once knew of it and blocked it out. After all, Canada’s Crash Test Dummies were following up a pretty big album, 1993’s Jerry Harrison-produced God Shuffled His Feet, notable for inflicting upon radio listeners one of the most annoying hits of all time. A Worm’s Life found the band taking their newfound commercial clout to insist on handling the production themselves. By most measures, the results were at best mixed, and their descent into insignificance was underway. Still, they’ve managed to endure, releasing new music as recently as 2010. They’ve even released a Christmas album, which I assume is for the truly masochistic.

Previously…
An Introduction
–90 and 89: Antichrist Superstar and Three Snakes and One Charm
–88 and 87: No Code and Unplugged
–86 and 85: Greatest Hits Live and Gilded Stars and Zealous Hearts
–84 and 83: To the Faithful Departed and God’s Good Urges
–82 and 81: Billy Breathes and Sweet F.A.
–80 and 79: The Process and Test for Echo
–78 and 77: Supersexy Swingin’ Sounds and Breathe
–76 and 75: Bob Mould and Walking Wounded
–74 and 73: It’s Martini Time and Trainspotting soundtrack
–72 and 71: Aloha Via Satellite and Fever In Fever Out
–70 and 69: Hi My Name is Jonny and One Mississippi
–68 and 67: Everything Sucks and The Aeroplane Flies High
–66 and 65: First Band on the Moon and Razorblade Suitcase
–64 and 63: Comic Book Whore and Peachfuzz
–62 and 61: All Change and Rude Awakening
–60 and 59: 12 Golden Country Greats and Songs in the Key of X
–58 and 57: Brain Candy soundtrack and Pinkerton
–56 and 55: Sublime and Count the Days
–54 and 53: Wild Mood Swings and The Cult of Ray
–52 and 51: Bringing Down the Horse and Crash
–50 and 49: No Talking, Just Head and New Adventures in Hi-Fi
–48 and 47: Lay It Down and Pogue Mahone
–46 and 45: I’m with Stupid and XTORT
–44 and 43: Tango and …finally
–42 and 41: Good Weird Feeling and Mint 400
–40 and 39: Happy Nowhere and Not Fade Away (Remembering Buddy Holly)
–38 and 37: Turn the Radio Off and Electriclarryland
–36 and 35: Naughty Little Doggie and In Blue Cave
–34 and 33: Eventually and Schoolhouse Rock! Rocks
–32 and 31: Beautiful Girls soundtrack and Strat’s Got Your Tongue
–30 and 29: Upstroke for the Downfolk and Set the Twilight Reeling
–28 and 27: Born on a Pirate Ship and The Golden Age
–26 and 25: Ænima and Dead Man Walking soundtrack
–24 and 23: Victor and Songs for Pele
–22 and 21: Down on the Upside and Music for Our Mother Ocean
–20 and 19: Supercop soundtrack and Dust

Spectrum Check

When trying to find films and records to write on each and every week, there are time when the material is going to be extremely unmemorable, neither good enough to stir genuine excitement nor bad enough to engender the flush of resentment for the time given away to it. That’s basically where I landed this week with Spectrum Culture. For instance, the film I reviewed had some promising elements, especially when it came to the performances. It was nice to see skilled performers who don’t usually land particularly worthwhile roles getting the chance to dig into some meaty material and do it well. Overall, the film was still a little drab and underdrawn. On the other hand, I’m inordinately proud that I never once had to look up the correct spelling on Peter Bogdanovich’s name while writing the piece.

Then there was the music review I wrote. It’s a good album, but I had to work to articulate the plusses and minuses of it. Also, I will sheepishly admit that I realized midway through the process that I wasn’t nearly as familiar with the band’s extensive band catalog as would have been ideal. I did a bit of cramming, but when it’s an act with around forty releases to their name, there’s only so much that can be done. I’m sure a fan with a far more exhaustive knowledge lapped me in the area of career context analysis somewhere out there in the wilds of the music blogosphere.

One for Friday: Luka Bloom, “An Irishman in Chinatown”

This weekend I’ll sit down to write about one of my truly formative films, a cinematic effort that helped define my notions of adulthood and especially friendship that endures past the easy cohesion of school years and across the years. All I’ll elude to in the piece, when I first saw the film I was young enough that the portrait of a bond freighted with history was as foreign to me as, say, an archeology professor engaged in feats of borderline implausible derring-do. And yet it struck a chord with me, as if I knew I’d have touchstones that roughly correlated to the characters in the film, such as the moment when a Creedence Clearwater Revival song comes on the car stereo, immediately triggering a shared memory of seeing the band live back in college.

We were college radio kids, so we occasionally had access to free tickets in distant cities (the acts we played on the air certainly weren’t factoring stops in dinky Stevens Point, Wisconsin into their respective tour schedules), meaning we had plenty of accumulated live show memories. For me, one of the sharpest and most treasured was a late spring night at Milwaukee’s Shank Hall. I was there with a a wonderful friend and the mood was celebratory. We were coming up on the end of the school year and basking in the pleasure of warming weather in Wisconsin, welcome like fast-acting medicine after the brutality of winter (and, as I recall, it was am especially hard winter that year). The opening act, John Kruth, had already won us over with his offbeat, goofball charms, and then the headliner, the main reason we were there, took the stage with nothing but his guitar and wowed the entire crowd with his energy, smarts and charisma.

I remember being amazed by Luka Bloom’s capability to keep the whole house attentive and appreciative without any back-up whatsoever. In a way, it was as pure of a concert experience as one could get: one man, his instrument, his voice, his songs. We were expecting something good (my friend, the station’s Music Director at the time had put a review on Bloom’s debut album that suggested anyone who didn’t find it amazing should “find a different radio station,” and it was hard to argue with his emphatic declaration), but what we got was closer to transformational, making me hear the performer’s recorded music with a new appreciation of its intricacies and verve. I couldn’t hear any of the songs off that debut, Riverside, without thinking back to that night, in a great club with a greater-than-great friend. It’s been more years than I care to tally, and that trigger remains in full effect. And I couldn’t be more appreciative. I like going back to that night.

Listen or download –> Luka Bloom, “An Irishman in Chinatown”

(Disclaimer: It’s getting more difficult for me to decisively discern such things, but I believe Luka Bloom’s Riverside to be out of print. And I don’t believe this track has shown up on any other collection of his songs. It is with that understanding–that it can’t be purchased at your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a way that duly compensates both the proprietor of said store and Mr. Bloom himself–that I share it here. Basically, I believe no one is harmed by my digital largesse. Still, I do understand how copyright laws work, whether I agree with them or not. Therefore, I will gladly remove the track if asked to do so by anyone with due authority to make such a request making such a request. Actually, I’d do that even if the laws didn’t work that way. I owe Luka Bloom that much for the joys of the Shank Hall show.)