One for Friday: Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians, “Sleeping with Your Devil Mask”

Happy Halloween!

Robyn Hitchcock, with and without Egyptians, has been featured in this weekly spot more than any other artist, so I’m perhaps running out of insights to offer. I will note that this song comes from Hitchcock’s 1988 album, Globe of Frogs, which almost certainly provided my first exposure to an artist who looms as large as any for me. The single “Balloon Man” was a somewhat unlikely MTV mini-staple for a time, and the smack of novelty to the song got it some further play elsewhere. Naturally, then, when I got to campus radio station in the fall of that year, Globe of Frogs was the album I gravitated to, the little bit of familiarity providing safe entry to the deliriously twisted musical world of Hitchcock. Before my freshman year was up, Hitchcock released the masterful Queen Elvis, and I was hooked for good. There was also a girl in the mix, influencing my judgment about the artist, because of course there was.

“Sleeping with Your Devil Mask” was probably the track I played off of Globe of Frogs most often, mesmerized by its drive — though I didn’t fully understand it at the time, it harkened back to Hitchcock’s days with the Soft Boys more clearly than anything else on the record — and the swirl of dark, splendid imagery. Of course, the real reason I’m sharing it today is that it feels like a pretty great song to play on October 31st.

Listen or download –> Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians, “Sleeping with Your Devil Mask”

(Disclaimer: I do believe that Globe of Frogs remains out of print as a physical object that an be procured from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner than compensates both the artist and the proprietor of said shop. I think that’s the fate of the bulk of Hitchcock’s output for A&M Records, which is a shame because there’s some amazing stuff in there. I certainly mean to cause no fiscal harm to Mr. Hitchcock and believe that I am not impeding fair commerce by sharing this. I will gladly and promptly remove it if asked to do so by any entity of individual with due authority to make such a request. Now, I think I’ll further make up for it by purchasing a couple tickets to see Robyn play live in Raleigh in less than a week from the moment I’m typing this out.)

Greatish Performances #18

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#18 — Kurt Russell as R.J. MacReady in The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982)
Kurt Russell’s best performances are usually in characters that skew towards the everyman. Though I think some overly celebrate his self-consciously cool, tough guy roles in films such as Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China (both directed by John Carpenter), Russell actually does far better when there’s less affectation, less prompting to unleash cartoonish snarls on the way to bombastic action revelry. Quentin Tarantino, for example, had it completely backwards when he tried to make Russell his latest used-up movie star reclamation project in the lousy Death Proof half of Grindhouse. Russell is more suited to upended normalcy than grim, loopy superhuman nonsense. That’s why his last really strong work (to date, anyway) was in the flawed but still underrated 1997 thriller Breakdown, directed by Jonathan Mostow. As a man stalked by a malevolent trucker (the great J.T. Walsh), Russell constantly signals the flabbergasted desperation of his character, thrown into circumstances well beyond his reckoning. He would have been a great lead for Alfred Hitchcock.

Instead of the Master of Suspense, Russell got the inventor of the slasher flick, John Carpenter ((to be fair, Carpenter would take issue with that description). Including the TV movie Elvis, Carpenter cast Russell in five films, going a long way from shifting his career from Disney star afterthought to viable — albeit never wildly successful — leading man. Carpenter often misused Russell (Tarantino didn’t come with his bad idea from nowhere), but he also gave him the role that best revealed his strengths: R.J. MacReady in The Thing. The film was an adaptation of the John W. Campbell, Jr. novella Who Goes There?, but, knowing Carpenter’s devotion to his cinematic forebears, it was really beholden to the 1951 film The Thing from Another World, officially directed by Christian Nyby, but with Howard Hawks’s sandpaper fingerprints all over it. Carpenter directs it like a displaced western, the dusty plains replaced by a more foreboding snow-blown antarctic. Set in an isolated research station, the film is able to frame its horror around the mounting paranoia of a small community of men turning on each other, the sort of thing that Rod Sterling could bang out on his typewriter before a single cigarette burned down to the filter.

The scenario gives Russell something really interesting to ground his performance: a guy doing his job, a little bored by it, and now kinda pissed that one more pain in the ass problem has come to ruin another rotten day. MacReady is introduced drinking scotch and playing computer chess, taking retribution against his electronic adversary by emptying his drink into its circuitry after the indignity of checkmate. He’s got a short temper, but one that manifests in a remarkably contained manner. When he eventually formally takes charge as the station-dwellers are terrorized by shape-shifting aliens, it’s because he’s, as he puts it, “even-tempered.” I often think of Russell in this film as snappier than he is, in part because some of my favorite moments are when he essentially gets exasperated with the need to explain the unexplainable (when asked “And how can it look like a dog?,” he answers with escalating annoyance, “I don’t know how. ‘Cause it’s different than us, see? ‘Cause it’s from outer space. What do you want from me? Ask him!”). Through much of the film, though, he’s notably calm — admittedly, a very tightly wound version of calm — talking one or more of his fellow residents of the research station out of the next bad decision that will do more damaging that the interstellar marauders that started their troubles in the first place.

Russell eludes the two most commonplace downfalls of actors in horror movies. He doesn’t overplay the sense of terror, and he doesn’t refuse to take the material seriously. He instead plays MacReady’s overriding competency, his commitment to solving the problem laid before him. He’s freaked out by the things before him that defy his existing concept of how biology works, but they don’t leave him staggered (some other characters do shut down mentally, because there would absolutely be plenty of people who’d react that way) and jumping at shadows. He also benefits from a ready answer to the age-old horror movie question “Why don’t they just leave?” Miles of snowy tundra and damaged transports satisfy that query just fine. As others panic, MacReady is the one who needs to stay on top of his emotions, because that’s the only thing that will help him make the desired, necessary trip from Point A to Point B, with the latter being getting out of there with his blood still pumping and his life still his own. He also drinks plenty more of that scotch. Wouldn’t you?

Russell gives everything MacReady does authenticity. He plays the character as measured, self-assured, and committed to saving his own neck. He’s responding to an extraordinary situation in a realistic manner, and, importantly, in a way consistent with everything else that’s revealed about him and the way he interacts with his confined world. Too often roles in horror movies are reduced to cogs in the narrative machine, serving as placeholders between the jolts and gore. There are plenty of both of those in The Thing, but Russell doesn’t allow that to distract from the value of playing a fully thought out character.

    Previously…

About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander

Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Eight

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#8 — Tokyo Story (Yasujirō Ozu, 1953)
There are few films in the canon of necessary classics as quiet, tender, and elegiac as Yasujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Story. Accurate as that description may be, emphasizing the fulsome quiet of the film obscures the hints of darkness to it, the willingness to frankly address familial emotions not often seen on screen, especially at the time of the film’s release, when dysfunction among relatives was still more often presented as quirky rather than truly damaging. Among its other many unique strengths, Tokyo Story is willing to suggest that affection isn’t an automatic among parents and children. Indifference and disappointment can manifest just as assuredly — maybe even more easily — than enduring devotion. Life is a blessing. It’s also a long, slow march through an existence that is often lesser than was expected, or maybe even promised.

Tokyo Story is inspired by Leo McCarey’s 1937 film Make Way for Tomorrow, which concerns an elderly couple struggling to find a place to live together after they’ve lost their home. The situation is not quite so dire in Ozu’s film (at least not initially), which doesn’t undercut its poignancy. It might even be argued that the comparative simplicity of the conflicts heightens the heartbreak at the core of the film. In this case, the elderly couple (Chishū Ryū and Chieko Higashiyama) take a vacation to Tokyo to visit two of their children and their families. Rather than a warm welcome, the couple is greeted with thinly veiled irritation, often manifesting as attempts to shuffle them off to different locales, ostensibly so they make the most of their vacation but really to keep them out of the hair of their grown children. The film sidesteps any risk of becoming an act of cold-hearted cruelty against the characters by showing that they have their own misgivings about family, speaking with some candor about the ways their children simply haven’t measured up.

The elements of the film tiptoe towards melodrama, especially with a plot turn that arrives in the third act. And yet that is not Ozu’s play. He is observational, careful, astute, and gently sympathetic, albeit in a somewhat chilly way with that last quality. He doesn’t force a perspective on the viewer, preferring to depict his scenarios with a delicate intimacy and assuming the honesty of the assembled moments will carry the film. That is indeed the case, as Tokyo Story is like a restful dream of a heart so wounded it is losing its capacity to care at all. What grace exists comes in the smallest, seemingly most insignificant encounters. To a degree, they carry extra weight because of their simplicity, these acts of kindness that presume to no goal or endpoint. They are overtures unburdened by selfishness. This is what truly sets them apart, far more than any imposed profound significance. Ozu’s static camera conveys a sort of passivity of authorial voice that ultimately communicates for more than fussier filmmakers making their presence know with every shudder of the lens and every swoop of the dolly. The director is capturing life. It has enough complication and drama inherent to it. There’s no need to intrude.

My Misspent Youth: Super-Villain Team-Up #12 by Bill Mantlo and Bob Hall

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

When I was reading comic books as a kid, a superhero making the jump to some other form of media was a rarity, and often more notable for kitsch appeal than blockbuster status. The pop culture landscape of today would boggle that little whippersnapper’s mind. By the time I got to college, I mostly preferred to keep my comic-reading habit under wraps, especially when it came to material that I thought smacked of silliness. I still recall being relentlessly mocked by a friend of mine when he spotted me reading an issue of spin-off limited series featured the First Comics character the Badger (months later, he’d ask me out of the blue, “You still reading that Badger Berserker?”). So it struck me when someone else, especially someone considered the epitome of cool around our campus radio station, openly declared affection for a comic book story, as happened one day when the host of our weekly blues program, Sneaky Pete’s Blues Cafe, expounded on the joys of comic book from the height of Marvel’s nineteen-seventies go-for-broke lunacy. He said he owned only one comic book, because when he read it he realized he’d discovered the unbeatable apex of the form. That comic book was, he explained, “The issue of Super-Villain Team-Up where Dr. Doom fights the Red Skull on the moon.”

Now, it was clear from his succinct description — which he presented as a statement so matter of fact that he may as well have said, “I find it useful to breathe oxygen” — that the kitsch factor was part of the appeal. That had honestly eluded me before, leading to the clandestine nature of my comic book habit and an ongoing angry insistence that anyone who denigrated the form was closed-minded and just needed to read Maus already (I still kinda stand by that last point). My eyes were opened, if only by a bit. It would still be many years before I fully committed myself to a unashamed celebration to all that was beautifully batshit insane about many of the comic books published when I was a kid. Naturally, I chose that time to seek out the issue of Super-Villain Team-Up that was once cited as a favorite by a guy none of us would have ever termed as nerdy.

From the very beginning, Super-Villain Team-Up was a nutty idea for an ongoing comic book. Adopting the conceit of the relatively recent, Spider-Man-starring hit Marvel Team-Up, the title mostly featured Dr. Doom and Sub-Mariner, the latter coming off the recent cancellation of his own title. Indeed, a decent number of panels were devoted to tying up stray plot threads from the Atlantean monarch’s series. By issue #12, the one that has the moon as its battleground, Sub-Mariner was edging out of the picture and Dr. Doom was turning his malevolent attention to the Red Skull. And any enemy of the Red Skull is a friend of Captain America.

Surely there could have been no greater pleasure for a writer at Marvel Comics in the nineteen-seventies than to place dialogue in the mouth of Victor von Doom, rightful ruler of Latveria and easily the greatest super-villain ever created. Bill Mantlo demonstrates that wonderfully by having Doom call Captain America a dolt in one panel and feign tender offense in the next. The “why” of the story doesn’t really matters. All that’s important is that Dr. Doom is bound for some outrageous fisticuffs on the surface of the moon, facing off against that lingering proponent of the Third Reich, the Red Skull. Even as Doom approaches, the Red Skull is preparing in his lunar lair, tended to by the glummest boot steward imaginable.

The battle itself doesn’t have the jaw-dropping dynamism of foundational Marvel artist Jack Kirby, but it rendered in the solid house style of the day by Bob Hall. The more stylized, individualistic approaches can work wonders in modern comics, but there was a certain appeal to a stable of artists with the shared primary goal of subsuming their quirks in the service of a uniformity across the line. Hall was serving the story more than his pencil’s wanderlust. Besides, how much embellishment is needed with fearsome foes such as these, true believer?

As with any great bout, lo, there shall be an ending. In this case, the victor is the guy who starts with that name in the first place.

So the Red Skull was defeated, though probably not for long. There wasn’t long left for Super-Villain Team-Up either. It lasted two more issues before cancellation, then returned about a year later with an issue that contained a couple reprints. That was followed by a couple more oneoffs, the last two issues under that numbering published a year apart. It was all reportedly done in an effort by Marvel to prevent their Distinguished Competition from using the term “super-villains.” Hardly an example of the highest artistic integrity inspiring publishing decisions, but the publisher certainly had it in them to stoop lower.

Dr. Doom vs. the Red Skull on the moon may not have wowed me quite as thoroughly as my old radio cohort, but I did see the crazy charm of the story. If the characters can, by design, go anywhere, why not take them to the farthest reaches the imagination can muster?

Previously…
Fantastic Four by Stan Lee and John Buscema
Contest of Champions by Bill Mantlo and John Romita, Jr.
Daredevil by Frank Miller
Marvel Fanfare by Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum and Paul Smith
Marvel Two-in-One by Tom DeFalco and Ron Wilson
Fantaco’s “Chronicles” series
Fantastic Four #200 by Marv Wolfman and Keith Pollard
The Incredible Hulk #142 by Roy Thomas and Herb Trimpe
Uncanny X-Men by Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum
Godzilla by Doug Moench and Herb Trimpe
Giant-Size Avengers #3 by Steve Englehart, Roy Thomas and Dave Cockrum
Alpha Flight by John Byrne
Hawkeye by Mark Gruenwald
Avengers by David Michelinie and George Perez
Justice League by Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire
The Thing by Dan Slott and Andrea DiVito
Nexus by Mike Baron and Steve Rude
Marvel Premiere by David Kraft and George Perez
Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars by Jim Shooter and Mike Zeck
Micronauts by Bill Mantlo and Butch Guice
Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland
What If? by Mike W. Barr, Herb Trimpe and Mike Esposito
Thor by Walt Simonson
Eightball by Dan Clowes
Cerebus: Jaka’s Story by Dave Sim and Gerhard
Iron Man #150 by by David Michelinie, John Romita, Jr. and Bob Layton
Bone by Jeff Smith
The Man of Steel by John Byrne
Fantastic Four by Doug Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz
“Allien and How to Watch It” by John Severin
Fantastic Four Roast by Fred Hembeck and friends
The Amazing Spider-Man #25 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Marvel Two-in-One #7 by Steve Gerber and Sal Buscema
The New Mutants by Chris Claremont and Bob McLeod
Dark Horse Presents
Bizarre Adventures #27
Marvel Team-Up #48 by Bill Mantlo and Sal Buscema
Metal Men #20 by Robert Kanigher and Ross Andru
The Avengers by Roy Thomas and John Buscema
Fantastic Four by Marv Wolfman and John Byrne
Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra
American Flagg by Howard Chaykin
Marvel and DC Present by Chris Claremont and Walter Simonson
Batman by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli
Marvel Two-in-One Annual #5 by Alan Kupperberg and Pablo Marcos
Web of Spider-Man by Louise Simonson and Greg LaRocque

Top 40 Smash Taps: “Spice of Life”

These posts are about the songs that can accurately claim to crossed the key line of chart success, becoming Top 40 hits on Billboard, but just barely. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 40.

The Manhattan Transfer formed in the city alluded to in their name in 1969. The may have chosen that moniker to declare their municipal origins, but it’s more specifically lifted from a 1925 John Dos Passos novel. The first album by the Manhattan Transfer, Jukin’, was released on Capitol Records in 1971. This iteration of the group proved to be short-lived, reportedly because group founder Tim Hauser wasn’t musically copacetic with Gene Pistilli, his chief collaborator and the co-credited songwriter on half of the tracks on the debut. Not long after the release of Jukin’, the band officially broke up, only to see Hauser reassemble a whole new lineup under the same name around one year later. In 1975, that version of the Manhattan Transfer released a self-titled album on Atlantic Records, which yielded Top 40 hit “Operator” (it peaked at #22). The group had three more trips to the Top 40, the last of which peaked at that very spot. “Spice of Life” is a single from the Manhattan Transfer’s 1983 album, Bodies on Soul, which found them courting a broader audience, even pitching the album at the R&B charts. To that end, they also brought in a few relatively high profile collaborators, including Stevie Wonder, who contributes a brief but distinctive harmonica solo to “Spice of Life.” Because civic centers exist in most major American cities, the Manhattan Transfer continued as a going concern without interruption despite the relative lack of chart success for their increasingly infrequent albums. It’s possible that even the recent death of Hauser, the one mainstay of the group since the very beginning, won’t necessarily slow them down. The remaining members have made it clear they plan to continue, maintaining its what Hauser would have wanted.

Previously…
“Just Like Heaven” by The Cure.
“I’m in Love” by Evelyn King
“Buy Me a Rose” by Kenny Rogers
“Who’s Your Baby” by The Archies
“Me and Bobby McGee” by Jerry Lee Lewis
“Angel in Blue” by J. Geils Band
“Crazy Downtown” by Allan Sherman
“I’ve Seen All Good People” and “Rhythm of Love” by Yes
“Naturally Stoned” by the Avant-Garde
“Come See” by Major Lance
“Your Old Standby” by Mary Wells
“See the Lights” by Simple Minds
“Watch Out For Lucy” by Eric Clapton
“The Alvin Twist” by Alvin and the Chipmunks
“Love Me Tender” by Percy Sledge
“Jennifer Eccles” by the Hollies
“Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Olympics
“The Bounce” by the Olympics
“Your One and Only Love” by Jackie Wilson
“Tell Her She’s Lovely” by El Chicano
“The Last Time I Made Love” by Joyce Kennedy and Jeffrey Osborne
“Limbo Rock” by The Champs
“Crazy Eyes For You” by Bobby Hamilton
“Who Do You Think You’re Foolin'” by Donna Summer
“Violet Hill” and “Lost+” by Coldplay
“Freight Train” by the Chas. McDevitt Skiffle Group
“Sweet William” by Little Millie Small
“Live My Life” by Boy George
“Lessons Learned” by Tracy Lawrence
“So Close” by Diana Ross
“Six Feet Deep” by the Geto Boys
“You Thrill Me” by Exile
“What Now” by Gene Chandler
“Put It in a Magazine” by Sonny Charles
“Got a Love for You” by Jomanda
“Stone Cold” by Rainbow
“People in Love” by 10cc
“Just Seven Numbers (Can Straighten Out My Life)” by the Four Tops
“Thinkin’ Problem” by David Ball
“You Got Yours and I’ll Get Mine” and “Trying to Make a Fool of Me” by the Delfonics
“The Riddle (You and I)” by Five for Fighting
“I Can’t Wait” by Sleepy Brown
“Nature Boy” by Bobby Darin
“Give It to Me Baby” and “Cold Blooded” by Rick James
“Who’s Sorry Now?” by Marie Osmond
“A Love So Fine” by the Chiffons
“Funky Y-2-C” by the Puppies
“Brand New Girlfriend” by Steve Holy
“I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” by Bonnie Pointer
“Mr. Loverman” by Shabba Ranks
“I’ve Never Found a Girl” by Eddie Floyd
“Plastic Man” and “Happy People” by the Temptations
“Okay” by Nivea
“Go On” by George Strait
“Back When My Hair Was Short” by Gunhill Road
“Birthday Party” by the Pixies Three
“Livin’ in the Life” by the Isley Brothers
“Kissing You” by Keith Washington
“The End of Our Road” by Marvin Gaye
“Ticks” and “Letter to Me” by Brad Paisley
“Nobody But You Babe” by Clarence Reid
“Like a Sunday in Salem” by Gene Cotton
“I’m Going to Let My Heart Do the Walking” by the Supremes
“Call Me Lightning” by the Who
“Ain’t It True” by Andy Williams
“Lazy Elsie Molly” and “Let’s Do the Freddie” by Chubby Checker
“Second Fiddle” by Kay Starr
“1999” by Prince
“I’ll Try Anything” by Dusty Springfield
“Oh Happy Day” by Glen Campbell
“I’d Love to Change the World” by Ten Years After
“Friends” and “Married Men” by Bette Midler

College Countdown: Rockpool’s Top 20 College Radio Albums, November 1988, 10

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10. Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, Nothing Wrong

Nearly two years ago, my old online home away from home, Spectrum Culture, assembled a small panel of writers and music critics to hash out a list of the 13 Best Goth Albums of All Time. Though I was well to the side of that fervent tribe of music fandom, I did the best I could to participate the in process, typically relying on my distant memories of what member of the heavy black eyeliner set favored back in my high school and college days (not that I knew many kids like that in milquetoast Wisconsin). I think we came with a good list, although I regret that a bundle of other responsibilities prevented me from doing some additional research and prep before engaging in the discussion that brought us to our nominees, if only because then I might have been reminded earlier of the significant pleasures of Red Lorry Yellow Lorry. They should have been contenders.

Formed in Leeds, England in 1981, Red Lorry Yellow Lorry sounds pretty much exactly the way any seasoned music fan might expect from a group springing to life when the aftershocks of Ian Curtis’s suicide were still rattling the hearts and amps of British cool kids. Red Lorry Yellow Lorry’s music has some of the buzz and thrust of Joy Division’s founding brand of post-punk while also ratcheting up the gloom to the level of outrageous beauty. At the same time, there was a tunefulness to the music, a tenderly attentive sense of songcraft, that prevented Red Lorry Yellow Lorry from descending into the accidental self-parody that afflicted so many similar groups. (Or at least usually prevented it. None of the bands that got anywhere near goth were totally immune.) Plus, they were a little tougher than many of their contemporaries, holding on to the punk part of post-punk a little longer. They usually batted away comparisons to Joy Division by declaring Wire to be more of an influence, a distinction that is apparent on any close listen to the music. For a kid like me, still a musical novice when I arrived at the radio station my first year of college, Red Lorry Yellow Lorry was an ideal gateway to the operatic grimness of goth that I probably found a little off-putting and unsettling at time time.

Nothing Wrong, the third full-length from the Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, arrived in 1988, just in time for the college kids coming back to school with a need for a dose of bleak poetry. It was their first album since signing to the Beggars Banquet sub-label Situation Two, appropriately putting them in the same stable of artists as Fields of the Nephilim. Presumably, this would be a label well-equipped to help connect the band with their biggest possible audience, commercial success that never really came to pass. Nothing Wrong is a fine example of the band’s strengths, led off by the pulsating title cut, awash in layers of sound and punctured by the spoke-sung lyrics of Chris Reed, oddly thrilling in their characteristic pessimism (“The world around is dragging down on me/ If you’re feeling sad, full of shame/ You better find someone to blame”). From there, the biggest problem with Nothing Wrong is also somewhat characteristic of goth music: a consistency of sound that can become a little numbing. Track after track has the same slow burn anguish and romanticized darkness. It sounds good, but Nothing Wrong can threaten to fade into the background, which might explain the randomly interspersed audio excerpts from the BBC documentary Testament to the Bushmen (much of the packaging and promotion surrounding the album is similarly drawn from that program). None of the clips illuminate the artistic intent behind the record, but at least they help break things up.

There are of course some tracks that stand out, such as “The Rise,” which plays like a peppier version of Love and Rockets’ later “So Alive,” and the intoxicating swirl of instrumental “Sayonara.” There’s also the charging train of “She Said,” (“There’s a space inside, where I like to hide/ There’s a place I dream to forget the lies”) which wouldn’t sound out of place on a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds records, which is about as high of compliment as I can pay to music in this ravaged vein. Even when the band is seemingly goofing around without much purpose, as with the wispy afterthought cover of Booker T. & the M.G.’s “Time is Tight” that closes the album, it’s at least somewhat interesting. The music can sometimes be indistinguishable from other Red Lorry Yellow Lorry material. Thankfully, that’s not the same as being dull.

Red Lorry Yellow Lorry formally broke up in 1991 (after one more album, 1991’s Blasting Off). Truth is, it was mostly an outlet for Reed, anyway. He was the only band member there from beginning to end, with arguably only guitarist Dave Wolfenden able to claim significant collaborative contributions to the songwriting during his tenure. Reed revived the name in 2004, with new music and some touring, but Red Lorry Yellow Lorry largely remain figures from the past, available to those with long memories or a willingness to do a little digging. Too bad my own memory was faulty a couple years back. Considers this my personal addendum to Spectrum Culture list I helped build.

Previously…
An Introduction
–20: Substance
–19: End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues
–18: Rank
–17: Lovely
–16: Ghost Stories
–15: 2 Steps from the Middle Ages
–14: Lincoln
–13: Short Sharp Shocked
–12: Forget
–11: Rattle and Hum

From the Archive: Babel

I’m genuinely excited to see the art house sensation of the moment: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Still, as someone who believes in the primacy of the director in shaping cinema, I simultaneously keep reminding myself that the director who’s signed his name to the feature in question hasn’t exactly been one of my favorites, even when (or maybe especially when) it comes to those films that have received the broadest acclaim. Every film starts evenly at ground level for me when the lights first go down, so I still have hope. I share this old review to acknowledge the preconception and help to purge it.

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For a variety of reasons, I try to steer clear of other reviews of films I haven’t yet written about. For one thing, it’s occasionally just too tempting to quote those critics who get the achievement or problems of a film perfectly, succinctly right. Which brings me to New Yorker critic David Denby on Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel: “…he abuses his audience with a humorless fatalism and a piling up of calamities that borders on the ludicrous.” That does cover it quite nicely.

Babel is the latest collaboration between Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, following the strong Spanish-language effort Amores Perros and the dour mess of an English-language debut 21 Grams. The new film is right in line with their previous work, in that it’s comprised of several stories that intersect in unexpected ways and allows for a certain flexibility with the chronology. Unlike Grams, which treated the major narrative marking points as so many Scrabble tiles that could be scrambled in the box lid and reassembled into whatever random order they were picked up in, Babel shows more purpose in its shifts. The stories may not overlap properly in terms of the clock or calendar, but it’s because they’ve been slightly rearranged to make certain they cohere in terms of emotional arcs.

Stirring up emotions is clearly the primary preoccupation of Iñárritu and Arriaga given how mercilessly they tear at their characters. They hit everything hard, and sometimes when the only tool you have is a great big hammer, every problem starts to look like something you should bludgeon to death. By the end, as the story threads sort of converge (or at least their tenuous connections are revealed), it all becomes dull instead of moving or meaningful. It is perhaps telling that the story that remains the most engaging is the one that stands furthest from the others, the link that holds it to the rest of the chain so arbitrarily conceived that, as an answer to why the storyline is part of the whole of the film, it’s the cinematic equivalent of “I told you so.” It probably also helps that filmmakers who want to traffic in overly dramatic despair will always be well-served by turning their camera on a teenaged girl in an oppressive culture.

Brad Pitt is in this movie and so is Cate Blanchett, but it barely seems worth mentioning. Even pawns get to move around the board a little bit; what’s a metaphor involving a game piece that exists for no other reason than to get knocked over?