Top Ten Albums of 2014

And here we come to the end of another year. Though I tried to keep up with new music without the outside impetus of a website compelling me to write record reviews, I definitely fell behind. That’s led to a lot of cramming in the past few weeks and a tally I will present with the shakiest of conviction. Except for the work of art at the top of the list. That’s the best album of the year. I have no question or qualm about that.

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1. St. Vincent, St. Vincent — This what Annie Clark has been building to all along. Her fourth album under the St. Vincent moniker (not including her collaboration with David Byrne, which exacts a clear, mighty influence on this record) is a spectacular reinvention of pop music, Clark’s elegant, deceptively tough guitar playing swirled into strange electronic sounds and driven by elastic, oblong rhythms. Every bend the album takes is a new provocation, but it’s no distancing art piece. It’s vibrant, approachable, and relentlessly catchy. While I’m lauding the achievements of Clark in this calendar year about to close, let me state for the record that, though I’d normally be adamantly opposed to the sort of cash-in appropriation of past efforts such a tour would represent, I’d be first in line to go see NirVincent in concert.

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2. Angel Olsen, Burn Your Fire for No Witness — Angel Olsen’s stark, penetrating songs are anguish set to music. With her rich, evocative vocals, Olsen often sounds like she’s just barely dragging herself across the threshold to emotional safety, the simple act of enduring itself a triumph. The romanticism of misery that usually informs such songs is stripped away, leaving a brutal, inspiring honesty, a sense compounded by the airy, quietly echoing sound that makes the album sound as if it was recorded inside of a broken heart.

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3. Perfume Genius, Too Bright I found the prior efforts of Mike Hadreas under the guise of Perfume Genius to be a tad too precious, making me wonder if it he had it in him to create music that really cut deep. Well, he showed me. Too Bright is sophisticated and sonically surprising while delivering songs that buckle with resonant ache. With a lovely, delicate delivery, Hadreas sings his lyrics with the blessed relief of confession. For all the fragility built into it, the main impression the album leaves is one of spiritual durability.

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4. White Lung, Deep Fantasy The racing, powerhouse guitars. The hard punch of the drums. The confrontational lead vocals of Mish Way, alternately snarled or shouted. This is a record genetically engineered to bore into my wearied teenage punk rock id and defibrillate it back to life. From the opening riff, I am rapturously happy. Adding to the hit-and-run joy, not a single track even scratches near the three-minute mark. As it should be, dammit.

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5. Real Estate, Atlas The tender, mellifluous pop songs that fill Atlas are the work of grown-ups, wise and relaxed. Yearning doesn’t need to be tragic, and disappointment doesn’t need to be devastating. Sometimes these feelings are simply another gateway to explore the self, finding casual beauty in the act of just being. Without pressing, the music is consistently smart and complex. It has the inquisitiveness and assurance of a band on the cusp of making their masterpiece.

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6. FKA Twigs, LP1The full-length debut of FKA Twigs is bendy and experimental, as if it’s groping its way towards an unattainable stability as it goes. At times, the result is so transcendent that it sounds like a freshly born universe of sound unfolding, new layers emerging at the speed of thought. Tahliah Barnett’s vocals have some of the ethereal quality of Kate Bush, which makes the frank explicitness of the lyrics all the more striking. Even when it wavers, LP1 approaches the monumental.

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7. Bob Mould, Beauty & Ruin The old punk rocker who’s lived a hundred lives settles into his elder statesman phase. Beauty & Ruin and its immediate predecessor, 2012’s resounding Silver Age, make it exceedingly clear age doesn’t need to dull the creative instincts. Every lesson Mould has learned, everything he has done and made is pressed into the passages of this album. He has nothing left to prove, and the pure pleasure of creating for nothing more than the sake of it is present in every last note.

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8. The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream I swing back and forth on this album, finding it engrossing on one listen and meandering on the next. I change my mind about what it sounds like with equal frequency. Right now, I think this is the record the Waterboys would have made if Mike Scott had been raised alongside Bruce Springsteen in New Jersey. That description means the album belongs in my top ten.

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9. Ex Hex, Rips “Rips” is a pretty good description of it. We also would have accepted “roars,” “rages,” “soars,” “stings,” “shakes,” “blazes,” “bounds,” “blisters,” “splinters,” “struts,” “reverberates,” “strikes,” “shatters,” “smacks,” “thunders” or “careens.” Mary Timony keeps the wild flag flying, and bless her for it.

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10. Lykke Li, I Never Learn Lykke Li delivers a more languid, reserved version of her brand of dense pop music, befitting an album informed by romantic catastrophe. It may be quieter, but it’s no less affecting than her previous efforts (Li sees this as the close of a trilogy). Like many of the albums on my list this year, I Never Learn is a work of meticulous craft.

My Misspent Youth: Fantastic Four by Scott Lobdell and Alan Davis

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.

As I occasionally must, I’ll note that this entry abuses the accuracy of the term “youth.” As recounted at great length elsewhere, I tried at various times to kick the comic book habit, always finding excuses to keep buying monthly adventures, usually based on seeing one particular series through to the end. I also had a few enablers during this time, those who, always in acts of kindness, put into my anxious hands the very periodicals I was trying to avoid. When your barfly buddy is trying to dial back consumption levels, you still might be tempted to buy him a drink. It’s nice to have company at the end of the bar, after all. One such enabler was my old movie reviewing cohort. He knew I had a helpless affection for Marvel’s First Family, so when Fantastic Four was suddenly, shockingly good again after a particularly dreadful patch, he made a point of gifting me the issues in question.

This was in the latter half of the nineteen-nineties, when Marvel Comics was making egregious decisions with such consistency that the company was driven into bankruptcy. A chief plan to reversing their flagging fortunes involved recruiting creators Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee, enormous fan favorites at Marvel a few years earlier who’d fled to help form Image Comics, to relaunch key titles. Fantastic Four was turned over to Lee, resulting in some truly hideouslooking comics. Branded “Heroes Reborn,” these eyesores were enough to convince me that I never needed to revisit the characters that I’d once considered my clear favorite. I stand by my instinctual aversion and even the sense of near-betrayal I felt, but I also should have remembered that all things can be mended in the comic book universe. After Lee’s tenure was complete, Marvel once again relaunched the series with a new #1 (a tiresome conceit that was just starting to infect the comics publishing world then). As should always be the case with a Fantastic Four #1, it had the Mole Man in it.

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The writing chores were given to Scott Lobdell and the art was handled by Alan Davis. Right off the bat, they seemed to declare their own animosity towards the version of Fantastic Four that immediately preceded their run. It wasn’t quite the full-on announcement of back-to-the-basics storytelling that distinguished the beginning of writer-artist John Byrne’s justly lauded run on the title, but it was close. In the writing, Lobdell did everything he could to highlight the difference in his approach to that of Lee and his collaborators, including some meta commentary on the whole “Heroes Reborn” concept.

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Occasionally, Lobdell was even more pointed, calling attention to the tendency, woefully present in the nineteen-nineties to feverish update ever character design, usually by loading down the characters with ludicrous futuristic guns and bazookas that made it look like they were strapping fully armed kayaks to their shoulders. As far as the new creative team was concerned, these characters had endured through the years for a reason.

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The on-target knocks against previous caretakers of the Fantastic Four were satisfying and welcome. If that were all Lobdell had to offer, though, it still wouldn’t have been much of series. Instead, the writer consistently displayed a keen understanding of what made the Fantastic Four work as a concept: taking wildly fantastical adventures (especially the presentation boundless imagination as exuberant future-science) and grounding them in acutely observed family dynamics. Three of the four teammates officially shared a family tree, but even the fourth, the ever-lovin’ blue-eyed Thing, was clearly integrated into the bickering affection that was recognizable to anyone who’s, say, reunited with siblings and parents over the holidays. These characters liked each other, loved each other, needed each other. Throwing a super-villain with a clever scheme against them was undoubtedly useful to building a strong story, but the true necessity is in getting their voices right. Lobdell did that wonderfully, aided by the expressive art of Davis.

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My friend was right. I thought these comics were terrific. They were also too good to last. At the end of the third issue, there was an announcement unceremoniously dumped at the bottom of a pin-up page. Alan Davis and inker Mark Farmer were off the title, to be replaced the following issue by Salvador Larroca and Art Thibert. Lobdell was also downgraded, getting a story credit for a couple more issues before vanishing altogether in favor of Chris Claremont, the writer who was central to elevating the X-Men to phenom status in the nineteen-eighties. I don’t know that any reason for the new creative team’s relatively rapid departure was ever officially given. I presume that the leaner, smarter, more creative approach was at odds with what Marvel editorial wanted. What I saw of Claremont’s lengthy run suggested the powers that were had a strong preference for convoluted and humorless. Even when Marvel stumbled into something worthwhile, they were quick to flee from it. When I was trying to spend less in the comic ship, sometimes the publishers were kind enough to make choices that made me feel very unwelcome.

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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
Super-Villain Team-Up #12 by Bill Mantlo and Bob Hall
What If? #31 by Rich Margopoulos and Bob Budiansky

All our little wishes have gone dry, made it to the water, waded in the lies

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In one respect, I stand before Into the Woods as a novice in evaluation before a master of composition. I feel like I can break down what does and doesn’t work in a film with the best of them, but in considering the feats of Stephen Sondheim, the crafter of the music and lyrics of the original Broadway stage work, I am severely limited. He is one of the indisputable greats and I’ve seen the term “his masterpiece” used in discussions of Into the Woods by learned figures more than once in recent weeks. As if I weren’t already preemptively chastened at the prospect of writing about this film adaptation already. Others can expound with precise expertise on the ways in which Sondheim’s musical motifs and thoughtful wordplay inform the whole work. Many can break down the changes made — for good or, more likely, ill — in taking the production from stage to screen. I can only react to what I see before me, considering how well it works as a film. And yet I can’t help but circle around around to what feeble knowledge I do have of the original work, or at least what appear to be the vestiges of something grander, darker, and more daring clinging to the edges of this film, like the grit left behind after strong tea has been tossed away in favor of something more tepid.

The plot brings together multiple familiar fairy tales, “Little Red Riding Hood,” Jack and the Beanstalk,” and “Cinderella” among them, and has them overlap in surprising ways, largely through the efforts of a baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt, respectively) who are gathering artifacts in order to complete a deal with a witch (Meryl Streep) which will lead to the lifting of a curse. It is the baker’s need for a white cow, for example, that leads him to trade with Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), putting the enchanted beans in the young boy’s pocket. This portion is playful and pleasant, making often inspired connections, genially tweaking tropes, and generally treating the vast folklore of children’s stories as if it were the interlocking Legos of the Marvel Universe movies. It’s the stretch of Into the Woods that unfolds over the second half — after theatergoers enjoyed an intermission — that gets really interesting. It all takes a turn for darker territory, marked by infidelity, tragic death, and any number of occurrences that smartly, cynically argue that “happily ever after” was always delusional at best, a bald-faced lie at worst.

It is the divide between the joyful manipulation of fairy tale text and the intentionally poisoning of what takes place after the final page that most clearly illustrates what has gone wrong with the film adaptation of Into the Woods. There’s no sense of a change in tone, no troubling encroachment of darker doings as the film moves on. Director Rob Marshall approaches every bit of the material with the same flat-footed literalness, coming as close to a dull-witted point-and-shoot mentality as is conceivable given the fantastical nature of what he’s filming. If anything, the film gets blander as it goes on. Meryl Streep absolutely tears into her lines, sung and otherwise, in the first part of the film, putting unexpected spin on individual words like english on a cue ball. Later, after a physical transformation, she’s just sort of there in scenes, almost hanging around impatiently until she gets the chance to exit altogether. Most of the talented, well-chosen cast is similarly confined, rarely allowed to make the sort of bold, intriguing choices in their characterizations that the work presumably allows and encourages. Marshall meets them with staid stagings of the individual numbers. Only “Agony,” a duet of dueling hardship sung by a pair of princes (Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen), has any panache to it, any hint whatsoever that it’s been designed in such a way as to take advantage of being filmed rather than staged.

And so I’m back to Sondheim. I assume that the locking into celluloid of one of his signature works may be enough for some, the faltering elements only serving as a reminder of what impresses about the music and songs in the first place, the same way that I know all sorts of people who look past the flaws with the film version of Rent to value that there’s an acceptable take on their favorite musical circulating in the pop culture galaxy. I wonder, though, if this version of Into the Woods presents an unwitting argument against transporting Sondheim’s works away from their original, stagebound form. The rapid verbosity of the lyrics is sure to impress more when performed live, each song completed seeming like an Olympic feat. Here, only “Giants in the Sky” gave me a similar shiver of witnessing a significant challenge well-met, and I presume that’s in part because it was sung by a boy in his early teens who looks about five years younger. Among my shortcomings, I don’t feel qualified to definitively weigh in on whether or not Into the Woods does right by Sondheim. I hope it does. Given the rickety nature of the rest of Marshall’s film, suitable preservation of Sondheim might be about the only wish this cinematic endeavor fulfills.

College Countdown: Rockpool’s Top 20 College Radio Albums, November 1988, 1

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1. The Feelies, Only Life

I will likely never be able to accurately identify the first song I ever played on the radio. For one thing, it was probably a jazz song, grabbed at random from the stacks by someone less concerned with artfully programming a show and more with finding long enough tracks to give deejay trainees ample time to cue up the next offering. I could reasonably consider my “first song” to be whatever I played to open my debut night on my regular shift during my initial semester of college: Monday nights, 10:00p.m. to 2:00 a.m. While I wish I was blessed with the foresight to save those early playlists, they are lost to the oscillating waves of time. So I went ahead and decided what my first song was, using knowledge of my preferences, my suspicions over what was appropriately cool enough to disguise my own shortcomings in alternative music knowledge, and the not insignificant detail of what was in the station’s rotation at the time of my arrival. Thus, I settled on “Away” by the Feelies as the personally momentous track.

There’s another simple reason to believe “Away” is what I selected: I used it to kick off my Monday night shift a lot. Besides my pronounced affection for the song, there’s that long, beautiful ramp. The instrumental portion that opens the song at a elegant slow build lasts for one minute and twenty-one seconds before the tempo fully kicks into gear, which can be considered the first post for a deejay to hit with a talk-over. From there, there’s another ten seconds to spare before the singing starts, which is the definite spot to finish the work on the mic. At the top of my show, which was one of five weeknight programs of the late evening block dubbed Soundstreams, I had to dump out of the AP Network News audio five-minute news recap at the top of the hour, read the Central Wisconsin weather forecast, and finally introduce myself and the program, including the important business of giving out the request line number since it was ostensibly an “all-request” show. All of my on-air business could be conducted without undue rushing in the time it took for the vocals to start. Though I suspect pride in that skill has largely fallen away — by the time I was an advisor to a different college radio station around a decade later, there was minuscule interest in learning, much less mastering, that part of the broadcast deejay’s craft — I arrived at a station where and when my senior cohorts still saw nailing posts and deploying perfect segues as practically proof of personal virility.

Then again, it was my first solo flight. Surely I wasn’t ready to play around with lengthy talk-overs just yet. This was live radio, no net. Still, there’s a decent chance I played “Away” that night (my appreciation for it thoroughly reinforced by the Jonathan Demme-directed music video that was a staple of MTV’s 120 Minutes that fall). If not, I played something else from the Feelies album Only Life. I’ve no doubt. Though it was miles away from anything I’d listened to before arriving at the station, there was something about the New Jersey band’s music that I immediately found thrilling. The jittery rhythms and downbeat cast to the vocals had influencing ancestors (which the band addressed directly by covering the Velvet Underground’s “What Goes On” for the closing track on the record), but my range was limited enough that it felt complexly, shockingly new to me. I hadn’t heard music quite like this before, and Only Life presented ten tracks strong enough to prove decisively to me that I’d been sadly missing out on something great.

My added nostalgia for this particular release now acknowledged at perhaps excessive length, I think Only Life is an exceptional record, one of the three or four that jockeys in my brain for the entirely unofficial and rightly unvalued position as my choice for best album of 1988. The band’s third album has a sprightly charge, like a flint that won’t stop giving off sparks. There’s an engaging loose energy to the whole thing that belies the intricacies of the playing. The nonchalant ease and assurance of the album title is a perfect match for the songs, beginning with the album-opening almost title cut, “It’s Only Life.” As the lyrics in the charging “The Final Word” intone, “Don’t you turn back/ Yeah, it’s all right/ There ain’t nothing in the way.” That must have been how the band was collectively feeling, ensconced on a major label after years of uncertainty, defined by the fumbled release and subsequent famed unavailability of their spectacular 1980 debut, Crazy Rhythms, which in turn led to the departure of half the band and a full six years before their sophomore effort, 1986’s fine The Good Earth. The Feelies were secure like never before.

Predictably, then, the band didn’t last much longer, releasing only one more studio album, 1991’s Time for a Witness, before calling it quits. The eventual reunion did take place, including the release of a new album that is better than anyone would reasonably expect after a layoff of twenty years. The quality of the later release shouldn’t be all that surprising. Though the Feelies were a distant offshoot of the underground punk scene of the nineteen-seventies New York, most of their music had a oddly timeless quality, a sense that it was youthful rock ‘n’ roll all grown up. That’s what I hear now when I listen to Only Life tracks like the relatively sedate “Higher Ground” or “Too Far Gone,” which is as good of choice of any if asked to demonstrate the band in a single song. That’s another reason I don’t think it’s strictly wistful memory that guides my modern celebration of Only Life. It’s as though it was built to be listened to forever.

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
–10: Nothing Wrong
–9: Big Time
–8: Invisible Lantern
–7: Every Dog Has His Day
–6: Truth and Soul
–5: Workers Playtime
–4: Peepshow
–3: Nothing’s Shocking
–2: Blue Bell Knoll

From the Archive: The Last of the Mohicans and Mr. Saturday Night

This was written for The Pointer, the student newspaper of the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point. I tended to pair up a couple of different releases for my weekly column, trying to find some tenuous connection, as I did here. Looking back at it, I’m mortified to discover I misspelled Madeleine Stowe’s first name in what I submitted (and I’m certain it wasn’t fixed in the editing process). I also clearly appreciated Billy Crystal’s acting work in Mr. Saturday Night far more than I now remember. This review inspired one of my favorite professors to question me about it in the Communications building hallway. He didn’t agree with my assessment of Mohicans. I stand by that one.

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The beginning of the fall movie season brings out the movie studios’ high quality projects, the things they’re hoping will bring out Oscar gold in a few months. However, they don’t always really stack up among the year’s very best, like these two recent examples indicate–

THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS: Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe star in this reworking of the classic James Fenimore Cooper novel that dazzles with scenery, but falls short when it comes to interesting characters. Director Michael Mann (Manhunter, TV’s Miami Vice) has done an admirable job of packing the movie with enough detail to make the audience feel as though they’ve literally been plunged into the middle of the 18th century, when this country was still a loose collection of colonies that England and France were fighting over.

Set into the middle of the confrontation raging across the American frontier is Oscar winner Day-Lewis (My Left Foot), playing a white man who was raised by Mohican Indians after he was left orphaned as an infant. His initial distaste for the English army and anything else connected with the war is lessened when he meets an officer’s daughter played by Madeleine Stowe (Unlwaful Entry). He falls is love with her, but the romance always seems restrained and underdeveloped. The moments that Mann focuses on the couple are almost invariably dull.

In direct contrast, the stretches that revolve around action sequences have far more life. With a graphic, honest depiction of the brutal hand-to-hand combat perfected by Native American warriors, every strike of a tomahawk and every slice of a blade resonates with chilling intensity.

Mann, however, can’t fill his movie with tensely thrilling sequences like this, and whenever the film comes back to the characters, it just serves as another reminder of how uninteresting they are. If Mann had directed some of the energy that was put into painstaking historical recreations into developing the characters more thoroughly, The Last of the Mohicans may have been a film that rewarded the mind as much as it rewards the eyes.

MR. SATURDAY NIGHT: On the other hand, the main attribute of Billy Crystal’s directorial debut is how well it develops the main character. Buddy Young, Jr. is a creation of Crystal’s that made his debut in a 1984 HBO special and has made occasional appearances in various specials since. A hybrid of all the great Jewish comics that made careers out of crusty punchlines and tacky one-liners, Buddy Young, Jr. has been given a complete history which Crystal explores in full. He plays the character from his most humble beginnings in the 1950s through to today as Young has become an old man who is struggling to hold on to a floundering career while playing to uninterested crowds that strictly refuse to laugh.

The film is most fascinating viewed as a character study about a man who’s not very likable. Young has spent his entire life distancing the people most important to him through his inability to deal with any situation without unleashing a shower of abrasive jokes and insults. He’s also continually harmed his own career by making bad situations worse. He has the misfortune of following the Beatles for his first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, but compounded the bad luck by ranting angrily at the audience.

The talented supporting cast is mostly underused but character actor David Paymer is given enough time to shine as Young’s manager-brother. Otherwise, most of the film is occupied almost entirely by Crystal’s turn as Buddy Young as other characters make only cursory appearances.

Luckily, Young is a compelling character to follow, and Crystal fills the role nicely, smoothly adapting the character from simplistic skit fodder to fully developed individual. Throughout even the most dramatic moments, which are alternately moving and maudlin, Crystal gives a subtly nuanced portrayal that is always worth watching.

Mr. Saturday Night also suffers from shaky writing, but at least the character at its core is interesting enough to compensate for underdrawn supporting characters.

One for Friday: Meow Meow, “All I Ever Got”

One of the things I miss most about living on the air in college radio is the sense of perpetual discovery. This part of the experience is undoubtedly leavened somewhat by the intense availability of information about bands, music, and albums across the untamed wilds of the internet. Getting background and inside stories is mere keystrokes away at any given time. That’s useful, but it strips away some of the fun, some of the intense, thrilling mystery of it all. There was nothing quite like opening a slew of packages from record labels and promotion agencies to create a big pile of new CDs, most of them with band names that were entirely unknown before tearing open their respective padded envelopes. Staring down a string of bizarre names connected to goofy album art was like entering the first passage of a vast, complicated video. Any turn could lead to treasure or tragedy with equal likelihood.

I was serving as the General Manager and Advisor for a campus radio station when Meow Meow released the album Snow Gas Bones. I knew nothing about the band before seeing the album. I don’t think anyone at our station really did (one of the unsettling side effects of returning to college radio in the “adult” capacity after several years from the music scene was discovering how well-versed many of the staff were in the personnel intricacies of bands I’d never heard of). I don’t even remember how well it did at our station. Maybe the CD sat there unloved, or maybe it dominated the airwaves for a little way. I just know the album was one that, for whatever reason, I wound up getting my own copy of it, settling it into my collection. I think I liked the range of it, combining occasionally roundelays of distortion and free jazz-style sonic wanderings with the sort of crisp, pointed soundcraft that was then being practiced with happy regularity by the likes of Apples in Stereo. Songs were weird, even a little confrontational, and yet they always seemed to be following a clear, satisfying path.

I may not remember quite how I discovered this band and their record, but a decade later I still get the reward of listening to their music. I imagine they’ve disappeared from most college playlists by now. It’s not like it’s in my regular rotation either. Still, any time I do listen, it’s a nice reminder of the pleasure of finding something new and unexpected.

Listen or download –> Meow Meow, “All I Ever Got”

(Disclaimer: It appears to me that Snow Gas Bones is out of print as a physical object that can be procured from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that compensates both the proprietor of said store and the artist. It can be purchased as a download from a site that I believe provides fair remuneration to the artist, so by all means follow the link and lay your money down. In this instance, I offer this track as an enticement, not as a replacement for engaging in commerce with the act. I will gladly remove the song if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)