One for Friday: Bob Seger, “Love the One You’re With”

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For several years now, most of my music listening has been shaped by the various shuffle features connected to my digital collection. That particular batch of MP3 files spans far and wide, a result of concerted effort to essentially create the automated radio station of my deepest longings, one that operates with at least some of the limitations of format knocked asunder. At different points, that entailed me securing all sorts of songs that I didn’t necessarily find familiar. I wanted surprise as the playlists unwound. I relied on the robust song-sharing blog community to help me shape my fictional station’s library.

There are plenty of instances when a song will spin up and send me momentarily reeling, left snatching up whatever device is serving as the delivery system with a single, urgent question: “Who is that?”

For a while, one of the songs that most reliably grabbed me was a cover of “Love the One You’re With.” While the Stephen Stills original strikes me as wispy and strangely pleading, informed more by anxious justification than true hippie-love celebration, this cover version bursts forth with a bluesy hustle and a high voltage charge. It’s powerful, questing, sweaty, glorious. It’s just over four minutes long, but it feels like it goes on for hours, in the best way possible. To borrow a bit of phrasing from David Letterman, it blows the roof off the dump.

Because my indie elitism is stronger than I’d like, I was always a little shocked when I confirmed the identity of the artist: Bob Seger. To give myself a little leeway, the song prominently features female vocals (both Pam Todd and Crystal Jenkins are credited contributors on the album that houses the track), which isn’t really an element I associate with Seger’s most prominent hits. Regardless, the song stands for me as a reminder that there was a ton of Seger material predating classic rock mainstays like “Night Moves.” And at least some of it is better than I ever would have guessed.

And I was reminded of that once again this week, when Tim Quirk, lead singer of Too Much Joy and titan of the digital distribution industry, delivered an entirely unexpected paean to the music of Seger, scored with concern that the artist’s resistance to new modes of culture delivery is eroding his legacy. Published on the NPR website, the article is fascinating, not just because it offers a very personal view of Seger as an artist (and a recounting of the bygone exploratory risks of music collecting that closely mirrors my own experience), but also because it digs into the unsettled realities of the music business in this tumultuous day and age.

And, as a bonus, it reminded me of Seger’s take on “Love the One You’re With.” There are so many happy side effects to great music writing.

Listen or download –> Bob Seger, “Love the One You’re With”

(Disclaimer: Part of Quirk’s motivating premise for the article is the unavailability of sizable chunks of Seger’s catalog, both through digital portals and as physical objects that can be purchased from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner than compensates both the proprietor of said store and the original artist. It is with that understanding that I humbly share this file in this space, believing that doing so causes no real financial harm. Still, I know the rules. I will gladly and promptly remove this song from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

The Unwatchables: Now You See Me 2

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Like most erudite (or, if you prefer, snobbish) modern film fans, I’m always ready to spring forth to decry the practice of making all decisions about which projects see the light according to a strained equation about the likelihood of spinning the material into a myriad of interconnection ancillary series. There can’t just be new Star Wars films. There must be a robust Star Wars universe, exploring side avenues and hidden histories that previously piqued the curiosity of precisely no one. But maybe — just maybe — if studios are going to commit to films largely on the basis of repeatability, we’re all better off with stories shaped from the start with narrative sprawl in mind.

Now You See Me 2 feels out of place in the current franchise culture. Instead, it’s a dismal callback to the nineteen-eighties, when every box office success, no matter how modest, spawned a sequel conceived in haste. The original film was a fun concept (Ocean’s Eleven, but with magicians!) that could barely endure the flood of complications it naturally and necessarily engendered. It was charming enough and deeply forgettable, even with a ludicrously overqualified cast (and Dave Franco!).

The sequel is a quintessential example of slapdash opportunism. The original crew of prestidigitating grifters is back, brining no real rationale for their continued camaraderie. They’re here because, hey, it’s a movie. And elements are thrown in with goofy abandon — ego-driven rivalries, bratty twins, strange cabals of competing criminals — until the film feels like a thousand swirling details in search of a purpose.

Nothing exemplifies the problems more than a mid-film scene during which the mischievous magicians steal an incredibly powerful computer chip. As directed by John M. Chu — who apparently go the assignment on the strength of Jem and the Holograms or G.I. Joe: Retaliation  — the scene is a bumbling embarrassment, depicting the supposed geniuses of misdirection as a group of nitwit oddballs who couldn’t convince a gaggle of drunken toddlers that their noses had been apprehended and removed with a sweep of the hand. Physics are incidental, and the skepticism of fierce security experts is as soft as a marshmallows after few spins in the microwave.

I made it approximately halfway into its 129 minute running time.

Previously in The Unwatchables
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, directed by Michael Bay
Alice in Wonderland, directed by Tim Burton
Due Date, directed by Todd Phillips
Sucker Punch, directed by Zack Snyder
Cowboys & Aliens, directed by Jon Favreau
After Earth, directed by M. Night Shyamalan
The Beaver, directed by Jodie Foster

Laughing Matters: The Max Fischer Players

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.

“She’s the smartest person in the world, general. I think we ought to listen to her.”

I love this with an intensity I’ll never be able to truly convey.

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

Now Playing: Life

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Look, I get it. There has to be a mighty temptation to merge horror with science fiction. If one geeky genre has an irresistible appeal, shouldn’t an artful melding of the two inherently double the allure? Chocolate chip cookie dough and ice cream are great separately. Together, they’re life-changing. And there’s always Alien, just sitting out there, an 117-minute argument in favor of this particular sort of cinematic amalgamation. Unfortunately, there are far more arguments against that have been offered up over the years. For every Alien, there are countless Event Horizons.

Life, directed by Daniel Espinosa, is no Alien, no matter how it strains and aches to evoke Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic. For one thing, Life takes a stab at recreating the working-stiffs-in-space vibe that is one of the earlier film’s most underappreciated strengths. In this case, it’s a slightly more refined crew of professionals, a group of scientists and astronauts on the International Space Station. Their primary mission entails retrieving a probe that contains biological samples plucked from Mars. After some investigation, the crew’s biologist (Ariyon Bakare) confirms there is a life form in the sample. Initially a benign, undulating mass, the creature evolves to become a far more challenging presence, a perhaps unsurprising outcome after the biologist observes unique levels of cellular multitasking in the globby being.

What follows from the creature’s turn towards malevolence is, predictably, escalating mayhem. The individual crew members have their unfortunate tangles with the transplanted Martian, ticked off one-by-one to suit narrative needs rather than any sort of internal logic. A big part of the problem is a decided lack of consistency in the actions and reactions of the marauding outer space starfish that causes all the trouble. Screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick — whose shared wings picked up the unmistakable odor of melting wax after their admirable debut, Zombieland — set up parameters and then blithely ignore them whenever it suits them. The Martian can survive for extended stretches in the airlessness of outer space, for example, but is desperately chasing oxygen a few scenes later. When a story ventures into the fantastic, it’s vitally important that it set and follow its own rules.

Perhaps the only thing more problematic than the flimsy rigors of the film’s logic is the gaping hollowness of the characters. None of the actors seems to know quite what to do, leaving them playing scenes in desperate, faulty swings at plausibility. After his first introduction to the most gruesome of horrors the captured creature can deliver, Jake Gyllenhaal spits out a curse word with all the rattled agitation of a man who’s just let a fragile wineglass topple to the unforgiving linoleum of the kitchen floor. That’s a memorable acting infraction, but hardly the sole one or the most grievous. The assembled cast barely makes an impression, save for Ryan Reynolds, who mostly sticks in the memory because he notably demonstrates how his trademark jabbering impression of a funny guy — he delivers lines in the cadence of comedy without the barest inkling of wit — can be plugged into any scenario.

Espinosa films it all with a flailing artlessness. Some sequences are borderline incoherent and others are marred by repetitive portentousness. He tries to kick off the movie with a swooping, continuous shot that exploits the fluidity of a gravity-free environment, but he only serves to accentuate the skill of Alfonso Cuarón’s similar cinematic gamesmanship at the beginning of Gravity. That might be the defining trait of the film. It keeps calling to mind inspired predecessors and showing how drab and dismal a high-concept, low-intellect pretender can be. That’s Life.

The Art of the Sell: Nighthawks at the Diner

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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In 1975, when Tom Waits released Nighthawks at the Diner, he had only been a known quantity for two years, with just a pair of studio full-lengths to his credit. He was in his mid-twenties, though he already looked like a bedraggled middle-aged man who’d spent a few too many nights helping keep a barstool in place. The Waits persona was already firmly in place.

Not that there’s a desperate need for proof of the above assertion, but I’ll still submit the print as for Nighthawks at the Diner as evidence. There are so many spectacular details in the ad: the assertion that Waits is “the entertainer for the 70’s,” the word ballon that has Waits equating aspirations to syphilis, the implied use of the word “fuckers.” And there’s Waits — in the image from the album cover — cigarette in hand, peering out the window, looking near drunken collapse. I’m projecting a bit, but I’m quite confident my interpretation is the one the label was expecting.

As means of promoting an album, it may not have the modern panache of a surprise midnight announcement or the debut of a song at a Super Bowl halftime show. But it damn well makes me want to listen to the record again.

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

CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 64 – 62

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64. Hoodoo Gurus, “I Want You Back”

The casual listener would be forgiven for assuming that “I Want You Back” is just another pining pop song, the next nearly indistinguishable boxcar on the endless train of the musically lovelorn line. Instead, the single from the 1984 album Stoneage Romeos, the debut release from Hoodoo Gurus, addresses the turmoil in the band’s lineup. Though the song resides on the first full-length from Hoodoo Gurus, the group had already endured quite a bit of personnel turmoil, including the departure of original guitarist Rod Radalj. Apparently nursing some ill feelings about the growing influence of lead singer Dave Faulkner on the creative direction of the band, Radalj decided to quite. From there, according to Faulkner, Radalj “went off and joined this country/punk band called the Johnnys, and they’ve got this gimmick of wearing cowboy hats and going, ‘Yeeha!’ while throwing gear at each other.” Faulkner’s dismissiveness was reciprocated by Radalj, who had plenty of unkind things to say about his former bandmates. “Basically, when Rod Radalj left the Gurus he was very dismissive of us, trying to move on and kind of burn everything behind him: ‘Oh, it’s not worth staying in that band. They’re terrible!’” Faulkner later explained. “So I basically turned that emotion around: ‘Here’s this guy who ditched us and he’s acting like the spurned lover!’ It was me saying, ‘You’ll regret it.’”

 

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63. The Cure, “Just Like Heaven”

“Just Like Heaven,” the third single from the 1987 album Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, was a  sizable hit for the Cure — their first to nudge into the U.S. Top 40 — but that was all part of lead singer Robert Smith’s long plan. He landed on the melody a few years earlier, and he and the band worked it into tune with the working title “Shivers.” When, in the mid-nineteen-eighties, the producers of a French music television series called Les Enfants du rock approached the Cure about providing its theme song, the instrumental that would evolve into “Just Like Heaven” was the track they turned over. “I already felt it was the most obvious single, and it meant that the music would be familiar to millions of Europeans even before it was released,” explained Smith. Smith finally found his way to the lyrics after going on holiday at the imposing British seaside spot Beachy Head. A more harrowing portion of that trip likely inspired the music video, which set Smith twirling precariously on a crag above crashing waves. “We’d been drinking and someone thought it would be cool to go for a walk,” Smith said. “But suddenly the fog came in and I lost sight of my friends and I couldn’t see my hand before my eyes. I thought I might fall down the cliff if I moved my foot, so I had to sit down until dawn.” Of course, Smith had the perfect gloomy, goth capper to the story. “Later I heard my friends didn’t even look for me,” he added. Despite the influence of his night alone in the fog, the prevailing sentiment of “Just Like Heaven” is that of woozy love, inspired by Smith’s romance with Mary Poole, who’d become his wife less than a year after the single’s release. “The song is about hyperventilating – kissing and fainting to the floor,” Smith said. “Mary dances with me in the video because she was the girl, so it had to be her. The idea is that one night like that is worth 1,000 hours of drudgery.”

 

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62. The Cult, “Love Removal Machine”

The Cult intended to follow up their 1985 album, Love, with a new disc of music entitled Peace. They had it all recorded, but it wasn’t ready to go, at least not in their collective opinion. Even though there were misgivings about the album as a whole, the band agreed that “Love Removal Machine” needed to be the first single. To try and spruce it up, they sought out producer Rick Rubin, then riding high from helping to turn the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill into a blockbuster. Rubin agreed to work with the Cult, but he didn’t necessarily think a simple remix would cut it. “Well, he agreed to remix the whole album if we recorded ‘Love Removal Machine’ with him from the ground up,” guitarist Billy Duffy explained. From the very beginning of their work together, the band realized they were completely simpatico with Rubin, so they decided on a much broader reset plan. “He got where we were straight away and we just thought, ‘OK, let’s do the whole album,'” said Duffy. “That decision was made so quickly. We’d just come over to talk about a remix, and ended up recording an album. I didn’t even have any of my guitars there — I wasn’t going to lug this huge Gretsch across for a meeting, but we ended up staying. Every note of that album is recorded on rented equipment.” As for “Love Removal Machine,” lead singer Ian Astbury conceded that the music stemmed from the band’s admiration for the pounding glories of AC/DC, maybe with a little bit of vintage Rolling Stones dribbled in. The lyrics, on the other hand, aspired to weightier themes than was all that common in the song’s sonic ancestors. “I think ‘Love Removal Machine’ came out of man’s inhumanity to man,” Astbury said. “It talked about materialism and prostitution as being other aspects of the machine that takes away from the human spirit, then put it in a rock ‘n’ roll vehicle that was very accessible.” Lest that seem too intellectually ponderous, Astbury offered an undercutting addendum: “It came out during the Electric album, and we were pretty hammered in the studio.”

 

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.

From the Archive: Juno

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Few filmmakers experienced quite as precipitous a drop as Jason Reitman. He went from back-to-back Best Director nominations to a pair of films that were universally panned (with, it’s worth noting, one compromised but ambition feature in between). Through it all, he’s at least had the live reads, regular events that brought together impressive groups of actors to offer one-time-only, live stage performances of some truly beloved screenplays. Though the event is officially retired as an ongoing concern, Reitman is clearly keeping it in his back pocket, ready to throw on the table when the moment is right, such as a live reading of the screenplay for his breakthrough film, Juno, with proceeds going to Planned Parenthood. While Juno has — and has always had — its detractors, I still think its strengths outweigh its weaknesses. And the prospect of Ellen Page returning ten years later to the role in which she spun such acting wizardry is enough to make me long for a ticket. This is the review I wrote when Juno was released.

Debuting screenwriter Diablo Cody spends the first ten or fifteen minutes of Juno trying ever so desperately to prove herself as a someone with a distinctive voice–the film is rife with hyper-stylized dialogue and boasts an immediate sardonic distance from it’s small-town Midwestern setting. Every word uttered by every character seems to reach for some level of arch distinctiveness. Luckily, after that somewhat anxious beginning, the script settles down and the remainder proves decisively that Cody does indeed have a unique voice and it’s worthy of attention. In other words, after some initial squirming, I sort of loved Juno.

The film is a comedy about teen pregnancy, pointed in its consideration of cavalier youth and the neediness of the classes above and deeply sympathetic to most every character that edges onto the screen. It is a movie with unexpected reservoirs of hope and happiness, finding some measure of contentment in its own worried cynicism. It shows how difficult it is for people to come together thereby enhancing its moments when honest, unadorned connections happen. Cody creates indelible characters and puts them forth on perilous emotional routes.

It’s Cody’s name that most often invoked when talking about the film, making her perhaps the most discussed Oscar-bound scribe since two dopey friends from Boston wrote themselves a couple parts. Maybe it’s because her backstory as a filmmaker is more compelling than that of the director, which boils down to “they’re letting the kid of the guy who directed Ghostbusters make movies now,” but it’s worth noting that Juno represents a major step forward for Jason Reitman as a director since his debut, 2005’s Thank You For Smoking. While that film was muddled, flailing around looking for a consistent tone to call it’s own, Juno is assured and compact, downright thrilling in its thoughtful humor and barbed asides.

Reitman has seemingly also found a better approach to working with his actors and helping to mold his performance. Smoking was often marred by uneven, disjointed work among its cast. Juno boasts tremendous work all around, led by the practical paternal attention of J.K. Simmons and the wondrous work of Ellen Page in the title role. Page was deeply impressive in last year’s Hard Candy. Here she takes a complicated band of emotions, often disguised by mordant wit, and portrays it all with great care and crackling invention. She herself goes a long way towards making the jigsaw words of Cody’s script into something firm and believable.

In the end, no matter the stumbles, the film is warm and winning. And, in the end, the film has one of the best endings of the year.