Beers I Have Known: Stevens Point Brewery Smiley Blue Pils

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

Smiley

I have the more treasured of places set aside in my heart for the Central Wisconsin brewery that provided a sudsy crutch for me during my college years, which sends me back for their wares again and again. We’re a long way from the days when Point Special was only joined occasionally by its chunky cohort, Point Bock. Now the array of side offerings from Stevens Point Brewery can be a little dizzying, especially for those, like me, who tends to happily see the classic blue bullets — the nickname for the flagship beer because of its bright blue can — as a fine default. It may not be a fancy beer, but sometimes it’s the only beer I need.

Over the weekend, my attempt to properly stock a friend’s refrigerator as an expression of gratitude gave me cause to sample most of the rest of the brews offered by Stevens Point Brewery with regularity. And I was reminded that, while they are not admittedly not crafted with equal deftness, some of the spinoffs are pure joy in a glass themselves.

I probably wouldn’t slide a glass of Smiley Blue, Stevens Point Brewery’s Czech pilsner, across the table to a refined beer connoisseur and expect them to be dazzled. For me, though, I’ll gladly down a couple of these, feeling smitten the whole time. Crisp and flavorful, with a hint of the distinctive hoppy funk that marks it as a Point, having a icy cold Smiley Blue invariably prompts me to my own version of the expression that’s right there in the name.

The New Releases Shelf: Dark Matter

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(source)

In November, Randy Newman will turn seventy-four years old. Despite his advancing years, he sounds exactly the same as he always has in his latest full-length release, Dark Matter, his eleventh studio album. That’s not a testament to virile youthfulness bursting forth from the record. To the contrary, Dark Matter fits comfortably into Newman’s discography because he’s sounded like a cantankerous old man from the very beginning. The masterful early albums 12 Songs and Sail Away sound like they were crafted by the most world weary human being imaginable, his very soul beaten down by years of cynicism-inducing spiritual abuse. He was still in his twenties when he made those.

Dark Matter opens with Newman extolling, “Welcome, welcome, welcome,” in the last moment of benevolence the album holds. Well, even that’s not quite true, as the sentiment drips with irony, introducing the atypically sprawling song to come. Across the eight minutes of “The Great Debate,” Newman presents the scientific and political arguments of the day as a moderated argument (“Next question, global warming/ Is it? And if so, so what?”), playing every role and alternately freely between vaudevillian showmanship, Broadway bombast, and co-opted gospel (the latter representing the “true believers,” who respond to every major mystery of the universe with “I’ll take Jesus every time”). The listening public is put on notice: Newman is going to do whatever the hell he wants to do.

Sometimes, that generally admirable credo doesn’t yield gold. “Putin,” a track about the Russian leader, is dopey and frankly beneath Newman. It plays like a song hammered together absentmindedly in a bid for attention. His ode to Sonny Boy Williamson, “Sonny Boy,” similarly would make a better opening number for a musical about the blues icon rather than an album centerpiece. That quality slips into other tracks on the album, giving it a veneer of skilled cast-offs rather than a cohesive artistic statement. Sometimes, that’s clearly the case, as with “It’s a Jungle Out There,” which was first written for the television show Monk, over a decade ago. That’s not uniformly problematic (Newman’s cast-offs are better than most songwriter’s pinnacles), but I couldn’t help but wish that the album grabbed me a little more tightly, with a little more urgency.

As much as Newman has been justly vaunted for his bleak comedy over the years, he’s at his best when he gives in to an inclination towards the quietly lovely, though even his sentimental streak is speckled with defeat. “Lost Without You” unfolds as the tenderest of love songs, briefly and gently obscuring its story of a dying woman and the grown children wary of looking after the drunken widower left behind (“They said, ‘Has he been drinking again?/ He stumbled at the door/ He can’t take care of himself, Mama/ We can’t do this any more'”). Album closer “Wandering Boy” is also tinged with loss, imaging a father worried about a son who’s gone missing. They’re poignant short stories rendered as lyrics, the piano kindly providing a melodic pulse.

Newman, of course, has nothing to prove. He can approach any new album with diverted attention and still wind up with something that can stand proudly within his discography. If Dark Matter is unlikely to become a major entry in the Newman canon, matching the genius of his first few records (or his finest movie scores, for that matter) is an unreasonable goal anyway. Uncompromising perseverance is achievement enough. If a few truly exquisite moments are delivered, too — and they are — all the better. Maybe the world isn’t all that wearying, after all.

Playing Catch-Up — The Best Years of Our Lives; The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography; Truth

best years

The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946). My overwhelming reaction to this drama of post-war turmoil in the lives of U.S. fighting men and their families is a dumbstruck marveling that it was released just one year after the end of World War II. While I tend to think of the Hollywood cinema of the time as assiduously adhering to the notion of noble soldiers and stolid supporters on the home front, William Wyler’s film is far more complicated and ambiguous in its assessment of the aftermath. The returning war heroes struggle to adapt, dealing with troubled memories, an inability to relate to loved ones, the self-medication of alcohol addiction, and employers who aren’t as welcoming as was once promised. It’s painful in its truth and astonishing in its thoroughness. Wyler adepts shifts between multiple storylines (Robert E. Sherwood is the credited screenwriter, adapting the 1945 novella Glory for Me, by MacKinlay Kantor), offering empathy without pandering or exploitation. The film is resolutely daring in its beautifully melded directness and subtlety.

 

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The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography (Errol Morris, 2017). This documentary focuses on precisely the sort of iconoclastic creator that director Errol Morris clearly adores. Elsa Dorfman is a longtime portrait photographer whose work was often undervalued. She opted for Polaroid cameras, though not typically the variety sold warmly to amateur shutterbugs. Instead, Dorfman’s expertise was with bulky behemoths that more resemble the revolutionary devices trundled out to Civil War battlefields once upon a time. Morris catches Dorfman as she’s drifting into retirement, in part because there’s simply going to be no more Polaroid film available for her to ply her trade. There’s an abundance of ideas for Morris to explore — capitalism’s callous indifference to art, the ruthless march of technological progress, the value of an outsider eye when people armed with smartphones are creating self portraits at an unprecedented rate, the beauty of imperfection when measured against control — but Morris gets at these topics only glancingly. At the same time, he wastes time with uninteresting digressions, such as an almost fetishistic attention to Dorfman’s friendship with Allen Ginsberg. As if commenting on the missed opportunity of The B-Side, the screening I saw opened with Morris’s short documentary The Umbrella Man, which is inventive, witty, and revelatory.

 

truth

Truth (James Vanderbilt, 2015). Deep into Truth, writer-director James Vanderbilt delivers a scene that should carry a mighty resonance right now. CBS News producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) defends her reporting on a story involving George W. Bush’s National Guard service during the Vietnam War. She rebels against the notion that her personal politics are to blame in doggedly pursuing the story, which turned out to be partially reliant on a document of questionable origin. In identifying the destructive pattern of viewers and readers dismissing information that doesn’t conform to their personal worldview, all the monologue is missing is the detestable term “fake news.” That the sequence — structured as a moment of bravura defense of the very tenets of journalism — carries no political or emotional weight, even as its grown more pertinent since the film’s release, speaks to the inert quality of Vanderbilt’s filmmaking. Truth dutifully tracks through the details of the pursuit of the controversial news story that essentially caused Dan Rather to step away from his anchor post after decades at CBS, showing some of the procedural rigor Vanderbilt brought to his screenplay for David Fincher’s masterful Zodiac. In this instance, the approach proves dutiful and boring, reducing the characters to empty figures clicking by. Even the mighty Blanchett is felled by the film’s mechanics, apparently compensating for the lack of depth to her character by overplaying the sputtering intensity that led to Mary’s blind spot assurance in shaping the news story for air.

My Misspent Youth — The Fourth World saga by Jack Kirby

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.

I hold a certain piece of comic book publishing in my memory with a specific narrative, and I don’t care to fact-check it. I like it the way it is.

Artist Jack Kirby was one of the primary creators of the Marvel Universe, taking an integral role in the development of characters who now dominate practically every sphere of entertainment. Even without getting into the persnickety particulars of whether Kirby deserves more credit than writer Stan Lee for the stories they spun — from the Fantastic Four to the Avengers to the X-Men, and a dazzling portfolio alongside those foundational figures — it’s undeniable that Kirby’s bold, forceful design aesthetic defined the Marvel publishing house when it was a scrappy upstart and then for the years of dominance that followed.

So Kirby jumping ship to the distinguished competition in the early nineteen-seventies was the biggest of big deals. DC touted the imminent arrival of Kirby with breathless house ads.

kirby ad dc

 

Legend says that Kirby told DC Comics leadership that he would take ownership of the lowest-selling title on the roster, in a simultaneous act of humility (feeling it would be inappropriate to oust other creators from a popular book) and hubris (feeling he could turn around the dismal sales numbers). And that’s how Jack Kirby was assigned writing and penciling duties on Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen.

In prior hands, the series starring a the cub reporter supporting character to DC’s flagship hero was a repository for the loopiest ideas. In a way, that heritage suited Kirby perfectly. He possessed a wild imagination and an utter fearlessness about presenting the bizarre and fantastical as if it made perfect sense, or was at least an extension of the myth-making that was a hallmark of human storytelling from the beginning. Where other comics creators tried to spin similar yarns only to get mired in eye-rolling hokeyness, Kirby had the verve and panache to make such material archly cool and casually grand.

kirby robot

Jimmy Olsen was only the beginning for Kirby at DC. And it was a fraction of the fantastical vision he had. Within a few months Kirby was also presiding over a trio of brand new titles: Mister Miracle, The Forever People, and New Gods. At Marvel, Kirby participated in the sea change that led comic book storytelling from interchangeable larks from issue to issue to an ongoing continuity, rewarding regular readers and creating a more urgent incentive to pic up every issue. Miss an issue of Superman in the nineteen-sixties and all that was lost were a couple stories that would never be referenced again. Miss an issue of Fantastic Four in the same era and there would be a nettlesome gap in the big puzzle of the Marvel saga.

Kirby’s four titles — known informally as the “Fourth World” — took the mighty Marvel model the next logical step. They introduced a vast new internal mythos for the DC Universe, filled with Shakespearean evil, heroism, and familial strife. And the respective titles didn’t necessarily explicitly connect, but they all commented on each other, giving a sense of a whole by concentrating on the inventive minutiae of each individual segment.

And, since it was created by Kirby, there were plenty of fabulous monsters.

kirby monster

I didn’t read the Fourth World comics when they were published. I would have been too young for them. Even a few years later, I wouldn’t have been able to wrap my head around their beautifully ludicrous spectacle. Only years later, when I’d shed my defensive pretension that comics needed to be serious to be appreciated could I see the specialness of Kirby’s creativity at its most unguarded and unhinged.

More than any comic creator before or since, Kirby was able to render big ideas as zippy pop art infused with a childlike storytelling logic, invested in headlong progression rather than heady themes. His stories had weight because they were preoccupied with morality, but Kirby didn’t theorize or pontificate the way his former Marvel collaborator Lee did. Instead, there was a purity of purpose — a smashing delight in working in this dismissed art form — that carried the day. Anything was fair game to Kirby, from star-spanning wonders to a knockabout story teaming Superman with Don Rickles and a weirdo doppelgänger named Goody Rickles. The message printed across the top of a second issue guest-starring Rickles was the perfect credo for the romping Fourth World comics: “KIRBY SAYS: ‘DON’T ASK! JUST BUY IT!”

kirby tomorrow people

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 7

7 peek

7. Siouxsie and the Banshees, “Peek-A-Boo”

One of the biggest hits ever crafted by Siouxsie and the Banshees began as a mistake. Following a string of splendid studio efforts through the the late-nineteen-seventies and the first half of the eighties, the iconic group decided to make a covers album, working with producer Mike Hedges. Entitled Through the Looking Glass, the record largely bypassed instantly recognizable songs (the band already had experience with trafficking in that area, thanks to their hit cover of the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence”) in favor of far more esoteric selections. Among them was a lively take on the John Cale song “Gun.”

“When we were recording it I turned it over — which you can do on analog tape — and it sounded amazing,” Hedges later explained. “We recorded forward drums over the backwards track –—crunchy and loopy, kind of hip-hoppy. Then we added accordion and bass, although there’s only one piece of bass on the entire track. It was all very quick. From turning the tape over it probably took the best part of a day and a half to finish the song.”

The original notion was that the resulting new original could serve as the B-side for the planned single, the band’s cover of Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger.” Quickly, though, everyone realized the track being developed was too good to be relegated to an afterthought. Quite the contrary, the song, entitled “Peek-a-Boo,” would become the lead single to the next Siouxsie and the Banshees album, Peepshow, released in 1988. Utterly dominant on the college charts through that fall, “Peek-a-Boo” had the distinction of being the song atop the inaugural Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart.

Though a clear commercial success, the song wasn’t tame or otherwise buffed into something comfortable for listeners. Hedges insists that it was more daring that anything he’d worked on up to that point.

“It was one of the most experimental things I did at the time that actually worked,” Hedges said. “The Banshees were very, very experimental, and at that time in the music business you could be experimental. There was no pressure to do anything in a straight style, which isn’t really the case any more.”

The song has a buoyant sense of fun about it, in part because of the way the chorus directly borrows from the snappy wordplay of the jazz standard “Jeepers Creepers,” written by the famed team of Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer. (Once the similarities were point out, Siouxsie and the Banshees retroactively added Warren and Mercer to the songwriting credits on “Peek-a-Boo.”) The other lyrics are a little darker, because Siouxsie Sioux was delivering a strong, angry message about the state of the culture.

“The stereotype of a woman is perceived and felt, forever projected,” Sioux told MTV at the time of the single’s release. “And I just think with the advent of more and more video being used, I’m sort of just very disappointed with the way it’s so limited how people are projected. It reminds me of the Stepford Wives films. I just think everyone’s becoming so modeled to the perfect ideal of what even a woman or a man should be like. It really disgusts me, and ‘Peek-A-Boo’ is really a reaction against that kind of control that I think is coming through in the media.”

Since “Peek-a-Boo” had its origins in an inadvertent bit of sampling, it’s perhaps appropriate that it later served to undergird another song. Years later, the tracks was sampled in a Sir Mix-A-Lot song.

“I remember Geffen sending us the Sir Mix-A-Lot version for our approval,” Sioux said. “We approved it with no fuss. We’d never heard ourselves sampled in anyone else’s material before, which was an amusing novelty.”

 

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 — Me and You and Everyone We Know

me you

Until very recently, I forgot I wrote a longer review on Miranda July’s feature directorial debut. Back when I first posted this, it was rare I went longer on films that weren’t actively playing in theaters, and I sadly didn’t get around to this lovely work until it crossed into the home video sphere.

Me and You and Everyone We Know is the kind of movie you show to someone to explain what you mean when you say “independent film.” Not because of where they dollars for the film stock came from, but because of the feel of the finished product. In much of the same way that “indie rock” describes the sound of the music rather than the size of the corporation behind the label, people who express love for independent cinema aren’t actually talking about the corporate structure (or lack thereof) hiding Wizard-like behind the arty logo that opens the film. More likely, they’re excited about the presence of a certain kind of character, a deep well of quirks and jagged philosophies. They’re probably thinking of dry, artfully obscure dialogue delivered with the rhythm of a skipping stone. And then there’s the willful, almost defiant lack of polish, a minor, endearing awkwardness to some of the staging.

All those qualities are abundantly present in Everyone We Know the first feature film written and directed by Miranda July, a multi-media and performance artist with enough renown to have planted her artistic flag at various times at the Guggenheim and the Whitney. July herself plays a woman who is trying to get her art shown at a local gallery. More importantly, she’s trying to develop a relationship with a department store shoe salesman, very well played by everyone’s favorite hardware Jew, John Hawkes. Swirling around these characters are a full cast of fellow sad margin-dwellers, sometimes connected through Altmanesque overlap and sometimes connected by Crash-like coincidence.

Generally speaking, July constructs her plots and subplots well, firmly establishing the characters to help make their subsequent decisions and exposed weaknesses fully understandable. A singular exception is an art gallery curator, who is primarily set up for ridicule, especially with a final, particularly potent humiliation at the hands of the filmmaker. The rest of the characters feel well-observed and earn July’s empathy. The curator character feels inserted for little more than long-festering revenge for some artworld slight.

Thematically, July’s film is about the myriad of ways in which we humans desperately reach out to one another for a little bit of affection. Yes, there’s surprisingly casual sexuality as a mussed placeholder for deeper connections (this is another earmark of independent cinema, one of the more tiresome ones at that), but there’s also the role-playing, the projected personas, the hungry, hopeful grasps at moments of opportunity and the flares of jealousy and anger when things don’t fall precisely into place. Everything July puts on screen speaks in some way to this theme and the unity of her vision, the forceful confidence of her voice is thrilling and fascinating.

Of course, these are the other qualities, maybe the most important qualities, that make us love independent cinema.

 

One for Friday — Brian Ritchie, “Religion Ruined My Life”

ritchie

Some songs that arrived at my college radio station had a remarkable number of attributes, all converging to make it nearly irresistible to the eager young music fans that took turns on the airwaves. “Religion Ruined My Life,” from the 1990 album I See a Noise, was one of those songs.

To begin with, I See a Noise was a solo album by Brian Ritchie, a fellow Wisconsin native. Perhaps more importantly, Ritchie was a member of Violent Femmes, then fully in possession of the title of Poet Laureates of Teen Angst. They were coming off a comeback album that was much-loved at our broadcasting outpost in the middle of America’s Dairyland, making us especially eager for any recording that involved any part of the trio’s lineup. Playing a song off of Ritchie’s solo album was like saluting a favored compatriot.

Then there’s the matter of the song’s scathing dismissal of religion. For a big batch of proud outcasts hovering around the age of twenty, seeking out transferable rebellion from the music we played, few things could have been better in the “family values” era of national politics. Ritchie’s litany of infractions against him by the pious are relatively benign (Sinéad O’Connor threw harder punches for more damnable sins), but the clarity on his statement was enough to make us believe we were properly fighting the power.

And it was funny, too. It’s no wonder we played it with such frequency and pride.

Listen or download —> Brian Ritchie, “Religion Ruined My Life”

(Disclaimer: I believe I See a Noise — and maybe all of the Ritchie solo catalog — to be out of print, at least as physical items that can purchased from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that compensates both the proprietor of said store and the original artist. The song is shared in this manner in this space with that understanding and an urging to go out and get some Violent Femmes albums. As I’ve noted previously, buying records is good for the soul. Although I believe sharing this track qualifies as fair use, I do know the rules. I will gladly and promptly remove this file 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.)