Last Call — The Americans

Sometimes in pop culture there are clear end points, and — effective or not — they can provide insights to a whole series, oeuvre, or discography.

paige

In a beautiful convergence of historical fact and playful narrative irony, the FX series The Americans concluded its six season, seventy-five episode run with an episode titled “START.” Reminiscent of The Sopranos finale from a decade ago, the creators behind The Americans remained true to their firmly established voice, resisting any exterior pressure — real or imagined — to deliver bombast and resolute closure. They instead trafficked in the aching ambiguity that was a hallmark of the entire series. In the real world, stories don’t really end. Some branches simply wither away as others sprout. Certain implicit promises needed to be kept, and in this The Americans did not disappoint, notably with a lengthy set piece in the stark chill of a parking garage. But it faded to black with as many questions lingering as answered.

In general, the final season of The Americans revived a series that had just barely started to sag. Blessed and cursed at once with a renewal order from FX that laid out a clear, decisive, two-season pathway to the final episode, the creative team started quietly folding up chairs in the back of the room in the middle of the fifth season, and it could feel a little bit like they were biding time. In retrospect, I still believe in the fairness of that impression, but the fifth season also minutely recalibrated expectations about how catastrophic events would become. Earlier, The Americans was ruthless enough that it was the sort of series where it was advisable to not become overly attached to certain characters as they waded deeper into the swamps of Cold War espionage. With a mischievous wit, the show stirred anxiety about the fates of fictional beings, and often proved those worries to be founded. The nervous viewing instinct lingered, even as the body count plateaued, at least when it came to major characters.

The change was so slight as to be nearly indiscernible, and yet the effect was profound, heightening the tension by playing to prolonged stillness bursting with woozy expectation. Watching much of the last season — especially the back half of it — was a compulsive exercise in breath holding, waiting for the bang that would deliver harsh justice. Rather than commit to a mad rush of incidents, The Americans doubled down on themes that ran through the whole series: the precariousness of family, the pliability of identity, the rickety nature of institutions, and the prevailing uncertainty of it all. Abetted by actors who excelled at nuance (Keri Russell, in particular, gave a long-form performance for the ages, and Matthew Rhys and Noah Emmerich each had quietly staggering moments in the finale), showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields built a series around spy trappings — disguises, deadly missions, complicated assignments — and tethered it to the most recognizable human conflicts.

The Americans was magnificent, all the way to its fitting, moving, tender end.

Top 40 Smash Near Misses — “Groovy Train”

These posts are about the songs that just barely failed to cross the key line of chart success, entering the Billboard Top 40. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 41.

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Big breaks arrive in a variety of waves. The Liverpool band the Farm had been kicking around U.K. clubs from the early nineteen-eighties, even landing an opening slot on the Housemartins’ tour in support of the 1987 album The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death. Through it all, a record contract remained elusive. Then the group made a cameo in the movie The Final Frame, about a rock star killed while performing at a benefit concert. Among the film’s cast was Suggs, the lead singer of the then-defunct British hit makers Madness. Suggs evidently took a shine to band. He helped get them signed to Sony and co-produced the resulting debut studio album, Spartacus.

“Groovy Train” was the album’s lead single, appearing several months before the full-length effort arrived in shops. At about the same time the track was issued, it also appeared right in the heart of Happy Daze (Volume One), a collection of British pop songs that “was compiled to reflect the events/music of 1990” when “Indie Guitar Pop finally left the bedroom, hooked up with some strident dance grooves and had one hell of a bender/night out!” Nested in between Inspiral Carpets and the Charlatans, “Groovy Train” unavoidably became one of the signature songs of the fast-flaring Madchester movement.

“Groovy Train” made it into the Top 10 in the U.K. and missed the U.S. Top 40 by a twirling hippie’s whisker.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Top 40 Smash Near Misses” tag.

 

Beers I Have Known — Brewery Ommegang Neon Rainbows

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

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I stood outside Brewery Ommegang in a steady rain and it was perfect. I’ve mostly outgrown the college bar table game of authoritatively rattling off the list of artists that I long to witness in a live performance, constantly curating a concert wish list. Even so, there are unseen acts that tug at me, often because of parallel lines of earnest fandom and missed opportunities. So it was of some personal import when I joined countless others braving a chilly, wet night to convene in a craft brewery’s vast field — growing muddier by the second — and watch Jack White put on a show.

Truthfully, I couldn’t have asked for a better experience for this long-awaited show. The vast outdoors of the countryside was the only environment large enough to safely accommodate the booming majesty of White and his band, and even the precipitation felt just right, creating one more sheen of texture against the flashing blue lights favorited by White on this tour. And the brewery’s official address in Cooperstown, New York — best known as the home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame — fed right into White’s romanticism for a bygone brand of Americana. At the end of the show, fireworks burst across the sky.

As our arrival at Brewery Ommegang neared, I realized that I couldn’t name a favorite beer they offered. I’ve liked Ommegang for quite some time, but nothing quite locked in as the one I’d eagerly order up if I saw it on a draft list. (The situation is complicated and compounded the exhausting number of beers themed to Game of Thrones that the brewer has offered over the years, which eventually caused me to instinctively tune them out because it all exceeded my ability to keep proper track.) That dilemma has now been erased.

Neon Rainbows, a delectable New England IPA, was in my hands as White’s first guitar chords rattled the darkening night. As I noted, everything was perfect.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Beers I Have Known” tag.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #924 to #921

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924. The Nils, The Nils (1987)

Formed in Montreal in the late nineteen-seventies, the Nils were perfectly poised to infiltrate college radio when their self-titled debut album was released. With nearly ten years under their guitar straps, the Nils had a professional polish that couldn’t be faked, and they played earnest, well-built rock songs that recalled the likes of Let’s Active and just about any of the Minneapolis outfits that rattled left of the dial playlists. On a track like “River of Sadness,” they showed they could even adopt just enough R.E.M. jangle to add texture to their heavier, more conventional rock ‘n’ roll base.

There isn’t a staggering amount of depth to the tracks on The Nils“Wicked Politician” offers commentary that get no more insightful than the song’s title, which is only underscored by a bland guitar grind that anticipates Pearl Jam at their most slack self-satisfaction. Most of the time, though, the fuss-free verve of the band amply compensates, bolstered by the clean, robust production of Chris Spedding. On “Truce” and “In Betweens,” they approach the punchy, boisterous brand of rock that Soul Asylum eventually spun into gold.

Like a lot of band before and since, the Nils suffered from severe mismanagement by their record label. Signed to Rock Hotel, a newly formed subsidiary of Frontier Records that was investing heavily in punk bands, the Nils quickly found their corporate overlords were drastically short on cash. This dire situation was in spite of the fact that the premier act of Frontier, Run-D.M.C., was in the midst of going triple platinum with their latest record. A worldwide tour in support of The Nils was scuttled midway through the band was left stranded with no financial support. But they also couldn’t extricate themselves from a smothering contract that obligated delivery of seven albums before the band should shop around for different options.

“It was a crime,” bassist Carlos Soria reflected many years later. “We had other labels that wanted to sign us, like Reprise, Combat and Relativity, but it took so long that they went with other bands. When we finally got our release, Kurt Cobain had just died.”

For band leader Alex Soria — Carlos’s brother — the outcome was even bleaker. Idle and distraught over the stasis of a band he’d spend a decade building up, Soria began self-medicating with drugs. By the time the band was freed from their contract, the wounds were too deep. Several years later, while in the midst of working on new material, Soria took his own life by stopping his car on the train tracks in the path of an oncoming locomotive.

 

 

china flaunt

923. China Crisis, Flaunt the Imperfection (1985)

When the U.K. band China Crisis released their third album, Flaunt the Imperfection, they were arguably overshadowed by the person who’d offered his services as a producer. As one half of Steely Dan, Walter Becker’s place in rock history was secure, albeit more elevated by a subset of fans who favored pristine fusion jazz shimmer over blasts of heavy metal thunder. Following the 1981 breakup of his band, Becker largely disappeared from the music scene, absconding to Hawaii to try his hand at the farmer’s life. He was lured from his premature retirement when he heard China Crisis’s music, particular, according to some accounts, the song “Papau.” The band was excited enough about the collaboration that they chose to bill Becker not only as producer but also as a fifth member in the resulting album’s linter notes.

Flaunt the Imperfection certainly seems to bear Becker’s glassy fingerprints. “Strength of Character” sounds like Bryan Ferry took some Boz Scaggs material and tried to add a little elegant swing to it, and, in true Steely Dan style, “Bigger the Punch I’m Feeling” resembles a track that gets played when it’s time to really loosen up in the cruise ship lounge. Music writers more interested in Becker’s comeback than the emerging Brit band detected similarities, but the man himself was quick to say the cited material wasn’t his doing.

“By the time I started working with them, they’d already outgrown that new wave element,” Becker told Billboard. “It’s growth on their part, not anything I’ve inserted.”

The album is better when it drifts away from those refinements, anyway. The jabbing chorus of “The World Spins I’m Part of It” is more satisfying than any lush veneer. And when the tempo picks up, as on “Wall of God” or the percolating “King in a Catholic Style,” the album shifts from a strained attempt at high recording art to pop that’s actually, you know, sorta fun. Accurate or not, those moments feel like China Crisis succeeding in spite of Becker rather than because of him.

 

 

dad details

922. My Dad is Dead, Let’s Skip the Details (1988)

My Dad is Dead certainly sounds like a band name of affected misery that a snarly post-punk band might adopt, but the Cleveland group came by it legitimately. Primary — and, at times, sole — member Mark Edwards had buried both his parents before his twenty-first birthday. The band name was less imposed, calculated gloom than a simple statement of fact.

Releasing his first album under the My Dad is Dead name in 1985, Edwards was laudably prolific. Three years later, he was on his fourth album, and the second to be released on the Homestead label. Let’s Skip the Details is a fuzzy, catchy rouser, the kind of record that might be made by someone who decided they didn’t need to listen to any more music after the first Joy Division album came out. It avoids succumbing to mere derivativeness, mainly because Edwards operates with a visceral determination.

It’s that belief in the material that also allows Edwards to escape occasional traps of self-parody. “Lay Down the Law” could become an eye-roller as the lyrics repetitively imagine acts of homicide as a revenge for personal infractions so awful that “There ain’t no words.” And yet it somehow works. Edwards is shaking out his id like a musty throw rug instead of trying to jolt the world with his anguish, and the understatement is appealing. Besides, there’s plenty of goth cred to be found across the album, right down to the mention of a black light on “Five Minutes.”

It’s not all grime and bloody knuckles. The anti-misery anthem “Put It Away” is a galloping rocker the Feelies might have come up with if they used burlier guitars, and Edwards sounds almost cheery almost sounds cheery as he sings “The days of our lives/ Just slide on by,” on “Bad Judgement Day.” The band’s name doesn’t deceive, but it doesn’t tell the whole story, either.

 

 

bragg brewing

921. Billy Bragg, Brewing Up with Billy Bragg (1984)

A songwriter who’d been honing his craft since the late nineteen-seventies, Billy Bragg had no shortage of material when he recorded his debut album, Life’s a Riot with Spy vs. Spy, released in 1983. So assembling the lineup for his follow-up, Brewing Up with Billy Bragg, was a snap. Largely, he just made his way through all the songs that were leftover from the first go-round in the studio. The only downside, arguably, was that Bragg’s profile as a lefty activist had already risen to the point it was expected he’d weigh in on the pressing matters of the day, such as the U.K. miners’ strike, for which he’d played benefit concerts. It was well and good to take aim at the British tabloids on “It Says Here,” but some of Bragg’s fans expected new, more specific anthems for their agitation.

The notion that Bragg was going to deliver a recruitment pamphlet in record form was driven by the misreading of his art that’s been present for his whole career, a conflation of his activism with his songwriting. As always, there are plenty of political songs on Brewing Up with Billy Bragg, such as the retort against the Falklands War “Island of No Return” and the plea for peace “Like Soldiers Do.” But Bragg also follows the well-worn pop troubadour path of chronicling wobbly romance, from school days (“The Saturday Boy”) to deep into adulthoods of wistful heartbreak (“St. Swithin’s Day”). As I’ve shared before, I find Bragg to be at his most effective, compelling, and enduring in those moments of melancholy melodizing.

Any disappointment about a dearth of up-to-the-minute commentary on Brewing Up with Billy Bragg was likely quelled quickly. Only three months after the album hit racks, Bragg released an EP entitled Between the Wars, with a title cut inspired by the striking miners and all proceeds going to the fund set up to support them.

 

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs

From the Archive — “And we begin, as always, with the latest in movie news….”

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As I’ve done on two prior occasions, I’m using the weekly rifle through old writing to share one of the news segments that always started our weekly movie review program. As usual, I must note that the research and subsequent word arranging done here is not my handwork, but was instead handled by my estimable colleague on the show. Previously, I’ve tried to line up the vintage news segment with a spot on the calendar roughly corresponding to its original airing. This time, though, I’ve opted for a different impetus. It seems there’s some symmetry with this weekend’s big movie event and the third and fourth items in this newscast. 

A coalition of right wing religious and public decency groups met last week in Washington, D.C. to propose sweeping changes to the nation’s movie ratings system. The National Coalition on Television Violence called for volunteer citizen rating boards in communities nationwide, similar to one that exists in Dallas, Texas. Under the plan, local boards would assign the following ratings to each film: G, PG, R-13, R-16, R-18, or X. Each film would also carry other ratings: S for sexual content; V, VV, and VVV fir level of violence; D for drug usage (including tobacco and alcohol); L for language; N for nudity; P for perversion; and A for adult situations. These ratings would also be attached to videocassettes. MPAA President Jack Valenti criticized the proposal, saying that it “is not only wrong, but it would create chaos for moviegoers.”

The city of Kissimmee, Florida will not be leveling a fine against theater owners who allow minors into film rated NC-17. Following intensive lobbying by Motion Picture and Theater Manager groups, a proposed $500 fine for such violations was rejected last week by the city council.

George Lucas has won a court decision in Canada, fighting back a claim by screenwriter Dean Preston that the Ewok characters in Return of the Jedi were stolen from a script that Preston submitted to 20th Century Fox in 1978. Lucas testified in trial that he had never seen the script “Space Pets,” and the judge ruled that there was no similarity between the two works. Lucas had been fighting the case for five years.

Speaking of Star Wars and Lucas, word is that he is in pre-production on the early chapters of the series, dormant since 1983. He’s said to be considering shooting the first trilogy back-to-back, similar to the recent Back to the Future sequels, in an effort to save money. If he sticks to his early concept for the series, these films will explore the creation of the Jedi and focus on the young Obi Wan Kenobi.

And in other space sequel news, Paramount has announced plans for Star Trek VI, the release of which will coincide with the 25th anniversary of the TV series. Nicholas Meyer, director of The Wrath of Khan and co-writer of The Voyage Home, will be in charge of this one, and all the regular cast members have signed on. The production is slated to start filming in February, but may have to be pushed back to April to accommodate schedules. And the plot? All Meyers is saying is that Spock falls in love.

A new project has been announced for Mel Gibson. It’s a fantasy/comedy entitled The Rest of Daniel. The plot concerns a test pilot in 1939 who loses the love of his life and, rather than killing himself, he volunteers for a cryogenics experiment. Fifty years later, he’s unfrozen and inadvertently becomes father to a family of children. Warner Bros. paid $2 million for the script.

According to Variety, the film that currently tops the video rental chart is Total Recall.

And the top five films at the box office are:

5. Rocky V, $11.3 million

4. Dances with Wolves, $12.6 million

3. Predator 2, $13.2 million

2. Three Men and a Little Lady, $19 million

1. Home Alone, $28 million

One for Friday — Last Town Chorus, “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me”

last town

There was a time when one of my household charges was to collect covers. As chores go, it’s not bad. With a clear imperative to seek out novel versions of familiar songs, I scoured the internet in the hopes of finding material that was unique and fun. This task was mostly undertaken when there was a true free-for-all out there in the digital wilds, with emerging artists finding that a nicely crafted cover was of the best ways to distinguish themselves from the masses uploading Garage Band files onto MySpace pages. As a result, I have loads and loads of covers strewn about my computerized music collection, and everyone once in a while a great one shuffles up.

Last Town Chorus was essentially the creative outlet of singer/guitarist Megan Hickey. And it was a cover that briefly brought Last Town Chorus to prominence when her stately, spare version of David Bowie’s “Modern Love” was featured in an episode of Grey’s Anatomy. It was Hickey’s pass at a different early eighties hit that hooked me, though.

In covering Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me,” Hickey essentially pulls the same trick as she did with Bowie’s classic, but it’s a good one. The song is slowed to an agonizingly slow pace, with a ruminative pedal steel guitar and Hickey drawing out the lyrics to accentuate the heartbreak embedded in them. It does what a great cover should: It reveals something new about the song, or at least offers a reminder of some aspect that might have gotten lost after years of repetition.

It seems Hickey is largely retired from music these days, but some cursory research shows she still know her way around a cover.

Listen or download —> Last Town Chorus, “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me”

(Disclaimer: To my knowledge, this cover version wasn’t dropped onto an official release that could generate revenue for either the original songwriter or Hickey, so I’m sharing it here with the belief that doing so won’t steer anyway away from engaging in proper commerce. Even so, I will gladly and promptly remove the track 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.)