One for Friday — Edie Brickell and New Bohemians, “Circle”

bohemians

Thirty years ago, in the summer of 1988, Edie Brickell and New Bohemians released the album Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars. Without their lead singer’s name out in front, the band had spent a couple years gigging around the Deep Ellum neighborhood of Dallas, building enough of a local following that they caught the attention of Geffen Records. The major label, still in its first decade at the time, snapped up the group and dispatched them to Rockfield Studios in Wales, perhaps figuring the pastoral landscape surrounding the converted farmhouse recording space would vibe beneficially with the New Bohemians’ neo-hippie sounds.

The label’s choice of producer was less simpatico. By their own accounting, the New Bohemians generally opted for a loose, exploratory approach to crafting music, jamming until they found their way to a song. Guitarist Kenny Withrow told Spin magazine that the band’s biggest hit, “What I Am,” came about “after about ten minutes of doodling around in the garage.” Moran’s approach was far more regimented. The band was discouraged from playing together in the studio, ceding control to Moran, who pieced together individually recorded parts. Hardly an uncommon practice, it still made the group feel discouraged.

The sinking sense for some of the band members was compounded when they discovered the label was putting their weight behind the young, photogenic lead singer releasing the album as the debut of the newly renamed Edie Brickell and New Bohemians. The shift in billing spurred enough discord that the band nearly broke up before the album even hit stores. Instead, they soldiered on, and “What I Am,” released as the lead single, became a surprise Top 10 hit, immediately propelling the band to bigger stages.

At the college radio station I called home in the fall of 1988, Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars was about as close to an ideal album as we could get. For many of our brethren across the nation, that first semester of the last school year contained entirely within the eighties was all about the abrasiveness of Nothing’s Shocking, The Land of Rape and Honey, and Daydream Nation. Generally speaking, gentler souls had their FCC licenses pinned to the wall near our transmitter, and the folky grooves of the Bohemians were all over our playlists like summertime freckles. At the time, the station had a policy strictly forbidding airplay for anything that crossed into the Top 40, so “What I Am” was quickly unavailable. Other tracks, then, stir the greatest nostalgia for me. The mildly conflicted paean to isolation “Circle” is more likely to place me back in that beloved radio booth, winding down an evening of programming with Brickell’s pristine keening and cooing voice.

Listen or download —> Edie Brickell and New Bohemians, “Circle”

(Disclaimer: Honestly, I started writing this with the assumption that Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars was still in print, or at least a hits collection featuring the song shared above was readily available as a physical object that can be procured from your favorite local, independently owned record store in a manner that compensates both the original artist and the proprietor of said shop. After a little research, I’m not so sure of that. Regardless, this file is not shared with the intention of impeded commerce, but instead in the hopes that it will encourage some music shopping. It’s fair use, friends, but I do know the rules. I will gladly and promptly remove it 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.)

Playing Catch-Up — The Deadly Affair; Dear Ruth; Breathless

deadly affair

The Deadly Affair (Sidney Lumet, 1967). Only the second film adaptation of a John le Carré work (it’s based on his novel Call for the Dead, although rights reasons prevented the studio from using its main character George Smiley), this espionage drama is a wholly characteristic excursion into complicated duplicity and highly refined emotional agony. James Mason plays Charles Dobbs, an MI5 agent whose cursory investigation into reports of early Communist leanings of an Foreign Office official (Robert Flemyng) seemingly triggers tragedy. As usual in films tied to le Carré, the British reticence is almost to a fault, twisty complexities dispatched with minimal raising of the pulse. The terse, direct style of director Sidney Lumet toughens it up around the edges, though. Mason is very strong in the lead role, as is the ever-fascinating Simone Signoret, who plays a widow of layered secrets.

 

dear ruth

Dear Ruth (William D. Russell, 1947). This shrewd, piercing comedy is set during World War II, when everyone on the home front felt some obligation to support the boys overseas. For headstrong, politicized teenager Miriam Wilkins (Mona Freeman), that means, in part, sending poetry-laden letters to lonely G.I. Bill Seacroft (William Holden). Since she’s a little too young to flirt with a grown man through the post, Miriam poses as her older sister, Ruth (Joan Caulfield). Then, unexpectedly, Bill comes calling. Filled with splendidly sparking dialogue (credited screenwriter Arthur Sheekman adapted a play by Norman Krasna), the film offers a kinder version of one of Preston Sturges’s comedies of society’s foibles. Holden is endearing as the eager soldier, and Freeman is outright wonderful spouting anti-war, proto-feminist with cheerful petulance. Director William D. Russell occasionally betrays the film’s stage origins with a slightly confined feel, but he calibrates the tone perfectly, a trickier and ultimately more important task.

 

breathless

Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960). A iconic offering of the French New Wave, enlivened and deadened at the same time by director Jean-Luc Godard’s customary cinematic defiance. The plot fades in and out of relevance, but basically involves a vagabond miscreant (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and the gamine American expatriate (Jean Seberg) who he pursues romantically across Paris. It’s Godard’s squirrelly intellect and brash, buoyant deconstructions that are the real stars of the show. The way he builds in clear yet disarming narrative echoes is a particular fascination, giving the strong sense that the film can be sorted through forever without completely cracking its riddles. Breathless is seductive and yet holds the viewer at a mildly taunting distance. Basically, it’s quite French.

Now Playing — The Miseducation of Cameron Post

cameron post

In The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Chloë Grace Moretz plays the title character, a high school girl who is caught outside the homecoming dance making out with one of her female friends (Quinn Shephard) in a parked car. Cameron’s aunt and caretaker (Kerry Butler) is a good Christian, so this behavior just won’t do. With dismaying haste, Cameron is squired off to God’s Promise, a remote camp facility that employs a mixture of scripture and trite psychological manipulations in a program supposedly guaranteed to eradicate those sinful same sex attractions. The film is set in the early nineteen-nineties. Tragically, it remains brutally pertinent in the here and now.

As directed by Desiree Akhavan, the film’s tone is one of aggrieved understatement. As much as possible, Akhavan steers away from melodrama. These stories of institutionalized teens in crisis almost always include some blood spilled across bathroom tile, and the film doesn’t entirely avoid such trappings. (Adapted from Emily M. Danforth’s novel of the same name, the screenplay is co-credited to Akhavan and Cecilia Frugiuele.) Even so, Akhavan is clearly — and blessedly — less concerned with how the unduly maligned youth rage against their villainous overseers and is instead committed to conveying the contained weariness that comes from merely surviving. There’s greater authenticity to the approach, and with the truth comes a lovely poetry of quiet perseverance.  Praise be to those who scramble to freedom, but there’s heroism, too, in the joyful relief of singing along to a mediocre pop song while still mired in the ugliness.

Moretz’s performance aligns perfectly with the tone of the film. The common route in playing a teen with terse dialogue is sullenness or sarcasm, signaling the roiling feelings contained in the words unsaid. Moretz instead fills Cameron with a light confusion and a protective reluctance. She isn’t rebelling against the questions asked of her. She doesn’t get why all this probing of supposed inner conflicts has to go on. Why can’t she simply be? She finds allies in fellow “disciples” Jane and Adam (Sasha Lane and Forrest Goodluck, respectively, both marvelous), but the trio doesn’t study their misery. They bond and joke and trade thoughts, just like any kids free of the agenda of a surrounding meaningful fiction. The purposeful grounding of The Miseducation of Cameron Post lends it a tremendous power. It’s a subtle but unmistakable reminder of the ongoing reality of this persecution of those whose love is still maligned by enough bigots that overt assertions of pride are necessary. The cruelty isn’t being perpetrated on characters, but rather against people.

Top 40 Smash Near Misses — “Mr. Success”

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.

sinatra

in 1958, Frank Sinatra expertly divided him time between a booming film career and his ongoing legacy as a recording artist. Thanks to hits such High Society, Pal Joey, and Some Came Running, he was among the top grossing stars at the box office, keeping pace with the likes of Kim Novak and Gary Cooper. At the same time, Sinatra had rebounded from a mildly moribund stretch on the music charts, thanks in no small part to collaborations with Nelson Riddle and his orchestra made possible by a contract with Capitol Records, signed in 1953. With upstarts like Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers wresting control of the airwaves, Sinatra’s hits didn’t come with the same frequency as earlier, but he could be depended upon to snap out at least one Top 10 single per year. As recently as 1955, he’d topped the chart, with “Learnin’ the Blues.”

Sinatra was back in a recording studio in the Capitol Tower in September of 1958, Riddle and his players at the ready. They laid down a trio of songs that night, one of which, in a rarity, was co-written by Sinatra. (In a recording career that stretched for more than fifty years, Sinatra was credited as songwriter on fifteen occasions, according to the ASCAP database.) “Mr. Success” featured music by Edwin Greines and lyrics Sinatra knocked out with his manager Hank Sanicola. As might be expected, the words aren’t exactly high poetry (“When I walk through a jam, no one knows who I am/ Put your head on my chest, and I am Mr. Success”), but they suited the cocktail-and-fedora casual swagger of the man singing them.

“Mr. Success” didn’t really live up to its title, though. The single stalled out at #41 on the Bilboard chart. In fact, Sinatra wouldn’t get as high as the Top 10 again for several years, and not until he had struck out on his own recording for the label he co-founded, Reprise Records.

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

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #872 to #869

sting sun872. Sting, …Nothing Like the Sun (1987)

These days, I’m as prone as anyone to treat the performer born Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner as a punchline of uncoolness, sitting swaddled in a couture turtleneck on some sprawling, misty English estate. Back in the nineteen-eighties, though, (as well as deeper into the nineties than I’m currently prepared to admit) I was an acolyte of the former Police-man, certain that his jazz-flirtation approach to rock was the epitome of high class modern musical artistry. I was hardly alone. Sting’s second solo outing, …Nothing Like the Sun, was met with an enraptured reception, marked by critics extolling its intricate virtues.

I think it’s fair and accurate to say that …Nothing Like the Sun has aged better than its immediate predecessor, Dream of the Blue Turtles, if only because its songs offering political commentary on current events — such as “Fragile,” inspired by an innocent man who became a casualty of the Nicaraguan conflict, and “They Dance Alone,” about women whose loved ones were among the disappeared in Augusto Pinochet’s Chile — are far more adept than the outraged middle school essay that is the earlier “Russians.” At the time, Sting was highly enamored with jazz-influenced arrangements, an understandable impulse when an ace player like Branford Marsalis is drawing a paycheck in the backing band. Sting’s version tipped toward the tepid, though. Sometimes the gentle touch fits well, as on the charming Quentin Crisp tribute “Englishman in New York” (a minor hit as a single, but now arguably the album’s most enduring track). Just as often, Sting’s approach could result in “Sister Moon,” mostly notable for its ability to grow tedious despite a running time under four minutes.

The album was largely written while Sting was in mourning for his mother, who died in 1986. There’s a slightly ruminative quality to much of the material, a somberness that plays as welcome restraint rather than dourness. Even as the material lolls across four vinyl sides (the length of …Nothing Like the Sun was clearly designed for the extra space available on the new-fangled compact disc technology), it ultimately feels less indulgent than what occasional came before from Sting, and definitely less so than what was to come. The songs could be playful (“We’ll Be Together,” the album’s sole Top 10 hit, and “Rock Steady”), fulsome yet balanced (“The Lazarus Heart”), or tender (“The Secret Marriage,” which borrows a Hanns Eisler melody.) The only grievous misstep is a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” that manages to jettison any sense of longing or passion.

By any measure, …Nothing Like the Sun was a major success for Sting. It was certified double platinum in the U.S. and nabbed him three Grammy nominations, including his second straight Album of the Year nod. (In general, the Recording Academy has shown embarrassing devotion to Sting, bestowing upon him forty-four nominations and sixteen wins over his career, including trophies for decidedly subpar material.) Any stubborn skeptics who felt Sting wouldn’t prosper away from the Police had no choice but to cede. For better or worse, Sting wasn’t going anywhere.

 

 

swimming blue

871. The Swimming Pool Q’s, Blue Tomorrow (1986)

While Athens was the Georgia city renowned for a steady-flowing pipeline of great bands during college radio’s nineteen-eighties heyday, Atlanta had a few local heroes of their own. The Swimming Pool Q’s formed in the late nineteen-seventies and quickly developed a reputation as a strong live act, earning support gigs for major acts, including the southern swing of the first major U.S. undertaken by the Police. They released their debut album, The Deep End, on the Atlanta indie label DB Records in 1981. Some lineup shuffling followed, and the group snagged a major label contract with A&M Records.

Blue Tomorrow was the sophomore outing for Swimming Pool Q’s as part of the A&M stable. Working with producer Mike Howlett — who oversaw the Alarm’s breakthrough release, Strength, as well as the first couple A Flock of Seagulls albums — the band delivers a wide-ranging records that sounds agreeably like a primer of all the different sounds that were popping on college radio in the middle of the eighties. While maintaining a strong sense of identity, the band roams and rollicks, often injected sly comedy into the lyrics and building music of inventive homage.

The predominant sound of Blue Tomorrow is a wry, jangly take on country rock. It’s firmly present in the title cut, as well as the thumping “Laredo Radio.” The latter track has the sort of opening couplet that bands spend entire careers trying to craft: “Well, the sound is up/ And my fortune’s down.” Merging that sonic personality with their home region, “Big Fat Tractor” sounds like the product of a joyful partnership between the Beat Farmers and the B-52’s. There’s a nice churning guitar on “She’s Looking Real Good,” and “More Than One Heaven” has an easy propulsion. The latter track features lead vocals by Anne Richmond Boston, who regularly trades off on those duties with Jeff Calder. She has a tonal quality equally rich and ethereal, which can give her tracks — such as the mildly Celtic twirl “Now I’m Talking About Now” — an soaring quality atop the straightforward guitar pop, as if Kate Bush had decided to tour scruffy college bars with the Connells as a backing band.

Blue Tomorrow is terrific, but the sales weren’t strong enough to satisfy A&M Records. The band was dropped, and Boston left to pursue solo efforts. The Swimming Pool Q’s eventually signed to Capitol and released one more album (World War Two Point Five, in 1989) before settling into a long hiatus, although Calder maintains the band was a going concern the whole time, just a little quiet in stretches.

 

 

gene immigrant

870. Gene Loves Jezebel, Immigrant (1985)

Immigrant was the second full-length release from Gene Loves Jezebel, and it represented a clear strike at making a commercial breakthrough. Producer John Leckie was brought in to oversee the recording, and though he wasn’t precisely someone with a knack for hits, his sterling reputation was built on helping somewhat prickly artists — such as XTC and the Fall — shape a more approachable sound. Headed by twin brothers Jay and Michael Aston, Gene Loves Jezebel specialized in an especially odd brand of goth rock. There’s a fine sheen to Immigrant, but there was probably only so much Leckie could do.

Album opener “Always a Flame” sounds like Cocteau Twins with a trashy streak and maybe a few pints in them. That’s entertaining, but it’s very much an ear-of-the-beholder situation as to whether or not it’s all that good. For all the polish, Immigrant is defiantly, consistently challenging, in its layers of potentially off-putting elements rather than engrossing complexities. The lead vocals on “Shame” are a true endurance test, coming across as some keening, whining version of a cartoonish late night horror movie host. And the very weird “Cow” (“Did you see the cow with the furrowed brow?/ He’s laughing out”) almost offers a surly condemnation of anyone who’d dare try to discern its meaning. Tracks like those make the drab goth wallow “Coal Porter” almost a relief. It may also be messy, but at least the lyrics open with a scrutable thesis statement: “Why can’t I have you again?/ Why can’t we be such friends?”

The clattering mediocrity of the album — and a decent amount of the band’s other output — is part of the reason the long afterlife of Gene Loves Jezebel is far more interesting than anything they pressed onto record back in the day. The Aston brothers might actually top the Davies, the Fogertys, and Gallaghers in the storied annals of rock ‘n’ roll familial dysfunction. Always contentious, the Astons broke away from each other for good in the late nineties, each persisting with separate and yet identically named versions of Gene Loves Jezebel.

 

 

utopia swing

869. Utopia, Swing to the Right (1982)

In the early days of the Reagan Revolution, Todd Rundgren and his cohorts in Utopia were angry about the state of the world. With clear-eyed assessment of the rampant avarice that existed behind the veneer of patriotic aspiration in the Republican party’s new rhetoric, the group crafted a set of songs that attacks the myth-making with angry satire. Titled Swing to the Right, the album was delivered to the band’s Bearsville record label. Albert Grossman, head of the label, was already irritated with Utopia, due to the way it diverted Rundgren from his solo work — which sold significantly better than those with his side group — and the bruising reception of their 1980 album, Deface the Music, which aggressively spoofed the Beatles. A new collection of highly political pop songs was just another indignation. Grossman shoved Swing to the Right aside, waiting almost a year before releasing it.

If anything, the album became more timely in the interim, as was clear on the scathing title cut. With lavish production and cheery harmonies, Utopia delivers the grotesque message of Reagan and his disciples: “Don’t want to hear what the povertous expect from me/ Let ’em eat cake if they feel that way/ I gotta work why should I have to pay for that?/ And I don’t want to be left holding the bag for them.” This credo is effectively countered toward the end of the album, when the ballad “Only Human” calls for sympathetic understanding of common shortcomings.

In between, Utopia offers their own dismayed state of the union, bucking against war culture on “Lysistrata” and swiping at resurgent shamelessness among the capitalists with a rubbery cover of the O’Jays’ “For the Love of Money” leading straight into “Last Dollar on Earth,” a condemnation of greed encased in a uniquely abrasive new wave song. Across the album, Rundgren’s nearly peerless studio technique is evident, even when (or maybe especially when) he’s playing around with sidelong musical parody, as on “Junk Rock,” which sounds like a poke at Devo.

Perhaps influenced by the label’s lack of enthusiasm for the album, Swing to the Right was the weakest charting release in the Utopia catalog to that point. As though making amends for the combativeness, the next Utopia album was self-titled, promising nothing more than the expected doses of characteristic big, bold pop. There was one change Rundgren made sure was in place, however. He made sure Utopia was freed of their commitment to Bearsville. The album was released by Network Records, with no undue delay.

 

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 — All the King’s Men

kings

As we are about to slip from the boom-boom-boom of the summer movie season into a fall stocked with awards hopefuls, allow me to offer a gentle reminder that sometimes even sterling source material, a skilled filmmaker, a cast stocked with tremendous actors, and the best of intentions can add up to a dreadful couple hours of cinema. This review was original written for and posted at my former online home.

The new film version of All The King’s Men is a bad movie. Whenever a movie aspires to something more than just the latest piece of junk off the Hollywood assembly line, the temptation is to celebrate it despite its shortcomings. Writer-director Steve Zaillian is clearly trying to craft something deep, meaningful and resonant here, and while that is more admirable than, oh say, filming a bunch of dolts performing idiotic stunts and assembling the wreckage, it doesn’t automatically means the end result will be worthy. Indeed, it is that very sense of heavy importance, the telegraphed value of what’s been created, that most damages the film. It smothers itself in self-veneration.

Based on a novel by Robert Penn Warren (which was made into a film once before), the film follows a Louisiana politician named Willie Stark as he climbs from discarded local office holder to the most powerful man in the state, a governor who breeds enemies as he employs the nastiest back-room tactics to do the people’s work. Warren’s story means to convey the ways in which the American political system corrupts even the most honest of men. His Willie Stark is a self-described hick, a simple man who drags himself upwards through the system motivated by a persistent need to refute the power-brokers who underestimated him and others like him. As Stark reaches higher office, his morals become just a slippery as those of his predecessors. This doesn’t really come through in Zaillian’s film version.

Part of it may be that, in playing the lead role, Sean Penn seems disconnected from the smaller life of Willie Stark. It’s almost as if he’s biding his time, simply waiting until he can tear into the big stump speech monologues and glowering duplicity that will come. He’s not alone on the list of misfiring actors. Across the ticket, a strong cast is wasted or wandering. Jude Law, Kate Winslet, and Mark Ruffalo barely make impressions with their pivotal characters. Patricia Clarkson tries to wring some life out of the role of political consultant Sadie Burke (although, I’m not sure you’d really be able to even define the character’s role with only this film as reference), which was juicy enough in the 1949 film version to earn Mercedes McCambridge an Oscar in her film debut. We get only glancing exposure to the character and there’s little recognizable from scene to scene; Clarkson may as well have been cast in multiple different roles, given how much consistency is built into the character. And then there’s Anthony Hopkins. Around the time of 1998’s dread-inducing Meet Joe Black, Anthony Hopkins announced that he was quitting acting. You could present his performance here as evidence that he followed through on that pledge; he simply didn’t stop appearing in films.

Zaillian’s screenplay and film show little commitment to developing the characters. There are there and the plot moves around them, but there’s little personal impact, there never seems to be anything at stake for any of the people onscreen. Instead, Zaillian lathers James Horner’s typically bludgeoning music score over repetitive scenes of contrived import. He re-uses footage to a tiresome degree, perhaps believing that the audience needs extra reinforcement of certain points, perhaps wanting to remind us of the elegance of the filmmaking. Regardless of the reasoning, I’d trade the redundant glimpses of a lazy lakefront conversation or clenched jaw plotting in a parked car for some different moments that actually enriched the movie.

Everything about the way the film is put together gives the impression that the filmmakers were deeply respectful of the gravity of their material. All of that leaden seriousness only serves to show us that really, sadly they have nothing to say.