Beers I Have Known — Foothills Brewing Hoppyum IPA

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.

hoppyum

This has been a long, rough day of travel. But at least my unwanted diversion put me in the range of one of my favorite breweries, which now typically resides well outside my geographic reach. This drink may be a consolation prize, but it’s still a prize.

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

Playing Catch-Up — The Sisters Brothers; Our Brand is Crisis; A Bigger Splash

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The Sisters Brothers (Jacques Audiard, 2018). The English-language film debut of French director Jacques Audiard rambunctiously tinkers with one of most storied Hollywood genres without ever quite figuring out what sort of neo-Western it wants to be. Sometimes it aims for the glum myth-busting of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and sometimes it engages in the parody-skirting assertion of more modernized sensibilities favored by Quentin Tarantino. Predictably, then, the film doesn’t quite cohere, proceeding as a fitfully engaging tale with a muddled purpose, thematically and narratively. Both Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly are solid as the title siblings, but the most distinctive acting comes from Jake Gyllenhaal, who continues his recent trend of committing to an accent of inscrutable geographic derivation like a determined unicyclist atop an oval wheel. The performance is quite strong otherwise — nuanced and deeply felt — only strengthening its status as the film’s most diverting sideshow.

 

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Our Brand is Crisis (David Gordon Green, 2015). A fictionalization of the fierce, superb Rachel Boynton documentary of the same name, this drama about U.S. political consultants running roughshod over truth and decency while working for candidates a Bolivian presidential election is sadly tame, mistaking platitudes for profundities. Sandra Bullock works hard as “Calamity” Jane Bodine, a disgraced campaign guru trying to get her groove back, but the script (credited to Peter Straughan, who was an Academy Award nominee for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but also signed his name to The Snowman) is haphazard about the character, eschewing consistency in favor of the narrative needs of the moment. Bullock never had a chance. The directing job by David Gordon Green is smooth and perfunctory, showing no interest in teasing out the fraught complexities of the scenario. This represents at least the second time Billy Bob Thornton has been called upon to play a James Carville avatar. Understandably, he seems colossally bored the entire time.

 

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A Bigger Splash (Luca Guadagnino, 2015). The most interesting thing about this restless mishmash of a movie is the way it foreshadows the Luca Guadagnino joints to come. The film’s orbiting of heightened hormones at a picturesque European estate can’t help but call to mind Call Me By Your Name, but I didn’t expect a hard turn into the sort of florid, intensely dramatic human danger that inspired Guadagnino to remake Dario Argento’s Suspiria. And then there it was. The film settles in with a rock star (Tilda Swinton) recuperating after throat surgery and receiving a visit from a former lover and music business cohort (Ralph Fiennes), with his newly discovered daughter (Dakota Johnson) in tow. As an acting playground for Swinton (delightfully expressive to compensates for her character’s near inability to talk) and Fiennes (give a Jeff Bridges-style eager free spirit a slightly manic twist), the film is fun. Viewed from nearly any other angle, it’s an untended shrub of confused notions.

 

Now Playing — First Man

first man

Damien Chazelle’s First Man is a remarkable technical feat. The filmmaker takes the unofficial once-per-generation challenge to intensify the verisimilitude in the cinematic depiction of space travel and rises to it. The title refers to the historic 1969 touchdown on the Earth’s moon realized by Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and the crew of Apollo 11, but the film painstakingly traces the ordeals NASA went through in order to complete that improbable mission. Chazelle emphasizes the clunky mechanics of the early spacecraft, all thudding doors, rickety joysticks, and clicking dials, none of it inspiring immediate confidence that it is prepared to cut across galaxies. Tension arises from the plainest observation of astronauts and other NASA employees doing their jobs, calculating miracles with math sketched out on graph paper. The editing, cinematography, art direction, and sound design combine to place the viewer right in the confined capsules, where wonderment and dread intertwine trembling fingers.

Damien Chazelle’s First Man is a sad dramatic failure. Working from a screenplay credited to Josh Singer (and officially adapted from James R. Hansen’s biography of Armstrong), Chazelle ticks off all the necessary details and remains doggedly true to the spirit of the times and the dignity of the people involved. He also can’t past the surface of the story. In part, this at least feels right, aligning the fiction with the famed reticence of the man it depicts, who was loathe to capitalize on his place in the history books. Gosling does commendable character work as Armstrong, but he struggles to find inner life behind the engineer’s stoicism. Claire Foy fares better as Armstrong’s wife, Janet, benefitting from the moments of emotional fire built into the script. And the one attempt to give Armstrong a lengthy emotional arc culminates in a lunar surface moment of transparent falsehood. It doesn’t call anything the precedes it into doubt. Instead, it stands out in damning contrast to the film’s prevailing exactitude.

Since Chazelle has made his name with films about music, it feels appropriate to rely on a metaphor from that world. First Man is all rhythm, no melody. It makes an impression, but it doesn’t linger.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #836 to #833

john fool

836. John Cougar, American Fool (1982)

John Cougar was frustrated with the music business grind when he toiled over his fifth album, American Fool. In truth, the singer-songwriter who was born with — and would soon readopt — the last name Mellencamp spent almost his whole career feeling cantankerous about his interactions with the business people who ran his corner of the entertainment industry, but the dissatisfaction was especially profound in the early nineteen-eighties. Mellencamp’s label, Riva Records, was giving him plenty of money and ample studio time to make his albums, but they were expecting back a very different sound than what the heartland troubadour was interested in providing. According to both Mellencamp and producer Don Gehman (a regular collaborator of Mellencamp’s who worked with his for the first time on American Fool), the label was actively hoping that the finished product would sound something like the earthy soft rock of Neil Diamond.

It’s almost inconceivable that Mellencamp might pop out songs similar to Diamond’s material of the same era. But the two artists do have some characteristics in common: directness, clarity, and a knack for devilishly insinuating hooks. Those descriptors get at the heart of the appeal of “Jack & Diane,” the single from American Fool that changed the trajectory of Mellencamp’s career. Just a little ditty about “two American kids/ Doing the best they can,” the single topped the Billboard chart for four weeks, easily the biggest hit of Mellencamp’s career, and quickly established itself as the sort of rock ‘n’ roll standard that was going to live forever on radio and in the public consciousness. It defined Mellencamp as an earnest chronicler of lowkey Midwestern lives, right down the most minute details.

Mellencamp would eventually push further into that sort of territory (most notably on the terrific 1985 album Scarecrow), but much of the rest of American Fool is surprisingly generic, just modest little rock songs expressing familiar rock song sentiments. “Hurts So Good” and “Hand to Hold on To,” the album’s two other Top 40 singles, are right out of Bob Seger’s well-worn playbook of nondescript rousers. Even the scruffy ne’er-do-well’s defense delivered in “Close Enough” ultimately concludes that all his accumulated failings are acceptable because he’s “Close enough for rock and roll.” Mellencamp evolved into someone uncommonly open and clear-eyed about the needs and pains of the world around him (and then admirably outspoken in conveying what he saw), but he was still creatively locked into fairly basic platitudes on American Fool.

There are indications of the poor outcomes that might have resulted if Mellencamp’s success didn’t allow his to embrace authenticity (his real last name was affixed behind Cougar on the front of his next studio album). “Can You Take It” takes the ill-advised approach of pushing Mellencamp’s vocals well beyond his comfortale range to some sort of Joe Cocker rasp, which only renders the words nearly indecipherable. And “China Girl,” a rare instance of Mellencamp performing someone else’s song on one of his records, illustrates the value of his personal touch. American Fool isn’t a great record, but it’s invaluable in one way: It gave Mellencamp the confidence and authority to start shoving Johnny Cougar to the side.

 

 

poodles pink

835. Fabulous Poodles, Think Pink (1979)

Think Pink is technically the second album for the U.K. group Fabulous Poodles, but it was their sophomore effort in the perception of U.S. audiences. Perhaps more impressively, it was their second album in the span of roughly a single calendar year. Thegroup’s first two releases, a self-titled effort and Unsuitable, were combined to form Mirror Stars, releases at the tail end of 1978. Around a year later, Think Pink hit with another batch of sardonic, willfully subversive power pop. It was bratty and assertive. It was also confused and, ultimately, not very good.

The wavering tone is set by the album opener, a cover of the Everly Brothers’ “Man with Money” pumped up with Costello-style brash dramatics. The band is rambunctious in taking a swing at a nineteen-sixties drab of squeaky clean pop, layering on punk attitude without finding a way to be truly cutting. “Any Port in a Storm” also evokes bygone styles, albeit more through an appropriation of the adoring homages of Nick Lowe or Dave Edmunds. Without finding a distinct, memorable personality, the band engages in jokiness that only seems a fearful rejection of ambition, like the Replacements without the hangdog poetry. It’s admittedly kinda fun when “Pink City Twist” segues into “Vampire Rock”, but the unpleasant comedy of “Anna Rexia” is more characteristic.

Think Pink proved to be the band’s last album. Unlike many of their brethren, there are no records of any reunions, fleeting or otherwise.

 

 

feargal

834. Feargal Sharkey, Feargal Sharkey (1985)

Although he was the voice of the band and the individual who had the best chance to quickly capitalize on launching a solo career, it took Feargal Sharkey a while to get his own material rolling after the dissolution of the Undertones. The band formally broke up in 1983, and Sharkey’s self-titled solo debut arrived two years later. That doesn’t seem like a long time, but in the quick-hit eighties, when bands catering to more esoteric tastes routinely put out at least one full-length per year, it seemed like a lifetime.

Appropriately, then, Feargal Sharkey was a reinvention. Whether it was for the better is a matter of taste. The Undertones trafficked in a punk-infused power pop, but Sharkey’s solo bow cleaves hard to the completely generic pop that blanketed the charts — especially the U.K. charts — at the time it was released. Homeland hit “A Good Heart” is lacquered to an indistinct smear, and the dopey “Ghost Train” is a mere whimper. Maybe the unkindest observation I can make is that “It’s All Over Now” takes the Bobby Womack penned classic and renders it with a heavily produced gentleness, like a post-modern Rod Stewart.

At least the album is kind of all over the place in its musical affronts. “Love and Hate” carries some of the jazz-inflected noodling of Sting’s early solo career, and “Someone to Somebody” is a ballad that practically defines the word treacly (“I wanna be someone to somebody/ And that someone is you”). There’s at least some heft to it when Sharkey leans into the excess, as on “You Little Thief,” which gets bigger and bigger and then bigger yet.

Sharkey didn’t last long as a solo performer. He releases three albums under his own name, then moved over to the business side of the music industry.

 

 

motors steps

833. Motors, Tenement Steps (1980)

It was already looking bleak for the Motors when Tenement Steps was released. The band’s lineup had been cut in half with the departures of drummer Ricky Slaughter and, more notably, vocalist and guitarist Bram Tchaikovsky. Remaining members Nick Garvey and Andy McMaster held out hope they could keep the group going, building on the little bit of notoriety they enjoyed from their 1978 album, Approved by the Motors, including the Top 5 U.K. single “Airport.”

The Motors were taking a strange creative pathway for the time, crafting mildly orchestral pop songs that aspired to a level of polish the band wasn’t likely to achieve. That led to unsettled hybrids, such as “That’s What John Said,” which sounded like Queen filtered through the Grease soundtrack, or the marauding calliope music of “Metropolis.” Given the era, they almost couldn’t help but pick up a little bit of punk posturing. On “Nightmare Zero,” the refrain “We’re laughing the face of love” is delivered with just enough verve that it could come from Public Image Limited. More often, though, the tracks have that withered quality of Broadway rock operas. The title cut particularly sounds like an outcast from a some properly forgotten Andrew Lloyd Webber frippery.

Predictably, Tenement Steps wasn’t a commercial or critical success. The Motors didn’t make another album, and the band was officially ended in 1982.

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 — Night of the Living Dead

living dead
Fangoria did captions right.

It was tricky producing a weekly movie review radio program in Central Wisconsin in the early nineteen-nineties. There were nine screens in our town and a decidedly unaggressive approach to bookings. Especially at the time of the year, we’d watch as early Oscar contenders showed up in larger cities and our local options remained fairly static. One thing was certain, though. We got all of the horror movies. Many of those fearsome features were eager attempts to launch slasher series, a quest to establish the next Freddy Krueger. And, as always, brands sprang eternal. So in the first year of the radio program, a remake of Night of the Living Dead arrived. I don’t think I’ve seen a bit of this film since I watched it for review purposes in the fall of 1990, so I can’t provide fresh perspective. But I do think (and even mildly fretted at the time) that I was too generous in my relatively kind assessment, an effect of my founding principle of film criticism — long since abandoned — that I should assess every feature strictly on its own terms, with no surrounding context or knowledge of cinematic history shading my opinion. In effect, I rounded up in an effort to not make the newer movie suffer in comparison to its superior original iteration. That was a misguided approach. Fifty years after the release of the original Night of the Living Dead, I can say with confidence that’s the only version that’s necessary.

In 1968, George Romero created what will undoubtedly go down in film history as one of the best horror movies ever: a bleak, black-and-white feature about a group of people barricaded into an old farmhouse who are trying to defend themselves from zombies with a desire to eat human flesh. Of course, that film was Night of the Living Dead. Some twenty-odd years later, Mr. Romero has decided that it’s time for a remake of his classic film, this time with special effects wizard Tom Savini in the director’s chair.

Now the film is in color, with an all new cast and some rather interesting variations on the original. One of the main characters of the film is Barbara, played by Patricia Tallman. In the original, the character was nearly catatonic, so distressed by the unsettling sight of the walking dead that all she could do was sit in the farmhouse and whimper. Now that we’ve reached the nineties, though, Barbara has thrown off her passiveness and become a regular sharpshooter, gunning down zombies like the easiest targets in a carnival game. She’s the one who insists they can get past the undead adversaries and they’re foolish for staying locked up in the farmhouse. It’s not too hard to figure out why Romero, who wrote the new screenplay, added the anti-stereotypical touch.

And if you’re a fan of the original and are leery about throwing down your money for something you’ve already seen, fear not. The end is now very different from that of the 1968 version.

The performances are all passable, though Tom Towles occasionally goes over the top with his turn as one of the members of the group in the farmhouse. Besides some slow-moving exposition early on, the film usually succeeds at being entertaining. The addition of color does detract from the grim nature of the film. It’s almost too bright at times.

It’s certainly not the equal of the original, but that would be asking a lot, after all. On its own merits, Night of the Living Dead, the 1990 version, is just fine.

3 stars (out of 4).

One for Friday — That Petrol Emotion, “Groove Check”

petrol

Thirty years ago, in the autumn of 1988, That Petrol Emotion released their third album, End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues. The band John O’Neill developed after the breakup of his the Undertones, That Petrol Emotional had some of the spunk of their immediate ancestors with a deliberate attempt to convey something distinct about the Northern Irish lineage of O’Neill and some of his cohorts in the group. That Petrol Emotion’s lead singer was Steve Mack, an American who was discovered by the band in London. The varied perspectives of the members drove a sprightly eclecticism in the band’s music. Any given album by That Petrol Emotion could feel like it was trying to capture the totality of what was happening in college radio, track by divergent track.

On End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues, the stylistic wanderings of the band are even more pronounced, perhaps because O’Neill announced his intention to leave the group just as they were getting the recording process underway. Songwriting was a shared endeavor with the group — of the twelve tracks on the preceding album, Babble, O’Neill took a full or partial credit on four, and the other band members had similar spreads — but O’Neill’s foundational participation and personal prominence made it feel as if something was splintering. Creatively, that proved to be a wonderful thing. The album is wide-ranging and adventurous, infused with a spirit of taking one last taking one last big swing while toppling to the canvas.

End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues wasn’t an album that loomed particularly large for me among the many life-changers I discovered during my first year at the campus radio station. Still, it stuck with me enough that it was very present in my mind when I’d moved up enough in the ranks of our humble broadcast outlet a year later to help set the programming schedule. We decided Saturday night was perfect for a dance music show. In flailing around for a title, I suggested “Groove Check,” naming the program after a song right in the middle of the End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues track list. In truth, the song wasn’t all that well-suited to a showcase of cutting edge electronica, which only illustrates how unlearned I was about the types of music that would usually drive such a radio show. Still, it’s not a bad title for a radio show. And, these many years later, it’s still a dang good song.

Listen or download —> That Petrol Emotion, “Groove Check”

(Disclaimer: I believe End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues is currently out of print as a physical object that can be procured from your favorite local, independently owned record store in a manner that compensates both the original artist and the proprietor of said shop. There are streaming and digital download means to acquire it, but I have little faith any commerce generated by that approach goes to worthy recipients. Although I believe the legal principle of fair use applies here, 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.)

Laughing Matters — The Kids in the Hall, “Into the Doors”

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.

“Greatest hits albums are for housewives and little girls!”

I’m fairly certain I’ve visited the sister shop of this particular business establishment.

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