One for Friday — The Waterboys, “And a Bang on the Ear”

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Thirty years ago, in the autumn of 1988, the Waterboys released the album Fisherman’s Blues. It was officially the fourth full-length studio release from the motley and ever-shifting crew of musicians Scotsman Mike Scott assembled around him, and it was a particularly transformational outing for the band. Anthemic pop songs were previously the order of business, not altogether unlike the material from any number of bands hailing from the same general region, from Big Country to Simple Minds to — suddenly the most commercially successful of them all — U2.

Whether or not Scott was actively angling for a change to differentiate his outfit from that lot (and he is a cantankerous enough fellow that such agitation was quite possible), he found his way to it after moving to Dublin. Surrounded by traditional Irish music, Scott begin tilting his songwriting in that direction. He started recruited musicians to help him realize the earthy, expansive songs. The Waterboys were officially a trio when they recorded their previous record, the sterling This is the Sea, but now their rehearsal space started to resemble the stateroom in A Night at the Opera. Scott came to refer to this iteration of the Waterboys as the “Raggle Taggle band.”

A large band deserves songs that stretch out to accommodate them, and Scott wrote some dandies for Fisherman’s Blues. Other songs are arguably better, but none stir as much nostalgia for me as “And a Bang on the Ear.” Over nine minutes long, the lyrics largely catalog past loves, moved on but still occupying wistful territory within the heart. I was young, so much younger than today, when used to spin the song during my late night shift at the college radio station, but I already understood the emotions that animated the song. Before long, I had my own Lindsay, Nora, Deborah, Bella, and Krista. “And a Bang on the Ear” reminded me to value everything my time with them provided, even when — especially when — heartache was involved.

Listen or download —> The Waterboys, “And a Bang on the Ear”

(Disclaimer: I believe Fisherman’s Blues to be available as a physical item that can be procured from your favorite local, independently owned record store in a manner than compensate both the proprietor of said shop and the original artist. I am sharing this song as encouragement to engage in that commerce rather than as an alternative to it. Every last track on the album is a gem. If you’ve only got the on I’ve posted here, you don’t have enough. I believe I am sharing this under the legal principle of fair use, 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.)

The New Releases Shelf — Honey

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At around the time several of her songs took off in unexpected ways that forecast the crazy land of viral popularity, it seemed Robyn was poised to become as big of a pop star as she wanted to be. Certainly, she was ready to become the most notable musical export from Sweden since ABBA. And then life intervened. Trusted friend and collaborator Christian Falk passed away, a romantic relationship collapsed, and other trouble ground her down. Robyn guested and otherwise pitched in here and there, but the follow-up to the widely celebrated 2010 release Body Talk remained notably absent. Eight years later — and three years after she started working on it in earnest — Robyn finally brings forth Honey. Perhaps the most amazing single aspect of the album is the way is bears the wait of all that delay, all that anticipation, and somehow makes it as light as the mist off a powderpuff.

As if offering quick reassurance, the album opens with “Missing U,” a song so in line with Robyn’s most notable preceding tracks that it feels like its own genre. It’s dance pop, sure. But it’s mostly Robyn pop, wholly reminiscent of her earlier work and yet dazzling in its sense of newness, of invention, of uninhibited joy in putting beats, tones, and words together in a way that makes dancing all but irresistible. In the years since Body Talk, Carly Rae Jepsen has mastered this sort of constant cycle of perfect pop singles, but Robyn offers the confident reminder that she did it first and better.

Point made, Robyn moves on to craft an album that’s less effusive and more complex. It doesn’t yank the listener toward the dance floor so much as set the disco ball slowly spinning and the glitter raining from the ceiling, setting the mode for swaying along. Or not. It’s up to the individual listener. I’ve rarely encountered an album full of expertly crafted electronic beats and vivacious pop hooks that’s less overtly concerned with whether or not someone will give in to the groove. Even when the lyrics hew to the mandate of depicting life as a nonstop party, it does so with sly irony.  “Beach2k20” hypnotic in its zombie-like devotion to rip-roaring celebration (“I mean, it’s right on the beach/ Come through, it’ll be cool”).

“Because It’s in the Music” is calibrated to suit a reflective moment skating through Xanadu, and “Baby Forgive Me” takes vintage R&B through the delicates cycle in the Robyn transmogrifier. Robyn is locked in a state of concentrated exploration, building cuts with rippling layers of sound and texture. The music isn’t softening or mellowing, exactly. It’s being taken deeper by Robyn, akin to Björk’s curiosity in enlivening her sonic palette through expansive intricacies. Where Iceland’s favorite daughter can sometimes get so lofty that she’s fully obscured by clouds, Robyn is solidly on the ground. It’s more satisfying to dance when it’s a pas de deux with gravity as a mildly combative partner. To a degree, that’s the calm certainty all those years in between her last album and this one have given Robyn. Honey roams freely, and yet it’s always in precisely the right place.

Great Moments in Literature

“On that snowy day when he asked to borrow all that money to take care of his sick sister in Georgia, Lily’s disgust fought with relief and lost. She picked up the dog tags he’d left on the bathroom sink and hid them away in a drawer next to her bankbook. Now the apartment was all hers to clean properly, put things where they belonged, and wake up knowing they had not been moved or smashed to pieces. The loneliness she felt before Frank walked her home from Wang’s cleaners began to dissolve and in its place a shiver of freedom, on earned solitude, of choosing the wall she wanted to break through, minus the burden of shouldering a tilted man.”

—Toni Morrison, Home, 2012

 

“Plants are like people. Writers are like plants. Therefore, and this may come as a surprise, writers are like people. Give them light, water, nourishment, a comfortable pot, and an encouraging word and they’ll grow. Really. They’ll blossom. They’ll create things of beauty.”

— Steve Gerber, HOWARD THE DUCK, Vol. 1, No. 16, “Zen and the Art of Comic Book Writing: A Communique from Colorado,” 1977

Now Playing — Widows

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Arriving five years after director Steve McQueen took 12 Years a Slave to the top prize at the Academy Awards, Widows is a curious follow-up. It’s not simply that it doesn’t have the heft (in its basics, anyway) as the soul-wrenching slave drama that stands as the British filmmaker’s great success. McQueen’s fourth feature overall is a stark outlier. His artistic voice has been one of grim assessments of humankind, cataloging unsparingly the agony of struggling for something better in the face of rigid social impediments. That preoccupation is present in Widows, too, but it’s backgrounded in favor of more conventional crime drama sparkle and pow.

Based on a two-season U.K. television series of the same name, Widows follows the efforts of a small group of women who are desperate enough to briefly turn to illegal activity after their husbands are killed on another job. Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis) has the plans her husband (Liam Neeson) drew up for a heist that would yield millions, money she needs to pay off local crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). She enlists fellow grieving wives Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), and they proceed to cobble together the resources needed to complete the robbery. In a nice change from the usual streamlined process of getting the crew together and assembling the pieces, Widows makes it look like challenging, tedious work. There’s no glamour to it. Hands start dirty.

The more McQueen focuses on the simple strain of mounting this unfamiliar criminal endeavor, the stronger the film. But there’s so much more to it. Even as he’s shaking down Veronica for money he’s owed, Jamal is running for an alderman position in Chicago. His opponent is Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), son of Tom Mulligan, who’s vacating the political position up for grabs. The screenplay — co-credited to McQueen and Gillian Flynn — slops around in the mud of Chicago politics, while also affording a sideways glance at the gun violence and police brutality that has bedeviled the city. There is consideration of generational divides and the brutal rigidity of class structures. And all of that is largely separate from the teetering tower of feminist commentary that is an inescapable topic given the basic premise. It’s a lot, probably too much. McQueen can’t quite finesse it all into something consistently cogent. The film is overlong, yet aches for more time to explore every concept shuffled up.

Despite the flaws, there’s an authority to McQueen’s filmmaking that carries Widows. It’s engaging even as it skims across the surface of its insights. And he does fine work with actors, providing the room for the sort of nuance that can deepen the material. Debicki is particularly strong, in part because her undervalued moll takes the longest emotional journey. Widows might not cohere, but there are riches in its messiness.

Playing Catch-Up — The Other Side of the Wind; Three Identical Strangers; All the Money in the World

other side

The Other Side of the Wind (Orson Welles, 2018). Nearly fifty years after Orson Welles shot its first footage and over thirty years since the master filmmaker’s death, The Other Side of the Wind finally sees release. Completed by a team of Welles devotees taking cues from his various notes, the finished product is a delirious tangle of metafiction conceits and arch visual tomfoolery. It bears some resemblance to the odd quasi-documentary F for Fake, made in the midst of the long production of The Other Side of the Wind. The film is largely confined to roughly a twenty-four hour period, as veteran director J.J. Hannaford (John Huston) celebrates his birthday with a sprawling party and tries to screen footage from his latest picture, which threatens to fall apart because of a dispute with the leading man (Bob Random). Welles constructs a narrative phantasmagoria that’s entertaining because of its excesses and rambunctious spirit. Even so, some trimming would have helped. As the film stretches past the two hour mark, the bleak joke of Hollywood indulgence wears thin. Impressively, though, the work is more than a curiosity. It stands on its own as a fascinating piece of cinema from one of the form’s most intellectually sprightly iconoclasts.

 

strangers

Three Identical Strangers (Tim Wardle, 2018). Tim Wardle’s documentary is about a set of triplets who were separated at birth and only found their way back together when they were college age, through freak coincidence. The trio made the mass media rounds  in the early nineteen-eighties, various anchors and talk show hosts marveling at what seemed little more than an amusing human interest story. There were many more twists to come, however, and Wardle’s storytelling makes exemplary use of jarring reveals of veiled history. The enduring consideration of nature versus nurture is obviously well-represented, but Wardle also nudges into the complexities of medical ethics and corrosive celebrity. There’s a little too much use of dramatized recreations of past event for my taste, and other mechanics of the documentary sometimes show through. Those are admittedly quibbles. Overall, it’s sharp and engrossing.

 

all the money

All the Money in the World (Ridley Scott, 2017). Ridley Scott’s rescue job of this film remains its most remarkable element. The choice to recast Kevin Spacey after his reprehensible personal behavior is completely understandable, but the decision to complete all necessary reshoots in a single week of work while sticking to a release date that was less than a month out is the stuff of madness. Spacey’s ceded role of J. Paul Getty has a lot of screen time in this depiction of the early-nineteen-seventies kidnapping of one of the obscenely wealthy business magnate’s grandchildren. It’s a curiosity why Spacey was cast in the first place. The two Oscars in his trophy case don’t change the simple fact that he required a thick layer of makeup to sell the role, while any number of older actors — including Christopher Plummer, recruited to take over — could get the job done with, you know, acting. If only Scott had taken the opportunity to also erase and replace Mark Wahlberg, playing a fixer in Getty’s employ, he may have really had something. For a good portion of its running time, All the Money in the World shows potential to be one of Scott’s best, flush with insights about the people and the strange strata of capitalistic culture it follows. In particularly. Dariusz Wolski’s rich cinematography helps Scott create images as striking as any he’s previously put in the screen. Then there’s the performance of Michelle Williams as the mother of the abducted Getty scion. The script allows for the blasts of raw emotion that are among her specialties, but she also does some shrewd character work, building the woman’s fortitude with carefully applied layers. David Scarpa’s screenplay falls apart at the end, taking too many dramatic liberties in order to heighten the drama, entirely needless embellishments given the fraught particulars of the real story.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #820 to #817

bob slow

820. Bob Dylan, Slow Train Coming (1979)

During his nineteen-sixties heyday, the most notorious moment of Bob Dylan’s career came at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, when he flouted tradition and took the stage with a full band plugged into amplifiers. Going electric was not well received, with a memorable cry of “Judas!” from the midst of the riled audience. Coincidentally, that biblical cry of accusation provided a kind of forecast for the next instance of Dylan alienating fans, which arrived fourteen years later with the release of Slow Train Coming.

Dylan’s nineteenth studio album overall, Slow Train Coming was his first since converting to Christianity, a turn that truly began on a lonely tour night in Tucson. Every one of the new songs reflected the songwriter’s newfound devout outlook, which led to a rejection by many fans. The sourness wasn’t immediate, though. Slow Train Coming was largely lauded in reviews, including an unqualified rave in Rolling Stone, penned by publisher Jann Wenner, already a reliable shill for suspect product by aging rock icons.

“The more I hear the new album — at least fifty times since early July — the more I feel that it’s one of the finest records Dylan has ever made,” wrote Wenner. “In time, it is possible that it might even be considered his greatest.”

Wenner’s powers of prognostication proved poor in this instance. The album does include the immediate classic “Gotta Serve Somebody,” which became Dylan’s final single to make the Billboard Top 40. But much of it is stultified, bloated, and inane. Dylan, without a doubt, is one of the greatest songwriters of all time, but even he couldn’t bridge the gap between piousness and pop song platitudes. “Do Right to Me Baby (Do Unto Others)” is probably the most damning evidence of the creative shortcoming. “I Believe in You” borrows some of the cadence of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” but delivers its could-be-for-Jesus-could-be-for-a-pretty-girl declarations of devotion (“I believe in you when wintertime turns to summer/ I believe in you when white turn to black”) with a deadened plod that plays as insincerity.

Dylan does better when the music holds some vestiges of his long evocation of foundational blues music, as on “Slow Train” and “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking.” When he stretches his sound on “Man Gave Names to All the Animals,” employing a wan Caribbean beat, it sounds like an especially dippy Sunday School song.

In addition to the warm notices in the music press and the Top 40 single, Slow Train Coming was a success by most measures. It made it to #3 on the album charts and won Dylan a Grammy, in the category Best Rock Vocal Performance, Male, for “Gotta Serve Somebody.” But it also did lasting damage to his commercial prospects. After standing as a reliable chart presence for over a decade, Dylan wouldn’t push another album into the Top 10 until 1997’s Time Out of Mind.

 

 

elvis blue

819. Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Almost Blue (1981)

Elvis Costello was amazingly prolific through the first portion of his career, even in the accelerated standard of output in the nineteen-seventies and -eighties. Beginning with his 1977 debut, My Aim is True, Costello delivered one new album of original material every year through 1984. The exception was 1981, during which he dropped two new albums. The first was Trust, a strong enough set that Trouser Press deemed it the best of the year. The second album was Almost Blue, which was the first Costello album to draw a withering appraisal.There are p

At least Costello’s sterling reputation as a songwriter remained intact. Almost Blue was entirely comprised of covers. The Irish titan of punk and new wave decided to take a pass at a batch of country music songs, honoring the core stylings while also buffing up a final presentation that smacked of his usual brash posturing. The fit is uneasy, which could have resulted in the sort of friction that enlivens an album. Instead, everything feels off, more indulgence than reinvention.

There are points when the album nearly works, or maybe works well enough. The racing “Why Don’t You Love Me (Like You Used to Do)?” and the jaunty “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down” have some appeal, though they’re still inconsequential enough to seem like misplaced B-sides. More often, confusion settles in, as with the weird new wave undercurrent to “Sittin’ and Thinkin’.” Then there’s Costello’s insistence on pushing too far past his artistic limitation. “Sweet Dreams” Costello’s finds him in the perpetually unfortunate mode of striving to position himself as a modern day crooner.

At the time, Almost Blue was a mere distraction in the midst of an amazing run of records. It was proof of fallibility and not much else. Costello, equally to his credit and detriment, would circle back to similarly ill-fitting and unexpected projects for the duration of his career. Some are better than others, but Almost Blue set an accurate and lasting standard. They’re all problematic.

 

 

trbtwo818. Tom Robinson Band, TRB Two (1979)

Tom Robinson band was formed by its namesake, the group’s lead vocalist and bassist, after he had some initial success playing shows in the volatile and fertile London club scene of the mid-nineteen-seventies. Once he pulled together a tight rock ‘n’ roll outfit, it didn’t take long for Robinson to get the crew signed to EMI Records. The group’s first single, “2-4-6-8 Motorway,” was a Top 5 hit on the U.K. charts.

Tom Robinson band never equalled that success, but they idled forward with just enough success to secure Todd Rundgren as producer for their sophomore studio LP, the literally titled TRB Two. The power pop blast of opener “All Right All Night” signals Rundgren’s presence and influence, as does the backstory of studio infighting and heightened drama. The band wouldn’t survive to record a third album.

There were ample disputes over which songs should be used and how to record them, and TRB Two shows the conflicts clearly. It’s messy, but often fascinating in its disrepair. The personality of band simply won’t stay put. “Blue Murder” sounds like the missing link between Jackson Browne and Jim Carroll, and “Crossing Over the Road” is Steely Dan led by a mediocre Dr. John impersonator. “Days of Rage” could have been traded back and forth with REO Speedwagon until no one was sure which band recorded it first. The roaming identity is better than the band’s stabs at politically aware pop, even if their ready contributions to various benefit concerts prove earnestness. The good intentions of “Let My People Be” are severely undercut by dreadful lyrics (“See my amigo/ He got the fever”).

The band officially broke up before the end of 1979. Robinson followed with several solo outings, reunited the group for one short spell in the late eighties.

 

 

soul made

817. Soul Asylum, Made to Be Broken (1986)

Although it took a bit before they settled on the band name that would carry them through for years to come Soul Asylum formed in Minneapolis in 1981. That put their origin as roughly concurrent to those of fellow twin cities denizens the Replacements and Hüsker Dü. Although they were basically contemporaries, Soul Asylum was long dogged with the perception that they were cuff-tugging little brothers, trying ever so hard to catch up with the revered output of the other bands. If those comparisons were going to be there anyway, might as well lean into them. For Soul Asylum’s second album, Made to Be broken, they fully embraced the automatically drawn connection by working with Hüsker Dü’s Bob Mould as producer.

There’s no mistaking the time and place that birthed Made to Be Broken“Tied to the Tracks” is hardcore punk met with a inborn pop sensibility and presented with candy coating rendered from alcohol upped in toxicity. That was the model for bands who occasionally toted their amps across Minneapolis skyways in the eighties. And Soul Asylum followed it well, as heard on the jabbing “New Feelings” and within the pogo beat fury of “Long Way Home.” They could switch up the sound well enough, demonstrated on the cowpunk rouser “Never Really Been” (“And where will you be in 1993?/ Still sitting in the same chair”) and the Dan Murphy-penned “Can’t Go Back,” which is a song R.E.M. might have come up with if they launched their career a couple years later and about a thousand miles north. Soul Asylum’s wheelhouse, though, is pummeling rock, and Made to Be Broken is packed with it.

 

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 — Australia

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With the news this week that Moulin Rouge! The Musical is officially coming to Broadway (hardly an unexpected turn after its Boston tryout largely drew raves), I found myself wondering if Baz Luhrmann is done with director feature films, ready to simply shovel dollars into his bank account from the revival of his greatest success. It’s been five years since he made The Great Gatsby, and there have been few signs of a follow-up. Of course, Luhrmann takes his time. His adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great American Novel arrived five years after its predecessor, a bumbled epic depiction of Luhrmann’s homeland. I originally posted this review of Australia at my former online home.

I feel for Baz Luhrmann. Every frame of his new film Australia practically quivers with his desire to see a old school Hollywood epic set in his homeland. He wants to see a classic cattle-drive-fueled western, and a war epic, and a sweeping romance–everything that filled the screens of his youth with Technicolor wonderment–but flavored with his own culture. Kangaroos instead of buffalo, Aborigines instead of Indians. He sets out to make this film, this conglomeration of his loves, with such earnestness that it sometimes feels unkind to callously laugh at the final result. The problem is, no matter how much empathy you dredge up for Luhrmann, he’s made a film that awfully laughable. Laughably awful works, too.

Nicole Kidman plays an upper crust wife who heads down under shortly before World War II to discover she has just become a widow and her husband’s ranch has become a desolate, arid failure. There’s villainous rival ranchers to contend with, and a rugged, handsome drover (conveniently named Drover) to aid her. It proceeds with the breathless, misty-eyed, simplistic conviction of an artless romance novel. There’s a dearth of surprising moments in its two hour and forty-five minute running time, each beat of the plot parceled out with the intent to maximize swooning and sniffling. The story is narrated by an Aboriginal child and the script often seems like something only a unjaded, unskilled youth could create, from the clear cut morality to the awkward insertion of Australian touchstones like kangaroos, boomerangs and oversized bottles of beer. I’d accuse Luhrmann of pandering, but it’s hard to conceive of a constituency so detached from the mechanics of movies that they’d be enthralled by this silliness. The gentleman that Luhrmann recruited to play a mystical figure is apparently so detached from modern media that he was unaware that his old acquaintance Jimi Hendrix died decades ago. Maybe that guy would find this film fresh and inventive.

Given this, there’s little for the actors to do. Indeed, Luhrmann barely seems to ask anything of them. Beyond some early persnickety clowning, he’s seemingly brought in his Moulin Rouge! star Kidman primarily because he likes the way her long slender frame fits into his shot compositions. Hugh Jackman as Drover is even more clearly mere set dressing. He stands shirtless with his implausibly chiseled form (it looks like the product of dedicated time in the gym rather than relentless toil across the outback) to be gaped at like the centerpiece of history’s most masculine Dolce & Gabbanna ad. He’s a bauble, nothing more.

Luhrmann’s love of excess has served him well in prior films, translating into a spirited audaciousness that elevated the material. Here, it’s a distancing factor, plowing under recognizable human emotions to leave the moldy loam of craven cliches. Luhrmann so wanted to craft a modern classic. Instead, he presided over something closer to a disaster.