The New Releases Shelf — Sunshine Rock

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I’ve been repeatedly certain I’d finally encounter the sunny side of Bob Mould for at least twenty-five years. Upon the release of File Under: Easy Listening, the sophomore album from Mould’s band Sugar, I hummingbirded around my college radio station, enthusing to anyone with ears about the track “Your Favorite Thing.” It was upbeat, even sweet! Sure, there was that little detail in the lyric about being shunted onto the beloved’s bookcase “alone with all your other favorite things,” but don’t focus on that, for goodness’ sake. There are no dying relatives or scathing betrayals. On the Mould scale, that practically made it a piñata stuffed with doubloons and rainbows. Ever since, album and album, my most immediate response is to burrow in an emerge with the truffle of happiness that can be found within, the expression of contentment or pleasure or satisfaction that tell me, I suppose, that Mould is okay.

With his latest album, Sunshine Rock, Mould is pushing happiness right to front. In interviews, he’s addressed it directly, affirming that the album’s title is indeed a thesis statement. He knows his own history. He knows full well that he’s defined as much by the glum admissions of “Hardly Getting Over It” as any other entry in his increasingly voluminous catalog, so writing a song like the title cut is automatically a statement. And Mould has plainly said that when he landed on the notion of a pointedly cheery outlook, he ran with it, shaping the whole album accordingly. He even fretted about the material that took a darker turn, at one point discarding a whole song because of it’s darkness and instead kicked out “Camp Sunshine,” which sounds a little like Green-era R.E.M. and includes resolutely upbeat lyrics (“The days I get to spend making music with my friends/
Are always most important to me”). That the lyrics honestly, movingly allude to the sadder realities of the sort of place that presumably provided at least part of the inspiration somehow, as before, only accentuates the positivity.

Whatever place Mould occupies on the happiness meter, the album finds the venerable college rock survivor in fine fettle. He’s playful and powerful, crafting songs that bear all his signature sounds and yet sound fresh, inventive, free. There’s not all that much sonic distance between the pristine sonic clatter of “What Do You Want Me to Do” and the sludgy slugging of “I Fought,” but they both carry different shrapnel of Mould’s long history, which means they join together as a proper extension of his established artistry. He’s well past reinvention. He’s tried that before, with dubious results. Instead, he’s found the secret that eludes many artists who can celebrate a career that hits the forty year point: He finds new wrinkles within familiar forms. He makes the old new.

That low-key discovery sometimes means Mould kick up the littlest flourishes that signal gleeful invention, such as the the Sweet-reminiscient yelp that opens the cover of Shocking Blue’s “Send Me a Postcard.” Getting a sizable impact out of a small gesture is another thing that comes with decades of musical antecedents. Mould gets to be the guy who blazes a new trail while walking with the same old gait. Is he happier? Maybe, maybe not. I do know that when I listen to Sunshine Rock, I feel a whole lot better.

Playing Catch-Up — The Greatest Showman; At Eternity’s Gate; Brute Force

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The Greatest Showman (Michael Gracey, 2017). The unexpected — and slow-building — success of this big screen musical at least provides gratifying evidence that modern audiences remain hungry for original material, no matter how desperately studio executives treat their production like slabs upon which to drop another McMarvel’s. The career of P.T. Barnum (played here by Hugh Jackman) has provided musical fodder previously, so there’s little confusion about why the filmmakers gravitated to it again. Michael Gracey, making his feature directorial debut, demonstrates a surprisingly deft touch at times. There are signals he has a sharp eye and an admirable sense of how to cut together a film that’s visually dynamic without lapsing into jittery incoherence. The material is not good, though. The screenplay, co-credited to Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon, is a by-the-numbers slog, and the songs, by La La Land Oscar winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, are similarly uninspired and moribund. The cast is game, but unexceptional. Among the performances, my only real pleasure was watching Michelle Williams blithely beam through her thankless role as Barnum’s wife, only because it feels like a well-earned respite from the heavy dramatic lifting that’s her usual professional charge.

 

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At Eternity’s Gate (Julian Schnabel, 2018). This experimental probing into Vincent van Gogh’s life and artistic genius has sequences that are almost vividly alive in depicting creation, a task that has humbled far more seasoned filmmakers than Julian Schnabel. Played by Willem Dafoe, van Gogh is depicted as a complicated figure, driving by his passions to points that might be madness or might simply be almost unbearable vulnerability. Schnabel’s abstractions and repetitions are boldly experimental and, unfortunately, wearyingly tedious. The film ultimately comes across as hollowed out, made distance from its subject by Schnabel’s trickery. Oscar Isaac has a nice supporting turn as Paul Guaguin, jolting himself free of the the film’s lulling flow by leaning into the character’s cantankerous certainty.

 

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Brute Force (Jules Dassin, 1947). A prison drama that lives up to its title, Brute Force follows the inmates of Westgate Prison as they navigate the treacherous social system inside and avoid the wrath of the institution’s sadistic security chief, Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn). Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster), a towering figure among the incarcerated, plots a jailbreak, the prospects of which don’t seem good, given the film’s bleak cynicism. This was made during the height of Hollywood’s Production Code, when no character who perpetrates ill deeds was allowed to get away scot-free, and there’s not an innocent soul in the case, so a bloodbath looms. Director Jules Dassin was a master of shadowy mood, which suits the plot’s fraught, bruised knuckle progression. There’s some woodenness to the storytelling that’s typical of its era, but mostly Brute Force impresses with its bruised knuckle authority.

Laughing Matters — Inside Amy Schumer, “The Foodroom”

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.

It is obviously going to take a some time before discerning pop culture consumers can shake the pain caused by this year’s victor for the Academy Awards’ top prize. That’s understandable, especially since it breaks a string of better-than-expected outcomes in the same category. As part of the healing, it’s important to focus on the positive. For example, at least the return of another mediocrity lauded with inexplicable industry praise was averted when Aaron Sorkin mercifully ended the brief speculation about the revival of his HBO series, The Newsroom.

In a just universe, any even marginally admiring discussion about The Newsroom would have been struck from the universe the moment Amy Schumer and her cohorts at the Comedy Central program that bore her name released this viciously precise parody.

All We Hear is Academy Ga Ga

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When Julia Roberts slipped her slender fingers across the seal of the Best Picture envelope, I was actively afraid she was going to pull out a card with the title Bohemian Rhapsody typed onto it. So I mostly felt relief at the shocking announcement that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences determined the peak of cinema for the year recently passed was Green Book. I’m supposed to be aggravated by this. For as much tedium as I find in the film’s retrograde self-congratulation in dealing with the painful complexities of racism in the most facile manner imaginable, I’ll ultimately take well-meaning competence over the pure ineptness of Bohemian Rhapsody or the flagrant insult of Vice. The outcome could have been worse.

And there were enough outcomes worth celebrating, including historic wins for members of the Black Panther production team, the animated feature prize landing in the correct hands, Alfonso Cuarón joining the ranks of two-time Best Directing winners while also picked up additional accolades that speak to the breadth of his skill as a filmmaker, and overjoyed documentary short creators shouting about “menstruation equality.” Putting aside the sympathy I have for Glenn Close officially reaching a Burton-esque level of clapping for other actors at the Oscars, Olivia Colman was a far better choice in the lead actress category. I’m glad Regina King won, too, but Colman’s turn in The Favourite is the honored performance that will still be marveled about a generation of two from now. And then there’s the long-delayed dose of justice in Spike Lee winning his first competitive honor.

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The ceremony itself was an odd, sleepy beast. Despite the snidely dismissive protestations of co-producer Donna Gigliotti, she and partner Glenn Weiss delivered precisely the “award, award, commercial, award, commercial, award” version of the show she deemed “So boring.” The ceremony itself was old school, stodgy even. If the producers thought it was the height of edginess to turn over the stage to a decrepit stadium rock band that hasn’t had a hit single in thirty-five years (excepting the Wayne’s World fluke that returned “Bohemian Rhapsody” to the upper reaches of the Billboard chart) or an album of fresh original material in nearly twenty-five years, I’d say they’re mistaken, no matter how exuberantly Javier Bardem jammed out in his tux.

Of course, the long run-up to the ceremony was marked by such acts of such clumsiness that the aversion of on-stage disaster was a relief (or, for rubberneckers, a grave disappointment, I suppose). The infamous absence of a host made a case for eliminating the rotating post altogether. The Academy would do just fine by committing to last night’s model of opening the show with a performer of performers who can deliver the obligatory monologue and then letting the announcer handle presenter introductions the rest of the way. It makes the evening about the awards rather that whatever showboating gimmickry Jimmy Kimmel or Seth MacFarlane cooked up, desperately certain that the proceedings needed a mid-program jolt of their comic genius. I guess someone out there might have missed the impish distribution of snack items to the audience or another stale joke about how the Oscars sure make for a long night. Not me.

Now if only the Academy could only find someone who has a discernible interest in the movies themselves and, you know, the import of the Oscars. Recruit a producer with understanding of and respect for the emotions that sent Jamie Ray Newman into radiant exuberance when she won an Academy Award for producing the short Skin, in one the categories, it should be noted, that was briefly cast into the void of a commercial break. I want someone who realizes teaming presenters who already have some affinity for each other is automatically more engaging than the random mix and match that was more common last night. Recent co-stars Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson swapping giggle fits is preferable to Michelle Yeoh and Pharrell Williams interacting with the ease of paired bridal party members who’ve just met. It’s not that difficult to invest meaning into the assembled couples that step before the global audience. Stephan James was a presenter and he played John Lewis. Give James the task of joining the Civil Rights legend to introduce a Best Picture nominee. Make it a moment.

I offer these grumbles only because I want the Oscars as an event to live up to the Oscars as an institution. These awards mean something. They define careers, a win serving as the lead descriptor in retrospective accounting of individual careers. To the degree that simple truth is reflected — in the raw emotion of winners, the rare introduction that was properly enthralled with the craft, even the lovely restraint of the performance of “Shallow” — the Oscars can still be magical.

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College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #768 to #765

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768. Romeo Void, It’s a Condition (1981)

The foundation of Romeo Void was laid when Debora Iyall met Frank Zincavage, while both were attending San Francisco Art Institute. Iyall had recently been inspired by Patti Smith concerts and felt she might have a voice that could command the stage. Alongside Zincavage, who played bass, a band came together and started gigging on the burgeoning Bay Area music scene. Romeo Void connected with upstart local label 415 Records and started releasing music, including their debut album, It’s a Condition.

Produced by David Kahne (who would later help Fishbone cement their sound), It’s a Condition is a finely hewn rendering of a certain musical moment, when post-punk, new wave, and shiny pop music were all sloshing together in one dynamic mélange. The jittery, jolting “Myself to Myself” is an understated thriller, and “Confrontation” is brisk and assured. Iyall was correct in assessing her own ability to bring intense character to a song through her vocal performance. She could deliver a powerhouse turn when it was merited, but it was arguably more impressive that could still inject abundant personality while dialing back to the cool, blasé vocals on “Talk Dirty (to Me),” or hitting on a chiller version of Siouxsie and the Banshee on “White Sweater.”

Romeo Void might be precisely of their time on It’s a Condition, but they also demonstrate a command of pop songcraft that imbues the brand of happy timelessness that has made many hits of the era stick to radio playlists like warm taffy. The languid, aching “I Mean It” deserves to enjoy the perpetual adoration of other power ballads of the day. Romeo Void earned modest but kind attention for their music. It’s a Condition suggests they deserved far more.

 

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767. Dave Edmunds, D.E. 7th (1982)

As the title implies, D.E. 7th is officially the seventh studio album released by Dave Edmunds, but it also carried enough significant change within its grooves that it’s one of those mid-career efforts that represents new beginnings. After several albums on Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song Records, Edmunds was without a home after the dissolution of the iconic hard rock band also meant the associated label was shut down. Edmunds landed on Arista Records in the U.K. and Columbia Records for U.S. distribution. Perhaps more significantly, the band Rockpile had broken up one year earlier, even as its stature was growing. It was time for Edmunds to reassert himself as an artist.

To command the music industry’s attention, Edmunds had help from no less than Bruce Springsteen. When Edmunds saw Springsteen perform in London, the Boss invited him backstage to turn over a song that had missed the cut for double album The River.  Juiced up with rockabilly swagger, “From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)” became the album’s first single and a minor hit on album rock radio. Around the time the Stray Cats were making the modern charts safe for retro sounds, Edmunds proved he was the master of such revivalism. He also had a keen sense for which material suited him, knocking out covers of NRBQ’s “Me and the Boys” and  Chuck Berry’s “Dear Dad” that were so easy and natural, it was as if the songs always belonged to him.

Overall, D.E. 7th impresses because of how much range Edmunds finds within his preferred sound. Not everything works, exactly, but there’s a lot of charm to the convincing hoedown “Warmed Over Kisses (Left Over Love)” and zydeco-dappled “Louisiana Man.” And “Generation Rumble” offers engaging, easygoing modern blues of the sort that Clapton mistakenly thought was on his records. It’s a level of accomplishment typical of Edmunds. He wasn’t as flashy and didn’t receive as much attention as his peers, but he was often making better music.

 

 

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766. Tommy Keene, Back Again (Try…) (1984)

Tommy Keene was properly hailed as a songwriter of rare gifts, able to conjure up chiming, elegant melodies and then couple them to lyrics that were wise without being ostentatious, sentimental without devolving to sappiness. On the EP Back Again (Try…), he offers the firm reminder that he was a grand performer, too. Comprised of a mere four songs — two originals and two live covers — the release is a perfect little chunk of sweetly unassuming college rock.

The gleaming title cut is a pristine example of Keene’s talent, effusive and emotionally complex, hurling out hooks as relentlessly as a the super-powered villain in a horror movie. It’s matched by the disc’s other original, the chiming, tender, and refined “Safe in the Light.” The EP closes with one of the covers, a take on the Rolling Stones’ nineteen-seventies deep cut “When the Whip Comes Down.” Keene and his band give it a nice raw rock energy that almost recalls seventies-style punk. It provided assurance for the Keene’s developing fan base that he had the ability to rattle the walls of their favorite local club when he came to town.

Keene released two EPs in 1984, and they were received with enough adoration from key taste-makers — including The Village Voice, arguably at the height of its influence — to alter the trajectory of his career. He was signed to Geffen Records and his next full-length album, released two years later, was his first — and only — to make an appearance on the Billboard chart.

 

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765. Juluka, Scatterlings (1982)

One of the things I greatly appreciated about the ethos of college radio (though I’ll freely admit I didn’t always live up to it as well as I could have and should have) was the conviction that music from anywhere deserved a place on the playlist if it was made with passion and skill. The pop charts in 1982 might have had some diversity to them, but no one other than students plying their broadcasting trade on the noncommercial end of the band were likely to drop the needle on a album of Zulu-influenced music out of South Africa.

Scatterlings was the fourth album billed to Juluka, the band formed by Johnny Glegg and Sipho Mchunu. It sets its agenda immediately with opening track “Scatterlings of Africa,” which is vivid musically and wrenched with concern lyrically (“Broken wall, bicycle wheel/ African song forging steel, singing/ Magic machine cannot match/ Human being human being/ African ideas, African ideas — make the future clear”). The band hails from a nation that is rich in foundational human history and bearing ripe wounds of then-current transgressions against humanity. The tracks on Scatterlings offer the proper mirror.

Chipper music serves as home to melancholy lyrics about a man who’s gone missing on “Kwela Man,” setting a tone that is ambitiously dizzying. The material sometimes suffers from a softening typical of the time. The lovely a capella opening to “Digging for Some Words” gives way to music that sounds like African fusion jazz, or maybe Al Stewart at his most mystically mewling. It’s significantly better when Juluka keeps the energy up, as on the chugging “Siyayilanda” or the pleasantly funky “Two Humans on the Run.” Right or wrong, those moments sounds truer to me.

 

 

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 — The Queen

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On this Academy Awards weekend, I’ll reach back to the review I wrote about the film that earned Helen Mirren her Best Actress in a Leading Role trophy. This was first posted at my original online home.

Stephen Frears’ new film The Queen begins with a slightly awkward scene in which Queen Elizabeth II discusses the burgeoning popularity of Prime Minister candidate Tony Blair with a man painting her portrait. It if a brief scene which doesn’t so much introduce the Queen as establish the official relationship between the monarchy and the elected government. The film then shifts to a separate shot on which the camera pans up the Queen, dressed in all her royal finery, settling on a close-up of her face as she look directly at the viewer. The film’s title appears next to her head, and momentarily, it feels like the strangely straightforward opening to some new BBC sitcom about the Royal Family.

This tiniest of stumbles is the only thing at all problematic about The Queen. Frears has made a marvelous film.

In focusing on a single, meaningful week, the film captures all the dilemmas of a modern monarchy. Tony Blair has just been elected Prime Minister when word comes from France that Princess Diana has been killed in a car crash. Blair instinctively, astutely determines that this will be cause for national mourning and responds accordingly. The Royals do not, choosing to remain silent and detached, their decision fueled dually by an animosity towards the woman whose aversion to their ways helped end her marriage into the family and an adherence to the legendary British emotional reserve they feel it is their place to exemplify.

This situation, rich, famed and painfully recent, provides the perfect window into the conflicts of a ruling class whose power is now strictly ceremonial. They are so utterly removed from their subjects, indeed from the ways of the entire world, that they have no sense whatsoever of how to proceed. Helen Mirren plays the Queen with an expected regal composure and confidence. She also excels at finding the hidden moments of vulnerability in the women, the fleeting times when she will allow some vulnerability to show, while openly considering her fading popularity or gazing at the beauty of nature. Her performance is equalled by that of Michael Sheen as Prime Minister Blair. It is he who privately rails against the Royal, but also reaches out to them, trying to gently coax them towards the right political decisions out of devotion to the country he has been chosen to govern.

The smart script by Peter Morgan (who’s also a credited writer on the far less successful The Last King of Scotland) never stoops to pushing this situations into melodramatic excess. The drama emerges from the reality of the situations, not from manufactured, overwrought battles. The conflicts are finally so simple and yet so effective: the Royals chatting aimlessly about daily plans as they watch other world leaders extoll the virtues of Diana on the evening news, utterly oblivious to their need to do the same. There is even rich contrast in the plainly captured images of the Queen and Tony Blair talking on the telephone, each in their own home library, the Queen’s a large, tasteful collection of old tomes, and Blair’s a batch of novels and paperbacks shoved into shelves with toys and knickknacks. It’s just set dressing, but Frears has the confidence to let these background details tell the story.

Not that the film is a strict polemic against the Royal Family. It often has sympathy for them. They may have been oblivious to the changing world around them, but it allows for the suggestion that their devotion to tradition might have some nobility to it. And, in the wake of the global grief over Diana’s death, the film does allow Prince Phillip to make one the most pertinent, pointed observations: “Sleeping in the streets and pulling out their hair for someone they never knew. And they think we’re mad!”

This Week’s Model — Jess Cornelius, “No Difference”

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“And it all feels harder than normal,” Jess Cornelius sings at the opening of the new single “No Difference,” over a spare, echoing guitar line. “And you can’t believe it’s happened again,” she continues, the last word stretched to about seven or eight syllables, and the song wafts forward, tuneful emotional persistence carried by winds that evolve from gentle breeze to full gale.

A New Zealand native who made her name on the Australian music scene and had since relocated to Los Angeles, Cornelius already has a healthy discography under then name Teeth & Tongue. Eventually somewhat of a collaborative venture, Teeth & Tongue was realistically Cornelius’s solo work under a group name, which makes it feel significant that she’s lately set that moniker aside. Beginning with the 2017 EP Nothing is Lost, she’s signing her own name to her work, leading to speculation about a greater level of personal disclosure, even as that’s a theory she’s quick to dismiss.

“No Difference” carries an emotional openness and dreamy swirl that proves Angel Olsen isn’t the only pony who can swing that particular sonic trick. And yet the cut also has a steady assurance that marks it as purely Cornelius’s, beholden to no one else, even with hints of her Kiwi accent occasionally slipping to the forefront (the clipped intonation on the word “happy” is a notably charming example). The tracks billows and glides, operating in a place of sly indie authenticity.