Playing Catch-Up —The Kid Who Would Be King; Total Recall; The Old Man and the Gun

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The Kid Who Would Be King (Joe Cornish, 2019). After his feature directorial debut, Attack the Block, Joe Cornish seemed positioned to jostle with a few others — including Edgar Wright, one of that film’s producers — for the distinction of evolving into a Spielberg for the new millennium, delivering rousing entertainments built with a zippy panache and a bold, cunning visual sense. Active courting of Cornish commenced, but he was evidently having none of it (a choice likely influenced by the experience of working in futility on Marvel’s Ant-Man with Wright), choosing instead to retreat from the business for a while. His return is a chipper oddity, a film about a bullied schoolboy named Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) who is set upon a quest when he finds Excalibur on a construction site. With similar scrappy chums in his impromptu band of modern knights, Alex has to thwart the malevolent machinations of Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) and save the world from the demonic army she’s roused. The Kid Who Would Be King is pleasant enough, but there’s also an old fashioned quality to the storytelling that is more deadening than nostalgically charming. The movie feels like it could have been plucked from a major studio’s lineup of kid-friendly fare circa 1995. Generously, that quality could be seen as imparting a timelessness of the film. In practice, it feels disposable.

 

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Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, 1990). Like most adaptations of Philip K. Dick’s mind-bending fiction, Total Recall endured a torturous development process that pummeled out all the complexities leaving a gimmick upon which a pedestrian action story could be draped. In 2084, people can take faux vacations by getting memories injected. When a construction worker named Doug Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) give it a go, opting for Mars as his destination, he has a strange reaction, eventually being told it triggered the emergence of his real identity of a crafty super-spy. Following up the far superior RoboCop, director Paul Verhoeven carries over some of the boisterous imaginings of a cluttered future society, but loses the keen satire. Schwarzenegger’s pronounced limitations as an actor are a major issue, eliminating any of the nuanced intrigue of flexible identity and plopping in basic action movie platitudes in the resulting vacancy. As Quaid’s wife, Sharon Stone flashes the flinty, enticingly dangerous star quality that would push her to the pop culture stratosphere a couple years later.

 

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The Old Man & the Gun (David Lowery, 2018). Drawn from the real exploits of an aged bank robber, The Old Man & the Gun is expertly designed by writer-director David Lowery to fully exploit the limited yet formidable acting talents of Robert Redford. As Forrest Tucker, Redford moves through the film with the relaxed charisma that’s always been his strongest attribute. He’s especially engaging in the handful of scenes pairing him with Sissy Spacek, as a sweet widow courted by Forrest. Lowery gives The Old Man & the Gun the unhurried pace and twilight glow of a small-scale nineteen-seventies drama, further emphasizing the elegiac sense that a whole era of good-natured movie stars and refined, human cinematic storytelling is flickering out to a regrettable extinction.

Now Playing — Avengers: Endgame

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Avengers: Endgame is absurd. I’ve previously declared myself agog that movie screens are routinely turned over to these vibrant figures that dominated my youthful years, enveloping my fragile psyche in the protection of costumed titans who take the strange misfortune of enhanced physical attributes as a mandate to restore justice to an uncertain universe. A little more than a decade into the cinematic era launched by Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, the dazzling showmanship of Marvel Studios is so thoroughly enmeshed into the cultural conversation that the sheer scale of the latest entry in the vast ongoing saga can almost be taken for granted. It is a three-hour spectacle that can be reasonably characterized as three different films stacked upon one another. By one tally, there are fifty-four major performers in credited roles, and twenty-one prior films are drawn from liberally, like a spice rack of superheroes. Completely the circle of excess, Avengers: Endgame has made money faster than the most efficient and well-staffed production facility of the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo and written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Avengers: Endgame is, in its simplest description, a direct follow-up to last year’s Avengers: Infinity War. As the new film begins, the heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are distraught in the wake of the successful implementation of a galaxy-wide genocide perpetrated by cosmic baddie Thanos (Josh Brolin) with the snap of his gauntlet-clad and jewel-bedecked fingers. Grieving for their fallen allies and guilt-stricken over their failure to stop the supervillain, our heroes gradually assemble their might in the hopes of somehow, some way undoing the damage.

The mechanics of the story require the twisting of the known laws of, well, everything, and it’s to the enormous credit of the filmmakers that disbelief is reasonably easy to suspend. Or at least the riotous romping through a sharply, intricately drawn mosaic of established, interlocking fictions is imbued with such a ceaseless sense of joyful inspiration that pulling at stray threads carries the sourness of entirely unnecessary self-inflected spoiling of sport. Where Infinity War was burdened by dour narrative duty curdling into blatant acts of manipulation, Endgame is a cohort-like exaltation of every last thing intrinsic to the superhero archetype — and Marvel’s decades of specific storytelling mastery, in particular — that positioned it to become the inescapable foundation of current pop culture, much to the surprise of people like me, who once hid their colorful comic books in tepid shame.

I don’t intend to absolve Endgame of its flaws, and they are there. In the warm afterglow, I find myself thinking more on the elements that tickle my longtime fandom: the artful ad hoc partnerships between established but previously distant characters, the happy moments of loving fan service, the genial callbacks, and the victory laps for the actors who’ve carried the weighty Marvel brand on their backs for years, practically making service to the cause a full-time profession. As a discerning cineaste, I might quibble with narrative cheats, the fairly pedestrian shot construction, or the lack of thematic heft and insight. As someone who still wants more than anything else to be transported when the theater lights dim, I’m grateful for a myriad of the film’s clicking cogs. There are moments belonging to individual actors (particularly Chris Evans, who merits some sort of lifetime achievement award for the improbably feat of humanizing Captain America, probably the trickiest character in all of the pantheon) and characters that made me beam like a kid before a freshly stocked spinner rack. I acknowledge that Avengers: Endgame is as much machine as film, but, my oh my, it purrs and gleams. Does it ever.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #732 to #729

alex priest

732. Alex Chilton, High Priest (1987)

Alex Chilton spend the first half of the nineteen-eighties scuffling through professional uncertainty. The former lead singer of the Box Tops and challenging genius at the core of blazingly brilliant and commercially underperforming power pop band Big Star, Chilton crashed his fledgling solo career with the 1979 album Like Flies on Sherbert, a motley batch of songs that had its adherents, but sold about as well as the insect-speckled dessert of its title. Adrift, Chilton cycled in and out of Tav Falco’s Panther Burns and took other stray music gigs, often relying on menial jobs — such as dishwasher and janitor — to pay the bills. His bankbook was significantly boosted when the Bangles included a cover of the Big Star song “September Gurls” on their 1986 full-length, Different Light. As the sole songwriter of the track, Chilton benefited from a small claim on a multi-platinum album. His slice may have been modest, but it likely exceeded any revenue stream he’d enjoyed to that point, putting him on more solid financial footing.

“Making money off a thing like the Bangles record makes up for a lot of things,” Chilton told a music journalist at the time. “You can’t live your life being upset about things, but it’s a lot easier to not be upset about it if you’ve got enough money.”

Bolstered by the unexpected sniff of success and handed a recording budget by collaborating independent labels New Rose Records and Big Time Records, Chilton settled into the familiar confines of Ardent Studios, in Memphis to record High Priest, his third solo album. Surrounded by sharp local musicians, Chilton opted for his customary approach of laying down a whole bunch of covers and a few originals that seems to be two or three refinements away from completion. No matter the origin of the song, Chilton has an air of detachment. The Guitar Slim blues number “Trouble Don’t Last” is somehow hollowed out of all emotion, and Chilton’s take on the Carole King and Gerry Goffin composition “Let Me Get Close to You” is so indifferent it seems like a put-on. “Don’t Be a Drag,” on of the Chilton-penned tunes, is like a single from a version of the Stray Cats with only marginal motivation.

There’s a pleasing, Lou Reed-style directness to “Take It Off,” and the jazzy casual vocals on “Thing for You” hold their own charm. “Nobody’s Fool” is a high point, if only because Chilton sounds more invested in imbuing character into the track. Even when Chilton livens up, an overwhelming sense of goofiness can dampen the effectiveness, as on “Dalai Lama,” which includes the lyrics “I hear he never swats a mosquito/ That’s cuz he’s a follower of Buddha.”

Realistically, the album had little chance of progressing much beyond a cult curiosity in the pop culture consciousness. But Chilton wound up literally lending his name to a more notable college rock offering released in 1987, also recorded at Ardent Studios, at around the same time he was toiling on High Priest. Alex Chilton got plenty of plays on college radio in 1987, but it’s safe to say that “Alex Chilton” got even more.

 

bodeans outside

731. BoDeans, Outside Looking In (1987)

Straight outta Waukesha, BoDeans hold a unique place in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll, as few other bands have endeavored with quite so much dedication to distance themselves from the creative effort that earned them the most adoration. Produced by T-Bone Burnett, the band’s debut, Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams, was roundly hailed by critics and tickled the interest of enough of a broader audience to make BoDeans the choice for Best New American Band in the annual Rolling Stone reader poll. Burnett favored a lean, unfussy approach to the production, which accentuated the heartland earnestness of the songwriting of fellow frontmen Sam Llanas and Kurt Neumann. The band hated the result, feeling they were shortchanged on studio time. No matter how often they heard effusive praise for their debut, BoDeans wanted a different sound.

Perhaps still smarting from their experience on the first album, BoDeans had some trouble settling on a producer for their sophomore effort. Mike Campbell, from Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, was originally enlisted, but he kept nudging the band toward the basic sound of his primary gig, even trying to get Neumann to adjust his guitar playing. Campbell was axed, and the band instead opted for fellow Wisconsinite Jerry Harrison, in between Talking Heads records and fresh off of giving Violent Femmes a gleaming coat of shellac on The Blind Leading the Naked.

Harrison gave BoDeans what they wanted. Outside Looking In has an eager pop sound, as if trying to will a place on the charts or maybe an opportunity to score a mid-nineteen-eighties beer commercial. Some of the material — such as the single “Dreams,” and the beautiful basics of “Only Love” —is strong enough to muscle past the heavy-handedness. More often, the heart of the music gets lost. “Pick Up the Pieces” surges forward like a churning river of sugar water, and “Say About Love” has guitars that cut like switchblades dripped in glitter. “The Ballad of Jenny Rae” is like Steve Earle with the menace surgically removed, and on “Runaway Love” the personality is so thoroughly buffed away that it could be a Richard Marx B-side.

This direction seemed to suit BoDeans just fine, and they definitely leveraged it into some high-profile gigs, most notably a sizable stretch as one of the support acts on U2’s The Joshua Tree tour. And they just kept getting slicker.

 

robyn gotta

730. Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians, Gotta Let This Hen Out! (1985)

Robyn Hitchcock was still finding his footing as a solo artist when he and his new backing band, the Egyptians, took the stage at London’s The Marquee in late April, 1985. Four years had passed since the dissolution of his obscure but beloved punk band, the Soft Boys, and he’d had varying success with a few releases under his own name. Reuniting with his old bandmates Andy Metcalfe and Morris Windsor, Hitchcock had just put out Fegmania!, and he and the band were giving those new songs some of their first stage renderings while simultaneously figuring out the best ways to string together his esoteric songs into a solid, engaging set.

Hitchcock and the Egyptians are in fine fettle on the resulting live album, Gotta Let This Hen Out!, giving songs a propulsive fierceness that had sometimes been elusive in the studio. In particular, this album’s versions of “My Wife and My Dead Wife” and “Heaven,” both originally found on Fegmania! are definitive. Hitchcock also effectively reclaims his own history, nestling Soft Boys numbers “Kingdom of Love” and “The Face of Death” amid the newer material, beginning to truly stake out the full range of his iconoclastic creativity. Simultaneously vivid and cryptic in his lyrical imagery, Hitchcock made it clear there was no one quite like him.

More than Fegmania!, Gotta Let This Hen Out! was the artistic statement Hitchcock built upon moving forward, finding himself one of the odder fellows to experience major label courtship and some out of left field minor hits.

 

graham mona

729. Graham Parker, The Mona Lisa’s Sister (1988)

As a general rule, Graham Parker didn’t make it easy on himself. The brilliantly caustic singer-songwriter set bridges ablaze at records companies, most famously directly musical ire at his original corporate home, Mercury Records, but also bounding between Elektra Records and Arista Records during the nineteen-eighties. His time at Atlantic Records was so disastrous that not a single note of music was released while he was under contract with the company. There was a three year gaps between albums when Parker took full control, insisting on producing new music himself, along with guitarist Brinsley Schwarz, who’d played in Parker’s backing band, the Rumour. He offered the resulting album, The Mona Lisa’s Sister, to RCA Records, but with the stipulation that they had to release exactly what he gave them, without a single alteration.

Hailed by critics as a return to form for the rocker, The Mona Lisa’s Sister is filled with piercing songs played cleanly and firmly. “Don’t Let It Break You Down” could be Parker’s official anthem, snarling out a call for persistence against the litany of social ills and other bruising indignities. “I’m Just Your Man” demonstrates Parker’s skills for sweetness without sentimentality, and “Back in Time” pointedly calls out the futility in nostalgia (“You stop in the old cafe where you used to play pinball/ And look for the air-raid shelter but it’s gone/ And the cafe seems so small”). The album’s doubtless pinnacle is the single “Get Started, Start a Fire,” which gives The Mona Lisa’s Sister its title. Against a perfect, lithe guitar lick, Parker recounts the travails of the less successful sibling of the subject of the world’s most famous painting, whose own time as a model was less productive: “Leonardo sent her home/ Since then she has lived alone/ With her few belongings and her copy/ Of a painting of herself unhappy/ She is going to burn it when she’d ready.”

Parker’s album was a reasonable commercial success, at least in the modest standard he’d previously established. His asserted authorship didn’t mean he was satisfied with it, though. Within a couple years, Parker was openly disparaging The Mona Lisa’s Sister, describing it as “closer to office work than rock and roll.” Everyone is entitled to their opinion, of course, but I take issue with Parker’s assessment. To my ears, this office work sounds quite wonderful.

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 — A History of Violence

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As the striking of the twentieth anniversary of the 1999 resounds, there’s been a revived interest in arguing that the bygone year in question might have represented the best twelve month span in the long history of cinema. That’s a notion Entertainment Weekly stumped for as the year was still unfolding, so I’ve had plenty of time to be not quite convinced. I might be more inclined to co-sign if more of the ’99-inclined film writers entered David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, released twenty years ago this week, as the chief exhibit. Plenty of Cronenberg’s films are imperfect, and I’d argue a couple are outright bad, but in the undeclared battle between iconoclastic moviemaking Davids, I’ll always vigorously champion the Canadian with plenty of dried blood under his fingernails over Lynch. I have one last review of a Cronenberg film that hasn’t been carted over to this digital space, a consideration of A History of Violence, arguably his last truly impeccable work. This was written for my former online home.

The are certain things you need to be prepared for going into a David Cronenberg film: unflinching gore, tricky explorations of the ways in which sex and violence intersect and a deadpan approach to these things that, by itself, can be off-putting. Luckily, you usually need to be equally prepared to dissect a piece of art that is more complicated and nuanced than the average Hollywood Important FilmTM or even (especially?) the latest example of dark, edgy, filmic genius. Even when his films aren’t very good, they’re interesting and challenging. And A History of Violence is very good.

The film is based on a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke that was issued through the marginally successful Paradox Press line of DC Comics. I’m not going to say much about the plot, because it’s definitely one of those films that benefits from knowing as little as possible going into it. For one thing, Cronenberg’s odd rhythms will probably work better for those not trying to anticipate when certain plot elements will kick in. According to our expectations of a typical narrative, very little happens in the first reel. There is character development and the establishment of plot points, but Cronenberg seems to be primarily laying the groundwork for the themes he’ll explore through the rest of the work: identity is pliable, violence begets more violence, sometimes we choose the lie because it’s preferable to the truth. There are moments in the first portion of the film that are very stiff and stilted, but I think that’s by design. Cronenberg wants us to see the rigidity, bloodlessness and finally fakery of the idyllic, standardized world that his characters live in. That’s not to say that Cronenberg is satirizing and condemning American small time life, an approach that is so overused that it’s become a sure sign of creative laziness. He’s simply pointing out that’s a falsely constructed reality; that doesn’t mean it may not be a better choice than the honest reality that eventually intrudes.

There’s actually not much violence in the film, basically a few relatively quick scenes. There are some gruesome sights, but they come and go quickly. Cronenberg doesn’t let his camera linger. There’s nothing gratuitous about the especially graphic moments, something Cronenberg has occasionally been guilty of in the past, which he basically acknowledged and satirized in what I think still stands as his best film (although, I’ll concede that this one might actual deserve that title—I need to think on it some more). Every moment, no matter how difficult to look at, makes sense with and contributes to what Cronenberg is trying to say about violence.

The movie gets extra credit for being the first to properly showcase Maria Bello. She’s long been the best actor in bad moviesthe only actor maintaining some respectability in horrible movies, or the most neglected actor in mediocre movies in which other actors are celebrated to a baffling degree. Here Bello gets to really dig in and connects in moments both large and small.

And how did it take this long for Cronenberg to cast fellow space alien Bill Hurt in a film?

This Week’s Model — FKA twigs, “Cellophane”

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When I write about music, I do so as a fan and a novice. In contrast to how some artists would likely characterize my typed-out ruminations, I do this not to pompously pontificate about what is right and wrong in the broader culture, but instead in an effort to understand my own reactions to art. I work within my limitations, well aware that I lack the knowledge and vocabulary to examine the deepest intricacies of an individual song’s mechanics, how the arrangement and production choices on a track elevate or diminish the work. I pull from my gut, or my heart, or my soul, or whatever nebulous portion of myself stirs when I encounter a musical creation of note. Those who can expound expertly on, say, the impact of an unorthodox time signature or unexpected minor key leave me quietly awestruck. Meanwhile, I fumble to find the deeper justification — through metaphor, through descriptions of feelings, through the blunt instrument of artist comparison — for my immediate, base reaction.

All that preamble is meant to excuse my inability to properly articulate the wonders of “Cellophane,” the new single from FKA twigs. It is exquisite and moving, almost tactile in its precision and tenderness. It is a song to get lost within, as if it’s an embrace.It’s pure loveliness.

In so many respects, “Cellophane” is miles away from the music I connected with deeply decades ago, when I ingested the stream of records that came into my college radio station like they were life-giving oxygen. I think that’s a positive. I want pop music to roil and change and evolve. As it does, I’m going to try my damnedest to keep up, even if I can’t always quite explain what I’m hearing that makes a valued inner portion of me soar.

That Championship Season — Jessica Jones, Season One

jessica jones title

As certainly as Marvel has become an unstoppable force wherever people recline luxuriously in gigantic palaces, the wide-reaching House of Ideas hasn’t quite cracked other media (including some significant slippage in realm of the colorful periodicals of sequential storytelling that are the source of the nearly ubiquitous super-powered characters). The ambitious lineup poised to sprawl across the forthcoming Disney+ streaming platform might very well improve Marvel’s record, but one of the most surprising shortcomings has been in the area of television programming, especially since the studio had a major broadcast network right there at their disposal. Sure, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is about to embark of a sixth season, but it is the closest a long-running series can come to being a cultural afterthought.

I’d argue that the primary instances of success in Marvel Studios’ forays into television are attributable to choices that lean away from the model that works elsewhere. Although the string of episodes that are inherent to the structure of a television series would seem ideal for replicating the procession of storytelling-without-end found in a string of comic book issues, and crossovers are equally easy to mount, the expansiveness that has served Marvel well on the page and in theaters has often been a road anvil blocking the path of smart, effective storytelling when the screen is smaller. One of the rare triumphs points to the potential value of focusing on the intimate when it comes to television projects.

jessica jones purple

Jessica Jones was primarily drawn from the comic book series Alias, created by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Michael Gaydos. The comic was an intriguing novelty when it launched, in 2001. Set within the Marvel Universe proper, it nonetheless stood apart somewhat, offering a cunning commentary of the natural repercussions of a society partially populated by demigodlike vigilantes. Jessice herself was a former costumed do-gooder, known as Jewel, who had retreated from brawls across the metropolitan skies in favor of hardscrabble work as a private investigator. In Bendis’s rendering, which was often dark without resorting to corrosive cynicism, Jessica was both a casualty and a survivor, grappling with a wholly understandable lingering trauma. Usually elided in superhero storytelling founded on perpetual reset, Jessica’s fraught emotional state and perseverance asserted a stronger sense of reality to the Marvel Universe, just as Stan Lee imbuing vulnerability, uncertainty, and other bits of psychological nuance into his characters four decades earlier had started a revolution in comics.

Wisely, Melissa Rosenberg, the credited creator of the Netflix series Jessica Jones, kept the fundamentals of the character and figured out how to craft her story for a different medium. In the show, Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) is still a bedraggled P.I. with a set of heightened abilities that she largely keeps in check. There are allusions here and there to other bolstered beings engaged in avenging across the globe, but mostly Jessica Jones keeps its attention on street-level concerns. The now familiar Marvel logo is affixed to the series, but it largely stands alone. It is a character study with periodic feats of strength.

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And the first season of Jessica Jones has a deeper thematic purpose that also sets it apart. Drawing from a story thread in the original comic book series, Jessica has a troubling history with a villain with mind control powers. Known primarily as the Purple Man in the comics, the television creators opt instead to concentrate on alter ego moniker, the still pretty on-the-nose Kilgrave (played by David Tennant). Usually, the results of Kilgrave’s mental manipulations were brushed off in comic stories as the equivalent of bruises, merely the cost of doing superheroic business. The insightful innovation of Bendis was that having one’s will wrested away by other leads to significant psychological pain. The creative team behind Jessica Jones heightened and intensified that theme in season one, making Jessica’s helplessness before Kilgrave — and his obsession with controlling her — a powerful stand-in for any number of toxic relationships that exist in the real world, where there’s a sad lack of caped crusaders ready to swoop in and save the day.

jessica jones kilgrave

With thirteen episodes to play with, there’s more to the first season of Jessica Jones than the cruelty of Kilgrave and Jessica’s strained effort to best him, mostly by breaking free. There’s a tentative romance between Jessica and fellow titan-in-hiding Luke Cage (Mike Colter) and a scattering of fellow misfits under Jessica’s reluctant care. A great deal of time is given over to simply establishing Jessica’s weary, sarcastic worldview, which plays to Ritter’s greatest strength as a performer. And there are parallels to the chief adversarial relationship throughout, notably in the baggage carried by Jessica’s friend Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor) because of the way her controlling, abusive mother (Rebecca De Mornay) pushed her into a career as a child star. A caution is underlined: Super-human abilities aren’t a requirement for harming people.

The messages embedded in the first season of Jessica Jones might not be exactly what audiences are expected from a story about superheroes, even if its those pumped-up beings that operate on the fringes of a colorful world. It’s precisely that unexpected quality that gives the program its intense impact and resonant meaning.

 

(Due credit on the screencaps: I got them from elsewhere.)

 

Previously…

An Introduction
Buffy the Vampire SlayerSeason Five
CheersSeason Five
The SopranosSeason One
St. ElsewhereSeason Four
Veronica MarsSeason One
The OfficeSeason Two
The Ben Stiller ShowSeason One
Gilmore GirlsSeason Three
SeinfeldSeason Four
JustifiedSeason Two
Parks and RecreationSeason Three
LouieSeason Two
TogethernessSeason One
BraindeadSeason One
CommunitySeason Two
Agent CarterSeason Two
The LeftoversSeason Three
TremeSeason One
How I Met Your MotherSeason Two
FireflySeason One
Raising Hope, Season Three

Top 40 Smash Near Misses — “Promised Land”

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

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The Mann Act was cemented in U.S. federal law on June 25, 1910. Like most regulations with over a century of dust on it, the Mann Act has been amended and finessed over the years, but its core prohibition is against transporting women or girls across state lines for “immoral purposes.” In the most famous cases, the law has mostly been leveled against individuals who were lasciviousness preying on girls under the age of consent. As the nineteen-fifties came to a close, Chuck Berry became one of those individuals.

The rock ‘n’ roll trailblazer, who sang of a sixteen-year-old girl in tights dress, lipstick, and high heel shoes in one of his many hits, claimed that it was only the most innocent gainful employment he had in mind when Janice Norine Escalanti was brought by him from Mexico to the club he owned in St. Louis. Escalanti, who was two years younger than the subject of his hit single when Berry recruited her, offered a different interpretation of events. The courts sided with her. After an initial conviction was vacated because of the judge’s bigoted commentary from the bench, a retrial landed Berry a prison sentence. He served almost two years behind bars.

“Promised Land” was the first single from Berry following his release from prison. Borrowing the melody of folk standard “Wabash Cannonball,” the newly unconfined Berry offered a tale of a fellow who travels from Norfolk, Virginia to California by multiple means, with stops in Charlotte, Atlanta, Birmingham, New Orleans, and Houston (and Albuquerque apparently glimpsed from high above in an airplane). The performer was clearly agitated and feeling his freedom.

According to fellow rock ‘n’ roll founding father Carl Perkins, Berry came out a prison a deeply changed man, carrying around anger and bitterness that seemed to stick with him for the remainder of his life. The propensity for skeevy behavior lingered, too. Three decades after he was on the wrong side of the Mann Act, Berry got in trouble for secretly videotaping women as they used the bathroom on a property he owned. There’s no denying Berry’s importance in the foundation of rock ‘n’ roll, but there’s a big impediment to hero worship. His legacy should be as much about the ignominious behavior that no amount of guitar wizardry excuses.

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

The New Releases Shelf — When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?

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There was a time when I was dead certain that the further someone was past their teenaged years, the less business they had flinging pop songs into the world. The vernacular of modern pop is still drawing its emotional language from the nineteen-fifties and -sixties, when boys were simultaneously dreamy and dangerous and holding hands was a major prize. When middle-aged dudes are still singing about puppy love and pretty girls, there can be an unnerving clang to the sentiment. In this creative realm, wisdom and experience can lead to an impurity that must be overcome. It simply seems more suitable — more right — for the composition and performance to emanate from a creator who’s chronologically closer to that precarious time when feelings are big as cymbal crashes.

So I come to Billie Eilish’s debut full-length, When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, with a readiness to be convinced. The upstart Angeleno is only a few months past her seventeenth birthday and already operates in the eye of a cultural hurricane, the beneficiary and victim of endless hype. Writing with her brother Finneas O’Connell (who also produces the album), Eilish crafts complicated, layered songs that veer and wobble like a ill-built bicycle on a slick roadway. The tracks don’t come across as faulty or unpracticed, though. There’s instead an excitement to the uncertainty, a sense that freedom is being earned through fearlessness, a blithe disinterest in adhering to rules. “Bad Guy” has synthesized snapping, a bounding beat, a vocal affection that sounds like hyperventilation harnessed into rhythm, and a nicely deployed “Duh” here and there. And before it’s over, it collapses in on itself to almost become a different song altogether.

Almost inevitably, Eilish calls to mind other recent (or relatively recent) performers who started rustling treetops when the brashness of youth was on their side. “When the Party’s Over” echoes Lana Del Rey’s forlorn chanteuse style, and “All the Good Girls Go to Hell” recalls the cheeky prowl of Lily Allen. “I Love You” is rich with the airy indie folk of a Wainwright offspring. Eilish pinballs between divergent modes with evident ease, proving equally adept with the achingly tender “Listen Before I Go,” the probing intricacies of “Bury a Friend,” and the brash “Wish You Were Gay,” on which she fantasizes a face-saving excuse for a guy’s disinterest. Not every idea works perfectly (I’m at best so-so on the scattering of The Office audio clips on “My Strange Addiction”), but at least Eilish is actively pushing to fill up the plate she’s set.

When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? is consistently impressive. It’s unclear if it’s the opening salvo to a long and varied career or a fierce, fevered flash of momentary inspiration, destined to fade. Either way it supports that weatherbeaten thesis I’ve dragged around so long that I can no longer be accused of positing it out of peer solidarity with rambunctious kids cutting records: It’s a little easier to sound sharp and true when there are fewer miles on the odometer.

Laughing Matters — Jonathan Coulton, “Nobody’s Above the Law”

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.

Although my inability and aversion to sign up for every last streaming video option concocted by the entertainment corporations of the globe has decisively put the series The Good Fight beyond my reach for the time being, I’ve casually followed the various heaping helpings of praise upended on the creation of Michelle and Robert King in response to its various headline-mirroring stories of modern liberal exasperation. My exposure to to The Good Wife — the CBS drama which spawned The Good Fight — was similarly limited, but I flatly adored the King series in between the two, the loopy, giddily inventive Braindead. From what I can tell, some of that odd political satire’s sensibility spilled over to the new endeavor.

And I’ve recently learned that one of my favorite contributors to Braindead was invited to participate in The Good Fight. Indie rock singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton handled “Previously on Braindead” duties for the bygone series, penning and performing quick ditties that piled dense recap information into jauntily rhyming couplets. (In one instance, the plot contrivances overwhelmed Coulton, leading to a summary of an old Gunsmoke episode instead.) For the new gig, it seems Coulton is offering wry, weary commentary on relevant current event, catchy education accompanied by animation for a sort of Schoolhouse Rock for adults.

In one recent episode, Coulton offered “Nobody’s Above the Law,” which is a pointed, timely reminder that there is a constitutional process built right into U.S. government meant to deal with morally bankrupt individuals who ascend to places of power. For obvious reasons, I’ve been thinking of this number a lot lately. Maybe this video needs to be screened for elected officials over in the legislative branch. It’s only a couple minutes long. They should be able to sit through it, and maybe even process its message.

 

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

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #736 to #733

yello yes

736. Yello, Gotta Say Yes to Another Excess (1983)

Boris Blank, the impresario of electronics who drove the musical agenda for the band Yello, had picked up a new toy ahead of the record of his group’s third full-length, Gotta Say Yes to Another Excess. An obsessive collector of samples and sounds, Blank had gotten his mitts on a state of the art Fairlight CMI, which coupled a keyboard to a robust (for the era) computer system. It allowed a skilled player to conjure up any blipping, blooping soundscape they could imagine, or at least preload. Although lead vocalist Dieter Meier had suggested in interviews that Yello was in no particular hurry to keep cranking out new music, the technological marvel proved too tempting. A rollicking batch of bizarro post-disco was delivered, a breathless urgency infusing the whole set.

Opening track “I Love You” establishes the record’s vibe, sounding like a dance song crafted by a glitching sexbot. Gotta Say Yes to Another Excess is less about the promised overabundance of its title and more a sprightly, devil-may-care sonic freedom. There’s little discernible calculation and a whole lot of why-the-hell-not? braggadocio. The splendid weirdness of the title cut suggests Frankie Goes to Hollywood on some heavy duty barbiturates, and “Lost Again” exhibits some of the icy, offhand creepiness that typified M83 a couple decades later. The music somehow roams freely while staying within familiar territory. The most exciting moments are those in which Yello finds a way to infuse notably vibrant added shades to their galloping synthetic dance music, such as the goth gloom shimmering under the surface of “Crash Dance” and the spritz of Prince-link funk on “Smile on You.”

Gotta Say Yes to Another Excess edged Yello a little higher on the ladder of commercial success. It yielded a small but respectable batch of hit dance singles and was the group’s first album to claim a spot on the Billboard chart. It also ushered in a significant change, as it was the last release to include founding member Carlos Perón on the roster. However notable it might have been, it was mere preamble for the unexpected breakthrough to come.

 

Phantasmagoria

735. The Damned, Phantasmagoria (1985)

The Damned were in a state of reinvention when they recorded their sixth studio album, Phantasmagoria. Captain Sensible, the band’s original bassist and eventual guitarist, had turned in his resignation so he could go off and pursue a solo career. A key creative driver, Sensible’s departure put the band’s sound largely in the hands of lead vocalist Dave Vanian, who had a growing predilection for molasses-thick goth rock. On the strength of the first couple tracks delivered by the slightly recalibrated unit, the Damned signed a new contract with MCA Records. Given the band’s heightened sense of style, notions of MTV success were surely aswirl.

The band was obviously prepped to go big, in every sense. “Street of Dreams” is almost pop opera, all crescendo and apexing dudgeon. It’s roughly matched by the heavy drama of “Sanctum Sanctorum” and “Shadow of Love,” which sounds a little like Roger Miller as an eighties eyeliner icon. The album isn’t uniformly impressive. There are moments when some instincts might have benefited from the tempering that came with the strong — and sometimes divergent — points of view that existed in previous lineups. “Grimly Fiendish” with its hint of jaunty cheer, skirts self-parody, and “Is It a Dream” has a whiff of the generic, emphasized by the dated squalling guitars. Nice as forward movement can be with a band, some of the best portions of Phantasmagoria recall past Damned triumphs, such as “The Eighth Day,” which is akin to the flashing neon version of the Jam found on previous album Strawberries.

Phantasmagoria proved a solid success for the Damned, though it arguably didn’t reach the anticipated heights. There would be only one more album before the group dissolved, only to then embark on an endless series of resurrections.

 

cure love

734. The Cure, The Love Cats (1983)

Not that the Cure faced as real strain or doubt in proving their dark sensibility bona fides, at least back in their heyday, but the origins of bouncy single “The Love Cats” are about as grim as they come. While there’s some dispute about lead singer’s Robert Smith’s impetus for writing the song, the official legend holds that he drew inspiration from a scene in the Patrick White novel The Vivisector in which a character is said to drown a sackful of stray felines. No matter how sprightly the melody and performance, that is some bleak inner machinery.

A non-album single, “The Love Cats” founds its way into most college radio stations on a twelve-inch single that sported two B-sides. “Speak My Language” slinks along with quivering musical sounds and Smith crooning characteristic lyrics of pining codependency (“The little time I spend with you/ We drink each other dry”). “Mr. Pink Eyes” races with the sort of off-kilter fervor the Sugarcubes would soon adopt and make their own.

True crossover success remains elusive for the Cure in the U.S., but they were starting to make real headway in their homeland. “The Love Cats” became the group’s first single to make the U.K. Top 10.

 

mission children

733. The Mission U.K., Children (1988)

The Mission was formed by Wayne Hussey and Craig Adams, after both exited the Sisters of Mercy. Although there were plenty of signifiers in their music that recalled their former group, the comparison that primarily dogged them was to hard rock legends Led Zeppelin. For the Mission’s sophomore release, they leaned into the thinly veiled suggestion of derivativeness, enlisting Led Zep bassist and keyboardist John Paul Jones to produce the album. Children doesn’t sound all that much like Physical Graffiti or Houses of the Holy to me, but it is unmistakably suffused with a grandiose cataclysm that ties it to the output of the invoked forebears.

“Black Mountain Mist” almost taunts critics who want to draw a straight line from the Mission to Led Zeppelin, though it comes across more like tepid Jethro Tull in execution. And a deeply ill-advised cover of Aerosmith’s “Dream On” has a spindly guitar part that could have been retrieved from the foot of Heaven’s stairway. The band fares better when they are clearly striving for something more unique, albeit solidly in the groove of their goth rock background. “Beyond the Pale” boasts drum beats that crisp and forward in the mix, skirmishing nicely with guitar parts that shift between jingling and booming. “Tower of Strength” has a suggestion of U2’s swiveling cathedral epics to it, and “Heaven on Earth” is so shimmery goth that it’s the musical equivalent of trailing a finger across the surface of a pond filled with mercury. Both “Child’s Play” and “Heat” venture tentatively yet distinctively in the direction of metal, giving the album some ballast.

Children was a big hit in the U.K., peaking in the runner-up spot on the album chart, and both of its singles made the Top 40.

 

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