Laughing Matters — Albert Brooks and Buddy

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.

Of the many benefits provided by this expansive information age, few are as unquestionably good as the constant availability of prime examples the unparalleled comedic genius of Albert Brooks that were once relegated to a couple airings on late night network television. In the history of the educational plaything, no greater use was even made of a Speak & Spell.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #644 to #641

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644. The Descendents, All (1987)

For what was expected to the final album from California punk legends the Descendents, drummer Bill Stevenson introduced a concept he’d co-created which was dubbed “All.” Cooked up on a fishing trip, in 1980, All was a fairly simple philosophy of never settling for less than is desired and putting in whatever effort is needed to achieve it. But there’s also a call for plain directness, of honing in on the true achievement and presenting it without adornment. Two tracks on the record, “All” and “No, All!” are over in an eye-blink, because they required no more than a second or two to successfully complete their goals.

Calling the album All was a way of staking out the ethos of the band, and, perhaps more crucially, the version of the band that would move on from there. Lead singer Milo Aukerman, who’d previously caused the Descendents to go on hiatus so he could pursue his studies in the field of biochemistry, decided to leave the music business altogether. Working as a scientist didn’t allow a lot of spare time for touring punk clubs, so the Descendents planned to cease, with the remaining band members going on to form a new group. After this release, they’d be known as All.

There are cuts on the album — such as “Clean Sheets” and “Coolidge” — that fully anticipate the more pop-punk direction All would take. Most of the album is the usual agreeable hodgepodge from the Descendents, gladly romping through established punk styles while also flashing a willingness to follow their creativity into decidedly weird territory. The chittering, chiming “Cameage” is nicely unsettling, and “Iceman,” inspired by the Eugene O’Neill play The Iceman Cometh, layers in weird tempo shifts and thick, steaming guitars to make a song that’s continually unexpected.

The Descendents went out on a couple extensive tours in support of All, yielding a pair of live albums as the proper valedictory. It was expected that the band would perform no more, but Auckerman’s retreat from performing didn’t last a decade. The Descendents reunited to make music again in the mid-nineteen-nineties and kept circling back around to one another in the years after.

 

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643. Bonnie Raitt, Green Light (1982)

Green Light, the eighth studio album from Bonnie Raitt, was partially the result of her retreat from the music business. After a particularly busy stretch, including as one of the more regular presences on the relatively new phenomenon of all-star benefit shows, Raitt retreated to Tulsa, Oklahoma. Removed from the hustle and bustle of the L.A. scene, Raitt felt she was able to reconnect with music through watching and playing with performers who were, almost by definition, only in it for the love of pulling a song together. Raitt wanted to reflect that on her next album.

Working with producer Rob Fraboni in a more modest studio space than she’d experienced in a while, Raitt emerged with an album that operated with a tuneful simplicity. The first shimmers of the fine, middle-of-the-road performer she’d become by the end of the decade were pressed into the grooves of Green Light.

“Keep This Heart in Mind” is pleasing, easygoing rock, and Raitt deploys the cool, grinding blues rock of “Let’s Keep It Between Us” with unbothered professionalism. Her cover of NRBQ’s “Me and the Boys” is a bouncy diversion, and the churning, charging title cut has just enough weight. “River of Tears,” penned by the Blues Magoos’ Eric Kaz, is similar to the breakthrough authenticity of later Lucinda Williams, albeit with far less grit. Green Light doesn’t exactly dazzle, but there’s still something rewarding about a rock album that precisely executes the basics.

 

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642. Bow Wow Wow, See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang! Yeah! City All Above, Go Ape Crazy! (1981)

Malcolm McLaren was up to his usual iconoclastic impresario shenanigans when he recruited several members of Adam and the Ants to form a new group. After a lengthy hunt, young teenager Annabella Lwin was given the lead singer job, and the Bow Wow Wow started cranking out music. A few EP and single releases on EMI failed the produced the heavy chart action McLaren promised, and the group was dropped. They quickly found a new home on RCA Records and released their debut full-length, given the unwieldy title See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang! Yeah! City All Above, Go Ape Crazy! The promised breakthrough finally arrived when lead single “Go Wild in the Country” made into the Top 10 in the U.K.

The album is careening tour through mildly confused take on the trendy pop of the era, mostly distinguished by the propulsive drumming of Dave Barbarossa. “Chihuahua” combines the band’s trademark racing rhythms with dreamy pop that almost tilts in the direction of psychedelia, and “I’m Not a Know It All” has a post-punk tinge. “Orang-outang” is the sort of grimy surf rock faux western theme that sets Quentin Tarantino to salivating. Suggesting more of a muddled creative approach rather than a distinct vision, the album is padded with a few offhand oddities, such as “King Kong,” which comes across as something Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley might have come up with if they were recruited straight off their exemplary work on Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory to write an audition song for all poorly conceived musical about the oversized gorilla (“I’m like King Kong, I’m right and you’re wrong/ King Kong king, the king is strong”).

The best tracks on See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang! Yeah! City All Above, Go Ape Crazy! serves as proper showcases for the band members, especially Lwin. She sloshes personality into “Mickey, Put It Down” and stretches her voice like Silly Putty on “Elimination Dancing,” which forecasts the Sugarcubes, especially in the back and forth between Lwin’s singing and some shouted interjections. As notable for their imperfections as their intrigues, these cuts represent the sort of band Bow Wow Wow could have become. Aiming for stardom, they should have instead indulged in becoming musical weirdos.

 

madness moving

641. Madness, Keep Moving (1984)

According to Madness singer Suggs, the album Keep Moving represented the group at a low point creatively. After a series of hits, including the U.S. breakthrough “Our House,” Madness

“We had run out of ideas at that point,” Suggs told Uncut many years later.

Maybe the clearest idea that is evident on the album is a further shift away from the British ska sound that defined the band’s earliest work. The expected blurting horns eventually show up on the title cut, but they’re in a smooth jazz groove rather than punchy ska rhythms. There are still remnants of the old sound — “Prospects” settles into an easy reggae rhythm like its a sumptuous bubble bath — but Madness mostly sounds like any other pop act of the day.

There are interesting explorations to be found on Keep Moving, as Madness keeps trying on new guises. “The Sun and the Rain” is a direct descendent of the Small Faces at their most English, and “Brand New Beat” is reminiscent of David Bowie, though without the undercurrent of menace that enlivened his work. They give eighties British soul w whirl on “One Better Day,” and it drifts along blandly. The album’s most memorable track is “Michael Caine,” which interlaces a few snippets of the actor’s fine voice and sketches out a restrained dance music blueprint that Mick Jones would soon improve upon with Big Audio Dynamite.

Madness started to splinter after the release of Keep Moving. Keyboardist Mike Barson left the group once the recording process was complete. Within a couple years the band would crumble further and officially break up, leading to unpopular spinoffs and, before long, inevitable reunions.

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

Outside Reading — Using Words Wisely edition

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The “Cancel Culture” Con by Osita Nwanevu

Prompted by Dave Chapelle’s wrong-headed defense of Michael Jackson in his new Netflix special and the immediate dismissal of a new Saturday Night Live cast member after the exposure of his blatant, repeated, and remarkably recent use of bigoted language, Osita Nwanevu writes about the nonsense of lamenting the so-called “cancel culture.” The article draws clear, informative boundaries between genuinely oppressed speech and the condemnable commentary and actions of people who deserve ill repercussions and then wail about it when justice is served. Freedom of speech isn’t a guarantee of amplification, especially in businesses that rely on social goodwill to remain viable. Nwanevu’s piece is published by New Republic.

 

Canadian teen tells UN ‘warrior up’ to protect water by Melissa Kent

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Greta Thunberg has understandably received a sizable amount of attention and praise (and venomous hatred from the usual suspects), but she’s not the only teen who’s standing up and insisting her future not be scorched away by the heartless unwillingness of our current leaders to solve problems, just because the solutions might cause minor inconveniences for the obscenely wealthy. Writing for CBC News, Melissa Kent profiles Autumn Peltier, a young member of the Wikwemikong First Nation. Peltier makes a compelling argument for the sanctity of water, positioning it as a basic human right. This isn’t a battle a thirteen-year-old should have to wage, but I’m grateful she’s doing it.

 

Train Dreams (2002) by Denis Johnson

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Originally published in The Paris Review and released as slender novella several years later, Denis Johnson’s starkly lovely work of fiction is tender and soulful. A western in the Cormac McCarthy mode (as opposed to, say, the Zane Grey mode), Train Dreams follows its protagonist through decades of life, spanning from the nineteenth century well into the twentieth. It is an existence tinged by tragedy, but mostly defined by the smallness of its scale, even as the odometer of years spins ever higher. Johnson’s language is tight and precise, conjuring sweeps of emotion with just a few words. Train Dreams is richer and more resonant than far weightier tomes dripping in ambition. It is a tremendous piece of writing, fierce proof of the abiding power of wise, empathetic fiction.

This Week’s Model — Jennifer Vanilla, “Space Time Motion”

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Freewheeling and delightfully loopy, the new single from Jennifer Vanilla (a performing guise of Becca Kauffman, departing member of Ava Luna) is a dance music knuckleball. Sounding like a turbo-holy union of Laurie Anderson and Sparks, “Space Time Motion” is a sonic mantra for the future society forgot to build. It’s an arched eyebrow and enticingly chilly demeanor. It spins.

“Space Time Motion” is taken from Jennifer Vanilla’s forthcoming EP, titled J.E.N.N.I.F.E.R.

My Misspent Youth — Marvel Team-Up #74 by Chris Claremont and Bob Hall

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

When I started collecting Marvel Comics at the dawn of the nineteen-eighties, there were a few issues from before my time that were highly coveted by me. Many of them represented revered, foundation runs (such as lengthy stretch of Fantastic Four by creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, or the transformative work on X-Men by Chris Claremont and John Byrne), but there were also a few stray issues that I longed to possess simply because they were so blatantly ridiculous.

Particularly in the nineteen-seventies, the publisher had a strong tendency to weave major pop culture trends into its stories. If use of CB radios approached the level of craze, then Marvel was sure to concoct a new character with a connection to and affinity for CB radios, or a new foe might ply his nefarious trade in a disco. On rarer occasions, a figure or figures could become so prominently favored by the expected audience of Marvel that the real-life figures were hauled basically intact into the fictional world of superhuman, costumed do-gooders. It was this strategy which led Peter Parker to take his favorite date, Mary Jane Watson, over to 30 Rockefeller Center to sit in the audience for an episode of Saturday Night Live. It was not a little blip on the fringes of a real adventure, either. The cover of Marvel Team-Up #74 laid it out plainly: Spider-Man was joining forces with the Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time-Players.

Written by Chris Claremont and penciled by Bob Hall, the story swipes a plot point from the Beatles film Help! Like Ringo Starr in the earlier movie, John Belushi receives a mysterious ring in the mail, shoves it onto his finger, and then can’t remove it.

mtu snl ring

The special piece of jewelry was sent to Belushi by mistake. It was supposed to come into the possession of Silver Samurai, a Japanese behemoth who handily chose one of the most familiar signifiers of his homeland for the theme of his villainous identity. From his perch in the audience, Peter spots Silver Samurai’s henchman taking out crew members in the backstage area, leading him to realize trouble is afoot. During the opening monologue, delivered by that week’s host (Stan “The Man” Lee, natch), Peter dons his guise as Spider-Man and proceeds to investigate.

mtu snl spidey

Spider-Man weaves in and out of other backstage shenanigans, as the show gradually falls apart while the multiple conflicts stirred up by Silver Samurai’s efforts to retrieve the ring sends the costumed troupe members dropping through trap doors while others offer impromptu entertainment to keep the audience distracted from the mayhem behind the scenes. At one point, Garrett Morris has to fight off a crew of Silver Samurai’s flunkies while he’s dressed as the mighty Thor for a sketch.

The whole story builds to the inevitable moment when Belushi, in the garb of the recurring samurai character he played on the show, goes one-on-one with his chrome-adorned, nefarious counterpart.

mtu snl samurai

When I finally laid my happy eyes on this issue, it was everything I wanted it to be. Much as I valued the socially serious inclinations of Marvel storytelling, I maintained a weakness for pure goofiness from my time with more cartoonish fare. And I was a burgeoning comedy nerd, so the inclusion of the early iteration of the Saturday Night Live cast (technically not the original cast, because the issue came out comfortably after the point Bill Murray replaced Chevy Chase) cheered me further. I wanted my comics grounded in strict continuity (that’s a big part of why I favored Marvel over their distinguished competition), but I instinctively recognized the value in occasionally stepping outside of what was canonical to follow a loopy idea to all its illogical conclusions.

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

The New Releases Shelf — Norman Fucking Rockwell

del rey

Cat Power convinced me I might be wrong, or maybe just short-sighted. In the past, I’ve enjoyed certain songs from Lana Del Rey (usually the expected culprits), but I didn’t consider her an artist of real significance, someone who demanded ongoing attention. I discerned a vague novelty to her music, a disposability that caused me to shift her aside in my ongoing, largely futile quest to stay caught up with the new and weighty. Then Cat Power recruited Del Rey to share vocals on the song “Woman,” from the sterling 2018 album Wanderer. Whether I was convinced by the stamp of validation, a transference or fannish goodwill, or simply jarred into newfound alertness by the quality of the song — which fittingly offer a direct repudiation the tendency to dismiss women — I heard Del Rey again, with a bolstered level of appreciate, finding her layered vocals lent added profundity to an already fierce and powerful song. I wanted to hear more.

Norman Fucking Rockwell, Del Rey’s latest album, is definitely more. “Goddamn, man child/ You fucked me so good that I almost said, ‘I love you,'” Del Rey intones on the album-opening title cut, against spare and intricate music, positioning herself as a post-postmodern Liz Phair, willing to dispense her innermost feelings with a profane bluntness sure to set the more timid atremble. The album calls to mind all sorts of other female artists who are either her predecessors, contemporaries, or followers, such as Fiona Apple and Billie Eilish. But the careful melodies, emotionally evocative singing, and casually lush orchestrations set my mind wandering to other comparisons, finally settling on the idea that Del Rey comes across like Burt Bacharach as a bleakly disillusioned millennial woman. The Brill Building is reassembled, with a foundation constructed of the leftover rubble from masculine walls shattered by a sharp, disappointed gaze.

Lyrically, the album keeps circling back to the same themes and terms, as if Del Rey’s preoccupations forcefully assert themselves amidst any attempts at hard barrier variety from song to song. In the indie pop gem “Mariners Apartment Complex,” Del Rey sings, “And who I’ve been is with you on these beaches/ Your Venice bitch, your die-hard, your weakness,” and then the very next track is a nine and a half minute epic titled “Venice Bitch,” an immediate answer to her own vulnerable revelations. Del Rey repeatedly comes back to broad concepts of America and its national identity, and keeps singing about parties and dancing with a marked lack of most modern pop’s boosterish enthusiasms. Instead, when Del Rey breathily recounts shuffling through a lifestyle of constant celebration, she sounds like an exhausted ghost. There may be no better reflection of the indifference to the party lifestyle that comes with scalded maturity.

Mostly, the subject of Norman Fucking Rockwell seems to be Del Rey’s mixed emotions at her place on the cultural firmament, past the point of a pedestal-placed ingenue du jour and figuring out how to surf past the backlash. “They mistook my kindness for weakness/ I fucked up, I know that, but Jesus/ Can’t a girl just do the best she can?” she sings on “Mariners Apartment Complex,” and it reverberates like a freeing thesis of casting aside unjust, unkind criticism. Del Rey claims anything and everything for herself, treading bravely with assurance that she has as much right to the romp across the landscape of musical legacy as anyone. “Summertime,” from Porgy and Bess, is repurposed into the languid chorus of Doin’ Time,” ready-made for the point at the outer borough block party when the first glimmers of dawn prompt all-night reveler to rub their eyes and internally second-guess the ragged choices of the evening. 

The album closes with “Hope Is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman Like Me to Have – But I Have It,” which is loose enough to be saddled with a couple clunky couplets (“Hello, its the most famous woman you know on the iPad/ Calling from beyond the grave, I just wanna say, ‘Hi, Dad'”), but is mostly quietly ingenious. Against a tender piano backing, Del Rey cracks open a version of herself that is reckless and wild (“I’ve been tearing up town in my fucking white gown/ Like a goddamn near sociopath”) while also declaring a welling inner strength (“They write that I’m happy, they know that I’m not/ But at best, you can see I’m not sad”). Whatever questions I had about Del Rey are all but settled, because Norman Fucking Rockwell is a rattling, resonant answer. She is marking out her territory, one sharpened stake at a time. 

Playing Catch-Up — Panic in Year Zero; Searching; Stronger

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Panic in Year Zero (Ray Milland, 1962). This Cold War drama, one of a handful of films directed by Ray Milland, takes a fascinating approach to its tale of U.S. society in the immediate aftermath of nuclear weapons leveling a few major cities. Milland plays the patriarch of a family that’s off to a fishing weekend when the bombs fall, and he sternly leads them through a survivalist withdrawal from the increasingly tense social breakdown across the land. Milland’s visual sense is fairly stiff and clumsy, but the screenplay — co-credited to John Morton and Jay Simms — is psychologically astute in its depiction of rapid erosion of morals and national camaraderie as self-preservation takes preeminence. Far from alarmist or sensationalistic, the film is quietly insightful and thoroughly convincing.

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Searching (Aneesh Chaganty, 2018). Usually a similar technique to the horror film Unfriended, director Aneesh Chaganty’s feature debut confines its perspective to material that appears on a computer screen. In Searching, John Cho plays David Kim, whose daughter, Margot (playing primarily by Michelle La), goes missing, sending him on a desperate scramble through her online history to determine what malfeasance might have been perpetrated against her. There are clever elements, including spot-on depictions of the sometimes destructive ways information travels across web-based platforms. Cho is very good in the lead role, but the performances are shakier across the supporting roles, especially when they’re relying on just voicework, as if Chaganty neglects to value the importance of emotional veracity when the dialogue is delivered in a recording booth rather than before a camera.

 

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Stronger (David Gordon Green, 2017). This adaptation of the memoir of Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), a survivor of the bomb attack at the 2013 Boston Marathon, wavers between daring authenticity and numbingly familiar biopic beats. Director David Gordon Green is leans toward the unsparing in depicting the physical and emotional trials enduring by Jeff after his proximity to the explosion results in the amputation of both of his legs below the knees. And Gyllenhaal is more than game to writhe in rage and agony, honking his lines in a thick Boston accent. The script and the performance both lack the depth needed to lend authenticity to Jeff’s eventual, inevitable healing and conversion into a better person. The result is a work that is well-meaning, professionally rendered, and hollow at its core. Tatiana Maslany does nicely understated work as Erin, Jeff’s long-suffering girlfriend.