College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #668 to #665

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668. The Rave-Ups, The Book of Your Regrets (1988)

The Rave-Ups had the misfortune of discovering how a little taste of success could lead to nasty legal entanglements in the cutthroat music industry. Earthier rock ‘n’ roll players on the sun-dappled, soft paisley Souther California independent music scene of the early-nineteen-eighties, the Rave-Ups saw a significant boost to their national prominence when fan Molly Ringwald advocated for their inclusion in various projects she worked on with filmmaker John Hughes. (At the time, Ringwald’s sister was dating Jimmer Podrasky, the Rave-Ups’ frontman.) The actress’s persistent championing of the group even landed them on film, performing in a club scene in Pretty in Pink. The major labels came courting the band, and they were eager to sign. But Fun Stuff, the smaller shingle that released the band’s first EP and then full-length, wasn’t keen to let them go. According to Podrasky, there were two years of legal wrangling required to excise the band from their obligation to Fun Stuff. By then, most of the major label interest in the band had withered away, roasted into nothingness by the heat of combative lawyering.

The last major label still standing before the band with a handful of flowers was Epic Records, so the band signed on and soon released The Book of Your Regrets. The album is definitely a product of the era, spotted with straightforward rock songs that are slicked up with studio polish. “Sue and Sonny” is the kind of stomping country-rock that the Blasters churned out with aplomb, and “Freedom Bound” unspools with a similar Sturm und Twang. And “These Wishes” represents the direction album rock radio could have gone in had the mushy metal of Bon Jovi and their ilk not diverted the train from the tracks ably laid by Tom Petty.

The Book of Your Regrets was a solid, well-regarded album, but the Rave-Ups’ bad luck persisted. Epic Records was enduring significant corporate restructuring and corresponding directionless confusion, so the album received little attention and indifferent promotion. The band took the blame and they were nearly dropped by the label. Only the intervention of a few true believers on the Epic payroll allowed the Rave-Ups to get another chance to record, resulting in the 1990 album Chance. It would be the band’s final recording.

 

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667. The Gun Club, Mother Juno (1987)

The Gun Club was no more. Band leader Jeffrey Lee Pierce had already scrambled the lineup a few times before decided to retire the name altogether, the 1984 album The Last Vegas Story supposedly the closing statement. Instead, following some tepidly received solo work, including a stab at subsisting as a spoken word artist, Pierce assembled a new version of the group and got to work on a new album, titled Mother Juno.

For the comeback effort the Gun Club recruited Cocteau Twins member Robin Guthrie to serve as producer, and the album occasionally exhibits a familiar shimmer. If “The Breaking Hands” were slipped onto the Cocteau Twins’ Blue Bell Knoll or Heaven or Las Vegas, no alarm bells would ring. More often, the album is notable for its tight sonic control as the Gun Club ranges widely within the territory of battle-toughened rock. “Bill Bailey” reworks the American standard “Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey” with a trampolining bravado, and “Yellow Eyes” is filled with lean, modernized blues guitar riffing that would stir envy in Jon Spencer. No matter how slick the record, the Gun Club also repeatedly show they can rattle their amps, as with the punk punch of “My Cousin Kim” and “Lupita Screams,” which comes across as a less grandiose version of the Cult.

Pierce held this Gun Club roster together for one more album: Pastoral Hide and Seek, released in 1990. Pierce later contended this group of musicians — guitarist Kid Congo Powers, bassist Romi Mori, and drummer Nick Sanderson —was the strongest iteration of the Gun Club. Though the lineup would change again, the Gun Club persisted for a few years, until Pierce’s self-destructive behaviors caught up with him. Long a heavy drinker, Pierce damaged his liver so severely that it effectively poisoned his entire system. He died of a brain hemorrhage in 1996. He was thirty-seven years old.

 

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666. Billy Idol, Rebel Yell (1983)

According to Billy Idol, he discovered the term “rebel yell” through the Rolling Stones. Idol was invited to a party at Ron Wood’s New York brownstone, and he found himself standing with the host, Mick Jagger, and Keith Richards. With characteristic excess, the three Stones were forgoing cocktails or some other demure potable and were instead taking slugs straight from personal bottles of Rebel Yell bourbon. Immediately enamored with the phrase, Idol quickly saw it as a great title for both a song and an album. Working with guitarist Steve Stevens, Idol bypassed any allusions to U.S. history and instead paired a roaring rock riff with boastful lyrics of sexual prowess. Most of the words border on pure nonsense (“She said, ‘Come on baby I got a license for love/ And if it expires pray help from above”), but the repetitive chorus, with “more” hitting like a drumbeat, is close to irresistible. By previously established measures, “Rebel Yell” wasn’t a hit, peaking at #46 on the Billboard chart. The programmers at MTV loved it, though, and a major change in what and who dictated popular music was just getting underway.

Idol found more significant chart success with the swooning ballad “Eyes Without a Face,” which climbed into the Billboard Top 5. It also signaled the surprising range of the album Rebel Yell. Unified by Idol’s sneering swagger, the album contains INXS-style post-disco churn on “Daytime Drama,” weirdo glam on “Flesh for Fantasy,” pumping heavy metal on “Do Not Stand in the Shadows,” and airy synth-pop on “The Dead Next Door.” The songs aren’t always great, exactly, but they stretch and bend in surprising ways, nudging curiously around the corners of pop music heavily shaped by studio innovations. Rebel Yell is a valuable artifact for anyone seeking to understand where the overall music scene was sitting in early-to-mid-nineteen-eighties.

Rebel Yell also turned into a major hit for Idol, landing in the Top 10 of the Billboard album chart and logging double-platinum sales. For a whole generation of emerging new music fans, Idol became — in look, in attitude, in sound, in everything — the very definition of a rock star.

 

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665. Billy Idol, Billy Idol (1982)

Following a tenure in Generation X and an initial tiptoe away from life as a band member with the EP Don’t Stop, a solo career officially launched with the released of the album Billy Idol. Idol has signed on with Kiss’s former manager, Bill Aucoin, and a strong sense of showmanship was obvious in place from the jump, including the simple yet shrewd choice of opening the self-titled record with the rallying cry of “Come On, Come On.” There was a rock ‘n’ roll party about to take place, and Idol was inviting everyone along for the riotous ride. So why not join in? There was a clear promise it was going to get “Hot in the City.”

If Billy Idol is casually positioned as a party record, it also stumbles off in other directions at time. It basically feels like a first album from an artist with a creative worldview that’s only partially formed. “Nobody’s Business” takes nineteen-sixties sunshine pop and lays a punk filter atop it, and “Shooting Stars” merges a zippy guitar line with Idol’s languid crooning for an intriguing schism. The ballad “It’s So Cruel” is mostly notable for the many variants Idol brings to his singing style across the track, as if he experimented wildly in the recording studio and producer Keith Forsey decided to keep it all.

Unsurprisingly, the song on which Idol is the most sure-footed was also the most significant hit, if not the highest charting single (a distinction that belongs to “Hot in the City”). “White Wedding” takes goth rock and dresses it up for public consumption, the gloom given a counterbalance by chiming guitars. Idol shot a music video at a discounted rate after his girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister, called in a favor. Delivered to MTV at about the time the cable channel was celebrating its first anniversary, “White Wedding” became a mainstay, giving Idol and his team a foundation to build on as he hurried to record his sophomore album, with maybe the occasional diversion thrown in — like, say, a birthday party for a Rolling Stone — to celebrate his ascendent status.

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 — Red and White and Black and Blue edition

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Americans Are Sad About Politics. Who Could Blame Them? by Clare Malone

Writing for FiveThirtyEight, Clare Malone explores the exhausting nature of the current culture for politically attuned citizens, defined by a cascade of norm-shredding outrages and out-and-out criminal actions by the marauders presiding over the executive branch of the United States government. This is hardly a new topic, but Malone goes a little deeper than most, directly addressing the growing challenge in making a distinction between a “moral issue” and a “political issue,” a problem compounded by the widespread habit (indulged in more often by Republicans than Democrats, it must be typed) of basing policy judgments on party alliance rather a consistent worldview. The extrajudicial confinement of human beings in dictionary-definition concentration camps should lead to conversations shaped by morality and ethics, and raising concerns need not be seen as a political act. If there’s no movement towards freeing public discourse from the mere side-taking fo cable-news chattering, we’re doomed to pervasive and shameful moral failing as a society.

 

Notice Me!: How Fandom Endangers Female Musicians by Caitlin Wolper

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Drawing on interviews with an array of female musicians (including the fab-and-a-half singer-songwriter Lucy Dacus, pictured to the right), largely operating on the “indie” side of the business, Caitlin Wolper details the ways in which toxic fan behavior regularly creates unpleasant, sometimes downright dangerous environments for performers trying to do their jobs. It’s mostly men who are invading the spaces and threatening the safety of these musicians, though it is occasionally other women behaving with entitled impropriety. Wolper lists reported infractions with measured thoroughness, providing a strong sense of the sheer inability of the performers to ever completely let their guards down. More important, she expends the words to explore why this problem is happening, perhaps with greater intensity than before. In creating effective and compelling art, the musicians develop a sense of intimacy with their listeners that can be spun into a certainty of deep connection felt by the fans. In turn, the nebulous relationship can turn ugly when the bonding doesn’t happen both ways, because of course it doesn’t. Usually, misplaced convictions of personal ownership among a fanbase are simply embarrassing. It is equal parts infuriating and heartbreaking that it can instead turn frightening for some talented women plying their trade.

 

The Last Thing He Wanted (1996) by Joan Didion

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Joan Didion’s novel reaches back to a time ten years before its publication, crafting fiction out of the very real geopolitical manipulations the U.S. government perpetrated in Central America. The book is written in crisp, terse language, as if Didion, the consummate essayist, is trying to give every chapter the zing of a strong kicker to a magazine feature. It makes for a quick read, but also keeps the characters and the scenarios feeling a little distant. The Last Thing He Wanted turns into the inverse of a John le Carré novel. Where the British novelist specializes in eternally sinking plunges into the details of espionage, Didion takes the furtive tinkering of shadowy figures and renders in the abstract. In truth, I might need an approach that lies somewhere in between the two.

This Week’s Model — Michael Kiwanuka, “You Ain’t The Problem”

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I’m supposed to be too cynical to enjoy a rock song that espouses uplift. Reared on the slashing defeatism of college rock heroes who wielded buzzing guitars like impenetrable shields, I am meant to feel my strongest kinship with songs that wallow. And I do. Given the right blast of tuneful moroseness, I can put myself safely back in my bygone mode of melancholic disaffection. As I’ve noted in this space, though, I’ve grown far more appreciative of the tracks that swirl a finger longingly in a more positive body of water. I’ ready to hear that things get better.

Michael Kiwanuka’s third album, the somewhat self-titled Kiwanuka, arrives in late October. “You Ain’t the Problem” is the lead single. It moves with a bounding rhythm and intricate instrumentation, recalling those bright, beautiful nineteen-seventies albums that sat gracefully at the intersection of soul and funk. The lyrics hint at past darkness, a testing of the soul, but ultimately determines there’s freeing power in constantly moving forward: “Don’t hesitate/ Time heals the pain/ You ain’t the problem.”

Finding catharsis in a solidarity of misery is still a fine motivation for dropping the needle on a record, literally or metaphorically. But there’s a pleasure in nodding in recognition to a song that offers absolution from punishing self-judgment, especially if that song makes it all but impossible to resist shimmying along in time.

 

The Unwatchables — Savages

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There are many lamentable choices strewn about the history of the Academy Awards, especially when subsequent career choices of individual winners cast a dank shadow on their trophies. Although I’m loathe to offer it as a definitive conclusion, it’s possible there is no more perplexing truth generated by the ceremonies staged in my lifetime than the status of Oliver Stone as a two-time recipient of the Oscar for directing, putting him in the company of Elia Kazan, David Lean, and Billy Wilder. It’s not that he wasn’t reasonably deserving of those two competitive wins, for Platoon and Born of the Fourth of July (though, out of the nominated filmmakers, I would have opted for Woody Allen and Jim Sheridan for the years in question). But his artistic sensibility has degenerated into such an ungodly mass of frothing lunacy in the decades sense that it’s grown difficult to remember a time when he could be taken seriously at all.

Stone’s 2012 film Savages is a proper showcase for all of his worst creative tics. The pointless over-editing, the ludicrous dialogue built on smugly incoherent adoption of film noir styling, and the performances sharpened to inadvertent farce are all in place. The usual hyper-aggressive masculine posturing is also woven through the film, distributed generously to both male and female characters, which I’d wager Stone thinks is progressively minded. Stone also seems to believe that he’s offering criticism of the grotesque behaviors he depicts, but the relevant scenes and moments are executed with a lurid attentiveness that instead suggests that he gets off on the carnage.

Based on a novel by thriller machine Don Winslow, Savages is about a pair of brash young entrepreneurs in the marijuana racket who run afoul of a ruthless Mexican drug cartel. One of the partners is Chon (Taylor Kitsch), an ex-Navy Seal whose quick temper is further aggravated by flare-ups of post-traumatic stress stemming from his service in Afghanistan. Hippie botanist Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is the cooling agent in the team, pushing for more restrained, pragmatic solutions to their woes, at least until the situation goes fully sideways with the abduction of their shared girlfriend, O (Blake Lively). It’s just one of those rough work weeks.

The performances in the film are uniformly bad, though I’m not sure how much of the blame can be laid on the actors. Early in the film, Lively is required, in voiceover, to describe sex with Kitsch’s character by speaking the line “I have orgasms. He has wargasms.” A genetically enhanced super-being with the combined talent of Meryl Streep, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Marlon Brando couldn’t make that dialogue work. That line is no aberration. The entire film is filled with faux cool dialogue, all clipped and tough and painfully inane, like what Elmore Leonard might have tapped out immediately after sustaining a nasty head injury. (And then surely thrown in the trash after regaining his senses.) Stone runs roughshod over logic and proves far too impatient to find any depth in the characters or meaning in the scenarios. Even in his best work, Stone often mistook freneticism for intensity, but Savages reaches new levels of narrative-imploding haste. Not a single element works, and the worst components rot further as the film scrambles forward.

I made it approximately halfway through Savages.

Previously in The Unwatchables

— Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, directed by Michael Bay
— Alice in Wonderland, directed by Tim Burton
— Due Date, directed by Todd Phillips
— Sucker Punch, directed by Zack Snyder
— Cowboys & Aliens, directed by Jon Favreau
— After Earth, directed by M. Night Shyamalan
— The Beaver, directed by Jodie Foster
— Now You See Me 2, directed by Jon M. Chu
— The Mummy, directed by Alex Kurtzman
— The Counselor, directed by Ridley Scott
Vice, directed by Adam McKay

The New Releases Shelf — Don’t You Think You’ve Had Enough?

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Don’t You Think You’ve Had Enough? is the third full-length release from the L.A.-based band Bleached, and I think it might be their first recording that truly shows off their talent. Prior outings have been imbued with a thrilling, devil-may-care rawness that echoed the attitudes of their college rock ancestors, the ones who routinely sabotaged their own success in a preemptive strike on accusations of the despised sin of selling out. I’m certainly not the person to deny the appeal of that approach, but I also recognize it’s a firework that burns out quickly. The new album from Bleached sounds more like the product of an act that’s built to last.

Primarily comprised of sisters Jennifer and Jessica Clavin (drummer Spencer Lere is maybe, kinda, sorta a band member, too), Bleached operates with a clear-eyed assurance on Don’t You Think You’ve Had Enough?, delivering tracks notable for their exemplary songcraft and a production polish that saunters right up to the point of off-putting slickness without sliding even a millimeter past the foul line. Lead single “Hard to Kill” is emblematic, the band riding its perfect hook across a reference to “Friday in Love” and lyrics that allude to enduring through destructive behavior, presumably to find some light on the other end. It’s the sort of cut that radiate goodwill across an entire album.

That observation isn’t meant to imply that the other songs on Don’t You Think You’ve Had Enough? need the boost of extra credit. Song after song impresses, whether the hopscotching “I Get What I Need” or “Real Life,” with its taffy pull snap. Bleached places themselves decisively on the continuum of bands that have ruled cool kids record collections for ages. “Somebody Dial 911” is like some tougher version of the Darling Buds or Voice of the Beehive, or one of those other mildly obscure pop-rock outfits that sparkled on college radio in the late-nineteen-eighties and early-nineteen-nineties, album closer “Shitty Ballet” recalls vintage Liz Phair, and “Kiss You Goodbye” has just enough of a Blondie touch to inspire the  reflexive announcement of a backwards skate. Sleater-Kinney was the easy comparison for earlier Bleached releases, so it’s somewhat fitting that “Silly Girl” keeps pace with the post-reunion phase of those Pacific Northwest icons.

The Clavins have been candid in acknowledging Don’t You Think You’ve Had Enough? is the first album they’ve made since deciding to get sober. It’s tempting to credit that laudable personal development for the sturdiness of the resulting material, but that’s likely too simple. Just because it’s satisfying to impose a simple narrative on a creative process doesn’t mean it’s fair or accurate to do so. There are surely countless explanations for the level of accomplishment found on Don’t You Think You’ve Had Enough?, and, for happy listeners, the journey is less important than the destination. And the new Bleached album is a shining city on the rock ‘n’ roll map.

Playing Catch-Up — The Uninvited; The Last Black Man in San Francisco; Tickled

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The Uninvited (Lewis Allen, 1944). Based on a Dorothy Macardle novel, director Lewis Allen’s feature directorial debut is widely cited as the first movie to depict ghosts as spectral entities that might actually exist in the world, moving amidst living beings because of some elusive unfinished business in the world. To at least some degree, every subsequent film that treats ghosts seriously can be traced back to this effort. In the film, siblings Roderick and Pamela (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) impulsively purchase an abandoned manor on the coast of Cornwall, seeing it as a welcome refuge from the hustling stresses of the city. They soon find the house comes with a chilling added presence and launch efforts to determine how the troubled history of the previous owners might help explain the haunting. Allen achieves a nice gloomy atmosphere with the house, and the script — co-credited to Frank Partos and The Hundred and One Dalmatians novelist Dodie Smith — properly balances rapidly eroding incredulity with mildly exasperated wit. The leads are fine — both Milland and Hussey opt for a bland, capable approach fairly common in the nineteen-forties — but the supporting cast is peppered with wonderful, idiosyncratic turns, led by Alan Napier as a local physician roped into the supernatural sleuthing and Cornelia Otis Skinner as a menacing sanitarium operator.

 

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The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Joe Talbot, 2019). Scraping by the in the money-draining city of San Francisco, Jimmie (Jimmie Falls) is obsessed with the upkeep of a large Victorian house, causing him to sneak onto the property to tend the garden and touch up the paint when its residents are away. In this strange endeavor, he’s usually joined by his friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), a soft-spoken man always surveying his environs and then scribbling in his notebook, engaged in a seemingly permanent creative process. That’s the set-up of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, the feature directorial debut of Joe Talbot. Drawn from the real experiences of Falls, the film is elegant and insightful, calling back to independent films of the nineteen-eighties and -nineties that delved deeply into characters existing in a distinct place and time. Talbot displays a talent for image construction that’s almost startling in its ability to find beauty in the mundane, and every bit of the film’s mechanics — Adam Newport-Berra’s cinematography, Emile Mosseri’s music, David Marks’s editing — is utterly superb. Both main actors are vibrant in their roles, with Majors proving especially inventive in keeping the humanity prominent in a character that could have easily been reduced to an actorly stunt. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is absolutely extraordinary.

 

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Tickled (David Farrier and Dylan Reeve, 2016). In this documentary, New Zealand reporter David Farrier, who specializes in offbeat stories, is tipped off to the presence of tickling videos online featuring young adult men bound and subjected to skittering fingertips against sensitive areas likely to provoke giggle fits. Branded as if they’re part of a loopy sports league, the videos raises suspicions in the Farrier, and he quickly determines there might be more insidious motivations behind the fetishistic clips. He partners with producer Dylan Reeve for his onscreen detective work, including the occasional ambush interview, taken straight from Michael Moore’s now dog-eared playbook. Tickled is constructed with practiced looseness and unconvincingly feigned jolts of surprise reminiscent of Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s Catfish. The basics might be true, but the presentation is overly reliant on cinematic hucksterism. There are callous opportunists to be found here, well worth exposing. But Tickled is wobbly in terms of its own creative ethics. The film undercuts itself.

Now Playing — The Farewell

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It’s a simple tenet, too often ignored. The more specific a work of art, the more likely the piece resonates with a thoroughly enmeshed truthfulness that approaches the universal. A film doesn’t need to be autobiographical to qualify, nor is realism necessarily a component. The chief reason Black Panther stands as the strongest entry to date in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is director Ryan Coogler’s impassioned adherence to this guideline. The Farewell, a markedly different film, meets this standard, too, and not solely because writer-director Lulu Wang drew from her own family’s experience in shaping the story. The film is special and uniquely moving because it is defined by a cultural specificity that is presented without condescension, to either the characters or the audience.

In the film, Billi (Awkwafina) is a Chinese-American living in New York City, struggling to make her way as an aspiring writer as she edges out of young adulthood. Billi has a strained relationship with her parents (Diana Lin and Tzi Ma), so she draws a significant amount of emotional support from regular phone calls with her grandmother (Shuzhen Zhou), who still lives in China. When word comes back through family channels that the elderly woman has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, it’s devastating to Billi, especially when she’s discouraged from attending a family reunion in China to effectively pay last respects, though it is done under the guise of a wedding. The family is opting not to share the diagnosis with the grandmother, under the premise that it’s a kinder course of action to keep her in the dark about the gravity of her illness. It’s thought that Billi will not be able to keep the secret. She attends anyway, and the film traces her experience in the country she left as a child and the tension she feels over the well-meaning but ethically debatable subterfuge.

Wang’s script is constructed with delicacy and care. The family dynamics are sketched in with just enough detail to give the actors room to explore, finding nuance in the restrained affection and verbal glancing blows. Every cast member responds marvelously, with Awkwafina and Shuzhen giving notably lived-in performances. Smartly, Wang shows all the tiny deceptions that flow through various human interactions, all chosen because sometimes proffering an untruth is the simplest course, harmless and more efficient. More than any expository lecture of Chinese cultural norms could be, this screenwriting choice provides the needed perspective.

Warm and wise, The Farewell is dynamic precisely because it doesn’t strain to achieve such a state, deploying histrionic speeches or cataclysmic reveals. If it sometimes feels a touch too sedate — especially in its relative lack of visual panache — that strikes me as a minor flaw, entirely forgivable because the eschewing of vivid dramatics is its own act of kindness. The film remains well clear of any sense of emotional cheapness or other easy exploitation of the scenario. In a lovely irony, a film about a grand, knotty lie succeeds because of its commitment to honesty.