One for Friday — Blue Aeroplanes, “Jacket Hangs”

blue aeroplanes

The countdown currently occupying our Sundays around here is pulled from the March 16, 1990 issue of CMJ New Music Report, the trade publication that served college radio for a few happy decades before imploding the last couple of years. In the era of the issue in question, the front cover of the weekly publication told a story. There were always four album covers on the front, representing the best new music of the week — presumably in ranked order. I purchased the back issue in part because it aligned with a banner week for college rock: Sinead O’Connor’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, The Chill’s Submarine Bells, Luke Bloom’s Riverside, the House of Love’s self-titled album, and Robyn Hitchcock’s Eye are all reviewed in the issue.

Despite the presence of at least one album that immediately announced itself as a true classic, the fine music fans at CMJ awarded the week’s pole position to somewhat curious entrant: Swagger, the fourth studio album by the British band Blue Aeroplanes. I don’t submit that fact with animosity nor judgment. Instead, I mean it as an acknowledgement that — more so than with other types of pop culture — music can be thrilling and disarming a different speeds. The crafty complexities of Swagger absolutely rattled the brain when the needle first dropped, and yet the album opener and lead single, “Jacket Hangs,” offered a firm promise that the album was built on the most terrifically accessible songcraft. Layers and intricacy are great, but an irresistible guitar riff is even better.

“Listen to this record once and you’ll probably find yourself drawn to it again; listen to it a lot and you just might find yourself measuring your life to it, a milestone LP that’ll always be a marker reminding you of this time here and now,” wrote CMJ.

Again, I think there are a couple other records in the issue that would have been more prescient recipients of that line of praise, but I must admit that Swagger does have that quality of placing me back in my old radio station air studio, as firmly and certainly as a well-honed sense memory. It was grand, that time when wonderful discoveries could be pressed into any number of records that came through our doors.

Listen or download —> Blue Aeroplanes, “Jacket Hangs”

(Disclaimer: In truth, I have a hard time discerning whether or not this song — or the album it stems from — is available as a physical item that can be procured from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that compensates both the proprietor of said store and the original artist. It appears that Blue Aeroplanes have never really ceased as a going concern and there are all sorts of albums that have been issued under their name. So let this shared song be an encouragement to seek out material from the band rather than a replacement for engaging in commerce. And definitely hit that local record store. Tis the season for box stores and online retailers beckoning shoppers away. The record store deserves your love and your dollars more. Although I mean no harm and believe I’m adhering to a well-established legal principle of fair use, I will gladly and promptly remove this track from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

Laughing Matters: MST3K, “Here Comes the Circus”

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.

When I was in college, videotapes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 may as well have been bricks of gold. Airing on Comedy Central (including a couple years in its initial guise of Comedy Channel, ahead of a merger with rival network Ha!), the ingenious elevation of bad movie heckling into delirious art spoke to our snide, ironic sensibilities. The cable network wasn’t available on our local systems, and most us couldn’t afford the hook-up in our rundown apartments anyway. We knew of it, we read about it, and we even took a local pride in it (creator and star Joel Hodgson was born in our college town of Stevens Point and played one of his last standup gigs at the university before taking MST3K national). But we usually couldn’t watch it.

Then, in 1991, a small miracle happened. Comedy Central turned over a huge chunk of its Thanksgiving Day programming to Hodgson’s endeavor, airing a marathon of MST3K episodes. Invariably, some fellow student would go home for the holidays and return with a stack of VHS tapes, loaded down with MST3K episodes, probably recorded in some basement rec room as the rest of family gorged themselves on turkey and football upstairs.

From then on, even as the show became more readily available through a variety of means, my warmest memories of it are accompanied by thoughts of eagerly sitting before one of those screenings, with wavered tracking and the breathless insistence to maybe watch just one more before closing out the evening. It almost felt illicit, which matched perfectly with the sharpened insolence of the comedy.

The first time I saw Here Comes the Circus, it played off of one of those videotapes. Over two decades later, it’s still hysterical.

 

Now Playing — Lady Bird

lady bird

Greta Gerwig has officially been a film director previously, sharing that role with indie film stalwart Joe Swanberg on the 2008 feature Nights and Weekends. Her writing credits are more extensive, ranging from her breakthrough in the low-key breakthrough Hannah Takes the Stairs (directed by Swanberg) through to fruitful collaborations with  director Noah Baumbach. Hell, Gerwig’s IMDb page even lists her as a contributing writer on the infamous, aborted How I Met Your Mother spinoff in which she starred. So when Gerwig’s Lady Bird is positioned as a directorial debut, it’s somewhat technically accurate, but also highly misleading. Lady Bird is only the latest evidence in the compelling argument that Gerwig is a brilliant filmmaker. The real difference is that Lady Bird is so good, it becomes the equivalent of the smoking gun in this particular case.

The new film follows roughly a year in the life of Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), a high school senior in Sacramento, beginning in 2002. Lady Bird attends a Catholic private school, straining the bank account of her parents (Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts, both stellar), but they insist because of the violence her older brother (Jordan Rodrigues) witnessed at the public high school. As is common with individuals on the verge of adulthood, Lady Bird is trying on different identities — dallying with theater and tiptoeing into different friend groups — all while pining after the erudite promises of East Coast colleges.

There’s nothing all that novel about the basic mechanics of Gerwig’s story (she also wrote the original screenplay). Variants of this coming of age tale have been told repeatedly on the screen, including the swerve away from trusted pals in favor of the popular kids, the inevitable disappointments delivered by dreamy boys, and the heated conflicts with parents. In execution, though, Gerwig makes the film sing with perfectly calibrated humor and deeply authentic observation. For one thing, Lady Bird features an uncommonly real depiction of the late teenage years, when adulthood beckons, but there’s also a familiar, automatic comfort in being a chattering, giggly kid.

Ronan, unsurprisingly, works wonders as Lady Bird. She shows the yearning behind the petulance and the vulnerability that is armored by bravado. She deploys the wry comic lines with crack timing and is especially strong in showing how arguments escalate through the use of long-stored verbal weapons, the latter best showcased in her acting duets with Metcalf. Lady Bird is smart, but cursed by still having so much to figure out, a common ailment at her age. Importantly, she is stubborn, but she learns, finding the graciousness to understand those who’ve caused her pain, such as her boyfriend Danny (Lucas Hedges, even better here than in his Oscar-nominated role in Manchester by the Sea).

Gerwig’s writing is strong, and her directorial skills are a gratifying match. The pacing is exemplary, and Gerwig has a striking yet unfussy visual sense. She knows how to let a scene build and how to cap a moment with just the right note, be it funny or melancholy or moving. Lady Bird holds an obviously personal story, but Gerwig presents it with a level of specificity that expands it into the universal. Of course Gerwig delivers on that front. That’s what great filmmakers do.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 40 Cuts, March 16, 1990 — 24 – 21

kate 1989

24. Kate Bush, “Love and Anger”

In 1989, When Kate Bush released The Sensual World, her sixth full-length studio album, it had been four years since she’d shimmered new music into the world. Bush was never particularly prolific or expedient, but four years was like a lifetime in the nineteen-eighties college rock scene, within which bands such as R.E.M. and the Cure made sure there was a steady stream of product for their adoring fans racing through undergraduate experiences. So when “Love and Anger,” the lead single from The Sensual World, arrived, it was like a lushly resonant decree from a grand, proudly offbeat goddess. For those who liked to keep score of such things, it was also Bush’s first effort for Columbia Records, after some sort of administrative error purportedly caused EMI America to let her contract lapse. According to Bush, “Love and Anger” had a notably difficult development process, taking around two years from initial concept to completed track. “Well, ‘Love and Anger,’ of all the songs on the album, is really the one I know the least about,” she said at the time. “I don’t really know what it’s about — it’s had so many different faces. But it was one of the first songs to be written, but one of the last songs to be finished.”

This cut was down from 15 on the previous chart.

 

boingo

23. Oingo Boingo, “When the Lights Go Out”

The Los Angeles band Oingo Boingo had an admirable run during the nineteen-eighties, but as the nineties dawned, the group increasingly seemed like an afterthought. That was largely due to lead singer Danny Elfman’s fast-rising career writing orchestral scores for films, which reached a new peak with the release of Tim Burton’s Batmanin the summer of 1989. In 1990 alone, Elfman’s music appeared in films directed by Warren Beatty, Sam Raimi, Clive Barker, and, once again, Burton. Even the title of Oingo Boingo’s 1990 album, Dark at the End of the Tunnel, seemingly alluded to the band reaching its final days, as did the truncation of the group’s name to simply “Boingo” on the cover. Although they would hang on for one more release (this time officially attributed to Boingo), there clearly wasn’t much left in the tank for the band that once invited listeners to a party primarily populated by deceased fellows. “When the Lights Go Out,” the last single from Dark at the End of the Tunnel, took a crack at capturing some of the old spooky, dance-friendly energy with its mentions of monsters and zombies.

This cut was making its debut on the chart.

 

king missile

22. King Missile, “Jesus Was Way Cool”

When this particular chart was published by CMJ, the program College Countdown was a going concern on WWSP-90FM, the station I called home. When a song called “Jesus Was Way Cool,” by a band named King Missile, popped onto the chart, it was a complete mystery to us. Shimmy Disc, King Missile’s label, didn’t service our humble broadcasting outlet. Once it became clear that the cut was going to be there for a while, the esteemed host of College Countdown went to a record store and purchased Mystical Shit, the full-length album that was home to the track. I have a strong memory of sitting in our production studio and hearing “Jesus Was Way Cool” for the first time, the small group of us assembled for the impromptu listening party buckled over in laughter. According to John S. Hall, the primary creative force behind King Missile, the understated, mildly ironic celebration of Jesus Christ came to him fairly quickly, after seeing Meryn Cadell perform some of her religiously-themed material in Toronto. “Jesus Was Way Cool” became a significant college radio hit, leading so directly to King Missile hooking up with a major label that Hall used to regularly joke, “‘Jesus’ got me signed to Atlantic Records.”

This cut was up from 33 on the previous chart.

 

south

21. The Beautiful South, “You Keep It All In”

Paul Heaton and David Hemingway were members of the veddy British pop outfit the Housemartins. When that band broke up, after the exemplary 1987 album The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death, Heaton and Hemingway formed the Beautiful South, recruiting, among others, former roading Sean Welch to fill out the lineup. Their debut album, Welcome to the Beautiful South, was released in 1989. “You Keep It All In” was the album’s second single. Irish singer Briana Corrigan appeared prominently on the single, giving an extra emotional quality to the track.

The cut was up from 29 on the previous chart.

 

I wrote about the chart we’re tracking through at the beginning of this particular Countdown. Previous entries can be found at the relevant tag.

As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown. The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist.

From the Archive: Jesus Camp

jesus-camp

Writing about Alex Gibney’s Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God the other day got me thinking about this earlier documentary that shows another side of the way religion and zealotry can be leveraged into callous exploitation of youth. This was originally published at my former online home.

The freakiest moment in the new documentary Jesus Camp comes right at the beginning. We see a sort of performance, seemingly in some church’s multi-purpose room. There’s a young boy whose face is painted with camouflage makeup stomping rhythmically atop a riser, beating together long batons in time with a soaring, anthemic song plays and a little battalion of girls in leotards before him match his movements. It’s like something out of “Lord of the Flies: The Musical” as staged by Julie Taymor. It sets the tone perfectly. These are children being trained for war. That’s metaphorical, but just barely.

The film is about Evangelican Christians and their overt efforts to drag America towards being a Jesus-loving nation in accordance with their belief systems. It frames it all with the efforts of Becky Fischer, a cheery zealot who focuses on indoctrinating the youth (because they’re giving kids hand grenades in the madrasahs in Pakistan, after all), running a bible camp where the kids are brought to hear scary (to me) lectures about the sinners that need saving, the genocide brought on by Roe v. Wade and the evils of Harry Potter. It’s a place where the pre-teen campers are worked into such emotional frenzies over their love of Christ that they start sobbing and speaking in tongues. They cheer joyfully when asked if they’d be willing to lay down their lives for their saviour. Jesus sucker-punched me and it felt like a kiss.

The film posits that this is a concerted effort, a tactical assembling of Christian soldiers to march ever onward. To a degree the film makes a compelling case, if only because the glassy-eyed stares of the most fervert proselytizers seem so impenetrable. The greater this clan gets, the more problematic it’s going to be for us heathens.

And yet the film’s not wholly successful, largely because it follows that current trend of documentary filmmaking that involves gathering plenty of footage on a fascinating topic and slapping it together into something shambling and shapeless. It remains fairly effective when it focuses on the camp itself, but the film falters when it heads down (admittedly relevant) sidetracks to a mega-church or a Washington demonstration. These stretches may help the film reach feature-length but they don’t deepen the story, even if there are some scattered telling details that the camera captures. There’s good material, but it doesn’t really serve this film.

Even more problematic is the inserted footage of radio personality Mike Papantonio sounding off on Evangelicals on his show, the camera prowling the studio, catching the bright green modulation waves on a Cool Edit Pro computer screen in a desperate attempt to make the broadcast visually exciting. The bigger issue (albeit the one that doesn’t give me a chance to snarkily show off about recognizing the radio station’s audio software) is that Papantonio’s editorializing seems stagey and forced, a cheaply calculated way to insert a dissenting voice into the film. Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady are experienced enough (they made the much-admired The Boys of Baraka) to let the material they’ve filmed unspool without added commentary. The voices that are already in the film are speaking loud and clear.