The New Releases Shelf — Something to Tell You

haim
Image from the Music Box Twitter account.

I’m glad there’s a place in the pop universe for the music made by Haim. There is no claim being made here that the trio of sisters from Los Angeles are delivering something wildly transgressive or otherwise deviously edgy in its sun-dappled simplicity. Nor do I believe that they are deploying some sort of cunning scheme to cut against the thudding insistence of most tracks that make headway on the charts. Perhaps it’s naïveté on my part, but I believe the eleven tracks on Something to Tell You, the group’s sophomore effort, are free of calculation. This is exactly who Haim is, and this is exactly who Haim wants to be.

Their debut, Days Are Gone, was comprised of artful nineteen-seventies pop — think Fleetwood Mac, Rickie Lee Jones, and the like — hit with a nineteen-nineties gentle production sheen, settled in gracefully like one of the more discrete Instagram filters. I found it charming as can be, though I’ll readily concede that results may vary. The new album is recognizably — unmistakably, really — a product of the same band, but with maybe a little more assurance. They’re not drawing from influences so much as nicely coming into their own.

As it should, lead single and album opener “I Want You Back” tells the story. There are lithe harmonies, lyrics of lovelorn regret, and a rhythm that ambles then skips then ambles again. It’s a blithe act of seduction with the pining for reconciliation sounding more wistful than pained, like its meant for the last ferris wheel ride of night, taken as other lights across the fairground are flickering off.

It is arguably the entrenchment in the offhand sadness of dashed romance that most clearly instills a strong sense of classic pop stylings to the album. On “Kept Me Crying,” the lyrics chime out “I was your lover/ I was your friend/ Now I’m only just someone you call/ When it’s late enough to forget,” nestled against a trotting melody.  And “Right Now” offers the following lines: “Gave you my love, you gave me nothing/ Said what I gave wasn’t enough/ You had me feeling I was foolish for ever thinking/ This could be the one.” As if aware some of the sentiments aren’t especially inventive — and if Haim has a recurring flaw, it’s a repetitiveness that can test even the mightiest hooks — the band and their chief producer, Ariel Rechtshaid, adorn the track with little details around the fringes such as a nifty sonic squall in the middle which suggests the sound of a breaking heart fed through a misfiring synthesizer. Similarly, while others might blanch at the echoing spoken word bits, but they strike me as just right. When so much of an album is meticulously Crayola-ed in, it’s nice to see a few streaks of color the spike outside the lines.

“Little of Your Love” zings with a cheery tang that recalls the best of Juice Newton, and “Ready for You” has a touch of airy, aspirational funk that endearingly calls attention to just how far away Haim is from being well-suited to join one of George Clinton’s crews. Those songs are indicative of the whole album’s vibe. Indeed, the fact that I’m using the word “vibe” may be the most telling element of this review. I can’t say I was clamoring for an album that prompted me to excavate that word from my vocabulary, but Something to Tell You makes a good argument that maybe I should have been.

Laughing Matters: The Ben Stiller Show, “A Few Good Scouts”

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.

For reasons that are probably obvious, a certain sketch from The Ben Stiller Show has been on my mind today.

Since I have previously written about precisely why this sketch — and everything from the one and only season of The Ben Stiller Show — delights me so, I will let the splendid parody speak for itself.

Beers I Have Known: Asheville Brewing Company Perfect Day IPA

This series of posts is dedicated to the many, many six packs, pony kegs and pints that have sauntered into my life at one point or another.

perfect day

I probably haven’t given quite enough credit to Asheville for giving me back the pleasure of beer. Over fifteen years ago, I moved from Wisconsin — where beer is practically dropped into the bassinets of hospital maternity wards — to Florida. The Sunshine State had many welcome compensations, led by an escape from abusive blizzards. Good beer — merely palatable beer, even — was dreadfully difficult to come by, though.

I had all but given up on having a well-stocked fridge when I moved to the lovely mountain town on the western side of North Carolina. But when I asked my new fellow citizens about the must-visit places as I became acquainted with Asheville, the upstart craft breweries were mentioned over and over again. Having been to a brew pub or two, I thought I knew what I was getting myself into. I did not.

I had occasional to walk those highly sloped streets again in recent days, and the beer scene has only grown, itself a remarkable occurrence since it already seemed to have been closing in on the saturation point when I moved away just two not-so-short years ago. I wish I could have explored more, and a woozy tourist tour is undoubtedly in my future. Instead, I mostly stuck with mainstays, those beers I knew would make me happy, even as the took a meat tenderizer to my strained liver.

That glass of Perfect Day IPA, one of the gems of Asheville Brewing Company, was just as good as I expected it to be. Thanks again to my favorite cesspool of sin.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 16 – 14

16 birthday

16. The Sugarcubes, “Birthday”

In the destitute era before Kickstarter, bands needed to employ a little more creativity in their fundraising efforts. When Iceland’s the Sugarcubes were trying to scrape together the kronor for their debut single, they looked to the geopolitical event that fortuitously landed in their hometown. In October 1986, U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev convened in Reykjavík to discuss a potential reduction in nuclear arms, a discussion that would have been a momentous triumph for world peace if not for the former cowboy actor’s stubborn insistence on maintaining  efforts on a ludicrous, sky-perched missile defense system that, even then, every sensible person knew was scientifically unfeasible. Regardless of the thwarted outcome, the braintrust of the Sugarcubes knew a good business opportunity when it jetted into their island nation. They printed and sold thousands of postcards commemorating the meeting of world leaders, then used the earnings to record and release the single “Birthday,” on their own Bad Taste record label. When “Birthday” proved to be a local sensation, the bigger labels came calling, certain the Sugarcubes could be international stars. The band’s debut album, Life’s Too Good, was released in 1988, and a new version of “Birthday,” now with English lyrics, served as the lead single. As an introduction to the band’s songcraft, it was deeply jarring, especially for those who could find their way through the acrobatic verbal cadences of lead singer Björk Guðmundsdóttir (the gorgeously colossal last name was still part of the billing back then) to discern that the lyrics are about a five-year-old girl who’s engaged in a questionable relationship with a male neighbor who’s old enough to have a beard that needs scratching. “It was only an atmosphere I was trying to describe,” Björk told Sounds magazine at the time. “The only thing I was doing consciously, that was mixing together pure innocence and pure … well, not danger, but something, you know, evil. Evil in an unreal way.” Retrospectively, the stretching years of Björk’s bendy pop strangeness and esoteric sonics have probably trained listeners to not put too much stock in the literal troubles found in the song. Even back then, she insisted that scraping for the hidden, haunting truths in the songs she helped create was a fruitless endeavor. “The best thing about the Sugarcubes is that there is no meaning to us,” Björk told an interviewer shortly after the debut album’s release. “There is no answer, because there is no question.”

 

15 pride

15. U2, “Pride (In the Name of Love)”

The first U.S. Top 40 hit for the band U2 began life as a protest song directed at Ronald Reagan and his unfortunate affection for nuclear weapons. According to lead singer Bono, crafting a whole song around the U.S. president started to make him feel uncomfortable. “I was giving Reagan too much important,” Bono explained to NME. “Then I thought, ‘Martin Luther King, there’s a man.’ We build the positive rather than fighting with the finger.” Although the song’s subject matter makes it seem as though its an opening shot to the intense fascination with the American experience that informed subsequent U2 releases The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum, it was the great Civil Rights leader’s aspirational relevance the ongoing political turmoil in Ireland — the Troubles — that helped sell the other band members on Bono’s planned turn toward overtly topical subject matter, which was then a novelty for U2. “Because of the situation in our country, nonviolent struggle was such an inspiring concept,” guitarist the Edge told Q magazine a few years later. “Even so, when Bono told me he wanted to write about King, at first I said, ‘Woah, that’s not what we’re about.’ Then he came in and sang the song and it felt right, it was great. When that happens there’s no argument. It just was.” Bono also conceded that “Pride (In the Name of Love)” was one of the more overtly commercial songs he’d crafted to that point, which made it a natural choice as the lead single from The Unforgettable Fire, the band’s fourth album, released in 1984.

 

14 forget

14. Simple Minds, “Don’t You (Forget About Me)”

In a detail that often rankled them, the biggest hit of Simple Minds’ career wasn’t one of their own songs. In fact, the Scottish band wasn’t even the first choice to record “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” for The Breakfast Club, directed by John Hughes and released in 1985. Co-songwriter Keith Forsey maintained his preference was for Bryan Ferry to give his erudite spin to the track. When the former Roxy Music frontman turned the opportunity down, both Billy Idol and the Fixx were reportedly pursued, with similar results. Eventually, Forsey and his cohorts came around to Simple Minds, but they also refused, feeling they needed to stick to their own compositions. Supposedly, a screening of the movie convinced them to take a crack at it. “It’s a movie for teenagers, but it doesn’t patronize them,” lead singer Jim Kerr explained at the time of the single’s release. “It isn’t like a rock ‘n’ roll movie. We wouldn’t have done it if it was.” Although they relented, Kerr and his bandmates were also quick to distance themselves from the general sound of the track, noting it was more in line with the material they were creating a few years earlier. “We don’t want people to think this is new direction we’re going in,” Kerr insisted. “It’s nothing like the ideas we have in our heads. It was just something nice to do that, hopefully, will get us noticed in the film world.” It’s safe to say that the song did get the band noticed. In the late spring of 1985, it make it all the way to the top of the Billboard chart, knocking another soundtrack song — Madonna’s “Crazy for You” — from the perch.

 

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. All images nicked from Discogs.

 

From the Archive: Real Genius

real genius

Here is another of the short reviews I wrote for the “Movies That Shoulda Been Summer Blockbusters” episode of The Reel Thing, aired during the sweltering season of 1991. Looking at this review now, I’m struck by how little I actually wrote about a movie that was a heavy repeat-viewing favorite among my friend group. I feel like I owe director Martha Coolidge and her uncommonly smart comedy another pass.

When Real Genius came out in the summer of 1985, it was amidst a glut of comedies with a scientific twist. Weird Science, My Science Project, and Creator all saw release at around the same time. But Real Genius was the only one that really deserved to enjoy some summertime success.

The film stars Val Kilmer as an offbeat, slightly frazzled but ultimately brilliant college student who joins his colleagues in developing an ultra-powerful laser. They’re elated by their discovery until they find out that their invention is going to be used to create weaponry for the U.S. government. The film presents a fascinating group of students who interact on the college campus and really has fun with the students’ abilities to use their scientific knowledge to create excellent parties; turning dorm hallways into toboggan chutes may be the most notable trick.

Val Kilmer delivers his most likable performance in the lead role, capturing every bit of his character’s goofy charm. Even when the film isn’t wildly funny or particularly challenging, it’s still filled with enough good spirits to make for a highly enjoyable venture.

One for Friday: Freelance Hellraiser, “A Stroke of Genius”

xtina strokes

So, in my digital collection, I have a couple versions of Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle.” Sort of, anyway.

I’m not sure if mash-up artists have an abiding weakness for the first chart-topper from the young woman who would go on to star in Burlesque and refine gentle diva-dom on The Voice. Maybe it’s actually me who embarrassingly swoons a little any time Aguilera’s vocal track is laid atop the music of some mainstay single of college rock coolness. As I conceded earlier this year when I shared a track dubbed “Dirty Bottle,” when this particular set of sung lyrics is laid atop music that tickles my inner being, I find it fairly irresistible.

“A Stroke of Genius” (which I sometimes see styles as “A Stroke of Genie-us,” but come on) melds Aguilera’s vocal track with the downbeat layered guitar shuffle of the Strokes’ “Hard to Explain.” Crafted by the remix artist Freelance Hellraiser, it’s flat-out perfect.

By now, we should be living in a world that’s interconnected enough for an enterprising promoter or program producer to see to it that this derivation of song gets recreated live on stage by the proper artists. That’s not to much to ask, is it?

Listen or download –> Freelance Hellraiser, “A Stroke of Genius”

(Disclaimer: As I noted previously, I believe the very nature of this track means it is made for sharing, with the artist who created it — albeit not the artists who created the material he used to create it — unable by copyright law to collect royalties on it. I think. Unless he cleared things with the original creators at some point. It’s all too confusing, really. So I’ll just make my usual statement about a willingness to promptly and happily remove this file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual of entity with due authority to make such a request. And then I will quietly recede, capped by a close parenthesis.)

Now Playing: The Big Sick

sick

When I write out Judd Apatow’s name in this space, it’s usually in conjunction with some grousing about his creative shortcomings, which have spread across the field of cinematic comedy like spilled Fresca. Apatow is a rambunctiously creative filmmaker, but he also lacks discipline in his craftsmanship, leading to lopsided works that compromise their own insights with wearying rambles. And his success has fostered a broader culture of similarly bloated comedies.

I stand by that assessment, because I’ve seen too many promising films collapse under their own teetering weight. But I also don’t give Apatow enough credit for the ways in which that same expansive nature manifests as a generosity that brings valuable voices in the current cultural sphere, specifically those voices that it’s difficult to imagine with a prominent platform if not for Apatow’s advocacy. In the latest example, The Big Sick would likely not exist if comedian Kumail Nanjiani hadn’t casually shared with Apatow the surprisingly fraught story of his courtship with his eventual wife, Emily V. Gordon, and if Apatow hadn’t responded with the specific encouragement the he’s capable of backing up with supporting action: “That should be a movie, and you should write it.”

Nanjiani did follow the advice to sit down and make the story a screenplay — crafting it alongside Gordon — and he stars as Kumail, an aspiring stand-up comedian in Chicago. One night, his on-stage equilibrium is disrupted when a woman named Emily (Zoe Kazan) offers loud verbal encouragement from the crowd during his set. He finds her afterward and explains that the “whoo-hoo” she lobbed from the audience technically counts as a heckle and was therefore rude. On the movie “meet cute” scale, it’s a more satisfying beginning than most. Kumail and Emily embark on a relationship of tentative escalation that nicely captures the common uncertainty of people coming together in their twenties, when a precariously solidifying sense of an adult self can collide with a desire to connect with another.

And then the film finds its way to the plot turn that gives The Big Sick its title. More valuably, the development gives the movie a greater weight. Since Nanjiani and Gordon are drawing on true events from their own life together, they avoid the sort of maudlin nonsense that might have sunk the film had it been dreamed up by some indie comedy Nicholas Sparks disciple. Without compromising the ringing, character-driven humor that drives the film, the story properly digs into the pinballing between fear and hope that defines that sort of situation.

There are shortcomings. While Nanjiani is consistently engaging, some moments are a touch beyond his capabilities as an actor, an issue that is simultaneously compensated for and accentuated by the sterling performances of Kazan, and supporting players Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. And Michael Showalter’s directing job is a little pedestrian, draining some of the impact from moments big and small. But the film ultimately pushes past the little problems. Combine the emotional honesty of the main plot with the insightful and welcome explorations of how Kumail’s background as a member of a Pakistani immigrant family impacts his ability to navigate an on-edge society, and it’s clear that The Big Sick offers an object lesson in something credited producer Apatow knows well: familiar narrative rhythms can get a boost from a specificity of voice.