The New Releases Shelf: A Deeper Understanding

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I readily concede that at this melancholy moment there’s a greedy desire to hear echoes of Tom Petty just about everywhere. But, whenever I now cycle back to A Deeper Understanding, the new album from the War on Drugs, I hear little shimmers of Petty’s reflected sensibility all over the place. The album’s first track, “Up All Night,” might open with a electronic hummingbird shiver that seems nicked from a vintage Yeah Yeah Yeahs album, but it quickly gives in to a loping, keening melody that is like an even more relaxed version of Petty’s “Learning to Fly.” Elsewhere, “Pain” has the balladic ruminating and “Nothing to Find” has some of the highway reverberation I associate with the dearly departed rock legend.

Acknowledging those comparisons upfront seems only prudent, since they’ll happen anyway and will be conspicuous no matter how they’re deployed. The invocations are inevitable because I can’t listen to the War on Drugs without my mind tumbling into a undulating mass of other artists, each new musical reminiscence arriving and departing with the fleeting suddenness of a bursting bubble. When I wrote briefly about the Philadelphia band’s previous album, Lost in the Dream, I conceded my bafflement in trying to settle on an assessment of what the music contained therein sounded like to me. “Right now, I think this is the record the Waterboys would have made if Mike Scott had been raised alongside Bruce Springsteen in New Jersey,” I wrote, helplessly. The new album sounds nothing like that. Except when it does. Once again, it changes day to day.

In less certain, less capable hands, the tonal and spiritual fluidity would come across as indication of soulless, visionless music. A Deeper Understanding couldn’t be further from that. Chief songwriter and frontman Adam Granduciel builds tracks of strident sonic exploration, like a Flaming Lips record, but aspiring to the polished discipline adopted by legacy rockers when they were given the keys to state of the art recording studios in the nineteen-eighties. “In Chains” has signs of Jackson Browne’s gentle agitation, “Strangest Thing” could have retrieved from Bob Dylan’s Empire Burlesque, and the sprawling “Thinking of a Place” is one whole side of an old LP all on its own, cooing and coaxing toward achy poignancy.

Amazingly, this tall stack of the familiar doesn’t tally up to a finished product that moans with derivativeness. Rich with the past and crackling with the easy confidence of an artist with a restless eye to the future, A Deeper Understanding feels fiercely original in its commitment to a certain true-heartedness that used to come standard on rock ‘n’ roll albums. I’m not sure if any of the predecessors of the War on Drugs feel as though they’ve passed the torch along to them, but it doesn’t matter. A Deeper Understanding shows they’ve got a firm grasp on it, and they’re carrying it proudly.

STRATEGIC ACTS DONATION — OCTOBER 2017

With the occasional exception, I haven’t used this space to promote an ongoing charitable effort my household has undertaken since the most recent U.S. Presidential election. This month, however, I want to put these words wherever I can. The following information originally appeared on the Tumblr page established for our personal campaign to counter the regular abominations of the federal government.

On the 9th of every month, the anniversary of the morning after the 2016 election, we will donate to an organization engaged in the hard work of standing against and undoing the damage of the presidency a minority of voters put into place. In tribute to Hillary Clinton’s greater share of the popular vote, we will donate $48.20 to the organization in question and invite others to join us in doing the same. The original post that explains it all is here.

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(Image via CBS News)

We are closing in on a year of this endeavor of putting our money where outrage is. More specifically, our household looked at the rhetoric of those moving into the U.S. Executive branch — and the predominating experience of those being given high-ranking positions — and determined that the federal government was about to slide into a period of colossal ineffectiveness. And that was the most generous projection.

Even beginning with that grim prediction, the regular procession of ineptitude has been astounding, especially when it has been coupled with a lack of basic empathy that borders on the inhuman. How can someone in a major leadership position view once-in-a-lifetime natural disaster devastation brought down upon U.S. citizens and emerge mostly chagrined that they as an individual aren’t getting enough credit for associated relief efforts? How can someone be so utterly lacking in humility that they follow a meeting with people who have lost everything by being sure to assert, “And also when I walked in the cheering was incredible.”

Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico on September 20th. As of October 7th — nearly three weeks later — approximately 90 percent of the population was still without electricity, and over half the citizenry did not have ready access to drinking water. Puerto Rican officials have felt the need to literally plead for assistance through any forum available to them, largely to churlish indifference from the federal government. Just today, the governor of Puerto Rico — a U.S. territory where everyone is a full-fledged citizen of the “most powerful nation in the world” — wrote to Congressional leaders, noting a mounting inability of their “central and municipal governments to meet basic human needs.”

This is not — it should go without saying, writing, or implying — how things are supposed to work. It goes beyond the strained, unwieldy, insufficient response to Hurricane Katrina’s leveling of New Orleans. This is callous abdication of one of the federal government’s most fundamental roles, perpetrated by brutish figures who perversely can’t stop patting themselves on the back for their imagined genius and heroism.

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According to their website, ConPRmetidos is “an independent, non-partisan and non-profit organization operating from San Juan, Puerto Rico since 2012″ with a stated mission of “connecting people to foster commitment with the personal, social, and economic development of the Puerto Rican communities.”

Under the current circumstances, ConPRmetidos has understandably shifted its focus somewhat. The organization has established the “Maria: Puerto Rico Real-Time Recovery Fund,” promising that every dime donated will go to providing long-term relief in the U.S. territory. As of right now, the organization lays out their priorities thusly:

We are currently financing (1) needs assessment efforts, (2)  long-term structural repairs to the most vulnerable communities, and (3) power as a service.

There are a multitude of tremendous organizations responding to the needs of Puerto Rico with comprehensive, generous efforts. To our eyes, ConPRmetidos is approaching the enormous task ahead with a admirable balance of addressing immediate and long-term needs.

That’s why we’re giving the ConPRmetidos Maria: Puerto Rico Real-Time Recovery Fund our October 2017 donation of $48.20. 

If you have the means, we humbly ask that you join us in doing so. DONATIONS CAN BE MADE AT THE GENEROSITY.COM WEBSITE ESTABLISHED BY CONPRMETIDOS FOR THIS EFFORT.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 1

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1. General Public, “Tenderness”

The Beat had just had their biggest hit in the U.K. when the breakup happened. A cover of the pop standard “Can’t Get Used to Losing You,” a song first elevated to hit status by Andy Williams, carried the ska-driven Beat all the way into the British Top 5. That success didn’t stop the erosion of their unity, a devastating turn for a group that took pride in a sterling egalitarian ethos.

“We were still trying, still kicking, but we weren’t kicking in time with each other,” guitarist and vocalist Dave Wakeling explained at the time. “The work became harder and harder for less and less.”

Wakeling and fellow vocalist Ranking Rogers departed the band, citing the pressures of a U.S. tour as the culprit in expanding the fissures already breaking the surface of the Beat. Establishing a new outfit, the pair filled out the roster with evacuees from Dexys Midnight Runners and the Specials, while also getting a special assist from Mick Jones, then recently excused from his duties with the Clash. The called the new group General Public.

“We were outside the House of Commons, and there were all these little signs on the gates saying, ‘No Admittance to the General Public,” said Wakeling. “And then, of course, they’re always referring on the telly news and documentaries to the ‘general public,’ whatever that’s supposed to mean.”

Since the new band released their first music in 1984. Wakeling added that the calendar catching up with the title of George Orwell’s most famous novel — and the rampant reintroduction of concepts like doublespeak and Big Brother — made him think of how the term “general public” was foreboding in its own way, like some benevolent dictatorship of democracy.

“Now, any name that has three different meanings has got to have something going for it,” said Wakeling.

General Public’s debut album, All the Rage, was released in January 1984. A few months later, a track called “Tenderness” was chosen to be one of its singles. Sweet at first listen, the lyrics of the song are infused with melancholy, the product of songwriting conducted on the road, away from family and other loved ones. Wakeling said he spent time chatting via CB radio with the truck drivers that were out on the highway while he traveling similar roads on a tour bus late at night.

“And the notion was that you were driving around in there in America searching for the tenderness, whereas, of course, it’s in your heart all the time,” he noted many years later. “So it’s like you’re looking in the outside world for something that can only be discovered in yourself, because love is a verb, not a noun. That was the notion of it.”

At the time “Tenderness” was released as a single, Wakeling’s assessment was even more direct, noting it was simply one of the strongest songs on the album, essentially the culmination on everything he’d worked toward in his creative efforts.

“What we’ve been trying to say in the song is very serious,” said Wakeling. “It’s been enough to make me cry on a number of occasions, but if you can say that while making it sound poppy and cheerful, then that’s really what I’ve been aiming for since we left the Beat.”

Back in the U.K., the single was a dud, stalling out in at #95 on the charts. It had a far different fate on the other side of the Atlantic, taking a place of repeated prominence on MTV, then coming into its own as a musical tastemaker.

That success might not have happened if the band had stuck with their original vision for the music video. In the U.K., the clip emphasized the forlorn attempts at escaping loneliness hidden in the lyrics, depicting Wakeling stumbling into a tryst with a female bodybuilder in a hotel distant from his wife and child. The band members thought it was dandy in its twisted, cynical depiction of life as traveling musicians. Their U.S. label, I.R.S. Records, voiced a different opinion.

“We brought it over and showed it to I.R.S.,” Wakeling told Mother Jones. “‘Good video, eh? What do you think?’ And they just stood there horrified. So we had to make another video for the American audience that makes us look very pretty. My mum thinks the American video is fantastic.”

Wakeling’s mum wasn’t the only person to hold that opinion. The video of “Tenderness” helped garner General Public their first Top 40 hit in the U.S. On the college charts, the single was a smash, and Wakeling later acknowledged it was the label execs taking their honed skills with promoting to student programming — and the money they were starting to make — and effectively transferring those strategies to the commercial end of the dial that led to the track’s success.

“If you look at the history of I.R.S., you can see there’s a certain point right about the time when ‘Tenderness’ came out — just before — where all of a sudden songs on I.R.S. were starting to enter the top 40,” Wakeling told Popdose. “And I think that they’d had enough success with the college charts and the independent charts that they could now afford to enter the Top 40 lottery game.”

Chuffed with chart success or not, General Public didn’t last long. There was only one other full-length album before Wakeling and Ranking Rogers each went on to middling solo careers. Reunions happen, though, and General Public, in some ways, had one of the stranger ones. They got back together to record a cover of the Staple Singers’ song “I’ll Take You There,” which was featured on the soundtrack to Threesome, a now-blessedly-forgotten attempt at daring cinema starring Lara Flynn Boyle, Josh Charles, and — help us all — Stephen Baldwin. Bizarrely, the cover song stands as officially the highest-charting General Public single in the U.S., outdoing “Tenderness” by five places.

 

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: A Prairie Home Companion

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I don’t have much to add to the review below (originally published at my former online home), except to note that every great director deserves to have a final film as perfect of a closing statement as this one is for Robert Altman.

Enjoyment of the new(ish) film A Prairie Home Companion is not predicated on an appreciation for the long-running radio program that shares its name, but it may be dependent on an admiration for the work of Robert Altman.

That particular logic problem answer is based on a case study of one. I plainly don’t enjoy Garrison Keillor’s radio program, finding its gentle homespun storytelling and plunking musical performances to be achingly dull. I’ve tried to find its charm, genuinely hoping to discover that ingratiating warmth that keeps dedicated public radio listeners coming back week after week. Instead, I’m left as perplexed as Homer Simpson when he famously encountered a Keillor doppelganger while watching a PBS pledge drive and responded by smacking the side of the set in futile hope that it would jar some actual entertainment value out of the performer.

And yet…

Generally, I enjoyed the film. Keillor’s script (based on a story co-conceived with TV writer and Minnesota educator Ken LaZebnik) focuses on the production of a lightly fictionalized version of his radio show. Hanging heavy over the typical hustle and bustle of a live radio program featuring multiple musical performers is a sense of mild dread as a major media company has just bought out their home radio station and there are expectations that this performance may be the last. Interspersed are hints of relationships between the characters and backstories that come lightly into play through the dense conversations backstage and, occasionally, on mike.

All of these plot details feel somewhat incidental, though, and not by faulty narrative construction, but by design. Altman has rarely been concerned with the rigors of linear storytelling. He’s much more fascinated with submerging his films into a culture and soaking it in. He wants to convey how a place, a time, a group of people feel. What is it like to move through life with a group of characters for a while? There is a main plot that moves through the 105 minutes of the film, and several smaller stories that drifts along in its wake, but Altman primarily seeks to bring to the screen the work of performers, the effort and strain and combativeness and playfulness of the troupe that mounts this production. Keillor’s radio show is an affected reflection of Midwestern stasis, but the film he’s made with Robert Altman is about the focused stage managers and anxious musicians that manufacture the artifice. In their toils, it finds a bracing energy that enlivens the lengthy portions of the radio show performances that help fill the film.

When a film is more about the parts than the whole, the consistent excellence of those parts becomes extremely important and that’s where Companion picks up some static. There are pleasures aplenty provided by the large cast, led by Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin as singing sisters, the last remaining remnants of a family act that toured the county fair circuit (to Keillor’s credit, he understands that you’ll not find a better city name to use as a ready-made punchline than Wisconsin’s Oshkosh, and making this the sisters’ hometown allow him to drop the O-bomb with impunity). The mastery of Altman’s trademark naturalistic, overlapping dialogue that they demonstrated at this year’s Oscar ceremony serves them well here. I suspect a satisfying film could be wrestled together solely and strictly from this tandem’s extended dressing room conversations. While the more jagged edges given to Tomlin’s character offer her a little more to do, Streep deserves admiration for her astonishing ease and comfort with the on-stage performances. Thirteen Oscar nominations de damned, watching her here it’s well within the realm of imagination that she could bypass future film work and wind down her career having the time of her life with a weekly gig at the Fitzgerald Theater.

Not faring as well is Kevin Kline, portraying the official show detective (already an odd conceit) Guy Noir, whose name is apparently taken from a recurring radio show character, but I presume the tiresome physical shtick he engages in is freshly created for the film. Perhaps Kline brought in some of the rejected gags from his prior production. Everyone else lands somewhere in between, although singing cowboy duo Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly can claim one of the film’s most unlikely comic highpoints with their final song.

This is hardly one of Altman’s masterworks. It doesn’t have the bite of Nashville or The Player, nor does it have the focus of Gosford Park. But it does have the restless bustle of his better efforts, that incessant inquiry into overlooked corners where little moments are as telling as sweeping stories and big points. It is truly, unmistakably Altmanesque.

One for Friday: Tom Petty, “Wildflowers”

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It’s very possible Wildflowers was the last album I purchased while living in my college town. I stuck around for roughly a year and a half following my graduation, working a thankless movie theater management job and soothing my post-collegiate existential disconnection by routinely purchasing music from the finest record store I’ve ever encountered. I don’t believe I owned any other Tom Petty records at that point, but Wildflowers was irresistible. Producer Rick Rubin had just established himself as a sterling shepherd of legacy artists with Johnny Cash’s American Recordings. The prospect of him paring Petty’s music down to something lean and pure was downright thrilling.

I have memories of sitting in the crusty bedroom of my last residence in Stevens Point, listening to Wildflowers over and over, finding warmth and honesty in its tones. I especially connected with the title cut, a tender and lovely ballad that spoke to the wounded romanticism I carried around like a overstuffed duffel. The plainspoken grace of the repeated lyric “You belong somewhere you feel free” is as perfect an expression of affection as I’ve ever encountered in a rock ‘n’ roll song, a medium that has no shortage of expressions of affection.

I’m a sucker for silly symbols — knowing the first song I played on the radio or the last movie I saw before moving away from a town. Even so, I don’t actually record those details. I just retroactively come up with a plausible story. So, I will say that Wildflowers helped close out my time in a place that means the world to me. Why not? It was a place where I felt free.

Listen or download –> Tom Petty, “Wildflowers”

(Disclaimer: I didn’t check, but I fully suspect that Wildflowers remains in print and can be purchased from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a format that will provide compensation to both the proprietor of said store and the all artists who deserve a cut of the proceeds. This song is shared in this space at this time as encouragement to engage in that commerce rather than a replacement for it. More than most, Petty is well-served by the various greatest hits collections under his name, but his full albums — especially the couple that are official solo efforts — a vital additions to a music collection, too. Although I’m sharing this under the auspices of fair use, I do know the rules. I will gladly and promptly remove this file 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.)

Beers I Have Known: Fort George Brewery The Optimist

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.

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I’m learning to be less precious about the beers I collect in my travels. These are for drinking, I remind myself, not mounting on a wall like prizes from a hideous safari hunt. Preservation is less valuable than consumption.

Still, I’m not not exactly racing through the sudsy souvenirs in the span of a weekend. Last week, I drank my last can of The Optimist, an IPA by Oregon’s Fort George Brewery, which I nabbed during an early summer trip to Portland. It is an ideal summer beer, favoring pleasant drinkability over the tongue-blast hoppiness the still defines the style for many beer drinkers.

For George Brewery wasn’t even on my list of coveted Pacific Northwest beer-makers when I went on that trip, but in making a final purchase at a local grocery story, a query to a hard-working gentleman stocking the shelves landed a six pack in my handcart. So this post is placed in my little corner of the digital world as a reminder as I prepare to do some scouting in the Souther state I once called home:  at the supermarket, trust guy with a dolly and a beer distribution company polo.

 

Now Playing: Battle of the Sexes

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On September 20, 1973, Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, with great ceremonial adornments, strode to the center of the playing field of the Houston Astrodome, where a tennis court had been put in place. The event was billed as the “Battle of the Sexes,” and it was fraught with import. An exhibition game, it carried the onus of standing in for the still insurgent women’s lib movement — as well as the aggrieved countermeasures of those who took ugly pride in calling themselves male chauvinist pigs — or at least it did once King emerged triumphant in straight sets.

The new film Battle of the Sexes revives the sense of celebration. Directed by the team of Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton — who together helmed the art house sensation Little Miss Sunshine —  the movie depicts the frenzy of female empowerment that led up to a reluctant King (Emma Stone) relenting to the overtures of Riggs (Steve Carell) to face him in a publicity stunt event. In the reckoning of the screenplay by Simon Beaufoy (an Oscar winner for Slumdog Millionaire and, for a time, a regular collaborator of director Danny Boyle), King saw the social weight the match could carry, especially since she was deeply engaged in the then-upstart Women’s Tennis Association in an attempt to earn some level of pay equity for the athletes outfitted in skirts as they whacked balls over a tightly-string net. For Riggs, the event was a stunt, an extension of his hustler mentality. For King — and her sisterhood — it was a chance to prove worthiness to be viewed as athletes engaged in competition, rather than some cute sideshow to the men’s game.

The signal accomplishment of the film is the way it conveys the serious undercurrents of the spectacle sports event by sharply focusing on what it mean to King, both as a personal test and a social statement. Stone is marvelous in the role, largely eschewing affectations of impression to instead burrow deep into the character of King. (Carell is also good as Riggs, though he leans more on the physical trappings and other transported tics afforded him.) The obsessive nature of a competitor is present throughout, but Stone wisely tempers the drive with pings of uncertainty. Stone’s version of King knows that all the self-determination in the world might not be enough to prevent a crucial serve from landing on the wrong side of the line.

The film is engaging and sparks with charm, especially in the first half as King and her cohorts address the blatant sexism of their sport’s chief executives by striking out on their own. (A cracking performance by Sarah Silverman as Gladys Heldman, one of the masterminds of the WTA, bolsters these sequences mightily.) The ambitions of the filmmakers prove to be more than the film can comfortably contain. King’s tentative awakening to her romantic preference for women is depicted with such aching tenderness that it becomes dreadfully dull, especially since Andrea Riseborough is given only the barest sketch of a person to play as the tennis star’s hairdresser paramour. Where much of the rest of the film is deft, this subplot is didactic, capped off by Alan Cumming’s tennis outfit designer providing a wistful pep talk on the hopeful future ahead for the GLBTQ community that feels like it should conclude with him smiling warmly and dissolving into a cloud of glittery magic dust. The personal travails of Riggs off the courts hold a similar narrative stagnancy.

Battle of the Sexes is at its most cunning when it simply lets the dullard sexism of the era be held up like a foggy photographic slide to the light. For all the buffoonish machismo of Riggs (who was engaged more in colorful showmanship than actual expression of belief, the film argues) or oily misogyny of tennis executive Jack Barker (Bill Pullman), the on-air commentary of Howard Cosell — retrieved from the ABC Sports archives and sprinkled generously throughout the film’s depiction of the main event — is the most damning evidence offered. Whether he’s dismissing elements of King’s game, condescending to tennis star and co-announcer Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales), or basically saying King could be pretty if she tried, Cosell epitomizes the cultural crudity that demanded a battle like this to be fought in the first place.