One for Friday: The Brandos, “Gettysburg”

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There’s a clear tendency to retrospectively reduce eras of pop music to singular sounds, despite the fact that such monolithic sonic styles are rarely the case. By now, the nineteen-eighties are largely thought of as a time of synth pop and maybe wailing saxophone solos, as the fallout from the new wave explosion earlier in the decade settled over just about everything. Those who had their radios tuned to the stations staffed by college kids might associated the jangly tones of R.E.M. a little more readily, but when a current band is said to have an “eighties sound,” its almost certainly the post-new-wave pop sounds that are being referenced.

I fall prey to that reductive view as well, but songs occasional shuffle up that remind me that there are other sounds that can immediately transport me back a few decades. (Good lord, I feel a little woozy after realizing “few decades” was the right way to phrase that.) One such song is “Gettysburg,” the lead track from Honor Among Thieves, the debut album from the Brandos.

Released in 1987, the album got a hearty push from A&M Records. The label was clearly convinced the New York band has a shot at duplicating the somewhat unlikely success of bands like Georgia Satellites and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, who scored solid hits in the middle of the decade with tracks that were straight-ahead rock songs but with a clear and present studio sheen to them. Given my predilections at the time, “Gettysburg” was the sort of song likely to grab my ear and make me fervently insist that it proved that traditional rock ‘n’ roll was still vital and exciting. Listening to it now, it’s definitely not groundbreaking, but it’s solidity has an appeal. It’s worth getting nostalgic over.

Listen or download –> The Brandos, “Gettysburg”

(Disclaimer: From my own limited experience, I assumed the Brandos were one of those one-and-done bands that speckled college radio playlists during my time in the left-of-the-dial wonderland. Instead, they’ve put out a whole bunch of records over the years, maybe because they’re big in Germany? It still looks to me like their A&M Records efforts if out of print as a physical object that can procured from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner than compensates both the proprietor of said store and the artist. Thus, the song is being shared here with the belief that doing so impedes no likely commerce. Still, I know the rules. I will promptly and gladly remove the file from my little corner of the digital if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

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Posted in Music

Feist, Sandel, Singer, Stoller, West

In the Valley of Violence (Ti West, 2016). As an enthusiastic fan of Ti West’s early excursions into affectionately knowing spins on the horror genre, I had high hopes for his stab at the Western, the most venerable of Hollywood genres. In the Valley of Violence is serviceable, but it lacks the spark of vitality required to give it a true reason for being. Part of the problem is the hoariness of the premise, which West never manages to transcend with either reinvention of panache. A wandering, wounded soul (Ethan Hawke) seeks revenge in a dusty town presided over by a Marshal (John Travolta) with a streak of malevolent control. There’s no real zing to the movie, though West deserves credit for both giving Travolta one of his better parts in recent years and helping him to a performance that perfect balances brio and restraint.

X-Men: Apocalypse (Bryan Singer, 2016). Months before Logan and Legion demonstrated that Marvel movie mutant-verse is ready for jolts of original creative thinking, Bryan Singer’s fourth directorial dance with this corner of the comic publisher’s empire of characters implicitly made the argument that the basic methodology previously in place is damnably empty. Extending the First Class iteration of the movie X-Men into the early nineteen-eighties, the film engages in some bland period tomfoolery, but mostly drags its way through a nearly indecipherable plot involving the reemergence of an ancient megalomaniacal mutant named En Sabah Nur (played with no distinction whatsoever by Oscar Isaac). Arguably the only interesting element of the film is trying to spot the moments when talented actors such as Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence slip into a mode of near-total disengagement.

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (Nicholas Stoller, 2016). The first Neighbors was fitfully funny, but also marred by usual haphazard storytelling of modern comedies, especially those that have creative personnel who have origins in the Apatow orbit. Though most os the same creators are back in place for the sequel — including director Nicholas Stoller — the result is more solid, engaging, and — to my happy disbelief — even occasionally downright winning. The first film’s new parents (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) see their attempt to sell their college town home threatened by the hard-partying sorority that’s moved in next door. Turning the adversaries from boys to girls could have been the height of laziness, but the big batch of credited screenwriters (including Rogen and his primary partner, Evan Goldberg) actually have some insightful things to say about gender inequity and the destructive nature of competitive youth culture. Though I’m skeptical about the longterm prospects for this career path, Zac Efron, returning as frat revelry master Teddy Sanders, has developed an endearing, funny screen presence as a sweetly dim beefcake.

Deluge (Felix E. Feist, 1933). The early portions of Deluge serve up one of the earliest Hollywood disaster films. As an unexplained swell of storms lays waste to the cities of the word. In an extended sequences that gives the explosive mayhem a run for its box office dollars, skyscrapers tremble and crumble as screaming people run wild through the streets. That gives way to a reasonably astute exploration of how society would splinter apart and then be slowly bound back together, with treacherous splinters digging deep into the muscle along the way. The melodrama doesn’t always convince, but enough of the details are weighted with wisdom to make the film consistently compelling.

The Duff (Ari Sandel, 2015). Based on a young adult novel by Kody Keplinger, the film casts Mae Whitman as Bianca Piper, the high school student saddled with the uncomplimentary nickname of the title, which stands for “Designated Ugly Fat Friend.” Ari Sandel makes his feature directorial debut and handles the comedy deftly, although the script’s penchant to swerve into fantasy occasionally upsets his balance. The film starts no revolutions with its focus on a teen-aged underdog, but Whitman is a flinty marvel. She has star power, acting chops, and pinpoint comic timing.

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Posted in Film

The Art of the Sell: Trivia 2017

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

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What can I say? I’m proud of my college radio alma mater. We had a lot of fun, impressive stuff back in my day, but we never had a billboard.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Art of the Sell” tag.

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Beers I Have Known: Bad Weather Brewing Company Windvane 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.

bad weather

Traveling can be miserable work, but there are fringe benefits. Ever since my return to my native state of Wisconsin, I’ve been pining for something special that exists like a glowing promise just across the border. No, I’m not referring to the embrace of progressive policies that — as per usual — have led to an economic boom, offering further exposure of the callous zealotry and raving ineptness of the governor who works a little closer to my current mailing address. Instead, I’m referring to the frothy wares of Big Weather Brewing Company. So while I recently sat in a Minnesota airport, enduring the purgatory between flights, I went on a quest, finally finding an outpost equipped with a liquor license and a can or two of the craft brewery’s Windvane Red IPA.

I would an unscrupulous reporter if I didn’t acknowledge the source of potable’s clarion call. It’s neither the rave reviews nor the riveting television appearances that quickened my pulse with anticipation. It wasn’t even the brewery’s acclaimed “Under 21” website redirect trick. I happen to know one of the two young fellas who started the brewery, having served as a supervisor and — just maybe — a mentor back when he was a mere upstart in the hospitality biz, attending a benevolent work college nestled in the Carolina hills. The glass pictured above was raised to him, with appreciation, admiration, and congratulations.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Beers I Have Known” tag.

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My Writers: Ann Beattie

beattie

I have a foolish aversion to short stories. I’m perplexed about its origins. It may stem from the fact that my time chipping away at an undergraduate English major forever associated the form with the toil of assigned text. (I swear “Hills Like White Elephants” was on the syllabus of every third class I took.) I also worry that I have some strange, snobbish guilt that triggers a lurking, unshakable sense that I should be working on a weightier novel when I’m reading a short story, under the so-many-books-so-little-time provision of life as a consumer of written fiction.

Ann Beattie is one of the writers who decisively demonstrates the shortsightedness of my knee-jerk rejection of the form. Although she’s written enough novels to take of a sizable portion of a shelf, it’s her short stories that totally transfix. They are about incident more than plot, the rippling of emotion more than the shock of the unexpected twist. Beattie captures people moving through mundane lives and illuminates the triumph and heartbreak of simply existing. I don’t know that I could recount the specific happenings of any of her stories, rattling off the details the link into one another. But I can easily recapture the feel of reading them, mostly informed by the sense I’m eavesdropping on individuals who have entire histories I will never know and futures I won’t see.

In her attentiveness to the intricacies of life — the moments that can easily be overlooked but often perplexingly stick in the memory more firmly that the grander tumult — Beattie reminds me of Anne Tyler, the first author who taught me that a story doesn’t need to have a big, obvious hook to be important and meaningful, that fiction’s strength is less in its invention than in its truthfulness. Beattie reminds me that it doesn’t take pages upon pages upon pages to achieve that honesty. Sometimes a few words will do.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “My Writers” tag.

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Posted in Books

CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 61 – 59

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61. Morrissey, “Suedehead”

The collaboration between Steven Patrick Morrissey and Johnny Marr was in tatters. They had completely stopped speaking to one another, putting the future of their band, the Smiths, into a state more dire than doubt. While some of the members — including, according to some reports, Morrissey himself — were still holding out hope that the many rifts could be overcome, it didn’t look good. The terms of the record deal the Smiths has signed with EMI, in 1986, stipulated that new music was due, regardless of the official status of the band. With that in mind, Morrissey sought a new songwriting partner, quickly settling on Stephen Street, who’d served as engineer for several Smiths recording sessions and produced what proved to be the band’s final studio album, Strangeways, Here We Come. With a touch of reticence, Morrissey’s solo career got underway. He assembled a batch of new supporting musicians and began recording at Wool Hall Studio (home of the sessions that resulted in Strangeways), going through a big batch of songs with only fitful success. One of the first tracks to emerge fully formed was “Suedehead,” which shared its title with a 1971 novel by James Moffat (writing as Richard Allen), the middle entry in a trilogy about neo-Nazi youth. The connection between the two works, though, was tenuous. “Does the song have anything to do with the title?” Morrissey offered. “Well, I did happen to read the book when it came out, and I was quite interested in the whole Richard Allen cult. But really I just like the word ‘suedehead.'” Instead of bigoted hooligan high jinks, the song draws from the more general experiences of Morrissey’s youth, particularly one encounter with an unwanted visitor who, whatever their flaws, was quite satisfying in the area of amorous pursuits. Released as the first solo single from Morrissey, in 1988, “Suedehead” was a hit, peaking at #5 on the U.K. charts, higher than any Smiths single had ever managed.

 

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60. The Alarm, “Rain in the Summertime”

The Alarm wanted to get out into the world, but their third album, Eye of the Hurricane, represented their first steps back toward home. Released in 1987, the lyrics to the album were written entirely in Wales, the country where the band formed, and lead singer Mike Peters maintained the influence of the land was nestled deep in the words. “Rain in the Summertime,” which became the lead single, was a particularly tricky song for Peters. In trying to put lines to a chord sequence developed by bassist Eddie McDonald, Peters felt he had no more than a stopgap solution. “It kind of just came about when we came up with the line ‘I love to feel the rain in the summertime,'” Peters later explained. “A lot of rock songs start with the title, and I always thought, ‘I’m going to change that when I get to the studio.'” No such alteration ever took place, and Peters found himself laboring over a set of lyrics that would suit the title. Ultimately, he drew on the challenges the Alarm were facing as they collectively tried to hold together. “‘Rain in the Summertime’ for me was just the way the band had come to a difficult period, and it was about ‘If I could just run fast enough/ I could leave all of the pain and sadness behind,’ which is another key line in the song,” said Peters. “For me, rain always comes at the end of a drought.”

 

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59. U2, “Desire”

Apart from the person who conceived of its riff, the first person to hear the U2 song “Desire” was an unsuspecting letter carrier making his rounds in the Dublin suburb of Monkstown. According to U2 guitarist the Edge, he was working in a new home he’d recently purchased and had alit on a sound he liked. He was having difficulty putting his hands on a tape recorder to preserve the sonic discovery when the front doorbell rang. “So I just kept playing, went to front door, opened the front door playing the riff,” the Edge recounted. “It was the postman. He gave me two letter. I took them, threw them onto the hall table, still playing the riff, said, ‘Thanks, mate — goodbye,’ kicked the door shut, still playing, walked up the stairs, found the tape recorder next to my bed, and recorded the riff. And that was the beginning of ‘Desire.'” The quest to capture the riff on tape seems a bit extraneous given that the Edge probably could easily recovered it after a fresh listen to the Stooges’ “1969,” the song he readily acknowledges was his chief inspiration. The song served at the lead single for Rattle and Hum, the 1988 double album that was partially a new studio effort, partially a live release, and partially a soundtrack for the concert film and documentary hybrid of the same name. Accordingly, the lyrics address the swelling fame U2 was experiencing and the outsized influence that came with it. “I wanted to own up to the religiosity of rock ‘n’ roll concerts and the fact that you get paid for them,” lead singer Bono explained. “On one level, I’m criticizing the lunatic fringe preachers ‘stealing hearts at a traveling show,’ but I’m also starting to realize there’s a real parallel between what I am doing and what they do.”

 

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.

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Posted in Music

From the Archive: Flashback Friday — 1985

calvin right

I should really find more excuses to write about Calvin and Hobbes. This piece was posted in my former online home as part of the “Flashback Fridays” series.

1985: Calvin and Hobbes debuts

It’s about a young boy with a shock of yellow hair that looks like the teeth of an upturned saw blade, one of the big ones that requires two men to use. And it’s about his best friend in the world, a stuffed toy tiger. Or maybe he’s not stuffed. Maybe he’s a real tiger that the boy ensnared from the wild, rigging a trap with tuna fish as bait. He certainly seems real to the boy, serving as his conscious, sparring partner, confidante, supporter and stalwart partner. The boy is impetuous and a little wild, carried along by the force of his own id in a way that reflects the doctrine of predestination posited by his namesake. The tiger is inherently skeptical about the ways of humanity, thoroughly in line with his namesake. Together they move through the world, finding balance and adventure.

Calvin and Hobbes first appeared on November 18, 1985, added to the funny pages of approximately thirty-five newspapers. It was funny and smart from the very beginning, building a loyal following with remarkable speed. Eventually creator Bill Watterson found that the characters were adaptable enough to shoulder storylines that still fit nicely within the structure of daily strip, but had greater emotional possibilities. As Watterson allowed the narrative of the strip to become more far-ranging, he equally stretched the parameters of the art itself, most notably restructuring the layout and format of the Sunday strips from the rigid march of panels to image configuration that better suited his needs and allowed for bolder visuals. He saw his strip as not just a mild diversion amidst the rumble and grumble of the daily news, but as a genuine opportunity to create something that could be its own distinct work of art, something that was worth preserving.

Blessedly, he also saw the strip as something that had it’s own value that required no lucrative spin-offs. While Charles Shultz’s Peanuts was one of Watterson’s self-admitted greatest influences (the others were Walt Kelly’s Pogo and George Herriman’s Krazy Kat), the cartoonist couldn’t be further away from Schultz’s view of licensing run amok. Despite undoubtedly lucrative offers, Watterson never acquiesced to his characters appearing on coffee mugs or mouse pads. There were no animated TV specials, and it’s highly unlikely that Hobbes will ever come to life in some disastrously garish CGI feature, at least in Watterson’s lifetime. The comic strip is what matters. It was never the means to building a fortune-fueling greeting card empire. No matter what, the characters always belonged to him.

And, of course, there a bit of an ownership stake held by those who believe in Watterson’s vision and the way he chose to share it. Calvin and Hobbes tributes abound, many of them as sweet and warm-hearted (and rambunctious and happily inspired) as the strip itself. They’re expressions of the affection for the strip, for the characters, for the contemplative worldview that Watterson brought to the comics page on a daily basis for several years. Yes, there’s an entire cottage industry based upon decals of Calvin urinating on an astounding wide abundance of items, but I’m always amazed at how much of the appropriation of the characters is respectful and even loving.

It’s an impressively long shadow for a comic strip that lasted only ten years, and has now been defunct for longer than it ran. The final strip appeared on the last day of 1995, the boy and his tiger joyously greeting the blank page of a fresh snowfall with the pledge to “go exploring.” It’s nice to think of those two still out there, bounding down the slopes. As Calvin said on that last day, “It’s a magical world.” It’s just a little more magical with those two in it.

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