The New Releases Shelf — Colors

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(Image nicked from Beck’s Twitter)

Even as I’ll admit that I’m fairly detached from up-to-the-minute music scene scuttlebutt, it seems to me there’s a surprising lack of enthusiasm or even basic interest around the release of Colors, the new album by Beck. This is an artist who has been a major figure in pop music for around twenty-five years and who is also coming off an album that won him the top prize at the Grammys, joining the small legion of performers who unfairly bested Beyoncé in entertainment award competitions. (Don’t even get me started on Lemonade losing out to whatever drivel Adele hacked up that year.) I understand that taste is fickle and fleeting, but how can Colors be such a minor blip?

I’d like to think it’s because that trophy-nabbing predecessor, Morning Phase, has come under enough sharp enough critical reassessment that the realization has widely dawned that it’s actually a fairly dull affair. That’s probably not it, though. The problem could be the major lag time between the first bubblings of the album, over one year ago, and it’s ultimate release, a circumstance Beck chalks up to a determination that the overall chipperness of the music might not sit all that well in the immediate fallout of a gruesome presidential campaign and even more dire election. Maybe the explanation is yet simpler than that. Colors is bright, frothy, and a little wobbly. Its imperfection can make it seem like a let-down.

Regardless of the purposeful creativity Beck insists he brought to the album, Colors plays like a grab bag of decent ideas executed with a mindset that wavers between playful and mildly disengaged. Arguably, “I’m So Free” is the most emblematic track. It is stuffed full of studio-driven notions and indulges in some pleasingly modern concerns in its passing consideration of digital isolation (“Who am I supposed to be/ In the middle of the day with no good connection?/ I’m so free now”), but there’s a distressing Weezer-ish quality to its basic buzz-pop lope, and the insertion of rapidly jabbered lyrics with a magnetic poetry randomness only delivers greater sabotage.

The minor reworking of early single “Dreams” maintains its joyfully rambunctious embrace of every effective dance music trick, and “Dear Life” nicely splits the difference between Beck’s layered dance music explosions and his more ruminative, Sunday-morning-acoustic side. There are also instances of reasonable curiosity, such as “No Distraction,” which is the sort of track the Police might have come up with had they embraced disco around the time of Ghost in the Machine. Even if they feel a little negligible at first, they have the sonic stickiness that has always distinguished Beck from other quasi-ironic musical tricksters in his alternative rock peer group.

The album is also saddled with more regrettable examples of Beck’s craft. “Fix Me” is drippy and drab, and “Up All Night” sputters along with hints of Avalanches-style manipulated sounds and a groove that strains for the spirit relaxed Prince. Those qualities could be intriguing, achieving the invention-through-appropriation scheme that has lately proven winning for the likes of Daft Punk and LCD Soundsystem. Instead, the song sounds recycled, a bit of a shock from one of music’s more iconoclastic figures.

Despite the missteps, there are pleasures to be found on Colors. Beck is a skilled creator, and even uncertain swings of the piñata stick are likely to spill some candy. It’s his thirteenth studio album, after all. Consistent ingenuity can only be expected to last so long. Colors might not be a tremendous event, but some attention should be paid.

Playing Catch-Up — Lady Macbeth; The Killing of a Sacred Deer; Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond

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Lady Macbeth (William Oldroyd, 2017). Adapted from a similarly-titled nineteenth century novella by Nikolai Leskov, Lady Macbeth follows a young woman named Katherine (Florence Pugh), who is plopped into a chilly marriage to Alexander (Paul Hilton), the unkind scion of a rural estate. She carves out what satisfaction and happiness she can find, largely through an affair with one of her husband’s brutish employees (Cosmo Jarvis). William Oldroyd, making his feature directorial debut has a fine eye for visual composition and a brave sense of restraint. The film’s most dramatic moments play out with striking understatement, and the score (by Dan Jones) practically redefines minimalism in cinematic music. The film’s greatest attribute is the lead performance by Pugh, who unveils her character’s inner being by degrees. Lady Macbeth is uniformly admirable, but Pugh is riveting. Her acting lingers.

 

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The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2017). I’ve rarely stirred as much agitated counterargument as when I celebrated Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster as one of the best films of 2016. So I offer up my more muted appreciation of Greek filmmaker’s follow-up with the cautionary assurance that his bleak sense of humor and vicious cynicism about loving human relationships remains firmly in place. The film begins with the unlikely friendship between a surgeon (Colin Farrell) and a teenaged boy (Barry Keoghan). As the story unfolds, it is revealed that that two share a medical tragedy in the past, which leads to the film’s primary dilemma, as retribution is delivered in the form of unexplainable metaphysical gamesmanship. It’s the darkest of jokes, played as heavy, European drama. While the various actors (also including Nicole Kidman) successful convey the confusing anguish of it all, The Killing of a Sacred Deer sometimes comes across as a little too facile, in part because Lanthimos isn’t quite as thorough in building his off-kilter universe. There are times when it’s difficult to parse whether the harsh absurdity of it all is meant to be an intrusion on the otherwise mundane or wholly representative of the existence in which the characters dwell. The confusion undercuts the themes and the fundamental storytelling.

 

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Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond (Chris Smith, 2017). Building on the base of behind-the-scenes footage that Jim Carrey has evidently kept bundled up in an office somewhere for about twenty years, Chris Smith crafts a documentary about artistic obsession. When Carrey played Andy Kaufman in the Milos Forman film Man on the Moon, the actor famously locked himself so deeply into the role that he wouldn’t answer to his own name on set. That choice was a fitting tribute to the prankish comic legend Carrey was playing, but it also caused plenty of dismay during the production. As Carrey tells it, straight to Smith’s camera, it also left a lasting impression on him. In the modern reflections, Carrey comes across as a lost soul, shuffling across the mortal plane with only increasingly threadbare philosophy to keep him warm. Of course, Carrey is the only one offering retrospective analysis of the experience, when it may have been illuminating to get corroborating testimony from some of the others who collaborated on Man on the Moon. Part of the slippery brilliance of Smith’s documentary is the way it could be yet another put-on.

Now Playing — Coco

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I’ve championed the output of Pixar Animation Studios often and vigorously over the years, but lately I’ve been nervous. The rare studio that wriggled its way into auteur status, Pixar currently sits in the the middle of stretch in which four of five new full-length features are sequels, suggesting a worrisome lack of imagination. Worse yet, the strategy feels like the insidious influence of the studio’s corporate parent, the Walt Disney Company.

The very developmental existence of Toy Story 4 is still enough to fill me with pain — the film series was already closed out in an ideal fashion — but the new Pixar offering, Coco, provides a solid argument that the studio has its storytelling integrity intact. That is due to the film itself, which is a warm-hearted tale of familial history built respectfully around the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead. What really drives the point home is the abominable short smacked onto the front of the feature.

Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, featuring characters from the surprise Disney smash Frozen is the sort of blatant, hollow cash grab that the Mouse House is known for and that it’s difficult to imagine Pixar ever fully embracing. Stretching painfully to a length that would fill out nicely to thirty minutes of broadcast television time with the requisite number of commercials peppered throughout, the thin adventure sends the sentient snowman from Frozen on a journey to discover the varied holiday traditions beloved by residents in the kingdom presided over by his royal sister pals. It’s an obvious and insipid construct meant for little more than creating an excuse for the manufacture and sale of Frozen-themed Christmas albums.

As dreadful as it is to slog through, Olaf’s Frozen Adventure is a blessed preamble to Coco. It provides a contrast that illuminates the specialness of Pixar’s trademark mixture of grand invention, zippy charm, emotional fluency, and narrative rigor.

Directed by Lee Unkrich (with Adrian Molina credited as co-director), Coco focuses on a twelve-year-old boy named Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez). Living in a modest Mexican town with his extended family, Miguel dreams of becoming a musician, just like his idol, the late, legendary Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). His aspiration cuts against the strong preferences of his family, which has followed a strict no-music policy since Miguel’s great-great-grandfather went on tour as a musician and never returned home.

Through magical happenstance, Miguel finds himself transported to the Land of the Dead. He needs to get the blessing of one of his relatives to return to his proper place, but that is complicated by Miguel’s insistence on finding a departed family member who will simultaneously accept his dream of playing music. After making a discovery, Miguel believes he’s found a way to accomplish his goal, enlisting a desperate Land of the Dead soul named Héctor (Gael Garcia Bernal) to help him. Miguel also gets a mighty assist from a street dog named Dante, the best screen canine I’ve encountered in ages.

The plot is tight and clean, offering turns that aren’t entirely surprising, but still satisfying with their cleverness. And the Pixar artisans create a vivid world abounding with colorful morbidity. The designs are realized with the studio’s customary vivid smoothness and rich detail, and Unkrich and Molina pace the storytelling expertly. Given the aspirations of the lead character, Coco features more songs than the average Pixar release (which have often settled, sometimes grudgingly, for a couple Randy Newman ditties that could accompany a quick montage). Employing the Frozen songwriting team of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez (who, I now feel compelled to note, had no part in Olaf’s Frozen Adventure), the filmmakers incorporate the numbers smoothly and unobtrusively into the film, even pulling off the nimble feat of taking centerpiece “Remember Me” on its own narrative journey, from goofy lark to poignant beauty.

Coco isn’t one of the towering achievements of Pixar, standing as a marvel of creativity or drawing on wells of emotional power that put most live action movies to shame. It is effective and winning, though. And it demonstrates a welcome commitment to honoring a culture rather than appropriating from it. The film’s runaway success in Mexico speaks to that more convincingly than I ever could. Coco is worthy and wise. The light in that Pixar glow lamp still glows brightly after all.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 40 Cuts, March 16, 1990 — 20 – 17

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20. Kevn Kinney, “MacDougal Blues”

Back in the day, I don’t think we knew about the ability to claim Kevn Kinney as one of our own. Livin’ on the air in Central Wisconsin, we had a prideful devotion to artists who also called America’s Dairyland home, at least at some point. Kinney, the lead singer and chief songwriter of the band Drivin N Cryin, was, as it happens, a Milwaukee native. But his band was formed after a movie southward to Atlanta, and I doubt many of the reviews we read back in the day would have mentioned his lengthier heritage. We still shared his wares generously, especially when he struck out with his solo debut, MacDougal Blues. The title track and lead single covered a different geographic displacement, offering a wryly humorous assessment of moving to New York City with expectations of discovering a modern equivalent of the nineteen-sixties Greenwich Village folk scene only to encounter a far more callous, indifferent culture.

This cut was up from 32 on the previous chart.

 

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19. Ministry, “Burning Inside”

As the eighties gave way to the nineties, there were few bands making as aggressive of a sound for giddy college radio consumption as Ministry. Fully shaking off the mildly goth but fully accessible synth-pop they’d slung for the previous decade, Al Jourgenson’s outfit unleashed the album The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste in late 1989, and its lead single, “Burning Inside,” rattled broadcast towers from coast to coast. Jourgenson saw the harsh new sound as a more pure manifestation of his musical self, deeming the early music an example of a sell out. “I think there’s two kinds of music,” he told MTV at the time. “I think there’s good and there’s bad, and hopefully I’d like to be affiliated with the good side. I’m not going to get into this thrasho, technico, cyber-new-wave-o, sanitized, homogenized, boxed, out-it-out, 120 bpm, down your throat, ah you’re fuckin’ on to the next platter, you know?” Wish granted. “Burning Inside” can be described a lot of different ways, but it definitely can’t be characterized like that.

This cut was down from 5 on the previous chart.

 

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18. Everything but the Girl, “Driving”

And here we have a track that is essentially the exact opposite of the Ministry rage-blast. Everything but the Girl already had a reputation for pristine pop, and that was before producer Tommy LiPuma turned dials for the duo. LiPuma had a mountain of records in his discography, but he’d probably had his greatest successes with jazz so smooth it was basically textureless.  And one year later, he’d serve as executive producer on Natalie Cole’s Unforgettable…with Love, an album so rabidly inoffensive and steeped in nostalgia that it couldn’t help but being an enormous hit. With Everything but the Girl, he helped craft The Language of Life, which showcased the band’s impeccable pop craft, but also buried the songs in obscuring twee glisten. The most damning evidence of LiPuma’s heavy hand arrived two years later, when the single “Driving” was salvaged for an exquisite remake on the album Acoustic.

This cut was making its debut on the chart.

 

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17. Public Enemy, “Welcome to the Terrordome”

In the fall of 1990, I moved into a large, ramshackle house with several of my fellow college radio staffers. With approximately one-third of the station’s executive staff in a single domicile, we decided the house needed a catchy name. You know, like Graceland or Foxcatcher. Preferring something that evoked — however tangentially — our time in the on air studio, we landed on the Terrordome, borrowing the location named in a Public Enemy single from the 1989 album Fear of a Black Planet. My crew was about as far from Public Enemy as a half-dozen people could be, but we were able to drop in the fiercely rapped line “Welcome to the Terrordome” randomly onto party mix tapes. Priorities, you know. The track from which we sought transferred cool and danger was written to address controversy the group experienced when Professor Griff — designated as Public Enemy’s Minister of Information — made antisemitic comments in an interview. That also had no connection whatsoever to my crew, but, again, the song really made a party bounce.

This cut was up from 34 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: Ratatouille

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On the weekend that brings a new Pixar release — thankfully not a sequel or other overt franchise stab — I’ll import this review from my former online home. 

There are plenty of creators working in animation, computer or tradition, who know how to use the inherent flexibility of the technique to expand the parameters of what they can include in the storytelling. The can turn sentient candelabras or tough guy baked goods into supporting characters and use the wildest of worlds as settings that are as easily attainable as a suburban kitchen. But until Brad Bird’s Ratatouille, I don’t think I’ve even seen a director take full advantage of the limitless possibilities of animation when it comes to things like staging and shot construction. Bird creates images that are astoundingly dense with details and concocts camera angels and placement that truly ingenious.

The story revolves around a French rat named Remy whose pronounced sense of smell causes him to eschew his family’s garbage-eating ways in favor of the life of a aspiring gourmand. This gets a boost when an unexpected disruption separates Remy from his clan and he winds up in the kitchen of a Parisian restaurant using a strange, follicle-driven method of marionette-esque manipulation to guide an otherwise unskilled member of the staff into creating dishes that become the talk of the city. While Remy’s methodology in controlling his culinary figurehead don’t make much sense, neither does a rat who can rescue a disastrous soup after a few deep sniffs, so griping too much about the necessary devices to drive the action would be a needlessly curmudgeonly response to the wonders onscreen. Besides, the involuntary muscle responses yield at least on scene that serves as a worthy, animated successor to Steve Martin’s astounding physical achievements in All of Me. The willing suspension of disbelief is richly rewarded.

If there’s any complaint that can be leveled, it’s that Bird’s film is so stuffed with ideas, that his themes and overall points sometimes get a little muddled (for a little stretch, the film seems to be presenting the argument bros-before-hos, which doesn’t really mesh with the film’s earlier standpoint on the female character that makes up the latter part of that equation). But that same bustling, bulging busyness more often develops into grand set pieces, such as the film’s inspired scene of kitchen rescue late in the proceedings or moments of unexpected grace and insight like the monologue about the art, futility, and daring of criticism (and Bird is certainly not picking a fight; as the director of The Iron Giant and The Incredibles he’s been the beneficiary of their largess).

When it comes to that monologue, it’s definitely elevated by Peter O’Toole’s cragged mountain voice, one of many wonderful vocal performances in the film (one of the best, surprisingly enough, comes from Janeane Garofalo). The great cast is just another way that Bird makes the most of the options afforded to him by working in animation. I don’t know if he’s spent a lot of time thinking deeply about how to use the inherent adaptability of his chosen style of filmmaking to push past standing parameters into grand new achievements. I do know, however, that that’s absolutely what he’s accomplishing.

One for Friday — Blue Aeroplanes, “Jacket Hangs”

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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.)