From the Archive: Liz Phair

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Yesterday was about praising Liz Phair, so I guess today we present the counterpoint. Or rather, this is Phair a few years later when her musical output transformed indie coolness with a “personal mileage may vary” disclaimer to downright terrible stabs at mainstream success. The was a review I wrote for The Independent Journal, a newspaper overseen by the irrepressible Dave PlotkinI think of this as the first one I did for that particular publication, but I could be wrong about that.

It’s been a long time since we’ve heard that voice. Lilting and aggressive, a voice capable of making threats and boasts sound like sweet nothings, a voice that seemingly has — sadly, shockingly — nothingto say anymore. It’s been ten years since Exile in Guyville got critics all giddy about the sound of girl cursing on a record, and five years since the mature, crafty whitechocolatespaceegg got her little attention from those prior boosters. She’s apparently spent the interim deciding that it’s time to try and move some product. Four tracks bear the officious, neon fingerprints of the producing team that perpetrated Avril Lavigne’s hits, and many of the other offerings hew to the same airplay-at-all-costs aesthetic. There’s still the occasional minor triumph of offhand catchiness (“It’s Sweet,” “Firewalker”), but the standard here is closer to the embarrassing underwear metaphors of “Favorite” or the simpering post-divorce parenting confessional “Little Digger.”

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One for Friday: Liz Phair, “California”

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This is how I saw it: Liz Phair needed to reclaim some of the energy that surrounded her out-of-nowhere indie sensation debut, Exile in Guyville. By most measures, her follow-up effort, Whip-Smart, was an even greater success, climbing higher on the album charts, selling more copies (at least initially, though Exile in Guyville has outpaced it by now), and yielding a couple of decent modern rock radio hits. But her coolness quotient took a pretty sizable hit. She became a Rolling Stone cover girl instead of a Village Voice icon. That’s not inherently bad — and there are plenty of indications that Phair craved big-time stardom rather than cult heroism — but the singer-songwriter’s brand was built on a certain confrontational outsiderness. That part of her aura was fading. So just shy of one year after Whip-Smart, Phair released the EP Juvenilia.

Juvenilia was essentially an over-stuffed single, led by “Jealousy,” from the Whip-Smart album, and including a cover of “Turning Japanese,” recorded with Material issue, the sort of quasi-ironic take on a familiar song that was like catnip to college radio programmers. The rest of the EP is comprised of early, demo-ish tracks, some of them previously released on the Girly-Sound cassettes that got Phair noticed in the first place. “California” is one of those songs, a seemingly tossed off, playful original infused with the spirit of utter freedom that often travels with amateur creativity. I’m not one of those listeners who gets irritated any time an artist strays from the relatively humility of their beginnings (hell, I think Phair peaked with the first album that really raised the ire of her early fans), but I have to admit this material lands more nicely in my ear than a lot of other Phair tracks that shuffle up on the magical radio station I’ve built in my iTunes.

Listen or download –> Liz Phair, “California”

(Disclaimer: It appears to me that Juvenilia is out of print as a physical object that can be procured from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that will compensate both Phair and the proprietor of said store. And the folks at Matador Records, for that matter. I’ve got no beef with them. So I share this not to divert commerce from worthy individuals and entities, but instead to offer the reminder that Phair has some good stuff that is worth purchasing, which is easy to forget since it’s been so long since the broader music cognoscenti has been excited about her music. Any of her first three albums is worth the dollars necessary to acquire one or all of them. So, yes, no harm meant. Still, I know the rules. I will gladly and promptly remove this is asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

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Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Forty-One

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#41 — Key Largo (John Huston, 1948)

I typically put John Huston in the category of classic Hollywood directors whose excellence is best measured by their absolutely command of craft. As the vocabulary of classic narrative was still being shaped, Huston was one of those in the cinematic blacksmith shop, swinging his mallet at the glowing red steel. Unlike some of his immediate predecessors (and rough contemporaries) on this timeline — John Ford and Howard Hawks are the two who immediately come to mind — Huston embedded a slightly shiftier personality into his art. He had a flair for the torrid that put him slightly out of step with the chaste times in which his career began. He didn’t overtly play around with double entendres or otherwise try to stealthily shuffle his fictions past the various censors employed by the industry, but some of his best films are infused with a sweaty anxiousness, a prevailing sense that everything can get so much uglier so quickly. These films teeter right on the cusp of what’s prohibited, constantly threatening to topple in.

Adapted from a stage play by Maxwell Anderson, introduced in 1939, Key Largo is a splendid example of Huston’s ability to twist drama into the woozily discombobulating, as if the celluloid itself is suffering from a fever edging ever upward. The film places a batch of raggedy souls together in a hotel located in the Florida Keys. A hurricane is bearing down on the island, which is trouble enough. Then it’s revealed that a mysterious guest of the establishment is the vicious gangster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), and the raging weather outside doesn’t make him any more solicitous to his fellow travelers. The film becomes an ingenious exercise in ratcheting up the tension, with Rocco persecuting the others as he waits for one of his shady dealings to commence, the rising winds roughly equivalent to building rapidity of everyone’s collective pulse. Huston’s pinpoint command of telling a story is invaluable, but he brings additional craftiness to the picture, most notably with tracking shots that snake through the hotel, greatly mitigating any stagebound quality without eliminating the claustrophobic confinement which is, after all, one of the narrative’s most distinctive strengths.

And then there are the two stars of the film, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Though the married couple are forever embedded in film history as one of the most iconic screen pairings — surely second only to Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy — they were only in four movies together, all of them released within a five year span. Key Largo was the final one. While it may lack some of the astounding spark of the first films together, their tandem work reflects an ease and comfort that is just as satisfying. They play off of one another with keen certainty, a belief in the safety provided by the collaboration. Robinson gives the film’s best performance, bringing surprising nuance and intricate shading to a role that could have easily been little more than a blustering thug and still been effective, but its Bogart and Bacall that give Key Largo its touch of added soul. As Huston masters the tactics of the film, his primary players give it a marvelous inner life. Of course, the contribution of Bogart and Bacall owes something to Huston’s artistry, too. Among the director’s many gifts was a well-developed instinct to know exactly how to take advantage of what was in front of him as he peered through the lens.

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I was on the inside when they pulled the four walls down

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There are certainly of plenty of potential reasons for the current renaissance in indie horror, not the least of which is the well-established helpful ratio of low budgets and high potential box office reward that the genre offers. Just as road movies were once the handiest ways to develop high drama with limited dollars (and inspiration, quite frankly) so too are horror movies one of the most direct routes to getting a film made for a fledgling filmmaker. But I think the more interesting consideration is the growing proliferation of artistically rich horror films, particularly in terms of the visual choices made from those occupying the director’s chair. It strikes me as a direct reaction to the overabundance of “found footage” horror films, a style for which The Blair Witch Project blazed the trail years before Paranormal Activity paved it over so it could be used over and over and over again.

Thankfully, there are a small fleet of directors pushing back against the deliberately amatuerish — even if it’s only feigned artlessness —  approach. Ti West was one of the first, and Jennifer Kent currently holds the title belt, thanks to The Babadook, but there are plenty more inspired breathless praise from those who favor the sort of film festival offerings that tend to screen at roundabout midnight. One of the most feverishly praised of late — often playing side-by-side with The Babadook at fests over the course of the past year — is David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, the writer-director’s sophomore feature. It’s not difficult to understand why. From the opening moments, the film operates with the patient, low-key, and genial disaffectedness, as if something terrible was seeping in to an early Richard Linklater movie. Mitchell has an impressive eye and a welcome tendency to frame his shots in a way that rejects a lot of the visual tropes of the genre (he seems largely disinterested in relying on the trickery of deep shadows or explosions of menace from offscreen space). He also has a fantastic allegorical hook, with the ferocious supernatural beastie locking in on its victims after they’ve had intercourse with someone who’s already picked up the curse. It’s a fine metaphor for sexually transmitted infections while simultaneously exploiting the eighties horror flick cliche that the ultra-powerful masked villain is most likely to strike after some randy teens have distracted themselves with heavy duty nookie.

And yet It Follows is sometimes overly restrained, a touch too refined. Mitchell excels at the slow burn creepiness, but struggles when it would be useful to pivot into grander, more exuberantly wild mayhem. It’s a movie that rumbles beautifully without ever delivering a satisfying cymbal crash. Even when Mitchell manages to set up a promising set piece (such as a scene at an indoor swimming pool, the site used to great effect by everything from Cat People to Let the Right One In), the flatness that is an effective default elsewhere undercuts the stridency of the scene. That hint of hesitation also leaves one of the most promising details under-utilized. The ghoulish creature can take whatever form it likes, including those of actual people from its intended victim’s life. The set-up implies there will be some moments of confusion as our heroine (Maika Monroe) can tell if a familiar face actually signals safety. Instead, there’s rarely any doubt as to who or what is shuffling towards her. Given other clear intents within the film, I’ll concede the choice could be grounded in sly satire (monsters masquerading as friends is fairly commonplace in horror stories), but it mostly serves to drain danger out of scenes. By the end, the shape-shifting seems like a random choice (or a money-saving exercise) rather than a piece of purposeful narrative design.

These drawbacks don’t sink It Follows. They merely cast a shadow of what could have been. Overall, it’s rich and memorable, offering a fresh reminder as to the great possibilities in any story, even when it resides within a often maligned and too-easily dismissed genre. And at its strongest — a moment that immediately follows a tryst in a car comes immediately to mind — the film shudders with dark ingenuity.

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Amirpour, Asante, Dobkin, Glatzer and Westmoreland, Roskam

Belle (Amma Asante, 2014). Based ever so lightly on real history — the only real source is a 1779 painting — this period drama tells the story of Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a young woman who is the offspring of a British naval officer (Matthew Goode) and an African-born slave. She’s raised among the British gentry by her grandparents (Tom Wilkinson and Sarah Gadon), treated as a beloved member of the family but also relegated to diminished status in her own home because of the conventions of the day. If the unconventional story elevates the film a bit past its restrained Masterpiece Theatre trappings, the real pleasure is in watching the performances by Mbatha-Raw and Wilkinson, both of them investing their roles with affecting authenticity, even as they operate in slightly different registers (Wilkinson concentrates on intellect while Mbatha-Raw revels in tempered emotion). For those who prefer a little overacting sprinkled into their 18th century moral pondering, there’s Miranda Richardson, playing a version of the imperiously judgmental Maggie Smith role that one might be more likely to find in a production staged on Mars. Asante guides the film with an able but relatively indistinct direction.

The Judge (David Dobkin, 2014). So artless and pat in its storytelling that it can make a viewer long for the potboiler exuberance of the Grisham Age of Hollywood Legal Dramas. Robert Downey, Jr. roots around in his satchel of charming asshole tricks once again to play Hank Palmer, a wealthy, sleazy big-city defense attorney who returns to his humble Indiana hometown for his mother’s funeral and winds up staying for a spell when his father, a curmudgeonly local judge (Robert Duvall, giving a performance that’s a dwindling echo of what’s he’s done before), is accused of killing a man he once sent to prison. There’s barely an original thought in the film, and the worst elements — such as one of Hank’s brothers, played in a thankless performance by Jeremy Long, is mentally challenged and alternates unpleasantly between comic relief and easy pathos — transcend cliche only in their level of direness. The film crescendos with a courtroom scene so ludicrous and bereft of verisimilitude that it may as well come equipped with comic sound effects.

Still Alice (Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, 2014). It’s a shame that “TV movie” as a derogatory term has largely fallen out of the vernacular, because that’s the ideal shorthand to point out the many ways in which Still Alice is lacking. Tagging it thus is meant to call up the bygone entries in what was accurately referred to as “disease of the week” features, with some attractive, charming middle-aged woman suddenly and sadly beset with some debilitating ailment, easy drama wrenched from the downfall and facts about the medical condition didactically dispensed. Julianne Moore won her overdue Oscar for playing the title character, a linguistics professor humbled by early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a worthy performance if not a particularly memorable or inventive one. It’s the rest of the film that is deeply lacking, from the eager but middling supporting cast (led by a staid Alec Baldwin and less-distracted-than-usual Kristen Stewart) to the pedestrian construction of the visuals. Glatzer and Westmoreland do obviously try to get at uncomfortable truths, but the film is too tepid to land the needed emotional blows.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014). On principle alone, I’m inclined to celebrate a black-and-white, Iranian vampire movie written and directed by a woman. The film is so improbable in so many ways that is as uncanny as the creatures of the night it depicts. There is no better description for A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night that the one offered by Tasha Robinson at The Dissolve. Citing Jim Jarmusch’s recent Only Lovers Left Alive, Robinson asserted now “cinephiles can also find out what a Jim Jarmusch vampire movie would have looked like back in 1985, somewhere between Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law.” That’s the exact vibe of the film, and, like those indie lodestars, Amirpour’s runs low on scruffy, downbeat charm before the closing moments arrive. It’s atmospheric and finely grim, showing tremendous promise and a distinctly cinematic point of view. If it’s a little too drowsy, it also seems clear that Amirpour is imbued with a talent that will only grow.

The Drop (Michaël R. Roskam, 2014). Working from a screenplay by Dennis Lehane (based on one of his short stories and then worked by the author into an adapted novel), Roskam wades right into the seediness of ugly small time crime, with Chechen mobsters skimming from Brooklyn dive bars, including the one formerly owned and still operated by Marv (James Gandolfini). Tom Hardy plays a bartender named Bob, who clearly tries to stay an unbothered innocent on the fringes of all these shady dealings, even though there’s a strong sense of a more dangerous history. The film is solid as a brass knuckle punch, clicking through its harsh crime story with methodical certainty, even if it finds only the barest depth in the proceedings. Hardy excels at these sort of brutish souls with unexpected touches of gentleness, and there’s a nice supporting turn by Noomi Rapace, as the woman who gets drawn towards Bob, beginning with the sad but hopefully discovery of an abandoned pooch.

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Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Forty-Two

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#42 — The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941)

“I’ve got some unfinished business with him. I need him like the axe needs the turkey.” That bit of barbed dialogue is hardly unique within the cascade of knotty language that spilled from movie screens throughout the nineteen-forties. Roughly a generation after movies learned to talk, they’d mastered talking sharp and hard. Any number of offerings — especially comedies — cut like hacksaws, the crazy strong ones made for getting through metal. But few of his contemporaries could weld cynicism and downright meanness onto a script and still keep it paradoxically light and fun, primed for the inevitable pivot to the sort of happy (or at least happier) ending audiences craved, like Preston Sturges. The great filmmaker was still fairly early in his brief, brilliant directing career when he turned in his first truly masterful effort, The Lady Eve.

In a typically twisty plot (loosely based on a Monckton Hoffe story), a con artist named Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) points her viewfinder straight at beer company scion Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), certain that his pronounced naivete will make him the perfect target for a lucrative raiding of his family bank account. After some preliminary complications, Jean adopts the identity of Eve Sidwich, using her wiles to continually push her lanky prey into bumbling, sputtering states of lustful bafflement. The chief appeal of the film is watching Stanwyck take full charge of every moment she’s onscreen, portraying Jean as firmly in command and using every tool at her disposal, from her ever-whirring mind to the sultriness that wafts off of her like aroma off the artfully perfumed. And she teeters between malice and affection for Charles with aplomb, demonstrating that Stanwyck was one of the first Hollywood performers who mastered the ambivalence of evoking fiercely battling feelings in a single moment.

Then there is the comic voice of Sturges, itself a marvel of contradiction. Besides the mix of the caustic and caring, the filmmaker operates with instincts that manage to encompass the totality of film comedy up to that point. The script is rife with spectacularly insightful deployment of language, dialogue that smacks with keen intellect without becoming mired in overbearing verboseness, and it also makes room for sudden, clattering slapstick, sending Fonda’s character literally falling for this sardonic version of a femme fatale. For all its breadth of approach, The Lady Eve doesn’t bubble with ambition, pushily announcing itself as some grand expansion of the form. Instead, it has a clear ease, tagging it as a natural extension of its creator. This is, plain and simple, what a film should be.

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College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1995, 62-60

62 lucky62. Moonpools & Caterpillars, Lucky Dumpling

Lucky Dumpling was the one and only major label effort by California band Moonpools & Caterpillars, bookended by a couple of self-released albums. The Fillipino-American band, led by singer Kimmi Ward Encarnacion and guitarist Jay Jay Encarnacion, was supposedly signed to their Elektra Records contract when a label rep saw them opening for a different act that he’d actually shown up to scout. They had some modest success on the college charts, primarily with the single “Hear,” though it wasn’t enough to satisfy their new corporate bosses. Given a taste of the big time (and with bank accounts hopefully boosted by selling their music to soundtracks and commercials), the band didn’t last too much longer. There was evidently enough of a slow burn fan following to merit the occasional reunion gig.

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61. Ben Harper, Fight for Your Mind

Ben Harper is one of those artists who probably deserved better than he got. Admittedly, that assessment may overly diminish his significant professional accomplishments: a long healthy recording career, lucrative worldwide tours, and a trio of Grammy Awards. Yet, for all his success, he’s long seemed like someone who couldn’t quite hit the target for significant commercial success in the United States. Sure, he had four straight number one albums in Italy, but not a single one of his records built up the domestic sales necessary to be certified gold. Indeed, his discography is a listing of European adoration and American disregard. Harper himself offered an explanation to Billboard when he was still touring to support his sophomore release, Fight for Your Mind, noting, “In Europe, people are less concerned with musical genres and will accept the music before the marketing technique.”

Fight for Your Mind offers ample evidence as to how clearly Harper kept himself clear of easy categorization. The albums shifts and slides all over the place, noodling around with material that’s recognizably informed most by aching folk and classic soul but zips all over the globe to add different dashes of sonic seasoning. The liner notes explicitly spell out the broader influences, tagging each song with a symbol that represents a different African nation, from Angola to Uganda. The one song that ventures away from the world’s second-largest continent settles in Jamaica. Naturally, that’s the easygoing paean to marijuana “Burn One Down” (“Let us burn one/ From end to end/ And pass it over/ To me my friend”), a track that perhaps offers key background insight on the drowsy quality across the rest of the album.

“Oppression,” the opening track, has pointed lyrics (“Oppression/ You seek population control/ Oppression/ To divide and to conquer is your goal”), but drifts by with the urgency of a island lullaby delivered from a hammock. Even when Harper expands a song to near-epic length, on the nearly-twelve-minute “God Fearing Man,” the obvious and impressive ambition of the track is undercut by a level of overly pronounced gentleness. It’s as if Harper wants to challenge the listeners without rousing them. That was a flawed strategy in the echoing din of the waning grunge era. A lack of commercial cunning is hardly the most damning quality for a record to have, but when Fight for Your Mind lapses into somnambulant musical meandering, it becomes difficult to champion its restraint.

60 short60. Filter, Short Bus

The creative outlet of Cleveland native Richard Patrick, Filter clanged the bell on top of the carnival’s strength tester with their very first swing of the mallet. “Hey Man Nice Shot,” the lead single from the band’s debut album, Short Bus, became a significant hit on alternative rock radio. In turn, that helped Short Bus to move over a million copies. That wasn’t the end of their success (they notched another platinum record with their sophomore release, Title of Record), but there’s something about that first blast of earned attention that feels very particular to the era, when there was enough primed excitement over any music that had a little plodding aggression to it that a band that was plainly an industrial act — albeit a little less brutal that many of their peers in that genre — could briefly capture wider attention. I might place Filter squarely in the mid-nineties, but they’ve continued cranking out music with only the slightest of breaks, including the release of new albums, one as recently as 2013.

Previously….

An Introduction
— 90-88: The Falling Wallendas, Parasite, and A.M.
— 87-85: North Avenue Wake Up Call, Live!, and Life Begins at 40 Million
— 84 and 83: Wholesale Meats and Fishes and Orange
— 82-80: (What’s the Story) Morning Glory, Fossil, and Electric Rock Music
— 79-77: Coast to Coast Motel, My Wild Life, and Life Model
— 76-74: Gag Me with a Spoon, Where I Wanna Be, and Ruby Vroom
— 73 and 72: Horsebreaker Star and Wild-Eyed and Ignorant
— 71 and 70: 500 Pounds and Jagged Little Pill
— 69-67: Whirligig, The Basketball Diaries, and On
— 66 and 65: Alice in Chains and Frogstomp
— 64 and 63: Happy Days and Exit the Dragon

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