Beers I Have Known — Half Acre Beer Company Daisy Cutter Pale Ale

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.

daisy cutter

In my neck of the nation, we’re accustomed to winter holding on with a fierce tenacity. This year has delivered a strange and unique experience as frigid temperatures and hefty snowstorms hung around so long that they seemed to basically crowd out the entire season of spring. Not long after the middle of the state was hit by a historic blizzard, the thermometer spiked upward. Now, in the beginning of May, it feels like the height of summer.

And the shift in the weather means a shift in the chilly brews pulled out of the fridge. I will admit my choice for the beer that tastes best when sipped under the high sun changes with the fickleness of schoolyard crushes. It’s early, of course, but oddsmakers should put even money on this year belonging to Daisy Cutter Pale Ale, one of the chief offerings of Chicago’s Half Acre Beer Company. Crisp, lovely, and dense with flavor, it’s near-perfection in a can.

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

Now Playing — Avengers: Infinity War

infinity war

When I was still a kid and started my long, tumultuous relationship with superhero comic books, one particular issue loomed large for me. X-Men #137 was a double-sized offering with a story entitled “The Fate of the Phoenix!” It was the culmination of an extended storyline that found long-time character Jean Grey manipulated into evil acts against her teammates as her Phoenix-force-enhanced powers swelled to cosmic levels. The import of the comic is expressed bluntly by the words emblazoned across the bottom of the cover: PHOENIX MUST DIE! By the time I got my hands on it, the shocking turn was well-known. It didn’t matter. This was major, major stuff.

Fans possessing hearty backgrounds with comic books have been quick to assuage the fretting of those whose familiarity with Marvel’s lineup of superheroes is limited to the cinematic. What appears final on screen likely isn’t, they insist, probably with a steel mesh underlay of cynicism. The most dire outcomes might not be evaded, but they can be erased with greater ease than one might reasonably expect. In the Marvel Universe, mortality is a social construct.

Avengers: Infinity War, the latest installment from the rampaging and relentless Marvel Studios, is laden with burden. It isn’t quite the culmination of ten years of storytelling. That arrives one year hence, with the release of the fourth Avengers film. But the big, grand ending is revving up. And it feels like it. Practically every toy has been pulled out of the chest and strewn around the playroom, as if sugar-high toddlers have been told they can have one more afternoon of fun before everything is loaded into cardboard boxes and carted off to Goodwill, gone forever.

The burden is also apparent in the self-defeating insistence on raising the stakes ever higher. The intergalactic marauder Thanos (Josh Brolin, in a motion capture performance) finally moves forward with a plan he’s been stewing over since the big screen bow of Earth’s mightiest heroes, collecting a half-dozen celestial jewels, plugging them into the tasteful settings on a clunky metal gauntlet, and using the resulting omnipotence to implement a plan that at least half the citizens of the universe would decisively vote against. Once just a couple of baubles are in place, Thanos has robust enough abilities to manipulate time and matter that felling foes is as easy as a waggle of his fingers. But there still needs to be a movie, packed to the edges of the frame with rock-’em-sock-’em battles, and so the devastating effects of the enchanted metal mitt are highly variable.

Given everything loaded into Avengers: Infinity War, co-directors Anthony and Joe Russo are required to perform the equivalent of a quintuple Axel. There’s a little wobble to the execution, but it’s amazing that they’ve tried it at all. The filmmakers impressively make space for far more major characters than any one piece of cinema should be expected to bear. Working from a screenplay by fellow Marvel regulars Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the Russos mix and match well, developing joyful, clever interplay between the heroes, including those who commute in from feeder films with distinctly different tones.

Like the sprawling team-up comics of days gone by, the appeal lies in the sheer volume of the proceedings. Save perhaps galaxy guardian Gamora (Zoe Saldana), none of the characters is granted an arc of any real substance. Instead, the film is often the equivalent of superstars in the “We Are the World” recording studio, stepping forward for their moment then receding into the mass. And as with that bygone charity single, an understanding of the preceding, outside work of the assembled is necessary to extract any enjoyment out of the experience. We’re long past the at which there’s any news flash quality to observations about the Marvel film’s inability to stand alone, but the expansiveness of Infinity War heightens the usual flaw. If a character has a simple hook — like the comic literalness of Drax (Dave Bautista) — they fare pretty well in the movie. For those figures of greater nuance and depth — Captain America (Chris Evans) or Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), for example — there’s no time available to give them their due. It creates an inversion of how this is supposed to work, with the least well drawn characters proving to be most impactful.

All those years ago, “The Fate of the Phoenix” was important to me because its sense of finality felt real. It was a reasonable belief. Yes, characters that seemed to meet their maker would often return several issues later, recounting an improbable tale of escape. The most cataclysmic twists of fate, however, weren’t overturned on appeal, and it seemed likely that Jean Grey would be in that number. That assumption proved quite incorrect. Brand, as it happens, overrules the emotional integrity of narrative. The Russos can declare, “All in,” but the release schedule of Marvel Studios calls their bluff. Avengers: Infinity War is fun and raucous, but it’s bereft of deeper feeling, undermined by the very model of interconnection that makes it possible.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #936 to #933

skinny cleanse

936. Skinny Puppy, Cleanse, Fold & Manipulate (1987)

It bizarre for me to think of industrial titans Skinny Puppy as edging towards cuddly mainstream acceptance, but that’s arguably what was happening around 1987, the year the Canadian released their third album, Cleanse, Fold & Manipulate. Their original label, Nettwerk, had signed a distribution deal with Capitol Records, a major player in the music business that specifically saw Skinny Puppy as a perfect entryway into the growing college radio market. Capitol employed every trick they could think of in promoting the record, such as distributing a paperweight resembling an eyeball and inexplicably landing a review in People magazine, which explained listening to Skinny Puppy’s music was like “stepping into a nightmare being experienced by the Phantom of the Opera.”

Spare a moment’s sympathy for the unwitting People subscribers who procured a copy of Cleanse, Fold & Manipulate believing it was a spookier version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical so new on the scene it was a highly topic reference to deploy. The fare on the album may be a little more approachable than Skinny Puppy at their aggressive pinnacle, but it ain’t “All I Ask of You.” The angry, snaking menace of “Addiction” is as cuddly as the album gets.

Skinny Puppy helped map the terrain of industrial music, and their defining expertise is apparent on Cleanse, Fold & Manipulate. The lock into a style that can be fairly rigid, and find odd, flinty angles within it. “Draining Faces” stays in a seething idle for most of its five minutes before expanding into a vicious, viscous swirl of sound. And “Deep Down Trauma Hounds” is fantastically propulsive, as if it could issue commands to the pogo-ing version of The Red Shoes.

As is often the case with industrial, there’s far less appeal to the lyrics, which are burdened with portentous nihilism. It’s a particularly painful proposition when the tracks tick into political commentary, as with the post-Vietnam ponderings of “Second Tooth” (“It’s useless killing children/ To satisfy the arms budgets/ Who walks right or left/ A child won’t give a damn”). It’s best to simply concentrate on the razor wire music. Skinny Puppy deployed it better than most.

 

 

soup this

935. The Soup Dragons, This is Our Art (1988)

I tend to think of the Soup Dragons as careening between markedly different styles from album to album. That’s because the touchstones from my personal college radio days — Lovegod (1990), Hotwired (1992), and Hydrophonic (1994) — really do operate with distinctly different flavors. However, a fresh listen to This is Our Art reminded me the Scottish band’s sonic contradictions were intermingling from the jump.

The proper full-length debut of the Soup Dragons (following the 1986 album Hang Ten!, which was a collection of previously released material from singles and EPs), This is Our Art is vividly rambunctious, zipping from one musical notion to the next. The hooks are infectious and the band operates with an enviable swagger, putting the songs across with unstoppable charisma and assurance. That’s true whether it’s the sugar blast glam rock of “Kingdom Chairs,” the mild psychedelia of “The Majestic Head?,” or the smart, skittering “King of the Castle.” They even adopt a convincing Morrissey swoon for the track “On Overhead Walkways.”

Although This is Our Art strikes me as the product of a band with an abundance of musical and stylistic ideas, the second side presents a counterargument. As if playing in real time, the album lags as it spins to the end. “Family Ways” is dully redundant, as is “Another Dreamticket.” They play like padding, little musical notions expanded to reach a contractually mandated running time. New to major label Sire Records, the band might very well have been facing down stern instructions. The best of the album, though, indicates the Soup Dragons were best when allowed to bend any and all rules put before them.

 

eddie keeps

934. Eddie Money, Playing for Keeps (1980)

A trade journal print ad promoting the 1980 album Playing for Keeps posed a question: “How come Eddie Money’s always givin’ you the business?” The New York performer had enjoyed a few unlikely hits in the late nineteen-seventies, perhaps because his mangy hound authenticity provided an endearing contrast to the studio-buffed disco dominating the charts at the time. But it didn’t exactly seem as if Money had the complexity or room for growth needed to build a long, consistent career. By the release of Playing for Keeps, his third album, he was finding it difficult to duplicate his earlier success.

Produced by Ron Nevison — who also has to answer for a multitude of AOR sins, such as the sum output of Damn YankeesPlaying for Keeps is a procession of mediocre ideas implemented poorly. Album opener “Trinidad” somehow combines the worst characteristics of Billy Joel and Jimmy Buffet into a single track. Proving things can always get worse, it’s followed by “Running Back,” which commits so fully to some weird white soul version of reggae that wispy blond dreads are likely to form in the psyche of any being unfortunate enough to hear it.

Money is a passable rock singer, and when he sticks to earnest updates of typical sixties fare, the result is uninspiring but forgivable. He falters most painfully on the ballads, such as the drippy “When You Took My Heart,” in which he sings, “It was yours to have/ Cuz you touched my soul/ She came along, took this boy’s hand/ And the child became a man.” No human performer can overcome lyrics like that. And then there’s the dreadful duet “Let’s Be Lovers Again,” which ropes Valerie Carter into the misery.

The same ad cited above promised that Money would be on tour through the entirety of 1980, jokingly quoting the performer. “The boss says I cant come home till the album’s platinum,” he supposedly said. It was a cute way to depict Money’s servitude the music business machine, but the grueling schedule took a toll on the singer. Self-medicating with barbiturates, Money collapsed when overdosing, injuring himself severely enough to require extensive rehab efforts, further derailing his career.

 

rubber scenic

933. Rubber Rodeo, Scenic Views (1984)

Hailing from Providence, Rhode Island, Rubber Rodeo honed their craft on the Boston music scene of the early-nineteen-eighties, one of the hallowed eras and locals in the grand college rock story. Brash and bodacious, the band knew how to set themselves apart, once playing a New York City label showcase on a stage adorned with cardboard renderings of cheesy Western cliches, like a cactus and a rattlesnake. The head of Eat Records, the independent label that helped the band record their debut release, termed the band “an exercise in commercial art.” Like Talking Heads, the members of Rubber Rodeo met at the Rhode Island School of Design.

If Rubber Rodeo’s sense of showmanship was exceedingly well-developed, their music wasn’t far behind. The material on Scenic Views — the band’s proper debut album, which was picked up and released by Mercury Records — is sterling college rock fare with an overlay of mildly ironic cowpoke charm.  The leisurely twang of “Walking After Midnight” is representative, as is “The Hardest Thing,” a breakup song that sounds like X after the last layer of punk has been scraped away.

Befitting their saloon hall cleverness, Rubber Rodeo has a sleeve-hidden ace. Vocalist Trish Milliken’s sings like a splendid amalgamation of Kate Pierson and Siouxsie Sioux, bring equal parts bounce and slink to every song. As much as any other element, it’s her singing that makes “Need You, Need Me” (on which guitarist Bob Holmes also features prominently on vocals) sound as if it was commissioned for the David Lynch action film that will sadly never happen. She similarly contributes to the sense that “Mess O’ Me,” with its swirl of tingly pop sounds, is a couple downers away from turning into a lush Cocteau Twins hit.

There are bum tracks on Scenic Views, as well. “City of God” sounds like an incredibly tepid version of the Alarm, and “House of Pain” has deeply dreadful lyrics (“I’m bring home the bacon/ For my little house of pain/ I’m bringing home the bacon/ So she’ll fry it in a pan”). It seems less like the missteps of a band that still needs a little time to grow and more like the half-hearted effort of creators who think they can make up for their shortcomings with other elements, like stage magicians disguised the mechanics of trick with stage banter. I’d argue Rubber Rodeo wasn’t correct in that theory, but they did manage to snare a Grammy nomination for the long-form video they created in conjunction with Scenic Views. So maybe there was something to the expansive commercial art theory.

 

 

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs

From the Archive — Thank You for Smoking

thank you

Jason Reitman has a new movie out this week, reportedly an effort that finds him back on track following a couple widely derided cinematic disasters. When I was first applying my resharpened film critic pencil, I wrote about Reitman’s feature debut as a director. I was clearly still finding my way (like Reitman at the time, I suppose), as evidenced by the oddly truncated quality of this piece. It feels like it’s missing at least one whole paragraph, but this is what I put out into the world at the time. Also, please do note this was published in 2006 and adjust the “Ten years ago” opener accordingly.

Ten years ago, Thank You For Smoking might have been a helluva movie.

When Christopher Buckley’s satirical novel first saw the light of bookstore new release tables back in 1994, the story of a tobacco company spin doctor had real bite. For example, Buckley’s expert recreations of Larry King appearances and press conferences on the printed page snapped with freshness, the precise manipulation of these supposed extemporaneous events revealed through the simple accuracy of Buckley’s prose. When the fictional version feels so real, it makes it easier to start spotting the fiction routinely infused into the reality. The book felt sly and even a little daring as it exposed the insidious media messaging perpetrated by America’s deadliest industry. Years later, not only do the cigarette companies feel more toothless than the scruffy fellows watching the river in Deliverance, but our cultural cynicism has reached such nosebleed-inducing heights that each new instance of callous disregard for intellectual honesty is greeted with an amused shrug as we return to the most pressing matter of texting in our vote for Katherine McPhee. Do Buckley’s once potent points about political and social decisions being based on rearranged truths carry any resonance anymore?

Even without the intervening decade-plus robbing the story of its timeliness — and, arguably, relevance — first-time feature director Jason Reitman has rolled out a pretty shaky product here. To his credit, he seems to have toiled in the filmmaking trenches for a while, making a string of shorts instead of cashing in on his father’s well-established place in the movie biz. Then again, when your pop’s last three directorial efforts are Evolution, Six Days, Seven Nights, and Father’s Day, nepotism may actually become a hindrance. Mean jokes aside, all those short films haven’t necessarily helped Jason Reitman achieve the sort of command that helps hold a 90-minute film together. In particular, most of the performances suffer from an off-putting unevenness, as if Reitman was having the actors try individual moments several different ways (“Now a little broader! Now really draw it back!”) and pulled all his favorite takes without bothering to shape unified performances. The only scenes that work with any consistency are those with the least amount of range or plotline burden, specifically those involving the restaurant confabs between the self-anointed Merchants of Death, lobbyists for the most detested industries in America.

That leaves a good cast to go to waste, although it looks more and more like Aaron Eckhart is better served by supporting roles than leads, one corrosively brilliant turn in a Labutian poison layer cake notwithstanding. And it’s worth noting that Katie Holmes is about as convincing as a seductress reporter as she was as a crusading young Assistant District Attorney, making two straight films that she’s stopped dead through sheer force of miscasting. She’s also reached the point where the psychotic swirl of her real life is at such a constant crescendo that it’s a distraction ever time she pops up onscreen.

One for Friday — Kate Nash and Billy Bragg, “Foundations/A New England”

bragg nash
From a gig several years after the recording below.

In my music collection, I have many versions of “A New England.” I think it’s a natural, perhaps inevitable result of being a Billy Bragg fan in good standing. The song he wrote when he was twenty-one years old — age-stamping it with an opening couplet borrowed from Simon and Garfunkel — has enjoyed a robust, fulfilling life, traveling around the world and back again many times over, beginning with the single the late, great Kirsty MacColl took into the U.K. Top 10. By the time my college radio station’s preferred band of brash, punky geniuses took a pass at the song, it was clear I would never have a shortage of options when it come to “A New England.”

It’s not all accurate to assert that “A New England” gets better when combined expertly onstage with one of the finer, smarter pop singles of the first decade of the twenty-first century, but it certainly make for one of the more immediately charming versions. “Foundations” originally appeared on Kate Nash’s 2007 debut album, Made of Bricks. When she performed with Bragg — and she did and does from time to time — the duo would occasionally let their famous songs intertwine, to an endearing result.

So, yes, I’ve got a lot of renditions of “A New England.” This track proves I can always use more.

Listen or download —> Billy Bragg and Kate Nash, “Foundations/A New England”

(Disclaimer: To my knowledge, this track has not been released in a manner that can be acquired through an exchange of items of value. Both Bragg and Nash have plenty of fine releases that can be acquired from your favorite local, independently owned record store in a manner that compensates both the proprietor of said business establishment and the original artist. I urge you to engage in that commerce at your earliest convenience. And watch GLOW. Although I feel strongly that sharing this track falls under the legal principle 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.)

The Art of the Sell — Mojo Nixon for MTV

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

In the most recent College Countdown entry, I became reacquainted with the Dead Kennedys, including some of the more eye-rolling aspects of Jello Biafra’s posturing. Chief among the more insipid rages against the machine on the album Frankenchrist is the track “MTV — Get Off the Air,” which takes aim at the cable channel that once stood for “Music Television.” At the time, the network was a familiar target for anyone with an indier-than-thou attitude. The animosity wasn’t entirely unearned, but I hearing that Dead Kennedys song again stirred me to think about how many amazing artists I encountered for the first time through MTV. Living in a place well away from college radio or any other FM outlets with a sense of daring, MTV likely provided my first exposure to a legion of vital performers: The Cure, the Jesus and Mary Chain, R.E.M., The Smiths, Robyn Hitchcock, and countless more.

And I know for certain that MTV introduced me to Mojo Nixon, although his music was, at best. a secondary component. Around the time “Elvis is Everywhere” became a novelty hit, MTV enlisted Nixon to star in some interstitial bumpers. Seemingly delivered as improvisational sermons on his various obsessions, the segments were riveting cornpone, unpolished and delivered with verve. When Nixon expounded on his personal Holy Trinity of Elvis Presley, Foghorn Leghorn, and Otis Campbell (or, as Nixon more clearly put it, “Otis, the drunk from The Andy Griffith Show“), his conviction was admirable.

When I finally did make it to a place with a first-rate college radio station, I thankfully found my way into the studio. And I routinely sought out Nixon’s album with his partner, Skid Roper. I had a few catalysts to that particular playlist choice, including peers and rave reviews in favored music magazines. Almost every time I played one of his songs, though, I realized the genesis of my interest started deep on the cable dial.