Spectrum Check

When I joined the writing staff at Spectrum Culture, I was probably most looking forward to having access to the sorts of small, independent films that either took months to get to my humble mountain town or bypassed our local theaters altogether. While some of the most intriguing titles were held back from screener distribution for fear of piracy, I got to watch my fair share of challenging, fascinating films that I likely would have missed otherwise. For that, I’m certainly grateful. As it turned out, though, my interest in the new was eventually eclipsed by a greater satisfaction in writing about the old, those films, albums and other bits of pop culture that have stirred different levels of obsession in me over the years. These were often the hardest pieces to write as I had a deeply personal investment in getting them right, but that’s also, of course, what made them my clear favorites when they turned out well. To a wider audience than I’d had anywhere else, I had the opportunity to type out sermons to the greatness of the things I loved most.

Arguably the first time I both had that chance and felt I’d totally nailed the piece was in a revisiting of the 1982 Wolverine limited series, written by Chris Claremont and drawn by Frank Miller. I earned me a ridiculous amount of praise from my fellow writers at the time, enough so that I kept rereading it to figure out what I’d done so right. I’m still not quite sure what it was, except writing in clearly my own voice and in a way way that demonstrated genuine knowledge of the material. Truthfully, that’s probably the whole of the explanation. I try to remind myself of that on a regular basis.

During my tenure there I was privileged to write about Bruce Springsteen and Billy Bragg, Martin Scorsese and Muhammad Ali and the Muppets. I flung some words at one of the college radio pinnacle albums of R.E.M. and used the Spectrum site to disseminate my zealotry over which album by the Replacements is their very best, no matter what the conventional wisdom insists. And I even tapped into Bad Movie Nights of the past, celebrating the misfiring wonders of both Bordello of Blood and Luther the Geek. Search “the missing link between Clint Howard and Ron Howard” and the latter review is the only result. I couldn’t be more pleased.

Once my end date at the site was set, I felt compelled to fill in the missing bits on the stamp I’d affixed to the internet outpost that had offered me a home for so long. One of the last things I wrote for Spectrum Culture was a “Revisit” feature on Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill, a movie that impacted me like no other in my teenage years. It was a fine stealth farewell, but I actually wish my very last offering on the site had been the essay I wrote about the Too Much Joy album Cereal Killers. It was the most personal, heartfelt thing I ever submitted, and I thought it effectively conveyed everything that was special about the band to me and my cohorts. And it even made Tim Quirk tweet, “Wow.” I felt like doffing my figurative cap, taking a gentle bow, and leaving the stage. I had done all I had set out to do, and then some.

And thus this extended eulogy is at an end. It will be strange to reach next Saturday and not affix the multi-colored graphic to the top of a post. I need to find something else other than links to outside work to fill the space. Luckily, I’ve devised a solution that will be nicely mortifying. But that’s fir next week. For this week, let me close with a sentiment that I’m thrilled to have cause to express: Thanks for reading.

Spectrum Check

One of the things I appreciated most from the very beginning with Spectrum Culture was the site’s editorial mandate to reserve five-star reviews–the top of our rating system–for only the very best of the best. There was even a process the editors went through to verify that five-star reviews of new music were acceptable, though I don’t recall it ever happening while I was editing for the site. So in my time there, writing hundreds of reviews, I only offered up two five-star reviews. The first was for a Miles Davis live box set, part of the legacy offerings that Columbia Records have been dispensing in wisely patient doses since the jazz genius’s death. That was an easy, safe release to bestow with five stars. The other five-star review was for a new work: Chris Ware’s Building Stories. Again, I wasn’t exactly offering a risky appraisal (it had topped all sorts of year-end lists by the time my review ran), but it was still daunting to try and convey why I felt this particular work of art deserved an unreserved rave.

On another tack, hands down my favorite recurring feature on the site to write for was the “Oeuvre” series, which tracked through the career of an esteemed director film by film. During my tenure, I got a chance to participate with four different directors:

–François Truffaut: This may have been the most daunting of the filmmakers for me, given his exalted place in French New Wave cinema and helping to popularize the very theory the feature drew its name for. Of the pieces I wrote on Truffaut’s films, the strongest was probably the first, an appraisal of a early short film he co-directed with Jean-Luc Godard, A Story of Water.

–Samuel Fuller: I’m not entirely sure I’d seen a single Fuller film before we started in on his filmography, but I surely knew his reputation. Luckily, he was colorful enough that there was a wealth of background material to draw upon. I’m especially fond, for example, of the story I used to kick off my review of Fixed Bayonets. I’m pleased with that piece, but also my review of Shark!, a weird thriller starring Burt Reynolds early in his career. That combination–sharks and Reynolds–was enough to make me eager to snap that title up when we writers submitted our requests for the series. It’s a terrible movie, but it was fun to write about.

–Spike Lee: The subjects of the “Oeuvre” series were drawn from suggestions from the staff, and I was the one who pitched the idea of Lee. I deliberately angled for films of his that I hadn’t yet seen (and one, Clockers, that I wanted an excuse to rewatch). That helped land me 4 Little Girls, Lee’s Oscar-nominated documentary that I’ve long felt guilty about not getting around to viewing. It’s a very strong effort from the director, and I’m pleased with how the review turned out.

–Brian De Palma: I knew we’d get around to De Palma, given his elevation by Pauline Kael and her many acolytes to a level of inexplicable primacy among American directors of his generation. There are some who consider him the quintessential American auteur, which is baffling to me. With a few notable exceptions, I think he often makes quite bad movies. I certainly drew more than my fair share of stinkers while his “Oeuvre” ran, including his possible nadir: 1990’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. This came out during my first year doing a weekly movie review show at my college radio station, but while I was tagging along on a family vacation to Hawaii. By the time I got back to the mainland, the bomb was nowhere to be seen. Watching it felt like filling in a crucial gap in my experience with the worst of nineties cinema. Interestingly enough, this review was one of two pieces that got kicked back to me for a rewrite during my time there, an editor and writer who I deeply respect pushing me to make it better. I’m deeply grateful to her critical eye. She was right, and the revised piece is consequently one of my stronger efforts.

–Vincente Minnelli: Finally, the director who my former cohorts are still wrestling with. The writers usually submit lists of the films they’d like to cover from the filmmakers, the editor-in-chief doing his best to parcel them out fairly from there. After I’d already informed him I was leaving, I went ahead and told him to give me whichever Minnelli titles he wanted for my waning weeks. He gifted me with Gigi, the film that earned Minnelli his sole Best Director Oscar. Knowing it would be my last oeuvre piece, I did my best to write the hell out of it.

Okay, we’re almost at the end of this long goodbye. There will be just one more Saturday spent reminiscing. Next week, I’ll track through all the different instances in which I dragged my long-term cultural obsessions out to foist them on a larger audience.

Spectrum Check

The long farewell to my tenure as a Spectrum Culture writer turns this week to contributions made to the music section. As I noted last week, I was originally brought on as strictly a film writer, but I was given the opportunity to pitch in on the music review side fairly quickly. The intent was that I’d write for that section only occasionally. That’s not really the way it played out. For a sizable chunk of my time there, I was picking up as many music reviews as film reviews. I’d like to say my facility for them grew with practice, but I’m not so certain. It comes to me far less naturally that explaining my reactions to film.

Given a broader range of material to choose from (my geographic location didn’t prevent me from taking on bigger releases as it did with new movies), it was easier for me to snatch up artists that loomed large in my household, or at least my personal history. When it comes to the latter, I reviewed a reissue of Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler, which gave me the strange sensation of listening to an album that had a nearly permanent place on my grandmother’s console stereo when I was still in single digits but that I hadn’t heard, aside from the title cut, in probably twenty-five years or more. (Also, while it’s admittedly simple, maybe even obvious, the closing line to the Gambler review is one I’m quite pleased with.) Unfortunately, a decent amount of the time, my new spins with favorite old artists yielded disappointment, as with new album reviews I penned on releases by Ani Difranco and Patti Smith. Still, my background knowledge makes the reviews into fairly strong pieces. On the flip side, so to speak, there were also instances in which I had the pleasure of delivering raves for new releases by artists well-represented in my personal collection. PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake and Yo La Tengo’s Fade are the prime examples.

More often, I tried to pick albums that I felt would challenge me, forcing me to listen in a different way and find descriptions of the music that didn’t necessarily come naturally to me. Sometimes I flopped with these pieces. I’m pleased that there were also several instances when I felt my attempt to stretch brought about the desired result: stronger writing. I’m especially proud of my review of the Roots’ Undun and, more recently, both Washed Out’s Paracosm and M.I.A.’s Matangi. There were also occasions when I was grappling with material that wasn’t quite as far afield from my comfort zone, such as the punk punch of Trash Talk’s Awake EP, which I remember as an especially fun writing process. It was a different experience with the Au Revoir Simone album Move in Spectrums. I was almost completely stymied by it, until a good friend of mine delivered the opening line over a well-earned beer (or two). My excitement over the delivery of that opening line may have led to another beer (or two), which may have led to me being a little tipsy when writing the actual review. There’s my true confession for the week.

The other aspect of a music review that motivated me to put a little more into the piece was the blessing of a truly terrific album. Always intimated by the prospect of accurately conveying the pleasures of a paragon work, I usually felt like my review was lacking. One of the exceptions is my take on the self-titled debut of Wild Flag. I’ll admit I was an easy mark for that record. I was similarly satisfied with the quality of my review of Thao and the Get Down Stay Down’s We the Common. In that instance, I went out of my way to do some outside research, hoping it would help me do the album justice.

Finally, I need to cap off the music review self-celebration with my sole concert review for the site. This is probably one of the very best things I wrote for Spectrum, but it created a dynamic while watching a live music show that I didn’t especially enjoy. Concerts stand as one of the few personal interactions with pop culture that I experience rather than instinctively analyze. After trying out one concert in the hybrid zone of critic and reporter, I was happy to cede this brand of writing to my peers at the site. When it came to live music, I was happy to stick with just being there and enjoying it (and being able to leave if I’m not enjoying it) from there on in.

Spectrum Check

When I was first added to the Spectrum Culture roster, it was strictly as a film writer. Certainly, I still think that’s the strongest writing I do–much as I strive to develop my word-slinging in other areas–and that’s reflected in the array of pieces that I think represent some of the best work I did for the site.

Some of the best pieces I wrote were reviews of documentaries. This is in certainly in part due to the simple fact that the best examples of the form were more available to me as a geographically remote film critic (it was fair easier to get screeners of first-rate documentaries than fiction films of roughly equivelent quality). I also found that the factual-basis (presumably, hopefully) of the films gave me another angle to work when constructing the reviews. Specifically, I could add a little outside research or even toss around my own informed opinion on the subject. For example, I was thrilled to let my view of Sam Zell, destroyer of the Chicago Tribune, add a little fire to my take on Page One: Inside the New York Times. In general, I think the review is one of my better ones because I have a passion for (and background in) the subject of the film.

I can’t necessarily claim similar authority about How to Survive a Plague, David France’s documentary about the AIDS epidemic and the ACT UP protest movement, but I was still motivated to put in a little added perspective and analysis on the excessively dismal job President Ronald Reagan did in responding to the crisis. I didn’t have a front row to history, but I had a pretty good view from the seats towards the back. The film was revelatory for me in a lot of ways, and melding my own sense of the history with that newfound information undoubtedly strengthened the review. My own political passions and perspectives are similarly all over the reviews I wrote for The Invisible War (about sexual assault in the military) and After Tiller (about the few remaining physicians who haven’t caved to bullying, indeed murderous pressure and still provide third trimester abortions, a constitutionally-protected medical procedure).

Though it happened less often than on the music side (more on that writing next week), I sometimes deliberately sought out works that I knew were going to be a particular challenge for me. My background as a viewer falls squarely within the form of conventional narrative, making experimental cinema–even that which can’t exactly be called wildly revolutionary and challenging–a bit of a stretch for me. Accordingly, I think my writing about such films often picked up some of the flavor of the subject being scrutinized, whether the poetic General Orders No. 9, the philosophically wandering Robinson in Ruins, or the starkly observational Abendland. Though they’re all interesting works, I’m not likely to revisit any of them. But I’m glad they tested me.

As for fiction films, I spend a lot of time writing about mid-range, artistically-challenged indie features. I was occasionally gifted with a true winner, and tried to make sure the quality of my review–in the writing as well as the analysis–was worthy of the material. I worked especially hard on my review of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, for example. I was also fairly proud of my piece on Bertrand Bonello’s House of Pleasures, which helps lessen the mild embarrassment of briefly having a reputation of someone who actively sought out films about French prostitution to review for the site. (I also reviewed a lousy film called Elles and tried to review Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty, which was by an Australian director, but felt very French.)

Finally, I should note that there was a household trade-off for all the time I turned over to Spectrum Culture for watching, listening, reading, writing and editing. I promised that I would actively seek out promising horror films when they were up for grabs among the reviewers. I can’t claim that those choices led to prime examples of my writing, but there were a couple occasions, for very different reasons, that I was pleased with the finished product I delivered. In some ways, my review of The Innkeepers was as much a survey as to what I loved about director Ti West’s earlier The House of the Devil, but I still think I effectively communicated why I think he’s an important filmmaker to watch. And then there’s The ABCs of Death, a film I didn’t like as a whole. Among the new movie reviews I wrote for the site, this is probably my favorite, if only because I tickled myself with the somewhat stealthy way I appropriated the film’s gimmick. And it was tough to get it written. It’s not easy to figure out how to start the third-to-last sentence in a full-length review with the letter X, I promise you that.

Spectrum Check

There are over 400 files in my desktop folder called simply, “Spectrum.” Now, a fair number of them are little blurbs written for various List Inconsequential features or other group-built tallies, but there are still a lot of full-length pieces. Even counting up the number of instances of this weekly link-dump of personal reviews tells the story. According to the math done automatically by WordPress, this is the 144th post entitled “Spectrum Check.” I started writing for Spectrum Culture over three years ago and first took on some editorial chores about a year after that. As of the end of 2013, I’m no longer on the staff.

There’s no animosity there, no creative differences. I parted on the best of terms. It was simply time for a change. I’m grateful I got to be a part of the site. Because of my tenure there, I saw a lot of deeply fascinating films I likely never would have encountered otherwise (and more than a few cinematic disasters) and rejuvenated my interest in the art of the album. And I’m certain that assembling my words for a wider audience caused me to grow as a writer. I’m better at the task than when I started. I’m still going to fill up this space on a daily basis and I’m definitely open to writing for an outside site or publication again (if you know anybody who is interested in paying American dollars for 1000-plus word, nostalgia-drenched pieces on old Too Much Joy albums, have them give me a call!), but I need to withdraw from the one that has been my happy online home-away-from-home for the past few years.

I’ve got a new recurring feature figured out for Saturdays, but first I’m going to allow myself some indulgent valedictory posts. For the next few weeks, I’ll be reaching back to things I’ve written for Spectrum that I’m most proud of, now that the passage of time allows me to be a little less self-critical. So please be patient with me. Sometimes closure takes a while.

This also means I’ll be reintroducing the Oxford comma to my repertoire, in what will surely be a clumsy, inconsistent process. Please be patient with that, too.

Top Ten Albums of 2013

I don’t know that I actually reviewed appreciably more albums for Spectrum Culture this year than the previous one, but it was enough that I sometimes felt I had a difficult time keeping up with my “outside listening.” I offer that as humble acknowledgement that my list is heavy with material that I specifically sat down and gave a close listen to in order to bang out a few hundred words extolling virtues and identifying flaws. (This may also be the spot where I acknowledge that I really don’t hear the supposed genius of Kanye West, no matter how hard I try.) I have my musical soft spots and this list absolutely represents that.

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1. Yo La Tengo, Fade — I’ve been trying to figure out why this emotionally mature, musically interesting, deeply compelling album has been almost entirely absent from other year-end lists. Seemingly informed by Ira Kaplan’s own brush with mortality, the album is smartly elegiacal while adhering to the band’s longstanding policy of reality over sentiment. Maybe it’s because the album was released so long ago (January 15th, to be precise) or maybe music writers have collectively decided Yo La Tengo simply isn’t a band they need to pay attention to anymore. Either way, it’s their loss. Fade revives the potential of the album as a singular, cohesive statement.

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2. Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City — I’ve liked Vampire Weekend previously, but I’ve also found their music to be a touch too precious and self-regarding. For me, then, Modern Vampires of the City is a breakthrough, notable for its earthier concerns and subtle but identifiable diversification of the band’s signature sound. The album sounds sounds like day-to-day life instead of a weekend jaunt to a beachside vacation home.

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3. The National, Trouble Will Find Me — The National, on the other hand, are doing well by playing to their strengths, especially making sure they’ve got songs of ache and remembrance well-suited to Matt Berninger’s emotive vocals. By now, they’ve almost managed to make “stately” its own genre.

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4. Daft Punk, Random Access Memories — Dance music fueled by audacity, Daft Punk essentially mash the whole disco-spawned history of their chosen style into one beaty, glittery stew of an album. They somehow manage to employ sincere tribute and sly parody at the same time, no more effectively than on the hands-down best single of the year, “Get Lucky.” Daft Punk takes the party-all-night theme that dominates current pop hits and shows the repetitive, dim bulb whippersnappers that crank such tracks out like assembly line pacifiers exactly how crafting a dance song should be done.

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5. Haim, Days Are Gone — The California sisters of Haim were the beneficiaries (and victims) of a ludicrous amount of hype, but their debut full-length proved all the digital ink was justified. Haim is the coolest uncool band there is, delivering crazy-catchy pop songs that owe debts to the likes of Fleetwood Mac and (for gods’ sake) Wilson Phillips but still feel lively and original. Any time I hear “The Wire,” the damn thing lodges in my skull for days.

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6. Washed Out, Paracosm — The second album from Ernest Greene under the name Washed Out finds him shifting away from the ease of chillwave mood-setting for perpetual headphone-wearers and starting to concern himself with shaping interesting, dynamic songs. There’s still plenty of ambient electronica to get lost in, but there’s a welcome willingness on Greene’s part to also carve a path worth walking.

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7. Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, We the Common — Building up from the political and community support activities that leader Thao Nguyen has taken on in recent years, We the Common represents her band’s first album that arrives like a true statement of purpose. Her enticingly idiosyncratic voice remains the chief appeal, but there’s a finely-wrought soundness to the songwriting that demands close listening.

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8. Cults, Static — There remain few things as satisfying in rock ‘n’ roll as a good break-up album, providing the ideal expression of the mixed anger and romanticism that have long been the main elements in the musical compound. The report of broken promise between Cults lead singer Madeline Follin and guitarist Brian Oblivion–a couple for the band’s debut, exes by this sophomore release–gives their chiming, retro-tinged music weight and resonance.

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9. Eleanor Friedberger, Personal Recoed — The second solo outing from the Fiery Furnances’ Eleanor Friedberger expands on the pleasures of her fine debut. Away from the heavy studio layering of her band, Friedberger sounds genuinely liberated, singing songs that are full of vivid detail and yet wonderfully direct. Here I will concede an automatic weakness for any song that makes a warm, funny “Come On Eileen” reference.

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10. Arcade Fire, Reflektor — An album that was actually ill-served by the heavy promotional push it received since it usually entailed Arcade Fire playing individual songs. Reflektor works far better as a whole album, where the oddball digressions, strange rhythms and sonic textures feed off of each other and become one full, fascinating statement of artistic wanderlust.

Here comes the song I love so much

In each of the past three years, I’ve followed up on the Spectrum list of the year’s top songs by offering my modest addendum. Specifically, I’ve noted the highest-ranking songs on my personal list of the best of the year, cobbled together from the one hundred that were nominated by the various music writers for the site. My clear pick for the best song of the year was the same one we collectively selected, so I certainly have no major complaints. Still, I would have liked to see these songs get a little more love from my peers.

Cults, “I Can Hardly Make You Mine”

This once buzzy band seems to have slipped a bit in the esteem they inspire, but their latest album, Static, is at least as good as their widely celebrated debut. And this sharp lead single gets at all the bittersweet heartache that typifies the album’s darkening sunshine.

M.I.A., “Bring the Noize”


Speaking of performers whose cool cachet has dwindled, the fits and starts that eventually led to the new M.I.A. album seem to have frayed the patience of many music critics who’d previously been adherents. The full-length, Matangi, was admittedly uneven, but no more so that any of her other albums. She remains a fabulous singles artist, as evidenced by this propulsive track.

Chelsea Wolfe, “The Waves Have Come”


This is a track I stumbled upon when I was trying to find something a little different for my own set of nominations. I was so stunned by it, that I secured the album it came from as quick as I could. “The Waves Have Come” brings together the ethereal emotiveness of Cocteau Twins and the unpredictable grandeur of Kate Bush, without sounding overly beholden to either of those influences. Chelsea Wolfe’s vocals are vividly present in a way that’s utterly lovely.

Zola Jesus, “Fall Back”


The only entirely new song on the latest Zola Jesus album, Versions, is one of those efforts that gets bigger and bolder as it goes on, pushing into strikingly different sonic textures that all still remain beholden to the rich, lush orchestrations that define the track. I love that sort of thing, and it’s done very well here.

Caitlin Rose, “Waitin'”


I also nominated this track, sadly convinced it wouldn’t make the cut. A beautifully written song tinged with a countrified sound perfectly suited to its woeful tale of “waitin’ on a broken heart.” There are any number of terrific lines in the song, but I might be most partial to “True love’s always been such a racket/ Try every code but you never can crack it.” At least that’s the one I love right this moment. Come tomorrow, I might have a different couplet that I can’t resist.