Tuesday, January 3, 2017

It’s VIII: We



Favorite albums, 2016


[1] Esperanza Spalding, Emily’s D+Evolution

Eau Claire, 10/28/16: Spalding walked on stage and stopped the show before it had begun. Tentative, doubtful, she questioned whether she still believed in the music she was about to play, or in the ideas she’d formulated about “evolution,” whatever that means. After some minutes of reflection, a little silence, she told her band they’d be going off script tonight, improvising new ideas on the same theme. They didn’t look ready for such an adventure, simulating the same anxiety the audience was no doubt feeling. Then, as Spalding’s monologue shifted into “Farewell Dolly” and the feint was revealed, I sighed in relief from the most genuinely uncomfortable ten minutes of theater I’d ever experienced. The ensuing presentation of Emily’s D+Evolution, in shuffled order, reaffirmed that its music is outside of doubt and that its material is inexhaustible, a new and different bildungsroman in any permutation. I hadn’t considered “Unconditional Love” as an ending before.

[2] Kamaiyah, A Good Night in the Ghetto

In which Kamaiyah refutes the cliche that youth is wasted on the young. I imagined her for the first listen as an older MC finally recording the soundtrack to some long gone night, wise at last to the value of her former vitality and joy, confusion and solace. Fuck that: living is wisdom. Anyway, this was the year’s catchiest album by miles, meaning only that I played it a bunch on headphones.

[3] case/lang/veirs, case/lang/veirs

I still find veirs’ stamp most evident here, in the harmonies, in the strings, in inimitable little melodic bits, but I erred in glossing over case’s and lang’s contributions. So: case provides moments of metacognitive reflection, gripping when she describes depression as a leveling of “sweet delight” and “endless night,” or when she sings of “delirium kaleidoscoping in.” lang, with the eloquent understatement of a true professional, sings primarily of the crying game, albeit from a partial remove, as the too-wise narrator of her own heartbreak. Combine these things with veirs’ tales of ordinary heroes with “hearts in the right place,” and the album becomes a catalog for the times: how to live well, how to listen well. These artists live in and sing from gray areas, but, impossibly, they still believe in goodness.

[4] A Tribe Called Quest, We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service

The greatest album-in-progress since Neneh Cherry’s Blank Project. Tribe never lacked for spontaneity but I can almost hear the tape running here, especially when the drum track repeatedly cuts in and out, not always in the cleanest way. That wouldn’t mean much if this album didn’t send a relentless buzzing excitement through my body, right up to its final syllables: “Phife Dawg.” I never knew the departed hero of a work to remain so fully present and nameable in its final second, his death entirely outside of it.

[5] Jeff Runnings, Primitives and Smalls

Earlier — “My most-jammed collection of moody gay summer anthems since Bob Mould’s Modulate.” Still true, and no accident that I referenced an album released in my teen years: the sounds on Primitives are foundational to my tastes.

[6] M83, Junk

A brief parable: I finally got around to ABC’s Beauty Stab last month, after being told to avoid it ever since The Lexicon of Love first enriched my world, and found that time has made its reputation incomprehensible. It’s clearly the work of the same imagination, with slightly different instrumentation. (I’d usually argue that music is for now, basically, but sometimes we know too much and need to lose a little context.)

[7] Dawn Richard, Redemption

I keep hearing the closing line (minus the outro) as: “You belong shitting in the Louvre.” That’s probably an obscene overreach, but it also allows me to put D∆WN alongside Apichatpong Weerasethakul as the rare artist capable of eliding animal function and human art with any degree of sensitivity.

[8] Underworld, Barbara Barbara, We Face A Shining Future

Earlier — “A teeming 45 minutes in which clarity and sense of purpose yield a kind of holiness that I usually associate with photography or film: Robert Adams’ This Day, Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire.”


open me up / I want to hold you laughing

[9] King, We Are King

In which King create something new under the sun, an L.A. musical universe unto itself. And, despite being the work of a trio, this universe is no smaller than the neighboring one overseen by Flying Lotus and sometimes enlisted by Kendrick Lamar.

[10] Evans The Death, Vanilla

Speaking of bands, Evans The Death foreground the virtues of making art as a collective and yet avoid debasing themselves with any moment that could be described as “soaring,” “anthemic,” or “life-affirming.” If anything they sound more beaten down by life and drained of melody than on 2015’s Expect Delays, though at least Katherine Whitaker gets a little help on vocals this time, occasional reprieve from self-loathing. Have I made this album sound unpleasant? Quite the opposite!


Etc.

The albums released by Kristin Hersh, Tanya Donelly and Kate Bush in 2016 totaled eight discs, so I’ll have to find time for those in the new year. At the other end of things, I can verify that the short albums released by Circuit Des Yeux (as Jackie Lynn) and Wire, both in the 20-minute range, were excellent. A dozen more normal-length albums I loved:

Pete Astor, Spilt Milk
Bat for Lashes, The Bride
David Bowie, Blackstar
DIIV, Is The Is Are
Cate Le Bon, Crab Day
The Monkees, Good Times!
Noname, Telefone
Anderson .Paak, Malibu
Emma Pollock, In Search of Harperfield
The Radio Dept., Running Out of Love
School of Seven Bells, SVIIB
Jamila Woods, HEAVN


Sunday Night 1987.

I learned about Bowie from an acquaintance on the bus, as she talked about struggling to tell her boyfriend the news, thus inadvertently dropping the news on me. I learned about Prince from a purple sheet of paper taped to the wall of a high school hallway. My heart sped when I saw it contained his symbol and an R.I.P. On the bus ride home a mother carried an infant, and I thought about how this child was alive on this day but would need to be told its significance on a later day. Deep, I know.

For all the talk about how these artists helped challenge and redefine ideas of sexual identity, I never felt that kind of connection to their work, much as I love the music. But, come to think of it, I learned a few things about the stigma of gay life by hearing relentless jokes about George Michael’s private life in the 90s, though I don’t know that I interpreted the lesson right away. It makes me ill to think about it now. I started this new year with his 1996 album Older and hope to spend the rest of it aspiring to the word in its title. I similarly aspire to faith, patience, and listening without prejudice, though not to everyone. Some people don’t deserve it. Meanwhile I long for another hitmaker in George Michael’s mold. He wrote straightforwardly catchy songs but he also wrote songs like “Jesus to a Child,” which demands to be played again and again because the melody can’t be heard with any fidelity by the mind’s ear, instead requiring a skilled singer to deliver it. (In 2017 I’ll continue to learn about R&B.)

Prince Be died younger than all of these men. P.M. Dawn probably sampled all of them, too, though “Father Figure” on 1993’s eternal The Bliss Album is the only one I can confirm. Remembered convergences in the lives of the dead gave me some comfort in 2016. Of all the artists I’ll miss, Prince Be is the one I resolve to tell you about next chance I get.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Macromix 16


// songs of 2016 //


A

20. The Monkees – “Me & Magdalena
19. The Hidden Cameras – “The Day I Left Home”
18. Big Thief – “Interstate”
17. Abra – “Vegas”
16. Pet Shop Boys – “The Pop Kids”
15. Noname feat. Raury & Cam O’bi – “Diddy Bop”
14. Tortoise feat. Georgia Hubley – “Yonder Blue”
13. Jamila Woods feat. Lornie Chia – “Lonely Lonely”
12. Field Music – “The Noisy Days Are Over”
11. David Bowie – “I Can’t Give Everything Away”

B

10. Rihanna feat. SZA – “Consideration”
9. DIIV – “Healthy Moon”
8. M83 feat. Susanne Sundfør – “For The Kids”
7. Beyoncé – “Formation”
6. Katie Dey – “Fear O The Light”
5. The Radio Dept. – “Can’t Be Guilty”
4. Pete Astor – “The Getting There”
3. King – “Native Land”
2. PJ Harvey – “River Anacostia”
1. Mitski – “Fireworks”


It runs 17% longer than last year’s sleekest ever mix, but try out Macromix 16 as a pair of 42-minute sides and it should prove a nice tape companion. Ask me for a copy (or stream it here)! The mood is overwhelmingly melancholy, of course; “Formation” sticks out exactly as much as you’d expect, though Field Music almost match it for boldness.

Starting off with a band that celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, the mix then introduces a record low number of fresh faces (only Katie Dey, Big Thief and, dare I confess it, the distinguished Pete Astor were unknown to me a year ago), which I’d love to blame on the ever-shrinking breadth of music coverage online but which is entirely the fault of my own browsing habits.

If I had to attempt defining the word “song,” “Fireworks,” the length of a thought, with lyrics that could be written out as one or two sentences, would suffice. It might be the easiest choice I’ve ever made for #1. No accident that it’s just a few seconds shy of the golden 2:42.

More words to follow, at Big Takeover.

Also terrific: “Joe’s Dream” by Bat for Lashes, “Cranes in the Sky” by Solange (I try to list it away, though I still wonder if “Rise” isn’t my favorite moment on the album), “The Darkest Part of the Night” by Teenage Fanclub, “On My Heart” by School of Seven Bells, “No Time For It” by Fantasia (the opening is a visionary pop moment, deserving of the kind of high concept video that died in the 80s), “American Boyfriend” by Kevin Abstract (I loved it for a day, then started to worry I’d been tricked by its impeccable dream pop constructions and its falsetto “boyfriend, oooh”), “Lucifer and God” by Bob Mould (performed live on the weekend after Prince died, it meant a lot), “He Didn’t Mention His Mother” by Eleanor Friedberger, “Lost Boy” by Lush (spooky when it’s drumless, and spooky again when the drums come in), “The Season / Carry Me,” if forced to choose a song by Anderson .Paak, “Ain’t It Funny” by Danny Brown, “I’m A Dirty Attic” by Cate Le Bon (her best image yet, but not before she sneaks in “I’m a body of dreams for you”), “Mölkky” by Pinkshinyultrablast, “Kanye West” by Young Thug & Wyclef Jean (the latter of whom sings my name more times than has ever been heard in a pop song, while the former, encouraged, expresses his Jefferyness), “Endless Supply” by Rogue Wave (irrelevant for almost a decade now, thus doing some of their best work), “Liquid Gate” by Cavern of Anti-Matter and a very special guest, “Ivy” by Frank Ocean, and the final single by Allo Darlin’. “Nylon Strung,” “Best Kept Secret” and “Rest In Pleasure” are among the songs that will be represented on the albums list imminently. As ever, I generally can’t tell if I like a song unless I’ve heard the album that contains it.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Art

1.
"Art has not responsibility to be rational or socially exemplary."
—Glenn Kenny

2.
"That this song, with its booming beat, the loudest on the record, that seemed to herald it as some global political statement, was in fact Kendrick’s most deeply personal. Almost implosive. That the moment wasn’t about we at all, it just sounded that way. It’s his most “I” moment, reflecting a reality that I couldn’t possibly connect to, only witness and try to understand. It’s as personal as Ice Cube’s “Dead Homiez.” He’s not speaking to the community or for the community. He’s speaking for himself or, rather, a version of himself."
—Marlon James

Monday, February 29, 2016

Karl on his 29th Birthday



Since I usually like to relate these things to the weather, consider this a February mixtape in three movements: warm in the winter; cold in the winter; cool in the spring. With interludes of seasonal displacement.

My name’s not Karl and today’s not my birthday, but… close enough. Anita Baker’s Rapture, the best first listen I’ve had in years, way too late and yet clearly meant to be, got me thinking about how the life I’ve lived has ended up roughly adjacent to the ones I didn’t. (Being a pretty boring person I of course relate this phenomenon to music consumption.) So there’s nothing I find too surprising in the world of Karl, but I am jealous of the speed of his response to songs I’m just now learning to hear. Was he listening to Rapture over a decade ago, back when I was straining for a mood with The Blue Nile’s Hats?

And beyond:

Here… A Randy Newman classic I was slow to notice. Why are his songs so often covered, when his singing is so perfect yet so meager as a map for a showier or more emotional vocal? Also, the ticking late-century energy of the music, afraid to expire like something out of the mid-90s, is this one’s defining feature.

There and everywhere… A bunch of 2015 songs looking for a new means of binding to memory: Low, Abra, Lower Dens, Wire, and A Sunny Day in Glasgow (does anyone even know they released an amazing double EP late last year?; one day I’ll tell young people I lived in the time of ASDIG and they’ll shudder with envy), all in a row, and Róisín Murphy and Deerhunter, separately.

Among… The first two great songs of 2016 that aren’t “Formation,” albeit ones that suggest a listener I should have cultivated in myself a while ago. The dreamy R&B listener. The instrumental rock listener (haha, this one has a Georgia Hubley vocal).

Later… “Photographs,” last known outpost of my personal investment in Rihanna’s music, but one I’m returning to now that her new stuff works a similar feeling.

Anyway, here’s your mixtape, Karl. Maybe the length and quality of your relationship with these songs are different than the length and quality of mine, but no one clicking the links below will care or know the difference.


79 minutes. (download/stream)


1. Boards of Canada – “White Cyclosa”
2. Anita Baker – “Mystery”
3. Curve – “Doppelgänger”
4. KING – “The Greatest”
5. Janet Jackson – “When We Oooo”
6. Róisín Murphy – “Hairless Toys (Gotta Hurt)”
7. The Beach Boys – “The Nearest Faraway Place”
8. Randy Newman – “Baltimore”
9. Low – “Congregation”
10. Abra – “Pride”
11. Lower Dens – “Electric Current”
12. Wire – “In Manchester”
13. A Sunny Day in Glasgow – “Jewelry Duty”
14. Koushik – “In A Green Space”
15. Tortoise ft. Georgia Hubley – “Yonder Blue”
16. Rihanna – “Photographs”
17. Deerhunter – “Duplex Planet”
18. Jennifer Castle – “Sparta”
19. Chris Stamey – “Something Came Over Me”
20. Boards of Canada – “Telepath”

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Statues II



I won’t pretend to care what happens in categories that exclude Michael B. Jordan, Ryan Coogler and Todd Haynes, but here are seven Oscar categories that mean something to me this year.


Animated Feature

Possibly the most impressive slate of nominees in a single Oscar category in my living memory. Gone (?) are the days when the Academy would automatically nominate one or two popular computer-animated kids’ movies of no consequence each year. The category continues to improve as it becomes more invested in honoring a variety of animation traditions. In hindsight, last year’s omission of The Lego Movie feels like a clear signal in favor of craft, against commercialism and cynicism. The only fully computer-animated nominee this year is the great but obligatory Pixar one, while hand-drawn and stop-motion films get their due and a movie made for an adult audience is finally in the running (long after Richard Linklater’s rotoscoping forays stood no chance against the likes of Shrek and Happy Feet).

I loved Inside Out but eight months later it’s easily my least favorite of the bunch. Shaun the Sheep Movie’s wordless gags are consistently hilarious, Boy and the World’s anger is so profound that it eventually must cut to documentary footage of the pillaging of the planet, and Anomalisa’s artistry is so tender and complete that no sex scene with live actors seems real, in comparison. Still, nothing resonated for me quite like Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s When Marnie Was There, the Studio Ghibli feature whose retreat to the countryside implicates urban malaise (again) and whose subtextual richness invites queer readings. It stands no chance of winning, but only because Ghibli and Miyazaki are inexplicably treated as synonyms.


Documentary Feature

This is a toss-up between Amy and The Look of Silence, both of which take big formal risks and maintain a gaze that yields intense discomfort. The reason Amy seems a more compelling choice is probably due to cultural myopia: the topic of our worship and destruction of celebrities strikes us with an immediacy that our other crimes do not.

What Happened, Miss Simone? is probably the best possible documentary on its subject, given her elusiveness. All the best moments involve her performances, but the film knows exactly why and when to include each one. Cartel Land tells an important story, about Michoacán’s Autodefensas, but saddles it with redundant and unrevealing scenes from the other side of the border, in the hopes that interweaving two unrelated portraits of vigilantism constitutes a directorial point of view. It does not.

Not seen: Winter on Fire


Foreign Language Film

Evil lives in many of the Best Picture nominees too, but Hollywood’s great at spinning tough content into satisfying Oscar stories. So instead of genocide, systemic child abuse and the defrauding of the American working class, we’ll get headlines like Leo DiCaprio Wins Award; Journalistic Heroes Get Job Done; Comedic Director Makes Good. Son of Saul is a true reckoning with evil and there’s no way to twist or glamorize its meta-narrative, so its win will sit awkwardly in a telecast eager to play it off the stage.

Theeb and Mustang (my personal favorite) are nearly as apocalyptic in their own ways, but the former is also a boy’s adventure tale and the latter offers the city as salvation from rural conservatism. Son of Saul’s only relief is in the close tracking of its lead actor and in its somewhat oblique ending. Saul’s facial transformation during his final appearance is so shocking that it should have yielded a tagline as succinct as Garbo Speaks: Röhrig Smiles.

To be seen imminently: A War, Embrace of the Serpent


Animated Short Film

Don Hertzfeldt was first nominated in this category 15 years ago, but seeing the creator of It’s Such A Beautiful Day in the running still feels radical. His World of Tomorrow is palatable, even kid-friendly, but retains the Hertzfeldt touch and a grim vision of the future, deadpan in its fantastical plausibility. Movies like this don’t win respectable awards, do they?


Original Score

I liked The Hateful Eight and especially its Lincoln letter punchline but never really felt up for the conversations the film failed to generate. The only one I had quickly turned to praise of Ennio Morricone’s ominous score.


Actress

This category hasn’t been so strong in years, but Charlotte Rampling’s clueless comments will be the only thing anyone remembers about it. I’ve started to think of Brooklyn, Carol and 45 Years as a trilogy, a portrait of a woman concealing her emotions, then erupting with an intensity that diminishes with age. All three performances are amazing but Cate Blanchett’s exercise in carefully modulated passion is on another level, one of those rare pieces of acting that makes me think all other aspects of film art are pale in comparison. I don’t buy the accusations of category fraud. Her Carol could have gone supporting, melting into unhappy domesticity or playing foil to the younger woman’s awakening, but ultimately her interior life is too powerful to be controlled and she claims the film’s title for herself.


Supporting Actor

If I have to explain why Sylvester Stallone meant so much to me in Creed, it’s gonna get personal.


images: Marnie & Anna // the future beyond the World of Tomorrow

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Six More Months at the Theater



Here’s everything else I went to see in 2015. I’ve started to take a certain pride in my inability to respond to things promptly, but that needs to change. My 2016 list is already fifteen titles deep.

July

39. Dope — A high school comedy so funny and energetic it’s hard to imagine most aspects of its storytelling and characterization not being cliches in five years. Then again, I’m not sure how much this caught on with audiences.

40. Pather Panchali (1955) — Another near-anniversary (see: Bad Education). This was the first movie I ever watched on a computer, on my brand-new iBook G4, a few days before heading off to college in 2005. Almost ten years later, the beautiful restoration…

41. Trainwreck — Maybe the only movie I saw last year with an almost exclusively female audience. They loved it, and helped the jokes land.

42. Grey Gardens (1975) — Nothing escapes the Maysles’ attention. Here’s the knife flash at Altamont on a much smaller scale.

43. Amy — I allude to its superior documentary methods here.

44. About Elly (2009/2015) — Plays like any other country’s leisure-class-on-vacation cinema until an unplanned circumstance triggers an avalanche of cultural weight. For some, frivolity is a precarious situation.

45. Strike (1925) — Teaches its visual language while speaking it eloquently. With live accompaniment.

46. The Killer (1989) — In which the operatic scale of the tragic finale justifies all earlier violent excess. Aren’t we all just crawling blindly past the ones we love?

47. Wings of Desire (1987) — One of my favorite movies. It’s humbling to consider that it was filmed in the winter of my birth (I think).

48. Tangerine — The kind of story that awaits a post-director world, or a world in which performers are understood as authors. Sean Baker makes few intrusions, but each one is one too many.

August

49. The Last Picture Show (1971) — Great, as you know.

50. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation — As neat a contraption as the glass box that eventually ensnares its villain. I believe in Tom Cruise, movie star.

51. Fat City (1972) — John Huston makes one of his best movies while remaining as reticent about the past as his characters, Stockton’s dispossessed. But get him drunk and he’ll tell you he directed The Maltese Falcon thirty years ago, while you swallow your astonishment.

52. The Look of Silence — A participant in 2013’s The Act of Killing asks director Joshua Oppenheimer why he isn’t making movies about American genocide instead. I wondered the same thing, at one point, but this followup clarifies: America doesn’t deserve a filmmaker as good as this. What would we do with these questions, honestly?

53. The End of the Tour — I tried to remain sensitive to the misgivings of folks who knew DFW and questioned this project’s intentions but, well, I loved it. The aptness of the musical cues didn’t help: R.E.M.’s “New Orleans Instrumental No. 2,” Eno’s “The Big Ship” and Tindersticks covering Pavement’s “Here” on the soundtrack, and The Magnetic Fields’ “When You Were My Baby” in the car. Are we to believe they really drove around listening to that song? That’s the whole story, right there.

54. Straight Outta Compton — I prefer the music, where illusions of objectivity are scarce and questions of creative control are more fun to think about.

55. Friday (1995) — I’ve loved Ice Cube as an actor for a long time but had never seen his defining (?) role. He’s the best thing here, his endless stare encompassing all the movie’s better qualities. And his screenplay (as seen in Straight Outta Compton!) has an inherently compelling structure, like Do The Right Thing but with heat and tension swapped for nothingness, then amplified almost to the point of boredom. Even so, a burst of violence awaits.

56. The Diary of a Teenage Girl — I somehow never believed the period-specific details but whatever, this verifiably fills a gaping hole in American cinema.

57. Mistress America — Hey, I’m going to New York for the first time next month. Noah Baumbach’s vision of the city, as seen in this, While We’re Young and Frances Ha, seems most plausible to me in 2016, but I doubt whether my visit will be long enough to confirm that.

58. The Road Warrior (1981) — What is this degraded version of Fury Road? Oh…

59. Tron (1982) — Wow. I’m not sure where in art history this belongs, except that it deserves prominent placement. After the screening someone mentioned silent cinema, while I considered its mastery of the human form (three men in repose next to a digital waterway, etc.) in terms of nude portraiture.

September

60. Phoenix — A great addition to the cinema of facial reconstruction. Dark Passage, Eyes Without A Face, Seconds, The Skin I Live In… what am I forgetting?

61. Nashville (1975) — Great, as you know.

62. Queen of Earth — On the one hand it’s another movie about a woman under the influence; on the other it’s a vehicle for an amazing Elizabeth Moss performance.

63. Jauja — Filmmaking so deliberate you’ll find yourself counting the number of shots.

64. Grandma — Even without Lily Tomlin there’s something here. I’d never seen a movie with a central gay romance that I didn’t know about ahead of time, for example.

65. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) — Great, as you know.

66. The Martian — Reviewed here.

October

67. The Wicker Man (1973) — One of my favorite kinds of movies: inexorable procession toward doom, all glimmering escape routes mercilessly denied.

68. Coming Home — After Phoenix, here’s another film whose most crucial scene involves the triggering of memory via piano recital. The reconciliation of long lost lovers depends on a melody. Doesn’t it always?

69. The Birds (1963) — Great, as you hopefully know.

70. The Walk — A story extraordinary enough to support a thousand tellings, so the standard critical response, that Man on Wire told it better, strikes me as a bit obtuse. I trembled through the entire final third, and not just due to sugar intake.

71. Eyes Wide Shut (1999) — Continuing my campaign of temporal revenge with Trylon screenings of movies my sisters didn’t take me to see in the 90s. (Preceded by: Scream.)

72. Steve Jobs — Characters debate the merits of open system vs. closed system computers, while Aaron Sorkin seems to be having a similar debate regarding his script, only to end up flailing in both directions. As a closed system Steve Jobs is redundant and as an open system it leans too hard on crosscutting and montage, but the performances are good and the first third has a buzzy excitement.

73. 99 Homes — Ramin Bahrani remains a compelling filmmaker but a troubling pattern has developed. As in At Any Price, women are defined according to their complicity in the choices men make to provide for them.

74. Goodnight Mommy — Admirable in the way it flips sympathies halfway through, but then it just goes a bit too far, doesn’t it?

75. Bridge of Spies — I can usually forgive Spielberg his sentimental endings but this one undid everything I thought I understood about the Hanks character, as he regards the freedom of American fence-jumpers on the train ride home (what if he ventured outside of the white part of town, I wondered). An iconoclast revealed as a patriot, to paraphrase one review. Even worse, significance is achieved entirely through editing; Hanks might as well be smiling at a picture of warm apple pie. Later, the image of him sprawled on a mattress, immobile and artlessly framed, almost makes up for these indiscretions.

76. Crimson Peak — “Characters speak to you. They change, make choices.” Mia Wasikowska’s novelist speaks this line, and I wrote it down as if to try to absolve her and the rest of the cast of their murky motivations or to understand their complexities. It didn’t work. I remember Crimson Peak for its visual splendor, its green and red curls of smoke against deepest black.

77. Experimenter — Movies rarely know how to handle the lives of academics, but this one’s elliptical approach is just right. The questions of a lifetime are never really answered, dissatisfaction lingers.

78. Victoria — Sucks to see young criminals punished so mercilessly for their mistakes, like victims of a malevolent production code. Victoria condemns not them but a system of power that exploits their desperation. It’s an amazing piece of filmmaking but the actors are even better. The calm they find during a wee hours scene on a piano bench seems limitless, their manic energy an hour later (in real time) no less so.

November

79. Cemetery of Splendor — Even more sensual than one would expect from the director of Tropical Malady. Tubes of warm-colored light and the massaging of limbs abound.

80. Room — Jack meets a real dog for the first time. I wept. That seemed sufficient proof of the film’s psychological acuity, but I should probably take a second look.

81. Carol — Mentioned here (in conjunction with Brooklyn and Heart of a Dog; now I might swap the latter for 45 Years, which properly concludes this trilogy of interiority and aging). That “I love you,” as fine a piece of acting and filmmaking as I’ve ever felt, colors all my memories of Carol, but looking back through my notes I remember the rest: Blanchett’s irresistibility vs. the power of her desires, at an even higher pitch than in Notes on a Scandal; a more fluid and nuanced understanding of the closet than I’ve seen in a period piece*; scenes of lovemaking that bookend the destruction of privacy; a miraculous shot that treats the skyline like a scroll, as the cars roll slowly by; that particularly queer shade of green; the Go West impulse, eternal; snow and dirty windshields; “ask me things”; “birds, trees, windows”; “we’re not ugly people.” Oof, what a movie. Someone said it should have been a comedy. It is, if the other option is tragedy.

*At a dialogue the next night, Todd Haynes talked about his earlier film of surfaces, Far From Heaven, and questioned a common reading that assumes the falsity and superficiality of 1950s American life: “Everything on the surface is true.” That holds in Carol more than you might expect.

82. Spectre — A plotline in which MI6 wants to shut down the double-0 program reads like a coy allusion to the way the Mission: Impossible series continues to outclass Bond in the action set-piece department. But Spectre has its moments.

83. Spotlight — Great performances from top billing down, but I’d single out Liev Schreiber (wait for the way he mutters “another adjective…”) and Michael Cyril Creighton. It bothers me not in the least that it’s visually inert. There’s a shot at a baseball game I’d never quite seen before, a flat plane of off-whites, pale blues and grays, diffuse evening light denying even the faces of the actors any meaningful shadows.

84. Safe (1995) — An earlier Todd Haynes film that ends with a woman named Carol saying “I love you.” Amazing.

85. Gimme Shelter (1970) — Still able to elicit awe and disbelief from a live audience. “Jesus,” someone said on the way out.

86. Ant-Man — Gags include Ant-Man trying to hang onto the grooves of a spinning record and The Cure’s Disintegration accidentally cued during a climactic fight inside a suitcase. This is the best Marvel movie by a huge margin.

87. Sicario — Unfairly stacks the “Juarez = Hell” deck only so that it can later unstack it, by showing American complicity in the violence, normal lives being led within earshot of the gunfire, etc. Not quite enough to pull me back, though.

88. Brooklyn — A less detailed depiction of 1952 New York than Carol, of course, but don’t let anyone tell you it lacks visual interest. A cemetery scene, with yellow dress, gray headstone and blue sky, could be from John Ford.

89. The Assassin — Only the soundtrack gives away what a strange hybrid this is. Martial arts sound effects make momentary pulp of what is otherwise dreamy, luxurious, silent.

90. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 — It resolves.

91. Back to the Future (1985) — Reagan-era movie advocates a bizarre form of trickle-down economics. Improve your dad’s spending power by making sure he was always going to be rich.

92. Back to the Future Part II (1989) — Actively repellent at times, but I love it.

93. The Quay Brothers in 35mm — A program featuring In Absentia (2000), The Comb (1990), Street of Crocodiles (1986) and Christopher Nolan’s new short documentary Quay. The first realizes the nightmarish aspect of a writer’s life, ha ha, the second gives the twitchings of sleep an elaborate interior reality, and the third comes as close to visualizing the vanished world of Bruno Schulz as I’d imagine possible, after the war.

December

94. Krampus — The opening credits have a visual sophistication that allowed me to come to this as a piece of actual filmmaking, and it never disappointed, exactly.

95. The Good Dinosaur — Light on story but with a few major innovations that make it a true Pixar movie: the photorealist landscapes, of course, but also the movements of non-humanoid animal bodies engaged in the activities of civilization. A shark attack from above is pretty neat, too.

96. Heart of a Dog — A filmmaker exploring her subjectivity shouldn’t be accused of unnecessary editorializing, but I found myself making that mistake at first. Fifteen minutes later I had warmed to the strange flow of Laurie Anderson’s thoughts and was in her spell, all the way to the last image of the end credits.

97. Star Wars (1977) — De-specialized!

98. The Empire Strikes Back (1980) — Ditto!

99. Creed — 2015’s best movie (declared here; partially explained here). On top of everything else, it might even contain the only authentic joke about the old/young technological divide ever attempted in the current century.

100. Strange Brew (1983) — A sort of prototype for all subsequent comedy sketches stretched to feature length, but pretty consistently funny.

101. Chi-Raq — Spike Lee did it no favors by going around saying that the central premise has real world applicability, but as drama it works and as cinema it’s quite astounding.

102. The Thin Man (1934) — As the central mystery grows tiresome, the camera scans the room, gets distracted by a fun married couple over by the bar. A franchise is born.

103. Star Wars: The Force Awakens — I prefer my Star Wars movies with less than five settings, so even as a quasi-remake of the 1977 original, this new one’s a little distended. But as testing ground for an appealing new cast it worked.

104. Spotlight — I worried a second viewing would deflate its power but if anything it played better, its moral aspect sharpened, with Stanley Tucci’s “it takes a village” line teasing out the complicity of every living adult.

105. The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) — Outside of The Gang’s All Here, I’ve not seen a more visually stimulating musical.

106. Carol — Upon wide release, my view of the screen was a bit skewed but my reaction wasn’t.

107. The Big Short — Once again the Academy mistakes Best Editing with Most Editing. Try watching this without a perpetual feeling of distraction, like something’s fluttering in your peripheral vision.

108. Mustang — Mentioned here. Also: the promise of the city; the importance of sympathetic teachers.

Bonus (home video)

Magic Mike XXL — Sometimes you’re in your workshop with your power tools, your song comes on and you just want to dance. From that moment, Magic Mike XXL is everything I would ask a movie to be: expertly composed and consistently self-justifying. It would’ve been great to see what Robert Altman could’ve done with this material, but as it is you could pretty easily convince someone this is his swan song.

Friday, January 1, 2016

It’s VII: 93 ’til Infinity



Favorite albums, 2015


[1] Swervedriver, I Wasn’t Born To Lose You

“The gift that healed me felt like molten gold.” —Martin Phillipps

[2] Dawn Richard, Blackheart

The only album I listened to regularly all year long, though I never quite wrapped my head around it. I wrote something about “inorganic textures wielded and finessed as if they have physical existence,” inadvertently describing an auteurist electronic album and/or most pop music in 2015 (it’s both, neither). Lose the passive voice and make Richard the subject: it’s the steadiness of her hands—wielding and finessing sound, rubbing temples, dangling a mask just lifted or about to be worn—that sets Blackheart above.

[3] Girlpool, Before The World Was Big

What haven’t I praised yet? How about the production, which gives every sound a weight and a place, on a surface just opaque enough to catch the long shadows.

[4] Björk, Vulnicura

Long amorphous songs with time signatures that only Björk and her collaborators could possibly identify (though I had fun trying to tap them out) tell the story of the greatest rupture in the history of recorded music. Vulnicura offers a lot of potential obstacles and intimidating portents but, from its demand of emotional respect onward, contains Björk’s most immediate and luminous music since the 90s. Don’t trust anyone who asks you to leave it to the fanbase.

[5] Joanna Newsom, Divers

Time is taller than space is wide, and Newsom exploits space to make this the year’s tallest 52 minutes. Eschewing harp and idiosyncratic language as much as her compositions will allow, she turns to a broader range of sounds and idioms, not always of her own invention. “Leaving the City” has so many hallmarks of rap music that the ones it lacks are a mere technicality, and “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne” is a barroom sing-along in more than just theory, I hope. Start there, or with the last 30 seconds of “You Will Not Take My Heart Alive,” where the constant surprise of the album’s instrumentation is expressed in miniature, sounds pairing off in sequence to state the theme.

[6] Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp A Butterfly

Not enough characters to be a novel, but I get it: in another universe, I’d have spent 2015 carrying around a tattered and marked-up book by the writer Lamar. I treated my digital copy more like a double LP, rarely played all the way through but each side given separate attention at some point in the year. A sent me reeling, D brought tears and grounded me, C let me in, invited me to look around and lay low, and B remained in the shadow of “u,” refusing to crack no matter how many times he screams into the hotel room mirror.

[7] Blur, The Magic Whip

“Every film about war ends up being pro-war,” Truffaut said. A pop album about overpopulation anxiety would seem similarly doomed to failure since it can’t help offering the thrill of human connection, can’t help being a product. Blur don’t try to mitigate either circumstance: The Magic Whip is astounding in its musical detail, glum in its self-implication. So a kind of helplessness pervades, but any sense that the music is overly lethargic disappears as soon as headphones reveal one of the year’s liveliest albums, and a high point in the band’s catalog.

[8] The Chills, Silver Bullets

You’ll notice a trend developing: artists who made some of their best music 20-30 years ago did so again in 2015. This one surprised me most. No Greenpeace calls in the booklet but Martin Phillipps still sings of ecology, geopolitics, love and human cruelty, while lavish arrangements feature guitar work as seductive and nuanced as ever, astonishing for a band that’s undergone countless shakeups in the three decades since “Pink Frost.” The Chills have made albums as good as this one, but none better.

[9] Tamaryn, Cranekiss

In which former shoegaze purist Tamaryn accesses The Timelords’ Manual not to generate #1s but to seek permission for an overtly borrowed aesthetic and a few pop-oriented moves. No permission needed. Even as she fills in all the boxes on her greatly expanded dream-pop/shoegaze checklist, she hits on just as many moments of breathtaking and organic melody. Weekend’s Shaun Durkan contributes, his stamp most evident on the hypnotic “Collection.” In a lot of ways, this is the Weekend album I’ve been waiting five years for.

[10] Earl Sweatshirt, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside

An agoraphobic wonderland of sound. Interiority as music’s final frontier, again. More albums should aspire to not passing the 30-minute mark.



Further listening

These might’ve made the list if I’d had more consistent means of listening to them:

Abra, Rose
Angel Haze, Back to the Woods
Fetty Wap, Fetty Wap
Grimes, Art Angels
Susanne Sundfør, Ten Love Songs

These didn’t make the list but maybe should have:

a. Best Coast, California Nights
b. Colleen Green, I Want To Grow Up
c. Destroyer, Poison Season
d. Evans The Death, Expect Delays
e. Janet Jackson, Unbreakable
f. Jazmine Sullivan, Reality Show
g. Low, Ones and Sixes
h. Speedy Ortiz, Foil Deer
i. Waxahatchee, Ivy Tripp
j. Yo La Tengo, Stuff Like That There

a, i: Never better, on album #3.

b, d, f: More fully realized as concept albums than the ones in my top ten, probably.

c, g, j: My favorite things they’ve done in nearly a decade, or at least it’s been that long since I so immediately sensed what they were up to.

p.s. It was great having Built To Spill, Sleater-Kinney, Deerhunter and Julia Holter in my life again. I have nothing bad to say about their new albums except maybe, toward the end of that list, “nice.”

p.p.s. Summer albums don’t wither but sometimes they hibernate: SoX’s Surf, Fair & Blake’s Yes.



Etc.

The best things I bought were two box sets containing every album by The Sound and a two-disc House Masters set chronicling the career of Frankie Knuckles.

On the way to the Heems show in July I saw the night’s best performance, a busker in front of the IDS Center singing Sinéad’s “Just Like U Said It Would B” as if she’d just written it, with the fury of a picture-ripper.

I spent a July day with Jack Rabid in Helena, while his 7-year old son made Byrds puns, transcribed the lyrics to “Octopus’ Garden” and panicked when his Small Faces search turned up no results, and a lunch hour with Marlon James in Midtown talking about Prince, mostly, and our imagined 33 1/3 book proposals (mine: Bob Mould’s Modulate; his: Anita Baker’s Rapture). I interviewed The Go-Betweens’ Robert Forster and Local H’s Scott Lucas. Nice guys, both, though a certain dread gripped me when I went to transcribe the latter’s phone call.

All book chapters should begin thus:

“One of the songs off Goo was ‘Tunic (Song for Karen).’”
—Kim Gordon, Girl in a Band



Shows

I went to about 50 in 2015, on par with the year before. Some great ones, chronologically (Swervedriver was best):

Sleater-Kinney – First Ave (2/14)
The Twilight Sad – Entry (3/2)
Swervedriver – Turf Club (3/12)
Waxahatchee / Girlpool / Kitten Forever – Triple Rock (5/6)
Courtney Barnett / Babes in Toyland – Rock the Garden (6/20-21)
Ex Hex – Triple Rock (7/20)
Miguel – State (8/15)
X – Mill City (8/29)
Jenny Hval – Entry (9/1)
Destroyer / Jennifer Castle – Fine Line (9/26)
Ride – Mill City (9/29)
Kraftwerk – Northrop (10/7)
John Grant – Cedar (10/22)
Yo La Tengo – Pantages (11/7)
Deerhunter – First Ave (12/14)
Joanna Newsom – Fitzgerald (12/17)



1995

Top five, top of my head: Björk’s Post, Pulp’s Different Class, Matthew Sweet’s 100% Fun, Mobb Deep’s The Infamous and Luna’s Penthouse.



Favorite old song of the year