Saturday, January 6, 2018

It’s IX: Re-entry

Favorite albums, 2017

[1] Kelela, Take Me Apart

The near future, population one. It’s always music that leaves me out of the narrative that most stokes my romantic sense of loneliness and puts me back in my life. The text here is failures of communication and the ends of relationships, the possible subtext is Kelela’s visibility as an artist, and at first I wondered whether to read the album’s title as an invitation or a challenge — to ex-lovers, to the listener, to those who’ve treated her as accessory to her production team, to the “voice needs work” peanut gallery. But more likely it’s just a memo to herself. Kelela runs the whole damn show, and quite literally so at the Entry last November. The chance to see a major artist in an intimate space, plus the radius of the attendant glow, probably has something to do with her placement at the top of this list. But, honestly, I feel blessed to have the album, too.

[2] The Courtneys, II

Averaging more cymbal hits per second than Vivian Girls or Hüsker Dü but considerably looser in approach, groovy as The Clean, The Courtneys fill the resulting space with melodies that feel uncommonly generous and new, even if it’s just a matter of drummer and lead vocalist Jen Twynn Payne matching her own energy. The litmus test or, better, the moment of final surrender is when “Lost Boys,” after a few melodic first drafts, finally revs up to its dumb-then-perfect central refrain and holds it for long minutes until the guitar workout. That one got me in a trance when they played the Entry last spring, and then II defined my summer. I wanted my drum set back if only to bash along to each of these 38 minutes, had to settle for driving around with them instead. The sun it gets higher, higher.

[3] Aimee Mann, Mental Illness

I still can’t tell if Mental Illness is the confessional album its title and stripped down arrangements suggest, the same way I can’t tell if Paul McCartney has ever been truly vulnerable or only infinitely tender. Songcraft intervenes, and it should. The thin veneer of distance makes the songs better. Mental Illness doesn’t bring Mann noticeably closer, but it’s her most immediate and exciting album that isn’t Bachelor No. 2 for the simple reason that every single melody, no matter how small, lands beautifully, with the words as suction.

[4] The Magnetic Fields, 50 Song Memoir

Having been immersed in the Stephin Merritt songbook for decades helped, but 50 Song Memoir held me in the grip of a seemingly endless epiphany when I first started exploring it. It seemed that by explicitly conceiving of music as memoir, he’d found a way to exploit all his habits as an artist for good, and to emphasize his strengths, to wit:

—his melodic stamp is so pronounced that the melodies themselves become self-referential, autobiographical;
—unusual sounds in weird arrangements have scene-setting purpose even at their most deliberately annoying, and at their best conjure a haunted world, e.g. the meows of a long-dead cat, through the fog of memory;
—lyrical economy (obvious);
—reckoning with the details of his life renders him more sentimental than ever, clarifies detachment, irony and bitterness as the gloss they always were, yet one with deep-rooted causes. You’re dead now! … Na na na na, life ain’t all bad.

[5] Vince Staples, Big Fish Theory

Visionary, streamlined and sleek, rhythmically undeniable, Big Fish Theory is the sound of an artist so confident in a new direction he’s willing to make his great shit from last year sound sluggish and old. The surprise of year-end season has been learning that even this album’s admirers don’t hear it as his best work. I know to you—

[6] Circuit Des Yeux, Reaching For Indigo

In the last five years there have been few concert-going moments as powerful as walking in unaware on a Circuit Des Yeux opening set, quickly realizing that, uh, something is happening here, relenting to its grip and, with a dumbfounded grin, witnessing others do the same. Haley Fohr has upstaged the likes of Bill Callahan, Julia Holter and Ryley Walker, to name just the shows I’ve seen, but had yet to release an album that wasn’t a somewhat lesser shadow of these performances: cavernous, incantatory vocals and fret taps on maximum overdrive. Fohr’s 2016 album as Jackie Lynn expanded her palette but the breadth of the arrangements on Reaching For Indigo is a new kind of revelation. Still, continuity plays its part—see: the hypnotic patterns of her former guitar-playing replicated with synths, piano, vocal clips. And when Fohr sings “I can only promise to take up space,” it sounds like a callback to those early shows when she would occupy the whole room, not the timid corner of many young artists.

[7] Girlpool, Powerplant

I figured all along they’d borrowed a page from Waxahatchee, that they’d thought about and, to some unknowable extent, pre-planned the transformational narrative their career would follow before they played a note (do all bands do this?), but I had no idea they were always ten steps ahead of me, and fifty to the left. I saw Girlpool twice when they were a guitar-and-bass harmonizing duo, and twice again in 2017, their first full year as a rock ’n’ roll band. In May they hewed pretty closely to the sound of Powerplant, with guitar effects and drums introduced as new layers of dynamic interplay (“Corner Store,” “123”), and softened vocals that would sometimes blur to a Lush shimmer (“Kiss and Burn,” “Your Heart”). The shock came in October, by which point the band had frayed all its edges and brought the music to a breaking point, Cleo’s every syllable a fight for articulation. The chorus of “Fast Dust” became the most vulnerable sequence of notes ever forced into the light. Maybe it was a sign of crisis but it also felt like the band’s next stage had arrived years ahead of schedule. Saxophone, the newest element, blasted the peeling surfaces of “She Goes By” and the title track, and I had the stunning realization that the latter would lend itself to a lovely jazz piano treatment. Girlpool’s transformations have never been simple.

[8] L’Rain, L’Rain

We’ve been two years without new A Sunny Day In Glasgow material but here’s Taja Cheek dreaming beyond the boundaries of recorded music with techniques that could have been considered outdated, all used up. When was the last time backwards running tape thrummed with such potential? But in terms of scale, 26-minute L’Rain has more in common with other Bandcamp pocket symphonies I’ve top 10’d, Archie Moore’s Dreamshit Surfer or, more applicably, Foxes In Fiction’s obliquely diaristic, date-naming Ontario Gothic. On L’Rain it’s penultimate track “July 14th, 2015” that names the date of a happy birthday voicemail from Taja’s mother, since departed, and brings the work’s personal context into sudden, startling view. I can’t watch Terence Davies’ The Long Day Closes without wondering if movies have any greater purpose than to reconstruct the exact texture of childhood and past lives, the shape and dimension of places once lived, and now when I listen to L’Rain I’ve started to wonder the same about music. What else but to save the voices of loved ones, and the shape and dimension of our interiority at the time of their passing?

[9] Charly Bliss, Guppy

Even if Charly Bliss had existed in the mid 90s and Guppy had been manufactured by the millions, I doubt you’d find it at Goodwill today. Punchline: Everyone would have kept their copy. I refer to the album’s nearly unparalleled catchiness, of course, but don’t overlook the lyrics, which come from the Kristin Hersh school of imagery at any cost. Why be banal when you could sing, “She’s got her toe in the cornhole, bleeding out in a snowcone”?

[10] Cornelius, Mellow Waves

Probably the exact inverse of Beck’s Colors (which I haven’t heard!) but born of similar instincts: Mellow Waves is the place where an artist’s longing for simplicity crashes into his technical sophistication and perfectionism. The latter goes to work, and the listener hears this crash as a faint turbulence. That might explain the album’s self-deprecating, only half-true title. Keigo Oyamada has to make it all sound too easy before the listener can grow skeptical and hear his burden.

[12, 11 & 13-21]

With Out In The Storm, Waxahatchee made my 12th favorite album of the year for the third or fourth time, but remains a contender for artist of the decade.

Arca, Arca
Beach Fossils, Somersault
Chastity Belt, I Used To Spend So Much Time Alone
Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton, Choir Of The Mind
Syd, Fin

Björk, Utopia*
Perfume Genius, No Shape
Spiral Stairs, Doris & The Daggers
St. Vincent, Masseduction
Vagabon, Infinite Worlds

*It’s not lost on me that both Björk and Tori Amos released expansive new albums in 2017, and that I didn’t spend enough time with either. I plan to devote the new year to them.


It’s true, Minneapolis feels emptier with Grant Hart gone. I only saw him a handful of times (at the Turf Club, Entry and, most memorably, the Triple Rock, 12/26/13) but he maintained a local presence and seemed likely to turn up anywhere. I found Hüsker Dü reunion speculation a bit silly at a time when one could still see Hart and Bob Mould, separately, playing multiple times a year, but now I long for such idle curiosity about the future. The last time I saw him play was at Loring Park, a little rusty with a full band, and I marveled that “Pink Turns To Blue,” my most private and guarded obsession as a teen, could be played outdoors in summertime for families awaiting A Hard Day’s Night. Minneapolis does nothing better than celebrate and mainstream its musical heroes. Across the park at the Walker, artist Chris Larson had reconstructed the dimensions of the Entry as a space in which to view footage of Hart’s earthly possessions, rescued from a 2011 house fire. That was a fitting tribute to a living artist; a similar gesture now would seem much too feeble.

Here’s to John Lever, the Chameleon who inaugurated “Soul In Isolation.” To Maggie, the Roche who wrote “Hammond Song,” but also “I’m gonna be fightin’ night and day to keep you at your distance” and “the time has come for me to speak.” Those seem like reasons enough to be famous, though I won’t insist on it. Prodigy’s use of a related word made his entire career a critique of whose stories get told, who gets remembered and why. Here’s to The Famous Mobb Deep.

I can’t think of a video I’ve seen more times than “Black Hole Sun,” and there’s a two-year span of my life where it’s still playing, Chris Cornell distorted by the lens and staring down eternity, the afternoon glare on the TV. I find others still alive in their most inextinguishable moments: Fats Domino in “Walking to New Orleans,” Chuck Berry in “Havana Moon,” Tom Petty in “You Got Lucky.” I’m told I sang his “Refugee” farther back than my memories go.

I didn’t hear about Evans The Death having gone the way of Allo Darlin’ until they’d already broken up. One of the great bands of this decade, not to mention a perfect model of band dynamics. I miss ‘em.

I spent ten and a half years, with interruptions, going to the Triple Rock. These were the 25 shows I saw: The Thermals, Naked Raygun, M83, The Thermals (again), Diamond Rings, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart with Twin Shadow, Gruff Rhys, Screaming Females with Waxahatchee, Grant Hart, Dum Dum Girls, Waxahatchee (again), Local H, The Fresh & Onlys, Perfume Genius, Waxahatchee (again) with Girlpool, The Weirdos, Ex Hex, Local H (again), Thurston Moore Band, Mew, Parquet Courts, Julien Baker, The Radio Dept., Boris and Girlpool (again). This was the one I didn’t: Atlas Sound, who we showed up for hours early in the years before clearly announced set times, and roughly a year before I had enough investment to wait forever.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Macromix 17

// songs of 2017 //


20. Aldous Harding – “Imagining My Man”
19. Marika Hackman – “My Lover Cindy”
18. Sampha – “Under”
17. Perfume Genius – “Wreath”
16. Lomelda – “Interstate Vision”
15. Syd – “Nothin To Somethin”
14. Chastity Belt – “This Time Of Night”
13. The Stevens – “Keep Me Occupied”
12. Arca – “Coraje”
11. Ride – “Cali”


10. Alvvays – “Not My Baby”
9. The Shins – “Fantasy Island”
8. Kehlani – “Undercover”
7. Vince Staples – “Party People”
6. St. Vincent – “Hang On Me”
5. Tyler, The Creator feat. Estelle – “Garden Shed”
4. The Proper Ornaments – “The Frozen Stare”
3. Moses Sumney – “Lonely World”
2. Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton – “R.I.P.”
1. Slowdive – “Sugar For The Pill”

83 minutes, same as last year. Ask me for a tape, or listen here. Words at Big Takeover.

“Fucked up, anxious, full of fear,” begins one song, to which another asks, “How I’m supposed to have a good time when death and destruction’s all I see?” There’s more of that on the tape, certainly (just look at some of the song titles), but whether or not music and I were more anxiety-prone than usual this year, I never felt like my listening was a response to anything in particular. I sought good vibrations, like Mr. Staples, and found them.

indie rock — Sorry, I guess, for so much of it, but in such a strong year I could’ve included many, many more bands: new-to-me Japanese Breakfast (whose “Diving Woman” was the biggest sound I heard at the Slowdive show and whose recorded version is a perfect containment and miniaturization of that sound, electric current in a snow globe), Vagabon (an absurdly young and self-possessed artist, à la Julien Baker, whose every line is both crisis and solution, and whose “Mal à L’aise” is a mid-album analogue bubblebath, well-earned), Jay Som, Charly Bliss, The Courtneys, Girl Ray, Tomberlin (“Self-Help”), Business of Dreams and Stef Chura, plus ‘10s faves Girlpool, Waxahatchee, Big Thief (“Mythological Beauty”), Sleeping Bag (“Affection”), Frankie Rose (“Cage Tropical”), Real Estate (“Darling”) and Beach Fossils (“May 1st”). Among veteran artists, both Spiral Stairs and The Bats were chock full o’ tunes; the former’s were immediate pleasures, the latter’s a bit slower to unfold.

pop — I’m the dummy who cited Taylor Swift’s “naiveté” in 2012 and Justin Timberlake’s “generosity” in 2013 (and those were the first times I’d thought about either artist, respectively), so there’s a reason I feel nervous and stupid when considering the Billboard charts. Still I couldn’t fail to notice this year that, as popular music becomes less popular, there are more and more Hot 100 #1s I find tolerable or enjoyable. In the case of “Bodak Yellow” there’s even one I can imagine feeling wistful about in five years, and in the case of “Humble.” the best song was the single.

other — I could offer backhanded praise of the artists’ vitality but instead I should just say that I loved Randy Newman’s “Lost Without You” (even Newman in the ‘70s would be devastated by Newman in his 70s), Alison Moyet’s “Reassuring Pinches” (I can’t think of when the “synthpop legend reclaims electronics” lane has had a more commanding traveler), Jens Lekman’s “To Know Your Mission,” Aimee Mann’s “Patient Zero” and TLC’s “It’s Sunny.” And for an album that really does function foremost as memoir, The Magnetic Fields’s 50 Song Memoir ended up having a lot of tracks I play individually. Impulsive top five: “A Cat Called Dionysus,” “No!,” “Foxx & I,” “Dreaming In Tetris” and “Have You Seen It In The Snow?” (people overestimate Stephin Merritt’s sense of irony but, even so, the entire 9/11 sequence on disc 4 is startlingly sentimental and, uh, beautiful, you know).

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Older ‘17

I have no idea why someone would list the best music of 2017 in mid-December, but it’s not too early to celebrate the other music I loved most this year. The big story: after years of thinking of Technique as merely an excellent post-peak New Order album, it took over my life. I guess 30 is the magical age at which its opening line feels like an invitation, not a rejection. In that spirit, here are 20 more albums I was finally ready for this year:

Karen Dalton – In My Own Time (1971) — This year’s documentary Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World is most revelatory, for novices like me, when showing how Native American musical tradition is synonymous with the language and idioms of American music, and often planted there by solitary figures (see: thorough musicological analysis of Mildred Bailey’s phrasing, the rhythms of Charley Patton’s guitar). Karen Dalton isn’t a figure of discussion in the film but her own influence speaks for itself during the end credits. I stood outside the Uptown’s auditorium doors in shivering amazement, every night I worked Rumble, trying to soak up as much of “Something On Your Mind” as possible. Never imagined I had a date with such a magnificent song.

Judee Sill – The Asylum Years (1971-1973) — Can’t beat Laura Veirs for succinctness: “You wrote ‘The Kiss’ and it is beautiful, I can listen again and again.” I agree that “The Kiss” is The One, as they say, though I try to ration it.

Dusty Springfield – Cameo (1973) — Another amazing person whose artistry never failed even as the world worked overtime to derail her career. See below.

Minnie Riperton – Perfect Angel (1974) — “Reasons” maps her connections to the world, “Our Lives” dreams of retirement, and in between there are a hundred other ways in which it’s hard now to hear Perfect Angel outside the specter of an early death. But the dripping ice cream cone on the album’s cover is a tell: Riperton believes in the eternity of the given moment, and lives forever in these songs.

Labelle – Chameleon (1976) — A good case for studio experimentation and wizardry in a year I’ve always reserved for the Ramones.

Marvin Gaye – I Want You (1976) — Sounds like the drums and strings of What’s Going On never stopped, they just spun off in a thousand personal directions while the world slept.

Neil Young – Comes A Time (1978) — I continue to explore Neil’s old albums at the rate he releases new ones, so I’ll have to settle for keeping pace. This year I went for Sleeps With Angels (the tape, uh, haunted my childhood home but somehow it took Claire Denis’s Beau Travail to make me wanna hear it) and Greendale (a pleasant slog). I’d heard Comes A Time once before this year but its subtlety made it seem inconsequential, especially given Rust Never Sleeps was imminent. Now it sounds like his catalog’s most obvious precursor to Automatic for the People and Wilco’s Being There.

Look Blue Go Purple – Still Bewitched (1983-1988) — As charming and mysterious as any Dunedin band and I swear I’d never even seen a mention of them until this year. Cosmic injustice or my ignorance, probably both.

Alexander O’Neal – Hearsay (1987) — When I need to see Minneapolis with fresh eyes I can just keep working down the list of Flyte Time productions. “The Lovers” is lush as July, etc.

Verlaines – Bird-Dog (1987) — That old college ache ’n’ thrum is fading but sometimes the right album brings it back. This one’s better than 1987’s Go-Betweens album, and almost as good as the two that bookend it.

Close Lobsters – Headache Rhetoric (1989) — I used to think bands like this were the greatest secret in the world; now I realize the crushing ubiquity of jangly rock music must’ve made the late 80s hell and am simply grateful when a band has great songs.

A.R. Kane – i (1989) — Further evidence that human culture peaked in ’89. I loved Sixty-Nine but had no idea the follow-up would be its exact inverse, so long on grooves and hooks. I also finally heard “Anitina” this year and, well…

Prefab Sprout – Jordan: The Comeback (1990) — The Jordan songs I knew from The Collection, in high school, must’ve sounded like too much a threat to my indie rock “ideals,” as I found them tacky where “Appetite” wasn’t quite. So dumb; this is a major pop achievement.

The Roches – A Dove (1992) — Always weirdly on-trend with their album covers, impervious to trends in every other way. Still, this accidentally made for a good same-day purchase and listen with Love Deluxe, another ’92 album that risks sacrificing personality for slick surfaces, gains more than it loses.

Mary J. Blige – My Life (1994) — Hmm, I’m thinking of another artist whose second album’s second song is also called “You Bring Me Joy” and whose subtext is that sentiment, with pronouns inverted.

George Michael – Older (1996) — Far and away the album that moved me most this year. Even in death he remains misunderstood and otherized (turning “Fastlove” into a dirge for the Grammys was a hideous insult), but his love and trust of his audience is palpable on Older. The music is heavy with the burden of articulating every line and melody just right, to avoid misinterpretation, light with a sense of relief/release. The booklet’s “Thank you for waiting” is the understatement of the decade.

OutKast – ATLiens (1996) — The most overdue listen of anything on this list. I’ve liked OutKast for 18 years, what was I thinking?

Cornelius – Point (2001) — Cuts back on the hyper-allusive thrills of Fantasma and gets right on with dazzling music. Maybe I thought the absence of that Disney-Americana angle would make his music too austere, but I would’ve loved this at 14. To realize that, about music you were once on the verge of hearing but never did, is a form of time travel, or at the very least produces an eerie sense of time as illusory. See also, this year: Handsome Boy Modeling School’s So… How’s Your Girl?; Matthew Sweet’s In Reverse; The Breeders’ Title TK; Blonde Redhead’s 23. It’s 1999 (and 2002, and 2007) all the time.

Jazmine Sullivan – Love Me Back (2010) — I should’ve been on music message boards in my 20s.

Tanya Donelly – Swan Song Series (2016) — The songwriting bodes well for the new Belly album, though I suspect that one’s ambitions will be primarily soundwise, not scalewise. I listened to Swan Song across a wide swath of Wisconsin last month, but already knew it was unusually grounded in time and place (and coffee shop atmospherics) for music in the 2010s.

10,000 doors

My favorite listening moments tend to be ones in which I’m surprised to find myself thinking, about artists I love, “Oh, this is one of their best songs.” Ten of those from this year:

Patti Smith – “Distant Fingers”
David Bowie – “Red Sails”
Fleetwood Mac – “That’s All For Everyone”
Television Personalities – “Diary of a Young Man”
The Chills – “Ghosts”
The Leaving Trains – “What Cissy Said”
Wipers – “True Believer”
New Order – “Mr Disco”
The Afghan Whigs – “Uptown Again”
Sonic Youth – “Incinerate”

Friday, March 10, 2017

Crunch I

Lest I cease documenting my listening habits, here’s Crunch I (f.k.a. Winter’s Diary 30), so named for the tape I found in the deck of my most recently acquired stereo. My version of Crunch I, though not without crunch, is a good deal less crunchy than its original (trust me), but in certain other ways I might pass for that middle-aged man who sells stereos on Craigslist. I’ve reached that foretold place where more and more of my most significant music discoveries are deep cuts from massively popular artists. So it goes. If nothing else, I hope that Bare Trees / Older / Emancipation / Trans constitutes a pattern of albums not often excerpted for a mixtape’s Side A. If it would help I’d list the artists’ names in an invisible font, below, to emphasize that these are forgotten songs, but, alas, I also still believe that context matters.


Fleetwood Mac • Sunny Side of Heaven
George Michael • The Strangest Thing
Versus • Into Blue
Edith Frost • Cars and Parties (demo)
Tink • Your Side
The Ocean Blue • Ask Me Jon
Prince • Dreamin’ About U
Neil Young • Hold On To Your Love
Mac McCaughan • Lost Again
A.R. Kane • Miles Apart
Kehlani • Get Like
Evans The Death • Disowner


Terence Trent D’Arby • I Still Love You
Cocteau Twins • Theft, and Wandering Around Lost
Wire • Free Falling Divisions
The Lucy Show • The Twister
Judee Sill • The Lamb Ran Away With The Crown
The Terminals • Frozen Car
The Proper Ornaments • The Frozen Stare
The Auteurs • Idiot Brother
The Chambers Brothers • So Tired
Solange • Rise
Fantasia • No Time For It
Depeche Mode • Here Is The House

Highlights: As it is in Carol, I hear “ask me” as a phrase used to minimize the burden of coming out (A6). In response, the rest of the tape flits between intimacy and desolation, the former expressed as a constriction of time, the latter a dilation, but all of it subject to the cosmic clock that states itself, unmistakably, at the end (B11-12).

In the next issue, maybe: 3Ds, Marine Girls, Hugo Largo (whether nearing wild heaven or just Roches at half-speed), Associates, Tanya Donelly, Flock of Dimes, Alexander O’Neal, and Dusty Springfield’s ABC Dunhill years.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Classic Man

(Oscar thoughts)

Best Picture (ranked)

Moonlight — A film so far outside the purview of the Academy that for it to be declared “best,” in the context of the other eight movies, would be, if not a disservice, a huge understatement. Still, whatever gets more people to see it. I can imagine a new American film language ready to carry us through to the end of the century, with nothing older than Moonlight (and American Honey, and The Fits) in its vocabulary. Let’s have more movies about the absence of love and touch, about how the weight of self makes it so impossible to speak that it takes every ounce of strength and willpower to say one true thing.

Hidden Figures — Like Queen of Katwe, Hidden Figures plays as a referendum on the beat-the-odds uplift narrative, in this case as recognition that these scenes still play out in every workplace in America. A white viewer like myself for once can’t root for his own absolution via sanitized history so must root for the protagonists instead, for their genius, perseverance, private moments of joy, indifference to anyone’s sense of guilt.

Fences — I’ve never understood why a re-staging of a classic work needs to find fresh cinematic framing or contemporary significance, if it’s well done, and Fences is very well done.

Manchester by the Sea — Funny, but smart enough to recognize humor as a meaningless gloss. Casey Affleck effectively conveys inarticulate grief, but it’s Michelle Williams, of course, who carries the film, grieving in her own quiet way while also tracing unseen contours in Affleck’s performance. Without her faltering attempts at communication as a mirror to his own longing to speak, his suffering remains opaque.

Hell or High Water — A good yarn, if a bit too slow in shaking off dead weight (Ben Foster, halfway to self-destruction, falsely equating the plight of poor exploited whites with that of dispossessed Native Americans; Jeff Bridges nearing forced retirement along with his racist slurs and stereotypes) and pushing forward the Western in ways it initially seems well-positioned to pull off. It should’ve been Gil Birmingham on that porch at the end.

Arrival — The first hour is astounding, but then the movie strains for purpose beyond applied linguistics and inventive alien design, thus earning a place on this list. Some have called Arrival a balm for post-election anxiety but I found it quite the opposite, maddening in its benign view of international cooperation. Maybe it plays better outside the U.S., but the ending just made me long for the realism of Dr. Strangelove.

La La Land — I’m still willing to accept the sincerity of everyone involved, I guess, but every choice made in the telling of this story is the wrong one, to wit:

a. Why borrow the ending of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg for a romance without a single ounce of regret? Both characters succeed wildly, and lose all use for each other long before a climactic what-if sequence tries to resurrect a feeling where none exists.

b. If Stone is the movie geek and Gosling is the jazz geek, why is he the one who introduces her to Rebel Without A Cause? An overly schematic movie can’t even get its schemata right. And for all the examples of his piano-playing and the application of his craft, her talents as a playwright remain unknown. Stone is hideously underserved throughout and still saves the movie, a workload too often required for a Best Actress Oscar.

c. Why would a dance crew squeeze onto such a small stage, with the kind of band that would never employ dancers? Could the audience possibly have missed the idea that Gosling has sold out his dreams? The movie registers a contempt for his artistic compromises that it wouldn’t dare visit upon those of Stone’s successful Hollywood actress. Music demands a purity that moviemaking does not, apparently, so while he can achieve success on his own terms, she must wait to have it granted from above.

Hacksaw Ridge — Andrew Garfield’s retractable upper lip suggests his character’s innate, unthinking goodness, but I left wondering about the interior life of the real Desmond Doss, even as the movie insists he didn’t have one. Despite his beliefs he’s an instrument of war; his vegetarianism is treated as a throwaway detail.

Lion — Simply put, I didn’t see it.


Animated Feature: Mainstream animation companies continue to expend their imagination on storytelling methods, not structures, so here come two more exquisite and inventive presentations of the holy configuration of man, woman and child. Kubo and the Two Strings and The Red Turtle, both stupendous technical achievements, ultimately bring nothing new. The latter is a more significant disappointment, as it seems primed to consider animal suffering at human hands only to retreat into allegory at the exact moment of a wrenching death. That leaves, among the nominees I’ve seen, Zootopia, which does indeed confound the tendency mentioned above, finding a way to map a story of human injustice onto animal actors without any of the icky side effects of too-broad analogy.

Documentary Feature: Like last year’s Animated Feature category, this one embarrasses any Best Picture category of the last few decades. Likely winner O.J. Made in America affirms its greatness in the way it becomes more incomplete the longer it gets. To think back to its beginning from its ending has a dizzying effect. Its flaws run no deeper than the availability of interview subjects, so that some sections, like the one covering the Rodney King protests, end up dangerously lopsided. But the movie’s at its best as a character study, a fact underlined by its devastating final word: “Please.” I Am Not Your Negro is perhaps disqualified from winning in the year of La La Land, as it would be a grim hypocrisy to applaud Baldwin’s close readings of film history and then give Best Picture to the movie that exemplifies the “grotesque appeal to innocence” he finds in Doris Day and Lover Come Back. Impossibly broader in scope than either of these is 13th, its thoroughness especially impressive given that Ava Duvernay has no central figure to organize her arguments. It’s the fourth great film she’s directed, and no two are alike.

Foreign Language Film: Julieta (not nominated) left me levitating, but Toni Erdmann and The Salesman, both of which layer random incident in no immediate need of resolution, all the while building toward unexpectedly heightened and audacious final half-hours, suggesting a commensurate dearth of patience in American filmmaking, produced a similar breathlessness.

Actress: Ruth Negga is the driving force of Loving, even if the what I’d call auteurist quirks of Jeff Nichols require the perspective to be weighted slightly toward Joel Edgerton and his role as a provider. And yet he’s a blank, empty of everything but love, happy to live anywhere, while she has to adopt an equally unassuming stoicism but still carry the conflict.

Actor: Re-watching Malcolm X this month it became obvious that Denzel Washington should be the most-winning actor in Oscar history.

Supporting Actress: The same feat achieved by the three actors who play Chiron, Naomie Harris achieves on her own, the not-what-I-expected contours of a life smoothed out by continuities of gesture. I’ll spend the rest of my life wondering if she really shouts that word, the one the movie presents silently and, like everything else in its compass, no matter how painful, as an act of love.

Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali, for what I guess you’d call paternal warmth. For how he says “little man,” and for how quickly he responds “no.” It’s all new to me.

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!


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 //


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”


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 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.