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.