Thursday, May 29, 2008

James Wolcott pens another touching Sydney Pollack obit, concentrating on (what else) Husbands & Wives. Rewatching it on Tuesday, I was reminded once again why it's in the top two or three of Woody Allen's filmography.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Sydney Pollack, RIP

Perhaps it's appropriate that the veteran director/actor dies on Memorial Day. The obits will probably concentrate on his work as a middlebrow director of middling quality -- for an Academy Award winner, he helmed some of the worst twaddle ever given the green light (Absence of Malice, Havana, Sabrina, The Interpreter, and Random Hearts, which has the immortal line delivered by Kristin Scott Thomas: "You know those tests you take to see if you're pregnant? I wish they had one so you could find out if you're crazy"). Yet he managed to pull Tootsie out of the jaws of disaster. This is probably the one great -- maybe the last great -- classic Hollywood comedy, up there with The Lady Eve and Duck Soup in laughs-per-minute (most of the wisecracks penned by Elaine May) and outdoing them in poignancy. It lost to Gandhi in the Best Picture and Actor races, but never fear: Hollywood compensated by tossing Oscars to Pollack for 1985's ponderous Out of Africa, which, despite Klaus Maria Brandauer and a warmer than usual Meryl Streep, never gets over Robert Redford's English accent and an air of irrelevance crossed with illiteracy -- do the film's creators show any sign of having read Isak Dinesen's work?

Still, there's something to be said about Pollack's belief in the star system. As a producer he nurtured Anthony Minghella. As director he was as responsible as anyone for creating the Robert Redford we know today, for better or worse. With the exception of his stint in live TV in the fifties, nothing in his resume suggests risk or novelty, and that's the way he liked it:
Pollack spoke of his preference for working with big stars in an interview with New York Times in 1982.

"Stars are like thoroughbreds," he said. "Yes, it's a little more dangerous with them. They are more temperamental. You have to be careful because you can be thrown. But when they do what they do best -- whatever it is that's made them a star -- it's really exciting."

Sometimes, he added, "if you have a career like mine, which is so identified with Hollywood, with big studios and stars, you wonder if maybe you shouldn't go off and do what the world thinks of as more personal films with lesser-known people. But I think I've fooled everybody. I've made personal films all along. I just made them in another form."
Beginning with his classic portrayal of harried professional angst in Tootsie, Pollack remembered his roots in acting, and returned to them like a thirsty man in the desert. He carved a number of indelible representations of a type that Hollywood knew all too well: the oily wheeler-dealer who's not listening to a second of the shit coming out his mouth. Years in the industry -- hell, Michael Ovitz was a client and friend -- no doubt gave Pollack the verisimilitude necessary to pull it off. Whether it was in Death Becomes Her or The Player, Pollack's performances always gave the impression, with their cut-the-shit snarls and smug consumption of every available molecule of oxygen, that he was the savviest man in the room: a survivor, which may be the only type that Hollywood appreciates. Last year he said more with a disgusted glance and a tight-lipped swig of single malt Scotch than all of George Clooney's exertions in Michael Clayton; even last October I was writing that it may be his last time around. So if there's one Sydney Pollack film you gotta see, don't rent Out of Africa or Jeremiah Johnson -- go straight to 1992's Husbands and Wives, in which Pollack got his only chance at sustaining a character arc for an entire movie. As Judy Davis' self-deluded, newly divorced husband, Pollack reminds me of every single fiftysomething dad I've ever met: his mind is unaware that his body is sagging, soft, and unresponsive. Highlights: his confession to Woody in a convenience store ("Big deal! So she's not Simone de Beauvoir!"); or his sputtered remarks to Lysette Anthony during what was at the time the most harrowing scene Woody had ever filmed ("My friends are trying to make an intellectual conversation, and you're sittin' there jerkin' off about tofu and crystals and shit"). He should have gotten an Oscar nomination, but Pollack's acting -- look at his work in Michael Clayton -- is too non-fussy to get noticed by Academy types.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

New Order - "As It Is When It Was"

The first track in the New Order repertoire to prominently feature acoustic guitar, the third song on Brotherhood features a typically incoherent Sumnerian refrain but more than enough nuance in the arrangements to compensate. This 1985 version hits the spot for many reasons, not the least of which is how solidly/stolidly Gillian Gilbert, back to the audience, carves a rhythm guitar figure that allows Peter Hook's bass to fill every available space with the sound of doomy minor-key romantic melancolia.

Happy Memorial Day weekend.

Friday, May 23, 2008

You can't turn on Cuban exile radio without hearing a reference to "Munich" and "1938," both of which shorthand for surrender, appeasement, and malfeasance in the face of an enemy of unspeakable awfulness. The words have been tossed hither and thither once again, last week by the president. It's not limited to the right either -- Anne Applebaum notes that Al Gore implied that the fight against global warming is comparable to the Allies' struggle against fascism. Forget how the analogies cheapen the the struggle; they also betray an ignorance of history and how the smaller events often have more to say about the present than the grand historical struggles of which pundits are so fond:
I am not, I hasten to add, arguing here against the public discussion of history. If the Nazis were being invoked more generally—in warnings, say, about the unpredictability of totalitarian regimes—they might be a useful part of a number of discussions. Unfortunately, Nazi analogies are nowadays usually deployed in order to end arguments, not to broaden them. Once you inject "Hitler" or "the Third Reich" into a debate, you have evoked the ultimate form of evil, put your opponent in an indefensible position—"What, you're opposed to a war against Hitler?"—and for all practical purposes halted the conversation.

Invoking the Nazis also changes the tenor of a debate. There may be good, tactical reasons for choosing not to negotiate with Hezbollah or the Iranian regime, for example (the best reason, usually, is that the relevant diplomats are fairly sure that negotiations won't work). But calling opponents of this policy "appeasers" distorts the debate, giving tactical choices a phony moral grounding. In reality, circumstances do change, even where "terrorists and radicals" are involved, as this administration in particular knows perfectly well.
Fans of Indiana Jones know that "Nazis" is itself shorthand for Dastardly Godless Evil.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

After years of suspecting the worst, I get proof: the Decemberists, that most politically salient of bands, really are sinister.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Douthat's second good post today speaks to our presidents' weakness for the grand gesture, the manipulation of gathering storms for historical canonization. What looks on first reading to be a defense of George W. Bush is actually a subtle condemnation of his yearning for presidential greatness and the weakness of Jon Meacham types forever in search ofChief Executives ready to lead another Greatest Generation:

All of these presidents benefited, as Bush hopes to benefit, from the consonance between their sweeping, often hubristic goals and the gradual upward trajectory in human affairs. Despite our crimes, the Philippines turned out well enough in the long run, and so did South Korea; in the very long run, so did post–World War I Europe. (Indeed, if LBJ or Nixon had only found a way to prop up South Vietnam until the 1990s, they might have been forgiven the outrageous cost in blood and treasure, and remembered as Trumanesque heroes rather than as goats.)

But these well-respected presidents have benefited, as well, from the American tendency to overvalue activist leaders. So a bad president like Wilson is preferred, in our rankings and our hearts, to a good but undistinguished manager like Calvin Coolidge. A sometimes impressive, oft-erratic president like Truman is lionized, while the more even-keeled greatness of Dwight D. Eisenhower is persistently undervalued. John F. Kennedy is hailed for escaping the Cuban missile crisis, which his own misjudgments set in motion, while George H. W. Bush, who steered the U.S. through the fraught final moments of the Cold War with admirable caution, is caricatured as a ditherer who needed Margaret Thatcher around to keep him from going wobbly.
I said as much a couple of months ago. But Douthat (craftily?) omits any allusion to the manipulation of intelligence and swelling of executive power that's transpired in the adminstration of this Bush, both of which should remind him that powerful presidents are more attractive in history books than in office.
I was thinking about how to start a small post on Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian [whew], but Ross Douthat nails what made the film disappointing. It's difficult for me to be objective about the Narnia books: along with Louise Fitzhugh' s Harriet The Spy series, they were my favorite books as a boy. I reread them until the bindings came off. The much-ballyhooed Christian allegories with which Lewis purportedly bludgeons the reader never stood out much to this beneficiary of twelve years of Catholic school education; I mean, they were there, but I noted them and went on.

But back to the films. I was surprised that The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe kept most of the book's nuances. Thanks to the casting of Tilda Swinton as the White Witch (a much cooler and imperious vision of evil than Lewis', and thus compelling) and Georgie Henley as Lucy Pevensie, we understand the tug that this pagan world exerts on the four children. It says a lot about the first adaptation that by the time the children are coronated I wanted it to keep going. As the book that really got me to keep reading the series (I read TLTWATW not knowing it was the first of seven volumes), I've a special affection for Prince Caspian, narrative problems notwithstanding. The film adaptation straightens the unwieldy flashback with which the book's first half begins, yet sacrifices the children's affection for each other and connection to their adopted world for swordplay and horseplay. Peter Dinklage's Trumpkin – the novel's most enduring character – gets nothing to do. There's little sense that these four children were once kings and queens and mighty warriors, worthy of being summoned from the High Past (Edmund in particular wanders in a daze through most of the film). Peter and Caspian arguing over battle plans could very well be Judd Nelson and Emilio Estevez bickering over who asked a girl out first. Finally, whoever came up with the bright idea of having the Telmarines talk like Ricky Ricardo and look like Raul Julia should be sacrificed on the Stone Table.

Good news, though: director-adaptor Andrew Adamson will hand the franchise to someone else for the next adaption, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the most leisurely, action-packed, and religio-mystical of the seven books, and somehow my favorite.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The age demanded

"Passion and enthusiasm, which sometimes can be enough to sway a crowd, aren't even necessary. You can manufacture faith out of nothing and there are an infinite number of patterns and lines that connect from key to key -- all deceptively simple."
--Bob Dylan, Chronicles.

From today's New York Times Magazine interview with McCain:
“I’ve seen other stories and I’ve seen comments about my national-security speech,” McCain said, referring to an address he gave in Los Angeles a few weeks earlier. “The story line is as follows: ‘McCain’s not the same McCain. He’s changed, and now he’s become a hawk, and he is dramatically different from what he was.’ ” He recited this narrative as if repeating the nonsensical words of dullards. “And anybody is free to write whatever they want and form whatever opinions they want to form. But facts are facts. And the fact is that I know war, and I know the tragedy of war. And no one hates war more than veterans.”

From here, McCain went on to list for me some of the military actions he supported (Grenada, Panama) and some that he opposed (Beirut, Somalia). He had always followed the same set of values, he said, grounded in the premise that all people, not just Americans, were created equal and had inalienable rights. And when America could intervene militarily to further those values around the world without needless sacrifice in lives and money, he was all for it, and where we couldn’t, he was not, and there was nothing extreme about that.

“As far as people who advise me,” McCain went on, though I still hadn’t asked a question, “probably one of my most trusted advisers for the last 30 years is Henry Kissinger, not known as a hawk or a neocon.” McCain infused the word with sarcasm. “I also remember the days when Ronald Reagan was portrayed as a hawk and a neocon. I remember the near hysteria in response to his ‘tear down this wall.’ I remember the ‘Oh, you can’t do that, when you call the Soviets an evil empire.’ I remember all those things. Same people who are now saying — ” He stopped himself midsentence, then began again. “I’m always open to new ideas and new thoughts, but my principles were grounded many years ago in places like the National War College and other places where I have learned and studied and talked to people I admire and respect.

“So,” McCain said finally, “with that preface, I’d be glad to answer any questions you might have, and again, it’s always good to be with you.”

The profile is touching in ways that reporter Matt Bai and McCain himself didn't expect. Here you see a serious man, much more serious than his brethren in the Republican Party, struggling to articulate a foreign policy that redresses the evil (there's no other word) of Kissingerism -- whose adherents showed nary a gasp when the Metternich of Foggy Bottom sabotaged Hubert Humphrey's peace plan so that his capo Richard Nixon could get peace with honor by invading Cambodia -- yet clings to that very American espousal of the principles of the Declaration of Independence as long as McKinley-Roosevelt's Open Door Policy was honored. I admit, there may have been a time in the recent past when McCain's inchoate vision may have sufficed -- may even have honored our divisions about what to do with all this power and a limitless supply of foreign markets buying our consumer goods; but it's not 2000 anymore, and to be right about theocratic terrorist cells isn't the same as being right about the American counter-argument. He reminds me a bit of Herbert Hoover: earnest, plodding, possessed of good motives but awful instincts, unable to accept that the time for his beliefs has long since passed; the age demanded something else, even if the alternative we vote for poses questions whose answers may make us tremble anew. Who can blame McCain? Pessimism is a tenet of conservatism that I accept wholeheartedly.

Dylan again: "Miscalculations can also cause no serious harm."

Saturday, May 17, 2008

So this explains why I remain $600 poorer despite filing my taxes weeks before the deadline. Beware of government agencies bearing gifts.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The usual blowhards make the tired arguments, but for the next six months at least homosexual couples can marry in California. Rebuttals to the judicial activism canard don't get better than Glenn Greenwald's (which also contains demurrals if you read carefully):
Numerous states have already adopted laws declaring that they will not recognize same-sex marriages from other states. Moreover, the Defense of Marriage Act makes clear that states are not required to do so. Thus, those states which wish to continue to deny basic marriage rights to their gay citizens will be free to continue to do so. Today's ruling applies only to California.

(4) The Court did not rule that California must allow same-sex couples the right to enter into "marriage." It merely ruled that if the state allows opposite-sex couples to do so, then same-sex couples must be treated equally. The Court explicitly left open the possibility that the state could distinguish between "marriage" (as a religious institution) and "civil unions" (as a secular institution) -- i.e., that California law could leave the definition of "marriage" to religious institutions and only offer and recognize "civil unions" for legal purposes -- provides that it treated opposite-sex and same-sex couples equally. The key legal issue is equal treatment by the State as a secular matter, not defining "marriage" for religious purposes.
This is the crux of the matter. At Babalu Blog, I've a civil debate going on with two critics of the California Supreme Court's decision. One ECM makes a valid point: the legislature could have over-ridden the governor's veto if a veto-proof majority in support of the legislation existed. I don't know the intricacies of the California legislature (ours is erratic enough), so maybe some of my readers on the west coast can chime in. So I remain cautiously optimistic. Were the voters to approve the constitutional amendment in November, critics of today's decision can rightly crow -- and study the quiet experiment in homo/hetero cohabitation happening in Massachusetts.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Alisons Moyet - "Invisible"

Rarely has such a rinky-dink arrangement anchored a more shattering vocal. Old pro Lamont Dozier (who knows something about shattering vocals) wrote a song whose tempo doesn't intrude on Moyet's drama, which is too raspy, has too many blue hues, to be called "histrionic." Key moment: the shift from shriek to gulped croon at the 1:44 mark when Moyet sings, "But I know you're home." Histrionics, meet reality. Next to this, Annie Lennox sounds like Aimee Mann.

I had NO idea!

NRO's John J. Miller reminds us why Prince Caspian is the best in the Chronicles of Narnia series: 
It certainly promises to be a movie for our times. Of the seven Narnia books, Prince Caspian is the most militaristic. There's a big battle scene in the movie version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, of course. Yet it's a relatively small part of the book—it takes up roughly a single paragraph. Prince Caspian is different. One of its major themes is just warfare, and there's plenty of fighting—Narnia scholar Michael Ward has made this point.
Listen to his lips smack. He goes on to say that Americans would flock to a Black Hawk Down-type film about Marines in Fallujah. Miller may be right, but with Americans as confident about the way things are as George W. Bush's approval ratings, producers may need to replace soldiers with talking badgers and centaurs. 

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, and The Apartment notwithstanding, Billy Wilder wrote his best scripts as an indentured servant for Paramount, well before the rancidness he flashed like a badge made him a perennial nominee at the Academy Awards: Hollywood loves a cynic it can understand and package. Of these, Midnight is the best (Ninotchka is another), given deluxe treatment by the excellent hack Mitchell Leisen, and it's finally out on DVD. Like Leisen's earlier adaptation of the Preston Sturges script Easy Living, Midnight takes place in a parquet-and-Park-Avenue world encased in Art Deco with no real-life referents, and it's all the better for it; this and Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise may be the closest that American film has come to the pure verbal-velour world of Congreve. Claudette Colbert's work in It Happened One Night was the dress rehearsal for her performance here (as Mary Astor's dame on the make is a sober variant on the pure zaniness of her acting in 1942's The Palm Beach Story, in which she also squared off against Colbert). She shows an uncommon mix of daffiness and common sense. Feminism may have made these roles extinct, but the tension caused by Colbert's expansion of a stereotype for comic purposes should give Leslie Mann something to study at home for months to come. A bearable Dom Ameche (overdoing the oafishness towards at the end) leads a cast of eccentrics that includes Francis Lederer, Hedda Hopper, and John Barrymore, the latter inhabiting such a sozzled state of grace that he can fling one-liners with nary a facial muscle exertion. If you never watched Midnight on tape, here's your chance.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Reading Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke, it's impossible not to think that Winston Churchill's gotten off rather easily in histories of the twentieth century; or that FDR's relentless prosecution of the war had had years of rehearsal, in which December 7, 1941 served merely as the blinking of the theater lights. The nasty reviews the book's gotten reinforce the impression that World War II will be the only cause around which liberals and conservatives will rally in that low, grim, dishonest century – A Just War. Judging from the unceasing thrust of Stefan Kanfer's subject-verb constructions ("Baker despises Churchill too") and decidedly non-pacifistic phrase weaving ("perhaps the worst parts of the author’s cut-and-paste job are his attacks on Roosevelt and Churchill," as if they were Hawaiian island chain), Baker's book should resemble one of Gore Vidal's latter-day screeds – the ones collected in 2000's The Last Empire – in which his insider unctuousness finally blunted legitimate criticism of crafty FDR and flinty Harry Truman's creation of America regnant. But Baker's assemblage – paraphrases of newspaper clips and declassified intelligence, and letters, essays, and cables by the participants – creates a narrative bleaker than any dreamed of by Kanfer and Vidal. My conclusion: that Churchill was a butcher and devourer of men, that FDR was a sly old puss maneuvering to get the U.S. involved doesn't mitigate the horror of what Nazi Germany was doing to Jews, not to mention the deracination of European cultural life, as letters from exiles like Thomas Mann show. Churchill and FDR were bad, but Hitler, Goebbels, and Goering were worse.

Baker's book is subtler than his written remarks endorsing pacifism. War is an inevitability; as 1938 becomes 1939, peaceful co-existence with Germany was an impossibility no matter how many pacifists went on hunger strikes. The moral clarity to which Churchill aspired in his writings and public appearances had its counterpart in the floor speeches by Representative Jeanette Rankin of Montana (who also made news in 1917 by opposing WWI). Both seem equally deluded: Churchill genuinely believed in the edifying nature of war and Rankin in the nihilism of blood. That both forces were unofficial, uneasy, but essential partners is one of the ironies Baker and his critics miss. Pacifism may have been futile, but its adherents were the only ones who understood the nature of the Nazi threat: while FDR was sending shipfuls of Jewish refugees back to Europe and Neville Chamberlain venting silly social hostilities, pacifists, James Wolcott reminds us, risked their lives to help the endangered race. In an experience as devastating as WWII, no one emerged with clean hands, nor should we expect them to. This is why Orwell's writings constitute the best example of how a man of reasonable intelligence thinks through the problem of evil, without delusion.

Friday, May 9, 2008

a-ha are one of those bands about whom intelligent people have written intelligent things. Ned, one of their biggest advocates over the years, re-examines Scoundrel Days, which I bet you didn't know was their followup to their only U.S. gold album Hunting High and Low. His essay made me do the Wikipedia thing in place of real research, but you uncover strange bits of trivia: Keane isn't the only one to noice that U2's "Beautiful Day" bears more than a passing resemblance to a-ha's second and last Top 20 single "The Sun Always Shines on T.V."

As for me, every time I've heard "Take On Me" in the last eight years I've been very drunk in a club, and it sounds like bliss, like ten thousand seraphim chanting the name of the Lord -- and it's got nothing to do with the video. The fadeout -- in which singer Morten Harket's unearthly alto competes with doubletracked harmonies trying to quelch him -- is exactly what I mean.
Very rare interview with the Go-Betweens in 1988. Check out Robert Forster, unbuttoning his shirt. They all look knackered.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

A thought

INTERVIEWER: What would be "immoral" literature?

JOHN GARDNER: Mainly, fiction goes immoral when it stops being fair, when it stops trusting the laboratory experiment...I would agree with people who get nervous around the world morality, because usually the people who shout "immoral" are those who want to censor things, or think that all bathroom scenes or bedroom scenes or whatever are wicked. That kind of morality is life-denying, evil. But I do think morality is a real thing that's worth talking about...It means what it means, and the fact that it's out of style doesn't matter very much. It's like patriotism, which as got a very bad name because devils keep yelling for it. Ultimately patriotism ought not to mean that you hate all other countries. It ought to mean that you love certain things about your country; you don't want them to change. Unfortunately, when you say "patriotism," everybody goes "aargh." Same thing with morality.

-- The Paris Review Interview, 1979.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

My review of the informative This is Your Brain On Music, a book as free of pedantry as my high school band class was not.
After Monday's show in West Palm Beach, I decided that I prefer Fast Radiohead to Pretty Radiohead – that if given the choice I'd rather hear "15 Step" to "Nude," or "The National Anthem" instead of "Street Spirit (Fade Out)." Thom Yorke can make creamy vaporousness signify in an amphitheater, of course, but what we get is the aural equivalent of a foot rub. Nobody knows what the hell the lead singer's mewling about (something vaguely political/paranoid), so you put your head back, close your eyes, hug your girlfriend, and drift.  "So awesome," my friend said. "Listen to all that crazy shit," said the guy next to me. For a lot of fans the key to Radiohead's aesthetic success is movement – there isn't a single number for which the band members follow the conventions of a five-piece rock act. When Jonny Greenwood's sprawled on the floor coaxing whistles from the ondes martenot or Ed O'Brien's beating tom-toms for "There There" instead of strapping on a guitar, it adds to Radiohead's aura of unconventionality; the flurry of movement dovetails with the audience's sense of the band's evolution (looking for new sounds, "stretching the boundaries of rock," etc). I did hear a predictable but in this context surprising evolution: Radiohead's getting tighter and tighter. The dub features in Colin Greenwood's bass work were more apparent, Phil Selway's become as adept as Stephen Morris in playing around programmed percussion, and Yorke himself played nice ugly rhythm work on "Where I End And You Begin." In short, not dead yet.  

Monday, May 5, 2008

Going to see Liars and Radiohead tonight. I'm going to be part of a community!

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Paging Karen Hughes

Cast in the girl Friday role that Kirsten Dunst did nothing with, Gwyneth Paltrow does her most charming work ever in Iron Man, in which director Jon Favreau demonstrates a new talent for male-female repartee, the usual talent for male-male repartee, and as talented as Karen Hughes in explaining nearly twenty years of American malfeasance to the tribes of brown-skinned hordes who hold Robert Downey, Jr prisoner. This farrago, which shows thoughtlessness instead of True Lies-style xenophobia, is the worst sequence in the picture. Yeah, yeah, it's a comic book movie. Then again, the process by which a weapons manufacturer makes the cover of Rolling Stone (on Jann Wenner's watch?), holds press conferences on command, and suddenly decides to stop selling weapons because it's evil is about as incredible as Downey, Jr.'s newfound sobriety. Elsewhere, Jeff Bridges, gluing on his King Kong beard for one more round of ogling a leggy woman, does a paunchy variation on his silken-villain routine from Jagged Edge and The Contender; he's such a pro that he winces just once when he hears his character's name aloud ("Obadiah"). The producer(s) who greenlighted this project should be congratulated: when was the last time a $200 million Hollywood film depended on a Luke-Vader duel between two middle-aged actors whose salad days are long gone?

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Rich's last paragraph echoes what I posted about "4 Minutes" a couple of weeks ago:
...Her voice sits way up front, honking and cranking at you like it’s being squeezed out of a constricted larynx. My theory is that her regularly underwhelming pipes are mixed so loudly to counterbalance the conceptual and sonic anonymity she often resorts to here as success insurance. Maybe I'm off. Maybe it's that she just transcends technical skill – if enough people say something is good, so do the charts. However interpreted, what starts out as delusion ends up coming off as humility – she’s naked against these bare backing tracks. There she is imperfect, maybe even unpleasant, refracting the rays of musical sunshine that back her up Maybe the point isn’t forgetting that this is Madonna, after all. Maybe if you let your mind wander a little more, you can remember that you're listening to an actual, vulnerable person. You can remember that you're listening to just this girl who loves dance music.
It's enough to make grown man cry. Then again, Madonna would rightly balk at being expected to sound like 1983 all over again. I mean, wasn't that what Confessions On A Dance Floor was all about?
Portishead - Third

Since their appeal slipped right past me back when they were supposedly giving Massive Attack and Tricky a jog through the trip-hop haze, I had nothing invested in their third record in 14 years. All my cavils about Beth Gibbons' voice duly noted, I found that her arid, pinched yelp rubs up against the piston beats, yards and yards of ugly guitar, and even uglier synth lines in a much more eloquent manner than the sounds she pries from her larynx, which I'm assuming are lyrics. Lots of reviews have noted that Third is "out of time" – it could have been released in 1999 as an answer record to Mezzanine or Angels With Dirty Faces, etc. To me this is a subtle indictment – rootless melancholia can seem like nostalgia if you don't concentrate hard enough. But the sequence from "We Carry On" through "Machine Gun" is rootless melancholia of the first degree; the music swells, contracts, swells again, and bursts. It's the history of rave culture and trip-hop in 13 minutes, complete with Belgian beehive synth sounds and a submerged harmony that's perfectly out of time. I still wish Gibbons was a person instead of a spectre – it's the crucial thing keeping this record from greatness – but playing to her weaknesses makes this very bitter pill go down. 

Welcome, May


Caught -- the bubble
in the spirit level,
a creature divided;
and the compass needle
wobbling and wavering,
Freed -- the broken
thermometer's mercury
running away;
and the rainbow-bird
from the narrow bevel
of the empty mirror,
flying wherever
it feels like, gay!

– Elizabeth Bishop