Saturday, February 28, 2009

Speaking of Thomas, a useful review of Debarge's 20th Century Masters/The Millenium Collection. I've never particularly warmed to Debarge, to whom so many of my favorite critics surrender without a fight, but "All This Love" and "Time Will Reveal" hold up as well as any early eighties R&B ("A Dream" was the wtf-revelatory cut for me, actually). "You Wear It Well" shakes like the kid brother of Kool & the Gang's "Misled."I like "Who's Holding Donna Now" and "Who's Johnny?" more than he does, though. Of course, there's "Rhythm of the Night," which, as Thomas points out, skips to a robo-calypso beat first heard on the Pointer Sister's "Automatic," but so what? I love "Automatic." If you can get your hands on the "dance remix" (found on the collection named above), do so; the producers scrub much of the original's tackiness from the mix (the excellent bridge now omits the terrible synthesizer blasts punctuating the verses) and give Eldra Debarge more room to shake his blues right away.

Speaking of the Short Circuit theme song: more R&B producers listened to Scritti Politti's Cupid & Psyche '85 than I'd expected. Eldra's light, frisky tenor cuts corners around the Fairlight fizz, synth-horn blasts, and ricocheting drum programs as deftly as Green Gartside's did on tracks like "Absolute" and "Perfect Way." If we remember that Gartside contributed "Love of a Lifetime" to Chaka Khan's Destiny in 1986 -- and that the late Arif Mardin's ear for R&B trends remained impeccable -- the cross-pollination isn't so far-fetched.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

At the request of one of my more obnoxious friends, a few words on George Lamond's great single "Bad of the Heart." 1989 and 1990 were curious years for freestyle: Stevie B, Sweet Sensation, Sa-Fire, and Timmy T scored their first Top 40 hits, at least four years after the genre supposedly peaked artistically. This is harder, slower, and, yeah, faster than any freestyle, most notably in the first forty seconds, in which the earnest crooning of the title surrenders to deafening turntable scratching and a backbeat Hank Shocklee might have concocted. It's the most abrupt, thrilling moment in freestyle -- maybe the first hit since Shannon's "Let The Music Play" whose sonic innovations buttressed the longing of the vocalist. Because Lamond's high, wan, uncertain voice is so exposed, I'm tempted to cite "Bad of the Heart" as a terrific example of the tricks freestyle played on critics: the genre presented weaknesses in pitch and tone as signifiers of humanity. But the obsession, pain, and recrimination to which Lamond and other submitted found their match in the beats, like horrible, honest admissions in diaries photocopied and circulated to friends.

Growing up in Miami, I heard this and other retreads constantly on Power 96, so Top 40 validation seemed irrelevant (Gloria Estefan, then at the peak of her chart success, dulled the victory too). Anyway, the name of my favorite freestyle hit of all wasn't even spoken by Casey Kasem. Neither was the love that dare not speak its name: when Lamond and Noel conveyed sentiments more at home coming from young women, with the same emotional abandonment, I wonder if they're being as honest as their lyrics and vocals suggest -- which is why I'm grateful to the Pet Shop Boys, who scored their last significant American chart hit with a Lewis Martinee (Expose) production, for exposing the subtext.

Since Sony Records won't allow me to embed the YouTube clip of "Bad of the Heart," here's the link.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A couple of quick reviews:

Tonight: Franz Ferdinand - Franz Ferdinand. For three albums now, these Scottish nancy boys who put the sex in "metrosexual" have let their zippy songcraft run aground after the fifth or sixth song, only to (barely) recover in the final third. A cad who snaps guitar picks convincing women he's a sensitive guy, Alex Kapranos is the frontman, but not the star (despite the authorship of a gastronomic tour that, like Kingsley Amis' tomes on drinking, illuminate the writers' attitude towards pleasure rather than provide an education); on "Bite Hard" and "Twilight Omens," it's Nick McCarthy's buzzing synths and Paul Thomson's backbeat that provide the spritz without which ostensible concept albums about nights on the town would turn flat. They've never made a great album, and at this rate probably won't; but a string of decent to excellent ones in this shrinking global economy testifying to a belief in hedonism -- and that stop for mornings-after with your sweetie under the blanket-- is as compelling a myth as universal health care.

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. I gagged at the title: figured any band with a name like this has a hear too pure for me to endure. I don't care much for the legacies of Ride and My Bloody Valentine either. Emo verities like claiming your love is fucking right sound better through fuzz and tinky keyboards I haven't heard since The Cure's Wish, and attempts at lapidary songwriting like "The Tenure Itch" augur an abandonment of emography which will probably get them laid more than boo-hoo stuff like "Stay Alive."

Sunday, February 22, 2009

For the record, my Oscar picks:

Best Picture: Slumdog Millionaire
Best Director: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
Best Actor: Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
Best Actress: Kate Winslet, The Reader
Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Best Supporting Actress: Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona

RIP Rickey Wright

Sad, sad news. I knew him as an enthusiastic contributer to many an I Love Music thread; his resume is a lot vaster than I thought (Amazon!). I have a vague memory of meeting him at a Experience Music Project Pop Conference in Seattle. Ned and Matos enforce my chilling sense that you never have enough time to befriend all the people you want.

Friday, February 20, 2009

How I know the right, or maybe just Kathryn-Jean Lopez, has gone unhinged.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Day Two of Nathaniel's Oscar symposium, much more rewarding than Day One, in which I learned that participants liked Vicky Cristina Barcelona and In Bruges enough to place them in their top fives of the year.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

I listen to conservative talk radio about once a week: not only is it healthy to get one's blood in a boil, but I'm attracted to dogmatism even when it hides behind jargon like "worldview" and "agenda" -- especially so. It's one thing to be self-confident; it's another to act as if your philosophical convictions trump everyone else's. To quote Bill Murray in Tootsie, that's weird.

Anyway, Dan Shelley's account of his experiences working with Charlie Sykes confirm your worst fears. But it's nothing to get smug about; talk show listeners, as Shelley remarks, aren't stupid. Mom, a college-educated woman, listens to Rush Limbaugh, the best and brightest of them. Among the non-surprises confirmed: hosts receive talking points from the White House and Republican Party, and will on occasion challenge prevailing wisdom:
A smart talk show host will, from time to time, disagree publicly with a Republican president, the Republican Party, or some conservative doctrine. (President Bush’s disastrous choice of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court was one such example.) But these disagreements are strategically chosen to prove the host is an independent thinker, without appreciably harming the president or party. This is not to suggest that hosts don’t genuinely disagree with the conservative line at times. They do, more often than you might think. But they usually keep it to themselves.
Here's an explanation for the lukewarm defense of John McCain in the last presidential election cycle:
Except in presidential elections, when they will always carry water for the Republican nominee, conservative hosts won’t hurt their credibility by backing candidates they think can’t win. So if they’re uncharacteristically tepid, or even silent, about a particular race, that means the Democrat has a good chance of winning.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

This is the cutest collaboration I've heard in months: Peter Gabriel and Hot Chip remake Vampire Weekend's "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa." For Gabriel it's a particular triumph: the author of some of the quietest ponderosities recorded in the last twenty years gets to poke fun of himself, coaxed by the gentle bleeps and whistles of Hot Chip's beats, which move like feathers tickling his neck. Imagine the bald sexagenarian meditating without rancor on why Graceland has become a touchstone and So hasn't.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Disdainful as I am about biographical criticism, I'm tempted to sift the ore in this New York Magazine profile of iconoclastic film critic New York Press film critic Armond White (I'm equally tempted to ignore the nepotistic inclinations of a piece written by and to other New York critics, and maybe I should when confronted by ad-man patter like this: "[White] doesn’t mind playing the heel, the bringer of illusion-dissolving cold water, the man the peanut gallery loves to hate" -- White as, what, Al Gore?*). White, he admits, was raised as a Pentecostal, a way of looking at the other world that tends to the Manichean:
I’m a believer. I think God is the force for ultimate good in the universe. He made the movies, didn’t he? If you cut me open, that’s what you’d find: the movies, Bible verses, and Motown lyrics.”
On Close Encounters of the Third Kind, his partisanship of which stands as the best example of his famous admiration for Steven Spielberg:
“There I was, having seen that film, a truly great film, and I was walking through this blanket of pristine snow in the suburbs. I was the only one around. I’d never experienced a moment of such purity; perhaps I never will again.”
If anyone has got links to White's eighties rock criticism published in The Village Voice (I've read bits on the Pet Shop Boys and Morrissey), send it over.

*Author Mark Jacobson constructs his own escape hatch by quoting "one well-known film critic": “Armond’s smart and all, I get a kick out of him, but do I really have to see him looking out of the magazine like he’s the last angry, honest man in the film culture?” Go ahead -- answer the question.
Caramanica's been doing good work at The New York Times. This sharp, unexpectedly sweet review of the Heads of State (three-fifths of New Edition) is proof.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

She's rather forgotten, isn't she?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Zadie Smith's novels haven't impressed me much. A writer with a refreshing command of dialect, and an impressive familiarity with the canon of English literature as it impinges on the imagination of a woman whose mixed race ancestry would have shoved her to the peripheries seventy years ago, Smith hasn't yet marshaled her talents in a way that signifies beyond the scope of a talent uneasily assimilating material. "Speaking in Tongues," her excellent essay in the current New York Review of Books posits a kind of multiculturalism that sees its apogee in a certain politican who synthesizes Pygmalion, Cary Grant, and black patois. As usual with me, I don't want to believe it's true.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Anchored by a superb performance of barely suppressed impatience, insecurity, and rage by Academy Award-nominated Melissa Leo, Frozen River has all the hallmarks of a Sundance Festival favorite: self-enamored fatalism and desperate people in snow-covered terrain breaking the law. This story about a dollar store clerk who stumbles into the alien smuggling business when her shitbird husband abandons her and their two kids could use less pleading on their behalf, and more venality on the part of the lawbreakers. It wouldn't kill these filmmakers if selfishness motivated their characters -- if, say, Leo's heroine wanted the money to buy herself new shoes, dope, or a flat-screen TV instead of a "Hot Wheels" race track for her little boy (as it happens she doesn't buy the racetrack and isn't home for Christmas either, in case you're wondering). Still, Leo and Upham are ace together; the menace and desperation that Upham projects in their first car scene speaks to the futility of Congressional stimulus bills, not when these lives are in constant danger of spinning out of control. Writer-director Courtney Hunt gives aforementioned snow-covered wastes the Fargo-Sweet Hereafter treatment without the symbolism. I'll take this over Shotgun Stories in a minute.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Corner, our favorite Chamber of Horrors, is apparently listing the greatest conservative movies of the last twenty-five years. One James G. Lakely posts this about Clint Eastwood's Heartbreak Ridge, a piece of military pornography that makes Rambo look like The First Wives Club:
Clint Eastwood’s foul-mouthed Marine sergeant Tom Highway makes quick work of kicking Communist Cubans out of Grenada. And, boy, does “Gunny” hate Commies. Not only does he kill quite a few, he also refuses a bribe of a Cuban cigar, saying: “Get that contraband stogie out of my face before I shove it so far up your a** you’ll have to set fire to your nose to light it.” A welcome glorification of Reagan’s decision to liberate Grenada in 1983, the film also notes how after a tie in Korea and a loss in Vietnam, America can finally celebrate a military victory. Eastwood, the old war horse, walks off into retirement pleased that he’s not “0–1–1 anymore.” Semper Fi. Oo-rah!
Some unexpected selections include Team America: World Police ("It’s amazingly vulgar and depicts Americans as wildly overzealous in fighting terror," Brian C. Anderson writes. "Yet the film’s utter disgust with air-headed, left-wing celebrity activism remains unmatched in popular culture") and Brazil ("Terrorist bombings, national-security scares, universal police surveillance, bureaucratic arrogance, a callous elite, perversion of science, and government use of torture evoke the worst aspects of the modern megastate," S.T. Karnick drools).

If you're wondering if any contemporary films made the cut, how 'bout another Eastwood? Gran Torino -- "Dirty Harry blows away political correctness, takes on the bad guys, and turns a boy into a man in the process. He even encourages the cultural assimilation of immigrants. It feels so good, you knew the Academy would ignore it," Andrew Breitbart writes. Yet more examples of the power worship to which a certain kind of conservatism degenerates when it's unfashionable or out of power. Which explains posts like these.

UPDATE: Glenn Greenwald wonders: "Is it even theoretically possible for someone's brain to allow them to write that last sentence in National Review as listing the hallmarks of "a totalitarian regime" and "the worst aspects of the modern megastate" without simultaneously realizing that this is everything that same magazine has cheered on for the last eight years at least?"

Saturday, February 7, 2009

George Packer published a story in this week's New Yorker (the link, alas, is to the audiovisual portion; the story's only available in print) about the sordid history of Florida real estate. Ah, Florida -- "the state with the prettiest name," according to poet Elizabeth Bishop. "The Ponzi state" Packer calls it:
Florida has epitomized the boom-and-bust cycle of American business ever since a land rush in the nineteen-twenties ended with a devastating hurricane of 1926. The state's economy depends almost entirely on growth -- that is, on new arrivals and the wealth they generate in construction and real estate...Only Nevada has a lower proportion of native residents than Florida.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

That John Waite, be it with the Babys or Bad English, never approached the pearly perfection of "Missing You" is a truism. But let me say a word for "Restless Heart," which I wish Tim McGraw would cover. Note the way his talk-sing gives rote verses an extra tug.

The enigmatic Terence Stamp deserves a career retrospective. Dan Callahan gives it a go. Points for noting the Zen stillness of his beauty; its concentration comes not from narcissism, but an awareness of its effects on others. Rather like the effect General Zod's boots and chest hair have on Smallville citizens.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

So faithful to the glibness of Graham Greene that wondering why he and director Carol Reed, as Edward Said wrote in another context, "resolutely confined" the experiences of the Cuban lives to ethnic color is to indulge in a kind of moral prissiness, 1960's Our Man in Havana is closer to the spirit of the James Bond pictures that would in effect consume the sophisticated international thriller subgenre in a little over two years. Released yesterday for the first time on DVD in a sparkling print, Our Man in Havana might gain a new following for this very reason: it's an artifact with few heirs (The Russia House and John Boorman's underrated adaptation of The Tailor of Panama are the only ones I can think of).

The Fallen Ido
l and The Third Man contain more than their share of easily delineated glibness too, but the anxious subtexts beneath the camerawork and the performances of Joseph Cotten, Ralph Richardson, and others sent subtle tremors through the facile Greene scripts. Thanks to the presence of Alec Guinness as the smooth vacuum cleaner salesman turned British double agent/fabulist, Our Man in Havana invokes the spirit of The Ladykillers and The Lavender Hill Mob, keeping a determined distance from the forces about to be unleashed by the descent of Fidel Castro from the Sierra Maestra. For the audience -- then and now -- there's little hint of the revolution seething off-camera, "the validity of an experience fully entitled to equal representation" of which Said speaks just a worry that we project onto the characters. The only hint of imperialist unease is the relationship between Guinness and Havana chief of police Ernie Kovacs; the latter is fully aware of the exploitative nature of their relationship, but Reed-Greene are more interested in keeping him reined in as an olive-skinned Claude Rains type, his cynicism so feline and polished that all he lacks is a cigarette holder. It's no accident that Noel Coward, Anglo-Saxon smoothness regnant, plays Guinness' case officer. Nothing wrinkles his tie, nor disturbs the waxen blankness of his mien. Quite a trick: in just three years the sun set on the English empire. As for Guinness, try finding a readily available mojito in Havana after 1963.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

I've delayed because Miami is notoriously slow about opening Oscar contenders and indie film, but here are my top ten movies of 2008, complete with links to remarks I've made in the last year.

I'll note that I've included two documentaries for the first time, as well as two others who might have made it in any other year: Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired and Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell. Also: I've never included so many foreign films. Assume what you will.

Rachel Getting Married
4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days

Still Life
The Witnesses
Up the Yangtze
The Flight of the Red Balloon

Paranoid Park
Taxi to the Dark Side

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Some random thoughts for a new month:

1. Tell me what was in better shape during the Super Bowl halftime show: Bruce Springsteen's larynx or his cock.
2. Prince's "Alphabet Street," after several years' distance, sounds limper than I remember."Cat! We need you to RAP!" predates "Jughead" by three measly years.

3. Emile Hirsch gave Milk's most impressive performance: loose, uninhibited, randy.