Destroyer, “Kaputt”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #91 – released January 25, 2011)

Track listing: Chinatown / Blue Eyes / Savage Night At The Opera / Suicide Demo For Kara Walker / Poor In Love / Kaputt / Downtown / Song For America / Bay Of Pigs (Detail)

One of Robert Altman’s best, most perplexing (and thus, underseen) films is 1977’s 3 Women, a drily-amusing-until-it-becomes-incredibly-unnerving psychodrama regarding female friendship and shifting identities. Infamously, he claimed the plot (such as it was) came to him in a dream—not so far-fetched, given its eerie allure and air of inconclusiveness. I’d like to think that Kaputt, the ninth album by Destroyer, the nom de plume of Vancouver-based singer/songwriter Dan Bejar, similarly came to its maker in a dream—on the title track, he even admits as much, rattling off a list of UK music mags (“Sounds, Smash Hits, Melody Maker, NME”) before enigmatically concluding, “All sounds like a dream to me.”

For many listeners, Kaputt will feel strangely familiar as it contains a panoply of identifiable musical touchstones. New Order homages (especially the upfront, Peter Hook-aping bass of “Savage Night At The Opera”) sit besides traces of Steely Dan’s later yacht-rock period insouciance, a measure of Roxy Music-circa-Avalon splendor, the lush, laid-back sweep of mid-80s Brit sophisti-pop groups like Prefab Sprout and The Style Council, and even a little Cocteau Twins-derived ambience, all of it transmitted via Bejar’s outwardly fey warble (somewhat reminiscent of Al “Year of The Cat” Stewart) and a bevy of creamy, cooing female backing vocals.

Upon its arrival, Kaputt seemed a bit out of left field for Bejar. Admittedly, I’d only heard one of Destroyer’s eight previous albums, 2006’s Destroyer’s Rubies; primarily, I knew Bejar as one of the three singer/songwriters (along with A.C. Newman and Neko Case) in the Canadian supergroup The New Pornographers, who had put out five albums in the decade leading up to Kaputt. With few exceptions (“Myriad Harbour”, “Testament To Youth In Verse”) Bejar’s three or four tunes per TNP record were rarely my favorites due in large part to his voice. Meandering and often mealy-mouthed, it wasn’t as seamless a fit for the band’s razor-sharp power pop as Newman’s melodic tone or Case’s siren call.

Thus, Kaputt’s departure from that template was revelatory: finally, Bejar had constructed (or perhaps stumbled upon) a sound that seemed more forgiving and complimentary to his particular voice. Technically, I can’t exactly pinpoint why they meshed so well together; all these discernible influences should have resulted in an album of record collection rock where listeners could spot the pastiche or facsimile. Instead, it came off as an idiosyncratic odyssey, driven by a sensibility you wouldn’t mistake for anyone else than Bejar’s.

Although it arrives just past Kaputt’s midpoint, the title track is the album’s centerpiece; it may also be the key unlocking a good chunk of its secretive pleasures. Its lead instrument, an electronic sequencer (“doot-deet-doot-dit-doot-deet-doot-dit…”) also acts as its heartbeat, a constant that only disappears near the last of the song’s six-plus minutes. Trumpet and sax filigrees bloom throughout, while warm guitar chords, a disco bass line and atmospheric synths color the spaces in between. As usual with Bejar, the lyrics are more tone poem than cogent narrative, such as the opening lines, “Wasting your days / Chasing some girls, alright / Chasing cocaine / Through the backrooms of the world / all night.” He’s simultaneously hedonistic and almost brutally wistful, particularly whenever a chord change results in an emotional crescendo (notably on the aforementioned rundown of UK music mags, of all things.) More than one person I’ve played this song for assumed it was by Pet Shop Boys, which hints at the grandeur Bejar aims for, but he’s far less arch or purposely clever than Neil Tennant. Like the rest of Kaputt, “Kaputt” is very much its own thing, stretched-out with extra texture but still an immediate, arresting pop song.

From there, the album’s other tracks serve as branches, extending in various directions but all connected to one tree. No less than three of nine tracks here each contain the lyric, “I wrote a song for America,” but it’s simply another reoccurring motif, not leaving the impression that Bejar’s run out of things to say. Similarly, Kaputt’s songs are packed with repeated lyrics woven into the arrangement’s fabrics as much as its horns or synths. “I can’t walk away” (from “Chinatown”), “I won’t and I never will” (from “Blue Eyes”) and “Winter, Spring / Summer and Fall / Animals crawl / towards death’s embrace” (from “Song For America”) are but three examples. In keeping with the idea of dream logic, they don’t hold any hidden meaning; they only convey Bejar’s knack for vocal hooks.

However, to dismiss Kaputt as a triumph of sound over content isn’t entirely fair. “Savage Night At The Opera” contains ample savage wit along the lines of, “Let’s face it, old souls like us are being born to die / It’s not a war until someone loses an eye!” Or take the opening lines of “Blue Eyes”: “You terrify the land / You are pestle and mortar / Your first love’s new order (does he mean the band?) / Mother Nature’s Son (Beatles reference?)” His imagery is often puzzling, but rarely is it blank. Case in point: “Suicide Demo For Kara Walker” consists of lyrics Bejar reassembled from text-filled cue cards provided to him from contemporary artist Walker, whose own work deals in appropriation (according to music critic Ann Powers.) It suitably sounds stream-of-consciousness (“Harmless little negress / You’ve got to say yes to another excess / let’s go for a ride today”) but still scans as a pop song, with Bejar crafting sterling hooks out of a few repeated phrases (“Enter through the exit / and exit through the entrance / when you can.”)

Still, both the arrangement and structure of “Suicide Demo For Kara Walker” are its most striking features. The extended opening almost tricks you into thinking you’ve put on a Brian Eno ambient album by mistake—all electro-pastoral new age beauty until, just after the two-minute mark, a perky flute hook appears, soon joined by a gently thumping beat and at 2:36, finally, Bejar’s vocal. It goes on for nearly another six minutes, Bejar rattling off verse after verse until the flute hook returns for an equally lengthy instrumental outro, the beat intact while a flurry of overdubbed sax and trumpet solos play us out. The momentum remains slow-building and steady, as it also does on “Poor In Love”, whose breadth seems to expand exponentially with each verse. “Downtown”, on the other hand, shoots out in the opposite direction, vacillating between bouts of crisp funk and lush rumination heavy with echo and negative space.

Kaputt threatens to floats off into the ether with its eleven-minute closer, “Bay of Pigs (Detail)” which, like “Suicide Demo…” also proceeds from a low-hum ambience to disco epic, allowing room for the pace to gently ebb and flow in between (while also dropping in a brief lyrical interpolation of “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)”.) It doesn’t achieve quite the same cumulative build as that earlier track, sort of just abruptly stopping on a cryptic closing phrase (“Nancy in a state of crisis on a cloud”), but that doesn’t distract from or lessen the rest of the album’s achievement (nor does “The Laziest River”, a twenty-minute, mostly instrumental suite that proceeds “Bay of Pigs (Detail)” on vinyl and European CD editions of the album.)

Since Kaputt, Bejar has released two more full-length Destroyer albums: Poison Season (2015) and ken (2017). The former further expands Bejar’s musical scope, containing everything from sumptuous strings to anthemic, Bruce Springsteen-esque (!) rock, while the latter sticks to a mostly electronic sound and closes on his biggest, boldest pop song to date (“Le Regle du Jeu”). But it’s Kaputt that transformed how I view and appreciate Bejar as a lyricist and yes, as a vocalist as well—I even dearly missed him when he didn’t participate on The New Pornographers’ most recent album, Whiteout Conditions.

Up next: (Not just) another Canadian singer/songwriter.

“Kaputt”:

“Suicide Demo For Kara Walker”:

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Film Journal: October 2018

Movies seen in October, including three from Japan and two of the year’s best–both of the latter seen at IFFBoston’s Fall Focus mini-festival and slated for release before year’s end. Starred titles are re-watches.

Shoplifters
Naming a favorite film by Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda is like doing the same for his closest progenitor, Yasujiro Ozu–nearly impossible, given their tendencies to revisit and refine themes of domesticity and humanism while maintaining a higher-than-average consistency. SHOPLIFTERS may have finally won Kore-eda the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, but I could name at least three earlier titles of his equally deserving of the prize.

This film hues most closely to one of those three, NOBODY KNOWS in its focus on an impoverished family; only here, it includes adults and children and stretches the notion of what a “family” is. With that in mind, SHOPLIFTERS explores the concept of give and take and how illegal activities such as the titular past time are weighed against both their moral implications and whether or not they serve the greater good. You sense Kore-eda sincerely pushing for the latter but also keeping in mind the former’s importance, which is what makes the film so heartbreaking once its increasingly precarious house of cards begins to topple.

A graceful overview of the human condition via fully recognizable, relatable characters and situations is one of the film’s most admirable qualities. The cast is typically solid for a Kore-eda picture; the standout, as usual, is Kirin Kiki as the family matriarch–her character arc here is especially poignant, given the actress’s recent passing. But there’s so much to love about SHOPLIFTERS, not least of which its kindhearted but fair depiction of how ordinary is, flawed people attempt to survive. On occasion, they may even seek solace in each other; often, the real tragedy occurs whenever one is unable or unwilling to reciprocate. Grade: A

Freaks and Geeks: The Documentary
A total lovefest, but few TV shows deserve one more. B

Heaven Knows What
I no longer feel bad I took so long to see this, as it now plays like a mere warm-up to GOOD TIME, albeit an interesting one. Admittedly, Arielle Holmes annoyed the hell out of me at first, but I grew to appreciate and eventually love her performance–thank the Safdies? B

The Happiness of the Katakuris*
“Like a cross between a slasher film and an all-singing, all-dancing episode of THE LOVE BOAT” is how I described this back in the day; it’s much weirder than that. A tad longer and misshapen than I remember. Perhaps HOUSE (which hadn’t yet been rediscovered in 2002; see below) has supplanted it somewhat in terms of batshit crazy Japanese horror comedies, but it’s still a hoot if you just go with its demented glee. The karaoke homage remains my favorite of the musical numbers; the typhoon climax’s still as giggle-inducing as the best of slapstick Keaton or Allen. A-

A Star Is Born (2018)
As modern Hollywood musicals go, *slightly* better than LA LA LAND, and much better than any umpteenth remake of this hoary old tale has a right to be. If Cooper finally wins his acting Oscar for this, I won’t be disappointed. Questionable camp value aside, I can imagine choosing to watch this again long before BURLESQUE or MAMMA MIA! B

Shaun Of The Dead*
A romp in every sense of the word. Bonus points for sneaking “They’re coming to get you, Barbara!” in there. B+

Beautiful Boy
Another great performance from Timothée Chalamet (CALL BE BY YOUR NAME was definitely no fluke) and a good one from Steve Carell (despite him generally being better suited to comedic roles such as BATTLE OF THE SEXES). Along with the perpetually underrated Maura Tierney, they elevate the material in a way Glenn Close’s impressive work couldn’t quite save THE WIFE. In this case, the problem’s less the material than some heavy-handed direction from Felix van Groeningen (THE BROKEN CIRCLE BREAKDOWN). As any movie-of-the-week will show you, melodrama’s not an ideal fit for depicting drug addiction (nor is an overwrought musical score.) While this will undoubtedly comfort those with a loved one going through it, for the rest of us, it’s just an endurance test in watching other people’s misery. B-

Cold War
Pawel Pawlikowski’s follow-up to IDA is cut from the same fine-polished glass: set in post-war Poland and shot in 1:33 black-and-white by cinematographer Łukasz Żal, it spans a fifteen-year period (leading up to roughly the time of the previous film) over which jazz musician Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and younger singer Zula (Joanna Kulig) have an on-again, off-again love affair. They first meet in a sanctioned troupe meant to spotlight traditional Polish song and dance. Wiktor, disillusioned as the Communist government transforms it into a propaganda vehicle, finds himself wanting to defect from his homeland, while the strong-willed, gregarious Zula has other designs.

Using his own parents as inspiration for the leads, Pawlikowski recreates a culture in the throes of a severe political takeover, drawing implications from the minute to fully societal as he limns his focus onto two very different people who nonetheless are drawn to each other. Each frame is a lovingly crafted tableau, strikingly rendered in high-contrast black-and-white and deep focus photography. The mostly diegetic soundtrack, ranging from hard bop jazz to hymn-like folk songs is a character in itself. I’m not sure if this is ultimately as deep or clever as IDA was, but in the end, it resonated with me a little more. A-

The Silence of The Lambs
Last tried watching this in a dorm room 20+ years ago at 3:00 AM, falling asleep ten minutes in (duh), so it’s great to finally see this on a big screen ALL THE WAY THROUGH (turns out I remember the last twenty minutes, but little before it.) Foster and Hopkins are both career-best, but credit Demme for rendering this more profound than your average horror procedural; even better, it still totally works as an entertaining and smart horror procedural. A-

Mid90s
I’ll go to bat for Jonah Hill as an actor, but Rick Linklater he’s not. He’s assembled a pretty good cast and the skateboarding montages are nice but the clumsy pacing reveals someone with more enthusiasm than talent for this sort of thing. C+

House*
Nothing compares to this glorious, insane mashup of THE HAUNTING, POLTERGEIST and Hello, Kitty! sensibilities. Also, I had to laugh when one of the girls says, “This is like a horror film!” and another (probably “Prof”) dismissively responds, “That’s out of date.” A

2010: So Far Away, But Still So Near

My 2010 top ten albums list is a good example of how such things are prone to being forever in flux. Only Laura Marling (my then #4) made the 100 Albums queue. The top three are still beloved, but there are other Tracey Thorn and Charlotte Gainsbourg albums I love more (the Hot Chip one is good–just not interesting enough for a 1000+ essay.)

Going through my selected tracks below from that year, most are predictable (Belle and Sebastian, The New Pornographers and Goldfrapp on one of my year-end mixes? Who saw that coming?) Still, a few curveballs remain: actual pop/EDM hit “Stereo Love”, which I might’ve heard on Kiss 108 while getting as haircut; “Shark In The Water”, one of my favorite one-hit-wonders (and it wasn’t even a hit here!); “This Charming Life”, Joan Armatrading’s best song in well over twenty years (not that I’ve heard much in the interim); and “Melancholy Beach”, a Gorillaz song you’d easily mistake for Blur in a blind listening test (I know, like most Gorillaz tunes.)

“Dancing On My Own”, however, completely owns this year (and I didn’t even hear it until that November at the earliest.) As excellent as Robyn’s new album Honey is (released three days ago and already a lock for this year’s top ten), nothing on it compares to what will always be her signature crying-on-the-dancefloor anthem, about which I would change absolutely nothing.

Click here to listen to my 2010 playlist on Spotify.

  1. The Divine Comedy, “At The Indie Disco”
  2. The New Pornographers, “Crash Years”
  3. Hot Chip, “Hand Me Down Your Love”
  4. Charlotte Gainsbourg, “Dandelion”
  5. VV Brown, “Shark In The Water”
  6. Belle & Sebastian, “I Didn’t See It Coming”
  7. Laura Marling, “Hope In The Air”
  8. Tracey Thorn, “Hormones”
  9. Vampire Weekend, “Giving Up The Gun”
  10. Broken Bells, “The Ghost Inside”
  11. Best Coast, “Boyfriend”
  12. Fitz and The Tantrums, “Breakin’ The Chains of Love”
  13. Corinne Bailey Rae, “Paris Nights/New York Mornings”
  14. David Byrne/Fatboy Slim feat. Theresa Andersson, “Ladies In Blue”
  15. Goldfrapp, “Alive”
  16. Grafitti 6, “Annie You Save Me”
  17. Janelle Monae, “Wondaland”
  18. Laura Veirs, “July Flame”
  19. KT Tunstall, “(Still A) Weirdo”
  20. Metric, “Eclipse (All Yours)”
  21. Spoon, “The Mystery Zone”
  22. Field Music, “Let’s Write A Book”
  23. Edward Maya feat. Vika Jigulina, “Stereo Love”
  24. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, “I Learned The Hard Way”
  25. Guster, “Architects & Engineers”
  26. The Gaslight Anthem, “American Slang”
  27. Gorillaz, “On Melancholy Hill”
  28. Robyn, “Dancing On My Own”
  29. The Radio Dept., “You Stopped Making Sense”
  30. Scissor Sisters, “Invisible Light”
  31. Joan Armatrading, “This Charming Life”
  32. Arcade Fire, “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”
  33. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, “Bottled In Cork”

Laura Marling, “I Speak Because I Can”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #90 – released March 22, 2010)

Track listing: Devil’s Spoke / Made By Maid / Rambling Man / Blackberry Stone / Alpha Shallows / Goodbye England (Covered In Snow) / Hope In The Air / What He Wrote / Darkness Descends / I Speak Because I Can

It’s not an exaggeration labeling British folk singer/songwriter Laura Marling a prodigy: before turning twenty, she recorded two albums (the first at age 17, beating Fiona Apple by one year) and both were nominated for the UK’s prestigious Mercury Prize (she lost out to Elbow and the xx.) Furthermore, like Apple, her lyrics and relatively low-pitched vocals had the presence of someone at least twice her age. Impressive from a technical standpoint, for sure, but even on her debut, Alas, I Cannot Swim, one could easily comprehend her widescreen talent and distinct persona, even if the latter was understandably a bit putative.

In that regard, her second album, I Speak Because I Can, is a substantial advance. Of course, Marling’s still a world-weary teen baring an acoustic guitar (exemplified by track two, “Made By Maid” which is just that and nothing more), but from the outset, she seems more willing to take risks, both with her sound and subject matter. Opener “Devil’s Spoke” begins with neither with her voice nor guitar but a needle drop on a vinyl record, followed by a wash of electronically-enhanced ambient sound that grows in volume until, near the forty-second mark, Marling’s brisk, acoustic strumming enters, starting the song proper. A rhythm section, keys and, in the second verse, banjo flesh out the arrangement. “Hold your devil by his spoke and spin him to the ground,” she commands in the chorus, not exactly possessed but still fiercely determined.

Whereas Charlie Fink, vocalist for Noah and the Whale (a band Marling also briefly sung with) helmed her first album, producer Ethan Johns lends a tad more polish to I Speak Because I Can. Johns had previously worked with a plethora of rock-leaning artists, including Ray LaMontange, Kings of Leon, Ryan Adams and Crowded House; three-quarters of Mumford and Sons also play on a majority of these songs, which might’ve quietly overshadowed the scope of Marling’s accomplishment since the band had scored their breakthrough hit “Little Lion Man” between the album’s recording and its release (not to mention Marling was also dating leader Marcus Mumford at the time.)

In retrospect, quibbling over what impact Marling had in spite of her more famous collaborators is irrelevant (she and Mumford would split by the end of 2010), mostly because Marling is so clearly the main attraction here. Any doubts should be extinguished by “Rambling Man”, a statement of purpose as assured and mesmeric as, say, Apple’s “Shadowboxer” or even Sam Phillips’ “I Need Love”. Like many a Marling song, it starts off simply, just acoustic guitar and voice, but oh how lovingly and effortlessly it builds, wrapping a crystalline melody within an arrangement it snugly fits into while also allowing enough room to breathe. Its chorus, “Oh give me to a rambling man / let it always be known that I was who I am,” is one heck of a manifesto for a teenager; she’s convincing enough to get it across.

In another time, “Rambling Man” could’ve become a standard along the likes of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”–a major-key anthem any aspiring folksinger with a guitar in hand would want to cover on stage or while busking. For Marling, however, it’s only one side of her persona, a mere fraction of her capabilities. Here, it also flickers through on “Goodbye England (Covered In Snow)”, a perfectly accessible, comforting ballad graced with glistening strings and a melody simple enough to sing the lyrics of “On Top of Old Smokey” to; add a little more piano and it could almost be Tori Amos (albeit with a genuine Brit accent that renders words like “she” and “stay” as “schee” and “schtay”.)

Happily, much of the album traverses off into darker, Boys For Pele friendly territories. On one end of that spectrum, you have “What He Wrote”, a haunted, hymn-like lament inspired by letters written between a World War II soldier and his beloved. Reminiscent of 1960s folk-pop like “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” and Fairport Convention’s “Fotheringay”, it’s as delicate as it is engrossing, not least because of tiny motifs such as Marling’s clipped pronunciation of the words “grip” and “ship”. On the other end lies “Alpha Shallows”, a minor-key waltz with guitar arpeggios straight out of Songs of Leonard Cohen and tautly plucked strings. Marling’s also tightly wound, her mounting despair heightened by scores of ringing piano and mandolin. “The grey in this city is too much to bear,” she pleads, her immense but measured passion soon coming out one word at a time: “I / want / to / be / held / by / those / arms,” over and over, so much longing and grief you dearly hope she isn’t just singing into the void.

If that’s not bleak enough for you, the ironically-titled “Hope In The Air” might suffice. A kiss-off to a friend or lover in the guise of a caustic folk murder ballad, it proceeds at a deliberate, dread-accumulating pace: “No hope in the air / no hope in the water / not even for me / your last serving daughter,” goes its oddly catchy chorus. Which each verse, Marling manages to seem more incensed without ever losing composure, nearly speak-singing lyrics like, “My life is a candle and a wick / You can put it out but you can’t break it down / In the end, we are waiting to be lit,” with an urgency and authority you dare not argue with. When she suddenly admits, “Why fear death, be scared of living,” it’s an intriguing counterpart to “Let it always be known that I was who I am,” no matter how much she may now be inhabiting a character; come to think of it, how autobiographical is “Rambling Man”, anyway?

She further muddies those waters whenever she flashes a sense of humor and more than a hint of self-deprecation. Both come through most strongly on “Darkness Descends”: while the lyrics read like an introverted young Goth’s confessional (“Can I just say I don’t feel the light / But darkness descends once more into my life”), the music and melody are as breezy and cheerful as a quick-footed romp at a local pub’s dance night. The tempo also repeatedly comes to a pause, only to start up again as if mocking her for finding an additional thing to fixate on. She keeps all but telling us to leave her alone, only to be silently saying (or perhaps not, via her congenial, multi-syllabic “aaaahhhhs”), “But I’d really wish you’d stay.”

I Speak Because I Can concludes with its title track, a thrilling declaration of resilience in a world crumbling around one’s self. The narrator shouts out to the husband who’s left her, “When you look back to where you started / I’ll be there waving you on.” In the years since, Marling herself has rarely looked back—her subsequent discography is one of this decade’s richest. A Creature I Don’t Know, Once I Was An Eagle and Short Movie all made my year-end top ten albums lists, and in retrospect, 2017’s Semper Femina probably should have as well. With each release, she further expands her musical palette, exploring and occasionally creating new sounds and subgenres. LUMP, her recent collaborative EP with Tunng’s Mike Lindsay, takes a deep dive into atmospheric EDM folk; it’s an unlikely detour and as solid as anything she’s done. And to think—at this writing, she’s not even thirty. Marling remains a former prodigy worth paying close attention to.

Up next: “All sounds like a dream to me.”

“Rambling Man”:

“Hope In The Air”:

2009: Desperate For Some Kind of Contact

No joke—The Black Eyed Peas spent 26 consecutive weeks leading the Billboard Hot 100 this year (with two songs); Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga also dominated radio, while Animal Collective topped the Village Voice Pazz and Jop album poll. None of these appear on my playlist, although it does feature artists who came in at #’s 2, 3 & 4 on Pazz and Jop (respectively, Phoenix, Neko Case & Yeah Yeah Yeahs.)

If any trend emerges from this mishmash of indie singer/songwriter stalwarts (Metric, Jill Sobule, Andrew Bird) and still-hanging-on veterans (Morrissey, Pet Shop Boys, Chris Isaak), it’s an increasing propensity for lounge-pop, albeit in various guises: modern indie (The Bird and The Bee), jazzy easy listening (Pink Martini) and orchestral ’60s throwback (Camera Obscura), among others. Everything old’s also new (yet) again: Moroder-like synth-disco (Royksopp), Kate Bush-esque new-wave splendor (Bat For Lashes), British pop-punk both snotty (Art Brut) and sublime (White Lies).

Throw in a handful of UK number ones (La Roux, Lily Allen, David Guetta) and you’ve got a shimmering time capsule of end-of-the-decade Anglophilia. Oddly enough, it took a few years for the one of the most Anglocentric, of-its-time tracks to fully register: Imogen Heap’s “First Train Home” is essentially Sarah McLachlan laptop music but those last, crescendoing fifteen seconds always get to me.

Click here to listen to my 2009 playlist on Spotify.

  1. The Tender Trap, “Sweet Disposition”
  2. Florence + The Machine, “Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)”
  3. Camera Obscura, “French Navy”
  4. Super Furry Animals, “Helium Hearts”
  5. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Hysteric”
  6. Morrissey, “I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris”
  7. Jill Sobule, “San Francisco”
  8. The Bird and The Bee, “My Love”
  9. Chris Isaak, “We Let Her Down”
  10. Bat For Lashes, “Pearl’s Dream”
  11. Pet Shop Boys, “The Way It Used To Be”
  12. Lily Allen, “The Fear”
  13. Metric, “Gold Guns Girls”
  14. Emm Gryner, “Young As The Night”
  15. St. Vincent, “Actor Out of Work”
  16. Vienna Teng, “In Another Life”
  17. La Roux, “Bulletproof”
  18. Andrew Bird, “Fitz and the Dizzyspells”
  19. Pink Martini, “Splendor In The Grass”
  20. Neko Case, “I’m An Animal”
  21. Kings of Convenience, “My Ship Isn’t Pretty”
  22. Gossip, “Heavy Cross”
  23. Phoenix, “Fences”
  24. Royksopp with Robyn, “The Girl and The Robot”
  25. White Lies, “Death”
  26. David Guetta feat. Kelly Rowland, “When Love Takes Over”
  27. God Help The Girl, “Come Monday Night”
  28. Junior Boys, “The Animator”
  29. Serena Ryder, “Little Bit of Red”
  30. Art Brut, “DC Comics and Chocolate Milkshakes”
  31. Sondre Lerche, “Heartbeat Radio”
  32. Imogen Heap, “First Train Home”
  33. Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3, “Goodnight Oslo”

Film Journal: September 2018

Movies watched in September; starred titles are re-watches.

Battle of the Sexes
Not particularly innovative for a 2017 film—it plays like a good old fashioned crowd pleaser more than anything else. Granted, it likely would not have been made on such a scale twenty years ago (much less in the 70s). Stone’s not a natural choice for King, but she pulls it off (while King’s sexuality is explored with sufficient nuance); Carell, on the other hand, is perfection as Bobby Riggs—I’d rather see him in roles this well-suited to his comedic talents than stuff like FOXCATCHER. B

The Wife
Close is terrific, acting without quite ACTING! and if this is what finally gets her an Academy Award, so be it. As for the rest of the film, the scene where her younger self describes a manuscript as possessing wooden characters and unrealistic dialogue gives the game away (and that’s not even mentioning an eye-rolling deus ex machina the likes of which I haven’t seen since THE DEBT.) C+

Key Largo
Not really the florid love story a certain 1980s soft-rock standard would have you believe, but a claustrophobic nail-biter, 90% of which unfolds in a hotel lobby overrun with gangsters (from Milwaukee, hah!) led by the film’s true star, a magnetic Edward G. Robinson (who just won’t let poor moll/lush Claire Trevor have another drink, for Christ sakes!) Bogie and Bacall each do that thing no one else does so well together, but this is pretty minor compared to THE BIG SLEEP and TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT. B

Lean On Pete
Expanding his palette beyond the more contained worlds of 45 YEARS and WEEKEND, English director Andrew Haigh adapts a Willy Vlautin novel for his first American feature. The protagonist, transient 16-year-old Charlie (Charlie Plummer) unexpectedly finds solace when he stumbles into assisting a curmudgeonly horse racer, Del (Steve Buscemi, ideally cast) and in particular, caring for the young horse whose name is the film’s title.

Best to go into this one knowing little else, as the unsentimental journey Charlie takes is surprising, unsettling and increasingly bleak. At times difficult to watch and occasionally unshapely, there are three constants that sustain the film’s momentum: Haigh’s perceptive direction, Magnus Joenck’s gorgeous cinematography (esp. in the second half) and Plummer’s heartbreakingly naturalistic performance. It’s an effective (if tonally dissimilar) analogue to Andrea Arnold’s AMERICAN HONEY and it reiterates Haigh’s status as a filmmaker to watch. A-

Through A Glass Darkly
Here’s my issue with Bergman: PERSONA and everything after it intrigues me, but I’m left cold by the revered 1950s films. This is the first one I’ve seen from the period between those two eras and I’m confused. At times, I wanted to yell out, “Oh, just lighten up, you miserable Swedes!” However, as it went on, I found myself more and more pulled into Karin’s peculiar struggle and palpable pain, so much that by the end I was left speechless and near-shattered. Bergman proves a master of silence and what’s (very occasionally) left unsaid, so perhaps I should watch THE SILENCE next. B

Madeline’s Madeline
An admittedly frustrating but always fascinating puzzle box of a film. On the surface, it appears to be about teenager Madeline (Helena Howard), her antagonistic relationship with her single mother (Miranda July) and her after-school participation in an experimental theater troupe led by Evangeline (Molly Parker). But there’s so much more going on here—actually, I’m not entirely sure what’s all going on here: A meditation on the creative process? The danger of making art out of one’s own personal experiences? Or is it all just the unfiltered, interior state of a troubled, possibly mentally ill teenaged girl? Whatever it is, I was fully on board for all its madness. Whether you love or hate what director Josephine Decker has concocted here, it’s essential viewing for Howard’s blistering performance—she’s almost terrifyingly great. A

The Thomas Crown Affair
Sure, it’s a triumph of style over substance, but my god, what style… Boston never looked as cozy as it did in the Beacon Hill scenes here, or that chess match. Split screens, imaginative editing, Michel Legrand scores—all catnip to me. B+

Blow-Up*
Appreciated this a lot more now than on my last viewing about twenty years ago. Whereas the final iconic scene once left me utterly baffled, it’s now my favorite moment in the film, perhaps because of the weight of everything preceding it. Still not even the third or fourth best Antonioni, but, at the very least, an invaluable artifact of 1966 London as viewed through a singular lens. B+

Blaze
An unconventional biopic with a trio of notable performances, one expected (Alia Shawkat, more impressive with each role she appears in) and one unexpected (musician Charlie Sexton is pretty great as Townes Van Zandt.) Then, there’s first-time actor Ben Dickey as the title figure, a 1980s larger-than-life Texan “outlaw country” singer/songwriter who never found fame and was murdered before he turned 40. He’s genuine and engaging in a way that’s hard to fake: a better-known, more seasoned actor might’ve been technically better, but not as interesting to watch. I still prefer Ethan Hawke’s acting to his directing (this could’ve easily been a half-hour shorter), but his enthusiasm and sincerity proves a decent fit for this kind of shaggy, elegiac story. B

Ace In The Hole*
A damning, wholly effective precursor to NETWORK in many ways, only Billy Wilder’s much more fun than Paddy Chayefsky (and far less blunt.) I’d take a walk over to Kirk Douglas’s house just to hear him sneer at floozy Jan Sterling, “WHY DON’T YOU WASH THAT PLATINUM OUTTA YER HAIR?” A+

Colette
Colette was such a fascinating figure for her time it would take a concerted effort to make a boring film about her. Typically, Keira Knightley is neither miscast nor an exceptional lead; she does what’s required of her, and that’s fine. Fortunately, Dominic West practically bubbles with joie de vivre as her hubby Willy–you’d almost root for him if he wasn’t ultimately such a deplorable cad. This automatically loses points merely for being in English rather than French, but director Wash Westmoreland’s (in his first film without now-deceased husband Richard Glatzer) sympathetic in crafting more than just a pretty picture, even if this is a long way off from something like A QUIET PASSION as films about female literary pioneers go. B-

A Fantastic Woman
An Important Film regarding trans lead characters, which alone doesn’t make it compelling, especially given the realistic but constant brutality depicted towards her. But Daniela Vega is a compelling enough presence to make it work—in a perfect world, she would’ve received the film’s second Academy Award (after Best Foreign Language Film.) Bonus points for brilliant use of Alan Parson Project’s dramatic, soft-rock chestnut “Time”. B+

Florence + The Machine, “Lungs”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #89 – released July 3, 2009)

Track listing: Dog Days Are Over / Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up) / I’m Not Calling You A Liar / Howl / Kiss With A Fist / Girl With One Eye / Drumming Song / Between Two Lungs / Cosmic Love / My Boy Builds Coffins / Hurricane Drunk / Blinding / You’ve Got The Love

Apologies to instrumentalists everywhere, but a striking, singular voice is usually what I first respond to when hearing new music. I suspect many listeners feel this way; otherwise, The Voice might not have become this decade’s most popular musical competition reality TV show. And there’s so many different types of voices worth hearing, running the gamut from those with perfect, bell-like clarity and precision (Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Nilsson) to those few so weird and otherworldly you can barely believe it’s coming from a human being (early Kate Bush, later Tom Waits.)

In this project, I’ve written about voices that have instantly startled (Portishead’s Beth Gibbons), comforted (Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch), disarmed (Saint Etienne’s Sarah Cracknell) and beguiled (Sam Phillips) me; I’ve also left a lot of amazing vocalists out that, for all their merit, never made an album I loved as much as what I’ve chosen to write about here. Annie Lennox, Chris Isaak, k.d. lang, Laura Nyro, even Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen—all pretty much up there with the singers mentioned earlier in this paragraph, but none of them made the cut (though lang’s Ingenue came awfully close.)

When Florence + The Machine emerged at the tail end of the oughts, leader Florence Welch’s voice was likely what you noticed before anything else. Even if you didn’t, their debut album’s title, Lungs, emphasized its most outwardly dazzling feature—the powerful, resounding vocals of a twenty-two-year-old Brit with long, flowing ginger locks decked out in enough scarves and Renaissance Faire-ready garb to make Stevie Nicks blush. And while the band contributes much to her dramatic sound (in particular keyboardist Isabella Summers, who co-wrote much of the material), in the tradition of Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs or Shirley Manson and Garbage, they’re mostly in the background—it’s all about Florence and she alone is enough to capture anyone’s attention.

Still, a great voice alone only gets one so far artistically, as you could ask a majority of The Voice and American Idol contestants (and a few winners.) Lungs is not only an ideal introduction to Welch’s pipes, it’s also mightily impressive for a debut album—perhaps one of the decade’s best (though I’d place it right behind Nellie McKay’s.) Rarely does an artist arrive so fully formed in both sound and songs with perspectives and influences one can immediately identify (easily the aforementioned Kate Bush, definitely Siouxsie and the Banshees, maybe some Echo and the Bunnymen) and yet come off as refreshing and new.

Although not its first single, Lungs’ opener “Dog Days Are Over” was most Americans’ introduction to the band. More than a year after the album’s release, it became a surprise hit, thanks predominantly to a performance on the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards. Fully laying out the essentials of the band’s sound, it opens (and closes) with a harp (for the most part Lungs’ unlikely lead instrument), almost furiously strummed like a ukulele before Welch sings the first line, “Happiness hit her / like a train on a track,” stretching out both “train” and “track” to umpteen syllables, simultaneously coming off as lucid and a little woozy. Percussion heavy with handclaps enters next, followed by booming drums at the chorus. Welch makes the cliche of a song title register throughout the building start-and-stop, loud/quiet/loud tension of the arrangement. The moment at 3:05 when everything drops out for a brief false ending, only to return full force a second later, is an euphoric moment conveying her pop savvy, even if the song’s still quirky enough to remain one of its era’s least likely hits.

I first heard Lungs some ten months before when it nearly topped the UK Album Charts and transmitted the kind of buzz suggesting it’d be right up my alley. For me, it was the second track (and the band’s first top 20 UK hit), “Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)” where I fell for Florence + The Machine. Beginning with a swirling maelstrom of harps and flittering flutes, it ascends from the first verse on, urgent and effervescent with Welch’s multi-tracked cries of “RAISE IT UP!”; even that’s before the wondrous chorus which blossoms from electronic anticipation to full-flowered delirious frenzy: “This is the gift! / It comes with a price! / Who is the lamb / and who is the knife!” As she goes on about King Midas and makes allusions to Alice In Wonderland, you’d be tempted to dismiss her as precious or pretentious and yet it’s near-impossible to not fully surrender yourself to her flights of fancy (the song’s seemingly endless melodic permutations help a lot.)

Other Lungs tracks can just as easily render listeners fans for life. When I took my husband to see them in concert on Halloween, 2010 (of course the entire band was in costume), he had never heard their music. They opened with another album highlight, “Howl”: its sparse intro with dramatic piano chords giving way to a calvary-coming beat, the verses practically cascading towards the chorus where Welch both sings and personifies the song’s title, later spitting out phrases like Nicks or Robert Smith of The Cure at warp speed—it definitely captured the husband’s attention, to the point where, at his insistence, we repeatedly listened to the song in the car the following day.

Along with the mid-tempo but no less harp-centric “I’m Not Calling You A Liar”, Lungs’ first four tracks establish Welch’s core aesthetic so entirely it comes off more like the work of seasoned artists than a debut. Thus, it’s a little surprising/thrilling for Welch to come out of the closet as a rock goddess on the next song. “You hit me once / I hit you back / You gave a kick / I gave a slap,” she begins, a capella, on “Kiss With A Fist”, continuing, “So I smashed a plate / over your head / and set fire to our bed.” Then the music enters: no harp, no strings, just a lotta fast electric guitar (as if she’s turned into Joan Jett or The Ramones) and it’s all over in a very punk two minutes. Given that “Kiss With A Fist” was her very first single, you can explain it as an early experiment, an artist developing her sound by trying on various genres.

Still, on Lungs she follows it with a cabaret-style blues (“The Girl With One Eye”) that scans queerer than Dusty Springfield (“Get your filthy fingers out of my pie”, she warns) and spookier than Lee Hazelwood-produced Nancy Sinatra. Then, there’s “Drumming Song”, which rocks harder than Concrete Blonde or even Evanescence, harnessing a driving power by keeping the arrangement tight while still allowing for a sense of space—it positions music as nothing less than convocation and salvation; these last two tunes have no harp, either, but emit enough drama to fit in seamlessly with what precedes them.

The remainder of Lungs returns to the sound of those earlier tracks. “Between Two Lungs” starts off tentatively, its unconventional time signature and vocals-weaving-in between-the-beats purposely disorienting, but everything eventually falls into place as it transforms from tone poem into anthem, not necessarily catchy but somehow stuffed with hooks. “My Boy Builds Coffins” applies Welch’s Sturm und Drang to a near-jangle-pop (the harp does jangle a bit), Kirsty MacColl-esque character study that’s both a little silly and oddly charming, notifying listeners regarding the titular beau, “He’s made one for himself / One for me too / One of these days, he’ll make one for you.” “Hurricane Drunk” is alternately heavy (“I’m gonna drink myself to death,” goes the chorus) and lighter than air (that soulful, toe-tapping beat), while “Blinding” is an extremely slow burn of a mood piece, minor-key but not sluggish, mysterious but not impenetrable.

All good tunes, but “Cosmic Love” is the second half’s obvious centerpiece. It’s mostly just three chords repeated, but you sense there’s an entire world within them. It reprises the loud/quiet/loud structure of “Rabbit Heart” and the thunderous percussion of “Drumming Song” and piles on the harp glissandos more excessively than any other track (which is saying a lot.) Any reasonable person reading this description would expect the song to implode on the weight of all these ingredients (like a burst souffle), and yet, not only does it stay afloat, it soars, higher and higher until it reaches a tremendous, sustained peak. Like love itself, I can’t explain the why or the how of what it does; for me, it just emits a kind of pure, unadulterated bliss.

Lungs goes out on a cover of “You’ve Got The Love”, a Candi Staton song few Americans know that hit the UK top ten in various remixed versions three times between 1991 and 2007; this version also became Flo’s first UK top tenner. It plays like a victory lap, basically Florence-izing Staton’s gospel/dance original into a harp-and-strings-heavy, joyous pop finale. While they haven’t had a more popular American single than “Dog Days Are Over”, Welch and her band are no one-hit wonders, either—they’ve even scored a number one album here with the best of their three subsequent records, 2015’s How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. I used to say Welch had a potential Hounds of Love somewhere within her; this year’s dour High As Hope was decidedly not it, but I’m mostly optimistic she’ll retain rather than rein in her idiosyncrasies as she moves into her mid-thirties and beyond.

Up next: The ninetieth entry, and our first artist to be born in the ’90s (!)

“Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)”:

“Cosmic Love”: