Sam Phillips, “Don’t Do Anything”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #88 – released June 3, 2008)

Track listing: No Explanations / Can’t Come Down / Another Song / Don’t Do Anything / Little Plastic Life / My Career In Chemistry / Flowers Up / Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us / Shake It Down / Under The Night / Signal / Watching Out Of This World

Dedicated to Howard Semones (1967-2017), who loved Sam Phillips and provided encouraging feedback on my first essay about her.

Admire consistency and certainty all you want in a musician’s collected output—it just can’t match the sudden thrill that materializes whenever an artist takes a sharp left turn and miraculously manages to land on his/her own feet. While one can easily distill what Sam Phillips sounds like into a simple sentence or even less (such as her iconic “la, la, la’s” peppered throughout the score of long-running TV series Gilmore Girls), her career as a whole is far more noteworthy for all of its unexpected twists and ongoing refinements as they comprise an ever-shifting, continuously maturing body of work.

As previously detailed here, in 1988, she left behind a successful five-year run as contemporary Christian singer Leslie Phillips (her birth name) for the secular pop world, adopting a family nickname, expanding her audience exponentially and locating her artistic voice as a Beatles-inspired, alternative-pop singer/songwriter. Following four critically adored, if low-selling major label albums, she took a five-year sabbatical, reemerging with 2001’s moodier, far more enigmatic Fan Dance. A radical break, she stripped her often-heavily produced sound down to a few carefully chosen essentials, in the process sharpening everything that remained—she was still fully recognizable as Sam Phillips, but as if viewed from a different, heretofore unconsidered angle.

Her next record, A Boot and A Shoe (2004), did not reinvent the wheel so freely. Predominantly acoustic and sparsely arranged, it played like a logical sequel to Fan Dance, only a little more outgoing, pastoral, even sunnysounding on occasion. At the time of its release, however, Phillips dropped the bombshell that she had very recently split with her longtime producer and husband T-Bone Burnett. They had worked together for seven straight albums, from 1987’s The Turning (her final effort as Leslie) all the way up through A Boot and A Shoe.

Four years later, she returned with her first self-produced effort, Don’t Do Anything. While not as extensive an overhaul of her sound as Fan Dance, it marked as bold and definite a line in the sand in Phillips’s discography as her change from Christian to secular music did two decades before. Its indelible cover image of her, fully clothed, sitting in a bathtub in a confrontational pose, head cocked as if to appear unapologetic about how much a spectacle she’s just made of herself serves as a harbinger of what’s inside—particularly when one compares it to the relatively anodyne imagery on her last two album covers.

“I thought if he understood / he wouldn’t treat me this way,” Phillips sings on opener “No Explanations”; her voice is noticeably isolated and raw (even with its signature elongated syllables) and soon joined by a strummed, distorted electric guitar and, barely audible in the background, a rudimentary stomp of a beat. The latter grows ominously louder and more forceful after the first verse, becoming primal and urgent as Phillips, not mincing any words, declares, “This is bigger than you / and a part of the truth you trust / This is the breaking of you.” A delightfully nagging guitar riff comes in near the end, matching both her quiet fury and about-face demeanor. She’s leaving the past behind from the get-go, determined to locate a way out of this mess.

With someone as beholden to wordplay and metaphor as Phillips, it’s risky to assume that Don’t Do Anything is her Breakup Album and leave it at that. Still, it’s tempting to speculate whom many of these songs are directed to—especially whenever she opts for such simple language as, “Did you ever love me?”, a lyric pleadingly sung and repeated throughout “Another Song”, or the whole of “Signal”, a downtrodden waltz where she confesses, “I gave you who I am in secret” while the Section Quartet’s strings mournfully descend with each measure. Then again, there’s the title track where she straightforwardly proclaims, “I love you when you don’t do anything / When you’re useless, I love you more.” She could be directing this towards any kind of love in her life, but the fuzzed-out guitar that finely coats the song, along with the melody’s simple poignancy and the strings that creep into the second half all leave an aftertaste—not bitter, exactly, but resigned and a tad melancholy. As she did all over Fan Dance, she continuously hints at what the song may be about, disclosing and withholding in near-equal measure.

On the album’s peppier, more rambunctious numbers, she’s less ambiguous. “Little Plastic Life” has a discernible bounce in its step with its brisk, 4/4 swing beat over which Phillips makes observations such as, “Perfect was a nice disguise / it never fit / but I still have my little plastic life to remind me.” She’s slinky, poised, almost whimsical in the verses, but when the volume turns up in the chorus, so does her temperament. “I detected a fire in myself before the flame / that BURNED IT ALL TO THE GROUND,” she exclaims in accompaniment with loud, gleeful electric guitar chords, and at once, you sense that the acidic, mischievous Sam of Martinis and Bikinis is back in full force.

“My Career In Chemistry” sustains the raucous tone in its awesome call-and-response interplay between Phillips and drummer Jay Bellerose (who is in many ways the album’s MVP.) His fills between her vocals are instinctual and intricate, a high wire act that’s fun to listen to as it tightly keeps the song’s melody and structure in check. “We had the concoction no one knows / Never found the formula, tricks exposed,” sings Phillips, constructing an extended metaphor for a failed relationship but with good humor and a hint of self-deprecation. “You’re the chemical that never did wear off,” she notes, before wryly concluding, “I still wear you / ba-ba-ba, ba, ba-ba.”

“Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us” is likely the best known song here because of Robert Plant’s and Alison Krauss’ cover, which came out the year before on their hit collaborative album Raising Sand (produced by T-Bone Burnett!) Whereas that version comes off as reverent and stately, Phillips’s take on her own song (about Sister Rosetta Thorpe, a pioneering mid-20th Century guitarist whose music prefigured rock n’ roll) feels more celebratory: it raises the tempo to a folk/gypsy groove complete with electric mandolin, pump organ and a violin solo from Eric Gorfain (a key collaborator with Phillips from this album on—they’d eventually get married.)

“Shake It Down” even finds her wandering head-on into Tom Waits territory (at least musically, if not vocally): the start-and-stop rhythm sounds less like it’s coming out of a drum kit than from farm tools and household objects (when performed live around this time, Phillips brought out on stage a ridiculously giant pitchfork on which she “played” the coda’s extended solo), while Gorfain’s banjo and Phillips’s old-timey, wind-up piano noises place the song in this strange netherworld, neither fully pop nor folk nor Americana.

Don’t Do Anything as a whole falls more in line with her two previous records’ stripped-down approach than her lushly-produced ’90s work, but there are perceptible differences. “Can’t Come Down” counts only Phillips and Bellerose among its performers and wraps itself up in a concise 1:59, but it’s more persuasive and direct than anything on Fan Dance even if its lyrics remain oblique (“I tried to pull the rope down from the sky / It wouldn’t come down, so I started to climb.”) “Under The Night” plays like an above-ground equivalent to Fan Dance’s “Below Surface”, its guitar fuzz gently soothing but also menacing, adding a layer of distance to a straightforward melody. “Flowers Up” recasts the title track’s overcast resignation as clean, intimate chamber pop with its Beatles-esque piano and exquisite strings—it’s almost impossibly beautiful without feeling cutesy or precious.

The same goes for album closer “Watching Out of This World”. Although it reverts to the low-hum, fundamental electric guitar sound that’s all over Don’t Do Anything, its melody has a simple, resonant beauty that makes it one of the most affecting songs in Phillips’s catalog. With only electric violin and piano fleshing out the arrangement, it’s almost a hymn: “The splendor / The holiness of life / that reveals itself / Converting blind faith / into destiny,” she sings, before the chorus which is just the song title, the first word stretched to eight syllables, her overdubbed backing vocals inducing chills as only she can. World-weary like many of the album’s songs, it also feels like a turning point, of welcoming acceptance and finally finding peace or enlightenment. I love the guitar triplet that comes in before the final chorus and repeats itself until the song’s end—a grace note, a show of strength, a ringing confirmation to look ahead and leave the past in the past.

However, it’s not only Burnett than Phillips left behind here, as Don’t Do Anything was her last recording for the label Nonesuch. From there, she sidestepped traditional means of distribution entirely, self-releasing a series of EPs (and one LP, Cameras In The Sky) as The Long Play, a subscription service available only digitally over roughly a two-year period. It was an intriguing experiment reflecting her fiercely independent status but also conveying her savvy at navigating an industry that had profoundly changed since her 1988 debut as Sam. She’d return to releasing physical albums (2013’s Push Any Button and the forthcoming World On Sticks), but she’d remain her own boss, making music on her own terms. Even if she continues quietly putting out another collection of songs every five years or so, it’s a safe bet they will not only be worth hearing but will also continue revealing new shifts in an ever-evolving, one-of-a-kind discography.

Up next: A Passion For Power.

“Little Plastic Life”:

“Watching Out Of This World”:

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2007: So Give Me Your Hand and Let’s Jump Out The Window

A weird year by any standard: of the handful of these I first heard on the radio at that time (Kate Nash, Iron & Wine, Rilo Kiley, Plant/Krauss), the strangest (and most obscure) of them was Tunng, a British electro-folk collective: resembling laptop Peter Gabriel, “Bullets” somehow found regular rotation on WERS and stood out immediately. The National, Imperial Teen and Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings were more word-of-mouth discoveries (Pink Martini I became aware of via my parents.)

Otherwise, with each year, my mixes tend to feature more artists already familiar to me. In 2007, some had put out their best work in some time (Tori Amos, They Might Be Giants, Suzanne Vega) while others made triumphant returns after extended absences (Tracey Thorn’s Arthur Russell cover, which thankfully doesn’t change the gender of his lyric; Crowded House’s unexpectedly strong reunion album Time On Earth.) The Weakerthans were on their last, eloquent gasp, while St. Vincent, then a young upstart/Polyphonic Spree refugee was only hinting at a rich, varied catalog to come.

The first two tracks are easily my favorites: Stars’ anthem-like, ‘80s-inspired pop arguably never peaked higher than with this song, while The Shins, finally following up their great 2003 album Chutes Too Narrow evoked no one so much as… prime Crowded House (even if they didn’t call the song “New Zealand”.) Apart from that, nothing encapsulates the year better than a memory of taking the Amtrak into New York City that April, LCD Soundsystem’s epic Sound of Silver opener on my headphones providing a steady, hypnotic pulse across endless row houses and railyards of Queens—more apt for what I remember as an optimistic time than, say, Rufus Wainwright’s premonition of complications still way, way down the road.

Click here to listen to my 2007 playlist on Spotify.

1. The Shins, “Australia”
2. Stars, “Take Me To The Riot”
3. Tracey Thorn, “Get Around To It”
4. Bebel Gilberto, “Bring Back The Love”
5. Fountains of Wayne, “Someone To Love”
6. Kate Nash, “Foundations”
7. The New Pornographers, “Myriad Harbour”
8. Nicole Atkins, “Maybe Tonight”
9. Tori Amos, “Bouncing Off Clouds”
10. Iron & Wine, “Boy With A Coin”
11. LCD Soundsystem, “Get Innocuous!”
12. Rilo Kiley, “Silver Lining”
13. Crowded House, “She Called Up”
14. Imperial Teen, “Room With A View”
15. Andrew Bird, “Scythian Empires”
16. Jens Lekman, “A Postcard To Nina”
17. KT Tunstall, “Saving My Face”
18. Feist, “The Limit To Your Love”
19. The National, “Fake Empire”
20. Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, “Rich Woman”
21. Super Furry Animals, “Baby Ate My Eightball”
22. Roisin Murphy, “Primitive”
23. St. Vincent, “Paris Is Burning”
24. Tunng, “Bullets”
25. Rufus Wainwright, “Going To A Town”
26. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, “Tell Me”
27. Tegan and Sara, “Back In Your Head”
28. Pink Martini, “Hey Eugene”
29. Richard Hawley, “Tonight The Streets Are Ours”
30. They Might Be Giants, “The Mesopotamians”
31. Ted Leo and The Pharmacists, “La Costa Brava”
32. The Weakerthans, “Sun In An Empty Room”
33. Suzanne Vega, “Anniversary”

Film Journal: August 2018

Movies seen in August: a few less than in past months, but still a mostly solid ten. As always, re-watched titles are starred.

Con Air
Graded generously for Nic Cage at his Genius Dumb best, even if it’s Jerry Bruckheimer at his over-the-top worst (best?).

“I’m going to show you God does exist.” B

BlacKkKlansman
Nice to know Spike Lee can pull it together to make a great movie again after years of ehh. Almost deserves to be 2018’s GET OUT, and not only because Peele is a co-producer. Consistently entertaining and focused, with excellent period production design. As noted in my recent review of DO THE RIGHT THING, when Lee’s good he can be tremendous, and the Charlottesville footage at the end is brutally effective but essential. A-

The Godfather*
Better than I remembered (and I had forgotten a lot in the eight years since my last viewing.) I guess you could call it critic-proof at this point, but that shouldn’t detract from its many attributes (Pacino showing restraint! Gordon Willis’ lithe but unshowy camerawork!) or its compulsive watchability. A

The Miseducation of Cameron Post
APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOR is one of the better directorial feature debuts of this decade; for her follow-up, Desiree Akhavan eschews the earlier film’s explicit biographical feel (she also starred in it) for an adaptation of Emily Danforth’s novel about a gay-conversion therapy camp for teens in 1993. As the title character, Chloe Grace Moretz superbly carries the film, but with the help of a solid ensemble, particularly Sasha Lane and Forrest Goodluck as the likeminded fellow attendees she bonds most closely with, and also Emily Skeggs (best known from WHEN WE RISE) as her sympathetically deluded roommate.

Akhavan handles the sensitive material well and not without nuance, but some stretches are almost a slog to sit through—you feel as if you’re in this purgatorial state along with teens, which I know is the intent, but it somewhat quells momentum. Fortunately, when Moretz finally articulates, out loud, what you’ve been waiting the whole film for her to say, it has the desired effect even if it comes out more somberly than you’d expect. I’d like to see the engaging Akhavan back in front the camera again, as well as behind it, but this is still a thoughtful, quietly unnerving film. B+

Girls Trip
Uneven and overlong, but man, Tiffany Haddish is to this film what Melissa McCarthy was to BRIDESMAIDS; thanks to her, in a few years time, I bet it will be as ubiquitously quoted/referenced too. B-

Written On The Wind*
What do I love more about this most Sirkian of Sirk films: The child on the hobby horse, rocking with glee as if *laughing* at Robert Stack after he’s found out he’s shooting blanks, or Dorothy Malone’s egregiously wide hat in the courtroom scene? A

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
More-than-adequate Period Brit Comfort Food, even if it nearly turns into a Hallmark Channel movie by the end. Lily James is almost as charming as Emily Blunt, but not Emily Mortimer. B-

Crazy Rich Asians
Enjoyable, well-crafted fluff whose derivative rom-com tropes barely matter when they support such stunning locales and likable performances. Do I need to see OCEAN’S EIGHT now, because the heretofore-unknown-to-me Awkwafina is Everything? B

BPM (Beats Per Minute)
The documentary HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE is still the essential AIDS film, but this could be a close second. What’s most effective and ultimately devastating about it is how gradually and expertly it narrows its scope: beginning with a wide overview of the Paris chapter of ACT UP at the early ’90s height of the epidemic, it throws well over a dozen characters at us (much like THE CLASS (co-written by this film’s director, Robin Campillo), only without an obvious lead), giving us a thousand-foot view of the proceedings. Naturally and almost casually, a central couple slowly comes together and emerges as the film’s heart. If their trajectory is predictable, it’s no less affecting, perhaps because their growing intimacy in the face of inevitable destruction is raw and painfully real. A-

Juliet, Naked
This was my favorite Hornby novel since HIGH FIDELITY (he’s at his best writing about music), but as film adaptations go, it’s no HIGH FIDELITY. It doesn’t fall flat, exactly—how it could it with such ideal casting as Ethan Hawke (as a washed-up musician) and Chris O’Dowd (as his biggest, possibly most annoying fanboy)? Perhaps it could’ve had Melanie Lynskey or Rebecca Hall in the lead instead of Rose Byrne, who’s a bit too beautiful/likable for the part. This is affable and thoughtful enough, but maybe a little too restrained. Still, between this and his radically different performance in FIRST REFORMED, Hawke is on quite the roll. B-

Róisín Murphy, “Overpowered”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #87 – released October 11, 2007)

Track listing: Overpowered / You Know Me Better / Checkin’ On Me / Let Me Know / Movie Star / Primitive / Footprints / Dear Miami / Cry Baby / Tell Everybody / Scarlet Ribbons / Body Language / Parallel Lives

Although she’s crafted an enviable discography over the past few decades, to most, Róisín Murphy remains buried treasure crying out for excavation. Born in Ireland and having spent her teenage years in Manchester, England, she first found fame as the vocalist of Moloko, a dance duo she formed with romantic partner Mark Brydon in 1995. Early songs like “Fun For Me” (whose video actually got a few spins on MTV’s 120 Minutes) had them initially lumped in with other UK female-fronted trip-hop acts such as Morcheeba, Portishead and Sneaker Pimps; in time, they were scoring huge fin de siècle Euro-hits like “Sing It Back” and “The Time is Now” while barely making an imprint in the US (hard to do when your albums (apart from your debut) don’t even get released there.)

Brydon and Murphy split both personally and professionally after their fourth album, 2003’s Statutes—its ambitious sweep yet fine-honed pop-sense revealed how much their music had blossomed in just under a decade. Rather than logically craft a dance floor-ready follow-up, Murphy worked with experimental producer Matthew Herbert on her solo debut, Ruby Blue (2005). Herbert’s sample-heavy technique, where found sounds such as a whirring blender or a clinking bottle are as much a part of the mix as traditional instruments, was pushed to the fore; Murphy welcomed it with open arms, devising songs both relatively user-friendly (“Through Time”) and Kate Bush-level bonkers (“Ramalama Bang Bang”, which ended up becoming Murphy’s most heard song in the States when it accompanied a performance on the reality-TV competition show So You Think You Can Dance?)

For solo album # 2, Murphy moved from indie label Echo Records to major conglomerate EMI and made what is still to-date her most accessible, pop-friendly record, Overpowered. Of course, even at her most straightforward, Murphy can’t help but exude otherness (if you have any doubts, take another look at that album cover.) After a brief preview of its chorus hook (“When I think that I am over you, I’m overpowered”), the title track opens with the words, “Your data my data / the chromosomes match” robotically sung over a bed of squishy synths (I always thought it was “You’re dating my daughter,” which I kinda prefer.) Cerebral lyrical content (“These amaranth feelings / a cognitive state”) mash together with the overtly sensual music (harp glissandos dancing on top of the more grounded electronics; a five-note Yaz-worthy hook repeated throughout.) It’s catchy and confined, yet also teeming with negative space provided by its airy melody and minute-plus instrumental coda.

From there, Murphy reels out one relatively concise, disco-flavored dance-pop gem after another. “You Know Me Better” is as effervescent as early Madonna but with stronger vocals, an excess of hooks (like that recurring tinkling piano) and unstoppable momentum. “Checkin’ On Me” jumps forward a few years to circa-1990 mid-tempo, Lisa Stansfield-esque, blue-eyed Philly soul: her precise syncopation with the song’s jazz-funk rhythm lends it shape and verve while never, um, overpowering the arrangement’s irresistible horn-and-string interjections. “Let Me Know” tricks you into believing it’s a languorous piano ballad before the synth-beat kicks in at the thirty-second mark, transforming it into something worthy of Donna Summer circa Bad Girls.

Having established her pop-star credentials in just four songs (all of which were singles except for “Checkin’ On Me”), Murphy spends the rest of Overpowered slyly expanding what her definition of pop can contain and acknowledge. “Movie Star” goes for wall-of-sound-banger-grandeur, building almost an entire song out of a simple, incessant, some-might-say-relentless two-note analog synth hook over which, Alison Goldfrapp-like, she coos lyrics such as, “You’ll be director / and I’ll be your movie star.” “Footprints” pays loving homage to ’80s Latin freestyle and R&B but not in an obvious, cut-and-paste way; rather, she puts her own spin on it, especially whenever she recites the line, “It drives me crazy when you play these games,” in a near-bratty tone. “Dear Miami” sustains the electro-Latin influence, her reverb-enhanced vocals floating all over the mix, which one could almost call hazy or fuzzed-out if not for the itchy pulse of the keyboards or distorted guitars forever lurking in the background. “Tell Everybody” gets its oomph from a rhythm track heavy with onomatopoeic vocal effects (a hallmark of its producer, Jimmy Douglass), which is enough to hold interest until Murphy gets to the brash, triumphant chorus, where the melody opens up and the song’s working parts gel into a massive whole.

Although Overpowered features multiple producers and collaborators, Douglass’ work arguably bears the sweetest fruit. In addition to “Tell Everybody” and “Checkin’ On Me”, he also produced album highlight “Primitive”. Coming directly after the all-encompassing “Movie Star”, it allows the listener some breathing space with its minimal synth, drum machine and sampled, single-vocal-syllable foundation. “From the primordial soup / out of the dim and the gloom we came,” Murphy begins, before declaring, “We are animals” in a decidedly more forceful way than Olivia Newton-John did at the climax of “Physical”. However, it’s merely build-up for the glorious chorus where Murphy pleads, “I just want to get you out of your cave, man!” On the page, the lyric reads as a silly pun, but when she sings it, loudly, almost scarily, even, you immediately comprehend that any dismissal would be futile. You could call Murphy a vamp, a seductress, a confidant, a co-conspirator, but no matter what each song requires her to get across, she’s always frighteningly convincing.

Apart from “Cry Baby”, a monochromatic, nearly six-minute riff on what she already perfected on “Movie Star”, Overpowered is Murphy’s best album by fiat of being filler-free, and that includes its most atypical track. “Scarlet Ribbons”, the album’s original finale, is a bass-heavy, Sade-like slow dance ballad. Although Murphy nearly overplays her hand with potentially sappy father-daughter lyrics (e.g., “I’ll always be your little girl”), her ease and apparent vulnerability keep things in check. Most editions of Overpowered also contain two bonus tracks; they’re inessential but are not are exactly filler, either. “Body Language” gets considerable mileage out of its motor-disco beat, while “Parallel Lives” has a conveyor-belt rhythm track that complements its tart, soulful melody quite nicely.

Despite its major-label push, inventive music videos and hooks aplenty, Overpowered still sold less than 75,000 copies in the UK and never even received a formal US release (I remember having to buy it as an import on Amazon.) Its failure to connect is somewhat astonishing when within two years, Lady Gaga would become the biggest pop star in the world with an awfully similar visual aesthetic and songs that could’ve been carbon copies of “Movie Star”. Not to completely disparage Gaga’s 2009-11 run of iconic singles, but I can easily imagine an alternate universe where “Let Me Know” and “You Know Me Better” were as ubiquitous as “Poker Face” or “Bad Romance”.

I think the reason for Gaga’s and Murphy’s commercially divergent paths comes down to this: whereas Gaga painted and explicitly marketed herself as an “eccentric”, Murphy, crazy costumes aside, was more the real deal—a perpetual weirdo who didn’t need to call one of her albums Artpop to fully inhabit and commit to both halves of that compound description. While Gaga would conquer the pop charts over the next few years, Murphy almost entirely disappeared from the industry. We’ll return to her when she returns: on her own terms, and with something completely different.

Up next: Burn it all to the ground.

“Primitive”:

“Overpowered”:

Imperial Teen, “The Hair, The TV, The Baby & The Band”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #86 – released August 21, 2007)

Track listing: Everything / Do It Better / Shim Sham / Baby and The Band / One Two / Room With A View / It’s Now / Fallen Idol / Sweet Potato / Everyone Wants To Know / 21st Century / What You Do

Although better known than Eric Matthews or Tompaulin, Imperial Teen are easily one of the more obscure artists appearing in this project. Most famous for sharing a member of platinum-selling metal/rap weirdos Faith No More (keyboardist Roddy Bottum, who primarily plays guitar and sings here) and finding one of their songs, “The First” unexpectedly pop up in a Pizzeria Uno commercial (of all places) a few years back, this boy-girl-boy-girl quartet made five albums between 1996 and 2012; all of ‘em were admired by critics and all sold diddly squat (the first two even coming out on a Major Label.)

Initially a scrappy post-grunge, pop-punk outfit (with greater emphasis on the pop part), the band was arguably more recognized at first for its openly gay members (Bottum had memorably come out on MTV a few years earlier) than its music, even if “You’re One”, a song about Kurt Cobain from their debut Seasick briefly snuck on to some alt-rock radio playlists. By their third album On (2002), they’d evolve into a tight power-pop combo, flush with miniature masterpieces like “Ivanka” where their melodic prowess, rhythmic attack and interlocking vocals all coalesce into a whole that thrillingly builds like the band is careening forever closer to the edge of a cliff without falling off.

I got to know Imperial Teen through their fourth album, The Hair, The TV, The Baby & The Band; its title cheekily refers to what each member had been up to in the five years since On. Respectively, bassist Jone Stebbins found side work as a hair stylist, Bottum scored the short-lived ABC series Help Me Help You, drummer Lynn Truell was currently an expectant mother and guitarist/vocalist Will Schwartz had his own musical side project, hey willpower. One suspects Schwartz might’ve also been the driving force for getting Imperial Teen back together, as he sings lead on all but three of the record’s dozen tracks.

It’s likely I would’ve become a fan had I heard any of the band’s previous albums first, but I consider myself lucky that I came on board here—The Hair… could be one of the all-time hookiest albums I’ve heard, packed front to back with nothing but clever, concise and supremely catchy tunes. Call them a queer, co-ed, semi-acoustic Ramones, but even that description would obscure the complexities in their countermelodies and overlapping vocal harmonies.

Opener “Everything”, a thrillingly sped-up take on “Be My Baby” grandeur carefully crafts a mini-wall-of-sound without a hint of Spector-ish pretentiousness—it gleefully employs cymbal crashes, a one-two-three-four! count-off, a heart-stopping chord change at its middle-eight and rhymes such as “democracy” with “hypocrisy”. It sets the stage for a slew of likeminded ravers: “Shim Sham” (with lead vocals from Truell), which emulates the trash-culture party aesthetic of early B-52’s (albeit with very different vocalists); “One Two”, a call-and-response shout-out that chugs along rapidly without seeming to ever break a sweat; “21st Century”, teeming with ecstatic cries of “Count! Down!” and angular guitar stabs that wouldn’t be out of place on a Sleater-Kinney song.

My favorite of these scrappier garage-rock numbers is “Sweet Potato”, where a lovably stoopid, nay, remedial guitar riff and matching beat backs up one killer lyric after another: “They put her in the bottom three for singing ‘Tea For Two’,”; “Got a backstage pass but she doesn’t want to meet the band,”; “The carpool lane is open but she’s takin’ the bus.” Each one is followed by the song’s title, but the chorus is arguably even better: “Anyone, anywhere, anyway, LET’S GO!,” repeated over and over, not holding any hidden meaning but immensely enjoyable just for the sheer fun of it.

Fortunately, Imperial Teen are as effective when they cut their pop-punk with more varied, dynamic sounds and tones. “Do It Better” retains the brisk pace and fervent passion of their rowdier stuff, but deepens and agreeably softens things a little with its omnipresent flute-like keyboard and excessively melodic guitar riffs. “It’s Now” utilizes that tried-and-true soft-verse-then-loud-chorus construction but does so expertly whether you prefer their primal exclamations of “It’s NOWWW! It’s NOWWW!” or that moment where they rhyme “ceiling” with “Darjeeling”. “Everyone Wants To Know” goes the mid-tempo-with-power-chords route but keeps it lively with no lack of melody or lovely harmonies. “Fallen Idol” even takes a stab at loungey piano pop reminiscent of early ’70s Todd Rundgren with its major-7th chords, oompah rhythm and da-da-da’s (while still managing to sneak in a cheeky “Unabomber/Dahmer” rhyme.)

As proficient they are at creating great characters like “Sweet Potato”, Imperial Teen’s best songs often concern nothing so lofty as themselves, and, in particular, the plight of indie-rockers approaching middle age. The album’s title track (shortened to just “Baby and the Band”) could double as a band theme song as if they were to star in their own sitcom or Saturday morning cartoon; indeed, Bottum’s lead vocal, far more gentle than Schwartz’s, could almost be peak-period Donovan. A stop-and-start rhythm adds a little spice to the track’s affably bubblegum melody, while its lyrics are full of irresistible wordplay (“The wheels will turn / The top will spin / for me / for she / for her/ for him,”) and disarmingly clever rhymes with the song’s title, such as “Eight hands pound on the Concert Grand,” or “Fresh fruit’s best when it’s ripe and canned.”

“Room With A View” is just as catchy but cuts a little deeper. “We are working so hard / and we’re betting the farm / Charge it all to the card / Seventh time is the charm,” Schwartz trills in the first verse and, whether strictly autobiographical or not, you can’t help but want to believe he’s singing about his band. In the second verse, he almost wistfully adds, “Do our best to pretend / we’ll be twenty for life,” and the phrase hits like a dagger. Meanwhile, the Vince Guaraldi-esque piano lead is as charming as the one Belle and Sebastian built “Seeing Other People” around, while the rest of the band’s backing vocals (especially in the extended breakdown before the final chorus) serve as a reminder that they’re all in this together with Schwartz. “Room With A View” sounds like a lament that’s also a manifesto of sorts, acknowledging the passage of time (“We no longer smash guitars”) but also accepting it gracefully, particularly in the chorus: “And now / all we got left is a room / I didn’t mean to assume / we got the room with a view.”

As is their wont, Imperial Teen returned another five years later with their fifth album, Feel The Sound (whose title comes from The Hair’s… delicate Bottum-sung, closing ballad “What You Do”.) With production much fuller and airier than any of their previous work, it was thoughtful and mature, but not nearly as much fun (apart from “Out From Inside”, which could’ve been lifted off an old Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? episode.) At this writing, their website hasn’t been updated in four years, so they haven’t officially broken up. Still, given their track record, it would not surprise me to hear about a new Imperial Teen record tomorrow. Even if they have long since ceased smashing their guitars, I’d still be curious to hear how middle age is treating them.

Up next: Still a Weirdo.

“Room With A View”:

“Baby and The Band”:

Film Journal: July 2018

Films seen in July, including two of the best new(ish) ones right at month’s end. As usual, starred titles are re-watches.

The Little Hours
Can’t go wrong with Aubrey Plaza as a profane nun, or even Dave Franco as a fake deaf-mute sex slave. I wish it was all a little more than it was; perhaps the cast should reunite for another Pasolini remake? (Not SALO.) B-

Damsel
The Zellner Brothers’ previous film, KUMIKO, THE TREASURE HUNTER, may end up on my top ten list for the decade, so this is a slight comedown. The less one knows going into it, the better, so I’ll just complement Mia Wasikowska for continuing to make smart choices and Robert Pattinson for being open to exceedingly weird ones. Not so much an anti-Western as an anti-Rom-Com. Stunning to look at, leaves one with much to ponder, but it also induces whiplash and it could’ve been a bit shorter. B

Leave No Trace
Although far less prolific, I’d like to think of Debra Granik as the American Mike Leigh for her depiction (consideration, even) of the rural working-class without condescending to them. Not as seminal or all-out engrossing as WINTER’S BONE, but teenager Thomasin McKenzie’s every bit the find Jennifer Lawrence was, even if her contained performance is entirely different. Ben Foster exhibits the right amount of restraint in what could’ve been a showy role and Dale Dickey as always is a welcoming presence in a smaller, not to mention kinder part than her WINTER’S BONE matriarch. I’m somewhat torn on the gutsy ending—at the very least, Granik doesn’t opt for an easy way out of the conundrum she’s set in motion. A-

Apocalypse Now*
Not a fan of war films, but I could return to this one again and again more than any other of its genre (except maybe ARMY OF SHADOWS.) A

Zama
Apart from her debut feature LA CIENAGA, all of Lucrecia Martel’s films have left me cold and damned if I can pinpoint why. As a big fan of stuff like Tarkovsky’s STALKER, it’s not like I abhor slow cinema; I just feel a disconnect, something in her narrative approach that prevents me from giving myself over to whatever she’s putting across. This one, centered on the titular Spanish magistrate in an 18th century South American colony is beautifully shot and laced with mordant humor but it seems to just circle and circle without going anywhere—that is, at first, for something genuinely shocking happens in the last fifteen minutes. In retrospect, the film had been building to that moment, if obliquely, and I’d bet a second viewing would make this clearer. I can’t say ZAMA suddenly clicked with me at that point, but I admit it jolted me into attentiveness and raised my grade a notch. B-

Three Identical Strangers
A stranger-than-fiction doc even *more* fun than but nearly as disturbing as CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS? No wonder it’s the feel-good-then-feel-bad indie hit of the summer. The first half hour or so is immensely entertaining; the increasingly wacko plot twists that follow sustain that excitement, heightening the impact as things turn tragic. However, a lack of resolution keeps the film from transcending its novel hook—it attempts a definitive argument at the age-old question of nature vs. nurture, but its conclusions aren’t entirely convincing or nuanced enough. B

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot
Wildly uneven like a lot of Van Sant: at worst, the stuff about John Callahan’s pre-accident drinking and post-accident love life threatens to slide into a mawkishness of near GOOD WILL HUNTING proportions. On the other hand, nearly all of the AA scenes are golden—I haven’t seen another contemporary film go so deeply or thoughtfully into the minutiae and philosophy of 12-step recovery. So many terrific performances here: Phoenix, of course, but also Jonah Hill wonderfully exhibiting restraint while portraying a flamboyant character and decent smaller turns from Kim Gordon, Jack Black (esp. in his scene late in the film) and musician/model Beth Ditto, whom as an actress turns out to be a delight. B

Winter Kills
First heard about this in Charles Taylor’s indispensable book on ‘70s genre cinema, OPENING WEDNESDAY AT A THEATER OR DRIVE-IN NEAR YOU. Not convinced it’s an underseen masterpiece like BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (the book’s centerpiece), but definitely worth a look, if not just for a physically-in-his-prime Jeff Bridges and wacko cameos from the likes of Dorothy Malone, Toshiro Mifune and (briefly) Liz Taylor. An almost chillingly prescient satire, you’d only need to update the dates and change the answering machine motif to a smartphone to remake it verbatim for the present day. B+

Do The Right Thing*
First viewing in 20+ years. I’ll just note that when Spike Lee is bad, he’s atrocious, but when he’s good, like in PASSING STRANGE, MALCOLM X, 25TH HOUR and especially this film, he can be fucking tremendous. Resonates more today than any other film from 1989, I’d bet. A

Yellow Submarine*
The trippiest movie you could ever take the whole family to. Also probably the Beatles’ second best (certainly better than HELP!)—telling that it flags whenever they’re absent from the screen. The music in this latest digital restoration sounds absolutely sublime. B+

Blindspotting
As regional/provincial cinema goes, this is valuable enough—it depicts Oakland lovingly without sentimentalizing it. Diggs and Casal are also good together (and apart) and should each be in more films, please. However, the direction’s ham-fisted, the hipster house party is too satirically glib to mesh with the film’s stabs at “realism” and the climax hinges upon a coincidence I just didn’t buy. Grading generously, though, because it has something vital to say, even if it somewhat fumbles the execution. B-

The Women (1939)*
“Get me a bromide – and put some gin in it.” B+

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
Guessing this wasn’t a box-office failure because of the kinky threesome/bondage stuff as inspiration for the most popular female superhero of all time; rather, it didn’t connect because it’s possibly the first comic book-related film with brains, taking a deep dive into the psychological implications behind the character, which, if you’re open to it, is arguably more stimulating than the sex stuff. Also, I’d forgotten how good Rebecca Hall can be: she’s so abrasive, tart yet likable—sign her up to play a Mike Leigh heroine. A-

Sorry To Bother You
Unapologetically silly and more than a bit slapdash, but also weirdly convincing in what it wants to do and howlingly funny while doing it. I haven’t seen anything that felt so alive since THE DEATH OF STALIN; time will tell whether Riley’s bold, often-ridiculous, wildly entertaining debut ends up feeling strictly of-the-moment or like a premonition. A-

2006: No Party To Go To

In 2006, now fully into my thirties, my life began to solidify—had a steady job, a good living situation, I even met the person I’d eventually marry. Music too remained a constant, even if none of the albums on my original year-end top ten endured to point of warranting their own entries in this project (the one that did, I didn’t hear until its American edition came out the following year.)

Starting this year, I began making best-of mix CDs to send out to friends, a ritual I kept up through 2010 (and briefly revived in 2015.) Most of the first seventeen tracks here appeared on that first mix, with a few substitutions—“Dress Up In You” remains one of my ten favorite Belle and Sebastian songs, while my original choice of “The Blues Are Still Blue” would now barely crack the top fifty. Also, Swedish pop star Marit Bergman’s ebullient “No Party”, the original lead-off track (and rightfully so) is currently not on Spotify, so I’ve embedded its video above.

The latter half of this playlist is full of songs that have endured, from massive hits (Gnarls Barkley, Scissor Sisters) to barking-mad obscurities (please listen to the Herbert song all the way to the end) and everything in between. I would apologize for that Rodrigo y Gabriela-Sparks-Gainsbourg sequence for inducing whiplash if not, even by 2006, iPod shuffling hadn’t already conditioned us into listening to music that way.

Also, if someone were to locate a copy of this playlist decades from now without knowing the title, I’d like to think due to the timeless nature of such tracks as “Be Here Now”, “Crowd Surf Off A Cliff” and “I Feel Like Going Home”, they might not immediately deduce what exact year all these tunes came from.

Click here to listen to my 2006 playlist on Spotify

1. Neko Case, “Hold On, Hold On”
2. The BellRays, “Third Time’s The Charm”
3. Regina Spektor, “Better”
4. Hot Chip, “Boy From School”
5. TV On The Radio, “A Method”
6. Belle and Sebastian, “Dress Up In You”
7. The Hidden Cameras, “Awoo”
8. Jenny Lewis & The Watson Twins, “Rise Up With Fists!”
9. James Hunter, “People Gonna Talk”
10. Paul Brill, “Don’t Tell Them”
11. Camera Obscura, “If Looks Could Kill”
12. Emm Gryner, “Almighty Love”
13. Sufjan Stevens, “Dear Mr. Supercomputer”
14. Nellie McKay & Cyndi Lauper, “Beecharmer”
15. Calexico, “Cruel”
16. Junior Boys, “In The Morning”
17. Pet Shop Boys, “Integral”
18. Gnarls Barkley, “Crazy”
19. Art Brut, “Formed A Band”
20. Ben Kweller, “Sundress”
21. The Decemberists, “O Valencia!”
22. The Radio Dept., “The Worst Taste In Music”
23. The Divine Comedy, “Diva Lady”
24. Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton, “Crowd Surf Off A Cliff”
25. Ray LaMontagne, “Be Here Now”
26. Herbert, “The Movers and The Shakers”
27. Pernice Brothers, “Automaton”
28. Rodrigo y Gabriela, “Tamacun”
29. Sparks, “Dick Around”
30. Charlotte Gainsbourg, “Everything I Cannot See”
31. Scissor Sisters, “I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’”
32. Chris Isaak, “King Without A Castle”
33. Yo La Tengo, “I Feel Like Going Home”