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”
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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”:

2008: Tell Me If It Was Worth It

A decade ago as of this writing, and the year feels even further away. Whatever happened to The Ting Tings, Alphabeat, Nikka Costa and Duffy, anyway? Does anyone in the UK remember top twenty hit “The Journey Continues”, known to me only because it has the singer from Saint Etienne on it? Robert Forster and Brazilian Girls have since put out a single album each (the latter this year!); Portishead remains MIA to this day, suggesting Third might’ve been a fluke.

2008 had room for so much: an ‘80s pop star reinventing herself as an EDM diva (Cyndi Lauper), a Tony Award-winning musical from one of the decade’s best (and more obscure) rock singer/songwriters (Stew’s Passing Strange), a ‘90s Swedish teen-pop fixture coming into adulthood (Robyn), new wave icons getting the band back together for one last hurrah (The B-52’s), the first collaboration between two post-punk giants in 17 years (Byrne/Eno), plus some significant debuts: Vampire Weekend, Hercules & Love Affair, Lykki Li and Fleet Foxes.

If making room for weirdos such as The Dirtbombs doesn’t fully get me off the hook for going out on Coldplay (their greatest hit, how could I not include it?), so be it. The Goldfrapp song remains one of my all-time favorites, and even that’s eclipsed by Martha Wainwright’s caustic, uber-catchy gem—brother Rufus has never bested it.

Click here to listen to my 2008 playlist on Spotify.

  1. Goldfrapp, “A&E”
  2. Alphabeat, “Fascination”
  3. Martha Wainwright, “You Cheated Me”
  4. Sam Phillips, “Don’t Do Anything”
  5. Mark Brown feat. Sarah Cracknell, “The Journey Continues”
  6. Calexico, “Man Made Lake”
  7. The Ting Tings, “Shut Up and Let Me Go”
  8. Alison Moyet, “Can’t Say It Like I Mean It”
  9. The B-52’s, “Juliet of the Spirits”
  10. Aimee Mann, “Thirty-One Today”
  11. Marit Bergman, “Out On The Piers”
  12. Fleet Foxes, “White Winter Hymnal”
  13. Brazilian Girls, “Losing Myself”
  14. Portishead, “The Rip”
  15. Hercules & Love Affair, “Blind”
  16. Robert Forster, “Don’t Touch Anything”
  17. Stew, “Work The Wound”
  18. She & Him, “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?”
  19. Vampire Weekend, “M79”
  20. David Byrne & Brian Eno, “Strange Overtones”
  21. Cut Copy, “Hearts On Fire”
  22. The Dirtbombs, “Wreck My Flow”
  23. Juliana Hatfield with Richard Butler, “This Lonely Love”
  24. Lykke Li, “Dance, Dance, Dance”
  25. Duffy, “Rockferry”
  26. Marianne Faithfull, “Down From Dover”
  27. Cyndi Lauper, “Into the Nightlife”
  28. Nikka Costa, “Can’t Please Everybody”
  29. The Radio Dept., “Freddie and The Trojan Horse”
  30. Stereolab, “Three Women”
  31. TV On The Radio, “Family Tree”
  32. Robyn with Kleerup, “With Every Heartbeat”
  33. Coldplay, “Viva La Vida”

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”:

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-