2013: Love Me While It’s Still A Crime

I got married in September 2013 and traveled to Cuba that December—neither has anything to do with music but the latter at least explains why I never got around to compiling any semblance of a 2013 mix until now. Random Access Memories was easily my favorite LP of that year, but Heartthrob, Tegan and Sara’s aim-for-the-fences dance pop effort wasn’t far behind. While I don’t return to it as frequently today, leadoff track “Closer” is the first song that comes to mind when I think about 2013.

Re: 2013, I also recall Haim’s Fleetwood Mac-goodness, Eleanor Friedberger’s disarming ode to being clumsy in love, unusually strong comeback singles from Alison Moyet and Pet Shop Boys, the loveliest Vampire Weekend song to date (though the recent “Harmony Hall” gives it a run for its money), the most blissful melody you’ll ever hear from Washed Out, an epic Arcade Fire disco explosion, a choice cut from Goldfrapp’s better-with-each-year, atypically pastoral Tales Of Us, a Sam Phillips song as classic as anything on Martinis and Bikinis and Laura Marling convincingly staking her claim as a “Master Hunter”.

I didn’t hear John Grant’s “GMF” until the following year; on that first listen, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing (the title is a NSFW acronym), but I knew it was a great, self-deprecating anthem for the ages before it was over.

Go here to listen to my favorite tracks of 2013 on Spotify:

  1. Tegan and Sara, “Closer”
  2. Bastille, “Pompeii”
  3. Haim, “If I Could Change Your Mind”
  4. Daft Punk feat. Julian Casablancas, “Instant Crush”
  5. John Grant, “GMF”
  6. Disclosure feat. London Grammar, “Help Me Lose My Mind”
  7. Goldfrapp, “Drew”
  8. Jessy Lanza, “Keep Moving”
  9. Cut Copy, “In Memory Capsule”
  10. Sky Ferreira, “I Blame Myself”
  11. Eleanor Friedberger, “When I Knew”
  12. Alison Moyet, “Love Reign Supreme”
  13. Arcade Fire, “Reflektor”
  14. Atlas Genius, “Electric”
  15. Camera Obscura, “This is Love (Feels Alright)”
  16. Pet Shop Boys feat. Example, “Thursday”
  17. Iron & Wine, “The Desert Babbler”
  18. Boy & Bear, “Southern Sun”
  19. Emma Louise, “Boy”
  20. Neko Case, “Man”
  21. Mavis Staples, “I Like The Things About Me”
  22. Washed Out, “All I Know”
  23. Sam Phillips, “You Know I Won’t”
  24. Laura Marling, “Master Hunter”
  25. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Mosquito”
  26. Vienna Teng feat. Glen Phillips, “Landsailor”
  27. Vampire Weekend, “Step”
  28. David Bowie, “Valentine’s Day”
  29. Florence + The Machine, “Over The Love”
  30. Jessie Ware, “Imagine It Was Us”
  31. London Grammar, “Strong”

Daft Punk, “Random Access Memories”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #94 – released May 17, 2013)

Track listing: Give Life Back To Music / The Game Of Love / Giorgio By Moroder  / Within / Instant Crush / Lose Yourself To Dance / Touch / Get Lucky / Beyond / Motherboard / Fragments of Time / Doin’ It Right / Contact

Music saturates our collective unconscious more than and unlike any other art form. Even as film and television references become more ubiquitous and quotes from literature and allusions to all the finer arts persist, none of them carry the weight or omnipresence of sound and song. Just think of every place one can physically inhabit, from inside of a car to aisles of a chain pharmacy—it’s simply in the air, providing a soundtrack to your life, whether you desire it or not. The imprint music leaves behind inevitably spills over to spaces one mentally inhabits as well.

Random Access Memories celebrates music’s presence in both our exterior and interior lives and, in particular, the role it played in shaping the lives of its two primary creators, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, better known as Daft Punk. Formed as teenagers in early ‘90s France, the duo eventually stumbled upon a shtick that immediately set them apart from the crowd on their 1997 debut LP Homework: always publicly clad in face-obscuring helmets and dark gloves, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo rather resembled robots and often sounded like them too, layering vocoder-enhanced vocals on top of sample-heavy electronic dance music. Subsequent albums only further played up this shtick: Discovery (2001) scored crossover hits like “One More Time” and “Digital Love” on the strength of their soulful samples and catchy melodies, but Human After All (2005) was widely accused of being too mechanical and brittle, suggesting that robot-pop, like any other novelty had its limitations.

Arriving eight years later (with only the Tron: Legacy soundtrack in between), RAM initially sounds like classic Daft Punk (roughly half the tracks still have robot vocals) and a completely different band, in part because it almost entirely eschews samples for live instruments. Yes, there’s still plenty of synths and drum machines, but just as much guitar, bass, live drums and piano. Furthermore, it’s the style of live instrumentation that’s key—almost overwhelmingly, RAM studiously recreates late ‘70s/early ‘80s disco and funk, heavy on such period touches as upfront, chicken-scratch rhythm guitar (most of it played by the master of that style, Chic’s Nile Rodgers) and Fender Rhodes electric piano.

When you consider how old Bangalter and de Homem-Christo are, it’s obvious that RAM is an extended homage to the music they grew up with, made even more explicit by the presence of Rodgers and other period figures such as producer Giorgio Moroder and musician/actor Paul Williams (the latter co-starred and wrote the music for Brian de Palma’s 1974 satirical musical Phantom of the Paradise, whose titular character heavily inspired Daft Punk’s look.) But RAM’s impact not only comes from how meticulously it conjures up the past while also drawing on the scientific phenomena outlined in the album title, but also in how it reinterprets it for and places it firmly within the present—not only with those 21st century vocoder vocals but also a renewed energy and the hindsight that, however much of a time capsule it may occasionally resemble, some music actually endures through its omnipresence, continually resurfacing and reintroducing itself to new generations and audiences.

“Give Life Back To Music” opens RAM on an irresistible, all-systems-go high with a vigorous, thrilling instrumental fanfare made up of melodic triplets. One can easily detect an overarching philosophy, not only in the music which switches back and forth between the fanfare and an instantly catchy funk groove, but also the robot-sung lyrics, which consist of the song title and variations thereof: “Let the music in tonight / just turn on the music” reads almost remedially simplistic (like Lipps Inc.’s post-disco smash “Funkytown”), but it’s effective. The following track, “The Game of Love” reprises the robot-vox, but at a slower, more hypnotic tempo falling somewhere between early Sade and Michael McDonald—perhaps the least cool reference I’ve come up with so far, and certainly far from the last.

RAM returns to this formula often with enough modification to keep the whole from seeming monotonous. “Beyond” begins with an orchestral fanfare performed by an actual orchestra complete with the pomp of a big brass section and a flurry of swirling strings before switching to a backing analogous of the groove and vocals of “The Game of Love”. “Within”, meanwhile, is a quiet-storm ballad kicked off by a lengthy solo from Canadian pianist Chilly Gonzales before the song proper emerges, featuring the deepest and perhaps saddest robot vocals you might ever hear.

Still, Daft Punk are savvy enough to know when to subvert the formula. Musically, “Instant Crush” sidesteps funk altogether for a new wave homage, bringing to mind The Cars in particular with its analog synths and precise rhythm guitar. This time, the robot vox come from a special guest: Julian Casablancas of post-punk revivalists The Strokes. Filtered through a vocoder, he sounds absolutely nothing like his usual Lou Reed-ish self (even if RAM’s cover is an explicit homage to one of Reed’s albums)—actually, he sounds better: more androgynous for sure, but also more expressive and maybe even more… human? It helps that “Instant Crush” sports one of RAM’s most affecting melodies, especially in the rapidly-sung chorus and again towards the end when Casablancas suddenly shifts into a higher register (“I / don’t wanna start / don’t get upset / I’m not with you.”)

Other times, the robot vocals are deployed in tandem with additional, effects-free vocals. Both the monster hit “Get Lucky” and its less popular follow-up single “Lose Yourself To Dance” are showcases for Rodgers and singer Pharrell Williams—respectively, the songs are blissful, ascendant disco and tight, handclap-enhanced funk, stretched out to around six minutes each to allow listeners and dancers alike to work up a sweat. Each one shrewdly, effectively adds on the robot vocals to sustain interest. In “Get Lucky”, it’s the echo of the chorus (“We’re up all night to get lucky”) that comes after the second one, building and repeating until the bridge returns with Williams’ vocal now serving as the melodic counterpoint to the chorus it was always meant to be. In “Lose Yourself to Dance”, it’s the forever modulating, “Come on, come on, come on, come on,” that locks into the song’s existing groove perfectly while also suddenly opening up its melodic potential and possibilities of where it might go from there.

However, looking beyond the singles, RAM’s most stunning moments are its deep cuts: wild (the less charitable might say self-indulgent) experiments that seem to have been sprung deep from the guys’ psyches. The third track, “Giorgio By Moroder” clocks in at over nine minutes, and not one of them is superfluous. As Moroder himself talks in his distinct Italo-German accent, reminiscing about his early career and how he became an electronic music pioneer in the late ’70s, the background evolves from crowd noise to a simple disco beat to a very Moroder-esque synth hook that overtakes the track until the man himself returns. He says, “You want to free your mind about a concept of harmony and of music being correct,” and after noting, “There was no preconception of what to do,” the music briefly drops out and dramatic strings take over, kicking off an extended instrumental coda full of live polyrhythmic drumming, furious turntable scratching and guitar-hero leads on top. It’s arty, proggy, and deeply idiosyncratic, but also welcoming like a hand held out from its creators trying to describe something rather inexplicable—why does one listen to and make music and, through it, how does one inspire in the same way they themselves found inspiration?

Although a minute shorter than “Giorgio By Moroder”, “Touch” beams in ever further from an hidden, psychological space. Co-written by and featuring vocals from Paul Williams, it casts him as a robot yearning to be a human again (a la Phantom of the Paradise.) If I’ve lost you with that ridiculous, almost mawkish concept, indeed, “Touch” is a preposterous concoction, from its extended intro where what resembles the famous five-note theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind is sliced and diced up as if thrown in a blender, to the “Hey Jude”-like “Hold on, if love is the answer” repeated chorus that takes up most of the song’s back half. But “Touch” is chock full of neat little left turns, like how it magically shifts from soft-rock ballad to juiced-up banger in the second verse, or the mid-section boogie-woogie disco playfully harkening back to Williams’ performance of “An Old Fashioned Love Song” on The Muppet Show. However, it’s Williams’ aged, wobbly voice that holds these disparate parts together, suffusing the song with a very human fragility and warmth.

Such tenderness is also felt in “Fragments of Time”; its lyrics not only reveal the source of the album’s title (“Keep building these random memories / Turning our days into melodies,”) but also provide the most cogent distillation of RAM’s reason for being. Vocalist Todd Edwards sings over a wistful, rock/r&b hybrid that seems plucked straight from late 1980, specifically in how it recalls both Steely Dan’s Gaucho and Stevie Wonder’s Hotter Than July. It’s a warm, nostalgic sound, highly discernible from most anything else recorded in 2013 but also modified just slightly enough to appear as if coming from the present more so than the past (particularly in the squelchy synths and talk-box solo before the final verse.) In the chorus, Edwards sings, “If I just keep playing back / these fragments of time / Everywhere I go / these moments will shine.” It’s Daft Punk at their most direct, arguing for music as a conduit for nostalgia, sustenance and transcendence.

RAM initially appealed to me in how well it stitched all of its seemingly disparate parts together. For example, the piano intro of “Within” is an ideal palette cleanser after the explosive climax of “Giorgio By Moroder”, the final piano note of “Touch” is beautifully replicated in the first chord of following track “Get Lucky”, and “Doin’ It Right” which simply weaves together staccato, robot-sung iterations of its title with Panda Bear’s clean, legato counterpoint vocals gives one space to breathe before techno instrumental closer “Contact” pushes all levels into the red, relentlessly building towards an apocalyptic finale.

With some time and repeated listens, RAM in my mind became a kindred spirit of and perhaps even a worthy successor to one of my favorite albums of this young century, The Avalanches’ Since I Left You. Almost entirely made up of existing, sampled sounds, it is nearly RAM’s opposite solely in terms of creation; otherwise, it’s similarly obsessed with music and how easily and rewardingly one can utilize it to bring the past into the present while also looking towards the future. As with Since I Left You, RAM is a tough act to follow; at this writing, Daft Punk have yet to release anything else apart from collaborating with The Weeknd on his Starboy album in 2016. Meanwhile, RAM endures and remains another fragment of time having entered the collective unconscious—primarily through spins of “Get Lucky”, but also for those music fans curious enough to delve deeper into it, discovering its secret, strange treasures.

Up next: You can’t pin her down.

“Instant Crush”:

“Fragments Of Time”:

Film Journal: January 2019

This entry concludes an entire year of movie reviews posted on this blog. Going forward, I direct readers to my Letterboxd page, where all of this writing first appears. As usual, starred titles are re-watches (I also saw COLD WAR again, but have nothing more to say about it.)

Support The Girls
Building on the underrated RESULTS, Andrew Bujalski’s sixth feature might be his most satisfying one to date. Using a Hooter’s-like restaurant called Double Whammie’s as its unlikely setting, he portrays what amounts to a makeshift workplace family that comes across as genuine and nuanced as one you might’ve actually been a part of.

As its matriarch/general manager Lisa, Regina Hall delivers one of the year’s best performances, but the ensemble is terrific as well, especially Shayna MacHayle (a real find in her film debut) as her right hand/confidante, the great Lea De Laria as an adoring customer and Haley Lu Richardson (COLUMBUS) as an extremely energetic young waitress.

Over roughly one day, we see the careful ecosystem Lisa has fought to maintain in the restaurant and how it all too easily devolves into chaos in her absence. While a few scenes could’ve been edited even more tightly (such as the rooftop finale), I can’t think of another recent film so perceptive and engaging in its depiction of contemporary working class America. Grade: A-

Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things
A philosophy I can get behind, presented in a thoughtful, if unexceptional package. B-

Love, Gilda
Gilda Radner may not have been the most original or technically accomplished comedienne, but she was unquestionably one of the most likable–as the cliche goes, she lit up whatever room she entered. Lisa D’Apolito’s sympathetic documentary gets this across beautifully, making a case for Radner’s accomplishments and effervescence. As an analysis, however, it’s somewhat choppy, never forging as a complete or illuminating an assessment of its subject, as, say, WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR did for Fred Rogers. Still, it makes the case why Radner, her life tragically cut short by ovarian cancer in 1989, should not be forgotten. B-

Minding The Gap
Man, this movie… it just *wrecked* me, even though it’s not a tragedy. It captures both the euphoria and turmoil (and every emotion in-between) of everyday life via three young male skateboarders in Rockford, Illinois, one of whom is the director. I’ve seen this kind of documentary before, but never has it felt so honest or carried as much weight this effortlessly. The cinematography and editing are both superb. It’s on Hulu, so go watch it already. A

Andrei Rublev*
Tarkovsky’s stab at a historical epic naturally has more poetry in it than the Hollywood equivalent; I still think his subsequent, stranger films more fluently make the case for him as one of the best filmmakers of his time. A-

Never Goin’ Back
Less the Gen-Z GHOST WORLD it wants to be than a distaff, sillier, low-budget SUPERBAD. Upped half a notch for inspired use of a certain Michael Bolton song. Camila Morrone, however, is nearly as good as a young Scarlett Johansson. B-

As a 19-year-old student in her native Singapore, Sandi Tan wrote and starred in an independent feature film she made with her friends and her much older male mentor, but it was never finished, as said mentor absconded with the film reels and just disappeared. A quarter century later, Tan has made a documentary about the experience, complete with a good amount of footage she eventually recovered from the earlier project. Purposely disorienting and chockablock with fantastic imagery, especially when it reverberates between past and present, the story SHIRKERS recounts is almost as wild as that of THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS; it’s also more nuanced and artfully assembled. B+

“That’s life. Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you.”
(BTW, this would make a wicked double feature with MY WINNIPEG.) B+

I like films that aren’t entirely knowable, where motivations and intentions are obscured and shrouded with mystery and yet, the whole satisfies, inviting one to perceive the world differently after the credits roll. BURNING firmly falls into this category; that its intentions aren’t apparent until the very last scene nearly puts it up there with MULHOLLAND DR. and CEMETERY OF SPLENDOR in the canon of slippery, unknowable cinema.

Adapted from a Haruki Murakami short story, it focuses on a peculiar triangle centered on Jong-su (Ah-in Yoo), a young, aspiring writer who runs into an old female friend from his rural village, Hae-mi (Jong Seo-Jun), who now lives in Seoul. They become involved romantically and all seems to go well until Hae-mi’s wealthy, enigmatic friend Ben (Steven Yeun, the standout performance here) enters the picture. To get further into the story would lessen much of the film’s mystique; only know that director Chang-Dong Lee, in his first feature since 2010’s great POETRY, sets up any number of expectations only to masterfully defy most of them without leaving the viewer feeling cheated. “Haunting” is word used far too often in film criticism, but that’s the exact tone BURNING leaves one with. A

Rodents of Unusual Size
Further proof that one can make a movie about *anything*–in this case, twenty-plus pound swamp rats (technical name: nutria) infesting coastal Louisiana and beyond. Fun, educational and not for the squeamish. B-

If you ever mixed up Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams before, just wait until the scene where they wear similar wigs. Weisz is great, McAdams is good and I hardly recognized Alessandro Nivola; a thoughtful, if bland picture that occasionally lapses into sexual and religious kitsch–I expect a little more from the director of A FANTASTIC WOMAN and GLORIA. B-

A Matter Of Life and Death*
Had forgotten so much about this (including that I hadn’t seen it in nearly a decade.) Has the most innovative use of switching back and forth between black-and-white and glorious color, but as with the best of Powell/Pressburger, the technical spectacle is always in service of a fable full of heart and substance. A

ROMA depicts a large middle class family in early ’70s Mexico City as filtered through the perspective of its maid, Cleo. In direct contrast to the ever-expanding world beyond its characters that was a focal point of Alfonso Cuaron’s last Mexican film, the seminal Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN, this is far more interior, its lengthy tracking shots resembling visual attempts at re-creating memories and essences of a long-ago past. As yet, just as often ROMA feels as expansive as its predecessor; although individual scenes register as slice-of-life vignettes, their order and procession is key, for they build towards something both heartbreaking and life-affirming. Near the end, Cleo says to a co-worker and friend, “I have so much to tell you,” and it could be Cuaron’s own epitaph for this intensely personal, singular film. A

Saturday Church
Well, it’s fun to see MJ Rodriguez and Indya Moore in pre-POSE roles, and the young lead is good, but oy, this would’ve been so much more effective without those clumsy musical numbers. C

Favorite Films of 2018

I briefly thought about presenting an unranked list of ten or twelve favorites this year, but that wouldn’t be as much fun.

As with his great forebear Yasujiro Ozu, it’s hard to say which Hirokazu Kore-eda film is the best, since he returns to familiar, familial themes across his discography with a rare consistency. So, place this well-deserved Cannes Palme D’or winner up there with NOBODY KNOWS and STILL WALKING and admire his ever-present humanism and kindhearted but fair depiction of what ordinary, flawed people do in order to survive while also seeking solace in each other (whether they’re able or even willing to reciprocate.) Also, take note of this year’s best ensemble cast, from the wonderful Kirin Kiki (in her final role) to Sakura Ando, whom in one devastating scene brings to light all of the narrative’s complexities.

Concerning a middle class family in early ’70s Mexico City as filtered through the perspective of its maid, Cleo, this is in direct contrast to the ever-expanding world that was a focal point of Alfonso Cuaron’s last Mexican film, the seminal Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN: based on the director’s own life and heavy with memories and essences of a long-ago past, it’s far more interior. And yet, ROMA often feels as generous as its predecessor. Although individual scenes register as slice-of-life vignettes, their order and procession is key, for they build towards something both heartbreaking and life-affirming. When Cleo says to a co-worker and friend, “I have so much to tell you,” it could be Cuaron’s own epitaph.

A documentary rife with all the euphoria and turmoil (and every emotion in between) of day-to-day life via three young male skateboarders in Rockford, Illinois, one of whom, Bing Liu is the director. I’ve seen this kind of movie before, but never has it felt so honest or carried as much weight this effortlessly. Liu’s editing and cinematography are both exceptional for a film of this scale and budget, and it builds to a powerful finale without calculation. This little, handmade film could serve as a definitive portrait of its time and place in the decades ahead.

The real-life story of Lee Israel, a struggling, middle-aged, alcoholic writer whom in the early ‘90s fell into a brief stint as a literary forger, should be something that works better on page than screen, but director Marielle Heller translates Israel’s own memoir as if it were a living, breathing, sincere re-creation of a now forgotten Manhattan. Aided by top-notch work from Melissa McCarthy (who really should do more indies) and Richard E. Grant, Heller has crafted something so sharp and rich with nuance, I’m not surprised it isn’t dominating the awards season.

The ridiculous and the sublime remain inseparable (as they should) in Paul Schrader’s late-career miracle about a priest (Ethan Hawke, perennially underrated as he ages but arguably never better in a role he nearly disappears into) troubled by climate change, alcoholism, religion-as-business—all the big stuff (and more!) From its austere, slow-track, zoom-in opening credits sequence to an absolutely nutty ending, Schrader conducts a wild ride through the dark night of the soul; for once, he achieves the transcendence so favored by his longtime heroes Carl Dreyer and Robert Bresson.

Excessively funny and appropriately dark, I wasn’t entirely convinced by Armando Iannucci’s peculiar satire until a second viewing confirmed this was nearly as bold (and arguably more formally successful) as its great predecessor DR. STRANGELOVE. The elaborate “musical emergency” opening, the slapstick moving-of-the-body, a deliriously profane argument playing out in front of a small child—all great stuff, though nothing made me laugh so hard or proved so cathartic as Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi, unexpectedly perfect for the Iannucci-verse) bluntly sneering, “You fat fuck!” at the corpse of a slain politician.

Nine months after seeing this, I still can’t understate how terrific Elsie Fisher is as Kayla, an awkward, average fourteen-year-old who’s quirky enough to stand apart from any other similarly-aged protagonist you’ve seen before and also recognizable to an almost painfully universal degree. I’ve also come to further appreciate what writer/director Bo Burnham has pulled off with his debut feature, his affection for the minutiae of this ultra-specific world (one most of us who’ve lived it would rather forget) apparent without distraction from nostalgia’s rose-colored lenses.

Adapted from a Haruki Murakami short story, Chang-dong Lee’s first feature since 2010’s POETRY focuses on a peculiar male-female-male triangle; to get further into the story would lessen much of its mystique; only know that director sets up any number of expectations only to masterfully defy most of them without leaving the viewer feeling cheated. “Haunting” is word used far too often in film criticism, but that’s the exact tone BURNING leaves one with; the ending also secures its place in the canon of slippery, unknowable cinema.

An occasionally frustrating but fascinating puzzle box of a film. On the surface, it appears to be about a teenager (Helena Howard—remember her name), her antagonistic relationship with her mom and her participation in an experimental theater troupe, but there’s so much more 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 inspired madness.

Spanning a fifteen year period post-World War II, Pawel Pawlikowski’s follow-up to IDA recreates a culture in the throes of a severe political takeover, drawing implications from the minute to fully societal. He limns his focus onto two very different people (inspired by his own parents): a jazz musician and a younger singer who nonetheless are drawn to each other. Each frame is a lovingly crafted tableau, strikingly rendered in high-contrast black-and-white, deep focus photography. The mostly diegetic soundtrack, ranging from hard bop jazz to hymn-like folk songs is a character in itself.


If Beale Street Could Talk
The Rider
Scotty and The Secret History of Hollywood
Support The Girls


The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
BPM (Beats Per Minute)
Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami
Lean On Pete
Leave No Trace
Sorry To Bother You
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

2012: My Life Has Just Begun!

Two-thirds of the tracks below are culled from two Spotify playlists originally posted at the end of 2012: Someone Who Looks Smashing In Athletic Wear (a lyric from Sinead O’Connor’s ferocious cover of John Grant’s “Queen of Denmark”) and You Enjoy Sucking On Dreams (a lyric from “Serpents”, the first Sharon Van Etten song I ever heard.) Scanning my music library, I came up with a dozen more tracks I encountered in subsequent years (many of ’em in 2013, like “Default”, “I’m Getting Ready” and “The Diaz Brothers”.) Also made a few substitutions (“Sovereign Light Cafe” a more enduring Keane song than “On The Road” (but not by much, really); “Dirty Paws” one of my favorite songs ever as opposed to the merely catchy “Mountain Sound”) and a handful of subtractions (Deep Sea Arcade, The Shins, Regina Spektor)–to keep this at forty tracks, process of elimination inevitably sets in.

Looking over what’s left, I sense a lack of cynicism and weariness I’ve cultivated in the years since—to me, this looks like an utopian ideal of an annual mix: career highlights from Saint Etienne and Stars (both of whom I saw in concert that year), great returns from such veterans as Aimee Mann, Dr. John, Fiona Apple and Patti Smith and a few oddities that continue to age beautifully: Claudia Brucken’s late-period Bowie cover, Emm Gryner’s cool Hall & Oates cover, Josephine’s out-of-time cabaret-pop ballad (discovered by me three years later on an episode of Quantico, of all places) and a cheeky, sublime novelty from The Ting Tings’s flop follow-up LP to their 2008 hit debut: “Next time I’m gonna get it right / I’m gonna paint my face like the Guggenheim,” yelps Katie White, incessantly. Fun fact: until I looked up the lyrics today, I thought she was singing “play my bass at” instead of “paint my face like.” Either way, it’s glorious gibberish.

Click here to listen to my 2012 playlist on Spotify.

  1. Saint Etienne, “Tonight”
  2. Tanlines, “All Of Me”
  3. The Magnetic Fields, “Andrew In Drag”
  4. Django Django, “Default”
  5. Diamond Rings, “Runaway Love”
  6. Stars, “Hold On When You Get Love And Let Go When You Give It”
  7. Jens Lekman, “Some Dandruff On Your Shoulder”
  8. Jessie Ware, “Wildest Moments”
  9. Hot Chip, “Let Me Be Him”
  10. Rufus Wainwright, “Bitter Tears”
  11. Sinead O’Connor, “Queen of Denmark”
  12. The Ting Tings, “Guggenheim”
  13. Aimee Mann, “Labrador”
  14. Imperial Teen, “Out From Inside”
  15. Miike Snow, “Bavarian #1 (Say You Will)”
  16. Twin Shadow, “Run My Heart”
  17. Martha Wainwright, “I Wanna Make An Arrest”
  18. Fiona Apple, “Hot Knife”
  19. A.C. Newman, “They Should Have Shut Down The Streets”
  20. Metric, “The Void”
  21. Calexico, “Splitter”
  22. Sharon Van Etten, “Serpents”
  23. Gossip, “Move In The Right Direction”
  24. Dr. John, “Revolution”
  25. The Gaslight Anthem, “Here Comes My Man”
  26. Keane, “Sovereign Light Cafe”
  27. Bat For Lashes, “Laura”
  28. Emm Gryner, “She’s Gone”
  29. Michael Kiwanuka, “I’m Getting Ready”
  30. Patti Smith, “April Fool”
  31. Andrew Bird, “Lusitania”
  32. Josephine, “House of Mirrors”
  33. Ben Folds Five, “Away When You Were Here”
  34. The Mountain Goats, “The Diaz Brothers”
  35. Bettye LaVette, “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere”
  36. Of Monsters and Men, “Dirty Paws”
  37. A Fine Frenzy, “Now Is The Start”
  38. Field Music, “(I Keep Thinking About) A New Thing”
  39. Claudia Brucken, “Everyone Says ‘Hi’”
  40. Beth Orton, “Mystery”

Jens Lekman, “I Know What Love Isn’t”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #93 – released September 4, 2012)

Track listing: Every Little Hair Knows Your Name / Erica America / Become Someone Else’s / Some Dandruff On Your Shoulder / She Just Don’t Want To Be With You Anymore / I Want A Pair Of Cowboy Boots / The World Moves On / The End Of The World Is Bigger Than Love / I Know What Love Isn’t / Every Little Hair Knows Your Name

In 2007, I named Jen Lekman’s third album, Night Falls Over Kortedala my favorite of that year, writing, “His droopy baritone and lovably dorky demeanor always positioned this young Swede as the prospective heir apparent to Jonathan Richman, Morrissey and Stephin Merritt; the crucial advance he makes on his third album confirms it.” With such oddball, ultra-specific scenarios like posing as a lesbian friend’s beau to appease her conservative father (“A Postcard To Nina”) or accidentally cutting off his finger when his girlfriend snuck up behind him for a hug (and calling it “You Arms Around Me”, no less), Lekman was, at age 26, one of the better lyricists of his generation.

Today, Kortedala is no longer my favorite album of 2007 (though it would easily crack the top five), in part because his next one not only bested it, but also subverted the very idea of what to expect from Lekman. With only the An Argument With Myself EP coming in between, I Know What Love Isn’t arrived a full five years after its predecessor. During this extended hiatus, Lekman apparently suffered a bout of swine flu (remember when that was a thing?) and, if a good chunk of the new album’s themes were any indication, considerable heartbreak. At the time, he referred to it as his “debut album” even though it was actually his fourth; one can partially rationalize this distinction, as the record largely (but not entirely) eschewed Kortedala’s sample-heavy aesthetic for a more organic, predominantly acoustic palette.

Regardless, I Know What Love Isn’t wasn’t just another great leap forward for Lekman but one made possible by the foundation his earlier records established. None of its songs were as lugubriously (or knowingly) lush as Kortedala’s “Sipping On The Sweet Nectar” or as sonically layered as the 7” version of “Maple Leaves” (from early singles comp Oh You’re So Silent Jens), but these relatively stripped-down tunes confirmed his hangdog persona and sardonic humor were still fully intact. His sad songs ever-more-melancholic, he also continued to fine tune his acerbic wit and kept it from curdling into bitterness or misanthropy.

One of the album’s simplest tunes, the mournful “Every Little Hair Knows Your Name”, appears twice: It kicks off I Know What Love Isn’t as a spare, barely-over-a-minute-long piano instrumental, and returns at the end as an acoustic guitar-and-voice lament that would slip into mawkish territory if not for its quirky asides (the lyric, “An F-minor-11th / or an E-flat-major-7th” features plucked demonstrations of both chords.) Between that pair of almost-matching bookends sit eight near-perfect miniatures, together comprising a ten-track album on the order of Northern Gospel (and all the others listed in that essay.)

Lekman undermines expectations of that first, piano lullaby version of “Every Little Hair…” by immediately following it with one of the album’s most lushly (or perhaps lusciously) arranged songs: “Erica America” is Yacht Rock in comparison with its shimmering chimes and cymbals, atmospheric synth washes, sweet female backing vocals and tasty sax solos. Still, Lekman’s devoid-of-reverb acoustic guitar is front and center, more Bossa-nova than Christopher Cross. Also, Cross would never think to come up with a lyric as funny as, “Sinatra had his shit figured out, I presume,” or wordplay as shrewd as “Summer is exhausting me / with its exhaust fumes and empty promises.”

Such piquancy carries over to “Become Someone Else’s”, only musically rather than lyrically. Crisp guitar pop led by a twinkling piano hook and occasionally fortified by elegant string quartet interjections, it’s an ode to friendship, or more specifically, maintaining one without a steady romantic partner’s distraction. Instead of “a sinking rock tied…” to another person, Lekman would rather be “a flat stone skipping across the ocean.” However, the song’s most notable for a reference to ex-Everything But The Girl singer Tracey Thorn in its bridge. In her solo song “Oh, The Divorces!” from two years before, she sang, “Oh Jens, your songs look at life through a different lens.” Here, he responds, “It all depends what lens you’re looking through, maybe / but all I know ’bout love I learned from you, Tracey.” It’s an “awww” moment for any fan of both artists, but that doesn’t make it feel any less earned.

If anything, “Some Dandruff On Your Shoulder” is of a piece with Thorn’s best compositions. “It’s a young Friday night / and I’m filled up to the brink,” is the first lyric; surrounded by major-7th chords and an equally bright and melancholic arrangement (like a slightly sped-up “Erica America”), Lekman instantly evokes a vivid state of mind: a myriad of possibilities tempered by reality, the desire of taking action kept in check by one’s own tentativeness. The descending chorus of “She asks you what’s wrong / you say nothing, it’s nothing” is one of the loveliest, saddest things I’ve ever heard. It takes a talent as genuine and complicated as Lekman to wring tears over jaunty Caribbean-accented piano triplets and perky sax filigrees.

At its midpoint, the album finally delivers two of those ballads “Every Little Hair…” falsely hinted it would be teeming with. “She Just Don’t Want to Be With You Anymore” has more than a bit of ’80s sophisti-pop flair (just like early Everything But The Girl) but built on tape loops and samples instead of acoustic jazz (though he adds on a few harp arpeggios near the end.) “I Want A Pair of Cowboy Boots”, however, is entirely acoustic: just a guitar, Lekman’s multi-tracked vocal and a few simple xylophone plonks on the chorus. It might’ve made a great country song for someone else, but in his hands, it’s a doleful but not humorless folksong: although his desired boots are certainly made for walkin’, it’s towards “Anywhere but back to you.”

Rather than further wallow in misery, I Know What Love Isn’t picks up the pace from that point. “The World Moves On” opens with an African Highlife-sounding guitar, soon accompanied by piano, finger snaps and a flute melody extrapolating that of Wings’ “Silly Love Songs” (!) as, over six-plus minutes, Lekman relays an epic monologue about being jilted and slowly working through his pain. “You don’t get over a broken heart / you just learn to carry it gracefully,” goes its chorus, so wise and direct that it enables him to get away bon mots like “No one’s born an asshole, takes a lot of hard work / But God knows I worked my ass off to be a jerk,” like a Stuart Murdoch with no filter.

Kortedala’s big-sky production almost returns full-force on “The End of The World Is Bigger Than Love”. Opening with an extended, ABBA-worthy orchestral fanfare, it’s a soundscape as immense and joyous as early ’80s new romantic pop (complete with soaring “Wooo-ooh-oooh’s”), if a little more pastoral and less synthetic. The chorus posits that “A broken heart is not the end of the world” because, well, the title, making this simultaneously one of his most optimistic and caustic songs. The best bit comes three minutes in, when he sprouts off a list of other things dwarfed by said end of the world: “And it’s bigger than the stock market / and the lose change in your pocket / and the Flatbush Avenue Target / and their Pharmacy Department!”, momentum building with each line until the chorus returns for a final time.

Nine songs in and we’ve finally arrived at the title track, which sports a melody even Murdoch would be jealous of. Gentle and sad yet also buoyant and brisk (Those chiming notes! Those handclaps!), it finds Lekman reminiscing on more dating mishaps, like an awkward come-on to the friend sitting next to him in the driver’s seat or proposing to marry someone “just for the citizenship” (he goes on, “I’ve always like the idea of it / a relationship that doesn’t lie about its intentions and shit.”) But he always comes back to the disarming, direct chorus of, “I don’t know what love is, but I know what it isn’t,” and I’ll willing to bet such a simple, warts-and-all declaration resonates on at least some level with most listeners.

As I Know What Love Isn’t circles back to “Every Little Hair…” in its second version, it concludes on a sweet, sad tone Lekman’s sustained across the entire album. What remains so wonderfully affecting about Lekman, even putting aside his lyrical and melodic prowess is that he never suggests he’s entirely given up on love—you always sense his yearning to participate in the madness of it all, even if he doesn’t explicitly say so. Almost another five years would pass before his next album, Life Will See You Now, arrived. Considerably more upbeat but matching the same level of introspection as its predecessor, at first listen I felt moved to called it his best yet: listen to “Evening Prayer”, where he utilizes the least likely subject matter (a man and his plastic 3D replica of a removed tumor) as a catalyst for a repeated lyric (“It’s been a long, hard year”) as urgent and poignant as anything he’s ever written. Life’s a good-to-great album and encouraging for Lekman’s continued growth as an artist, but I Know What Love Isn’t remains the one to hear—so concise and complete, it won’t be a shame if he never fully tops it.

Up next: Fragments of Time.

“Some Dandruff On Your Shoulder”:

“Erica America”:

Film Journal: December 2018

More rewatches (starred titles) this month than usual–chalk it up to the Holidays, and also an unusually abysmal Oscar season at the multiplex (the indieplex, too.)

The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant
Somehow missed this one when I was going through Fassbinder’s filmography in grad school (easy to do, given the quantity.) Not quite up there with ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL, but gets exponentially more entertaining as it goes along. Would love to see Trixie and Katya in a remake (though I don’t know which RuPaul alum would play Marlene.) Also, best wallpaper ever? B+

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest*
Not saying Jack’s not iconic, but he does occasionally suck all the air out of the room. It’s really the ensemble that makes the film: Louise Fletcher (casting a relative unknown in that part was key), baby Danny DeVito, shaved-head Christopher Lloyd, Will Sampson (perfect as Chief) and all the rest. Lovably meandering like most of ’70s New Hollywood Cinema, but those last twenty minutes just destroy me, more so now than when I first saw this at age 16. B+

Maria By Callas
As an opera singer, Maria Callas had an undeniably great voice, but in her time she was also unmatched as to how she embodied her roles onstage (and offstage as well.) Tom Volf’s documentary is a lovingly assembled treasure trove of archival performance and interview footage; I suspect there’s no better introduction for those such as myself who know next to nothing about Callas or opera in general. My only complaint is that it left me wanting even more, like actual footage of her only film, Pasolini’s MEDEA, instead of just an interview conducted during the filming of it, or some of her practicing/perfecting her craft through rehearsals or recording. Still, this is easily a deeper, classier “intimate portrait” than what you’d see on Lifetime TV. B

Dawson City: Frozen Time
Liked the concept far more than the execution, which felt endless and repetitive. Loved the musical score, even if I kept dozing off to it. B-

The Shop Around the Corner*
The last twenty minutes or so of this is what all romances, comedies and rom-coms should aspire to. “You know, people seldom go to the trouble of scratching the surface of things to find the inner truth.” A+

Bombshell (1933)
My, that was a large baked potato. But seriously, Harlow is terrific, as is Frank Morgan and, in an uncredited minor role, Ethel Griffies, best known for her salty amateur ornithologist in THE BIRDS nearly three decades later. B

My Man Godfrey*
To me, William Powell will always be Nick Charles, but this is a genuinely eccentric but not unpleasant alternative that might’ve sustained another five-or-six-film series. A-

The Bells of St. Mary’s*
Schmaltzy but effective. About fifty minutes in, it features the best Christmas pageant ever, and I’d like to think Bergman won the Oscar for her boxing technique more than her tearjerking scenes. B

Holiday Inn*
So effusively charming and fun: edit out the regrettable number in blackface and you have the perfect classic Hollywood Christmas movie. A

It would’ve been great to see this in a theatre, but don’t let that deter you from streaming it at home. I could list all of its imperfections, but the cumulative effect is transformative. In terms of directorial vision, no one else comes close at present. Planning on catching this again in 70mm in a few weeks. A-

I Know Where I’m Going!*
A fine companion to THE EDGE OF THE WORLD, with added Pressburger to flesh out the narrative. Also, who could possibly resist Roger Livesey? A-

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Pretty consistent for what amounts to six separate stories only related by genre; also solid for a Coen Brothers film, given how scattershot the last one was. Not as fully realized as NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (or FARGO, for that matter), but it has a lot of beautifully shot, misanthropic fun. I appreciated how much deeper and bleaker it got with each chapter (christ, “Meal Ticket” could be a Bergman film), with the stagecoach ride at the end a brutally funny/eerie one-act play. Also, Tom Waits was born to portray an old, grizzled prospector. B+

Mon Oncle
Plays like a dry run for Tati’s next (and best) film, PLAYTIME; still hilarious, however, and he’s wise to let Daki the dachshund repeatedly steal the show. B+

If Beale Street Could Talk
Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to MOONLIGHT is nearly that film’s equal in how it further showcases his considerably humane approach to character and story even as he adapts someone else’s text (in this case, a James Baldwin novel.) The leads (Stephan James and Kiki Layne) are both good, but so is the ensemble, especially Regina King, Colman Domingo, Brian Tyree Henry–even Diego Luna (though maybe not Dave Franco.) Jenkins’ mastery of tone and pacing makes palatable what could too easily be a miserable, anguished narrative; if it ends up lacking that singular, personal touch that made its predecessor so special, it doesn’t detract from an effective, emotionally satisfying whole. A

Happy as Lazzaro
File this under “What the heck did I just watch?”, but in a mostly good way. The break occurring near the halfway mark is thrilling and really this film’s purpose for being; the ending’s also well-orchestrated. Less convinced about some of the second half’s logistics, but I was often so delighted by other absurdities (like the gas station scene) that they ended up not mattering so much. B+

The Thin Man*
Nick and Nora (and Asta) Forever. A