Thursday, June 30, 2011

My Year in Lists: Week Twenty Six

By Jordan

My Year in Lists chronicles one blogger’s quest to understand why music matters to us and what makes it a lasting aspect of our existence. To facilitate this examination, three music fans have contributed a list of 52 essential albums. Each week this year, one album off of each list will be analyzed in an attempt to understand why some music sticks with us and what it means for our lives.

"Existence is.. well.. what does it matter? I exist on the best terms I can. The past is now part of my future. The present is well out of hand."-Ian Curtis, “Heart and Soul”

Well, we’ve reached the halfway point. Ok, technically you as a reader have to finish this column before you are half way through My Year in Lists, but as a listener, I have now listened to half a year’s worth of music and put my thoughts about it on paper (ok, technically on computer screen. God you readers are persnickety today). So as we dive into the music for this week (which includes two well deserved re-visits and one new band), I want to look not only at this week’s individual music, but also at this feature as a whole, and at how I have changed as both a music writer and a music fan in the last six months.

When we began this journey, I said that one of my major reasons for undertaking this column was to develop musically, both as a critic and a fan. I have talked often in the last six months about my previous views on music and my previous experiences with it, yet I was clear to state at the beginning of the column that, “I would hardly call myself an expert.” Now I want to question what exactly that should mean for a moment. I’ve listened to music pretty consistently over the course of my life. I’ve had good taste in music for at least 8 years at this point (this is of course a subjective statement, but since you’re reading my opinions at the moment, I assume you’ll trust my judgment when I say how long I’ve been listening to music intelligently), and much longer if you consider my Beatles awakening at age 9 to be the beginning of my career as a music fan. So clearly, when I said I wasn’t an expert in music, I didn’t mean I had never put on headphones before.

I think part of what I was trying to imply with that statement (and reading Week One at this point is a painful exercise, which should mean something about how far I’ve come over the course of this feature to date) is that I hadn’t spent very much time thinking critically about music. When I watch a movie (and this has been true for many, many years, though I have gotten better at it with age and experience), I don’t do so just to fill my time. I don’t watch movies just because I’m bored or simply to fill hours of the day (though watching movies can serve both functions in my life, I simply mean that I don’t use movies for only that function). I watch movies because I am fascinated by the medium, enthralled by films on a thematic, technical, mechanical, and even a visceral level. I have done that with movies and with television for many years, and that has given me greater confidence in my ability to say I am (At least somewhat, and at least when compared with the general populace) an expert. I haven’t seen every movie or television show, and I never will. I haven’t even seen every movie and television show that people might deem essential viewing for someone calling themselves an expert, but I do make a concerted effort to fill any voids, and at this point I think my background in both fields is strong enough to call myself an expert.

Yet simply listening to music would hardly make me an expert. Expertise implies a working knowledge of something, so then the question becomes what level of working knowledge is required to call oneself an expert? As I just said, I am sure if I looked over a list of “essential movies everyone must see” in one of those damnable 1,001 Movies to See Before You Die books I would find some movies I have yet to see, but I feel few qualms about asserting my relative expertise in that field. I guess the way I draw the line personally (and I would never assert that this is where the line should be drawn empirically) is that I can discuss film in both its historical and cultural developments, and I almost always know what movie someone is talking about when they raise an “essential” movie I have yet to see.

Is that now the case with music? When I first discussed Joy Division, I made a pun about how their influence was titanic, but I’m not sure I really could have told you how. My description of their influence reads, to my eyes, like someone who Wikipedia’d Joy Division and clicked on the “Legacy” section, which, having just done that, I can almost assure you is exactly what I did six months ago while trying to describe the importance of the band. This is something I still do on a fairly regular basis for this column, but now, rather than assuming bands listed in a section like this were really influenced by the band I am researching, I have a much better grasp of what sort of influence a band has had; at this point, I can generally conjure a few bands that have been influenced by a prior act and if I can’t, I tend to leave that sentence out of the column.

An Ideal for Living, the first of several Joy Division releases Tab selected for this week, was released the year before the band’s debut album Unknown Pleasures, and it feels, if not less finished, then at least different than the sound the band would be pursuing by the time of their debut. Here is how I described Joy Division back in Week One: “Joy Division were among the pioneers of post-punk, which took the rebellious, outsider vibe that drove punk music and turned all of that anger and loathing inward, creating a much more introspective sound and paving the way for the alternative movement that was to come […]” from there I made a comment about how I would eventually deal with whether the term “alternative” is valid, which readers of this week’s My Year in Lists: Interlude know I have finally gotten around to.

None of what I said about the band is technically wrong, though I do feel I missed some of their spirit in my first description, likely at least in part because I was not yet equipped to tackle a band as important as Joy Division. If Unknown Pleasures took the anger and loathing of punk music and turned it inward, then An Ideal for Living has all the anger and loathing, but has yet to get introspective with it. In other words, this early release sounds more like punk rock than much of their later stuff. This is both good and bad, as I love great punk rock (and this EP is very solid), but also love what the band would become, and I think that the reason I can say Joy Division has had such an enormous influence on music over the last three decades is because of what they became. Songs like “Warsaw” (which was the band’s name until just before this release) and “No Love Lost” are great punk, but if Joy Division had been just a great punk band, I don’t think they’d be remembered as fondly, or recognized as a band of great musical importance in the way that they are now.

“Transmission” is a pretty standard alternative anthem except for the fact that it was written at least 5 years before the idea of an alternative anthem would have been commonplace. As such, while it’s a great song taken at face value, it is also a tremendously influential song for the alternative movement that was to follow.

By the time Joy Division released their best-known single, “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” they had found their footing and were blazing the post-punk trails that would guarantee them a place in musical history. The lyrics reflect the problems within Ian Curtis’ marriage and, more generally, his mindset in the months before his suicide in May of 1980 (the song was written in August and September of 1979). The song is beautiful and tragic, with a deeply introspective viewpoint and a sound that has left behind the band’s punk influences and can only be described (for both its darker tone and for its comparative musical complexity) as post-punk. Of the two versions of the song included in the single (along with the also solid, though less remembered “These Days”), I prefer the second, which was recorded two months earlier, in January of 1980, and was reportedly taken from a take in which Curtis’ band mates told him to sing more like Frank Sinatra. Whichever version of the song you prefer, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is a post-punk landmark, a song that gave direction to an entire wave of bands forming out of the detritus left behind by punk’s self-destruction.

Following the successful release of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” as a single, the band released “Atmosphere/She’s Lost Control,” just months after Curtis’ death. “Atmosphere” is a beautiful, if tragic coda to Curtis’ all too brief career (it was released after the band’s second album, Closer, which we will look at next week), considered by Peter Hook to be the band’s greatest song, and voted by John Peel’s radio show as the greatest song of the millennium. While that latter honor might be giving the band just a little too much credit, “Atmosphere” certainly stands near, if not at, the very top of my list of greatest Joy Division songs. The alternate version of “She’s Lost Control” included with it is rawer than the one included on Unknown Pleasures, and while I prefer the album version, there is a lot of depressive charm to the song, which was also obliquely about Curtis’ struggle with epilepsy, just one of the issues that drove him to suicide. I will give Joy Division much well deserved praise as we conclude our re-examination of the band next week, but for now I will simply say that these releases track a band from its infancy as a punk outfit into its stridently confident adolescence as a post-punk prophet foretelling the direction of music for decades to come, and it is a musical tragedy that we never got to watch Joy Division develop further. I imagine what they would have done if Curtis had survived would have knocked all of our socks off (though New Order gives us at least a little glimpse into what they might have become, I think that Curtis’ influence would have meant much to where the band was headed).

Last time we discussed The Replacements ] I talked about their journey from punk band to pioneer of alternative rock and discussed how their refusal to fit into the set rules that defined punk rock actually made them one of the most “punk rock” bands around even while they were playing alternative rock. They continued the trend of bucking expectations when the band signed to a major label (widely seen as a move bands made when they were “selling out) and released Collin’s pick this week, Tim in 1986.

The album shows singer-songwriter Paul Westerburg’s unwillingness to be pigeonholed in any way shape or form. The opening track “Hold My Life” is a Big Star homage, while “Kiss Me On The Bus” is a pretty clear Chuck Berry homage.

The diversity of Tim is a testament to the talent of The Replacements and their front man in particular. Westerberg is able to belt out a self-assured rock anthem like “Dose of Thunder,” follow it up immediately with the folksy, tongue-in-cheek “Waitress in the Sky,” and then switch things up again for the Roy Orbison-influenced “Swingin’ Party,” a slow and mournful ballad about a couple who feel (unsurprisingly, considering this is a song by The Replacements) alienated at a party.

The band never lost their edge, though, even as they experimented with a wider array of musical styles. During a January 18,1986 performance on Saturday Night Live, the band played “Bastards of Young” (one of my two picks for best song on the album) and “Kiss Me on The Bus” and, due in part to their swearing during the live broadcast received a lifetime ban from SNL (Westerberg has since been allowed to return as a solo artist). The video for “Bastards of Young” also gained fame for being subversive, as the video is mostly an unbroken a black and white shot of a speaker until, at the end of the song, the speaker is kicked in by the person who has been listening to it. “Here Comes A Regular” (my other pick for best song on the album” is another ballad, a slow and sorrowful song about how “a person can work up a mean mean thirst after a hard day of nothing much at all.”

The Replacements never made it to the big time, but their influence is widespread, and their willingness to experiment and to vary their style wildly from song to song became hugely influential in alternative music, in grunge, and in the indie rock of the last decade.

Pearl Jam exploded out of Seattle and the was an essential part of the quickly growing grunge scene when they released Ashley’s pick this week, Ten in 1991. To a certain extent, the album did exactly what it needed to in order to briefly make Pearl Jam the biggest rock band in the world: it made alienated teenagers feel like someone understood what they were going through. While Ten is an intensely personal album, its never subtle and rarely even tries to be all that cool, which of course means it almost immediately became immensely popular and remains one of the most influential rock albums of the last two decades.

The opening track, “Once” (with lyrics by Eddie Vedder and music by guitarist Stone Gossard) tells the tale of a man’s descent into madness, which eventually leads him to become a serial killer (as it always does…right?). It is ostensibly the middle song of a trilogy, preceded by “Alive” and followed by “Footsteps,” though why the songs are out of order and the final song in the cycle isn’t even present on the album is anyone’s guess. “Alive” is a pretty great grunge-rock song, though, a fictionalized account of the time when Vedder was told the man he thought was his father was not actually his biological parent, and that his real dad had recently died. Along with the rest of the music on Ten, Vedder listened to a demo tape given to him by Gossard right before he went surfing, and supposedly came up with the lyrics to all of the songs while out in the water. In spite of the song’s seemingly inspirational title, Vedder insists that the life of the song’s protagonist should be read as more of a burden than a privilege. Either way, the song is a stellar mix of grunge-y introspection and a rocking guitar solo that raises the material up and turns it into an early-‘90s classic.

“Alive” sounds like a serious rock song, even if it has heavy grunge overtones, but “Jeremy” is a grunge ballad through and through. Sung from the perspective of the titular teen’s classmates, the song fallows the standard grunge format of wallowing and introspective verses building to sweeping, epic shouted choruses. This is a format that can work quite well when executed properly, but its also one that’s fairly easy to see through, and “Jeremy” seems a tad too calculated to fit into this template to land as powerfully as other songs on the album. “Black,” meanwhile, lead to a struggle between the band and their label, Epic Records. Epic wanted to release the song as a single, but Vedder, who was quickly becoming the preeminent diva of the grunge scene, refused, citing the personal nature of the song. “Black” is, like most songs on the album, about a broken hearted outsider, this time remembering his absent lover. “Black” strikes the perfect balance between “Alive” and “Jeremy” on the grunge scale: it fits into the grunge template like the latter but manages to retain the power and classic rock sensibilities that make the former so imminently listenable.

Nirvana may have helped to create the grunge sound and certainly brought it to the mainstream with “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Pearl Jam was far more commercially successful than their hometown rivals. In the cultural memory, this means that Nirvana retains all of the artistic credibility while Pearl Jam comes across as calculated to maximize their success. To some extent, I think this collective remembrance is accurate; I think that Nevermind is a better album than Ten, and that Nirvana’s discography as a whole is more influential and artistically noteworthy than Pearl Jam’s. Yet to compare the two and force one into the spotlight as a synthetic greed-driven machine is trying to make musical history fit into a familiar narrative that doesn’t really bear out under close examination. On its own merits, Ten is a classic of grunge, merging the nascent genre’s sound with more established arena rock, which was, yes, a brilliant marketing move but also seems to fit into Pearl Jam’s artistic aesthetic. Ultimately, the band should not be punished for producing more marketable music than their contemporaries. Absent considerations of their success (and the fact that this is so often held up as evidence of their lack of quality is mystifying to me), Pearl Jam emerged as a great grunge band and has carried the torch into the new millennium when so many of their contemporaries have fallen apart (even as a few have since reassembled).

So, to return to the question I posed earlier in this installment, do I now consider myself an expert on music? I certainly listen to more music now, and my listening habits are far more diverse than they were six months ago. I consider myself capable of engaging in a conversation about the cultural and historical development of music, citing antecedents and influences more assuredly than ever before. But the simple answer, the answer I shall give for now, and the truest answer I can currently muster is just this: ask me again in six months.

Read more My Year in Lists here

Next on My Year in Lists:

We conclude our examination of Joy Division with Closer, watch Run-DMC Raising Hell, and revisit REM to look at their seminal Automatic for the People.

Want to keep tabs on all of our updates? follow us on twitter @reviewtobenamed (follow us here).

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

My Year in Lists: Interlude: Answers on Alternative Music

By Jordan

My Year in Lists chronicles one blogger’s quest to understand why music matters to us and what makes it a lasting aspect of our existence. To facilitate this examination, three music fans have contributed a list of 52 essential albums. Each week this year, one album off of each list will be analyzed in an attempt to understand why some music sticks with us and what it means for our lives.

My Year in Lists: Interlude is an intermittent addendum to the feature that takes a step back from the quest to examine music from other perspectives

Before My Year in Lists began in January, I asked each of my three contributors to provide an introduction to their list, to explain how they went about selecting the 52 (or in Tab’s case, many more than 52) albums they were telling me to listen to and to discuss their musical background as a way of providing context. This was before I had listened to a single track for the quest, and as such, my understanding of music and the potential controversies that could arise in the use of genre terms was minimal (or at least far less than it is now, and more on this on Friday when we reach Week Twenty Six).

In her introduction to her list, Ashley defined her criteria as such: “I settled on the loosely constructed theme of ’20 Years of Alternative.’ […] I chose to exclude more mainstream rock (there’s no Bowie or U2 here) since I wanted to focus on alternative as a loosely constructed movement.” This seemed like a perfectly valid list construction strategy to me, but when I received Tab’s introduction, it seemed a controversy of terms I had never been aware of existed. In it, he said, “I also don’t like to use terms such as Alternative Music because to paraphrase Claude Bessey in The Decline of Western Civilization […] Alternative Music doesn’t mean shit. […] I loathe the term Alternative Music because it implies that Classic Rock is still relevant and that modern music, or really any other music is still inferior to Classic Rock. It’s a label created and used by Classic Rock Stakeholders, primarily consisting of the music industry and mass music media. Labels allow for categorization and are a great vehicle for controlling the music markets and artistic freedom.”

As I read both of these introductions, I realized there was a paradox that I was not nearly ready to address. I saw both arguments as valid to a point; Ashley was looking at alternative as a loosely constructed movement, while Tab didn’t like the term because it suggested that any music that wasn’t mainstream was somehow inferior. I thought (and still think) those are both valid viewpoints, but I was in no way ready to stake out my territory in the debate. In fact, five minutes before I read their introductions, I hadn’t even been aware that such a debate existed. My reticence to take sides while I was still relatively ignorant is palpable in the early weeks of this feature. I consciously put the term alternative in quotation marks or included a parenthetical aside (you may have noticed I like those a lot) about how I wasn’t sure that the term was accurate or fair. I usually followed up that point by saying I would get to the debate and hash out my thoughts eventually, once I felt I had enough authority to comment on the issue without talking out of my ass. In a few days we will have reached the halfway point of this feature, so now seems like as good a time as ever.

That I’m tackling this question now by no means indicates that I feel I have the authority to answer the question, but I have enough confidence in my understanding of the points both sides make to at least enter the debate. The answer I will lay out is not a definitive one, nor is it final. This is just a picture of my feelings on the issue now, at the halfway point of the feature after having listened to 26 weeks of Ashley’s “20 Years of Alternative” list and 26 weeks of Tab’s list, and having thought about the issue for long enough to at least lay down my thoughts.

So here, in brief, is how I see it: The term Alternative Music is a valid one, at least to a point. I agree with Tab’s implicit point that the term begs the question “alternative to what?” and that the answer to that should be troubling. If anything that isn’t classic rock or mainstream pop is considered alternative, that infers that what the most people are listening to is the best just because they’re listening to it, or that it is the primary choice and that everything else is somehow weird or inferior. And I don’t like that.

But here’s the thing: that’s the way the music business, and more broadly, the world, works. What the most people like is bound to make the most money, is bound to have the most money put into it and is bound to be seen as the most important by a broad swath of our society. It’s just a numbers game. And to an extent that’s a persuasive argument. The culture that the most people experience has to gain at least some importance because of that, and has to have some effect on culture at large. This in no way means that the most popular art is the best art (in fact that is rarely, or at least not usually the case, and I tend to make a big deal about it when something great is incredibly popular, like I did last week when discussing Purple Rain), but it will have an effect on the culture at large, even if its only in reaction.

I have previously discussed the way that punk rock emerged as an alternative to the shitty rock and roll being produced at the time, like Boston and Fleetwood Mac, and this sentence in and of itself implies which I think is the better art. I think that punk rock is far superior creatively and artistically to late-‘70s mainstream rock, but there’s no question that it exists as an alternative to what was going on in the mainstream. In fact, that’s the whole fucking point of punk rock. A bunch of people who hated the direction music was taking decided to make music that was antithetical to what was being done, and punk rock was formed.

It’s strange, then, that punk rock has rarely been lumped into the “alternative rock” category, usually instead viewed on its own. I think this is because punk rock is so singular (and often similar), and so can easily be identified. Basically, I see punk rock as a subgenre of a larger “alternative rock” that is so clearly demarcated and easily defined it has graduated into a genre in and of itself.

Yet this is difficult to do with what followed. After the demise of punk, a schism occurred. At first, it was easy to delineate the movements. There was new wave and there was hardcore, and most bands outside the mainstream began to fit into one of those two categories whether or not they deserved the label. That system survived for a few years, but then bands came along that were harder to classify. What, for example, do you call REM? What about The Replacements after their nascent punk phase? How do you classify Tom Waits or Sonic Youth? There are genres that each of these bands fit into, but for the most part they are too small or specific to create a label for them that can be communicated to mass audiences (look at the genres Collin lists back in his introduction and you’ll see what I mean. I have no doubt that the 36 genres he specifically cites all exist and can be defined and delineated, but when your average consumer walks into a music store, or searches on itunes, they are unlikely to know what “trance,” “acid jazz” or “glitch-hop” are, or whether they want to listen to it). So the term “Alternative Music” was created, and everything that wasn’t in the mainstream was thrown in there (I recognize that this is less helpful, but keep in mind it is more marketable, and that’s a crucial detail).

I don’t think the ghettoization of all music that deviates from the mainstream is fair, but I do see how it makes practical sense. There are more niches in music than in any other medium, or at least there are more claims to absurdly specific genres in music than in other mediums. Yet this problem crops up everywhere. Every show not on a major network is still referred to as a “cable television show,” despite the fact that this encompasses literally hundreds of channels and thousands of shows as diverse as Top Chef, Archer, Mad Men and Burn Notice (which, beyond being defined as “Cable television shows” are also shoehorned into the broad yet restrictive genres of reality television, comedy, and drama respectively). If a movie isn’t going to be released in every theater (or even if it won’t be released in every theater at once) it is viewed as an “independent film” even though most films classified as such are actually produced by subdivisions of the big studios. And if a movie comes from another country (ANY OTHER COUNTRY) it is referred to as simply a “foreign film,” despite the fact that there are over 200 countries this definition includes (and even if we sort more specifically than that, its usually only by country, not even by genres within that country).

None of this is particularly fair, but it’s the classification system that we currently live in. As our culture schisms more and more, this will be less the case, and all of those absurdly specific subgenres may yet get their day in the sun. For now, though, only the most broadly applied (and, sadly, the most popular) genres can break out of the “alternative” mold. Punk rock is known, as is grunge, which we have been looking at for the past few weeks on Ashley’s list. But grunge, in its prime, was popular music, and for a while there, Pearl Jam (who we’ll be discussing Friday) was the biggest band in the world. Most of what is classified as “alternative,” though, is catalogued that way because it truly is alternative to what most people are listening to. Even if we would like to see a more specific genre than that applied to a specific piece of music, it is hard to argue that the term, as its generally applied, is accurate.

And it shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a term marking out the inferior or ghettoizing music that doesn’t conform to norms. In fact, considering the terribly reviewed Cars 2 is the #1 movie in America (and next week it will almost certainly be the sure-to-be-dreadful Transformers: Dark of the Moon), Two and a Half Men has been the one of the most popular shows on television for a decade, and Lady Gaga’s generally seen as inferior sophomore effort Born This Way has been the #1 album in America for two of the last four weeks, being labeled “alternative” can almost be seen as a badge of pride.

To return to the statement I made roughly 1,000 words ago (as usual, this is longer than I had intended) I think the term alternative is valid to a point. I think it helps us to put music in context, and it helps pop culture sheep to easily avoid anything that might challenge their preconceived notions or deviate from what they are used to. I wish that narrower terms to define music would become more mainstream, and I try when possible to indicate the subgenres of albums when I discuss them in the regular feature. For now though, I believe that Ashley’s theme of “20 Years of Alternative” is not only valid, but an accurate portrayal of all of the albums on her list I have heard so far, even if a more specific term might occasionally be required. And I agree with Tab, in part, that the term is generally a marketing one that serves to control music markets and, in some cases, artistic freedom (though the existence of alternative music at all indicates that true artistic freedom is hard to squelch). But I have to part ways with him when he says, “alternative music doesn’t mean shit.” In fact, I think the term is incredibly important, both to contextualize music and to package it for sale to an audience that wouldn’t even attempt to understand further subdivisions. Rather than hurting the artists in question, I think the label can help some bands get more mainstream recognition than they otherwise might. For some bands the term may be a limitation, but for others, it means literally everything.

Read more My Year in Lists here

Want to keep tabs on all of our updates? follow us on twitter @reviewtobenamed (follow us here).

Friday, June 24, 2011

My Year in Lists: Week Twenty Five

By Jordan

My Year in Lists chronicles one blogger’s quest to understand why music matters to us and what makes it a lasting aspect of our existence. To facilitate this examination, three music fans have contributed a list of 52 essential albums. Each week this year, one album off of each list will be analyzed in an attempt to understand why some music sticks with us and what it means for our lives.

“With its goofy charm, gleeful swing and sway, and subtle yet compelling libertarian feminism, this is one of the best records of the era.”-John Dougan, on Cut

“This is what it sounds like when doves cry.”-Prince, “When Doves Cry”

One question has dominated my mind as I listened to the music for this week. One question about one album, which has lead me to spend more time thinking about that particular album than about the other two (both of which have their merits, to be sure, but we’ll get to that in time). Because I’m more than slightly OCD and because I have a pathological desire to experience things in chronological order, whether they require it or not (I watched every James Bond movie in order of release in spite of their almost complete lack of serialization and have heretofore avoided Doctor Who, a show I am often assured I would love, because there is no way for me to watch every episode from the show’s premiere decades ago), each installment of My Year in Lists tends to discuss the albums in order of their release. Sometimes this is actually helpful, as it is possible to trace the ways that music evolved over time even within the microcosm of one column; sometimes it’s just the way I do things because I’m kind of insane. This week, however, we will deviate from that pattern to begin by addressing that question that keeps plaguing me: What the fuck is the deal with Prince?

I don’t mean this question in a derogatory sense. I completely understand that people like Prince (And in fact, I learned this week that I quite like him, at least on Purple Rain), but I found myself beguiled at first as to why people like Prince (beyond the pat answer that “he makes good music.” I like to go a little more in-depth about these things, and if you’re still reading this, I assume you’ll humor me on this front). At first blush, his music is shockingly ‘80s (read: cheesy and glitzy, with a sheen that borders on the overproduced and over the top), a descriptor I tend to lob at things I dislike. While this column has taught me that a lot of good came out of the ‘80s musically, I still view it as the time of WHAM!, REO Speedwagon, Phil Collins, Huey Lewis and the News and other such musical atrocities (not to mention cinematic atrocities, televised atrocities, and political atrocities. Mostly, it seems to me the ‘80s were kind of a terrible time to be alive, though I made it through the final year of that decade intact, mostly because I don’t think I developed object permanence until the year was almost over).

So Prince is something of a paradox to me, because he is simultaneously a creature of the ‘80s (again, I’m focusing only on Purple Rain, not on his career as a whole) with all of the glitz, glamour, synthesizers and cheese factor that implies, and one smooth motherfucker. He managed to make ‘80s pop, and also managed to make it cool. For much of the run time of Purple Rain he is straddling the line between the music I hate most from that decade, and the sort of sonic sex that forebears like Marvin Gaye and Al Green turned out a decade before this album dropped. Yet somehow, even with annoyingly saccharine track titles like “I Would Die 4 U” and “When Doves Cry,” he manages to stay on the right side of that line and turn out the only ‘80s pop album I’ve ever heard that I would honestly classify as cool (there are several others I enjoy either because of how little they even attempt to be cool, or because they somehow manage to be so ridiculous its hard not to marvel at them).

The reason behind this, I think, is just how weird Purple Rain can be at times. It’s a pop album of a rare breed that can inject just enough experimentation to seem daring and a little avant garde while also being massively successful on a level that gives it the kind of cultural currency most truly experimental stuff never manages to attain (the most recent album to pull off this trick, though less successfully, was Lady Gaga’s The Fame Monster). Pop music is, as a rule, pretty dumb, or at least dumber than a lot of music that sells to smaller audiences and niche groups. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing; the first five Beatles albums are for the most part pretty dumb, and they’re also some of the best music ever recorded. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of the genre: to reach the largest possible audience (as a pop album is wont by its very nature to do), most pop music is dumbed down for mass consumption. So when something as strange as Purple Rain (which, to clarify, is strange only by pop music standards, not when considered next to something like Trout Mask Replica or Meet the Residents) makes it into the popular consciousness and finds mass success, its bound to be pretty damn interesting, if only because its managed to capture the attention of large groups while also doing something interesting.

The album opens with “Let’s Go Crazy,” which begins with a funeral-esque organ solo in which Prince exhorts us to get through “this thing called life” so that we can make it to the afterlife. The song becomes a fairly standard pop rock song from there out (albeit a very catchy and fun one), but this little touch makes “Let’s Go Crazy” stick out as something difference. While I personally disagree with Prince’s religious views, I champion his ability to communicate them in a way that both reaches a large audience and allows that large audience to rock out whether or not they agree (this is the problem that most Christian rock bands have, but that’s a rant for another column).

Similarly, “Computer Blue” opens with a spoken word intro between Wendy and Lisa which has sexual overtones and strongly hints at a dom-sub relationship; the idea of dominance in sexual relationships is hardly new to pop music, but the way that these words, and the slightly creepy riff that follows them, set a decidedly dark tone is different from almost anything else I’ve seen in pop music. The song is immediately followed by “Darling Nikki,” a song I am sort of amazed Prince got away with recording in the generally somewhat repressed ‘80s. One of the songs that convinced Tipper Gore to found the Parents Music Resource Center, “Darline Nikki” is unabashedly sexual, a dark funk rock song that is simply a blast from start to finish.

That song is followed up by perhaps the biggest hit off the album, “When Doves Cry,” another song that manages to overcome a title that should make any sensible music fan snigger by just being too damn good to laugh at. The song deals simultaneously with a tumultuous love affair and the singer’s long-term difficulties with his parents, making it shockingly lyrically dense for a song that’s so catchy. It also lacks a bass line, which is almost unheard of for a dance song, yet it managed to be a smash hit anyway, spending five weeks during the summer of 1984 at number one.

The title track, an almost nine minute power ballad that manages to mix pop with rock, gospel and even orchestral influences, is a tour de force to close the album on. I had honestly never listened to Prince prior to playing this album for the first time in preparation for this column (though I did once hear a particularly moving cover of “Purple Rain” performed by two of my high school mock trial coaches, one of whom was dressed as a centaur at the time), but if forced to wager my response before listening at all, I would have laid great odds against my ever writing the phrase “tour de force” about one of his songs, but calling “Purple Rain” anything less would be a lie.

Taken as a whole, Purple Rain may be a bit silly at times (ok, it is silly a fair amount of the time), but that’s pop music, especially in the period in which the album was released. And the fact that it manages to be as silly as was necessary to find widespread success on the pop charts at the time while also being as weird and experimental and, yes, powerful as it remains throughout is damn impressive. This is, for lack of a better term, a joke to be taken seriously, and if you can find it in yourself to stop snarking at the sheen, you may be as surprised as I was at the depth that lies beneath the surfaces of the album.

Jumping back a few years, we’ll look at a band that would have been influential even if they were terrible (fortunately, though, they aren’t). Formed in 1976 by members of The Flowers of Romance and The Castrators, The Slits are one of the few bands from the golden age of punk rock to be comprised entirely of females; in short, they were the first vanguard of girl-punk, which guarantees them a spot in the musical history books even if its unfortunately mostly a footnote.

Punk rock, and the music industry in general, tended and still to some extent tends to be a boys club. For The Slits this wasn’t so much a disadvantage as a call to arms and a chance to prove to the world that women can rock just as hard (and sometimes quite a lot harder) than any man. It’s impossible to talk about The Slits without talking about feminism and the place of women in punk rock, which is at least a bit unfortunate, as the band stands on their own as great forward thinking punk rock regardless of gender. But at the same time, gender is quite clearly the band’s central concern, from their darkly evocative and obviously vaginal name to the cover of their debut album, and Tab’s pick this week, Cut, which shows the women wearing only loin clothes and smeared in mud. Everything about the band’s image seemed to scream “We’re here! We’re girls! We want to rock out! Get used to it!”

The album is heavily reggae influenced but still undeniably a punk release. From the opening track, “Instant Hit,” it’s clear that The Slits are doing something that was fairly unheard of in punk at the time (outside of The Buzzcocks, who we discussed last week and a few other groups): experimenting with outside influences and combining their punk vocals and mentality with outside musical influences. “So Tough” directly calls out men for faux masculinity, bravado, and overthinking romantic entanglements.

“Love und Romance” is a fairly standard punk love song, but still makes a point of just who is in charge, with lyrics like “I own you” and “I’m so glad that you belong to me” simultaneously coming off as words of devotion and of empowerment. Again, I find it kind of sad that while countless male-centric groups can sing songs about how a girl is “mine” or “belongs to me” it bears pointing out when a woman does the same, but in the punk rock setting this was a powerful statement to be making and a strong one to stand behind. “Typical Girls,” with its fast paced and catchy piano-centric riff, is another take-down of the image of women at the time. The opening lines, “Don’t create, don’t rebel, have intuition, cant decide,” and the later refrain, “Don’t create, don’t rebel, have intuition, cant drive well” seem to illustrate the stereotypes about women that permeate society, and the final verse, “Who invented the typical girl? Who’s bringing out the new improved model? And there’s another marketing ploy, Typical girl gets the typical boy” is a full-throated condemnation of the idea that women should fit into a male created mold in order to end up with a man who is just fitting into society’s conception of his role.

The Slits are a very solid band and Cut manages to be interesting and catchy even while making a bold statement in favor of feminism and against the sexism that ran rampant throughout the punk scene. That girls can rock just as hard, and just as intelligently as any man seems obvious from my vantage point, but The Slits felt (and probably correctly) that they had something to prove, and I think they made their point quite well.

Superchunk, meanwhile, seems like a band out of time. Formed in 1989 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and releasing their second album, and Ashley’s pick this week, No Pocky For Kitty, in 1991, the band plays like an alternative rock band, but writes and sings like a punk rock group. Had No Pocky For Kitty been recorded twelve years earlier, every song would have been played just a little bit faster and would be slightly less melodic, and Superchunk would have been a pretty standard punk rock outfit.

“Skip Steps 1 & 3” could almost be an early-‘90s cover of a punk classic, while “Seed Toss” wouldn’t feel out of place on an early ‘80s post-punk album. Both are very solid, fun songs, but they are undeniably throwbacks of as certain sort to the immediately prior music generation.

“Tie a Rope to the Back of the Bus” is anthemic in a punk sort of way, and the penultimate track, “Creek,” with its slight, 1:40 runtime is played at a punkish speed, only distinguished (like most of this album) by the superior musicianship on display.

Basically, Superchunk sounds like a punk band that learned how to play their instruments, which I think is illustrative of the change in the music scene between, say, 1977 and 1991. It wasn’t impossible to play punk (or, more accurately, punk-ish) music in 1991, but you couldn’t get away with the amateurishness that was a central tenet of punk rock anymore. To be taken seriously in the golden age of punk rock, you were almost required to be a shitty musician; by 1991, no one was going to take any of that shit. If you wanted to be in a band, you had to learn how to play an instrument, plain and simple (unless of course you were a good singer, another quality that was not required even of the vocalists in the punk era). I don’t know that No Pocky For Kitty is a particularly influential album (though devotees of the Chapel Hill indie scene of the ‘90s would call it essential), and in fact much of it is fairly forgettable stuff. But I do think its important, if only to draw distinctions and show the ways that music had evolved. Alternative rock was born out of the death of punk rock and the resultant schism, but a decade after its inception, the genre had moved beyond its roots and come fully into its own. Debts were owed, to be sure, but alternative rock had moved out of its parents house, and while it might come home for the holidays, things would never be the same.

My thoughts on Prince dominated this last week, largely because he represented a paradox in my mind, standing as a figure of both ‘80s pop (which I find, in large part, to be sort of repulsive, though there are of course several exceptions) and of cool, somewhat experimental rock. Reconciling these divergent views took some time, for me, though I think most of the music community got over any Prince-related apprehensions decades ago. Yet, in spite of the greater attention I paid to Purple Rain, all three albums this week were important in their own way. Cut was a bold, feminist statement in the male-centric world of punk rock and an important step forward into allowing other influences to bleed into the genre, a step that would be vital to punk’s transformation into post-punk, New Wave, and hardcore as the ‘70s drew to a close and the ‘80s dawned. And No Pocky For Kitty was in many ways a throwback that simultaneously indicated just how far music had come in the previous decade, and reminded us just how far alternative rock had to go. We’re not there yet, but we will be soon.

Read more My Year in Lists here

Next week on My Year in Lists:

We reach the halfway point of our journey and, somewhat fittingly, return to just where we started, taking a second look at Joy Division through An Ideal for Living, Transmission, Love Will Tear Us Apart and She’s Lost Control/Atmosphere, examining The Replacements once more with Tim, and looking forward as Pearl Jam counts to Ten.

Want to keep tabs on all of our updates? follow us on twitter @reviewtobenamed (follow us here).

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

My Year in Lists: Week Twenty Four

By Jordan

My Year in Lists chronicles one blogger’s quest to understand why music matters to us and what makes it a lasting aspect of our existence. To facilitate this examination, three music fans have contributed a list of 52 essential albums. Each week this year, one album off of each list will be analyzed in an attempt to understand why some music sticks with us and what it means for our lives.

“If Never Mind the Bollocks and London Calling are held up as punk masterpieces, then there’s no question that Singles Going Steady belongs alongside them […] As for the music, anybody who ever combined full-blast rock, catchy melodies, and romantic and social anxieties owes something to what the classic quartet did here.”-Ned Ragget, Allmusic

“War seemed to be the motif for 1982.”-Bono

Every song (at least every good one) has a theme. Some albums manage to carry a singular theme throughout their runtimes. Some of these are concept albums, which attempt to create a narrative that drives the entire album. Some of them, however, are just albums that display a singular focus and an idea that was operating behind the scenes during the creation of these albums. This week, we will examine three such albums, three works that, while not constructed as concept albums or purposefully developed around a single theme still manage to display one message consistently throughout. Whether that message is one of love, peace, or sex (as they are in our three albums this week), we will look at how that message becomes an essential part of the album.

In early 1975, Howard Trafford placed a notice looking for other musicians who enjoyed The Velvet Underground's“Sister Ray” (it’s a marvel how many bands came together, not only in the days following the release of The Velvet Underground & Nico, when it is said that every person who bought the album formed a band, but in the ensuing years using the band as a touchstone to seek out other passionate and like-minded musicians). Peter McNeish, a fellow student at the Bolton Institute of Technology, responded to the notice, though he played mostly rock music and Trafford mostly electronic music. McNeish assumed the stage name Pete Shelley; Trafford became Howard Devoto, and along with Garth Davies on bass guitar and Mick Singleton on drums, they became the Buzzcocks, a name they selected after reading a review of the TV series Rock Follies in Time Out Magazine that said, “it’s the buzz, cocks!” (to be clear, at the time, “cocks” was slang for friend in Manchester).

By the end of 1976, the Buzzcocks had formed their own label, New Hormones and self-released their debut EP Spiral Scratch (they were one of the first punk bands to form their own label, a practice that would be essential to the alternative movement in the 1980’s when several underground bands were forced to form labels for themselves to get their music and that of other smaller bands released). The band’s trademark sound is a marriage of catchy pop melodies with punkish energy and guitar riffs, backed by a tight and skilled rhythm section that sets them apart from their traditionally under-trained and ill-talented (at least in the traditional musical practice of properly “playing an instrument”) brethren in the early punk movement. From the first, the Buzzcocks were a different kind of punk band: vocally and in their guitar patterns, they sounded punk, but compositionally, lyrically, and in presentation, they were a different beast entirely.

During their initial career (like many bands of the era, they have reunited for several more albums in the last two decades) the band released only three studio albums, and one compilation of their singles and B-sides. This compilation, released after their third album as they planned their (never to materialize in the original era) fourth, is Tab’s pick this week, the aptly titled Singles Going Steady. Rather than feeling like a piecemeal collection of releases, the album is a near constant parade of excellence, running an impressive gamut of emotions and dealing with subjects both political and romantic.

The album’s opening track “Orgasm Addict” is a tongue in cheek look at a sex crazed teenager that includes a fake orgasm vocal break, just in case the point would not have landed otherwise. “What Do I Get?” is a classic ode to teen angst, full of pained cries about lacking love, luck, and appreciation.

The most well known song on the album by far, and in fact the most famous song the band ever recorded is the justly touted and deservedly well known masterpiece “Ever Fallen in Love?” Written after the band watched Guys and Dolls, which includes the line “Have you ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t have?” Shelley wrote the lyrics the next day while sitting in a van outside the post office; the music was soon to follow. This song stands out amongst even the sea of successes that makes up Singles Going Steady, not only because it is the band’s best song (and I don’t think I’m alone in holding that opinion) but because it so well illustrates the way in which the Buzzcocks stood out in the early day of punk rock.

While bands like Sex Pistols, The Clash, and The Ramones were, at their essence, rebellions against popular music and musical conventions, the Buzzcocks had a clear respect for what had come before, and often integrated classic pop themes and melodies into their compositions. While played at punk speeds and sung in a punkish register (a sound that is hard to describe, but to my ear always sounds like a melodic howl of angst), “Ever Fallen in Love?” is basically a standard pop song, with a hooky melody and a focus on love that is more common in pop and rock than in punk. It isn’t too hard to imagine “Ever Fallen in Love?” having been recorded a decade and a half before its release by The Beatles during their early days (hell, I think it would have fit very well on Help!), and I’m not sure there’s a higher compliment I can pay to a song than saying The Beatles could have written it.

“Everybody’s Happy Nowadays” is a deeply cynical song, but that somehow doesn’t preclude it from being an insanely catchy one. “Harmony in my Head” is one of the few Buzzcocks songs written and performed by guitarist Steve Diggle, who reputedly smoked 20 consecutive cigarettes to achieve the gruff sound of the vocals. The album’s closing track “Something’s Gone Wrong Again” is a song about Murphy’s Law style worries (verging on full paranoia) that is so melodically complex it almost leaves behind the band’s punkish roots entirely.

The theme behind Singles Going Steady is one of love, an uncommon message for a punk album. Not every track is explicitly about love, but the band makes every effort to sing about love and romance regularly throughout. This theme ties in perfectly to the band’s tendencies to color outside the punk lines and to look back for influences both lyrically and musically.

The Buzzcocks are rarely heralded among the great punk bands of all time. To my mind this is because of their willingness to break the punk rules. It is conventional wisdom that punk began as a rebellion against what was seen as the strict and binding rules of popular music, but quickly devolved into sects as people tired of adhering to the quickly developed “rules of punk.” Bands had to play a certain way, dress a certain way, act a certain way and write about certain things, lest they be ostracized from the punk community. Of course, true punk bands that cropped up later in the life of the genre broke these rules as a way of displaying just how punk rock they were, but the Buzzcocks were breaking them long before people had even realized what they were. Some might argue this renders the band outside of the punk genre; I would disagree. To my mind, the Buzzcocks are unheralded punk pioneers, taking the sound of the genre and melding it with melodies and themes that were decidedly un-punk to create something unique in the punk pantheon.

U2 is the biggest rock band in the world. Whether or not that statement remains true today, that was certainly the case for a period in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s when the band went through a period of both critical and commercial success that ensures them a place in the rock canon (to my mind, this golden age stretches from The Joshua Tree, which we will discuss in a month, through Rattle and Hum and to Achtung Baby, though I know some who will argue that it continued all the way through 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind). While, as I just mentioned, we will get to The Joshua Tree in time, Collin’s original pick for this week, New Order’s Power, Corruption, Lies was already dealt with in this space back in Week Eight and so I requested that he furnish a replacement. In reply, he suggested we look at the album when the band was first getting its legs, their third studio album, 1983’s War.

Widely regarded as the band’s first overtly political album (but, as anyone who has ever heard Bono speak well knows, not their last), War focuses on both the physical aspects of war, and on its emotional after effects and is the time when, as Simon Reynolds put it, the band, “turned pacifism itself into a crusade.”

The album’s opening track, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is an ardent protest song detailing the Troubles in Northern Ireland and specifically focusing on Bloody Sunday, the incident in which British Troops shot and killed unarmed civil rights protesters and civilians. The song was an early classic for the band, and instrumental to their breakthrough into the mainstream in America. And while the mere mention of Bono tends to illicit eye rolls at this point, in no small part because of his outspoken activism and politicization of practically everything, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is a solid song, making a political point but not forgetting to be a rock song at the same time. It’s never subtle by any stretch of the imagination, but it it’s catchy enough that it doesn’t leave a bad taste in my mouth like so much of the band’s later work (especially their last two albums) tends to.

“New Year’s Day” is also an overtly political song, this time about the Polish Solidarity Movement, but again puts the music before the message, at least enough to make it as interesting as a piece of music as it is when viewed as a political message. “Two Hearts Beat As One” is a more traditional love song that indicates some of the potential that the band would fulfill in their golden age, but fails to compel in the way a song like “With or Without You” does; it makes fine listening, but it also tends to slip out of my mind as soon as it’s done. The album’s closing track ‘“40”’ is a modification of Psalm 40 from The Bible. The song was written, recorded and mixed in roughly half an hour, as the band was being kicked out of the studio and realized they needed a good closing song for the album. The song is fairly perfect as a coda to War, and has endured as a staple of the band’s live performances, yet again, it doesn’t hold the power of some of their later work.

The message that permeates War is one of peace. Throughout the album, even on the less political tracks, the band seems to be begging for the world to find peace and seeking it either within themselves or externally, in the love of another.

The U2 of War is a band just figuring out its own identity, a band that is learning it is going places, but is yet unsure what those places might be and how it might get there. The album has its starts and stops, but is ultimately a satisfying one. For my thoughts on U2 t its height, however, you gentle readers will have to hold your breath for Week Twenty Eight.

After toiling in relative obscurity (relative, in this case, to where the band was headed) for eight years, Red Hot Chili Peppers signed to Warner Bros. Records and released the album that would launch them to superstardom: their fifth studio album, and Ashley’s pick this week, 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik.

In 1988, the band’s guitarist Hillel Slovak died of a heroin overdose and drummer Jack Irons quit, leaving vocalist Anthony Kiedis and bassist Flea to find a new guitarist and drummer. Fan of the band John Frusciante came on as guitarist and drummer Chad Smith rounded out the lineup. Blood Sugar Sex Magik integrates the band’s typical punk-funk blend with more melodically driven songs, creating the sound that has carried the band to superstardom.

“If You Have To Ask” mixes Kiedis’ standard rap-sing style with a funk beat and a taunting chorus. “Breaking The Girl,” a classic Chili Peppers song, is a ballad (a rarity in the band’s previous work) that refers to Kiedis turbulent relationship with Carmen Hawk, and more broadly, his fears that he was becoming a womanizer like his father before him. More traditionally melodic than any song the band had done before, the song is also, as most of the band’s best songs are, a fascinating look into the conflicted inner world of Anthony Kiedis. “Breaking The Girl” is maybe the first great song the Chili Peppers ever recorded (though in fairness I am only passingly familiar with their previous work, so feel free to correct me on this point) and one of my favorites on the album.

“Suck My Kiss” is an unabashedly sexual song, an ode to fellatio and written about a kid Kiedis knew who talked endlessly about the blow jobs he was getting. “Give It Away” is focused on the idea of altruism and selflessness, a concept taught to Kiedis by his former girlfriend, punk rocker Nina Hagen, who once gave him a jacket he said he liked because she believed that giving things away made the world a better place.

Easily the most well known song on the album, and one of my favorite songs by the band to this day, “Under the Bridge” threw the band into the mainstream, becoming a smash hit. The lyrics of the song are taken from a poem Kiedis had written while contemplating the effects of narcotics on his life. Kiedis was feeling isolated from the rest of the band, as he had been sober for three years at the time of the album’s recording, and Frusciante and Flea often smoked marijuana together. This lead to him contemplating said isolation and coming to the conclusion that Los Angeles was his only true and constant companion. The song gets its title, and its most notable verse, illustrates Kiedis attempt to enter a gang territory to score heroin. In order to get under the bridge where the drugs were being sold, Kiedis had to pretend his fiancĂ© was the sister of a gang member. Though he successfully scored the drugs, he considers the moment to be one of the worst of his life, as it showed him how far he would sink to feed his addiction. The song is a masterpiece of contemplation, isolation, regret and finally hope, as Kiedis pleas to be taken to the place he loves, where he could be among his band mates, friends, and family.

“Sir Psycho Sexy” is an eight-minute epic about an over-zealous, exaggerated version of Keidis, a man who can get any woman he wants and commit any depraved act he can imagine with her. The song is expansive, detailed, and illustrative, another enthralling journey into Keidis’ headspace. The closing track is a cover of “They’re Red Hot,” by blue musician Robert Johnson. The band recorded the song on top of a hill outside the mansion where they recorded the rest of the album. The song is propulsive, a blues-infused rocket of sonic speed that closes the album off with a spurt of energy that could hardly be attained over any longer than the songs scant, one minute run time.

While John Frusciante left the band after the album’s success (he had hoped to remain an underground group, and would later return for Californication, the band’s next masterwork after the less successful One Hot Minute), the rest of the group acclimated well to their newfound success, and Red Hot Chili Peppers have continued to turn out great albums periodically since (their newest, I’m With You will drop this August).

Throughout Blood Sugar Sex Magik the band examines nothing short of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Looking into Kiedis’ internal struggles with addiction and with romance, the album I, at its rawest and at its best, a look at the various things we do to ourselves to get by and the vices we rely on to keep us satisfied. Whether they are drugs, love, sex, or simply companionship, Blood Sugar Sex Magik tells us, they are an essential part of our lives, for we will forever be engaged in a struggle to tame, or be tamed by, our baser instincts.

Some albums, intentionally or not, center on a theme, an idea that becomes unavoidable as we listen to and absorb them. On Singles Going Steady the Buzzcocks examined pop music through a punk lens, centering on love as their main area of exploration. For War, U2 was looking at the causes and effects of conflict and searching both externally and internally for the peace they would need to excel as a band. And Red Hot Chili Peppers used Blood Sugar Sex Magick to examine sex, sure, but more deeply to look at the nature of vice and its place in our lives. Purposefully or not, each of these albums returned again and again to the same particular themes, and they colored them immensely. Whether released as a compilation as a career came to an end, as a tentative step forward for a band finding its sea legs in the ocean of rock and roll, or as the first masterpiece from a band entering its prime, these albums took one central idea, and ran with it until musical excellence was achieved.

Read more My Year in Lists here

Next week on My Year in Lists:

The Slits Cut, Prince weathers some Purple Rain, and Superchunk warns that there’s No Pocky For Kitty.

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Sunday, June 19, 2011

Edinburgh Film Festival Round-Up

By Jordan

Earlier this week I attended the opening three days of the 65th Edinburgh International Film Festival. It was my first film festival, and I attended it while on vacation in the UK (a vacation I will return from later this week; devotees of Review to Be Named can expect the blog to be back on its regular schedule after Wednesday). I did not attend it as a member of the press (for anyone who is at all confused, I am not a member of the press, just your standard amateur mucking it up for the real critics), and therefore participated in fewer screenings than I might have otherwise. I saw seven films over my three days at the festival: three revivals (screenings of Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise, Sara Driver's You Are Not I, and Alexander Mackendrick's 1949 classic Whisky Galore!) and four UK Premiere's. Instead of writing four full reviews of the movies I saw, I thought it best to include short capsule reviews of all four, including grades as my standard regular length reviews do. You'll see more inter-review references than usual in these capsules, and a few asides about the festival experience, so think of these less as considered reviews and more as reports from the field. Without further ado, here are my thoughts on the four films I had the chance to experience at the Edinburgh International Film Festival:

The Guard:

Directed by John Michael McDonagh (brother of In Bruges director Martin McDonagh), The Guard is in several respects very similar to his brother's film. Also a pitch-black comedy starring a caustic Brendan Gleeson, The Guard is a self assured debut that knows exactly how clever it is and doesn't pull any punches as a result. Gleeson is stellar and hysterical as Sergeant Gerry Boyle, a boozy, drug-friendly, hooker frequenting small town cop who reluctantly joins forces with a standard, strait-laced, "by the book" FBI Agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle, who very subtly portrays Everett's transformation from shock to annoyance to loyalty in regards to Boyle) to bring down a drug cartel who murderously await a shipment of $500 million worth of cocaine (though, as Boyle continuously insists, the feds tend to overestimate the "street value" of their busts). In many ways, The Guard is a fairly standard, if a few shades darker, buddy cop comedy, but it sets itself apart by being far more hysterical, and far more politically incorrect than its more generic counterparts. Hilarious, engrossing, and just a full out blast to watch, The Guard is the kind of film that will make fans of In Bruges wait excitedly for the next project from one of the brothers McDonagh.

Grade: A-

Oliver Sherman:

A compelling study of the effects of warfare and of mankind's dual capacity for compassion and violence, Oliver Sherman is a tense tour de force. Propelled by three stellar lead performances from Garret Dillahunt as Sherman Oliver, an ex-soldier who survived a shot to the head but never got over the psychological aftermath, Donal Logue as Franklin Page, the man who saved Sherman's life and has since settled into a quiet, peaceful existence and Molly Parker as Irene, page's serene but willful wife, the film follows Sherman's surprise arrival on the Page's doorstep and its effects on both him and on the patient and, initially at least, understanding Page's. Written and directed assuredly by first timer Ryan Redford, Oliver Sherman is a stellar look at three people pushed to their limits and beyond and the long term consequences of trauma for two very different men.

Grade: A

Our Day Will Come:

The feature-length debut of director Romain Gavras (most well known for his inflammatory video for MIA's "Born Free"), Our Day Will Come deals with many similar concerns in its examinations of two red-heads who feel ostracized by their society and set off on a nihilistic road trip towards Ireland, where they believe they may finally gain acceptance. Remy (a forceful Olivier Bartelemy) feels alienated, disaffected, isolated and bullied by everyone around him until he assaults his mother and sister and escapes their control. He quickly falls under the thrall of Patrick (Vincent Cassel, stellar as always) a charismatic, racist, violent psychoanalyst who tells Remy he can be his own Messiah and lead redheads into a day of prominence. A pitch black comedy that at times becomes a disturbingly violent examination of alienation and racism in French society, Our Day Will Come is a road comedy for the deeply troubled. While the film at times loses itself in surrealistic tangents (one of which features Cassel in a threesome while a stone faced red headed girl watches from a couch) and is often too on the nose in its "red heads as minorities discriminated against in French society" metaphors, Our Day Will Come is consistently interesting and occasionally moving, with two great performances and a propulsive pace that moves on from any useless or uninteresting tangent quickly enough that none prove too distracting. For much of its runtime, I was reminded of a remark made by Don Cheadle in The Guard soon after he meets Brendan Gleeson: "I don't know whether you're really fucking smart or really fucking stupid." Gleeson just smiles in response, and Our Day Will Come seems to grimace at the same question. It doesn't know the answer, and neither does Gavras (who was often befuddled and unable to answer questions during the Q&A that followed the screening), but neither seems to care. Both the film and its director seem satisfied to just be along for the ride.

Grade: B (though I reserve the right to reevaluate in either direction if I get the chance to see the film again upon its wide release)

On the Shore:

Police Captain Michel Matarasso (played well by the expressive French character actor Daniel Duval) is plagued by nightmares and grows weary of his job, and his listless relationship with a stunt coordinator. All of this changes, though, when he discovers the body of a young woman who has committed suicide and begins to involve himself in the lives of her former friends, family and colleagues. Ostensibly, the film aims to examine the need for love and the pain of loneliness, but far too often it becomes a meandering mess, confusing silence for subtlety and muddled writing for evocative mystery. The film feels needlessly, endlessly drawn out at 90 minutes (a fact which was not helped by the stifling heat in the theater, which got so bad I honestly considered walking out, something I have never done before) and seems so confused about what exactly its trying to say that it ends up saying nothing at all. The first fictional film from documentarian Julien Donada, the film is certainly atmospheric. Unfortunately, all the expansive atmospheres and beautiful scenery serve to expose the emptiness at the films center, a hollow core which no amount of beautiful beach front cinematography can fully fill in.

Grade: C

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

My Year in Lists: Week Twenty Three

By Jordan

My Year in Lists chronicles one blogger’s quest to understand why music matters to us and what makes it a lasting aspect of our existence. To facilitate this examination, three music fans have contributed a list of 52 essential albums. Each week this year, one album off of each list will be analyzed in an attempt to understand why some music sticks with us and what it means for our lives.

"Part of her appeal is how she can make hard-to-interpret lyrics so emotionally gripping."-Ned Raggett of Allmusic, on ELizabeth Fraser of Cocteau Twins

"I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies, I have to admit it."-Kurt Cobain, on the writing of "Smells Like Teen Spirit"

"No album in recent history had such an overpowering impact on a generation—a nation of teens suddenly turned punk—and such a catastrophic effect on its main creator."-
Rolling Stone on Nevermind

As I prepare to travel outside of the country for two weeks, on a trip that will include time at the Edinburgh Film Festival (regular readers can expect some thoughts on that in a different space whence I return), this column has not received the attention it deserves this week. Apologies in advance if there's a dip in quality, but
My Year in Lists must soldier on even when its author hasn't the time to give it the attention it deserves. So let's get right to it then.

The earliest incarnation of what would become The Cure formed as The Obelisk at Notre Dame Middle School in Crawley, Sussex in 1973 with Robert Smith on the piano, Michael "Mick" Dempsey on guitar, Lawrence "Lol" Tolhurst on drums, Mark Ceccagno on lead guitar and Alan Hill on bass. In January of 1977, the group adopted the name Easy Cure, and after a brief flirtation with a record deal that produced no releases, Smith, Tolhurst, and Dempsey reemerged as The Cure. The group released their US debut album (which collected songs from their UK debut
Three Imaginary Boys along with five new songs), and Tab's pick this week Boys Don't Cry.

The title track was written by all three members of the band, and tells of a man reeling from heartbreak but hiding his emotions to retain his masculinity. "Boys Don't Cry" is a great song by any measure, but whenever I hear it I am slightly confused by the posturing inherent in its message. The Cure is not generally seen as a hyper-masculine, Gary Cooper type band, and Robert Smith has never seemed to emphasize the need for stoicism (see: much of the rest of the band's discography, including Disintegration, which we discussed a few weeks back, for evidence of this), yet one of the band's most famed and enduring songs basically boils down to "Man up! Don't be a little bitch! You're not a baby, nor are you a girl, so don't cry over your heartbreak!" And all of this prior to a decade in which the band would spend much of its time releasing pop love songs. Nevertheless, "Boys Don't Cry" is tops, so I can't gripe too much over a mixed message. Plus, having not shed a tear in over a decade (not, I assure you, because of my stoic approach toward existence), I can get behind the song's message anyway.

The demo of "10:15 Saturday Night" is the song that caught the attention of Chris Parry, who signed the band to his newly formed record company Fiction. "Jumping Someone Else's Train" is just a great early post-punk track, fun, thoughtful, catchy and quick. But I will always have a soft spot in my heart for "Killing an Arab," if only because as a self-satisfied twelve-year-old I thought the reference to Camus' The Stranger was the coolest thing in the world. Apparently, for past-Jordan, knowing that a post-punk band as cool as The Cure had read and enjoyed the same absurdist existentialist philosopher I was currently obsessed with was just about the best thing since sliced bread (seriously, though, Camus is the man. If you haven't read The Fall or "The Myth of Sisyphus," you should stop reading this right now and do so. I guarantee you'll find his work more enlightening than my smart assery about The Cure).

The Cure has continued to produce excellent music over the three decades since the release of Boys Don't Cry, yet this debut set the stage for an entirely different sound and paved the way for what not just this band, but many others would be doing for years to come.

In the early days of post-punk, surrounded by the sounds of Joy Division, The Birthday Party, Sex Pistols, Kate Bush and Siouxsie and the Banshees, Robin Guthrie, Will Heggie, and their brand new vocalist Elizabeth Fraser joined together and formed The Cocteau Twins. Their debut album, and Collin's pick this week, Garlands was released in 1982.

"Wax and Wane" establishes the band's often dreamy style, with Fraser's ethereal voice taking a fairly standard early post-punk melody and imbuing it with an otherworldly feel that gives it power it might otherwise lack. By "Blind Dumb Deaf," though, the melodies have caught up to Fraser's vocals and The Cocteau Twins have transcended their influences and cemented their own sound.

"Shallow then Halo" is a darker song that at parts takes on an almost Lynchian quality (I can easily see Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet slinking across a dance floor to the song). The title track displays a band that has figured out its sound, which is always a plus on a debut album. Overall, Garlands is an assured debut for The Cocteau Twins, a solid album that introduces a revolutionary new sound and then plays around with it until it finds just the right ways to make it shine. The band, along with The Cure and Sonic Youth was instrumental to the formulation of dream pop, and is considered an influence on My Bloody Valentine, Sigur Ros, Asobi Seksu, Broken Social Scene and dozens of others.

Formed in Aberdeen, Washington in 1987 by Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic, Nirvana is quite possibly the most important band of the last twenty years. To qualify that statement, I am no Nirvana superfan, nor would I say they are my favorite band of the last twenty years. Yet, within their seven years together (prior to Cobain's untimely if not unpredictable suicide) and within the space of just three albums, Nirvana became a phenomenon that shaped music more than any of their contemporaries. Their second album, and Ashley's pick this week, Nevermind launched them into the stratosphere.

Nevermindis also the first album to include drummer Dave Grohl as part of the band's line up. After listening to REM, The Smithereens, and Pixies, Cobain began experimenting with more melodic songs. The band also signed with Geffen Records, based off of the suggestion of their idols Sonic Youth. The opening track "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was Cobain's attempt to write a song in the style of Pixies. Cobain got the title for the song from graffiti a friend spray paintedo n his wall reading "Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit." He didn't realize until months after the song's release that Teen Spirit was a brand of deodorant; he thought the term smacked of revolution, and the song he wrote fits that mentality. While the lyrics are often indecipherable, the mood is one of rebellion, and "Smells Like Teen Spirit" would have to be on any list of the best songs of the '90s. Seething with anger, touched with ambivalence, and catchy as hell, the song is an apex of the band's short career.

"Come As You Are" is a song about the expectations people have for how one another should behave. "Lithium" features shifts from quiet verses to loud choruses, a songwriting trick Cobain had lifted from Pixies. The song is about a person who turns to religion after a heartbreak to save himself from suicide. The song is powerful in the best sense of the word, rollicking, dark, singable and anthemic. In short, it fucking rocks.

Nevermind popularized the Seattle grunge movement and cemented alternative rock into the mainstream of American culture. Where before alternative rock struggled to find commercial success, Nirvana ushered in an era when alternative rock, for a time at least, truly ceased to be an "alternative." Nirvana made their sound the mainstream through sheer craftsmanship and force of will. It's hard to quantify the impact of Nirvana, except to say that they changed the face of music forever, bringing alternative rock into the mainstream and heavily influencing the lives of an entire generation of music lovers. When we speak of the most influential bands of all time, it would be a mistake not to include Nirvana in the discussion.

In lieu of a conclusion tying all of this together (again, time being a concern as I write this installment, apologies to any fans of my overwrought conclusions), I will simply end this week by saying happy listening in the unusually long interim between postings. You can expect Week Twenty Four to be posted on Wednesday, June 22nd, and we'll be back to our regular Friday postings for Week Twenty Five on June 24th. Also, there should be another My Year in Lists: Interlude for your reading pleasure by the end of the month. For any of you playing along with the feature at home, enjoy the long period you'll be able to spend with next week's music. Me, I'll be giving it the attention it deserves and more. I've got a long flight ahead of me. Which reminds me, I've got a plane to catch.

Read more My Year in Lists here

Next on My Year in Lists:

The Buzzcocks are Singles Going Steady, U2 is headed off to War and Red Hot Chili Peppers are cooking up a little recipe involving Blood Sugar Sex Majik.

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