Sunday, January 31, 2016

Music of 2015

Most years, I do not buy very much new music.  I listen to the radio, and I'm continuously discovering older music that I was unfamiliar with before, but I generally only acquire 2-3 albums of new music per year, and maybe a couple songs here and there.  In terms of older music, I've spent the last few years deeply under the influence of critic Greil Marcus, particularly his books Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music, The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes, and Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010.  With these as guides, I have been diving ever deeper into the works of Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Chuck Berry, and Elvis Presley, not to mention Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music and the early classics of Sam Phillips's Sun Studio, and even some tentative explorations of punk rock.  Plenty of my old opinions about music have been upended, and I have a new appreciation for the history of American popular music and the many blind alleys and winding paths that broke from the main Top 40 highways of the 20th century.  The depth and power of this music at its best can be enough to reshape your understanding of American identity; it's exhilarating.

In terms of 21st century music, my tastes are probably pretty standard for a 20-something Midwestern white guy with hipster-ish tendencies.  I read Pitchfork and the AV Club for my music reviews, but I have been to relatively few concerts, and I do not claim to have an especially sophisticated taste in comparison to the hundreds of music bloggers and online commenters who engage in protracted debates about particular artists and albums.  I do not follow music news very much, whether tours or appearances or interviews, and I watch relatively few music videos even of the artists I like.  I prefer it this way, for the most part, because it keeps the music paramount in my mind; I only care about the way it sounds to me, not what the artist looks like while they're singing, or what they do in their personal lives, or the political stands they take.  There are exceptions to this, and I don't go out of my way to ignore all news and controversy in the pop world, but that's the way I tend to go about things.

Anyway, in 2015 I actually acquired enough music that I feel I can offer a few opinions on it.  My sample size is still small, and I don't feel capable of giving detailed explanations of all my choices, but I offer the lists below anyway as a record of what I listened to and liked in 2015.

Favorite Albums

1. Carrie & Lowell by Sufjan Stevens

2. Art Angels  by Grimes

3. To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar

4. Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper by Panda Bear

5. Sound & Color by Alabama Shakes

6. Emotion by Carly Rae Jepsen

I also really liked and recommend Coming Home by Leon Bridges, Pageant Material by Kacey Musgraves, and Traveller by Chris Stapleton.  I haven't listened to Every Open Eye by Chvrches much yet, but I like it so far, and I think Sam Outlaw's EP Outlaw shows a lot of promise.  In contrast, I was a bit mystified by In Colour by Jamie xx; it has a few excellent tracks towards the end, but I find the first half to be frustratingly unrewarding.  And while I have loved Mumford & Sons' first album since I first heard it in 2010, I think their turn away from folk on Wilder Mind was idiotic and drained them of whatever uniqueness they still possessed (though I have to admit I enjoyed a couple tracks when they played on the radio and stood out among the other Top 40 dreck).

Favorite Songs

1. "Fourth of July" by Sufjan Stevens

2. "Run Away with Me" by Carly Rae Jepsen

3. "Boys Latin" by Panda Bear

4. "Should Have Known Better" by Sufjan Stevens

5. "REALiTi" by Grimes

6. "King Kunta" by Kendrick Lamar

7. "John My Beloved" by Sufjan Stevens

8. "Flesh without Blood" by Grimes

9. "Loud Placesby Jamie xx, feat. Romy

10. "Don't Wanna Fight" by Alabama Shakes

11. "Hello" by Adele

I also really enjoy and recommend "Tennessee Whiskey" by Chris Stapleton, "Kill vs. Maim" by Grimes, "Fool for Love" by Lord Huron, "The Blacker the Berry" by Kendrick Lamar, "River" by Leon Bridges, "Your Type" by Carly Rae Jepsen, and "Family is Family" by Kacey Musgraves.  Plus a tip of the hat to "Same Old Love" by Selena Gomez (which took me by surprise), and "Only One" by Kanye West, feat. Paul McCartney, which is the kind of deeply personal noodling by a great artist that could fit easily on Paul's first album, McCartney (1970).  And while I should note that the song was technically released in 2014, there's no doubt "Uptown Funk" by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars deserves all of its success as one of those hits that breaks through into the wider culture and turns up everywhere you look, until even your parents are humming it.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

" "

"Perhaps poetry replaces something in me that others receive more naturally," Linda Gregg once wrote, and poetry, both in Gregg's conception and in the context of what we're discussing here, should be defined as something other than verse.  Cinephiles are, by nature, outsiders.  They study the images of pasts remembered and made-up, where even their backyards become something strange and far-off.  As a practice it remains, rightly or wrongly, a rejection of living life moment-to-moment or day-by-day--instead, it's a way of slipping into the dreams of others, of glimpsing, however briefly, all the not-quite-realities that will never be their own.  What Gregg's "others" receive through work or community or family the cinephile receives by watching people they will never know.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

RIP, David Bowie

Movie scenes with Bowie music that came to mind today.  More below the jump.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

His Girl Friday

His Girl Friday (Hawks, 1940) Rating: 10/10 stars.

Grounded in Ben Hecht’s experience in journalism in the 1920s and 1930s, the satirical elements of the film feel outdated today.  Sure, journalism is still a dirty business and Chicago politics are still corrupt, but the specifics here seem foreign and unconvincing to me as a representation of even historical reality.  Instead, what impresses is the way the entire film is one long verbal competition, every scene about clever characters trying to best each other.  Russell and Grant are evenly matched adversaries and totally unscrupulous, tricking and manipulating every less-sharp character and turning every new development to their advantage.  It’s conversation as tactical warfare.  Every exchange is a game played for high stakes with no morals or rules, and the more risked the more fun; verbal and intellectual dexterity are the only virtues.
And they’re playing that game from the very beginning, though not everyone is aware of it (and those who aren’t are used as pawns by the real players).  Whether she admits it to herself or not, by walking back into the office Hildy is effectively dealing Walter back in, and giving him one last shot at the jackpot.  The rest of the movie is a dazzling display of power plays disguised by compliments, declarations of love used as insults, the trumps vs. the chumps; comedy as war, as verbally brutal as Game of Thrones.  There’s casual racism here, cruelty galore, ambulance chasing, lawbreaking, and attempted suicide leveraged for cheap escape by our supposed heroes; the film definitely requires a strong stomach.
Hawks keeps everyone in frame and all expressions visible (and often doesn’t cut for ages), so you can watch individuals’ faces throughout the conversations.  But do so too closely and you’ll probably get lost--the expressions/emotions/reactions move as fast as the dialogue, and it’s near impossible to keep both in focus at once.  The crowded frame allows for a plethora of bits of business and body language to be introduced.  Cary Grant’s performance is justifiably legendary, but for my money, Rosalind Russell just about runs circles around him for half the movie.  The whole thing is a thrilling experience to watch, as well as a challenge--you’re almost certainly going to miss something whatever you do, so every time you watch it there are new clever/funny/witty details to pick up on.  The film ends up feeling inexhaustible, if only on the level of sheer cleverness.  There’s almost nothing else like it.