Friday, August 30, 2013

Bill Withers - "Lovely Day"

After a long day, if I just want to unwind, shut off the brain and relax, I'll flip on SportsCenter or a game. For my wife, it's HGTV. Currently, the network is using "Lovely Day" as its promo music, but only a small snippet of the song, which has been making me crave the full track. So here it is.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Summer Movie Season 2013: A Look Back

Wow, this summer movie season sure was long, huh? And terrible, right? Will and I look back at the highs and lows of the last four months at Deadspin.

In Praise of the Great Neko Case

Neko Case has a terrific new album coming out next week. It's called The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You. For Playboy, I wrote not just about that album but Case in general. Since 2006's Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, one of the new century's best albums, she's been on quite a roll. You can read my article on this SFW Playboy site.

'Getaway' Review

As a rule, I can watch Ethan Hawke in just about anything. This rule, however, has its exceptions. Getaway is real dreck: a joyless B-movie that doesn't even boast that many good car chases. Which is a problem since, you know, it's supposed to be a nonstop car chase. Egads, boo, et cetera. My Getaway review is up at Screen International.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Top 10 Albums of the 21st Century (so far)

The all-mighty KEXP is asking its listeners to select their favorite albums of the 21st century, with the results being broadcast during the nonprofit station's Fall Donor Drive starting September 13. (You have until September 4 if you'd like to submit your own ballot.)

This countdown seemed like a perfect excuse to start thinking about my own picks for the new century. You may recall that I put together a list of the top albums of the first decade -- the "Aughts" or whatever it was we decided to call it -- and occasionally I'll mentally rearrange that list and add new worthy albums to the hopper as each year passed. But KEXP's pledge drive inspired me to put them down in some sort of concrete form.

It also inspired me to do some serious listening. There were about 15 albums I considered for my final 10, and the last two weeks have been devoted to me popping them in, an album at a time, and focusing from start to finish. This was incredibly valuable, revealing how a record's strength can sometimes grow significantly by hearing its songs in order. This should be obvious, but it was good to be reminded of such a simple truism. Even in our digital, single-driven era, sequencing matters.

As is probably obvious, I spent more time thinking about my KEXP ballot than probably any other contributor did, including maybe even some of the station's DJs. As a longtime list obsessive, I believe that putting one of these things together should be undertaken with the utmost seriousness. Of course there's pleasure involved -- you're judging different degrees of artistic excellence -- but if it's actually possible that something this subjective can be done "correctly," I'm hellbent on achieving it.

So, of course, I also went to the trouble of ranking them. And explaining why each album appears where it does. You'd think I actually had the free time to waste on such enjoyable ephemera. 

10. Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) (2008)

Erykah Badu's first album in five years came about after suffering from writer's block and finding a new way of expressing herself by screwing around making music on the computer. New Amerykah Part One extends the hypnotic black-hole introspection of D'Angelo's Voodoo and points the way toward Kanye West's 808s & Heartbreak (which came out nine months after New Amerykah Part One) and later gems like the Weeknd's House of Balloons. Bedroom funk that wrestles with issues both personal and political, New Amerykah Part One can't help but feel a touch self-absorbed, but the intensity of Badu's feelings extend out to the rest of us, touching on death ("Telephone"), self-empowerment ("Me") and sex ("Honey"). 

9. Clipse, Hell Hath No Fury (2006)

The Neptunes' best production work, even better than In Search of..., comes on this dense, hard, not particularly listener-friendly effort by Clipse, the Virginian duo who were angry about their label issues and wanted everyone to know how much better they were at the crack game than your favorite gangster rapper was. Unsentimental and sonically inventive, Hell Hath No Fury is hardly the first hip-hop album obsessed with money, crime and loose women. But what's endlessly startling is how little Pusha T and Malice's rhymes benefit from shock value. The violent "Chinese New Year" and the jet-setting "Mr. Me Too" are equally matter-of-fact in their steeliness, Clipse going about their ill-gotten business as if it's just another day.  

8. Yo La Tengo, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (2000)

Yo La Tengo's most beloved albums tend to be the ones where the trio stretch out in all directions, as on I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One. But I've preferred this more monochromatic follow-up for more than 10 years now, which I suppose means it's a permanent condition. With Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon having called it quits, Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan are our greatest indie-rock marriage, their albums a fascinating and comforting back-and-forth between the two musicians about the minute ups and downs of a relationship that sure sounds like it's built to last -- but only if they continue to do the work that all great relationships require. And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out is one of the band's quieter, gentler efforts, but you'd be hard-pressed to name an album with so many ballads that are so suffused with anxiety. But there's guarded optimism in these songs, too -- the same sort you see at the end of Before Midnight, when everything seems terrible between Celine and Jesse and yet you're sure they're going to find a way to figure it out.

7. Frank Ocean, Channel Orange (2012)

First catching my attention with his supremely soulful, moving and searching "We All Try" from his Nostalgia, Ultra mixtape, Frank Ocean went on to release this official debut, which the whole world loved, including me. Navigating a musical terrain where R&B and pop are essentially the same thing, just more intriguing and more personal, Channel Orange got a lot of press at the time because of Ocean's admission that his first meaningful romantic relationship was with a man, which no doubt inspired some to scan the album for clues. (They needed to look no further than the wrenching gospel confessional "Bad Religion.") But my hunch is that, as time goes by, we'll forget that media frenzy and simply appreciate the fluid musicianship of the record, which calls to mind Prince and Stevie Wonder while displaying a sharp eye for lyrical portraits, such as the spoiled L.A. of "Super Rich Kids" and the sympathetic tale of a drugged-out loser on "Crack Rock."

6. Bob Dylan, Love and Theft (2001)

Forever linked to 9/11, the day the album hit stores, Love and Theft seemed to echo the dark, uncertain months that followed the deadly terror attacks. But from today's vantage point, it's also clear that the album was Dylan at his most lighthearted and devil-may-care, staring down bad women, war and metaphorical floods with a shit-eating grin and a debonair strut. Bono once called Love and Theft a comedy album, and he meant it as a compliment. I do, too: The juxtaposition of bad puns, good puns and clever turns of phrase matches the easy sweep of the album's transition from rockabilly to swing to Bing Crosby-style balladry. That he made such a life-affirming album as he was approaching 60 is both humbling and inspiring.

5. Kanye West, The College Dropout (2004)

The 21st century's greatest musical artist quite possibly made his best album first time out. But the richness of The College Dropout, especially thematically, is such that it's provided the road map for the rest of his career. His love/hate relationship with materialism ("All Falls Down"), his struggle with the divine ("Jesus Walks"), his troubling attitude toward women ("The New Workout Plan"), his constant reminders to the world that we haven't given him his rightful props ("Last Call"), his tenderness toward his family ("Family Business") and his anger toward White America ("Spaceship") have powered powerful, glitzier subsequent records -- all of them with their distinct selling points. But The College Dropout tops them because of the one quality none of the others possesses: a winning, natural charm that the young up-and-comer utilized as deftly as his beats and samples.

4. Arcade Fire, The Suburbs (2010)

It seems that Arcade Fire fans prefer the band's first record, Funeral, which has always felt too self-consciously "arty" and "epic" to work fully on me. By my count, this group has only gotten better with each album, crystallizing Bush-era angst superbly on Neon Bible and then delivering a mature self-portrait on this third disc. It is very easy for acclaimed, commercially successful indie acts to write songs about those damn hipsters and how weird it is getting old. But The Suburbs is something different: a genuinely stately and personal approach to overdone topics like fame and age that's matched by music that rarely reaches for the epic but is far too supple and deeply felt to be described as navel-gazing. 

3. Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (2006)

This album's first two tracks, "Margaret vs. Pauline" and "Star Witness," are so perfect -- fraught with feeling, dense with inscrutable detail -- that one can be forgiven for overlooking the array of treasures that stretch on afterward. But with Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, the onetime punk and New Pornographers vocalist lives up to her promise by adopting an Old Weird America persona that's attuned to gospel, country and rock in equal measure. She's always had that unbelievable voice, but with Fox Confessor she found a language to express her enigmatic longing that's always enchanting without ever being concrete. You keep listening in the hopes of unraveling the song's mysteries that, happily, are never, ever revealed.

2. The Roots, How I Got Over (2010)

Has any band benefited more from selling out? When the Roots decided to accept Jimmy Fallon's offer to be the house band for his late-night show, they secured for themselves one of the most stable paying jobs in all of popular music, especially for acts of their age and profile. And all the Roots have done during that time is produce some of the finest work of their career. The anxiety of balancing that day job is all over How I Got Over, sometimes explicitly in the lyrics but also subtly in the let's-get-down-to-business vibe of the no-nonsense arrangements. Reaching out to indie rock but focusing on the urban fears that fame hasn't completely erased, How I Got Over is astoundingly eloquent in wondering how life's choices open some doors while closing others.

1. The Shins, Chutes Too Narrow (2003)

What would the world think of James Mercer if Garden State had never happened? That 2004 film with its earnest indie-rock soundtrack cemented him and his band the Shins as the champions of a particular era's sensitive-feelings musical sweepstakes. Consequently, Garden State also made anything the Shins did afterward anticlimactic: Their glowing pop craftsmanship had reached its peak, and it was destined to be all downhill from there. Which is my way of saying that while Chutes Too Narrow may seem like little more than a time-capsule item, it remains stunningly fresh. A wimp he may be, but Mercer enters the pantheon of indie songwriters on this 10-track, 34-minute beauty, in which the songs are predominantly gentle while masking their darker feelings about modern life ("So Says I") and irretrievable happy memories ("Pink Bullets"). Only rarely since has Mercer produced songs of such emotion and effortless precision. That's fine: For one exquisite album, he went 10-for-10. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

'Closed Circuit' Review

It's the end-of-summer blues: This time of year is when studios dump their less-than-desirable movies on a distracted public. Graded on that curve, the conspiracy thriller Closed Circuit isn't bad. It's smart-ish and involving-esque and generally gets the job done. But it doesn't linger in the memory. This what we call in the business a "marginal thumbs up." My review is up at Paste.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Will Ben Affleck Make a Good Batman?

As you have probably heard, Ben Affleck has been cast to play Bruce Wayne in the Batman-Superman combo movie that will be a sequel to Man of Steel. Paste asked its writers and editors to weigh in on the choice. My response, as well as my colleagues', can be found here.

Bananarama - "Cruel Summer"

A buddy and I used to kick off every summer by playing this song. We did it ironically but, deep down, I think we both kinda dug the impeccable craft of this cheesy hit.

I've never seen this video before. Kids, in case you're wondering, yes, the 1980s were exactly like this.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

'Another Self Portrait' and Our Fascination With Failure

For my Culture Club column at Playboy, I wrote about Another Self Portrait, the latest in Bob Dylan's "Bootleg Series." Specifically, I dig into our culture's interest in seeking out the creative low points of our favorite artists. This, in part, required me to listen to Dylan for the first time in forever. (And if you're not familiar with Dylan, then my article may be of particular interest to you.)

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

'The World's End' Review

Since Shaun of the Dead, director Edgar Wright's movies have been decent but haven't done that much for me. His latest, The World's End, is his best since Shaun -- and for some of the same reasons. I reviewed the film for Deadspin.

Monday, August 19, 2013

'Drinking Buddies' Review

Drinking Buddies is a drama flecked with humor thanks to its fine cast that's topped by Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson. This relationship film is far from revelatory, but it's always compassionate and observant, focusing on a pair of friends who seem like they'd make the perfect couple -- so why don't they date? My review is up at Paste.

Friday, August 16, 2013

'Elysium' and Hollywood's Obsession With Dystopian Futures

While watching Elysium, I thought, "Haven't I seen this before?" Specifically, I meant the experience of sitting through a dark future that's meant to be a mirror of our own times. Dystopian sci-fi is a genre I really like, but I've been inundated by it lately at the movies. Why is Hollywood so interested in these films lately? And what do we as an audience get out of them? I tried to answer these questions in my latest Playboy column.

Interpol - "Rest My Chemistry"

One of the things that always amazes me about music is how a particular song can suddenly sneak its way into your DNA years after its release. "Rest My Chemistry" was never a single off of Interpol's 2007 album Our Love to Admire, but in the last year or so I find myself seeking it out on my laptop's iTunes -- or being perfectly pleased when it pops up on shuffle. I was never much of an Interpol fan, and Our Love to Admire is merely OK as a whole. But "Rest My Chemistry" just does it for me. Clearly, I'm not the only one: Enjoy this fan-made video for the track. 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

'Jobs' Review

To answer your immediate question, no, I don't think Ashton Kutcher is terrible as Steve Jobs in the new biopic of the Apple co-founder. But I think Jobs is riddled with problems anyway. My review is up at Deadspin.

'Paranoia' Review

This is a conversation that will be happening all across America's living rooms in about three months...

Him: Hey, what should we watch on-demand tonight?

Her: What about Paranoia?

Him: Which one's that?

Her: Was that the one with Chris Hemsworth?

Him: Chris Hemsworth? You mean Thor?

Her: Oh, sorry, I mean his brother Liam.

Him: Oh, gotcha. But what's Paranoia?

Her: Isn't it about a guy on the run?

Him: Wasn't that Abduction?

Her: No, that was the one with the guy from Twilight. Paranoia has Harrison Ford and he's bald.

Him: Is that supposed to be an enticement?

Her: I guess. Listen, we have to watch something tonight.

(My review of the utterly disposable Paranoia is up at Paste.)

'Austenland' Review

I keep waiting for Keri Russell to have a big-screen career, but it never quite seems to happen. (I realize she's getting good reviews for her new TV drama The Americans.) Her latest feature, the Sundance romantic comedy Austenland, is perfectly fine but also perfectly dull. I've already forgotten everything about it, so it's a good thing I have my Paste review to remind me what I thought of the film.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Greats: Warren Beatty

Warren Beatty has just about vanished from American movies in the last couple decades. And yet, his influence still looms large. My latest installment of "The Greats" for Paste pays homage to the actor/writer/director/producer.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Yo La Tengo - "I'll Be Around"

I haven't been able to full connect to Fade, the latest from the wonderful Yo La Tengo. But I love the acoustic, atmospheric number "I'll Be Around" from it -- and I really like this video. It's directed by Phil Morrison, who made the gem Junebug, which incorporated a score from Yo La Tengo. (On a side note, I wonder when I'll get to see his new film, which was called Almost Christmas but is now known as All Is Bright and received pretty lukewarm reviews from the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year.) As for this "I'll Be Around" video, if you've ever wanted to see the band make a meal together, this clip is going to blow your mind.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

'Lee Daniels' The Butler' Review

Lee Daniels' The Butler enters the marketplace clearly hoping to be a sweeping, feel-good Oscar contender. Drawing comparisons to Forrest Gump and The Remains of the Day, this drama is certainly moving, but it also feels too rush to be the exhaustive survey of the black experience in the 20th century that it's aspiring to be. I weigh the films pros and cons in my Screen International review.

'Breaking Bad' and Being a Man

As you probably know, Breaking Bad ends its run of episodes starting this Sunday. For my Culture Club column at Playboy, I wanted to write about how the show tackles masculinity. My thesis is that just about every guy on Breaking Bad is caught up in his own obsession about being "a real man" -- and that such a hangup quite often proves fatal. Hope you enjoy.

(Update: Will Leitch and I chatted about Breaking Bad at length for the Sports on Earth podcast. You can hear it here.)

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

'Museum Hours' Review

The fine drama Museum Hours is working its way across the U.S. slowly but surely. After making its debut in New York at the end of June, the film (about a museum guard and a woman visiting her cousin in the hospital) will arrive in Los Angeles on August 16, but it'll be opening in several cities this weekend. If it comes to your neck of the woods, do check it out. I explain why in my Paste review.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

'We're the Millers' Review

I've been rooting for Jason Sudeikis's film career for a while, and I'm somewhat cheered by We're the Millers, his latest starring vehicle. But, geez, it sure is a pedestrian comedy, although it can be quite funny in parts. My review is up at Deadspin.

Why I Don't Buy DVDs

About a month ago, David Ehrlich wrote a terrific piece, "The 50 Best Criterion Collection Releases," which highlighted a bunch of really beautiful DVD and Blu-ray sets from Criterion. (The above image is taken from that article.) I looked at Ehrlich's list, gazed at all those gorgeous covers, and thought.... "Why don't I want to buy any of these?" That inspired my latest Culture Club column for Playboy, in which I analyze my misgivings about owning DVDs. It should go without saying that these misgivings are mine and mine alone: I know plenty of film lovers who have tons of DVDs on their shelves, and obviously I don't have any problem with that. But for me, well, I make my case here.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

'The To Do List' and the Disappointing New Breed of Female Comedies

When Bridesmaids came out a few years ago, it was hailed as a triumph for women comics, the movie's success supposed proof that the female-driven broad comedy was just a viable as the raunchy bromances that had dominated the industry for a while. Since then, I've become less and less enamored by this new strain of comedies where the gals just act like immature guys. This is progress? I lament this new trend over at Playboy.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Procol Harum - "A Whiter Shade of Pale"

I was watching a little of Martin Scorsese's Life Lessons the other day, and I was reminded that it made such great use of "A Whiter Shade of Pale." Here's the song's original video -- Wikipedia has plenty of interesting information about it.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

The Greats: Michael Haneke

The latest installment in my series "The Greats" for Paste is devoted to director Michael Haneke. If he's not the most acclaimed and revered international filmmaker alive today, he's definitely in the conversation. Here's my appreciation.

'Elysium' Review

I was never that much of a fan of director Neill Blomkamp's first film, District 9. It featured an incredibly clever aliens-as-disenfranchised-minorities conceit that quickly devolved into yet another big sci-fi action shoot-'em-up. Blomkamp's new film, Elysium, again marries political commentary and large-scale action. This time around, though, the action is pretty stupendous while the social critique is only so-so. My review is up at Screen International.