Monthly Archives: June 2012

Formants: Hum, “Downward Is Heavenward” [USA, 1998]

An ongoing series on the albums that helped to shape the way I listen to music, and continue to make their way onto my iPod.

1998 should have been Hum’s year. In 1995, the Champaign, Illinois band scored an unlikely hit with “Stars,” a fuzzy-but-romantic slab of nerdy, stop-start alt-rock that doesn’t much resemble any other successful rock music of the period. The dense guitars were too crunchy for straight My Bloody Valentine worship, but Matt Talbott’s reserved, unpretentious vocal style was also miles away from his angst-ridden contemporaries, leaving the song (and its accompanying album, You’d Prefer an Astronaut, which wound up moving a not-inconsiderable quarter of a million copies) as an entity all its own. 1998 should have been the year they managed to capitalize on their unlikely success, demonstrate their true potential, and hit alt-rock paydirt.

Instead, they made Downward Is Heavenward.

The mid-90s was a fantastic time to be a rock band on a major label, some of the time. You got ridiculous budgets to produce music videos, significant advances, and a whole lot of production coin as needed. (On the other hand, of course, labyrinthine contracts often stiffed you out of a truly satisfying payday.) Accordingly, Downward Is Heavenward hasn’t aged a day, sonically speaking. Tim Lash and Talbott’s guitars mesh together in a thick, churning morass, equal parts atmospheric and bruising, often with an acoustic guitar tucked away in one speaker, not to mention the seemingly thousands of pedal effects percolating in and out of the mix. This thing sounds expensive.

Had I been working for RCA’s PR department at the time, I’d have handled Hum with greater care. I would not have placed the band themselves in their videos, for instance; the ever-bespectacled Talbott looks more accountant than rock star, especially when stacked next to the band they most frequently (and incorrectly) drew comparisons to, the Smashing Pumpkins. Despite the major label coin, they were an indie-rock band at heart, and were accordingly – for the period, at least – completely unselfconscious in their image. I’d also have made a different single choice; “Comin’ Home” is short, punchy and by far the most aggressive thing on the record, which might play to certain markets, sure, but it’s also saddled with a 7/4 verse and a paucity of hooks. Sure enough, in the age where music video was still the best way to promote a band, “Comin’ Home” got a particularly silly one:

The album debuted at #150 in the Billboard Top 200 on Valentine’s Day, 1998. Where the “Stars”-led You’d Prefer an Astronaut sold a quarter of a million copies, Downward took a year to barely break 30k. (That number jives almost exactly with the video’s total hits to date on YouTube. Eerie.) Not too much later, an incident of equipment theft doomed the band for good.

This was the thanks they got for eclipsing their breakthrough recording.

Downward Is Heavenward evokes a few records that came before, and a whole lot that have come since, but doesn’t sound precisely like any of them. The contrast between Talbott’s unadorned, unfussy vocals with the meticulous dual-guitar sound is already distinctive, but it’s Talbott’s sci-fi-leaning lyrics that really separate it from the angst-ridden fare that ruled the period. The apocalyptic closer, “The Scientists,” seems to dream up a David Brin-worthy yarn in a little over five minutes, equal parts doomed love story and hypothetical cautionary tale:

She says “keep this benzene ring around your finger
And think of me when everything you wanted starts to end.”
And I saw living lusters form in pools beneath her feet
Invertebrates that only she can see
And I said, “what on earth are all these ampuls for?”
She says “exactly, we’re not gonna wait around here anymore.”
Systems back down slow, watch the dust cloud resend
And I will keep you, I will keep you to the end.

One song earlier, another cosmic love story cuts a very different figure. “Apollo,” recorded live in a music hall rather than in-studio like the rest of the album, is spare, gorgeous, and touching, but never precious. Unlike the typical alt-rock ballad, it doesn’t bother with embellishments like a string section or a climax fit for the rafters. The song even eschews the thick production values of the rest of the album, favoring a live-off-the-floor feel that suits the simple, lovely sentiment that rests in the lyric’s delayed punchline.

What’s really vexing about Downward‘s spectacular commercial failure is that it’s not like the album doesn’t feature anything radio-friendly. There may not be another “Stars” (which is still regularly employed in commercials a decade and a half later, such is its appeal), but at least a few tunes here might have served as serviceable follow-ups. Again placing myself in fantasy-sports RCA PR Guy mode, “If You Are To Bloom” strikes me as the retrospective natural single choice, with its Incubus-inventing intro, massive guitar entrance, insistence verse rhythm, and clever chorus harmony on the hook. Assuming it gained any traction, the mournful “Ms. Lazarus” would make a fine follow-up, with its careful blend of acoustic and electric guitars, and sobering, unusually earthbound lyric (“the way your headstone shines / I only wish that it was mine”).

But of courseDownward is an art-rock record from the late 90s, meaning it is Meant To Be Listened to As An Album. On that score, it’s one of the most meticulously crafted of the era, perfectly sequenced and loaded with sprawling, complex tunes. Four tracks break the six-minute mark, but none overstay their welcome; of these, “The Inuit Promise” is the standout. A careful listen reveals all kinds of elaborate, even virtuosic riffs on the periphery, but it’s the song’s wistful drive that really distinguishes it from the rest of the record, existing in some nebulous space between awestruck and lucid. A spoken lyric, the only one reproduced on the album’s spartan packaging, contain more mystery than the entire Soundgarden discography, though it’s barely audible:

Your solvents frozen here on the petal rung
Is all we have to see
Enlarged inside as we espy
The warming sea.

Downward is a fantastic showcase for emotionally-driven songwriting that’s neither openly plaintive nor obnoxiously self-interested. In that sense, it was never going to find a significant following in its own time. The band has reunited for shows a few times in the last decade, including as recently as 2011, but there are no plans for them to ever return on a full-time basis. Unlike At The Drive-In and Refused, their music doesn’t command enough of a following for them to really cash in on aging gen-Yers eager to dive back into the music of their youth. And so Downward and the rest of the band’s discography continues to linger in between complete obscurity and popular reclamation, held in stasis much like the album’s oddly timeless sound. There are worse fates.

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Link Roundup, 06/29/12

I assess the third-season premiere of Louie. I’ll be handling the season recaps this year, along with the soon-to-premiere Breaking Bad.

The ten best TV episodes of 2012, so far.

On the Sound on Sight podcast, all four hosts converge to talk Moonrise Kingdom and Harold and Maude.

In the latest episode of the Televerse, Kate and I reunite to discussThe Newsroom, Wilfred, and plenty more.

Top 5: Louie (So Far)

I’m generally loath to add to a praise chorus, particularly when there’s critical near-consensus, but I adore Louie. Spending a quarter of a year checking in with Louis CK as he indulges very thematic and aesthetic whim at his disposal has been a total delight, made all the more remarkable by the fact that he’s doing an astounding amount of the work himself. Louie’s first 26 episodes were written, edited, directed by and almost exclusively star CK himself, and while he’d be the first to acknowledge (as he does in S1’s “Cop Movie” segment) that he’s not the most conventionally riveting screen presence, his emotional directness and particular worldview are allowed to color every aspect of the show. It sounds corny, but watching Louie can sometimes feel like making a friend; most TV comedies are content to let us hang out with their protagonists. Louie inhabits one.

The show’s third season premieres on Thursday, June 28. The early word on the five episodes FX has sent to people more important than me is typically positive, and I’m very eager to see what new editor Susan Morse (who handled nearly all of Woody Allen’s best films) brings to the table. To celebrate the new season’s imminent arrive, a hopefully-quick rundown of my five favorite episodes, in descending order. I cheat a bit.

5. “Bully” (1.09)

The early run of Louie is solid, but for my money it’s not until “Bully” that CK really starts to test the limits of his stories in search of deeper, less comfortable truths. Early, oft-discussed sequences like “Heckler” and “Poker” are incisive and funny as hell, but feel downright safe and quaint compared to what’s followed. To put it another way, it would have been well and good for CK to give us the bungled date, topped off with her admission that actually, she does need some bravado in her life, but Louie’s decision to follow his teenaged tormentor home is what sends the episode into that next level, if only because we have no idea how this pans out. There’s no readymade trope to let us know what happens after Louie knocks on that door.

4. “Eddie” (2.09)

Most of the non-Louie characters on Louie who aren’t his kids often feel like they exist onscreen principally as figures for CK to bounce ideas off of, and that’s also sort of true of Eddie (Doug Stanhope), who represents a certain kind of comic living out a certain kind of comic’s career; a sort of alternate-universe Louie. But one of the strengths of Louie’s second season is CK’s generosity towards his guest stars, whether it’s showing the full performance of “Circle of the Cross” in “Duckling,” Dane Cook’s cred-gaining appearance on “Tickets,” or Stanhope as Eddie, who is fleshed out quickly but effectively via flashbacks and Stanhope’s extended rants as not only his own man, but one whose failures deserve Louie’s serious consideration. “Eddie” is a remarkable little character study and industry portrait that’s also one of the most sterling examples of Louie as a platform for CK’s short-form storytelling abilities.

3. “Night Out” (1.13)

Louie’s first season ends with a sequence that acts as a synecdoche of sorts for the entire series: Louie, having failed to follow his (hilariously distraught) babysitter’s advice and get laid, takes his daughters out to an all-night diner just before sunset. In a different context, it might come off corny, but after an episode’s worth of Louie being faced with his dwindling sex appeal, it’s a reminder of CK as a comedian whose material emphasizes our whacked-out priorities. The conclusion he comes to in one of the episode’s stand-up bits: he’s the best in the world at masturbating, and he’s the best in the world at raising his daughters. As “Night Out” argues, that damn well ought to be good enough.

2. “God” (1.11) / “Come On, God” (2.08)

Twice now, Louie has tackled hardline Catholicism, and though both episodes are stellar, they have almost nothing else in common. In Season One’s “God,” a glory hole graced with portentous graffiti leads into an extended flashback to Louie’s childhood, in which a terrifying Tom Noonan (!) scares little Louie into taking Jesus down from the cross – only for a city carpenter to matter-of-factly nail him back up the next morning. To date, it’s still the closest to joke-free Louie gets. “Come On, God,” on the other hand, served as the comparatively light-hearted counterpart to “Eddie,” with which it was originally aired back-to-back. If it’s not Louie’s out-and-out funniest installment, it’s damned close, from Louie’s fake Red Eye appearance as “Comedian/Masturbator,” complete with its absurd cello-scored breakdown in which Louie faces “the darkness” of his existence, to his distressing elevator fantasy, to his final date/showdown with Ellen (Liz Holtan).  Considered together, they show off CK’s surprisingly nuanced take on the subject: yes, the church has been responsible for inspiring heaps of shame and guilt on those undeserving and too young to process those feelings correctly, but it’s also resulted in profounder iterations of happiness and contentment than Louie is willing to commit himself to.

1. “Subway/Pamela” (2.06)

Louie doesn’t feature many actual character throughlines, so its Pamela-centric episodes stand out whenever they pop up. That CK and Pamela Adlon have fantastic onscreen chemistry is no surprise, seeing as she’s the performer he’s shared the most screentime with (see also: Lucky Louie), but “Subway/Pamela” goes for a dramatic and comedic payoff that goes beyond most episodes of the show, and Adlon is crucial to making it work. After the “Subway” portion, a wonderfully surreal bit of NYC worship, the rest of the episode basically consists of Louie and Pamela coming to realize the limits of their friendship. “You think I’m awesome, I think you’re OK, it’s just the way it is – we need to admit that, or just walk away,” she seems to joke early on, but there’s more than a grain of truth to that sentiment. But after he makes her laugh with a cruder-than-usual scatalogical gag, Louie finds the courage to confess his love to her, albeit with the disclaimer that he’s fully aware his feelings aren’t reciprocated. His speech evokes the peculiar sensation of sickly, unrequited love, in which you feel orders beneath the object of affection. Best of all, CK sticks to his creative guns, and honors the characters: Pamela is moved, but not enough to change her mind, and her fleeting offer near the end of the episode to “take a bath” with him serves as just another inadvertent twist of the knife. “Pamela” goes for bigger, broader emotional beats than we’re used to from Louie, but it delivers them with its trademark honesty and panache.

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The Newsroom (No, Not That One)

This Sunday marks the premiere of Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO one-hour, The Newsroom. The early reviews are more or less in line with what I was expecting from the promotional materials: according to sterling types like Mo Ryan and Alan Sepinwall, it’s self-serious, unconvincing, and possibly even a little misogynistic. I’m sure we’ll discuss the pilot on the next edition of The Televerse, but in the meantime, why not check out the probably-far-superior 1996 series of the same name?

A media satire and mock-doc-style sitcom, Ken Finkleman’s series isn’t perfect, but it seems to predict about a dozen series that followed. The shooting style and aloof, casually offensive protagonist (George Findlay, played by Finkleman) presages The Office, the takedown of news-industry self-infatuation connects to The Colbert Report, and the season-ending dive into an elaborate Federico Fellini parody recalls some of Louie‘s flights of stylistic fancy.

Someone took the time to upload the entire first season and post-season special to YouTube; check it out starting below. (Finkleman also produced a second run of episodes in 2004-05, and a film, Escape from the Newsroom, in 2002.) If you need further encouragement, take a listen to the DVD Shelf segment in Televerse 10, where Kate and I discuss the series with Jesse Singer of the Watch It podcast.

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Mixtape: City Sickness(es)

It’s pouring like hell in TO tonight, so now’s as good a time as any to throw this 8tracks mix I cobbled together into the blog…fray. The tracks are left mysteriously tagged on purpose. If you really need a track ID, that’s what the comment box is for.

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Shonda Rhimes, Bunheads, and the Problem of Diversity

It’s not that Shonda Rhimes is wrong, exactly. When she took Bunheads and, by extension, its creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino (Gilmore Girls), to task for not featuring any performers of color (at least in the pilot), she had her own showrunning record to back her up. Rhimes’s heightened ensemble dramas tend to work overtime featuring characters of varying racial backgrounds as well as sexual orientation, so it’s certainly fair that she criticize other showrunners who don’t seem to place the same value on diversity that she does. It’s also true that Sherman-Palladino’s rebuttal – basically, that women in the industry shouldn’t attack each other, as they have it hard enough already – isn’t exactly inspiring. Would it have been preferable for a male counterpart to level the criticism?

On the other hand, something about Rhimes’s remarks feels “off.” First, there’s this idea that Rhimes requires said diversity so that she can “feel good about [her] kid watching this show.” On one level, that checks out; parents should want to feel that their kids’ realities are reflected in the pop culture they consume. On another, Rhimes shortchanges what Sherman-Palladino is up to with Bunheads, and maybe shortchanges her kids in the process. The dancers on Bunheads might all be white, but they’re very different in terms of body type and disposition, and the way the show looks frankly at how one’s biological makeup can affect one’s future, particularly in the context of ballet (and by extension, performing arts in general), is refreshingly frank. The show features young girls grappling with their shapes and abilities in a very real way, moreso even than on the likes of supposedly-adult fare like Smash. As for the race issue, as long as the writing is honest and the characterization is clear, why should Rhimes’s kids not be able to forge connections with the girls of Bunheads? While the lack of racial diversity isn’t ideal, surely the fact that these kids are dealing with very real issues of self-esteem and expectation should resonate with kids of just about any racial or cultural background.

That’s why the diversity issue is so thorny: isolating one show and complaining about its shortcomings on this front seems to miss the point. When similar accusations were thrown at Girls, for example, it seemed to me to be a very odd choice for a target. Why isolate a show that’s going out of its way to depict a certain demographic’s reality in such an unusually upfront fashion? To put it more generally, isn’t it more worth our time and effort to applaud shows that manage to communicate classically television-unfriendly truths than to cut them down over an issue that’s far too great in scope for any one show to properly address?

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Podcast: Televerse 42 – Girls Season One w/ Adam Kempenaar, and more

In the latest episode of The Televerse over at Sound on Sight, my usual cohort Kate Kulzick was sadly absent, but in her stead I got to talk to Adam Kempenaar of the mighty Filmspotting about the just-completed first season of HBO’s Girls. After that, in a pre-recorded segment, Kate and I are joined by Lindsay Wood for a lengthy DVD Shelf on the iconic Twin Peaks. Stream or download it over at Sound on Sight.

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Formants: Manic Street Preachers, “The Holy Bible” [UK, 1994]

Looking back at records that helped to shape my listening habits. AKA the stuff I loved in high school and still make a point of revisiting regularly.

Because we live in a strange and irrational world, there are doubtless still a few out there who are certain that Richey Edwards is still out there somewhere. Should the guitarist and lyricist’s 1995 disappearance have turned out to be some kind of situationist put-on, to be sure, it wouldn’t have been entirely out of step with his band’s artistic and PR moves of the period. His childhood friends and bandmates in Manic Street Preachers – vocalist/guitarist James Dean Bradfield, bassist Nicky Wire, and drummer Sean Moore – wound up as test subjects of sorts in 1994, when Edwards presented them with his most abstruse, incendiary set of lyrics to date, and were expected to write music around them. The resulting album, The Holy Bible, was in a way just another gambit in a career made up of left turns and awkward grandstands. This was the same band who claimed that if their debut album, Generation Terrorists, didn’t go ten times platinum, they’d set themselves on fire on Top of the Pops; neither occurred. (While promoting The Holy Bible, they settled for donning balaclavas on the aforementioned program.) By October 1996, Wire, the band’s remaining lyricist, had discovered a newfound love of housework, so far had his reactionary streak abated. Edwards’s death seemed to domesticate the band – though they still produced, and continue to produce, plenty of worthy material.

The Holy Bible, then, represents the last time the band sounded dangerous, truly a separate beast from their Britrock contemporaries. “Yes,” the opener, establishes the record’s tone and intent even before Bradfield makes an appearance, through the first of the record’s many samples, this one from a documentary about prostitution. “You can buy her; this one here, this one here, this one here…everything’s for sale.” Bought and sold before the chords even kick in. Bradfield, the band’s principal musical architect, devises a novel verse rhythm, alternating between 7/8 and standard time, in order to better accommodate Edwards’s alternately clipped and verbose lyrics, which seem to detail the life of a prostitute. If you’ve never heard the Manics before, Bradfield’s voice is likely the first thing to perk up your ears. Sounding very much like a choirboy with anger management issues, he’s a perfect medium for Edwards’s mercurial pen, his voice both sonorous and prickly. Just in his delivery of the opening lines (“For sale / dumb cunt’s same dumb questions / Virgins? Listen / All virgins are liars, honey”), you can detect notes of both empathy and snide dismissal. There’s hardly a moment on the record that doesn’t feel in some way self-contradictory, and Bradfield’s versatile vocals reflect that uneasiness wonderfully. The song’s inwardly hateful chorus, too, manages to transform a mouthful into a hook: “I eat and I dress and I wash / and I can still say ‘thank you’ / puking, shaking sinking / I still stand for old ladies / can’t shout, can’t scream / I hurt myself to get pain out,” sung in a manner that feels both measured and literally breathless. Nirvana’s In Utero may have been the album’s chief inspiration, but Bradfield’s carefully considered cadences are the polar opposite of a tortured howler like Cobain. Still, as it turns out, you can’t spell “grace” without r a g e.

(The Youtube link above is from the US mix of the album. The standard – and correct – line is that this mix is superior when it comes to the more musically upbeat tunes, and inferior when it comes to the more atmospheric ones. There are significant differences between the US and original mixes, and both are worth a listen.)

Where Pulp were able to wring a massive hit out of class warfare with the cheeky “Common People” a year later, The Holy Bible takes on social injustice, murder, self-negation, American hypocrisy (no British band so unheard of in the States has ever betrayed such a fascination with it), misogyny, war crimes and racism in a much less audience-friendly manner. “Revol” ponders the sexual proclivities of tyrants, “Archives of Pain” appropriates (adopts?) a staunch pro-death penalty stance, “The Intense Humming of Evil” ponders the problem of grasping the scope of the Holocaust much as Claude Lanzmann did when crafting his nine-hour documentary Shoah. More stunning, and more off-putting, than any of these, though, is “4st. 7lb.,” a harrowing first-person account of how eating disorders warp the perception of those afflicted. “Trouble is, ‘diet’’s not a big enough word / I wanna be so skinny / that I rot from view.” The band adopts a stuttering, militaristic stance, like Joy Division on stimulants but no happier for it, before a dreamy closing section projects a phony paradise.

Structurally, the songs on The Holy Bible tend to favor an ABCABCDC-style structure, with “pre-chorus” sections that run parallel in length to the choruses and instrumenta/solo breaks (D) that feel like a (not unwelcome) leftover from their Guns n’ Roses-baiting days. The contrast between the unfashionable, even sometimes dated production choices and the bracing lyrics makes for a record that now sounds utterly out of time. That can sometimes grate – the outrageous flanged solo on “Ifwhiteamerica…” still elicits a cringe whenever it arrives – but occasionally allows for stunning moments. Bradfield’s brief-but-lyrical solo, aided by Moore’s insistent drum line, in “This Is Yesterday” might be the album’s sole moment of contentedness. It’s all the more noteworthy for managing to puncture the gloom in a song whose takeaway sentiment is: “Why do anything when you can forget everything?”

The Holy Bible belongs to an exclusive class of voyeur’s rock records: the final testament of the artist in question, knowingly or otherwise. Unlike In Utero, From a Basement on the Hill, or Sketches From my Sweetheart the Drunk, of course, there’s always that collaborative barrier complicating that dynamic. And unlike in the case of Nirvana, the Manics carried on after Edwards’s passing; it likely helps that, despite his centricity in terms of the band’s identity, his instrumental contributions were minimal compared to Bradfield, and he’d only served as principal lyricist on Bible. While many write off the post-Edwards period, the last fifteen-odd years have actually been kind to them, especially when compared to many of their peers. Yes, they mellowed, and yes, the agit-prop tendencies all but fell away (their last gesture in that direction being their 2001 concert in Cuba, with Castro in attendance) but they managed to churn out a few more solid albums and a sizable number of great songs. That’s why many (myself included) were surprised when, in 2009, they announced their intention to make an album out of Edwards’s disused lyrics, to be engineered by Steve Albini, who notably manned the boards for In Utero. It seemed like a step back at best, and a nostalgic cash-in at worst.

The resulting record, Journal for Plague Lovers, is their second- or third-best, benefiting greatly from the returning interplay of Bradfield’s delivery with Edwards’s lacerating words, as well as the relatively pared-down production. Though it contains at least a half-dozen of the band’s best rockers, I’ll always think most fondly of closer “William’s Last Words,” especially the Underworld rework that ends Journal for Plague Lovers Remixes. Featuring a rare vocal turn by Wire, who has described himself as having been the band member closest to Edwards, “Words” gives their departed friend the graceful sendoff not allowed by the pitch-black Bible: “I’m really tired / I’d love to go to sleep and wake up happy / Isn’t it lovely, when the dawn brings the dew? / I’ll be watching over you.” It’s probably a good deal more sentimental than the ‘94 incarnation of the band would have allowed, but it’s an apt way to close the book on their departed friend and collaborator; in his own words, as before, but with the benefit of time’s healing properties.

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