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North Sea Texas

Posted : 6 months, 2 weeks ago on 28 March 2018 03:10 (A review of North Sea Texas)

Never has coming out been such a non-event as it is in North Sea Texas. There’s something refreshing about that, but that’s also part of the problem. Despite there being a pileup of occurrences and incident, nothing seems to matter in the life of the main character, Pim (Jelle Florizoone).


He’s a silent observer throughout his life, never reacting too much to what happens in spite of repeated parental abandonment, unrequited love, and the suffocation of small town life in the 1950s. The Belgian town presented here brushes up to the edges of magical realism in the ways that nothing seems to matter beyond the internal pressures of Pim. He experiences little to no homophobia, winds up with a happy ending, and ends up for the better when his neglectful mother runs off with a travelling carny. Is it realistic? No, but it’s certainly lulling in its quietness and profuseness of kitsch.


North Sea Texas does excel in creating beautiful images and a lovely atmosphere, especially in scenes of erotic tenderness and exploration between Pim and Gino (Mathias Vergels). It manages to create an entirely hermetic world that seems to exist alternately outside and within Pim’s imagination, like he’s some kind of benevolent god creating order and stability in the face of opposition and chaos.


Yet this doesn’t make for a compelling viewing experience as the characters remain in stasis, as if we’re watching them try to emote through amber. Pim is one-note and a bit of a waste of Florizoone’s clear talents as a performer. North Sea Texas is clearly aiming for some kind of emotional catharsis or rapture in its final moments, but it falls limp as its failed to give voice to Pim’s frustration. He’s a dreamer wafting through his gloom in pretty lighting and ambient music playing in the background.

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The Crystals Sing the Greatest Hits, Volume 1

Posted : 6 months, 3 weeks ago on 27 March 2018 08:18 (A review of The Crystals Sing The Greatest Hits Vol. 1)

The Crystals Sing the Greatest Hits, Volume 1 sure enough lives up to that mouth-full of a title, but ol’ Phil is at it again. A whopping four songs here are actually the Ronettes, and there’s no mistaking Ronnie’s voice as a heretofore anonymous member of the group suddenly thrust to the lead. (The songs are “Hot Pastrami,” “Mashed Potato Time,” “The Twist,” and “The Wah Watusi,” which features Nedra Talley on lead.) The two Darlene Love led hits are present as well. How could they not be?


The other six selections? Uniformly great songs from the (actual) Crystals catalog, including the towering “Da Doo Ron Ron,” a song where the nonsense lyrics work as both the euphoria of young love and a wink/nudge towards more carnal possibilities beneath the enforced chastity of the genre. To listen to this is to hear the Wall of Sound erect itself around the voices of Barbara Alston, naïve and sweet, and LaLa Brooks, tough but tender. 

(If you’re wondering why I didn’t highlight that as the standout track, it’s because I don’t like to double-dip choices when I can avoid it. I’m also very fond of their cover of “On Broadway,” and apparently so was Spector as he kept releasing on various Crystals albums.)


DOWNLOAD: “On Broadway”  

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He's a Rebel

Posted : 6 months, 3 weeks ago on 27 March 2018 07:46 (A review of He's a Rebel)

Twist Uptown, both the Crystals and Phil Spector’s first full-length album, was released in early 1962. In 1963, the album was repackaged with the smash hit “He’s a Rebel,” strong follow-up “He’s Sure the Boy I Love,” and aborted single “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)” replacing some of the other songs on the original album. Funny thing about “He’s a Rebel,” despite being released under the group’s name none of the vocals belong to any of the actual Crystals. It’s all Darlene Love and the Blossoms, same with “He’s Sure the Boy I Love.” If you enjoyed Twist Uptown, then you’ll equally enjoy He’s a Rebel, even if some of the songs aren’t actually the Crystals.


DOWNLOAD: “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)”

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Twist Uptown

Posted : 6 months, 3 weeks ago on 27 March 2018 07:34 (A review of Twist Uptown)

It’s not quite the Wall of Sound just yet, but the foundations are clearly being scoped and the bricks picked out. Twist Uptown was the first full-length album from super-producer Phil Spector, and it’s a solid historical document as well as being a uniformly strong pop album. Not quite a masterpiece on par with Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica or A Christmas Gift for You, but damn fine nonetheless.


Songs like “There’s No Other (Like My Baby” and “Uptown” are the earliest glimpses of Spector’s producing genius as he manages to leave ample space for Barbara Alston’s tender vocals to shine in addition to a Spanish-style guitar lick or thundering drum. Harmonies by the other girls in the group enrich the environs of these songs, look at how deepen the ache of “Please Hurt Me” or add a hallucinatory texture to “On Broadway.” The Drifters made that one a classic, but the Crystals turn it from a joyous big-dreamer ideal to a haunted, ethereal dream appearing through the mind’s fog.


There’s plenty of songs on here that reappear on albums like Da Doo Ron Ron: The Best of the Crystals, yet it’s the ones that only appear here that immediately pop out to me. Perhaps it’s because they’re less familiar, or maybe it’s just from the strangeness of a few of them. “Frankenstein Twist” is a hoot as led by LaLa Brooks’ rougher vocals as she demands we all do the title dance. Same goes for “Gee Whiz Look at His Eyes (Twist),” which is one of the many “little symphonies for the kids,” as Spector infamously described his creations, found on here.


If there’s any downside to Twist Uptown it’s this, before the Crystals confidently engaged in both nonsense (“Da Doo Ron Ron”), anthems (“He’s a Rebel”), or winking provocations (“Then He Kissed Me”) they were downbeat romantic pessimists. “I Love You Eddie” finds Alston in love with a boy and competing for his affections with another girl. “Another Country – Another World” keeps the Homefront fires burning while her boyfriend is shipped off overseas, and Alston’s yearning approaches mythic proportions of grief and partial hope. Girl group pop never sounded quite as doomed as it can here.


Still, Twist Uptown proves that Spector’s description of a typical album, something along the lines of two hits singles and ten pieces of junk, was an outright lie. Twist Uptown is both a remarkably strong pop album of sweet/tough vocals and expanding production technique. It’s the growing pains of the Wall of Sound as Spector is just starting to take the recording studio into strange, new territories with his first great pop group. The Crystals would go on to release bigger, better classics, but this remains a strong introduction to the group.


DOWNLOAD: “There’s No Other (Like My Baby)”  

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J to tha L-O! The Remixes

Posted : 7 months ago on 14 March 2018 07:03 (A review of J to tha L-O! The Remixes)

Despite what you might believe, Jennifer Lopez’s voice was never the thing that launched her brief foray as a pop diva. Pop music is dependent upon a personality, which she had, and a look, she was the antithesis to the skinny bleached blonde pop girls. That’s how La Lopez got the number one movie and album at the same time. She was a Bronx girl made good, and she made good with fat beats, bubblegum hooks, and guest spots from of-the-moment rappers.


Charm will get you anywhere and everywhere in pop music. And she has the type that lends itself easily to heavily produced dance-fluff. For some odd reason, J. Lo made a play for one of Mariah Carey’s trademarks: take your biggest hits, remix them entirely as rap-friendly pop/dance songs, and dominate the pop charts with them again. She lacks Carey’s vocal prowess, but it somehow it works more often than it doesn’t.


It’s a heavily dated affair, though. Who really remembers or cares about Ja Rule nowadays? Although he does appear on the best remix here, “Ain’t That Funny (Murder Remix).” Much like the prior “I’m Real (Murder Remix),” it took the basic idea of the original song and title, threw the rest of it out, and built an entirely new, better song from that meager framework. Remember when 50 Cent was the newest rapper on the block? (To be honest, the Nas guest spot on the single version of “I’m Gonna Be Alright” is much better.) Anyone else remember when Fat Joe was her guest rapper of choice before Pitbull came along? P. Diddy still had some producing power and credibility at this time, my how times have changed.


It’s just the producers and guests that carbon date this thing to the early 2000s, but the music itself. “Walking on Sunshine (Metro Remix)” features the signposts of the minor Latin pop explosion and beats that sound like a coke-fueled weekend in Miami around 2002. Same goes for the Darkchild remix of “If You Had My Love,” which sounds so 1999 R&B it hurts AND features a Latin-disco breakdown. While “Let’s Get Loud” and “Play” suffer from their remixes. They were already perfect pieces of junk food dance-pop, and these remixes don’t improve them in any way. In fact, they lose all personality in the process. 

The clichéd and overly saccharine “Alive” ends the album and sticks out like “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” on Madonna’s GHV2. While “Argentina” made logical sense, her soundtrack appearances always kept her career afloat and Evita was a major career milestone, “Alive” is a shoved dubious piece of synergistic promotion. (It was the theme for her then just released film Enough.) 

And yet, J to tha L-O! The Remixes is probably her best album to date. It’s her most consistent at least.


DOWNLOAD: “Ain’t That Funny (Murder Remix)”

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Get It

Posted : 7 months ago on 14 March 2018 04:01 (A review of Get It)

The Lashes debut album, Get It, is an infectious romp, but unlike their contemporaries Hot Hot Heat, the Strokes or Rooney, the Lashes sound like they’re aping their own generation. It’s not terrible; it’s harmless and very safe, but a lot of fun while it lasts. You won’t remember much of it after it ends, much like a sugar high.


And while the Strokes and Hot Hot Heat play alternative music with a pop sensibility, the Lashes are pop hipsters who add a few guitars into the mix. They clearly never developed as lyricists beyond high school (“Sometimes the Sun” features an epic eye-roll of a chorus). It’s not terrible, except for maybe the cliché ridden ballad “Dear Hollywood,” but it is sonic cotton candy.


Think of this as the perfect sugary rush to groove along to on your way towards the beach. Or as the latest thing that your thirteen-year-old sister is in love with. Get It? Eh, not necessarily.


DOWNLOAD: “Yesterday Feels Like a Year”

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Every Breath You Take: The Classics

Posted : 7 months ago on 14 March 2018 03:47 (A review of Every Breath You Take: The Classics)

White boy reggae never sounded as good as it did with the Police’s barrage of stellar singles throughout the early 80s. Every Breath You Take: The Classics lives up to that subtitle even if the track listing is missing a few gems (“So Lonely,” “Synchronicity II,” “The Bed’s Too Big Without You,” just to name a few) that could have easily taken the place of the two remixes at the end. Still, the twelve songs chosen here really are the best of the best from Sting and the boys.


We begin with the impassioned pleas of “Roxanne,” and we only get better from there. The Police were one of the best bands of their generation, let alone to come out of the New Wave scene, and one of their first great pop songs was a love poem to a prostitute that Sting delivers with a mixture of jealousy and heartache. Even better is the follow-up, “Can’t Stand Losing You,” which shimmies and grooves with its ska-adjacent beat.


Nothing beats “Message in a Bottle” for its scope, feeling, and spongy reggae swagger. The Police really hit their stride when it comes to massively catchy and enduring singles with their second album, Regatta de Blanc, and just kept the hits coming in successive years. The line-up of essential material makes enough of an argument for itself: “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” “Every Breath You Take,” “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da.”


Every Breath You Take: The Classics really launches itself towards “must buy” territory through one simple fact: it’s the best single-disc assortment of the Police’s career on the market. The two-disc The Police is an all-around better collection, but it’s so massive and sprawling that many a casual fan may balk at the sheer scope. And Message in a Box: The Complete Recordings is out-of-print and a gargantuan retrospective including every single album and B-side in one place. Greatest Hits is a UK import, but its sixteen tracks does tip the scales in its favor. Good luck finding it in the states.


If all you want is the purest distillation of the Police, then you’ll find it here. Or, if you’re not sure where to start with their career, here is a damn fine primer for the rest of their albums. The inner band friction made their music great, and for all of the limelight that Sting’s sensational voice and bass playing got, it’s impossible to imagine the band sounding quite the same without Andy Summers’ guitar and Stewart Copeland’s drums.


You need a reminder of what a great band the Police were? Here’s twelve.


DOWNLOAD: “Message in a Bottle” 

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The Best of Village People

Posted : 7 months ago on 13 March 2018 09:30 (A review of The Best of Village People)

The Best of Village People displays that they were a great party band, and a reminder of just how silly, camp, and dumb they were. Their songs remain anthems for stadiums and awkward drunken dancing at wedding receptions. Come on, everyone’s had to suffer through watching their older relatives embarrass themselves trying to do the dance to “YMCA.”


Twelve songs is already an amount of Village People that’s pushing it for the casual fan, and the two album-versions of evergreen tracks “In the Navy” and “YMCA” are superfluous. The Best of Village People still finds all of their major songs, including the chanting “Macho Man” and elegiac “Go West,” in one place next to lesser-known singles, “Ready for the 80s” and “Can’t Stop the Music.” This is all well and good, but do songs like “Hot Cop” and “Fire Island” really qualify as “the best” this group has to offer?


That’s the major rub with this best of collection: there’s just not enough material to justify even twelve songs, never mind repeating two of them to bloat it out to fourteen songs and 75 minutes. All you really need is about an EP’s worth of material to get your gayest disco inferno imaginable. That’s the problem with a group that’s basically a living cartoon, too much exposure to it and the novelty rubs off revealing the thinness of the idea/material in the first place.


Or maybe you just won’t pay close enough attention while the disco beats keep pumping and the party keeps bumping.


DOWNLOAD: “Macho Man”

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Phantom Thread

Posted : 7 months ago on 13 March 2018 08:22 (A review of Phantom Thread)

Paul Thomas Anderson traffics in films that are purposefully oblique. They are sustained on mood, on character, on a ripeness of visual poetry that recalls the titans of cinema in a way that refracts them like a funhouse mirror. Phantom Thread, for all of its straight-ahead narrative propulsion, is as fascinatingly opaque as The Master or Magnolia.


Not only is there a sense of tightly-wound control from the first frame, but there’s a palpable sense of unease as to where this is going for a long period of time. Open with a harsh white background and the title in ornately circular script and a sound of organized noise or elegantly controlled feedback. If you’re getting the sense that you’re about to engage in an old-fashioned gothic romance, then you’re right.


The world of Reynolds Woodcock is one of both meticulous routine and an ominous sense that everything will explode in either violence or carnality, maybe both, at any moment. His co-dependent relationship with his sister, Cyril, is one that extends from the professional to the personal as she functions as both sister, matron, assistant, schoolmarm, and drill sergeant. She never rises her voice above a clipped, patient tone that exudes icy dominance and remove even when trying to display kindness or give a compliment.


Like a sacrificial lamb stumbles an innocent, Alma, the latest in a long line of dewy woman functioning as muses and goddess for Woodcock before he grows bored of them and sends them packing with cruel efficiency through Cyril’s machinations. Yet there’s something about Alma, a core of steely resolve, a rebellious streak, a refusal to merely placate egos and function as an object. It is through her that we hear this story, and we’re never quite sure about how truthful her words are at any given moment.


Yet it’s that sense of unease that makes Phantom Thread so absorbing. For all of the outward beauty of the clothes and settings, for all of the considerable sex appeal that Daniel Day-Lewis contains, there’s a burbling sense that something is never quite “right” about anything happening in this world. It all appears orderly and measured, immaculate and luxuriant, a world where a shadow contains much portent of things to come.


Anderson has frequently flirted with magical realism or outright dipped into near-biblical imagery, and Phantom Thread is possibly his most outward concession to unreality yet. Reynolds Woodcock sees his mother while sick in bed, and we have no reason to believe that his spectral presence is a mere hallucination. Death and ghosts of things past haunt the Woodcock’s palatial rooms and relationships.


Reynolds and Cyril are both committed to the legacy of the Woodcock fashion house. Both operate under the illusion that any piece of couture will last forever, and maybe they will but there’s no way to know or guarantee posterity despite their best efforts. It is in this obsession with death and legacy that Phantom Thread first shows its gothic romance cards, as it is also here that the ghost of Woodcock’s mother appears. Suddenly you’re connecting Phantom Thread to works like Wuthering Heights and Rebecca, and the threads (no pun intended, I promise) connecting them become a fairly straight line.


Then the relationship with Alma takes on stranger contours and actions. He reveals a certain superstitious center to his character early on when he admits to putting messages into the dresses he makes for his clients, there’s a particularly loaded one for a princess that I won’t reveal, as if he’s either blessing the garments or trying to exorcise them from his personal demons. Alma begins as a passive listener to this, filing it away for future use, and becoming a blank form for him to sculpt.


Sculpt he does, but Alma quickly reveals herself as someone malcontent with living her life in so passive a manner. She upends his orderly life and rebels against his complicated rules and regulations, throws his routines into disarray and asserts her power over him with some surprising choices. A late scene where she delivers a monologue about wanting him kept on his back flashes a kinkier, more disturbed side to this relationship and Alma’s character than we had previously been allowed to witness.


Naturally, much of Phantom Thread is about pageantry, how could it not be when the main character is a couturier, and power. That crosses over into the central triangle of the film. Reynolds and Alma duel and love with such ferocity that the twin points became an equilibrium between the characters. Reynolds starts off as the one with all the power in the relationship, but Alma subverts his expectations and throws his routine out the window to recreate another with her at the center. Where does this leave Cyril in the end? She was the original hidden, guiding hand of Woodcock up to this point, and we don’t get a clear answer. She does not give us her place in her brother’s life easily, that much is clear.


There’s no easy answers here, as there aren’t in many of Anderson’s films post-Punch Drunk Love since they’ve gotten increasingly austere and esoteric. Frankly, I enjoying trying to limn the mysteries of his films, especially if they contain performances as impeccable and magnetic as Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville, and Vicky Krieps are here. Day-Lewis is no surprise, but Manville manages to not only hold the scene with him but overpower him at certain points, which is no small feat and a point to underscore the fact that Day-Lewis’ Reynolds is a man who wants to domineered and disciplined by a motherly figure in a persistent state of organized chaos and soothing love. Krieps takes that baton and runs with it into a perverse place that places their love as both nurturing and a model of erotic power imbalances.


Phantom Thread was a shock to me, but in the best of ways. It presents a triangle of people as an every changing organism where power gets displaced as often as the wind blows. If this isn’t one of 2017’s best films, then I don’t know what else could possibly compare.   

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Posted : 7 months ago on 13 March 2018 06:46 (A review of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)

Treating prickly subject matter with a carelessness and shock-and-awe grandstanding does not a great film make. No, no amount of verbal pyrotechnics about topics like racism, sexism, and culpability can mask the fact that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is flippant about things like character development or narrative coherency. It speaks in broad strokes, more like a caps lock, but it doesn’t engage in any of its idea in any meaningful way.


Even worse is how Three Billboards treats epithets like they’re the Molotov cocktails that Mildred hurls at the police station – moments of rage thrown out to whip a reaction out of you with no follow-through or repercussions. From accusing a pirest of “altar-boy fucking” to hurling out loaded racial language to engender a guffaw or tongue-click from its white liberal audience, Three Billboards is more about titillation than it is about engagement with its ideas and themes.


Case in point, a scene where Mildred’s ex-husband comes barreling into her home, attacks their son, and his current, younger girlfriend walks in on the altercation. There’s no payoff here. We’re told throughout that he was an abusive man, but all we get is this one scene and there’s deeper significance to this scene, there’s no reaction from his younger girlfriend other than to turn tail and walk away, it’s as if this scene exists merely to underscore’s Mildred’s reasons for anger and vigilante justice. It’s just sloppy writing. How does this scene of violence affect her son? How does this affect his relationship with his younger girlfriend?


This sloppiness extends outward as character’s make improbable 180 turns or choices that come out of nowhere. A racist cop that plays out like a bumbling idiot suddenly demonstrates not only an interior complexity that materializes out of thin air, but a brand new outlook on life that is unearned. Not to mention a brain power that we haven’t even gotten a tease about before the script needs him to suddenly be smarter. And this is all after numerous scenes of him beating up innocent civilians, including throwing one out of a window.


For all the arguments that the various players in making this film have given about how these characters aren’t actually redeemed in the end, you wouldn’t know it from the musical cues and vague enough ending that can easily read as a redemption. Individual scenes in Three Billboards work beautifully to build something thorny and jagged about tough issues, but then they turn around and fly around making choices because the script demands it not because it endemic to their character growth.


This doesn’t even begin to broach the topic of race in this movie. Here is a movie happy to talk about police brutality against minority communities and keep them largely off-screen. It reads as hollow virtue signaling and a half-formed idea. We’re merely told that these things exist and never grapple with them, and it only feeds into Mildred’s character journey of fighting the power and shaking the rafters. It’s deployed with a callousness that’s galling, or served up as a punchline, take your pick which is worse.


Where Three Billboards excels, and it really excels here, is in its trio of leading performances. Not that they can overcome the speechifying of the script, but they manage to make a meal out of its ostentatious dialog. Woody Harrelson gives us a performance that reminds us of just how underpraised an actor he is, quite possibly containing one of the largest ranges of his generation. Sam Rockwell possibly has the hardest role here as he’s the racist cop that gets the redemption without the reckoning, and he must walk that fine line. His natural charisma and decades-long character actor bona fides keep his performance moving, as does his affinity for the grooves and textures of the Martin McDonagh’s writing. It’s a showy role and Rockwell manages to make a coherent person where the script does not.


Same goes for Frances McDormand who lends her naturally flinty and gruff persona to a role that can not only carry that weight, but demands it in order to work. Mildred never asks for our sympathy or understanding, even when the film does and protects her from too harsh of consequences with her whiteness. McDormand’s performance is a late-career masterpiece from an actress that’s at her best with characters that are nearly impossible to play on the page, ones who are hard to love and go to improbably dark parts of their psyche. Even when Three Billboards fails to rise to her masterful performance, McDormand is never less than astounding to watch.

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