Friday Music Focus: 6/23/17

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Friday Music Focus returns with eleven brand-new or recent songs to enrich your sonic experiences in 2017.

Courtney Barnett, “How to Boil an Egg” (single, 2017). From a YouTube user comment: “0/10. recipe was difficult to follow, eggs were terrible.”

Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie,”On with the Show” (appears on the album Buckingham/McVie, 2017). It’s not easy to write a good pop song. It’s probably even more trouble for artists who have been around for decades, constantly being compared and contrasted with the entirety of their own lengthy history. To be totally frank about my own music-awareness deficiencies, I don’t know the entire Fleetwood Mac songbook, so I’m not judging Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie’s new duets album (described by The Guardian’s Jude Rogers as “like togetherness put on, not poured out” and by Pitchfork’s Sean T. Collins as “fun—just not fundamental”) against the weight of a half-century-long catalog. I am therefore delighted to be so unbiased as to consider “On with the Show” a pop gem. In fact, it gives me the same joy that case/lang/veirs’ lovely tune “Best Kept Secret” did last year. How could that possibly be a bad thing?

The Dirty Dishes (Zoe Lister-Jones, Adam Pally and Fred Armisen), “Love and Lies” (music video made for the film Band Aid, 2017, dir. Zoe Lister-Jones; studio version appears on the album The Dirty Dishes EP, 2017). The new movie Band Aid, which was written and directed by Zoe Lister-Jones, stars Lister-Jones and Adam Pally as a couple who tackle the thorny problems in their marriage by writing and performing songs in a band they form in their garage. The trio is rounded out by a neighbor (played by Fred Armisen) as their unendingly kooky drummer. “Love and Lies” is the best of the movie’s original songs, and its music video (also directed by Zoe Lister-Jones) points out the fact that the film had an all-female crew behind the scenes; seeing Armisen pretentiously micromanage the video shoot is icing on the cake.

Feist featuring Stephen Colbert, “Century” (performed on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” 6/6/17; studio version, featuring Jarvis Cocker, appears on the album Pleasure, 2017). My favorite track on Leslie Feist’s new album is updated with a contribution with my #1 late night talk show host. From the guitar riffs to the stage setup to the outfit worn by Feist, has there been a more satisfying musical performance than this on TV all spring?

Marika Hackman, “Boyfriend” (music video; studio version appears on the album I’m Not Your Man, 2017). Despite a glaring likeness to Radiohead’s “My Iron Lung,” Marika Hackman’s first single from her sophomore album (after 2015’s We Slept at Last) is an undeniable earworm. It has been called a riposte “to ignorant boys who try to delegitimize and objectify lesbian relationships,” or in Hackman’s words, “payback for all those times I’ve been interrupted mid-snog by some seedy wanker asking to join in.”

Hudson Mohawke featuring Remy Banks, “Passports” (from the “Silicon Valley” soundtrack, 2017). The artists at the helm of the HBO sitcom “Silicon Valley” have an unrivaled track record for choosing the perfect song to play over any given episode’s end credits. “Passports” appeared at the end of last Sunday’s episode, “Hooli-Con,” and if we are to believe the lyrics as foreshadowing, the song points to the possibility that Richard and the rest of the Pied Piper team will need to flee the country in this Sunday’s season finale (long story short: they committed cyber crimes). The “Silicon Valley” gang is usually the least cool bunch of dudes in the room, so the decision as to which song will cleverly underline that basic precept is incredibly important. “Passports” does that to the max in just over two minutes; it even seems to evoke the subplot involving Erlich Bachman’s (T.J. Miller) voyage to Tibet with the somewhat Eastern-sounding instrumentation.

Lorde, “Sober II (Melodrama)” (appears on the album Melodrama, 2017). I don’t hide the fact that I have never really joined in on the Lorde bandwagon. (The world seems to consider her the most talented young singer-songwriter around, but all I see is a Kate Bush wannabe utilizing current pop hooks.) It is therefore no surprise that Lorde’s new album, Melodrama, which is being applauded by journalists on every continent (I wouldn’t dream of making assumptions and excluding Antarctica), doesn’t wow me. The two songs that work for me, however, are the exuberantly upbeat “Green Light,” which has grown on me immensely in the last few months, and “Sober II (Melodrama),” about which I wrote these words after first hearing it: “oddly tantalizing – the strings make me finally feel the emotion that the album claims to be focused on – I wish the song lasted longer.” There may be hope yet for me as a potential Lorde devotee.

Ride, “Lannoy Point” (appears on the album Weather Diaries, 2017). “We’ll be wiser when we fall/Like the dinosaurs before/When we’ve swept ourselves away/A better sense can start again,” sings Mark Gardner on the opening track of Weather Diaries, the new album from British shoegaze/dream pop/Britpop band Ride (returning after a two-decade hiatus). The group takes on modern politics and Brexit, the aftershocks of which are felt throughout the album and give Ride a fresh (though, of course, obviously unwanted) source of inspiration for their new music.

Sigrid, “Don’t Kill My Vibe” (music video; studio version appears on the album Don’t Kill My Vibe EP, 2017). I don’t know much about Sigrid, a twenty-year-old singer-songwriter from Norway, but I was so impressed by her performance of this song on “The Late Late Show” last month that I’ve been replaying the single ever since. It’s a simple and effective pop song, the kind that instantly and happily lodges itself in your brain.

Slowdive, “Don’t Know Why” (appears on the album Slowdive, 2017). Like Ride, British shoegaze pioneers Slowdive spent two decades on hiatus. Their recent return with a self-titled album has garnered stellar praise, and “Don’t Know Why” is a beautiful highlight that pays homage to the shimmering, melting guitar tones of one of the group’s influences, Cocteau Twins. I hope that I get to hear this particular song when I see Slowdive in concert this November; I’m sure the reverb must be heavenly in person.

Texas, “Great Romances” (appears on the album Jump on Board, 2017). Like the critically lambasted Buckingham/McVie album, Texas has been derided for blandness. It’s not clear to me exactly what critics want out of frontwoman Sharleen Spiteri and her bandmates; they first appeared on the Scottish alternative rock scene in the mid-80s, so maybe the British music press is just bored with them. But I ask you: what’s wrong with a song like “Great Romances,” an enjoyable little number that bounces along? Sure, it borrows the beat from the classic Angels hit “My Boyfriend’s Back,” but is that a worse musical crime than Ed Sheeran copying TLC?

Friday Music Focus: 3/31/17

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Today we look at six songs connected to cinema and the power of storytelling. Dramatist and composer Neil Brand once described the effect of hearing music in films, which can be a thrilling experience from the moment the lights go down in a theater: “The darkness, the strangers, the anticipation, the warm comfortable embrace of the cinema seat. We’re ready to experience some big emotions, and the minute the music booms out, we are on board for the ride. Human beings are very good at interpreting sound. Right back to when our prehistoric selves will have heard a twig snap in a forest and thought ‘that’s it, I’m dead.’ We have a very deep understanding of what music is doing, and it’s very physical. We can feel it going into our ears via sound waves and it can produce all sorts of physical responses, including in the right circumstances an actual thud to the stomach.”

Francis Monkman, “Main Title” (from the score for the film The Long Good Friday, 1980, dir. John Mackenzie; subsequent scene from same film). Bob Hoskins’ breakout big-screen role was as Harold Shand, the kingpin of the London underworld in The Long Good Friday, director John Mackenzie’s cinematic retelling of Macbeth updated for the gritty early 80s. Regardless of whether you’re keen on the dated musical stylings of composer Francis Monkman, there is no denying that Harold’s introductory scene is the embodiment of cool. Bob Hoskins walks through the airport as though Harold’s theme music were playing in his head.

Jools Holland, “Morse Code” (appears on the album Jools Holland Meets Rock “A” Boogie Billy, 1984; subsequent scene from the film Near Dark, 1987, dir. Kathryn Bigelow). From an essay published by Bloody Disgusting: “Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, Near Dark is something of a companion piece to James Cameron’s Aliens, released one year prior. Granted, the films have nothing to do with one another, but what they do share is a few key cast members – Cameron and Bigelow were dating at the time, and when Aliens wrapped, three actors leapt from outer space to the southwest. Lance Henriksen and Jenette Goldstein, who played Bishop and Vasquez in Aliens, star in the horror-western, but the real star of the show was Bill Paxton, who absolutely stole said show as the vampire Severen.

“…In what is easily one of the horror genre’s very best scenes, our band of villainous antiheroes arrive at a local watering hole; Severen leads the charge as they proceed to make the establishment their own and lay waste to anyone who’s not down with that. Cracking wise, walking across the bar top and kicking ass, Paxton is at his scenery-chewing best in the infamous Near Dark bar sequence, displaying every bit of the screen presence that made him such a beloved entertainer.

“Revisiting the scene today, I realized that it sums up why Bill Paxton has always been one of my favorite actors. Whether he was playing a good guy or a bad guy, making you laugh, cry, or fear for your life, Paxton was always the most likable and charismatic actor in the room; Severen entering the bar and completely taking over is not unlike Paxton’s own screen dominance in the films he was in. In both Aliens and Near Dark, the ensemble casts are stacked from top to bottom with incredible actors, but it was Paxton who managed to shine the brightest – there’s a reason you remember his lines above all else. His was the best character in nearly every single movie he was in, bringing unmatched confidence, charm and personality to each of those roles.”

P.S. Fun fact: the last line in the scene above, which is one of the most famous quotes from Near Dark, was improvised by Bill Paxton.

The Cramps, “Fever” (appears on the album Songs the Lord Taught Us, 1980; subsequent scene from the film Near Dark, 1987, dir. Kathryn Bigelow). From an essay published by Digital Spy: “’Finger-lickin’ good!’ howls Severen as he struts and gluts, with [Bill] Paxton’s mesmerising energy perhaps explained by the B12 injection he took prior to shooting in an effort to quash a migraine. We might not see any elongated incisors in Near Dark, but the cast sure sink their teeth into the furniture during this boisterous scene.” (More on that migraine at the beginning of this video interview with Bill Paxton.)

Eddy Dixon, “Relentless” (appears on the soundtrack of the film The Loveless, 1981, dirs. Kathryn Bigelow and Monty Montgomery). Watching Near Dark reminded me of how much I love the theme song that plays throughout Kathryn Bigelow’s debut feature film, The Loveless. Listening to “Relentless” again right after Jools Holland and the Cramps, I realize just how much Bigelow must love rockabilly, especially since she gave one of the main acting roles in The Loveless to rockabilly icon Robert Gordon.

Sheryl Crow, “Tomorrow Never Dies” (opening credits sequence from the film Tomorrow Never Dies, 1997, dir. Roger Spottiswoode). Both the film Tomorrow Never Dies and its title theme song by Sheryl Crow have gotten flak over the years for supposedly being lesser offerings from the James Bond franchise. OK, so maybe the movie is mediocre by the series’ standards, but I quite like the tune. It more than meets the requirements for Bondian flair, although Crow’s song is closer in spirit to the laid-back vibe of Nancy Sinatra’s “You Only Live Twice” than to the Sturm und Drang sound of Adele’s “Skyfall.” And anyway, Tomorrow Never Dies (the film, not the song) isn’t totally without merit; I love the scene with Vincent Schiavelli as a German hitman straight out of a comic strip, and I also enjoy the creepy main villain played by Jonathan Pryce. Pryce’s media mogul, Elliot Carver, is a power-mad billionaire who thrives on the exploitation of the world’s failures, traumas and bloodshed. When the usual gory headlines aren’t enough to satisfy his thirst for tragedy, Carver has his henchmen carry out violent attacks that pit the militaries of several nations against one another. It’s not fake news; it’s real news of Carver’s own design. Do we see any current-day parallels and worrying future eventualities here?

The Passions, “I’m in Love with a German Film Star” (appears on the album Thirty Thousand Feet Over China, 1981). A great song draws you in by telling a compelling story with its lyrics and its music; a really great song hooks you by suggesting an intriguing scenario just by the title alone. Then, when you hear the song: do you muse on who the German film star is, whether he’s a real person? Does it even matter, when you can imagine up your own fantasy based on the dreamy guitar by Clive Timperley and the vocals by Barbara Gogan?

The Passions’ legacy is that of a one-hit wonder band because of “Film Star,” which was the only charting single (it hit #25) of their brief career (they released three albums in the consecutive years of 1980-1982; they disbanded in 1983). Many other post-punk and New Wave bands are better remembered, but few made songs with the timeless staying power of “I’m in Love with a German Film Star.” Listening to it is like being enveloped in the welcoming darkness of a movie theater, maybe a small one like the kind where you might find the German matinee idol’s films playing.

Friday Music Focus: 3/17/17

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While I was putting today’s list of five songs/compositions together, I came across this quote from Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan: “People make decisions that may have one intent and yet are somehow perverted into something else. And sometimes it’s because of design. Sometimes it’s because of happenstance. But very often, it’s mysterious to them.” Food for thought.

Bette Davis, “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy” (scene from the film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, 1962, dir. Robert Aldrich). Just in time for the new FX mini-series “Feud: Bette and Joan,” I watched What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, featuring Bette Davis’s virtuoso performance as a former child star who grew older but never grew up. Ernest Haller’s stark cinematography makes “Baby Jane” look like a frightening wax figurine of Mary Pickford or some other silent star, a face that seems to be melting under the tonnage of caked-on stage makeup and still-golden ringlets. Simultaneously, Victor Buono, playing Edwin Flagg (the accompanist), offers his own master class in reactions to Jane’s grotesque exhibition.

Billy Idol, “Eyes Without a Face” (appears on the album Rebel Yell, 1983). Heard last night while walking past a store on Sixth Avenue (the chorus’s “Les yeux sans visage…” line sung by Perri Lister, wafting dreamily out of a speaker); I haven’t thought about this song in ages. I like to think that Billy Idol decided on the title before writing the song, either because he appreciated the 1960 horror film by Georges Franju, or just because it sounded to Idol and co-songwriter Steve Stevens like a cool name for a song. The lyrics don’t exactly connect with the title, but should that matter if the melody is memorable?

Peter Haycock, Derek Holt and Paul Di Franco (film score composers) featuring Eric Gale (guitar), “Closing Credits” (from the end credits of the film One False Move, 1992, dir. Carl Franklin). The year is young, but One False Move is definitely one of the finest films I have seen in 2017. Set in Los Angeles, on the highways of the Southwest and in the small town of Star City, Arkansas, the story combines film noir and Western genre elements in a uniquely blended crime drama that provided Bill Paxton with an excellent leading role (a naive rube of a sheriff who eventually learns that real crime can be vicious and bloody; imagine Fargo, but with a male lead instead of Frances McDormand). The film also granted superb supporting roles to Billy Bob Thornton (who co-wrote the original screenplay), Cynda Williams (who married Billy Bob shortly after filming wrapped in 1990, though they divorced in 1992), Michael Beach (a solid supporting actor for the last thirty years) and Natalie Canerday (who worked with Billy Bob again in Sling Blade, and later played Michael Shannon’s mother in Shotgun Stories).

P.S. If you want an additional endorsement: Gene Siskel gave One False Move the #1 spot on his list of the top ten best films of 1992 (his explanation for his choice starts at the 16:40 mark in the linked video).

Leonard Cohen featuring Sharon Robinson, “Everybody Knows” (appears on the album I’m Your Man, 1988; subsequent scene from the film Exotica, 1994, dir. Atom Egoyan). “Everybody knows, everybody knows/That’s how it goes/Everybody knows.” The Exotica nightclub is where the lives of several Toronto citizens intersect: stripper Christina (Mia Kirshner), tax/revenue agent Francis (Bruce Greenwood), rare egg smuggler Thomas (Don McKellar) and club owner Zoe (Arsinée Khanjian), as well as other characters who don’t appear in this particular clip – Eric (Elias Koteas), the club emcee who is obsessed with dancer Christina; Francis’s brother Harold (Victor Garber) and niece Tracey (Sarah Polley); the unnamed customs official (Calvin Green) who has a one-night stand with Thomas, putting Thomas’s contraband operation in jeopardy. These characters have messy pasts that have left them damaged psychologically and, in one case, also physically.

Atom Egoyan’s Exotica is a potent cocktail of sensuality and fatalism.  And if one has to perform stripteases in order to make a living, as Christina must do every night for the Exotica clientele, then what better soundtrack for one to disrobe to than the soul-baring songbook of Leonard Cohen?

James Horner, “The Launch” (from the score composed for the film Apollo 13, 1995, dir. Ron Howard). While watching Apollo 13 again and listening to Ron Howard’s commentary track, I was struck by the dignity of James Horner’s score in the scene when the NASA spacecraft embarks on its “successful failure” of a lunar mission. The secret to Horner’s success was his ability to respectfully represent the power of ordinary people accomplishing extraordinary feats, especially when they are faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Friday Music Focus: 3/3/17

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Today we look at six songs/score compositions that occasionally mix the political with the personal, sometimes because of the musical content and sometimes because of my own experiences and reflections.

Michael Shannon, “Russians” (performed on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” 2/28/17; song originally performed by Sting on the album The Dream of the Blue Turtles, 1985). This is everything that a great cover version should aspire to be: funny, strange, substituting the word “chicken” in place of “children” in one line (because why not?). In this unpredictable, often unsettling world we live in, it’s good to know that one of America’s finest actors can also be crowned the king of karaoke.

Ryan Adams, “Outbound Train” (appears on the album Prisoner, 2017). What is it about this particular song that I like so much even though I have never cared for Ryan Adams’ music? Almost a week after first listening to his latest album, Prisoner, in its entirety, I’m still working on the answer.

Ride, “Charm Assault” (single, 2017). And now we have an unquestionably great new song, brought to you by a British band that charmed fans in the early-to-mid-90s with stellar tunes like “Dreams Burn Down,” “Twisterella” and “Black Nite Crash” before going on a twenty-year hiatus. 2016 and 2017 have been exciting times for British bands of yesteryear: The Stone Roses released two new singles, Lush briefly reunited twenty years after breaking up for a successful EP and tour in 2016 before disbanding again; Slowdive returned after two decades with the terrific single “Star Roving”; plus it looks like we’ll be welcoming Elastica back too.

Martini Ranch, “How Can the Labouring Man Find Time for Self-Culture?” (music video; studio version appears on the album Poor Cow, 1988) and New Order, “Touched by the Hand of God” (music video; song appears on the soundtrack of the film Salvation!, 1987, dir. Beth B). The late, great Bill Paxton made appearances in a number of music videos in the 1980s – anyone who adores Pat Benatar has probably seen the World War II-set video for “Shadows of the Night,” in which Paxton has a small role as a Nazi radio operator, and if you’re a Barnes & Barnes fan, you will undoubtedly recall the promos created for “Fish Heads” (which Paxton also directed) and “Soak It Up” (one of the duo’s more conventional-sounding songs) – but my two favorite appearances by Paxton are in a video for a song by his own band, Martini Ranch, and in the video for New Order’s “Touched by the Hand of God.” Both clips riff on pop culture; “Labouring Man” references the themes and visual style of the classic Fritz Lang sci-fi film Metropolis (1927), while “Touched” shows New Order’s band members mocking the hair, clothes, and general music-video-storytelling sensibilities during the hair metal era. You barely see Paxton in the New Order video, but there’s something deeply affecting in the way that director Kathryn Bigelow presents the mysterious “love story” involving him and Rae Dawn Chong. Whatever the details in this couple’s existence, the narrative is open to interpretation and imagination.

Most of all, I just really love New Order and “Touched by the Hand of God” is one of my favorite songs by them.

Edward & Alex Van Halen, “Respect the Wind” (plays over the end credits of the film Twister, 1996, dir. Jan de Bont; appears on the soundtrack album, same year). Every fan of American film and television from the last thirty years probably has a go-to Bill Paxton role, something that immediately sticks out as an iconic piece of work that no other actor could have done as well. There are so many characters to choose from in so many productions: The Terminator, Weird Science, Aliens, Near Dark, Predator 2, One False Move, the notoriously freaky cult classic known as Boxing Helena, Tombstone, Apollo 13, Titanic, A Simple Plan, Frailty (which Paxton also directed), the HBO series “Big Love,” the History Channel mini-series “Hatfields & McCoys,” Nightcrawler and the CBS drama “Training Day” (which began airing only a month ago), to name a few. For me, the clear winner is Twister, a film which I will watch whenever it’s on TV, much like another action classic that Jan de Bont also directed in the mid-90s, Speed. (I’d like to note that my second favorite Paxton role is as the fast-talking, pervy car salesman in True Lies, mainly because it was the first film of his that I can remember seeing, albeit in an edited-for-TV format.) Twister feeds my fascination for disaster films, a love that I can trace back to when I was first horrified by The Towering Inferno as a kid; at least with Twister there is a mostly happy resolution and a feeling that human beings understand nature and themselves better at the end than they did at the beginning.

“Bill Paxton fought Aliens and The Terminator, but he was always just a guy from Fort Worth,” according to one recent essay’s headline. Paxton was exactly the sort of actor who the industry – and all of us – take for granted, seeing him play numerous kinds of parts regardless of recognition (or the lack thereof, most often), never being typecast because of his ability to slip back and forth between extraordinarily different roles with ease. He has also been eulogized as an exceptionally nice guy by his family, friends, coworkers and even fans who met him for only a brief moment.

I remember the first time I saw Twister again after Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, which made seeing his goofy, fun-loving character again both sweet and sad, but I remember especially how much more bittersweet the film’s end credits sequence was when I saw Hoffman’s name while the Van Halen brothers’ guitars wailed out “Respect the Wind.” On Wednesday night, I caught part of Twister on the channel Spike; after Bill Paxton’s untimely passing, the Van Halens’ song has accrued yet another layer of poignancy. No matter how much we like or take notice of performers, in many cases it is not until they have shuffled off this mortal coil that we fully appreciate their immense talents. In the pilot of Paxton’s new show “Training Day,” another actor has a line of dialogue that perfectly describes what Bill Paxton did with his own career: “We try to leave this world a little better than we found it.” Requiescat in pace, Bill.

Friday Music Focus: 2/17/17

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Here we are in 2017… seven songs for a new edition of Friday Music Focus. Whether you’re like “Duckie” (Jon Cryer) in Pretty in Pink (1986) and you have a history with these songs, or you are a newcomer to any of these artists, there will be melodic food for thought.

Katy Perry featuring Skip Marley, “Chained to the Rhythm” (performed live at the Grammy Awards, 2017; single version released in 2017). Katy Perry has said that she hopes to inspire her listeners with “purposeful pop” records. If “Chained” is any indication, her new album will be able to achieve what few pop artists are able to do these days: create catchy music for the masses that is fun to listen to and also explores social and political dilemmas. Add to that the “Persist” armband and Planned Parenthood pin that she wore on her outfit at the Grammys, and the pop-activist look is complete. Let’s hope that the message can strike a deep chord.

Manic Street Preachers, “Slash ‘N’ Burn” (performed live at the Glastonbury Festival, 1994; studio version appears on the album Generation Terrorists, 1992). This February marks the one-year anniversary of my entry into the universe of Manic Street Preachers, and it is also the twenty-fifth anniversary of their infamous double-album debut, Generation Terrorists. If Katy Perry is the new purveyor of “purposeful pop,” then the Manics are the once and future kings of purposeful rock. Their show at Glastonbury in 1994 needs to be seen to be believed: every instrument plugged in and turned up to 11, James Dean Bradfield’s guitar strings threatening to pop off in the frenzy of his playing, and every song bursting with messages about our strange and often dangerous world. “Slash ‘N’ Burn” (lyrics here) is only one example of the band’s genius for deconstructing the entwined realities of pop culture, consumerism, celebrity and our planet’s violent history, but the song’s first four lines say it all: “You need your stars, even killers have prestige/Access to a living you will not see/24 boredom, I’m convicted instantly/Gorgeous poverty of created needs.”

The Smiths, “What Difference Does It Make?” (music video; studio version appears on the album The Smiths, 1984) and “Bigmouth Strikes Again” (performed live on “The Old Grey Whistle Test,” 1986; studio version appears on the album The Queen Is Dead, 1986). Two weeks ago, Marc Spitz, a unique talent in music criticism/journalism who had also published novels and plays, passed away at age 47. Author Chuck Klosterman distilled the essence of Spitz in two sentences written for Spin: “Spitz aspired to be Byronic. He believed life was better if people tried to be interesting, so he tried to be as interesting as possible.” Salon’s Erin Keane recalled in her tribute: “I don’t trust music writers who aren’t sentimental (if you’re not actively engaged in a love affair with the work, try investment banking instead), and I trusted Marc implicitly. As Alan Light, former editor-in-chief at Spin, where Marc made a great name for himself and won many of us over as readers and fans, said in his moving eulogy in Billboard yesterday, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who believed in rock & roll as much as Marc Spitz did. The grand gesture, the adolescent romanticism, the infinite possibilities of identity and sexuality — he bought it all, loved it, needed it.'” One of the most poignant compliments I have seen comes from a guest comment on Keane’s article: “I remember reading his piece on ‘The Boys of Summer.’ I was moved. [Don] Henley may not be one of the greats, but that song sure is! I’ll think of Marc every time I hear it now, for the rest of my days.” I probably will, too.

Marc Spitz was well known for his love of the Smiths, so much so that he wrote a novel titled How Soon Is Never? (2003), in which the protagonist attempts to get the broken-up group back together. In Marc’s honor, the clips embedded above are of two of the band’s best songs. Here’s to those who have a way with words – to answer the question posed by Morrissey and Johnny Marr, it makes a hell of a difference.

Johnny Marr, “New Town Velocity” (performed live at KCRW’s Apogee Sessions, 2013; studio version appears on the album The Messenger, 2013). “Here comes our poetry,” indeed. The former lead guitarist and co-songwriter of the Smiths has continued to make excellent music in the three decades since the band’s dissolution, and “New Town Velocity” is a high point in his solo career. The hook built on Marr’s iconic guitar sound is mesmerizing, winding its way around your brain so deftly that you never want the song to end and you have no choice but to click repeat.

Suede, “The Wild Ones” (appears on the album Dog Man Star, 1994). If the glam rock swagger of Suede’s self-titled debut album from 1993 made anyone wonder whether the band was merely a carbon copy of the equally decadent stylists (David Bowie and Marc Bolan in particular) who came decades before, then Suede’s follow-up, Dog Man Star, assured the quartet’s place in the pantheon of just plain great music. The lyrics of the “The Wild Ones” plead with their subject, “oh, if you stay…” – which is exactly what the band did. I don’t know about you, but I find it heartening that Brett Anderson and co. are still out there, still 100% brilliant.

Associates/Billy Mackenzie, “The Crying Game” (live at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club (London), 1984). After rewatching Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game this past week, I thought about Billy Mackenzie’s version of the title song. Mackenzie, who was once the subject of a Smiths song, was the lead singer of the Scottish band Associates. He was born sixty years ago this March, and the twenty-year anniversary of his death was marked this past January. If only he hadn’t had to suffer through depression; if only he could have known that his music would continue to mean something to people for years to come. The Internet gave me the opportunity to discover the Associates; their/Billy’s music affected me deeply when I was a teenager and it still does today. Sitting through lonely lunches in my high school’s cafeteria was so much easier when I could listen to “Party Fears Two” on my iPod, and a few years ago I recall waking up from a dream in which “No” played in the background, the faint echo of it lingering as I opened my eyes. But maybe Billy’s covers were his finest moments; when I see and hear him perform “Gloomy Sunday” (sadly portentous since Billy committed suicide in 1997), “Amazing Grace,” “You Only Live Twice,” “Wild Is the Wind” (a heartbreaking interpretation) and the clip that I am highlighting now, the Dave Berry song “The Crying Game,” an undeniable magic takes place that transforms and transports me. There were entire worlds in Billy Mackenzie’s heavenly voice, and Earth is poorer for no longer being able to hear it in person. If there is an afterlife, I hope he’s wearing one of his favorite berets.

Friday Music Focus: 11/25/16

This week I am focusing on artists based in the UK (hence the photo of Joan Collins, glamorously posed with records).

Placebo, “Nancy Boy” (performed live on “Later… with Jools Holland,” 1997; studio version appears on the album Placebo, 1996) and “Jesus’ Son” (performed live for BBC Radio 6 Music at Maida Vale, 2016; studio version appears on the compilation album A Place for Us to Dream, 2016). Sometime last week, my favorite presenters on BBC Radio 6 Music, Radcliffe & Maconie, started their program with Placebo’s “Nancy Boy.” The band has been on the periphery of my musical tastes for many years, ever since their cover of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” back in 2003, and I heard “Nancy Boy” and various other singles at different points, but only now is the band’s discography really coming to the fore for me. I like that Brian Molko’s intercontinental upbringing is evident in his singing – although it is arguably even more apparent when he talks, his accent shifting from word to word – and there is something aesthetically pleasing in how his nasal, nationally-ambiguous voice meshes with the heavy, sometimes menacing demeanor of the band’s music.

The Duke Spirit, “Serenade” (appears on the Serenade EP, 2016). “Serenade” has gotten quite a bit of play on the Radcliffe & Maconie show as well, and I appreciate that since this (even after more than a decade) up-and-coming English band’s single has a deep sense of mood and atmosphere, not unlike the music of Placebo.

Honeyblood, “Love Is a Disease” (appears on the album Babes Never Die, 2016). Scottish duo Honeyblood is another constantly-played favorite from the Radcliffe & Maconie show, and this particular song is my favorite track from the band’s newest album. I think that musicians Stina Marie Claire Tweeddale and Cat Myers are relatively new on the scene (Honeyblood was formed four years ago) but after a little more growth, they could become the next Sleater-Kinney.

Meilyr Jones, “How to Recognise a Work of Art” (music video) and “Don Juan” (both appear on the album 2013, 2016). For a different tack, Welsh singer-songwriter Meilyr Jones is a breath of fresh air for those who long for a lovely, feather-light voice and some classical, baroque and folk sounds within their popular music choices. (He apparently studied classical music at some point, either formally or in his spare time, according to this clip.) For years, Jones was the frontman of the band Race Horses, who made more “rock” types of music (see “Pony” and “My Year Abroad”), but I think Jones’s voice is better suited to his solo record’s many delicate melodies.

Hooton Tennis Club, “Lauren, I’m in Love!” (appears on the album Big Box of Chocolates, 2016). I’ll close with perhaps the sunniest song I’ve encountered in some time, an ode (quite fittingly, given the underlying theme of this post) to BBC Radio 6 Music presenter Lauren Laverne. Hooton Tennis Club, a band of English fellows in their twenties, have a lot of potential; “Lauren” is the only song on their second album, Big Box of Chocolates, that really stands out to me, but what a song it is – truly delightful stuff.

Friday Music Focus: 11/11/16

Despite this week’s soul-crushing news that Donald Trump is going to be our forty-fifth POTUS, the music-blogging wagon must roll on.

Bash & Pop, “On the Rocks” (music video, 2016; studio version will appear on the album Anything Could Happen, 2017). Bash & Pop is fronted by Tommy Stinson, former bassist for seminal Minneapolis punk/alternative rock band The Replacements; B&P released their first (and also last) album, Friday Night Is Killing Me, in 1992, so their new follow-up has certainly earned the adjective “long-awaited.” The lyrics for “On the Rocks,” which is the upcoming album’s lead single, are largely clichéd but the overall catchiness of the melody and Stinson’s lengthy guitar solo toward the end make this song a lot of fun.

PJ Harvey, “Ministry of Defence” (performed live at Terminal 5 in Manhattan, 2016; studio version appears on the album The Hope Six Demolition Project, 2016). I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: “To Make America Great Again We Need Less Donald Trump, More PJ Harvey.” With the realities of a Trump presidency still sinking in, we need proudly political, saxophone-driven music more than ever. If we could elect a British woman to the highest office in our land, PJ would get my vote.

Angel Olsen, “Never Be Mine” (appears on the album My Woman, 2016). In recent months I have made a habit of reading Pitchfork’s music reviews, and in late August I saw a review by Jenn Pelly for Angel Olsen’s My Woman that was more effusive and praiseworthy than anything I had beheld in ages. I had never heard of Olsen, but the descriptions of this St. Louis-raised singer-songwriter’s new work as “tough and tender at once, a bold rumination on how love and autonomy require one another” and that “My Woman walks a tightrope of love to figure out what it is—how to find it, how to allow it in, how to feel it, how to fight for it, how to let it go—by a person who does not lose herself in the process” made me want to learn more. The song that I love the most from the album, “Never Be Mine,” has an especially great write-up: “My Woman contains soda-pop rippers as pained and distraught and irreducible as any girl-group classic: ‘Heaven hits me when I see your face,’ Olsen sings with wide-eyed optimism that wilts on arrival, ‘But you’ll never be mine.’ So much of My Woman is rock‘n’roll in the traditional sense, from a ’50s or ’60s jukebox, and it is positively electric, a total blast.”

Suede, “What I’m Trying to Tell You” (appears on the album Night Thoughts, 2016). Suede is one of those bands that I’m forever trying to foist on my circle of friends (in the best possible way) since, like my beloved Manic Street Preachers, I’m pretty sure that Suede (or “The London Suede,” as they are legally forced to be called here) never found a wide fanbase in America, just some die-hard devotees scattered in random pockets of the country. Suede’s seventh album, Night Thoughts, was released in January, which earned them high marks from the British music press and – as you might expect – absolutely no fanfare at all in the US, where the band essentially doesn’t exist. (They played at Coachella a few years ago, but otherwise I don’t think they’ve toured here since the late 90s or early 2000s, and the only late night talk show appearance they have ever done here was on Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” in 1993. For more discussion of Suede’s lack of impact on our nation by a longtime American fan, take a gander at this article: “Trash: The Problems of Being an American Fan of the London Suede.”) Anywho, Night Thoughts is a solid album and “What I’m Trying to Tell You” is just as enjoyable and hook-laden as any of their earlier songs; I’m particularly fond of the fact that “Tell You’s” final minute sounds similar to the “la la la…” outro of 1996’s “Beautiful Ones,” which, incidentally, was the first Suede song I ever heard, when the music video was made available for free on iTunes one day almost a decade ago and I just happened to notice it on the iTunes homepage.

Weezer, “I Love the USA” (music video; single, 2016). When Weezer put out this song over the summer, the band said that it was an honestly patriotic anthem that had to do with NASA, or something. Now that the music video is online (released last month, starring none other than Patton Oswalt), the intent is obvious. While listening to the track again, I’ve had a late-breaking realization: Rivers Cuomo sounds exactly the same at age 46 as he did at 24, the age he was when Weezer released their self-titled debut album back in 1994. Is that good or is that weird?

Rowland S. Howard, “Dance Me to the End of Love” (performed live at the Melbourne Public Bar, 1995). I cannot pretend that I am well-versed in the late Leonard Cohen’s discography since I am only familiar with the songs of his which have been covered by my favorite artists. Enough singers have been performing “Hallelujah” (from Various Positions, 1984) for the last couple of decades that the New York Times actually ran an article this past September titled “How Pop Culture Wore Out Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah,'” so instead I present you with a different song from Various Positions, a cover of “Dance Me to the End of Love” by Rowland S. Howard. I’m going to end the post with an excerpt of an interview with David Todd that Rowland did shortly before his death in 2009 (the piece was published in Todd’s book Feeding Back: Conversations with Alternative Guitarists from Proto-Punk to Post-Rock, 2012):