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):

Friday Music Focus: 8/19/16

After some time away from Friday Music Focus, I return with a new post concentrating on seven pairs of songs by a variety of musicians from yesterday and today. As always, I hope that you will discover or rediscover an artist or a song that you will want to revisit.

PJ Harvey, “The Orange Monkey” (appears on the album The Hope Six Demolition Project, 2016) and “Guilty” (non-album single, 2016). In lieu of being able to attend either of PJ Harvey’s concerts at New York’s Terminal 5 venue this week, here are two songs by her that I have been listening to a lot in recent days. “Guilty” is driven by the same political themes as the tracks on The Hope Six Demolition Project since the song was recorded during the album sessions; meanwhile, is “The Orange Monkey” about Donald Trump? You decide. Or take Consequence of Sound’s word for it from this headline that ran on the website yesterday: “To Make America Great Again We Need Less Donald Trump, More PJ Harvey.”

case/lang/veirs, “Atomic Number” and “Best Kept Secret” (both appear on case/lang/veirs, 2016). Singer-songwriters Neko Case, k.d. lang and Laura Veirs have combined to create a new power-trio – purposely spelled in lowercase letters, in case you were wondering – and they put out their self-titled debut album in June. It has immediately become one of my favorite releases of the year, a spirited mixture of folk and pop that works wonders in nearly all of the tracks. If you like the two songs above, I recommend trying “Delirium,” the bittersweet and beautiful “Behind the Armory” and “Supermoon.”

Lee Morgan, “You’re Mine, You” (appears on the album City Lights, 1957) and “All the Way” (appears on the album Candy, 1958). After reading about the new documentary I Called Him Morgan, about the jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan (1938-1972) and his murder at the hands of his wife Helen, I knew I had to listen to Morgan’s music. “You’re Mine, You” features Curtis Fuller on trombone, George Coleman on alto saxophone, Ray Bryant on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Art Taylor on drums, while “All the Way” has Sonny Clark on piano, Doug Watkins on bass and Art Taylor once more on drums.

The Adverts, “New Church” and “No Time to Be 21” (both appear on the album Crossing the Red Sea with the Adverts, 1978). Almost lost among the tremendous number of punk bands that emerged in the UK in the mid-to-late 70s, the Adverts might never have appeared on my radar if I didn’t listen to the Radcliffe & Maconie show on BBC Radio 6 Music. Like so many groups from that era, they had a short-lived but exciting burst of energy to fuel their two albums’ worth of anthems for pissed-off youth.

Joy Division, “Transmission” (non-album single, 1979) and “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (music video; non-album single, 1980). Disclaimer about myself: Joy Division was incredibly important to me when I was seventeen. Every time I listen to them, I go back to what it felt like to experience them for the very first time, a time-travel device that transports me as soon as I hear the opening notes of “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” Each time I listen to that song (the first I ever heard by Joy Division) or to Ian Curtis’s sarcastic exhortations in “Transmission” for us to dance, dance, dance, dance, dance to the soulless radio, it’s as though I’m a teenager again, dazed and speechless as I try to make sense of uptempo songs about relentless inner torment. Joy Division’s music is the best representation I can imagine for this observation once made by Tom Waits: “I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things.”

McCarthy, “Red Sleeping Beauty” (non-album single, 1986) and “We Are All Bourgeois Now” (B-side of non-album single “Should the Bible Be Banned,” 1988). Probably forgotten by all but their most faithful fans, the indie pop band McCarthy created some of the loveliest, hookiest politically-minded songs of the mid-to-late 80s. Sandwiched between the rise of U2 and the “baggy” days of the Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses, McCarthy’s socialist serenades (including those on their 1987 album I Am a Wallet) breathed fresh air into the British music scene, if only for a little while.

Chromatics, “Running Up That Hill” (appears on the album Night Drive, 2007) and “Into the Black” (appears on the album Kill for Love, 2012). The Portland, Oregon band Chromatics, fronted by the Nico-esque singer Ruth Radelet, has an extraordinary collective ability to create seductive covers of songs from the 70s and 80s, making them sound sleekly modern. The particular combination of Radelet’s voice, the guitar and synthesizers on Chromatics’ versions of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” (1985) and Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” and “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” (1979) highlight the timelessness of the lyrics while adding a uniquely hypnotic edge to each song.

2015: Part 10

Black Mass. Directed by Scott Cooper. In 1990, Johnny Depp made a film called Edward Scissorhands which obscured his “21 Jump Street” looks under extreme makeup, hair and costumes and, by extension, allowed Depp the freedom to perform in a purer way. The audience could see his abilities as an actor better than they could when he looked like a teen heartthrob, and the result was a classic that I consider one of the ten best films ever made. Twenty-five years later, in Black Mass, Depp covers himself up with aging makeup, distractingly blue-eyed contacts, rotting teeth and an exaggerated Boston accent, the combined effect of which leaves me hollow and indifferent. What happened?

Maybe my opinion is too clouded by the recent, nasty divorce proceedings going on between Depp and Amber Heard; maybe it’s just that I’m no longer impressed by Depp’s detached, possibly inebriated persona in every late-night interview I’ve seen him do for the last ten years. Whatever the reason is, while watching Black Mass I realized that I could not enjoy an iota of Johnny Depp’s performance. He snarls and shoots and occasionally strangles while playing gangster overlord James “Whitey” Bulger, but by the end I felt like so what? The only sympathetic characters in the film – Dakota Johnson as Bulger’s girlfriend, Julianne Nicholson as the fearful wife of an FBI agent who is also one of Bulger’s closest friends (Joel Edgerton), Juno Temple as a prostitute whose relationship with Bulger’s main right-hand man gets her in trouble – are either dropped from the film or meet with violence from Bulger and his cronies. I’m not saying that the film glorifies the bad guys, but the direction and screenplay bring nothing new to this depiction of sadistic criminality. I have seen the scenes in Black Mass many times in similar movies, and they were almost always done more successfully by other filmmakers.

The Boy Next Door. Directed by Rob Cohen. The Boy Next Door is one of those sexy-but-stupid thrillers that plays out exactly like you know it will if you’ve seen the trailer (or, really, even if you haven’t): an English teacher (Jennifer Lopez), recently separated from her husband (John Corbett, who in middle age now resembles John Heard) after he cheats on her with a co-worker, is surprised and pleased when a hunky young man (Ryan Guzman) moves in with his elderly uncle next door. Said young man proceeds to befriend Lopez’s nerdy teenage son (Ian Nelson), and also to charm J. Lo and flirt with her endlessly; when Corbett and Nelson go on a father-son camping trip and Lopez has a bad experience on a blind date, a night of drunken loneliness leads her to make the terrible mistake of allowing sweet, puppy-dog-ish Guzman to seduce her and have sex with her. Ah, but comes the dawn…

Lopez knows she has done a problematic thing. The issue isn’t Guzman’s age – the character is “almost twenty” (the actor was 26/27) – but rather the fact that he has just enrolled in Lopez’s English class (I don’t recall an explanation as to why he never finished high school), which means an unsettling conflict of interest. Naturally Guzman can’t take “no relationship” for an answer and he turns out to be an A-class psycho who stalks Lopez at home, at school and everywhere else, as well as turning teen son Nelson against Lopez and Corbett. (There’s also the issue of Lopez’s best friend, Kristin Chenoweth, who is the vice principal at the school – she senses right away that there’s something not quite right about Guzman, and of course she eventually pays the price for trying to help Lopez.) Long story short, there’s not much to recommend The Boy Next Door unless you’re incredibly bored and you have an hour and a half to waste, although the cinematography by David McFarland is occasionally quite striking and Ian Nelson, as Lopez and Corbett’s son, is a pretty good actor. He has a kind of young John Cusack quality to him, so perhaps he can capitalize on that someday.

The Intern. Directed by Nancy Meyers. Ah, yes, the typical Nancy Meyers quote-unquote “chick flick.” I must try not to say that too disparagingly (as a lady myself and therefore in the wished-for demographic), but there is something hopelessly discouraging in the idea that a blend of The Devil Wears Prada and Meyers’ own What Women Want (at least as far as the “woman trying to balance being the head of a company and having a love life” thing goes) would end up as anything other than sappy. Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway, professionals that they are, do their utmost to keep the proceedings entertaining as the title intern and his overworked boss respectively and, when called upon to do it, they are emotionally engaging too. What weakens the film, however, is all of the melodrama Hathaway experiences both in and out of the office. Frustrated by too much paperwork! Looking for a new CEO! Dealing with a cheating husband! The Intern throws a lot at us. If anything, the film is most worth seeing for the charms of Rene Russo as De Niro’s love interest – in her early 60s, she is still effortlessly sexy – and for Anders Holm, who holds his own in dramatic scenes as Hathaway’s husband (you know he’s doing Important Acting since he has dyed-brown hair, a beard and glasses – but in all seriousness, he’s good in the film). (Also: Adam DeVine, Holm’s co-star on “Workaholics,” is also in The Intern but they don’t share any scenes.) You can guess where The Intern is going to go by seeing the trailer, or maybe even just from looking at the poster: De Niro always knows what to say in order to be helpful; he is probably one of the most feminist male characters of his age that you’re likely to see in a movie any time soon; ultimately he guides Hathaway to becoming a better, stronger person. You may cry at some of the touching sentimentality in The Intern, but it’s doubtful that you’ll laugh at the predictable, cheesy comedy.

No Manifesto: A Film About Manic Street Preachers. Directed by Elizabeth Marcus. I am of two minds regarding this documentary about Manic Street Preachers, the Welsh rock band I discovered five months ago and who have totally turned my world upside down with their brilliant music, lyrics, singing, glamour, politics, love of literature and so much more. Enjoying an hour and a half to absorb this fantastic band’s music and philosophy is divine, but the question is for whom the film is intended. If it was made primarily with fans in mind (viewers who, let’s face it, make up the majority of people who have seen/will see the film), then the film does not offer enough to appease superfans. (The most interesting bits – Nicky and Sean arguing about the longevity of music, James and music producer Dave Eringa having breakfast in an NYC diner – were left out of the finished film and appear as extras on the DVD.) If the film was made to introduce the Manics’ discography to prospective fans, then the film also falls short; director Elizabeth Marcus tries to make the film both a current (well, current at the time) look at the band recording their 2007 “comeback” album Send Away the Tigers and also a retrospective history of the band from 1986 to the present day. It is an impossible undertaking to attempt to chronicle every detail of the band’s oeuvre (so of course that doesn’t happen) and it feels like a failing on Marcus’s part that we see footage of the Manics being interviewed in the early 90s, yet there is no concert footage from between 1992 and 1994; we see the guys do “Stay Beautiful” in 1991, and the next chronological show clip is “A Design for Life” in 1996. This means that inexperienced viewers never see the band performing in their leopard-print Generation Terrorists get-ups (although we see the clothing in pieces of interviews), doing the more low-key thing in 1993 or performing in military regalia for The Holy Bible in 1994. The visuals are just as important as the sounds! And while it’s all well and good to see the trio doing “Motorcycle Emptiness,” “Sleepflower,” “Yes,” “Archives of Pain,” “Faster,” “Die in the Summertime,” and others circa 2006/2007, not hearing/seeing the songs from when they were originally made does a disservice to the film and to the band. It might be somewhat difficult for non-Manics fans to get a strong enough sense of why people get so obsessed with the band.

Oh, and how can you make a film about the Manics and not include one of their signature songs, “You Love Us”? I’m not sure I heard the phrase Everything Must Go uttered at all either, despite the time spent talking about “A Design for Life.” Strange.

Obviously it is fun, though, to spend 95 minutes in the presence of a band that has the power to change your life. It’s easy to see from the interviews with fans that the Manics have altered their lives permanently (and wonderfully). Watching Nicky jumping rope in a skirt, or playing with his dog Molly, or excitedly meeting Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson of Rush, is lovely; seeing James cook omelets is a delight; Sean’s enjoyment of sniper rifles and his time spent at a shooting range is a little scary. I just wish that the film had either spent more time focusing on the making of Send Away the Tigers (wouldn’t it have been nice to see/hear the creation of the major hit “Your Love Alone Is Not Enough”?) or else make a film concentrated more deeply on the band’s history. By trying to do both, the film unfortunately does not completely succeed.

P.S. When the DVD came in the mail, there was a thank-you note from director Elizabeth Marcus and producer/editor Kurt Engfehr. Very nice!

Suffragette. Directed by Sarah Gavron. A film so disappointing that I almost forgot that I watched it last week, Suffragette takes a fascinating topic and grinds it down into mediocrity with bland, dreary direction. The 1910s suffrage movement and the fight for women’s rights are topics that are still relevant today, but Sarah Gavron’s film dilutes its own potential impact by focusing its narrative on a composite character, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan, a good performer as always), rather than on the real-life suffragette Emily Wilding Davison (played by Natalie Press in a supporting role). The melodramas of Maud’s family life take up quite a bit of the running time; while the issues of abuse at home and in the workplace are stories that should indeed have been told in the film, it might have been more effective if Abi Morgan’s screenplay was based on a real protagonist rather than a fictional one. That being said, Ben Whishaw did an excellent job at playing Carey Mulligan’s unsympathetic husband and I liked the performances by Helena Bonham Carter, Brendan Gleeson and Anne-Marie Duff as well. Meryl Streep overacts embarrassingly, but her performance as leading activist Emmeline Pankhurst is merely a cameo. Watch Suffragette if you like anyone in the cast, but don’t expect an accurate history lesson.