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Saturday, January 27, 2018

Lady Bird

I finally saw the movie Lady Bird tonight, after wanting to see it since it was originally released. Now that it has Academy Awards nominations, it's back in theaters. (I don't think it's first run in Lansing lasted more than a few weeks).
We don't get a chance to see many coming-of-age movies with female protagonists, and that is what Lady Bird primarily is. Saoirse Ronan (first name ronounced "SIR-shuh," by the way) delivers a nuanced performance as the titular Christin "Lady Bird" McPherson, a senior at an all-girls Catholic high school in Sacramento, California. In an attempt to forge a new identity, Christina insists that everyone refer to her as Lady Bird. (We are not given a reason as to why she chose "Lady Bird" as her new name).
Lady Bird is a girl who, despite not being a particularly great student (good, but not great), is not lacking in self-confidence. In this, she is similar to Max Fischer from Wes Anderson's film Rushmore. She successfully tries out for the school play, and bravely approaches boys she likes. She dresses with quirky flare, and has a mischievous side.
Lady Bird's biggest conflict is with her passive-aggressive and often cutting mother, who loves her daughter but has a difficult time expressing it.
The movie follows Lady Bird through the ups and downs of her senior year, in the aftermath of a nation shaken by 9/11. (The movie takes place in 2002 and 2003). Though the events of that era merely provide background, the characters--to some extent--seem to be suffering through the uncertainty and emotional depression of that era. (It's strange to watch a movie from 2002 and think of it as an historical artifact). We watch the evolution of Lady Bird as she tries hard to both find out who she is and break away from what she views as her stultifying surroundings, only to make discoveries in the end that might have surprised her. (I won't give away too much)
Greta Gerwig wrote a good script full of realistic dialogue, particularly between Lady Bird and her mother (played by the always excellent Laurie Metcalf). What I particularly appreciate is that, whether by design or not, she left enough gaps in the storytelling for the viewer to fill in themselves.
Lady Bird doesn't break any new ground in filmmaking, but it is a thoughtful, well-written, and certainly well-performed little movie--and a promising directorial debut for Greta Gerwig.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Casual album discussion: U2, War

U2 had a new album out, Songs of Experience, so I have decided to go back and revisit their back catalog.

U2: War. Sometimes it’s hard to remember a time when U2 wasn’t huge, though they were getting there with War. They were still the earnest and idealistic young Irishmen and not yet the established corporate dad rockers of today. And in 1983, they were virtually unknown in my little corner of the world: Michigan’s Thumb region.
It’s even more mind-blowing when I ponder the fact that I’ve been listening to this band since I was about 17-years-old, and now I’m almost 50—and they are still together making music.
Our school was dominated in the eighties by the likes of Ratt, Motley Crue, Def Leppard, Van Halen, and Quiet Riot.  If U2 were thought of at all, it was as prissy sensitive boys who definitely didn’t rock as hard as the metal gods adored by most of the people in my school. I kept my U2 fandom to myself for the most part. I didn’t need any more trouble than I already had at my school. One of my parting shots my senior year was to vote U2 as "favorite band." (Van Halen was the winner. I have no idea how many votes U2 received. Probably one).
If you have forgotten why U2 became famous, or the era of their greatness seems distant, then pick up War and give it a listen. U2 are confident and full of swagger. They may not yet be accomplished musicians at this point, but they believe in themselves and that comes through on War.  Songs like "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and my favorite, "New Years Day," retain the power they had in 1982.  Dave "The Edge" Evans' siren-like guitar in "New Years Day" gets me every time I hear it, and I've  heard the song hundreds if not thousands of times.

The album catches U2 as they were fully embracing politics, but before Bono irritated half the world by becoming overly didactic. (I recently listened to Rattle and Hum again for the first time in a few years and I gotta say some of it is practically unlistenable. I will defend U2 until my dying day, but even I wanted to reach through my stereo speaker and punch Bono in the nose a few times--and I agree with about 95 percent of his political stance).

This takes me to my relationship with U2. Achtung Baby was the last U2 album to blow me away, and How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb was the last of their albums I enjoyed from beginning to end. Still, I continue to buy their albums out of a sense of obligation. They feel like postcards you might receive every few years from an old friend whom you don't see often anymore and maybe don't have as much in common with anymore. Still, you have enough connection and personal history to still be interested in what they're up to. So though U2's last three albums haven't wowed me, I'm still curious to hear what they're up to.

And then when you want to remember why you fell in love with them in the first place, you return to an album like War.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Casual album discussion: Fairport Convention's self-titled debut

I'm trying to shake up this blog a little bit, so this is the first in a series (?) in which I take a random album from my collection, listen to it, and then just briefly discuss it. Nothing deep and profound, the aim is to be conversational.

So the first album is the 1968 self-titled debut by English folk-rock band Fairport Convention. I chose this because I happen to be reading record producer Joe Boyd's memoir White Bicycle: Making Music in the 1960s. It's a book I picked up at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle, Washington. (Shameless vacation mention and indie bookstore name drop). Joe Boyd, among many other act including Nick Drake, was behind the board for Fairport Conventions stellar recorded output from 1968 to the early 1970s.

I got into Fairport Convention quite by accident. I heard their 1969 album Liege and Lief at a Borders' listening station sometime in the mid-'90s. I'm pretty sure I'd read a little bit about them before, probably in the Rolling Stone Record Guide. I'm sure there were several "five star" albums in there, but I never actually saw a Fairport album until I happened to be in that Border's Books and Music store in Novi, Michigan.

(As an aside, rest in peace Borders. Moment of silence, please).

The first Fairport album is not as great as what they would later accomplish, but it's still damned good. For one thing, it's the first time that the world got to hear Richard Thompson's brilliant guitar playing, and Thompson is definitely one of the stars of this album.

Fairport Convention, at this stage in their career, was clearly borrowing heavily from American West Coast folk rock. It's easy to find shades of Jefferson Airplane, the Byrds, and Buffalo Springfield. Like the Airplane, Fairport had a female singer, which on this album is Judy Dyble. She sings a lovely rendition of Joni Mitchell's "I Don't Know Where I Stand" as well as contributing to other songs. This, however, would be her only album. She was replaced by the immortal Sandy Denny.

Fairport Convention also has a great cover, featuring a few members of the band brooding towards the camera in a dark room, only slightly illuminated by a Tiffany table lamp. I just love the cover. Maybe I'm alone in that, I don't know.

Here are some songs that particularly stand out for me:

"Time Will Show the Wiser" is an English-y, folky tune that kind of points towards the direction Fairport took on the their next albums.

"Decameron" is gorgeous with its gently strummed guitar and gently vocals.

"Jack o Diamonds" is an old blues song that the band arranges into a rocker (really the only all out rocker on the album). I can hear traces of the Who's mid-'60s sound in this, and I swear that Shocking Blue might have taken some notes for "Venus" from Fairport's arrangement of "Jack o Diamonds."

"Lobster" is a truly unusual (hell, truly bizarre) song that has a psychedelic feel that Fairport would abandon after this album.

Fairport Convention's debut is a fine album, and I'm happy that I revisited it after several years of not listening to it. However for anyone unfamiliar with Fairport, I wouldn't recommend starting here. Pick up Liege and Lief (their masterpiece) and work your way backwards and forwards. Once you work back to the debut, you'll gain a fuller appreciation and the record will make more sense.

Monday, November 27, 2017

A short dispatch

I know it's been awhile since I last wrote in here. I am currently plugging away on a "review" of the Tragically Hip's Fully Completely, the fourth installment in my ongoing look at the Hip's discography. Unfortunately, this Fully Completely post has become an albatross. I feel as if I will need to either do some heavy editing or just publish it in two parts. I'm leaning to two parts in order to make it more digestible for anyone who might want to read it.

As for when I will hoist this colossus upon my dear readers, I hope within the next week. But we'll see.

So what else is new? I'm surviving our Idiot-in-Chief, often trying as much as I can to forget that he is president. It's about the only way to keep my sanity. Still, the man does at least one embarrassing thing every day and he is difficult to ignore. And really when you get down to it, he's too dangerous to completely ignore.

I'm cutting this post short because it's getting late, but just wanted to let you know what I'm up to and that I haven't forgotten about you.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Gord Downie

The moment that all Tragically Hip/Gord Downie fans have been dreading since May 2016 happened today: we learned of Gord Downie's death.
After battling terminal brain cancer for almost two years, Gord passed away last night at home, surrounded by family and friends.
I learned the news this morning from the official Tragically Hip Facebook page's post. Even though I knew that this was inevitable, it still came as a shock. A bit like getting the glaucoma "puff of air in the eye" test at the optometrist: even though you know that puff is coming, you still flinch when you get the blast of air in your eyeball. I don't mean to be too flippant with the comparison--clearly death is much more profound than a little test at the optometrist's office--but that's the best I can come up with.
So, if you will, this was a "puff of bad news" and I flinched. Even though I was expecting it, it still was stunning.
The entire day has been watching the remembrances and salutes coming in, some from unexpected sources (the New York Times ran a fairly long piece about Gord's upcoming--now posthumous--album Introduce Yerself; the uber-hipster Pitchfork and Stereogum published pieces about Gord, and the mainstream Rolling Stone had a remembrance--though in their Facebook post they referred to Gord Downie as "Berry Gordy." Wtf?).
I have also been commiserating with fellow Hip fans on the Tragically Hip Fan Forum. So the mourning has been very much social media-based.
It is late and I'm tired, so I haven't much more to add. I suppose that among all of the recent musical deaths, this is the one I feel most personally. I connected to Gord, his persona, musicianship, and lyrics in a way far beyond anyone else (with the possible exception of Ray Davies and John Lennon). But Gord was only four years older than me. He felt like an older brother, in a way. He seemed more human than any other rock star/celebrity I can think of--and this may be due to the Hip not having international fame. They were "my little band," and Gord came across as someone I could imagine drinking a beer with and shooting the breeze about music or hockey.
Without Gord Downie, this American would probably have never heard of Bobcaygeon, Bill Barilko, David Milgaard, Tom Thomson, Algonquin Park, "the Paris of the Prairie," Attawapiskat, and Churchill (Manitoba), just to name a few figures and places of the Canadian historical landscape. Gord gave me a deeper appreciation of Canada's natural landscape and social history.
I saw the Hip in concert twice, and both times I came away amazed at the energy Gord brought to the stage. Here was a guy only a few years older than myself. He seemed like a model of how to age gracefully. To some degree, I saw him as a role model. He seemed like someone that was impervious to illness, but even Gord is human. Gord's illness and death is further proof--as if I needed any--that nobody gets out of here alive. That it happened to him at age 53 just seems completely unfair, though.
At least Gord stared down mortality with bravery and resilience. 2016 and 2017 were probably his most productive years on earth. Rather than slow down, his band released an album and embarked on a cross-Canada tour met by adoring crowds. Then Gord released the Secret Path album and film; devoting his final year to reconciliation between First Nations and the government of Canada. His final act is a 23-track solo album, Introduce Yerself, that will be released posthumously.
When the Hip toured in summer 2016, Gord decided to go all out. He changed his stage apparel from his usual dark pants/jeans, white button-down shirt, and vest to sparkly, shiny, bright leather suits topped off with a feathered hat. Gord new this was his last waltz with the Hip and he was going out in style, and he was not going to let cancer bring him down without a fight.  (As an aside, the outfit became a popular Canadian Halloween costume last year). Gord showed all of us how to face death with defiance, and I hope that if I am ever faced with the same situation, I will somehow summon the strength to follow Gord's lead. I don't honestly know if I could ever be so brave.

When the Man Machine Poem tour ended and he transitioned to the Secret Path concerts and album/film release, Gord appeared in public in a "Canadian tuxedo" of jean jacket and jean pants. The seriousness and solemnity of the Chanie Wenjack story and the struggles of the First Nations was not a time for flashy sartorial style, and with what Gord was going through personally, I doubt that he cared.

I am writing this while also trying to work, so I am feeling distracted. I'm not quite sure how to finish this post. I will conclude by simply stating that Gord will be missed, but he left a body of work--musical and social--that will continue to live on for years and decades to come. He made a profound impact on my life, and I am so happy that I discovered his brilliance.

Friday, September 22, 2017

A post for late September

It's been awhile since I have written in here, but what else is new?

When I left off, our president had issued a wishy-washy response to racism in Charlottesville, Virginia. In the month since, we have seen a hurricane ravage Texas, another one punish Florida, and yet another hurricane decimate Puerto Rico. An earthquake has done significant damage in Mexico. North Korea and the U.S. continue to escalate the smack talk and posturing, and our Middle Schooler-In-Chief doesn't help himself much with his juvenile name calling and boasting, though his loyal fanbase eats up his hollow tough guy talk.  Meanwhile, the rest of us wake up each morning in a perpetual state of unease.

It's such a crazy world we live in that John McCain, with his resistance to the replace and repeal of the ACA ("Obamacare") has emerged as a voice of reason. Who saw that coming?

When I'm not looking at my phone and dreading what I'll see, ("Have the missiles been launched yet?", etc.), I'm trying to keep myself sane by doing what I always do: I'm running, walking, listening to music, trying to watch some decent television here and there, and at least attempting to read honest-to-goodness BOOKS.

I'm still plugging away with the running and trying to stay reasonably fit physically and mentally. I suppose the hip new terminology is "mindfulness" and running helps with this. When I am out running, it's just me vs. the distance. Nothing else matters. It may just be the most basic and primal sort of exercise there is. When I run, my thoughts and worries disappear and it becomes simply me, nature, the road, and getting my body and mind to make it five kilometers. It's not necessarily enjoyable while the run is taking place--some are better and more pleasurable than others--but that is the point. By engaging in a primal and basic activity, I free myself from the baggage of the material world. There is something a bit Zen-like about running. So it is an activity that I continue to engage in. I can see and feel the positive impact it has on me.

As far as music goes, I've been on a Husker Du kick of late, after the unfortunate death of drummer/singer/songwriter Grant Hart. I got into them a little bit in college, when a guy I worked with in the cafeteria did the whole, "Say man, you gotta listen to these guys" thing as he loaned me his cassette copy of the Du's 1986 album Candy Apple Grey. Though The Replacements were my Twin Cities band of choice, I enjoyed Candy Apple Grey quite a bit. But for some time it was the only Husker Du I really knew well. Eventually I would devour their entire discography. I fell in love with their two 1985 albums, New Day Rising and Flip Your Wig. (Although their masterpiece is generally acknowledged to be 1984's Zen Arcade, I have never entirely warmed to that album, though it has some classic tracks on it). Grant Hart was a songwriter certainly on a par with Bob Mould. Grant was sort of a "punk rock McCartney" to "Bob's punk rock Lennon". Grant had a sweeter voice than Bob, and his songs were a bit more melodic and hookier than Bob's. To hear what I'm talking about, give a listen to "Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill," "Green Eyes," "Flexible Flyer," "Books About UFOs," or "Dead Set on Destruction." It is distorted punky power pop bliss at its finest, with clever lyrics to boot. Grant could be equal parts optimistic, nostalgic and vulnerable. Kurt Cobain and Black Francis, to name a few, owe him a lot.

It is getting late and I want to get this blog post in the can before it gets too late, or I fall asleep, or I accidentally delete it. 'Til we meet again...

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

...I take that back, Trump is okay with racists

In a news conference (of sorts) yesterday, Trump reverted back to the nonsense he blurted on Saturday, blaming "both sides" and essentially apologizing for the alt-right (i.e. racists). He even compared famous traitor Robert E. Lee to non-traitor George Washington. (Sorry Confederate apologists, I don't give a damn that he was fighting for old Virginia. I don't care that "life was different" in the 1860s. He took an oath to protect the United States of American and he betrayed that oath).

I can't keep up with the lunacy coming out of the Trump White House on a daily basis. The narrative seems to constantly change.

Is Trump truly a racist or just that stupid? I don't know, maybe a bit of both. (Actually, there is no doubt in my mind that Trump is a racist).  How the hell does the president of the United States excuse the behavior of white supremacists? If you're Donald Trump, that's what you do. At least Trump has made it perfectly clear where he if there was ever any doubt.