Thursday, January 11, 2018

Wolff in Sheep's Clothing

So... read any good books lately?

For the converted, Michael Wolff's tell-all Fire and Fury not only confirms their worst assumptions of the inner workings of the Trump White House, it exacerbates them. For the skeptics, Wolff is the next Kitty Kelley, a gossip-monger who wants to knock powerful people down a peg. The former seems more realistic than the latter; a gaffe involving a Beltway insider's name has been blown out of proportion. The inaccuracies are minor and arbitrary compared to the big picture: the president and his inner circle really don't know what they're doing.

Because the Trump administration continues to defy logic, the real loser of the story is Steve Bannon. A man who had the president's ear less than six months ago has been fired, vilified, and removed from the powerful media position on which he built his name. I almost want to take on him... I mean, if he wasn't the editor of a political news site that enabled anti-Semites.

If the first week of 2018 was dominated by a seemingly lurid tell-all, then the second week has been defined by an unexpected streak of profanity. President Trump is not going to apologize for his "shithole countries" remark; if anything, he'll inevitably say something worse to pander to his race-baiting base. Any notion that Trump wants to the unify the country went out the window with his tepid response to Charlottesville; this secures his lack of understanding.

(575)

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Auld Lyng Syne

For my last blog entry of the year, I want to reflect and tie up loose ends. I am hardly the only person to have a rough year, though mine was a tad unique: two deaths in my immediate family, two estates, the disintegration of several friendships (including at least one that had felt dormant for years), the expensive decision to drop out of grad school, inconsistent work. At least when I broke up with my girlfriend, it was amicable. In a way, 2017 was a rebuilding year, the beginning of something new that doesn't feel tangible yet.

I did create some closure, though: I finally blocked my awful, bigoted college girlfriend on Facebook. For the last three or four years, Babs has been using an alias on social media; when she liked a photo that I posted of my sister, I felt triggered. I doubt this was a backdoor effort to reconnect --likely just circumstance-- but I still find my sister being connected to this fat racist psychotic to be inexplicable. Adios and good riddance, "Candy N. Chloe."

I'm sort of embarrassed to admit that I'm still way behind on TV, so for the second year in a row I'm forgoing my annual best-of list. The only shows I saw on a regular basis in '17 were SNL and "Last Week Tonight," and I'm at least a year behind on everything else I watch. There is at least one show that I regularly recorded on my DVR that I've given up on, simply because the backlog is too much.

On that note, I want to thank some specific people that made a tough year a little more hospitable: Dan Anderson, Marissa Robertcop, Andy Knuth, Koni Shaughnessy, Rich Johnston, Louise Loeb, Andy Heytman, Sarah Kritzman, Cari Maher, Jill Olsen, Jon-Michael Hoskinson, Brian Sebby, Yolanda Waddell, Rachel Caro, Carl Luft, my Flynn Tin Tin teammates, my sister Bridget and anyone else who helped along the way. See you all in 2018.

(574)

Monday, December 25, 2017

That Wonderful Year in Music... 2017


Trying times often make for great art. For us right-brainers, 2017 was a time to flourish: a strong year for cinema, another year of "peak TV," and from my vantage point a strong year for music. It was perhaps the strongest year of the decade for hip-hop, female-identifying singer-songwriters, and pretty much any rock musician who wished they were alive in 1976. In short, there was a healthy heaping of essential music these last 12 months, enough to satisfy any discerning appetite:

BEST ALBUMS:
1. DAMN., Kendrick Lamar. Kung-Fu Kenny's third straight masterpiece is the rare album that builds up to its best track. It looks like a back-to-basics effort yet really isn't: Lamar is going from extrovert to introvert, commencing an intense journey into his own psyche as he embraces fame and the incessant scrutiny that comes with it. (The success of To Pimp a Butterfly weighs heavily.) He's exhausted from fighting for social justice; he's only one man. The winding origin story "DUCKWORTH" sums everything up, an allegory and a plot twist that brings this sojourn full circle.
2. Masseduction, St. Vincent. The queen of art-rock has put another jewel in her crown. The whole album is a candy-coated electro-rock fever dream, reiterating the inevitability of bad decisions in the pursuit of decadence. In a year of frustration, Annie Clark's protagonists uncover the peaks and valleys of escapism as a coping mechanism, the blurry gray line between pleasure and pain, and the acceptance of cold reality.
3. Turn Out The Lights, Julien Baker. For full disclosure, I'm late to the Julien Baker party. I didn't hear her 2015 debut, the sparse and mesmerizing Sprained Ankle, until this past October. Lucky for me, her sophomore effort was nipping at my heels. At first, Lights feels like an extension of Ankle; Baker's voice is cracked but steady, the themes of addiction, suicide, and religion are present, and the songs are fragile yet haunting. The difference is that she's a little older (she just turned 22), a lot wiser, and she's finally confronting the ghosts that followed her into adulthood and sobriety.
4. Pure Comedy, Father John Misty
5. CTRL, SZA
6. Big Fish Theory, Vince Staples
7. Process, Sampha
8. Melodrama, Lorde
9. A Deeper Understanding, The War on Drugs
10. American Dream, LCD Soundsystem.  I see why James Murphy named their (now premature) farewell concert movie "Shut Up and Play the Hits." We all knew LCD wasn't totally done, but the decision to reunite and reinvent the band was a risk that paid off. The sprawling, seven-minute "Call the Police" is a candidate for song of the year, while "Black Screen" is a moving homage to David Bowie. Murphy has become the oldhead that gripes about other oldheads, but he still obsesses over what's cool.

11. Drunk, Thundercat
12. Semper Femina, Laura Marling
13. A Hairshirt of Purpose, Pile
14. 4:44, Jay-Z
15. Guppy, Charly Bliss. The year's most "fun" record is a 1990s alternative/power-pop throwback. A charming debut, the chirpy vocals of Eva Hendricks blends well with her bandmates' distorted guitars, mixing the shambolic with the sugary. It is no coincidence that Charly Bliss opened for Veruca Salt during their reunion tour this past year; they are worthy proteges.
16. I Dare You, The xx
17. This Old Dog, Mac Demarco
18. Pleasure, Feist
19. Waiting on a Song, Dan Auerbach
20. Hang, Foxygen. My last two picks on this list are interchangable. Where Auerbach's solo record exchanges fuzzy blues-rock for a warm 1970s AOR sound, Foxygen's sound has morphed into something evoking Honky Chateau-era Elton John, Atlantic Crossing-era Rod Stewart, and (above all else) glam-rock. Where Waiting is a fully realized mellow-rock affair (one song was co-written by John Prine) Foxygen's theatrical and often bonkers fourth album is at 32 1/2 minutes too concise and left me wanting more.

BEST JAZZ ALBUMS:
1. Fly or Die, Jaimie Branch. Not to be confused with the mid-2000s N.E.R.D. album of the same name, Branch's first album is an impressive, to-hell-and-back artistic statement. Her trumpet playing is free and abstract, and her crackerjack band (cellist Tomeka Reid, bassist Jason Ajemian, and drummer Chad Taylor) doesn't ground her so much as enable her serendipity. Branch has been a known commodity since 2007 or so, a creative and singular talent with a heavy AACM influence. This long-awaited release is a portent of equally impressive recordings to come.
2. La Saboteuse, Yazz Ahmed
3. Loneliness Road, Jamie Saft with Iggy Pop (yes, really)
4. Harmony of Difference, Kamasi Washington
5. Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds, Nicole Mitchell
6. Far From Over, Vijay Iyer Sextet
7. Voices in the Void, Dr. Mint
8. This is Beautiful Because We Are Beautiful People, Toxic
9. Flowers - Beautiful Life Vol. 2, Jimmy Greene
10. Cherry/Sakura, David Murray/Aki Takase

Honorable Mention: Make Noise, Jeremy Pelt.

BEST METAL ALBUM: Nightmare Logic, Power Trip. Speaking of throwbacks, this was a breakout year for the 80s-obsessed Dallas quintet. Logic augments the formula of their 2013 debut album: all-meat, axe-swinging hardcore/thrash fusion that isn't annoyingly self-serious.
Honorable Mentions: Forever, Code Orange; Dead Cross, Dead Cross.

BEST SINGLES:

"Restart," BNQT
"Human," Rag n' Bone Man
"Pressed for Time (Cross My Mind)," Mick Jenkins feat. Goldlink
"In Cold Blood," Alt-J
"Feel It Still," Portugal, The Man
"Three Rings," Grizzly Bear
"Alaska," Maggie Rogers
"No Roots," Alice Merton
"Don't Delete the Kisses," Wolf Alice
"Run," Foo Fighters
"Gold," Manchester Orchestra
"Turning the Screw," Generationals
"This Is It," Lo Moon
"Astronaut (Something About Your Love)," Mansionair
"The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness," The National


BEST VIDEOS:
1. "The Gate," Bjork. Nearly thirty years into a bold and never-not-challenging career, the Icelandic goddess and her frequent collaborator Andrew Thomas Huang keep pushing the envelope. The painstaking precision (complete with fragmented digital fairies) of this ambitious clip is a possible preview of what to expect in music videos in 2027.
2. "Wyclef Jean," Young Thug. The director of the video explains how an elaborate clip idea, based on an ode to the ex-Fugee, went completely off the rails after Thug flaked out of the shoot.
3. "The Story of O.J." Jay-Z. "I'm not black, I'm O.J." Uh, okay.
4. "Them Changes," Thundercat. Tormented samurais!
5. "Green Light," Lorde. The song is banger in its own right, but even if the dancing-in-the-streets thing is beyond cliche, Lorde makes it look fun.
6. "Up All Night," Beck. A young woman goes into Joan of Arc mode at one helluva college party.
7. "Waiting on a Song," Dan Auerbach. A Dazed and Confused homage about four 70s-era teenagers, some strong weed, and the bonds of friendship.
8. "New Rules," Dua Lipa. The #1 video based on YouTube views on this list, this pop empowerment anthem is carefully choreographed to show dancers as a unilateral voice of reason.
9. "Swell Does the Skull," Aldous Harding. Evoking Joan Baez, the clip is just a minimalist as the song: a naturally lit room, a guitar, and a voice. The guilt and yearning are palpable.
10. "Saturnz Barz," Gorillaz. Interactive videos are almost a genre unto itself, but special credit goes to this haunted house clip, where you can adjust the mise en scene as a spirit (Popcaan) hurtles the band into orbit.

Honorable Mentions: "Los Ageless," St. Vincent; "HUMBLE," Kendrick Lamar.

Best Video of 2016 That Easily Applies to 2017: "Nobody Speak," DJ Shadow feat. Run the Jewels. This is Trump's America, so I guess this is our generation's "Dr. Strangelove."

Your thoughts?

(573)

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Stool Pigeon & The Turd

I almost want to take pity on Andrew McCarthy. For as long as the Trump/Russia controversy has dragged on (nearly his entire first year in office) McCarthy has tried to give the president the benefit of a doubt in his column in the National Review. Michael Flynn's decision to plead guilty Friday, however proved that his best intentions for were for naught, and that all his assumptions were dead, dead wrong.

Even if the conversations between Putin's and Trump's underlings had nothing to do with collusion, the fact that these conversations were covered up is still peculiar and suspicious. Of course, the White House is doing an atrocious job of damage control. President Trump's hair-trigger temper and reputation for belligerence (as seen on Twitter, of course) is veering into the red, the scattered outbursts of a man who simply doesn't know what he's gotten himself into.

This almost distracts from the GOP tax bill that the U.S. Senate passed in the wee hours of  Saturday, December 2nd but not quite. I'm also certain that atrocious bill ever saw daylight because the GOP knows they're vulnerable in the 2018 midterms and they'll need the financial support of the super-rich. One monkey scratches the other's back.

Next Week: the year in music, 2017.

(572)

Saturday, November 25, 2017

My 13th Annual Thanks/No Thanks List

Every year since 2005, usually just before Thanksgiving, I have posted my annual "thanks/no thanks" list. This particular year has thrown my priorities out of whack (for better or worse) and as such I'm posting this a little later than usual.

This year, a hearty "thanks" to my sister, my aunt, my family friend Barb, my two dogs, and anyone who has offered their support, whether it was tangible or not, during these tumultuous last few months. That, plus comedy and improv.

On that note, I give a firm "no thanks" to our increasingly incompetent and mismanaged government, old friends that don't communicate, dealing with back-to-back inheritances and small estate affidavits, and "adulting" in general.

If 2016 was an anal wart, then 2017 is a hemorrhoid. Let's finish this year on a positive note.

(571)

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Complicit in Alabama

In the Fall of 2009, TV actress Mackenzie Phillips published an autobiography titled "High on Arrival." A lot of memoirs written by former child actors follow familiar beats --lack of control, abuse, narcissism, drug and alcohol addiction-- and "Arrival" doesn't deviate too much from that narrative, but it does contain two details that turned heads at the time. Mackenzie's father, the late songwriter "Papa John" Phillips, not only raped Mackenzie in a drugged-out stupor but wanted her to be his wife. Even if Mackenzie admitted they eventually had a consensual affair, the psychological damage she suffered is unfathomable.

As brave as Phillips was to tell her story, there was still a backlash. Many people (myself included, unfortunately) wondered why Phillips waited seven years after Papa John's death to write this book. Others, including Phillips' own stepmom, had doubts that the date-rape ever happened. Mackenzie was also accused of trying to profit on her father's legacy, regardless of how tainted it was. Phillips was abused and gaslighted, and it took her over three decades to find the courage to open up about her father's monstrous behavior. The book was dismissed as salacious gossip-mongering.

I thought about Phillips' ordeal as I've read up on the Judge Roy Moore scandal. As of this writing, five women (now all in their 50s and 60s) have accused Moore of making unwarranted sexual advances when they were teenagers. One victim was as young as 14, and it was recently revealed that Moore first noticed his wife when she was 15 (and he was 30). In any other part of the country, Moore's campaign would be practically over. In crimson-red Alabama, however competitor Doug Jones holds a very narrow lead in the polls, largely because the locals simply refuse to "vote liberal."

We could debate the questionable moral compass of Alabama Republicans, and putting political agenda over human decency, but that's a discussion for another time.  What bothers me is how we're questioning the timing of the accusations. Given how many celebrities have been taken off their pedestal in recent weeks, it would be easy for a critic to assume that outing a public figure as a sexual deviant is "trendy" right now. If anything, this is part of a far greater inclination, of shifting socio-cultural norms in which sexual harassment and similarly inappropriate behavior is taken seriously. A woman that was humiliated decades ago has every right to be reluctant to tell their story, and we must both laud their bravery and respect their privacy.

Mackenzie Phillips, quintessential narcissistic ex-child actor, was demonized and shamed eight years ago. Her confessional on "Oprah" (see clip in link) was dismissed as pandering for a book junket. Society as a whole is a little more enlightened now. If "High on Arrival" was released now, she could be at the forefront of meaningful systemic change.

(570)