Skip navigation

Category Archives: in praise of…

In honor of yesterday’s passing of one of the giants in American pop songwriting. Rest in peace, Ellie Greenwich.

10. “Doo Wah Diddy,” Manfred Mann
The penultimate “I’m hers!/She’s mine!” A thrillingly emphatic declaration of love and fidelity, especially when followed up with “wedding bells are gonna shine.”

9. “You Don’t Know,” Ellie Greenwich
The quiet, minimalist tension of the verses which then meet the oomph key change in the constantly spiraling bridge before culminating with a helpless “Help me” chorus.

8. “Wait Til My Bobby Gets Home,” Darlene Love
The breathless tumble of “Sure do need some lovin and a-kissin and a-huggin/But I’ll wait until my Bobby gets home,” which would trip up any singer that isn’t Darlene Love.

7. “Out in the Streets,” the Shangri-Las
“He used to act bad/Used to, but he quit it.” That quick “it” proves that Mary Weiss, adenoidal Queens brogue and all, was a fantastic singer.

6. “Then He Kissed Me,” the Crystals
Opening guitar line + interplay of castanets = the sound of lust rushing over you. (note: When I found out Ms. Greenwich died, this was the first song I played, and instead of feeling sad, this sound caused a wide grin to form)

5. “Goodnight Baby,” the Butterflys
“One kiss can lead to another/and baby, you know they always do.” Who says pop music can’t be poetic?

4. “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” Darlene Love
This thing is like a stocking packed with hooks, too many of them to choose just one, but the impassioned call-and-response of “please! (please!) please! (please!)” towards the end is like the dam finally breaking.

3. “He’s Got The Power,” the Exciters
Not many songs are absolute undeniable monsters. This one is, straight out of the gate. And then it tops itself with the chugging “Can’t stop saying I adore him/Can’t stop doing things for him.”

2. “The Train From Kansas City,” the Shangri-Las
The whole narrative of the song is devastating, but “I’ll be back in the time it takes to break a heart” kills it. (No Youtube of the original, so here’s Mary Weiss doing it during her comeback tour, which is still totally swoon-worthy).

1. “Be My Baby,” the Ronettes
My favorite song forever and ever. Hal Blaine’s iconic, oft-copied drum beat to begin the song is fantastic, but it’s its reappearance in the middle that makes the song transcendent. Eh who am I kidding, it’s Ronnie Spector’s “whoa oh oh oh oh.”

Above is a picture of Taylor Swift performing at a country music festival, possibly in character for this song:

“You Belong With Me” is Swift’s third single off of her sophomore record Fearless–a record that, though she may have proven herself a pretty good country artist on her self-titled debut, shows that Swift is an even better pop star. On Taylor Swift, she hopscotched through various conventions of country songwriting, acting out a bit of vengeful female here (“Picture To Burn”), lovelorn pining there (“Teardrops On My Guitar,” such a classic country title also), with a fair dose of perky down-home good ol’ girl sentiment thrown in (“Our Song,” “Mary’s Song [Oh My My My]”). What elevates Swift’s songs beyond their traditions, however, is the quality of her songwriting craft–whether it’s in the specificity of details, the tweaking of a chorus lyric or in the subtle way she sings a line that creates an unexpected texture to the writing itself.

This kind of exceptional craft is all over the place in Fearless, and every song on here is a winner to boot. Easily my favorite thing about Swift is her dedication to being a certain kind of teenage girl–the kind of bright-eyed optimist who believes in the stories of fairy tales and reimagines Romeo and Juliet with a happy ending (“Love Story”). This naivete is all the more striking when the record takes its downward turn to heartbreak, starting with the refutation of fairy tale imagery in “White Horse” with such clarity so as to make it striking:

I’m not a princess, this ain’t no fairy tale
I’m not the one you’ll sweep off her feet
and lead her up a stairwell

Except for rhythmic innovation, her songwriting contains much of what I want out of pop music; while there’s a strong dedication to convention and tradition, what Swift does within the lines are charmingly fresh. Liz Phair and Sheryl Crow only wish they could write songs like these, and Swift is decades younger than they are. Even better than the heartbreak of songs like “White Horse” and “You’re Not Sorry” (in which she sounds like she’s been directed to think of whatever Jonas brother it was that dumped her), however, are the big-hearted ones like “Fifteen”–another exercise in teenage mythology that simultaneously celebrates it and tears it down–and “The Best Day,” a song so moving that, as Sasha Frere-Jones put it in his stellar New Yorker profile on Swift, it should become the official Mother’s Day song.

But to get back to “You Belong With Me” for a second. It’s already her highest charting single on Billboard‘s Hot 100, currently at #3, and I hope she finally gets a #1 single soon, especially if it means dethroning the horrible turd-filled run that the Black Eyed Peas have had with first “Boom Boom Pow” and now “I Gotta Feeling.” Why? Fearless is probably my favorite ever pop album made by a teenage girl (sorry, Fiona), and “You Belong With Me” is like a sweeter, non-grating version of Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend”; the fact that these two could make a song and video so thematically similar and yet one comes off as bitchy and cruel and the other comes off as sunny and adorable speaks volumes to their respective personalities.

“You Belong With Me” also takes a hackneyed teen movie concept and boils its essentials (the dichotomy of shorts skirts/t-shirts, of high heels/sneakers, cheer captain/being on the bleachers) down to a delightful 4 minutes rather than the interminable 90 which would have included, oh, Rachel Leigh Cook’s bitchface or Freddie Prinze Jr.’s non-personality. The absolute zoom on the chorus, and how Swift’s reed-thin voice manages to ride its bombast before flattening with vulnerability. And then there’s my absolute favorite moment of pop music in 2009: Swift’s audible gasp at 2:46 before breathlessly listing every lovesick reason why she’d be this dumb oblivious schmuck’s perfect girlfriend. So desperate and sad and hilarious, like much of teenage existence.

And the mere fact that she deserves it; since 2006’s “Tim McGraw,” she has had my favorite run of singles this decade with nary a #1 to show for it. Putting this in perspective, B2K has more #1 hits than Swift. One of these acts is keeping the music industry afloat, and the other is one you have never heard of. And there’d be no one more fitting to knock off the Black Eyed Peas–who represent everything that is evil and wrong with pop music–than Swift, who represents much of what is wonderful and great about it.

Also, look at that picture! Conceptual dedication and regular gosh-darned cuteness.

…occurs at the end of Friday Night Lights‘ season three finale. I can safely say that I’ve never seen so perfect a sustained setpiece on television than these fifteen minutes, one that mixes incredible grace, emotional investment, a languidly free-form pace, and complex performances to approach something nearing visual poetry.

The wedding of Billy Riggins and Mindy Collette begins, appropriately, with a hilariously off-kilter acoustic performance of Peter Frampton’s “Baby I Love Your Way” as the various participants of the wedding party march down the aisle. Before Mindy comes down the aisle with her mother on her arm, Tami Taylor tip-toes into the church and clasps the hand of her husband Eric, informing him of the bad news that he’s been replaced as head coach of the Dillon Panthers. This scene, coupled with the preceding one (where Eric delivers a tremendously prideful, and ultimately disappointing, speech to the boosters and school board), so succinctly captures the brilliance of Kyle Chandler as an actor, underplaying his big moments in a manner that suggests they could never be played any other way. Other actors on this show get such great scenes where they really give a Performance (the fantastic Connie Britton being the best example), while Chandler prefers to internalize everything to give an embodiment instead. Chandler’s face when Eric finds out the news, only to then be told that he’s been offered the job as coach of the newly reformed East Dillon school, manages an impossible mixture of complex detail.

To undercut the brilliance of Chandler’s face, we see the Riggins boys, in their terrible/amazing white suits and 10,o00-gallon cowboy hats as Mindy walks down the aisle. And then a cut to one of the most fun receptions that has ever been fictionalized, complete with a corny band performing “Car Wash,” the residents of Dillon dancing wildly with each other, including Buddy sheepishly asking Angela Collette to dance–such a minor detail, but a beautiful one, considering that their affair in season 1 led to Buddy’s downfall. The wedding band then segues into its succession of perfect song choices, starting with “Fooled Around and Fell In Love,” as Tim–for so long floundering about with a lack of purpose–approaches the one true concrete love of his life, Lyla, who had planned on going to Vanderbilt without telling Tim, but guiltily decided to forgo those dreams and attend San Antonio State with him, as they’d planned. What follows is such a lovely summation of both of these characters’ arcs: Lyla, who started the show defined by her relationship with a boy, making a decision based on what’s actually best for her, but doubting herself; and Tim, showcasing the exponential growth he’s experienced over the past three years, allowing her to put her needs before his. Though not without some inherent selfishness, as a bemused relief plays on his face–this is his ticket out of college, of responsibility, and of growth. He can now stay in Dillon and work at Riggins’ Rigs with his brother, he thinks, and this is all he wants.

The wedding band plays “Mustang Sally” as we cut to Lyla, now seemingly freed from her burdens, who twirls around on the dancefloor with her father. The jubilant music fades in the background as Julie attempts, against her wishes, to break up with college-bound Matt. He tells her “no,” and with a kiss assures her that they’ll be fine before Julie sighs, “Your grandma would’ve really loved this wedding.” Cut to Matt taking his grandmother out of the nursing home where he’d left her earlier, in a beautifully composed and heartwrenching scene that ended the the two of them separated in the frame by a wall. “You’re the only person that’s never left me. I’m not gonna leave you,” he says now, and while Matt’s escape from Dillon is now disappointingly a thing of the past, it is so perfectly in line with what this character has shown over the last three seasons–his self-sacrifice for the good of those who depend on him.

Cut back to the reception, and the band’s final Perfect Song Choice: “When A Man Loves A Woman,” while the men of Dillon dance with the women they love: Billy and Mindy, Tim and Lyla, Landry and Tyra, Eric and Tami (having a moment of dialogue that affirms their standing as the best husband and wife in the history of television)…and Julie, watching as Matt directs his grandmother to the dancefloor, giving her the dance he didn’t give his girlfriend.

The reception’s over, and Eric and Tami leave quietly before Billy and Mindy are pelted with rice. Before they can get in their limo, Tim excitedly relays the news that he’s going to stay in Dillon, figuring (per their roadside conversation earlier in the episode, as Billy wistfully pondered what it would be like to work side-by-side with his brother) that Billy would be elated. But Billy Riggins, tragicomic ne’er-do-well bad ideas doofus, surprises everyone by refusing to let this happen, and in the last words of this beautiful episode–this beautiful 15 minutes–gives FNL one of its three over-riding spoken theses (along with Tami’s speech to Eric in the bar, saying, “You are a molder of men”; and Matt’s “They needed me and I stepped up and I worked my ass and I did everything I could, but I guess it just wasn’t really enough,” all from earlier this season), in as poignant and moving a moment ever seen in this poignant and moving show (especially considering the source!):

You listen to me you little idiot. You are not going to wuss out on this. You’re going to go to college and you’re going to go get a degree. And I don’t care if it takes you seven years, alright? And when you start thinking that it’s too hard or that you can’t handle it I want you to remember one thing. I want you to think about the kids that you don’t have yet. And I want you to think about my kids. Me and Mindy’s kids that we don’t have yet. And you’re going to get the job done so that one of these days I can tell them that they don’t have to settle for second best. That they can be whoever the hell they want to be because their uncle Timmy went to college. God bless our mom and dad, wherever they are. But we gotta do better by our kids.

As if that wasn’t enough, we end with the coda: We see that Eric and Tami have run off to the decrepit, unused patch of field of East Dillon, this loving and supportive couple holding each other as a guitar plucks melancholy chords, the two of them surveying where Eric will lead a whole new group of young boys in the unending, unforgiving, and unknowable process of trying to become men, disappointment and hope and struggle and triumph to be displayed on this rundown territory in the future while, in the present, our protagonists are drowned out by fading sun.

What a fifteen minutes that was.

savage

After oh, two months of sitting in its sad little red envelope, I finally watched Savage Grace last night. Why didn’t anyone tell me that Julianne Moore is some kind of hysterical amalgam of Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce/Bette Davis in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?/Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?…except, you know, human. The tremendous thing about Moore’s performance here is how it often seems to wildly veer towards camp (the scene pictured almost rising to the glorious potty-mouthed breakdown heights of her pharmacy scene in Magnolia; there is no other person who makes the word “cunt” sound so transcendent) before being pulled back my some incredibly minute detail (following said scene is a static shot of Moore shakily but triumphantly walking out of frame, her face gradually fading from post-outburst pride to heartbroken terror).

If only the rest of the film was up to her standards instead of actually seeming to get in her way (or rather being frightened of being in her way). The string-laden score and gorgeous visuals reminded me of Contempt, and the laconic pace managed to convey the decadence of these aristocratic bohemians. Unfortunately for the film, the pace conjured by director Tom Kalin becomes a detriment to its success; the film throughout feels amorphous and undefined, should rightly be called “sloppy” if every shot wasn’t so meticulously framed, and when it needs to build towards the climax it instead feels as if the film has meandered enough and needs to finally end.

This is the first film in a while where I’ve been struck by the budgetary limitations of independent film. The film is certainly based on tremendously episodic source material, and screenwriter Howard A. Rodman wisely chooses appropriate vignettes in order to condense the story. Unfortunately when filmed, the condensation reveals severe narrative holes that, instead of imbuing the dramaturgy with purpose, empties it of its juice and flair. Throughout it seems that the filmmakers are constrained by their own limitations, and work to create a story as good as possible, which effectively seems to gut the meaningfulness of this story’s peculiar tragedy. Savage Grace, in the end, has an epic performance in search of an epic movie; instead it has Julianne Moore standing in a kiddie pool, bigger than every other one or thing in the film (except, oddly enough, child actor Barney Clark). I suppose that’s one comforting thing to take out of this movie: that after a few years of The Forgotten and Laws of Attraction and Next (wtf?!), Moore has proven that, for the first time since 2002, she still knows how to own a screen.

In this week’s issue of The New Yorker, Sasha Frere-Jones profiles Neko Case in concert with the release of Case’s new album Middle Cyclone. In the article, Frere-Jones makes some stunning remarks–not least of which is “Neko Case is the horn section,” one of the best descriptions of a singer that I’ve ever read. I do agree that Middle Cyclone is Case’s best record; she seems to get exponentially more mature as a songwriter, most notable in the lyrics which have quickly caught up to the quality of her voice. Every record is better than the last, and each one capitalizes on Case’s strengths as a singer and songwriter while minimizing any previous misstep. But I’d have to contend with this point, even if I agree with it on a certain level:

At first, Case’s take on country was engaging, mostly because of her voice…Without Case’s voice, the Boyfriends records would have been fairly unremarkable country-rock albums.

By the Boyfriends records, Frere-Jones means The Virginian and Furnace Room Lullaby, albums she released before singularly owning 2003’s Blacklisted. I don’t really know that this criticism works for Furnace Room Lullaby, which keeps the production that Case calls “some sort of Owen Bradley magic” of The Virginian while branching into the moodier content and sonics that inform Blacklisted (the title track, after all, concerns the narrator cremating her lover).

Part of what makes Frere-Jones’s comment stick out to me is that it is in line with what I had thought of The Virginian–Case’s debut and her least ‘accomplished’ record–when I first heard it, dismissing it as lacking any of the qualities that made Case a unique artist. A few years removed and a healthy dose of Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline and Wanda Jackson has made me respect the charms, however slight they may be, of The Virginian–a modest iteration of the classic Nashville sound that manages to sound aged in moonshine while still full of modernity’s swagger.

And oh yeah, there are tunes.

Not to denigrate Case’s songwriting, but she no longer writes “songs” in the classic verse-chorus-verse tradition. And that’s fine; it works for her to create the prose found in Fox Confessor Brings The Flood (“Star Witness” being her greatest example) as well as the singularly poetic lines she has crafted with increasing frequency since Blacklisted (perhaps my favorite from Middle Cyclone: the title track’s “I lie across the path waiting just for a chance to be a spiderweb trapped in your lashes”). And what makes the songs work is the strength of Case’s writing coupled with the immense power of her voice. In fact, to turn Frere-Jones’s critique on its head, I feel as if Middle Cyclone would seem like your standard unremarkable indie-folk record without Case’s voice (plus, again, her lyrical talent). Imagine also if bearded white boys sang this; the amount of acclaim would be deafening (see: those indie-folk white boy beard records that came out last year which I don’t remember).

In fact, Case’s voice dials waaaaay back on Middle Cyclone than it previously has. It is, actually, much less of a horn section than normal. This disparity has been spotlit in the past three or so weeks as I’ve revisited Case’s catalog, most judiciously listening to the two I’ve heard least: the live record The Tigers Have Spoken as well as The Virginian. It’s not a coincidence that both are consisted of roughly half-originals and half-covers each. What is great about Tigers is how remarkably fun the whole thing sounds; it’s good to hear Case (armed with secret weapon The Sadies) take songs by the Shangri-Las and Loretta Lynn and the Nervous Eaters and make them her own. Case has an almost unparalleled ability to improve upon originals for the simple fact of her voice and her enthusiasm.

She does this tremendously on The Virginian, where it is almost impossible to tell which songs are originals and which ones are covers, except for maybe the betrayal by a slightly off-key lyrical flourish (like including the word “rhetoric” in a chorus, which OUCH). “Timber” takes a simple metaphor and makes it sound as big as the song’s fallen tree; her duet with Carl Newman on “Bowling Green” must have inspired their work in the New Pornographers; “Karoline” is a rip-snortin’ performance worthy of prime Wanda Jackson. These songs are as honky-tonk and grimy as Neko Case will ever be, I fear–it is great to hear this much propulsion and energy coming out of her and her band. But she can also do justice to the heartbreak she’ll explore later in much more poetic terms, while keeping them grounded in the simplicity of “Lonely Old Lies” and “Thanks A Lot.” This latter performance is not as distant or slightly ironic as when Ernest Tubbs, God bless ‘im, sang it, but I’ll take Case’s furious longing when she wails “I’ve got a broken heart, that’s all I got.”

This is the power of Case as a singer; she takes over, and she doesn’t let go. Middle Cyclone is clearly her best record by a longshot, and it benefits from her vocal restraint (making her powerful intonations that much more impressive) while expanding her content in impressive lyrical setpieces and song structures. It is almost impossible to break this record up into songs; they feel like a full, cohesive, linked whole. One song plays and you think it is the best song on the record, until you get to the next one, until you get to “I’m An Animal,” which from then on is the single best run of songs in Case’s recorded career. With this record, Case has vaulted even further into the upper echelon of musical artists of this generation.

But damn, I’m gonna miss the horn section that existed on The Virginian and The Tigers Have Spoken.

A while back, I wrote some effusive rambling thoughts on Paranoid Park after I watched it for a second time. I couldn’t write them after the first time, because I was too discombobulated and entranced and overwhelmed by its tone and mood, and I needed to view it more critically, and figure out the WHY of reaction. Now that I did that, I can go back to drooling incoherence. I am almost never affected by a film as much as I’ve been affected by this one–I try to watch another movie but I think of Paranoid Park or put it on instead (I have had this from Netflix for about a month now; I should really just buy the damn thing). It so successfully puts me in a specific mood, I can’t help it.

The four people who read this thing aren’t likely to ever watch this movie so I’m just going to post my two favorite scenes, because they are beautiful examples of what the film accomplishes:

(ignore the, erm, Right Said Fred at the beginning of this one, as well as the Italian)

And my favorite scene in any movie since Julianne Moore at the end of Safe:

OKAY SORRY FOR GEEKING OUT.

Yes, this song is great.

And then this version is also great because it’s Mary fucking Wells.

Because I want to pile on Slumdog Millionaire, and because this person has a far more detailed perspective on it that I did, but mainly because this shit is so damn funny:

…the problem is when you show every hellish thing possible all happening to the same person. Then it stretches reason and believability and just looks like you are packing in every negative thing that Westerners perceive about India for the sake of “crowd pleasing”. Because audiences and jury members “feel good” when their pre-conceived notions are confirmed. On the flip side, nothing disquiets a viewer as much as when his/her prejudices are challenged. So Boyle does the safe thing.

Let’s say I made a movie about the US where an African-American boy born in the hood, has his mother sell him to a pedophile pop icon, after which he gets molested by a priest from his church, following which he gets tied up to the back of a truck and dragged on the road by KKK clansmen. Then he is arrested and sodomized by a policeman with a rod, after which he is attacked by a gang of illegal immigrants, and then uses these life experiences to win “Beauty and Geek”.

I would so much like to see that movie about America.