Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Predicting the 2015 Oscar Nominations

Tomorrow morning at an unreasonably early hour, two people going on virtually no sleep and a lot of coffee will read something like 120 nominees in 24 categories, much of which will be predictable and a fair amount of which will draw gasps and agents worrying about their job security. Predicting where the specific gasps will fall is an exercise in futility and counter-intuitive logic, but it’s fun, so we (I) do it anyway.

I won’t bother predicting the 18 sub-major categories, because that’s a crapshoot that even I don’t have the time and patience for. But before we move onto the Big Six, here are a few hopes I have for the 18 other categories:

*Wild Tales, which was my favorite film at TIFF ’14, made the shortlist of 9 contenders for Best Foreign Language Film, and I deeply hope it gets a nomination. It’s the horse for which I have the most unbridled passion.

*While these are all expected nominees, Birdman, The Imitation Game, and Theory of Everything each had Original Scores that blew me away, so I hope none get left out.

*Aside from Citizen Four, which is considered the shoo-in, my favorite documentaries of the year were Jodorowsky’s Dune and Life Itself, so I’d love to see both of them get nominated.

*It’s unlikely to get nominated anywhere, but Under the Skin was my favorite under-seen/under-talked-about film of the year, so I hope it shows up on the ballot, regardless of category, if only because that will force more people to see it.

*Ida, the black and white foreign film contender from Poland, is one of the most gorgeously shot films I’ve seen in a while, with an unmoving camera that carefully composes each frame to look like a beautiful old photo. I’d love to see it honored with a cinematography nomination.

*Whiplash was the most impressive editing I saw this year, and that category will feel sorely lacking without it.

Best Supporting Actress

This race often has the most surprises, both in nominations and winners, so predictions here often run risky (everyone wants to predict the outlier) and frequently wrong. Patricia Arquette is a sure thing, and Emma Stone probably is. After that, no one knows anything. Keira Knightly and Meryl Streep are reasonably safe bets, the former because of overall support for her film, and the latter because she’s Meryl F-ing Streep. The fifth nominee could be anyone from Laura Dern (Wild), Rene Russo (Nightcrawler), or Jessica Chastain (A Most Violent Year)--the three “safest” bets--or some other name that even fewer people saw coming, like Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King (Selma).

The Prediction:
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Laura Dern, Wild
Keira Knightly, The Imitation Game
Emma Stone, Birdman
Meryl Streep, Into the Woods

Where I’ll Be Wrong:
Dern is an iffy prediction, especially because support for Wild seems tepid. The Golden Globes picked Chastain as their fifth nominee, but I’m not sure if enough people in the Academy’s Actors branch actually saw A Most Violent Year. Support for Nightcrawler keeps growing, so Russo could squeeze in here.

Best Supporting Actor

J.K. Simmons is a sure thing, and Edward Norton, Ethan Hawke, and Mark Ruffalo are pretty close to sure things. Ruffalo might be vulnerable because of recent Foxcatcher controversy, but it’s unclear how many voters actually care about that stuff, especially in regards to the acting races. The fifth slot doesn’t seem to have a good choice. The Globes and others went with Robert Duvall (The Judge), in what felt like an obvious Hey we had to pick five move. If he doesn’t show up here, it’ll most likely be because either Tom Wilkinson or Tim Roth—two Brits playing Southern politicians in Selma—beat him out. But that’s starting to feel increasingly unlikely.

The Prediction:
Robert Duvall, The Judge
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
Edward Norton, Birdman
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Where I’ll Be Wrong:
No one knows who’ll end up in that fifth slot if it’s not Duvall. I’ll go with Tom Wilkinson as my back-up pick, but I don’t feel great about it.

Best Actress

A lot has been written about what seems to be the boring consensus of this race, but I slightly disagree. When people talk about the consensus five nominees, they’re talking about Reese Witherspoon, Julianne Moore, Rosamund Pike, Felicity Jones, and Jennifer Aniston, but I don’t see that conclusion as foregone as others, because of the three names lurking on the outside. Hilary Swank’s performance in The Homesman seems under-seen, but the Academy clearly loves her. Marion Cotillard is a past winner who anchored two well regarded films (The Immigrant and Two Days, One Night), but votes for her could cancel each other out. Amy Adams, a Golden Globe winner for Big Eyes, is probably the biggest threat to spoil, and she is very good in a film that may just be too forgettable for her performance to get nominated. Picking between her and Aniston for the fifth slot is a toss-up, but I’ll play low risk and go with the pack in predicting Aniston.

The Prediction:
Jennifer Aniston, Cake
Felicity Jones, Theory of Everything
Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon, Wild

Where I’ll Be Wrong:
I won’t be surprised at all to see Amy Adams’ name show up on the final list, and even Swank or Cotillard wouldn’t be that shocking. Moore and Witherspoon are the only two names that feel like real locks to me.

Best Actor

This is the most difficult race to predict this year, because six people feel like sure-things. Obviously, one of them isn’t. Michael Keaton is the only one who surely can’t fall out. The others are all varying degrees of vulnerable, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne probably the safest. The other three—Steve Carell (Foxcatcher), David Oyelowo (Selma), and Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler)—are all preparing for potential disappointment, or at least should be. If Gyllenhaal is the one that falls out, that means the category would have five first-time nominees, which feels kind of fun. If Oyelowo falls out, it would be an all-white category, which always feels inappropriate. Oyelowo is the one who missed out on the SAG nomination, and because Selma feels (to me) like more of a SAG movie than an Academy movie, I think he’ll miss the cut here too. And all of this already assumes that Timothy Spall (the Cannes winner for Mr. Turner) and Bradley Cooper (American Sniper) don’t even have a chance, which feels a bit premature and risky.

The Prediction:
Steve Carell, Foxcatcher
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler
Michael Keaton, Birdman
Eddie Redmayne, Theory of Everything

Where I’ll Be Wrong:
Oyelowo, or even Bradley Cooper (who’s been nominated both of the last two years in this category), knocking out Gyllenhaal or Steve Carell, who voters might see as playing too similar characters and deciding to pick one or the other (Ye old “I can only pick one sociopath” rule of voting).

Best Director

This is the race where we know the least. Richard Linklater (Boyhood) and Alejandro Inarritu (Birdman) seem like sure things, but when Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow were left out of this race two years ago, we emphatically learned Best Director has no sure things. But for the sake of making things easier on myself, I’m assuming they’re in. From there, it could go anywhere. There’s the True-Story-With-Wide-Support Group, which includes Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game), James Marsh (Theory of Everything), and Ava DuVernay (Selma). There’s the Hey-We-Like-This-Guy-And-We’ve-Nominated-Him-Before Group, which includes David Fincher (Gone Girl) and Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher). There’s the How-Has-He-Never-Been-Nominated group, run by Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel). There’s the Holy-Jesus-Exciting-New-Kid, which this category famously honored Benh Zeitlin with two years ago for Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) definitely qualifies. Then there’s the OMG-It’s-Clint-Eastwood category, which (obviously) includes Clint Eastwood (American Sniper).

So how do we reduce those eight possibilities down to three? Quickly, I’ll do it like this: First, I’m knocking off Wes Anderson, because it just seems like, at this point, the Academy’s Directors branch isn’t a fan of his work. Next, Clint Eastwood gets crossed off. Been there, done that. So now we have three groups left, and I’ll take one name from each. I think Chazelle will get in, because this race often likes the new kid, and Whiplash was an amazingly directed film. (That should be worth something, right?!) Between Fincher and Miller, I’ll take Miller. Gone Girl just might be too slight for some voters (it’s a dreaded genre film), and Foxcatcher is probably the more impressive directorial achievement anyway. I’ll eliminate Ava DuVernay because of my belief that Selma just wasn’t that artistically interesting, and hope voters agree. Lastly, between Marsh and Tyldum, I’m going Tyldum on what is basically a coin flip, and the added power of having a Weinstein name running your campaign.

The Prediction:
Damien Chazelle, Whiplash
Alejandro Inarritu, Birdman
Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher
Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game

Where I’ll Be Wrong:
Possibly, everywhere. But most likely with Chazelle or Miller giving way to DuVernay or Anderson.

Best Picture

We know there will be at least five, no more than ten. The key is that a film needs to get at least 5% of the first place votes to get a Best Picture nomination, so being passionately loved by a small number matters more than being fairly loved by a large number. Because of that, I’ll immediately eliminate Gone Girl and The Grand Budapest Hotel. I just don’t see 5% of the Academy thinking either of those was the best film of the year.

Birdman and Boyhood, the front-runners, are definitely in. I think The Imitation Game, Theory of Everything, and Selma all get in because of the portion of the huge portion of the Academy that wants a Best Picture winner to feel like a BEST PICTURE WINNER, as stuffy and outdated as that sentiment may be. I also think Whiplash will get in because it’s the exact type of film that you can easily imagine 5% of the Academy ranking #1 on their ballot. Its support may not be wide-ranging, but it is loud and fervent.

From there, the big question becomes “What to do with American Sniper and Foxcatcher?” Sniper is likely to appeal to the classicist voters, and Foxcatcher may appeal to the same type of voters that also love Whiplash. In both cases, they run the risk of being cancelled out by voter overlap. But ultimately, I think both will get in.

The Prediction:
American Sniper
The Imitation Game
Theory of Everything

Where I’ll Be Wrong:
American Sniper and Foxcatcher could both easily be left off, and a nomination for Grand Budapest Hotel would be a surprise, but not a complete shock, especially given its Golden Globe win proving that it may have more support than people anticipated. Though remember, the Golden Globes and Oscars have no voter overlap, so its Globe win could just as easily mean nothing at all.

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Great Scenes: Jason Bourne and Filmdom's Best Fight Scene

Grantland today posted a long piece by Shea Serrano and Jason Concepcion about the greatest movie fighters ever. It's a really cool piece that I recommend everyone check out. Of course, there's no way anyone was going to agree with everything they chose (and omitted) , but it's a very good list with a nice mix of obscure stuff that I'd never seen before. It even highlighted a really cool moment from Jack Reacher, a decent action flick that no one seems to have seen. 

A list like Shea & Jason's is meant to provoke appreciation for its subject, not to be attacked via pointless argument, so before I start doing just that, let's all take a moment to celebrate how cool good movie fights are, and to thank Shea & Jason for reminding us. 

Overall, I don't find myself with too much to argue against. They definitely like Road House a little too much--and let's be honest, anyone that likes Road House likes it a little too much--and they somehow never mention anything featuring Bruce Willis or Mel Gibson, which feels like a tragic oversight. I know sergeants  John McClane and Martin Riggs aren't exactly the most graceful fighters ever to grace the silver screen, but they're the action stars that an entire generation was raised on, so they deserve a shout out. But those quibbles aside, the big gripe I have about the list is the absence of Jason Bourne. He should have been in the top 4 or 5 of Greatest Movie Fighters. 

What almost every fight scene on the Grantland list has in common is that--in some way or another--style trumps reality. Be it the soundtrack guiding our emotional response, long tracking shots, snappy dialogue among the fighters, exaggerated blood and/or sound effects, inventiveness in weapons that defy logic, blind protagonists, Jean-Claude Van Damme laughably screaming, Patrick Swayze ripping someone's throat out (literally!), Uma Thurman yanking out not one, but two eyeballs, Keanu Reeves doing Keanu Reeves things, Jackie Chan guzzling alcohol like he's Popeye power-upping through spinach, or someone backflipping off an elephant, every single one of the fight scenes highlighted in the Grantland column finds a way to deemphasize the possible reality of the situation. They all proactively act as entertainment, and find specific ways to make sure we're entertained beyond just the hitting. 

Okay, now hold that thought while I pretend to be an expert on something I know nothing about. 

Here's the best fight scene from The Bourne Ultimatum, which is the third film in the series and, for my money, the best action movie of the last 10-15 years. 

This is the most realistic fight scene I've ever seen in a film. I know this from my extensive experience in fights to death. (See, I told you I'd pretend to be an expert on something I know nothing about!)

Everything that I mentioned about being in the other fight scenes is completely absent from this one. Nothing jokey or hokey, ridiculous or self-consciously stylistic. The fighters never crack puns, scream dramatically, make cool poses to intimidate one another, or defy all logic of speed/movement/anatomy. There's no music to heighten the drama. It's simply two-and-a-half minutes of two people trying to kill each other with every ounce of savagery, efficiency, and concentration they can muster, and doing a damn effective job of it. No more, no less. 

I'm perfectly aware that there's a lot more editing in this scene, the shots are infinitely shorter, and that probably hides that the actors have a lot less skill than the actors highlighted in the Grantland piece. But the problem with the less-edited clips in the Grantland piece is that the choreography and scene prepping come across much more. We become more aware of the impressiveness of the craft. With the Bourne fight, the idea is that all awareness of absolutely anything in the viewer is eliminated except for the two characters trying to kill each other. It's all we can see, hear, or think about. 

It's also worth noting that Bourne's final disposal of Desh is far less showy and glamorous than any of the other fight scene climaxes. There's no Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique. Bourne simply gets his opponent in a hold, and chokes him until he's dead. (Warning: I'm about to play an expert again.) That's how it would be! 

The pretentiousness often associated with critics of any discipline is that we try too hard to not be entertained. All of the fight clips in the Grantland piece are entertaining, and I truly love a lot of them. But they're all less impressive to me than the Bourne fight because the Bourne fight is the only one that isn't trying to entertain me--it's trying to show me truth. And I find that the most entertaining of all. 

Friday, December 5, 2014

Song of the Day: Moby - Extreme Ways (2002)

Some songs just have a perfect time, place, and situation. A lot of songs we refer to as summer songs, or road trip songs, or campfire songs, or bar songs… But here's a song that's perfect for the isolation you can only feel at night in a big city. 

Let me set the scene for you: It's late at night in a big city, the bars have closed, the streets are empty, but the fluorescent lights are still all about you, soaking you in a million colors because you're the only thing in their path. You get in your car, hit the gas, and press play. 

It's those first two siren-like notes that immediately make you feel so cool, like the world is sitting still just so you can have your way with it. 

Virtually every pop song ever written about loneliness takes a sad tone. This one does not. "Extreme Ways" treats loneliness not merely as a proactive choice, but as a necessity, as though only you can handle the intensity of your life, and there's simply no practical place for anyone else. It powerfully creates the backstory of living an adventurous and dangerous life, so of course it immediately became the theme song for a film series about just that. 

"Extreme Ways" is from the 2002 Moby album 18, and just a month after it's release it was used during the end credits of the first Bourne film, The Bourne Identity. The internet seems unsure of whether or not the song was created specifically for the film.  Regardless, it's one of the most perfect marriages of song-to-film that has ever existed--a marriage that proved so durable it continued through three subsequent Bourne films. 

All four Bourne movies end the exact same way--something happens that casts doubt about the fate of the main character, that doubt is slyly eliminated in a clever winking way, and that winking moment is immediately cut into by the opening two sirens of this song, signaling the end of the film and the rolling of the credits, and Moby reassuringly sings to us that "Extreme ways are back again."

Action franchises often get taken to the cleaners by critics and bloggers for recycling the same formulas again and again, but this is the rare exception. Not only does each of the four Bourne films end like this, they end exactly like this, and it feels perfect. It's just the sense of adrenaline inducement that a movie about Jason Bourne is supposed to leave you with. That's how you know a movie theme song gets it just right--when each successive entry in the series still ends with the same song and the audience wouldn't have it any other way. 

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Thursday, December 4, 2014

Song of the Day: Blind Faith - Had to Cry Today (1969)

I've written before about my picks for the first moments of punk rock and indie rock, so I thought it'd be fun to make the same claim on heavy metal. Except I didn't have an answer, so that idea spent a while on my back burner. Then this week, as I've been going through another stack of CDs to potentially get rid of (or "edit," as my aunt calls it), I put on the lone album from 1969 super-group Blind Faith, which I probably listened to twice when I bought it in high school and has been collecting dust on my shelf ever since. It took all of ten seconds into track one to know I'd be writing about it soon. 

Blind Faith was Eric Clapton's fourth band in as many years, formed directly after the dissolution of Cream, almost by accident after a jam session with Steve Winwood while his own band, Traffic, was on hiatus. Their lone album has six tracks, the last of which takes up almost all of side two with relatively aimless Ginger Baker drum solos. Because the album had no hits and possesses easily the worst album cover of all-time (the kind that's so bad you hope prospective girlfriends don't even stumble upon lest you have to defend owning it), it's pretty easy to forget about its existence at all. Cream was great, Derek & the Dominoes had "Layla," and Blind Faith was just that side project in between that no one really cares about. At least, that's the narrative I had in my head. 

I don't really know what I was expecting when I put this album on the other day. I knew what "Presence of the Lord" sounded like because it was on a Clapton compilation I used to have, and it's vaguely boring church-ish blues, so I guess my memory had falsely carried that over as the sound of the whole album. Nope. The first song, "Had to Cry Today," now strikes me as the first heavy metal song. 

First, some timelines: Obviously this came out after Cream's entire career, and it's also after the first Blue Cheer album, the first Jeff Beck Group album, and the first Led Zeppelin album. But those all feel like distinctly hard-edged blues albums from which you can understand the advent of metal, but which don't fully feel like metal themselves. This is prior to Led Zeppelin II, all of Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple's In Rock (their first heavy album), and came out about the same time as the second Jeff Beck Group album, all of which are much closer to traditional metal. 

As with any artistic debate like this, the precise transitive moment is tricky, if there even is one. It's like Descartes' old philosophical question of replacing every board in a ship with a different kind of wood, one by one. At what point is the ship made of a different kind of wood? How many of our hair follicles have to go gray before we officially have gray hair? It's both trivial and arbitrary to pinpoint, but fun and somewhat informative to try. At least as informative as any other argument about pop music really can be. 

Anyway, this is my answer. This opening riff. This is the beginning of heavy metal. Crank it up, stretch out your devil horn fingers, make sure no one's looking, and bang the shit out of your head. And try to pretend it's not Steve Winwood's white-soul voice that you're doing it to. 

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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Song of the Day: The Faces - Cindy Incidentally (1973)

For the second straight day, rock and roll has lost one of its greatest sidemen. Yesterday it was Bobby Keys, saxophonist for The Rolling Stones, and today it was Ian McLagan, pianist/organist for the Faces and Small Faces. I've written about The Faces before, how they were one of the five best bands of their era, but no one seems to have heard of them anymore. Because of that, comparatively few people will realize what a loss McLagan is, but he was one of the best and most beloved keyboardists in rock, having played at one point or another with virtually everyone. 

I own probably two dozen CD box sets, but my favorite one is the Faces' box set that Ian McLagan compiled in 2004, Five Guys Walk Into a Bar…, because it so gloriously and perfectly recreates the band as they actually were instead of how revisionist history might have dreamt they were. The set isn't remotely in chronological order, nor does it stick to a clear "highlights and lost gems" game plan like so many other box sets do. Instead, it haphazardly runs through 67 songs that range from the singles to drunken rehearsals with unintelligible band dialogue. 

If we've learned one thing from the history of rock artists compiling their own work, it's that they rarely know what the hell they're doing, and their misguided attempts at rewriting history only rob fans of informative listening experiences. Not so with McLagan, who proves to be one of the great exceptions. In the introduction to the box set, McLagan writes that he initially had it organized chronologically, but switched it because that bored him. He continues:

"So I sat down one afternoon, poured myself a pint of black madness, and put on 'Flying.' It was the first song Ronnie, Woody, and Rod wrote together, it was the first track we cut, and it became our first single. So it was the obvious place to start, a nostalgic beginning. But after that I was desperate to hear 'On the Beach,' and then 'Too Bad' followed it so well, and 'If I'm On the Late Side' was a natural after that. I was on a roll, pouring drinks and wiping tears from my eyes all at once."

He then also tells the story of how "Dishevelment Blues" came into existence, that the New Musical Express had asked them for an original song to include on a free flexidisc, and Rod suggested they give the publication this "abomination of a blues, knowing they wouldn't have the balls to use it. But they did." McLagan says he included it on the box because "piss-taking is part of what we were as a band." 

In addition to compiling the definitive history and portrait of the band, McLagan also helped co-write many of The Faces' best songs, and "Cindy Incidentally," which was one of the singles from their final album, is among their loveliest. You can hear in the opening piano melody just how crucial and stylish his playing was to one of the greatest rock bands ever. He'll be deeply missed, but don't feel sad. Instead, pour yourself a pint and press play. 

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Song of the Day: The Faces - Maybe I'm Amazed (1971)

My cousin has been begging me for a Paul McCartney song, but since I'm not in the business of just totally giving people what they want, he'll have to settle for this, which is arguably the greatest cover of a McCartney song. 

If every band in history were ranked solely by the size of the gap between how great they are and how popular they are (at least for bands whose greatness is higher than their popularity, not the reverse), The Faces would probably be number one. While they enjoyed a good amount of success in the early '70s while they were together, they seem to have been totally and utterly forgotten by history. They have zero name recognition. None of their albums are in print on CD. They have exactly one song that gets touched by classic rock radio ("Stay With Me"). They were finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame about 15 years too late. But Jesus, consider the pedigree! Three of their members (Ronnie Lane, Ian McLagan, and Kenny Jones) were previously in The Small Faces, who were a hugely successful British pop band of the '60s, and two of their members (Rod Stewart and Ron Wood) were previously in The Jeff Beck Group, which was a very popular heavy British blues/hard rock band. And after The Faces broke up, one of them replaced Keith Moon in The Who (Kenny Jones), one of them became the second guitarist in The Rolling Stones (Ron Wood), and one of them became Rod Stewart (Rod Stewart). That's a huge amount of mileage in terms of importance and popularity, and yet the best work any of those five guys did was with this band. So why doesn't anyone but music snobs know who they are? It's a mystery. For people that care about the history of art forms, we always hope that things will get straightened out once the dust settles. And yet that doesn't seem to be working out for The Faces. 

One of the most overused words in rock criticism is ramshackle, and The Faces were the band that word was created for. My app defines ramshackle as "loosely made or held together; rickety; shaky." Ummm, yep. That's these guys. By all accounts they didn't get along great behind the scenes, with two different songwriting/singing factions in the band. When Ronnie Lane wrote their best song, "Ooh La La," there was such a fight over who would sing it between he and Stewart that Ron Wood (who was absolutely not a singer) finally ended up doing the vocal just so neither could be pissed that the other won the fight. And yet, that's part of the song's charm, that it was just sung by this hugely flawed voice, with the great Rod Stewart merely chiming in for harmony work. It sounds like something the band recorded at a drunken bonfire. It also sounds utterly wonderful. Further contributing to the ramshackle nature of the band was that despite none of them having notable drug problems, they notoriously played their shows so shitballs drunk that the concerts had a sort of "anything goes" atmosphere. They were The Replacements before The Replacements. They even used to have a bar on stage! And a bartender!!

But they made truly timeless and phenomenal rock and roll, so much so that all of the band's many flaws appear as charming elements of the whole package. With this song, recorded less than a year after the McCartney version, they begin by eliminating all of the tenderness and poignancy of the original, and then somehow relocating those things along the way almost by accident. It starts like bar band rock and roll. They're probably drunk, they're smiling, the drums are loud. The organ acts as the lead instrument. You could make cogent arguments about how tight the instrumentation is and how loose it is. That's the kind of thing The Faces were very good at--leaving you completely unsure about whether they were on the same page, but thinking that no matter how on or off they were was part of what made it so great. And then, at the 2:46 mark, Rod and Ronnie--band nemeses--join each other at the mic for one of the most lovely chorus harmonies you're ever likely to hear. For just over 30 seconds the rest of the band comes to a virtual halt, and we just get two guys who allegedly hated each other coming together for a sound so beautiful that it demands to be experienced as loud as you can handle it. While the McCartney version is romantic, this one seems celebratory. Rod and Ronnie, huge grins on their inebriated faces, passionately singing to the skies and loving every moment of it. It's no wonder they stretched the song out to six minutes. Why stop when you can sound like that? Then when it finally does stop, the last few notes seem sloppy and accidental. The Faces wouldn't have had it any other way.

This was originally written and posted on Facebook on August 4, 2014

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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Song of the Day: The Rolling Stones - Sweet Virginia (1972)

The wonderful Bobby Keys, who is probably the second-greatest rock saxophonist ever (RIP Big Man), died this morning after a long fight with cirrhosis. Born on the same day as Keith Richards, Keys was 70 years old. 

Keys, named to play piano and defiantly turning to the sax, was a great rock and roll rebel who started touring with Buddy Holly when he was just 16. He became one of the great session players of the '70s, recording with Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker, John Lennon, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and several others. But, of course, he's best known as an honorary member of the Rolling Stones, appearing on virtually every Stones album and tour since first teaming with them for '69's Let It Bleed

There are numerous spotlights for Keys' work; His solo on "Brown Sugar" is widely regarded as one of the great sax moments in rock history. He also has a long solo on "Can't You Hear Me Knocking," virtually dominating the second half of the song. My personal favorite Keys moment is his first major Stones contribution, "Live With Me," which is the only rock song I've ever heard to use bass and sax as its two lead instruments. Sadly, the only good live version I could find video of is the excellent 2005 one from Martin Scorsese's concert film Shine a Light, with Christina Aguilera on co-lead vocals, and you should definitely seek that out if you haven't heard it. But I can't deal with that video, because watching 62-year-old-Mick-Jagger grind on 24-year-old-Christina makes me nauseous.

So instead I went with this under-heard gem from the Stones' magnum opus, 1972's Exile on Main Street

I've always regarded Exile as like a Masters Thesis on what rock and roll fundamentally is. It's grimy, rebellious, and mostly recorded in a basement while the Stones were in tax exile. It's a long swirling mix of country, blues, soul, gospel, and everything else, soaked to drowning in drugs and swagger. But good god is it transcendent. Every song feels like a piece of rock and roll dictionary that exists outside of time, like it was discovered on some archaeological dig, all carbon dating attempts failed, and no one bothered to wipe the dirt off--or "scrape the shit off," as Jagger sings here. 

"Sweet Virginia" feels a bit like an attempt to write an early-twentieth-century Carter Family number. It's a song where a long sax solo just should not, would not, could not work. And yet, there it is. I love at the 2:29 mark, where Mick introduces Keys' solo by saying (something like) "Come on Bobby, bring it on home to Texas!"

No matter where he was, who he was playing with, Bobby Keys always brought it on home. He'll be missed. 

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Sunday, November 30, 2014

Song of the Day: Steve Earle - I Feel Alright (1996)

When Steve Earle titled his 1996 album I Feel Alright, few musicians had earned more of a right to the term. After releasing  his first four albums between 1986-1990, Earle's heroin & cocaine addiction spiraled out of control, resulting in two arrests, 60 days of jail time, lots of treatment and rehab, and a long recording hiatus. He had also been divorced four or five times by this point--Wikipedia's chronology of Earle's seven marriages (and counting--ladies, he's currently available!) is a little too hazy for an exact number. 

When Earle finally emerged from this period with his fifth album, 1995's Train A Comin', he was a changed man, relatively over his bad habits, and reinvented as a sort of country-er Springsteen, one of the great Americana singer-songwriters of contemporary music. In the liner notes of his second "comeback" album, I Feel Alright, Earle writes that when he was locked up, he avoided doing time in solitary by promising a friend he would get out as soon as possible and make another album. Then, at the end of the story, Earle writes, "SO I MADE TWO," with the capitalizations all his. Nick Hornby wrote an interesting essay ten years ago about this small symbol of defiance, that the capitalization of that statement made all the difference to Earle. It wasn't merely that he made two albums upon getting out of jail, BUT THAT HE MADE TWO. After all, he felt alright. 

"I feel alright" is one of the most important things any of us can ever say to ourselves. It's a lesson I can never learn or emphasize to myself enough. Just this morning, I was lamenting everything I felt like I need to do--the need to constantly read, write, watch, listen--just constantly consume and process more media to better understand it all. And my wonderful girlfriend said to me, "guilt and shame are not good motivators." She's right. But you know what IS a great motivator? Feelin' alright. 

One of my favorite films of the year is Whiplash, which is currently in theaters, and the key idea of the movie is that one character believes "Good job" is the most harmful thing you can ever say to a talented person, because it stifles the hunger to be better. This isn't true with all people, and with me it certainly isn't. With some people, Michael Jordan, for example, it might be crucial. Jordan thrived on doubt, while some feel crippled by it. One thing I love about the movie is how it forces you to confront the idea of what drives us, what motivates us, and whether any of the ends might justify the means. 

I wonder what Steve Earle would say to the film. Did addiction, jail, and divorce bring out his best? If he could do it all over again, would he avoid drugs and trouble, potentially at the cost of his best and most vibrant music? As he says in the song, "I been to Hell and now I'm back again." Was that a necessary part of the journey? Did it take years of feelin' awful to finally feel alright? Can you have one without the other? 

The greatest TV show of all-time, The Wire, has something to say here. One of many things the show did so well is end each season with a montage, showing us what difference--if any--it all made. The Season 2 ending montage was set to Earle's "I Feel Alright," and it begs the question of whether we all just have to keep saying that, no matter the result of our actions. Progress is slow and non-existent more often than it's anything else, but we still have to believe that our efforts towards progress ultimately matter. 

When Steve Earle released I Feel Alright, he had no way of knowing if it would find an audience, or if people would respond to it, but that wasn't the point. The point was being able to write in those liner notes that HE MADE TWO. That's what made him feel alright, which is all any of us can do. 

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