Thursday, October 30, 2014

Song of the Day: Spoon - Got Nuffin (2010)

My tastes have expanded, grown, and matured a lot in the last several years, and so much of what I listen to now are things that I barely went near in college. But having said that, Indie Rock is still my favorite genre of music. The heart wants what the heart wants. 

This is definitely one of my favorite Indie Rock songs from the last five years, and it's a good example of what the best of the form sounds like. Spoon are one of the better Indie bands of the millennium thus far, and their 2007 album Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga was one of my favorites of that decade. Their follow-up, 2010's Transference, wasn't quite as good as its predecessor, but it did contain this gem, which just might be their best song yet. I remember I played it for my cousin back around the time it came out and it was my favorite song of the moment, and he said that the difference between he and I was that he "need(s) there to be some kind of hook for the song to be great." And that's when I knew we'd have to agree to disagree, because I think this song is ALL hook. The bass line is one of those that just stays in my head for hours after I hear it, and I love the way the angular guitar bounces in and out, almost like it's just throwing riff bursts at the bass line. So much hook. 

This was originally written and posted on Facebook on May 27, 2014

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Song of the Day: Rod Stewart - Man of Constant Sorrow (1969)

Anyone that's talked seriously about music with me knows I have a completely unashamed love for early Rod Stewart, and he's a contender for my favorite singer ever. That may seem odd given what Rod has been for the last 35 years, but he really wasn't always like that. Prior to "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?" and his sell-out cultivation of the "mom audience" that continues to this day, he was one of the best rock vocalists and performers out there. 

Few artists have ever had a hot streak like Rod had from '68-'73, when he hit a peak in three different genres. First he recorded two albums as the vocalist of the Jeff Beck Group, which a lot of rock historians credit with having created heavy metal. Then in '69 he started dual careers as a solo folk artist and as the front man for The Faces, who were nothing short of the best rock band of the early 70's not named The Rolling Stones or The Who. (Yes, they were better than Zeppelin.)
In some ways, it's problematic to even think of Rod's five albums from this period as real solo albums, because the other members of The Faces all played on them (and Ron Wood was even co-writing a lot of the songs). But the chief difference is that Faces albums were all-out rock and had all original material, while Rod's albums were mostly acoustic and folky and featured a lot of covers. This is one of the best.

To listen to Rod's cover of "Man of Constant Sorrow" is to fully understand why he used to be so great, no matter how hard he keeps trying to make us all forget it. This is a folk song from 1913, probably most famous in it's incarnation from the soundtrack to Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, but this is the best version. The arrangement (probably by Wood) is wonderful, and Rod's voice is the perfect mix of Sam Cooke-soulful and whiskey-soaked growl that few other singers have ever come close to. The way he transitions from the song's loud climax down into the calming lyric of "I'm going back to Colorado" just slays me every time.

This was originally written and posted on Facebook on May 26, 2014

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Song of the Day: Green Day - Welcome to Paradise (1994)

Twenty years ago this week, I acquired my first CD player as an early Bar Mitzvah present, and I officially became a music buyer--a title which has cost me quite a bit of coin over the last two decades. That day, I bought my first three CDs, songs from which I will write about for the next three days as I begin a long look at the music of 1994. 

All art recycles ideas constantly; the trick is in recycling them in ways that actually feel new instead of derivative. As a 12-year old in 1994, I can verify that Green Day felt like something new even though we didn't understand how or why. At that point, we were about three years into the new era of music and youth culture that Kurt Cobain hath wrought, and we were already being described as the generation that didn't care. (I guess that's marginally better than the current generation, which is undoubtedly the generation that hates everything.) For people just becoming teenagers at the time, it was a bit troubling, because we weren't even old enough to have figured out what we were supposed to care about

Good punk music generally arrives out of a dissatisfaction with a status quo. In England in the '70s, it was mostly Thatcherism and the class & economic separations of the people, while at the CBGB's scene of New York, it was mostly about the boringness of the rock and roll being ushered in by prog, disco, singer/songwriters, "classic" rock, and pretentious Led Zeppelin drum solos. Those things all sustained punk for several years, and then in the '80s MTV provided whatever motivational fodder was still needed. But Green Day retroactively feels like the first punk band to capture the dissatisfaction of just being dissatisfied. 

"Welcome to Paradise" is my favorite song on Dookie for a few reasons. Sonically, the opening riff is both the most immediate one on the album and the most visceral. It just sounds like punk music in a nutshell. You could play it for someone that didn't have any idea what punk sounded like and they'd fundamentally understand the style within four seconds. In that sense, I was probably going to like this song regardless of its lyrical content, but growing up in Muncie, IN really sealed the deal. As far as I knew at the time, in my sheltered laboratory school life, Muncie didn't have any crack streets or broken homes, but it sure as hell felt like a wasteland, and that's a sensation that would only grow and fester over the years. 

What Green Day did with this song, and the entire Dookie album, was tap into a collective feeling that the youth of this country was experiencing, make it sound hostile enough to feel dangerous and alienating to our parents, and yet somehow also catchy enough to be really enjoyable to listen to. Basically, it's music that felt universal and exclusionary and fun. Not an easy combination. The other best songs on the album, "Longview" and "Basket Case," were (respectively) about being so bored that even masturbation and channel flipping had lost their luster, and about appearing crazy to everyone else even though you feel completely normal. It was music that somehow felt like it was speaking to just us, even though it was collectively hitting us all at once. And by the time Green Day became superstars a few months later, it caught us all by such surprise that any backlash would have felt unfair. And it just wasn't a backlash kind of era. 

Dookie came out around 18 years after the advent of punk music, and around 16 years after the advent of pop-punk. They were not a sonically original band, but their repackaging of older sonic ideas with lyrical themes that were distinctly of their time was a breath of fresh air, even to nascent teenagers of the time who didn't have the requisite knowledge to recognize whether something was repackaged or not. And regardless, some things are just fundamentally exuberant enough to transcend a lack of originality. 

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Friday, October 24, 2014

Who Should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (That Isn't Even On the Ballot)?

A few days ago I went through the fifteen names on this year's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (RRHOF) ballot, dissecting the candidacy of each artist. But the equal (bigger?) debate when the ballot comes out each year is who wasn't on it at all. Without further adieu, here are the eligible artists not on this year's ballot that I think are most egregiously missing from the RRHOF. 

1. Gram Parsons

As I mentioned with Kraftwerk, there's a difference between artists who first take a sound to the masses, and artists who first take a sound to any attention at all. Often it's the artists that find mass appeal who receive all the historical credit, while the artists who first paved the way continue to languish in obscurity. There is little question that The Eagles were the most responsible for taking country rock to the masses. Yes, Linda Ronstadt, and Neil Young, and Poco, and certain Stones songs, and others all had an impact, but The Eagles are probably why the sound broke through. However, the RRHOF seems to be strangely ignoring why this sound even existed to break through in the first place. Before Don Henley met Glenn Frey, before Richie Furay formed Poco, before Neil Young recorded in Nashville, and before the Stones recorded "Honky Tonk Women," "Dead Flowers," or "Sweet Virginia," there was Gram. 

Gram Parsons is the biggest reason country rock exists, and really, there's no close second. He's who got Mick and Keith interested in writing country songs ("Wild Horses" was actually written for Gram's band a whole year before the Stones released their own version), he's who made the various members of The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield start seriously recording country music, he's who first released a major country rock album (The Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo), and he's who gave us Emmylou Harris. The old cliche about The Velvet Underground is that only a thousand people bought their first album, but everyone who did ended up forming a band. With Gram, maybe only a few thousand people bought his albums, but everyone who did was already in a band, and immediately started writing songs like Gram. 

Now here's the problem with Gram: No one knows how to induct him. He released six albums in his life time, but those six albums were by four different artists. The first was with The International Submarine Band, who are not worthy of the RRHOF. The second was with The Byrds, who are already inducted, but Gram is mysteriously not an inducted member (even though he was the mastermind behind Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which might be their best album). The third and fourth were with The FLying Burrito Brothers, who were hugely important, but no one outside of music snobs has ever heard of them. Then the fifth and sixth were solo albums. So what do you do? I don't know, and even more importantly, I don't see why it's worth halting progress over the issue. It's the rock equivalent of a trivial semantic argument. The other key Burrito brother (Chris Hillman) and all of the relevant Byrds are already in, so just induct Gram Parsons and be done with it. 

2. The Replacements

80's indie rock and alternative music (what was at the time labeled "college radio") has thus far been a mostly ignored genre in the RRHOF. We basically have R.E.M. and U2 inducted, and that's completely it. There are a huge host of artists from that decade deserving further consideration (many of whom appear further down this list), but The Replacements are one of the only  bands that I think should be completely non-negotiable. I just don't see how we get to the 90's alternative music explosion without them. Their sound, their style, their sloppiness, their attitude, their journey to a major label, their evolution to more crafted pop songs, their substance issues, their unashamed love of metal (they covered Kiss on their best album, 1984's Let It Be), and so much more… the 90's as we know them just couldn't have happened without The Replacements.

3. Brian Eno

Like Gram Parsons, Eno is a bit tricky because his name was so many different (important) places that it's difficult to figure out precisely how to induct him. And again, I don't see why that should be a hindrance. As the original keyboardist of Roxy Music (also being conspicuously ignored by the RRHOF), a solo artist largely responsible for bringing ambient music and "pure" art rock to greater attention, and a producer responsible for some of the greatest albums of the post-60's (not hyperbole), his contributions are just too seminal. Three already inducted artists--Bowie, U2, and Talking Heads--released what are (un?)arguably the best albums of their careers with Eno at the controls, and they'll all happily tell you that he was more than simply a producer. He was a guiding force for those artists creating their most innovative and important work, helping them to tap into a side of their artistry that they might not have ever accessed otherwise. A case could definitely be made that he's the greatest post-60's producer in pop music history. His solo work, while important, can just be looked at as a bonus to a career deserving of RRHOF induction. 

4. Joy Division/New Order

Here's a case, like The Small Faces/Faces, where we'll probably have to bite our collective tongues and allow these two bands to get inducted together, else neither will get in. Yes, they're different, but they're the same enough. After all, Joy Division was already headed in a synth-ier direction with their last few songs prior to Ian Curtis' death. Who's to say they wouldn't have basically become New Order anyway? 

Anyway, either of these bands should be locks to get in on their own, and together, I don't see how they can be left out. Joy Division was one of the most important post-punk bands, who sonically paved the way for both goth and indie-rock, and lyrically paved the way for the profound effect Morrissey and Robert Smith songs would have on a generation of depressed teenagers. And New Order are the most important and greatest British dance band since the BeeGees. (And yeah, I can't believe I just typed that sentence either.) Anyway, the influence of these two bands is literally everywhere, in bands as disparate and seemingly unrelated as Interpol and The Scissor Sisters. 

5. Nick Drake

Nick Drake is one of pop music's great casualties, because not only did he die far too young (he didn't even live long enough to be in rock's "Forever 27" club), but virtually no one bought or heard his three lovely albums in his lifetime. In the forty years since he died, that's obviously changed. Right now, Nick Drake is one of the most important folk rock musicians ever, as well as one of the best. More than anyone else, he's who moved folk rock away from the nasally meandering sound of the Dylan disciples and brought it into its current styling of somber etherealness. With the booming success of a new generation of Indie-folk artists like Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, and Iron & Wine, it's prime time for Nick Drake--the primary influence of all three--to get inducted. 

6. The Cure

Who started or created "Goth" music is debatable, and whether you want to credit The Cure, Joy Division, Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees, or someone else is up to you. But far less debatable is which of those bands actually reached a large audience, and it's The Cure. Would goth music have ever even become a thing without Robert Smith leading the way for as long as he did? Doubtful. Just as important is that Smith didn't languish in one style, but rather moved from post-punk to goth to alternative to synth pop to dance pop, and then back through all of them again. As he cultivated an audience in each genre, he brought that audience with him to other places they hadn't been before, and that can't be underestimated. And for what it's worth, The Cure released music central to their legacy in three different decades, which comparatively few bands can ever say. ("Boys Don't Cry" was the late 70's, and "Friday I'm in Love" was the early 90's.)

7. Sonic Youth

"Art Rock" means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. It's a term that's fairly impossible to nail down. But even if we can't really define it, we can absolutely have associations with it. Has any band been called Art Rock more frequently--or accurately--than Sonic Youth? Has any band, other than maybe (maybe!) The Strokes, more perfectly embodied New York City over the last 40 years than Sonic Youth? Has anyone--other than maybe John Lennon in the opening seconds of "I Feel Fine"--ever made feedback sound cooler and sexier than Sonic Youth? For that matter, how many bands have ever even had a cooler and sexier name than Sonic Youth? How many albums not by Bruce Springsteen have more perfectly encapsulated the follies of the Reagan era than Daydream Nation? Has any rock and roll marriage ever seemed more perfect than Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon (until it depressingly ended, which we've all tacitly agreed not to talk about)? Forever a defining archetype of indie-cred coolness, we just don't celebrate Sonic Youth as much as we should. 

8. Depeche Mode

Say what you will about synth pop, but it changed and defined the 1980's as we know them. Depeche Mode took the raw material of Kraftwerk and reforged it into something that could be enjoyed by millions and millions of people. They also did so in an extremely catchy way that never remained stagnant, constantly shifting to darker and darker sounds, images, and subject matter, remaining relevant even into the 90's alternative explosion despite defiantly remaining loyal to synthesizers. Not an easy task to pull off, but so little of what Depeche Mode did well was ever easy. 

9. Boston 

Yeah, I know. Trust me, I know. We aren't supposed to take Boston seriously. But it's about time we did. What Tom Scholz and Bradley Delp did was, along with punk, and completely adjacent to it, seize rock radio away from the interminable drum solos of Led Zeppelin and the interminable classical influences of prog-rock and forge a new era of pop songs played with huge riffs and sung with soaring melodies. This music is slight and uninteresting, but it also conquered the world and all of us secretly love singing along to it. I'm not remotely suggesting inducting all of the major bands in this field--Styx, Journey, Foreigner, REO Speedwagon, Kansas, etc.--but Boston is the godfather to them all, as well as maybe the only one that never feels 100% uncool listen to. 

10. The Pixies

They bridge the gap between the feedback and artiness of Sonic Youth to the punk for the masses of Nirvana. They're an undeniably important stop on the journey to the 1990's, but also a band that released great music. Fight Club has, perhaps undeservedly, become one of the defining films of the 90's, and a Pixies song ("Where Is My Mind") is used to define the crescendo of that film. "Loud quiet loud" has become one of the most overused style descriptors in rock music, and The Pixies likely didn't even create that sound, but the term was created just for them. Kevin Bacon always said he may not be the greatest actor ever, but he's the only one with a game named after him. The sound of The Pixies has become one of the defining shorthands in rock music, just as Die Hard did for action films. For years, every pitch meeting described "Die Hard on a…" Today, we still describe new indie bands as "like The Pixies, but…"

A Baker's Dozen of Other Deserving Candidates

MC5/The New York Dolls--The two halves that made the whole of The Stooges, the garaginess and volume of the MC5 and the trashiness and showmanship of the New York Dolls. Both eventually deserve their rightful place. 

De La Soul--Responsible for arguably the greatest rap album ever (3 Feet High and Rising), as well as the kaleidoscopic soundscapes the more innovative hip hop acts continue to explore to this day. 

Television--I've argued before that they're the first Indie-Rock band, and they created a defining guitar style. 

Gang of Four--Anything ever described as "dance punk" starts here.

Steve Earle--No way he can be inducted before Gram, which is why he's down here. But he helped bridge a new generation between rock and country. 

Duran Duran--Helped define the sound of a decade, as well as the look of MTV, which can't be understated. They're susceptible to the same slightness arguments as Boston, but damn did they write good songs. 

Black Flag--There are a lot of other 80's underground bands that need to be inducted before we can travel down this road, but eventually…

The Jam--The missing link between the 60's Englishness of The Kinks and the 90's Englishness of Britpop. The Smiths might have been the ones that brought back the guitar sound, but The Jam kept the Union Jack cool as it came to band identity. 

Phish--An entire summer concert and festival industry exists at their behest. 

Dinosaur Jr/Husker Du--The next tier down of the 80's American underground, but also the progenitors of extremely influential guitar sounds. 

The Stones Roses--Where Britpop and British House music meet is a place created by these guys. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Breakdown of the 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Ballot

This is the first post of what I hope will become an annual tradition: A thorough breakdown of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame  (RRHOF) ballot. Who should get in? Who doesn't even belong on the ballot? Who is conspicuously absent from the ballot? 

The RRHOF is often difficult to talk to people about, because it constantly alienates a portion of its audience with almost every decision it makes. This isn't fair, of course. Like all awarding institutions--The Oscars, The Baseball Hall of Fame, etc.--The RRHOF will never ever have a track record of indisputable decisions and results, but even the most suspicious of them all shouldn't invalidate the entire institution, in much the same way that Bush "beating" Gore in the 2000 election does not invalidate the American government. (Though I'm sure there are those who disagree!)

No voting body, in any field, is a perfect one. They may be too vast or too narrow. They may be forced into too quick a decision, with limited data at their disposal. (Please, ask Oscar voters how many of the Best Documentary nominees they even watch in a given year.) The entire concept of "The Test of Time" is an ever-evolving one, and no isolated moment of voting can pin down an accurate assessment of such a thing. 

But holy shit is it fun to try, and even more fun to argue about. 

My Ballot

If I were one of the 700ish people with an actual ballot for the RRHOF (maybe one day!), here's who my five selections would be, in order of how easy they were to choose. 

1. The Smiths 

Any time I'm trying to assess the importance of a pop music artist, the first thing I consider is how the trajectory of pop music might have been different had said artist never entered a recording studio. That's why The Smiths are the easiest vote for me. When looking at the last 35 years of British rock music, particularly the peak influence and popularity of Britpop in the 1990's, it's extremely difficult to imagine things having gone quite the same way without The Smiths. I hate when music critics use the term "single-handedly" to describe anything, because virtually nothing in the music industry happens single-handedly, but having said that, The Smiths are at least heavily responsible for the return of guitar rock to prominence in English pop music. Maybe that seems too specific an honor, but when funneled through the lens of the major 90's English bands--Oasis, Blur, Pulp, The Verve, Suede, etc.--it's especially difficult to imagine who those bands would have been looking to for primary inspiration if not Morrissey and Marr. Obviously nothing in rock happens in a vacuum, and that's why we call them influences (emphasis on the plurality).  A host of other bands mattered to the evolution of English rock into Britpop, but I'd argue--and I wouldn't be in the minority here--that The Smiths mattered most. And when you matter most to what the dominant music of England sounded like for an entire decade, you deserve to be in the RRHOF. 

2. Kraftwerk

Here's a case where it's useful to differentiate between two kinds of importance. Did an artist take a style from obscurity (or non-existence) to the attention of the industry? Or did said artist take a style from the attention of the industry to mass popularity? Is either leap--obscurity to attention, attention to popularity--a more important or valuable one? It's a worthy debate, and one I won't get into at the moment. But I will say that the first kind of importance--the bringing of something from non-existence to the attention of an industry--IS an extremely important contribution, and it's one that should be absolutely sales proof. 

Fact 1: The average public does not know who Kraftwerk is. Fact 2: Fact 1 should have absolutely no relevance to their RRHOF credentials. I still won't resort to the term single-handedly, but Kraftwerk is even more responsible for the advent of electronic music than The Smiths were to the advent of 90's Britpop. The only reason I have The Smiths ranked higher is because 90's Britpop became so immense, while electronic music has never entirely escaped the margins. But also relevant is Fact 3: Kraftwerk are the musical Ground Zero for more styles and sub-genres than any eligible artist not already inducted into the RRHOF. This is their third appearance on the ballot, and I hope they don't require a fourth. (Or fifth…)

3. Chic

Chic are in many ways the exact opposite candidate as Kraftwerk. While Kraftwerk experienced no popular success and is largely only known by serious music snobs, Chic are often dismissed by music snobs despite their huge popularity and lasting influence to dance music. For these reasons, it's sadly very difficult to imagine both bands being inducted this year, because they aren't likely to have a lot of voter overlap. But on this imaginary ballot (as in real life), Chic and Kraftwerk can coexist for their relatively equal importance. 

Rap and dance music have a long history of sampling, but where those samples come from is all over the map, from the most obscure dustbins of history to the biggest hits of yesteryear. Chic and Kraftwerk are responsible for the samples that drive two of the great early rap epics, with Kraftwerk providing the basis for Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock," and Chic providing the basis for The Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight." That's just the most obvious way of saying these bands are two sides of the same coin, with Kraftwerk being the Euro-art rock side and Chic being the NYC populist club version. Regardless, it's difficult to isolate the contributions of one without factoring in the other. And for what it's worth, this is Chic's NINTH appearance on the ballot. So there's that. 

4. N.W.A.

I was all for N.W.A. not getting in on their first nomination, because I felt like that would unfairly put them on equal footing with Public Enemy (also nominated for the first time the same year), and I believed a delineation of quality between the two would be helpful. And it worked; Public Enemy got in on their first year of eligibility, and N.W.A. are appearing on their third ballot. But now we're good. They're somewhere between the second and seventh most important rap group, depending where you stand on Run-DMC, Outkast, Wu-Tang Clan, The Beastie Boys, and Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five. They gave us Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Easy E, and (by extension) Snoop Dogg. Let's just induct them already. 

5. Lou Reed

And now I will attempt to discuss Lou Reed without mentioning his former band. Seriously, I won't even type their name. Lou Reed has already been inducted into the RRHOF once, but I believe he deserves induction as a solo artist. He didn't do any one thing that tips him over the top, but rather, it's the totality of his aspects of notable importance. He's responsible for the all-time weirdest top 20 hit single, "Walk on the Wild Side." His 1975 "album," Metal Machine Music, is completely unlistenable, but it remains arguably the greatest "Fuck you" statement the music industry has ever seen. (And don't underestimate how important that was to the future of artists dealing with record companies.)  His 1973 album, Berlin, brought vaudeville and European theater to rock music. His ubiquitous presence on the NYC music scene of the 70's heavily helped cultivate the CBGB punk explosion, and you could even argue that he's the most iconic NYC rock star ever. Add it all up and it should equal a second RRHOF induction. It's just a shame that Lou had to die first. 

The Rest of the Ballot

The ballot for this year's RRHOF induction has fifteen nominees, and although six are likely to get inducted (at least that's the usual number), you can frustratingly only vote for five. Here's how I feel about the other ten, ranked in descending order of how  difficult they were for me to not select with my imaginary votes. 

6. Nine Inch Nails

When I first saw the ballot a few weeks ago, I thought for sure they'd be one of my picks. But then I saw this list. That's every artist that has gotten into the RRHOF on their first year of eligibility. I mean, just look at those names. That's a murderer's row of absolute legends. Only three names on that list even remotely feel like they don't belong: The Everly Brothers, Fats Domino, and The Pretenders. Personally, I would not be comfortable adding Nine Inch Nails to that list. 

Look, Nine Inch Nails is (that's the correct pronoun, right? I mean, it's just Trent Reznor we're talking about here) getting inducted to the RRHOF, it's just a matter of when. They/he is completely deserving. But inducting an artist on the first ballot sends a further message that they're one of the all-time greats, and I just don't quite feel like NIN are worthy of that accolade. They/he can wait a few years. 

7. Green Day

Everything I just wrote about Nine Inch Nails is applicable to Green Day, except they have the added wrinkle of the whole 25 years thing being very questionable in their case. The RRHOF has set the rule that you can't be nominated for induction until 25 years after the release of your first recording, with the idea being that 25 years is an adequate amount of time to assess an artist's career and contribution to the art form. But with 
Green Day, we simply haven't had 25 years; we've only had 20. The release of Dookie in 1994 was the first time anyone outside of their family members and high school classmates had ever heard of this band. The fact that they had technically been releasing music for five years at that point is such a minute technicality that it's ridiculous to even factor it in. 

And yes, I know that Nine Inch Nails also didn't have their/his major breakthrough until 1994, but the difference is that 1989's Pretty Hate Machine and 1992's Broken actually did make small impacts and helped cultivate an audience. People heard those albums. No one really heard a Green Day recording until 1994, and that's why we should wait on them. 25 years may be a completely arbitrary number for the evaluation of an artist's legacy, but the fact remains that it's the number that was chosen, and it's the number that every other RRHOF inductee has had to acquiesce to. Inducting Green Day anytime before 2020 does not honor the wait that every other inducted artist had to endure. 

8. Joan Jett & the Blackhearts

With Joan Jett, you have to figure out precisely what you're arguing about: the creator or the creations. As a figure, Joan Jett has been extremely important to women in rock & roll, and is likely responsible for the creation of an archetype. Her existence matters greatly, but the product she created frankly wasn't that special. She's a lot like Sid Vicious in that way. She mattered far more as someone for a generation of kids to look at than she did for any other reason. Is that enough? I don't know. Sid is in the Hall, but that's because he was a Sex Pistol, and they obviously deserved induction. Sid couldn't be separated from the rest of the band for us to have this debate, but Joan can and is. 

Personally, I would say no. I think the product ought to matter more than the image and the idea. I know with Lou Reed I argued for the merits of Metal Machine Music as a part of his legacy, but that's still a tangible thing that he put into the world. It was an artistic statement, even if it was a shitty sounding one. With Joan, the statement was all in the image of her playing guitar and looking like a complete badass. I don't think that's quite enough, but I might be susceptible to the counter-arguments. 

9. The Spinners

I like The Spinners, but I never thought of them as anything more than a good third-tier soul act. That would seemingly eliminate them, but things get a bit tricky if you factor in geography and the concept of scenes. While the Spinners might have nationally been a third tier soul act, they were probably the greatest Philly soul artist, and maybe that matters enough to push them over the top. Philly soul was an important music style of the 70's, and it made a huge impact to the advent of disco and the more polished sound of black music than was coming out of the south and midwest. 

The other problem with arguing against The Spinners is the reality that Hall & Oates got into the RRHOF last year, and they were a lesser Philly soul act than The Spinners. So this could be a case of making a previous bad decision look less comparatively questionable. Do you induct The Spinners because Hall & Oates is indefensible without them? Or do you just call Hall & Oates a fuck-up and leave well enough alone? As with Joan Jett, The Spinners are the only other artist on this ballot that I feel on the fence about their RRHOF deservedness. My inclination is to say no, but I could probably be swayed the other way. 

10. Stevie Ray Vaughan

If this were the guitarist hall of fame, I'd have absolutely no beef with Stevie Ray getting in. But I think of Stevie Ray as more of a craftsman than I do an artist. He was a remarkably gifted technical guitarist, but I think it's far more difficult to argue that he was an influential artist. To go back to my Smiths argument, would the trajectory of pop music have been any tangibly different without Stevie? I'm sure John Mayer would say yes, but I'm dubious. The RRHOF is about the importance of an art form. Stevie never forged enough of his own territory to be honored on that level. Rock and blues guitar have probably never seen a better imitator, but the RRHOF isn't the proper place to recognize that ability. 

11.-14. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, The Marvelettes, War, and Bill Withers

These four artists all fit into the same interchangeable quagmire for me. They were good acts that released good music, and I wouldn't want their CDs to be stolen from my collection. But really, I don't see much beyond that. Like The Spinners, these acts were all third tier, but they don't have the added benefit of owning and embodying a certain musical style or scene. I wouldn't dispute that all four are good, but I don't see the argument for considering any of the four to be truly Great. 

15. Sting

Well, here we are. The nadir of the 2014 RRHOF ballot. Look, I LOVE The Police. They made it in on their first ballot, and deservedly so. After The Clash and Talking Heads, they were probably the third best band in the world for a solid five years.  But when evaluating Sting as an artist unto himself, one has to pretend that he had never released any music prior to his first solo album. And when considering him in that light… Oooof. 

Sting is the only artist on the ballot that I'm genuinely baffled by. I don't understand how he could possibly be a candidate for induction into the RRHOF. We've all known for several years now that the RRHOF is not strictly for rock musicians; that's no mystery. Madonna and Public Enemy both got in on their first year of eligibility, and deservedly so. The RRHOF now stands as a testament to the counter-culture, and the importance artists can have to the trajectory of music that truly matters and speaks to people in a way that tangibly impacts their lives. Rock and roll may no longer be solely about "sticking it to the man" (as Jack Black memorably states in School of Rock), but it's still supposed to be about something that matters. Admittedly, that's difficult and maybe impossible to quantify, which is part of the whole problem the RRHOF runs into every year, and why so many people feel alienated by the results of its induction process. But Jesus, we have to draw the line somewhere, and I just don't see how Sting's solo career is any metaphorically different than Harry Connick Jr.'s. It's adult contemporary vocal jazz. They were both releasing albums to be played and ignored at dinner parties, and that ain't rock and roll no matter how you choose to define it.

Check back tomorrow for Part 2, where I break down the major snubs of the RRHOF who didn't even appear on this year's ballot. 

And check out for a wealth of information about the RRHOF inductions, past and present. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Great Scenes: Music Unites Shawshank Prison

Earlier this week, The Shawshank Redemption celebrated it's 20th anniversary from opening in theaters. I saw it in theaters at the time, as a 12-year old, with my friend A.J. Harra. As 7th graders just trying to be cool at the time, we loved watching horror movies, and we just thought we were going to see something based on a Stephen King story. What we got was radically different, but it changed my life. Shawshank has been one of my 3 or 4 favorite movies ever since (often alternating in and out of the top spot with Pulp Fiction and The Third Man), and it largely helped define within me why cinema is such a powerful art form. I wanted to somehow celebrate the film on its 20th anniversary this week, and such a piece of writing could have taken many forms. Artistically and technically, this film is a masterpiece, but those are things I probably didn't/couldn't realize twenty years ago. When the film first made a major impact on me, it was as a story, and I wanted to try and focus in on why. As a 12-year old, I couldn't possibly empathize with people serving life sentences in jail, but anyone, across all ages and all lives, can understand the power of finding hope in a situation that ought to be devoid of such a sentiment. That's the real power of this story, the way the main characters locate hope and meaning within small things. No scene better illustrates that than this one, where the main character, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), has just opened several boxes of materials donated to the new prison library he's organizing. 

The skill in a film like Shawshank is that it figures out subtle ways to manipulate you in manners that you don't even notice, but which build to incredible moments. When this scene begins, there's no score, and for most of the first half of the film, the score is very quiet and subdued, never drawing too much attention to itself. The effect means that when the Mozart record first gets turned on, the viewer emotionally responds to it the same way the prisoners do--like an aural beacon of hope that's been absent from our lives for far too long. 

The thing I notice more and more about this film every time I see it is the way the shots are composed. It relies on a certain stillness, and a way of using camera distance to emphasize both grandness and entrapment. The scene begins not just in the confinement of an office, but by the camera confining every physical action as the only element of the screen. Opening a record, dropping the needle, taking the keys, locking the door, turning on the PA system, the guard dropping his Archie comic. And then, as the voices begin to soar, everything opens up. The shot in the workshop at about the 1:25 mark of the video is the first one where the camera emphasizes scope, by slowly panning back until Morgan Freeman's character is revealed in the foreground. Then the same thing happens in the infirmary, beginning with a close-up of a face and moving sideways to show all of the patients stepping into the light and the music. But the truly great moment starts at 1:37, as the camera moves out into the prison yard, slowly craning upwards to show the entirety of the prison in complete unmoving thrall, before finally moving behind the loud speaker that they're all so intently focused on. It's just a perfect shot. 

When people think of this movie, Morgan Freeman's incredible narration is often one of the first things that comes to mind. Nearly every scene is punctuated by his words, and his voice is our gateway into thinking about these characters. But in this scene, director Frank Darabont wisely lets the music speak for itself before having Freeman enter the proceedings. By the time Freeman tells us that "for those briefest of moments, every man in Shawshank felt free," we've already seen the proof of that statement. 

After this scene, Andy emerges from his two week punishment in solitary confinement by telling his friends that it was the easiest time he ever did, because he had the music in his head to keep him company. It's a way of acknowledging that the power of great moments can stay with us, no matter how brief they were in the first place. This four minutes of filmmaking has stayed with me for twenty years and counting. 

Saturday, September 27, 2014

TIFF '14 Diary: Day 8

A frequent viewing option at TIFF is the directorial debut by a beloved actor. Last year's TIFF screened Quartet and Bad Words, which were (respectively) Dustin Hoffman and Jason Bateman's first films behind the camera. This year I could have seen debut films by Chris Evans, Alan Rickman, Jon Stewart, Paul Bettany, and Ethan Hawke, all of which sounded promising. In particular, Ethan Hawke's documentary Seymour: An Introduction has been getting outstanding reviews. But American actors stepping behind the camera is so often a crapshoot. It's something they almost all eventually try to do, and very few succeed at. For every Clint Eastwood and--yes, he's in this category--Ben Affleck, there are a dozen Robert De Niro's, who give us the boring and manufactured gravitas of The Good Shepherd before thankfully not trying again.  But what I was particularly intrigued by at this year's festival was a directorial effort by the great French actress Melanie Laurent, who brought a little film called Respire to TIFF. European movie stars don't have a history of getting the directing bug in the same way American movie stars do, so when one does, it's more of an occasion for curiosity than a likely reason to groan. 

Respire (Breathe) is the story of a seductive friendship between two high school girls, Charlie and Sarah, which runs the gamut from playful, to inseparable, to dangerous and malicious. It's a story that we so often see play out to less extreme degrees (in Mean Girls, just to name an obvious example), but Respire has the audacity to follow it to its most sobering potential outcome. As a narrative, the leaps in phases of this relationship don't always make the most logical sense, but Laurent's pacing and emotive use of her actresses moves things along much more subtly than the plot would make it seem possible. 

The obvious comparison here is to last year's hot-button French film Blue is the Warmest Color, though that's true much more psychologically than narratively. While the infatuation of the two girls in Blue manifests itself in an explicitly sexual way, Respire keeps things more platonic. On a tension level, that works, because it ensures that we don't know what the stakes of this relationship really are. What Laurent does with her actresses is nicely delicate, and ensures the film rises above the high school shock story that it easily could have become. This is a small film that doesn't draw attention to itself through casting or dramatic flair, but unlike her American acting counterparts, Laurent seems to know that's the best way to get her directing feet wet. 

Something really rewarding about now having been going to TIFF for several years is seeing the work of directors who consistently bring their films to the festival, and watching how they evolve. At TIFF 2011, one of my great discoveries was a film called Your Sister's Sister, by a relatively unknown filmmaker from the Pacific Northwest named Lynn Shelton. I saw Your Sister's Sister pretty much by accident. I originally had a ticket to Machine Gun Preacher, but it got such scathing advance reviews that I decided to swap it out for something else, and Your Sister's Sister was the only promising film in that time slot that still had a ticket available. It was a wonderful film, and I loved the way Shelton set up a bizarre scenario that ended up feeling completely realistic because of the naked emotional truth her characters discovered about themselves, and the conversational honesty that her ad-lib, unscripted style brought out of the actors. I've liked Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt for a while now, but I still think of Sister as some of their best acting. 

After that screening, I felt a bit of ownership over "discovering" Shelton, and I hoped that her work would reach a wider audience in the future. So of course I was delighted when I saw she had a new film at TIFF '14, Laggies, which looked like a pseudo-major release starring some decently big names. Keira Knightley plays Megan, a twenty-something whose friends all have their lives figured out, while she's working part-time for her father's accounting firm, twirling a sign out on the street. The fact that she has a Master's Degree and her longtime boyfriend has just proposed only makes matters worse. While Megan is supposed to be spending a week at some type of "figure out your future" retreat, she has a chance encounter with Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz), a high schooler that starts looking up to her after Megan buys her beer. What ensues--Megan spending a week hiding out in Annika's house and then falling for her single dad (Sam Rockwell)--is ridiculous high-concept, but like Shelton's other work, it never really plays as such. 

Shelton has a gift for digging at the reality buried under outlandish set-ups involving three characters whose lives butt up against each other in strange ways. Her films always begin as high-concept, but never feel that way by the time they resolve, because we feel so immersed in the inner-workings of her character's psyches. I was surprised to find out Shelton didn't write Laggies--it was an original screenplay by a first-timer named Andrea Seigel that just floated its way over to her--but her stamp is all over it. This was also the first time that one of Shelton's films hasn't been largely ad-libbed, but you wouldn't know it from watching, and that's a good thing. There's a naturalistic way to how the actors interact with one another that doesn't feel forced, even given the strange circumstances the characters all find themselves in. Laggies is a funny film with real heart, some of Keira Knightley's best acting (with a very credible Seattle accent), and further evidence that Shelton is one of the most interesting American-Indie filmmakers working in contemporary cinema. 

At first The 50 Year Argument--a documentary about the New York Review of Books--didn't seem like something I might prioritize on my schedule. I have, after all, never read the publication. I also knew it would be airing on HBO just a few weeks after TIFF ended (Monday, September 29, to be exact). But I didn't really think of this documentary as being about a publication that I have no familiarity with; rather, I thought of it as being about a group of people who have spent 50 years guiding the cultural conversation. As a critic and writer who hopes to inspire cultural discourse myself, what could be closer to my heart? 

Of course, I was also intrigued by the fact that it was co-directed by Martin Scorsese (working with David Tedeschi, who was the editor on some of his previous documentaries), and the possibility of an extended interview and Q&A with Marty was just too salivating to pass up. When Scorsese was asked by TIFF documentary programmer Thom Powers what drew him to the project, his response crystalized what intrigued me about the film in the first place: "I wanted to make a film about the urgency of being engaged and the sensuousness of ideas," he said. That sentence pretty much describes what I love about analyzing culture. 

Unfortunately, that sentence in the post-film interview was also the highlight of the screening for me. The 50 Year Argument was by no means a bad film--it was quite interesting and thought-provoking--but I don't quite think it accomplished what it set out to do. Or maybe it just didn't do what I hoped it would. I'm not entirely sure if what I was expecting was even realistic in the first place. I wanted an in-depth analysis of the mindset of an institution that tries to lead and trigger intellectual discourse. Instead, Argument gave me 90 minutes of interviews with contributors to the New York Review of Books telling stories and anecdotes about their involvement with the magazine. That isn't a pejorative; most of the stories were fascinating and helped illuminate the importance the magazine has had in the coverage of several important topics over the years. But the real flaw I found in the film was that the whole never amounted to more than the sum of the parts. At the end, it really was just 90 minutes of good stories and interviews that didn't build to a more cohesive statement. 

At a festival with over 300 films, selecting what to see can be remarkably nerve-racking, so some reliance on pedigree becomes automatic. You can easily talk yourself into films that don't necessarily sound good if you know they're by good directors, just as you can talk yourself out of films that DO sound good if they're by directors you have a history of not liking. And that's how I ended up spending my Thursday night watching the complete and utter disaster that was The Cobbler

I had reservations going in. I haven't liked an Adam Sandler movie in a solid ten years, and it feels like a lot longer. Throwing him into a plot about a New York shoe cobbler who can transform into other people when he puts on their shoes did NOT sound like something I wanted to see. But I was seduced by pedigree. The Cobbler was written and directed by Thomas McCarthy, who was batting a thousand in his previous three films as writer/director: the quite good The Station Agent and The Visitor, and 2011's excellent Win Win. All three of those films found real people at the margins of society and crafted profound portraits of who they were and why their struggles are stories worth telling. I was dubious about whether Adam Sandler turning into other people could continue that trend, but I gave it a chance. Oooof. 

Put simply, this movie is just awful. It's the kind of movie where Adam Sandler uses magical bright red high heals to turn into a drag queen, all for the sake of scaring a tied-up Method Man into revealing the location of the money from his drug stash. Now read that sentence again. Do you want to see this movie? No, no you don't. That's what I'm here for--to throw away two hours of my life in order to protect you from wasting yours. You're welcome. 

Tomorrow: Bill Murray's best role in over a decade, a fantastic French period-crime procedural that reminded me of Michael Mann's Heat, and a gorgeously shot African film that might be a Foreign Language Film Oscar contender.