The Plight of the Spoiled Music Fan

Back in July, AV Club music editor Steven Hyden shared an interesting theory – in order to be classified as a great band, an artist must have released five “very good” to “excellent” records in a row. In the arbitrary world of ranking pop culture, Hyden’s formula is as good as any – it should be awfully hard to earn the distinction of “great” – but it did get me thinking about how spoiled we music fans can be. After having our minds blown by an exceptional work of art, part of us feels grateful to the artist, while the other part busily sets unrealistic goals for them. In this heightened context, if a band’s follow-up is merely “good,” then that qualifies as a letdown. I felt this way about several albums in 2011, and I’ve selected four to discuss. All were created by artists I love; all feature some quality material. But when placed in the context of their back catalogs – and my emotional attachment to them – all are disappointments.

Radiohead – The King of Limbs

In the pantheon of spoiled music fans, Radiohead fans are the worst. Hyden claims the Brit legends don’t pass his five-albums test because of 2001’s Amnesiac, which I disagree with (see #56 on my Top 100 Albums of the 2000s). I don’t think they pass the five-albums test because of 2004’s overlong Hail to the Thief. These are really good albums we’re talking about here, some seriously adventurous, emotionally riveting stuff that we would praise unconditionally from a band of any other name. But because Radiohead was kind enough to make OK Computer and Kid A, they must suffer our nit-pickery! And The King of Limbs has been no exception. It’s a magnificently dense recording, a world of lurching synths and frantic polyrhythms that unfold like a strange, binary orchid. But it’s also immediately accessible in places, especially the last two cuts – the gorgeously eerie piano ballad “Give Up the Ghost” and the lite electronica boogie of “Separator.” Yet TKOL is bereft of the grand statements and avant garde left turns that defined the band at its earth-shattering best. The biggest complaint among fans has been the running time – under 40 minutes – but that doesn’t bug me. In all honesty, the only problem I have with TKOL is that it doesn’t feel like a momentous occasion, the band having painted cold, beautiful landscapes like this before. It’s an ingeniously layered production of eight well-written, adventurous songs, something that could only disappoint a Radiohead fan.

Lil Wayne  – Tha Carter IV

This year, my spoiled ass was the most disappointed by the hotly anticipated return of Lil Wayne. After the across-the-board success of his 2008 masterstroke Tha Carter III, and the ending of his highly publicized prison sentence, Weezy sounded sharp on his pre-Carter IV mixtape, Sorry 4 Tha Wait, rapping over loops from “Gucci Gucci” and “Rolling in the Deep” with understated poise. But when the real album finally dropped in August, the rapper didn’t sound understated – he sounded underwater. He’s never been a speed rapper, but Wayne certainly takes his time delivering his couplets this time around, and his similes tend to not warrant the extra attention (e.g. “The weed’s loud like a lion’s roar”). Guests Rick Ross, Tech N9ne, Busta Rhymes and Andre 3000 deliver life support in the form of fantastic verses, and the beats successfully hearken back to the gangsta/Dirty South gumbo of Tha Carter II. But without Wayne at his scatological-pothead-Martian best, TC4 is merely a good hip-hop album with occasional flashes of the lyrical master of old. The intro, the interludes, “6 Foot 7 Foot,” “John” and “President Carter” are all worthy of Weezy’s legacy, but we’ve come to expect much more from a record with Tha Carter” in its title.

Wilco – The Whole Love

Despite the sonic canyon that separates alt-country from post-punk, Wilco/Radiohead comparisons have been kicking around since Being There and OK Computer set their respective bars impossibly high. But now that both groups have aged, a legitimate parallel can actually be made – both Wilco and Radiohead possess a built-for-the-long-haul dynamic that generates fruitful output in the face of the loftiest expectations. These guys are gonna keep making music, no matter how many bloggers whine about how they’ve lost a step. And thank god for it – The Whole Love, like The King of Limbs, is a pristinely crafted work, with material that’s right in the band’s wheelhouse. The first two songs even get you hoping that this is indeed the “next Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” you were dreaming for. “Art of Almost” is one of the band’s finest tunes, period, a seven-minute opus that pairs bittersweet, close-but-no-cigar sentiments with soaring distortion and menacing synths – a lusher, warmer “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart.” This is followed by “I Might,” a blast of riff-focused power pop that would’ve fit snugly on Summerteeth. But alas, TWL isn’t a full-blown Wilco masterpiece. While the balance of the record is far from one note – the haunting acoustics of “Black Moon” and sunny Sunday shuffle of “Capital City” providing the most welcome dynamic shifts – it’s still bereft of the wild spirit of “Art of Almost.” Like Wilco (The Album) and Sky Blue Sky before it, TWL depicts a band that’s gotten very comfortable doing its thing – and in 2011, that thing is impeccably wrought country-rock, not the unpredictable Americana rollercoasters of yore. A good album? Yes. A disappointing tease? You betcha.

Bjork – Biophilia

As an artist who passes the five-albums test in my book – from Debut to Medulla, she was pretty much unstoppable – it’s impossible for me to look at any new Bjork album objectively. That being said, the flaws in this year’s Biophilia are plain to see – every track on this mega-concept album about the history of the universe comes with its very own iPad app, and what we gain in ambition we lose in listenability. Not to say that the album isn’t enjoyable; it’s frequently gorgeous. Bjork remains one of the most daring artists making music today, with a voice that continues to astound. Yet where her best work always had clear horizon lines, Biophilia is a thicket of notes and concepts, without much traditional songcraft to ground them. The exception is “Crystalline,” an etheral club banger with a whirlwind of a drum n’ bass outro. Here, Bjork shows us what can still happen when she gets out of the way of her own creativity. But like “Art of Almost,” it only serves to make us wonder just how great this album could’ve been. 

What I Learned From “Instinct”

I had so much fun telling you what I learned from The Edge that I’ve picked another post-Silence of the Lambs Anthony Hopkins thriller to glean morals from. Instinct is a movie that – get this – pits a plucky young professional against a brilliant, violent man. Released in 1999, this was Sir Anthony’s fifth “I have bills to pay” movie in a row (after Meet Joe Black, The Mask of Zorro, Amistad and The Edge). He plays Ethan Powell, a genius psychologist who lives off the grid with a pack of gorillas for two years and is arrested for murder in Rwanda. Powell seems to act more like ape than man, never speaking and lashing out violently. Until the ambitious psychologist Theo Caulder (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) makes it his mission to bring Powell out of his monkey trance, and the movie really starts to blow.

Lesson One: Psychology is super easy.

The first 20 minutes of Instinct frames Hopkins as a live wire, somebody lost to civilization for so long that seasoned psychological minds think he’s a lost cause. The Rwandan government wanted to hang him. When his daughter came to visit him, he didn’t even look at her. He beat the shit out of some people at the airport. Then Gooding, Jr. shows up to counsel Hopkins in prison, and he pretty much gets him talking right away. Take note, armchair shrinks: When there’s a psychopathic ape man in front of you, just look wide-eyed and frightened, and ask him questions about his family. He’ll perk right up.

Lesson Two: Prison guards are horrible, horrible people.

The U.S. prison that Hopkins is transferred to is called Harmony Bay, which is of course underfunded, falling apart and staffed by assholes. One of Instinct’s major story lines is a game that the guards play with the prisoners, giving each one a card from a deck, and only allowing the prisoner who gets the ace of diamonds to receive a half-hour of outdoor time, something all of them are technically entitled to. What the prison has to gain by this stupid and cruel system is never explained, but it does set things up for a painfully melodramatic sequence that sees Gooding, Jr. bucking the establishment by putting the prisoners’ names in a box, and then selecting one at random. You know, like a hero would do.

Lesson 3: Prisoners are wonderful, wonderful people.

You can’t establish the fact that prison employees are evil without prisoners that one can sympathize with. Hence, even though we hear plenty about how Harmony Bay is overflowing with dangerously psychotic criminals, we don’t hear much at all about what they did to get locked up in such a terrible place. Which gives director John Turtletaub the freedom to paint them as a rag-tag bunch of eccentrics just waiting to be psychologically rescued (think One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, except with serial killers). Oh yeah, and we eventually learn that Hopkins didn’t really kill anybody – his gorilla pals were shot by Rwandan soldiers, but he called himself a killer because he felt guilty about it. You know why it’s so hard to find a sensitive man that you want to spend the rest of your life with? Because they’re all serving life sentences.

Lesson 4: Living with animals gives you super strength.

Because Instinct is actually a cloudy glop of environmentalist dogma instead of a movie that asks interesting questions about our own primality, the filmmakers couldn’t be subtle with the very few Hopkins-as-crazy-ape-man scenes. So when he kicks people’s asses in airports and prisons, he doesn’t just beat them – he physically overpowers them with the ease of a superhero. How could gorillas give this ability to a senior citizen in chains? It doesn’t matter, because the movie isn’t really about that kind of thing anyway.

Lesson 5: Ponytails signify recovery.

I don’t want to let Turtletaub off the hook, but Gooding, Jr.’s wet noodle of a performance makes me want to give the director some slack. The actor portrays Caulder as a whimpering snob, a person not cut out to counsel the mentally disturbed. So Turtletaub has to resort to things like wig manipulation to make us believe that Caulder is indeed helping Powell get better – after, like, four sessions, Powell begins to pull back his matted nest of psycho hair into a slick ponytail. Which means that he’s recovering his sanity, because it takes a civilized man to wear the scrunchie of self-discovery.

What’s In My Discman: October 2011

Nick Lowe – The Old Magic (2011)

Rock musicians typically don’t know how to age. The first time they see a shock of grey in their styled-to-look-mussed-up hair, they either double down on their denial and make music that proves they “still got it,” or go off the “reinvent myself” deep end. Which just adds to the pure pleasure of listening to Nick Lowe in the 21st century. With The Old Magic, the 62-year-old pub rock/new wave legend gives us his third straight offering of gently smirking tunes about loving, losing, and getting older all the while. It’s beautifully written material from an artist who’s comfortable in his own wrinkled skin, and a production that keeps its genre jumping to a minimum – relying mostly on soft vocal jazz arrangements and sprightly Buddy Holly shuffles to support Lowe’s curious, cooing voice. Because when you’ve got metaphors for failed love that are as wonderful as “Stoplight Roses,” you don’t need much else.

Stevie Wonder – In Square Circle (1985)

In my younger, stupider days, I would say things like “NOTHING good came out of the ’80s,” accompanied by the requisite eye-roll. I don’t like to think about me being an ignorant dick, but albums like In Square Circle demand this kind of personal reflection. Stevie Wonder fully embraced the synthetic production values of the decade here, something that would’ve once inspired my passive-aggressive scorn. Thankfully, now I actually listen to albums before judging them, and while Wonder’s 20th record doesn’t possess the warmth and grandiosity of his ’70s earth-shakers, it’s darn close to a pop masterpiece. Two jaw-dropping ballads are the biggest highlights – the scorned-lover-as-missing-person weeper “Whereabouts” and the classic unrequited love song “Overjoyed” – but the minor synth groove of “Part-Time Lover” and the staccato, drum machine funk of “Spiritual Walkers” are also fantastic listens, despite sounding very much like they were recorded in 1985.

Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes (2011)

Lykke Li made her first splash with the 2007 single “Little Bit,” a simple declaration of love that stayed with you, no matter how silly it looked on paper. And the singer continues to explore the same chilly neo-soul territory on her second album, digging deeper into her vocabulary to express love and devotion. Wounded Rhymes does possess the ruminative quality implied by the title, but it’s in the atmospherics more than the songs themselves, resulting in an album that sounds like Portishead after a fruitful therapy session. “I Know Places” is six-minutes of lo-fi folk strumming, an instrumental track that just might be coma-inducing – if it weren’t for Lykke Li’s light, bluesy vocal. When she sings, “I know places we can go, babe/Comin’ home, come unfold, babe,” the song goes from a slog to a spiritual.

Franz List: Unintentional Scares

Hey, list fiends. Halloween is creeping around the corner like a scary ghost. Which means it’s time for a list about being scared about stuff. Last year we counted down the “funnest” horror movies of all time, exploring such feel-good titles as The Gingerdead Man and Sleepwalkers. This year, we analyze some pop culture that isn’t supposed to be scary, but still manages to make me pee in my pants a little.

1. Unexpected Cookie Monster
John Lennon, “Hold On”

When I fell in love with John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, I was doing a lot of driving – my incredible girlfriend (now my wife) was going to school an hour and a half away, and I sped my Dodge Neon down there every chance I got. On one of these voyages, I heard “Hold On” for the first time. A sparse, sauntering lullaby, “Hold On” is a quiet moment on an album informed by scream therapy. But at the 1:08 mark, just as you start to settle into the song’s aesthetic, a gravelly voice flies out of leftfield, stating “Cookie.” When I first heard this, I whipped my head around in the driver’s seat, fully expecting to see a wild-eyed drifter in the back, making to stab me with a rusty switchblade. Turns out that was John himself, imitating Cookie Monster for reasons I still don’t understand. But that moment has stuck with me – when he sings “It’s gonna be all right” on the chorus, I’m not convinced.

2. The Famous Amos Penis Scene

There’s not much that isn’t frightening about Burlesque, the 2010 musical about a wooden small-town girl who flees to the L.A. of an alternate universe, where one can become a huge star as a burlesque performer, because the general public cares about burlesque. Christina Aguilera wanders through the shots like a lobotomy victim, Cher looks like a Madame Tussauds monster, and the songs are horrible, but those things are to be expected. Not so the scene where Aguilera’s excruciating flirtations with love interest Cam Gigandet come to a head – Gigandet does an extended strip tease that’s intended to be cute (enter the bedroom fully clothed, come back into the living room under some pretense but a little more naked, repeat). Then, just as we’re lulled into a catatonic acceptance of this sequence’s “romantic” endgame, Gigandet walks up to Aguilera with a box of Famous Amos cookies covering his dong. “Wanna cookie?” he asks. It’s gross. It’s nonsensical. It’s not even the funniest box of cookies that one could use to conceal their genitals (Otis Spunkmeyer, anyone?). When you’re done screaming, this is the kind of insult to your intelligence, and your sweet tooth, that lives on in your nightmares.

3. Arnold Knows Best

The daddy-daughter montage during the opening credits of Commando is intended to be the brief calm before the storm – because like any brilliant action film, this 1985 Schwarzenegger classic knows to get the character development out of the way as quickly as possible, and get right to the ass-kicking. But nothing in the ensuing shoot-em-up is as frightening as the beginning of this sequence, which finds an especially bulgy Arnold chopping wood. A shadowy presence approaches, and the music implies that this must be a bad guy. Arnold sees his enemy in the reflection of his axe, and at the last second, he spins around and … grabs his daughter Jenny, laughing and shaking her awkwardly. Is this a game they play, where the kid tries to sneak up on her father while he’s wielding an axe? It doesn’t matter, because now they’re goofing around at ice cream stands and feeding fawns in the wild. Still, although the entire premise of Commando is that Arnold loves his daughter so much that he’d annihilate an island nation to save her, you’ve gotta wonder if she’d be safer with the terrorists.

4. You WHAT into me?
Dave Matthews Band, “Crash Into Me”

Like most Dave Matthews Band ballads, “Crash Into Me” meanders along inoffensively, pairing pleasant open chords with loving sentiments like adult contemporary hits are supposed to. It’s exactly the kind of tune that shouldn’t have a chorus about having unprotected sex with Dave Matthews. “Crash into me/And I come into you,” Matthews warbles, making for one of the most uncomfortable and messy-sounding come-ons in rock history.

5. Boohbah

As if the concept of tripping human-animal hybrids with TVs for stomachs wasn’t creepy enough, Boohbah ups the ante on grotesque, oddly fascinating programming for babies. The Boohbahs are furry, fluorescent-colored creatures who look like mauled genitalia – bumpy oval heads peeking out of big furry sacks. When they’re not chanting “Booh-bah” like a children’s choir, they’re bobbing their heads up and down and making fart noises. Saying their names in a certain order is a surefire way to raise the dead – Humbah, Zumbah, Zing Zing Zingbah, Jumbah, Jingbah …

6. America’s Sweetheart Has A Seizure
Steel Magnolias

Southern women are sassy and strong. That’s basically the plot of Steel Magnolias. Even when one of them dies tragically, it only serves to underline the point that these ladies are more resilient than a million Tom Skerritts. So when Julia Roberts has a horrifying diabetic seizure in Dolly Parton’s salon chair, with Sally Field and Olympia Dukakis watching, it’s a harrowing chink in the armor of these superhuman Southern belles. But that’s not necessarily scary. What is scary is that Roberts looks like a tapeworm monster in this scene. Which probably explains why I curl up in the fetal position when I hear the words, “Drink your juice, Shelby.”

7. Did you kill my son?

Some of the scariest sci-fi stories involve the alien takeover of human consciousness, from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to The Thing. How else can we explain how Angelina Jolie behaves in Clint Eastwood’s underwhelming 2008 period piece Changeling? She plays a woman whose child is kidnapped, only to have the authorities try to pass off some other kid as hers. You’d think there’d be some righteous fury here, something to give the audience the sense of catharsis that results in Oscar nods. But Jolie is bewilderingly robotic. When confronting the man who she thinks is her son’s murderer, the script requires her to ask the question “Did you kill my son?” about 400 times. And while Jolie tries to mix it up, first asking politely and then yelling it in the guy’s face, there isn’t a trace of human emotion to be found – by then, the pod people had completely taken over.

What I Learned From The Edge

Welcome, tens of Sweensryche readers! Today sees the unveiling of a new feature – “What I Learned From …” – in which we explore the lessons that Hollywood movies cram into our eye sockets, so that they can slowly worm their way into our brains and eventually alter our behavior. Today, we focus on the 1997 thriller The Edge, in which Anthony Hopkins, Alec Baldwin and an African-American are stranded in the bear-infested wilds of Alaska. Guess who gets eaten?

Lesson 1: Obscenely rich people have better survival instincts.

Hopkins plays Charles Morse, who is a billionaire from doing something or other. Morse can build a compass out of a paper clip and a leaf, treat the grievous injuries of his companions, and kill a bear in one-on-one combat, all while exuding a Dalai Lama-level sense of calm. Baldwin plays the fashion photographer Robert Green, a character you would imagine does well for himself. But he’s not as rich as Morse, which logically means he’s also weaker, dumber and on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Lesson 2: Obscenely rich people are Christ-like. 

Within the first five minutes of The Edge, it’s clear that Robert is having an affair with Charles’ model wife, Mickey Morse (!). They attempt to give him a heart attack with a bear suit birthday prank, after which Mickey gives Charles a watch with a lazily phrased engraving, and Robert gives him a knife. Not to mention all their “stolen” looks at each other. Anyways, the viewer isn’t supposed to be sure about all of this, because at the film’s dramatic peak, Robert admits to the affair, and shares that he was plotting to kill Charles all along. (Greed clouds the minds of poorer people, making them ill-suited for survival in the wild. See Lesson 1.) After being outwitted, Robert is impaled at the bottom of a bear trap. What does Charles do? He tries to save him. Before Robert dies, he sees the error of his ways, and confesses to the Hopkins Christ. We assume he goes to heaven.

Lesson 3: Bears are sociopaths.

Every time a bear appears in The Edge, it is ready to maul the shit out of every human being in its path. And it’s not just because they’re hungry: When Charles is teetering on a log that’s spanning some whitewater rapids, a bear comes up and shakes it until Charles falls. Fucker just wanted to see him die.

Lesson 4: Fashion photographers love stoic Native Americans.

How did these guys get themselves into this ursine kerfuffle, you say? Well, it’s because they were in Alaska for Robert’s photo shoot of Mickey (played with glassy-eyed irrelevance by Elle MacPherson), and Robert got sick and tired of the same old model stuff. After seeing a framed photo of a weathered Native American dude on the wall of their lodge, Robert decides they need to go out and find him instead. Because what do fashion magazines love more than the quiet pain of indigenous people?

Lesson 5: If you’re cheating on your husband, and you’re getting him an engraved watch for his birthday, do not also get one for your lover as part of the same order. Then, do not leave the receipt inside the box that holds your spouse’s watch.