New Songs to Quarantine To

maxresdefault.jpg

Here are my favorite songs from March 2020, a month where we needed good music even more than usual. Each of these tracks speaks to our post-COVID reality in different ways, from bemoaning separations to appreciating the upsides of nesting to calling out all the craven shitheads who keep pointing at a trainwreck and calling it a fender bender. More importantly, they all slap. So press play, stay safe, and remember that while we’re physically apart, that can’t stop us from harmonizing.


1. Swamp Dogg (ft. Justin Vernon & Jenny Lewis) – “Sleeping Without You Is A Dragg”

I thank god every day that I can still hug and kiss and sleep next to my wife. The ache in this 77-year-old R&B legend’s voice speaks for those who can’t.

2. Dixie Chicks – “Gaslighter”

Every time Trump says COVID is just like the flu, this should get a million streams.

3. Caroline Rose – “Do You Think We’ll Last Forever?”

The panic attacks that go hand in hand with true love serve as a hell of a metaphor for our shared existential crisis – and the fizzy synth-pop arrangement helps it all go down easy.

4. R.A.P. Ferreira – “Leaving Hell”

A song about how art is a pathway to joy is itself a pathway to joy.

5. Waxahatchee – “Can’t Do Much”

Katie Crutchfield nails what it’s like to work from home with your soul mate: “In my loneliness I’m locked in a room / When you see me I’m honey on a spoon.”

6. Cupcakke – “Lawd Jesus”

“When I hop off my flight / Naomi Campbell with the wipes.”

7. Deb Never & Kenny Beats – “Stone Cold”

This ethereal R&B track about a famous wrestler speaks to our need for human connection, which ironically connects all of us.

8. Protomartyr – “Processed by the Boys”

“When the ending comes, is it gonna run at us like a wild-eyed animal?” barks lead singer Joe Casey over a feral, cleansing cacophony of guitars.

9. Laura Stevenson – “Time Bandits” 

Over hopeful “Don’t Think Twice” acoustics, Laura Stevenson makes it a little bit easier to not give in to despair: “Quit smoking baby / Even though the world is ending.”

10. Channel Tres – “Weedman”

Whether it’s via THC, or an impossibly chill rap song about loving THC, we’ve gotta revel in our moments of bliss when we can find them. 

Catching Up with King: The Dark Tower, Vol. II

The_Drawing_of_the_ThreeLike 99% of authors, Stephen King is at his best when he’s writing about what he knows. And like 99% of wealthy white male authors, Stephen King thinks he knows way more than he actually does.

Right before I finished reading The Drawing of the Three, the ambitious and problematic second volume of King’s seven-part fantasy epic The Dark Tower, the author took to Twitter to weigh in on a subject he should know a thing or two about. The publisher Hachette had decided, after many of its employees walked out in protest, to cancel its plans to publish a new memoir by Woody Allen. You know, that certifiable creep who married his girlfriend’s daughter and was credibly accused of pedophilia? Pretty hard to put your foot in your mouth on this one, right Stevie-boy?

By sharing his “unease,” King is inadvertently also sharing that he doesn’t know (or care) what message it sends when our society gives rich and famous predators like Allen a platform. All he knows (or cares) 492bc19c230e7702d564f9920c9af2b491d1b7d4.jpgabout is what effect this publishing decision could have on writers like himself. It’s an ignorant, privileged perspective. It’s really hard to read.

And while there’s a lot to like about The Drawing of the Three – a ruined coastal landscape littered with demonic lobster beasts; a quiet, tainted hero with wells of misery drilled into his soul; portals into the human mind that Being John Malkovich would pass off as original a dozen years later – it’s a book with weaknesses that are hard to reckon with, much like the author’s Twitter feed.

While the overarching story is just as broad as its predecessor, following Roland the Gunslinger on his quest to find three spectral doorways, The Drawing of the Three is far more committed to character development, and is more of a page-turner as a result. Roland’s fate is wrapped up in who he meets when he steps through these doors, and King breaks the book up into sections that are laser-focused on the newcomers.

41RzzIi7EWL._SL300_.jpgThe first is Eddie Dean, a character King could write well in his sleep – a heroin addict from a dysfunctional family. From the moment Roland steps through the door and into Eddie’s mind, The Drawing of the Three becomes an oddly gripping, metaphysical buddy action movie, complete with a climactic shootout at a drug lord’s lair. This is King writing what he knows and boiling it down into Grade A pulp fantasy.

But then comes door number two. We’ve dealt with King’s approach to writing characters of color before in this column; the black people that appeared around the fringes of The Stand were either barbarians, drug addicts or magical exotic creatures. But the character that Roland meets/inhabits when he steps through that second portal makes Jar-Jar Binks seem sensitively rendered. Odetta Holmes is a wealthy black woman in 1960s New York City, a civil rights activist who lost her legs when a psychopath pushed her onto the subway tracks. King writes her as a soft-spoken, thoughtful figure, with deep reserves of strength just visible beneath the surface. Someone who has had unthinkable violence done to them and uses it as fuel. Someone who fits the 9780451163523-usdescription of a gunslinger to a tee. If only King could’ve stopped there.

But no. In a downright meta display of how unqualified the author is to write about the black experience, King gives Odetta a dissociative condition that Eddie incorrectly calls “schizophrenia.” Detta, the character’s alternate personality, is purposely written to be the most vile, violent, racist caricature possible. Other characters in the story comment on this, saying things like “She talked like a cartoon black woman, like Butterfly McQueen gone Looney Tunes,” to remind us that this is a literary device and we can hope and pray that it all will make clear, non-racist sense in the end. It doesn’t help. A warning that the following passage, which depicts an encounter between Detta and the EMT who saved her life after the subway attack, is quite upsetting. Let me be clear that the treatment here is all King – the italics, the caps, the spelling:

“YOU AIN’T NUTHIN BUT A BUNCHA HONKY SONSA BITCHES!” she screamed. Her face was monstrous, her eyes full of hell’s own light. It wasn’t even the face of a human being. “GOAN KILL EVERY MAHFAHIN HONKY I SEE! GOAN GELD EM FUST! GOAN CUT OFF THEIR BALLS AND SPIT EM IN THEY FACES!”

71eohvmV5ELImagine being truly engrossed by a book that depicts a  fantastical world colliding unexpectedly with our own. And then imagine having to contend with this dialogue, and these descriptions, for hundreds of pages. It’s like watching Stephen King tweet passionately about why Elizabeth Warren should be president, and then having to deal with his defense of Woody Allen out of nowhere. It’s literary whiplash.

The Drawing of the Three ends with a fairly legitimate explanation of why Detta existed at all – she is the projection of a childhood trauma, triggered by a white man’s horrific deed. King is very good at writing about trauma, how it traps and intimidates and haunts us as we grow older. It’s a subject he knows well. Why couldn’t he have just stuck with that? Why couldn’t he have just given Odetta some moments of righteous anger, of understandable rage? Why in god’s name did he write Detta like that? I can’t imagine a satisfying explanation, no matter how hard I try.

THE “CATCHING UP WITH KING” RANKINGS

1. Pet Sematary

2. Misery

3. Carrie

4. The Shining

5. Doctor Sleep

6. The Talisman

7. Nightmares & Dreamscapes

8. 11/22/63

9. On Writing

10. The Stand

11. The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger

12. The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three

13. Bag of Bones

 

February 2020: The Songs I Loved

a98aa7263944019958c35db2c3e7e604.jpg

This February was loaded with great music. Songs that showed up at your door looking handsome in that half-vulnerable, half-mischievous way, holding a single rose with a big red bow tied to it for some reason. “Hey,” these songs said to me. “Wanna get stinko and watch Nights in Rodanthe?” “Yes,” I immediately responded. “A million times yes!”


1. Waxahatchee – “Lilacs”

“And if my bones are made of delicate sugar / I won’t get anywhere good without you,” admits Katie Crutchfield on this instant country-folk classic. It resonates on a skeletal level.

2. Kamaiyah (ft. J. Espinosa) – “Get Ratchet”

Four years after dropping one of the rap albums of the decade, Kamaiyah is back. And so are ominously funky minor-key piano chords. And so are extended scratch solos.

3. TOPS – “Witching Hour”

I believe that Fleetwood Mac’s 1982 album Mirage is underrated AF. And I have a sneaking suspicion that this Montreal soft-pop band agrees with me.

4. Moses Sumney – “Cut Me”

A breathtaking, falsetto-streaked, prismatic burst of R&B artistry that fills the D’Angelo-sized hole in my heart.

5. Otoboke Beaver – “Dirty Old Fart Is Waiting For My Reaction”

Remember when Liz Warren only needed a minute to rip Michael Bloomberg’s limbs off? This 60-second troll-slaying punk onslaught would work perfectly as the soundtrack.

6. Caribou – “Never Come Back”

Manitoban electronic artist Dan Snaith continues to create deeply emotional, insidiously absorbing dance music, which speaks to those of us who understand that Everything But the Girl’s “Missing” is a modern classic.

7. Boldy James & The Alchemist – “Carruth”

This rap song does not slap. It sighs with unknowable pain.

8. Thundercat – “Dragonball Durag”

Thundercat’s new album drops April 3. And this advance single – an adorably goofy R&B come-on that contains the line “Baby girl / how do I look in my durag?” – is like an early glimpse of an especially fruitful spring.

9. The Avalanches (ft. Blood Orange) – “We Will Always Love You”

Weaving samples from Smokey Robinson and The Roches into an ethereal electronic ballad, these Aussie techno-pastiche legends may have created their prettiest soundscape yet.

10. Yves Tumor – “Gospel for a New Century”

“I think I can solve it,” proclaims Yves Tumor on his latest single. When it comes to figuring out how to infuse splintered, brassy hip hop and fist-pumping hard rock into a pop song, he’s definitely on some Miss Marple shit.

The Top 100 Albums of the 2010s (100-96)

14808597-2.jpg

So I just finished reviewing my 100 favorite albums from the 1990s, a process I began in 2011, as a relatively energetic guy in his early thirties excited about reevaluating the music of his youth. It took me NINE YEARS to finish it, which of course meant that by the time it was done, another decade had elapsed, which meant I had another 100-album list on the docket. I’m a lethargic 41 now, so I considered waiting a few months to start writing about my favorite LPs of the 2010s. The conversation went a little something like this:

“Time to get right back on that 100 album horse,” the sad, honey-voiced cowboy that lives in my mind said to me, right after I declared Björk’s Post the #1 album of the ’90s.

“Do I hafta, Dusty?” I responded, lisping just a little bit like Brian from Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (see image below) in hopes of melting down his resolve. (Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that my mind-cowboy’s name is Dusty Sleeves.)

338877bda16788115a46af967eabbf25.jpg

“You have to,” Dusty responded. “Some folk were born to break horses, or till the land, or paint pictures that make grown men cry. You, you were meant to make lists. Lists that feed your malignant narcissism because they make your opinion seem important. Lists that feed the compulsive urge to organize the chaos that runs rampant on this good-for-nothin’ blue marble we call Earth.”

“Gee Dusty, you’re mighty ornery and depressin’ sometimes!” I responded.

“Well Sweensryche, consider that I’m trapped in the tumbleweeds of your mind for eternity. It ain’t exactly a picnic.”

“Sorry about that Dusty! I’ll try to mentally project a basket of cucumber sandwiches, and send it your way. But I gotta say goodbye for now! The Top 100 Albums of the 2010s ain’t gonna write itself!”

“Well aren’t you just going to basically repurpose reviews you already wrote?”

“Shut up Dusty! This is ALL NEW CONTENT.”

“But little britches, lying is not gon—“

“I said… SHUT UP.”

[silence]

And now, without further ado, enjoy the first five entries of my Top 100 Albums of the 2010s!

Love-loss--and-autotune-by-Swamp-Dogg100. Swamp Dogg – Love, Loss and Auto-Tune (2018)

By the time an artist gets around to releasing their 22nd album, the best we can usually expect is a respectable return to form under the guidance of a savvy producer – a Time Out of Mind or American Recordings. But since he began dropping eccentric cult R&B records under the name Swamp Dogg in 1970, Jerry Williams Jr. has done anything but what we’d expect. True to its title, Love, Loss and Auto-Tune layers Williams’s beautifully weathered tenor in pitch-correcting robotics. But it’s not like his voice needs help, or that the material requires some kind of chilly remove. Like Eno with a synthesizer, this is just a boundary-pusher exploring new frontiers. Whether he’s crooning a Nat King Cole standard, begging his love to wait up for him so they can sip “Dom Perignon ’69,” or busting out a spoken word screed about our fucked-up economy, the effect is absolutely unique – and stop-you-in-your-tracks emotional.

Ulver99. Ulver – The Assassination of Julius Caesar (2017)

As a legend of the Scandinavian black metal scene, Kristoffer Rygg understands the mechanics of slow-building soundscapes and folkloric songwriting. And on his 11th album fronting the shapeshifting outfit Ulver, Rygg applied these talents within the eyeliner-smudged confines of 1980s goth-pop. It’s remarkable how well it worked. Over the nine-plus minute expanse of “Rolling Stone,” the band rides a throaty synth riff until we’re in its thrall. And on “Nemoralia,” Rygg goes full Depeche Mode, his voice floating over hauntingly catchy synths, connecting the pagan feast of the goddess Diana to the tragic demise of the princess of the same name. Obsessed with ancient history and aglow with gloomy beauty, The Assassination of Julius Caesar is a master class in how to experiment with genre without losing yourself in the process.

Aimee Mann

98. Aimee Mann – Mental Illness (2017)

When it comes to depicting complicated emotions with just a handful of syllables, Aimee Mann is an all-time great. On her ninth album, Mann unpacked feelings of regret, and abandonment, and stubborn hope, in tight stanzas that shimmer with the clarity of a breakthrough in therapy. “It happens so fast / And then it happens forever,” she sings, immediately breaking the hearts of anyone who wishes they could have that one crucial moment back. Buoyed by cozy strumming-and-strings arrangements, Mental Illness glows with a truly reassuring thought: someone else out there feels this way.

beyonce_-_lemonade_official_album_cover

97. Beyoncé – Lemonade (2016)

Seventeen years ago, Beyoncé released her debut solo single – an exhilarating song about how love made you feel crazy. In 2016, on her stunning emotional arc of a concept album, the artist wrestled with the consequences of that overwhelming emotion, how it can be taken for granted and betrayed. “What’s worse, looking jealous or crazy? … I’d rather be crazy,” she sings over the airy island rhythm of “Hold Up,” refusing to suffer in silence about her cheating husband. Gorgeously curated and thoughtfully sequenced, Lemonade is more nuanced than your typical breakup album. The artist doesn’t limit herself to syrupy ballads to convey her pain. She burns with righteous anger, eulogizes her sense of security, then blazes a path to forgiveness and, ultimately, empowerment.

Lucy Dacus_ Historian96. Lucy Dacus – Historian (2018)

Lucy Dacus songs unfold like realizations, exploring the periphery before working their way in. So by the time we realize that addictions can be interpersonal, or that our homeland isn’t as homey as we hoped, or that death is coldly, poignantly final, the whole experience has been enriched by context, the volume rising steadily like the tide. On the opening track “Night Shift,” Dacus spends more than three minutes painting a picture of a relationship in ruins. Then, only when we understand, does the chorus finally kick in: “You’ve got a nine to five / So I’ll take the night shift.” It’s more than a cool breakup line. It’s a rejection of everyday drudgery, and Dacus sings it more confidently each time, as if she’s realizing in the moment that she deserves better. Historian is full of songs like these. Ideas that develop in steady crescendo, until they blossom as breakthroughs.

 

The Best Album of the 1990s

bjork_1995_stephane_sednaoui_01_post_large.jpg

1. Björk – Post (1995)

It’s hard enough for an artist to sound ahead of their time. But on Björk’s second album as a solo artist, she was ahead of her time, and behind it, and looping back through it like a reincarnated spirit, and angling jagged shards of it at the sun to melt away whatever barriers we thought existed between post-punk balladry and thrumming house beats and musty old showtunes.

The Icelandic singer/songwriter and ex-Sugarcube had already taken some gargantuan strides on 1993’s Debut, using her newfound artistic freedom to see how her operatic supernova of a voice held up in a variety of contexts. That album crackles with experimental energy, and the growing confidence of a superhero who’s just starting to understand how much power she really has.

If Post merely kept this feeling going for another album cycle, it would have been a worthy achievement. But a lot had changed in the artist’s life in those two intervening years. As her star rose, she relocated to London, a global hub for pop-adjacent, emotionally complex club music. From this new, rain-spattered catbird seat, Björk approached the Post sessions with an auteur’s vision and an ice climber’s confidence, taking over lead production duties for the first time in her career. And to make it absolutely clear how much we were about to be blindsided by her evolution, she kicked off the record’s debut single with the sound of a fiery explosion. “Army of Me” is one of the all-time gauntlets thrown in the history of pop music – right at that precise moment when this buzzy alternative artist was primed to reach unforeseen levels of popularity, she hurled a ball of fire right down the throat of Generation X. As the distorted circular bass line slithers its way through one of the best-ever interpolations of John Bonham’s “When the Levee Breaks” beat, Björk drops bombs on slacker-chic culture, a full decade before it metastasized into the YouTube commentariat:

You’re alright
There’s nothing wrong
Self sufficiency please!
And get to work
And if you complain once more
You’ll meet an army of me

With the sheer snarling force of “Army of Me” as its opening salvo, it’s clear that this record is going to have plenty to say about the burgeoning self-confidence of an artist coming into her own. The sonic palette expands to encompass an entire Pantone book – the fluttering acid house drums of “Hyperballad”; the soft, cinematic strings of “You’ve Been Flirting Again”; the fire-breathing horn section of “I Miss You”; the cheeky, zing-boom Broadway orchestra of “It’s Oh So Quiet.”

Lyrically, Björk is just as ambitious, bending time and space to suit her mood. “I miss you, though I haven’t met you yet,” she tosses off, sounding not like a lonely person searching for hope, but like a traveler from the future with otherworldly insights on her fate. “Hyperballad” details how amazing it feels to crawl into bed beside someone you trust by focusing on what happens before that moment – the narrator stands at the top of a mountain, dropping things off the edge and watching them break, in order to fully appreciate her safety. And over the gritty, churning bass of “The Modern Things,” the most visionary artist of the ’90s talks about technological innovations like they’re buried treasure, just waiting for a truly special human being to unearth them:

All the modern things
Like cars and such
Have always existed
They’ve just been waiting in a mountain
For the right moment
Listening to the irritating noises
Of dinosaurs and people
Dabbling outside

In 1995, Björk had this treasure map. And she was well aware of its power. She called this album Post to create a clear delineation line between it and Debut – an overt “before” and “after.” It’s a grand, futuristic promise of artistic evolution, and Post makes good on it in ways that I am still processing 25 years later. Feeling free to explore whatever sounds, subjects and potential collaborators were fascinating to her in that moment, Björk made a record that is post-modern, post-punk, and post-linear. It was ahead of its time then, and still is now, and will be until the seas swallow us whole.

This completes my thoroughly narcissistic countdown of the Top 100 Albums of the 1990s – also known as “100 Things That Are Better Than Better Than Ezra.” Check out the full list here. (It took me almost a full decade to write it! I’m lazy!)

My Best Pictures

Before 2019, it was a sketchy proposition for a Very Important Filmmaker to Grapple with Their Own Mortality on screen. Because there are few people on earth as egomaniacal as a famous director having a midlife crisis. How can we expect them to resist the urge to wallow in their own pretentiousness? This is the urge that drove Stanley Kubrick to make Eyes Wide Shut, one last exercise in justifying his own perversions before his soul could be judged. The Tree of Life made us weigh the minutiae of Terence Malick’s childhood against the literal creation of the universe (I’m sorry that your dad was an asshole, but come on, dude).

But last year was different. It featured plenty of high-profile filmmakers tapping into that ol’ existential wrestling match, and at least three of them held their own egos in check, telling stories brimming with genuine, relatable pathos – along with all the tenderness and pain and humor and philosophical profundity that implies. Two of these, Martin Scorsese and Pedro Almodóvar, even racked up Oscar nominations. The third, David Milch, is a TV guy who used the unlikely return of his finest show to say something incredibly meaningful about endings.

So as we near the end of yet another Oscar season, praying to God that it doesn’t embarrass us too much (please Lord, don’t encourage the makers of Joker any further) and that the good art gets rewarded (Parasite, Antonio Banderas, Florence Pugh, The Lighthouse’s cinematographer), let’s focus on an unlikely, lovely fact – these 2019 films about old age and disease and death left me feeling especially alive, each in their own way. Now, without further ado, are My Best Pictures:

unnamed.jpg

Deadwood: The Movie

Thirteen years after HBO unceremoniously cancelled his signature show – the curse-jar-shattering Shakespearean Western Deadwood – showrunner David Milch was finally granted the opportunity to give us all a sense of closure, in the form of one made-for-TV movie. And he did it in the midst of unimaginable personal turmoil, having been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a year earlier. Somehow, his script for Deadwood: The Movie packs a season’s worth of story into 120 minutes, without sacrificing the show’s penchant for loose banter and heavy soliloquy. A plot involving the return of the slathering wolf George Hearst, who discovers how he was hoodwinked a decade ago by our ragtag murderin’ pals, provides plenty of dramatic tension. But more importantly, it creates pockets of space for director Daniel Minahan to recreate the familiar, mud-smeared thrum of a town living on a knife’s edge. While giving almost every surviving cast member their own lovely curtain call. When Ian McShane delivers his final words as the abusive monster/loyal friend Al Swearengen, we get one last shot of profane, blasphemous poetry. And then it’s closing time, for good.

beyonce-home.png

Homecoming

Just like a great drama has to offer more than just drama, a great concert film has to give us more than just music. And Homecoming, Beyoncé’s tour de force documentary about her instantly iconic 2018 Coachella performances, is one of the greatest accomplishments of the genre. Because this supremely motivated superstar approached the task of directing with as much tireless effort and conceptual flair as she applied to the stage show itself. As the first black woman to headline White Privilege Woodstock, Beyoncé embraced a theme of education, employing the marching bands and color schemes and resilient legacies of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, amplifying how rare it is to see unfiltered depictions of black culture on stages this large in America. Via a riveting series of cinema verité-style behind-the-scenes interludes, we get a real sense of how much work goes into a choreographed production of this size, of how easy it could be for its star to forget about cultural impact and just focus on the Herculean task of recovering from her pregnancy and hitting those umpteen-thousand cues. But her whole point of showing these rehearsals, of giving a voice to her dancers and drummers and designers, is to show us how hard her community works. So when we inevitably see this impossibly talented person singing about being crazy in love, while being surrounded by her artistic, cultural, and biological families, that love feels all-encompassing enough to shelter us all.

71Y5pMAw8rL._AC_SL1200_

The Irishman

Like most mob movies, The Irishman is sprinkled with moments from the lives of practicing Roman Catholics – well-attended baptisms; ornate weddings; wrenched expressions of guilt; naked pleas for forgiveness. But the theology behind Martin Scorsese’s 26th feature is, if anything, more Buddhist. By following the corpse-strewn path of real-life hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro, speaking volumes with every wince) in minute detail, the director asks his audience to meditate on the long-term damage of each heinous act. To consider the metric ton of bad karma slowly being amassed. And to consider, silently and unblinkingly, the wretchedness it causes. Sheeran’s hits aren’t captured with elegant tracking shots – they’re abrupt and impersonal, a decidedly inhumane transaction. Obituaries of random characters pop up from time to time, blunting any swagger they might have in that moment with the fact of their grisly demise. What little romanticization there is comes from Steven Zaillian’s crackling script, which makes these criminals much funnier than they likely were. Coming from the likes of De Niro and Pesci and Keitel, this dialogue, along with the walking-and-talking Chekov’s gun that is Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino, spittin’ mad), kept me rapt past hour three. Just in time for Scorsese to show us what comes of all that greed and political maneuvering and emotionally barren tough-guy bullshit. It sure as hell isn’t nirvana.

unnamed.jpg

The Lighthouse

When my wife and I moved in together, it was into a studio apartment that would’ve been cramped for one person. The “bedroom” was a ladder to a wooden pallet installed a foot below the living room ceiling. The shower was like a leaky coffin. There were rats, and those rats had fleas. In case I ever forget how lucky I am to have found someone who could live in such a shithole with me without killing me, I will watch The Lighthouse and let the waves of gratitude pour over me. Robert Eggers’s ominous, patient, quite-funny masterpiece of psychological horror shows us what happens when two incompatible people get thrown into close quarters with no chance of escape. When Ephraim (a briskly mustachioed Robert Pattinson) lands on an isolated New England island to work as an assistant to the head lighthouse keeper (Willem Dafoe, a bug-eyed, farting Lear with a beard like a cartoon lion), they pass the time by getting plastered, telling stories, and generally trying their hardest to manage how annoyed they are. When it becomes clear that their scheduled transport off the island is not arriving anytime soon, things get a whole lot weirder. The actors both do some incredible work depicting how need can so easily turn to resentment, which slowly pickles into rage. Often, it’s unclear if they are going to kiss or kill one another. By the end, they’ve broken all kinds of leases, including the one so cruelly granted to them by God.

MV5BNWU4MTM2YTgtYTRlZC00ZmRhLTlkYTMtZDkyYzNjZDU1NmI0XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyOTgxNDIzMTY@._V1_.jpg

Pain & Glory

I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a more moving encapsulation of the relationship between pain and religion than this line from Pain & Glory, Pedro Almodóvar’s nostalgic, bittersweet, overwhelming visual feast of an autobiography: “The nights that coincide several pains, those nights I believe in God, and I pray to him,” shares Almodóvar stand-in Salvador Mallo (played with electrifying vulnerability by Antonio Banderas). “The days when I only suffer a type of pain – I’m an atheist.” The film follows Mallo around Spain as he reconnects with old colleagues and lovers, his nostalgia receptors sparked by a local revival of one of his earliest feature films. Reminiscing all the while about his complicated relationship with his mother – the person he worshipped as a child, whose stubborn homophobia caused him great pain as an adult – Mallo feels finished, a husk of what he once was, assaulted from all sides by headaches and back pain and choking fits. Even at his lowest, Almodóvar can’t help but make every shot feel like a painting that would change your life if you stumbled across it in a gallery window – everything from Mallo’s kitchen cabinets to the color palette of his nightly pills feels injected with the luminescence of an endangered sea creature. By the end, our hero is writing again. He doesn’t know if this new work is going to be a comedy or a drama. He only knows that it’s alive.

MV5BYWZjMjk3ZTItODQ2ZC00NTY5LWE0ZDYtZTI3MjcwN2Q5NTVkXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyODk4OTc3MTY@._V1_UY1200_CR90,0,630,1200_AL_-1.jpg

Parasite

Usually, when something is deemed to be “too on the nose,” that’s a diss. A criticism of a pedantic piece of art that doesn’t trust its audience to get the point. But when I say that Bong Joon-ho’s dark comedy Parasite is on the nose, it’s a compliment. I’m not sure what the income inequality problem is like in Bong’s native Korea, but America was in desperate need of a whip-smart story about the ever-growing chasm between the rich and the poor, full of metaphors that hit us over the goddamn head. Parasite follows a poor family of four who lives in a basement apartment – huddled together watching drunks piss in an alley like it’s an FDR fireside chat. When they get a once-in-a-lifetime chance to infiltrate the gorgeously outfitted confines of a wealthy household, their hopes are sparked, and their fates are sealed. The instant-classic scene of the son and daughter (Choi Woo-shik and Park So-dam, witheringly sarcastic) practicing their fake art teacher backstory establishes the first half of the film as a class caper that hits that age-old snobs-vs-slobs pleasure center. But the family didn’t really have an exit strategy, and unfair class systems are constructed to destroy those who try to climb too high. So as Parasite transitions into the horror movie it was pretending not to be, and our smiles curdle into grimaces, we realize that we’re witnessing a brutally efficient takedown of the American dream. One that’s so on the nose, we have to breathe through our mouths.

91jatiUZjtL._AC_SL1500_.jpg

Us

“It’s us.” Of all the indelible one-liners in the history of horror, this might be the most economical. Because when you take away all the clever flourishes and dynamic performances from Jordan Peele’s second feature, what’s left is a multi-layered metaphor anchored in a stark, preternatural fear – that, unlike what so many well-meaning parents and teachers have told us, we’re not special. Us pits the Wilson family, led by matriarch/superhero Adelaide (Lupita Nyang’o, Best Actress), against their own bloodthirsty doppelgangers, clad in red jumpsuits and wielding beautiful vintage scissors. As Adelaide discovers the origins of this mysterious legion of doubles, and does the math to connect them with a certain House of Mirrors-related childhood trauma, Peele’s ultimate points also emerge, fully formed. We might not be able to see the strings, but the haves and have-nots of our society are inexorably connected. When a smirking California doofus “earns” enough money to buy a hideous modern home with a boat out front, there is an equal and opposite impact on the guy who works at the factory that processes marine supplies. That doofus may think they live in different worlds. But no. It’s us.

Honorable Mentions: Annabelle Comes Home; Escape Room; Glass; The Great Hack; Happy Death Day 2U; I Lost My Body; The Intruder; Jojo RabbitThe Last Black Man in San FranciscoLittle Monsters; Little Women; The Nightingale; Ready or Not

The Best Songs from Jan 2020

3nkkch

It’s 2020 everyone. You know what that means: Optometrists everywhere have a year’s worth of killer material. Also, it’s a whole new year of me telling you what songs I like. Here are the ones from the month that was…


1. Andy Shauf – “Neon Skyline”

As this Saskatchewanian soft rock virtuoso describes two friends meeting up at a bar, his syllables tumble like jukebox quarters. Bringing the scene to life with such guileless ease, I can practically taste the Molson.

2. Caroline Rose – “Feel the Way I Want”

On her first single in three years, former folkie Caroline Rose abandons the smirking power pop of her last album, in favor of a neon-bright synth groove. In case you’re wondering why she’d make yet another genre shift so early in her career, just take another look at that song title.

3. Kvelertak (ft. Troy Sanders) – “Crack of Doom”

One of the most blisteringly fun heavy metal bands on earth return with a fiery new singer and a bit of garage rock grit added to their arena thrash formula. My neck aches just thinking about it.

4. Rosalia – “Juro Que”

Flamenco slaps.

5. TOPS – “I Feel Alive”

Serious ’80s Fleetwood Mac vibes abound on this lovestruck air balloon ride of a song.

6. Thundercat (ft. Steve Lacy & Steve Arrington) – “Black Qualls”

Bass virtuoso, session legend and yacht rock crooner Thundercat is finally dropping is third LP this year. And judging by this lead single, it’s going to be funky as fucking hell.

7. Soakie – “Boys On Stage”

The next time you hear a Democratic candidate talk about the value of pragmatism, drown him out with this ferocious neo-riot-grrrl assault.

8. R.A.P. Ferreira – “DOLDRUMS”

The artist formerly known as Milo (and the pride of Biddeford, Maine), raps about getting kicked out of a Wegmans over mesmerizing eddies of piano jazz.

9. Terry Allen & The Panhandle Mystery Band – “Houdini Didn’t Like the Spiritualists”

As outlaw country legend Terry Allen sings wistfully about Harry Houdini’s efforts to expose the hoaxes of spiritual mediums in the 1920s, one can’t help but feel bad for ol’ Harry. Despite his best efforts, cheaters are prospering now more than ever.

10. 070 Shake – “Morrow”

The best part of Kanye West’s uneven 2018 album ye was the Brooklyn vocalist 070 Shake, who took control of an unstable narrative with unique gravitas. “Morrow” underlines her strengths even further, its sinuous new age atmosphere giving her recounting of a breakup the spiritual clarity it deserves.