Friday, November 20, 2015

New Order, "Music Complete"

New Order have released three albums in the past twenty years ("Lost Sirens" doesn't count).  Since breaking up for all intents and purposed circa 1994, their second act takes up more than half of their career, time-wise.  That's incredible to think about, especially considering how prolific they were before that.

What if "Get Ready", "Waiting For the Sirens Call", and "Music Complete" had been the first three albums of some other band's career and had been released over the past five or six years?  Their albums would receive good, but not great reviews from the usual indie publications.  The attention of the ex-LCD Soundsystem demographic would ensure they'd sell out 1500-2000 person venues each time they toured through major cities in the northeast and the large southern US college towns.  Critics would note that any song on any of their albums could be swapped with virtually any song on another one of their albums, and you'd scarcely notice the difference.  They'd never be called "daring" or "adventurous" because of their insistence on sticking to the formula, but even casual fans would admit that it was nice to know exactly what they're getting with each new album.  They'd be getting remixed by the likes of Hot Chip (hmmm ... this is one point where the alternate universe band intersects with the real life New Order).  They'd very likely have plateaued in popularity by their third album, but there are plenty of things worse than building a long term career off of modest but profitable world tours every two years.  Their fourth album might even debut in the top 20 of the Billboard 200.

However, tack those three albums onto the career of a band that hasn't had anything to prove since the 80's and everything is different.  Now it's the story of a band improbably adding to an already incomparable legacy, making quality new music long after they by all rights should have been finished as a creative force.  With each successive long hiatus, the idea that they could return and release anything passable became more and more preposterous, if not laughable.  Band members reconvened, quit, and rejoined, collaborators both strange and wonderful came and went, they appeared to be shifting gears and becoming an touring jukebox churning out "Blue Monday" until the end of time, only to split up or find their way into the studio again depending on mysterious circumstances that we will never completely understand.  Let's face it, at any point during the past twenty years, and most certainly since their big comeback gig at Reading '98, they could have begun their semi-retirement and made a healthy living playing only festivals and never playing a single note of new music.

"Music Complete" shouldn't exist.  And yet here they are, releasing "Restless" as their comeback single.  New Order have perfected the "we're back!" lead-off single during this second phase of their career, gone are the days when they're return with bombshell mindfucks like "Fine Time", now it's all about slipping right back into that old shoe and reminding people in the first thirty seconds that yes, you are listening to a New Order song.  "Regret" is still the gold standard in that regard, and they've tried to rewrite perfection a few times now ("Crystal", "Krafty") but couldn't, and probably never will, but no matter.  "Superheated" has become my favourite New Order album closer since "Leave Me Alone", although non-Killers fans may find it too ... Killers-y.  "Singularity" recalls The Cure circa "Pornography" and might be the most they've sounded like Joy Division since Joy Division, at least for the first minute.  Then it breaks into patented New Order dance rock with a synth hook lifted almost wholesale from "Bizarre Love Triangle".  Somehow it all works.  Based on the title, I expected "Tutti Frutti" to be a charmingly dumb song -- "Rock the Shack II", more or less -- but it turned out to be a dancefloor-ready stomper that ancient bands should have no business dabbling in, but again, New Order have deployed the spirit of "Technique" and it's a formula that still works against all odds and general common sense.  Finally, "Nothing But a Fool" is the album's centrepiece, running nearly eight minutes, featuring the album's best chorus and one of Barney Sumner's few genuinely heartbreaking lyrics in his career.

The narrative is important.  It could have been the steady third album by a band happy to tread water in mid-sized venues, but instead it's the shockingly great tenth album by a band that continues building their remarkable legacy.  

Saturday, November 14, 2015

U2 live at Superbowl XXXVI

U2 have become a very small subplot in the follow up to the attacks in Paris.  They are nearing the end of their tour and their Paris concert was set to be broadcast live on HBO.  Now that show has been cancelled (as have all concerts in the city by orders of the French government) and the band chose to honour the victims by laying flowers outside of the Bataclan.

The pictures of the band paying their respects have been widely circulated, and seem to be touching a nerve with people, in part because U2 have a strange knack for getting entangled in hardships and tragedy taking place in the world.  There's little doubt that they see themselves as a band with a calling beyond the music world, with a duty to mankind to publicize injustices and to aid in the healing process during tough times.  There was Live Aid (1985), the Salman Rushdie dial-ins (early 90's), the concert in Madison Square Garden after 9/11, the appearance at Live 8 (2005), and now the Paris concert, which will surely be rescheduled and draw a far larger viewing audience than it would have had it proceeded as planned.  Finally, there was arguably the most famous concert of their career, at the Superbowl halftime show in 2002.

That show has been praised and ridiculed in equal measure -- a microcosm of the polarizing opinions that U2 have generated for virtually their entire career.  It regularly gets ranked among the best Superbowl halftime shows ever, if not the very best ever, because of its importance as a cathartic moment at the most intrinsically American cultural event only a few short months after the 9/11 attacks.  It gets ridiculed for ... well, mainly for Bono's hokey reveal of the American flag inside his jacket at the end of the show.  And for the "America ... fuck yeah!" jingoism of telling the country that everything will be OK in the context of a football game that means nothing in the life or death grand scheme of things.  And for being U2 by the usual people who don't like U2.  

The truth is, I never really understood the hate.  Like it or not, the halftime show of the post 9/11 SB was going to be an event forced upon some band that would be expected to deliver in the moment.  It wasn't the time or place for a solemn ceremony, but getting on with business as usual wasn't what was needed either.  That middle ground is almost impossibly difficult to inhabit -- acknowledging the events without getting preachy, conveying emotions without getting emotional, projecting dynamism from the stage without falling prey to jock rock tropes.  If not U2, then who?  Which band could hit upon precisely the appropriate tone, on that big a stage, with that size of a viewing audience, with songs that most of the country was familiar with, and accomplish it all in twelve minutes or less?  

Today I watched U2's Superbowl halftime show for the first time in nearly fourteen years.

At the time I could barely focus.  I scarcely believe that the Patriots were not only playing in this game, but had taken a big lead into halftime.  I was at a party with people who were not very emotionally invested in the game, and was in general somewhat distracted in all the usual ways that parties can distract you from what's happening on a TV in the corner of a room.  

And yet, even without having seen the concert since it was aired, I felt I could recall its key moments in vivid detail -- the heart shaped stage, the scrolling names, the setlist, the American flag in Bono's jacket.  Of course there were plenty of small details I missed.  The crowd on the field looked at genuine as Superbowl crowds get.  They were energetic and very very loud.  This was not a crowd of people who were there to look happy on TV.  There was not a single American flag on display as part of the show, with the exception of Bono's jacket.  Simple, classy.  The roll call of names only reached the "C"'s, which actually helped to underscore the scale of the tragedy.  There were absolutely no dancers, special guests, projections (other than the names of 9/11 victims at the end), complex light shows, or anything even remotely frilly or garish.  It was just U2 and their perfectly chosen three song set.  The significance of the second song -- an interlude of "MLK" as the intro to "Where the Streets Have No Name" -- certainly eluded me at the time.  

The backstory is also more complicated than I realized at the time.  Apparently Janet Jackson was originally booked, but pulled out.   U2 originally wanted to put on a much more extravagant show, but those plans were nixed.  It's hard to believe they could done better than they did.  They hit upon all of the proper subtleties that turned their set into one extended poignant tribute without smashing you over the head and declaring "this is a tribute!" like many bands would have.

So it shouln't come as much of a surprise that U2 touched so many people in Paris today without playing a note of music or saying a word.  

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Two number ones: Adele, "Hello"; A-WA, "Habib Galbi"

It was only after getting caught up in the sandstorm of publicity surrounding the release of "Hello" that I learned that "21" has sold thirty one million copies worldwide.  

That's a preposterous number.  Those albums that were fifteen million sellers twenty years ago, which were ubiquitous on the radio and became influential benchmarks that dozens of charting artists would attempt to copy, now sell in the range of five to six million copies.  "Frozen" was the top selling album of 2014 worldwide and a genuine phenomenon if there ever was one.  It sold ten million copies in 2014.  That's an incredible number -- more than the year's top selling album has sold in about a decade.  It was the top selling album in the US in 2014 until the very last week of the year, when it was passed by Taylor Swift's "1989" -- another phenomenon that practically transcended music.  Both sold a little less than four million copies in the US in 2014.  But neither album has sold, or will sell, anything close to THIRTY ONE MILLION COPIES WORLDWIDE.  

So it really isn't hyperbole when Chris Molanphy states that "21" is the "Thriller" of the 2010's.  And likewise, when referring to Adele's carefully orchestrated comeback, Molanphy nails it on the head again when referring to the opening moments and lines in her new video: "Has a first single from a superstar album ever arrived more freighted with persona? Michael? Madonna? Whitney? Amateurs. None of them previewed a predestined blockbuster with a song quite as carefully branded, and instantly successful, as “Hello.”"

Indeed, I can't think of a more successful "comeback" song than this.  A gargantuan breakup ballad with an epic video that is exactly what her fanbase (which is pretty much everyone) would expect her to deliver.  A video that screams "I'm back" in its opening minute -- despite not saying a word.  After a single listen to "Hello" on the day it was released, the chorus was stuck in my head for the next two days.  It dropped and was instantly, and I mean instantly, EVERYWHERE.  People linked to streams on social media.  I heard it in supermarkets and in malls.  It was all over the radio.  There was no steady climb on the charts, no drawn out hype cycle.  The song dropped, and it went mega in the blink of an eye. 

Next week it will assume its spot at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for the first of approximately ten billion weeks.  But you should seriously not be surprised if it breaks "One Sweet Day"'s record.  


Meanwhile, in Israel, an Arabic language song has topped the charts for the first time in the country's history.  Should we be surprised by this?  There have been six non-English language #1 hits in the sixty year history of the Hot 100 despite the presence of a very large non-English speaking minority. However, there has been only one such hit in the past twenty five years -- "Macarena (Bayside Boys Mix)" by Los Del Rio".  No, "Gangnam Style" never made it, it peaked at #2 despite hitting #1 in dozens of other countries, including Israel.  You could probably make an impressive list of other non-English songs that were huge hits but never reached #1, such as Nena's "99 Luftballons".  You could also point to a number of artists who had #1 hits in English but couldn't translate that success into a Spanish language #1 (or even a steady string of Spanish language hits), despite being well known for singing both in Spanish and English.  Shakira and Gloria Estefan are two obvious examples.      

So the lack of an Arabic #1 is unusual, but not altogether shocking.  The most improbable fact about the amazing success of "Habib Galbi" is not that it reached #1 in Israel, but in how it's making waves in other countries.  I first heard about it a few months ago in the context of its surprising success in Arab countries.  More recently, the group has begun a tour in Europe.  English language media may be starting to pay attention.  

The song was produced by Balkan Beat Box singer Tomer Yosef, whose band has been a trailblazer in Israel in fusing Eastern music with modern dance music.  It's really a perfect combination of artist and producer.  And of course "Habib Galbi" is hardly the first song of its style to become a hit in Israel, it's just the first one in Arabic.  So before anyone thinks of complaining about "cultural appropriation" or something, consider that this is absolutely nothing like "Ice Ice Baby" becoming the first ever Rap #1 hit on the US Hot 100.  If white and black people had both been making rap since the very beginning of rap, but had begun rapping in different languages and dialects in more recent years, only to have a white rapper hit #1 in a language that had often been more popular among black artists, then one could possibly draw a trickle of a comparison between the two.

Yes, A-WA are Jewish.  No word on whether they changed their name from "Haim Sisters" after learning about their namesakes from LA.  

Monday, November 02, 2015

"Amy" (dir. Asif Kapadia), "Love and Mercy" (dir. Bill Pohlad)

Long flights are a great chance for catching up on recent movies -- especially music-related ones!

This short commentary about the DVD release of "Amy" gets only one thing right -- the opening "Happy Birthday" scene is indeed the best moment of the film.  In those brief moments, we see a talented girl who loves to sing, no more and no less, it's the purest display of her gifts that we see in the movie.   Everything that follows is about juggling fame (or the need to become famous) with the expression of that talent.  That opening scene is shockingly normal -- it could almost be anyone's extroverted daughter singing -- and it's that normalcy that's been missing from the tabloid-driven Amy Winehouse narrative until now.  However, the movie does not perpetuate a myth in the same way that, for example, Jim Morrison worshippers perpetuate his myth by accentuating the most extreme moments of his life.  For Morrison acolytes, more debauchery is always better.  Any attempt to portray him as a human and not a cartoon character comes via his poetry (his nonsensically moronic poetry, that is).  

"Amy" wants us to desperately view her as a down to earth girl who was corrupted by outside influences, and we're reminded of this constantly through the voiceovers and interviews with family members and childhood friends.  Everything post-2007 felt like a mad dash to a depressing finish, the years of misery and gossip and paparazzi hounding are de-emphasized.  Living through it as a music fan felt like a long, scandalous slog.  Every day brought new and increasingly ridiculous rumours and articles about Winehouse, and those last four years of her life passed very slowly indeed.  But the movie "Amy" wants us to remember her audition for Island executives, sitting on a black couch playing sparse guitar lines and wowing the room with her unique voice and personal charm.  It wants us to picture her recording the song "Back To Black" acapella, not as a misbehaving drug addict but as a Ronnie Bennett superfan with an eccentric taste in hairdos.  The movie indulges in some myth-making by featuring Winehouse's poetry at various points but is careful to stick to the overall story by linking the meaning behind the words to real people and events that are described in the film.

The movie even glossed over the role that Winehouse's parents played in her career.  Their divorce, their manipulating influence on their daughter, their frequent post-death cash-ins (dueling biographies and other conveniently available merch) are almost totally ignored, such is the director's dedication to keeping mud-slinging and finger-pointing out of his film.  Even Winehouse's ex-husband gets off easy.  In these cases I saw red flags because you'd expect this documentary to at least attempt to provide some answers, but it's simply not willing to go down that route.  


"Love and Mercy" tells two halves of a story in two very different ways.  This was intentional on the part of the filmmakers, who could have picked one actor to play Brian Wilson in both time frames but instead chose to highlight the contrast between the dynamic but confused Wilson of the 60's and the just plain confused Wilson of the 80's.  The scenes set in the 60's are time machine-like in their accuracy and vividness, and Paul Dano convincingly transforms himself into Wilson right down to his voice and piano playing. A special mention also goes to Jake Abel for absolutely nailing the essence of Mike Love, including his on-stage mannerisms.  I can't think of another movie that puts this much emphasis on the action inside a recording studio, often eschewing even dialogue in favour of letting ostensibly tedious (in real life) recording sessions carry the story.  

Paul Giamatti is terrifying as Dr. Eugene Landy, easily the most despised and yet mysterious character in the greater Beach Boys story.  Supposedly the real person was even more over the top, I figure they had to scale him back for the movie lest nobody believe that this vile human being was a real person.  The most glaring weakness lies with John Cusack's performance, which is too close to the socially awkward characters he has played in many other movies.  I couldn't buy the realism of his performance at all -- I could only see John Cusack playing John Cusack in a John Cusack movie, and couldn't reconcile that person with the mentally ill musical genius he was supposed to be portraying.