Saturday, February 22, 2014

Rosanne Cash's Southern Journey

Regular readers of this blog (all 8 of you) should know that Rosanne Cash, along with a handful of others, is someone I consider a "pantheon artist."  While I wouldn't make the claim that her musical accomplishments match those of her legendary father, we've reached the point of her career where such a suggestion can't be dismissed out of hand.

Cash has been making albums now for 35 years, and during that span of time she's released at least three albums that I would consider classics: King's Record Shop (1987), Interiors (1990) and Black Cadillac (2006).  "Classic" is probably an insufficient term; one can easily make an argument for each of those records being a masterpiece.  She's released several others that are "merely great," and on top of all that she recorded one of the singular singles of my lifetime, "Seven Year Ache" - a song that sounds as fresh and vital on hearing it for the 1000th time as it did on the first.

It's been more than a month now since the release of The River & The Thread, and the reason I haven't written about it until now is that I really wanted to give some thought to where it falls within her catalog.  There was no question, upon first listen, that this was a great album.  But just how great?  I've fallen prey in the past - particularly with artists that I am inclined to love - of initially overrating an album, and so I wanted to give this one some time to sink in.

After a month of regular listening, I'm prepared to say that The River & The Thread is the fourth classic album of Rosanne Cash's career, and her second (at least) masterpiece.  Yes, it is that good.  Thematically and musically unified, featuring some of her best lyrics, and what is almost certainly the best production work that John Leventhal has ever done.

Let's start with the production.  I've criticized Leventhal in the past for being a little too fussy with his production, for adding one too many instruments to the mix when perhaps one fewer was more in order.  Looking back, I think I was spoiled by the approach that Rodney Crowell took with Rosanne earlier in her career.  Back in the 1980s, she was about breaking barriers - you could call her a country artist with credibility, but Crowell's hard-edged production (with its big drum sound) demonstrated that she could sing just about anything with authority, up to and including raving John Hiatt rockers like "Pink Bedroom."  In contrast, I felt like Leventhal's production on solid efforts like The Wheel and Rules of Travel sometimes got in the way of the songs, resulting in a mix that - while still strong, don't get me wrong - was less than the sum of its parts.

The turning point was Black Cadillac, which divided the production duties in half, with Bill Bottrell handling the odd-numbered tracks, and Leventhal the even.  Bottrell took Cash back closer to a straightforward rock approach (even though the songs were mostly quiet and soft in tone), and Leventhal had no choice but to really follow suit, to avoid an end result that sounded like two different artists (the bane of so many multi-producer efforts).   The approach on River & Thread is spare and direct, even though on several songs Leventhal can be heard playing several different instruments.  None of these songs are outright rockers (and if I have a minor quibble, that would be it), but the approach is definitely "rockist."

And the songs - well, there is just no questioning that this may be the strongest and most consistent set of songs that Cash has ever recorded for an album.  As I've mentioned before, the music always hits me before the lyrics, but it is worth taking the time to listen carefully to these songs, and to read Cash's commentary on each of them in the liner notes.  These are stories she is trying to tell here, and to fully understand and appreciate them takes time.  From the absorption of history through following a meandering river, to the whole concept of "you have to love the thread" ("A Feather's Not A Bird") from the family histories ("The Sunken Lands," "Etta's Tune") to the deep, rich and sometimes tragic history of the South ("Money Road," "50,000 Watts," "The Long Way Home"), this is an album that knows exactly what it wants to accomplish, and it comes through every time.

It all comes together in "When the Master Calls the Roll," a collaboration between Cash, her  husband Leventhal, and her former husband Crowell.  It is a magnificent, heartbreaking song, written and sung in the style of a Civil War ballad.  It tells the story of William and Mary Ann, who from the first chords of the song we know are in love, but also that their love is doomed - that their time together will not survive the carnage of the battlefield.  It's also beautiful and, more importantly, timeless - one can picture the song being sung shortly after the war's end, by a young (or old) Bob Dylan, or by someone who has yet to be be born.  The story is strong enough to cross generations.

About that song, Rosanne writes in the liner notes that "the fact that John, Rodney and I wrote this together is tremendous gift."  One could say the same thing about the entirety of The River & The Thread - it is a tremendous gift, and even though we are only two months in to 2014, it is clearly the album to beat for Album of the Year.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Speed of lightning, roar of thunder...

If you've watched any of the Olympics (or any other recent sporting event, for that matter), then you've probably seen the Reebok commercial that I've embedded below.  The first time I saw (more accurately, heard) it, it immediately grabbed my attention, because I knew I'd heard that song somewhere.

Along with the Adam West "Batman," "Underdog" was probably my favorite TV show when I was in the 6-8 range.  Voiced by Wally Cox, Underdog would battle the forces of evil each week, usually saving his friend, Sweet Polly Purebread, in the process.  They really don't make 'em like that anymore.  And they certainly don't write theme songs like that anymore.

The Reebok commercial:

And the opening of Underdog:

Now...good luck getting the song out of your head for the rest of the day.

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Wells Report

Not the Valentine's Day gift the NFL was expecting, I'm sure.

The stark, even somewhat benign title - REPORT TO THE NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE CONCERNING ISSUES OF WORKPLACE CONDUCT AT THE MIAMI DOLPHINS - gives no indication of the report's contents.  But it's probably fair to say that most objective people - whether they are a sports fan or not - will be appalled and disgusted by what they are reading no later than by Page 9, which details the text messages sent to Jonathan Martin by his teammates Richie Incognito, John Jerry and Mike Pouncey.

There will be a powerful counter-attack, which in fact has already started on Twitter.  Some will say, as in a Tweet directed this morning at Peter King, that this will contribute to the "pussification" of America.  In all likelihood, the type of person who would write something like that is the type of person who would spit on an injured player as they were being taken off the field.  As far as I'm concerned, their arguments are easily discounted.  Even in a sport that sometimes seems inhuman, there is room for humanity.  And there is a big difference between what might be called good natured trash talking between friends and teammates, and the abuse that was heaped on Jonathan Martin.

While I've yet to read every word of the report, what I have read (a substantial portion) seems eminently fair and reasonable.  It goes so far as to state that things might have ended differently for all involved, had Martin reported the abuse earlier:

“At the same time, we strongly believe that if Martin had reported the harassment to a coach or front office executive (or even his agent), the team may have been able to address his issues before it was too late. There is no question that the better course of action would have been for Martin to report the abuse. We also agree with the view, expressed by many of Martin’s teammates, that it would have been preferable for Martin’s grievances to be handled inside the Dolphins organization rather than played out in the national news media.”

But one need go only as far as the Executive Summary to get to the heart of the matter:

"In short, the treatment of Martin and others in the Miami Dolphins organization at times was offensive and unacceptable in any environment, including the world professional football players inhabit. A young football player who has the skills to play at the highest level, and who also happens to be quiet and reserved, should have the opportunity to pursue a career in the NFL without being subjected to harassment from his teammates."

And for those who might question Martin's "manhood," the report states:

"Further, Martin's vulnerabilities do not excuse the harassment that was directed at him. That the same taunts might have bounced off a different person is beside the point. Bullies often pick vulnerable victims, but this makes their conduct more, not less, objectionable."

And in one of the most important passages of the Executive Summary, the report acknowledges that context is important:

"We also understand that context matters.  We accept that the communications of young, brash, highly competitive football players often are vulgar and aggressive, and that these players never expected their private communications with each other to be made public.  We did not approach this assignment expecting to discover behavior that society might anticipate in, say, an accounting firm or a law office.  For better or worse, profanity is an accepted fact of life in competitive sports, and professional athletes commonly indulge in conduct inappropriate in other social settings.  We also recognize that good-spirited goading often contributes to team bonding.

"But limits should exist.  Even viewed in context, some of the behavior and language discussed in this Report is inappropriate by any reasonable measure of conduct becoming of a professional athlete - and, based on what he reported, certainly was offensive to Martin."

As much as anyone else, I want the NFL to continue its unprecedented run of success.  I want to be watching football until my dying days, and the thing is, I think most of the young players get what is happening here.  Just like the players at the University of Missouri got that all that really mattered in the case of Michael Sam was whether the guy could play football.  Whether the NFL brass - the league office, the owners, the personnel men (many of whom seem to be stuck in a bygone era that has long past) - get it...well, we'll just have to wait and see.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Lee Daniels' The Butler

If it can be said that a movie is a success but also a squandered opportunity, then Lee Daniels' "The Butler" fits the bill perfectly. It is, undeniably, a powerful movie - one with more than a few sublime moments. But at the end of the day, it also feels like less than the sum of its parts. Had it spent just a little more time on some of its segments while dropping others, it could well have been a masterpiece. It is the rare movie that tries to do too much, but feels as if it should have been longer.

The "inspired by a true story" (we'll come back to that later) focuses on the life of Cecil Gaines, who through a series of tragic (and later, opportunistic) circumstances, makes the journey from field hand to head butler on the White House staff, serving under seven Presidents along the way.  Cecil and his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey, in a very strong, somewhat surprising performance) raise two sons, one of whom, Louis, leaves home to attend Fisk University in Tennessee, where he manages to either witness or become a part of what seems to be every major development that marked the civil rights struggles, accomplishments and tragedies of the 1960s.

As the movie progresses, we observe the parallel tracks of progress being made by Cecil and Louis - the former being made within the confines of accepted (white) society, the latter coming on the front lines of an essential but life-threatening conflict that amounts to no less than a battle between the forces of good and evil.  The movie juxtaposes the parallel tracks to strong effect, but after a while it becomes a bit too much - and the Forrest Gump-like propensity of Louis to be present during so many landmarks of history strains credulity.  I understand and appreciate what the filmmakers were trying to do, but after a while I was reminded of what Roger Ebert once wrote about "Titanic," when he said that there were so many real stories among those on the ill-fated liner, he couldn't understand why James Cameron had felt compelled to make one up.

And the thing is, the movie gets so many things right, from the horror of Cecil's early years, to the detail of his work within the White House, but most of all the scenes in the Gaines family's small but welcoming home. You witness the interaction between the members of the family, the dinners and parties with their small circle of friends, and the contrast between Cecil's work life - where he is a leader - and home, where wife Gloria quite clearly "rules the roost" - and it all feels absolutely real, even vital.

This is driven home in two short but effective scenes.  In the first, Louis and his girlfriend pay a surprise visit to Cecil and Gloria's home, and after a while Gloria turns on the girlfriend like a Grizzly might turn on someone threatening her cubs.  The sheer ferocity in that scene, from Gloria's intolerance of disrespect to her aggressive response to an activism that she might be interpreting (at least in the case of the girlfriend) as a pose, makes one wonder what might have happened had Winfrey decided to act over the course of the past two decades instead of building a multimedia empire.  The second scene is even briefer, a short discussion between Louis and his brother, that just nails perfectly the relationship between brothers.  Although the love and respect they have for each other is obvious, it's also clear that deep down, each harbors a small notion that the other is a bit of an idiot.

Overall, the performances should be divided into two categories: those portraying a President, and everyone else.  Let's focus on the latter, and far more important category.  Suffice to say, everyone is outstanding, to the point of being great - Whitaker, Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Colman Domingo, James Owoyele, and several others.  They all bring their A-games to the enterprise, even those in the smaller roles.  As for the Presidents, I don't know what to say except that it all feels like stunt-casting.  Let's just say that I sure would like to have been in the room when the discussion turned to casting Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan.  But even those actors are all seasoned pros, and their presence doesn't pull the movie down too much.

Would this material have benefited from the mini-series format?  I think so.  Could the movie have been constructed in a way that used real figures from the Civil Rights movement to drive home the same points made by the juxtaposition between Cecil and Louis?  Again, I think so.  But that's not the movie we got - and while the one we did get feels as if it could be even stronger, it is still well worth seeing.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Jay Leno

I had to go back into the archive to see if I'd written anything about the last time Jay Leno bid farewell to The Tonight Show, and it turns out I did not.  So, a few words seem to be in order.

I've always liked Jay Leno, and there was a time when I thought he was the best stand-up comedian around.  But I was never a huge fan of his Tonight Show, because he never really seemed to develop a knack for bringing out the best in his guests, and because he spent such an inordinate amount of time on "silly stuff" like filmed videos and the like.  The one exception was "Headlines," which nearly always made me laugh - to the point where I'd want to write at least a couple of them down to share the following morning.

The botched situation in 2009-10 between Leno and Conan O'Brien will probably always be a black spot on his resume, but looking at it now the blame seems much better assigned to NBC then it does to Leno.  They a) made a very successful Leno leave before he wanted to, b) failed to provide O'Brien with the support and time needed to develop his own version of the show, c) compounded the problem by bringing Leno back to do what was essentially "The Tonight Show" at 10 p.m., creating a situation where what ultimately happened was inevitable - both shows failed, and NBC decided that it needed Leno on board more than it needed Conan.  So yeah, NBC really screwed the pooch on that one, but I'm not sure that Conan's bitterness towards Leno (which still seems to be there, based on his joke last night - a funny joke, I might add) is properly directed.  Leno still wanted to work and NBC wanted the best of both worlds by keeping him, and I'm not sure Leno "owed" Conan anything.  Whatever; it doesn't really matter now.  Everybody involved made a lot of money, and did pretty well for themselves.

So now the questions become - how long will it be before Jay makes an appearance on Dave's show?  I predict it will happen within the next three months.  Will Jimmy Fallon succeed where Conan O'Brien could not?  I predict he will.  Fallon's show is currently my favorite of the late night offerings, mostly because he - almost alone among his contemporaries - seems to actually have fun at work.  And that makes all the difference.

But Jay deserves a fond farewell - he clearly could have kept going; his show was successful and his work ethic never wavered.  For what he's done (and clearly he's not done yet), he deserves a spot in the modern comedy pantheon.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Just Like the Old Days

So let's see...the last time there was a Super Bowl with as little drama as this one?  That would be January of 2003, Raiders vs. Buccaneers, two jobs ago, two kids still at home, jeez...even two cats ago.  OK, you get the idea - we've been spoiled with an era of competitive Super Bowls that had never happened before, and may never happen again.  Sigh.

Tonight's game was about as thorough an ass-whipping as we've seen in any game between two good teams in quite a while.  And unlike some, it was pretty evident from the first play of the game.  Denver played scared and as if they were unprepared, and Seattle was sharp, hitting hard, and clearly the best team on the field.  If it weren't for some uncharacteristic Pete Carroll conservatism (4th and a foot, and you don't go for it when you have Marshawn Lynch in the backfield?) and some early Russell Wilson jitters, it could have been worse.  

So now the talk of dynasty begins.  We shall see.  Football in the 21st century is a little different than what us old timers became accustomed to back in the dark ages of the 70s and 80s.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

January Flix

In roughly reverse chronological order, the movies watched in January on Netflix:

Hyde Park on Hudson.  An interesting, fun movie when it focused on the relationship between FDR and the King and Queen, not so interesting when the focus was on his complicated relationships with the women in his life.  And Daisy had to be more interesting in real life than Laura Linney made her seem.

Blue Jasmine.  Very good, but I wouldn't put it in the category of top-tier Woody Allen.  And setting the movie in San Francisco was a waste, unless he was trying to make the point that the city by the bay can't match New York City in sophistication.  Both Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins deserved their Oscar nominations, but the men were pretty good too (Andrew Dice Clay!? Who would've thunk it?) - although they didn't seem like any San Francisco dweller I've ever met.

No Direction Home.  Very well made Scorsese biopic of Dylan, beginning with his earliest days and ending with the first time in his long career that he disappointed his more conservative fans by trying something new - going electric, in this case.  The clips of angry fans from his famous 1966 tour of England alone are worth the price of admission.  And kudos to Scorsese for coaxing Dylan into sounding very comprehensible.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi.  Really interesting documentary focusing on Jiro, an 85-year old master sushi chef and owner of a 3-star Michelin restaurant with 10 seats, where reservations are made months in advance and the meals cost $300 a plate.  The sections of the film about the restaurant and how the fish is selected and prepared are interesting enough, but there's also quite a bit of meaty material about Jiro's relationship with his sons and the honor of working hard every day of one's life.

Ordinary People.  I've written about this before, and don't really have anything more to add.  Just wanted to catch it once before it cycled off of Netflix streaming at the end of the month.

Jack Reacher.  OK, so Tom Cruise isn't anywhere close to 6'5", but he still manages to be a credible Reacher.  No matter what one thinks of him, it's hard to argue with his ability to produce and star in well-made if mostly unspectacular genre exercises.

The Place Beyond the Pines.  Probably wins the title for the most misleading trailer of the year, but I'd read enough about it to know that it was essentially two movies in one, with the Ryan Gosling character featured at the beginning and the Bradley Cooper character starring in the second half.  Although it's a bit of a narrative mess, it's also very clear that Derek Cianfrance knows how to make a movie, and even in its most melodramatic moments, it's well worth watching.

Much Ado About Nothing.  I probably need to see this again, because the night we watched it I was having a little trouble staying awake (old man's disease), but what I did see I enjoyed a great deal.  With me and Shakespeare, it's always the same - up until a certain point I have trouble understanding the dialogue, and then all of a sudden everything clicks into place.

Blackfish.  Sad and sometimes haunting documentary about the treatment of Orcas at SeaWorld and other, similar parks, with a focus on one particular Orca with a tragic history.  Nothing spectacular in the film-making, but it achieves effectively what it sets out to do.

Zoolander.  A tad uneven, like most Ben Stiller comedies, but pretty damn funny throughout, with more than its share of laugh out loud scenes.

To the Wonder.  In a cruel twist of fate, the HD on Streaming was not working well the night we watched this, and the cinematography is really the only reason to see it.  I get that Terence Malick is a visual genius and all that, but this was practically unwatchable, unless you made fun of it a la Rocky Horror or Mystery Science Theater 3000.  But it had its fans, most notably Roger Ebert.

Shame.  The first Steve McQueen-directed movie I've seen, and even with the massively depressing storyline, it's easy to see that McQueen is well on his way to becoming a master.  Kudos also to Michael Fassbender, who in what could have been an entirely thankless role, turns a sad and somewhat disturbed man into someone who feels real.

Super Prediction

If I believe that Seattle and San Francisco were the two best teams in the league, then it follows that I should pick the Seahawks to win the big one, right?

Of course, there's also that little matter of Peyton Manning, in what could be his last, best chance at the "greatest of all time" title.  I can't think of any other reason that the Broncos would be favored in this game.  Great defenses beat great offenses most of the time, and the Seahawks had the more difficult schedule.  Even with all that, it's hard to pick against Peyton.

But even though I'll be rooting for the Broncos, that's exactly what I'm going to do.  Seattle 23, Denver 20.