Monday, November 23, 2015

Ryan Adams Deconstructs Taylor Swift

Until Adele stepped up to the plate this week to save the nation's record industry, it had been propped up for the past year - just beyond life support - by the near omnipresent Taylor Swift.  Her record "1989" sold more copies than any other in 2014, and was probably primed to do the same this year until Adele came storming back into our lives.  Sometimes it seemed like every A-list star in the rock and pop made an appearance with Taylor during her tour this year, up to and including Mick Jagger.  That may be a slight overstatement, but all I know for certain is that there was rarely a week when she didn't pop up in Rolling Stone's "Random Notes" section.  Without question, the most successful country crossover star of the decade, if not of all time.

But make no bones about it, "1989" was about as far from being a country album as one could possibly imagine.  It is a pop album plain and simple, not all that far away (save for a handful of questionable tunes) from being one of the pop masterpieces of our time.  And yes, while there is little  doubt some point in the past year that you found yourself growing sick to the stomach of "Bad Blood" (or the endless speculation about what meaningless celebrity interaction led to the song in the first place), but it was one of the most effective earworms of the year - once you heard it, it was going to be there all day long.

So enter Ryan Adams, who I've always had a bit of trouble categorizing.  His Wikipedia page offers little in the way of hints, but does call his former band "alternative country," which I suppose is close enough.  He's been releasing albums, both solo and with his various bands, since the turn of the century, but he's never quite hit the big time (when queried about their knowledge of his work, nearly all of my colleagues responding with some variation of "Bryan Adams?  The guy who sang "Summer of '69?"  Well no, and there's a great story about that, but we don't really have time...).  Almost perfectly fits the bill of what Christgau (who is not a big fan) might call "the semi-popular artist."

So what to make of Ryan Adams deciding to record "1989," song for song, but in...well, Ryan Adams style?   Well, if it weren't for the "Hamilton" soundtrack, I'd say that it's unquestionably the conceptual masterpiece of the year, not to mention something that I've never heard happening before.  Perhaps it has, but I've bought a LOT of records and CDs in my time, and I can't think of a similar instance.

So let's give Adams an A+ for the concept.  How is the execution?

Without question, it works.  And it's unquestionably fun to compare his and Taylor's approaches to the album's monster hits.  Adams turns "Blank Space" into a tender acoustic ballad, he turns "Style" (unfortunately, in my view) into what I'd call a grinding rocker, and "Shake It Off" is (natch) slowed down a bit.  It is on "Bad Blood" where he is most successful, with a version that for me rescues the song from the bombast of the original production and the crushing publicity that surrounded it.

"Bad Blood," Taylor Swift (featuring in this version, Kendrick Lamar)

"Bad Blood," Ryan Adams

It's really on the songs that on Taylor's album sounded like lesser lights where Adams shines the most - I'm thinking in particular of "I Wish You Would," "Wildest Dreams" and "I Know Places" in particular.  The urge to compare with those tunes is not quite so overwhelming, but at the same time they may provide a means by which to better appreciate the originals.

But to these ears, the album's definitive masterpieces are "Out of the Woods" and "All You Had to Do Was Stay."  On both, you can hear the Swift versions at the periphery, but at the same time the arrangements are all Adams.

"Out of the Woods"

Overall, the whole thing is a hoot.  I love the idea, and the execution is strong enough that I've got no problem at all giving it my thumbs up.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

"The Ghost of Tom Joad" Turns Twenty

Bruce Springsteen released "The Ghost of Tom Joad" twenty years ago this week, two days before Thanksgiving and without much in the way of fanfare or marketing.

It's a quiet record, and for the most part gets left out of the discussion when the subject turns to Bruce's greatest work.  Few mention it in the same breath as "Nebraska," its acoustic counterpart in the Springsteen catalog.  But like "Nebraska," "Tom Joad" is an overtly political record, reflective of the time it was released.

In the mid-nineties, Bruce was still living in California, and I've often thought that "California" could have served as an appropriate title for the album.  For many years now California has been the bluest of the nation's blue states, but back in the mid-nineties it wasn't that way.  The state had a Republican governor (Pete Wilson), albeit a relatively moderate one.  And in an election that seems almost incredible today, in November 1994 the Republican party actually captured a majority in the 80-member State Assembly.  This began an assault on affirmative action in the state that would culminate in 1996 with the passage of Proposition 209, which amended the state constitution to prohibit the consideration of race, sex or ethnicity in decisions affecting public employment, public contracting and public education. 

Although "Tom Joad" doesn't specifically address those issues, it's fair to say that the album as a whole is a response to the political atmosphere of the time - songs that depict a land of little opportunity, one rife with enormous gaps between those with and those without.  One standout is "Balboa Park:"

He lay his blanket underneath the freeway
As the evening sky grew dark
Took a sniff of toncho from his coke can
And headed through Balboa Park
Where the men in their Mercedes
Come nightly to employ
In the cool San Diego evening
The services of the border boys

He grew up near the Zona Norte
With the hustlers and smugglers he hung out with
He swallowed their balloons of cocaine
Brought 'em across the Twelfth Street strip
Sleeping in a shelter
If the night got too cold
Runnin' from the migra
Of the border patrol

In the words of Mikal Gilmore,
"It's a record about people who do not abide by life's ruins; it's a collection of dark tales about dark men who are cut off from the purposes of their own hearts and the prospects of their own lives. On this album almost none of the characters get out with both their bodies and spirits intact, and the few who do are usually left with only frightful desolate prayers as their solace."
And yet, there remains hope that in this country, people will find their land of hope and dreams.  In "Across the Border," Bruce closes the almost achingly beautiful song with these lines:

For what are we
Without hope in our hearts
That someday we'll drink from God's blessed waters

And eat the fruit from the vine
I know love and fortune will be mine
Somewhere across the border

For me, what sets "Tom Joad" apart from "Nebraska" is in the power and beauty of its music. These are not tunes that are going to get you tapping your foot or looking for the closest dance floor, but they reward the patient listener with a soundscape that is perfectly appropriate for the tales that are being told.

It's a great album - an album well worth saluting on the occasion of its 20th anniversary.

Saturday, November 14, 2015


First things first - Spectre is a very good James Bond movie, and if it ends up being the last film featuring Daniel Craig as Bond, it's a fine way to go out.

But it's not Skyfall.  And lest there be any confusion, I should say from the outset that not only did I think Skyfall was a great James Bond film - perhaps the best ever - but a great film, period.  When I put together a list of my top ten films of the past decade a year or so ago, Skyfall was on it.  And while Spectre may grow on me upon subsequent viewings, I don't see it making an appearance on any similar upcoming lists.

In tone and structure, Spectre is similar to its immediate predecessor, but even darker - both in content of story and the palette of color used by Director Sam Mendes and Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema.  If anything, the film is too dark, lacking a sequence with the boldness of the images and colors seen in both the Shanghai and Macau sequences of Skyfall.  Even the outdoor, lighter setpieces - the opening sequence in Mexico City and the later scenes in the desert lair of Blofeld - are dominated by beige tones.

Mendes and his scenarists clearly wanted to create works that lent the Bond canon a sense of epic drama.  There are moments of humor in Spectre, mostly thanks to Craig's expressions and the droll nerdness of Ben Whishaw as Q, but for the most part this is deadly serious stuff.  One can debate the wisdom of trying to use this film as a framing device for the three Craig/Bond movies that preceded it - personally, I doubt the plot details of each film transposed with this one would stand up to scrutiny, but I'm willing to suspend my disbelief - but it's evident that Mendes and crew were after bigger game with this one.  Whether they actually hit it or not is in question, and in one sense, the result is that the story being told in Spectre feels unfinished, as if it were the middle movie of a trilogy.

The movie also suffers greatly from the absence of Judi Dench as M.  There's nothing wrong with Ralph Fiennes' performance, but what Dench brought to the role (in the very different sets of Brosnan and Craig Bond films) is very clear now that she's no longer there.  Spectre tries to generate the same kind of M/Bond tension as its predecessors, but the dynamic falls short of what Dench was able to achieve in a series of performances that now feel almost like atonement for five decades of "Bond Girls."

But no James Bond film would be complete without Bond Girls, and Spectre is no exception.  Monica Belluci isn't in the film long enough to make much of an impression, and Naomie Harris' Moneypenny is completely wasted this time around - she basically has nothing to do.  Fortunately, after an hour or so we are treated to the appearance of Lea Seydoux, who can rightly take a spot as one of the greatest Bond Girls ever.  Her Madeline Swann is no wallflower, and no bimbo - she is clearly the equal of James Bond at every turn, and Seydoux and Craig generate quite a bit of chemistry in their scenes together - particularly in one scene on a train, when for a brief moment Seydoux actually brought to mind the luminous Grace Kelly (and there can be no higher praise from me).

A great Bond film also rests on the success of its villains, and unfortunately this is another area where Spectre falls slightly flat.  Dave Bautista proved in Guardians of the Galaxy (not to mention the WWE) that he can bring a sense of humor to an purely action-oriented role, but you'll see nothing like that from him in this one.  It's not his fault; apparently, he was brought on board simply to be a big, strong guy who can kill people with his bare hands and drive a fast car very well (but not well enough to catch James Bond).   And Christoph Waltz, whose Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds was only one of the greatest villains in the history of cinema, falls almost completely flat as the mastermind behind Spectre, and "the architect of all of James Bond's pain."  I wouldn't have thought it was possible, but the character and the performance almost verges on boring.

With all of these complaints, it probably sounds like I hated the movie, but that isn't the case.  As a director, Sam Mendes brings an incredible sense of style to every project he works on, and even though his being tabbed to helm two James Bond films once seemed like a stunt, I now hope he decides to do another.  There are little visual feasts in nearly every segment of the movie (notwithstanding my earlier complaint about lack of color), and even though the story is at times muddled, the narrative never fails to move forward with pace and even panache.

Other good things?  Andrew Scott, who has done so well as Moriarty in the Cumberbatch/Freeman "Sherlock" series, is excellent as the auxiliary villain, and the rapport between M, Tanner and Q as they struggle to keep themselves relevant is never less than entertaining (and at times much more than that).  And, hey - you can say that Daniel Craig wears a suit better than just about any man on the planet, but what he has brought to the role of James Bond has really been equaled only by the originator of the role, the legendary Sean Connery.  And that's fine company to be in.  Whatever it takes to be James Bond, he's definitely got it.

So - at the end of the day probably not a classic, but still worth your time and money.