Saturday, July 23, 2016

"Hotel California," Eagles (1976)

I remember exactly what I was doing the night I bought Hotel California.  It was in December 1976, probably about a week after the album was released.  I’d gotten my driver’s license on the day before Thanksgiving, and if memory serves, that December night was one of the first times I’d driven the family car (1972 Chevrolet Kingswood Estate Station Wagon – a classic!) by myself.  My eventual destination was a meeting at the McDonald’s where I worked, a monthly meeting where the crew was invited to come in and air grievances (on a confidential basis) with the store manager – a meeting with the unlikely name of “crew rap.”  But on the way, I couldn’t resist a trip to Tower Records, where I picked up the album.  I can remember one of my crewmates, seeing the Tower Records bag, asking me what I’d bought, and being less than impressed when I showed her – or at least that was my impression.

Things like this are impossible to predict, but in retrospect it was probably inevitable that Hotel California would be a blockbuster.  Thanks to their Greatest Hits album, the Eagles had been riding high on the charts for well over a year, and given how long the new album was taking to record, one couldn’t help but think that they were determined to erase the perception that they were a singles band.  A great singles band, mind you, but a singles band nonetheless.  Guitarist Bernie Leadon was gone, and Joe Walsh was now an Eagle –I clearly remember most of my friends wondering how that was going to work.  But with the potential of a triple-electric guitar attack on the songs where Frey was playing the instrument, the stage was certainly set for a new kind of Eagles.

“…We knew we were heading down a long and twisted corridor and just stayed with it.  Songs from the dark side – the Eagles take a look at the seamy underbelly of L.A. – the flip side of fame and failure, love and money.” – Glenn Frey

Frey is spot on about the darkness; it certainly isn’t a fun album.  There are times when I respect Hotel California a lot more than I actively enjoy it, and there are also times when I wonder if what the Eagles were really doing on the record was celebrating the darkness and the decadence that ultimately brought them down – wallowing in it, even.  As a humanistic commentary of the times, this verse from “Life in the Fast Lane”…

They knew all the right people, they took all the right pills
They threw outrageous parties, they paid heavenly bills
There were lines on the mirror, lines on her face
She pretended not to notice, she was caught up in the race

…certainly doesn’t hold a candle to Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty,” released about a year later:

Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels
I don’t know how to tell you all just how crazy this life feels
Look around for the friends that I used to turn to, to pull me through
Looking into their eyes I see them running too

But there’s no questioning that the album is a musical triumph, particularly the songs with Don Henley singing lead.  By Hotel California he had clearly usurped the late Glenn Frey as the band’s strongest artistic force, and the qualitative difference in their work is never clearer than when listening to the album’s first two cuts – the title cut, which justifiably holds a place in the pantheon of classic Seventies songs, and “New Kid in Town,” a pleasant Frey ditty that never threatens to be anything more than that.  Also on Side One are the aforementioned “Life in the Fast Lane,” which if nothing else sounds really good when turned up loud in the car, and “Wasted Time,” a great song (and vocal from Henley), even if Frey’s description of it (in the liner notes for The Very Best of Eagles) as a “Philly-soul torch song…something like Thom Bell” are somewhat inexplicable.  The strongest songs on Side Two – “Victim of Love” and “The Last Resort” – are also Henley’s, although the contributions from Joe Walsh (“Pretty Maids All in a Row”) and Randy Meisner (“Try and Love Again”) aren’t bad (even if they feel somewhat out of place).

Given the quality of the album and the massive commercial success it enjoyed, it may seem strange that Hotel California didn’t even make a dent in the Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll.  Strange, that is, until you take into consideration that the Eagles were arrogant assholes (which they generally admitted as they grew older) who delighted in making fun of rock critics and rock criticism, and disparaging the type of music (Punk, New Wave) that was especially attractive to the critics of that time.  At one point, they even got into a ridiculous feud with Rolling Stone Magazine, which was “resolved” in a softball game in the Spring of 1978 (a game won easily by the Eagles’ team).  Thus, it seems likely that the band’s poor critical standing was at least in part due to the heap of scorn the band had dumped for years on the critical establishment.  Be that as it may, there’s no doubt that there are few albums in history that tell the story of their times as well as Hotel California does.  If you want to know what 1977 felt like, just listen to Hotel California.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Cars (1978)

My introduction to The Cars came during a late Summer concert in August 1978, when they were the opening act on a concert bill that also included Thin Lizzy, Journey, and the Marshall Tucker Band (wrap your head around that combination for a moment).  It’s a safe bet that no one was there that day to see The Cars (and I admit, I was there to see Journey), so it wasn’t as if you could hear much of what they were singing and playing.  But I liked the few snippets that did slip through the aural haze, and put their debut album on my mental list of records to buy.

1978 may have been the height of what came to be called “New Wave,” but The Cars is a difficult record to classify.  I wouldn’t argue too strongly with the New Wave moniker, but there’s also an art-rock element (the band’s producer, Roy Thomas Baker, also manned the boards for Queen, among others) and it’s not much of a stretch just to call them a fairly straightforward rock band.  The tag line they used in the advertising for their debut, “Top down music for a hard top world,” fits as well as anything else you could come up with.

With the benefit of almost three decades to give it some thought, I’m not entirely sure that their debut record is The Cars’ best (one could also make an argument for “Heartbeat City,” and although I’m in the minority I was always a big fan of “Panorama”), but there’s little doubt that Side 1 of the debut is the strongest side they ever produced.  “Good Times Roll” gets things off to a strong start, but is quickly eclipsed by the twin masterpieces, “My Best Friend’s Girl” and “Just What I Needed.”  After a glimpse of just how odd the band could sound with “I’m in Touch With Your World,” the side closes out with one of their fastest songs, “Don’t Cha Stop.”

It’s on Side Two that the band explores their arty side a bit more, particularly on the album’s closers, “Moving in Stereo” and “All Mixed Up.”  But even then, there’s much more of a propulsive beat than you would normally hear from what might normally be classified as an art-band.

It’s also worth noting that Ric Ocasek, the main auteur behind the group, may have been the least likely looking rock star of that (or any) era – although that didn’t stop him from landing Paulina Porizkova).  But the band also had its teen heartthrob, in the form of the late Benjamin Orr.  The two traded lead vocals, and even today it’s difficult (at least for me) to tell the two apart.

Christgau: B+.  “Ric Ocasek writes catchy, hardheaded-to-coldhearted songs eased by wryly rhapsodic touches, the playing is tight and tough, and it all sounds wonderful on the radio.  But though on a cut-by-cut basis Roy Thomas Baker’s production adds as much as it distracts, here’s hoping the records get rawer.  That accentuated detachment may feel like a Roxy Music move in the first flush of studio infatuation, but schlock it up a little and this band really turn into an American Queen.”

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Better late than never: ranking the Oscar films

With last weekend’s viewing of “The Revenant,” I’m completely caught up (at long last) with last year’s Oscar nominees for Best Picture.  This is the post where I (perhaps foolishly) rank the films, but at the outset I have to say that I really did like all of them – as different as they were.

8. Bridge of Spies.  Hey, someone had to come in last place, right?  And as I alluded to above, an 8th place showing in this group isn’t that bad.  As one might expect from a film directed by Steven Spielberg, there is impeccable craftsmanship on display, and the true-life story is intriguing and suspenseful (not to mention educational).  The film does an outstanding job of creating the atmosphere of late 1950s/early 1960s Berlin, and as the character around which the story revolves, Mark Rylance is outstanding – he clearly deserved his Oscar.

7. The Martian.  When I think of “popcorn movie,” The Martian is what comes to mind.  Yes, it was dumb that it was nominated in the Comedy category at the Golden Globes, but didn’t everybody already think that the Golden Globes were dumb? (although to be fair, the film did have its fair share of amusing moments).  Nearly every part of this adventure story works well – the scenes on Mars as Matt Damon figures things out (and in some cases makes them up as he goes along); the scenes at NASA; the scenes at JPL.  If there was a weak link, it was the scenes on the spacecraft that ultimately rescues Damon, but even those had their moments – especially when the crew first finds out that he’s still alive.

6. Spotlight.  I don’t begrudge it its Oscar win at all.  Saw it for the second time over the weekend, and it holds up well.  And it does a great job of showing the critical role that investigatory journalism can play in modern society, when it is done well.  The ensemble is spot on, and a great example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

5. Mad Max: Fury Road.  It’s still a bit of a miracle to me that a Mad Max movie was nominated for Best Picture.  I’m not sure it’s better than 1982’s “The Road Warrior,” but so what?  Tom Hardy is great in the title role, but he plays second fiddle to the amazing Charlize Theron, who one could argue is the real hero of the movie.  And yes, the stunts are amazing – and real.

4. The Revenant.  I had heard so much about this movie – heard the bear jokes, read the stories debating whether DiCaprio’s demonstration of endurance actually represented great acting, etc. – that I really wasn’t sure what I would think upon actually watching it.  But now that I’ve finally seen it, I wish I hadn’t waited so long and really wish that I’d made the trek to the theater to see it on the big screen.  The Revenant is a visual masterpiece, plain and simple.  And yes, the story is brutal and somewhat simplistic, but it fits very well into the tradition of great Westerns.  It is most definitely not going to be for everyone, but it worked just fine for me.

3. Brooklyn.  Many of the reviews that I read called Brooklyn “old-fashioned,” but if that’s the case, you can sign me up for as much old-fashioned as you can deliver.  The story is simple, but the emotional power is undeniable.  Saorise Ronan is wonderful is Eilis, but there really isn’t a weak link in the entire cast (with special kudos to Emory Cohen and the seemingly omnipresent Domnhall Gleason).  And it’s hard to imagine the bravery that it took for those who came to America in those years, even when there was little to keep them bound at home.  What makes Eilis’ story particularly poignant is that she clearly loves her homes on both sides of the ocean, and loves her family.  Her decision at the end is not one without consequences, and it takes a toll on her even as we celebrate her making what we believe to be the right choice.

2. Room.  Calling Room a powerful movie doesn’t begin to do it justice.  “Searing” is probably a better word to describe it, or “harrowing” even though that’s about ten times too obvious.  The poster for the movie features the line “Love knows no boundaries,” which sounds sappy but also is a reasonable description of the relationship between Joy “Ma” Newsome (Brie Larson, who won the Oscar and is a good bet to win more) and her 5-year old son Jack.  The circumstances of their existence are stark: Joy was kidnapped when she was 17, and has been imprisoned for 7 years in a small backyard shed that would barely be enough space for a pet dog.  Her kidnapper (“Old Nick”) has raped her on a regular basis since her abduction, resulting in the birth of Jack, who based on Joy’s careful nurturing believes that only what is in “Room” is real.  As Jack turns 5 his curiosity grows, and eventually Joy decides (after Old Nick informs her that he’s lost his job and is running out of money) that it’s time to take a chance at escape.  The attempt is successful, but that’s not where the challenges end.  And with regard to the story, I’ll just stop there.  Room is a great film.  In addition to Larson I have to mention the young Jacob Tremblay, who pulls off one of the best and most realistic performances by a child that I’ve ever seen in a movie – right up there with Mary Badham in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”  Also, Joan Allen is wonderful as always as the grandmother, and William H. Macy is very effective in a brief appearance as Joy’s father – a man who has been damaged by what happened to his daughter, perhaps beyond the point of repair.

Which leaves our champion…drum roll, please…

1. The Big Short.  One of my favorite movies of the past decade – one that I’ve already watched more than a dozen times, to the point where it’s become a joke with my family – is “Margin Call,” which condenses the story of the 2008 economic meltdown into one night at a major investment firm.  Written by, and the first film directed by J.C. Chandor, Margin Call features an A-list cast that includes Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Simon Baker, Stanley Tucci and Demi Moore.  Each successive scene ratchets up the tension, and by the end you’re wrung out even if you don’t entirely understand all of the financial aspects of what you’ve just seen.

The Big Short is the perfect companion piece to Margin Call, as it takes an entirely different approach to essentially telling the same story.  At the director’s helm is Adam McKay, veteran of Will Ferrell comedies like the two Anchorman movies, Talladega Nights, and Step Brothers.  It’s probably not the first name that would come to mind when thinking about the best fit for this kind of material, but even though on paper the combination might not make sense, on the screen it works perfectly.  The humor that McKay brings to the proceedings serves to deepen the dramatic impact of the serious moments, and frankly some of what happened during that period was so f*cking stupid that the most effective thing that an artist can do is just make fun of it.  And what may be the funniest scenes of the movie – those moments when the film steps back from the narrative and allows people like Margot Robbie (in a bubble bath, no less), Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez to explain various complicated financial concepts – really do make it easier to understand what is going on the rest of the time.

There isn’t a weak link in the cast, though after a second viewing I continue to be surprised that Christian Bale nabbed the only Oscar nomination – I would have gone with either Steve Carell or Ryan Gosling, who both brought a greater depth to their characters (although with Gosling’s character, “depth” may not be the best word, as he’s clearly as much a sleazebag as the worst of the financial gurus who got people into this mess in the first place).  The supporting cast (including a bearded and almost unrecognizable Brad Pitt) is pitch perfect, and there really isn’t anything bad that I can think of to say about the film.

And there you have it.