Saturday, September 10, 2016

Exploring Kurt Vile's "Shame Chamber"

"Shame Chamber" is one of Kurt Vile's best songs, from my favorite album of his, 2013's Wakin on a Pretty Daze. It is one of those songs that reveals its meaning jointly through the music and lyrics, despite some incongruence on the surface. Musically, it is upbeat--inflected in the guitar part and the vocalized whoops--which clues you in that this is not a mopey song, despite what your first impression of the lyrics may be.

Everyone's sayin I should probably give up
And hey, I wouldn't wanna waste no time
How can I even look myself in the mirror
Then again, why would I?

It's just another day in the shame chamber
Living life to the lowest power
Feeling bad in the best way a man can

As he is getting negative talk from others and also from himself, he could easily succumb. Instead, he will acknowledge it and forge ahead. A line in his song "Dust Bunnies" echoes that sentiment: "I don't got time to wallow around in it." In dealing with putdowns, pain, and frustration, he realizes he is in a "shame chamber," but at the same time "feeling bad in the best way a man can." There is a sense that he is making the best out of the situation and his lot in life, and that he has a glimmer of ambition.

There is also acknowledgment of a shared component, like what he sings in "Puppet to the Man": "Sometimes I get in a rut too, it's okay girlfriend."

Shame on you, shame on you
Shame on you
Oh baby when you cry, it brings a tear to my eye
Oh shame on us

"Shame Chamber" is a witty and original take on hardship and alienation, infused with dark humor (a KV hallmark). He pulls off a fun song with lyrical content that has a fair amount of pain at its core. The effect is a mixture of wryness, stoicism, and hope, and it works well.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Review: Girlpool, Before the World Was Big

Girlpool comprises Cleo Tucker (guitar, vocals) and Harmony Tividad (bass, vocals).  I saw them open for Jenny Lewis in Northampton, MA last November and for Waxahatchee in Boston last month.

They're young, just out of high school, recent transplants to Philadelphia from Los Angeles.  Before the World Was Big is their first full-length album, following up a 2014 self-titled EP.

Cleo and Harmony offer a unique sound, just the two of them, stripped down, so far devoid of percussion or other instrumentation.  Their vocals are suitably raw as well, while they sing in harmony, unison, and alternating parts.

They have some potent lyrics in their back pocket, addressing growing pains and insecurity.  "I'm still here, remember me, Emily," they implore in the song "Emily."  In "I Like That You Can See It," the album's closer, they sing, "Is it pouring out my body? My nervous aching" and "My mind is almost 19, and I still feel angry/I'm searching for the reason."

"Chinatown" is a standout track and my personal favorite.  The music and the lyrics meld so well, and these are some of Girlpool's best lyrics:  "Do you feel restless when you realize you're alive?"  "If I loved myself would I take it the wrong way?" "I'm still looking for sureness in the way I say my name." A version released ahead of the album as a single (and closest to the live rendition) is louder and more raw than the wistful, softened album version.  Each version lends the song a different interpretation.  I like that they did both.  The song deserves both treatments.

What is most appealing about Girlpool is the band's authentic voice, which its members put front and center.  I'm looking forward to more from them.  Like I told Cleo at the Boston show, I think they are rising stars.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Review of The Girl on the Train

Paula Hawkins' debut novel The Girl on the Train just reached the mark of one million copies sold.  One could say it is a runaway hit that has really picked up steam (okay, I'll stop now).

Title character Rachel takes the same commuter train every day, keeping up appearances to her roommate after she is fired from her job.  The train regularly stops in front of a house inhabited by a couple on whom Rachel fixates.  She views their life as perfect.  At the same time, she is haunted by her old life and failed marriage.  She regularly numbs her emotions with alcohol and has a hard time moving on.

One day, from the train, Rachel sees the woman she calls "Jess" (whose real name is Megan) kissing a man who is not her husband, and then the following day she goes missing.  Rachel offers what she knows to police, and gets entangled in the investigation.

The plot will keep you guessing the whole way through.  How many readers will guess what is behind Megan's disappearance?  I was certainly taken by surprise.

The characters are neither well developed nor likable.  This flaw does not matter a great deal, though, as the suspense story is the driving force of the novel.

Why is the book a giant sensation, the one that everyone wants to read?  The success of Gone Girl and the marketing of this book to its fans has something to do with it.  Luckily, The Girl on the Train is decently written and keeps you on the edge of your seat.  Though not high literature or even particularly book discussion worthy, it is entertaining.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Review: Jenny Lewis, The Voyager

Jenny Lewis's latest solo album, The Voyager, was three years in the making.  She enlisted Ryan Adams as producer, as well as Johnathan Rice and Beck for a few individual tracks.  Jenny's sound can be described as retro California rock. This is her third solo album, and it sounds a lot more like her long-time, now-diffused band Rilo Kiley than either of the the previous ones (it also may be my favorite of the three).  The song "Slippery Slopes" even has a very similar melody and sound to "Under the Blacklight."

The first track, "Head Underwater," juxtaposes catchy music with lyrics contemplating mortality.  "There's a little bit of magic/Everybody has it/There's a little bit of sand left in the hourglass."  "She's Not Me" has a fun disco sound.  "She's not me," Jenny sings.  "She's easy." The song has a bit of an unexpected end to it:  "Remember the night when I destroyed it all/When I told you I cheated/And you punched through the drywall/I took you for granted/When you were all that I needed."

Beck produced and provided backing vocals on "Just One of the Guys."  Jenny sings about how she can never fully make being one of the guys work.  "There's only one difference between you and me/When I look at myself all I can see/I'm just another lady without a baby."  It is a song that makes you think about gender expectations.

"Late Bloomer" is a standout track, showcasing Jenny's storytelling ability. She has said it is inspired by a girl she met while traveling abroad who followed around a songwriter.  In the narrative of the song, the girl inspires her lust for life.  "When I turned sixteen, I was furious and restless" and got a "plane ticket to Paris." She meets Nancy from Boston, whose "eyes were changing like mood stones." "How could I resist her?"  she asks.  "I had longed for a big sister/And I wanted to kiss her but I hadn't the nerve."  It is a poignant reflection on coming of age.  Jenny has said this song almost didn't see the light of day and that it was really coaxed along by Ryan Adams and Benmont Tench (keyboardist of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers).  Lucky for us it came through, as it is quite a special song.

Jenny Lewis' hallmark is a certain stoicism.  She writes lyrics about hardship and heartache, yet the music is usually catchy and often downright sunny.  She clearly wants people to enjoy it and to have fun herself.  Therefore her output can be enjoyed on different levels.  Should the listener choose to go deeper and delve into what she's talking about, there's more to understand.  Says Beck, "I just feel like music needs her. It needs someone doing what she's doing. She's got a special voice, as a writer, and then as a musician.  She's this great combination of so many things."  Indeed.

Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Review: Tori Amos, Unrepentant Geraldines

Tori Amos is back with her first pop release since 2009's Abnormally Attracted to Sin.  Since then, she made a seasonal album, Midwinter Graces; the impressive Night of Hunters with reworkings of classical pieces; and wrote the music for the London stage production The Light Princess.

Unrepentant Geraldines draws some of its inspiration from paintings, but otherwise does not strain conceptually, as she has a tendency to do (American Doll Posse, anyone?).  Tori is now 50, and aging is a theme of the album, bluntly faced in "16 Shades of Blue" ("There are those who say / I am now too old to play").  She addresses a long-term romantic relationship in "Wedding Day" and "Wild Way."

Tori's 13-year-old daughter Tash (short for Natashya) first sang on Midwinter Graces, then on Night of Hunters.  Here, they duet on "Promise," in which they offer assurances that they will be there for each other.  It is a touching song, although Tash has now styled her vocals in an R&B-inspired way that can be distracting.

Tori has long drawn inspiration from mythology of all kinds, and the beautiful song "Selkie" references a Scottish myth of a creature that lives as a seal in the sea and a human on land.  Standout "Oysters" showcases equally dexterous piano and vocals.  This goosebumps-inducing song is right up there with the best output of her career.  Tori describes the song as being "about a woman trying to work through a lifetime of memories to find out who she really is."  She sings, "I'm working my way back to me again."

This is a notably stripped-down album, with Tori's keys and vocals at the forefront.  All other instrumentation is generated by her sound engineer husband Mark Hawley.  The album would have benefited from other musicians on the tracks that include more than her vocals and piano.  However, the strength of Tori's musicianship relegates this to more of a minor issue.  Basically, I'm left to marvel at the great songs that she continues to produce.

Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Book to film: Silver Linings Playbook

Both the book and film versions of Silver Linings Playbook are great, but the book is better.  The voice of the male protagonist, Pat, nails a particular kind of poignant humor in the book that the movie, with Pat portrayed by Bradley Cooper, does not fully accomplish.  And to be fair, that may be because the movie is limited to two hours, and Pat cannot get as much of his voice in there as in the book.

Pat is a former high school history teacher who has just been let out of a mental institution and released to the care of his mother.  In the movie, he has been there for several months.  In the book, he believes he's only been on the inside for a few months when in fact he has been there for four years.  He plans on reconciling with his estranged wife, Nikki, and devotes his time to trying to become the man she always wanted.  Meanwhile, he's being pursued by a troubled woman named Tiffany.

The selective liberties that the script takes from the novel are basically fine.  In terms of how I saw the characters in my mind's eye, the movie came up short, but one casting choice that ended up fitting was Jennifer Lawrence.  I didn't have trouble buying her as Tiffany for one minute.  Whether you have read the book or not, you will likely agree that she steals the show.

The Silver Linings Playbook is Matthew Quick's debut novel.  His second book, The Good Luck of Right Now, is also good.  It has significant similarities to its predecessor:  a teetering-on-loserdom male protagonist/narrator who tries to make his way in life in the wake of a life-changing development; both female love interests are very emotionally damaged; and the male protagonist's voice displays the same kind of poignant humor.  Going forward, Quick would be wise to distance himself somewhat from that voice so he does not pigeonhole himself as a writer.  Yet this is my only real criticism of his books, both of which are great reads.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Review: Jim Henson: The Biography, by Brian Jay Jones

If you love the Muppets, as I do, here's a good book for you.  At about 500 pages, this is a thorough biography, but it does not drag; Jim Henson lived a full life in his 53 years.  This book is especially fun to read in tandem with Imagination Illustrated: The Jim Henson Journal.  In addition to combing through archival material, Brian Jay Jones spoke with people close to Henson both personally and professionally.

Born in 1936, Jim Henson grew up in Mississippi through his early teens, and then his family moved to Maryland. He plunged into puppetry at age 18 by answering a television station's job posting. His future collaborator, head writer Jerry Juhl, explains, "Jim wasn't a puppeteer.  He got into puppetry because it was a way of getting into television and film . . . that was really his passion" (109).  As it turned out, of course, he was talented in both the design and performance of puppets.

At the same time, he enrolled at the University of Maryland and studied design.  He met Jane Nebel in a college puppetry class, and recruited her to work with him as a puppeteer for the television station.  They would later marry and have five talented children:  Lisa, Cheryl, Brian, John, and Heather.  Jim and Jane had a hit segment with Sam and Friends, and Jim also produced television commercials. They moved to New York in early 1963, and soon settled in a house in Greenwich, CT.  Jane, though having cofounded her husband's company, did not continue performing.  Jim's recruit Frank Oz "thought he understood why Jane had gotten out of regular performing, for reasons that went beyond motherhood.  'A great puppeteer needs to be aggressive and selfish,' Oz said--qualities, he thought, the artsier Jane lacked" (115).

We learn about Henson's first characters, including which Muppets appeared early on.   Although Kermit was the first of the Muppet characters to be conceived, Rowlf first resonated with audiences as a strong character through his appearances on The Jimmy Dean Show.  Kermit started as a turquoise puppet that wasn't any particular animal.  "'We frogified him,' Jim said later, only slightly lamenting the loss of the abstraction.  'He just slowly became a frog'" (93).  Jim explained about Kermit that he "is the closest one to me.  He's the easiest to talk with.  He's the only one who can't be worked by anybody else, only by me.  See, Kermit is just a piece of cloth with a mouthpiece in it.  The character is literally my hand" (163).

Ernie and Bert were the premier characters Henson came up with for the children's television show Sesame Street in 1969.  Says Frank Oz, who took over Bert, "The design was so simple and pure and wonderful.  You had somebody who is all vertical and somebody who is all horizontal'" (143).  Said Henson of Sesame Street, "Kids love to learn, and the learning should be exciting and fun.  That's what we're out to do" (167).

The Muppet Show, pitched to major networks in the U.S., ultimately was funded by Lew Grade, who approached Henson to produce the program for his ATV Associated Television franchise in the UK.  The show lasted for five seasons consisting of 120 episodes which were first broadcast in Britain between 1976 and 1981.  The show was recorded at ATV's Elstree Studios just north of London.  Henson split his time between the two countries, establishing the Creature Shop in London in addition to his company headquarters in New York City.  Some tension grew between the two locations' employees, who sought Henson's attention and approval.

1979's The Muppet Movie was a hit, and created the demand for future movies starring the Muppets.  Henson was more interested after the first Muppet movie in exploring other creative visions.  His movie projects The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, Jones posits, suffered from sacrificing story for visuals, which were what Henson was really interested in.  Indeed, he said, "I guess I've always been most intrigued by what can be done with the visual image.  I feel that is what is strongest about the work I do " (331-32).

Although The Dark Crystal made a good profit, for Henson "it was about vision and inspiration, and the fact that audiences didn't or couldn't appreciate it hurt him terribly" (348).  He explained that The Dark Crystal "was a huge undertaking--a vision I had, and one which ultimately has helped to carry our art form to a more sophisticated and technically advanced stage.  The most important thing, however, is to love what you're doing and to go after those visions, no matter where they lead" (351).

Labyrinth, however, only grossed $12 million on its $25 million budget.  Said Henson, "I was stunned and dazed for several months trying to figure out what went wrong--where I went wrong" (390).  "Labyrinth was 'absolutely the closest thing to him,' said Jane, the one in which he had invested most of his creative capital--and to have audiences reject it felt to Jim like they were rejecting him personally" (391).  It seems, though, that these two movies have gained greater appreciation from viewers over time.

Henson did not much separate his work life from his personal life.  He said, "I love my work and because I enjoy it, it doesn't really feel like work.  Thus I spend most of my time working" (291).  He found most of his expressiveness through his work as well:  "I live kind of within myself as a person, so my outlet has always been the Muppets; therefore, I tend to do sort of wildly extroverted characters" (163).  His marriage to Jane apparently suffered from a lack of communication on his part.  Their marriage would crumble into a separation, but despite this and the fact that Jim then dated a lot, a bond remained between them.

Sadly, John Henson, Jim's fourth child, died of a heart attack two days ago, on February 14, 2014.  He was 48 years old.  John was also a puppeteer and performed the ogre Sweetums following the death of Richard Hunt in 1991. He served as a shareholder and board member of The Jim Henson Company.  His mother, Jane Henson, died less than a year ago, in April, 2013, of cancer at age 78.

Jim Henson had an interest in spirituality and possessed faith in goodness and all things being interconnected.  He embraced optimism as a guiding principle in his life.  "Simply, Jim Henson's greatest legacy will always be Jim himself:  the way he was, and the way he encouraged and inspired others to be--the simple grace and soft-spoken dignity he brought to the world . . . as well as his faith in a greater good that he believed he and his fellow inhabitants of the globe were capable of" (487).

I like that the book's blurb about the author includes:  "His favorite Muppet is Rowlf (thanks for asking)."  Mine is Janice.  Which Muppet is your favorite?