Bettye LaVette: Things Have Changed (2018) – Album Review

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The best Bob Dylan covers album EVER comes, amazingly, from a woman who doesn’t even particularly like the man’s music: “I’ve never just sat and listened to Dylan. This is strictly the idea of the executive producer,” she told Rolling Stone in a revealing interview, “I have not heretofore been a Dylan fan, per se.”

Yet that lack of reverence is exactly what makes this collection so electric; worshipping at the altar of an artist saps the life out of all too many tribute albums, as take for example the recent Johnny Cash: Forever Words (what words are forever, eh?). 72-year-old soul singer Bettye LaVette, who has not even the tiniest fraction of Dylan’s success or fortune despite a 40 year career, has the guts to mess with the Nobel Laureate’s work, adding a ‘fucked up’ or a ‘bullshit’ here, a reference to Bruno Mars there, and swapping the gender pronouns on several tracks (Dylan pulled the same trick to queer “She’s Funny That Way” on this year’s Universal Love EP, so I’m sure he would approve). What’s more, she deletes several verses of “Ain’t Talkin’”, adds her own lines to some songs, and perhaps most impishly of all she chooses to cover tracks mostly from his ’80s to early ’90s “lost” period, which is by far his most critically maligned.

This idiosyncrasy suits the restlessly rebellious nature of Dylan, who of course has been covering other master’s songs himself recently with an equally erratic approach. And it adds so much more to the Dylan canon than just yet more po-faced covers of “Like a Rolling Stone”, “Mr. Tambourine Man”, “Tangled Up in Blue” etc. It reveals the energy and brilliance hidden deep in the songwriting during his “lost” period, when his performances really were not up to scratch. “Political Science” sounds so much more desperate than it did on Oh Mercy where it was dry as hell, the repetition of “the next day could be your last” in LaVette’s rasp killing you as it continually prods at the open wound that is today’s politics; she sounds like she’s wiping the sweat and tears away from her eyes after every painful utterance.

At the other end of the spectrum, “Mama, You Been On My Mind” soulfully tips the hat to LaVette’s mother where the original seemed to kiss (or piss) off a lover. And “Do Right to Me Baby” actually generates some heat, a fast plane zooming rather than a Slow Train Coming.

All of this eclecticism is impressive and guided by LaVette’s range and responsiveness to the dense lyrics. But it’s also down to a stellar backing band, which includes guitarist Larry Campbell, who was actually in Dylan’s band for years, and drummer Steve Jordan, whose groove never wavers. Plus there’s a guest turn from Keith Richards, and lots of bongo and steel guitar embellishments that keep on surprising. It’s all spare, yet musically dexterous, and packed with flickers of nuance that you won’t get bored of investigating. Much like LaVette’s voice.

About half of the tracks meander too long to reach their destination (particularly “It Ain’t Me Babe” and “Emotionally Yours”). And I’m somewhat disappointed that LaVette’s Dylan eschews the zanier, more comedic elements of his character. Yet Dylan is such an enormous, contradictory, and fascinating mess of a figure, that it’s somewhat wrong for me to impose my Dylan on LaVette, who has chosen her own here and has so convincingly argued for it. In fact, it’s more convincing as a whole than anything Dylan’s done since Love and Theft. Which deserves immense respect.

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Avengers: Infinity War (2018) – Film Review

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“This is the end game,” says Doctor Strange at one crucial point in this film, and for once you better (almost) believe it. I’ve been a skeptic of Marvel productions for as long as I can remember, as a film-lover who loves narrative films more than ongoing soap operas about superheroes with more personality in their fists than their brains. And yet the apocalyptic scale of this latest entry in the saga, the sheer surreal extent of the carnage and its dramatic implications on future instalments, had me feeling in a way that I so rarely have before with these things. And feeling something – something out of the ordinary that you just can’t get from everyday life – is the entire point of cinema, I’ve always believed.

So hats off to directors Anthony and Joe Russo for orchestrating 2 hours and 40 minutes of compelling action that rarely flags and consistently arrests the attention of even a superhero cynic like me. The more I think about it, the more I’m impressed with the achievement – bringing in over a dozen iconic superheroes to fight in different parts of the universe, maintaining the breezy pace and momentum all the same, balancing genuine laugh-out-loud moments with genuine horror, and throwing in enough fist-fighting to keep the kids (young and old) entertained… The success of it all is no mean feat.

And the more I think about how much I enjoyed the film as a story, the more I’m surprised, because in many ways it’s not a story, at least not in the conventional sense. There are no character arcs; these superheroes don’t undergo any massive changes in identity, or manage to triumph over inner demons. And what minute arcs there are dramatically go up in smoke or are left unresolved by the film’s ending. As with lots of other Marvel productions, but unlike Black Panther, it feels less like a self-contained story and more like another chapter simply intended to set up further chapters in the exponentially growing MCU web. So why did I leave the cinema feeling satisfied this time around?

I think the answer is Thanos, the vulgar grey giant played with snarling perfection by Josh Brolin and who is the best villain Marvel have thus far conjured onto the screen. What’s unusual about this film is that it’s him, the villain, going on a quest, and the heroes who are trying to thwart him, in a marked reversal of fairytale lore. And so, in some strange way, you’re made to almost root for Thanos in his efforts to collect all of the infinity stones and become master of the universe. It’s in our nature to want to see a quest being fulfilled, at least on film, even if that quest is in order to eventually wipe out half the universe.

Like Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men, Thanos represents sheer, unadulterated evil, and yet has a peculiar logic to his murderous ways. He wants to wipe out half of all life in the universe in order that the universe, with its finite resources, can survive a little longer and prosper. The tolls he must pay to “save” the universe are terrible. But he believes that they’re worth it, and if we’re not careful he just might be able to convince us that they’re worth it too. Like any dictator in history, his self-delusion is the most frightening thing about him, and the most convincing. As human beings, we find self-delusion on a titanic scale utterly compelling to watch, sometimes even to the point where we might begin to feel sorry for the self-deluder. Or even begin to share in their bizarre delusions. I don’t think I need to draw any more parallels to today’s world, and the monster who’s currently sitting in the White House. Or the Kremlin. Or the…

So this film taps into an alluring darkness that has always been at the heart of superhero narratives: fascism. Both superheroes and supervillains believe that they are the only ones who can restore order to the universe; they believe that they’re above all rational law, human or otherwise. That’s a combination which has proven deadly throughout human history. And so it proves at the end of Infinity War.

I’d seen much talk on social media about how traumatising this film’s ending was, and put it down to marketing hype whisked up by Marvel to help sell their product. Not caring all that much about any of the characters going into the film, I didn’t expect to be moved by any of their deaths. And yet I was; without giving anything away, let’s just say that even I was shocked by how far this film was willing to venture into tragedy. And the fact that its tragedies occur not with a bang but with a series of whispers makes it far more disturbing to my mind. We’re all going to vanish into thin air one day, and to be reminded of that fact again and again and again at the end of the film left me speechless, stunned, and completely taken aback, for quite a while afterwards.

It’s a bleakly poetic and troubling series of images that will sear itself onto your conscious mind, if you allow it to. In terms of sheer bleak nihilism, it matches Game of Thrones’ Red Wedding sequence, which is quite an achievement – and I suspect it was partly inspired by that show’s willingness to shock its fans.

Which raises the question – where do Marvel go from here? Game of Thrones failed to ever match the Red Wedding, because how could it? “We’re all going to die” is all that show’s ever really had to say, and the Red Wedding was its most dramatic depiction of that reality. I think Marvel will similarly never be able to top the shock factor of this instalment. But can they find other ways to surprise, entertain, and capture the imagination?

It’s possible they could reverse the damage they’ve wrecked on some of its biggest characters at the end of Infinity War. After all, anything is possible in this universe, and we know from Loki and Doctor Strange that death doesn’t have to be permanent. I fear that would be a copout, and might reduce the impact of Inifinty War in retrospect. But for now, I can’t stop thinking about the film, which frankly has never happened before with a Marvel production. I would swap all of the Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America films for just the one shot in this one of Tony Stark, starkly alone, waking up to the fact that half of the universe can be wiped out with ease.

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Janelle Monáe: Dirty Computer (2018) – Album Review

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She’s done all the right things – got rid of the orchestral suites and 20 minutes of filler that bogged down her last two albums, written brighter and catchier songs, and relegated most of the sci-fi silliness to the accompanying “emotion picture”. So ignore all the guff about this being a portrait of our times etc.; I count only one line that has real contemporary relevance (“if you try to grab my pussy cat, this pussy bite you back”). The rest is the same generalised dystopian territory about The Other (in her case an android) being victimised and brutalised by a futuristic society that she’s been mining since the beginning of her career. So generalised are the thematics that it could be applied to just about any era, where certain groups of people have always been subjugated – which is, I’m sure, the intention, to make this shit seem universal.

But though she’s no Margaret Atwood, George Orwell or Fritz Lang, I of course fully endorse and get behind the “love in queer spaces” schtick that she celebrates as an alternative to societal (usually white, male, heterosexual) oppression – now or in the vague future. I love that she’s had the confidence to come out as pansexual recently, and I love the reclamation of the colour “Pynk” from cock-rockers Aerosmith with such crafty lines as: “Pynk like the tongue that goes down, maybe… Pynk like the folds of your brain, crazy”. The video builds on that great idea of female self-identification as both lustful and intellectual, taking equal pride in both, with witty fashion choices that need to be seen to be believed. And when her vagina takes a monologue in the confidently rapped “Django Jane”, you know that this album is feminism done right – funny, bold, outrageous, and with just the right level of defiance to patriarchal norms (a high level of defiance).

So it’s easy to be in awe of this album – yet, unfortunately, it’s not as consistently brilliant as I’d expect a great one to be. There are some dud moments towards the end, particularly the 6-minute slog “Don’t Judge Me”, which kills the jubilant vibes of the previous 5 tracks with a slow march to nowhere, and the subpar “So Afraid”, which is only redeemed by the “Let’s Go Crazy”-inspired mission statement of the final track that follows it, “Americans”.

Yep, as has been widely reported Prince is all over this album, which makes sense as he was reportedly working on it with Monáe before he died. He’s there thematically in the “party like it’s the end of the world” track “Crazy, Classic, Life”, and he’s musically everywhere. From the stylistic voraciousness to the pop-funk-rock fusion at its heart, his influence is clearly felt, but particularly and most unavoidably on the “Kiss” ripoff “Make Me Feel”.

I say “ripoff” in the kindest possible way – I adore “Make Me Feel”, it’s easily my favourite song of the year so far, and it’s been in my head for days. Yet, ironically given the theme of the album, it’s a virtual clone of that Prince classic, from its stop-start syncopation right down to the bare bones of its spare funk. I like to see it as a homage, and a great one – Prince is my second favourite artist of all time (after The Beatles) and I sincerely wish more singers would follow his superb blueprint. And it’s an added bonus that my favourite song of the year also contains my favourite line: “powerful with a little bit of tender” is a phrase that has also been in my head for days, a perfect description of falling in love. Just perfect.

There are enough pop hooks and exciting rhythmic touches to keep the rest of the album close to that high level of artistry, although after multiple replays the infectiousness of “Take a Byte” and “Screwed” has faded for this listener. I think Monáe has some work to do to match the consistency of her greatest idol, The Purple One. But this is definitely a significant step in the right direction.

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Ashley Monroe: Sparrow (2018) – Album Review

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The artistic dominance of country gals continues. As Ashley Monroe’s vocals flutter above the strings and piano that adorn this album, I’m reminded that hers is perhaps the prettiest voice of all the great country women to emerge this century.

And perhaps that’s why, of all the Pistol Annies, she means the least to me. I’ve always preferred grit and character to prettiness, which is why I’ll always prefer Angaleena Presley and particularly Miranda Lambert to Monroe.

Yet, luckily, just like all of the other Pistol Annies, she’s got a hell of a way with words, which rescues her from floating away into the realm of mildly pleasant background music (like Kacey Musgraves’ overpraised Golden Hour). “Orphan” starts the album off with a touching question: “How does a sparrow know more than I?/When its mother is gone, it learns how to fly/With no direction, its wings in the wind/How does a bird know more than I?” It conjures up an orphaned child’s experience of hopelessness with an innocence that is made all the more poignant with the chorus’ “How do I make it alone?” Monroe lost her father to cancer at the age of 13, so it’s hard not to read this as autobiography. Not all of the other songs can be categorised so neatly.

But then, in a conceptual coup, she later on talks directly to her father, as a successful young woman who, like the sparrow she observed as a child, has learnt to fly: “Daddy I told you I was gonna fly/I’d get out of that town alive” she coos to him on the gorgeous “Daddy I Told You”. And then she flies even further in his direction on the last track, “Keys to the Kingdom”, where she joins him in heaven, and they are reunited as Elvis sings them a country tune or two.

And indeed, Elvis was partly the inspiration for the musical concept of this album, with his latter-period strings-dominated country phase all over Sparrow. Monroe decided to ditch long-time producer Vince Gill to work with Nashville’s eminent Dave Cobb, and together they create a mostly successful hybrid of country and classical embellishments. Sometimes it slips over into mawkishness and becomes a kind of ersatz muzak as opposed to country, which bothers me. But mostly the restraint of the musical touches makes it work. The strings rarely overpower Monroe, which is crucial because the lyrics are so important.

Intense therapy sessions apparently resulted in this album’s creation. It was worth it.

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Cardi B: Invasion of Privacy (2018) – Album Review

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Bronx stripper to Instagram celebrity to reality TV star to (the only one I care about) rap star – ain’t the usual route. But then, what is? I admire Cardi B’s guts, strength, and perseverance in this mean old world, what she calls her rags-to-riches “Binderella” story, even if she was once Bloods-affiliated. And I admire her music even more. Cardi has a dramatic, forceful, and resilient flow reminiscent of Nicki Minaj, if not quite as inventive, and her rhyming skills are impressive and inherently musical in the way they bend vowels and consonants to meet her huge, ego-driven will. “Bodak Yellow” became a number one smash last year off the back of her delivery alone, and deserved it. But it’s just one of many such highlights on Invasion of Privacy, which is fun pretty much top to bottom, with the only exceptions being a couple of slower ones that fail to generate interest in her “vulnerable” side (CupcakKe had the same problem this year as well). Cardi transcends the trap production elements that her music is inevitably tied to, trap being a commercial boon at the moment, with some great sample choices and guest stars who turn the party up. The Obvious Sample Brigade might be offended by “I Like It” and its generous helping of the boogaloo classic “I Like it Like That”, but I think it shows off her Latin roots (her first language is Spanish) with a pride that is massively endearing. The Obvious Guest Star Brigade might be offended by Chance the Rapper turning up for an extended spot on “Best Life”, but I’m certain that it’s one of the album’s highlights, and his trademark positivity definitively buoys up the mood on an already celebratory track. But really, overall, this is undoubtedly Cardi’s show, as she swaggers and struts and guns down real and imaginary enemies all across the album with irresistible panache. It’s the first album to really make me laugh out loud this year, several times, but particularly when she declares on “I Do”: “pussy so good I said my own name during sex”. Now that’s good. A new rap star who’s funny, charismatic, exciting, and musically adventurous? You better believe that everything about her’s the real thing – except her boobs, that is.

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Mount Eerie: Now Only (2018) – Album Review

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I’ve found it hard to write anything about Mount Eerie’s two latest albums because they’re so unbelievably harrowing. It takes courage to listen, let alone write about them. Written and recorded after the death of his wife, Geneviève, from pancreatic cancer, Phil Elverum writes so directly about his trauma, about the carnage left behind by death for him and his daughter, that sitting through them can be tough work. Not only does he confront you with the inevitability of death for all of us and our loved ones, but he does so with a bullshit-free approach that rejects any easy, trite path to a silver lining. There are no silver linings in death; only black, stormy clouds.

Morbid details linger – taking out the bathroom trash which contains the last, bloody bodily remnants of his wife, for instance, or her bones surfacing from the garden’s soil in Now Only‘s “Earth”. These details approach being uncomfortably voyeuristic. But they also have a point: to show that death is not a metaphor, not a thing to write about poetically (although he does try that out on occasion), but a real, biological, and inevitably messy process. And because he conveys the horror of death better than just about anyone I’ve ever heard, read or seen, I find myself returning to these albums, unable to avert my ears, on a regular basis.

Now Only seems to me even more powerful than A Crow Looked at Me, because Elverum’s emerged from the stupor of his wife’s death enough to attach some telling musical details to his writing that help to convey his frightening lyrical ideas even more clearly. So the 10-minute “Distortion” contains, yep, feedback distortion that builds to a climax under his description of a pregnancy scare following a one-night-stand in his youth, tying the thoughts of birth to the chaotic thoughts of death that permeate the rest of the album. Then, when the scare turns out to be a false alarm, the distortion recedes again, into the sea of everyday life that’s represented here by Elverum’s ever-tunelessly-strumming acoustic guitar.

He’s unafraid to multitrack his own voice on occasion to create a palimpsest of horror, perhaps inspired by John Lennon’s similar technique on Plastic Ono Band, the cornerstone of all frank, bleak, and unremittingly personal records.

And most disturbingly of all, there’s the title track, with its catchy chorus that you may find yourself, incredibly and awfully, singing along to several days later: “People get cancer and die/People get hit by trucks and die/People just living their lives/Get erased for no reason/With the rest of us watching from the side”.

The effect of the whole album is horrible, moving, and should not be missed by any honest person who wants to square up to where we’re all heading. Because Elverum is unflinchingly honest; he sings on the last track, “Crow Pt. 2”, in his quietly desolate tone of voice: “Every day that comes, the echo of you living here gets quieter/Obscured by the loud wind of us now”.

He’s reached a point following his wife’s death where their past together is beginning to fade, despite his best efforts to preserve her memory. And his future with their daughter is uncertain, as life always is with human beings – what if he dies in a plane crash, or gets cancer and dies, or gets hit by a truck and dies?

So where does that leave Elverum, and all human beings for that matter?

With just two words, really: Now Only.

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Young Fathers: Cocoa Sugar (2018) – Album Review

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Who would’ve guessed that the first ace hip-hop album of the year would come from Edinburgh? Anyone who’s followed this group, I guess. Comprised of two rapper-singers of Liberian and Nigerian descent, as well as a Caucasian beatmaker, this Scottish trio came to music lovers’ attentions and surprised everyone by winning the Mercury Prize in 2014 for their cheerfully titled debut Dead. Eccentric, eclectic, clever, and beatwise, they deserved it. Yet they’ve always made too much of a virtue out of being weird, and Cocoa Sugar is no exception. So, for example, a strikingly pretty gospel song like “Lord” is intercut with loud electronic buzzing, or the vocals in the catchy “Turn” are distorted to the point of irritation. These are examples of the band’s uncompromising nature, some might argue. Or perhaps they’re just a case of trying too hard not to fit in with pop culture norms, in the classic hipster mould? I’m not sure, but overall Cocoa Sugar is an enjoyable ride, weird-ass warts and all. Graham “G” Hastings’ beats scuttle across the album like insects, occasionally annoying yet always catching your attention and usually for good reasons, as on the rapid-fire “Wire” or curious bongo-ballad “In My View”. And the rappers deliver some neat lines in charismatic tones – they’re the second band this year to lay down the sarcastic phrase “what a time to be alive” (on “Wow”), and they sound just as bitter as Superchunk about the state of the world as they utter it, especially as they follow it up with another scabrous dose of irony: “I’m going to put myself first”. And then, at the end, they put forward a great defence of their musical and general strangeness: “Good men are strange, bad men are obvious”. Fair enough, lads. You almost convince me.

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Black Panther (2018) – Film Review

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I’m not one to give films bonus credit for being “woke” – I thought Wonder Woman was awful, for instance, despite the importance of its female lead role. What can I say? I want a film to impress me on its own merits, not based on the racial/sexual identity of its cast.

That said, the majority black casting of Black Panther really is a radical step forwards, and don’t let any troll tell you otherwise. Marvel has been shy with black characters before – I can recall only a smattering across their so-called “universe” (oh the irony of that all-encompassing word). So to see an entire superhero movie that focuses on a history, culture, and skin colour other than Caucasian is refreshing. Its nearly all-black cast is undeniably a statement, a political one, that my African-American friends and colleagues have responded to with elation: one friend has seen the film 4 times and plans to go again, something that they’ve never done before, because of their feeling that this film is history, a turning point in representations of minorities in American cinema. And that means something.

Make no mistake that Black Panther only exists because of decades of committed activism from the African-American community, certainly one of the most successful minority groups in the world at expressing their fury at the social injustices perpetrated against them. If you don’t believe so, just try to imagine a Marvel film being released tomorrow with an all-Latino cast, or all-Asian, for instance. I can’t see it happening. These two large minority groups in America don’t have the same history of protest, at least not to the same extent, and so their representation in mainstream American cinema has been woeful – just think of all the Chinese guys with “funny accents” all over American comedies.

So yes, Black Panther appearing onscreen is a culmination of years of political agitation from African-Americans, you better believe it. As such, as a cultural totem in the future, it will likely be compared to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Is Black Panther as good as that remarkable album? No. And not just because Kendrick’s contributions to the film’s soundtrack are fairly disappointing by his standards.

Black Panther is lumbered with all of the baggage attached to Marvel productions. It needs to tie into the wider universe: which it does, rather clumsily, with Andy Serkis reprising a villainous role that should really have been excised. It needs to have a bland, tedious romantic interest: which it does, this time sadly wasted on the luminous Lupita Nyong’o. It needs to have several patience-testing actions scenes: which it does, although the twist this time around is that they’re sometimes shot engagingly.

I know, complaining about action scenes in a Marvel film is like complaining about cheese on a pizza. But you can have too much cheese. And they really do make the movies a chore for me, because they’re shot through with such little tension. I don’t care about who would win in a fight between X and Y, but I do want to care about the consequences of their fighting, the psychological implications. The way so often in which Marvel characters walk away from epic fights completely unaltered in any way, physically or mentally, makes me really not give a damn about seeing those fight scenes in the first place. It’s lazy, cynical storytelling.

Black Panther is less guilty of that than most, which is why I like it better. The action scenes tend to propel the plot forward rather than drag it down. When King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), a.k.a. Black Panther, is challenged to ritual combat for the throne not once but twice in his native Wakanda, each time the stakes feel high, and that feeling’s exaggerated by the literal height of the setting – they fight on top of a waterfall, with dramatic cliffs and tense tribes encircling them. We know that Black Panther won’t die, of course, but the dizzying effects and swirling photography make our eyes dart across the screen, worrying for him, all the same.

A car chase scene in South Korea is played for laughs and is less effective – the otherwise impressive cast can’t really do comedy, not like Robert Downey Jr. or Ryan Reynolds – and the finale is about 5 minutes too long.

But still, this is by far the most enjoyable Marvel entry for a while. I count 3 good reasons for this:

  1. Writer/director Ryan Coogler. At only 31 years old he’s one of the freshest talents in Hollywood – Creed and especially Fruitvale Station were powerfully made, gripping yarns. I have no doubt that Black Panther’s aura of genuine radicalism and its respect for African cultural traditions come largely from him. Not to mention its visual imagination.
  2. The cast. This really is the most watchable group ever assembled for Marvel. Only token white guy Martin Freeman fails to do the best with what he/she’s given. Various supporting turns threaten to steal the show: Michael B. Jordan, Danai Gurira, Daniel Kaluuya, and particularly Winston Duke (the only one who can do comedy).
  3. Afro-futurism. The script looks to a future in which Africans and all of their diasporas will change the world through technology. This future is one in which they will manage to bring about an equality between all the races (because white folks sure won’t do it), but bring it about through intellect and science and not through violence. Yeah, this might be utopian dreaming, I hear all you cynics saying – are we ever really going to all “live as one”? But then isn’t the point of film for dreaming?

The figures speak for themselves: the film’s grossed a staggering $1 billion worldwide since its release, $242.1 million of that in its opening weekend alone. The excitement is there, the appetite for change. You can feel it in the air. You can feel it coursing through every frame of the film, like vibranium.

And I for one am relieved that the future it envisions is one of hope.

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Superchunk: What a Time to Be Alive (2018) – Album Review

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Sure, we all hate Trump. Right? But Superchunk hate all of his supporters too, and hate them hard: “All these old men won’t die too soon/Flesh balloons still waving their arms around”. Ouch.

Because they’re getting on a bit themselves, they’ve been around since 1990 the old codgers, Superchunk get away with this blatant ageism, although perhaps not their oversimplifying of why white people voted for Trump in the first place: “Darkness was all you wanted”. Hell, there were legitimate reasons to be frustrated with Obama’s America. And I’m sure many people saw hope in Trump for genuine change, as absurd as that may seem. Yet there’s no denying that everyone who voted for him was well aware of his sickening misogyny and racist attitudes, and in choosing to ignore that they deserve the world’s contempt. Superchunk certainly think so: “There’s a crooked line that runs/Through every crease in this map/And you want to take us all the way back” they spit at everyone who voted for him.

Perhaps a little more empathy would’ve made this a great rock album. But as it stands, it’s a terrific, waspish punk album with a driving purpose. Most tracks tackle Trump and his supporters head-on, as so little music has thus far. “How has it come to this?” the album gasps in horror, gazing at the moral abyss that is the Donald. “What a time to be alive!” it exclaims, with several lifetime’s worth of sarcastic resentment built up; the combined age of the four band members is close to 200 (and you can sense that weariness in “Erasure”).

Middle-aged they may be, but Superchunk have put out their most cohesive, youthful-sounding, and invigorating blast of rage so far. Since their renaissance in 2010 with Majesty Shredding they’ve been getting steadily better, more confident and dynamic with each release. What a Time to Be Alive zips by in just over half an hour, but it brims with great ideas, such as getting Stephin Merritt and Katie Crutchfield amongst others to join them on choruses to create a sense of community that counteracts the sense of alienation with their country. The overall feeling is uplifting not depressing, with “Break the Glass”, “Erasure”, and “Reagan Youth” perhaps their catchiest and most involving songs ever written. The music is welcoming rather than hostile; fun rather than abrasive. Song after song hits home, sometimes in less than two minutes. It’s all over so fast, like many of the best punk albums, but it’s catchy enough to merit the many replays its length allows for.

For a band that sounds so excited by music, Superchunk were brave enough to declare that they actually hated music in 2013, and in 2018 they still don’t think it’s good enough. Here’s lead singer and guitarist Mac McCaughan promoting the album: “I didn’t buy the silver lining some were promoting that ‘well, at least art and music will be great now!’ Obviously, any sane person would gladly trade four to eight years of terrible music for not having our country dismantled to satisfy the whims of a vengeful child and his enablers.”

Right on. I’d do anything for this album to not have to exist. But we’re here now; and Trump’s still in the White House; so hey, let’s make the most of it and play this one fucking loud.

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Lady Bird (2017) – Film Review

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I was first attracted to this film because it has three of the world’s most talented young actors in its cast: Saoirse Ronan, Lucas Hedges, and Timothée Chalamet. Truth be told, the latter two aren’t serviced too well by this film, which is really the film’s only flaw – look to Manchester by the Sea for Hedges’ best performance and Call Me By Your Name for Chalamet’s. They are somewhat wasted here, but perhaps it isn’t their fault. Because aglow and stealing this film’s spotlight at every opportunity is Saoirse Ronan; she seizes the moment and delights with every second that she’s onscreen, charming even during her character’s frequent tantrums.

She plays Christine McPherson, a senior student at a Catholic high school in Sacramento (“basically the mid-west of California,” she complains) who insists on being called “Lady Bird”, much to everyone’s bemusement and/or irritation. This is typical of her attitude to authority; she is rebellious, but rarely in a cruel or mean-spirited way. She longs to escape the confines of Sacramento and her Catholic upbringing, so she applies to various arts colleges on the east coast, despite generally poor grades (an advisor laughs in her face when she suggests Yale). It’s 2002, and she hopes that “terrorism” will help reduce entries and get her a place in New York.

We get treated to many delightful scenes of Lady Bird with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), and their rapport seems unforced. They are clearly outsiders, with Lady Bird an oddball personality and Julie suffering from a weight problem, yet they don’t make a big deal out of it. They just get on with the simple business of enjoying life, which each other’s company allows for – stealing sacramental bread, lusting after their maths teacher, you know, all the usual stuff.

Yet this is a coming-of-age film, so of course sex gets in the way of their friendship, and we get the requisite learning experience about the untrustworthiness of men. First up there’s Danny (Lucas Hedges), a nice chap who won’t touch Lady Bird’s breasts because he “respects” her too much, though quick-witted audiences might be able to think of another reason. Secondly there’s Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), a handsome goon who thinks the world of himself and brandishes his weighty copy of A People’s History of the United States like he wants to bash lesser beings over the head with it. Neither of them are quite right for Lady Bird; but that doesn’t stop her from fooling herself that they are in order to have someone to dance with at the prom.

Where this film really strikes its emotional chord, though, is in the scenes between Lady Bird and her mother, Marion (a brilliant Laurie Metcalf), who is the very definition of that oxymoron “tough love”. She starts off the film by calling Lady Bird “ungrateful”, and things descend from there. In one particularly hurtful scene Lady Bird asks straight-up: “do you actually like me?” Her mother responds with a platitude that makes it clear she doesn’t quite know how to answer. The film deftly shows how they are so similar, such strong-willed characters, that they actually get on each other’s nerves rather than get along. Luckily, Lady Bird’s father is a great mediator between the two, as mild-mannered as Santa Claus, despite being laid off his job and suffering from depression.

There is so much more to like in this film than the above description can convey, so many well-sketched characters and devilishly clever turns of phrase in the dialogue. In her debut as writer and director, Greta Gerwig does an outstanding job, cutting the story down to its essentials (it’s a lean 93 minutes) and breezing through comedy and tragedy without a moment of excess or sentimentality.

This is so much smarter than the usual token indie film nominated at the Oscars, and so much smarter than any of the other films nominated this year. Three Billboards looks like the offensive mess that it really is in comparison; Get Out looks like the OK horror film it really is; The Shape of Water has much less to say about life and love; I feel embarrassed to even mention Darkest Hour and The Post; and even Call Me By Your Name and Phantom Thread, which I like a great deal, don’t quite consistently match its freshness. Yes, Lady Bird would be my choice for film of the year (out of the nominated batch).

Naturally, it won’t win. But watch it and try telling me that the final scenes between Lady Bird and her mother, a reconciliation of sorts in which they don’t talk to each other at all, isn’t the finest piece of writing of the year.

And when you watch it, remember this old song and how it eventually captures the spirit of Lady Bird’s character: “Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home.”

Home.

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