Category Archives: Entertainment

Wilco albums ranked worst to best – the definitive list (for now)

miloHey Pal:

Let’s talk about Wilco. Over their 20+ years, front man Jeff Tweedy and the boys have evolved from boundary-pushing alt country darlings, to purveyors of so-called “dad rock” (is that supposed to be a bad thing?), to elder indie statesmen who still have a few tricks up their plaid and denim sleeves.

You and I have been on hand for much of that evolution and we’ll be on hand when Wilco roll into Toronto next week to blow the roof off Massey Hall yet again; so in honour of the occasion I thought I’d take a crack at ranking all their studios albums from worst to best. There are a few such lists on the internet, with a good deal of disagreement among them, so it’s high time somebody did the definitive list.

This is not that list.

But until the king of “worst to best” lists, Stereogum, gets one done it will have to do.

In preparation I sat down and listened to every one of Wilco’s albums in chronological order, some of which I haven’t heard in years, and then I listened to them all a few more times for good measure. It was a beautiful journey, during which two thoughts dominated:

  • They’ve never really made a bad album (although the chasm between “worst” and best is wide).
  • Certain assumptions and beliefs I’ve held for a long time are wrong.

(Quick note – the Mermaid Avenues are not here because they are not purely Wilco albums.)

All right, let’s assassin down the avenue…

10 – Schmilco (2016)

Painting myself as a normal American kid
I always hated it

schmilcoI really didn’t want to do this. I didn’t want to pick on Wilco’s newer albums by putting them at the bottom of the list. I didn’t want to suggest the quality of their albums is in decline and all their best work is behind them.

I really, really didn’t want to do that.

Alas.

It’s unfortunate too because I was pumped about Schmilco (despite the goofy title), because its sound hearkens back to their days of strange, eerie, psychedelic alt country. The songs are mostly acoustic and some are infused with a hint of sonic weirdness, but this time it feels put upon – like they’re just trying to elevate what they know are dull songs.

Jeff Tweedy is a marvelous songwriter with a gift for musical left turns and provocative lyrics that are more for feeling than understanding. There’s some of that on Schmilco but not enough to resonate.I will say I love the bitter nostalgia of “Normal American Kids”.

They’ve never made a bad album, but this one’s just OK. Perhaps the live versions of these tunes we hear next week will inspire me to change my mind.

(Bonus points for the cover, though, which takes the idea of “dad rock” to a whole new level.)

 9 – Star Wars (2015)

I change my name every once in a while
A miracle every once in a while

star_wars_wilco1

I should mention that Wilco are absolutely epic in concert. Six masterful musicians who have been playing together long enough they can read each other’s minds.

Because of that, they were able to make this album sound more interesting than it is when they played it in its entirety at the Toronto Urban Roots Festival last summer. I respect the choice of playing the whole thing. Many other artists of their vintage devolve into greatest hits nostalgia acts. Not Wilco. They stand by what they’re recording now.

Star Wars is pretty cool, but doesn’t quite knock my socks off. The chugging “King of You” is awesome, though, as is “Random Name Generator”, which is destined to become a perennial concert favourite. Also, gotta dig closer “Magnetized”, with its weird pauses, organ sounds and a classic WTF Tweedy line: “Orchestrate the shallow pink refrigerator drone.”

Points for brevity – at 33 minutes it doesn’t last long enough to overstay its welcome.

wilco-live

Did I mention Wilco are epic in concert?

 8 – A.M. (1995)

You’re gonna make me spill my beer,
If you don’t learn how to steer

amConventional wisdom has it that the band got off to a shaky start with this debut. Conventional wisdom declared this a paint-by-numbers set of country rock tracks that in no way hinted at the experimental genius that was to come.

Conventional wisdom needs to give its head a shake because I’ll bet it hasn’t actually listened to A.M. since it came out.

If conventional wisdom would do what I did – crack a beer on a Friday night, crank A.M. to top volume and air guitar the shit out of “Casino Queen” and “Box Full of Letters”, then bliss out to “It’s Just that Simple” and the Tonight’s the Night tribute “Passenger Side” – then it would understand the truth. A.M. is terrific. It’s heartfelt and infectious. It’s tight and it’s a blast.

I’m pretty sure the problem is that Tweedy and two bandmates were fresh out of the wildly revered alt-country legends Uncle Tupelo and this debut from a “spin-off” band suffered by comparison. If a completely different band had made A.M., alt country fans would have been bouncing off the walls and exclaiming that they’d just found the new Uncle Tupelo.

7– The Whole Love (2011)

This is how I tell it
Oh, but it’s long
One Sunday morning
Oh, one son is gone

whole-love

I’m going to venture onto a long, treacherous limb and declare this Wilco’s most overrated album. Not bad. Just overrated. Many people, myself included, saw it as a return to form after the so-called “dad rock” albums (more on those soon enough), and we all got very excited because the boys were getting back to being a little loud and experimental.

Also, the thing starts and ends magnificently, opening with the righteous blast of techno rock that is “Art of Almost” (a song that we learned, Pal, also makes for a jaw-dropping opener in concert), and closing with the folky, 12-minute Dylanesque “One Sunday Morning”, a heartbreaking study of a troubled father/son relationship. Two awesome tunes.

Unfortunately, I find now that too many of the songs in between are kinda forgettable. I enjoy them while they’re happening but they don’t stick. Exception – “Born Alone”. That song rocks.

Also, the band sounds amazing, especially guitar god Nels Cline, who can do absolutely anything with six strings (and occasionally 12), whether it’s building swirling atmosphere for the rest of the band to play in, or taking centre stage with a mind-bending solo.

nels-cline

Don’t hurt yourself, Nels

6 –  Wilco (The Album) (2009)

One wing will never fly
Neither yours nor mine
I fear we can only wave goodbye

220px-wilco_the_album_cover1 Boy was I wrong about this one. At the time of its release I wrote it off as bland and forgettable, and going into this ranking exercise I was fully expecting to plunk the “camel” album – the second dad rock album, incidentally – in the basement.

Then I listened to it.

And I listened to it again.

And I fell in love with the camel.

“Bull Black Nova” is the cool kid brother of “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”, and that is a fine thing to be. The second half of “One Wing” is transcendent. “I’ll Fight” is a contender for top 10 Wilco tune. And “You and I” is a deceptively sweet little duet with Canadian singer Feist that boldly questions the merits of honesty and transparency in a relationship.

I do wonder if the band carries Tweedy a bit on this one. This is the second album with the perfect ensemble line-up that still exists to this day, and by this point they were magically in sync. That’s why this album sounds so good even though Tweedy’s songwriting and weary but expressive voice are not at their best. Consider “Country Disappeared”. It seems like a pretty flaccid tune to me, but by the end I’m transfixed. Just listen to that interplay of guitar and keyboard.

I could be wrong, but I think it’s the playing, not the writing, that elevates the camel to greatness. 

5 – Sky Blue Sky (2007)

But I’ve turned to rust as we’ve discussed
Though I must have let you down
too many times
In the dirt and the dust

sky-blue-sky

This is the precise moment that Wilco were branded “dad rock” and it’s all thanks to the wise-ass kids down at Pitchfork, who called Sky Blue Sky “an album that exposes the dad-rock gene the band has always carried but attempted to disguise– the stylistic equivalent of a wardrobe change into sweatpants and a tank top.”

Someone needs to knock some sense into those punks and make them listen to it again.

Is it less experimental and more “comfortable” than its predecessors? Definitely. But that doesn’t make it lazy or dull. It’s a beauty. Tweedy finds poetry in everyday life in these “sweatpant” tunes, whether it be gentle pleadings (“Please be Patient With Me”), or puttering about a house that no longer feels like a home (“Hate It Here”), or the glorious jam that is “Impossible Germany”. The playing is perfect and the songs, while mellow, still go in unexpected directions.

Also, the album closes with the thrilling one-two punch of the sage and inspiring “What Light” followed by the haunting and unsettling “On And On And On”.

4 – A Ghost is Born (2004)

Saxophones started blowin’ me down
I was buried in sound
The taxicabs were driving me around

a-ghost-is-born1

It might not be the obvious choice, but I nominate A Ghost is Born for the award of Weirdest Wilco Album because, seriously, where did this come from? The previous four albums were an amazing but logical evolution down the band’s uniquely carved road of atmospheric alt country, and then along came this abrupt left turn into pop rock city.

Explosive guitar jams and sweet pretty ballads (sometimes in the same song); bobbity piano pop, groovy jams, and even 12 minutes of electronic hiss – this album has it all and it’s a ton of fun. You never know what’s coming next.

My personal favourite is the smooth and seductive “Hell is Chrome”…or maybe “The Late Greats”…no wait, “Handshake Drugs”…or “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”…or….never mind, just go listen to the whole thing (except the 12 minutes of hiss – we didn’t really need that).

tweedy-singing

“I never hear it on the radio,             Can’t hear it on the radio”

3 – Being There (1996)

When you’re back in your old neighborhood
The cigarettes taste so good
But you’re so misunderstood
You’re so misunderstood

being-there

What a surprise this turned out to be – another album that landed higher on this list than I thought it was going to. I used to think Being There was half brilliant and half filler but I’ll be damned if I can find the filler now. As much as I think A.M. is underrated, there is no question this follow-up sophomore album, with its experimentation and expanded range of sound, is a huge leap forward.

It’s a double album and each “disc” is a lean and perfect set of gems worthy of standing on its own. And the openers! Oh the openers! Disc one kicks off with the epic six and a half minute mind-bender “Misunderstood”, which aggressively declares in its rattling thumping intro that Wilco had no intention of settling into any kind of formula. The song is a beautiful noisy unleashing of emotions from nostalgia to rage. Disc two opens with the comparatively spare but almost as stunning “Sunken Treasure”, which might have been my favourite Wilco song if I hadn’t heard “Misunderstood” first.

 2 – Summerteeth (1999)

She’s a jar
With a heavy lid
My pop quiz kid
A sleepy kisser

summerteeth

How can misery and madness sound so sweet?

The band took the trippy sound they found on Being There and added sunny pop flourishes so that when they didn’t sound like the grooviest alt country band on the planet they sounded like the Beach Boys, but cooler.

And Tweedy’s lyrics went extra dark. Whether he’s dreaming about killing you again last night, or being begged not to hit her, or reading messages in an ashtray, he captivates with his weird, morbid thoughts and sounding like the weight of the whole world is upon him. Even the sweet lovely lullaby to his kid, “Oh Darling”, sounds haunted.

Every song is a beauty, with “Via Chicago”, “She’s a Jar” and concert favourite “Shot in the Arm” the obvious stand-outs.

For most other bands, this would be the pinnacle of achievement but for Wilco this was just another warm-up leading to their grandest statement…

 1 – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)

Tall buildings shake
Voices escape singing sad sad songs
tuned to chords
Strung down your cheeks
Bitter melodies turning your orbit around

yhf

Was there ever any doubt? All hail Wilco’s masterpiece. It doesn’t contain the band’s greatest songs (see #2 and #3). It doesn’t even feature their finest musicianship (see the “dad rock” of #5 and #6). But Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is studio alchemy; the most cohesive and immersive journey in Wilco’s catalogue – their most album-y of albums – and the perfect evolution of the moody experimentation they started on Being There and Summerteeth. If Radiohead made a country album this is what it would sound like, but now they can’t do it because Wilco beat them to it.

I don’t know what was in Jeff Tweedy’s enigmatic mind when he made Yankee Hotel Foxtrot but here’s what it’s about as far as I’m concerned: It’s about memories that make you smile and cry at the same time. It’s about alienation and communication breakdown. It’s about being in a crowd but feeling alone, about staring into a loved one’s eyes and wondering if you really truly know them. It’s about struggling for understanding.

It pulls you into a world entirely its own and doesn’t let go until its final notes – a world that is both comforting and unsettling, familiar yet foreign. There’s nothing else like it.

I could go on and on but I already have, not just here but elsewhere in this blog, so I’ll shush up now.

One last point – it needs to be noted that the top three albums just happened to be the only three Wilco albums made with multi-instrumentalist and wannabe co-leader Jay Bennett on the roster. The story – as shown in the excellent documentary “I am Trying to Break Your Heart” – is that Bennett was canned during the making of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot for being a dick, and he may very well have been one – but the music suggests he was a terribly gifted dick. They were never as good as they were with him.

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RIP Jay

So there you go, Pal – my ranking of Wilco’s albums. How’d I do? Bang on, way off, or somewhere in between? Don’t let this post go unanswered. I expect a merciless analysis of my mistakes. Take off the band aid cuz I don’t believe in touchdowns.

Later, Pal.

Hey Oscars – This is no time for La La

Hey Pal:

I know my last post was a rant and I know I sometimes get too soap-boxy in this space, so I apologize in advance for this post, but it has to happen. I’m getting back on my soap box and I’m now going to stop talking to you, Pal, and address some important folks in the entertainment business.

Dear Members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences:

Congratulations! The nominations for the upcoming Academy Awards are out and by most accounts you got it right this year. Critics seem to agree the nominated films and performances recognize the best in movies rather than the best in “for your consideration” campaigns, and there’s plenty of diversity in the mix to help you begin to shake that whole #OscarsSoWhite thing.

Well done.

Now, can we talk about next steps? The real decision-making starts now and I’d like to get radical and strongly suggest that you surprise everyone with your Best Picture choice and not give it to La La Land. Nothing against La La Land, I’ve seen it twice, and it’s a tasty morsel of cinematic confection; beautiful to behold and impeccably made. But this is not the time for La La Land, as great as it may be, because we are living in dangerous times. On November 8, the American electorate made a wildly bizarre choice and the doomsday clock was moved the closest it’s been to midnight since 1953, and now the whole world sits on the edge of our collective seats, watching a freak show unfold while chewing our nails and clenching our sphincters.

This is no time for singing and dancing.

This is time for a statement.

There is a certain film up for Best Picture that can be that statement. I’m not going to say it’s better than La La Land, but it is bigger, bolder and brainier. It’s more important and more profound. That film is…Arrival, the cerebral and thrilling  science fiction film starring Amy Adams as a linguistic professor tasked with finding a way to communicate with a newly-arrived alien species.

arrival-banner-1-final

I know it’s a longshot but hear me out. I’m asking that Hollywood Meryl Streep the shit out of this situation and give Washington a smack upside the head. I’m asking that you stare down a bully with his fake news and “alternative facts” and make a statement of truth and purpose. I’m asking that you award a film that is a perfect counterpoint to so much that’s going on right now, a film that is everything the new president isn’t.

Consider:

As the president drags political discourse into the gutter and shits in its mouth, Arrival eloquently explores the connection between the complexity of language and sophistication of thought.

As the president validates evidence-hating climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers, Arrival knows that truth is found through scientific inquiry and the collection of facts.

As the president builds walls out of hatred and discrimination, Arrival shows that a truly evolved species does not waste time and resources bickering over political borders, skin colour and religion.

As the president feeds off the worst human instincts, Arrival is a tribute to the potential of humankind.

As the thin-skinned president thinks small and petty thoughts, Arrival thinks big.

Very big.

Plus – it also happens to be a really exciting movie with plenty of intrigue and surprise, great acting, a perfect score and a killer ending. It’s exciting and emotional, and it would be a great choice for Best Picture no matter who’s in the White House.

There is a particularly potent and stressful moment in Arrival when 12 computer screens one by one blink to black and I fear the world is moving toward that moment for real.

So what do you say, Academy? Do you want to do the obvious thing and go all La La on us, or do you want to make a statement that may, in some small way, help turn those screens back on?

Later, Palsoap-box

Review of a Perfect Album: Velvet Underground’s Loaded

miloHey Pal:

Good debate! I enjoyed that. It feels good to be right (ha ha). Anyway, our sparring over one angry, misunderstood musical genius got me listening to another angry, misunderstood musical genius (one of Kurt’s influences, in fact), and it inspired another entry into our Two Pals’ Perfect Album series. We’re going to play around with time and identity with this one, so please keep up…

You are Lou Reed. The 1960s are coming to a close, though for you they never really existed in the way that people like to think of them, all full of peace and love and hippy stuff. You and your band The Velvet Underground have made three albums that will be regarded as masterpieces; that will secure your place as the godfather of punk and new wave; that will forever be cited as essential influences on any rocker who prefers to rattle people’s chains than make pretty music. The 1960s are over and you are about to make your fourth and final masterpiece with the Velvet Underground, and your record label is busting your balls insisting that once — please, just once! — you make an album that might actually contain a hit.

You are me. The 1980s are coming to a close, though for you they never really existed in the way that people like to think of them, all full of optimism and a belief that prosperity and happiness will just naturally find us as long as we get a university degree. You are a worrier. You doubt yourself. You are preparing to go to university and like most people your age you listen to U2, Guns N’ Roses, Springsteen and Tom Petty; but you also listen to stranger stuff that average teens are not drawn to, like Love, Randy Newman, the Waterboys and the latest album from Lou Reed — New York, a bleak and angry song cycle about the decaying city that has always been his home. You’re not exactly a freak, but you’re attracted to darker stuff. You’re not exactly a rebel, but you have a tendency to doubt conventional wisdom.

You are Lou Reed. Your band isn’t what it used to be. Your collaborator and combatant John Cale has left, which means the Velvets’ music is now without his haunting, screeching viola. Maureen Tucker is pregnant and can’t play, which means you’ll be without her imperfect but entrancing drumming. But you have Doug Yule and Sterling Morrison and most importantly, you still have you — the angry visionary who has always driven this ground-breaking (actually, more like ground-scorching) band. And you have decided to have fun with your record label’s demand for hits. You’ve decided to make an album so loaded with hits that it will be called Loaded — and you will do it your way.

You are me. Following your slightly oddball music tastes, you’ve been spending a lot of time lately with the Velvets’ first album, 1967’s Velvet Underground and Nico (the classic banana album)…

…and it is starting to obsess you. Sure, you love the Beatles, but you’re discovering the Velvets are the anti-Beatles and that makes them cool and interesting. You love the idea that in 1967, while everyone else was hitchhiking to San Francisco with flowers in their hair and grooving to Sgt. Peppers, there were four sunglass-wearing, leather-clad freaks holed up at Andy Warhol’s factory scaring the shit out of everyone with noise and dissonance and hard-boiled lyrics about heading uptown for heroin and head. You’re all for the surreal and euphemistic loveliness of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, but you also seriously dig getting slammed in the face with the blunt reality of “Heroin”.

Flower power, Warhol style.

You are Lou Reed. You write and record Loaded. It opens with “Who Loves the Sun”, which is a direct retort to the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun”. You make it sound every bit as sweet and catchy and hippy-dippy as the Beatles’ song. Both songs are freaking gorgeous, but where John and Paul said “yay for the sun!” your message is “fuck the sun”. You also include a handful of perfect classic rock tunes, including “Sweet Jane” and “Rock and Roll”; and mix it up with a few ballads (“New Age”, “I Found a Reason” and “Oh! Sweet Nuthin”) so big and warm and fuzzy they’d even make Phil Specter swoon, until he realizes they’re about hobos, hookers and washed-up starlets. You even toss in “Lonesome Cowboy Bill”, a boppin’, janglin’ country rock song that is presumably a nod to the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, who are in the process of inventing country rock.

You do all of this for one simple reason — to show your record label and everyone else how fucking easy this is for you; to let them know you could have been making beautiful hits all along but have always found it more gratifying to assault and challenge your listeners with “The Black Angel’s Death Song” and “Sister Ray”.

You are me. You move on from the classic banana album to Loaded and discover it may actually be better. It’s certainly more fun. You wonder if Lou is messing with you. How could the guy behind “All Tomorrow’s Parties” also produce such straight-up rock? And cheese! Compelling cheese, but cheese all the same. It never gets cheesier than “I Found a Reason”, with its Pa Pa Pa sing-along and its ridiculous spoken word interlude:

Honey, I found a reason to keep living
And you know the reason, dear it’s you
And I’ve walked down life’s lonely highways
Hand in hand with myself
And I realized how many paths have crossed between us

You laugh at it, but you also love it. And perhaps this is what makes it the most subversive thing the Velvet Underground ever did. Imagine if Stanley Kubrick directed a romantic comedy with Meg Ryan, or Salvador Dali decided to take a stab at a Norman Rockwell scene. This is the musical equivalent: a dark, twisted genius slumming it in Happy-Land, and doing it better than just about anyone else could.

Other interesting things are happening in the late 1980s that are giving the Velvet Underground an aura of renewed relevance. Alt-country pioneers The Cowboy Junkies do a wicked cover of “Sweet Jane”. Lou is enjoying a resurgence with New York. And following Andy Warhol’s death in 1987, Lou and John Cale decide to hate each other less and work together more and make a spooky tribute album called Songs for Drella.

Meanwhile, you’re about to head off to university wondering if it’s going to do anything for you, and somehow all these things fit together in your fledgling world view, and Loaded, with just the right blend of sweet and cool, earns its place on your frequent play list.

And that’s the story of how a moody rocker in 1970 made a pop classic despite himself, and how 20 years later it was discovered by a kid who really needed to hear it. And it is the latest addition to the Two Pals’ perfect album canon:

Later, Pal.

I Fucking Hate You Bill Cosby

binkleyI fucking hate you Bill Cosby
I fucking hate you Bill Cosby

Just like Beetlejuice emerging out of that scale model town, my emotions reach the surface on repeating that statement and I get surprised by watery eyes and stammering speech. I knew that he was important in my life but maybe I didn’t realize how much his influence on me was crushed by the discovery of his horrific actions.

What makes things worse is that just before that fateful Hanibal Buress exposure to the mainstream of what he had done, we were midway through season 1 of The Cosby Show with our kids. They were hooked. We were all laughing together at all the crazy Huxtible antics. But fuck all that because….

I fucking hate you Bill Cosby

The Cosby Show had principles. Great messaging for a young Pal that I wanted to share with my kids. There’s a scene where the entire family is fighting in the living room. A voice rises above all the yelling. The family goes quiet to look at the TV where Martin Luther King was giving his I Have a Dream speech. They slowly sit down to listen to the remainder of the speech. The episode just ends after that. It was the first time I had heard the I Have a Dream speech. It was the first time I had heard anything like that. That scene was so effective at making the statement that this was really important. It blew my mind. The idea of human rights and activism was not a concept I was aware of. That there were real people (not just the cartoon superheroes I was used to) who fought for what was right. That scene really meant a lot to me. I always had this weird fantasy that if I ever met him someday I would thank him for that. But fuck that now because …

I fucking hate you Bill Cosby

Watching The Cosby Show now, I came to realize that my family is sort of like the Huxtables. My wife is similar to Claire in her strength, beauty and reluctant acceptance of her goofy husband. My kids are smart, sweet and rambunctious like the Huxtible kids. I got a Rudy for sure in my youngest and I suspect that my oldest will be a Sandra. They were the ideal family and it warmed my heart to think that my family was similar. But fuck that now because …

I fucking hate you Bill Cosby.

So, we stopped watching the show. This was upsetting for the kids. They loved the show and wanted to see more episodes all the time. There was crying and begging because they didn’t know why we aren’t watching it anymore.

Like everyone else we were confused. Are these just allegations? There are so many women coming forward about what he had done to them. His leaked testimony of him admitting to giving drugs to women. The seeming awareness in comedian circles that something nefarious was going on. I am just a civilian, but I am going to treat it as a pretty solid fact now.

We can’t have our kids fall in love with the man the way we did when we were kids. When they get wind of the truth, what kind of message would that be that we happily watched his show knowing what kind of monster he is.

http://www.etonline.com/news/154160_timeline_of_bill_cosby_sexual_assault_allegations/

We finally explained that someone on the show did something very bad and watching that show now makes us unhappy. They didn’t press the issue. Kids don’t want to know that stuff and I am glad that we didn’t have to explain ourselves further.  But we will have to eventually.

So fuck you very much Bill Cosby

All of this complaining about ruining my fandom is really not the issue. Even the far bigger fans than me that had their hero crumble like a meteor entering the atmosphere. The real issue is the women he raped and what that trauma did to, and took away from, their lives. The real issue is that he can’t be tried criminally. I understand their is a civil law suit and I hope they soak him, but that is not what should have happened. What should have happened is that he should have been convicted a long time ago. What should have happened is that those women should not have had to watch this monster rise to iconic status as the comedian’s comedian. As everyone’s favorite dad. because of that, I say…

I fucking hate you Bill Cosby.

There is an upcoming HBO documentary featuring the women that he raped. A follow up to the very compelling New York Post piece.  I will now look to these women as the ideals of principles and courage.

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So all we can do now is not forget. All we can do now is ruin his legacy. That is the point of this post.  He won’t get away with it in the eyes of the public.

Fuck you Bill Cosby.

7 Reasons Why Independence Day is the Most Offensive Movie Ever

miloPal, I have seen more than my fair share of offensive movies. I have endured scenes of torture and rape, suffered through hideous descents into drug-fueled madness, and even watched a character take a flame thrower to a bus load of children, for Pete’s sake.

But I recently watched a movie that truly takes the cake, a film so offensive it makes all those other sick-fests seem like child’s play. The movie to which I am referring is Independence Day.

Independence Day was released in 1996, was directed by Roland Emmerich and stars Will Smith. It is a thrilling, light-hearted and rousing action adventure about humankind successfully fighting off an alien invasion. It is rated PG and was, by far, the biggest grossing movie the year it was released.

It’s one of the most offensive things I have ever seen. There are so many reasons why, but I’ve narrowed it down to the top 7. Oh, and spoiler alert, if you are the one guy left in the world who has still not seen this movie, but wants to, stop reading right now. I give it all away.

7.  It imitates Satan

Everyone knows how the Devil works. He is wonderful when you first meet him, seducing you with his charm and luring you in. Next thing you know, you’re licking his fiery balls in Hell.

Independence Day works the same way. The first 20 minutes are awesome, a model of how to build suspense as  city-sized alien ships break through our atmosphere without warning or explanation and silently settle over major centres all around the world. Then stupid shit starts to happen. From there the movie just gets stupider and stupider, but by the time you realize what’s happening, it has eaten your soul.

 6.  The aliens’ motive is moronic

There is a popular (and logical) theory that any alien species sophisticated enough to figure out interstellar travel and make their way across unfathomable distances to find us would almost certainly come in peace. They would be infinitely older, wiser and smarter than us and would not feel the least bit threatened by us. We would be to them what salamanders are to us.

So, if they ever get here, there is any number of things they could do: study us, teach us, help us fix our problems. At worst, maybe pilfer some of our resources or put a few of us into their zoo. But to come all this way for the express purpose of annihilating us?  That would be like a person living in New York City building a cruise ship, filling it with soldiers and weaponry and sailing the thing all the way to a small island off the coast of Australia – for the express purpose of machine gunning each and every salamander on that island. It would be, to say the least, excessive.

5.  Everything’s a stereotype

Why complicate a film with characters when you can go with caricatures? In Independence Day, everything is simple. Politicians are assholes. Soldiers are heroes. Peace-lovers are kooky hippies…

on roof

What a pretty laser!

Rednecks drink and drive trailers. Scientists are antisocial and are played by Data…

independence-day

Emotion overload, does not compute!

On the international stage, Russians are vaguely menacing, Arabs wear turbans, and Africans wear loin cloths and carry spears at all times…

africans

We’re going to need a bigger spear.

The purpose of this movie is to make Americans love America (good article here). There’s even a speech that explains why World history is really just a subsidiary of U.S. history. So I guess the filmmakers thought it best to just keep everything else as simple and shallow as a pancake. But it pisses me off, and it should piss everyone off.

4. The aliens are incredibly stupid for being so incredibly brilliant 

This is a species that can construct a mother ship one quarter the size of our moon, fill it with sub ships the size of cities, travel millions of light years and, upon arrival, already knew exactly which cities and buildings to target in order to wreak maximum havoc. They communicate telepathically. They are ADVANCED.

And yet, here’s something that happens:

The climax of the film includes a “covert” operation during which Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum use an alien fighter ship to sneak onto the mother ship so they can upload a virus onto the mother ship’s mainframe. There’s a lot to mock about this sequence, but my favourite is that the aliens have no idea there are two humans on the ship that they just let into their giant traveling home. Do they not have any detection systems on board? Do they not read minds? Could they not, at the very least, look into the freakin’ windows?

willjeff-independence-day

Remember me? I was in Jurassic Park. He’s the Fresh Prince.

It gets better. Once they’re on board, Jeff Goldblum, the techie character in the film (we know this because he’s awkward and wears glasses), taps his keyboard about three or four times and says “we’re in”. Seriously? That’s all it takes to hack into this species’ network and wreck everything? They have invisible shields around their ships that can repel nuclear attacks, but they never heard of anti-virus software?

alien

Don’t worry, I’m not as bright as I look.

3. Sometimes a cigar is not just a cigar

The climax of this movie is so full of absurdity, so many reasons for hatred, but for me it all just boils down to the cigars. Let me attempt to explain this.

Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum have successfully downloaded the virus to the mother ship’s computer (yeah, right), which means the shields are down and the  fighter jets on Earth are able to successfully attack the city-sized sub ships. For Will and Jeff, this means mission accomplished, and so they light up cigars to celebrate. Here’s what they have to do next…

– Fly out of the mother ship while being attacked
– Become engulfed in fire and debris when the mother ship explodes while they are leaving it (please remember this ship is one quarter the size of our moon – that’s a shitload of fire and debris to fly through)
– Travel through space back to earth
– Endure the punishing experience of re-entry into earth’s atmosphere
– Travel around the planet from wherever they re-entered to the precise location in the desert where their wives and the President are conveniently waiting for them

And as they walk heroically across the desert to be embraced by the welcome committee, THEY ARE STILL SMOKING THE CIGARS! And not just that, but the cigars are pretty much the same size as when they lit them.

Saving humankind is a little tiring, but very satisfying.

Now, I don’t know exactly how long that journey home should take, but it’s got to be a whole lot more than three stogie puffs, and I don’t know what condition our heroes would be in (dead, actually), but I would think after the ordeal they just endured, chomping on a tasty Cuban would be the furthest thing from their minds.

 2. Female characters are less important than the cigars

If real life aliens watched Independence Day in order to learn about humankind they would conclude the men are retarded, and that the females have yet to develop brains. The women in this movie do absolutely nothing but think about their men and talk about their men while sitting around waiting for their men to come home and save them. Correction, that’s not all they do. Sometimes they dance in their underwear for money.

Stripping is, like, soooo pro-American!

1. President Pullman may be the most dangerous character in movie history

There is a large (and I fear, growing) percentage of voters who want elected leaders to be just like the rest of us. They vote for the person who seems like “regular folk”. This scares the shit out of me. I want leaders who are vastly superior to me. Why don’t we all want that? If the folks who vote for regular folk were a tiny minority it wouldn’t be a problem, but we know that sometimes these people win, as when the United States elected George W. Bush and Toronto elected Mayor Rob Ford.

rob-ford-leafs

Just one of the boys.

Now, Hollywood has no obligation to show us how leaders ought to be, but they’ve generally done a good job giving us fictional presidents with gravitas, such as Morgan Freeman, Jeff Bridges and Michael Douglas.

For Independence Day, they went with Bill Pullman. Nothing against the guy, he’s fine in the right role, but Most Powerful Man in the World is not that role. He oozes “regular guy” from every pore. He looks ordinary. He talks ordinary. And, within the asinine script of Independence Day, he does things that real leaders don’t do, like fire his Secretary of Defense in front of a roomful of people just because it feels good to do so.

The speech is widely adored. It shouldn’t be.

And then we get the stupidest moment ever put on film, the moment in Independence Day when, if you’re paying attention, you realize your soul has been destroyed and all hope is lost, and you pound your head against the wall again and again.

What do you suppose President Bill Pullman is doing during the climatic battle? Is he holed up in a Situation Room in an extremely well guarded bunker monitoring the situation and making incredibly important decisions because, after all, the fate of all humankind hangs in the balance? No. I’ll tell you what he’s doing – FLYING A FIGHTER JET SMACK DAB IN THE MIDDLE OF THE BATTLE!!!

He’s so cool!

If the real life President pulled such a stunt he would be immediately relieved of duties in order to have his head examined, but I’m pretty sure we were all supposed to cheer about this. And I shudder to think how many impressionable young minds watched Independence Day and thought how wicked awesome it was that the President had the balls to dive into battle. Is this half-witted “regular guy” their model for how a leader should be? Is this in any way on their minds when they enter a real life ballot box? Thoughts like these keep me up at night.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures and declares

To wrap up…

The last movie I watched before Independence Day was Troll 2, a film so weirdly incompetent and bad that it has become a cult favourite where people go to laugh their asses off at it. I absolutely loved it.

What’s not to love?

So how can I forgive the idiocy of Troll 2 but lose my shit in anger thinking about Independence Day? Because the people behind Troll 2 were a ragamuffin little crew who didn’t know how to make a movie, but truly thought they were creating something special. They believed in it. They did their best. They acted with sincerity and passion, and through the ridiculousness, it shows.

The makers behind Independence Day knew better. They are big-time, smart, talented filmmakers who knew how idiotic their story was. They were aware of the stereotypes and giant plot holes, but didn’t care. And they knew exactly how Bill Pullman would play as President. They could have created something thoughtful and wise about the potential implications of humankind meeting alien life for the first time, but they knew they could make ass loads of dough with a jingoistic, big budget shit-fest that appealed to America’s basest instincts.

And they were right.

And that’s the most offensive thing of all.

Later, Pal

P.S. Independence Day II: Resurgence is due in theatres in 2016, “celebrating” the 20th anniversary of Part I. Yay!

Reluctant Roundabout Review of a Possibly Perfect Album: The Trouble with Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam

miloHey Pal:

Well I find myself in a bit of a pickle: I’m falling back in love with the music of Cat Stevens, or should I say the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens who, since 1977, has gone by his reborn Muslim name Yusuf Islam.

And therein, more or less, lies the source of the problem.

More on that in a minute.

First, I need to put forward a new title in our Perfect Album series, and I must do so through a slightly meandering story (have faith, it all comes together eventually)…

Part I: In which a young Milo Pal discovers a magical film

As a high schooler in the late 80s I sat down one night to watch the cult classic film Harold and Maude, and it blew my mind.

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You know those films, Pal, the ones that showed you early on that film is an art form that can do more than entertain; that they can also provoke and challenge? This is one of mine. I loved everything about this dark comedy about a 20-year-old man child obsessed with death who learns how to live from his 79-year-old “girlfriend”. Through the ick factor and the dark edges, there is so much humour, sweetness and beauty in this film.

Perhaps the thing I loved most was the music. There wasn’t really a score, just a handful of folk songs from a guy I’d never heard of before; a guy with a voice that was sweet and soaring one moment, growly and wise the next. A guy named Cat Stevens. The songs and lyrics fit the film perfectly. I can’t describe it better than Jordan Cronk does in this 2012 review in Slant Magazine:

“And yet the Cat Stevens soundtrack—unquestionably one of the greatest in the history of the medium—that plays as both running commentary and harmonic transition device, adds an essential dimension to (director Hal) Ashby’s vision, quelling the manipulation of a traditional score while still reflecting and reinforcing his motifs. Stevens’s lyrics work almost as voiceover narration, coloring and enlivening an otherwise dark, deadpan comedy. He’s an omniscient presence, a character unto himself, a spiritual gateway for an audience cold to such guileless expressions of humanity.”

This probably only works for those who’ve seen the film, but I can’t resist providing a few samples, pics with lyrics:

harold and mom

I used to walk alone / Every step seemed the same / This world was not my home / So there was nothing much to gain

car wash

So on and on I go / The seconds tick the time out / There’s so much left to know / And I’m on the road to find out

 

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And if you want to sing out, sing out / And if you want to be free, be free / Cause there’s a million things to be, you know that there are / You know that there are

bed

I think I see the light / Coming to me, coming through me / Giving me second sight / So shine, shine, shine

 

maude umbrella

Bring tea for the tillerman, steak for the sun / wine for the woman who made the rain come

A beautiful marriage of song and visual.

Needless to say, I joined the cult of Harold and Maude and have been a member ever since though, until recently, it had been years since I last watched it.

Part II: In which a young Milo Pal discovers an almost perfect album

One thing was abundantly clear after first viewing – I needed that soundtrack immediately. But wouldn’t you know it, a soundtrack for Harold and Maude was inexplicably unavailable at that time. So I bought the next best thing:

tea-for-the-tillerman

Perfect album?

It was one of Cat’s more renowned albums and happened to have a bunch of the Harold and Maude songs on it, so I purchases up the cassette and popped it into the old Sony Walkman, and what I heard was good, it was very good indeed.

These were folk songs — simple and sweet — but with balls. It wasn’t just a guy plucking a guitar and softly crooning (which is what I thought folk music was). The music was full — driving and urgent. There were drums. Songs built to a crescendo. The voice was arresting, potent and expressive. At times he sounded angry. Every song seemed to be about traveling or searching. Cat wasn’t sure what he wanted, but he knew he wouldn’t find it sitting still:

Miles from nowhere
I guess I’ll take my time
Oh yeah, to reach there

Sometimes he did provide answers. The sense of spirituality and righteousness that would eventually lead him to Islam was already strong:

Yes the answer lies within
So why not take a look now
Kick out the devil’s sin
Pickup, pickup a good book now

I listened to Tea for the Tillerman often but would not, at the time, have declared it perfect. The thing had orchestral touches I found cheesy and a couple of songs I could have done without, most notably the sappy “Sad Lisa”. That song just bugged me.

But overall, for a teenage boy pondering the meaning of life and asking more and more questions about the religion  he’d been taught, this was powerful stuff. I was a budding Cat fan.

Then, tragedy…

Part III: In which something terrible happens

In 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini declared a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill author Salmon Rushdie for writing his great novel The Satanic Verses. And Cat, who’d been Yusuf Islam since 1977, and who had stopped making music and had distanced himself from the secular music he’d made, hopped on board and said in a couple different forums that he was down with Khomeini. Sure, he subsequently backpedaled, but go ahead and look up the quotes for yourself. You can even watch them on YouTube. It’s clear his fundamentalist-soaked mind had decided death was a fitting punishment for free speech.

Pathetic.

As my friend Jerry lamented at the time —  this, from the guy who wrote “Peace Train”.

I can’t tell you I nobly boycotted Cat/Yusuf from that moment on – I have certainly hummed along to “Morning Has Broken” more than a few times since then – but the sad, ugly incident certainly turned what might have been a lifelong musical love affair into a temporary fling. Plans to buy Teaser and the Firecat were cancelled. Tea for the Tillerman crawled to the back of the cassette drawer and was not replaced when growing up Pal entered the digital age.

Part IV: In which an older Milo Pal reconnects and finds perfection

With Cat and Maude and Harold and Yusuf far from mind, I headed down to the library recently to see what free entertainment I could dig up and just happened to toss Harold and Maude and Tea for the Tillerman into the overflowing pile of music and movies I greedily walked out with, and it was not until I got home that I realized I had inadvertently reintroduced into my life this natural film/album combo.

(If I believed in fate…)

No matter, I watched Harold and Maude – introducing it to my 14-year-old daughter – and it was every bit as good as I remembered and, to my slight surprise, the kid really liked it too.

Then I listened to Tea for the Tillerman.

And man oh man what a trip that turned out to be.

I liked that album back in the day. I like it even more now. It’s been a long time, but the whole thing was still vivid in my mind. Every song is a gem (even sappy Sad Lisa is not bad!). All the yearning and searching is still there, but the wisdom of it stood out even more now that I’m 20 years down the road.

“Father and Son” is the obvious stand-out now, being able to hear it as a dad. The aforementioned teenage daughter and I have been having some big talks lately about her life and the future. She’s in the mode of dreaming big. She’s going to write novels, she’s going to travel the world. University seems like a waste of time. She is committed to living an extraordinary life.

Do it, I tell her. I’m all for it. Be extraordinary. Then, because I helped make her, I lapse into offering some practical advice. It’s certainly not the same dynamic as the story that that plays out in “Father and Son”, but I do find myself echoing some of the Father’s lines:

“I was once like you are now.”

“There’s so much you have to know.”

“Look at me, I am old, but I’m happy.”

So now I’m the old man. OK. I can live with it. It’s testament to Cat’s lyrics that both sides of that song hold up and are fairly represented.

The other thing that strikes me now about Tea for Tillerman is the length. At less than 37 minutes it is lean and precise. No filler, no wasted moments. Two of the songs are less than two minutes. Cat says what he needs to say and gets out. With my impatient, aging, Twitterized mind, I increasingly love brevity (though I fully recognize I am not demonstrating it in this long-winded post — sorry!). So I admire the hell out of any artist who can say a lot — and say it briefly.

And so, I will now declare it – I consider Tea for the Tillerman a perfect album.

Part V: In which things remain maddeningly unresolved

I’ve been so moved by my rediscovery of this classic, I needed to revisit the elephant in the room. What about the fatwa? Does Cat —  sorry, Yusuf — still stand by what he said? I’d heard he’s returned to making music and no longer renounces what he made before. Could it be that his rational mind has returned? Is he ready to say “shame on me for that whole Rushdie thing”?

Sadly, not so much.

The most recent thing I could find was this interview with Rolling Stone. Here’s the relevant chunk:

It’s still a sensitive subject for Yusuf. When I broach it, his son looks up, concerned. “People need to get over it,” says a clearly irritated Yusuf. “It’s 25 years ago. I’ve got gray hair now. Come on. I was fool enough to try and be honest and tell people my position. As far as I’m concerned, this shouldn’t be the subject of my life.”

That appears to be the end of it, and Yoriyos looks relieved. But Yusuf can’t help himself. “I’m a firm believer in the law,” he says. “I was never a supporter of the fatwa [against Rushdie], but people don’t want to hear that because they keep saying that I believe in the law of blasphemy. All I’m saying is, how can you deny the Third Commandment? It’s an Islamic principle that you must follow the law of the land where you reside.”

Unapologetic answers like that are what make Rushdie and his many supporters unable to forgive Yusuf, and he knows their feud will never end. “That’s the way life is,” he says. “I don’t want to put myself in this bracket, but if you look at any messenger, there’s going to be an antagonist.”

Well there you have it. Still miles from nowhere, if you ask me.

I suppose I’m glad Yusuf found the answers to the questions he was asking on Tea for the Tillerman. It’s just a shame those beliefs need to veer into the odious. Yusuf has his beliefs, I have mine – and at the top of the pile is that if there is one thing in this world that actually is sacred, it’s free speech.

So what to do?

Is this a case of needing to separate the artist from the art? Can I love the music but reject the man?  Or does listening to the music intrinsically mean support for the musician?

I don’t know.

Later, Pal.

yusuf_cat-stevens2

 

She is the Spectacle: St. Vincent at the Danforth Music Hall (Mar 3, 2015)

binkleyI know Pal. I am way overdue for a post. I have to admit, I struggled with this one. Not in the topic.  I knew exactly what I wanted the post to be about, but I wanted this one to be a doozy. I thought I needed more time on this one. I was moved greatly by what we saw that night about a month ago. Maybe one of the best shows I have ever seen. St. Vincent (a.k.a Annie Clark) at the Danforth Music Hall. It was a revelation for me.

03032015-danforth-stvc15-1050x700

I wanted this post be as big as that show was using stories from my life as a pastiche to the wonderful encounter that meant so much to me.

I wanted to talk about the encounter we had with a large and georgeous amazon model type woman and that pipsqueak of a man that was clinging to her arm. She had it all together and it was clear that she was too much woman for him. Just like I had originally thought St. Vincent’s music was for me. It had this mammoth sound, and I was just this little pipsqueak clinging to it, trying to understand it.

I wanted to discuss women in music. How I never really listened to too many women musicians when I was young. How that was probably due to inequalities and double standards in the music world (limiting what was available) and a young Pal wearing musical blinders, shielded from all the great women musicians that existed at the time. I wanted to discuss how that was a real shame, and how that had totally changed in recent years to the point where I am probably buying and listening to more women musicians than men now. It has been an amazing last few years musically especially for women artists and I wanted to talk about how St. Vincent was at the pinnacle of that for me.

I wanted to talk about my daughter and how she built her own radio from a kit and how she listens to that primitive radio in her room at night before going to bed (and not just to Pop stations). I catch her listening to Jazz, Latin, Funk….you name it. Like she had hacked into to this unusual alien world full of great music. It smacks of stories I heard of how legend musicians, as kids, would stay up to the wee hours listening to these mind bending musical blues, jazz and folk acts. This shaped the future of Rock and Roll. Now my kid is doing this with her ancient looking radio she built herself. What will that shape in her? I bet St. Vincent did stuff like that. She must have been exposed to so many musical styles for her to achieve such a unique sound of her own.

I wanted to talk about all of these things. I wanted there to be this grand narrative that was stitched all through those stories. I don’t know about what. Maybe a strong optimism about where music is heading. How there seems to be a strong inclusive feeling in music these days where every unique artist can be heard. Where originality is rewarded. How a young girl listening to Funk in the middle of the night, on a radio she built by hand, can feel free to have an artistic outlet for all the crazy amazing music she might want to make herself. How young boys are hopefully more willing/able to get behind strong and powerful women musicians without them having to sacrifice their integrity with  cartoonish sexualisation (I am looking at you Nicky Minaj).

I wanted the post to reach its peak by reviewing the St. Vincent concert. I wanted all of it to mesh into a Magnolia style crescendo with frogs raining down on anyone reading this post. I was that blown away by her show.

Everything I heard on podcasts or read in magazines said that the St. Vincent show was the best show going right now. For some reason, I was anticipating a visual wonderland. With lights and props and lots of things for the eyeballs to feast on.

There really wasn’t much. There was a wedding cake like pyramid that was used to great effect (especially when she slow motion fell down it for 5 minutes) but that was it.

There were choreographed physical movements by Annie and the band. Robotic-like posing routines.  My favourite was the short stepping they did across the stage. Their feet were working like crazy, but from our vantage point it looked like they were just floating across the stage as they played. Simple and very  effective.

Other than that, there wasn’t much in the way of frills and flash. It was all Annie Clark and her amazingly tight band. That was the delicious meat of the show for our ears to feast on. Annie Clark’s presence was all my eyes needed. Although she is gorgeous, I am talking about her command of the stage, her interstitial speeches, the out-there artistic liberties she took, and most of all, her lightning fast fingers shredding blazing riffs and avant solos. Amazing.

To show how big it was for me, I wanted all this fanfare behind my review of the show.  I wanted a monumental post. Full of production and insight, with some grandiose statement on the big picture (whatever that might have been). I wanted my post to be a spectacle.

But, what I realized in reflecting on the show was that none of that is relevant. It isn’t needed. St. Vincent alone was the spectacle.  I just feel glad that we witnessed it.

I fell into the trap of thinking that the show needed more than St. Vincent. Just like I thought my post needed more than it is.

It didn’t.

Later Pal.