Archive for August, 2008

Blackalicious, Blazing Arrow

August 25, 2008

Blackalicious Blazing Arrow

Blazing Arrow is 74 minutes and 24 seconds long, has 15 songs, and its vocals, mostly by Gift of Gab, get released at such speed for the most part, you’re shocked the man doesn’t collapse from asphyxiation.  Released in 2002, it was Blackalicious’s only moment that approached commercial success and was modestly successful critically as well, but its astonishment crept up on me over the years.  This is the exact type of album that an age of MP3’s delays – at 74 minutes, it’s so long it’s hard to play it from start to finish, over and over again, which is what it needs.  Even worse – it’s best from beginning to end while you’re feeling thrilled, inspired, elated, stoned, or, at the very least, ready to absorb music full of excitement and inspiration, which, if truly that is what I am feeling at any given moment, makes it difficult to get through a 74 minute album.  Get to know the songs though – arriving slyly with a Harry Nilsson song in “Blazing Arrow,” the album turns into a party before “First In Flight” (with great vocals by Gil Scott Heron) turns it into a thrill of creativity and excitement.  From there, each song isn’t just original, each is an explosion of form and ability, and melts like candlewax from song to song – as “Sky Is Falling” juts with paranoia and anger, “Green Light: Now Begin” complements with hope and calmness, rapped at a furious speed that never dips into caricature or rhyme-scheme-necessitating nonsense.  Each song has the potential to thrill, titillate, and inspire, but for me each time I reach “Make You Feel That Way,” it’s something more.  If I’m lucky enough to hear the record from beginning to end, “Make You Feel That Way” with its seductive trumpet and sexy come-ons feels like a statement of purpose for all hip-hop – for all music.  It ushers in a side full of experiments and wild digressions in which each works – even a 3-part, nine-minute freak out called “Release.”  The record concludes with “Day One,” a sunset r/b song of beauty and perfection and ease.  In its soaring bridge that repeats the line “Get your soul back” like an incantation, you’re so moved and excited, you do just that.

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“No Show”

August 20, 2008

“No Show”

Season 4, Episode 2

Written by Terrence Winter & David Chase

Directed by John Patterson

 

Plot: Meadow, home during the summer, can’t decide if she wants to go back to school or go to Europe, so she sees a therapist, alienating her parents.  With Paulie (Tony Sirico) in jail, Tony moves Christopher (Michael Imperioli) to the forefront of his jobs, helping solidify Christopher’s place at #2, which makes no one happy.  Adriana’s (Drea de Mateo) “friendship” with “Danielle” (Lola Glaudini) ends when she thinks Danielle hit on Christopher, so the feds tap Adriana directly.

 

Analysis:

With its plastic smack on the ground, the camera follows Meadow’s flip-flops in, and there she is, all pouty, 5’5” inches of her.  That shot of Meadow from the flip-flops up puts us squarely in confrontational mode with Meadow and who she is – desperately lazy, whining whenever Carmela or Tony ask her to do anything, and shouting that she’s still reeling from Jackie, Jr.’s death whenever anything is asked of her.

 

The Sopranos took a hiatus between seasons 3 and 4 that lasted for 15 months, and they’d just get longer in between seasons as the years went on.  This was the first time they’d experimented with longer waits between seasons – deliberately delaying action 9 months or so, betraying the convention of television to let only an imaginary summer pass between episodes, and catching the audience up on it quickly (and, seemingly, never referencing those summers again).  In the years to come, significant events would happen off screen between seasons – Janice’s marriage to Bobby and the birth of her daughter, Meadow’s breakup with Finn, etc.  This time, we haven’t seen much of Meadow since she ran symbolically across traffic from Tony in “Army of One” at the end of season 3, but we’re left to assume she finished her Freshman year at Colombia successfully enough.

 

However, are her complaints about Jackie Jr.’s death genuine or just an excuse to get out of responsibility?  Dr. Melfi suggests to Tony it’s probably both, a grating act of manipulation that blocks the real pain she hasn’t dealt with yet.  Her laziness may be both too – malaise and depression lost in sunbathing.  This is something The Sopranos employs often – a more distressing expression of emotion that masks the real, needier truth underneath.  And the reason Meadow’s not expressing that truth is that it touches on a deeper truth – her complicity in the matter by enjoying her lifestyle.

 

Complicity is, I think, the true subject of “No Show,” down to its title, referencing negotiations Silvio and Ralphie negotiate for a set of construction jobs in which, it’s agreed, half of which no one will work for, and the other half no one will show up for – they all agree.  This lines up nicely with Adriana’s subplot – she’s developed a friendship with Danielle, whose name is actually Deborah, and who is actually a federal agent trying to get dirt on Tony.  When Christopher awkwardly courts a threesome with the ladies, Adriana blames Danielle and their friendship ends.  The feds bring her in and tell her directly she must answer for her complicity in drugs and murder – Ad tries to say that Pussy and Richie Aprile merely are in “witness protection,” leading to a funny moment in which all of the agents try and figure out if that’s true.  But once Ad realizes, her response is visceral – she pukes all over the table in front of her, and all over the Harry Winston bracelet Christopher has given her with, as Carmela’s therapist once called, “blood money.”

 

People facing, re-imagining (falsely, often), and justifying their decisions that harm others is a constant theme of The Sopranos, but rarely is it so overt and upsetting a theme as it is in “No Show.”  Sigler’s magnificent here in representing Meadow’s conflict – in a scene with her therapist, she gives and pulls back.  She tells her therapist that her father’s work is “Waste management wink wink,” but when Dr. Kobler intuits that Jackie’s death may have been more than drugs, Meadow pulls back, and defends that her father tried to keep Jackie from drugs.  On the surface, this is all Tony ever told her about Jackie, but it’s a question how much she believes this.  This scene makes me believe, truly, that Meadow knows but loves her father too much to indict him.  This is echoed in a confrontation, later in the episode, when Meadow finally disrupts all of their lies by calling Tony, “Mr. Mob Boss,” but pulls back in horror when he says to her, “Are you inferring to me that I didn’t do everything to keep that kid from fucking himself up?”  The two share a glance that is the definition of intensity, much as in their long history with each other, the two maintain their love through an understanding based on lies.  As in season 1’s “College” and season 2’s “Funhouse,” every time the two get close to speaking the truth to each other about Tony’s life in the mob, Meadow seems to understand, and seems to perpetuate the lie.

 

Meadow on the show is the future, the pastoral hope of American dreams – she’s an academic, she’s beautiful, and she’s far more clever than Tony or Carmela ever were, but the two are terrified, constantly of the choices that she’ll make.  Meadow does decide to go back to college, and to sublimate her concerns in a class called “Morality, Self, and Society” – it works, apparently, as she gives a very academic excuse for her father’s behavior to Finn a year later in “Unidentified Black Males.”

 

Still, what’s extraordinary about The Sopranos is the way each person has his/her own reaction to each situation, and so often it’s different from what we see on screen.  When Tony rebukes Christopher for “drawing heat to a half a million dollar job,” Christopher shows nothing, but goes home shattered, ignores Adriana for the night, and says, “Fuck it, I’m getting’ high.”  Deborah tries to get Adriana to talk about the mob, but Adriana is lost in her own thoughts, and, freed finally by the feeling that she’s made a friend, confesses that she believes she cannot have children.  It is actually the lack of details in this section that give them truth – Adriana says of her former relationship only, “the guy was such an asshole.”  In another show, she’d have a long monologue telling the story, but it wouldn’t make it lived in.  “The guy was such an asshole” makes you believe she experienced what she’s saying – these characters (and, for the most part, you and me) talk around the truth, because it’s often so hard to admit.

 

Which leads to the great bit of ambiguity that closes the episode.  A vanquished-looking Carmela sits in the tub and tells Tony not to worry about Meadow because, “I’m the one she’s angry with.”  Tony asks, “For what?,” and the episode ends.  For what indeed – shouldn’t Tony be responsible for their life?  For Meadow’s complicity?  I think often about what Carmela is referring to with this line, and with the conviction with which Edie Falco performs it. 

 

What it is, I think, is Meadow’s model of complicity in Carmela.  Later Carmela will confess to Dr. Melfi that somewhere along the line, they made the kids complicit, however, it is here that it happens, and it is she that is a model for profiting on the misdeeds of others, she that set the patter for loving men that are self-destructive and impossible to deal with, and ultimately, it is she with which Meadow must be angry because Meadow just loves Tony too much, meaning Carmela is who she has to become – someone that can perpetuate the lies that protect them all.

 

A scene you may have missed: You probably didn’t miss it, but John Patterson’s direction is a study of forcing your eyes to strange places in the frame, making you brilliantly aware of the depth of detail taken with this world.  I’ve mentioned the shot that opens Meadow’s story here, following her flip-flops into the room, but also the great shot of Deborah’s phone – you see her bedroom around in the background, see her and her husband taking care of their daughter, see, even, another “real” phone; when her fake phone rings and she resumes her performance as Danielle, we get a deeper understanding of the life she must protect in the one she’s making up.

 

Also, Janice’s (Aida Turturro)  fantastic lie to Tony over her affair with Ralph Cifaretto (Joe Pantoliano) – she’s simply “working on her demo for Tommy Mottolla.”  The scariest part of this lie is that certainly Janice believes it.

“Honky Tonk Women” The Rolling Stones

August 19, 2008

If you never thought a cowbell could be sexy, the opening notes of “Honky Tonk Women” will prove you wrong.  With a quick clank, you’re moving and don’t really know why, but Keith Richards’ guitar quickly justifies it – a low, throbbing strum occasionally lurching up to a rocking surface that explodes at the chorus.  It may present a simple story of many conquests whom Mick Jagger just can’t seem to drink off his mind, but what it really is The Rolling Stones at their most down and dirty charming – a bad boy rock anthem for which even the percussion is seductive.  I’m never quite sure where “Honky Tonk Women” came from – it’s not from any of the great rock records, not Beggar’s Banquet or Sticky Fingers or Aftermath or Let It Bleed, but it out-slinks and sexys every song on those records, creating bravado for the Stones’ five-man lothario army.  It’s a classic because none of its swagger – more in the music than the salacious lyrics, mind you – is remotely diluted today.

“Let It Be” The Beatles

August 19, 2008

Perhaps you’ve heard of it.  Why do artists not write anthems of the size of “Let It Be” anymore?  Let’s think about it for a second – how pretentious, how sermonizing, and how irritating would the idea of “Let it Be” sound today?  Probably like an awful joke gone rottenly sentimental or rottenly ironic.  What makes “Let It Be” a beacon of power, comfort, and genuine hope approaching 40 years after its release, though, is that sense that music can change lives, that words and instrumentation can signify a hope so grandly simple (speaking words of wisdom, let it be) that it becomes a resonant representation of all we’re far too self-conscious to say.  It’s the ultimate Taoist revolt in a song of such towering Spector production, it becomes Paul McCartney’s best song – a final rejoinder on finding peace at last; I can only imagine what someone who’d never heard sounds so genuine must have thought – people such as myself will never know.

“Ghost” Indigo Girls

August 19, 2008

Emily Sailers has written her share of deft love songs with moving lyrics, but she topped herself with “Ghost.”  “The Mississippi’s mighty, it starts in Minnesota in a place that you can walk across with five steps down.  I guess that’s how you started like a pinprick to my heart, but right now you rush right through me and I start to drown.”  You don’t find a metaphor for the kind of analysis and obsession that goes into thinking about love that’s stronger than that.  You could take issue with the heavy production that employs strings far too liberally and dramatically, but there’s a genuineness in the song that’s downright invasive, ripped from the journals you never wrote.  I could listen to the song a dozen times in a row and still feel the same intensity of the moment that’s inescapable.  I’m not sure if there’s an actual affair at the center of the song, it may just be thoughts of someone that linger, haunting like ghosts in a poltergeist movie – is she in love or just in love with a ghost?  It’s a question that doesn’t get asked enough, and this song proves the thoughts on love could trump the actual experience.

Bob Dylan, Desire

August 19, 2008

Bob Dylan Desire

How do you follow up arguably the greatest album ever made?  If you’re Bob Dylan, spokesman of walk-to-my-own-drum ethos, you grab a fiddle and a songwriting partner.  This 9-song set was (so the story goes) laid down in such haste in 1976, backup vocalist Emmylou Harris barely knew her part.  Surprisingly, that only adds to the charm of the record, which feels casual to the point of gleeful, off-guard surprise – a spur-of-the-moment trip to the South with a host that observes like a documentarian smoking too much bluegrass.  “Hurricane,” the galvanic (and infamous) song that opens the record is amongst the most undismissable protest songs ever recorded (even if it strains at its “ass in a stir/ triple mur-der” rhyme scheme), “Mozambique” is amongst the most delightful recordings of Dylan’s career, and in the left-field tragic songs “Oh Sister” and “Joey,” it observes quiet, lonely fates with tenderness and compassion, largely due to the combination of bluegrass instrumentality and the angelic reinforcement of Harris, who’s like a goodwill ambassador to Dylan’s passion.  It closes with “Sara,” the unforgettable harmonica ode to the woman on the other end of Blood on the Tracks’s disillusion.  That song is like your documentarian allowing, for a wonderful, brief moment, his camera to turn around.

“Elizabeth, You Were Born To Play That Part” Ryan Adams

August 19, 2008

The song starts out so soft with its simple two-note piano chord, that it’s so easy to miss that the song has even started.  “For you, I’d do anything,” he says with complete unguarded hopelessness.  The melody is simple and spare, and so is the singing, Adams’s most haunted number from his most haunted album, the melancholy 29.  The lyrics could have been written by any heartbroken teenager (“I’m waiting for someone who just won’t show/ and every night it feels like there’s no tomorrow”), but with the spareness of the piano, they take the grandeur of emotional truth, elegant and piercing.  As the song crescendos with the line of “I’m caught in a dream I’m caught in an endless dream,” the piano and vocals fade out to be overtaken by an acoustic guitar melody, and the two play at once for a moment, not quite fitting in with each other.  They’re two melodies, each beautiful, struggling to be noticed as one fades and the other take shape, a mismatched love affair stripped to the glorious individually of its two parties.  Absolutely gorgeous.

“Unidentified Black Males”

August 19, 2008

Unidentified Black Males

Season 5, Episode 9

Written by Matthew Weiner & Terrence Winter

Driected by Tim Van Patten

 

Plot: Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) and Finn (Will Janowitz) decide to try living in NYC for the summer, causing strain on their relationship when both start confronting what they’d like to do with their lives.  Carmela (Edie Falco) tries to move forward with divorce proceedings after being rebuked by Tony (James Gandolfini), but finds Tony beat him to all the divorce attorneys.  Tensions between New Jersey and New York heat up as rumors about Tony B.’s (Steve Buscemi) involvement with the hit on Joey Peeps hits Johnny Sack (Vincent Curatola).  Tony reveals to Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) where his guilt over Tony B. begins, and how it’s compromising his judgment.

 

Analysis:

It’s a scene early in the episode that exposes the two Sopranos women – who they are and how they operate.  Meadow and Carmela are shopping when Carmela tells Meadow she’s decided to move ahead with divorce proceedings – “What will you do?” Meadow asks.  Meadow, we realize, has options – a college education, for one.  Carmela does not.  “You have options,” she tells Meadow, “I have a lawyer.”

 

David Chase has referred to Carmela before as a whore, and in a way that does not reduce her humanity, it is true – she is a prisoner of wealth and material goods, and without Tony, she has nothing to fall back on.  She confronts him in a restaurant, stating she’ll, “Aggressively pursue an equitable distribution of our assets.”  Tony tells her, merely, “You’re entitled to shit.”

 

What is it in these women and men to operate so consistently with an endgame in mind?  Tony has, on the advice of attorney Alan Sapinsly in season 4’s “Whitecaps,” polluted Carmela’s ability to get an attorney by taking meetings with all of them.  The one that remained felt, probably justifiably, concerned to take on Tony Soprano in divorce court.  Tony has known all along how to keep Carmela in line. 

 

Meanwhile, Meadow, true to the line of Soprano women, knows how to keep her man around – persistence.  Meadow, in a long fight with Finn, seems only to want to hear that he wants her around, and pushes him towards a 4:30 a.m. marriage proposal.  Meadow had been mostly absent from season 5 (and people thought she was absent in season 4!), and, in great Sopranos way, it is acknowledged – Meadow’s been interning at a law firm, visited Hunter in Montreal, has been making vague and ambitious plans with Finn that will never come through.  She probably won’t be the whore that Carmela is, but you see the glint of Livia and Janice before her in her fights with Finn, and the hints of Carmela as she suffers at his rebuking.  Considering most TV shows seem to have their characters interact with their “family” while seemingly having nothing in common, The Sopranos is unique in showing the way interactions affect individuality, and how parents and children can affect one another.

 

We’re kept on the outside of much of the New York gang war infighting throughout the season – The Sopranos is the show that creates the notion that we’re only getting a portion of the characters’ lives that we see.  By the time we’re introduced to Lorraine Calluzzo early in season 5, she’s already doomed.  Same with Joey Peeps, Angelo Garepe, and poor Billy Leotardo, who’ll wind up being killed off-screen while Tony sleeps.  It’s an act of bravery to do all of this off screen and through half-conversations and overheard lines because it makes us always wonder what’s true, much as the characters in the show must, and it underscores how quick things move.  As in this season’s great “Irregular Around The Margins” episode, the force of speculation is as powerful as the real thing – even when it hides the real thing.

 

The unidentified black males of the title are the scapegoats those in Tony’s world use over and over again – and they come up three times.  Finn questions Meadow about Jackie Jr.’s death, and she says, “For your information he was killed by drug dealers.  African Americans.”  A pissed off Eugene Pontecorvo on the construction site hits Little Paulie in the head with a pylon, and Vito mutters, “I just saw a mulignane running that way” as an excuse.  But most notably, we find out Tony’s story of getting jumped by a group of black men on the night Tony B. got arrested was just a cover for a panic attack he had related to his mother, his first. 

 

In season 5, the therapy scenes seem to matter again, as Tony breaks his long silence over what drives him about Tony B, and the scene is one of Gandolfini’s greatest in a history of great scenes.  Getting through a panic attack in Melfi’s office, he tells her “Sometimes what happens in here is like taking a shit.”

 

That makes this episode a great episode of blame and manipulation.  Carmela, feeling initially rejected by Tony, finds she can’t really divorce him – as scenes of the bear roaming their gazebo are intercut; Tony truly is patrolling the house like an animal, and in the final scene, appears in the pool splashing himself like the bear he is.  As Meadow and Finn over the phone tell Carmela they’ve gotten engaged, she is crying – crying because she doesn’t know what the future holds for Meadow or for herself, crying because Meadow could be like her and could be so different.  Crying because marriage is a prison of some kind, always being surrounded by that bear, and crying because she doesn’t have any choices now, and not even a lawyer.  That’s why when Carmela cries at the end of the episode, like so many great scenes of The Sopranos, it encompasses so much more than tears, but the choices we make in life.

 

 

Great music: “If I Were A Carpenter” by Bobby Darin plays over the credits – a beautiful song, but also deeply symbolic – if Meadow weren’t a Soprano, and – more importantly – weren’t a product of the Soprano personality, would Finn be marrying her anyway?

A great scene you may have missed: At Joey Peeps’s funeral, an uncomfortable Phil Leotardo (Frank Vincent) and Silvio (Steven Van Zandt) try to pass the time waiting for Tony and Johnny Sack to talk.  Phil asks Silvio how his daughter’s doing, and Silvio, in great, uncomfortable Van Zandt form shrugs and slowly says, “good.”  There’s nothing so great as a scene quite as inconsequential as this one – essentially, nothing happens, but the tics and reactions of the characters are so genuine and specific, we smile just because of how well we know the people of this world.

“UFO In Kushiro” Haruki Murakami

August 17, 2008

 

“Think about it – tomorrow there could be an earthquake; you could be kidnapped by aliens; you could be eaten by a bear.  Nobody knows what’s going to happen.”

When a character utters this line in “UFO in Kushiro,” all of these things have happened – vaguely, to other people.  Its main character, Komura, has known of them only tangentially.  His wife has left him because he is too much like a “chunk of air,” and he has taken a trip to a vast, cold border town with frozen borders and chilling winds.  He’s talking with a woman who is unfamiliar to him, but is spookily prescient, and stirs something in Komura that he only recognizes in a fleeting instant – and that’s because what he recognizes is fleeting, too – himself.

“UFO in Kushiro” was one of the first short stories I read, and by that I mean “read” as something I did out of my own volition, and out of interest.  I did not know anything of Haruki Murakami at the time, nor did I know that After the Quake, for which “UFO” is the first story, was entirely different from even his other short works.  Murakami’s work is always defined by the mystical and vaguely koan-like, but the stories in After The Quake, which center on lives directly or tangentially affected by the 1995 Kobe earthquakes in Japan, are actually more direct and tangible than his typical work.

That is why “UFO” affected me so much – its mystery rises out of the corporeal at every turn.  Komura has taken a trip after his wife has left him, calling him a “chunk of air.”  He has gone to Hokkaido, the large island in Northern Japan.  His wife left him after days of watching earthquake footage on television, and a friend has asked him to deliver a small, extremely light wooden package to his sister.  Seems realistic enough so far, right?  In Hokkaido, there is a sister, and there is her friend, Keiko.  There is some interaction, but it’s the land that’s most interesting – the cold wind blows so strongly on the streets that snow cannot stay on the ground.  They go to a street where the “love hotels” all sit next to gravestone dealers.  He has brought this package of nothing – this chunk of air – only to have his friend’s sister disappear with it, leaving him suddenly far from home with his essence cold and missing.

The conversations in “UFO In Kushiro” might seem too ominous to be real to some, but think about times in life of great tragedy – it seems the comfortable, outer layer of our conversation has gone and we’re left with something else, something that exposes us a little more.  One conversation in particular shows Komura with the two women giggling of sexcapades gone tragic, and of the disappearances and mysteries that reveal life as fragile, as fleeting.  Are your conversations like this normally?  Probably not, but then again, how often is a context so overwhelmingly upsetting that our decorum, our normal interactions cannot suffice for what we truly have to say – not often. 

“UFO In Kushiro” is the story most directly connected to the earthquakes in After the Quake, much in the same way most of the stories of J.D. Salinger’s 9 Stories were about people affected by the war, but got further and further away from the war as the stories went on.  “UFO” is lithe and evanescent, a wound and an idea marked by the intangible.  Sometimes it takes great distance and trauma to expose us to who we really are, or separate us from who we are, and in the final words of the story, there is a rather coy sentence that is, also, very true.  As a story, it moved me initially because of something I couldn’t place.  I can place that now – because I am more familiar with what Murakami has in mind, because I know that sensation more, and because I am older.  Who we are at our core is light and threatens to disappear at a moment’s notice, and life is the process of making some sense of what is left.

 

“Tonight, Not Again” Jason Mraz

August 17, 2008

We don’t choose the songs we turn to.  They’re friends to us in the same way cousins are our friends – we don’t have a choice.  Like fate, they’ll show up when we need them to.  “Tonight, Not Again” is a song I can trust.  The speedy words that spit out a slew of desire and recrimination before collapsing on “and I’m all alone tonight, not again, not again, not again.”  Not one “not again,” but three.  It’s Jason Mraz the human being backed against a corner, “awkward as a wound on my bones,” and although a million musicians have attempted the same effect, this is the one that made it for me.  And I can only feel a little uneasy that it isn’t a great artist that did it for me – Mraz sings with such a vivid conviction, that refrain seems absolutely new.  I’m curious about the song’s story – Mraz, apparently, adapted it from a friend’s poem – but that’s secondary to the unexpected connection to lyrics and voice here; despite Mraz being someone I don’t take particularly seriously, this song has never let me down.