Archive for October, 2008

D’Angelo, Voodoo

October 19, 2008

Voodoo D’Angelo

 

I feel like I owe something to Voodoo.  I remember exactly where I was when I bought the album (East Lansing, Michigan, on a mid-February college tour of MSU that I checked out of after 2 minutes of waiting for a bus), and remember feeling compelled to write about it for my high school newspaper.  It’s funny to think this album’s been a part of my life for the better part of a decade now, because D’Angelo’s career did nothing since then (word on the street is he’s fat now, but that’s about it), and because of the way my thoughts about it have changed.  In 2000, in Woodland Park, Colorado, I wasn’t a fan of hip-hop and sorta liked soul thanks to enough of my dad’s doowop records.  To me then, the way to write about Voodoo was in terms of its liner notes, that call out “fake” emcees rapping about nothing, and stating that hip hop had strayed from the genuine example of the Marvin Gayes and Otis Reddings that precede it.  I felt I had to contrast it to all other hip hop music, which was boring and clearly unworthy of occupying a sales mantle next to my heroes of popular music in the late 90’s, Rage Against the Machine and Nine Inch Nails.

 

Now I love hip hop, and I love soul music even more than I used to – then, the high high falsetto D’Angelo employed seemed grating, and seemed to keep him from the full range of his voice; now, knowing what to expect, his voice seems possibly even more expressive, and more rooted in the soul it wants to express.  Voodoo gets better the more you know.  Beginning with a slew of conversation that a cymbal crash and bassline emanate from in “Playa Playa,” we get breezy jazz and hip hop, a groove and a chorus of voices arriving from the most packed jam session in Harlem.  The music gets shape and moves forward – a backbeat and DJ’s record comes in “Devil’s Pie,” and moves into “Left & Right,” a full-on single with Method Man and Redman.  You begin to have thoughts, already, that this album seems to have everything – jazz horns, funk bass, hip hip dj’s, an emcee a great vocalist, and a great producer.  Even more overpowering a thought – these songs are long, almost none clocking in at less than 5 minutes.  The truth is the album is a commemoration of a great hip-hop experience, a release of melody and creativity that would have once defined the work of Bob Dylan or Van Morrison.  There’s great grooves – “Spanish Joint,” “Greatdayindamornin’/Booty” – followed by soul that would make Al Green proud – “The Root,” “One Mo’ Gin.”  A warm, breezy remake of Roberta Flack’s “Feel Like Makin’ Love” even seems to legitamize that song’s dippy blissfulness.

 

At the time of Voodoo’s release, “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” was a single, and one I liked enough to buy the record.  It was famous for, among other things, D’Angelo’s video, which is one sustained shot of a supposedly naked D’Angelo – ripped from long long hours at the gym – shot from mid-pelvis up singing the song.  Now, much was made of this successful appeal to female viewers, but it was also something else – an expression of the sincerity, the “nakedness” of the song.  That song is still, to me, the greatest of all neo-soul releases in the late 90’s and early 00’s – better than Lauryn Hill or Alicia Keys or Raphael Saadiq – but now it also occurs to me as something else.  As the 12th of 13 songs on the 79 minute lineup, “Untitled” is also the most exciting and moving expression of the creativity on the record.  Now, 79 minutes is a long time to devote to an album, but I think the process of working up to “Untitled” is key to its success as an album – following “Feel Like Making Love and “Greatdayindamornin’,” the album has been lightened, relaxed a little.  “Untitled,” afterwards, is all feeling and authenticity, and the song itself is a process, beginning with a drum beat and climaxing in a full-on guitar section and chorus of various D’s in ecstatic harmony.  What a release it is – it makes the album around it and before it.  It’s a release for the listener, too, and it caps an album that matches – and surpasses – the soul music legends it attempts to emulate.

“Join The Club”

October 14, 2008

Season 6, Episode 2

Written By: David Chase

Directed By: David Nutter

 

Plot synopsis:  In a coma due to being shot by Uncle Junior, Tony hallucinates his life as a businessman, stranded in Cosa Mesa on a business trip that has him doubting his identity.  While in the hospital for Tony, Carmela, Meadow, and AJ react to the possibility of losing Tony.

 

Analysis:

Here it is – what has to be the most challenging episode of The Sopranos, and, in its way, one of its most ambitious, daring hours.  The first 12 episodes of Season 6 were viewed by many as not very good, especially as they aired a year earlier than the far more action-packed final 9 episodes of the season, which garnered universal acclaim and a final Best Drama Series Emmy for the show.  The first 12, led by “Join The Club” as the icebreaker, were deemed “dull,” and full of material audiences found uncompelling – by the time its half-season finale “Kaisha” aired, so many negative responses had been logged, David Chase introduced his commentary to “Kaisha” by saying, “Welcome to The Sopranos, the famous show where nothing happens.”  However, it is the first 12 of season 6 I like most, episodes that were moody, isolated, cold, existential, and, truly, beyond the scope and attempt of any piece of popular entertainment, previous episodes of The Sopranos included.

 

At this time, The Sopranos had flirted with things making less and less sense – “Meadowlands” of season 1 gave us a three minute dream sequence, “Funhouse” in season 2 gave us half a dozen that included talking fish and toilet paper being whipped out in a car.  Season 4’s “Calling All Cars” few dream sequences made absolutely no sense, and Season 5’s “The Test Dream” amped that up even further by making some sense and taking up a full 30 minutes of the episode.  I’d say that one still clocks in at longer screentime than the hallucination that makes up half of “Join The Club,” but that one was well liked – this was not. 

 

“Join The Club” is paired with the following episode, “Mayham,” that takes us deep inside Tony’s comatose experience – he’s found himself in Cosa Mesa on a business trip and lost his briefcase and wallet.  Here he is a “patio furniture salesman who made the jump to selling fiber optics” and has now “grabbed the brass sales ring for 12 straight quarters,” says a woman in Tony’s hotel… or the hotel in his mind, that is.  His response? Dismissal – “It’s not so impressive.  There’s always a faster gun.  I’m 46 years old.  I mean, who am I?  Where am I going?”  “Join the club,” the woman responds.

 

This version, coming from Tony’s subconscious, is much more sedate than reality – for close to 15 minutes, you’re locked into an alternate world of Tony’s comatose subconscious – he’s reimagined himself a businessman out west on conference, he’s been stripped of his New Jersey accent. His wife’s voice is stern and foreign, his kids generic and young. And Tony, Tony’s been replaced by Kevin Finnerty, or …inFinnerty, or, infinity, a confrontation with the end of his times. Still David Chase writes it like a plausible scenario – a dense text of the everyday, a bar, a beacon spinning out the window somewhere far off. He’s confronted by Buddhist monks (“Lose your arrogance!” they yell and push him down), a TV screen of a burning bush, a pro-Jesus ad declaring “Are sin, death, and disease real?”

 

And that dialogue. A simple confrontation. Tony is indeed a businessman, the me-first representation of American capitalism, and there’s still a faster gun (he’s just been shot, after all, by a demented old man who’s lost his mind). It begins intense speculations – are our accomplishments generic when it counts, in dark bars and dark times. They ask Tony how he, “made the leap from selling patio furniture to fiber optics,” a more businesslike way of saying how he became someone.

 

But he’s not certain he’s become anyone, not certain he can live with the weight of what he’s done, confounded by the notion that he’s done anything, or that maybe he hasn’t. He loses his identity, which, for a businessman, is his briefcase – “My whole life was in there!” he declares, and indeed it is. His life is his possession, the thing he’s cultivated, and yet it could mean nothing, the cultivation replacing the experience of living.

 

This is, of course, the beginning of the malaise of the season – several characters will quote Tony’s question, particularly Carmela.  Each episode will focus on a crisis of character and personal identity as they approach the finale – this is the crux of why Carmela worries (as she tells a fictive Adriana in the season premiere), of why AJ has panic attacks and eventually attempts suicide, of why Christopher turns back to the drugs that will eventually do him in (sorta). 

 

How does it accomplish this?  At the shock conclusion of the season premiere, “Members Only,” Tony has been shot in the stomach and has fallen on the floor with 911 asking him who he is.  As this episode begins, we simply get Tony, for a very long time, sitting on a hotel bed with the beacon gleaming far off in the window.  That beacon is another vision of the afterlife, one bravely placed in the opening shot of the episode, confronting us with its meaning.  (In “Mayham,” Chase will go a step farther – coma-Tony asks on the telephone, without us hearing the response, “What is that beacon anyway?”  His answer might be the answer to many burning spiritual questions.)  Tony picks up a phone, dials his wife – the dark-voiced nobody wife, that is – and says, simply, “I’m here, call me.  Love you.”  He walks outside, and a helicopter overhead shines a light in his eyes, and we see the face of a nurse looking through the light – our only indication that this is Tony’s experience in his subconscious.

 

People questioning why they do what they do has long been a theme of The Sopranos, and they even posed the “eternal” questions once – disastrously.  Season 2’s “From Where To Eternity” attempted to posit the extreme, existential reactions of the Family after Christopher gets shot.  It was written by Michael Imperioli, who plays Christopher in, truly, one of TV’s all time great embodiments – a performance that always went toe to toe with its heavyweights, James Gandolfini and Edie Falco.  Imperioli, however, is a terrible writer, and “From Where To Eternity” feels out of character for everybody and the results of questioning here is groans – groans that are, thankfully, barely mentioned again.  I don’t like to credit a lot of missteps in The Sopranos, as so often its mistakes are intentional, but I make exceptions for the Imperioli-scripted episodes.

 

“Join The Club” arguably tackles the same questions, but in hiding it in a scenario that could be a fairly average hallucination – a guy thinks he’s stuck at a hotel – Chase does something more interesting – he acknowledges the difficult questions Tony is wrestling with while also acknowledging Tony’s defense mechanisms against them.  We’re watching as Tony’s defenses erode – his mind has protected him with an illusion of a conflict to solve, but the larger questions intrude: Jesus is on the TV, but is that even an ad, you must ask?  Monks in the hallway mistake him for Finnerty, but they want to discuss how his “solar heating” missteps have caused them to have a “cold winter at the monastery” – its own take on people being affected by Tony’s choice to constantly pillage others for his personal gain.  Eventually, the scenario turns morbid anyway – coma-Tony tumbles down stairs, and finds himself diagnosed, implausibly, with Alzheimer’s a disease, he says, that makes you “a smurf for 10 or 15 years, and then you die, shitting in your pajamas.”

 

The other way that “Join The Club” plunges you into deep questions of existence without actually doing it is by its constant zig-zag between Tony’s hallucination and the response of his loved ones.  Much was made at the time, even by the episode’s detractors, of the extraordinary work of Edie Falco in the episode – in a series in which Falco never hit a false note anyway, this episode is a standout.  At his bedside, to the tune of Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” Carmela tells Tony how sexy she still finds him, and rebukes any of her statements made in the Pilot that he’s going to hell.  Later, she’ll confess to Dr. Melfi that she’s not even sure she means anything she said to him, but she certainly seemed to mean it at the time.

 

Dealing with grief is what this episode does best, and where The Sopanos succeeds most seamlessly is in letting each character’s individual experience be true to that character – a depth in writing that’s so alarming because it isn’t even noticeable.  Carmela is strong, weak, a mess, but also deeply in charge – she reminded me of my own mother, and I suspect many in the audience had the same reaction.  See how her scene with Tony goes from a bit of casual, perfunctory, keep-things-tame to a full, tear-drenched breakdown – but with mother-ready platitudes like “it is a sin, and I will be judged.”  AJ snaps at everyone, can’t focus, gets hungry, and eventually vows revenge at Tony’s bedside after saying, “I can’t believe we’re not gonna, like, do stuff together again.”  Janice comes in and claims that she will take care of everyone, even instructing Carmela to go home, however, when she sees Tony, it is she that collapses, forcing everyone to take care of her. 

 

AJ is dumb, Carmela is aware of social cues, and Janice has a false sense of her own capabilities and limits, but Chase has never made one-dimensional characters – these are facets of personality that illicit sympathy from us, not derision, even as each unique voice is respected.  If we saw our father, husband, or brother with an open incision and were forced to confront the fact that he could die, how would we respond?  There’s great comic relief from Vito and Paulie and Christopher, who try to outdo each other with politeness to the family, but, as we’ll see in “Mayham,” it’s only Sylvio who is really concerned for his friend – he will grab Tony’s hand silently at his bedside, a gesture repeated in the finale by Tony when it is Sylvio in the hospital bed.

 

It is all this work that makes the confrontation with grief, remorse, mortality, and the “big questions” so true – we deal with it, as people, and we don’t.  It brings out the worst in us, and it requires that we protect ourselves with stories, scenarios – things we may be able to manage, even though the truth creeps in.  “Join The Club” ends with an image of stark loneliness – Tony, sitting on his bed, certain now of his “death sentence,” picks up a phone he refuses to dial, and stares silently out at the beacon, creeping ever around without regard for his suffering.  As Moby’s “When It’s Cold, I’d Like To Die” plays, we feel, truly, how alone, how scared Tony feels – a feeling he cannot even admit to himself.  So much of the season’s malaise occurs with characters experiencing loneliness by themselves – Paulie will have no one to tell (at least, for a year or so) that he saw the Virgin Mary at the Bada Bing (in “The Ride”), Vito will not be able to tell anyone why he decides to stay in New Hampshire for a while, and then why he leaves again (in “Live Free or Die” and “Cold Stones”), and Carmela, looking at a beacon of her own on the Champs Elysees as she stares at the Eiffel Tower, will not be able to tell anyone how adrift she feels (in “Cold Stones”).  In times of moral, spiritual confusion, we are, profoundly, alone.

 

A hallmark of David Chase-written episodes is feelings built on events we didn’t even know had significance.  At the end of the season 5 premiere, “Two Tonys,” Tony sits in fog and lights a cigar, holding his rifle, waiting for a bear to attack his family, and until that scene, we did not identify with Tony’s isolation at the breakup of his marriage.  As I wrote about “No Show” in season 4, it is Tony’s strange understanding with Meadow, and Carmela’s lonely bath that concludes the episode, that make the episode so powerful.  What makes “Join The Club” so revolutionary is that it attempts to confront feelings its characters are incapable of grasping the magnitude of, so Chase, too, withholds the magnitude.  Much of his audience at the time felt withheld too.  With the faux disappointment audiences had over season 6’s first part worn off, I hope people revisit “Join The Club” and are rapt in its attempt and approach – to not only understand the grief, but to understand the loneliness that comes with it.  And then to not only understand the loneliness, but to understand the way we protect ourselves from the loneliness.  The truth is no other writers in the world even attempt to work on this level.

 

A scene you may not have noticed: How great is Vito, eating back at the house, lifting his butt cheek ever so slightly to fart?  How astonishing are David Nutter’s camera swoops that take you from the sky, back down, to show you a hospital, a paparazzi crew gathered at The Soprano home?  How great is the slight camera movement that pivots from around Meadow and Carmela, at episode’s end, when she asks, “Can you hear us?” that cuts to Tony’s perspective, and follows him into his hotel room?  Nutter won the Emmy this year for Direction.  Though Falco and Gandolfini were inexplicably not nominated (the Sopranos cachet had worn off by then, I suppose), they were at their greatest here.

Lucinda Williams, World Without Tears

October 3, 2008

I’ve determined two things lately in my thinking about World Without Tears, which is an album I think about often.  First, once something has been released for, say, over five years, it stops mattering if people at the time thought it was great or not; the debate of the day becomes fairly irrelevant, and what really matters is if the fans of the record still find themselves turning to that record (I do, very much so).  Second, despite the great sadness chronicled throughout the record, and the great pits of emotions from which it’s clearly wrung, I don’t find World Without Tears depressing.  I remember sitting in the CU bookstore in the basement of the University Memorial Center, back when they still sold cd’s, and listening to World Without Tears before I’d bought any other Lucinda Williams records, despite liking many of her songs.  What I felt when I heard the opening minute or so of “Fruits of My Labor,” the first song, was not sadness, despite it sounding like a classic soul ballad – what I felt was excitement.  What I felt was a world of sadness and longing shared by all of us unveiled behind velvet curtains and in stale living rooms.  As the song moves into “Righteously,” her carnal, bass-driven rock plea to a lover to turn his physical prowess into emotional comfort, it becomes an album in which sadness and release run hand-in-hand, a faultline between excitement and devastation.  I felt it an unveiling of thoughts I’d often had of love and lust, of why we’re driven to things that hurt us and torn apart when they go away.  That’s what happens here – a three-day love affair has left Lucinda “so fucking alone” in the visceral “Those Three Days;” rumors from others have caused nothing but turmoil, but mostly because they’re true in “People Talkin’;” something awful and unnamed (a rape?  a humiliation?) in a hotel room in “Minneapolis,” and it’s unclear if she misses or hates the lover who wronged her.  At the time of its 2003 release, Williams was highly respected – Time had recently named her America’s greatest songwriter, which many of us had known for 15 years.  Still, the longing had stuck around, and informed a record that cleanses you of the notion that your worst fears and loneliness may never disappear.  She releases it from time to time here – a great rocker like “Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings” finds release in music, and “Atonement,” a 7-minute barnstomp without a recognizable tune is practically an exorcism – but what she really does is find peace in it.  “If we lived in a world without tears,” she wonders, “how would misery know which body to flow outside of?” It’s poetry of the greatest kind that leaves her calm with her anger and sadness, finally, in “Words Fell,” a song that never excuses or minimizes her pain, but accepts and loves it.  It’s art of that caliber that makes an album linger in memory like the love and longing the record chronicles so specifically.

“Hoarfrost” Sonic Youth

October 3, 2008

I’ve been a fan of Sonic Youth for so long, that my thinking about what they do and have done has ruptured, evolved, and come back again.  I used to think that all of their best work was contained between Bad Moon Rising and Washing Machine in a fantastic 1985-95 decade of creativity and craft.  I used to think the work before that was naive, and the work after was scattershot and past its prime, but it’s hard to say if either of those theories hold much water.  I hear song like “Hoarfrost” from 1998’s A Thousand Leaves, and I often don’t know what to think.  It fits the vein of old, soft Sonic Youth songs like “Winner’s Blues” or “Little Trouble Girl” that are sad and wisened, and it also ushers in a Sonic Youth whose best songs in the years to come would not be the rockers, but the more introspective numbers like “Unmade Bed,” “Disconnection Notice,” or “Turquoise Boy.”  And, there’s also the Lee Ranaldo songs – Lee Ranaldo, who, like a Christine McVie of Sonic Youth, has his own brand of songs included once or twice per record.  “Hoarfrost” is a slice of mystery and life – a “view through the trees to a couple standing in the snow” that is a moment of dread, love, and satisfaction incarnate.  It’s a look of speculation written in verse that moves without quite knowing what’s occuring – in a line like, “I put my feet deep in the trakcs that you made/ walked behind you off into the woods,” you get an image of someone watching, but can’t, perhaps, equate why that rustles up a sense of withering longing with it.  In its tremulous, sculpted guitar that surrounds it, we get Lee Ranaldo at his most unguarded, we get a view through the trees worth savoring.