Album Review: We Will Always Love You by The Avalanches


Album: We Will Always Love You
Artist: The Avalanches
Release Date: December 11, 2020
Label: Modular
Favorite Tracks:

  • “We Will Always Love You”
  • “The Divine Chord”
  • “Interstellar Love”
  • “We Go On”
  • “Wherever You Go”


Thoughts:

20 years ago, the Australian electronic group made one of the most amazing albums of all-time, the sample-filled “plunderphonics” of Since I Left You. Then they disappeared for 16 years only to return with an uneven follow-up album (albeit with some magnificent individual tracks), Wildflowers, in 2016. Now after a relatively short 4-year gap, The Avalanches are back with a much-anticipated third album.

This work feels more down-tempo than previous works without songs like “Frontier Psychiatrist” or “Because I’m Me” to jump out and grab you. The most prominent samples on the album include low-key acts like The Roches, The Alan Parson Project, and The Carpenters.  The album also features a boatload of guest artists whose vocal interplay with the samples and electronic tracks is seamless(featured artists include Sananda Maitreya, Vashti Bunyan, Blood Orange, Rivers Cuomo, Pink Siifu, Denzel Curry, Tricky, Sampa the Great, Leon Bridges, Johnny Marr, MGMT, Clypso, Neneh Cherry, Jamie xx, Kelly Moran, Cornelius, Karen O, Kurt Vile, Mick Jones, Cola Boyy, Perry Farrell, and Orono).

The underlying theme of the album is outer space and how it is a metaphor for the distance between people. A photo of Ann Druyan, director of the Voyager Golden Record project and producer of the tv show Cosmos (both projects she worked on with her husband, Carl Sagan) is on the album’s cover. The final track, “Weightless,”  features the beeps of the message to the stars from the Arecibo radio telescope (and SETI gets a featured artists credit). The album was recorded before the collapse of Arecibo earlier this month so it serves as an unintentional obituary for another senseless death in 2020.

This is a beautiful album and gets better with each listen as my ears uncover the onion-like layers of the songs and the album as a whole.

Rating: ****

 

Book Review: Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn


Author: Timothy Zahn
Title: Heir to the Empire
Publication Info: Spectra (1992)  Summary/Review:

In 1991, I was a freshman in college when news that the Star Wars saga would be continued in books caused a flurry of excitement. In 2020, when an avalanche of new Star Wars content was just announced it may be hard to understand how excited we were to see the continuing adventures of Luke, Leia, Han and company. As the generation who grew up on Star Wars, we were promised a nine movie saga, but after Return of the Jedi there was eight long years of nothing.  And so if the story was going to continue in books, we would read books.

The novel picks up five years after the destruction of the Second Death Star and defeat of the Emperor with the New Republic government now attempting to win the peace.  But there are still parts of the galaxy under Imperial control and they are coalescing under a new leader, Grand Admiral Thrawn.  In many ways, Thrawn is a more compelling villain than Palpatine as he has no sensitivity to the Force and instead uses his intelligence and studies his enemies’ culture to predict they’re behavior.  Even with this book being de-canonized to the Star Wars Legends, the character of Thrawn has reemerged in other media, because he’s just that interesting.

I enjoyed this book on several readings and found it a good adventure, although it is very bookish and probably would’ve never translated to the screen.  On the other hand, my wife and I read this to our Star Wars-obsessed daughter and my wife found it boring, while my daughter lost interest with only a few chapters to go.  So, your results may vary.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Mary Poppins Returns (2018)


Title: Mary Poppins Returns
Release Date:
Director: Rob MarshDecember 19, 2018all
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Lucamar Productions |Marc Platt Production
Summary/Review:

It’s the Great Depression in London, and Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw), a recent widower with three children, is at risk of having his house repossessed by the very same bank that employed his father. His children, Annabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh), and Georgie (Joel Dawson), have matured quickly and almost have to parent their grieving father. Even their Aunt Jane (a winsome Emily Mortimer), a labor organizer who has retained the joie de vivre of her childhood, is distraught by the potential loss of the family house.

Into this milieu steps Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt capably stepping into Julie Andrews’ shoes), who arrives to set things right by giving the children the chance to be children, help Michael recover his childlike sense of wonder, and oddly, pairing off the confident single woman Jane with a man. At least in this old-fashioned notion of forced pair bonding, Jane is matched up with Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), a charming lamplighter who fills the role of Dick Van Dyke’s Bert.

I’m struck by how much this sequel follows the same structure as its predecessor. Mary takes the kids on a couple of fantastical adventures – an undersea journey through the bathtub and into a ceramic bowl. They visit a relative who ends up on the ceiling, in this case Meryl Streep as Topsy. They dance with the working class laborers of London, in this case Jack and his fellow lamplighters. There is a final showdown in the bank. And the film ends with a day in the park but instead of flying kites, the characters themselves fly on magical balloons, with Angela Lansbury in a singing cameo as the Balloon Lady.

The song and dance number provide wonderful choreography and spectacle. I particularly enjoy the lamplighters’ number incorporating bicycles. This is a very bike-positive movie over all. And the animation of the ceramic bowl is very well done too. Unfortunately, none of the songs really made an impression. The music isn’t bad, there’s just nothing I remember after the fact that can stand by “A Spoonful of Sugar” or “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”


Movies made over 50 years typically do not need sequels, particularly classics like Mary Poppins. Mary Poppins Returns offers little to justify its existence. There’s nothing particularly bad about it, it just lacks the ambition to be great. Nevertheless, it does have enough whimsy and charm to fill a couple of hours should you be so inclined.

Rating: **1/2

Podcasts of the Week Ending December 19


Ben Franklin’s World :: The World of the Wampanoag

A two-party history of the indigenous people of Eastern Massachusetts who encountered the Puritan settlers of Plymouth in 1620.

Planet Money :: We Buy a Lot of Christmas Trees

A behind-the-scenes look into how the Christmas tree market works.

Planet Money :: The Case Against Facebook

A suit filed by the federal government and 46 state attorney generals against Facebook is stirring up the long-dormant history of anti-trust action in the United States.

Radiolab :: The Ashes on the Lawn

The purposes of protest and why they can’t be modulated to avoid offending people as seen through the story of the ACT UP protests to support relief from the AIDS crisis.

Smithsonian Sidedoor :: Edison’s Demon Dolls

Talking dolls are creepy and have been so since they were first invented in the 1890s by Thomas Edison himself.

Snap Judgment :: The Crossroad

A true story of a good Samaritan in the time of COVID 19.

RUNNING TALLY OF PODCAST OF THE WEEK APPEARANCES

Classic Movie Review: Platoon


Title: Platoon
Release Date: December 19, 1986
Director: Oliver Stone
Production Company: Hemdale Film Corporation
Summary/Review:

Back in the 1980s, there were a lot of Vietnam War films that all came out around the same time, and I couldn’t remember if I’d watched this one. Upon reflection, I had not. The film focuses on the war-time experiences of Chris (Charlie Sheen), a volunteer from a more privileged background than his conscripted cohort in his platoon. The movie is filmed deliberately to make it hard to know what is going on, recreating for the viewer Chris’ experience of the “fog of war.” I think this movie was innovative in that effect although it has been repeated in ensuing films. I’ve read that veterans of the Vietnam War said that Platoon was the most accurate depiction of the war on film.

The large ensemble cast includes many actors who went on to greater fame including Forest Whitaker, Kevin Dillon, Mark Moses, and Johnny Depp. Outside of Chris, who narrates his thoughts in letters to his grandmother, we don’t get to know the members of the platoon personally (although this movie also avoids the war movie trope of having all the characters represent a stereotype of the regions that they come from). Instead, the platoon is divided into two ideological camps. On one side, the compassionate Sgt Elias (Willem Dafoe) leads the men who just want to get through the war and relax by smoking pot during down time (knowing what we know of Sheen’s real-life habits, it unintentionally funny that he portrays an innocent being drawn into the drug culture). On the other side are the more hard edge soldiers who revel in machismo and racist dehumanizing of their Vietnam rivals. They are lead by the scarred and sadistic Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger).

The movie follows several months of conflict where Chris goes from idealistic to frightened to disillusioned. While clearly an anti-war film and one that dramatizes the traumatic affect of war on the soldiers, it does seem to want to have it both ways by also being an exciting action film with a certain amount of jingoism. This includes a disturbing sequence where the platoon attacks a village with many parallels to the Mỹ Lai massacre. The Vietnam War was very unpopular in the 1970s and early 1980s with many veterans leading the anti-war movement. And yet by 2004, John Kerry could be swift-boated for his opposition to the war as a veteran, partially because the slew of 1980s Vietnam War movies like this one recontextualized the war from an unjustifiable quagmire into a time of great valor.

Platoon is a well-made film and is an influential pioneer in the war movie genre. But I don’t feel the movie holds the courage of its convictions and thus doesn’t hold up all to well over the decades.

Rating: ***

Album Review: Inner Song by Kelly Lee Owens


Album: Inner Song
Artist: Kelly Lee Owens
Release Date: August 28, 2020
Label: Smalltown Supersound
Favorite Tracks:

  • Arpeggi
  • Melt!
  • Night
  • Flow
  • Wake-up


Thoughts:

Welsh artist Kelly Lee Owens is a unique electronic music producer who is also a song writer and vocalist. Her second album seamlessly blends various electronic music types from dancefloor bangers to the ethereal and meditative to more typical pop song structures. Fellow Welsh musician John Cale joins Owens on “Corner of My Sky,” with lyrics in both English and Welsh.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Dread Nation by Justina Ireland


Author: Justina Ireland
Title: Dread Nation
Narrator: Bahni Turpin
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2018)
Summary/Review:

This novel is set in an alternate universe where the dead rose from the Battle of Gettysburg and the Civil War ended because of the zombie apocalypse. Twenty years later, the surviving society has adapted by training Black and indigenous people to become “attendants” who protect the white elites from attacks by the “shamblers.” Among these are this books narrator, Jane McKeene, a student at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore as the novel begins.

Jane is a highly-skilled but outspoken student often ending up in trouble. A series of events lead her to being exiled to a new model town on the prairies of Kansas with her colleagues Catherine and Jackson. The town of Summerland has its deep secrets, though, and is under the rule of the virulently racist sheriff.  The book works as metaphor for the slavery and Jim Crow periods, and how the ruling caste seeks to perpetuate social divisions even under existential threats to humanity.  But the book also works as a straight up adventure and horror story, with no shortage of humor, especially in Jane’s wry narration.

Recommended books:
Rating:

Classic Movie Review: The Crowd (1928)


Title: The Crowd
Release Date: February 28, 1928
Director: King Vidor
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Summary/Review:

First thing, a personal note: this is the first movie I’ve ever watched that was released in 1928, which means that I’ve watched at least one movie released every year from 1921 to 2020. One hundred years of film is kind of awe-inspiring.

The Crowd is a melodrama with touches of romance and comedy about John Sims (James Murray), who is born on the Fourth of July in 1900 and believes himself destined for great things. As an adult he moves to New York, works in a large accounting firm, and meets Mary (Eleanor Boardman) on a double date to Coney Island and immediately asks to marry her.

The thing about John is that he gives off huge red flags and is something of a jerk. After their romantic honeymoon, their marriage in a claustrophobic apartment gradually spirals downward as John proves he’s ne’er-do-well who only talks a big game. Near the end of the film John has reached rock bottom and is only redeemed when his young son ( Freddie Burke Frederick) shares his unconditional love for him. That scene will probably be extremely cheezy to most viewers, but as a dad who has been pepped up by the love of my children (it made me weepy).

“The Crowd” is a metaphor throughout the film. John sees himself as apart from the crowd as he’s destined towards greatness, and belittles everyday people trying to make ends meet. Throughout the film there are actual crowds of people that the characters get lost in and sometimes act something like a Greek chorus. By the end of the film though, “the Crowd” has a more positive connotation as a community of ordinary people trying their best, and John seemingly accepting his place in the Crowd is a sign that he is really reforming himself.

This movie has great cinematography with moving camera work similar to Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. The sets for John’s massive office building are also reminiscent of the futuristic settings of Metropolis. I particularly appreciate the great location shots of 1920s Manhattan and Coney Island. As far as the story goes, I like the realism of the scenes on marriage and parenting where people have bad days, get very cranky with one another, and make up.

I would not consider this movie and all-time great, but it’s definitely worth checking out if you’re interested in silent movies and film history.

Rating: ***

Book Review: The 99% Invisible City by Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt


Author: Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt
Title: The 99% Invisible City
Publication Info: Boston : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, [2020]
Summary/Review:
99% Invisible is one of my absolute favorite podcasts series. It focuses on “the unnoticed architecture and design that shape our world,” which sounds like a highly specific thing but actually leads to a wide diversity of fascinating topics. This book is a hand “field guide” to the little secrets of design you find in cities around the world. It includes many of the stories previously covered in podcast episodes as well as a lot of new material. You can read it straight through like I did, hop around the book at your leisure, or even just refer to it as a reference book.

Oddly fascinating topics you can learn about include:

  • decoding the spray paint markings on pavement made by utility companies
  • electrical substations disguised as ordinary houses
  • seemingly useless architecture that is nevertheless maintained, known as “Thomassons”
  • municipal flag design
  • the Olympic history of those inflatable figures that dance outside of car washes
  • the mysteries of rotaries/traffic circles
  • boxes on the exterior of many buildings with emergency information for first responders
  • an island named for Busta Rhymes
  • synanthropes, or the animals who live among us (squirrels, fish, pigeons, racoons, etc.)
  • hostile design the specifically targets “undesirable” people
  • the story of a Buddha statue placed in an intersection to prevent littering that became a local shrine

All of this and more in this fascinating volume!


Recommended books:

 

 

Rating: *****

Classic Movie Review: Ali: Fear Eats the Soul


Title: Ali: Fear Eats the Soul
Release Date: 5 March 1974
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Production Company: Tango-Film
Summary/Review:

An elderly woman, Emmi (Brigitte Mira), enters a bar ostensibly to get out the rain but really because she’s intrigued by the Middle Eastern music she hears. “Ali,” the nickname given to a younger Moroccan guest worker portrayed by El Hedi ben Salem, is dared to ask Emmi to dance. To surprise of everyone, Emmi and Ali make a connection, eventually deciding to marry despite their cultural and age gaps.  

The movie deals with the discrimination that both Emmi and Ali face from their xenophobic community.  Even Emmi’s adult children are outraged by her choice of partner. Things begin to deteriorate as Emmi takes on some of the prejudicial attitudes of her co-workers and displays Ali like an object. Meanwhile, Ali has an affair with a younger woman.  The movie is not without hope though as the couple are able to reconcile and seem ready to take on an unexpected challenge as the movie ends.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is an interesting blend of vérité and melodrama that gets at the heart of racism and xenophobia through a personal story.  There’s nothing “Hollywood” about this movie and it feels like the camera caught everyday people on the streets of Munich and told their story.  

Rating: ****