Halfway point: Best songs of 2017 so far (#5 - #1)

1.) Everything Now by Arcade Fire
Nothing I've heard this year is as epic as that piano kicking in at 0.45. For me, 2017's song of the summer, geared towards big stadiums and crowds singing along. The lyric is about our generation's opportunity to consume everything)

2.)  We Got The Power (feat. Jehnny Beth) by Gorillaz
(While the album is uneven, the best track is an empowering, catchy pop anthem. Anyone could relate to the lyrics)

3.) Ran by Future Islands
(Doesn't quite top 2014's synthpop classic Seasons Waiting on You, but it's close. Ran has motion as its theme and would be ideal for an exercise playlist. The video fits well with the music, and I love the bass)

4.) Ballad of the Dying Man by Father John Misty
(A beautiful retro melody, and an amusing yet telling commentary on the absurd self-importance of man in the internet age when everyone has an opinion. You could say singer-songwriter Josh Tillman is preachy about the many failings of humanity, but his sense of proportion stood out for me on the album, how we are minor in the grand scheme of things. He has a point that contemporary news is becoming like entertainment with the likes of The Daily Show etc, and I think he's right to question that)

5.) Fear by Kendrick Lamar
(Album highlight, a smooth beat, sampling 1973's Poverty's Paradise by The 24-Carat Black. A Lamar track that I'm pleased to say keeps it relatively simple, on an album I've otherwise struggled to connect with. For further reading, Noisey dedicated an entire article to Fear)

What do you think? As always comments are welcome

Halfway point: Best songs of 2017 so far (#10- #6)

6.) Real Death by Mount Eerie 
(Perhaps we don't need another album about death/mortality, in the last 18-20 months David Bowie, Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave gave us their take on the matter. Yet I still consider Real Death to be the most heartbreaking song of the year so far. In 2016, songwriter Phil Elverum tragically lost his wife, illustrator and musician Geneviève Castrée, to cancer, and put into words his emotional turmoil)

7.) Next Time by Laura Marling
(I find her albums a struggle, but I can usually bank on Laura Marling to deliver a great song on each new release. Has a timeless quality)

8.) Sweet Arcadia by Saint Etienne
I'd probably enjoy Sarah Cracknell narrating audiobooks. A proggy-electronic spoken-word train journey through southern England, referencing the sweet shop of the same name. The flute-assisted section starting at 3.14 might be the most beautiful moment on the album)

9.) A Trick of the Light by Chilly Gonzales & Jarvis Cocker
(Addresses television and what it does to us. The album's longest and for me best)

10.) Friend Zone by Thundercat
(I may have been too harsh on Thundercat's Drunk earlier in the year, this track has grown on me. The lyrics are about being stuck in the friend zone)

What do you think? As always, comments are welcome. Check back for my top 5 in a few days!

Films and TV of the month: June

Fatal Attraction (1987) (Adrian Lyne)
Nominated for 6 Oscars. Gone Girl for the 80s. Also with shades of 70s horror Black Christmas, the phone calls are ominous. The eerie, minimal score adds to the sense of dread. Without any need for bells and whistles, the straightforward story grabbed me, and though a few events are easy to predict, it’s an effective thriller.
My only issue is the film could make audiences more afraid of mental illness, Glenn Close’s character is one in a thousand and not the norm.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) (Amy Heckerling)
A film that held my attention throughout, there was never a dull moment. Probably one of the most entertaining and realistic high school movies I’ve seen.
The awkward teenage situations have aged well despite the film released 35 years ago. Also quite hilarious in places, such as Led Zeppelin in the car, and the small people sitting in restaurant with big menus. Many future stars can be seen in supporting roles, Sean Penn has some of the most quotable lines.
Highlights on the soundtrack include We Got The Beat by The Go-Go’s (from the opening), Sleeping Angel by Stevie Nicks played when they are trying to solve a problem that arises, and Moving in Stereo by the Cars when Brad (Judge Reinhold) is fantasizing about Linda (Phoebe Cates) in the red swimsuit.

Ghost in the Shell (1995) (Mamoru Oshii)
Based on a manga, the story follows cyber-cop Major Motoko Kusanagi (Scarlett Johansson in the 2017 remake) as she tracks down the mysterious Puppet Master. Kusanagi struggles to deal with her part-human, part-machine identity.
Set in 2029, an interesting futuristic premise about the advancement in technology, cyberspace expanding into human reality. A brain-computer interface, our “ghost” able to travel, relaying thoughts to other networked brains, a new tool for government surveillance and control. A hi-tech society when one or more body parts have been replaced by robotics, and they face issues such as brain hacking, maintenance of self, false memories, invisibility, and the evolution of the human body.
The film is ambitious, unsettling and influential, having inspired The Wachowski's The Matrix. Visually impressive in its detail of the city, sometimes I found myself forgetting I was watching animation. Her jump from the top of a building is iconic and was recreated in the remake.

Split (2016) (M. Night Shyamalan)
Not as good as M. Night Shyamalan's best films. A minor horror/thriller that is too eager to reveal what is wrong with James McAvoy’s character, those revelations in the first half kill some of the tension. But there are sporadically thrilling moments concerning the girls and does capture a sense of claustrophobia. McAvoy’s performance is noteworthy, though the film is overlong, and I often found my mind wandering due to boredom. SPOILER WARNING: The last 10-15 mins are surprising, but tonally completely different to what the story is about. Or maybe the ending does make sense on a certain level, could it be a commentary on not being able to get rid of him (from your mind), no matter how hard you try.
On a side note, Natascha Kampusch’s powerful autobiography 3096 Days goes deeper into the psychology of victim and perpetrator.

T2 Trainspotting (2017) (Danny Boyle)
What made the original stand out were the inventive visuals and soundtrack. Neither of these aspects are as impactful or unique in the sequel, although I do like the new songs by High Contrast and Wolf Alice.
What we get are a number of homages, reunions, and watching 40 somethings misbehaving. Begbie (Robert Carlyle) is as funny and crazy as he was in the 90s, even when he isn’t aware of it. There are reminders the group are getting older, such as a decline in physical health and family obligations. I mostly felt pity for them.
Especially the improvised song and the chase in the multi-storey car park stood out. The updated choose life speech has depth, but the scene feels scripted and unnatural in its presentation. T2 has glimpses of urgency, but lacks the unrelenting energy that kept me glued to the screen of Trainspotting. I agree with another reviewer who says it “wallows a little too much in cinematic nostalgia for the 1996 original.”

Happy Gilmore (1996) (Dennis Dugan)
A quotable comedy, which popularized the ‘Happy Gilmore’ hockey/golf swing. Funny moments such as the alligator and the ball "go home" scenes, though the punch lines often are offensive by centering around violence. Not many women would date Happy, having witnessed his short fuse and anger management problems. The love interest aspects had warmth, but are not totally realistic. Happy (Adam Sandler) is only mildly likeable, because he is up against arrogant Shooter McGavin (Christopher McDonald).

Mask (1985) (Peter Bogdanovich)
Based on the life of Roy L. "Rocky" Dennis, strong acting and a number of sweet moments. I remember watching parts of the film years ago and was freaked out by the main character's deformed face. Now, I can see past that and appreciate the story. A coming of age drama about struggling to fit in due to being different, and also focuses on the relationships he has to family/friends.
What made the 80s different to today's cinema were the life lessons sprinkled into the screenplays, and there are a few of those here. Like John Hurt in 1980's The Elephant Man, Eric Stoltz is unrecognizable in the lead role. These type of films sometimes depict the deformed character as an angel, but I think it works here by juxtapositioning the teenage son with his troubled mother (Cher). I cared about these people and it's one of those films that stays with you.

The Towering Inferno (1974) (John Guillermin)
Wrote about the film here. Watched because of recent Grenfell Tower disaster and an inner sense of duty to find solutions to high-rise fires.

Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) (Review of Season 3, Episodes 5-8) (David Lynch)
So far, season 3 lacks the sense of community of the classic original. But instead of yearning for what Twin Peaks used to be, I’m trying to take the revival for what it is. Dougie and his family I feel a connection to because they keep returning, and is some of the funniest stuff Lynch has ever done. Kyle MacLachlan delivers maybe a career best performance.
The scope of S3 is ambitious, but feels choppy when jumping from one location to the next. It’s intriguing, imaginative, often weird, though I will say many characters are not given enough screen time for us to care.
Short summaries of Episode 5-8 (spoilers):
Episode 5: Set-up, presenting a number of threads and details. The Kyle MacLachlan scenes are the most entertaining and amusing, craving coffee in the elevator, desperate for the toilet, the phone call that causes a disturbance. There’s also some violence at the casino.
Episode 6: Again, the Dougie scenes I liked most, him standing in front of a staircase is a laugh out loud moment, and sitting with his son has warmth. There’s a surprising event in Twin Peaks involving a mother and son which is powerful, yet I can’t see how it has any relevance to the series. There’s also the most bizarre coin-toss I’ve ever witnessed. Diane (who Dale Cooper recorded audio messages for in the original) is revealed in a brief cameo. Naomi Watts is given a moment to shine as the Tough Dame in the delivery scene.
Episode 7: Diane meets evil Cooper and thinks something is off with him. There’s a noise in the walls at Twin Peaks hotel. A mysterious man covered in black oil walks the hall way. Dougie Cooper’s car was stolen and the police confirm this. The dwarf tries to murder Dougie Cooper. Evil Cooper convinces the prison to let him go in exchange for information.
Episode 8: Filmed in black and white, and set in the past. The strangest episode so far, almost wordless visual storytelling. An impressive atomic bomb sequence that would look good on the big screen. A silent horror of sorts, the “gotta light” character is creepy, his scenes are not suitable for kids. We are not given much context so have to piece it together ourselves.

What do you think? As always, comments are welcome

Old and new albums of the month: June 2017

Crack-Up by Fleet Foxes (2017) 
Disappointing and overpraised third album. The vocal is distinctive, but the melodies are inaccessible and unmemorable. Goes in a progressive-folk/jazzy direction. ”Naiads Cassadies” and ”On Another Ocean” are quite beautiful. Maybe it's a grower.

Room 29 by Jarvis Cocker & Chilly Gonzales (2017)
Recommended by Rol at My Top Ten. Jarvis Cocker (of Pulp fame in the 90s) has a way with words that conjures images in your mind, such as the opener Room 29 and its lyric:
”The kind of lie that has the entire Western world agog.
Cos no one ever got turned on
By the Whole Earth Catalog”.
A verse that could be interpreted as negligence over pollution of the planet.

Tracks like Room 29, Salomé, The Other Side, and A Trick of the Light address television and what it does to us. The latter is the album's longest and my personal favorite. There are also a number of references to the Golden Age of Hollywood though I didn't figure out why.
Probably the most memorable of these lounge/piano tunes is Tearjearker, which hints at a soullessness and un-lived-in-ness of hotels: ”These surfaces are shiny. Anything wipes off them. These surfaces are hard. Nothing seems to mark them”.  Yet you could also imagine the surfaces he speaks of are about the human condition, how hard our exterior is to outside influences.
Some listeners may feel the album at times is bordering on boring and non-music, with its spoken-word and minimal instrumentals. I look at it as a welcome change of direction, Jarvis’ vocal suits this low-key collaboration well.

Home Counties by Saint Etienne (2017) 
There are good songs, but very patchy as an album experience. The first six tracks I found dull, thankfully there are 19 to choose from and does get better. Take It All In has a pleasing retro 60s sound that fits their style. Out Of My Mind, with its nostalgic 80s-era vibe, runs out of steam due to a repetitive lyric. After Hebden is my favorite vocal performance on the record. Heather wants to be moody yet misses the mark with the vocal. Train Drivers in Eyeliner suits Sarah Cracknell's voice much better.
Unopened Fan Mail is worth your time for the melody alone. Sweet Arcadia (a reference to the Arcadia Sweet Shop in Bedford) takes the listener on an intriguing spoken-word trip, reminiscent of album highlight Over the Border from their previous LP, but darker.
There’s an audience for Saint Etienne, otherwise they wouldn’t keep making albums. I couldn’t wholeheartedly get into it, the vocal is often lacking emotional resonance. The wittiness and message was not immediately obvious and maybe takes time to unpack. The group have said the album is about “the love/hate relationship people have with ‘home’ ", which in their case is the UK.

A Crow Looked at Me by Mount Eerie (2017)
The melodies are unremarkable and samey, but scores points for lyrically and vocally depicting the emotional turmoil of loss. The album has a timelessness and honesty.
On a day-to-day basis, it isn't something I would reach for, expect when dealing with the passing of family/friend.

Ti Amo by Phoenix (2017)
A light, summer pop album with Italian disco influences. I've listened a couple of times and plenty of replay potential, containing many pleasant moments. Best songs: Role Model, Goodbye Soleil, J-Boy, Via Veneto, Telefono.
To celebrate the release of the new album, check out a retrospective on their discography and my top 10 Phoenix songs.

Between Darkness & Wonder by Lamb (2003)
Atmospheric and melancholy. Electronic sounds mixed with orchestral instrumentation. I'm surprised Between Darkness & Wonder is among Lamb's lowest rated on RYM. A personal favorite with hardly any weak tracks.
Stronger is an empowering anthem, Angelica a beautiful instrumental. Till the Clouds Clear taps into not being able to let go of thoughts. I wouldn't listen often, but when I'm in the right mood this album hits the spot.

White Blood Cells by The White Stripes (2001)
Garage Rock Revival. The White Stripes' third album and considered their breakthrough. If you want guitar riffs, this is a modern band to seek out. Includes mostly rock with the occasional twee ballad diversion.
Highlights include We're Going to Be Friends, Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground, Hotel Yorba,  and Offend in Every Way. The latter is about the pressures of stardom and expectation.

(What's the Story) Morning Glory? by Oasis (1995)
Arguably the pinnacle of the Britpop era. The run from tracks 2-5 (Roll With It, Wonderwall, Don't Look Back in Anger & Hey Now!) is incredible,  and also has one of rock's best closing tracks in Champagne Supernova. The lyrics have aged well considering it's 22 years old now.

Ten by Pearl Jam (1991)
The group's most commercially successful LP. Includes Black, arguably one of Pearl Jam's most powerful songs, which surprisingly wasn't a single. Alive and Oceans are other stand outs from their debut. Jeremy I find overrated.
If I'm critical, it's sometimes difficult to hear Eddie Vedder's words, and the album is very loud.

A Kind of Magic by Queen (1986)
I love the intro of Who Wants to Live Forever, and One Vision & A Kind of Magic are also Queen classics. The album is well-produced, but there are some skippable tracks and the lyrics tend towards platitudes at times. Don't Lose Your Head is a lesser known highlight. The Highlander soundtrack, also from 1986, includes a number of overlaps.

Zenyattà Mondatta by The Police (1980)
Despite the Grammy attention and critical praise, I found the album a bit boring. Can't really compare with other Police albums. There are glimpses of experimentation, but mostly plays it safe by sticking to a pop structure. Canary in a Coalmine is a decent attempt at reggae, but I prefer proper reggae artists. The recognizable singles Don't Stand So Close to Me and De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da I was already familiar with.

The Wall by Pink Floyd (1979)
A thought-provoking work with a handful of classic songs. I love the writing on this LP. Considered among the best double albums. The only weakness I noticed was some repetition of the instrumental sections, but that is hardly a flaw, as it gives the album a cohesiveness. The Trial sounds like it belongs in a West End stage musical.
Best tracks: Another Brick in the Wall Part 2, Hey You, Comfortably Numb, Run Like Hell.

Ambient 1: Music for Airports by Brian Eno (1978) 
A relaxing ambient album. Good as background music for studying. The piano-driven opener 1/1 is beautiful and very tranquil. Tracks 1-3 are too long and repetitive, though this is by design. I find the wordless vocals of 2/1 and 1/2 overly cold and melancholy. 2/2 is a great closer, going in a synth direction with a melody that is harder to pin down.

Another Green World by Brian Eno (1975)
Considered a transitional work that bridges his earlier rock with subsequent ambient direction. I like Brian Eno as a multi-instrumentalist, less as a singer/songwriter.
The lyric "And I'll come running to tie your shoe" becomes annoying, but it's forgivable on an otherwise fascinating album of textures and instrumentals, which is atmospheric and varied. St. Elmo's Fire is probably the most pop-friendly. The trio of songs Golden Hours, Becalmed & Zawinul / Lava are beautiful. An album with lots of detail to unearth.

A Night at the Opera by Queen (1975)
I respect their talent, just wasn't for me. Couldn't stomach the over-the-top-ness and campiness. Only a couple of the songs I connected with emotionally, the masterful single Bohemian Rhapsody and the minor classic You're My Best Friend. Overall I found the album rather uninvolving. My rating is based on enjoyment, not the quality of the music. I might prefer Queen in moderation, a full album is a bit much.

Let It Bleed by The Rolling Stones (1969)
The two classics (Gimmie Shelter & You Can't Always Get What You Want) that bookend Let It Bleed don't fit that well with the blues rock which the bulk of the album consists of.
Still, an entertaining listen. There's a feeling tracks highlight a different instrument, the harmonica-driven Midnight Rambler I enjoyed. An album with a lasting value and worth many plays.

The Velvet Underground by The Velvet Underground (1969)
Expected a rockier album, surprisingly restrained and minimalistic. Half of the songs are classics (Candy Says, What Goes On, Pale Blue Eyes, Beginning to See the Light, After Hours), and the other half are good.

Moving by Peter, Paul and Mary (1963)

Peter, Paul and Mary by Peter, Paul and Mary (1962)

What do you think? As always, comments are welcome

Halfway point: Best songs of 2017 so far (#15 - #11)

11.) Evening Prayer by Jens Lekman
(A strangely upbeat song about a tumor. The lyrics are also about friendship and not knowing if you are close enough to care)

12.) You Can Never Go Back to New York by The Magnetic Fields
(Very catchy. I'm on the fence if I enjoy the vocal performance on 50 Song Memoir, reminds me of the goofy voice in the ukulele scene in Blue Valentine. Although clearly Stephin Merritt is a better singer than Gosling. Stupid Tears is a memorable song too even if the melody seems so familiar?)

13.) Shotgun Mouthwash by High Contrast
(T2 Trainspotting soundtrack. Works well in the treadmill intro scene. The lyrics are objectionable, deliberately so I'm guessing)

14.) Sugar for the Pill by Slowdive
(Got stuck in my head)

15.) The Flame by Johnny Jewel 
(Soothing instrumental which features in new Twin Peaks as score music. My favorite part is at 2.20 when the saxophone kicks in)

Honorable mention:
Amar Pelos Dois by Salvador Sobral
(Portugese winner of the 2017 Eurovision Song Contest. Sometimes less is more)

What do you think? As always, comments are welcome.  #10 - #6 coming soon! 

Solutions to high-rise fires like at Grenfell Tower

I was sickened by the recent Grenfell Tower fire in London. Obviously everyone was shocked and angered this could happen. From what I understand the fire was caused by a fridge, which the firefighters claim to have put out, but by that time the fire had spread up the building.

I’ve been wondering how a disaster like this could potentially be avoided. Clearly authorities are working on changes so flammable panels and fire sprinklers meet safety standards. Apparently the UK government confirmed that councils estimate 600 high-rise buildings could have similar flammable exterior cladding to that used on Grenfell Tower.

Of course, the matter of housing the victims is a priority, and many, firefighters, surviving residents, and onlookers, need aid and counselling. What was nice to hear was the outpouring of support by Londoners who offered food and clothes to those who lost everything in the fire.
In an interview with a solicitor, it saddens me the public enquiry doesn’t allow the victims to be heard, which an inquest would.
This is one of the richest boroughs who made £13m gross profit in 2016 and £12m in 2015, so you’d think they could afford to meet basic safety regulations.

Unfortunately, there’s also the question of political bias. Musician Lily Allen in a brave interview spoke of approx. 300 politicians with 72 of them landlords, a situation which conceivably might impact the voting for the passing of a law on fire safety.

I hope I'm not being insensitive, if so I apologize. I was reminded of the 1970s Hollywood disaster film The Towering Inferno. What lessons can be learned is the reason for mentioning it. Note, the IMDb description says the building was "poorly constructed".
Spoiler warning: The plot is a rescue operation, with Americans trapped in a burning skyscraper. A solution in the film (described in this clip) is allowing water tanks in the building to wash down over the flames. Perhaps wasn’t an option in London? Spoiler end.

A practical method I’ve become aware of is at skysaver.com, a $1500 product that could save you in an inescapable highrise fire like Grenfell Tower. I'm not receiving a penny to promote this rescue device. I'm just trying to find ways to save lives.


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