R.E.M. has been my favorite band since middle school. That said, I don’t miss them as a going concern. It was nice for a beloved band to realize their best days were behind them and call it a day. As such, I haven’t really been aching for new music from R.E.M. or its members. But then Michael Stipe went on The Tonight Starring Jimmy Fallon to promote the big David Bowie tribute concert and—goose bumps. Stipe’s performance of Bowie’s classic “The Man Who Sold the World” is beautiful and fragile. In it, we hear all of the quiet passion that made Stipe’s finest performances with R.E.M. resonate so deeply and across so many years. When we consider, too, this particular song’s resurgence in the 90’s thanks to Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged performance and Stipe’s friendship with Cobain, it’s difficult not to sense a deeper well of emotion running through this rendition of the Bowie classic. And yeah, listening to this definitely makes me pine for R.E.M., if only a little bit. But you don't have to take my word for it:
When I heard Cellars (aka Alle Norton; also of note, those of you who made it to L.A. for AWP may have seen her perform at the Rock and Roll Reading) was going to be working with Ariel Pink on her upcoming album Phases, I sought out her first album, Lovesick. While that album is a nice tour of 80’s inspired, electronic indie pop, it was more exciting for its potential than for its actual songs. With “Still in Love,” the second song to be released from that album (following the also exceptional “Nighttime Girl”), we’re hearing the realization of that potential. The song opens with twinkling, slow-skate synths before Alle Norton starts singing in that thin, clipped voice employed by so many 80’s synth balladeers—think shades of Carly Rae’s Emotion, but somehow a little more retro. Now, I want to be clear about something: I don’t get the sense that “Still in Love” is so successful because it was produce by Ariel Pink. The song doesn’t sound like an Ariel Pink song and is clearly rooted in Norton’s vision. Pink’s production, though, provides a nuanced atmospheric authenticity (think of that warm, 70’s radio vibe he nailed on “Round and Round”) to the overall sound that allows Norton’s brilliant song and arrangement to hum with the digital magic of disco ball synths and those sweet, sweet vocals. But, you know, you don't have to take my word for it:
As the second season of AMC’s Better Call Saul rounds third and heads for home, I can’t help but think it’s a shame that the ratings have been struggling a bit, at least in the early going. With this, it’s second season, the Breaking Bad prequel spinoff is building on the successes of its strong first season with funnier episodes, higher stakes, and heavier pathos. But most important of all, its second season finds the show buzzing with an energetic sense of fun. Whether we’re watching Jimmy and Kim scam a day trader for a bottle full of fifty dollar tequila shots or Mike helping an idiot drug supplies retrieve his stolen baseball cards, the show is downright fun to watch, even as the personal stakes and physical danger ramp up for the show’s various characters. I’ve read speculation that the show’s ratings struggles are due to the fact that we know how these characters’ stories end, thanks to Breaking Bad, or that legal dramas just aren’t that fun. Neither of those are good reasons not to be watching this show. On the strength of Odenkirk’s performance alone—which balances subtle comedy with oddball charm and a rock solid emotional core—season two of Better Call Saul is appointment television at its best.
When I first stumbled across Frankie Cosmos’s (Greta Simone Kline) Zentropy, I was taken with the album’s brevity, its loose, ragged energy, its sense of useful urgency. I mean, c’mon—the album’s opening verse ended with the lines “High school makes you crazy/High school made me cry.” Though I’m eighteen years out of high school, the utter sincerity in Kline’s performance was undeniable, infectious. On Next Thing, the songs are still loose and energetic, but everything feels a bit more refined, a bit more measured. At times, particularly when multi-tracked, Kline’s vocals almost invoke a less-angsty-by-half Liz Phair. But here’s the thing, despite the absence of overt angst, Kline’s songs can be twice as devastating. The deceptive simplicity of songs like “If I Had a Dog” and “Outside With the Cuties” masks some heavy emotional epiphanies and profound moments of truth. We need look no further than the lines “When you’re young/You’re too young/When you’re old/You’re too old” on “What If” for a fine example—the idea seems easy and doesn’t require any heavy lifting to unpack, but the tragic truth of the lines, buoyed by Kline’s airy delivery, are quietly heartbreaking. But yeah, here's "On the Lips" so you don't have to take my word for it:
See you all next time. xoxo James Brubaker