Pop Picks

Pop Picks – May 24, 2018

Posted on May 24, 2018

May 24, 2018

What I’m listening to:

I’ve always liked Alicia Keys and admired her social activism, but I am hooked on her last album Here. This feels like an album finally commensurate with her anger, activism, hope, and grit. More R&B and Hip Hop than is typical for her, I think this album moves into an echelon inhabited by a Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On or Beyonce’s Formation. Social activism and outrage rarely make great novels, but they often fuel great popular music. Here is a terrific example.

What I’m reading:

Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad may be close to a flawless novel. Winner of the 2017 Pulitzer, it chronicles the lives of two runaway slaves, Cora and Caeser, as they try to escape the hell of plantation life in Georgia.  It is an often searing novel and Cora is one of the great heroes of American literature. I would make this mandatory reading in every high school in America, especially in light of the absurd revisionist narratives of “happy and well cared for” slaves. This is a genuinely great novel, one of the best I’ve read, the magical realism and conflating of time periods lifts it to another realm of social commentary, relevance, and a blazing indictment of America’s Original Sin, for which we remain unabsolved.

What I’m watching:

I thought I knew about The Pentagon Papers, but The Post, a real-life political thriller from Steven Spielberg taught me a lot, features some of our greatest actors, and is so timely given the assault on our democratic institutions and with a presidency out of control. It is a reminder that a free and fearless press is a powerful part of our democracy, always among the first targets of despots everywhere. The story revolves around the legendary Post owner and D.C. doyenne, Katharine Graham. I had the opportunity to see her son, Don Graham, right after he saw the film, and he raved about Meryl Streep’s portrayal of his mother. Liked it a lot more than I expected.

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What I’m listening to:

I mentioned John Prine in a recent post and then on the heels of that mention, he has released a new album, The Tree of Forgiveness, his first new album in ten years. Prine is beloved by other singer songwriters and often praised by the inscrutable God that is Bob Dylan.  Indeed, Prine was frequently said to be the “next Bob Dylan” in the early part of his career, though he instead carved out his own respectable career and voice, if never with the dizzying success of Dylan. The new album reflects a man in his 70s, a cancer survivor, who reflects on life and its end, but with the good humor and empathy that are hallmarks of Prine’s music. “When I Get To Heaven” is a rollicking, fun vision of what comes next and a pure delight. A charming, warm, and often terrific album.

What I’m reading:

I recently read Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, on many people’s Top Ten lists for last year and for good reason. It is sprawling, multi-generational, and based in the world of Japanese occupied Korea and then in the Korean immigrant’s world of Oaska, so our key characters become “tweeners,” accepted in neither world. It’s often unspeakably sad, and yet there is resiliency and love. There is also intimacy, despite the time and geographic span of the novel. It’s breathtakingly good and like all good novels, transporting.

What I’m watching:

I adore Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 film, Pan’s Labyrinth, and while I’m not sure his Shape of Water is better, it is a worthy follow up to the earlier masterpiece (and more of a commercial success). Lots of critics dislike the film, but I’m okay with a simple retelling of a Beauty and the Beast love story, as predictable as it might be. The acting is terrific, it is visually stunning, and there are layers of pain as well as social and political commentary (the setting is the US during the Cold War) and, no real spoiler here, the real monsters are humans, the military officer who sees over the captured aquatic creature. It is hauntingly beautiful and its depiction of hatred to those who are different or “other” is painfully resonant with the time in which we live. Put this on your “must see” list.

March 18, 2018

What I’m listening to:

Sitting on a plane for hours (and many more to go; geez, Australia is far away) is a great opportunity to listen to new music and to revisit old favorites. This time, it is Lucy Dacus and her album Historians, the new sophomore release from a 22-year old indie artist that writes with relatable, real-life lyrics. Just on a second listen and while she insists this isn’t a break up record (as we know, 50% of all great songs are break up songs), it is full of loss and pain. Worth the listen so far. For the way back machine, it’s John Prine and In Spite of Ourselves (that title track is one of the great love songs of all time), a collection of duets with some of his “favorite girl singers” as he once described them. I have a crush on Iris Dement (for a really righteously angry song try her Wasteland of the Free), but there is also EmmyLou Harris, the incomparable Dolores Keane, and Lucinda Williams. Very different albums, both wonderful.

What I’m reading:

Jane Mayer’s New Yorker piece on Christopher Steele presents little that is new, but she pulls it together in a terrific and coherent whole that is illuminating and troubling at the same time. Not only for what is happening, but for the complicity of the far right in trying to discredit that which should be setting off alarm bells everywhere. Bob Mueller may be the most important defender of the democracy at this time. A must read.

What I’m watching:

Homeland is killing it this season and is prescient, hauntingly so. Russian election interference, a Bannon-style hate radio demagogue, alienated and gun toting militia types, and a president out of control. It’s fabulous, even if it feels awfully close to the evening news. 

March 8, 2018

What I’m listening to:

We have a family challenge to compile our Top 100 songs. It is painful. Only 100? No more than three songs by one artist? Wait, why is M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” on my list? Should it just be The Clash from whom she samples? Can I admit to guilty pleasure songs? Hey, it’s my list and I can put anything I want on it. So I’m listening to the list while I work and the song playing right now is Tom Petty’s “The Wild One, Forever,” a B-side single that was never a hit and that remains my favorite Petty song. Also, “Evangeline” by Los Lobos. It evokes a night many years ago, with friends at Pearl Street in Northampton, MA, when everyone danced well past 1AM in a hot, sweaty, packed club and the band was a revelation. Maybe the best music night of our lives and a reminder that one’s 100 Favorite Songs list is as much about what you were doing and where you were in your life when those songs were playing as it is about the music. It’s not a list. It’s a soundtrack for this journey.

What I’m reading:

Patricia Lockwood’s Priestdaddy was in the NY Times top ten books of 2017 list and it is easy to see why. Lockwood brings remarkable and often surprising imagery, metaphor, and language to her prose memoir and it actually threw me off at first. It then all became clear when someone told me she is a poet. The book is laugh aloud funny, which masks (or makes safer anyway) some pretty dark territory. Anyone who grew up Catholic, whether lapsed or not, will resonate with her story. She can’t resist a bawdy anecdote and her family provides some of the most memorable characters possible, especially her father, her sister, and her mother, who I came to adore. Best thing I’ve read in ages.

What I’m watching:

The Florida Project, a profoundly good movie on so many levels. Start with the central character, six-year old (at the time of the filming) Brooklynn Prince, who owns – I mean really owns – the screen. This is pure acting genius and at that age? Astounding. Almost as astounding is Bria Vinaite, who plays her mother. She was discovered on Instagram and had never acted before this role, which she did with just three weeks of acting lessons. She is utterly convincing and the tension between the child’s absolute wonder and joy in the world with her mother’s struggle to provide, to be a mother, is heartwarming and heartbreaking all at once. Willem Dafoe rightly received an Oscar nomination for his supporting role. This is a terrific movie.

February 12, 2018

What I’m listening to:

So, I have a lot of friends of age (I know you’re thinking 40s, but I just turned 60) who are frozen in whatever era of music they enjoyed in college or maybe even in their thirties. There are lots of times when I reach back into the catalog, since music is one of those really powerful and transporting senses that can take you through time (smell is the other one, though often underappreciated for that power). Hell, I just bought a turntable and now spending time in vintage vinyl shops. But I’m trying to take a lesson from Pat, who revels in new music and can as easily talk about North African rap music and the latest National album as Meet the Beatles, her first ever album. So, I’ve been listening to Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy winning Damn. While it may not be the first thing I’ll reach for on a winter night in Maine, by the fire, I was taken with it. It’s layered, political, and weirdly sensitive and misogynist at the same time, and it feels fresh and authentic and smart at the same time, with music that often pulled me from what I was doing. In short, everything music should do. I’m not a bit cooler for listening to Damn, but when I followed it with Steely Dan, I felt like I was listening to Lawrence Welk. A good sign, I think.

What I’m reading:

I am reading Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Leonardo da Vinci. I’m not usually a reader of biographies, but I’ve always been taken with Leonardo. Isaacson does not disappoint (does he ever?), and his subject is at once more human and accessible and more awe-inspiring in Isaacson’s capable hands. Gay, left-handed, vegetarian, incapable of finishing things, a wonderful conversationalist, kind, and perhaps the most relentlessly curious human being who has ever lived. Like his biographies of Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein, Isaacson’s project here is to show that genius lives at the intersection of science and art, of rationality and creativity. Highly recommend it.

What I’m watching:

We watched the This Is Us post-Super Bowl episode, the one where Jack finally buys the farm. I really want to hate this show. It is melodramatic and manipulative, with characters that mostly never change or grow, and it hooks me every damn time we watch it. The episode last Sunday was a tear jerker, a double whammy intended to render into a blubbering, tissue-crumbling pathetic mess anyone who has lost a parent or who is a parent. Sterling K. Brown, Ron Cephas Jones, the surprising Mandy Moore, and Milo Ventimiglia are hard not to love and last season’s episode that had only Brown and Cephas going to Memphis was the show at its best (they are by far the two best actors). Last week was the show at its best worst. In other words, I want to hate it, but I love it. If you haven’t seen it, don’t binge watch it. You’ll need therapy and insulin.

January 15, 2018

What I’m listening to:

Drive-By Truckers. Chris Stapleton has me on an unusual (for me) country theme and I discovered these guys to my great delight. They’ve been around, with some 11 albums, but the newest one is fascinating. It’s a deep dive into Southern alienation and the white working-class world often associated with our current president. I admire the willingness to lay bare, in kick ass rock songs, the complexities and pain at work among people we too quickly place into overly simple categories. These guys are brave, bold, and thoughtful as hell, while producing songs I didn’t expect to like, but that I keep playing. And they are coming to NH.

What I’m reading:

A textual analog to Drive-By Truckers by Chris Stapleton in many ways is Tony Horowitz’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize winning Confederates in the Attic. Ostensibly about the Civil War and the South’s ongoing attachment to it, it is prescient and speaks eloquently to the times in which we live (where every southern state but Virginia voted for President Trump). Often hilarious, it too surfaces complexities and nuance that escape a more recent, and widely acclaimed, book like Hillbilly Elegy. As a Civil War fan, it was also astonishing in many instances, especially when it blows apart long-held “truths” about the war, such as the degree to which Sherman burned down the south (he did not). Like D-B Truckers, Horowitz loves the South and the people he encounters, even as he grapples with its myths of victimhood and exceptionalism (and racism, which may be no more than the racism in the north, but of a different kind). Everyone should read this book and I’m embarrassed I’m so late to it.

What I’m watching:

David Letterman has a new Netflix show called “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction” and we watched the first episode, in which Letterman interviewed Barack Obama. It was extraordinary (if you don’t have Netflix, get it just to watch this show); not only because we were reminded of Obama’s smarts, grace, and humanity (and humor), but because we saw a side of Letterman we didn’t know existed. His personal reflections on Selma were raw and powerful, almost painful. He will do five more episodes with “extraordinary individuals” and if they are anything like the first, this might be the very best work of his career and one of the best things on television.

December 22, 2017

What I’m reading:

Just finished Sunjeev Sahota’s Year of the Runaways, a painful inside look at the plight of illegal Indian immigrant workers in Britain. It was shortlisted for 2015 Man Booker Prize and its transporting, often to a dark and painful universe, and it is impossible not to think about the American version of this story and the terrible way we treat the undocumented in our own country, especially now.

What I’m watching:

Season II of The Crown is even better than Season I. Elizabeth’s character is becoming more three-dimensional, the modern world is catching up with tradition-bound Britain, and Cold War politics offer more context and tension than we saw in Season I. Claire Foy, in her last season, is just terrific – one arched eye brow can send a message.

What I’m listening to:

A lot of Christmas music, but needing a break from the schmaltz, I’ve discovered Over the Rhine and their Christmas album, Snow Angels. God, these guys are good.

 

November 14, 2017

What I’m watching:

Guiltily, I watch the Patriots play every weekend, often building my schedule and plans around seeing the game. Why the guilt? I don’t know how morally defensible is football anymore, as we now know the severe damage it does to the players. We can’t pretend it’s all okay anymore. Is this our version of late decadent Rome, watching mostly young Black men take a terrible toll on each other for our mere entertainment?

What I’m reading:

Recently finished J.G. Ballard’s 2000 novel Super-Cannes, a powerful depiction of a corporate-tech ex-pat community taken over by a kind of psychopathology, in which all social norms and responsibilities are surrendered to residents of the new world community. Kept thinking about Silicon Valley when reading it. Pretty dark, dystopian view of the modern world and centered around a mass killing, troublingly prescient.

What I’m listening to:

Was never really a Lorde fan, only knowing her catchy (and smarter than you might first guess) pop hit “Royals” from her debut album. But her new album, Melodrama, is terrific and it doesn’t feel quite right to call this “pop.” There is something way more substantial going on with Lorde and I can see why many critics put this album at the top of their Best in 2017 list. Count me in as a huge fan.

 

November 3, 2017

What I’m reading:

Just finished Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, her breathtakingly good second novel. How is someone so young so wise? Her writing is near perfection and I read the book in two days, setting my alarm for 4:30AM so I could finish it before work.

What I’m watching:

We just binge watched season two of Stranger Things and it was worth it just to watch Millie Bobbie Brown, the transcendent young actor who plays Eleven. The series is a delightful mash up of every great eighties horror genre you can imagine and while pretty dark, an absolute joy to watch.

What I’m listening to:

I’m not a lover of country music (to say the least), but I love Chris Stapleton. His “The Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning” is heartbreakingly good and reminds me of the old school country that played in my house as a kid. He has a new album and I can’t wait, but his From A Room: Volume 1 is on repeat for now.

 

September 26, 2017

What I’m reading:

Just finished George Saunder’s Lincoln in the Bardo. It took me a while to accept its cadence and sheer weirdness, but loved it in the end. A painful meditation on loss and grief, and a genuinely beautiful exploration of the intersection of life and death, the difficulty of letting go of what was, good and bad, and what never came to be.

What I’m watching:

HBO’s The Deuce. Times Square and the beginning of the porn industry in the 1970s, the setting made me wonder if this was really something I’d want to see. But David Simon is the writer and I’d read a menu if he wrote it. It does not disappoint so far and there is nothing prurient about it.

What I’m listening to:

The National’s new album Sleep Well Beast. I love this band. The opening piano notes of the first song, “Nobody Else Will Be There,” seize me & I’m reminded that no one else in music today matches their arrangement & musicianship. I’m adding “Born to Beg,” “Slow Show,” “I Need My Girl,” and “Runaway” to my list of favorite love songs.

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