The Smiths’ “The Queen Is Dead” (3 CD 1 DVD re-issue / box set): Album review

Morrissey is reputed to have derisively said of his band that if they had any other singer they’d still be playing shopping malls. The title track of the “The Queen Is Dead” pretty clearly demonstrates that the band itself was a driving force in the Smiths. Without that band, Morrissey might have ended up some forgotten crooner. The raw edge and power of that undistorted guitar, often busy basslines, and forceful drums made the band what it was, able to transverse between slow deliberate ballads like “I Know It’s Over” and rockier tracks that both fit with contemporaries like Echo and the Bunnymen, REM, U2, Tears for Fears, as well as counterpoint the new wave, stadium rock, punk and early metal.
This box set collects a 2017 re-master of the Smiths’ third album along with demo versions and b-sides, a 1986 live performance from Boston, and a DVD.
The demos are a revelation, showing the songs in progress and not quite at their polished final result but with a rawer and more direct grittiness that is somehow more endearing.
The four b-sides, “Rubber Ring,” “Asleep,” “Money Changes Everything” and “Unloveable” nicely round out the 2nd CD, although die-hard Smiths fans will probably tell me they already have those singles ages ago, given the four compilations the Smiths released before splitting up, and the four or five greatest-hits collections, compilation, and two box-sets released since splitting up. They do like to commercialize their work, but no complaints from me on that. I’d release a compilation of my work every year if I thought it’d sell.
The live performance has generated some negative feedback about sound quality but I’m not that kind of audiophile, and for me this is a fantastic recording of the band at their height, ripping through the heavier songs, jauntily bouncing through the heavily sarcastic ballads.
The collection also includes a DVD with audio album tracks and videos for “The Queen Is Dead,” “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” and “Panic.”
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James Comey’s “A Higher Loyalty”: Book review

Mafia-hunter, defender of truth, honest grocery storeroom boy James Comey is here to restore Washington’s and America’s honor, the last honest man in government. And for all the bombast, there is still something refreshing in reading words like these in the author’s note – somehow more balanced, insistent, definitive, and believable that those other two books in the recent triumvirate of political chaos which included Clinton’s “What Happened” (you lost, badly) and Wolff’s “Fire and Fury”:

We are experiencing a dangerous time in our country, with a political environment where basic facts are disputed, fundamental truth is questioned, lying is normalized, and unethical behavior is ignored, excused, or rewarded.

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It is hard, however, to escape the sense that Comey is a bit too sure of himself and his place in history. With each story about mafia leaders and their cult of personality, their insistence on loyalty and allegiance to them personally above any group or creed, and their characteristics of lying, double-crossing, and violence; with each anecdote about bullies and how they push others around to try to control their surroundings out of a sense of inferiority – you get the feeling Comey is setting up a series of long narrative arcs that will all converge on a storytelling climax in which Comey has seen the likes of Trump before, and was best placed to make best efforts to handle him, thank you very much. At times direct and plainspoken, such as in that author’s note quotation, Comey at other times drifts into pseudo-poetry and purple prose, such as in this strained metaphor where a strait in North Carolina represents the role of the Department of Justice:

There is a place I have visited on the coast of North Carolina where two barrier islands come close together. In the narrow passageway between them, the waters of the Atlantic Ocean meet the waters of the huge and shallow sound that lies behind the islands. There is turbulence in that place and waves appear to break even though no land is visible. I imagine that the leaders of the Justice Department stand at that spot, between the turbulent waters of the political world and the placid waters of the apolitical sound. Their job is to respond to the political imperatives of the president and the voters who elected him, while also protecting the apolitical work of the thousands of agents, prosecutors, and staff who make up the bulk of the institution. So long as the leaders understand the turbulence, they can find their footing. If they stumble, the ocean water overruns the sound and the department has become just another political organ. Its independent role in American life has been lost and the guardians of justice have drowned.

Indeed, Comey sees himself “in that place,” one of the few men willing to retain a higher loyalty in the face of Trump’s attempts to coerce him into a “a patronage relationship.” Comey stoically recounts the infamous ‘meal for two’ in which Trump appeared to act as if “he’d ‘given’ me the job for ‘free’ and that he needed to get something in return. […],” recalling how he calmly laid out to Trump that he was “not on anybody’s side politically and could not be counted on in the traditional sense” because “the FBI is able to do [their] work credibly because it is not – and is not seen as – a tool of the president.” As has been repeated oft-times in the media – left, right, up, down, fake and real, Trump is alleged to have replied by saying “‘I need loyalty. I expect loyalty.’” Comey makes much of this moment, and if his account is true, much indeed should be made of it:

During the silence that followed, I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way. The president of the United States just demanded the FBI director’s loyalty. This was surreal. To those inclined to defend Trump, they might consider how it would have looked if President Obama had called the FBI director to a one-on-one dinner during an investigation of senior staff officials in his administration, then discussed his job security, and then said he expected loyalty. There would undoubtedly be people appearing on Fox News calling for Obama’s impeachment in an instant. This, of course, was not something I could ever conceive of Obama doing, or George W. Bush, for that matter. To my mind, the demand was like Sammy the Bull’s Cosa Nostra induction ceremony.

And there again we have that narrative arc circling back to its starting point – the bullying Mafia mobsters Comey used to put away, foreshadowing the new threat against “much of what is good in this nation.” Comey doesn’t pull any punches with the picture he paints of Trump, and does not mince his words:

We all bear responsibility for the deeply flawed choices put before voters during the 2016 election, and our country is paying a high price: this president is unethical, and untethered to truth and institutional values.

On the subject of the “deeply flawed choices,” Comey takes care to give us his version of the events of the Clinton email scandal, patiently educating us lucky readers on the legal angles and how they did not overlap with the political spin, rabid bloodlust of the general public, and frenzied insanity of the media. Comey boils the issue down to specific legal questions such as “was classified information mishandled?” and provides specific answers like “obviously ‘yes.’” Comey takes us carefully through the points that led to conclusions, the “thirty-six email chains that discussed topics that were classified as ‘Secret’ at the time,” the “eight times in those thousands of email exchanges across four years” where “topics designated as ‘Top Secret’” were talked about “sometimes cryptically, sometimes obviously.” Comey clarifies that members of Clinton’s team “didn’t send each other classified documents,” but maintains that this “didn’t matter” because “even though the people involved in the emails all had appropriate clearances and a need to know, anyone who had ever been granted a security clearance should have known that talking about top-secret information on an unclassified system was a breach of rules governing classified materials.” No matter how “small [a] slice” of the emails these were, the “exchanges […] were […] improper” and could have arguably caused “‘serious’ damage to national security” or “‘especially grave’ damage to the security of the United States if released.” Very lawyerly.

Having addressed that first question of whether “classified information [was] mishandled,” we are then left with the questions of “What was she thinking when she did this? Was it sloppy or was there criminal intent? Could we prove that she knew she was doing something she shouldn’t be doing?” and with regard to these questions the case was “unlikely to be a case that the career prosecutors at the Department of Justice would prosecute.”

Having settled that whole affair, Comey is free to return to the other main functions of his book – nailing Trump and conveying his vision of leadership.

Trump, as I believe most of the world has realized, is an easy target for wry commentary, and Comey does not shy away from making him sound like a complete idiot. Nothing shocking there – Trump needs very little assistance in appearing to be an utter moronic imbecilic fool – but even still Comey does a nice number on this most cretinous of shambolic figures. Comey recounts how Trump marveled, during the dinner for two, that “[The White House staff] write these [White House dinner menus] out one at a time by hand.” When Comey replied with “A calligrapher,” Trump “looked quizzical” and repeated “They write them by hand.” Because he is an idiot and does not know what a calligrapher is. Wow such IQ. Much knowing.

In another ‘look at this idiot’ moment, Comey is taken aback by what Trump and his team didn’t ask” after they received a briefing on Russian interference in the 2016 election:

They were about to lead a country that had been attacked by a foreign adversary, yet they had no questions about what the future Russian threat might be. Nor did they ask how the United States might prepare itself to meet that threat. Instead, with the four of us still in our seats – including two outgoing Obama appointees – the president-elect and his team shifted immediately into a strategy session about messaging on Russia. About how they could spin what we’d just told them. Speaking as if we weren’t there, Priebus began describing what a press statement about this meeting might look like. The Trump team – led by Priebus, with Pence, Spicer, and Trump jumping in – debated how to position these findings to maximum political advantage. They were keen to emphasize that there was no impact on the vote, meaning that the Russians hadn’t elected Trump. Clapper interjected to remind them of what he had said about sixty seconds earlier: the intelligence community did not analyze American politics, and we had not offered a view on that.

Trump’s leadership is “transactional, ego driven, and about personal loyalty.”

Compare this with the “collection of very bright people with strong personalities” that Comey led, a team that “frequently clashed with one another, as siblings might.” Comey, the seasoned leader, “liked that” and enjoyed “one of the junior lawyers [who] was given to exhaling in disgust at statements she didn’t like and then interrupting aggressively, no matter who was speaking” because “she didn’t care about rank at all” and “her directness added value even when she was wrong.” Comey conveys a picture of himself as a leader humble enough to embrace all viewpoints, willing to be wrong, able to admit he is not all-knowing, and that even a controversial interruption of a junior member might “stimulate great conversation.”

Speaking of humility, Comey works hard to humanize himself, and frankly he does a better job of it than Hillary Clinton managed in her book, going for chuckles when he remembers how, “Over the president’s right shoulder, [he] could see one of the two statues that stand on either side of the fireplace, the white marble mantelpiece resting on their heads, which looked really painful.” Or when he describes his attempts to melt into the background in an oval office meeting which turned unexpectedly into a press photo opportunity. Comey tells how he “moved even closer to the curtain, pressing [his] back against it, desperately trying to erase [himself] from the president’s field of vision […] in the hope that [he] could avoid an ill-advised and totally awkward hug from the new president of the United States.” Too bad. “The president called [him] forward” and he had to make that “thousand-yard walk across the Room” that has been played and replayed all over the media and social media. “How could he think this was a good idea?” Comey thinks to himself, at this moment, “The FBI and its director are not on anyone’s political team”:

The entire nightmare of the Clinton email investigation had been about protecting the integrity and independence of the FBI and the Department of Justice, about safeguarding the reservoir of trust and credibility. That Trump would appear to publicly thank me on his second day in office was a threat to the reservoir.

To cap things off, Comey had been trying to avoid hearing the score of the Packers-Falcons game all day, but as he “slipped out the side door, through the Green Room, into the hall, and down the stairs” he hears someone blab the score. “Perfect.” It’s almost Simpons-esque. Comey the true human, the decent guy in the street, just trying to stay out of the spotlight, to stand strong “in that place” where the currents meet, to maintain his “higher loyalty” and then slink home to watch the Packers-Falcons game in peace. What’s not to like?

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Nine Inch Nails’ “Not The Actual Events”: Album review

There was some controversy online over the length of the release, at 22 minutes, but then people complained about “A Date with Elvis” too (just under 23 minutes), so what are you gonna do?
Opening with the fast-moving punky “Branches / Bones,” which comes and goes in a minute and forty-seven seconds, almost before you fully get acquainted with it, the record proceeds to the hypnotic and involving “Dear World.”
In some respects, “She’s Gone Away,” which was featured on the “Twin Peaks” reboot, sounds a touch like a slower, more deliberate, more raw and organic version of The Downward Spiral’s “Reptile,” though ultimately it’s a different beast, and probably the stand-out track.
The introspective distorted whispering on “The Idea Of You” echoes The Downward Spiral’s title track, with this song alternating between moody and aggressive, all over a driving power chord.
“Burning Fire (Field On Fire)” rounds out the record, a medium paced, deliberate grungy rocker.

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Chromatics’ “Kill for Love”: Album review

I caught Chromatics on the recent Twin Peaks reboot and enjoyed their dreamy plaintive synth-based “Shadow” and decided to check out more of their work.
After a sort of pointless and unnecessary cover of Neil Young’s “Into the Black,” Chromatics’ 2012 album “Kill for Love” drifts into fairly forgettable synth-pop for another 70+ minutes. I don’t mean “forgettable” cruelly, I literally just don’t remember any of the songs after three listens through, which is not good.
I might check out other albums but this one did not impress.
I still love “Shadow” from the Twin Peaks soundtrack, though. Great track.
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“Insidious: The Last Key”: Movie review

Disappointingly bad. The trailers had some good little clips that suggested this might have a few decent jolts, but then a lot of that seems to have been left on the cutting room floor by the editors, possibly trying to make the narrative flow better, so about half of the trailer scenes weren’t in the final movie I just watched.
Instead of relying on hauntingly creepy suggestive activity that plays on that fear of things intruding into your safe reality, these “Insidious” movies too often rely on setting large portions of the narrative in this silly “Further” twilight world where the story degenerates into action hero physical fights between a 70+ year old woman and various demonic entities that don’t seem very demonic if they can be slapped around by a 70+ year old woman.
Halfway through I began to regret watching this. Towards the end I was just disgusted the producers have no shame in tossing this garbage up on the screen.
Verdict: Avoid.

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“47 Ronin”: Movie review

This is not a very good film, though it tries to be, with Big Music and epic battle scenes, expensive sets and costumery, long shots of warriors riding across windswept terrains, mawkish whispered love scenes, dramatic voiceovers about ancient magic dragons and honor. But it’s just not very good.

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Lissie’s “Castles”: Album review

Lissie returns with a solid and strong fourth album, “Castles,” continuing some of the threads from prior albums but adding in a little more synth, electronic percussion, and epic scale. Her voice is as strong as ever, sweeping and arcing up over the instruments, finding those surprising and delicious melodies that are her trademark. The album balances introspective and poignant songs of trauma and difficulty with more upbeat hopeful numbers.
“Crazy Girl,” a song about a relationship in turmoil, drowning in suspicious, jealousy and bitterness, reminds me of some of the later Wye Oak albums where they temporarily abandoned guitar in favor of dancier basslines and electronic drums. See the second half of “What Am I Gonna Do” for more of that memorable effect.
“Castles” is a showcase of the album’s texture – strummed guitar, stark piano chords, synth strings and horns, a driving chorus with a great hook line, and a striking but intelligently subtle guitar solo. It’s radio-friendly hit material, and it’s also classic Lissie singer-songwriter sincerity and raw edge.
Perhaps the strongest and most deeply affecting track on the album is the explosive “Blood and Muscle,” a song of regrets about how much love can take from you and not give back, but determination to keep looking for a love deserving of the sacrifices required – a love made of blood and muscle. A love that is built not on whispered promises and strongly felt feelings, but hard work and dedication and effort. Lissie’s voice is close and intimate, then booming and powerful, over a stripped back piano arrangement.
“Best Days” is on the lighter poppier side, but still so listenable and hooky. I never get tired of the clever lyrical alliteration of “waiting to be” in the chorus line.
“Feels Good” is a damning indictment of a lover unable to prioritize the feelings and needs of their partner, swept up in catering to their own desires, acting like a helpless victim of forces beyond their control. The drums are a touch Billy Joel “Say Goodbye To Hollywood,” or perhaps more a sort of nod to The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” while reversing the mood of that song.
Lissie paints a picture of an idealistic relationship in “Boyfriend,” her voice and melody sounding a little bit Steve Nicks as she imagines a languid drama-free existence that could easily fit into a Lana del Rey song, in this synth-driven track that feels more 90s radio soul than singer-songwriter.
“Somewhere” is likely the poppiest moment of the album, in this ballad of hope that despite all the trauma we’ve been hearing in the prior tracks, “somewhere we are together.” Yet that’s an accurate capture of how love works: you get broken to pieces, then the next minute you’re full of hope and dreams. Such is the drug of love, succinctly expressed in the next track where Lissie laments how badly “I need your love – I want your love – can’t get enough of your love – I need your love – I want your love – I can’t go on without your love,” and in the same breath “I just want to say it – what everybody knows: love blows.”
Lissie brings the album back to an earthier feel, the synth and grand scale giving way to arpeggiated guitar and a Fleetwood Mac-sounding ballad, a meditative midwinter rumination on elusive peace and release.
“Sand” sweeps the album towards a kind of crescendo, repeating the refrain “Can’t you feel this dream just dying” before the final determined song seems to call out to the universe, maybe imploring it to present yet another opportunity to go back into that madness of love and entanglement, to “go back down” into “the darkness,” or maybe a desire to learn and “know what I don’t know.”
“Castles” is an album that bears up to repeated listens, growing more endearing and enduring with each play-through.
If you have a chance to see Lissie on tour, do not pass it up, as her live performances exceed the intensity of the most intense of her recordings.

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