Aural Impressions: Courtney Barnett, Tell Me How You Really Feel

Courtney Barnett is one of those musical acts that basically dropped on me from heaven one day.  A simple coincidence led to an interest piqued, and one album listen later, and I was hooked.  Just two years ago, I sat outside enjoying the late spring sun to her optimstic, laid-back, yet energetic stylings and I haven’t let that feeling go since.  Hell, the catchy, escalating narrative of “Avant Gardener,” from her second EP, inspired me to get out of the house and do yard work.   As soon as she announced a show in town last year, I didn’t think twice about snagging tickets, even if they were fairly expensive.  I caught Courtney Barnett in Oakland with Kurt Vile and the Sea Lice in the fall, and then again in San Francisco earlier this month in the first real show of her latest tour.  To begin this show, she played through the entirety of her newest album, Tell Me How You Really Feel.  Ironically, I couldn’t really get a feel for the album live, as the sound at stage front was somewhat difficult to make out — the venue had opened only a day earlier and I don’t think the room was quite tuned yet.  However, I recall very much liking several of the new songs, especially the closing tracks of the record.  Whether or not my live impressions hold up will be determined — right now:

  1. Hopefulessness:  Detuned and grim, this is a dark start for a second record.  I adore the guitar riff though — it’s grungy and resonant.  A stark contrast to the jounce of “Elevator Operator,” this song is mute, claustrophobic, and trance-inducing, with an extremely slow crescendo adding stiff percussion and transient production effects like synth pads and, ultimately screeching feedback.  A spacey guitar solo struggles to stand out in the cacophony by the end, but that only adds to the tight, closed-off feeling we started with.  And I’m pretty sure that’s a tea-kettle whistling there at the end.  This is a great opener for what aims to be a fairly different album than we’ve heard from Courtney before.
  2. City Looks Pretty:  A burst of energy after a slow climb, we’re back in that Sometimes I Sit… area of liveliness.  The song pushes forward on the back of a steady guitar-drum mix, sprinkled with blasts of distorted guitar and climbing bass riffs.  The chorus is so uplifting musically that I can see the sun coming out in my mind’s eye.  At the midpoint, we take an abrupt turn into 3/4 time at half speed, with the drum instrumentation being reminiscent of Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song” and playing alongside, the same sort of bluesy clean guitar riffs and solos that had been prominently featured on Courtney’s first album.  This song is pretty fantastic as is, but honestly it could have been longer.  That second half could have lingered for a few minutes more and I would have loved it.
  3. Charity:  There’s something supremely nostalgic buried in that syncopated chord progression, whilst I find that pre-chorus riff screaming of a Sleater-Kinney-style polyphonic-guitar riot grrrl sound, if only for a moment.  Courtney’s singing is a bit subdued given how lively and bright the music is, but that’s kind of her thing, isn’t it?  Musically, it’s fairly simple, although the chords take a few neat unexpected twists and turns throughout the boilerplate sequences, specifically during the choruses; those changes create incredibly satisfying transition points between stanzas and verses.  This might be my early favorite for the album; I can see myself putting this on repeat for a while.
  4. Need A Little Time:  With a slowly strummed minor-key guitar and little to no flourishes in production, this feels a little bit enervating in the wake of the last few rockers.  It reminds me a bit of the feel of the first EP and its stripped-down pieces, though; it’s rough around the edges, for better or worse.  Twice during this plodding affair, we’re treating to rockin’ solos, the first one shattering the first half din, whilst the second, a repetition at a lower octave, finishes off the song suddenly.  While okay, this song doesn’t really have a hook that would bring me back to it over and over, unfortunately.
  5. Nameless, Faceless The opening single from the record, this was a bit of a different sound to bring us into this new era.  A crunchy, dissonantly descending guitar riff leads into a lightly upbeat ballad with sarcastic lyrics pointedly directed at every angry young man who chooses to take out their frustrations on women.  The chorus features vocals sunken deep into the mix, which get raspier and more strained as the choruses repeat, especially when performed live.  It’s a rather simple, repetitive song that harkens back to that early ’90s grunge sound that’s been flirted with a few times so far on this album.  It’s not a bad lead-off single, but it’s not my favorite either.  It does have the propensity to get stuck in my head though, so it’s got that going for it.
  6. I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch:  As the title implies, this short interlude is ferocious.  It’s noisy and conflicted, flipping between crashing chords, slimy guitars, and disjointed solos.  Basically, the twisted sequel to “Pedestrian at Best,” or if Courtney Barnett did a less energetic interpretation of Sleater-Kinney’s “Surface Envy.”  A killer track, for sure.
  7. Crippling Self Doubt And A General Lack of Self Confidence:  Now this sounds like it came straight from her early works — the staccato dual chord that kicks it off, echoing the beginning of her song “David,” is all it takes for me to put myself back in that space.  The upbeat jumpy guitar through the verses is basically the sound of her debut album, so this song is an updated remix of the general Courtney Barnett essence.  Given the title, I wonder if that was a conscious choice.  Joining Courtney on this track are Kim Deal from the Pixies and her sister Kelley, providing layered backing vocals through the mantric choruses.   This one is also short, but sweet.  I like it.
  8. Help Your Self:  Groovy!  Solo drums lead off here, into a thick, undulating, multi-tracked guitar and bass riff.  Is that a cowbell I hear?  Vocals are clean and upfront in the mix.  The lead guitar, as has been common all record, treads into Carrie Brownstein territory once again.  Toward the end, it bursts into a shrieking, fuzzy solo, featuring the kind of clashing scales that are common on The Woods, while also reminding me a bit of latter-day Muse, if that’s possible.
  9. Walkin’ On Eggshells:  As I mentioned up top, this begins the set of two songs that I recall most liking at the show.  More than any other on the record, this captures the feel of her first EPs.  Backing vocals from the guys in the band make their first noticeable appearance on this album, along with a piano in accompaniment.  There’s a slight twang  in her guitar, creating an intentionally unpolished feeling.  Drums on the quarters during the chorus are classic Courtney.  I was right to have liked this song live — it’s chill, lovely, and an easy favorite.
  10. Sunday Roast:  According to Courtney at the show, she wrote this song when she was very young.  It, like the preceding track, is chill, but in an extremely polished, nebulous way.  The wide, floating reverb, heavy bass, and tom-laden drums immediately bring The National to mind; it’s melancholic with purpose.  I find myself liking the first half mainly because of my affinity for The National, but Courtney’s vocals too excel in this environment — this just makes me want the two to collaborate now.  As the second chorus comes in, the foggy shroud is blown wide open.  In its place are an extremely optimistic verse and happy guitars.  It’s a decently strong conclusion, even if I far preferred the first half of the track, and also considering that it fades out in the end.  As a whole, it’s solid.

It didn’t really take a lot for this new album to grow on me.  I had gone in with lowered expectations — I caught some mixed reviews before release, and the first three songs put out didn’t necessarily grab me the right way.  That said, the remaining tracks that fill out the album are pretty wonderful.  It works much better as a whole, and boy, if I could go back in time and see her again, having heard the album first, I would have appreciated it way the hell more.  What’s not so good is okay, and what’s good is great — despite some extra melancholy and ferocity compared to previous records, there’s still a ton of sunny vibes here to get me through the summer.

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The Not Quite Last Jedi

In what has now become an annual tradition, I found myself once again taking in the spectacle of a new Star Wars film on a Sunday in mid-December.  The first time I did this was a bit unique in that I then hopped a plane to Peru that evening, the memories of the film dancing through my mind during a trip through the jungle.  Last year’s experience had little of the build-up, nor the memory; Rogue One is a fine movie, it just doesn’t really make an impression on its own given that it’s solely in service to a greater film.  Now, The Last Jedi is a film I’d been trying to temper my expectations for since the moment I walked out of that theater in 2015.  The Empire Strikes Back is my favorite film of all time, so this new middle chapter had quite a challenge facing it and a bit of sequel-driven history to live up to.  Let’s just say, it’s complicated.  As I walked home from the screening, I was somewhat torn.  There’s a lot of really awesome things that happen in The Last Jedi.  There are also an excessive amount of minor things that really shouldn’t be in the film at all, or at the very least, odd decisions that should be toned down a smidge for the sake of tonal continuity.  But most importantly of all, in direct response to the main criticisms of The Force Awakens, it doesn’t clone a previous film, but rather attempts to subvert its spiritual predecessor at every turn.  Does it work?  Let’s walk through it together and find out.

Continue reading “The Not Quite Last Jedi”

Are You Ready For Some Star Wars: The Last Jedi!?

Now it’s a bit weird, the continued relationship between Star Wars and the NFL.  It certainly makes some sense, with both ESPN and the Star Wars franchise under the Disney umbrella, however the two worlds, at least in my mind, remain about as far apart as they can get.  What do Star Wars and football have in common, other than common corporate ownership?  Some demographic overlap?  Mainstream appeal?  Guys in helmets?  Well, now Disney has gone ahead and established a tradition: during a Monday Night Football presentation some two months before release, a new full-length trailer for the upcoming Star Wars saga film will debut during halftime.

Unlike as had been done for The Force Awakens in 2014 and 2015, this is only the second trailer for The Last Jedi to be released.  The teaser, released in April about two years to the day after The Force Awakens’ first full-length trailer, is the only thing we’ve seen concerning the eighth film in the franchise and it left us with many, many questions.  So, without any further hesitation, let’s see what they’ve given us to snack on this time:

A classic Star Wars harp glissando brings us right in.  Someone (it’s Kylo Ren) is standing in an Imperial First Order hangar looking over siege equipment.

“When I found you…”

That’s definitely Snoke speaking, in the unmistakable growl of Andy Serkis.

“…I saw raw,…”

An intimidating group of AT-AT-like walkers.  That shuttlecraft looks familiar.

“…untamed, power…”

Kylo Ren (I think) leads Storm Troopers through a roughly, black and red, backlit passageway.  The overhead perspective is intriguing.  In the background, sparse piano notes play under high squealing strings.

“…and beyond that…”

RED.

“…something truly special.”

We cut to black.

Rey ignites her Luke’s lightsaber and stares at it for a beat.  Lucasfilm titles.

A drone shot of the island, again.

“Something…”

Cool hand, Luke!  Rey gives him the lightsaber.  This seems to be a different occasion than the stare-down at the conclusion of The Force Awakens.

“…inside me has always been there,…”  Rey whispers.

I have a feeling look is going to be making a lot of puzzled / confused / intrigued faces in this film.  He’s the Yoda to Rey, yet I think Rey is far more powerful in comparison to Luke than Luke was to Yoda.

Rey ascends foggy cliffs toward jagged rocks.  I wasn’t aware she was on her way through the Emyn Muil.  Lots of Lord of the Rings-like imagery going on here.

“…but now it’s awake…”

Roll credits!  Er, that was the last film, wasn’t it.

Rey happens upon the tree-root bookshelf from the teaser, looking curiously at it from the books’ POV.

“…and I need help.”

Various shots of Rey swinging the lightsaber around conclude with this one:

Where she expertly controls the blade into a firm position just inches from the rock.  Damn, girl.

The ground fissures and Luke looks on… like this:

That seems… not great?  For the light side, I mean.  It could be awesome for the movie!

Again we see the slow-motion narrow depth of field shot of levitating stones.

Rey is focused. Seems her training is coming along pretty quickly, eh?

“I’ve seen this raw strength only once before…”

When was that?  Ren slaughtering the Jedi students?  Darth Vader?  The Emperor?  When?

A robotic hand bursts through collapsed wooden debris as fires burn in the background.  Likely the scene of the flashbacks, and perhaps Luke’s hand.  So he’s strongly implying that Kylo Ren is the raw strength, also echoing Snoke.  And, he’s inferring Rey is stronger than that.  Makes a lot of sense, given the events of the first film.

“…it didn’t scare me enough then.”

“It does now.”

Luke looks pants-shittingly terrified.  He’s shaking.  Rey looks on sadly, though I’m not sure these two scenes actually go together.

Bam, Kylo Ren’s theme blasts.  The man himself emerges from a lift.

He grabs his mask, takes a long look, then we cut to a closeup…

Nice scar, Kylo!  Is that a tattoo or a fancy bandage?  He smashes the mask against the wall.

“Let the past die.”

Space battle!  TIE Fighters shoot at Resistance ships.  Leia’s on one of them.  The sounds here are perfect, as the TIEs overwhelm the auditory scape.  It sure seems like darkness has the upper-hand so far.

“Kill it.”

Kylo Ren’s TIE Fighter looks sinister.  Like an old Interceptor, but with red (red, again!) cockpit glass and a horizontally stretched fuselage.

“…If you have to.”

A shot tracking the TIE from behind as it flies into a Resistance ship.  Whoa, this is something new.

“That’s the only way to become what you were meant to be.”

Man, if these means killing both of your parents… Yikes.

And this trailer does everything to suggest that it does.  Wow.

…or does it?  The sounds go silent except for a single alarm beeping.  I can see the conflict in his face.  Is Leia using the force on young Ben Solo?  Probably!

THIS CHRISTMAS

The Millennium Falcon flies, pursued by TIE Fighters into a cave tunnel full of sparkling red crystals.  So much red in this film’s imagery.  I imagine this to be the red soil planet.  The Falcon does its trademark twist as it navigates the through.

Chewie looks upset!  What could possibly provoke this kind of reaction from the Wookiee?

This little guy lets out a scream too.  What are these things called again?  Porgs, right?  I really hope they’re integrated well.  I don’t want my gloomy Star Wars film derailed by too much cuteness!

A Resistance ship takes a hard green bolt and explodes with force.  Damn.

Poe seems taken aback by what just happened.  I wonder what kind of ship he’s on where there’s just… windows.  I don’t think we’ve really seen that before, outside of a bridge, you know?

“We are the spark…”

Interesting how the X-Wing has a fifth engine in the center.  What’s that for, afterburner?  It leaves behind a shimmering trail.

“…that’ll light the fire…”

Sick close up.  I love me some locked-in Poe Dameron.  Go kick some ass, buddy.

Much appreciated.

“…it’ll burn the First Order down.”

I can’t quite hear what he’s saying but I think that’s close.

Holy Phasma.  And she’s got a sword of some kind?  Sparks go flying as she brings it into position.

Finn!  I can’t believe it took this long to get him into the trailer.  He’s angry, and he’s got an electric stun baton.

It looks like we’re getting another non-lightsaber duel, this time between Finn and Phasma.  Where the heck is this happening?  Everything is on fire and/or exploding.

Sick.  I wonder if only one of them makes it out of there alive…  Do I bet on the rehabilitated Finn, or Brienne of Tarth?

Resistance ships explode and BB-8 gets zapped.  We’re getting pretty bleak here.

“This is not going to go…”

Angry Luke, in black, in darkness, in rain, laying down, possibly in defeat.

Crystal fox!  Neat!  Awesome attention to detail on the hexagonal salt formations.

Hooded figure stands at the edge of a vast desert (the one with the red soil beneath).  A Resistance base about to be assaulted by AT-ATs?  That seems an awful lot like Hoth…

“…the way you think.”

Luke finishes his thought, and here I’m thinking, are they blatantly foreshadowing some kind of twist?  I don’t know how this is going to go, but if I’m reading too much into the parallels with Empire, then perhaps I should take another path?  Am I reading too much into this?

That’s a great shot of Leia, by the way.

Rey plunges into a pool, to emerge into the dark, rainy scene with black-clad Luke.   I bet this is her “failure at the cave” moment.

“Fulfill…”

Snoke narrates as the First Order finishes their domination of the trailer.  First, Finn is captured.

Then their forces are ready for an onslaught.  The deep hangar looks almost like a matte painting.

“…your…”

The strike begins.  Red dirt erupts from beneath the desert.  If it’s to be a Hoth parallel, at least the aesthetic is somewhat different.  The red really pops here.

Exploding TIEs crash as skiffs bounce away.   And by skiffs I mean HOLY SHIT THOSE ARE B-WINGS. YESSSSSSSSSS!  In the teaser post I took them for something new, but from this angle it’s for certain.  I guess it’s possible to deploy only one wing into attack position?

“…destiny!”

SNOKE.  My goodness CGI has come a long way.  The animation is still a slight bit off, but the still image is crisp.  He’s not quite as Gollum-like as he appeared in the hologram from The Force Awakens, instead appearing more like a old, slightly deformed human.  I still think he’s like three feet tall.  An evil Yoda, if you will.

Rey is tortured, yet again.  She’s stuck awkwardly leaning backward as she twitches and wind blows.  I think that’s Snoke in the background, but I cannot be sure.  The red of the surroundings suggest the same room as Kylo Ren was in during his introduction above.


Cut to black.  The music vanishes, except for, again, sparse piano.

“I need someone…”

“…to show me my place in all this.”

The Force Theme starts to play here, but it’s cut off.

Wait for it…

!!!

Oh my gods.  I don’t know how they keep topping themselves.  This cannot continue forever, can it?  What to expect from a potential Rey / Kylo Ren alliance?  Where do they even go from here?  Does Kylo continue to be pulled toward the light?  Does Rey succumb to her darkest instincts?  I DON’T KNOW!

But I do know that I am excited for this film!

For The Force Awakens, I stopped watching and talking about new trailers after the Monday Night Football one dropped, and you know what?  That really worked for me.  I’ve been keeping a blind eye toward the happenings surrounding The Last Jedi since even before the teaser debuted, and with ignorance comes surprise, tempered expectations, and hopefully a whole lot more enjoyment of the final product.  So, from here until whenever I get around to seeing the next film (opening weekend, Sunday matineé, naturally), I will say no more about it.

Two months isn’t a long time.  It wasn’t last go-around, and it certainly won’t be again.