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Mar12022

Movie Review: “Zodiac” (2007)

Zodiac movie poster.

4.5/5 Stars

Relentless, frustrating but never boring police procedural about the San Francisco Bay’s most famous unsolved mystery. I was positive there wasn’t anything left to say about Zodiac and therefore nothing for a 2 1/2 hour movie yet this one is steely in its resolve, perfect in its pacing and absolutely true to its conviction–that not knowing is a pain of the soul but one we all but bear.

David Fincher, our most tactile filmmaker, can fall too deeply in love with the beauty of his own shots and can stop asking whether we care about the story in the meantime (Exhibit A: GONE GIRL). He never loses our attention here. And the sequence of the Trans America pyramid being built is as good as every says it is.

Feb262022

Book Review: “Monday Night Mayhem: The Inside Story of ABC’s Monday Night Football” (1994)

Monday Night Mayhem: The Inside Story of ABC's Monday Night FootballMonday Night Mayhem: The Inside Story of ABC’s Monday Night Football by Marc Gunter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bill Carter will go on to write better books about late night television, one of which would become the mini-series THE LATE SHIFT. But he cut his teeth, along with co-author Marc Gunter, on this thorough yet swift look at a television and sports phenom that’s really the larger story of capitalism: innovation leads to sameness which results in the innovation left behind in the file room of history. The drama is Shakespeare meets high school lunchroom, with everyone wearing their egos and insecurities on the outside of their clothes. But MONDAY NIGHT MAYHEM leads us, gently, yes, to a difficult question: Are those the kind of people who make great things? Not jerks, per se but people with half formed ideas but full tanks of ambition, people with rough edges who make stupid mistakes, which seem stupid but the risk is higher? There isn’t an answer at the end of this book but its a question and a conundrum that hasn’t aged a bit since this book came out in 1994.

Postscript: Can you enjoy this book if you don’t care about football? Yes. If you care about business, media, entertainment and human drama. But MONDAY NIGHT MAYHEM has a natural limitation: Announcing and broadcasting is all about smoothing over errors. And at a national television network level, errors are small and rarely noticed by the viewer. Which means its pretty much impossible for the authors to describe the “fiascos” the characters in this book commit while announcing football games, mistakes that were so pivotal to their fates. Why? Because they seem like petty nothings to us, the reader, even though they seem career-ending to the characters.

Feb232022

Book Review: “Ball Four” by Jim Bouton

Ball FourBall Four by Jim Bouton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jim Bouton isn’t nearly as clever or funny as he thinks. Maybe he read that way in 1970 when BALL FOUR came out, but here in the present, it’s 500 pages of chit-chat with a conversation partner way too pleased with his own half of the occasion. As he grew though, so did his writing. Read the epilogues and you get a great sense of baseball, the book and its history and the man who wrote it. That’s really all you need.

Feb112022

Book Review: “Common Ground” (1985) by J. Anthony Lukas

Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American FamiliesCommon Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families by J. Anthony Lukas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Common Ground” is nearly 700 pages of original reporting about three families living through the integration of Boston’s public school in the mid 1970s (look up “Boston Busing Riots” if you don’t yet know what a shameful chapter of recent American history this is). Let’s get that on the table right away. It’s dense, epic, terribly important and has aged not a second in its importance: We are at each other’s throats as a nation over precisely who America belongs to and what it means. The kids throwing rocks at a bus full of black students newly attending their high school and shouting about how it is their freedom in danger are the Proud Boys of yesteryear.

What “Common Ground” is not is a great reading experience. It has moments when you stop and simply cannot believe the depth of work Mr. Lukas has done and the kindness and soul he brings to it. There are way too many more when you say two pages would have worked just as well and he gave us two chapters.

Though I am positive Mr. Lukas got the best editing publishing could buy for this project, there still feels like no interview was left out, no lede unfollowed no matters how little in the end it actually mattered. My firend whom I read it with compared it to accelerating one mile per hour at a time. You’re still driving/ But you’re missing many of the pleasures of driving.

If dense, chewy, epic, important and sad are your bag, none of those complaints will matter to you. Myself, I’m sad that while I am so fortunate to have read “Common Ground” I cannot recommend it with a full heart. Somewhere in all of the magnificent things it is doing, it sacrificed the common ground an author must also have not just with their subject and the demands of the story but their reader too.

Feb92022

The Smokler 50 (2021): My Annual Playlist of New Music

 

Every year since 2012, I have put together a playlist of 50 songs from the 600-800 new songs I discover each calendar year. The songs don’t have to be new (as in released that year), just new to me (as in I had never heard them before this year). Ordinarily these are on Spotify but no thank you to that.

I started doing this because I would fall in love with an artist, a few weeks would pass and I would forget their name. Literally. As though we had never met. The playlist gives me a facimile of everyone I met and fell in love with, musically, that year.


The name The Smokler 50 is dumb. And I have not come up with something better yet.


I usually tell anyone who dives in if you have three new discoveries, I’ve done my job. And immediately skip anything that isn’t working for you.

Enjoy.


Jan252022

In Praising of “Listening Through” (Every Album By Your Favorite Artist)

Lately I’ve assigned myself the project of listening to every album recorded by a band I like. This came about when, kicking the hull of my own ignorance, shook out that Depeche Mode has released 7 studio albums AFTER  Violator, home of their last chart hits, and I hadn’t the slightest idea what Devo had been up to since their 1982 video for “Peak a Boo” freaked me out as a second grader. 

This isn’t middle-aged memory loss. A more recent example might be that the album that brought Lizzo into our lives was her third, not her first. We can’t control when we learn of an artist’s work and it’s probably just some quirk of the human brain to believe, at least a little, that someone didn’t exist before we know of them. Nonetheless, it’s incorrect and I ain’t about to say “oh well” when I found out there’s more on offer from a band I already love. Give me all of it. 

The idea then that I only knew fractions of the output of artist who’d given so much to me felt selfish, like not knowing the date of someone I cared about’s birthday.  Over time, we’ll miss almost everything and all we have is what we chose to to do with our time and attention. So for something as important to me as music, I’d rather spend that time on long-term commitments and not unresolved affairs, on friends who have been with me through it all instead those I once knew or haven’t even met. 

I’m in the middle of my third “Listen Through” project (Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings). These efforts happen alongside listening to perennial favorite records and in tandem with the faucets I turn on regularly for drips of new music. Otherwise, deepening your romances comes at the expense of seeing and making friends. And nobody should be that guy.

How it Works

 Before I start in on an album, I will usually read its wikipedia entry as well as the review in AllMusic. I am curious about different performers, producers, engineers on different records and a little why the band might be trying something different this time around. I’m not musically smart enough to know what chromatic scales are or which studio results in this or that sound. But I like to have a sense of who had a hand in the choices that went into a record and who showed up on the day it became real. The answers are always more interesting than believing it all happened by magic.

 I will usually listen to one album every two or three days in the afternoons during the scutt-and-boring-tasks portion of the workday. I’ll jot initial notes after the first listen then 2-3 days later revisit those notes and be rigorously honest if I was being unfair, impatient, etc. If I was doing any of those things, I listen again. If not, I scrawl a quick review to a group of friends with two goals in mind:  1. To have it be fun to read even if whomever is reading it doesn’t like the band/hasn’t heard of them. 2. To be clear in such a way that whomever is reading can hear the music even if they haven’t heard it before. My opinion is a distant third priority.

Writing for a living, I feel a responsibility to do this. You can write down your thoughts just to have them. Or not. 

I focus on studio albums (meaning no live records, reissues or greatest hits compilations) usually with an artist who has more than 5 records in their catalog. The courage hasn’t yet arrived to take on the discography of a Nina Simone (40 studio albums) or a Dolly Parton (51 and still going). It also helps to at least start with musicians who have died or retired or bands that have broken up. Then you know exactly how many records you are dealing with and they won’t release a new one while you are mid-swim. 

Listening in chronological order renders the clearest picture of where an artists sound began and where it ended up. The second option, equally valuable, is to enter an artists catalog during their peak “accessible phase” (i.e when they hit the pop charts or became a star) which gives you great appreciation for when they zig and zag. Like wading in off the beach but appreciating the depth and mystery of the ocean.

Format really doesn’t matter. I happen to love vinyl records but the project is the same no matter how the music gets to you.  

Also try to avoid running a segregated lunch counter (musically speaking) and only listening through to bands you remember fondly from 9th grade or who are all of one genre/race/gender/moment in time. It’s fine to start out that way, led by the same question I was: “What’s doing with that old friend I haven’t spoke to in a while?” But it’s just as valuable to visit undiscovered countries than to stay close to home.  

What I Learned

Even the great treasure of music can seem dull at times. I’ve found that giving over real considered time to an artist’s work has taught me so much–about art, about creative decisions and really just about how we all get up in the morning and have to make that day happen in a way that it mattered. 

I’ve quit making thoughtless judgements about how successful a band actually was. I’ve learned through enjoyment. If we need to change into our relationship with music to keep it from dulling, Listen Though has provided the shine. 

Try it. I bet you end up in the seat next to me, alongside your favorite artist, both receiving their music and piloting the sonic skies with them. 

 

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