TIME movies

Have Young Adult Adaptations Jumped the Shark?

Republic

Eventually, the climate of the world will change again, and the interest in dystopia will transition into something else

This post originally appeared on Consequence of Sound.

In the current Hollywood climate, the lust for franchises is at an all-time high. It’s a logical enough response to both the difficulties found in getting the average American viewer into a theater in the past few years, and the never-brighter future of the new, globalized audience for Hollywood tentpole features. In both cases, name recognition is the most logical (if not necessarily the most ideal) means to get people back in seats. For all the theatrical gimmickry that chains have rolled out in recent years (dine-in screenings, electric recliners, flight simulator-style seating), there’s perhaps nothing more verifiable when it comes to packing a house than a continuation of another film that people saw and enjoyed. Consider that of 2014’s top 10 highest-grossing films so far, as of this writing, six are sequels. Of the other four, you have two modern reboots of famed existing characters (Maleficent, Godzilla), a new entry into an existing franchise model (Guardians of the Galaxy), and The LEGO Movie, a surprisingly enjoyable film that’s nevertheless still based on a line of toys.

In the midst of Hollywood’s seemingly endless franchise hunt, one of the most prevalent trends of the past decade has been the renewed interest in the constant adaptation of popular young adult novels. It’s a logical enough approach; rather than greenlighting a film that’ll ideally spawn sequels, you pick up a property with a built-in following and a pre-released series of follow-up installments. Grab the next Hunger Games, and you have three or four movies ready to go from day one. In a recent article, I addressed just how many studios are trying to do exactly that, the latest Hollywood ideal being the next hot dystopian epic to follow Hunger Games, or the more recent successes of The Maze Runner and Divergent.

But what’s perhaps even more interesting than the handful of successfully launched YA adaptations in recent years is the massive volume of failures surrounding them. Vulture explored this question in brief last year, before the runaway success of Catching Fire, again primarily touching more heavily on the films that worked than those that didn’t. At one point, they quote YA publisher Ben Schrank, who explains that, “The fact that there are more people writing better books for young people than ever before, combined with a culture where fewer and fewer people think of themselves as old, makes over-saturation in the immediate future seem unlikely.” But this proliferation of books doesn’t necessarily mean that their popularity will translate; a book engenders a certain kind of more dedicated fandom by dint of its ability to establish a universe in far greater detail than the average 90-minute to two-hour film can muster.

So, back to the question at hand: why have so many adaptations failed? Vulture cites momentum at one point, which could explain Divergent and Maze Runner, especially the former; the market seems to be bullish on YA dystopian adaptations featuring popular young actresses in layered roles with peculiar first names for the time being. But it doesn’t entirely account for the phenomenon. After all, lest we forget (more on that momentarily), before Hunger Games it was Twilight. And it’s not as though studios didn’t try and fling their bodies onto that rapidly accelerating gravy train as well. But the fantasy market didn’t prove so lucrative. Between the time of the first Twilight film’s release in November 2008 and its conclusion with the underrated Breaking Dawn Part 2 in 2012, studios released at least seven other franchise hopefuls with YA pedigrees. Only one was sequelized, and even then, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters underperformed in theaters last summer.

Even dystopia isn’t a complete guarantee; witness duds like The Host, another Stephenie Meyer offering that lacked source material for additional installments but still lent studios a sense of optimism. Or, more recently, Jeff Bridges’ long-gestating production of The Giver, as canonical a YA text as you can find in the present era, and a film which grossed less than $50 million. Films like The Giver and last year’s Ender’s Game aimed squarely for the YA audience, adult and young adult alike, and were based on classic novels that frequently appear on various schools’ English class reading lists, and yet both underperformed to the point where sequels are uncertain, verging on unlikely for the time being.

It’s curious to consider the string of flops in a few different respects, and one of them ties right back to Twilight. The oft-maligned vampire series was a cultural phenomenon upon arrival, the first film’s release having been perfectly timed with the release of the final installment of the printed series, Breaking Dawn. Of the top twenty highest-grossing YA adaptations to date, Twilight accounts for five of them. And yet, the buzz seems to have died down around the series. Sure, part of this can be written off as the innately ephemeral nature of most any popular trend; after a while, the collective consciousness moves on, and the series remains bound for an indeterminate time in that fiscally terrifying purgatory between initial popularity and nostalgic sentiment.

But with Twilight, it’s important to remember that the world started changing as the series progressed, and that series happened to be one major cog in a much larger evolution in American culture. One of the simultaneous booms and busts of the internet age is the ability for audiences to access criticism of their pop culture from every conceivable angle, and to discuss it ad nauseum with others. And given the eventual burnout on Twilight’s reductive gender roles and frequently interpreted moralizing, it makes sense that audiences were already getting enough of it from one source, and weren’t as interested in others. But it still found a crossover audience, which is more than can be said for Beautiful Creatures or The Mortal Instruments or I Am Number Four or City of Ember or Cirque Du Freak or Inkheart. But now, a show of hands: when’s the last time that dedicated Twi-hard in your life brought it up at a family gathering?

And with respect to the matter of audience saturation, that’s as much a sign of burnout as anything. People had their chosen franchise. They couldn’t invest in a dozen at once, because for those who weren’t already reading the books (another desired outcome of the franchise model), it was too much to take on. The proliferation of extremely similar material didn’t help, but the failed YA adaptations even precede Twilight. One of the most notable is still A Series of Unfortunate Events, the would-be Lemony Snicket franchise starter, that failed to see a second installment despite relative success compared to many of the flops that followed. And the burnout became ever more pronounced until last summer, when The Mortal Instruments, a film for which Sony had already kicked off pre-production on a follow-up, made less than $10 million in its opening weekend, on over 3,000 screens nationwide.

This year has seen them as well; even as Divergent was a breakout hit and Maze Runner found more moderate success, albeit with tepid critical and audience reactions alike, the popular franchise Vampire Academy was an unmitigated dud when released to little fanfare in the doldrums of February. It’s not that audiences are inherently uninterested; they just want something new. And studios aren’t going to stop pushing for the next big new thing. Properties are being snapped up one after the next, some of the current dystopian flavor and others attempting to break new ground and be the first to the party. The glut is hardly stopping, and even the existing franchises are trying to stretch as far as possible; like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Breaking Dawn, this weekend sees the release of the first half of the two-part Hunger Games finale Mockingjay, and theDivergent series has already confirmed plans to split its final installment Allegiant in half.

A note on Potter, while the subject has arisen: it’s really those films that studios crave so desperately. While Twilight proved the buying power of the untapped young female demographic, Potter is the four-quadrant franchise to which others aspire. The Pottermodel was less one of a literary adaptation than it was the bellwether of what we’re seeing today with superhero franchises. Everybody saw them, and those who didn’t were still readily aware of their existence at all times. It was a market saturation, sure, but one people embraced. Perhaps what’s happening now, with the seeming disinterest in genre-based franchise offerings not focused on totalitarian governments, is the explosion of the bubble, the one that will inevitably implode in the case of most any pop trend. Buyers set out to find the next Potter, the next Twilight, the next Hunger Games, and they’re likely out to find the next one as we speak.

Dozens of novels have been picked up, and it’s unlikely that the glut ends before at least a few more fatted calves have been sacrificed to the cause. But eventually, the climate of the world will change again, and the interest in dystopia will transition into something else, something unpredictable and unsolvable by most metrics until it’s too late to get out ahead. This is the inherent downside of the YA boom, after all. You can pick a winner with a devoted following, a built-in series ready to go, and even come up with a catchy Twilight Saga-esque franchise subtitle for it all. But audiences will either show up or not, and by the time a movie even sees the light of day, it might already be too late to tap into the zeitgeist. Everybody’s headed for the promised West of the next Hunger Games, and even more will likely circle their wagons when Mockingjay likely starts printing its own money in a few days. But like any riches worth having, the millions conferred by a YA hit are for the few, not the many.

TIME movies

Ranking: The Disney Renaissance From Worst to Best

Animated mermaids, lion cubs, and a bell ringer with chronic back problems

This post originally appeared on Consequence of Sound.

On November 17, 1989, 25 years ago today, Walt Disney Pictures’ The Little Mermaid premiered in movie theatres across America, swimming into our hearts and kicking off what is now known as the Disney Renaissance.

After the colossal disappointment of the 1985 feature The Black Cauldron and slightly more profitable efforts like 1986’s The Great Mouse Detective and 1988’s Oliver & Company still getting pummeled at the box office by former Disney animator Don Bluth’s An American Tail and The Land Before Time, respectively, the House of Mouse was in dire need of a transformation. Pivoting back to the music-driven, ornately drawn fairy tales of the studio’s heyday, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty, then-CEO Michael Eisner hired lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken, known for working together on the successful Off-Broadway production Little Shop of Horrors, to write the songs for an ambitious new film: an animated adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid.

Thankfully, the result was a critical and commercial success, garnering a higher weekend gross than Bluth’s All Dogs Go to Heaven, which opened the same weekend, and eventually breaking The Land Before Time’s record of highest-grossing animated film. The Little Mermaid also won two Academy Awards, for Best Original Score and for Best Original Song (“Under the Sea”), and breathed new life into what had hitherto been a fading empire. After struggling through a string of commercial flops from the early-’70s to the mid-’80s, the Walt Disney Company was finally back on top, with 1989 marking the dawn of the studio’s new golden era.

Disney would go on to release one animated musical a year for the next decade, resulting in 10 motion pictures that are widely recognized as the Disney Renaissance oeuvre. So, get ready for some prime millennial nostalgia as we rank each of the outings from meh to magnificent, and let us know in the comments section which films you still love, which ones you can’t stand, and which VHS tapes you broke from rewinding and playing over and over.

— Leah Pickett
Film Staff Writer

10. Pocahontas (1995)

If you prefer your history whitewashed, then you probably won’t be too offended by Pocahontas, the weakest and most vapid entry in the Renaissance Ten. As the first animated Disney film to be based on a historical figure, one would expect our main character, even with the rest of her story bastardized and kid-proofed to death with cuddly animal sidekicks (Meeko the Raccoon and Percy the Pug) and a talking willow tree (Linda Hunt), to be at least somewhat interesting. But no, she and her equally boring lover, John Smith, voiced by famed anti-Semite Mel Gibson, are the Barbie and Ken of the New World, with not much to offer besides dramatic poses and platitudes.

Iconic Disney Moment: Have you ever heard the wolf cry to the blue-corn moon, or asked the grinning bobcat why he grins? Perhaps you should try jumping off a cliff and letting the colors of the wind carry you down; that looks fun.

Leah Pickett

9. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

Taking a nearly 500-page novel by Victor Hugo and turning it into a 91-minute, animated extravaganza suitable for children is risky, to be sure. But the main problem with Disney’s version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is not in its reach for the dramatic — on the contrary, the grand leaps into gothic spectacle and pathos are the films high points — but in its yielding to the requisite tomfoolery, like the gargoyles dancing and singing (for the kids!), that creates several jarring shifts in tone. Perhaps the studio was reticent to go too dark, considering how The Black Cauldron turned out. But when the villain, Claude Frollo (Tony Jay), is the most electrifying screen presence, and Esmeralda (Demi Moore) and Captain Phoebus (Kevin Kline) barely register, well, that presents quite a conundrum. Perhaps if the sidekicks had been less hackneyed and if Quasimodo had been performed with more gusto (Tom Hulce’s voiceover is adequate, but ultimately forgettable), then Hunchback, which isn’t all that bad in retrospect, might have left a more lasting impression.

Iconic Disney Moment: That’s easy: Frollo singing to the shadow of Esmeralda’s naked, dancing body as it erupts into flames. “Destroy Esmeralda, and let her taste the fires of hell, or else let her be mine and mine alone!” he wails, torn apart by the horror of his forbidden lust. Um, holy shit.

Leah Pickett

8. The Rescuers Down Under (1990)

And so it began. Thirteen years after the release of The Rescuers, Disney dipped its toes into the sequel pool for the first time with The Rescuers Down Under, another of the earliest entries in the Renaissance era. As a film, it’s an exciting enough adventure flick and one which offers Disney’s characteristic sense of genuine danger, even in a film about cute, anthropological animals who govern their own animal rescue squadron (the Rescue Aid Society). Like The Rescuers, which was primarily built around an anonymous plea for help by a kidnapped orphan, Down Under sees Bernard (Bob Newhart) and Miss Bianca (Eva Gabor, in her final film role) attempting to save Cody, a young boy unwittingly captured and very nearly fed to crocodiles by a maniacal big-game hunter in search of a golden eagle. Down Under is far from the most memorable Disney movie, but it’s absolutely noteworthy for one reason: not only was it Disney’s first sequel but also its first foray into the hybridized hand-drawn/computer-generated animation that would characterize the studio’s next and best phase.

Iconic Disney Moment: The point at which Bernard saves Cody from the aforementioned crocodile trap by furiously riding in on a razorback pig he tamed with an animal-whispering technique. It’s quintessential Disney: beautifully animated, exciting, and with just a dash of reckless child endangerment.

Dominick Mayer

7. Tarzan (1999)

For a time, Tarzan was Disney’s most expensive animated production ever. And despite its budget being trumped within a few years by the underrated but still notorious flop Treasure Planet, Tarzan still stands as one of Disney’s most lushly animated, visually memorable films. It’s also a moving one, as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ characters are brought to life in a film that at once pays homage to Burroughs and stages its own powerful arguments about the modern world, about man’s violation of nature and its propensity to act in ways more savage than the animals it forever hopes to tame. It’s the chronicle of Tarzan (Tony Goldwyn), who’s torn between his loyalty to his given family of apes and Jane (Minnie Driver), the gentle scientist who offers Tarzan the opportunity to live among his own kind. While it’s an often simplistic film, and hardly strays from the long-established Tarzan stories of yore, it occasionally offers some surprisingly complex lessons about loyalty and what it is that defines a family, and even briefly returned Phil Collins to top 40 prominence. The renaissance more or less ended here, but it’s an impressive way to go out.

Iconic Disney Moment: Tarzan’s introductory journey, as he pursues game through a thicket of trees by flying effortlessly between them. It’s a truly breathtaking sequence that stands among Disney’s best individual scenes.

Dominick Mayer

6. Hercules (1997)

Greek mythology seems like a perfect springboard for a Disney movie, given the amount of them that trade on the basic iconographies of the mythic. But what’s most pleasantly surprising about Hercules isn’t necessary its retelling of Herc’s trials, an aspect of Greek lore that had been done to death for years before Disney ever took aim at it, or even the music, which doesn’t linger well after viewing in the same way as some of the soundtrack cuts from other films on our list. (Well, the refrain of “Herc-u-les” notwithstanding.) It’s how surprisingly quick and fun the film is. Bolstered by a score of studio-best voice performances, from James Woods’ perfectly jaded and sarcastic Hades to Susan Egan’s seen-it-all Megara, Hercules makes up for whatever it may be lacking in the iconic, universal appeal of Disney’s best films of this period with sheer entertainment value. Whether it’s Danny DeVito cracking wise as Hercules’ trainer Phil or Hades callously informing Hercules of Meg’s mortality with a smirk and a couple one-liners, Hercules is Disney animation at its fleet-footed, oddly comical, darkly tinged best.

Iconic Disney Moment: Hercules conquering the Hydra, only after removing several of its heads and trapping it in a landslide. Woods’ running commentary and DeVito’s screaming panic give the scene a perfectly pitched, off-kilter tone.

Dominick Mayer

5. The Little Mermaid (1989)

If you’re wondering why The Little Mermaid is placed in the middle of our list, and not closer to the top, the truth is that the story doesn’t hold up as well as it should. Sure, the very best elements retain their magic: the striking animation, the infectious songs, the fabulous villain (“And don’t underestimate the importance of body language!”), the memorable side characters, and the tenacious, likable lead still shine. But the whole girl meets boy, girl gives up her voice to be with boy scenario is harder to swallow as an adult than, say, as an impressionable child dreaming of true love’s first kiss. The biggest problem is that, after literally giving up her voice to be with Prince Eric, Ariel doesn’t change. She gets what she wants in the end and all for a guy she’s known for grand total of three days. King Triton is the only character with a real arc, and, to the movie’s credit, he is the most impressive Disney dad. Also, if you reframe The Little Mermaid as being Triton’s story, of how he learns to love his daughter by letting her go, that makes the film even better in hindsight. Granted, that could just be my inner old person talking.

Iconic Disney Moment: “Part of Your World”. If you are a female-identified child of the ‘90s, chances are good that you have belted this song into your hairbrush or showerhead on more than one occasion.

Leah Pickett

4. Aladdin (1992)

As animation goes, you can’t get much more fluid or imaginative, at least within the boundaries of the early ‘90s, than what Aladdin had to offer. John Musker and Ron Clements, who already had The Little Mermaid under their belts and would go on to helm Hercules, Treasure Planet, and The Princess and the Frog as well, made use of Disney’s continually growing interest in the potential of computer animation. But never before (and rarely since) had it been used to such stunning effect. From Aladdin’s initial footrace through the streets of Agrabah to the magic carpet ride to the Genie’s cave and right through Jafar reaching his final form late in the film, Aladdin offers one jaw-dropping step forward for animation as a medium after another. That sense of endeavor into the unknown and unconquered, combined with Alan Menken’s bouncing, infectious music, makes for one of Disney’s most lovable and enduring films.

And while it’s easy to come down on the film with respect to most modern metrics (the racially problematic villainy, Jasmine’s relative ineffectuality when compared to most other Disney princesses), Aladdin is still a visual and aural pleasure of substantial caliber. It’s also among Disney’s warmest films, a tale of love and friendship and how one or both of those things can only be truly achieved when you set selfishness aside and look out for those who’ve been good to you. Given the events of the past few months, viewings will never quite be the same again, but in the Genie, Robin Williams left one of his most indelible and timeless characters, and one of the very best in the Disney canon.

Iconic Disney Moment: That flying carpet ride. The maudlin nature of “A Whole New World” has been parodied to death over the years, but it’s still one of the most unabashedly breathtaking and romantic sequences Disney’s ever put together.

Dominick Mayer

3. Mulan (1998)

Before Disney’s more recent girl-power epics Brave and Frozen came along, there was Mulan, the story of a woman who disguises herself as a man to defeat the Huns (hwah!). Yes, Mulan is a badass, but she also has nobler aims: to protect her family by taking her elderly father’s place on the battlefield and to prove that she has value above and beyond being married off to the highest bidder. And while the movie gets off to a slow start, the training camp montage is a Renaissance high point, with the budding, gender-bending magnetism between Mulan and her commander, Li Shang, providing some compelling sparks alongside her main focus, which is to find the strength within herself to be brave, follow her heart, and save China.

Plus, most of the main characters, with the obvious exception of Eddie Murphy as the dragon Mushu, are voiced by Asian-American actors. Ming Na-Wen is Mulan’s speaking voice, and Lea Salonga is her singing voice; BD Wong voices Li Shang; Pat Morita is the Emperor of China; George Takei cameos as one of Mulan’s ancestors; and Soon Tek-Oh plays Mulan’s father, Fa Zhou. Okay, Harvey Fierstein also pops up as one of the army dunces, but with such an impressive female lead, enticing story, moving message, and in my opinion, the catchiest song in the Renaissance catalog, “Be a Man”, this one bizarre admission is easily forgivable.

Iconic Disney Moment: “Let’s get down to business / to defeat the Huns!” This song is everything.

Leah Pickett

2. The Lion King (1994)

Yeah, it’s basically Hamlet with lions. But let’s move on from the obvious note, because The Lion King is so much more than a kid-friendly (well, friendly-ish) rendition of Shakespeare. While our top film edges it out by just a hair, The Lion King is the sort of generation-defining masterpiece that Disney does with the best when it’s at its best. Particularly for those who grew up during the film’s salad years, this writer included, it’s hard to start talking about The Lion King without highlighting the power of that stampede sequence and Mufasa’s subsequent death. “Get up, Dad” is not only one of Disney’s most instantly recognizable bits of dialogue, but it was also a bold maneuver. Through that impeccably animated moment, Disney taught a generation of kids about death and mortality and the responsibilities that the living have to the dead they once loved. It’s affecting, troubling stuff even by Disney’s standards.

But this, and the surprisingly bracing showdown that eventually transpires between an adult Simba (Matthew Broderick) and his uncle Scar (a deliciously vampy Jeremy Irons), take The Lion King from a story of a young cub coming of age in a starving kingdom to a transcendent piece of filmmaking, one that treats its ostensibly young audience with a respect and esteem that few family-centric filmmakers typically do. It’s a crash course in moral relativism for kids, offering lessons in forgiveness, redemption, the virtues of Hakuna Matata juxtaposed with the importance of being willing to grow up and take responsibility for the people who depend on you when the time comes. And when Simba tugs on his father’s cheek, begging him to get up, it’s not only heartbreaking, but a reminder that those we love will eventually leave us. Where another film might simply let that tragic life lesson sit on its own, The Lion King is about where Simba goes from there, how it shapes the course of the rest of his life, and how there is indeed life after death, even if it’s not the one you plan on.

That’s to say nothing of the soundtrack, which is one of Disney’s most iconic in a walk. Elton John’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” is as touching an approximation of a sex scene as Disney’s ever done, via John’s powerful delivery and no shortage of meaningful glances and feline necking. “Hakuna Matata” taught countless kids the value of taking it easy at a time when the world was becoming more worrisome and high-strung than ever before. And then there’s “Circle of Life”, the background to the film’s classic opening shots of the African savannah and an easy way to teach kids (and their parents) that if death is one of the most inevitable and life-changing parts of the human comedy, the coming of a new life into the world is perhaps the one that most powerfully surpasses it.

Iconic Disney Moment: The entire film is like a gauntlet of one after another, really, but it has to be Mufasa’s death. Not since Bambi’s mother was gunned down had a Disney movie so starkly stared mortality in the face.

Dominick Mayer

1. Beauty and the Beast (1991)

It makes sense that the top two films on our list, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, also became the two most successful Broadway musicals from Disney’s wheelhouse. Simply put, they are the best; they have the best stories, the best characters, the best settings, and the best songs. But what gives Beauty and the Beast the edge over The Lion King is its groundbreaking importance. While The Little Mermaid was the turning point for Disney’s resurgence and The Lion King a sturdy mid-Renaissance tent pole, Beauty remains the studio’s crown jewel.

First and foremost, it is a truly great film: enthralling, beautiful, dark, humorous, thought-provoking, suspenseful, complex, and grandiose. Belle is a delightfully nerdy heroine who loves to read and doesn’t care what other people think of her. The Beast is also a well-developed and multi-dimensional character, with more emotional complexity in his fingernail than Prince Eric, Hercules, and John Smith combined. And as for the “Stockholm Syndrome” argument, re-watching the film and looking into the finer points all but disproves it. The Beast is angry, yes, because he has been cursed to live in the body of a hideous animal unworthy of love, or so he believes. Of course, he’s not perfect, but he also is the exact opposite of bland, which is more than can be said of many a cookie-cutter Disney prince. The Beast also grows and changes more than any other character of the Renaissance set, in large part because a strong, intelligent, passionate, and independent woman has inspired him to be better.

In the beginning, the Beast yells at Belle and locks her in the castle after allowing her father to go free, but he never lays a hand on her or Maurice, and his bitterness begins to melt fairly early on, as Belle refuses to put up with him until he starts treating her with some respect. He lets his guard down; they take time to get to know each other; he eventually realizes that he can’t force anyone to love him to save himself, and he lets Belle go, resigning himself to misery so that she might find happiness. And, it is important to note, as soon as he says that she can go, she leaves.

When she does return in the film’s climax, it is because Gaston is marching to the castle to kill the Beast, and she realizes that she does love him for who he really is, and he loves her, and she cannot bear to see him sacrifice himself. Although perhaps a bit too on the nose, Belle’s line, “He’s no monster, Gaston, you are!” sums up the prevailing theme quite nicely. It’s what’s on the inside that counts, and while the Beast is ugly on the outside but actually gentle, kind, and thoughtful underneath, Gaston’s evil seeps grotesquely from the inside out, proving that wolves all too often exist in muscle-man clothing. And in the end, the Beast is the one to do a complete 180, realizing that to love is to be completely unselfish, and that only then can his curse be lifted and his love returned.

As the first animated film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, and perhaps the most critically lauded animated film of the 20th century, Beauty and the Beast is a stunning achievement. The dialogue is well-written, the scenes are gorgeously rendered, and the songs, especially “Belle” and “Be Our Guest”, are sublime. In sum, Beauty is a love story for the ages, “a tale as old as time,” and the ultimate Disney Renaissance classic.

Iconic Disney Moment: Belle and the Beast waltzing to the titular lullaby. Not only is this the most romantic sequence of any Disney animated film, but also, over two decades later, still one of the most visually dazzling and, of course, iconic.

Leah Pickett

TIME Music

Ryan Adams Goes Punk on 1984

Ryan Adams 1984
Ryan Adams, 1984

Adams dwells on love, fear and creatures of the night on this speedy release

This post is in partnership with Consequence of Sound, an online music publication devoted to the ever growing and always thriving worldwide music scene.

Call me crazy, but my favorite latter-day Elvis Costello album is Momofuku. Recorded on a whim with whatever collaborators he had access to at the time (including a perfectly utilized Jenny Lewis), it’s easy to disregard. Then again, to do so would mean missing out on The Imposter at his most urgent and energized. Costello put a strict limit on how much time he spent on the record, which naturally gave the whole thing a sense of stakes. Momofuku was the sound of a man trying — and succeeding — to beat the clock.

I don’t know if Ryan Adams put similar restrictions on himself with 1984. Probably not, as it’s being filed under his own “PAX-AM Singles Series” rather than being marketed as a proper album. But, let’s pretend he did. Let’s pretend he locked himself in the studio, rose every day to the sounds of Minor Threat’s Complete Discography, and went to work on a tribute to the halcyon days of storied punk labels like Dischord and SST. Let’s pretend he had to get it all done over one weekend in August, prompting him to call the opening track of yearning slop-pop “When the Summer Ends.” Most importantly, let’s pretend the whole thing turned out great, because — surprise, surprise — it did.

Punk purists be forewarned: 1984 isn’t any more punk or hardcore — I’m using these terms traditionally regarding sound, not modernly regarding mindset — than Orion was metal. This is Adams’ version of the genres, much closer to early Replacements than Jawbox or Fugazi. Like Paul Westerberg, he can’t shake his uncanny ability to pull a hook out of his ass every time he reaches up there for another song, even when most of them are under 90 seconds. The gift of catch is just in his blood, from the gleefully out-of-tune guitar intro of “Wolves” to the paranoid chorus of “Rats in the Wall.” “Rats in the wall/ I can hear ‘em crawl,” he repeats over nervous G-B-A chords. As both titles point out, 1984′s preoccupations seem to be love, fear and creatures of the night. And thanks to its brief runtime, none of these themes grow boring.

While the bone-headed words are a far cry from the socially charged lyrics of most of the bands Adams is citing as influences, they also possess his forefathers’ go-for-broke spirit of a kid — or, in this case, a youthful 39-year-old man — jumping up and down on his bed with a broomstick guitar, shouting along to his favorite song. Adams has never lost touch with his adolescent spirit, and punk — not alt country — just might be the perfect medium for this sensibility.

Essential Tracks: “When the Summer Ends,” “Rats in the Wall” and “Wolves”

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TIME Music

Review: FKA twigs Makes a Beautiful and Devastating Debut on LP1

FKA twigs
FKA twigs, LP1 Young Turks Recordings

The singer proves she's one of the most compelling and complex acts in R&B

This post is in partnership with Consequence of Sound, an online music publication devoted to the ever growing and always thriving worldwide music scene.

To live is to want. The process of doing so doesn’t get any easier with the knowledge of this facet of human nature. It’s one of those things that can never be succinctly and completely explained. Not through religion, science, common sense. Nothing. What’s more, coming to grips with desire and all of its complications gradually becomes difficult: There’s a profound difference between wanting after-school Twizzlers and, later in life, human connection — physical, romantic, and everything in between. To desire is to struggle, and great art comes not through explanation, but expression.

FKA twigs, once known as a go-to video dancer (Jessie J, Ed Sheeran, Kylie Minogue), has made that transition to one of the most compelling and complex acts in R&B. If she was testing experimental limits with her first two EPs, LP1 finds her eccentricities and emotional rawness fully realized. Her recorded persona now feels closer to her onstage persona. Watch a video of her. Take note of the fluidity of her body movement and the confidence radiating from her as she performs. The album’s layered production varies from lush to lucid, but it all bends to twigs’ whim. While a number of her contemporaries poeticize the desire to feel free in wanting, twigs’ constantly warped vocals mark her as a flawed omnipresence. She’s free as she juxtaposes lustful indulgence (the likes that reveal the whites of eyes in orgasmic joy) and the constant attention to the unavoidable doom of experiencing loss. LP1 is beautiful and devastating in equal measure, and it’s all foreshadowed by the album-opening “Preface.” She quotes a line from Sir Thomas Wyatt’s poem, “I Find no Peace”: “I love another, and thus I hate myself.” A chorus of voices repeats the line, part meditative, part mournful resignation.

A majority of LP1 focuses on those beauties and tragedies of desire. What makes it a thoroughly compelling listen is its kaleidoscopic focus on the feeling’s multiple dimensions. “Lights On,” a song less about f-cking with the lights on than a commiseration of physical vulnerabilities, finds twigs twirling in an emptiness softly touched by a xylophone-like riff. It then transforms into something entirely different: a sonic carnival carried by a smoky bass line and a slightly superfluous but adventurous eastern bridge. “Two Weeks” is pretty blunt in its intentions: “I know it hurts/ You know I’d quench that thirst.” The single came accompanied with a video that portrays twigs as a goddess. Although it’s worth a viewing, you don’t need it to grasp the extent of her sexual autonomy. The natural range of twigs’ voice isn’t necessarily a wow factor, but there’s a certain mysticism in its softness that makes it convincing. That’s true whether she’s lusting (album closer “Kicks”), merely peeking at sexuality with a childlike curiosity (“Hours”), or recalling her biography (“Video Girl”).

“Video Girl” is a comedown from easy highlight “Pendulum,” which appears at the middle of the tracklist. Emotional depth is spread evenly throughout LP1, but “Pendulum” feels particularly singular; twigs’ charm and allure is more potent, as the soaring hook takes the listener to ethereal realms. Tropical staccato guitar and orchestral sounds intensify without becoming overly maudlin. This is not to elate, but to crush: “So lonely trying to be yours/ What a forsaken cause/ So lonely trying to be yours/ When you’re looking for so much more.” Throughout, twigs’ character is never a victim in the search for connection. The addition of the second line in the chorus implies a sort of masochism, but at the same time, there’s a deep sense of loss. Separating reason and human nature isn’t that simple.

LP1 isn’t anything revolutionary; it’s a frankly expressed project focused on the dualism between love and lust, reality and fantasy. “Give Up” is the most euphoric and optimistic of the 10 tracks. Over aquatic production and colorful synths, twigs coos about the possibility of a relationship that could persevere. We don’t get a payoff. We just get twigs resolving to touch herself in her lover’s absence on “Kicks.” And then silence.

Essential Tracks: “Two Weeks,” “Pendulum,” and “Kicks”

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REVIEW: The Raveonettes Tackle Childhood Trauma on Pe’ahi

The Raveonettes
The Raveonettes The Raveonettes

The band's subject matter remains as grisly as ever, but it's tough to hear the pain through the noise

This post is in partnership with Consequence of Sound, an online music publication devoted to the ever growing and always thriving worldwide music scene.

The Raveonettes begin their seventh studio album with the same beat that opened The Doors’ first. The first lyrics that follow are “I have sand in my shoes and death on my mind.” If that’s not enough to situate you, the Danish duo (who now reside in Los Angeles) helpfully named the record after the north shore of Maui. Pe’ahi is a Pacific album through and through, and it doesn’t stop reveling in buzzed-out West Coast noir until it wraps things up with a tune called “Summer Ends,” in case you had any lingering hopes that anything gold could stay.

Dropped onto the world Beyoncé-style (or maybe it’s Wolfmother-style) the same day as its announcement, Pe’ahi marks a change in dynamics for a band that had more or less settled into a continuous stream of static. For their last three albums, Sune Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo worked a reliable assembly line of scuzzy dream pop songs bunched together under faux vintage, black-and-white album covers. Now, they present their latest with an aquamarine splash, even though the subject matter remains as grisly as ever.

Early on, Pe’ahi features one of the Raveonettes’ strongest moments of contrast to date. “Sisters” cuts from blissful walls of noise to clean harp strums while cruising a vintage West Coast hip-hop beat. It’s the first time I can remember the band playing around with silence instead of trying to cram as much noise into one place as possible. But aside from a brief foray into bells on “When Night Is Almost Done,” it’s really the only instance of experiment among the album’s offerings. Everything else wears the same thick coat of fuzz they’ve been messing with for more than a decade, the same digital decay that now ostensibly obscures some of the band’s most deeply personal lyrics.

Rather than noir for noir’s sake, Pe’ahi arrives packed with the more personal fruits of the grieving process. Wagner lost his father to alcoholism last December, and much of the album grapples with both his death and the trauma he inflicted while he was alive. On “Kill!,” Wagner sings bluntly about the time he, at age 10, walked in on his dad committing adultery with a stranger. It paints a scene you might expect from a Xiu Xiu album, as industrial noise flickers and tortured samples loop. “What if you fell to a hell below?” Wagner asks his father’s ghost on “A Hell Below.” “Would it hurt the same way you hurt me?” It’s a sweet-sounding song from a bitter place, but without context, it melts easily into the Raveonettes’ back catalog.

If we’re to believe the commentary tracks the band dropped on Spotify, Wagner uses the record to grapple with the question of how anyone can escape the shadow of their parents. How can you grow to be better than the trauma that shaped you? It’s a worthy question, but it’s not one that Pe’ahi shines much light on. “When you left, you destroyed my life,” growls Wagner on “Summer Ends”, but he could be talking about an ex-lover as easily as he could be singing about his dad. He delivers everything with such a flat nonchalance, backed by Foo’s gentle harmonies, that it’s tough to feel his pain through the noise.

The Raveonettes still come off shy, almost numb, sequestered in their own bubble of effects and casual irony. Despite its ambitions, Pe’ahi ripples through without much fanfare, another breeze fallen short of a storm.

Essential Tracks: “Sisters”

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REVIEW: Beck Makes a Bold Move on Song Reader

Song Reader
Song Reader Capitol

A covers album featuring Jack White and Norah Jones doesn't use Beck's iconic status as a crutch

This post is in partnership with Consequence of Sound, an online music publication devoted to the ever growing and always thriving worldwide music scene.

The six years of Beck’s career between Modern Guilt and Morning Phase would make for an amazing “How I Spent My Summer Vacation”-type essay. Besides putting out a few singles and playing the occasional festival, he recovered from a spinal injury, covered entire albums with Record Club, contributed original music for films and produced releases by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stephen Malkmus. But the most significant project of this era has to be Song Reader, the “album” of sheet music he released in 2012.

The concept was a fairly simple one that Beck had been kicking around for over a decade. Rather than recording the songs himself, he wanted to create something that other musicians could interpret, perform and share. Some critics questioned how many fans could actually read music and simply shrugged it off as another Flaming Lips-style album release. It only made sense, though, that an official recording would be the next step.

Song Reader isn’t a Beck album, though, not really. Even though he wrote all of the songs himself and oversaw production, hardly any of them sound like what you might consider to be “Beck songs.” Sure, there are occasional oddball lyrics about “the corduroy boy in the killjoy shirt” or “fixing the spelling on a suicide note,” but Song Reader is built to stand on its own without using its creator’s iconic status as a crutch. It’s a bold move that most established artists aren’t willing to make, but it works.

But leaving that much of the initiative to almost two dozen different artists leads to an obvious issue. Song Reader can be inconsistent and a bit difficult to listen to straight through, which is why it’s helpful to split it in half. The first 10 tracks are all fairly simple and straightforward, with most of the artists sticking to what they do best. Whether it’s Tweedy keeping things mellow or Juanes flitting through his Spanish-language cover of “Don’t Act Like Your Heart Isn’t Hard,” the arrangements are pretty faithful to the performers’ own work. Jack White (who has to be kicking himself for not coming up with this idea first) does a great job of tapping into his inner Hank Williams for “I’m Down,” but it can’t top Norah Jones’ carefree “Just Noise,” the liveliest track on the album’s first half. It comes just in time to prevent things from getting too drowsy.

Beck’s lone contribution as a performer is on the dreamy “Heaven’s Ladder,” which owes so much to The Beatles that John Lennon and Paul McCartney probably deserve a writing credit. While it isn’t quite as soul-baring as anything on Morning Phase, it’s exciting to see Beck actually enjoying himself again and revisiting the psychedelic roots he explored on Modern Guilt. After Laura Marling’s painfully sweet “Sorry,” though, it’s time for things to get weird.

Of course, you can’t get much weirder than the dramatic, perpetually oversexed Jarvis Cocker, who kicks off the album’s bizarre second half with a slithery cover of “Eyes That Say ‘I Love You.’” Other highlights include New York Dolls frontman David Johansen (aka Buster Poindexter) snarling “Rough on Rats” like a campy Tom Waits, while Jack Black hams it up on “We All Wear Cloaks,” taking the song deep into show tune territory. His appearance may seem unlikely, but Black’s showmanship and over-the-top vocals make it a unique and interesting part of the project.

But not everyone is interested in branching out, which is the album’s main shortcoming. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with Tweedy or fun. sounding like themselves, but it feels like a missed opportunity to try something different. The unfortunate low point is Loudon Wainwright III’s dull rendition of “Do We? We Do,” which doesn’t even sound half as inspired as the amateur covers on YouTube. Of course, that’s the great thing about Song Reader. Think you can do these songs better? Go ahead. That’s the point.

Essential Tracks: “Just Noise” performed by Norah Jones, “We All Wear Cloaks” performed by Jack Black, and “Heaven’s Ladder” performed by Beck.

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REVIEW: Common Speaks to Chicago on New Album Nobody’s Smiling

Common
Def Jam

The rapper continues to act as the voice of his city

This post is in partnership with Consequence of Sound, an online music publication devoted to the ever growing and always thriving worldwide music scene.

Chicago is rap’s cultural hub in 2014. The city is the home of the genre’s biggest megastar (Kanye), a sage-like voice of reason (Common), and it is abuzz with young upstarts making their presence felt in a plethora of unique ways. Regardless of the method of self-expression you consult, whether it’s the brash, raucous street garble of Keef or the stringy, often cautious stream-of-consciousness of Chance, there is always a larger, sociopolitical elephant in the room. Wherever Chicago and rap are concerned, the subtext permeating every hanging word is unmistakable: Violence plagues its inhabitants. Common has taken it upon himself to address it, being no stranger to the cause. His 10th studio album, Nobody’s Smiling, operates with Chicago’s astronomically high crime rate at its epicenter, and Common once again stands as the leading proponent for change, delivering wordplay lined with context — but this time his supporting cast plays just as important a role in crafting his chilling epic.

It’s fitting that the prominent voices opening Common’s dark opus bridge three different gaps of heavy Chicago soundspace. “The Neighborhood” is a bleak introduction to one of America’s most dangerous cities told by figures from its past, present, and future. Curtis Mayfield’s piercing pitch soundtracked a blacksploitation film while he pushed social consciousness at the height of the civil rights era. A sample of his “Other Side of Town” lays the foundation. Lil Herb embodies the gritty and aggressive new voice of the metropolis; a standout from the homegrown drill subgenre, Herb thoroughly documents the city’s widespread bloodshed first-hand, like the lead in a crime drama. He is deft enough to express what it’s like to exist in Chicago’s cyclical gang culture in real time.

Common is the link between the two, a “conscious” rapper that has spent over half his life peddling gems about the perils of urban life over looped soul. He has recounted civic regression in three different decades now, but this time it’s far more direct; this is a plea to Chicago itself, the “concrete matrix” as he calls it. The backbone that brings the generations together is fellow Chicagoan No I.D., who mentored Kanye and produced Common’s first three LPs. They link again on Nobody’s Smiling after collaborating in full on Common’s previous effort, the underappreciated The Dreamer/The Believer, and together they create a tale of inner city turmoil with Common’s personal narrative as a backstory. Nobody’s Smiling is a testament to how deep-rooted urban struggle is.

Nobody’s Smiling is most profound at its most melancholy. It’s draped in an ominous, gray cloud of sonic energy, an overcast atmosphere that seemingly exemplifies Chicago at its bleakest. There isn’t a hopeful tone; the LP is about Chicago as it is, not as it could be. On the title track, a brooding, sinister cut, Common spits, “I’m from Chicago, nobody’s smiling/ Niggas wylin on Stony Island/ Where the chief and the president come from/ Pop out, pop pills, pop guns.” Geographically speaking, he raps like he’s standing on every street corner in the city, reporting live from the scene like an eyewitness news team. Nobody’s Smiling works as sharp commentary because it balances Common’s perception with secondary insight from others heavily influenced by gang violence.

Common makes a point of shifting the focus onto the young surveyors of urban violence, both in Chicago and abroad, to help tell the tale. He does so not with the intent of making the message more palatable for younger audiences, but with the sole purpose of showcasing the savagery with renewed perspective. Vince Staples, perhaps the most levelheaded street rapper not named Freddie Gibbs, fuels Common’s narrative with self-aware vitriol on “Kingdom”, spewing with great disdain for the street lifestyle forced upon him. But there’s also an innate understanding of its necessity and its consequences. “Sweet Lord Jesus, tell the polices to let a nigga breathe/ My sinning father see, got a shipment by the seas/ See my niggas tryna eat, eat whatever’s on your plate/ Save some for me/ The worst things in life come sitting six feet,” he raps, and it’s clear he views brutality as his only means of survival. Common could never accurately communicate that on his own. On “The Neighborhood”, Herb nearly gets emotional rapping about perpetually being in close proximity with death: “I’ve been out there three days, and I got shot at three times/ Felt like every bullet hit me when they flew out each nine/ I be happy when I wake up and I have a free mind.” It’s a stunning look into the mind of a teenager surrounded by violence. Whether it’s Dreezy or James Fauntleroy, every act brings a layer of context and an added dimension to the portrait of inner city life.

The lead narrator of Nobody’s Smiling is still Common, despite so many voices in the periphery, but its unsung champion is No I.D. The producer, who is also the Executive A&R for Def Jam Recordings, litters the signees of his ARTium imprint throughout the project (Elijah Blake, Jhene Aiko, and Snoh Aalegra), and his impact is felt in each moment. “No Fear” sounds just like the sonic effigy of a concrete jungle, and Common matches its energy with raps on the primal instincts instilled in street dwellers. The closer, “Rewind That”, a song about turning back the clock and uniting with producers from Common’s past (particularly the late J Dilla), is the only record that doesn’t fit the central theme, but its expert chop of Eleanore Mills’ “Telegram” and its honest storytelling make it a standout. “Diamonds” feels out of place sonically, but it’s the closest thing the album has to an anthem. The “Hypnotize”-sampling “Speak My Piece” rings and tremors like an earthquake shaking a metal structure, and Common releases one of his more fluid flows. “My time, the streets is watching like a Rollie/ Do it for the hometown and the homies,” he raps, and his devotion is apparent.

The whole album was created in response to Chicago’s violence epidemic; together, Common and No I.D. create a formidable PSA that addresses the social issues without beating the listener over the head with them. Nobody’s Smiling is a well-rounded discourse on gang violence and inner city plight in Chicago that translates to almost every urban city in America. It is a triumph for conscious rap in a city that could use more self-awareness. Common continues to act as the voice of his city, further opening the dialogue on the problems that scourge it. Nobody’s Smiling is a warning. Hopefully, it wont be a eulogy.

Essential Tracks: “The Neighborhood” (feat. Lil Herb), “Speak My Piece”, and “Kingdom” (feat. Vince Staples)

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REVIEW: The Fun in “Weird Al” Yankovic’s New Album, Mandatory Fun

Mandatory Fun
RCA

How does Weird Al's new album stack up against classics like 'Bad Hair Day'?

This post is in partnership with Consequence of Sound, an online music publication devoted to the ever growing and always thriving worldwide music scene.

Having already looked at the very best of the “Weird Al” catalog, Consequence of Sound’s Matt Melis and Ben Kaye recently sat down with staff writer Henry Hauser to chat about the Weird one’s new record, Mandatory Fun.

Matt Melis (MM): For more than 30 years, “Weird Al” Yankovic albums have provided a nerdy, zany, irreverent excuse to throw a party. But the fascist, propaganda-inspired cover art, promotional “transmissions,” and title of Yankovic’s new album, Mandatory Fun, convey a far more uncompromising message: Join the party, or else! Yes, Big Brother Al is watching you, us, and apparently Lorde and Iggy Azalea, and hell hath no fury like a goose-stepping, polka-loving dictator who doesn’t get his state-mandated yuks. So, Henry and Ben, at the risk of life-threatening reprisal if you answer in the negative, did you have fun listening to Dear Leader’s latest album?

Henry Hauser (HH): While it’s no Bad Hair Day, I still found myself chuckling and snort-laughing throughout Al’s latest. Sure, Mandatory Fun is cheap, juvenile, and often downright grating, but damn if it isn’t good for a couple of laughs.

From Mr. Yankovic’s impassioned ode to the supremacy of aluminum over inferior forms of food preservation (“Foil”) to his biting satire of LA celebrity worship (“Lame Claim to Fame”) and adroit portrayal of creepy corporate evangelism (“Mission Statement”, a style parody reminiscent of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”), Al brings his A-game. He’s clearly got impeccable rhyming chops, spinning off lines like “Fungal rot, bacterial formation/ Microbes, enzymes, mold, and oxidation” on “Foil”, a delicious parody of “Royals” that could easily have made the cut on 1993’s The Food Album. Al even ventures back into the realm of meta-parody with polka medley “NOW That’s What I Call Polka!”, mocking almost 40% the Top 40 in just over four minutes.

But there’s also something slightly disturbing about the album. On more than one occasion, I actually forgot that I was listening to parodies. The prevalence of Auto-Tune, paper-thin lyrics, and re-re-re-recycled vocal melodies in pop music all blur the distinction between Al’s lampoons and the chart-topping drench that which “NOW…we call music.” Pop stars are scorching “Weird Al”’s terrain; at this rate, he’ll be parodying his own parodies.

Ben Kaye (BK): Did I have fun listening? Of course I did; it’s a “Weird Al” album! How could you not enjoy a record that includes a polka mash-up of pop smashes? That’s actually what makes critically listening to an Al album such a challenge: There’s really nothing to judge it against besides past efforts. So, I suppose the real question is how this new collection of parodies stacks up against those works, and from that perspective, it’s definitely a success. Mandatory Fun sits comfortably amongst the best of Al’s post-Bad Hair Day releases, and I do think that’s the benchmark at this point. Directly comparing the modern stuff to the material you heard as a kid isn’t fair to the newer works; they’re never going to have that nostalgia attached to them, and they’re not “time capsules” for at least five years.

But that’s looking at the big picture before tackling the individual parodies, so let me backtrack some. There’s a lot to make you smile here; the lethargic pace of Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive” is perfect for “Inactive”, “NOW That’s What I Call Polka!” is as wonderfully titled as the tracklist is selected, and even “Tacky” (parodying Pharrell’s “Happy”) has its moments. The first half of “Foil” is great, and that bridge you mentioned, Henry, was the first time I audibly laughed. However, I keep wishing he’d stuck with the food humor instead of the weird switch to Illuminati jokes so it really could’ve been on The Food Album. Things like that make me struggle to find the parody that’s going to sweep the nation, though if there’s one song that could go viral, I’d point to “Word Crimes”. Maybe it’s the writer/English teacher in me, but I think this is the shining moment of the album. Part of that is definitely Pharrell, because even as a parody, “Blurred Lines” is catchy as hell. Still, Al’s lyrics are as sharp as ever here, and lines like “You should never/ Write words using numbers/ Unless you’re seven/Or your name is Prince” have kept me chuckling through multiple listens. And I’m so with him on homophones; I’ve been reading too many things lately that mix up “further” and “farther.”

MM: I’m not nearly as impressed by the new parodies. As Henry suggested, maybe the quality of the source material is problematic. Like Al once told Eminem in a fake AL TV interview, “Give me a break. I could only change the words. I couldn’t change the music, too.” Al’s just doing what he always does: parodying whatever we’ve hoisted atop a pop culture pedestal. How could he not try and tackle Lorde or Pharrell? But, there’s that fine line in parodies between funny and merely figuring out how to make something fit. Really, who’s going to get many laughs out of “Handy” apart from that nonexistent cross-section of Bob Vila and Iggy Azalea fans? Same goes for “Tacky”’s faux pas cataloging. Clever, sure. Funny? Not really.

“Word Crimes” absolutely tops the parodies. It’s a brilliant reminder that grammar and spelling still count in Al’s book, and, yes, Ben, love that Prince line, a subtle dig at the great purple one who has shot down Al’s parody requests for years. And how ambitious (and unexpected) was “Mission Statement”? It’s a George Carlin skit on the dilution of language set to CSN harmonies. The song sounds amazing, but I guess I’m wondering how often I’m going to want to hear all those corporate buzz words strung together. (I’m going to have “synergyyyyy…” in three-part harmony stuck in my head for a long while.) I guarantee this song becomes a widespread boardroom favorite at some point, though.

But let’s hear a little bit more about the non-parody cuts here. And what about the eight videos in eight days, which Al began releasing the day before the record’s release. Speculation? Any song you’re dying to see a video for?

BK: To clarify, I’m not 100% thrilled with the parodies either. “Tacky” only has moments, and I agree that “Handy” is weak, perhaps his weakest opening track since “Living with a Hernia”. Matt, you’re right that he has to play the hand the Top 40 deals, but he could’ve concocted a better topic there.

As for the non-parody stuff, “Sports Song” and “Jackson Park Express” are quintessential Al tracks. The former sounds ripped from Al TV, and the latter is another great execution of his rambling nonsense tales. I just love that he sticks to these tropes that, let’s face it, have never been what made him famous. I can just imagine summer camp kids turning “Sports Song” into a team cheer during color war. (If you know, you know.) But besides those two, “Lame Claim to Fame”, “My Own Eyes”, and “First World Problems” all rely too heavily on listicle-style humor for me. I know this is nothing new for Al, but the jokes don’t hit home as often with this trio of tracks. And I wanted to love “First World Problems” because the topic is so #IRL, but I just don’t feel it as much as “JPE”, which, to be fair, also goes the listing route, though at least there’s some level of storytelling.

I think it’s safe to guess that “Handy”, “Foil”, “Tacky”, and “Word Crimes” will all end up with videos, if for no other reason than the popularity of the original songs. I can’t wait for “Word Crimes”, obviously, and think the right clip could really give that some legs on the ‘Net. Some guy did a sort of brilliant Flash video for “Albuquerque” years ago, and I’d love to see something similar and official for “Jackson Park Express”. Is that too much wishful thinking, Henry?

HH: I’d be pretty interested to see how the video for “Mission Statement” turns out. Apparently, the song was inspired by all the executive meetings that Al’s endured over the course of his 30-plus-year career. Plus, the dogmatic feel of those corporate retreats jives really well with the album’s faux-fascist title and cover art. And, as we all know, synergy is a great way for Mr. Y to “advance [his] market share vis à vis a proven methodology.”

MM: Is the marching band-led “Sports Song” Al’s first sports-related song ever? As a recovering sports junkie, sober now for about five years, I couldn’t appreciate it more. It’s an instant classic from that opening line: “Your sports team is vastly inferior/ That simple fact is plainly obvious to see/ We’re going to kick your collective posterior.” Every college team needs to adopt this as its fight song immediately. Of course, this would lead to multiple homicides every weekend during football season.

On the nine-minute Cat Stevens strummer “Jackson Park Express”, Al relates one of the great love stories of our time. Granted, it takes place on a bus, the girl is totally oblivious, and the entire relationship consists of Al’s reading into a series of incidental, non-verbal gestures (e.g., “Then she let out a long sigh, which I took to mean/ Oh, Mama/ ‘What is that deodorant you’re wearing?/ It’s intoxicating!'”) Alas, no love can last forever, or in Al’s case, not even a bus ride. It’s nine minutes that never drags, draws numerous laughs, and showcases Al’s knack for delightful absurdity, spot-on style parodies, and even the type of subtle, observational wordplay you’d more likely find in a Flight of the Conchords song.

These moments render the title Mandatory Fun totally unnecessary. And I’m not just saying that because the eyes on this album cover seem to be following me across the room.

Essential Tracks: “Word Crimes”, “Jackson Park Express”, and “Foil”

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REVIEW: World Peace Is None of Your Business Is Definitively Morrissey

Morrissey
Harvest

There's no room for vagueness when you're only releasing two or three albums a decade

This post is in partnership with Consequence of Sound, an online music publication devoted to the ever growing and always thriving worldwide music scene.

Right on cue, as Morrissey releases his 10th solo album, the world’s attention moves to conflict in the Middle East. As I’m typing, the latest update is that Israeli forces are dropping leaflets in northern Gaza, warning Palestinian residents to move away from Hamas sites to avoid military strikes. The death toll of the attacks so far is approaching 170, which includes too many kids. As it turns out, the title track on World Peace Is None of Your Business — an ironic take on the value of democracy — opens the album, but it’s a deceptive start because it’s by far the most political song here. Also present are “Staircase at the University”, which satirizes academic expectations, and “I’m Not a Man”, which handcuffs popular notions of masculinity. Together, these three songs span the continuum of the Manchester native’s wisdom and accompanying snark. Those ingredients are key for tabulating his legacy with both The Smiths and as a solo artist, and also make sure this is definitively a Morrissey album.

From the beginning, many perceived Morrissey (and, to a lesser extent, his songwriting partner, Johnny Marr) as arrogant, which ultimately comes down to The Smiths’ artistic sureness throughout their incredibly productive four-year existence. They knew what they wanted, and soon enough, meaningful art was expected from them. World Peace Is None of Your Business, recorded in France with help from producer Joe Chiccarelli (The Strokes, Young the Giant, My Morning Jacket), has purpose, too. Musically, there are callbacks to Smiths and Morrissey solo albums going back more than 20 years, be it the sashaying pop of “Kiss Me a Lot” or the more ornate “Staircase at the University”. But there are also glimmers of a more refined taste; it’s one of the most European albums Morrissey has made, with ingredients like flamenco guitar, trumpet, and accordion. Meanwhile, based on this album alone, the age-old question of whether he’s an optimist despite all his dread should be answered in the negative. Thankfully, his ideas are still clear, written as they are under the assumption that there’s no room for vagueness when you’re only releasing two or three albums a decade.

Right away, “World Peace Is None of Your Business” is directed at you, the potential voter. Morrissey, who was clowning Margaret Thatcher as soon as he had an adequate stage, laments the stagnation of political unrest (i.e., what’s improving in nations that need the most monitoring?) while pretending it’s no big deal if we don’t know where our tax money is going. The message is agreeable, of course, and the titular refrain is one of the strongest on the album. The next op-ed, the eight-minute “I’m Not a Man”, which follows the two-chords-at-a-time fuzzbox stomp of “Neal Cassady Drops Dead”, is easily the biggest drag here. For that reason, it simply comes too early on the album. But while “I’m Not a Man” relies on simple stereotypes to makes its point (“T-bone steak/ Wolf down/ Cancer of the prostate,” goes the vegetarian), at least Morrissey knew exactly what he wanted to say. That’s the album in a nutshell: He’s been doing this songwriting thing long enough to know how to carry out his vision, at least once a central structure or passage presents itself. In the case of World Peace, it sounds like a lot of those initial sparks — the chord progressions, the hooks, etc. — illuminated the process even more than usual.

“Istanbul”, which details a difficult father-son relationship, is one of the only spots on the album where the blasting electric guitars don’t sound clunky; Boz Boorer and Jesse Tobias’s riffs are strong enough to drive the entire song. Accordingly, the remainder of the medium-rocking thing, which includes another successful hook, runs smooth. The sweeping “Staircase at the University” — which follows a young lady who studies hard for months only to come up short, GPA-wise, to the disappointment of her fam and friends — has a breeziness in direct conflict with the absurdist bloodshed: “Staircase at the university/ She threw herself down and her head split three ways.” (What’s more, something about the song, possibly the clapping rhythms, suggests Moz has a decent electropop record in him.) The album’s penultimate track, “Mountjoy”, is an acoustic-oriented getaway, its strums melting into one another and brushing beautifully against the arching, deliberate vocal.

Of course, Morrissey’s voice (that ageless wonder, always so fragile yet so under control) is the one guaranteed success here. Predictably, it’s the riskiest choices that pay the fewest dividends. “I’m Not a Man” is a slow-goer with uneven pacing and guitar work that hangs in the air, whereas it should match the snare’s pop. “Neal Cassady Drops Dead” has those macho guitar chords, which practically contradict the premise of “I’m Not a Man”. Finally, the closer, “Oboe Concerto”, is too loosely connected with its seemingly improvised instrumentation and digital zips, zaps, and drips, all of which distract from the song’s foundation, its basic shape. Fortunately, the album on the whole has enough of Morrissey’s strengths — the ones he established with Marr and co., first causing NME journos to wet their trousers 30 years ago — to be a mostly serviceable Morrissey album. More importantly, it’s destined for enough success that he probably won’t regret his delayed retirement.

Essential Tracks: “Istanbul”, “Staircase at the University”, and “Mountjoy”

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REVIEW: Mr. Dream’s Final Album Contains Career Highlight

Mr. Dream
Godmode

The album is the perfect cap to the trio's run

This post is in partnership with Consequence of Sound, an online music publication devoted to the ever growing and always thriving worldwide music scene.

Apparently, someone once wrote that Brooklyn noise punk outfit Mr. Dream sounded like the “cassette you found in the used car you just bought,” and they took it as more of an aspirational message than a dig. Adam Moerder, Matt Morello, and Nick Sylvester started by scraping together noise and post-punk touchstones into their own scrap metal sculptures. 2011’s Trash Hit leaned heavily on the likes of Pixies and Jesus Lizard, while 2012’s Fatherland brought some dance-ready grooves reminiscent of Franz Ferdinand. So, yeah, a cassette left underneath a seat in a Ford Escort made sense from the start. But the fact that the trio released their new LP, Ultimate in Luxury, as an announcement of the band’s finale reinforces that used feeling. They’re now entirely stuck in an unreachable moment rather than just reaching back for one.

The album opens on the screech-rumble intro of “Making Muscles”, Moerder’s vocals cooly taunting, “You’re not sharp yet, you’re round” as the guitars sting away. But there’s something of futility, too, when he repeats the line “making muscles in the mirror again.” The band is clearly conscious of every moment of showing strength, even when it comes off unhinged. “Fringy Slider” immediately follows, the bonking bass and cymbal shimmy coming together in a laser-guided head nodder.

The Pixies echoes recur on the propulsive “Cheap Heat”, a highlight of the album and of the band’s career. While Moerder frequently falls into a nearly monotone post-punk smirk, here he shows a greater range, low melodic moans in the bridge, falsetto in the hook, shouts as the song burns its last fuel. After cataloging futile gestures (there’s talk about cardboard flags and being silenced by hands shoved in mouths), Moerder offers a solution: “I’ll gnash teeth and I’ll get mad for you,” he shrugs, after the “Alec Eiffel” guitars have slithered their way into the tune. That sort of catharsis is the key to what Mr. Dream and their influences bring to the table; even if he’s being sarcastic on “Cheap Heat” — which, judging from the title, is certainly a possibility — the headlong rush into the mosh pit the song demands is a precious commodity. It’s just too bad that they won’t be around to play this one live to see it happen.

After a strong start, the album starts to lose steam, especially in terms of that cathartic rush. The palm-muted scraping of “Work Faster” offers interesting texture, and Moerder swoons around like a drugged David Byrne, but the track never latches on. Later, “Watched It Wrong” arches expertly, but its insistence that “they’d rather see sex scenes” and “they’d rather see houses” ring kind of hollow, a vague accusation lobbed at a vague target. When the lyrics don’t have the same aggressive bite, Morello and Sylvester’s rhythms need more force, or else the whole thing gnaws gently. Luckily, the first half of Ultimate in Luxury tears in with enough force that its flagging second half can get away with a nibble.

Though it wouldn’t appear that Mr. Dream started out with the idea that this release would be posthumous, “Bloodmobile” works as a swan song. “Anyone can drive the bloodmobile/ It’s so easy, just grab the wheel,” Moerder intones over mournful guitar, adding lines about strange facial constructions (“no mouth, just tongue”), patricide, and empty status symbols, all as chilly mutilation waves and spectral, falsetto backing harmonies coast by. Maybe they found a Surfer Rosa tape stuck in the bloodmobile before they picked it up, and now they’re leaving Ultimate in Luxury in there for the next set of kids to listen through. In that way, the left-behind Ultimate in Luxury, soon to be available on cassette, is the perfect cap to the trio’s run.

Essential Tracks: “Making Muscles”, “Cheap Heat”

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