TIME Music

REVIEW: Tom Petty’s New Album Hypnotic Eye Stays Red, White and Blue

Hypnotic Eye
Warner Bros.

The veteran's latest critiques modern America while embracing the heartland rock of their early years

This post is in partnership with NME.

For almost 40 years, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers have been channeling the red blood and blue collars of the USA into their radio rock. Yet Petty has rarely come across more overtly American than on this, his 13th studio album. Through the gritty rumble of opener “American Dream Plan B,” the honky-tonk blues of “Burnt Out Town” and the vigorous “Full Grown Boy” and “Shadow People” especially, these 11 songs see Petty harness the grand ol’ USA more than ever before. It’s not patriotic, though. Rather, this album critiques modern America while embracing the heartland rock of Petty’s early years. It won’t convert the unconvinced, but Petty sounds as inspired as ever.

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TIME Television

Punch-Drunk Love: Masters of Sex Moves Up a Weight Class

Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson and Michael Sheen as Dr. William Masters in Masters of Sex (season 2, episode 3) - Photo: Courtesy of SHOWTIME - Photo ID: MastersofSex_SG_203_0003
Showtime

In "Fight," the series' best episode yet, Bill and Virginia watch a boxing match and compare old battle scars.

“There’s really not an interesting story here, Virginia, I promise you!” –Bill Masters

Is there anything better for a TV fan than discovering a brand-new great show? Maybe: there’s seeing an existing series leap to another level, delivering on its early hints of promise. That was Parks and Recreation after its muddled first episodes; it was Breaking Bad after its strike-shortened first season; earlier this year, it was The Americans donning the mighty wig of a top-tier TV drama.

Now it’s the second season of Masters of Sex that’s hit the narrative G-spot. And “Fight,” the show’s finest episode yet and one of the year’s best, is a confident hour that announces this show fully knows what it’s doing and why.

I assume any critic–and anyone who’s watched Mad Men–will compare “Fight” to “The Suitcase,” possibly that series’ best episode, which also used a famous boxing match as the backdrop for a story about the relationship between two central characters. That episode took Don and Peggy over a long, drunken night on the town and in the office, underscoring the similarities between the boss and his protege; it found a kind of platonic connection within their professional relationship. “Fight,” on the other hand, took the already intimate physical relationship between Bill and Virginia, colleague-lovers very different in personality and outlook, and tried to find the frequencies on which they resonate.

Though the episode began before their hotel room assignation and ended after it, it felt in some ways like an idyll that existed outside normal reality. Time is distended in it, for instance: in the span of an an 11-round boxing match, there was time for Bill and Virginia to have sex, order and eat dinner, talk about their pasts, have a boxing lesson, get a haircut, have more sex, dress and check out. It’s just a dramatic liberty, but it also gives the episode a slightly magical feeling, as if the hotel room is the portal to another, purgatorial dimension.

And how mesmerizing Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan are in purging their characters. The part of the reserved, suffering genius can be tedious, but it’s transfixing to see him peer out from behind the ice wall he’s built since childhood, and to see Virginia chip away at it. Any actor could play Bill as a man who doesn’t want to share his secrets; Sheen lets you see the hints that a part of him does want to. And as Virginia draws him out, pulling from him the story of being his father’s real-life punching bag, their conversation is as intimate, probing, sexual, as their sex. (Though the sex is nothing to sneeze at either. The scene in which the screen cuts to the boxing match to the sound of Virginia’s breath as she “makes herself feel good”? TKO.)

It’s fitting that the episode is structured around a fight, because it’s really Bill and Virginia comparing scars and bruises. And Caplan shows the subtlety with which she won a deserved Emmy nomination as she shows how she adapted in her own way to heartbreak. Where Bill became guarded and private, she became adventurous and outward-focused–but to a point: “Sex–fine, enjoy it if and when you can. It’s a biological function. But be safe, keep your heart out of it.” In the back-and-forth between them, you see how they make such effective lab partners: where he’s driven to look inward and analyze, she’s compelled to engage with the world, ask questions and explore. The difference comes down even to their hotel-register aliases: Bill wants to hide by making their story as bland and forgettable, Virginia by making it outlandishly fanciful.

The ambiguous-genitalia subplot, meanwhile, demonstrates how Masters of Sex has figured out how to use medicine and sex science to serve its themes: understanding sexuality, here as in last week’s “nymphomania” case, is important not just because it’s sexy or interesting, but because ignorance ruins people’s lives. And Bill’s ultimately unsuccessful showdown with the baby’s boorish father cuts directly to his childhood. For much of the first season, Bill’s abusive father seemed like backstory in search of a reason, but “Fight” links it directly to his work: one thing that drives his ambition is anger, the urge to fight bullies and the misinformation that empowers them. But knowledge can only take him so far: he’s more confident in cutting down the brutish dad with contempt–“You’re going to thank me for protecting you from your own poor judgment”–but in the end, he still ends up begging, fruitlessly, the self-satisfied jerk who says about his own baby, “A hole’s easier than a pole.”

What a set of performances; what an episode; what a show. And though Bill’s efforts to save a baby boy from gender confusion fail, “Fight” ends on an understatedly hopeful note. We don’t see, but hear over the final credits, the last seconds of the boxing match, in which Archie Moore–the aging underdog Bill identifies with–pulls out a historic 11th-round knockout. And Virginia has the last word, “I want to see how it ends,” as if to say that–for her and the other men and especially women who stand to gain from learning about sex–this fight is not nearly over.

TIME Music

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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TIME Television

Is TV Drama Finally Getting Out of Its Murder Rut?

GPC_6762.NEF
Olivia Williams and John Benjamin Hickey in Manhattan Greg Peters / WGN

Manhattan, Masters of Sex and several upcoming shows are finding drama in subjects other than scowling tough guys stabbing people.

Manhattan, premiering Sunday night on WGN America, is about a point in history when the balance of power in war tilted from brawn to brains. In 1943, millions of soldiers were fighting and dying around the world, fighting on ships and in the air and in close combat in a global war. Yet the outcome of WWII–and the global dynamic for decades to come–would be determined largely by scientists holed up in a secret government-run community in Los Alamos, N.M., racing to develop the atomic bomb.

WGN’s second new drama after the goofy spookshow Salem, Manhattan is a big improvement for the network–not an instant game-changer like Mad Men for AMC, but promising enough to make it worth finding out what channel WGN is on in your cable lineup. (Brooklyn Time Warner Cable customers, I just found it myself–it’s channel 126!)

Creator Sam Shaw (Masters of Sex) and director Thomas Schlamme (The West Wing) have made a mature, thoughtful drama that explores how the pressure of the A-bomb race combines with military and professional politics to create workplace drama with stakes that are (literally) explosive. John Benjamin Hickey–whom you may know as The Good Wife‘s ChumHum chief–is especially striking as Frank Winter, a head researcher driven not just by patriotic urgency but fierce personal pride. (The Manhattan Project scientists were racing not just Hitler but other U.S. atomic scientists, competing with them for resources and glory.) The first two episodes build slowly, but there’s the stuff of a compelling drama about scientists and their families, exiled to what amounts to the nation’s most remote, highest-stress research campus. (“Harvard with sand,” one character jokes.)

But what’s most interesting about Manhattan at the get-go is how it’s another example of how, in TV as in WWII, brains may be starting to supersede brawn, at least a little. That is: several series this summer and fall are investing in the radical idea that there can be drama in things other than people getting horribly killed.

The last season of The Good Wife featured a running gag about a parodically grim cable drama that Alicia Florrick watched in which brooding cops did terrible things and gave even more terrible speeches about the nature of evil. (It was, basically, Low Winter Sun, veiled with Saran Wrap.) The joke was maybe a little self-serving–a (justified) complaint that lesser dramas got more credit and praise than the fantastic Good Wife because they were on cable and relentlessly bleak and violent. But it also pointed out the fact that in the Breaking Bad / Game of Thrones / Walking Dead era, it had become almost a requirement that serious new TV dramas had to be physically brutal, that their dramatic stakes had to be pointy.

The first half of 2014 brought more crime-and-violence-driven shows willing to take up Heisenberg’s black hat. And it was fine: True Detective gave us a murder case as Southern Gothic existentialism class, Fargo kept winter coming with its distinctive dark comedy. But it didn’t do much to change the impression that, these days, all TV drama flows out of the barrel of a gun.

Scoot McNairy as Gordon Clark and Kerry Bishe as Donna Clark - Halt and Catch Fire _ Season 1, Gallery - Photo Credit: James Minchin III/AMC
Scoot McNairy and Kerry Bishe in Halt and Catch Fire. / AMC

But this summer and fall, new (and relatively new) dramas are striving to give Alicia some alternative viewing choices. Besides Manhattan, Showtime’s Masters of Sex–currently better than ever in its second season–draws its dramatic thrust (ahem) not just from eroticism but from the emotional and intellectual charge of scientific discovery: it’s about how research gives its characters’ lives purpose, and how their findings about sexuality and its myths have the potential to change the way their patients live. HBO’s The Leftovers deals with a global cataclysm’s emotional toll, not its body count. Debuting in August, Cinemax’s The Knick (from director Steven Soderbergh) explores fledgling surgical science in the New York City of 1900; Showtime’s The Affair–the best drama pilot I’ve yet seen for fall–is about the aftermath of infidelity. (And that’s not even considering channels like ABC Family, which has a number of entries in the not-murdering-people genre.)

I’ve loved a lot of bloody, brutal shows, but you get tired of so much red meat. Which is one reason why I’ve stuck with AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, about the computer business in the early 1980s, for all its imperfections. The show has been knocked as a kludgy Mad Men clone, and with some reason: Lee Pace’s angsty Don Draper-esque man of mystery, is maybe the show’s fifth most interesting character. But the ensemble surrounding him are people you don’t see every day: in particular, the complicated marriage between programmers Donna (the terrific Kerry Bishé) and Gordon (Scoot McNairy) is a nuanced exploration of entrepreneurial dreams smashing into reality. It’s become a good show–not nearly a great one, but one that’s refreshing for showing that the simple drive to create a thing of your own can power a story.

Episode 101
Dominic West and Ruth Wilson in The Affair. Craig Blankenhorn / Showtime

It’s not as if these shows have taken a vow of pacifism. There’s a dramatic act of violence in the early episodes of Manhattan (and in a larger sense, of course, the show is about the eventual killing of far more people than Walter White ever took out). The Knick is extremely gory, but it’s medical gore, in a story about the bloody trial and error of an emerging science. The Leftovers incidents of violence are sparing, but they’re shocking. WeTV’s The Divide, a social-minded death-penalty drama, is rooted in a murder, albeit one dealt with as past history. Starz’s time-traveling Outlander, premiering in August, involves some hearty Scottish violence, but it’s secondary to the sci-fi-romance, culture-clash storyline.

It may be that TV audiences don’t want an alternative to violent franchises at all: see the healthy ratings for Fargo and The Strain. But if you’ve been hoping that TV drama’s subject matter could become as diverse as it’s become ambitious, the latter half of this year is looking promising. Big murder and mayhem premises will never stop being the stuff of many, many dramas. But as the Manhattan Project taught us, it’s also possible to harness incredible power from teensy, tiny things.

TIME Smartphones

OnePlus One Review: Phone of Dreams

Jared Newman for TIME

It's hard to imagine a better phone for Android geeks. Too bad you can't get one.

As I walked around Google’s I/O conference last month, my phone seemed to have a mythical status among the Android faithful.

“Is that the OnePlus One?” they’d ask. “How’d you get it? Can I see?” But it wasn’t the phone’s capabilities that made them so curious. It was the fact that the OnePlus One is nearly impossible to buy.

Right now, the only way to purchase a OnePlus One is through an invitation from another owner. And because OnePlus only seeded the phone to a small batch of original owners through a contest and other promotions, there aren’t a lot of Ones to go around. (Mine came direct from the OnePlus PR department, with no invites attached.)

It’s easy to see why Android geeks are clamoring for the OnePlus One. It has all the hallmarks of a high-end Android phone, including a 5.5-inch 1080p display, a 2.5 GHz quad-core processor, 3 GB of RAM, 64 GB of storage, a 13-megapixel rear camera and a 5-megapixel front camera.

But at $350 unlocked, it’s roughly half the price of an unlocked iPhone 5s or Samsung Galaxy S5. While you can get subsidized phones for cheaper, an unsubsidized plan from AT&T or T-Mobile would save a lot of money in the long run when paired with a OnePlus One.

Besides, the OnePlus One is a standout phone even without the cost savings.

The funny thing is that when I show this phone to regular people, it draws an entirely different reaction. There’s nothing outwardly impressive or even noteworthy about it, save for the black backing that’s as grippy as ultra-fine sandpaper. (A 16 GB white model has a ground cashew backing that’s supposed to feel like baby skin. I found someone at I/O with this version, and while it felt pretty smooth, I didn’t have my test baby on hand for comparison.)

Still, much of the OnePlus One’s appeal comes from what it doesn’t do. In contrast to so many other Android phones, the One is devoid of questionable gimmicks and flare for flare’s sake. The front of the phone is unadorned with tacky brand names or logos, and there are no dual-lens cameras, finicky fingerprint readers or problematic curved glass. When the screen is off, it’s nothing but a thin silver frame surrounding a panel of black glass. The simplicity is striking.

Jared Newman for TIME

Start it up, and you’ll find something very close to stock Android 4.4, with hardly any unnecessary bloatware. The handful of tweaks that do exist come courtesy of CyanogenMod, a modification of stock Android that many enthusiasts install on their phones anyway. There’s a quick settings bar that appears above your notifications, a set of audio equalizer controls and a store for themes that alter the phone’s look and feel. But none of these additions feel intrusive, and most of them can be modified or removed.

Because the system is unburdened by junk and excessive visual flourishes, the OnePlus One always feels fast. The phone never left me hanging as I switched apps, swiped through homescreens and opened the camera. That’s not always the case with the latest mainstream Android phones.

The camera also lacks frilly features, but it’s dependable all around. Its f/2.0 aperture means it can handle low-light photography about as well as the HTC One (no relation), and while it’s not quite as good as HTC’s phone at fending off shaky hands, it’s capable of snapping much more detailed photos. I had no major issues with responsiveness either, as the phone takes about a second to establish focus and snaps photos instantly thereafter. My sole complaint is that you can’t hold the shutter button down for burst mode like you can on the HTC One and iPhone 5s. (There is a separate burst mode option, but that defeats the purpose when you’re trying to capture the perfect moment.)

Jared Newman for TIME

The other thing you only appreciate with time is the OnePlus One’s battery. I tend to charge my phone every night, but after most days I had well over 50 percent battery life in the tank. That includes days when I was constantly using the phone’s mobile hotspot or watching lots of video. It was nice having a phone where battery life was not a concern at all.

My only problems with the OnePlus One tended not to rise above nitpick status. The display, while clear and crisp enough at 1080p, can be a bit hard to read outdoors on sunny days, and its auto-brightness setting doesn’t always hit the appropriate level. I could also do without some of the software tweaks that OnePlus has added, such as the settings shortcuts that are redundant with Android’s own quick settings panel, and the gesture-based shortcuts that I always seemed to enter accidentally. But as I said above, OnePlus allows you to switch these off.

Most of the time, the OnePlus One just did what it was supposed to do. And outside the geekier climes of Google I/O, it never drew attention to itself by causing headaches or getting in the way, and never felt like it was anything less than a high-end handset.

That’s exactly how a smartphone should be, and it’s sad that so many Android vendors feel the need to distract with flips and cartwheels instead. If OnePlus can actually distribute this phone more broadly–and I’m told an actual pre-order system is coming eventually–its ability to excite people without glitz and gimmickry will be its greatest trick.

TIME Music

REVIEW: Alvvays Make Sunny Guitar-Pop Gold on Self-Titled Debut

Polyvinyl / Transgressive

The Canadian pop band's sunny debut puts lead singer Molly Rankin in fine company

From laconic, wise-cracking slackers like Stephen Malkmus and Bethany Cosentino to starry-eyed romantics like Stuart Murdoch and Tracyanne Campbell, the history of left-field, literate indie pop is littered with idiosyncratic, effortlessly charming vocalists. Molly Rankin, the woman who leads Canadian five-piece Alvvays, is a descendent of both lines; she’s a madcap schemer and a bleeding heart, equally likely to scamper away after tripping over her own feet and to plead a male pal to reconsider his disdain for the institution of marriage. Her actual genealogy is just as impressive as her musical ancestry: Rankin is a member of the Rankin Family, Canadian folk luminaries who have written and toured across the country for decades. She cut her teeth as part of the family’s band before striking out on her own with a 2010 EP; that solo project gradually picked up friends and nearby musicians and morphed into Alvvays. The band’s eponymous debut full-length is smart, sharp guitar pop, with songs shaped by lyrical playfulness, chiming, melodic leads, and Rankin’s bell-clear, yearning voice.

The band’s songwriting is possessed of both an impressive ear for structure and a remarkable generosity. Songs build in discrete steps to emotional crescendos, then hang there or ascend to an even higher level, rewarding listeners with a new melody or another round of a potent chorus; crisp, clean lines like the ones that mark “Adult Diversion” and “Archie, Marry Me” return for curtain calls, unfurling over top of simple, metronomic rhythms. The high level of execution is a necessity: many bands have written songs like this before, and well, so each new track requires a certain indelibility in order to stand out. The band is also differentiated by lesser peers by the strength of Rankin’s character. She’s immediately familiar and relatable, fully realized in a way that’s quite impressive given this is Alvvays’ debut; she could be the girl sitting across from you in a seminar, speeding with intent down a bike lane, relaxing in a park with a wide-brimmed hat. She spends a lot of time singing about love, and navigates that fraught terrain with an exuberance and palpable anxiety that belies her youth. It’s a perspective that equally suits jangling, up-tempo cuts like “Adult Diversion” and “Atop a Cake” and dreamier, more wistful songs like highlights “Ones Who Love You” and “The Agency Group.” Her voice, pure as spring water and able to easily reach lofty, piercing notes, is best served by the latter pair of tracks; she has a deft hand with heartbreak.

In the moments when listeners are able to tear themselves away from the band’s sticky, simple guitar lines, they’re rewarded with a lyrical wit and intelligence that nicely complements Rankin’s erudite persona. Spend enough time around smart people and you’ll meet characters who clearly derive personal satisfaction from putting together exquisite sentences and dropping ten-dollar words; it’s a precious source of joy, sure, but it’s infectious all the same. The members of Alvvays fit that mold: when Rankin tries to convince a romantic partner to stick around on “Party Police” by telling him that “we can find comfort in debauchery,” it’s easy to imagine the sparkle in her eye and the half-grin plastered on her face. It’s to the band’s credit that their toying with vocabulary and phrasing feels inclusive, rather than smug, and those aforementioned melodies act like gateways into their wordy world. It’s those two strengths, and Rankin’s innate likeability, that separate Alvvays from their peers in a genre that’s always ripe with aspiring stars.

TIME Music

REVIEW: 2 Chainz Returns to Form on Freebase EP

Freebase EP
The Real University

The rapper's new E.P brims with menacing swagger and ferocious beats

This post is in partnership with NME.

2 Chainz is back with a bang. Compared to his last two overcooked albums, 2013’s B.O.A.T.S. II: Me Time and the 2012’s Based on a T.R.U. Story, Freebase is solid southern hip hop. ”I keep shitting on the competition, so I’m put me out a shittape” he brags on the title track; and the rest is equally hubristic. Though the themes are over-familiar hustler fare — “Trap Back” is about drug dealing, “Crib in My Closet” has him and A$AP Rocky boasting about their ”designer shit” and “Cuda Wuda Shuda” is a diss track to all his envious rivals — the EP brims with menacing swagger and ferocious beats. Lyrically 2 Chainz knows he’s no street Shakespeare, but as this EP shows, he certainly knows his way around an arresting tune.

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TIME Television

REVIEW: The Lottery

James Dittiger/Lifetime

Lifetime's venture into sci-fi is the latest TV drama centered on reproduction. But hoo baby, is it ridiculous.

Long before the Hobby Lobby decision, current TV has had reproduction on the brain–not just sex, but fertility, baby-making and their repercussions.

Orphan Black deals with the results of cloning gone awry; NBC remade O.B. horror story Rosemary’s Baby; CBS’s new sci-fi drama Extant is about both an astronaut’s mysterious conception of a baby in space and the android son she and her husband raise after having fertility issues. And Showtime’s Masters of Sex, just beginning a very strong second season, is not just about fireworks in bed but the medicine of fertility, obstetrics and contraception and how reproductive health–and who makes the decisions about it–affects every other part of women’s lives.

Now Lifetime’s The Lottery, premiering Sunday, makes baby-mania the stuff of dystopian sci-fi. Unfortunately, this baby was full of possibility in its conception, but it’s not hitting its developmental milestones.

It’s the mid-2020s, six years after the last human baby was born, amid a sudden, unexplained drop in fertility, and the world is learning What to Expect When No One Is Expecting. As the species faces extinction, women are subjected to mandatory fertility testing, a female “Uncle Sam” in a bikini implores men to donate sperm and a U.S. Department of Humanity prosecutes “fertility crimes,” including scams that promise babies to desperate would-be parents.

Amid the crisis, researcher Alison Lennon (Marley Shelton), has a breakthrough, successfully creating 100 embryos. The government thanks her, commandeers her lab, and announces that it will choose the hundred lucky new moms by, yes, lottery. But the administration appears to be up to something shady, as first evidenced by the fact that a top adviser is played by Martin Donovan. (No offense to the actor, but when’s the last time you’ve seen him in a role like this and thought, “Yep, I bet I can completely trust this character!”) In this newborn-starved world, the hand that controls the cradles rules the world, and Lennon makes it her quest to find out what ends her work is being put to.

Reproduction is, well, fertile ground for dystopian fiction. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale imagined a totalitarian state that held women by the uterus. And Children of Men–whose Timothy J. Sexton writes and produces Lottery–took place in the hopeless aftermath of a similar baby drought.

But whatever potential The Lottery has to look at the connection between fertility and power, or the timely issues of women’s reproductive autonomy–or a simple dramatic fight over the future of the species–is wasted with flat characters and flimsy political intrigue that plays like a duller version of Scandal. (At one point, the President’s advisers discuss the danger of a “recall election,” with no mention of how we quickly managed to rewrite the Constitution to provide for one, or why a fertility crisis would cause it.) It doesn’t help that the show introduces Lennon as a woman on the prowl for a baby daddy, or that its scenes in the lab are written like Drunk Biology. “Behold, the first viable human embryo in six years,” someone actually says. Behold!

Meanwhile, the pilot devotes long, slow stretches to the single dad (Michael Graziadei) of one of that planet’s last remaining six-year-olds, trying to keep his son out of the clutches of a prying government and of his neighborhood’s circling, baby-mad would-be moms. Presumably this story and Lennon’s will eventually intersect. And eventually, maybe, the series will develop some ideas beyond, “People really want to have babies!” But I’m not sure I’ll stick around to see its story come to term.

TIME Music

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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TIME Television

REVIEW: The Divide

Marin Ireland in The Divide. WE

A new drama about guilt and innocence, justice and race, is much less black-and-white than you might think.

It’s generally a good thing for a new series to introduce itself with a clear, simple title, but in the case of The Divide, the first scripted drama from WeTV, the title makes it seem much more simple than it is. The eight-episode legal drama is, in brief, about a controversial effort to reopen the death-penalty convictions of two white prisoners in the murder of a black family. You might assume, then, that the show is about a single, sharp, unambiguous divide between white Americans and black Americans in the justice system–the law-drama equivalent of Crash.

But to its credit, and like the case it begins to explore in its two-hour premiere Wednesday night, The Divide is much more complicated than it seems. Yes, there is a racial divide at the center of the show: Christine Rosa (Marin Ireland), an advocate for a Philadelphia group based on the Innocence Project, and most of her colleagues working to overturn what they believe to be wrongful convictions, are white. District attorney Adam Page (Damon Gupton), his police-commissioner father (Clarke Peters) and the surviving daughter of the victims are black.

As the case unfolds, however, it becomes clear that neither side of this (purposely unsettled) case has a monopoly on righteousness or ethical conflict. Christine and Adam are each driven, if to different ends, and each is vulnerable to being blinded by their determination and external motivations. (He’s politically ambitious; her father is in jail for a crime she knows he’s innocent of because she was with him when it happened.)

The divides that emerge in this series are not simply between two races but between prosecution and defense, between the desire for justice and for resolution. In the two-hour premiere, we get to see multiple sides of each character, including the inmates–who, the script suggests, may be innocent, may be guilty, may be innocent of this crime yet bad people in other ways. There’s a remarkable scene between one convict (Chris Bauer) and his mother (Ann Dowd) before his scheduled last meal, for which he requested a brand of hot dogs he used to hate when she served them when he was a kid–it packs a while life’s history of mutual blame and sorrow into a few brief minutes.

There’s a certain amount of melodrama in the premiere (which is all that was previewed for critics), but the beginning fits a fair amount of nuance into a package that could have been a soapbox. Ireland in particular gives Christine fine shading, and the way that race plays into the story–and into Adam’s career ambitions–feels more natural than engineered. The Divide provides a good head start on a fall network season that’s unusually diverse in its casting; if The Divide continues the way it started, it will set an example of how to tell stories of black and white (and brown, and yellow…) in shades of gray.

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