Monday, May 30, 2016

How to fix Drake's "Views"

We're witnessing a change in discourse regarding music that's both a gift and a curse.  Spurred on by the rise of surprise releases and the ubiquity of social media giving us an all-access pass to the thoughts of critics and fans alike, the gestation period for albums is becoming shorter and shorter.  In a way, that's exciting.  Even as a mild Radiohead fan, I couldn't help but get swept up in the fervor a few weeks ago when they dropped a new album on a Sunday afternoon with very little lead-up.  That collective listening experience is intoxicating.

But it also leads to everyone feeling the need to be the fastest one to deliver the hottest take.  Can we really determine if Beyonce's Lemonade is a masterpiece on the first night of listening to it?  Likewise, was The Life of Pablo really the mess everyone instantly declared it to be after Kanye West finally let us listen to it?

This year's biggest victim of this phenomenon is Views, Drake's expansive sad-rap rumination on fame, loneliness, and the city he calls home.  Once it dropped, the early opinion deemed it a bloated, monochromatic letdown.  Official reviews ran with that idea too.  Pitchfork, one of Drake's biggest acolytes, gave the album a 6.8.  Stereogum, The AV Club, Hip Hop DX, and various other sites were similarly lukewarm.  Advance copies weren't given out for this album, and if you look at the dates that these reviews were posted -- some of them on the same day it was released -- it's clear that reviewers didn't give Views much time to marinate.  I can't help but wonder if the general consensus on the record would be a little different if there wasn't such a rush for everyone to get their official opinion on it out into the world.  After all, the album has a 68 on Metacritic, a score far more mediocre albums regularly eclipse.

I, too, was in the negative camp when I first heard the album.  I've always had issues with Drake's music, and Views initially felt like all of his worst impulses compounded into an LP that heavily emphasizes the L.  After a few listens, it started to grow on me considerably, to the point where I've become somewhat of a champion for this deeply underrated album.  Views has some gems to offer up.  The problem is that it asks the listener to sift through a little bit of rubble to locate the shiny bits.  So I've proposed a solution, what I like to call Views: The Antonio Whitehead Cut.  It looks a little something like this:

1. Weston Road Flows
2. 9
3. U With Me?
4. Feel No Ways
5. Hype
6. Controlla
7. Redemption
8. With You
9. Still Here
10. One Dance
11. Child's Play
12. Too Good

The biggest sin Views commits is that it's way too long, clocking in at 81 minutes but feeling more like 100.  So the initial step is to start chopping off songs.  First to go is "Keep the Family Close," which actually is a good opener in concept, but in execution it's mostly just a slog.  Nix "Faithful" because it's boring and not very memorable.  "Grammys" sounds like an outtake from What a Time to Be Alive, a mixtape that already feels like a collection of outtakes.  Every incarnation of "Pop Style" stinks, so that can go too.  "Fire & Desire" feels twice as long as it is, and the fact that it's near the end of the album doesn't help matters either.  Once that song gets cut, there's no real reason to keep "Summers Over Interlude" either.  Trim all of that fat and you've got a lean 53 minutes of music, almost the perfect length for a rap album.

Then there are finishing touches to put on the sequencing.  Without "Keep the Family Close," the album is lacking a fitting opening song.  The terrific "9" has 40 and Boi-1da combining their powers to create a beautiful, chattering beat but it doesn't exactly set the stage for the album.  That's why I propose putting "Weston Road Flows" in the leadoff slot.  With no chorus and four minutes of Drake spitting some of the best bars on the album, it's a perfect shot in the arm to start the record with, and it bookends nicely with the straightforward rapping approach of the album-closing title track.  The only other minor problem is that "Controlla," "One Dance," and "Too Good," the trio of dancehall-tinged tunes that are all highlights, are way too clustered together.  Moving "Controlla" closer to the front of the album helps spread that sound out a little bit, and also keeps the three songs in an order of increasing excellence.

Views: The Antonio Whitehead Cut isn't a perfect album.  It can't escape one of the other big issues with the record: Drake's persona, which has grown more oppressive and exhausting with each release.  Reducing the track length also reduces how much of Drake you get, but you're still bound to hear alot of his weird issues with women and his "woe is me" posturing, only seeming half-aware of how much he actually sounds like a jerk in most of the scenarios he describes.  And for what it's worth, this is a mood piece album that's trying to evoke some very specific vibes, so removing the sprawl makes it harder to appreciate what Drake and 40 are aiming for.  Still, this streamlined version of Views goes down much easier.  If it had been released in this incarnation, it would be considered one of the best rap albums of the year.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Pilot Talk 2016: Preacher

Every TV season, networks bring out a new crop of shows, in hopes that they'll be the next big hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

Sundays at 9:00 PM on AMC

When it was first announced that Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg would be adapting the acclaimed 90s Vertigo comic Preacher, it seemed like a bizarre choice.  Though they're avid fans of the comic, it was hard to envision what a version of its story from the guys behind Pineapple Express and This is the End would look like.  If the pilot is any indication, they were the right men for the job.  With the help of Breaking Bad writer Sam Catlin (who will serve as showrunner for the series), they have made an adaptation that doesn't follow the source material's narrative beat-by-beat, but feels perfectly in line with its spirit.

Translating Preacher to the screen is no easy task either.  It's a story that involves an Irish vampire, a man with a face that looks like a rectum, literal gods and angels, and couldn't be more 90s if it was draped in a flannel shirt.  And yet Rogen, Goldberg, and Catlin deliver all of that in a location-hopping, temporally loose opening episode that mostly makes sense in its own way.  And where it doesn't all track, the show is able to coast on its chaotic, gleefully violent tone.  That sense of fun is best exhibited in the scene where it introduces Cassidy (the terrific Joseph Gilgun from Misfits), the aforementioned Irish vampire, with a kinetic fight sequence on a plane 30,000 feet in the air.  A little bit later, we meet Tulip (Ruth Negga, also terrific) in the midst of a tussle taking place within a car swerving through fields of corn.

Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper), the protagonist and titular preacher, gets his own opportunity to enact violence but so far he's less distinctive than his counterparts.  That's not to say he's a bad character, but it's hard for him not to come off as a little flat given all of the colorful characters that populate the show's world.  Overall, Preacher feels completely unlike anything else on right now -- a series we didn't even know we needed until we got it.  If it builds off of this rock solid start, we could have a show as classic as its comic book counterpart is.

Grade: B+

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Episode of the Week: The Americans - "The Magic of David Copperfield..."

Episode of the Week is a recurring feature devoted to examining a notable episode from the past week of television.

Season 4, Episode 8

A great episode of TV often sneaks up on you.  But sometimes you know right from the beginning, because the episode announces its greatness straight away.  "The Magic of David Copperfield..." the eighth episode of The Americans' white hot fourth season, is an example of the latter, hinting at its greatness right in its opener.  The nearly silent cold open is an epilogue of sorts, closing off the Martha story that dominated the previous two episodes by showing Philip driving her to board a plane that will begin her journey to Russia in the dead of night.  There's a heaviness to it -- we're not used to television being quiet for so long.  But it's perfect at capturing the feeling of going somewhere in the middle of the night, with only the howling air and your own breath soundtracking the evening.  This will be the last Philip sees of Martha, maybe the last we see of her too, and the episode lingers on that farewell and the wide shot of him watching as her plane floats out of view.  It's a devastating beginning, one that immediately tells the audience, "Sit back, because this episode is going to be a doozy."

It's interesting, then, that the episode downshifts from there for a little while.  After all of the ratcheting tension of the last few weeks, a breather is necessary, but it's almost defiant how low-key everything starts out here.  There's an elegiac feeling over every scene, as if there's more air and space surrounding the characters.  Lots of focus is given to the downtime that we rarely see these people engaging in: Philip reads a book on the couch, Elizabeth prepares lunch while Henry and Paige express excitement over David Copperfield's next stunt, Stan comes over to the Jennings' for a beer, the FBI solemnly takes inventory over all of their leads on Martha that have gone cold.  Later, Elizabeth goes to see a movie with Young-hee.  Even the operations feel like idle time.  But of course, this is just to trick us into feeling soothed, because nothing stays serene for too long on The Americans.

It all starts with EST, about which Philip is reading early in the episode.  These seminars have been a part of the show since they were introduced via Sandra Beeman in the third season, and even though EST is sort of a goofy footnote in the 80s chapter of our history books, The Americans has always been very earnest about it.  Still, who would have thought that it would be the fulcrum of season four?  All of the characters on this show are people who, for all of their skill and intelligence, aren't very in tune with their emotions.  They lack self-awareness and the tools to really dig into their emotions and address what's bothering them.  Instead, they just tamp things down until they leap out like a starburst.  So naturally, EST would be what causes a divide between Philip and Elizabeth, after he latches on to it and she doesn't understand what power it could possibly have for him.

Now, the schism isn't truly about EST.  When Philip is on the couch reading that EST book in the beginning up the episode, it's no accident that writer Stephen Schiff chooses to have him and Elizabeth also discuss Martha, the other thing that has been wrenching them apart lately.  Again, when Elizabeth chooses to go to an EST seminar and she comes back and gets into an argument with Philip about it, it transitions to being a fight about Martha.  Matthew Rhys does some excellent directorial work in this scene as he slowly cuts to wider shots.  That initial tightness when you think Elizabeth is about to connect with Philip about these seminars gives way to a shot-reverse shot that shows just how far apart they are once they get to discussing what's really bothering them.  It's an ugly, terrifying argument where animosities from many seasons ago (Gregory, the mother of Philip's long-lost child, how much of their marriage is real) come out in a way that recalls the legendary Sopranos episode, "Whitecaps."

The Americans has always been a show about subtle moments of dialogue and body language.  That's part of the reason why there's a small subset of TV enthusiasts who don't respond to it as much as the rest of us do.  This is a series with emotions that you often have to find your way to, and "The Magic of David Copperfield..." might be the purest distillation of the show in that regard.  It's an hour of television that hinges upon the meaning and tension behind strained exchanges and loaded gestures.  The big fight in the middle of the episode explodes quickly, but it's one that is meticulously established, presaged by the conversation between Philip and Elizabeth where he bristles at her calling Martha simple.  "She was actually quite complicated.  People underestimated her," Philip responds, barely masking his rage.  It's there even earlier, in the conversations where they try to make small talk but find themselves unable to connect.

Really, it's all one contiguous body of feelings with The Americans.  "The Magic of David Copperfield..." is a masterful display of the emotional cause-and-effect that this show does so well.  Philip is upset about Martha, which causes Elizabeth to get upset with Philip, which leads to them getting into a big argument, which factors into Elizabeth killing one of her agents and blowing up at Paige, and so on.  In typical Americans fashion, we pop in for a little while on the Rezidentura and the FBI, but Philip and Elizabeth are what suck up all the air in the episode.

They are what the whole season is being built around, in fact.  Despite mostly being separated by their individual operations, Philip and Elizabeth's relationship has always been the key to the show.  And when they had that passionate sex scene scored to "Under Pressure" at the end of "Clark's Place," it felt like the last truly happy moment we would see between them.  So far that has borne out, as the two episodes that followed showed us just how hurt Elizabeth was when she learned that Philip had revealed his "true self" to Martha, further blurring the line between cover and real relationship.  That's why it's so surprising when we see them have a brief moment of shared happiness in this episode, when Gabriel gives them minor respite from the workload that has clearly been taking a toll on them.

Even more surprising is the cut that follows shortly after, announcing big changes in the form of a "7 months later" chyron at the bottom of the screen.  We're given a montage of Paige enjoying mini golf with Pastor Tim and his wife, Philip and Elizabeth merrily playing hockey with Henry, and Gad sharing a beer with Stan.  All is well.  But it isn't, not really.  It can never be with these characters.  Once Paige returns home and is behind closed doors, she solemnly gives her parents every detail about her peaceful outing with Pastor Tim.  But you can tell that there's darkness just over the horizon and it's coming quickly.

Hours before this episode aired, many critics were pre-hyping it, with some even going as far as saying it was the best the show had ever done.  This primed some people for a much different episode than the one they got, which led to a minor bit of disappointment. That's because we've increasingly become used to equating "amazing episode of television" with "something mind-blowing happened."  Nothing earth-shattering occurred in this episode, but that doesn't change the fact that it is an exceptional piece of television and a great example of The Americans' simmering, low-key brilliance.  "The Magic of David Copperfield..." is the best episode of television that I've seen all year, only rivaled by the two episodes of this show that preceded it.  So far season four has been a blazing wildfire.  If it's giving us this in the middle of the season, can you imagine what we have in store for us for the next five weeks?

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Frankie Cosmos packs a world of wit and emotion in 28 minutes on "Next Thing"

Frankie Cosmos, the moniker of 22 year-old Greta Kline, interestingly tows the line between buzz genres of the recent past and present.  From her soft, childlike voice to her plucky junk-pop instrumentation, her sound resembles the kind of twee music that was popular with indie blogs in the mid-2000s.  But at the same time her personal, deeply emotional lyrics fit in perfectly with the 20-something singer-songwriter resurgence of the last few years.  It's a style she honed over her dozens of Bandcamp releases and fully realized on her 2014 gem, Zentropy.  But after an achievement like that at such a young age, she could've easily flamed out and failed to live up to her limitless potential.  Thankfully, her latest record Next Thing is as far from a disappointment as an album can possibly be.

It turns out that Fit Me In, the gauzy electronic EP she released last November, was just an experimental detour, because Next Thing gets back on the road paved by Zentropy.  It's another album of sharp, indie pop songs that bury genuine craft under the guise of simplicity.  And like her previous LP, this latest offering keeps things brief at 15 songs and 29 minutes.  Despite that short running time, Next Thing never seems like it's robbing the listener of material.  Kline doesn't feel the need to drag things out or repeat choruses, because everything lands with the appropriate weight the first time around.  These songs get in and out before you have a chance to get sick of them.  They even manage to shift and turn in their little 90-second spans.

But the real draw is Kline's lyrics, which manage to be breathtaking while working on a small scale.  Unlike some of her peers (like, say, Waxahatchee), she doesn't often rely on flowery language to get her point across.  Instead, her poetry is more plainspoken.  There's room for metaphor, but Kline's straightforward writing makes the particular banalities of which she speaks hit harder.  Next Thing frequently reads like a diary.  One page is her expressing happiness for her friends ("Embody"), then the next is her confronting dark thoughts and insecurities about a relationship ("Too Dark").  A few pages later she's exploring a different object of affection ("On the Lips").  These songs all sit beside one another and combine to form a compelling emotional portrait.  Everything feels so present tense too; they're songs ripped straight from her very own headlines.  I wouldn't be surprised if "Tour Good," a song about the moment-to-moment feelings of being on the road, was written while she was on tour.

All of this would be terribly navel-gazey were it not for two major factors.  First, the songs are so insistently catchy that the album could merely be enjoyed as a collection of charming pop songs.  From the sickly sweet swing of "On the Lips" to the bouncy chug of "If I Had a Dog," it's got indelible melodies to spare.  The second element that saves these songs from feeling self-indulgent is the sly sense of humor that Kline tucks just underneath all of her musings.  "I know I'm not a lake" she says, to joke about her lack of depth on the seemingly tossed off "Outside With the Cuties."  She starts off "I'm 20" with the line "I'm 20 / washed up already" and you can practically hear her winking.

The best albums have as much life in your head as they do in your ears.  In that case, Next Thing is going to go down as one of the best albums of 2016.  Albums that came out last week have already been erased from my mind, but ever since this one came out a month ago it's been rattling around up there.  Kline's songs feel like a whole universe.  She references her real friends, her dog, her brother -- you have to bring in your own knowledge to get the first names she drops.  But the feeling of intimacy is enough even if you don't do the extra credit.  You may not know who the Gaby or Owen she mentions in her songs are, but by the end of Next Thing, you feel like you know who Greta Kline is.

If you only watch one YouTube channel, make it Just Between Us

I think that I've outgrown YouTube.  Just a few years ago, I was an avid visitor of the site -- I was subscribed to like 50 different channels, all of which I watched regularly.  But between having a job, watching TV/movies, listening to music, and writing blog posts that nobody reads, I just don't have time to watch somebody vlog about a bath bomb.  There are still about five channels whose content I'll watch whenever they upload a new video, but it had been years since I felt truly excited about YouTube.  At the ripe age of 24, I inexplicably felt too old for something.

Who knew that all I needed was Just Between Us, a comedy series from writing partners/best friends Gaby Dunn and Allison Raskin, to fill me with life?  Somehow, I had never watched a single video of theirs and had only even vaguely knew about the channel until a few weeks ago when Hank and John Green mentioned that they were filming an episode of the show.  That's what finally made me think "Hmm, I know of Gaby Dunn from around the Internet.  Maybe I should check this channel out."  So I watched one video.  And then I watched a few more.  I just couldn't stop watching them, they were too delightful.  In the span of a couple of weeks, I had watched every single episode.

The format of the show is simple: every week they read a relationship/sex/life question submitted by a viewer and attempt to give that person advice, which is only sometimes helpful but always hilarious.  Each episode is loosely scripted, with alot of room left for improvisation.  Within that structure Gaby and Allison play exaggerated versions of their actual selves -- the former's character is a carefree, aggressive feminist and the latter is a neurotic, Type A personality.  When the show first started in 2014, Allison was the straight man to Gaby's antics, but their characters have since evolved to the point where they're both pretty wacky, Allison maybe even more so than Gaby.  Judging from the comments on their videos, people often have trouble wrapping their heads around the fact that JBU is scripted and the women are playing characters.  In a way that's understandable, because the show is so fun that you almost want it to be how they really are.

Plus, the show is at its best when it allows a little bit of reality to come in.  In past videos, Gaby has discussed her polyamory and bisexuality, even sharing the story of how she came out when she was younger.  Even more refreshing is Allison's openness about her lifelong struggle with OCD and other mental health issues.  There's still a stigma that society has against mental illness and it's really inspiring, heroic even, to see Allison's ability to take it seriously while also spinning comedy out of it.  In a weird way, watching her has helped me understand and be less ashamed of my own battle with mental illness.

You can pick whether Gaby or Allison is your favorite, but doing so would be against the point of the show.  Really, Just Between Us is about a beautiful friendship, about two people who form one wonderful comedy powerhouse.  (It's a testament to Gaby and Allison's chemistry that seemingly half of the audience ships them.  Granted, the internet will ship anything, but there's something about JBU that really taps into that impulse).  Watching it will give you that same feeling of watching something like Broad City, where the warmth is just so infectious.  Honestly, I can't think of anything that makes me as happy as this channel does.  There are episodes that I have watched multiple times, and I never rewatch YouTube videos.

Last year, the duo began releasing sketches on Thursdays to go along with their regular Monday advice videos.  These shorts already started out polished, but they keep getting better and better.  Judging from YouTube views, fans seem to favor the sketches too.  I prefer the more candid feel of the advice videos, but really it's a matter of personal preference, since both formats are great displays of Gaby and Allison's talent as writers and performers.

Which makes it such a bummer that the show apparently isn't very financially successful, as Gaby described in her terrific article about the grim economics of YouTube.  In a fair world, Just Between Us would be making five times more money than whatever it's making right now.  Hopefully their Patreon (which I support them on) will get more patrons over time, because this is the best thing on YouTube.

I've compiled a list of some of my favorite Just Between Us videos as a primer for any newcomers.  All 15 of them are advice videos because I love those so much that I couldn't fit any sketches in.  But try some of those out too; you can't go wrong.  Plus, these videos are only about three minutes long, so watching this whole list will take you the same amount of time as watching an episode of TV.

Episodes to get you started:
1. How Important Is Sex?
2. What If Someone Only Wants You For Your Body?
3. Are You A Gaby Or An Allison? (ft. John and Hank Green)
4. What Is Consent?
5. Allison's #dearme Story
6. Why Is Allison Bad At Dating? (Dating With Mental Illness)
7. What Was Your Worst Breakup?
8. Why Is Gaby Prettier Than Allison?
9. Is Anything Real?
10. Do Labels Matter?
11. Can You Date Your BFFs Crush?
12. Which Ex Do You Hate The Most?
13. What If Your Crush Is Taken?
14. How Do I Accept My Small Boobs?
15. Can You Be With One Person Forever?