Monday, August 18, 2014

Offering a mea culpa on You're the Worst

Every critic has reviews where they feel like they were off base or that their words didn't do a good job of reflecting how they actually felt about something.  In that regard, I'm certainly no different.  In my year and a half of writing this blog, I've written some reviews that I don't necessarily stand by anymore: my Star Trek Into Darkness review, which reads like a B when I thought the movie was a C-; my negative review of Earl Sweatshirt's Doris, an album I later grew to really enjoy; and my pilot review of Halt and Catch Firea show that later stumbled in a way that didn't reflect an A-.  It looks like I might have another one on my hands with You're the Worst, one of FX's two new summer comedies.  I gave the pilot a C-, but I wonder if my judgment of the previews got in the way of reviewing the actual show, because I've become quite a fan of it.

Part of the reason why I've warmed up to the show is that it has softened the edges of the two leads, Gretchen (Aya Cash) and Jimmy (Chris Beere).  My biggest complaint about the pilot was that Gretchen and Jimmy were so unlikable, and in a way that made them uninteresting and not enjoyable to watch.  Now, they still say and do horrible things, but there's less of a wink-wink "ain't I a stinker?" air to it.  Plus, it doesn't hurt that the jokes have gotten better.  Showrunner Stephen Falk and his crew of writers have been gradually delivering stronger scripts with sharp, biting humor.  It's much easier to stomach the antipathetic nature of the characters when you're laughing along with them.

The show takes place in Los Angeles, and it's really about the city in a low-key way.  It populates the world with weirdos and people who are just as terrible as Gretchen and Jimmy, contrasting the bright prettiness of the city with the off-color people who inhabit it.  Even Gretchen and Jimmy's jobs -- she's a PR executive, he's a failing novelist -- feel very Hollywood.  You're the Worst uses these professions to have its leads come into contact with the colorful characters of Los Angeles, like the rapper that Gretchen is representing.  He's a clear Tyler the Creator analogue, complete with a skateboarding, cargo short wearing crew of lackeys, and he's just as obnoxious.  The show's fourth episode, "What Normal People Do," perfectly skewers Hollywood with Edgar's (Desmin Borges) storyline, where he initially thinks he's met other war veterans, only to eventually discover that they're just actors who are studying him for an upcoming movie.

Edgar, who is Jimmy's roommate and best friend, along with Gretchen's best friend Lindsay (Kether Donohue), round out the show's small cast.  Though it may be limiting, having only two supporting characters has allowed the writers to flesh Edgar and Lindsay out in a short amount of time.  The first few episodes featured them solely bouncing off of Jimmy and Gretchen, but the most recent couple have shown that they're able to hold their own in individual storylines.  In the process, they've actually revealed themselves to be the heart and soul of the show.  The writers have done an excellent job of handling Edgar's past wartime activity, making his PTSD quietly sad, but not depressing enough to throw off the tone of the show.  Meanwhile, Lindsay's marital problems and self-esteem issues are fertile material for them to explore in the future.

Despite its title and my initial criticisms, You're the Worst is one of the sweetest comedies on television.  Gretchen and Jimmy are slowly coming to grips with the fact that they actually genuinely like each other, despite his hatred and her fear of commitment.  First, their pairing appeared to be a union of two people whom nobody else wanted, but now it's transforming into them being together because they truly want each other.  They're beginning to compromise on their hard-hearted beliefs, subtly making each other better, kinder people.  It's a surprising joy to watch.

Like Married, the new show that airs before it, You're Worst still feels a little bit too shaggy and small.  Yet there's also something charming about its ragged nature.  I was watching with the wrong lens at first, and now that I've adapted to the rhythms of the show, I can see that the pilot was pretty solid.  And it's only gotten better, funnier, and more assured in the past few weeks.  The cast is great, the jokes are strong, and the heart is there.  If it keeps improving at this rate, You're the Worst could become one of TV's best comedies.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

"They Want My Soul" shows that Spoon is still going strong

It's hard out there for older bands.  The music business thrives on the "hot new thing," constantly talking about up-and-coming buzz bands and pushing established acts further and further towards the fringes.  There are some bands, like Radiohead or Animal Collective, who still get consistent attention and critical praise whenever they put out a new album, but for the most part end of the year lists are dominated by artists with three albums or less.  Bands like The Decemberists, Belle & Sebastian, and The New Pornographers are still putting out terrific records, but they don't get the critical adulation to match that quality.  It's especially rough for Spoon, who might be the most consistent band of the last two decades.  They've put out so many good albums that now people take it for granted, like "oh, another good Spoon album.  So"?  That's the kind of attitude that lead to Transference, an otherwise great album, becoming perceived as a step-down for them when it was released in 2010.

"Rent I Pay," the first song on their new album They Want My Soul, finds the band firmly planted in their usual pocket.  It's been four years since we've heard those jagged, wiry guitars and that lean rhythm section, so it feels good to have them back.  But at the same time, it's easy to be disappointed with getting the "same old Spoon."  Smartly, the band follows it up with "Inside Out," which is decidedly not the same old Spoon.  From the little plinky piano, to the harp instrumental break, to the spacey synthesizers, it's a song that finds them embarking on completely new sonic terrain.  That risk turned out to be a success, because it's a beautiful track, perhaps their most earnest, open-hearted one yet.

That one-two combination of those opening songs represents the overriding theme of the album.  They Want My Soul is about the push and pull between familiar rhythms and innovations around the margins.  It's an album that alternates between being loose and tightly-wound, with longer-than-usual instrumental breaks among their typical bare bones verses and choruses.  "Knock Knock Knock," for example, has crisp acoustic guitars that give way to some squealing electric ones in the break.  Each song offers a slightly different flavor of the band, from the Ga...-era catchy pop of "Do You," to the bass-heavy groove of "Outlier," to the ragged ragtime cover of Ann Margaret's "I Just Don't Understand."

They Want My Soul is also the first Spoon album to feature a title track.  Just as it was probably a deliberate decision for them to not have one on any of their first seven offerings, it's also most likely not an accident that this was the album on which they chose to break that trend.  Better yet, it's one of the more traditionally Spoon songs on the record.  New and old, new and old.  It even namechecks Jonathon Fisk, the figure around which one of their best songs revolves.  That choice seems to get at one of the other themes of this album: being stuck in cycles.  "Do You" might sound peppy, but the lyrics in the first verse allude to some kind of unshakable addiction.  Meanwhile, the chorus of "Knock Knock Knock" obliquely talks about an abusive relationship.  All of a sudden, the automaton precision and unadorned nature of their sound takes on a more morose, sobering vibe in that context

Nobody is going to argue that this is the band's best album; few eighth albums are.  But it signifies that they're in a very healthy place in their career, and a sign that they're not gradually down-sliding, seeing as this is a hair better than Transference.  (Time will tell if it proves to better than 2007's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, though it's doubtful, since that's a modern classic.)  With bony songs full of great guitars and Britt Daniel's versatile vocals, They Want My Soul is by and large what you'd expect from Spoon.  Clearly, that's not a bad thing.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The debut album from Alvvays is a perfect summer listen

There seems to be a ubiquity of bands who make reverb-laden indie pop in today's music climate.  Most of them are pretty interchangeable too, pushing out the same peppy melodies, the same wall-of-sound guitars, the same wistful female vocals.  When done well, it can make for a sublime listening experience, but far too often bands are content with bringing the same generic sound to the table over and over again.

Up-and-coming Toronto band Alvvays was initially pitched to me as Best Coast meets Camera Obscura.  I'm always a little wary of a new one of these bands, but that combination immediately piqued my interest.  I don't listen to Best Coast much anymore, but liked them quite a bit at one point, and I consider Camera Obscura -- my favorite band -- the gold standard of reverb-heavy, catchy indie pop.  And in listening to the debut self-titled album from Alvvays, I can definitely see where the Best Coast-plus-Camera Obscura description comes from.  Similarly to the former's first and best album, Alvvays is perfect music for a warm sunny day.  It's also ruthlessly efficient, containing nine catchy songs that average about three minutes.  And like the latter, the band has found a classic female indie pop vocalist in Molly Rankin, whose sweet, dreamy voice rests snugly in the mix of bright guitars.

Lead single "Archie, Marry Me" is a perfect encapsulation of the album's catchy simplicity.  There are no frills, it's just a childlike, innocent profession of love to a boy named Archie.  Rankin talks about "sailing out on the Atlantic" and being taken by the hand in a gentle, traditional way that'll warm hearts and faces alike.  Even the name Archie recalls something very simple and old-timey.  "Ones Who Love You," the best song on the album, shares that lovely and infectious quality.  Sunny, bobbing guitars in the verses and choruses give way to a swooning bridge.  The first half of the album is full of these kind of uncomplicated structures and head-swaying melodies.

On the second half of the album, the band begins to tap into the other side of the emotional dial.  Much of the more somber songs are about the difficulty of reading and communicating with people.  On the plaintive "Party Police," Rankin sings, "I cannot decipher conversation in your head."  "The Agency Group" is all about a hazily defined relationship, centered around the chorus' revelation of, "When you whisper you don't think of me that way / when I mention you don't mean that much to me."  Album closer "Red Planet" takes the idea even further, telling a story about two people who are seemingly from entirely different worlds.

Nobody's going to mistake this album for being original, but it contains endless pleasures nonetheless.  Alvvays is unashamed about its influences and the band executes its vision with charm and confidence.  There's so much of this brand of indie pop that it's hard to stand out, but Alvvays does so due to the strength of their melodies and the acuity of their emotions.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Pilot Talk 2014: The Knick

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.

Fridays at 10:00 PM on Cinemax

There's no doubt that television is a writer's medium.  We tend to talk about episodes at a script level, and shows are known for their showrunner and writing staff, not their stable of directors.  It's notable, then, that the buzz surrounding The Knick involved Steven Soderbergh's work behind the camera.  Of course, it's not the first time a big director has lent their talents to a TV show -- think Martin Scorsese's work on the pilot of Boardwalk Empire or David Slade's time on Hannibal.  But Soderbergh's ties to The Knick are different and exciting for two main reasons.  The first is that he directed and edited every single episode of season, instead of just the usual pilot job that these noteworthy directors do.  More importantly, he does more than just make the show "look pretty."

Take the surgery at the beginning of the episode.for instance.  It's an intense, precise scene that looks great, but conveys meaning in a crucial way.  The Knick is a gnarly show, and if the idea of graphic guts and gore makes you nauseous, then you'd do best to check out.  But if you tune in, you'll see that the opening scene, and the show by proxy, is giving you a close-up look at the way surgery worked back in the early 1900s.  It's as illuminating as it is disgusting.  Soderbergh is able put forth ideas visually without relying on the script, just through choices with blocking, composition, and camera movement.  You can tell so much about the balance of power by the way characters are oriented on the screen in one scene; in another, the camera rotates perspective to communicate a shift in that power.  Throughout the hour, the show is always reminding you that it's being controlled by a master.

That directorial strength is invaluable, because it isn't breaking any new ground storywise.  The pilot is basically a greatest hits collection of brooding drama tropes.  Main character Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) is a brilliant surgeon at the New York Knickerbocker Hospital, but here's the catch: he's nursing a horrible cocaine and opium addiction.  Not only does the episode check off the "great man hiding a dark secret" box, but he's also stubborn and plays by his own rules, as we see him butting heads with his superiors when he's given more responsibility after the death of his mentor.  Elsewhere, you can see the DNA of Peggy Olson and Virginia Johnson in Algernon (Andre Holland), an African American surgeon who's brought on to the hospital staff against John's wishes.  It'll be interesting to see whether the writers can find new shades to the story of a member of an oppressed group fighting against adversity to prove their worth, because it's as common as they come with period pieces.

Part of the reason why none of this feels like a complete carbon copy of previous dramas is because of Soderbergh's direction.  It can't be emphasized enough how much his work enhances the pilot, where he does his best to make the story not feel stale and suffocating.  And he succeeds, because it's a thrilling, intriguing, artistically satisfying introduction.  This is not a case of style over substance, but style adding substance.  The Knick may be playing the hits, but it plays them extremely well.

Grade: A-

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Pilot Talk 2014: Outlander

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.

Saturdays at 9:00 PM on Starz

Initially, I was only going to watch Starz's new fantasy show Outlander because it was developed by Ronald D. Moore.  Having created Battlestar Galactica (one of my favorite shows of all time) and Virtuality (one of my favorite pilots of all time), he's one of those writers for whom I'll give a chance to anything they're involved with.  (This is what led me to sticking with Helix way longer than I should have, given its gradual slide into inanity.)  Though the Diana Gabaldon book series on which this show is based is popular, I've never read them, so I didn't have any built-in knowledge of the story.  A quick glance at the premise -- a former World War II nurse finds herself transported back to 1743 Scotland -- made the whole thing seem a bit silly, if I'm being honest.  But despite all of those misgivings, Outlander's pilot turned out to be shockingly great.

Part of the reason the show manages to be palatable is that the pilot takes its time introducing the actual concept.  The episode rounds out at a full 60 minutes, and completely swims in it.  Before giving off any whiff of time travel, the show smartly lets you have ample time with Claire (Caitriona Balfe) as a person.  In that long introductory portion, she's shown to be determined, sensitive, thoughtful, and hard-working -- all of which make her a truly compelling protagonist.  To get in her head space even more, Moore chooses to have her narrate the events of the story (a vestige of the novels, no doubt), which is usually damning but totally works here.  If we didn't get to know Claire in the 1940s, then her getting blasted back to the past wouldn't matter much.

The pilot really soars once she gets mysteriously travels back to 1743 though.  It's truly commendable that show has the conviction to keep its two leads apart until the last 20 minutes, especially because when Claire does meet Jamie (Sam Heughan), a Scottish civil war soldier, it's electrifying.  Clearly, Outlander is going to lean heavily on romance in the future, and the crazy chemistry between Balfe and Heughan ensures it'll be something worth looking forward to, not an element to merely put up with.  The scenes in the past are also deceptively funny.  As to be expected, some jokes derive from the fish out of water aspect of Claire's story, but more importantly, the laughs are very character-driven more often than not.

So far, the show is sexy but not sleazy, deliberately paced but not stuffy, and fun but not mindless.  Most of all, it proves that Ronald D. Moore -- a writer who hasn't had much success in the last few years -- can do great work outside of his usual realm of sci-fi.  Outlander is a spectacular fantasy program.  Yeah, I'm just as surprised as you are.

Grade: A-