Archives for April 2016

New albums from Sturgill Simpson and Sam Beam & Jesca Hoop.

A Sailor's Guide to Earth.

A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.

There’s been a lot of noise about Sturgill Simp­son in the world of coun­try and it’s not hard to see why. His third album, A Sailors Guide to Earth is, if any­thing, even more ambi­tious than his break­through album, Meta­mod­ern Sounds in Coun­try Music from 2014.

It should have been a com­plete dis­as­ter. A con­cept album, which is bad enough, in the form of a let­ter to his new­ly-born son, which, obvi­ous­ly, is even worse, whose touch points are Sgt. Pepper’s, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and the Bea­t­les-inspired, late Otis Red­ding. Amaz­ing­ly, he lives up to those lofty ambi­tions whilst some­how still man­ag­ing to deliv­er up what is unde­ni­ably an alt coun­try album.

Otis Redding.

Otis Red­ding.

He might balk, albeit a tad effort­ful­ly, at that dis­tinc­tion, between coun­try and alt coun­try. But usu­al­ly there’s a world of dif­fer­ence between the pow­er­ful­ly plain and straight as a die world of coun­try and the more nuanced, qui­et­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed realm of alt country.

But impres­sive­ly, Simp­son man­ages to strad­dle both worlds, and then some. The horn and string arrange­ments on a num­ber of the tracks here are very specif­i­cal­ly designed to recall the rus­tic, gut­tur­al rhythms that came out of Stax with their string and horns (and if you haven’t already seen the doc on Stax, reviewed ear­li­er here, treat your­self). The results call to mind ear­ly Van Mor­ri­son. But then there’s also a very som­bre cut of Nirvana’s In Bloom re-imag­ined as teenage angst.

This is an impres­sive­ly ambi­tious album that is every bit as sub­stan­tial as every­one has been sug­gest­ing – it gets an 8 from the boys at Pitch­fork here. A seri­ous album from a major artist. You can see the video for In Bloom here.


Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop.

Love Let­ter for Fire.

Pop is so ubiq­ui­tous and the results so invari­ably sac­cha­rine and offen­sive­ly MOR that it’s easy to miss the few grown-ups who work in the genre. Sam Beam has been record­ing as Iron and Wine for the last decade or so, and after begin­ning in roots Amer­i­cana mode he has slow­ly but sure­ly set­tled in the world of pop – his last album was reviewed ear­li­er here.

Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop.

Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop.

He pro­duces the same kind of thought­ful, artic­u­late yet unabashed­ly emo­tion­al pop that you get from Jen­ny Lewis and Christo­pher Owens, and ear­li­er from Squeeze and Every­thing But the Girl (in their ear­li­er incar­na­tion), and, from before again, with Car­ole King and Har­ry Nils­son (see the doc on him, reviewed ear­li­er here).

On this lat­est album Love Let­ter for Fire he teams up with Jesca Hoop, who was men­tored by Tom Waits after she land­ed a job work­ing for him as a nanny.

The bad boys, John Lennon and Harry Nilsson.

The bad boys, John Lennon and Har­ry Nilsson.

Like all he best pop, these songs man­age to be intro­spec­tive yet upbeat with just a hint of melan­choly. Their smooth, boy­girl har­monies wash­ing over you before dis­ap­pear­ing again into the ether. Togeth­er with coun­try, it’s the only oth­er genre to resist black influ­ences and not be ren­dered hope­less­ly redun­dant ever after.

They get a 7.5 fromt the boys from Pitch­fork here, and you can see the offi­cial video for the sin­gle Every Song­bird Says here.

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Transparent, yet another perfect US dramedy.



Trans­par­ent sounds for all the world like one of those punch­lines from an ear­ly Simp­sons episode, one of the ones when, God be with the days, they were still fun­ny. A Cal­i­for­nia fam­i­ly have to deal with the emo­tion­al hav­oc caused when the fam­i­ly patri­arch comes out and decides to live out the autumn of his years as the woman he’s always known he real­ly was.

Writ­ten, direct­ed and most­ly star­ring women, all it need­ed was to be set in a hip­py com­mune at the Joshua Tree run by a lat­ter day Janis Joplin fig­ure, played of course by Hol­ly Hunter, who takes under her wing the emo­tion­al­ly lost stray waif played by the blondie one from Girls.


Jef­frey Tam­bor, right.

When the show’s cre­ator and showrun­ner Jill Sol­loway gave an inter­view in the New York­er with Ariel Levy here, and she men­tioned her cameo as a gen­der stud­ies pro­fes­sor in one of the episodes, she seemed to be dis­cussing those kind of views with fer­vour rather than the hint of irony one might have been hop­ing for.

Hap­pi­ly, Trans­par­ent is noth­ing like that. It’s about a com­plete­ly nor­mal fam­i­ly, that is to say a glo­ri­ous­ly dys­func­tion­al one, who just hap­pen to be finan­cial­ly com­fort­able and fan­tas­ti­cal­ly Jew­ish – it makes Curb Your Enthu­si­asm look pos­i­tive­ly preppy.

Gaby Hoffman and Jay Duplass as two of the three siblings.

Gaby Hoff­man and Jay Duplass as two of the three siblings.

The three grown up chil­dren are all appar­ent­ly suc­cess­ful if secret­ly rud­der­less and qui­et­ly lost. So when their father decides to come out in episode one, yes that emo­tion­al tur­moil is to some degree explained. But more to the point, it’s yet anoth­er com­pli­ca­tion that they all have to deal with.

What makes Trans­par­ent so good, and it real­ly is very, very good indeed, is that like Girls and Louie before it, it is first and fore­most a dra­ma, out of which the com­e­dy evolves.

With a sit­com, even ones as sophis­ti­cat­ed as Curb Your Enthu­si­asm or the late great Lar­ry Sanders Show, their pri­ma­ry, indeed their sole duty is to make you laugh. But a com­e­dy dra­ma has to involve you emo­tion­al­ly, so that the laugh­ter that aris­es from the mess the char­ac­ters make of their lives is tinged with sad­ness and recognition.

Lena Dunham, Jemima Kirke, Zosia Mamet, Allison Williams.

Lena Dun­ham, Jemi­ma Kirke, Zosia Mamet, Alli­son Williams, those crazy Girls.

Of course you have to care about the char­ac­ters in your sit­com for the jokes to have their full effect. But that’s not the same thing as being moved by them.

What makes Trans­par­ent so pow­er­ful is the force­ful way that it engages you emo­tion­al­ly in the lives of its pro­tag­o­nists. So that by the time you get to the finale of sea­son one, you’re left an emo­tion­al wreck after the car­nage they wreak upon one anoth­er, in a way that only fam­i­lies can.

The genuinely great and now late Gary Shandling.

The gen­uine­ly great and now late Gar­ry Shandling.

The writ­ing, act­ing and pro­duc­tion are almost painful­ly spot on, and the series glides con­fi­dent­ly from the present day to the recent past and back again giv­ing the whole fam­i­ly por­trait an added poignancy.

If you were won­der­ing what to do with your evenings, now that you’ve got through sea­sons one and two of Girls, look no further.

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