All posts by Jesse

The Ten Best Weezer Songs of the Past Decade

Weezer is the Star Wars prequels of rock and roll: objects of loathing born from young love, recipients of vitriol presumed to be deserved and, beyond the affection of a few die hard nutcases, universal. This is hyperbolic, of course: a rock band “no one” likes can no more survive for decades than a movie series “everyone” hates can gross $300 million domestic every time out. But it’s inarguable that Weezer has, like the Star Wars prequels I so enjoy, disappointed a lot of people, and unlike Attack of the Clones, I would not give any of Weezer’s albums of the past decade three and a half stars out of four for the sheer enjoyability of the good stuff.

Also unlike Star Wars, which had three-year gaps (at least in terms of movies) for opinions to percolate (and, I think, sometimes nervously reverse themselves into scorn), Weezer has absorbed these negative reactions via not scarcity, but abundance. The band came back in 2001 after nearly five years of inactivity, and they haven’t been away for so long since. Though their 2005 nadir Make Believe was bookended by three-year breaks, they’ve also had major productivity spurts, most notably in the 2008-2010 period where they released three studio albums and one cast-off collection in less than four years.

Conventional wisdom says these records mostly just upped the ante on how bad Weezer could let down its dwindling fanbase, and true that none of these records or what I’d call “good,” though a few flirt with “pretty good” or “OK.” But as the band prepares to release its umpteenth for-real-this-time return to form, Everything Will Be Alright in the End (out tomorrow), it’s worth noting that the past decade of Weezer has not yielded nonstop dross. In fact, there are some pretty great Weezer songs adrift in the seas of mediocrity, waiting for attentive, non-angry listeners to rescue them. This is what I intend to do here. I’m limiting this to a list of the Ten Best Weezer Songs of the Past Decade and, as such, not including their post-comeback records, 2001’s Green Album or 2002’s Maladroit — because those albums are, as a whole, good. Not great like the first two, but good enough to listen to without much skipping – really, the best halves of Green and Maladroit could combine to form a record nearly as good as Blue or Pinkerton. And the songs that follow, well, they could probably form a record nearly as good as that one. Maybe some of the poptimism afforded derivative Top 40 songs might (in a Weezer-friendly rockist fashion) be applied to your old pals from ’94.
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The SportsAlcohol Podcast: Sunday Morning Quaterbacking Saturday Night Live

Many SportsAlcohol.com staffers and contributors are united in their hardcore Saturday Night Live fandom. The show, somewhat erratic even in its best years, has gone through some transitional pains over the last year or two, as beloved cast members have departed, new cast members have stepped in, and others have been let go. Season 40 began with yet more cast tinkering, especially around Weekend Update. Marisa, Jesse, Nathaniel, and Michael discussed the season premiere immediately after it aired, touching upon favorite cast members, the new guys, Chris Pratt’s hosting skills, Arianda Grande and the state of Saturday Night Live music booking in general, dream hosts for the upcoming season, and plenty more. We’ll be checking back in with Saturday Night Live periodically during the season, and offering plenty of more hot takes timed to its 40th anniversary season.

We are up to four different ways to listen to a SportsAlcohol podcast:
You can subscribe to our podcast using the rss feed.
We are also finally on iTunes!
You can download the mp3 of this episode directly here.
As always, if you are very lazy, like Kristen Wiig recurring character lazy, you can just listen in the player below.

Photo credit: Dana Edelson/NBC

TRACK MARKS: “The Queen’s Nose” by Slow Club

I have a weird relationship with good singing. My official stance is that it’s unnecessary. When American Idol became the biggest TV show in the country and a few of its winners or runners-up became big (or at least medium-sized) stars, I was confused: didn’t we all sort of agree around 1960 or so that technically impressive singing was, if not entirely outmoded, at least somewhat limiting? Obviously there were exceptions like Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston, but in the American Idol universe, there was mainly Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston, and this wasn’t the world of pop music that I recognized. Maybe it was because when I was growing up, I didn’t really know anyone who listened to Mariah or Whitney, beyond the occasional parent — and not even cool parents, parents who seemed sort of at a loss for how to respond to the question mark of new music made after 1975 or so.

So generally, yes: I pledge my allegiance to Bob Dylan and the wonderful range of voices who are allowed to sing rock-and-roll type songs. Trilling and melisma and whatever else fall far behind the idiosyncrasy of the voice, the smartness of the songwriting, the catchiness of the melody — almost anything but Broadway-style singing quality.

And yet: sometimes, when I’m not expecting it, big vocals really hit me. The marathon of key changes that close Beyonce’s “Love On Top,” for example, much more a technical feat than a songwriting one. Or take Slow Club’s “The Queen’s Nose,” a track off their recent record Complete Surrender. It has a lot going for it, but then, so do most Slow Club songs. The group’s core members, Rebecca Taylor and Charles Watson from Sheffield, UK, work together beautifully as a duo: they trade off songwriting and vocals, drifting apart for some tunes and snapping back together for others. But there’s something especially massive about “The Queen’s Nose” that I never could have expected from listening to the sweet strains of “When I Go,” the first song off their debut.

Maybe it’s that exact progression that makes it so thrilling: Slow Club started off as a strummy, excitable folk-pop act and each progressive album has moved further away from that while retaining their generally clean, earnest, often-rueful songwriting style. The song itself progresses, too. It starts with simple, slowdance-y guitar-playing and a plaintive if soulful vocal from Rebecca. Horns kick in, and the vocal gets a little louder, but it’s two minutes in before Rebecca is holler-singing with the horns swelling in the background, and the song keeps strategically dropping out instruments before sliding them back in. It’s halfway done before you realize it’s becoming a girl-group-style torcher, and the final build to Rebecca’s climactic, almost Broadway-level cry of “I can’t go on/living these songs,” with horns and guitar blasting behind her voice like fireworks, is an unlikely candidate for my favorite minute of music this year.

When the band performed “The Queen’s Nose” this week at the Bowery Ballroom in Manhattan, they didn’t have those glorious horns at their disposal. But they did have Rebecca Taylor, and she confirmed — all night but especially during this song — that she sometimes is, as Karen O sang, bigger than the sound. I don’t mean to discount Slow Club’s collective acumen as musicians (both Rebecca and Charles play multiple instruments). In fact, Taylor uses her voice as an instrument, and just like you don’t want your guitar constantly squalling with feedback or engaged in elaborate fingerpicking, you (by which I mean I) don’t want your big-voiced singers using every opportunity to vocalize with precision. On Complete Surrender, “The Queen’s Nose” is preceded by the aching balladry of “Number One” and the girl-group-at-the-disco title track. Live, it was followed by a rollicking “Our Most Brilliant Friends.” Everything made everything sound better.

Belle & Sebastian List: Outcasts Edition

Last week, we celebrated the art of Belle & Sebastian through a big list of their 25 best songs. Come Monday morning, we are celebrating the science (such as it is) of Belle & Sebastian list-making (and also some more art) with a quick post about the list’s outliers, quirks, and murky methodology. Apologies to songs as if they’re humans will abound.

THE PILE OF NEARLY-MADE-ITS

Two songs got muscled out of the Top 25 at more or less the last possible minute. With a final list submission that included a late-breaking surge of support for “Dress Up in You,” both “We Rule the School” and “You Don’t Send Me” got bounced off. We even had a blurb for “You Don’t Send Me” prepared by our panelist Jeff, which I will add as an honorary number 26 right now:

26. You Don’t Send Me

Dear Catastrophe Waitress, 2003
My kids like to play air horns to this song in the car. It’s pretty hilarious. – Jeff Prisco

As for “We Rule the School,” well, this Tigermilk track is the only track that Sara voted for that didn’t make it on the list (more on that in a moment). Sara has pledged her love for this song regardless of its inability to give her the perfect 15.
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The Top 25 Belle & Sebastian Songs List

It is not an anniversary or an occasion, at least not directly. None of Belle & Sebastian’s seminal albums turn a particularly interesting age in 2014, and though it sounds like their new record is pretty much complete, it doesn’t seem like it will see release before 2015. But as Stuart Murdoch’s first film God Help the Girl hits theaters over the next couple of months and the band branches out to other projects, as large bands often do, it seemed like as good a time as any to take stock of this Belle & Sebastian business. After less than two decades together, the group has put out seven albums, another three albums’ worth of singles and such, and given us a whole lot of hours of ways to feel happy and sad, sometimes at the same time. So happy 18th birthday, If You’re Feeling Sinister! Have a great 11th, Dear Catastrophe Waitress! Has it been four years already, Write about Love? Let’s get listing.
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God Help the Girl Brings Back the Musical

God Help the Girl, the new film by Belle and Sebastian mastermind and first-time writer-director Stuart Murdoch is, however improbably, the best movie musical I’ve seen in years.

And I’ve been seeing some musicals. It’s been more than a decade since the likes of Moulin Rouge! and Chicago made a concerted effort to bring back the genre that had been sleepy, borderline nonexistent, for much of the eighties and nineties. In that time, there have been several hits the genre: Les Miserables, Mamma Mia!, Hairspray, and Dreamgirls all made good money, which is probably why both Into the Woods and a new Annie get the big-screen treatment this Christmas (though their trailers still don’t seem comfortable with the notion of selling them in their actual genres).

Cinematically speaking, though, a lot of these movies are uninspired, at least in terms of reasons to get excited about the long-dormant genre. The big hits have all been adaptations of Broadway shows, mostly clumsy; Les Miserables came the closest to applying an actual audio-visual strategy to its material, and in the style of director Tom Hooper, it pretty much hit its marks (extended-take close-ups, recorded-live singing, CG sets for scope) over and over, wearing a rut in the floor.The better recent musicals have been outliers of sorts, whether due to the more musical-friendly medium of animation (Frozen, which has a song-heavy opening and the near-instantly iconic “Let It Go,” but relatively few songs in its second half) and family entertainment (the excellent revival of the Muppets series, with its witty, catchy Bret McKenzie songs), a focus on dance performance rather than songs (the Step Up series), or a choice to stay on the non-integrated style of in-movie performance whenever possible (the masterful kinda-musical Inside Llewyn Davis; the less masterful but HBO-friendly Pitch Perfect).
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TRACK MARKS: “I’ll Have to Dance with Cassie” by God Help the Girl

God Help the Girl is not quite Belle and Sebastian, not least because it’s not quite an actual band. It resides in the more nebulous region of “project” and qualifies for any number of typical project modifiers — side, pet, dream, or all of the above. It shares with Belle a chief stakeholder in the person of one Mr. Stuart Murdoch, primary (though not only) singer and songwriter in the band and more benevolent Svengali (is that a thing?) of Girl/Girl/”Girl.” The first publicly available incarnation was an album released in 2009, featuring songs written or (in the case of a few that first appeared on the 2006 Belle and Sebastian album The Life Pursuit) reproduced for female vocalists of the girl-group style, which would become an even more prevalent indie-rock flashpoint over the next couple of years. Murdoch made no secret of his ambition that this album eventually become the soundtrack to a musical film, and after several more EPs and singles and another Belle and Sebastian record and some touring and Kickstarting, lo, the film itself did appear, one of those things that seems as if by magic to viewers, and probably seemed more like an arduous, shoestring-budgeted undertaking to those who actually worked on it.

In some ways, the songs of God Help the Girl are a lot like Belle and Sebastian: wistful, retro, witty, melodic. But switching from the occasional third-person female point of view (sung by Stuart) or the implied first-person female point of view (sung by others in the band, and/or Carey Mulligan) to mostly female narration does change the alchemy of the band (much of B&S did play on the original 2009 album) in interesting ways. The most immediate of the God Help the Girl songs is probably “I’ll Have to Dance with Cassie,” which told a clear story long before the sequence was filmed for one of the best moments of God Help the Girl: The Feature Motion Picture. The narrator wants to dance, and the various boys around her and her friend Cassie aren’t up to the task. It makes sense that Murdoch wrote this in 2009, as Belle and Sebastian continued to get peppier and dancier. “Cassie” combines their newfound verve with the character-driven point of view Murdoch perfected early in their career; it’s an even more compatible combination of the two aesthetics than recent-ish up-tempo numbers like “Sukie in the Graveyard,” maybe because the first-person female narration brings us closer to the action than Murdoch’s empathetic but slightly more distanced portrait of Sukie, or maybe because it expresses such a heedless sentiment in such a wry, Belle and Sebastian-y way.

Though the God Help the Girl soundtrack album that accompanies the film features many of the same tracks as the original 2009 record, the songs, including “I’ll Have to Dance with Cassie,” got makeovers for the occasion, re-sung by the movie’s stars (in this case, Emily Browning — backed by some of the original band’s singers). There’s something more electric about the soundtrack version, and that goes double for seeing it in the movie itself: like the film’s other numbers, the scene looks handmade while mainlining the bold joyfulness of classic movie musicals. Emily Browning and Hannah Murray (Cassie here, Cassie on Skins, Cassie forever) and Murdoch (directing them) all bring the song, the whole Belle and Sebastian thing, to vibrant life. The original version is good, but the movie, like the best musicals, further elevates its songs. It’s the original 2009 version in the YouTube audio below; the musical number as it appears in the film is actually on YouTube somewhere, but it’s in a squished aspect ratio and suboptimal audio mix and anyway, you should see it in the context of the movie for maximum delight.

TRACK MARKS: “Love U Forever” by Jenny Lewis

I get impatient with songs about how things are going great. So many sad, ambivalent, or complex songs already use upbeat melodies or a fast pace to make themselves sound more rousing than they would be based only on lyrical content that so many fully upbeat songs — like, say, Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle,” if one wanted to continue picking on a catchy and harmless decade-only song that one might still kind of loathe — sound like empty overkill. It takes a deceptive amount of skill to write a song about something happy that doesn’t sound kind of insufferable or empty-headed. That goes double if the happy thing is something beyond the heedless rush of love or triumph that informs say, early Beatles songs, or Japandroids. That goes triple, at least sometimes, if an artist used to sing about heavy-duty angst, then got happier as he or she aged, and wants us all to know how serene, centered, and balanced his or her life is now.

Jenny Lewis used to sing about heavy-duty angst, with Rilo Kiley and on her solo records. She still does, on her latest and possibly greatest record, The Voyager. But her songs have taken on a rueful, sometimes slightly detached quality that in no way diminishes their storytelling emotional pull. She also manages to let some light in, both musically and, on “Love U Forever,” lyrically.

“Love U Forever” is a song about being in love. Even the title is spelled out something like a yearbook inscription. In the verses of the song, Lewis sings about stuff that might sound, if not inane, perhaps not material rich in poetic potential: easily identifiable, relatable stuff like getting together with her girlfriends, drinking burgundy wine, getting “a little high” and reminiscing.

Beyond a bouncy intro guitar riff that promises impending rollicking, what makes this song work so surprisingly well are the nuances J-Lew brings to her narrator’s happiness. At the end of her list of things to do, she keeps adding: “I can’t believe I’m getting married in May” — and we might assume her disbelief is wistful, but it’s hard to say for sure. Then, in the chorus: “I could love you forever.” The key word here is could. This is in no way a break-up song; it’s not (as far as I can tell) about the narrator realizing she’s about to make a huge mistake or leaving her intended at the altar, or wanting to change him just a little bit. She gives no directives for how “could” might become “will.” But there is a sweet tentativeness in turning her love hypothetical. The narrator is engaged to be married, and she’s still saying: this could be it. The final verse adds even more ambiguity, observing: “But there are some things money cannot say, like the feeling of hell in a hallway.” So many love songs sound like fantasy; “Love U Forever” sounds like the act of fantasizing.

If it sounds like I’m saying this upbeat love song is great because it’s secretly not all that upbeat, well, I might be kinda-sorta saying that. I’m also saying, though, that this upbeat love song is great because it finds notes and subtleties beyond YES! and YAY! It’s not vital that Lewis express doubt or ambiguity so much as it is that she make this experience sound more specific than just a rush of excitement over seeing old friends and talking about a wedding. It reminds me of Liz Phair’s “What Makes You Happy,” which also approaches being in love from such a specific angle, with such a clear authorial voice, that it makes some old sentiments seem brand new. That’s what listening to Lewis is like these days: hearing an old, familiar friend rephrase and reposition herself as she continues to grow up.

Robin Williams Is My Favorite Actor in 1992

Robin Williams is my favorite actor. It is 1992.

Before this, my favorite actor is Rick Moranis. Before that, Christopher Lloyd. How I determine my favorite actor is: I count up the number of my favorite movies that he appears in. A metric perfect in its simplicity and utter ineptitude.

But by this metric, Robin Williams is doing something right, having starred in The Fisher King and then Hook, which I cannot yet find any fault with except possibly the Lost Boys who remind me of Ninja Turtles, and then doing the voice of the Genie in Aladdin, which is even better than when he does the voice of the bat in FernGully: The Last Rainforest.

But Robin Williams is not winning a number game. I’ve only just become aware of him — at least compared to Christopher Lloyd, who I have been aware of since at least 1988.
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How to Buy an Album in 2014

If you’ll permit me the briefest interlude of conservatism: it used to be so much easier.

Buying new album releases, I mean. Which isn’t just a regressive statement; it’s a totally counterintuitive one. I could literally buy or, for that matter, listen to for free, almost any album that I would personally have any interest in owning or hearing (this probably isn’t true for a small population of music obsessives, and may not even be one hundred percent true for me, but I can’t think of any true rarities that I’m jonesing to hear and definitely cannot). But certain aspects of buying albums pre-internet that had a certain clarity.

First: the idea that one would buy any album at all, let alone new album releases the day they come out. If you are a person under forty, you almost certainly read the above sentences and either (a.) thought, who even buys albums anymore; (b.) thought, I can’t remember the last time I bought an album; or (c.) are not wholly uninterested in buying albums but can picture someone you know who would read those same sentences and say (a.) or (b.).

A few words about (a.) and (b.): I’m sorry, but generally those are annoying things to say or think, unless you have truly maintained minimal interest in music for your entire life, in which case, hey, I get it, I don’t care about video games. But rolling your eyes at buying albums does not automatically make you au courant. Or if it does, you could be more au courant by having opinions about music itself, not how it is consumed or made.
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