All posts by Jeremy Beck

Track Marks 2020: “No Body, No Crime” by Taylor Swift

Track Marks is a recurring SportsAlcohol.com feature that invites writers to briefly discuss a song that is meaningful to them in any way. Though they can appear on the site at any time, we always run a bunch of them in December and/or January and/or February, looking back at the year in music.

For poptimists of a certain basic sensibility—not that I have anyone in mind—the prospect of Taylor Swift collaborating with Haim was tantalizing. (When I learned the news about Swift’s surprise December album, I was more excited than I’d been for any new music since… well, since Swift released her first quarantine record less than four months earlier. 2020 was an undeniably terrible year, but it had its first-world silver linings.) But “no body, no crime,” the sixth track off of Swift’s evermore, doesn’t just feature Haim as musicians; it features Haim as characters. It’s a murder ballad, starring Este Haim as the scorned woman who confronts her unfaithful husband, who then promptly kills her.

Sorry, did I spoil the ending? Not really, though I can understand the complaint. With its potboiler tone and its canny details—weekly dinners at Olive Garden, fateful life insurance policies—“no body, no crime” is decidedly cinematic, a 1940s noir by way of the Coen Brothers. In just three-and-a-half minutes, Swift tells a three-act story that opens with infidelity, progresses to homicide, and concludes with righteous vengeance. The plot traffics in hairpin twists and grisly violence: First, Este confides her suspicions about her husband (“that ain’t my Merlot on his mouth”) before accusing him of adultery, at which point she suddenly disappears; then Swift, ever the loyal friend, responds by killing the killer, framing his mistress for good measure. (Her alibi comes courtesy of Este’s sister, Danielle Haim, who casually lies to the police: “She was with me, dude.”) The lyrics are so clean and sharp, they compel you to imagine the sordid scenes unfolding in your mind, Swift effortlessly conjuring a squalid world of cheap jewelry, incriminating tire tracks, and corpse-carrying speedboats.
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TRACK MARKS 2020: “Stain” by Soccer Mommy

Track Marks is a recurring SportsAlcohol.com feature that invites writers to briefly discuss a song that is meaningful to them in any way. Though they can appear on the site at any time, we always run a bunch of them in December and/or January and/or February, looking back at the year in music.

It’s barely even a riff. Just four notes, two of them repeated—dun-dun da-doom. And with those quick plucks of her guitar strings, Sophie Allison suddenly drains her typically whimsical songwriting of all color and hope. The penultimate track on Color Theory, Allison’s second album as Soccer Mommy, “stain” is a stark departure; there are no gentle choruses or hummable bridges. But there isn’t angst or despair either; though she’s examining the dying embers of a failed relationship, Allison is too lucid to lapse into self-pity. Instead, the primary sensation of “stain” is absence. It feels like a void, like a sonic representation of the lack of connection. No wonder it hit me so hard in 2020.

Still, for its opening minute, it can fool you; catch it askance, and you’re liable to misinterpret the repetitive guitar and the sighing vocals as the setup for a sweet and vivid love song. After all, while Allison’s music packs a punch, it can also be soothing. (In my favorite track off her prior record, she softly marries the intimate with the interstellar: “I’m just a victim of changing planets / My Scorpio rising and my parents.”) And in the initial moments of “stain”, her metaphors hint at the possibility of true romance, as a former lover insists that they were “pulled off the refrigerator and magnetized at heart”. But then: dun-dun da-doom. The riff that isn’t a riff arrives, and from there, the song becomes an autopsy, a quietly volcanic reconstruction of a moribund partnership. Allison’s lyrics are characteristically evocative—her ex’s words were “like chloroform”, and they’ve befouled her “like the sheets at my parents’ house”—but what’s truly disturbing about the song is that there’s no escape from it. That riff just keeps repeating, like an eerily melodic terminator; it never subsides, but it also never builds to anything, because that would imply progress. Yet there’s no catharsis here, no sense of long-sought closure or even righteous anger. And after three unrelenting minutes, Allison doesn’t fade out the track so much as extinguish it, comparing herself to a burden-out match.

Just before delivering that beautifully terrible image, Allison recognizes that this ugly union has inflicted permanent damage: “I’m always stained, and it’s never coming out.” She sounds ruefully self-aware but not despondent, and I’m weirdly jealous of her composure. Perhaps she’s used her music as an exorcism of sorts, virtually transferring her pain to the listener. And so, while “stain” is magnificent, it should probably come with a warning attached. Once this song scratches its way into your soul, it’s never coming out.

The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: Robert Zemeckis

Following up our recent career view of Sofia Coppola, the SportsAlcohol.com team turns their attention to a very different filmmaker, in celebration (?!) of the recent release (!?) of the new Robert Zemeckis version of The Witches. Experiencing this disappointment gave us an excuse to convene Marisa, Nathaniel, Jesse, and Jeremy, and talk about the ups and downs of this Spielberg protege, master craftsman, and low-key weirdo. It’s a long one, but we fulfill our usual goal of at least touching upon every feature film this director has made! Do you stump for Death Becomes Her? Hate Forrest Gump? Wonder what the hell was up with Welcome to Marwen? Have nightmares about The Polar Express? They’re all here!

We are now up to SEVEN (7) different ways to listen to a SportsAlcohol podcast:

The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: Sofia Coppola

Sofia Coppola’s new movie On the Rocks dropped on Apple TV (and a few theaters, apparently), and with a worldwide pandemic still raging, it felt like a good time to stay in and rewatch her other six movies and talk about her 20-year career so far. So that’s just what Marisa, Sara, Jesse, and Jeremy did in a comprehensive conversation, appreciation, and career overview. The gang’s all here: Bill Murray! Kirsten Dunst! Guilded cages! The birth of Josh Hartnett’s dirtbag cool! Amazing soundtrack cues! Anachronisms! The Godfather Part III! A short-lived MTV series! And more! If you love the current Best Coppola’s work as much as we do, you won’t want to miss this one.

We are now up to SEVEN (7) different ways to listen to a SportsAlcohol podcast:

The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: Best Movies of 2020

Usually around this time of year, we do a seasonal episode about the various indie movies of the summer, and then an episode in January about the best movies of the preceding year. But honestly, who the hell knows what the rest of 2020 has in store for us? So this year we’ve decided to just call it off and talk about some of the best movies of 2020 right now, in August. Would Tenet or The New Mutants have made our informal list? Who knows?! And who cares?! We had more than enough good movies to fill a supersized episode anyway, all of which you can currently watch at home without getting covid! Join Marisa, Sara, Nathaniel, Jeremy, and Jesse as we console ourselves with cinema!

We are now up to SEVEN (7) different ways to listen to a SportsAlcohol podcast:

TRACK MARKS 2019: “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince” by Taylor Swift

Track Marks is a recurring SportsAlcohol.com feature that invites writers to briefly discuss a song that is meaningful to them in any way. As usual, we’re closing out the year by talking about a bunch of songs that we loved over the past 12 months.

Given that she’s one of the biggest pop stars in the world, it should be difficult for Taylor Swift to don the cloak of the underdog. But among her many gifts as a songwriter is a knack for immersion, the way she can use a sharp hook or a snappy phrase to instantly pull you into her filigreed worlds. Lover is a massive album (18 tracks!) that was massively successful (double platinum!), but when “Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince” kicks off, Swift is just another shattered teenage girl again; she effortlessly conjures a familiar high-school dystopia, the modest drums combining with her slightly breathy vocals to yank you back to a time of adolescent heartache. The lyrics are characteristically simple but evocative: She’s ripped up her prom dress, she’s running through rose thorns, she’s fending off whispers from judgmental classmates about how she’s a bad, bad girl. It’s The Scarlet Letter by way of Mean Girls.

Of course, “Miss Americana” is more than just another of Swift’s teen-centric fairy tales, like “White Horse” or “Love Story”; it’s also a cri de coeur in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. “Boys will be boys, then where are the wise men?” she asks rhetorically while staring helplessly at “American glory faded before me,” and her despair is palpable. There’s even a whiff of gerrymandering/voter suppression (“The whole school is rolling fake dice”), but mostly she’s just left helpless and depressed, learning of the election results (via a football scoreboard, naturally) and then running for her life. When the bad guys are exchanging high fives, all that’s left to do is paint the town blue.

Here’s the thing, though: None of that political metaphor is essential to appreciating “Miss Americana” as a kickass song, a finely constructed ballad that builds to a soaring conclusion. Swift is such a phenom, it’s easy to overlook just how skilled she is, how she approaches her work with sincerity and craft. It’s there in the spondaic shouts of “OH-KAY!” that punctuate several lines, and in the light piano that pops up in the chorus, meshing with the throbbing synths. My favorite part of the song is the bridge, where backup singers shout the last word of each line: “And I don’t want you to GO! / I don’t really wanna FIGHT! / ‘Cause nobody’s gonna WIN!” That sounds like surrender, but listen closer; after three crushing repetitions, Swift suddenly inverts the lyrics, promising that she’ll never go, that she’s staying to fight, that she’s determined to win. It’s a lightning-quick flip—from compliance to defiance, from desolation to resolution—and it turns this once-despondent ditty into a roaring battle cry. So sure, maybe it’s tough to accept Taylor Swift as the underdog, but only because—as this intricate, ecstatic song proves—she doesn’t know how to lose.

TRACK MARKS 2019: “Cheerleader” by Sir Babygirl

Track Marks is a recurring SportsAlcohol.com feature that invites writers to briefly discuss a song that is meaningful to them in any way. As usual, we’re closing out the year by talking about a bunch of songs that we loved over the past 12 months.

Everyone hates cheerleaders. They’re the popular crowd, the mean girls, the queen bees who date the star quarterback and occupy the prime real estate in the cafeteria. If you’ve ever felt remotely marginalized or uncool, you’ve probably wished them harm or misfortune at some point, if only idly. Of course, this conception of pom-pom-wielders as bimbos, tramps, or both is an ugly and outdated stereotype. But on the power-pop anthem “Cheerleader,” rising artist Kelsie Hogue (aka Sir Babygirl) nevertheless gives voice to those dark and disgruntled thoughts, confessing to scribbling graffiti in the bathroom stall about how “everybody wants to watch the cheerleader fall.” She’s on the outside looking in, and when she asks for your complicity—”I’ll kill my reputation if you promise not to tell / I’ll kill my reputation if you come with me to hell”—it’s as though she’s concocting some sort of dastardly scheme, grist for a made-for-TV movie.

But is Hogue devious, or just envious? As “Cheerleader” progresses, its light notes of electronica gathering a propulsive energy with a heavy bass and thumping drums, it turns into a kind of empowerment ballad, and not just about the extra in the background who inadvertently drops the prom queen. As Hogue imagines climbing to the top of the pyramid—wearing a skirt so tight it makes her bleed, and festooned with friendship bracelets that double as handcuffs—the song transforms from an angsty lament of isolation into a glorious fantasy of belonging. Hogue doesn’t want to kill the cheerleader, she wants to be the cheerleader; the bridge is a plea for your support, exhorting you in a howling crescendo to “Come on, cheer me on.” It’s so noisy and catchy, it’s easy to miss the intricacy of the mix: the snap of the snare, the snaking guitar line, the way the precisely timed rat-a-tat barks of “C’mon-c’mon-c’mon” sit alongside the classic chant, “Be aggressive, B-E aggressive!” (Yo Grimes, you hearing this?) It’s simultaneously shameless and triumphant, and as Hogue’s immaculate shrieks grow higher and higher, you have no choice but to join her cause. After all, everyone loves cheerleaders.

Grammy Week Track Marks: “The Stove and the Toaster” by the Hold Steady

The Grammys are happening this Sunday, and in celebration (?!), a few SportsAlcohol.com folks will be offering up some words about some of our favorite songs of 2018.

Music purists of a certain age and disposition are currently frustrated with The Hold Steady, given that they’ve spent the past five years dribbling out a couple of songs at a time rather than holing up in the studio and releasing, you know, an album. But as desperate as I am to finally unwrap the band’s seventh LP and see what Holly and Charlemagne are up to, I can’t be too mad at The Hold Steady, not when they’re releasing songs as spectacular as “The Stove and the Toaster,” another of Craig Finn’s propulsive adventures in sleazy criminality. At just three-and-a-half minutes, it’s a remarkably dense song, packing in the usual torrent of verbiage and somehow still finding room for an epic guitar solo. Finn’s lyrics are as sharp and flavorful as ever, but it’s important not to overlook the band’s musical flourishes, like the sudden squalls of piano, or the horns that punctuate each line of the chorus, a sort of subliminal reminder that declares, “Hey folks, we aren’t just talk-singing poets; we’re a goddamn rock band.”

But Finn’s storytelling will always be the heart of The Hold Steady, the way he weaves tales of extraordinary specificity—geographic, personal, architectural—and spins them into music. “The Stove and the Toaster” is so teeming with detail and suspense, it could practically double as an episode of Breaking Bad, and not just because of the southwestern locations. The premise is simple: Finn wants to rip off some drug dealers, and his girlfriend has inside info that will allow them to pull off the perfect heist. (In some characteristically piquant Hold Steady minutiae, the stash is in the stove, the cash is in the toaster.) The problem is that they’re in over their heads; their marks are “earpiece dudes in a fortified fortress / A wholesale crew that does pretty big business.” This makes their fates a foregone conclusion—“We came to the kitchen and we knew it was over / I didn’t see any stove, no sign of the toaster”—but it also makes their recklessness oddly tragic. Finn just wanted to show his girl a good time, but he never stood a chance. Only a songwriting pro could conjure such a clueless amateur.

Grammy Week Track Marks: “Mistake” by Middle Kids

The Grammys are happening this Sunday, and in celebration (?!), a few SportsAlcohol.com folks will be offering up some words about some of our favorite songs of 2018.

As lousy as 2018 may have been for America, it was quite the year for Australia, or at least for Australian three-pieces. Not only did Camp Cope deliver a blistering sophomore album, but the little-known outfit Middle Kids arrived onto the scene with Lost Friends, a ferociously catchy debut full of taut, intricately composed bangers. There’s nothing especially revolutionary about this trio’s music; they write straightforward songs that bounce from verses to choruses and back. But art doesn’t need to be original to be great, and “Mistake,” the record’s second single, weaponizes your familiarity against you. You think you’ve heard it before, and all of a sudden you’re tapping your foot, banging your head, and belting out its refrain at the top of your lungs.

Naturally, the pet trick of lead singer Hannah Joy is an oldie but a goodie: She loves to draw out single syllables for seconds at a time, right from the “Ooooh darling” that opens the song. Joy’s lyrics aren’t fancy—she repeatedly rhymes “back” with “back”—but they’re evocative, efficiently revealing a woman crippled by confusion regret (“Thought I was healthy but I’m choking / It must be catching up, my smoking”); she also drops in some sly bits of Swiftian pronoun-switching. But the sound is the key here, the way the drums and guitars seem perfectly unified, propelling Joy forward as she pushes toward each electric chorus. The band knows exactly when to crescendo and when to downshift, resulting in a song that snakes and curls before finally erupting with euphoria. It’s perfectly constructed, yet it doesn’t feel engineered or excessively polished. It’s a hell of a thing: Musicians have been banging on drums and strumming on guitars for decades, and without altering any of that basic technique, Middle Kids have somehow produced something fresh and exciting. Maybe it’s telling that the word “mistake” never actually appears in “Mistake”. On multiple levels, it’s nowhere to be found.