All posts by Sara


Sara is big into reading and writing fiction like it's her job, because it is. That doesn't mean she isn't real as it gets. She loves real stuff like polka dots, indie rock, and underground fight clubs. I may have made some of that up. I don't know her that well. You can tell she didn't just write this in the third person because if she had written it there would have been less suspect sentence construction.

TRACK MARKS BEST OF 2014: “Lights Out” by Angel Olsen

This week, writers are recounting the best music of 2014. Today’s Track Marks focus on individual songs from albums that didn’t make our collective top five, but did appear on our individual best-album ballots.

It took me awhile to get into Angel Olsen’s fantastic 2014 record Burn Your Fire For No Witness. This seems to be a pattern with me as I was late in discovering Waxahatchee last year, an artist who shares some surface DNA with Olsen. Both are lone females with shuddery but commanding voices and country-tinged compositions that seem to issue directly from the parts of the American South that rarely get visitors. To me, though, Olsen feels like the more risky, eccentric artist. Even after multiple listens to the album it’s impossible to predict from moment to moment what side of herself she’ll reveal next: brash and boot stomping, sinister and threatening, achy and longing. She could as easily back a bar fight as a slow dance.

“Lights Out” finds her in torch singer mode. It hits at the mid-point of the album and at first seems like something of a comedown before she’ll rev up again in the back half. It starts with a simple guitar line and drum beat, Olsen warbling to an indecisive lover, “If you don’t feel good about it then turn around. If you really mean it baby then stand your ground.” There’s resignation in her voice but also a whiff of impatience. Olsen has spent much of the record grappling with loneliness but she also knows indifference is no substitute for love. The song builds with each verse, adding texture and volume until it bursts open in a moment of fist pumping conviction: “No one’s gonna see your life through, there’s no way.” If Olsen’s voice sometimes sounds like a candle on the verge of going out, this is her as the fire about to consume the house. The torch she’s carrying turns out to be for herself.

TRACK MARKS BEST OF 2014: “Your Love Is Killing Me” by Sharon Van Etten

This week, writers are recounting the best music of 2014. Today’s Track Marks focus on individual songs from albums that didn’t make our collective top five, but did appear on our individual best-album ballots.

Sharon Van Etten may very well have amassed as many break up songs as Taylor Swift in her limited but uniformly excellent discography so far. The difference is when Van Etten sings about her pain, I believe her. Nowhere is that more evident than in this single from her 2014 album Are We There. It has a soft, dirge-y start, an organ grinding over a steady, ghostly beat. Van Etten has the sort of chameleon-like voice that can be both threadbare and galvanizing at any given moment and when she begins singing the lyrics here she’s barely above a whisper. That changes abruptly with the bridge, where the song’s title becomes more than just metaphor.

“Break my legs so I won’t walk to you,” she howls, her voice forceful but never strident. “Cut my tongue so I can’t talk to you.” This is not just a song depicting an abusive relationship but a song about the seductions of such intense bonds. It’s the harm we allow others to do to us but also the harm we do to ourselves, sometimes even the harm we need to do to ourselves. It’s a sledgehammer of a song and while its subject matter can make it a difficult listen, it’s also stunningly beautiful for the contradictions it inhabits: the strength in Van Etten’s voice against the vulnerability of her lyrics, a declaration of self living beside the destruction of it. The part of us that knows better and the part that doesn’t care. This is the state Van Etten’s music often finds her in and I’m happy to meet her there.

TRACK MARKS BEST OF 2014: “Seasons (Waiting on You)” by Future Islands

This week, writers are recounting the best music of 2014. Today’s Track Marks focus on individual songs from albums that didn’t make our collective top five, but did appear on our individual best-album ballots.

While I had heard and greatly enjoyed Future Islands’ previous album On the Water, I didn’t truly sit up and pay attention to the band until their appearance on Letterman in March. In the widely shared clip, frontman Samuel T. Herring became instantly notorious for his Gumby-esque dance moves and cloth-rending sincerity. The man seemed both on the verge of emotionally breaking down and physically breaking out of his body. It’s a fiercely physical performance punctuated by a voice both tender and guttural. All while wearing what might be the most Dad-core outfit to ever grace the Late Show stage.

It doesn’t hurt that the song they were performing was a pretty great one. As a fan of Joy Division, New Order, and its ilk, I’m predisposed to like Future Islands’ sound, which borrows from the ’80s new wave while never becoming derivative. Like Ian Curtis before him, Herring has a very distinctive voice. When singing slower tempo numbers, he can almost sound like an impish Vincent Price but when he’s soaring over choruses as he does on “Seasons (Waiting on You)” he takes on an unhinged beauty that cuts through the swirling synths of the music, giving what could be a standard dance tune an unexpected depth and urgency. The lyrics themselves are about letting go. “Seasons change, but I’ve grown tired trying to change for you,” Herring sings. But regret also lingers for what we leave behind and what we cannot be: “The summer will wake… but the winter will crave what has all gone away.” Such metaphors flirt with patness, but when the music hits that right mix of joyful and wistful you’ll be too swept up to care.

TRACK MARKS BEST OF 2014: “Blue Moon” by Beck

This week, writers are recounting the best music of 2014. Today’s Track Marks focus on individual songs from albums that didn’t make our collective top five, but did appear on our individual best-album ballots.

I know I’m in the minority on this but I like Beck most when he’s mopey. Sea Change was a very meaningful record to me in high school; to paraphrase Rob from High Fidelity, it takes a very particular kind of person to think they’ll be alone for the rest of their life at twenty-five, so it must take an extraordinarily neurotic one to worry about that at sixteen. But for whatever reason, I felt less lonely when I listened to “The Golden Age.” I suspect it has something to do with the fact that Beck, for all the gimmicky (and wonderful!) singles he released in the nineties, has a warm and inviting voice when he’s crooning. Morning Phase, his 2014 record, is full of that sound, and no song on that record more so than “Blue Moon.”

The song feels in many ways like a continuation of “The Golden Age.” They share a similar rhythm, which lacks the urgency of his more aggressive singles but is buoyed by a dreamy tempo that’s perfect for driving at night with the top down. “Blue Moon” has more playful instrumentation, with the main theme provided by a plinking charango and a swell of soulful “ooh-ooh’s” carrying along the chorus. I could listen to the jumpy clavinet progression near the end for hours. It’s so lush and swoony that you’d be forgiven for ignoring the lyrics, which invert the Rodgers and Hart classic of the same name from a singer finding solace in the skies above into a naked plea to the people who surround him. “Don’t leave me on my own,” Beck entreats, and by the time the song is over we’re sorry to go. While the rest of the album plays in a pleasant earthy register it’s with this song that it truly hits the stratosphere.

Listening to Llewyn, Riggan, and Philip: Three Portraits of the Artist as an Asshole

Unlikeable protagonists have been having something of a Renaissance as of late (so much so that some of us at Sports Alcohol have gone so far as to wonder if we aren’t unlikeable protagonists ourselves). They can be found anywhere, of course, but many films tend to show them thriving (or at least getting by) in the art world. This makes sense, as it’s a place uniquely suited to the working out of personal demons in a public arena – and film is a format uniquely suited to displaying that struggle in immediate and imaginative ways. Three recent films, Inside Llewyn Davis, Birdman, and Listen Up Philip, have done just that, grappling with the great divide that often opens between creators and their creations, particularly once said creations are out in the world for others to consume. Though their chosen mediums vary, from music to theatre to fiction, one thing unites the three artists portrayed in these films: they are total bastards.
Continue reading Listening to Llewyn, Riggan, and Philip: Three Portraits of the Artist as an Asshole

TRACK MARKS: “Psycho Killer” by Talking Heads

A smattering of applause that builds then subsides for a lone voice to say, “Hi. I’ve got a tape I want to play.” This is the beginning of the Talking Heads’ legendary live album Stop Making Sense which was released in the US thirty years ago this week. The theatrical version, culled from three shows in support of their album Speaking in Tongues and filmed by Jonathan Demme, is one of the greatest concert films ever made, capturing a band at the height of their creative powers, playing with an inviting energy that few films like it have been able to match. Repertory screenings still end with people dancing in the aisles and you don’t hear about that happening with The Last Waltz (all apologies to Rick Danko enthusiasts). One of the most delightfully subversive bands of the new wave movement, Talking Heads’ greatest trick might have been opening with a version of one of their biggest hits that withholds many of the elements that made it a radio staple, and a classic scary song.

On the single of “Psycho Killer” the menace is overt — opening with an ominous bass line that sounds like hurried footsteps down a dark alley, joined by a matching drumbeat stalking after it, building to a brain-rattling guitar line threatening to overtake it. By the time David Byrne begins singing about being tense and nervous it’s almost superfluous. Talking Heads has always had an interest in the disconnect between mind and body, a divide embodied in their music which juxtaposes anxious lyrics with deceptively funky compositions. But this is the band’s most clear missive from a deranged psyche. The opening lyrics present a warning to “run away” but the French bridge, which translates roughly to “What I did that evening/What she said that evening,” suggest a man who’s already indulged his monstrous tendencies. And this isn’t even the band’s most disturbing song. (I’d give that distinction to “Memories Can’t Wait” which sounds like the agonizing approach of a leveling storm cloud, or “Born Under Punches” with its squawking instruments and eerie, desperate lyrics [Take a look at these hands!]).

The live version of “Psycho Killer” eschews recreating the bristling intensity of the single, opting instead for a stripped down intimacy that has its own electric charge. Byrne is the only performer onstage, his guitar backed by a pre-recorded Roland TR-808 drum machine played on a boom box. Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz, and Jerry Harrison will all join later, each one appearing with each successive song. But for the moment it’s just Byrne and the audience, and his solo rendition takes on a confessional tone, an admission of his dominance of the band that would later bring the other members to blows. Many years later, following the band’s acrimonious breakup, Weymouth characterized Byrne as “a man incapable of returning friendship,” and you can hear in his post-chorus yelps a straining to connect. He does, of course; the band would not be one of the most influential of their era if he didn’t. There is something magnetic in a performer willing to delve into the darkest parts of humanity and come out the other side to tell of the nightmare. When it’s a nightmare you can dance to, you have a masterpiece.

TRACK MARKS: “Can’t Hardly Wait” by the Replacements

The first time I heard The Replacements I was not cool. It was 1999 and I was a shy, lonely twelve year old who had just rented Can’t Hardly Wait on VHS to watch at her grandmother’s house in Michigan. The movie itself was fun but forgettable and, I realized once I’d actually started high school, completely divorced from any of my own experiences. But I’ll always remember the second that opening chord progression hit over the closing credits, warm and inviting as a friend’s arm slung over your shoulder, the drums kicking in soon after, as the images of fake good times and memories scrolled by.

It’s a fairly straightforward song and, given its general upbeatness including the use of some funky horns, a bit of an anomaly in the Replacements catalog, something I learned the hard way after checking out Tim from the library not long after seeing the movie. Young me was unprepared for the more raucous, caustic side of the band but tastes change as we grow older and by the time I was in college I had discovered the pleasures of Let It Be and Pleased to Meet Me, on which “Can’t Hardly Wait” appears. As far as instant nostalgia goes, its Pavlovian effect is unparalleled for me. It’s about another time, sure – nobody has to worry about writing a letter tomorrow or borrowing a stamp when there’s text messaging. But it’s much more than that and it’s all in the title, which also provides the only lyrics to the chorus. “Can’t wait” is tossed-off excitement but “Can’t hardly wait”? That’s pure teenage ecstasy.

This Friday I will be seeing The Replacements in concert for the first time. I’m still not that cool and the show will likely not live up to whatever idea I have of the band from the old records I’ve listened to and loved. They’re not what they were, any more than I am what I used to be. But even so I can’t, well, you know the rest.

The Replacements play Forest Hills Stadium in Queens on Friday. Young old people and old young people will be there.

The Best of You, the Worst of You: The Year of the Doppelganger in Film

NOTE: Spoilers abound.

2014 is a little more than half over and already several cinematic trends have surfaced: the continued dominance of superheroes at the box office; Scarlett Johansson’s uncontested reign of hotness; the continuing Michael Bay pillaging of Saturday mornings of yesteryear. But most intriguing might be the mini-boom of doppelganger movies that have appeared, dare I say it, like unexplained copies of one another in the past few months: Enemy, from Prisoners director Denis Villeneuve; The Double, from ex-IT Crowd star and budding auteur Richard Ayoade; and The One I Love, from first-time filmmaker Charlie McDowell. Each of these three films uses the concept as a jumping off point to tell a unique story. But why the sudden interest in stories about unexplained doubles? What does it say about the anxieties of identity in the new millennium — the way we see ourselves? A deeper examination of each entry in this year of doppelganger in film might provide some answers.

Continue reading The Best of You, the Worst of You: The Year of the Doppelganger in Film

TRACK MARKS: “Mississippi Goddam” by Nina Simone

Song of the Week is a feature where SportsAlcohol editors, staffers, friends, and other assorted experts write a bit about a particular song that they love or hate or respect. Sara kicks this feature off with a song to cap off the real bad August our country has just experienced.

“The name of this tune is ‘Mississippi Goddam’,” Nina Simone says at the start. “And I mean every word of it.” It’s a sentiment that must have startled the largely white crowds who came to see her perform in 1964. The previous year had seen the murder of Medgar Evers and the deaths of four girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Race relations across the country were roiling and many feared a long road ahead for both sides of the divide. Simone, though, was never afraid to be confrontational, even explosive, with her listeners and the live recordings of “Mississippi Goddam” have a righteous urgency, punctuated by uncomfortable audience laughter, that is still impossible to brush off even fifty years on.

Simone wrote the song in an hour but it contains decades of suppressed anger. The bouncy piano melody she chose provides an ironic underline to the caustic lyrics of pain and strife. After name-checking the Southern states that were the sites of major oppression and violence, she devotes several lines to mocking the legacy of black subservience. “You lied to me all these years,” she fumes, “Told me to wash and clean my ears. And talk real fine just like a lady. And you’ll stop calling me Sister Sadie.” It builds to a call and response with her singers as she rattles off the demands of the movement (“Mass participation/Desegregation”) and they shout back, “Too slow!” — inciting action over caution. She performed it both for the civil rights marchers at Selma and in concert at Carnegie Hall. While many protest songs of the era aimed for uplift, Simone’s remains arresting for its undeniable fury. She isn’t blowing in the wind; she’s the wind itself.

To listen to “Mississippi Goddam” now, in the wake of the clashes in Ferguson, among countless other injustices, is to face simultaneously how far we’ve come and how much work is still left. “You don’t have to live next to me,” Simone proclaims at the song’s end. “Just give me my equality.” Now that the latter has been won, it’s up to us to do the rest.

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I Like You, Just As You Are: Romantic Comedies Aren’t Dead Yet

When Harry Met Sally, the Nora Ephron-penned, Rob Reiner-directed romantic comedy classic, recently celebrated its 25th anniversary which, aside from the usual nostalgia posts that are now required to accompany a movie’s birthday, inspired many think pieces around the web about the state of the romantic comedy genre itself. “The Romantic Comedy is Dying” the Atlantic proclaimed, while The Playlist pondered a slightly more hopeful question: “Can the Rom-Com Be Saved?” These all seem to be coming from a similar place and circle around the same thesis: audiences are no longer showing up for these movies hence there must be something wrong with the genre itself. But I’d like to take a different stance: there is nothing wrong with the state of the romantic comedy that isn’t also wrong with other genres.
Continue reading I Like You, Just As You Are: Romantic Comedies Aren’t Dead Yet