I’m almost ready for the Oscars.
This year I had the worst ratio of seen to unseen films (two films out of five for Best Picture) in many a moon, because I deemed most of what the studios lobbed my way in 2000 crap. The Best Picture category this year is the most random-seeming selection I can remember – a Roman gladiator epic, a Chinese-language martial arts picture, a bio-pic about a woman on a crusade, a grungy drug saga and a simple, sweet love story. Before last week, I’d seen only Gladiator and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Gladiator is inspiring drama on the big screen and murky melodrama on the small one. Crouching Tiger is a sweeping film that will probably suffer the same problem, but it’s leagues better than its main competition.
I still haven’t seen Chocolat, but I plan to remedy that this weekend. Last week, though, I saw the Steven Soderbergh pictures, Erin Brockovich and Traffic. If he keeps up this standard, Soderbergh could easily find himself with a body of work to rival that other filmmaking Steven. Brockovich is serviceable and entertaining, with even Julia Roberts coming off well. (Usually, she’s the deal-breaker with me.) It has no business being nominated for Best Picture, especially over Almost Famous, but it doesn’t make a false move.
Traffic, now, that’s a wonder to behold. This film currently holds the spot The Insider occupied last year for me: it’s a terrific film that will most likely get robbed of its deserving award. Unlike The Insider, there are no bold, sweeping strokes in Traffic. It’s two and a half hours of moments, subtlety and character that combine to form a comprehensive and damning argument against the so-called war on drugs. Even the form the film takes is part of that argument. By its conclusion, Soderbergh has shown that bold, sweeping strokes will not make a difference. You can only fight this war one person at a time. This film should win Best Picture, and when it doesn’t, I’ll be upset, but I won’t be surprised.
Geez, look how I’ve rambled on. And I even have an honest-to-gosh new CD to review this time as well. Special thanks again to Bull Moose in Portland, Maine. My package containing Jonatha Brooke’s new album, Steady Pull, arrived today, and it was worth the wait.
Brooke started off as one half of the Story, with Jennifer Kimball. The duo made lovely, complex acoustic pop music, but the best songs were Brooke’s, so it was no surprise that when she went solo with Plumb, she made a perfect pop record. (To be fair, Kimball’s solo album, Veering From the Wave, is quite good in its own right.) It was her fourth album, 10 Cent Wings, however, that truly established her as a formidable songwriting voice. It’s one of those records on which each song, as it’s playing, is your favorite. It takes retrospection to find a standout track. For my money, though, that standout is “Because I Told You So,” a simple, elegant acoustic number that should have sent Brooke’s career into the stratosphere.
Instead, because MCA Records had no idea what to do with an album this good, the song wasn’t even released as a single. 10 Cent Wings languished unpromoted, a common story with an increasingly common result: Brooke bailed on major labels all together. Last year she followed Aimee Mann, another literate pop songwriter with a history of uncooperative record companies, into the realm of independent distribution. Brooke’s personal label is called Bad Dog, and her first release was Live, a collection of… well, live tracks.
Now, when an album is as good as 10 Cent Wings is, I don’t usually expect much from the follow-up. Oh, sure, I hope that an artist can recreate previous creative success, but it usually doesn’t happen. I call it the Sarah McLachlan Effect: two good albums followed by a stunner, and then a return to making merely good albums. McLachlan will most likely never make a record as good as Fumbling Towards Ecstasy again. I expected a similar pattern with Brooke (who, by the way, deserves McLachlan’s success more than McLachlan does), so it’s a pleasure to report that Steady Pull is just as good, if not better than, 10 Cent Wings.
For the first time, Brooke has produced herself here, and the creative freedom shows. The first single and leadoff track, “Linger,” is decent if uninspired, but from there the record soars. Brooke excels at crafting lush pop music that never goes where you expect it to. Following the twists and turns of a song like “Walking” is a constantly engaging surprise. The 12 songs on Steady Pull actually sound like they sprang from the pen of Neil Finn, a songwriter Brooke has obviously learned a great deal from. I’d accept any of these tunes (even “Linger”) from Finn, which from me is a high compliment.
Finn himself shows up on “New Dress,” which is about as delicate as this album gets. Brooke has expanded her sonic range here, which might upset some fans of her older, more acoustic material. She’s never recorded a full electric rave-up like “Out of Your Mind” before, and on 10 Cent Wings, she reserved the acoustic-to-electric dynamic for the epic “Crumbs.” Here that dynamic appears all over the place, most effectively on “Digging,” whose chorus makes better use of just two chords than any in recent memory. Elsewhere, Brooke sets up grooves and slips lovely melodies on top of them, like she does on the title track and “How Deep Is Your Love.” These tunes find her stretching her voice farther than she’s taken it before, to great effect.
And again, I have a favorite, but only on retrospection. It’s a statement of purpose buried near the end called “I’ll Take It From Here.” For all her righteous indignation, Aimee Mann has never written a declaration of independence this clear: “I’ll take it from here, I’ll succeed or I will fail but I will decide, Catch my breath and count to 10 and open my eyes again…” It’s brief, but it all but defines this set of songs. Despite how difficult it must have been to watch an album like 10 Cent Wings wither on the vine, Jonatha Brooke has delivered on her own confidence. She’s proven throughout her career that if one group of songs doesn’t bring her the recognition she deserves, she can always write more that are just as good. That’s something no label executive could ever do.
Oh, and I am going to make two copies of this album and deliver them to the managers of the record stores in my town that refused to stock it, just so they can hear what they’re missing. It’s a silly hope, I know, but maybe hearing how good Steady Pull is will change their minds. If not, well, at least two more people got to hear it. It’s the least I can do.
Hey, if your local record store doesn’t carry copies of this disc, you can always go to jonathabrooke.com and order them directly. I hear Brooke will even sign ‘em for you.
Let’s hope this is a portent of the year to come. We’ve got Dave Matthews, Duncan Sheik, Amy Ray, Semisonic, Our Lady Peace and Sepultura coming up, and if they’re as good as Jonatha Brooke’s album, I’ll be a happy boy.
See you in line Tuesday morning.