Sad news this week. Former Wilco member Jay Bennett died unexpectedly in his sleep on Sunday, of unknown causes. He was only 45.
With Bennett in the band, Wilco made two very good albums (Being There and Summerteeth), and one unassailably amazing one (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which I named the best album of 2002). He also contributed to the two volumes of Mermaid Avenue, which found Wilco teaming up with British troubadour Billy Bragg. Bennett wrote or co-wrote all the best songs, and played a hundred different instruments.
The sad decline of Wilco since his acrimonious departure (chronicled in the breathtaking film I Am Trying to Break Your Heart) is a testament to just how good he was, and just how important he was to the band’s magic. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of album, a work of alchemy, and even if he’d never done anything else in his life, Bennett would have left quite a legacy. Of course, he did much more, including several swell solo albums – he was working on his latest, which he wanted to title Kicking at the Perfumed Air, when he died.
Rest in peace, Jay.
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Given how often I have recommended one television show or another in this space, it may surprise you to learn that I don’t actually watch very much of it.
It’s not the medium that bothers me, it’s the use of it. I’m a fan of long-form, serial storytelling, and television offers an opportunity to do that kind of broad-canvas stuff over years, beaming it directly into living rooms across the world. And yet, most producers and networks use this medium to either offer up comfort food – sitcoms, procedural dramas in which nothing ever changes – or ever-more-distasteful reality shows. The lost potential I see all the time just makes me sort of sad.
That’s why I’m overjoyed, elated, and stunned whenever something truly imaginative makes it through the filter. Particularly if that something uses the serial nature of television to its fullest. It’s so rare that it’s worth celebrating.
My point is this. I have just watched “The Incident,” the riveting fifth-season finale of Lost, for the sixth time. Every single time, I find something new to marvel over, some new moment of clarity that puts the events of the past five seasons into sharper focus. I think I am ready to call it: Lost is one of the finest pieces of television art ever made. And as it rounds third and heads for home, I can only hope the guiding lights behind this masterpiece know exactly how to wrap things up.
More detailed thoughts on “The Incident” would require spoilers, and after a lot of thought, I don’t think I’m going to do that. The revelations were so game-changing, so perfectly revealed, that I’d be doing a disservice to anyone who hasn’t watched this show for themselves. But I’ve been working my way back through the fifth season (in my copious spare time), and seeing things in new lights. I’m watching certain scenes, certain characters, in entirely different ways.
Lost, as a whole, has been all about widening perspectives. We began with a group of people stranded on an island, and have gradually pulled back one curtain after another, to end up with a saga of global proportions. And now, in their final season-ending cliffhanger, producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse have redefined their show again – it’s now much bigger, much stranger than I ever suspected.
But above all, it has remained about the characters and their choices. The theme of the show, crystallized in “The Incident,” is an age-old one: fate vs. free will. Can we choose our own destinies, or have they been determined for us? This season framed that question in some startling ways, involving time travel and even more behind-the-scenes manipulation than we’ve ever seen on this show. And in its final episodes, it rushed headlong into a jaw-dropping plotline about erasing the past and rewriting the future. As heady as it all was, the cast and producers kept things grounded – Lost is about people, at its core. Even its gods are, in the end, people.
There are 17 episodes of Lost left, and then it’s all done – it will be the first major network show with a long-range, planned ending. I’ve never seen a show with Lost’s capacity to surprise me – I’ve been with it since the beginning, and I have no idea where this train is headed. But the ride has been amazing, and I can’t wait for next year to see how it all ends up.
The first four seasons are available on DVD, with the fifth set to come out in December. If you’re going to watch, you have to start from the beginning. Trust me, though – it’s worth every minute you’ll spend with it. Every head-spinning, nail-biting, brain-melting minute. This is television at its finest.
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I feel like I’ve been breaking up with Tori Amos since 1998.
Argue if you like, but dedicated (okay, obsessive) music fans do have actual relationships with the art they consume. I’d never say I know Amos personally, but there are few artists whose work I hold more dearly than hers. And I wish I knew how to quit her, because this relationship hasn’t been working for at least 10 years, and yet I keep coming back, hoping the pieces we both bring will still fit.
If I could travel in time, like the cast members on Lost this season, I think I would go back to 2002 and stop Amos from making Scarlet’s Walk. That’s where it started to become apparent that Amos had become someone different, someone I was less interested in. But truthfully, the roots of this decay go back quite a bit further than that.
Everything started out so well. Amos’ first three albums remain unimpeachable to me, and I don’t think this is just a case of association. It’s true, the songs on Little Earthquakes remind me of specific moments in high school, just as the ones on Under the Pink remind me of college. Her third album, Boys for Pele, was the first record I reviewed for Face Magazine, back in 1996. I have a lot of memories wrapped up in these songs, but I swear, that’s not why I love them.
I love them because Amos makes me feel her joy, pain, wonder and sadness more acutely than just about anyone else. It’s been 17 years since I first heard “Winter,” for example, and that moment before the third chorus, when Amos sharply inhales into the silence, still gives me chills. “Me and a Gun” still makes time stop whenever I hear it. I still raise my arms skyward, like a giddy idiot, when she brings the long and winding “Yes, Anastasia” in for its heart-stopping ending. “Professional Widow” still hurts, as does “Precious Things.” These are not songs, they are emotional conduits.
Even with all of that, my brain is still working when listening to Amos. Her early songs are remarkably complex and well-constructed – if the deep feelings behind them ever lose their edge (which I don’t anticipate they ever will, for me), the actual maps of these melodies will be worth treasuring all on their own. I know I have written more about the first three Tori Amos records through the years than anyone would ever want to read, but they are worth all that praise and more.
In retrospect, things started to go wrong with 1998’s From the Choirgirl Hotel. Simplistic songs, production that masked Amos’ emotional gift, and an overall slapdash effect that landed with a leaden thud. There are songs I love on here, but not enough, and there are a few – “Playboy Mommy,” “Hotel” – that I never want to hear again. Also in retrospect, I cut the electronica-drowned To Venus and Back and the so-so covers experiment Strange Little Girls way too much slack. Neither are particularly good.
But they are works of genius compared to Scarlet’s Walk. Eighteen songs, and I like three of them. The Beekeeper was even worse – 19 songs, and I don’t like any of them. I welcomed 2007’s American Doll Posse with open arms, since Amos sounded refreshed and reinvigorated on most of it, but it’s faded with time. I still like about half of it, but at 23 songs and 79 minutes, it’s a slog. Tori’s recent output has been very generous, in terms of sheer quantity, but she’s stopped making music that opens a vein. Most of her stuff since 2002 has been merely pleasant, instead of moving and affecting.
And now here is album number 10, another 70-plus-minute monster with the worst title in her catalog: Abnormally Attracted to Sin. It’s her debut for Universal Republic, after three albums on Epic, and if you’re hoping the change has awoken her muse, prepare for disappointment.
Just to be clear up front: I don’t hate Abnormally Attracted to Sin. If you’re keeping score at home, I like about eight of these 17 songs well enough, and the whole thing has a sonic depth to it that I find appealing. It’s not Beekeeper bad. Not even close. But I don’t like it very much, and all of my admiration for Amos’ voice, piano playing and piercing lyrics can’t distract me from the fact that I am bored out of my skin for most of this record’s running time.
While the album is not terrible, it does serve as a good example of just what’s been wrong with Amos’ recent output. Here are a few things:
1. This album is too long. I know, it’s churlish to complain about getting so much music from someone I admire. And it’s actually only a couple of minutes longer than Green Day’s new album. But the problem is focus, and all of Amos’ recent discs have lost that focus about halfway through their gargantuan running times. Some artists can do 74-minute albums, and do them well. Amos has proven again and again that she can’t. Honestly, this wouldn’t be a problem if everything else clicked, but it doesn’t, and Amos should have seen that and pared it down.
2. Many of these songs are beneath her. I guess the longer this downward slide goes on, the weaker this argument gets, but Amos songs used to be instantly memorable, and most of these are immediately forgettable. “Not Dying Today” is a b-side if I’ve ever heard one, and “Police Me” and “That Guy” should have stayed on the cutting room floor. “Fire to Your Plain” sounds like an unearthed Y Kant Tori Read number. Even the songs I feel I should enjoy, like “Maybe California,” simply don’t go anywhere – not just by Tori’s standards, but by anyone’s. I’m not saying every song has to be genius, but I want some sense that Amos is pushing herself, and these songs just don’t give me that.
Worse, her lyrics are typically excellent here. She’s in familiar territory, of course, criticizing the patriarchy and organized religion, but she finds some interesting parallels between faith and sex, and weaves them together so well that you’re often not sure which one she’s talking about. My favorites are the sweeter ones this time, like “Maybe California,” which finds Amos talking a suicidal friend down off the ledge. But the music just doesn’t match up, and that is, if you’ll forgive me, a sin.
3. The production doesn’t play to her strengths. This has been an issue for some time, ever since she bought her Bland-o-Matic in 2002. Much of Abnormally Attracted to Sin makes use of synthesizers and drum loops, which she’s done before, but rarely to this extent. Sometimes it works: “Flavor” is nice, mixing piano fragments with a trip-hop beat, and opener “Give” is suitably spooky, Amos doing her best Portishead. Often, though, the production just sucks the life out of things, and Amos is once again too restrained – even something like “Strong Black Vine,” which ought to rock convincingly in a “Kashmir” kind of way, just sort of lies there.
Amos’ two strongest weapons are her stunning voice, and her piano playing. Her earlier albums made those the focus, and rightly so – here, Amos’ voice is folded, spindled and mutilated too often, and her piano work is either buried or absent. There are moments when the spotlight shines on the right parts of the stage, most notably “Mary Jane,” which is all piano and voice. The experiments do sometimes work, but more often you’ll get something like the title track, a repetitive synth crawl that goes on forever, or like “500 Miles,” which just kind of sounds like wallpaper.
4. This album is soulless. This one sort of encompasses the other three, but it goes further, and is the crux of my criticisms over the past decade. I simply don’t feel anything listening to this. Maybe I’m missing it, and Amos actually invested every fiber of her being into these songs, but I don’t think so. This album is missing even the fire and sense of fun that permeated American Doll Posse. Even the songs I like aren’t getting anything more than a reserved smile from me this time, and I barely remember them when they’ve finished playing. I want to cry, to cheer, to hurt and heal and hurt again, and I simply don’t.
Maybe that’s not fair. Maybe a handful of decent songs with interesting production should be enough. From some artists, it would be. But not from Tori Amos. There are songs on Abnormally Attracted to Sin that some singer/songwriters would kill for. But Tori Amos is not just some singer/songwriter. This is one of the best things she’s done since Choirgirl, and it still leaves me cold. If my expectations are set too high, it’s because Amos set them there. It’s to the point, though, that I don’t even feel disappointed anymore. I just feel nothing.
There are songs I like, and I don’t want to give them short shrift. I have already mentioned “Give” and “Flavor,” the trip-hop experiments that work. I also like “Curtain Call,” reservedly, for its soaring chorus. But the best material is at the end – the last five songs are all varying shades of very good, starting with the piano-vocal show tune “Mary Jane.” “Starling” is a mostly effective rewrite of “Spark,” off of Choirgirl, while “Fast Horse” has an interesting rhythm. “Ophelia” almost brings back the old glory, with a lovely piano part and strong vocal, and closer “Lady in Blue” is kind of a late-night jazz club affair for the first four of its seven minutes, before launching into a pretty neat drums-and-piano coda.
But “mostly effective” and “pretty neat” are not adjectives I should be using to describe new Tori Amos music. I fear it’s the best I can muster, unfortunately – Abnormally Attracted to Sin is merely okay. It’s halfway decent. It’s two stars, two and a half if I’m feeling generous. I will not treasure it, but I can live with it.
And this is how I see the relationship going, until one of us dies. Amos will keep making these 70-minute records, I will keep buying them, and I will come away from each one shrugging my shoulders. And yet, I won’t be able to stop. I am abnormally attracted to her work, and I will never pass up the chance to hear new Tori, no matter how many dispiriting albums she makes. It’s unhealthy, I know, but I don’t know what to do about it.
All I can hope for – and I hope for this with everything I have, every time – is that Amos finally makes something that moves me again, something that connects what I want with what she has to offer. Until then, I will keep paying my money, and keep coming back for more. Because there was something there, once, and I keep on believing it can be there again.
Next week, probably Eminem, but maybe something else. I’m cagey like that. If reading my babble isn’t enough for you, I contributed to Derek Wright’s podcast again this week. I’d been battling a cold when we recorded it, but I still valiantly defended Tinted Windows, and took aim at a few other records, and Derek was his usual insightful, knowledgeable self. Check it out.
See you in line Tuesday morning.