Revenge of the Filler Column
George Lucas and a List

So I lied to you. I lied to you all, and I’m sorry.

I know I said that this week I would be reviewing the new Bill Mallonee, called Dear Life, but I want to give the record another week to digest. It’s not that I’m slow or anything, it’s simply this: I really didn’t like Dear Life the first three times or so I heard it, but in recent days it’s really started to work for me, and before I offer my definitive thoughts on this work, I want to be certain of what those thoughts are.

This has only happened a few times in recent memory, but I should have known it would this time, because all of Mallonee’s solo albums have taken a couple of weeks to really settle in. This is the first one I have disliked right away, though – the others have gone through different stages of admiration, usually settling on one several levels above my first impression. Dear Life started on the bottom of the scale, but it’s slowly moving up as I figure it out and discover its charms.

So, next week for that one, I think. Which leaves me with a blank screen and nothing prepared. I owe Ronnie Martin a nice overview of his decade-plus as Joy Electric, and that’s coming, but I need some time to put something like that together. It’s time I don’t have this week, so you’re left with this pitiful excuse for a stopgap. And as is my way, I thought I’d use this stopgap to give you a heads-up concerning some promising new music headed your way in the next few months.

Before that, though, here’s something we haven’t talked about yet.

Revenge of the Sith.

Yep, George Lucas announced the title for the sixth and final (?) Star Wars movie at Comic-Con International last month, complete with dozens of merchandise items ready for consumption by the hordes of fanboys (and occasional fangirls) who flock to this annual celebration of geekdom. Lucas has a history, especially lately, of saddling his life’s work with some awful, awful titles, most notably 2002’s Attack of the Clones. Yuck. Ptoo. We shall speak of it no more.

But you know what? I like this one. It’s kind of normal and unadventurous, but it flows nicely with Lucas’ parallel structure – Revenge of the Sith completes Anakin’s trip to the dark side, and Return of the Jedi winds up Luke’s journey to bring him back to the light. It’s just the kind of self-referential thing the old pulp serials Lucas has patterned these movies on would do. Star Wars is cheesy and it knows it, but it’s also grand adventure, dramatic heroic fiction, and it knows that, too.

There are still a lot of fans for whom the first two episodes (actually the fourth and fifth movies to be made) don’t do it at all, and they see Sith as Lucas’ last chance to tie the whole thing together. And while it’s certainly true that many, many people take this whole thing way too seriously, there is rarely the sense in Lucas’ work that he is aware of the cultural power with which he is playing. The problem with making three inferior prequels (not that I necessarily think that’s what he’s done…) to three widely loved and embraced films is that those who grew up loving Episodes Four, Five and Six can’t simply ignore Episodes One, Two and Three. It’s just not the way we geeks are built.

The prequel trilogy has relied on the quality of this third installment all along, it seems. Most of The Phantom Menace and Clones consisted of moody buildup for the bloodbath of Sith, and after each of the previous two films, fans could be heard hoping that Lucas has a plan to seamlessly connect Episodes Three and Four. He’s out of chances now – if Sith is godawful, there’s no praying that the next installment will be better. This is the big one.

And that’s why I like the play-it-straightness of the title. Yes, this is all cheesy outer space adventure with lasers and lightsabers and spaceships, but it means something, culturally speaking. Don’t look at me like that, it does. By titling the final installment the way he has, Lucas is acknowledging (perhaps for the first time in this trilogy) the power he is wielding, the legacy he is building. Even something as small as the fact that, a year from now, I will have seen all the Star Wars movies I will ever see is oddly powerful to me. I’m a fan, sure, but not a really dedicated one, and if it affects me this way, then I can’t imagine how much it means to some people.

In the end, that’s all the Fanboy Nation has ever asked of Lucas – that he respect what Star Wars means to them, and that he craft new chapters in the saga with that respect in mind.

Revenge of the Sith.

Yeah, you know, I really think I like it.

* * * * *

I’m in this strange place right now, musically speaking, where I can’t imagine having any more than four slots left in my Top 10 List this year. 2004 has brought more than its share of really good albums, and five or six absolutely marvelous ones. Who knows, maybe the quality will drop off sharply over the next few months – it’s no secret that this year has had several high-profile disappointments, like Wilco’s A Ghost is Born, which I still can’t bring myself to like. But there are some potentially excellent platters hitting stores in the final third of the year, and here’s a brief look at some of them:

The first real must-buy of August comes late, on the 24th. It’s the Finn Brothers’ Everyone is Here, their first collaboration in nearly 10 years. The single, “Won’t Give In,” is mediocre, but I’ve been told that the rest of the album is swell. And it’s not like I’m not going to buy an album with Neil Finn’s name on it, right? Also that week is the solo debut from the guitar-playing Black Crowe, Rich Robinson. He’s called it Paper. I plan on reviewing the Robinson brothers together, but let me put in an early word for Chris’ second album, This Magnificent Distance. It’s miles better than his first one.

On August 31, Bjork marks her return with Medulla, an album that is reportedly entirely constructed with voices. She’s enlisted throat singers and human beatboxes, along with her own idiosyncratic pipes, and removed all the electro beats and synths that have been the foundation of her music since splitting with the Sugarcubes. It’s this kind of stylistic stretch that creates masterpieces or crapfests, but usually avoids mediocrity. We shall see.

Matthew Sweet starts off September with an apparently light and lyrical work called Living Things. This is his long-rumored collaboration with Van Dyke Parks, and it promises to be more lush and acoustic than Kimi Ga Suki * Raifu, his Japanese release from last year. The following week (9/14) we get the long-awaited Tears for Fears reunion album, Everybody Loves a Happy Ending. The rest of the world has had this since June 1. I don’t know what’s wrong with American music distribution – we still don’t have Marbles here, either – but I’m sure I can find a way to blame George Bush if I try hard enough.

Intriguingly, the 14th also sees the debut from the Twinemen, who are the remaining two-thirds of Morphine (drummer Billy Conway and sax player Dana Colley) with singer Laurie Sargent. The album is called Sideshow and should be rather interesting. You can hear some tracks here – sounds like Morphine to me…

The following week sees two new albums from Elvis Costello. First, a still-untitled rock record with his band the Impostors, and second, a recording of his classical piece Il Sogno. I hope he continues these two diverse career paths – would be nice to pick up two new Costello records a year. Also on the 21st is American Idiot, the rock opera from Green Day. I really don’t think I need to say any more. You’re either jumping for joy or wincing in pain right now, and either way, I feel I should repeat it: A rock opera. From Green Day.

And of course, September closes out with the most important, in terms of musical history, release of the year: Brian Wilson’s Smile. This is not the Beach Boys’ Smile, it’s a new recording made with his touring band, but it is the songs that would have made up that lost follow-up to Pet Sounds. Brian’s new album, Gettin’ In Over My Head, is terrible, but I’m still dying to hear how Smile might have sounded, even as covered by an older Wilson. Should be fascinating. Also on September 28 is American V, the (perhaps) final album by the late Johnny Cash.

In October, we’ll see the new Tom Waits, called Real Gone, and the new Cake, called Pressure Chief, and the reunion record from American Music Club, called Love Songs for Patriots. Plus – plus! – the first new album in 36 years from one of the giants of interpretive singing, and a true genius of our time. I’m talking, of course, about William Shatner, and his new album is called Has Been. It’s produced by Ben Folds and features performances by Joe Jackson, Aimee Mann and Henry Rollins. There’s even a cover of Pulp’s “Common People.” I wish to sweet Christmas I was making this up. But I’m not. Has Been. By William Shatner. Out October 5.

And let me conclude with the one that I am most looking forward to: the final Elliott Smith album, From a Basement on the Hill, comes out on October 19. I got a lot of mail for my angry farewell to Elliott, but what I hope was not lost amidst the pain there was my love for this man’s music. I can’t even express my joy at getting to hear one last set of songs from Smith. I’m counting the days.

So. Next week, Dear Life. Be good to each other.

See you in line Tuesday morning.