Sisters are Doin’ It for Themselves
The Forgotten Females of 2005

A quick movie roundup, before we get started. I’ve seen more movies in the past two weeks than I have in the last two months, I think, and while I still don’t think I’ve seen the Best Picture winner (I’m usually pretty sure when I encounter it), I have been enjoying the cinemagoing experience more and more lately. Gotta love Oscar season, if for no other reason than for the markedly increased quality of the flicks at the local multiplex.

Anyway. My friend Jody and I did a three-movie day a couple of weekends ago, hitting the major epics all in a row. First was The Chronic (WHAT?) cles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, the first of seven planned adaptations of C.S. Lewis’ beloved fantasy series. I was told once that you should read the Narnia books three times in your life – once as a youngster, once as an adult and once as a senior citizen. So I read the Chronicles when I was in grade school, and re-read them about four years ago, and now I’m going to wait until I’m 70 and read them again.

In the meantime, Disney will likely finish their seven-movie saga, and if it’s anything like this first one, it will be more of a distillation than an adaptation. I have always liked the Narnia books more than the Lord of the Rings trilogy, despite their obvious Christian allegory – the very thing J.R.R. Tolkien disliked about Narnia, if my admittedly cursory research is correct – because they’re about magic and wonder more than drama and warfare. They’re kids’ books, in the best possible sense.

So I was dismayed to see that director Andrew Adamson had added a Helm’s Deep-style battle to the first book for this film, but otherwise, I think he did a decent enough job. He and Disney surprisingly refused to tone down the allegory and the difficult Passion of the Lion sequence near the end. Best of all, I think, this film captured what it would be like, as a child, to find yourself in another world – the saucer-eyed wonderment that filled this first book. I honestly don’t think the producers have read past Prince Caspian, if they think they have a marketable franchise on their hands, but this one was a pretty good start.

Next was King Kong, the only one I wish I hadn’t seen. Too long, too flashy, too inconsequential for its incredible running time. There were whole sections of this thing that were obviously only in the movie to show off Peter Jackson’s effects team. I will admit that they did a hell of a job with the big ape himself – the most affecting parts of this movie were the ones between Kong and Naomi Watts, just looking at each other – and the final 20 minutes almost redeemed the other 230, but in the end, it’s King Kong. We’ve seen it before, and it wasn’t that great the first time.

But then, ah, we capped the day with Steven Spielberg’s mesmerizing Munich, probably the best film I’ve seen this year, and easily Spielberg’s best since Schindler’s List. It is, remarkably, not about the 1972 massacre at the Munich Olympics, but about the Israeli response, and it balances themes of justice and vengeance beautifully. Eric Bana, whom I had only otherwise seen in Ang Lee’s ridiculous Hulk, was fantastic here, as one of the special operatives hired by Israel to hunt down and kill the men responsible for the murders in Munich.

It’s staged as a thriller of sorts – we watch Bana and his cohorts, including new James Bond actor Daniel Craig, carry out their mission, assassinating the planners of Munich one by one. But at the edges, it slowly becomes much more. For every vengeance killing the Israelis carry out, there is a Palestinian response, and the futility becomes clear. The movie’s final scene is perfect, reducing the centuries-old conflict to two men who cannot just sit down and talk. It’s an amazing, powerful movie, one that’s never preachy or didactic. Word is Spielberg has angered both Israel and Palestine with this movie, and that’s a sure sign that he did it right.

From the big studio pictures to the tiny indies – I saw The Squid and the Whale on Friday, at the marvelous old Town Theatre in Highland, Indiana. It’s the new film by Noah Baumbach, who made what might be my favorite movie ever, Kicking and Screaming. (Not the Will Ferrell soccer movie, thankyouverymuch – although that one’s on DVD, and Baumbach’s is not.) Baumbach’s style has always been observational smartassery tinged with sadness – he also made Mr. Jealousy and co-wrote The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou – so I was surprised at the harshness of Squid. It’s a tough little film.

Then again, it being a mostly autobiographical divorce drama, perhaps a little sandpaper around the edges is to be expected. This is probably Baumbach’s most accomplished movie – it has what I like to call a calculus script, one in which each word and phrase is so perfectly crafted and placed that the outcome seems preordained. Where this movie is funny, it is darkly funny, and where it is sad, it is devastating, but it never seems like anything but real life. It is small and beautiful, and contains a final scene of such grace that it easily outdoes all of Peter Jackson’s expensive monkeying. It’s wonderful, plain and simple.

Many dismissed Baumbach’s first pictures as the work of a junior Woody Allen, and perhaps as an exercise in contrast, here’s the real Woody Allen, back with Match Point, his most acclaimed movie in probably 10 years. But the comparison is silly – Match Point looks and feels nothing like a Woody Allen movie. It was shot in London, with an all-British cast, and none of its characters are stuttering, neurotic, or intolerable.

Now, I’m a Woody Allen fan, so I’m of the opinion that he never went away – he’s made a movie a year, every year, for longer than I’ve been alive, and the past decade has seen some winners. I thought The Curse of the Jade Scorpion was hilarious, and Sweet and Lowdown was a masterpiece, and Melinda and Melinda was superb. Oh, and Deconstructing Harry was awesome, too. So all this comeback talk has me mystified, but I can see how Match Point would be considered his most traditionally captivating film in a while.

Problem is, it’s essentially Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Next Generation. The plot is the same, the outcome is basically the same, only the details have changed. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – one of Allen’s best traits as a filmmaker is his ability to weave themes through his work, and this one uses the same setup to say something completely different. Where Crimes was about God and justice, Match Point sets up life as a series of blind chances. It’s a much more nihilistic film, although it is similarly bitter.

I don’t want to discourage you from seeing it – it’s very good, very enjoyable film. I just wish it hinged upon a more original idea. Allen is always good at those – even his misfires, like Hollywood Ending, have sparkling premises. Match Point is a philosophical thriller, and a good one, but it’s no work of genius. For that, you might want to check out some of the Woody Allen movies I named above. Next time, I hope he keeps the quality of this film’s writing and comes up with a more, shall we say, Woody-esque idea to flesh out.

Wow. These 1200 words were meant to be the opening paragraphs. I still have a whole music column to get to. Hope you’re not going anywhere for a while…

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I got a startling phone call this week regarding one of my stories in the paper.

It was a harmless little feature on new year’s resolutions. A couple of photographers and I scoured the streets for probably six hours over two days, looking for people who had resolved something, anything. We ended up with five people willing to have their pictures taken for the front page, and I didn’t even think about it beyond the fact that, after so many refusals and brush-offs, we had what we needed for the story. I was just glad to be finished with it.

So it ran, and the next day, I got this phone call. It sounded like an older gentleman, and man, was he upset. I listened with disbelief as he expressed his disappointment that all five of our subjects for the story were white. And honestly, I hadn’t even thought about it. In my defense, neither had one of my photographers, who is black, but that sounds like a cop-out. I didn’t think about it because I don’t think about it – I just don’t see the world that way. Considering my job, I probably should, or at least I should remember that some of our readers will pick up on unintentional imbalances like that.

But I don’t.

I’ll tell you what I do recall about the new year’s feature, though – three of the five people I talked to were women. I don’t know why that matters more to me than race – it absolutely should not, but it seems to. You can be black, white, blue, orange, or polka-dotted, and if you make good music, I’ll buy your stuff, and I likely won’t even notice. (Well, I may notice the polka-dotted people…) But I always scan my year-end lists for female artists, and I’m conscious of how outnumbered they often are.

The 2005 list had two albums by women – Aimee Mann’s amazing The Forgotten Arm and Kate Bush’s double-disc comeback Aerial. I know that more than 20 percent of the records I bought last year were from female artists, and some of my favorite musicians are women, including the two listed above. I honestly believe the 10 albums I picked were the best ones I heard during the year, subject to my specific tastes, but I still felt a little twinge of guilt at the poor showing from women. In fact, of the 50 albums that make up the previous five lists I’ve posted, only seven are from women, and two of those are also Aimee Mann’s.

I would hate for anyone to think that I’m implying through my selections that women don’t make good music, any more than I would want people to infer that only white people make new year’s resolutions. And I hope no one takes either of those things from my work, ‘cause they’re just not there. There’s very little I can do about the resolutions thing, because while I talked to all sizes, ages and colors of people for the story, the five white people I ended up with were the only ones that wanted to talk and be photographed.

But I can do something about the lack of women in this column, although part of me doesn’t feel like I should have to. I have three overlooked releases from Aught-Five in front of me, all by women, and all excellent. Trust me when I say, though, that I didn’t buy any of these because their authors are female, and I’m not grading on a curve. These records are all terrific – not top 10 list terrific, but great nonetheless – and the gender of the artists is incidental.

Okay, then. Some overlooked women of 2005:

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If anyone has redefined the whole idea of a female artist in the last few decades, it’s Madonna. She’s known as an icon more than as a musician, which is unfortunate, but probably not unjustified. As a pop cultural figure, she smashed every taboo in the book, in an endlessly calculated effort to be remembered and revered. Even now, I’m not sure we know a lot about Madonna – she is her public image, and that’s the way she wants it.

As much as I rail against the more premeditated aspects of what she does, though, I have to admit that she wouldn’t have navigated a 20-plus-year career if she had nothing artistic to offer. The fickle public would have turned on her long ago if her work wasn’t in some way satisfying, and in truth, I think much of it is superb. Madonna’s chief talents are an innate sense of where to push her sound, and an uncanny knack of surrounding herself with geniuses who can realize her vision. If you open the door to good pop music, like I have over and over, you have to assess Madonna’s work favorably. It’s just good stuff.

Her last few, in particular, have been restlessly creative, experimental pieces that somehow distill complex techno-pop ideas down into blissful pop tunes. Ray of Light remains her masterpiece in this area, I think, thanks largely to the precise work of British producer William Orbit, but parts of Music and American Life nudged against the boundaries as well. The latter is one of her weaker efforts, containing more clumsiness per minute than anything she’s done, but it is still recklessly brave, and not the work of a safe, complacent pop star.

Her new one, Confessions on a Dance Floor, is by its nature a little less reckless, but it is infinitely more consistent. She’s returned to her pure dance-pop roots, but instead of mining the dead seam of American booty-rap-club-crap, she’s turned in a decidedly European effort, working with British producer Stuart Price and longtime collaborator and Frenchman Mirwais Ahmadazi. They’ve crafted a cohesive slab of thumping, pulsing dance music that is by turns melancholy and melodic, joyful and moody. All the tracks segue, and there are no ballads, so what you have is an hour-long uninterrupted rave party that somehow still sounds like 12 great pop songs.

It’s a retreat after American Life, sure, but Madonna has never sounded more comfortable with this style. Full credit to her producers, of course, who filled this record with ear-catching, dazzling moments. The syncopated pulse of “Get Together” is wonderful, as is the atmosphere of “Let It Will Be,” as is any of a hundred little flourishes that make this a very quick 60 minutes. Confessions is the sound of Madonna closing ranks, picking the one thing she’s best at and essentially showing off. But it works.

Once again, of course, she’s the worst thing about her own album. Her voice is typically weak and mannered, although with the layers of effects that surround it at all times on this record, you hardly notice. Her lyrics, on the other hand, weigh this album down. Mostly they’re harmless tales of flirtation, love and loss, but the worst offender here is “I Love New York,” which actually rhymes the title phrase with the line, “Other places make me feel like a dork.” It’s not as embarrassing as some of American Life, but it is cringe-worthy.

But man, the one that really comes together here is “Isaac,” the “controversial” number. (There’s always one…) It’s half Hebrew, half abstract poetry, and it ends up saying very little that anyone should be upset over, but the overall effect of the music and lyrics is haunting and memorable. It’s the best thing here, swirling and deep, but perhaps its biggest achievement is how it segues in and out without feeling like it’s out of place between two pop songs, one that bitches about fame and one that bitches about relationships. If you’re still on the fence about whether Madonna should be considered an actual musical artist, this is more evidence that she absolutely should.

Of course, her whole image is that of the independent woman doing it for herself, which makes the fact that she’s so dependent on her producers kind of ironic. If for some reason that matters to you, and you’re looking for an electronic pop album fully written, played and produced by a woman, you won’t do better than Speak For Yourself, the solo project of Frou Frou’s Imogen Heap. It is every bit as dazzling as Madonna’s record, if not more so, and Heap’s voice and writing talents are much stronger.

In a recent interview in Paste Magazine, Heap noted that women are often assumed to provide only the voice and lyrics, not the melody and production, and it’s sadly true. If this album is anything to go by, Heap is every bit the expert knob-twiddler that her male counterparts are (including former Madonna producer and the other half of Frou Frou, Guy Sigsworth), and she obviously labored over every scrap of sound you hear here. It’s a marvel of assemblage, accomplishing the same trick as Madge’s recent work – incorporating ear-tickling techno without losing the pop melodies – with more grace. Heap has an ambient edge to her work, as well, which comes to the fore near the end of the record.

But just for a second, let’s indulge the stereotype and talk about her voice. It’s stunning. Like on Frou Frou’s album, Heap’s voice here is multi-layered and strong, effortlessly hooking upwards at surprising moments, and she harmonizes with herself beautifully. If vocals were all she contributed here, she’d still be worthy of praise – this sounds like where many Chemical Brothers fans wish Beth Orton’s solo stuff had gone, instead of the spare folk paths she’s taken.

Of course, that’s not all she has going for her. The songs on Speak are marvelous – even the obvious singles like “Goodnight and Go” are ludicrously enjoyable, and when she gets down to business, as on “Have You Got It In You” and “Closing In,” she writes remarkable melodies. The production is impeccable, glorious even – you never know what’s going to fly at your ear next, from the looping keyboards to the occasional splashes of dirty guitar to the astonishing backing vocals.

But then there is “Hide and Seek,” the reason most people will know Heap’s bizarre name. It played over part of an episode of The O.C., apparently, and has become a left-field hit, but its vocoders-and-nothing-else aesthetic makes it an odd fit for this buzzing little record. It really brings things to a halt, nice as it is, and though it will sell copies, I often wish it wasn’t included, or at least not at track five. Naturally, the one the rest of America likes is the one I sometimes want to skip through. Nothing against the song, per se, but it pales in comparison to its neighbors, especially “Clear the Area.”

And I’ll admit to being a little upset that the hit song from this record is the one that least exhibits Heap’s talents. Speak For Yourself is full of little wonders, and even some big ones, like the closer, “The Moment I Said It.” If you want to hear what a brilliant female electro-pop artist can really do, then this record is a nearly flawless example. In fact, you can remove the word “female” from the preceding sentence, and it’d still be true.

Speaking of that, here’s another one: Tori Amos is one of my favorite female artists. You can take the word “female” out of that sentence, repeat it back to me, and even after her recent string of incredibly bland, boring, wasteful records, I’ll still nod in agreement. She’s one of the most captivating, brilliant, moving musicians around, nearly without peer, but only when she wants to be.

For my money, she hasn’t really wanted to be since about 1995. From the Choirgirl Hotel was the first step on a long, downward road, the lowest point of which (so far) is this year’s The Beekeeper. It’s nearly 80 minutes long, and it contains not one song that can match even the b-sides from her first few records. Plus, it’s all wrapped up in this disaffected gauze, with all of the potentially interesting edges rounded off. It sounds like oatmeal, and not the apples and cinnamon kind, or even the brown sugar kind. Plain old mushy, tasteless oatmeal.

If Amos were a lost cause, an album like The Beekeeper wouldn’t piss me off so much, but she’s not. She is still capable of investing herself in a song like no one else, of reaching deep and connecting with an audience, of turning even a simple ditty into something devastating. How do I know this? She keeps on reminding us, for some reason. The most recent example is The Original Bootlegs, a 12-CD set of live recordings from her Original Sinsuality tour last year.

It is amazing. Every second of it is amazing.

This is more than 11 hours of Tori and her piano and her organ, and nothing else. If you’re unfamiliar with Amos’ work, you probably think that such a thing would be boring after a while. You’re wrong. Every one of these six full concerts is Amos at her best, playing and singing her heart out. I know what it means to be in the room when she’s working this particular magic, and there’s nothing I can compare it to. No one speaks, no one moves, everyone is enraptured, and while the CDs don’t exactly capture that feeling, they do give you some idea of what it’s like.

There are too many highlights to enumerate here, although I must mention the section of every show in which she selects bizarre covers to give the Tori treatment. Included in this box are piano-vocal versions of Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran,” Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer,” George Michael’s “Father Figure,” Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” Oasis’ “Don’t Look Back in Anger” and Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” among others. If you never thought any of the above songs could be heart-wrenchingly beautiful, you need to hear these versions of them.

As much as I love The Original Bootlegs, it pisses me off more than anything else I heard this year. There’s no denying that she can still do this, so why the hell doesn’t she? Roughly half of The Beekeeper’s songs are included here, and every one of them is infinitely better in this setting. And not just because Amos is alone here, but because she’s invested. On the album, I couldn’t have cared less about a simple bit of fluff like “Jamaica Inn,” but here, she makes me care. Every concert here contains a 10-minute take on “The Beekeeper” itself, and each is different, and extraordinary. If she loves these songs this much, how could she stand to strip them of all feeling for the album? I don’t get it.

But enough negativity. The Original Bootlegs has once again restored my faith in Tori Amos, and reminded me of how much I love her older songs, like “Yes Anastasia” and “Cloud on My Tongue” and “Horses” and “Space Dog” and especially “Winter.” New numbers like “Parasol” and “Barons of Suburbia” and “Carbon” seem to fit right in here, and this set has sent me back to her last few albums to rediscover them. What else could you want? I can only hope that Amos listens to these CDs and remembers how to do what she does best when she sits down to make the next album. Because she’s one of the best female artists on the planet.

And there’s another sentence you can take the word “female” right out of, and it would still be true.

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Next week, some recommendations I forgot to get to last year. And the week after that, the new stuff starts coming in, with records from Ester Drang, Richard Julian, Robert Pollard, Jenny Lewis and Duncan Sheik. And yes, I did notice that the preceding list contains only one woman…

See you in line Tuesday morning.