Slow New Yorker
Richard Julian Makes his Quiet Return

I love it when my favorites get recognized.

Some people hate that – they want to keep their little secrets to themselves, fearful of too many bandwagon-jumpers. I’m not one of those people. I want everyone to like what I like, by force if necessary. I’m like a pusher who never charges after that first free taste. Just about everyone who knows me (and doesn’t object for moral reasons) has received a mix CD at one point, and been annoyed by my near-constant request (nay, demand) for thoughts and opinions and affirmations on the selections.

So it’s with great joy that I greet any news of wider exposure for my personal pantheon of artists. To wit: News came this week that Noah Baumbach, the writer/director of perhaps my favorite film ever, the non-Will Ferrell Kicking and Screaming, shall now forever be known as Academy Award Nominee Noah Baumbach. Yep, his The Squid and the Whale picked up an Oscar nod for Best Original Screenplay, and I apologize to my co-workers, who had to deal with my spontaneous squeal of delight when I found out.

Baumbach won’t win, of course, but in his case, it truly is an honor to be nominated. Squid is an intimate, harsh little film that seems to be connecting with audiences not because of star power or marketing budgets, but the honesty with which it was rendered. It’s a tough movie, one that makes you feel its pain. It is Baumbach’s most accomplished effort, and although K&S still means more to me, it was definitely the rough draft for much of Squid.

So I’m glad he’s sitting pretty with his nomination. I hope this means two things will happen. First, that Baumbach will get more work, and get to make more films. He’s already working with Wes Anderson on an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and while I think they make a good team, I want more Noah Baumbach films.

And speaking of, there’s the second thing – I want Kicking and Screaming on DVD. I would even accept a straight transfer with no extras, just to have the movie in its original form (the only copies that exist are pan-and-scan VHS). It’s an 11-year-old film at this point, there would be no additional production costs, and get this, DVD makers – you can splash “From the Oscar-Nominated Creator of The Squid and the Whale” right across the front cover. What would be the downside? Honestly, there’s no excuse now. Let’s get this done, people.

Otherwise, the Oscar nominations were pretty predictable, much like, I expect, the actual awards. It’s gay cowboys all the way this year – Brokeback Mountain is the only one of the five Best Picture nominees I still haven’t seen, but I plan on rectifying that shortly, since it’s a near-guaranteed winner. I had a discussion with a co-worker this week about the Best Picture nominees, and how it’s the most politically charged slate of films either of us could remember. In addition to the this-won’t-play-in-the-red-states Brokeback, there’s Crash, Good Night and Good Luck, and Munich, all films with serious, controversial and relevant themes. When your least political movie is Capote, then you’ve got a thoughtful, divisive and aware set of statements to choose from. And I couldn’t be happier – not a King Kong or a Cinderella Man in the bunch.

Plus, Jon Stewart is hosting, just to add to the political bent of this year’s awards.

Anyway, official predictions, for those who care.

Philip Seymour Hoffman owns the Best Actor award, and if he doesn’t win, it’s just down to ignorance of the film. Heath Ledger could get it as part of a Brokeback sweep, but I think Hoffman deserves it, and I think everyone knows it.

I’m going to vote for Reese Witherspoon for Best Actress, because I think the voters will want to give Walk the Line something. It was a well-received film, and Witherspoon was very good as June Carter Cash, except when she was singing. Felicity Huffman probably deserves it, but like most of the Academy, I haven’t seen Transamerica yet.

I think Paul Giamatti might get Best Supporting Actor, as penance for his double-snub of the last two years. (American Splendor and Sideways, two riveting performances that were completely overlooked.) If not, count on Jake Gyllenhaal to ride the Brokeback train to victory.

Best Supporting Actress is pretty wide open, but the most buzz seems to surround Rachel Weisz in The Constant Gardner. I would love to see Catherine Keener get this – she is always awesome, and her turn as Harper Lee in Capote was typically terrific. But I think Hoffman’s absurdly good performance in that movie may overshadow any other element that deserves notice, unfortunately. And there’s always Michelle Williams, earning raves and possibly participating in a Brokeback sweep. So no prediction here, but I’m leaning towards Weisz.

Ang Lee will win Best Director. The Academy loves him, and he rebounded nicely from the disaster that was Hulk. Once again, Spielberg will be left out in the cold, despite making one of his finest films with the stunning Munich. I have been assured that Brokeback Mountain is beautifully shot and directed, which, considering Lee’s track record, I do not doubt for a second.

I was originally told that March of the Penguins was ineligible for Best Documentary, since the filmmakers did some digital tweaking. I’m happy to see I was wrong – I don’t think I saw a better, more lovely movie all year, to tell you the truth. And it will win.

Brokeback Mountain wins for Best Adapted Screenplay, no question. Although Capote and Munich should give it a run for its money, and I’m glad to see them both represented.

Best Original Screenplay is a different story, and more complicated. I’d love to see Noah Baumbach win, but I think we can safely count him out. Woody Allen is here because he’s Woody Allen, not because he has a chance, sadly. Syriana was a mess, and I wish Stephen Gaghan had been given an extra 45 minutes of screen time to flesh it out. Good Night and Good Luck is perfectly paced, but half of it is old footage, and it was more a matter of assembly than writing. That leaves Paul Haggis for Crash, and it would be deserving, although he won last year, too. We also have five films here that won’t win anything else, so it might be down to which one has the most admirers, in which case Good Night will probably take it.

I know that’s not a real prediction, but I’m completely unsure in that category, and I hope to be surprised.

Oh, and Brokeback wins Best Picture, without much of a fight. And then I spend the next two months yelling at people for blaming the “gay agenda” and the “liberals” for the triumph of what is, no doubt, a deserving and lovingly made film. Really looking forward to that.

* * * * *

Full disclosure, before we get going: the subject of this week’s review, Richard Julian, reads my column. Or at least, I think he does – I send it to him every week, and he hasn’t asked me to stop. But what he does with it once it lands in his inbox is up to him. I just wanted to mention that, and reassure anyone who thinks that I’m doing publicity for a subscriber – I honestly like Julian’s work, and would recommend it even if he had never written me.

My history with Julian’s music is a series of accidents. When I wrote for Face Magazine, I received literally hundreds of free discs a month, and nearly all of them were crap. Major labels, minor labels, local guys – Sturgeon’s Law applied to all of them, except more so. I liked maybe one out of every hundred I heard, and I can barely remember the names of most of the artists trying and failing to catch my ear.

But I remember Richard Julian. His label, the now-defunct Blackbird Records, sent me his self-titled debut, and it was like giving cookie-dough ice cream to a low-sugar diabetic. Snarky, finely wrought, folk-inflected, and full of just great songs, Richard Julian was among my favorite discoveries at Face. One year later, there came Smash Palace, the second record, which was just as good, if not better, and totally different from the debut in all the right ways. Promising career? You betcha.

And then the long silence. By 2001, I had relegated Julian to the ever-growing list of artists I loved, but who just didn’t catch the right breaks.

Turns out, I had underestimated Julian’s tenacity. Another happy accident – I stumbled onto his website just as he was pulling together Good Life, his stripped-down, independently released third effort. And it was so good that I even bent the rules a little and allowed him a spot on the 2002 Top 10 List, arguing that his distribution deal didn’t kick in until ’02, so the album officially appeared in stores during that year, and blah blah bitty blah. Flimsy excuse, but the record deserved its spot, and I regret nothing.

Good Life, swell as it was, had the feeling of a last gasp to it, kind of a kitchen sink, I’ll-never-get-to-do-this-again atmosphere, and the long silence that followed seemed to bear that out. So it was with much rejoicing that I greeted the news that Slow New York, Julian’s fourth record, would be released by EMI/Manhattan. That’s a big deal for a guy who was stuffing envelopes with his indie CD only a few years ago, and a testament to his talent.

One might expect that Julian’s major-label effort would be elaborately produced, like his first couple of records, but Slow New York is just as stripped and intimate as Good Life. It is his most straightforward and acoustic set of songs, clocking in at a scant 41 minutes, and none of the tracks are cluttered – everything here contains as many instruments as it needs, and no more. Four songs were co-produced by Norah Jones, who also offers backing vocals here and there, and a nice quote for the front cover sticker. And this is exactly the kind of record that her fans would probably dig – low-key, occasionally jazzy, and mostly sweet.

That’s not to say it doesn’t pack a punch, but Julian has taken pains here to ease the prickly nature of his past work, perhaps so as not to scare the wider audience a major label will bring, most of whom will think this is his debut. “Love of Mine” slides in on delicate finger-picks, and the record doesn’t pick up speed until the zydeco-influenced “If a Heart Breaks.” There’s a blues in “Cheap Guitar,” a piano-powered jazz number in “A Short Biography,” and a trademark story-song in “End of the Line,” but otherwise, this is the softer side of Richard Julian, traditional and laid-back.

One thing that hasn’t changed at all is his gift for lyrics, his penchant for little snapshots that convey rich emotions. “Love of Mine” sounds like longing, until he concludes, “I need this like I need a hole in my brain, like a downtown track needs an uptown train.” On “Don’t Wait Up,” he declares, “I’m half mad, let’s hope that means I’m half sane,” before telling the object of his affections, “I want your flu, baby, not just your cough.”

Pretty as much of the opening salvo is, Slow New York kicks into gear with “Cheap Guitar,” a rollicking blues that’s every bit as snarky and bleak as Julian’s best work: “Sometimes love is just a rank motel, springs in the mattress are all shot to hell, but it’s late and you’re low on fuel so you might as well…” “A Short Biography” is next, and it’s even cooler, a sidelong glance at his own life that erupts with Dred Scott’s piano work. Best of all, I think, is “End of the Line,” a short story in song form that takes a sarcastic look at customer service, and ends with a gasp-worthy line.

But Slow New York has its share of warm-hearted moments, more than usual for Julian. The title track is lonesome and pleading – “I’ve been up all night having a ball, staring at the view of my brick wall,” Julian sings, before offering, “If you wanna come home like you once said, I’m still on the same side of the bed.” “Photograph” may be his saddest song, and it suits him perfectly, a writer of snapshots reflecting on a single frame from the past. “I prefer the memory to the photograph,” he sings, “one world is round and the other flat.”

Still, I admit a tinge of disappointment with this album – it is comparably straight-ahead, and I miss the eclectic, anything-goes approach of his earlier work. There is no funky “Siberia” here, no explosive “Love is the Only War,” no captivatingly abrasive “Your Friend John,” and nothing as funny as “Florida.” Slow New York is consistent, and consistently good, but it’s streamlined, and has less personality than the earlier records. Where Good Life was like spending a long weekend with Julian, talking late into the night, Slow New York is like a chance meeting and a warm handshake. If it’s your first run-in with him, you’ll be pleased to meet him, and you’ll want to spend more time, but if you know his work, you can tell he’s holding back a little.

But trust me that Julian’s work is worth getting to know, and every album he’s made is worth owning. They are all different, and yet all bound by a common sensibility, one that’s delightfully harsher than most singer-songwriters offer. Slow New York is a good first impression, full of decent songs and produced beautifully, but here’s hoping that next time out, Julian stretches out a bit more, and really lets loose. Consider the new album a gateway drug, and if you dig it, check out the other three here.

Next week, Belle and Sebastian.

See you in line Tuesday morning.