Spring of Our Discontent
Sicko, Ryan Adams and the Second Quarter Report

So I’ve just seen Sicko, Michael Moore’s new documentary on the health care system. And it saddens me to report that I have the same problems with it that I had with his film on the Bush administration, Fahrenheit 9/11.

This is the second Moore movie in a row to put me in a strange, uneasy quandary. Sicko is a polemic about universal health care, advocating for the United States to drop the privatized, for-profit, insurance-driven health industry we have now and switch to a government-funded approach with full access for every American. I agree with his premise wholeheartedly – the current system is broken, and a humane, civilized nation would put the health of its people ahead of the profits of the drug and insurance companies.

As with the Bush administration’s response to September 11, there is a riveting and in-depth documentary to be made about a health care system run by companies whose best interests are served by denying their clients the care they need. And as with Fahrenheit 9/11, Sicko is not that film. Moore has once again made a rousing, enjoyable, moving, one-sided argument for his thesis instead of digging deep to find the real, complex, messy truth of the situation.

Moore built his case against the American health care system by putting out a call for horror stories, then cherry-picking the dozen or so most damning examples of callous profiteering. He then contrasted that with universal health care systems by traveling to countries that have them, finding some of the best success stories he could, and failing to include some of the biggest concerns those countries have about their government-funded national health services.

It’s obvious for Moore that the issue is black and white – insurance companies have never done a good thing for anyone, and universal health care will turn the U.S. of A. into a golden paradise of health and longevity. Except you could make the exact opposite case just by reversing the steps: put out a call for Canadian, French and British health care horror stories, and then talk to the American insurance companies, who would be glad to point you in the direction of people they’ve helped.

One thing Moore excels at is tugging on the ol’ heartstrings. Sicko is an emotionally manipulative film, and it does its job well – Moore includes interviews with mothers who lost their children because they were denied treatment, and an older couple forced to move in with their daughter because of escalating health care bills. These stories tell the tale – the system is broken, and needs fixing. As one former insurance company worker says in the film, “You didn’t slip through the cracks. Somebody made that crack and then swept you toward it.”

But he blows it at the end, when, in a typically grand gesture, he brings a trio of September 11 volunteers to Cuba to receive free treatment for respiratory and other ailments they suffered as a result of their selfless actions at ground zero. For one thing, the story didn’t unfold the way Moore leads you to believe in the movie – it looks for all the world like the filmmaker and his merry band landed in Cuba and made their way to the first hospital they could find, when in fact Moore set the whole thing up beforehand.

Of course the Americans got amazing medical treatment in Cuba, especially while the cameras were rolling. The Cuban government even wrote a press release to coincide with the film’s release, saying it shows the “greatness of the Cuban health care system.” Speaking as a journalist, this has all the hallmarks of a classic manipulation, and either Moore fell for it, or he’s complicit in it. Either way, he can’t expect us to believe that the care his charges were given at the end of Sicko is representative of the care all Cubans get for free, especially since he made no effort to find out if that assertion is true.

Moore doesn’t even point out something that can plainly be seen in his own film. He makes a special effort to chastise the United States for dropping to 37th on the United Nations’ ranking of health care systems – “just above Slovenia,” as he says. But guess which nation is listed at number 39 on that very ranking, below Slovenia? That’s right, Cuba.

While I definitely agree that a humane nation takes care of its people, the problem is, and always has been, how to pay for it and effectively manage it. Moore leaves that part out. In Canada, they manage it by imposing a 50 percent tax rate, and Canadians still cross the border into the U.S. for better medical care. The British and French National Health Services are struggling to keep up with the demand, and teetering under the financial strain. Will Americans acquiesce to monumentally higher taxes to put health care in the hands of a government that can’t fix the schools, repair social security, or even deliver the mail with speed and accuracy? I don’t know, but Moore doesn’t even ask.

I hate raising all of these complaints, because Sicko is a rousing little film with a basic premise I can stand behind. My theater audience gave it a standing ovation, and I joined in, even though I had reservations about some of the tactics Moore used in the movie. As always, I wish that Moore would just get out of the way of his own point, because it’s a good one, and his tactics distract from the good his film might otherwise do.

A final thought: My theater’s audience clapped once in the middle of the film, too, during an interview segment with former British parliamentarian Tony Benn. He said what to me is the most important line in the movie, talking about where his government (and others) find the resources to maintain their national health services. Amidst all the grandstanding and obfuscation in Moore’s film, this little gem sticks out, and is worth repeating and remembering:

“If you can find money to kill people, you can find money to help people.”

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I wrote all that before reading Kurt Loder’s review here. I know, he’s Kurt “MTV News” Loder, but seriously – read it. He lays it all out nicely.

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I am struggling to come up with anything clever to say about Ryan Adams’ new album, Easy Tiger.

I think I know why, too. Adams has always been a living sound byte, with his seemingly self-destructive attitude and his insane work ethic. Since I started the online incarnation of this column, Adams has kindly provided me with much to talk about. First, he pissed off his label, Lost Highway, by handing in the ‘80s-inspired Love is Hell, which they rejected. In petulant retaliation, Adams then gave them Rock n Roll, a tossed-off collection of Replacements-style pseudo-punk that was even further from the twangy, emotional pop the label had hoped for. (Lost Highway finally released both.)

And then, in 2005, the former Whiskeytown boy genius had his best year ever, putting out three albums (Cold Roses, Jacksonville City Nights and 29) that were all varying shades of excellent. As good as they were on their own, the trilogy really came alive when viewed as a whole, providing a picture of a diverse songwriter hitting his stride.

When I jokingly suggested in my review of 29 that Adams should take 2006 off, I didn’t actually expect he’d do it. And when he announced his return to store shelves with Tiger, he thwarted expectations again by not doing anything crazy or extraordinary. If you’re looking for a hook for Easy Tiger, some quotable reason to rush out and buy it, well, there isn’t one. It is, by comparison, the most immediately unexceptional record he’s ever made.

Easy Tiger is 13 good songs on a single slab of plastic. That’s it.

Even while spinning it, I find it difficult to latch on to anything to discuss. Tiger is solid – the weakest song here is the first single, “Two,” a lazy acoustic breeze that features Sheryl Crow on anonymous backing vocals. The rest of the record is a guided tour of just about everything Adams does well, from the country waltz of “Tears of Gold” to the folksy melody of “Off Broadway” to the high-and-lonesome bluegrass of “Pearls on a String” to the sweet acoustic lament “Oh My God, Whatever, Etc.” He rocks out a couple of times (“Halloweenhead”), and delivers some of his trademark lovely ballads (“Rip Off”). And in the Cardinals, he has found the best backing band of his career.

But what to say about it? I honestly haven’t a clue. Adams has turned in his safest, most accessible work here – the whole thing glides by in 38 minutes, from the rousing, twangy opener “Goodnight Rose” to the Neil Young-esque closer “I Taught Myself How to Grow Old.” Adams’ voice is in fine form, his melodies are simple and elegant, and his lyrics are typically earthy. If you’ve ever liked Ryan Adams before, you will like Easy Tiger. If you were hoping that he’d take his Cold Roses sound to the next level, you’ll be disappointed, but not very much.

I just wonder about records like this. I’m not sure how often I will listen to Easy Tiger – it’s nice, and sweet, and full of good songs, but it hasn’t burrowed into my brain. Do I need a clever hook to capture my interest? Isn’t writing 13 decent songs and playing them very well enough for me? I’m not sure. I would never caution you away from buying Easy Tiger – it’s a pleasant listen from start to finish, and some songs (“The Sun Also Sets,” for example) are prime Ryan Adams.

But it drifts right by, unlike some of his best work, and it smacks of underachievement. Maybe Adams was trying to make a sampler, a little taster for new listeners. Or maybe he just didn’t infuse this album with the personality he normally stamps on everything. Whatever the reason, Easy Tiger is a good Ryan Adams record that still feels like a minor entry in his canon, a palate-cleanser for his next bold adventure. You won’t regret hearing it, but when the Ryan Adams story is complete, this album will barely be a footnote.

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And now it’s time for the second quarter report. It’s a little disappointing – you remember all my talk earlier about how this is the best year ever? Well, that noise certainly quieted down in the second quarter, with one unfortunate misfire after another (I’m looking at you, Bjork, and you too, Wilco), and a number of records from old favorites that turned out to be just, you know, okay (Ryan Adams, Rufus Wainwright).

It’s still shaping up to be a pretty good year, and there are some potential winners coming in July from the reunited Crowded House, They Might Be Giants, Spoon, Rooney and Prince. And Virginia quintet Mae has put two songs from forthcoming album Singularity online at their Myspace page, and they’re excellent. August will bring new ones from Over the Rhine, the New Pornographers, Rilo Kiley, Minus the Bear and Eisley, so all is not lost.

And hey, the second quarter brought us a new #1 album for the list-in-progress, so it can’t be all bad. At halfway through 2007, here’s what it looks like:

#10. Low, Drums and Guns.
#9. Loney, Dear, Loney, Noir.
#8. Tori Amos, American Doll Posse.
#7. Bright Eyes, Cassadaga.
#6. Modest Mouse, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank.
#5. Explosions in the Sky, All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone.
#4. Aqualung, Memory Man.
#3. The Arcade Fire, Neon Bible.
#2. The Shins, Wincing the Night Away.
#1. Silverchair, Young Modern.

This will change, absolutely, but I have to say, that’s one fine top 10 list as is. I also just ordered the new Julian Cope, called You Gotta Problem With Me, and the first Swirling Eddies album in more than 10 years, The Midget, the Speck and the Molecule, should be in my mailbox before too long. A couple of mediocre months can’t get me down.

Next week, the new Click Five, Modern Minds and Pastimes.

See you in line Tuesday morning.