Choosing to Be Hopeful
On Star Wars and Great Recommendations

I assume by now that you’ve all heard the big Star Wars news.

If not, I’ll summarize. Disney bought LucasFilm. All of it, including ILM, Skywalker Sound, and all the rights to Star Wars. They spent $4.05 billion on this deal, a figure that to me actually seems pretty low, and in return, they get to make new Star Wars movies. With or without George Lucas. Which they have already announced they will do, beginning with Star Wars: Episode VII in 2015.

I probably don’t need to tell you that this is the biggest news to hit my little world in a long time. And when I first read it, I was elated. New Star Wars movies! A chance to bring new writers and directors into the fold, and re-energize the saga! As the story kept unfolding, it just got better. Lucas will stay on as a creative consultant, providing the story outlines for the new movies, but not writing or directing them. The first three out of the gate will be the fabled Episodes VII, VIII and IX, which, had Lucas decided to make them himself, would probably have ended up just like the prequels – an easy target for fans who cringe at Lucas’ dialogue and stilted staging.

Surely, I thought, this news is making every Star Wars fan in the world happy right now. But no. Star Wars fans happy? What was I thinking? Since yesterday I’ve read diatribe after diatribe about how Lucas has “sold out” and how Disney will ruin Star Wars. How the Mouse House is a soulless conglomerate that will swallow the Skywalker clan whole, and spit out empty garbage. How they’re certain – just certain – that this is the worst move Lucas has ever made, and that the whole of Star Wars is ruined now.

And about halfway through the day, in the midst of a Facebook back-and-forth with one of my oldest friends, I hit upon the phrase that defines my feelings on this. I am choosing to be hopeful.

Now, listen. The naysayers may be right. But here’s why I’m optimistic. I’m a guy who liked the prequel trilogy a great deal, but even I can see the flaws. Lucas is a tin-eared dialogue writer, and has no idea how to reproduce on the page the actual rhythms of speech. (“George, you can type this shit, but you sure as hell can’t say it,” as Harrison Ford once opined.) His pacing is wrong, his direction inadequate. In those prequels, he managed to coax bad performances out of some of the finest actors around. The prequels could have been masterpieces, but they merely connected the dots, and the problem was Lucas.

You have to give the man his due. His imagination is boundless, and he created the entire Star Wars universe from scratch. But he’s forgotten how to be a good filmmaker, and I’m glad he realized that it’s time to step away. As a creative consultant, Lucas’ vision will still guide the Star Wars franchise. But with this new deal, Disney is under no obligation to listen to him. A mechanism is now in place to veto disasters like Jar Jar Binks. In the best case scenario, we get all of the vision and none of the bad ideas.

Disney can now hire anyone they want to write and direct new Star Wars movies. If they’re smart – and based on their handling of the Marvel stable, I believe they are – they’ll pay for fan-favorite visionaries, and then step back and let them do their thing. Joss Whedon’s on the short list, of course, but I’ve heard other fascinating names, like Brad Bird, JJ Abrams and Duncan Jones. Any one of those guys would add a welcome dose of personality to Star Wars. Remember, the consensus favorite of the first six films is The Empire Strikes Back, written by Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett and directed by Irvin Kirshner. It’s the film Lucas had the least amount of involvement with.

Above all, I think Disney knows what it has, and will take care of Star Wars. The fanbase is massive, and also quick-tempered and judgmental. I believe everyone involved knows this, and will do their best to please us. They may screw up, but I don’t think it will be because they want to suck the life out of the saga, and milk it for all it’s worth. I expect we’ll get some real Star Wars fans to take the reins now, and I think this may be just the thing to bring one of my favorite entertainments to new heights.

Why do I think that? Because I am choosing to be hopeful.

* * * * *

I have realized I hold to the same philosophy when it comes to buying music. I want to like everything I buy, and I head into every one of these musical relationships with hopes held high. Even when the odds are stacked against me, and I just know something I’m plopping down 12 bucks for is going to suck beyond all reason, I still want to believe that it won’t. I’m most often the Mulder, not the Scully.

That goes double for records I buy on recommendations, without hearing them first. I know some of you are aghast at that notion, especially considering the digital age we live in. Yes, I could easily listen to these albums before buying them, and decide from that whether or not to spend the money on them. But what fun would that be? At least a dozen times I year, I pay my money and I take my chance, based on nothing but the word of people I trust. And it almost always works out beautifully.

I have two cases in point this week, and the recommends both came from the same guy. Rob Hale is an employee at Kiss the Sky, the greatest record store in the Chicago suburbs. He’s a musicologist – the guy listens to everything, from Impulse label jazz to Steely Dan to Porcupine Tree. He’s introduced me to quite a lot of new-to-me artists, and I’ve learned to take him at his word. Plus, he’s one of the only people I know of who is as excited to play new music for me as I am for him.

Lately, Rob’s been in love with the new Tame Impala album, Lonerism. And after buying and hearing it, I can’t say I blame him. I still have not picked up Innerspeaker, the first Tame Impala record – I have something of an aversion to hyped-up new bands, preferring to let them establish a track record before dipping in – but I understand that it’s similar, if smaller and less adventurous. I’m still excited to hear it, but the sense of adventure is what knocks me out about Lonerism.

For all intents and purposes, Australian Kevin Parker is Tame Impala. He writes all the songs, plays all the instruments (except a few piano lines this time), and produces and records everything at home. But don’t let that fool you into thinking this is cheap-sounding stuff. Lonerism sounds like Parker spent a million on it, so intricate are the arrangements and so crisp is the recording. This is keyboard-tinged ‘60s-influenced psychedelic rock, and its canvas is huge, its palette bursting with color.

The record begins with a repeated mantra: “Gotta be above it,” panted out over thundering drums and heavily processed keyboards. The song doesn’t do much with its powerhouse opening, but it doesn’t need to – before long, we’re neck-deep in “Endors Toi,” a remarkable piece of synth-drenched pop. Its flurry of sound never stops moving, and it sets the tone for most of Lonerism. Parker’s a guy who knows how to construct swarms of sound, but he also knows how to leave spaces – check out the wide-open chasms in the bass-driven “Apocalypse Dreams.”

He also knows how to write a melody. It may take you a few listens to truly hear the tunes beneath the production, but they’re here, and they’re wonderful. “Music to Walk Home By” exudes charm, with its catchy refrain and trippy keys. My favorite part, though, is when the guitars kick in near the end, playing a nimble little run that drives the whole song home. I’m also fond of “Keep On Lying,” which seems to start in the middle – it fades in mid-chorus, repeats for a while, then unfolds into a psych jam of the highest order. (Especially when you consider that Parker is playing all the instruments.)

In a way, this is all prelude to the lumbering juggernaut that is “Elephant.” A relentless stomp of a song, “Elephant” feels in places like a long-lost nugget of the ‘60s, complete with cheesy organ sounds and distorted push-and-shove bass. But there’s an element of doom metal to it as well, which gives it an energetic edge over much of Lonerism. Not that the rest of it falls short – the dazzling mini-epic “Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Could Control,” for example, will make your head spin, and the deceptively dark piano ballad “Sun’s Coming Up” closes things out on a winningly weird note.

Lonerism is an album that lives up to its title – it’s the kind of thing that can only be the product of an individual vision, given free reign. It’s fun, it’s trippy, it’s endlessly inventive, and it’s unfailingly melodic. It takes a few listens to grasp what Kevin Parker is up to here, but once it clicks, Lonerism is a fine, fine piece of work. Looking forward to hearing Innerspeaker now, and following wherever Parker goes next.

As much as I like it, though, the Tame Impala album is not one of my favorites of the year. Rob’s other recommendation certainly is, though. It’s another Australian band, this one named Husky, after its lead singer, Husky Gawenda. Their debut album is called Forever So, and it’s in the mold of Fleet Foxes and Andrew Bird. But there’s a certain magic to it that I won’t be able to adequately explain. Forever So is a collection of tiny acoustic folk-rock songs, sung and played gracefully, but there’s more here. It’s beautiful in ways so few albums are – respectful of space and silence, every element used sparingly and working toward the whole.

This is an album of details – the watery backing vocals that crop up only a couple of times on “Tidal Wave,” the well-placed finger cymbal on “Fake Moustache.” It’s an album that demands attention. It would be easy to let these quiet, wispy tunes fade into the background, but Gawenda and the band have carefully crafted every moment, every note you hear (and every space you don’t). It’s meant for immersive listening. That’s not to say it isn’t immediate, too – “History’s Door” is one of the finest little pop songs I’ve heard this year, and showcases the band at its loudest (which isn’t very loud), and nimble tunes like “Hunter” and the title song are simply lovely.

But there’s a cumulative effect here that goes beyond just pretty songs. Forever So flows perfectly, one gorgeous piece of music into another, and listening to it all in a row is like wrapping yourself up in a warm blanket on a snowy day. Gawenda’s high voice has its limits, but he uses it well, never rising above a sweet half-whisper, and the subtle, yet remarkably intricate production spins around it like fireflies. The best records do this – they take you over for their entire running times, casting a spell that doesn’t lift until the final note is played.

Forever So is like that. It’s such a thoughtfully constructed album, and such a beautiful one to boot, that you won’t want it to end. That ending – the hushed “Farewell (in 3 Parts)” – is just as gentle and moving as the rest of this little gem. Even the concluding horn arrangement is like a caress. Forever So is one of the best records I’ve heard this year, and it sets the bar high for Husky’s future. I hope they can keep making albums like this one, because I haven’t been able to stop listening to Forever So for more than a week now. And I love that feeling, when my hopes are fulfilled, when my optimism is proven right. I choose to be hopeful, and sometimes, it works out.

Thanks, Rob. I owe you.

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See you in line Tuesday morning.