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Indie 500: Coldplay, Beck, & Re-Up Gang

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Indie 500: Coldplay, Beck, & Re-Up Gang

My favorite piece of music criticism this year is one of those cut-and-paste subway collage hack jobs which, if you’re riding the New York subways right now, is pretty much the only entertaining aspect of the whole frustrating, delay-ridden affair. At the Graham Ave stop on the L, someone’s combined this currently ubiquitous photo of Coldplay with State Farm’s slogan: “I’m there.” This is a perfect mash-up, suggesting that Coldplay’s excitement level is roughly on par with the banality of purchasing car insurance. They’re just … there, floating in the environment.

It is, apparently, my job to write 2,000 words every time Coldplay deliver another commercial juggernaut—they hit while I was in high school, at precisely the right time (I needed pretty angst—I was 16, give me a break), and though my taste for maudlin Britpop is mostly in recession, I still have a soft spot for the dudes. Also, they have a lot of really, really angry people on their ass, which is always interesting. When X & Y dropped, I was puzzled at the freakishly disproportionate levels of vitriol. The best I could do by way of explanation: “[they] claim the innovations of Brian Eno … without his ambitions, and that means that something once outsider-ish and vaguely transgressive is now so mainstream as to be on soft-rock radio, and that must surely bother early Eno adopters.” I still think I’m basically right: Coldplay have the exact same record collection as you, super-awesome-taste music fan, they just run with it straight for the blandest direction, bastardizing Kraftwerk into radio hits.

Now it’s 2008, and the release of Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends is raising blood pressure again, and this time Eno’s there to back them up all the way behind the boards. Andy Gill claims their name “evokes a glassy-eyed fish on a fishmonger’s slab, ice melting from its scales” before going on to somehow prove that this is yet another bad thing Tony Blair is responsible for, which seems kind of silly. But Gill’s from the UK, and I suppose he has every right to be annoyed that Coldplay is Britain’s most-prominent musical face to the world. Far less explicable is a spectacularly bitchy close-reading of the band’s MySpace page from Virginia Heffernan, who, among other things, claims Martin “actually sounds as if he’s trying very hard to suppress his arrogance and near-American showoffiness.” You can’t be too overtly self-loathing for some people; either Martin is or isn’t the blandest frontman ever (the former’s correct), but you can’t claim that his blandness is a manifestation of secret arrogance. Dude doesn’t even know how to dress. Meanwhile, hell is freezing over because Pitchfork kinda-sorta-maybe liked the album (6.5! “Lost!” is a “uniquely alluring smash”! “Strawberry Swing” is “spectacular”! etc. etc.).

I can’t really get too exercised about all this either way at this point, though in all fairness I must stand against the surprising amount of people Coldplay has unexpectedly gotten to stop hating them and point out that this album, even by their own standards, is pretty weak. When X & Y came out, Chris Martin made a really spectacular admission: his lyrics aren’t good! “One thing we’re working on is our lyrics,” he announced. “They’re about to get brilliant.” I was really waiting to see what he came up with, but it’s SOP: “Just because I’m losing doesn’t mean I’m lost” is how “Lost!” kicks off. So that’s still a wash, even if there’s nothing as painful as “Talk” ’s howler “Do you feel like a puzzle you can’t find your missing piece.” But the music is definitely more tasteful, which is to say more economical with the running times (thank God) and less prone to histrionics.

But the last thing the world needs is a tasteful Coldplay. If the standard rap against them is their blatant non-offensiveness—so calculated it actually becomes offensive—there’s something energizing about their ability to make every song swell into loud guitars hammering out simple riffs that work. “Fix You” is arguably a terrible song, but I bow before a song in which the world’s loudest church organ is just one part of the endless chorus. Alexis Petridis has struggled with this problem in his reviews of their last two albums in almost identical terms: this time, he’s noted their ability to “write songs that carry the listener along regardless of their reservations – indeed, almost despite them.” Last time, he grudgingly admitted that the “songs are mostly beautifully turned.”

Viva La Vida is tasteful scrubbed sound, aside from the gonzo title single, which is all stabbing strings and deep bass. I like it: it doesn’t wait more than a few seconds before hammering you over the head with uplift. The rest seems too cautious by half: what’s with those pseudo-Middle Eastern strings on “Yes,” for example? They stop the song dead; it’s surprising, sure, but it doesn’t mesh. What’s the point of a non-embarrassing Coldplay? If we’re going to do gooey sentiment, better to go all out instead of hedging bets. Petridis was honest enough to admit that the last three album’s songs work despite the fact that they’re undeniably middlebrow; Viva La Vida panders a little to Eno devotees, cleans up the syrupier musical elements, and drops something astoundingly bland into your lap. It’s supposed to be better for you, but it’s not terribly interesting. If I want intelligent, deeply layered anthems, I’ll listen to Doves; but if I want overly obvious sentiment, what am I supposed to do with these shockingly enervated tunes? Nothing on here is a tenth as overly sentimental (or effective) as “The Scientist,” or “Clocks,” or “A Rush Of Blood To The Head,” etc. etc.

~

More high-school standby material returns to attention: Beck has returned to relevance. It seems pretty clear that the pretty amazing run he had in the ‘90s will never be revisited; anyone who needed the maudlin tried/died/cried rhymes of Sea Change to take him seriously as something other than ironic slacker is missing out. That monochromatic bummer was followed up by the grimly workmanlike Guero. It’s become increasingly obvious (to me, anyway) that Beck’s heart is no longer into the genre juxtapositions Odelay! and Midnite Vultures trotted out with dizzying speed, and Guero’s upbeat moments seemed forced and obligatory. 2006’s The Information remains an underrated return to form, fully integrating Beck’s ever-present melancholia (what does he do for fun in his spare time? He records Nick Drake covers) with inventive arrangements and breakdowns, but it’s still basically the same old stuff done with renewed vigor.

Modern Guilt is either a new era or a one-off (probably the latter, if I had to guess). Auteur-producer Danger Mouse’s fingerprints are all over this; fascinating how quickly he’s established a menacing sound big on ghostly instruments that sound like samples even though they’re not (he’s spiritual kin to Portishead in that respect), though I have to say I find his obsessions a bit oppressive. And that’s Modern Guilt in a nutshell: even at just over half-an-hour, it remains Beck’s most original album this side of the millennium, yet pretty much no fun at all. The apocalypse is on his mind, and most specifically global warming: “Gamma Ray” is a pretty unlikely single, grimly encouraging said ray to get to work already. If that’s not explicit enough, try “Chemtrails,” where he watches jets fly by and announces “we’re climbing a hole in the sky.” Things get worse and worse, until finally “Volcano” contemplates jumping into the crater just to feel some warmth.

What makes Modern Guilt a true bummer is its savage focus: unlike Sea Change’s endless dirges, it’s a restless, inventive album that’s always compelling. There’s crazy, spiraling drums that kick off each part of “Chemtrails,” whose dynamic chorus breaks incongruously out of the eerie stillness of an organ. “Replica” sounds like one of Radiohead’s glitchier nightmares, a real drum kit skittering like a computer over broken-down chords repeating themselves ad infinitum. “Gamma Ray” is a surf-rock riff, but Beck’s vocals are deeper and pissier than I’ve ever heard; “Soul Of A Man” is even freakier, with Jack White guitar solos going off over backwards drums that clap to a fake climax to keep time. There’s a wealth of detail here: like Spoon, Beck’s making sure everything’s so pared down that every element assumes extra weight. It’s definitely admirable, but I hope it’s out of his system now; I don’t think I can take another album like this. But the unconverted should definitely check this out: it’s an unexpected late-stage re-invention that does exactly what it wants.

~

OK, time for some fun. Being the diligent white rap listener that I am, I’m immensely fond of Clipse; Hell Hath No Fury is exactly as good as the hype had it, they put on a ferocious live show, and their punchlines are immaculate. What’s not to love? Now that their beef opponent Lil Wayne has, once again, made a completely unlikely triumph over the American record-buying public, it remains to be seen if Clipse—who’ve been out in the commercial wilderness ever since 2002—can stage a similar comeback. My guess is yes—Rick Rubin gave them a contract worth $1.8 million if all the options are exercised, and I don’t see him being particularly eager to become a rap philanthropist. A key element here is the introduction of new producers into Clipse’s world, and while their albums with the Neptunes are simply perfect—the negative spaces and weird sounds they come up with allow Clipse a great deal of freedom to duck around and establish their own usual patterns—they’re undeniably a bit odd for radio, even by the Neptunes’ standards. While waiting for Till The Casket Drops to come out (it’s apparently already been pushed back once), it’s time for a test-run with more conventional beats.

One option is to release Re-Up Gang albums outside of Rubin’s purvey (Re-Up Gang being their posse—Clipse plus Sandman and Ab-Liva, accomplished but unexciting back-up dudes; their verses keep you going inoffensively while you wait for the return of the Thornton brothers). So Koch Records—an always ambivalently-regarded label I don’t even want to get into here—gets to put out The Clipse Presents: Re-Up Gang, a kind of cheapish test-run to see how Clipse perform apart from their long-time partners. Based on what’s here, I see no reason to worry. Lots of this is recycled lines from We Got It 4 Cheap Vol. 3, which I found kind of enervating and sludgy, but it’s easier to take them in this new context. Much of this is produced by previously unknown quantities Sleepwalkers, whose unfortunate name makes them an easy target. Let’s put it this way: these are, for the most part, rote and unimaginative beats, heavy on tinny keyboards and standard drums. They’re better than, say, the retarded minimalism of G-Unit, which is downright insulting, but they won’t get anyone that excited. But do they give Clipse enough anger and momentum to get your attention? Absolutely.

“Bring It Back” is whatever as a beat, but the smart-ass moment where they yell out “redrum redrum” is gratifying despite its relative predictability. Some folks are annoyed by the whiny girl voice repeating “money, gimme some” over and over on, well, “Money,” but it’s basically a slightly more monotonous version of the harridan women Clipse like to mock so much (and if you don’t believe me, check out the incredibly shrill monologue preceding “Ma, I Don’t Love Her” on Lord Willin’). These beats are generically “aggressive” and sound like a passable party track for a low-budget indie’s party scene, but they do what they’re supposed to: show that there is, in fact, life after the Neptunes. We hope anyway. Freed from the dreary duty of rapping over beats they don’t particularly seem to be inspired by on Vol. 3, this plays like a fine dry run with lots of fun moments: no focused classic, but a perfectly acceptable placeholder. (And it should be noted that the one song with a real producer—“Fast Life”, backed by Scott Storch—more than measures up; the chorus seems deliberately dumbed-down, but the verses are as sharp as ever, and Pusha’s flow still stops and starts in unpredictable ways.) There will be more to say when they finally drop a new album: you get the feeling they’re holding themselves in check with dazzling links of logic (I dig the moment on “Still Got It For Cheap” where they claim the colors of their bling are so vivid it seems to come out of an REM dream state) that link standard, imaginatively expressed boasts. Whether they’ll continue to be rap’s coldest-blooded (and most distanced/conceptual) nihilists remains to be seen.

Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Onion A.V. Club and Paste Magazine, among others.

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Awards

Oscars 2019: Who Will Win? Who Should Win? Our Final Predictions

No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them.

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Roma
Photo: Netflix

No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them. Cut out the montages, bring back honorary award presentations, give stunt performers their own category, let ranked-choice voting determine every category and not just best picture, overhaul the membership ranks, hold the event before the guilds spoil the surprise, find a host with the magic demographic-spanning mojo necessary to double the show’s recent audience pools, nominate bigger hits, nominate only hits. Across the last 24 days, Ed Gonzalez and I have mulled over the academy’s existential crisis and how it’s polluted this year’s Oscar race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again. We’re spent, and while we don’t know if we have it in us to do this next year, we just might give it another go if Oscar proves us wrong on Sunday in more than just one category.

Below are our final Oscar predictions. Want more? Click on the individual articles for our justifications and more, including who we think should win in all 24 categories.

Picture: Green Book
Director: Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
Actor: Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
Actress: Glenn Close, The Wife
Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Supporting Actress: Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
Original Screenplay: Green Book
Adapted Screenplay: BlacKkKlansman
Foreign Language: Roma
Documentary Feature: RBG
Animated Feature Film: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Documentary Short: Period. End of Sentence
Animated Short: Weekends
Live Action Short: Skin
Film Editing: Bohemian Rhapsody
Production Design: The Favourite
Cinematography: Cold War
Costume Design: The Favourite
Makeup and Hairstyling: Vice
Score: If Beale Street Could Talk
Song: “Shallow,” A Star Is Born
Sound Editing: First Man
Sound Mixing: Bohemian Rhapsody
Visual Effects: First Man

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Picture

The industry’s existential crisis has polluted this race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again.

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Green Book
Photo: Universal Pictures

“I’m hyperventilating a little. If I fall over pick me up because I’ve got something to say,” deadpanned Frances McDormand upon winning her best actress Oscar last year. From her lips to Hollywood’s ears. No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them. Cut out the montages, bring back honorary award presentations, give stunt performers their own category, let ranked-choice voting determine every category and not just best picture, overhaul the membership ranks, hold the event before the guilds spoil the surprise, find a host with the magic demographic-spanning mojo necessary to double the show’s recent audience pools, nominate bigger hits, nominate only hits.

But first, as McDormand herself called for during her speech, “a moment of perspective.” A crop of articles have popped up over the last two weeks looking back at the brutal showdown between Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare In Love at the 1999 Academy Awards, when Harvey Weinstein was at the height of his nefarious powers. Every retrospective piece accepts as common wisdom that it was probably the most obnoxious awards season in history, one that indeed set the stage for every grinding assault we’ve paid witness to ever since. But did anyone two decades ago have to endure dozens of weekly Oscar podcasters and hundreds of underpaid web writers musing, “What do the Academy Awards want to be moving forward, exactly? Who should voters represent in this fractured media environment, exactly?” How much whiskey we can safely use to wash down our Lexapro, exactly?

Amid the fox-in-a-henhouse milieu of ceaseless moral outrage serving as this awards season’s backdrop, and amid the self-obsessed entertainers now wrestling with the idea that they now have to be “content providers,” all anyone seems concerned about is what an Oscar means in the future, and whether next year’s versions of Black Panther and Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody have a seat at the table. What everyone’s forgetting is what the Oscars have always been. In other words, the industry’s existential crisis has polluted this race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again, and Oscar’s clearly splintered voting blocs may become ground zero for a Make the Academy Great Again watershed.

In 1956, the Oscars took a turn toward small, quotidian, neo-realish movies, awarding Marty the top prize. The correction was swift and sure the following year, with a full slate of elephantine epics underlining the movie industry’s intimidation at the new threat of television. Moonlight’s shocking triumph two years ago was similarly answered by the safe, whimsical The Shape of Water, a choice that reaffirmed the academy’s commitment to politically innocuous liberalism in artistically conservative digs. Call us cynical, but we know which of the last couple go-arounds feels like the real academy. Which is why so many are banking on the formally dazzling humanism of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and so few on the vital, merciless fury of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman.

And even if we give the benefit of the doubt to the academy’s new members, there’s that righteous, reactionary fervor in the air against those attempting to “cancel” Green Book. Those attacking the film from every conceivable angle have also ignored the one that matters to most people: the pleasure principle. Can anyone blame Hollywood for getting its back up on behalf of a laughably old-fashioned but seamlessly mounted road movie-cum-buddy pic that reassures people that the world they’re leaving is better than the one they found? That’s, as they say, the future that liberals and Oscar want.

Will Win: Green Book

Could Win: Roma or BlacKkKlansman

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Adapted Screenplay

After walking back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing here.

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BlacKkKlansman
Photo: Focus Features

Eric and I have done a good job this year of only selectively stealing each other’s behind-the-scenes jokes. We have, though, not been polite about stepping on each other’s toes in other ways. Okay, maybe just Eric, who in his impeccable take on the original screenplay free-for-all detailed how the guilds this year have almost willfully gone out of their way to “not tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film.” Case in point: Can You Ever Forgive Me? winning the WGA’s adapted screenplay trophy over presumed Oscar frontrunner BlacKkKlansman. A glitch in the matrix? We think so. Eric and I are still in agreement that the race for best picture this year is pretty wide open, though maybe a little less so in the wake of what seemed like an easy win for the Spike Lee joint. Nevertheless, we all know that there’s no Oscar narrative more powerful than “it’s about goddamn time,” and it was so powerful this year that even the diversity-challenged BAFTAs got the memo, giving their adapted screenplay prize to Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott. To bamboozle Lee at this point would, admittedly, be so very 2019, but given that it’s walked back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing.

Will Win: BlacKkKlansman

Could Win: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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