This week I’ve been listening to two of my favorite female debut artists from 2013: Haim and Lorde. I felt like both sophomore efforts this year, unfortunately, were a letdown, but have their moments.
Haim’s Something to Tell You, I feared, could have gone in the direction of Taylor Swift, but instead is a surprisingly fresh road trip through the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Quite literally, there are songs in the album that sound like the love child of Celine Dion and George Michael, or Hanson and Fleetwood Mac, or ABBA and Michael Jackson. For that alone it’s a wonderful listen and a testament to the creative sensibilities of the Valley sisters. Anthem “Want You Back”, which is on my shortlist for best music video of the year, and “You Never Knew”, which Bleeds Orange all over in the best possible way, are the standouts so far. For the rest of the album I’m constantly being thrown back to memories of some random radio ad background song I can’t remember from the early oughts, or a specific guitar song from a long lost oldies playlist. Now all that being said, I still think Days Are Gone was the better album. There’s somehow still more diversity, more kick-ass rhythm, and more cinematic beauty throughout that album from “Falling” to “The Wire” to “Running If You Call My Name”. But Haim is definitely still in the game. My rating: 3.5/5
Lorde’s Melodrama I’m having a harder time getting into. The magic of Pure Heroine was its minimalist nonchalance, the feeling that you were discovering a superstar in the making in the bedroom studio of an unnamed suburb halfway around the world. The maturations and production upgrades of her second album all make sense, but one of the effects is that these songs feel sound a bit less distinguishable from each other. Nothing transports me quite to the extent that “Ribs” or “400 Lux” did; the closest trips are “Supercut” and the Loveless half of “Hard Feelings/Loveless”. But I do have to admit that the unfettered, anthemic arrivals in “Green Light” and “Perfect Places” are a great new territory for Lorde which I’m perfectly happy to have. My rating: 3.5/5
I’ll quickly add that the second single “Guilty Party” by The National is an absolute gem and was on repeat for much of my Tokyo trip. Can’t wait to see them perform this in October.
Movies: There have been some great ones in the last couple of weeks. Baby Driver was so much better than the trailer made it out to be, with a surprisingly confident lead by Ansel Elgort and entertaining support from Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, and Lily James. But the standout is director Edgar Wright with some absolutely delightful direction and vision, from the irreverent screenplay to the danceable soundtrack. I can’t say there’s a lot of depth here, but there sure is a joy ride.
I also watched Okja on Netflix which I’ve been anxiously awaiting, and it did not disappoint with its narrative acrobatics and surprisingly believable-looking, Totoro-like muse. As a new vegetarian, I really appreciated how serious of a thematic ground an otherwise unserious film gets to, with grace and confidence. Bong Joon-ho has struck gold twice with back-to-back ecological fantasties Snowpiercer and Okja, and I’m already impatiently awaiting the third, and what crazy role Tilda Swinton will play.
The Big Sick was also a solid Apatow production that tactfully commented on the perils of religious culture, delighted with surprisingly messy and moving performances from the parents Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, and knocked it out of the ballpark with the funniest in-movie joke I can recall this year. But the biggest surprise I’ve recently seen was Cars 3. It was honestly a throwaway entertainment one night, but I forgot that Pixar should, under no circumstances, be underestimated. I’m pretty sure I did not watch Cars 2 and barely remember anything about Cars, but if you give the third one a shot, you’ll see that it firmly stands on its own four wheels with a narrative idea that beats Moana, Finding Dory, Kubo and the Two Strings — every animated film since Zootopia. I don’t want to spoil it, except to say that it’s about as prescient as Pixar could get to our current political conscience without making a movie about politics, and to implore you to give it the chance it deserves.
In terms of books, I’ve mainly just enjoyed Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape, which, like his other books I’ve read, aren’t quite excellent as literature but are stock full of intellectual clarity and honesty on the most vital ideas in my mind this year. It’s actually probably the best place to start with Harris, so I encourage those who are willing to resist whatever stigma may be attached to his name from whatever dogmatic source to give it a try. More on the ideas themselves in an upcoming post.