My Top Five Music Albums from 2015

Like last year, here is my annual, obviously subjective, list of the best music albums of 2015. If I could only listen to five records from 2015 for the rest of my life, it would be these. Give them a spin.

1. The Wonderlands – Jon Foreman

Switchfoot frontman Jon Foreman released his second quartet of solo EP last year. Like his Seasons Eps, in which each album was named for one of the four seasons, respectively, The Wonderlands revolve around a cycle. Each track represents an hour in the 24-hour cycle of a day, and each album draws its name from the appropriate part of the day: Sunlight, Shadows, Darkness, and Dawn. Together, the Wonderlands capture much of the remarkable breadth of the human experience, including Foreman’s signature reflections on mortality (“Terminal”), his compassion for the broken and downcast (“You Don’t Know How Beautiful You Are”), his personal vices (“Ghost Machine”) and doubts (“Inner Peace”), and above all his desperate faith in the saving work and person of Jesus (“Mercy’s War”).

These aren’t the wonderlands of the fantastic imaginings of a Lewis Carroll type, but the wonderlands of life in this world – a place of tension between the beautiful and the oppressive, between eternal truths and damnable lies, between paradoxes and facts and leaps of faith. They’re part of that rare breed of music that I can listen to no matter what mood I’m in, though more often than not I’ve found myself seeking solace in the Wonderlands in the hard times of despair, doubt, and fear. Indeed, Foreman may be the most empathic music artist in the business these days.

2. Blurryface – Twenty One Pilots

If last year was the year my eyes were finally opened to the wonders of Needtobreathe, this was the year of discovering Twenty One Pilots. This duo out of Columbus refuses to be pinned down by genre conventions. They serve up elements of hip-hop, pop, rock, electronica and more, not so much blended together as implemented at different stages of their songs. Frontman Tyler Joseph has said he didn’t realize there were rules to songwriting when he first started creating music, and it shows. Their songs don’t follow an expected progression, but somehow they work.

What truly makes them the cream of the crop of today’s music scene, however, is their lyrics. Twenty One Pilots songs are full of angst, but the not the sort of angst we laugh about when we think about listening to Paramore and Linkin Park in high school. It’s the post-youth angst found in coming to grips with one’s eternal responsibility. The stakes are higher. As we realize we cannot retreat to the petty problems of childhood (“Stressed Out”), we see more and more clearly the struggles and insufficiencies embedded deep in our “heavydirtysouls.” So put away all the gods your fathers served today. Put away your traditions. Believe me when I say we don’t know how to put back the power in our souls. We don’t know how to find what once was in our bones (“Hometown”).

3. Dear Wormwood – The Oh Hellos

My music tastes heavily evolved in another way this past autumn: I fell in love with folk music. I’ve know of The Oh Hellos for years, but they didn’t show up strong on my radar until I saw them open for Needtobreathe last year. It was an opening act that I’ve rarely seen matched, so when they went on a headlining tour for their new album, Dear Wormwood, I made sure to catch a show. These guys are one of those bands whose live show markedly changes how you hear their music, infusing it with vivacity. How many times has a banjo player snuck up behind you during a concert? Probably never, but thanks to the Oh Hellos, it happened to me. That’s not a show you forget in a hurry.

Their second full-length album, Dear Wormwood, draws its name from C.S. Lewis’ classic work, The Screwtape Letters. The book follows an imaginative situation in which a senior demon named Screwtape writes letters to his nephew, Wormwood, instructing him in the art of tempting human souls. The title track of the album speaks to that scenario from the human perspective, perceiving with clear eyes the purposes of the tempter and declaring opposition: “I know who I am now, and all that you’ve made of me. I know who you are now, and I name you my enemy.

4. Home – Josh Garrels

I had the privilege of interviewing Josh Garrels this year shortly after this album dropped. Garrels is one of those artists who (it seems to me) has succeeded through the sheer force of raw talent rather than stage presence or marketing. He first caught my attention with his breakout album, Love and War and Sea In Between. As the title suggests, it is an album full of conflict, spiritual warfare, taking a stand, and persevering on the journey home. On his latest album, Home, Garrels makes a shift in style and tone toward the soulful and contemplative, seeking that deep, intractable, divine rest and comfort available to the believer in the here and now.

Like Jon Foreman, I go to Garrels’ music for therapy and for encouragement. He captures the difficulties and joys of the Christian experience without sounding cliché or effusive. Here’s what he had to say about the new album: “In Home, there is the sense that I needed to know that things could be ok. I can tend towards being melancholy, wearing the weight of things on my shoulders. That can be a good thing, but I think on this album I really was searching. Where is the place where it’s going to be all right? Where is the place that we can find rest and joy and peace?”

5. Strange Trails – Lord Huron

This last slot was a tough choice, but ultimately I have to give the nod to Lord Huron, if for no other reason than that it is autumn incarnate. In the months after I saw them at DC’s Landmark Music Festival at the end of September, Lord Huron was the only band I wanted to listen to. Their music evokes recollections of long, formative journeys and stirs fond memories of foolish romances. I would describe it as ethereal and detached if it didn’t conjure such concrete images of the Virginia countryside descending into winter – cloudy days, damp paths, cool air, old forests and falling leaves.

If I were to sit down to write poetry or literary fiction, this is the album I’d put on in the background.

 

Honorable Mentions

Kids in Love – The Mowglis: This band takes the millennial ideal of love to its most extreme. Sometimes it’s fun to let my worries go and feel like I’m not alone, and even if I show up late, my friends will love me anyway.

Every Open Eye – CHVRCHES: The track “Clearest Blue” might have the sickest build and drop of any song I’ve ever heard, and the album as a whole represents a solid sophomore effort from the Scottish electronic trio. Also, I might be in love with lead singer Lauren Mayberry.

LOVETAP! – Smallpools: If I were to rank this list by songs I listened to the most, this album would have cracked the top five. These guys are like Walk the Moon’s cool little brother.

Mobile Orchestra – Owl City: While I think this is Adam Young’s weakest album as Owl City to date, I still has a lot to enjoy. He takes his faith to new levels of explicit spiritual expression in My Everything and You’re Not Alone, yet also collaborates with mainstream artists across a variety of genres – namely Jake Owen, Aloe Blacc, and Hanson (yeah, apparently Hanson’s still around). The juxtaposition doesn’t always work, and it lacks the innocence and charm – but not the sentimentality – of his earlier albums. Even so, I still count myself a dedicated fan.

California Nights – Best Coast: I’ve lived in DC for three years now, but I had a friend tell me recently that I still exude a decidedly Californian aura. I’d like to think this album by Best Coast (meaning the west coast, of course!) helps keep the Californian alive in me – sunny, beach-bum, alt-rock. The opening track makes me want to roll down the windows and drive through Los Angeles in the summer. And if you want a way to sonically capture the experience of going up to the Hollywood Bowl overlook at night, fire up the title track and drift into the psychedelic night.

Thaumatrope – Marah in the Mainsail: Rather than feeding off of petty breakups and navel-gazing emotion, this self-described “cinematic indie” outfit out of Minneapolis strives to tell stories fit for the movies, and I think they succeed. Their aggressive, boot-stomping folk is the perfect soundtrack for any post-Christmas winter adventure, yet Thaumatrope also has enough deep tracks to undergird those long, cold nights spent around the hearth, gazing into the fire.

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Ulysses and the Paradox of Freedom

Last year the band Switchfoot released an EP of songs they recorded for a documentary tour/surf film. One of the songs is called “Liberty.” As the title suggests, it is about freedom, but it begins with a metaphor that challenges our conventional understanding of what freedom actually is:

I tie myself up to the mast

Give up the semblance of control

The sirens sing, but I let them pass

‘cause only you can free my soul

The reference, of course, is from the classic Greek epic The Odyssey. At one point in his journey home, the hero Ulysses is warned about the irresistible song of the sirens, which entices men to chase after it to their destruction. Because he wants to hear the song, Odysseus has his crew tie him to the mast so that he can hear the song without pursuing its seductive beauty.

The songwriter Josh Garrels makes a similar reference in a song called Ulysses, in which he asks to be tied to the mast of the ship on which he is sailing.

But look at those first two lines from Switchfoot’s song: I tie myself up and give up control. What kind of freedom is this?

I had a professor in college who used to point out in his philosophy classes that anytime you are freed from something, you become enslaved to something else. In other words, you always freed into a new place of slavery. Any realistic talk of freedom must include this nuance because freedom cannot exist in a vacuum. The song gets this in the reference to giving up the semblance of control. To deny our “creatureliness,” as the late anthropologist Ernest Becker might say, is to live in an illusion.

“We don’t want to admit that we are fundamentally dishonest about reality, that we do not really control our own lives,” he writes in The Denial of Death. “We don’t want to admit that we do not stand alone, that we always rely on something that transcends us, some system of ideas and powers in which we are embedded and which support us.”

Odysseus-003Becker is saying that our meaning and motives are contingent on forces outside of us; we simply must give ourselves away to something or somebody. If we don’t, we will despair, go insane, and generally cease to live in any meaningful sense. It is our nature to latch onto something bigger and better than the self because we are weak and live in the constant shadow of death. This greater object can be a lot of different things – an abstract ideal of virtue or heroism, a lover, a god, or even something as debased as a number in a bank account.

The pastor Tim Keller gives a practical example to explain how freedom must coexist with slavery. If you want the freedom to play the piano, he says, you must put in long hours of practice, forfeiting the freedom to do many other things with those hours. But it is only after you’ve enslaved yourself to the practice of the piano that you can sit down and play stunning pieces of music.

When I was in college, I saw this firsthand as I roomed with a number of music majors. Many days they would leave for the practice rooms early in the morning and not return until midnight. Sometimes they looked weary and miserable from the grind, other times elated because of a breakthrough in mastering a new technique or portion of a piece. Their spirit changed according to how the work seemed to be going in the moment, but at the recital at the end of the semester I saw the fruit of their labor. It was always wondrous to behold – both the magnificence of the piece they played and the raw elation they displayed from performing it.

As finite beings that can only exist at a single place and time, any meaningful sense of freedom must therefore mean a sort of enslavement, because as the example of practicing music implies, saying yes to one thing means saying no to everything else.

Now extrapolate that freedom-enslavement paradigm to the soul – the self, the seat of our core identity and deepest desires. What would it look like to free that? What would it take to free the part of us that has the longings of eternity written on it? Is there any one thing, any one person, to which we can subsume all of the lesser pursuits of freedom?

The philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard thought so. Becker summarizes Kierkegaard’s view thusly: “Once the person begins to look to his relationship to the Ultimate Power, to infinitude, and to refashion his links from those around him to that Ultimate Power, he opens up to himself the horizon of unlimited possibility, real freedom.” In other words, real freedom comes when one grounds his identity and purpose fundamentally in the almighty God.

Both of the aforementioned songs have two additional components to their understanding of liberty that shows us why nothing short of this infinite God will do. The first is an implicit understanding that our impulses and desires are fundamentally flawed.  Ulysses understood that even though he had been warned that pursuing the siren song would kill him, he still had to lash himself to the mast. He knew his own self-control would not be enough to stop him from throwing himself to his doom, and so he gave up control. He sacrificed his own volition, but he preserved his life.

This is profoundly instructive for us today in a world where similarly destructive comforts and pleasures are ever before us, singing a siren song that sounds damn good. When one embraces his own self-centered passions under the guise of authentic self-expression or self-actualization, he will inevitably find himself thrashing after the siren song to an end of bitterness, despair, and (perhaps literally) death. Individual stories of these self-destructive pursuits abound – just read some history or great literature, or look at the lessons of your past.

Thomas_Cole,_The_Voyage_of_Life croppedWe’re bent out of shape, but how can we be set straight? What’s the solution to disordered desires? You can lash yourself to the mast, but that won’t help in the long run unless that mast is on a ship and unless the ship has a destination. Therefore, the final component to this theology of freedom we see in these songs is the idea of the present journey and the hope of home.

Here’s another line from Switchfoot’s Liberty:

Mine is the story headed home.

And Garrels:

I’m sailing home to you and I won’t be long…

So tie me to the mast of this old ship and point me home

Before I lose the one I love

Before my chance is gone

Here we see the faith that our lives have a destination, an ideal home that this world only gives us a small foretaste of. These songs understand that the experience of lashing yourself to the mast is not the end goal of freedom, but a means of self preservation until you make it to your true home – the final resting place.

But how can we reconcile that hope with the siren song in the here and now? How can you be free at your current home when so many of our impulses and desires are misguided? I believe Kierkegaard rightly found the resolution in Christianity, a faith that holds forth a paradoxical freedom by proclaiming both our liberty and our enslavement. One moment, Jesus Christ is saying “come unto me all you who are weary and I will give you rest.” And the next he says “if you would follow me, you must deny yourself and take up your cross.” The Apostle Paul says that “where the spirit of the Lord is there is liberty,” but then he says “you are not your own, because you were bought with a price,” and it is therefore incumbent upon you to live for God’s glory.

And so the Christian, looking beyond the limited possibilities of this present life, submits to a temporal, liberating enslavement. He entrusts himself to Jesus Christ, the freest man to ever live who, in his freedom as God-incarnate, submitted himself to the will of his Father. In being united to Christ, the Christian has hope that one day we will experience true freedom from our selfish, damning impulses in a new home – the Father’s house.

But for now we live in the tension of our depravity. In matters of the self and the soul, we only find freedom by denying our baser nature, fencing ourselves sin, cutting off hands and putting out eyes, tying ourselves to the mast and giving up the semblance of control. The sires sing, but we can let them pass, because only You can free my soul.

My top five albums of 2014

Last year around this time I posted a list of my top ten songs from 2013. Over the past year, however, I’ve listened to more music–and more new music–than ever before. I’ve also been going to more live shows of my favorite artists than ever before. It’s too hard to pick another set of top ten songs, so this time I’ve broadened the scope.

If I could only listen to five albums from 2014 for the rest of my life, here’s what they would be:

1. Fading West – Switchfoot

Anyone who knows me remotely well knows that Switchfoot is my favorite band, so it’s natural that their latest album would the top spot of the year. Spotify data further backs this up as most of the tracks from Fading West topped my 100-most-played-songs list.

As I concluded in my review of the album:

“The subjects and the struggles of Switchfoot’s songs are timeless – brokenness and depravity, cultural numbness and consumerism, time and morality, hope and restoration. Rightly grappled with, those never get old. They probe the vast depths of our humanity with questions worthy of song. In Fading West, Switchfoot found a way to skirt the clichés by returning to the same eternal questions in a fresh musical context, reminding us that true hope is ‘anchored on the other side / with the colors that live outside of the lines.'”

2. Rivers in the Wasteland – Needtobreathe

I will always remember 2014 as the year that I truly “discovered” Needtobreathe. I had heard of them and listened to their hits on Christian radio in junior high and high school, and while I didn’t overtly dislike them, my attitude toward them had been pretty “meh”.

Seeing them live changed all of that. Aside from Switchfoot, it was my favorite concert of the year. I’ve grown to love these guys for many of the same reasons I like Switchfoot. Since opening for Taylor Swift a while back, they’ve been straddling the line between the Christian and secular music scenes (they played in the Thanksgiving Parade this year, for example), but they do it by writing stinking good songs. I think Rivers in the Wasteland is their best album to date.

3. When I Was Younger – Colony House

If one could conceive of an alternative/indie-rock act in the tradition of Switchfoot and Needtobreathe, it might look something like Colony House. Two of the band members are sons of Contemporary Christian Music legend Steven Curtis Chapman. They’ve clearly inherited some musical talent but refuse to live inside their father’s niche. The result is a punchy yet spiritually substantive freshman album that is uplifting without being cliche, guaranteed to cure a case of the Mondays as well as provide emotional solace to those facing the worst of life’s sufferings.

“We’ve got to roll with the punches, fight through the fire,” sings vocalist Caleb Chapman in one of the my favorite tracks. “When the trouble comes baby we can work our way around it / Love is a lesson to be learned with time / If we can climb the mountain then we can work our way around it.”

Tell me you don’t feel better already.

4. Talking Is Hard – Walk the Moon

This one only came out a few weeks ago, so I may be biased by the novelty of it and have yet to see if it will stand the test of time. What I do know, however, is that it features the hands-down best party song of the year, “Shut Up and Dance.” For what it attempts to be, that song is perfect. What Owl City’s “Good Time” was to my summer of 2012, Shut Up and Dance was to the fall of 2014. It has already sparked a number of impromptu dance parties with some of my best friends. It stands as the cornerstone and inspiration for my collaborative “Chairdancing” playlist on Spotify (which you should follow). And I already have no doubt that hearing it live when I see Walk the Moon this April will be one of the best moments of 2015.

There’s much to be said for the rest of the album too, which solidifies Walk the Moon’s dominance in the indie rock world. The opening track Different Colors hits the catchy, progressive, millennial sweet spot, and Aquaman closes it down with some nostalgia-heavy, emotive 80s vibes.

5. Before the Waves – Magic Man

This Boston synth-pop group has been described as a mashup of Death Cab for Cutie and Passion Pit. It’s an apt comparison that effectively sums why these guys are so fantastic. Their music is downright infectious, but it has enough freshness and a sense of romance and wanderlust (song titles include “Texas” and “Paris”, for example) so that hipsters can listen to it without feeling ashamed.

 

Honorable mentions

(read: albums that would make a top 10 list and really good EPs)

Strange Desire – Bleachers: Fun. guitarist Jack Antonoff is a great artist in his own right.

Blonde – Ghost Beach: Self-dubbed “tropical grit-pop;” this is perfect escapist music if warm coastal locales and sticky-sweet electronic pop are your thing.

Supermodel – Foster the People: This is actually a really good sophomore album thanks to its heavy existential bent; I can’t figure out why it didn’t make more waves.

From the Spark EP – Grizfolk: I’d make this a centerpiece of any roadtrip playlist.

Parallel Play EP – Panama Wedding: All The People is the quintessential summer jam.

Smoke EP – House of Heroes: These guys might have my favorite album of all time in The End is Not the End. Their latest EP continues their signature, spiritually substantive, alt-rock.

The Edge of the Earth: Unreleased Songs from the film “Fading West” – Switchfoot: In addition to being an album, “Fading West” was also the title of a surf film that Switchfoot made; this EP of unreleased songs from the film made for a pleasant surprise later in the year.

Some Nights With Fun. – A Reflection

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lunchboxstudios/7550586384/

Source: Flickr

There are some nights I wait for someone to save us

But I never look inward, try not to look upward

And some nights I pray a sign is gonna come to me

But usually, I’m just trying to get some sleep…

Perhaps it’s just my angst-ridden, directionless millennial self, but I believe no band captures the spirit of my generation better than Fun.

When We Are Young and Some Nights ruled the charts last year with their anthemic celebration of youth and the uncertainty of life, it was clear the band had struck a chord. All of my friends loved them. I heard them on the radio. Glee covered We Are Young. In short, they became a staple of pop culture, and rightfully so. Unlike any song I’d ever heard, Some Nights made me feel. It still does.

So when Fun. Came to the Merriweather Post Pavilion on tour with Tegan and Sara, I knew I had to go. If I passed up the opportunity to see them at this point in life – a year out of college, still chock-full of anxiety, optimism, happiness, doubt, and hope – I would regret it the rest of my life.

Concerts have a unique value in that they take the audience to a new level of reality. In the age of the internet, much of my experience of the world comes and goes through a screen and speakers. This leaves a certain gloss of unreality over almost everything I watch and read about. When I see a band live that I had only previously experience through album covers and music videos, it feels alien, yet wonderful, because it brings a fresh sense of reality and vitality to the music.

Fun.’s show was no exception. Lead singer Nate Ruess brought the same animating tension to his live performance that made Some Nights a chart-topping album. He looked exhilarated, high not so much on the adoration of thousands of fans as on the raw rush of performing, that sensation of making music and experiencing life with people. When a performer does this well, playing and singing out of sheer delight in the opportunity to share his creation with the world, it justifies the cost of time and money to experience it. And when the audience reciprocates that love, it creates moments together in the here and now because that’s all we have, and we’re young and crazy and probably in love. We agree it’s a great time to be alive, so why the hell not light the world on fire?

But I think there’s something else there too. Several years ago, 60 minutes interviewed Tom Brady, the multi-superbowl-winning quarterback of the New England Patriots. As the segment showcased what appeared to be the pinnacle of his life both on and off the field—he just signed a $60 million contract and was dating a Victoria’s Secret model—Brady said this:

“Why do I have three super-bowl rings and still think there’s something greater out there for me? I mean, maybe a lot of people would say ‘Hey man this is what it is, I reached my goal, my dream, my life is…’ Me? I think god, it’s gotta be more than this.”

“What’s the answer?” The interviewer asked.

“I wish I knew…I wish I knew.”

Like Brady to football, I have no doubt Ruess loves getting up on stage with a vigor that even few professional performers have, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he would like nothing better than to do that for the rest of his life.

However, I suspect deeper, darker sentiments underneath his elation – perhaps a rage born out of a longing to be complete and whole and to find purpose. If Ruess throws as much of himself as he can into his shows, then surely he expects the world out of them, and I can’t help but wonder if they don’t quite satisfy the longing.

If they don’t, surely he feels cheated by life.

And if cheated, where else does one go? In Fun.’s universe, where one lives in the passion of moment, neglecting to look inward or upward for salvation, music in the moment becomes the pinnacle of life. Everything has to be about the song we’re singing right now with those around us (and especially the lover with us). How could it be otherwise?

Fun. concert pic

This desperate passion for the moment fuels the creative process, and hearing Fun. live impressed on me the beautiful artistry of their music. Guitarist Jack Antonoff’s guitar riffs and solos and melodies gave the sense that each song is its own unique creation, not the product of some cookie-cutter pop producer but a terrible labor – stories and feelings wrought out of unrequited love, nostalgia, disillusionment, escapism, and dark nights of soul searching. All are then packaged in a conceptually abstract but fiercely present hope. How else could one start the song Carry On with a quiet piano and a lyric like “We are not shining stars” and then build up to a rousing exhortation: “If you’re lost and alone, and you’re sinking like a stone, carry on. May your past be the sound of your feet upon the ground, and carry on.”

Indeed, the music takes you places with its abrupt shifts in style, timbre, and sentiment mid-song and refusal to consistently adhere to the standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-chorus formula. To my untrained ear, it often sounds almost as if they embrace asymmetry at times without compromising the overall composition and unity of their art. Regardless of the explanation or phenomenon, it takes talent (and probably a good bit of angst, alcohol, and/or drugs), and it is delightful.

I’m amazed at the ruthless optimism in music these days, rampant in everything from obscure, self-conscious indie bands to overproduced, sentimentalized mainstream pop. Live music – even that of the stereotypical “band you probably haven’t heard of,” brings people together in a bond of hope almost impossible to replicate or surpass. If we have each other, everything is going to be okay, right? Or as music artist Kyle Andrews sums it up: “It’s not a sad song if everybody sings along.”

Mr. Andrews, meet exhibit A.

Ruess has his own paradoxical term for this phenomenon in his lyrics: “pessimistic optimism.”

“The We Are Young thing is puzzling to me,” he said in an interview, “That’s not a happy song. That’s not how it was intended. There’s a hole in my heart when I think about it.”

I have a guess why. I love singing We Are Young as much as anyone, but one unspoken question haunts it: What happens when you wake up and you’re old? Of course we can celebrate youth—it’s a wonderful season of life—but it cannot be the pinnacle of life itself because it will not last. Tonight you are young, but you might not be tomorrow, and what will life mean to you then?

Fun. ended the show with the last track on their newest record, Stars: a long, rambling song which in substance tragically embraces the ultimate hopelessness of life yet somehow manages to feel comforting. Much like Some Nights confesses to a vast void of purpose while lifting the hearer up in a rousing anthem, the tension between an absurd reality and feelings of hope stretched my heart as only art can.

You’re always holding onto stars, cause no one’s gonna save us.

But we need saving, don’t we?

When Fun. came back on the stage for the two-song encore to belt out Some Nights, I sang it out with everything my horse voice could handle, but inside my heart pulled away from the tension:

No…no this can’t be it, I thought. I do stand for something. Yes, sometimes I don’t know, and on some nights I’m less convinced than on others, but there is a hill out there that I’m ready to die on.

I expected the live performance of Some Nights to carry me into its existential moment. To a point it did, but I also believe it showed me a glimpse of my true self. I’d like to think it revealed that underneath all the questions and doubts about life and truth that have plagued me over the past several years and continue to haunt me, my soul is grounded on something steadfast and resolute because someone has saved it. And if that salvation comes from beyond this broken and temporal world, I no longer have to worry about dying alone, all dried up in the desert sun.

Film Review from Wandering the Vault at RedFence: Lawrence of Arabia

Read the latest on my classic films blog, Wandering the Vault, at RedFenceProject.com:

It’s a pity that the term, “epic,” has suffered so much overuse and degradation of late, because Lawrence of Arabia (1962)is one of those films that lives up to the word in all of its fullness. You liked Braveheart, Gladiator, and Lord of the Rings? Meet their granddaddy.

Lawrence of Arabia is epic first in pacing, length and subject, dragging on for more than 200 minutes and divided into two feature-length parts. The first half nearly put me to sleep, but if you can stick with it, it pays off. The film recounts the World-War-I-era story of a young British soldier named Thomas Lawrence. Widely regarded by his superiors as useless, Lawrence is dispatched to Arabia, with its largely irrelevant and feuding Arab tribes under Turkish rule, to assess the situation. He soon recognizes that the clans could have great potential as a military and political force if only they would stop fighting among themselves. Lawrence’s status as an impartial outsider, soft-spoken and respectful of the Arab way, makes him the ideal man for the job.

Director David Lean tells the story beautifully. For a film half a century old, the cinematography is stunning. In the age of CGI where filmmakers can conjure any army in any place, I was wowed by some of the vast, panoramic shots of hundreds, if not thousands, of men on horseback performing all sorts of maneuvers. The filmmakers pulled out all the stops to produce this one, and they don’t shy away from showing it off. Lawrence of Arabia treats us to many lengthy, sweeping shots of the Arab desert, drawing us into another world and another era of civilization.

(to continue reading, please click here)

Film Review at RedFence: Django Unchained

My review of the film Django Unchained is up over at RedFenceProject.com:

Django Unchained, the latest from director Quentin Tarantino, self-consciously incorporates the classic tropes of a Spaghetti Western with a brash flair of action-flick attitude that refuses to fall completely into our traditional expectations for the genre. We’re familiar with the opening credits in bright yellow font, shoot-’em-up gunfights, Western territories scenery, and campy zoom-in shots at the arrival of new characters, but the final product is unlike any Western I’ve ever seen.

As a prime example, a song with hip-hop elements showed up midway through the eclectic soundtrack, which on the whole tends to draw from Western roots, but puts off a modern vibe at times. Given that the hip-hop jam played as a newly purchased batch of slaves made the long walk to “Candyland,” a plantation home, it felt oddly fitting.

Django treats the subjects of racism and slavery with a brutal yet often comedic irreverence. When Django (Jamie Foxx) and Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz) visit a plantation in search of the Brittle brothers, the owner tries to explain to one of his slaves that she isn’t to treat Django like a normal black slave, but he can’t bring himself to simply say that he should be treated like a white man. In another excellent scene (featuring a delightful appearance by Jonah Hill), a band of pre-KKK raiders gather before an attack, only to find that the holes in their hoods are too small to see through. The whole thing is nearly called off until their leader stubbornly demands they go through with it: “Did I say we ain’t wearing bags? It’s a raid! Who cares if you can see! Can the horses see!? That’s all that matters!” Through it all we can’t help but laugh at how sick and twisted the whole business is.

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My Latest Film Reviews at RedFence

Earlier this month, in celebration of 20 years of Quentin Tarantino filmmaking, I attended the one-night theatrical screenings of Tarantino’s first two films, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. The reviews are up on my “Wandering the Vault” blog at RedFenceProject.com.

Check out my review of Reservoir Dogs here.

And my review of Pulp Fiction.