Best new shows of 2020

Following on from my post last week covering my favourite one-off shows of 2020, here’s a look at new shows launched in 2020 that have either been renewed, or left the door open for a second season.

Lovecraft Country (10 episodes, HBO): Is it a coincidence that the two most viscerally entertaining shows of the past two years combine horror-tinged sci-fi with searing commentaries on the history of racism? HBO’s limited series Watchmen broke new ground in visual storytelling in 2019, and a year later, the channel delivered another reality-bending gut-punch with this adaptation of Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel. It’s very difficult to describe the plot in a single sentence, but suffice to say the story combines diverse genres – road trip, Lovecraftian horror (shoggoths!), time travel, Korean folk mythology, family drama – and is set during the 1950’s Jim Crow era of racial segregation. Brought to life by 36-year-old showrunner Misha Green and backed by executive producers J.J. Abrams and Jordan Peele, it’s the explosive on-screen pairing of Jurnee Smollett and Jonathan Majors, along with the standout supporting cast of Aunjanue Ellis, Wunmi Mosaku, Michael K. Williams and Courtney B. Vance that make this show special. Misha Green’s screenplay provides every member of the cast an opportunity to show off their acting chops, resulting in a number of intense scenes. There is a fair amount of graphic violence and sexual content, and every episode brings a new shocking moment or revelation, but it does take some effort to keep track of the convoluted plot that progressively reveals the connections between the key characters. Although the final episode ends the narrative arc of the novel, Misha Green has indicated she is open to creating more stories in this universe. The 8th episode of the show, Jig-a-bobo, one of the scariest, was directed by Green and she now makes her feature film directing debut on the Tomb Raider sequel starring Alicia Vikander.

from left to right: Courtney B. Vance (as Uncle George), Jonathan Majors (as Tic) and Jurnee Smollett (as Leti) face human and supernatural monsters in HBO’s Lovecraft Country, produced by Misha Green

Raised by Wolves (10 episodes, HBO): Legendary British director Ridley Scott is the executive producer behind this sci-fi show created by Aaron Guzikowski. In the far future, Earth has been laid waste by a terrible war between the religious Mithraic order and pro-science atheists. The atheists send two androids – named Mother and Father – on a spaceship containing several embryos in stasis to a distant planet to start civilization anew. After several difficult years, one child, Campion lives a seemingly peaceful life with his android parents. Their equilibrium is shattered by the arrival of a Mithraic colony ship, bringing to them the very conflict they sought to escape from. As with all Ridley Scott productions, the visual design of the show is stark and stunning; the science is highly advanced but entirely plausible; however none of the characters are particularly appealing (human and android alike), which makes it challenging to truly “enjoy” the show. Having said that, the intriguing storyline and taut pacing led me to virtually binge-watch all 10 episodes over a couple of days. Danish actress Amanda Collin is the star of the series, displaying incredible acting range as Mother, complemented on-screen by Abubakar Salim as Father. Of particular note is the fact that these androids have milky blood, the same as the androids in Ridley Scott’s Alien series of films. My only complaint was with the horrendous mullets sported by the Mithraic…is this really the future of humanity?

Abubaker Salim and Amanda Collin are ‘Father’ and ‘Mother’ on planet Kepler-22b in Raised by Wolves, created by Aaron Guzikowski, with Ridley Scott as executive producer

Snowpiercer (10 episodes, TNT/Netflix): The last remnants of humanity – rich and poor, good and bad – are cocooned into a high-tech train, 1000 cars long, that circles the globe every 133 days, speeding through an ultra-frozen wasteland, needing to keep running in order to generate power. This is the premise of Snowpiercer, the TV adaptation of the 1982 French graphic novel, which was previously brought to the big screen in 2013 by Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho. Ruled with an iron fist by the mysterious billionaire Mr. Wilford, the train is a microcosm of the real world, with the passengers segregated by class; the rich ones who paid a fortune for the tickets live up-front in First Class, eating food freshly grown in the agricultural section, waited on by the Hospitality division, and free to go “downtrain” to the Nightcar in Third Class for entertainment and other diversions; the people with specialist skills earn their place on the train by providing the various services (doctors, teachers, engineers) and occupy the middle cars; in the Tail are those who boarded the train without tickets or skills, and are now crammed into a few cars, living in unhygienic conditions and being fed blocks of protein gel while brewing resentment and rebellion. The show is part soap opera and part social commentary, filled with fascinating characters, both noble and repulsive. The first season has head of Hospitality Melanie Cavill (played by Jennifer Connelly) locked in a battle of wits with ‘tailie’ Andre Layton (played by Daveed Diggs), as they jointly try to solve a murder.

Daveed Diggs and Jennifer Connelly face off in Snowpiercer

I watched three other shows that debuted in 2020, but didn’t really spark for me. These included the Steve Carrell comedy Space Force and the mission to Mars drama Away, starring Hilary Swank, both on Netflix. The latter was cancelled at the end of the first season. Also debuting in 2020 on Disney+ was The Right Stuff, an adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s chronicle of the early days of the US space program, which was made into a critically acclaimed film in 1983. I can never tire of this slice of human history, but somehow the show lacked the gravitas of the source material and tended to drift into daytime soap territory. The season ended with the first set of manned US space flights and if renewed, season 2 would focus on the race to the moon.

2020 was a great year for shows in their second or later seasons, and I hope to cover my favourites in a future post.

Best mini-series of 2020

This recap of my favourite mini-series of 2020 should have come out a month ago, and with January now coming to any end, I figured I better write this before 2020 becomes a distant memory!

For the past few years, the mini-series format has yielded entertainment to rival the quality of the best feature films, in terms of production design, scripts and acting. In fact, with a narrative duration of typically 250-400 minutes, mini-series have room for superior character development and better constructed plots.

My favourites from 2018 were all BBC productions – the true-life dramedy A Very English Scandal, the urban terrorism thriller Bodyguard, the Agatha Christie adaptation Ordeal by Innocence and the John Le Carré spy novel adaptation The Little Drummer Girl.

In 2019, my top mini-series were Chernobyl and Watchmen from HBO, Years and Years which was a joint BBC-HBO production, Giri/Haji from the BBC, and not surprisingly, Netflix entering the mix with Unbelievable and The Spy.

Here are my 5 noteworthy mini-series from 2020:-

Devs (8 episodes, FX): Alex Garland has established himself as one of the most talented creators of “intelligent sci-fi/horror” over the past two decades, scripting or directing acclaimed films such as 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Dredd, Ex Machina and Annihilation. Last year’s sci-fi thriller on FX marks his first foray into an event series. Garland brings back actress Sonoya Mizuno (can’t forget that dance routine with Oscar Isaac in Ex Machina) as a young developer working at a secretive tech company who gets sucked into a conspiracy with world-altering consequences. Comedian Nick Offerman is pitch perfect as the billionaire founder-CEO of quantum computing company Amaya, a man whose god complex is fueled by his virtually unlimited access to money and technology. His inner circle includes two other power-obsessed characters, the head of security and head of technology, played superbly by actors Zach Grenier and Allison Pill respectively. The plot becomes quite mind-bending and requires the viewer to pay careful attention (maybe even take notes!). Available on Amazon Prime.

Sonoya Mizuno plays software engineer Lily Chan, working at quantum computing company Amaya,
in Alex Garland’s Devs.

The Plot Against America (6 episodes, HBO): Based on the Philip Roth novel, this alternate history set in the early 1940s, shows what might have happened if Charles Lindbergh, the real-life American aviator and national hero had become US President in 1940. Lindbergh was a Nazi symphathizer and in Mr. Roth’s novel, his isolationist, populist policies with undertones of white supremacy (sound familiar?) hold America back from joining the war against Nazi Germany. In fact, Lindbergh’s appeasement of the Nazis means that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor never happens in December 1941. Meanwhile, his new domestic policies including the creation of an Office of American Absorption plays havoc with the lives of American Jews, who increasingly feel alienated and targeted in their own country. All this unfolds through the eyes of a middle class Jewish family living in Jersey City, nearly tearing them apart. The outstanding cast includes Winona Ryder and John Turturro, as well as several other character actors from TV and the stage. This is a slow-burn narrative that uses the events taking place on the national stage as a trigger to explore family dynamics between husband and wife, parents and kids, and siblings young and old.

The Queen’s Gambit (7 episodes, Netflix): Perhaps the best event series of 2020, this show is based on Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel and helped to revitalize global interest in chess with its dramatic portrayals of the many strategies used in the game. Centered on the character of Beth Harmon, the show charts her eventful journey from an orphanage in Kentucky in the 1950s to global fame as a female chess prodigy, culminating in the high stakes Moscow Invitational tournament against Russian world champion Vasily Borgov, at the height of the Cold War in the 1960s (the period detail is exceptional). During this time, she battles her own personal demons including substance abuse and PTSD resulting from the circumstances of her mother’s death. Anya Taylor-Joy, who broke through in 2015-16 in the horror-thrillers The Witch and Split, delivers a nuanced performance as Beth Harmon, supported by an eclectic group of young actors who portray the various chess players she encounters, antagonizes and befriends over the years. Special mention also for director Marielle Heller, appearing as Beth’s personable step-mother Alma Wheatley. The show is written and directed by Scott Frank, following on from his outstanding 2017 limited series Western Godless, also produced for Netflix.

The Undoing (6 episodes, HBO): Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant are absolutely irresistible in the murder-mystery/legal drama The Undoing, written by David E. Kelley and directed by award-winning Danish director Susanne Bier. Kidman and Grant play the Frasers, a professionally successful, high profile New York couple – she’s a psychologist, he’s an oncologist. Their seemingly perfect lives are upended by the brutal murder of a beautiful young artist, whose son attends the same exclusive school as their young son. The subsequent police investigation reveals an unsettling connection between the Frasers and the murdered woman. Did either of them play a role in the murder and what is it that the couple aren’t telling each other? The show is perfect for binge-watching, as every episode ends on a cliffhanger; it goes slightly off the rails and over-the-top in the final act, but is nevertheless very entertaining.

from left to right, the cast of The Undoing: Hugh Grant as Dr. Jonathan Fraser, Noma Dumezweni as their lawyer, Nicole Kidman as Dr. Grace Fraser, Noah Jupe as their son Henry and Donald Sutherland as Nicole’s father Franklin

Mrs. America (9 episodes, FX): This mini-series provides an unprecedented insider look at the turbulent years of the mid-70s, when the feminist movement became a significant player in American politics, as it battled with male politicians and an unheralded but determined cohort of conservative WASP housewives, over the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Each episode focuses on the big names of that time, including Democrat congresswomen Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisolm (the first black candidate to stand for nomination for US President), feminists Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Brenda Feigen, Republican activist Jill Ruckelshaus and of course the star of the show, Phyllis Schlafly (played by Cate Blanchett), the wealthy Missouri housewife, whose intelligence, determination and organization skills led to the founding of the “Stop ERA” campaign. Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (the duo behind Captain Marvel), this is such a relevant story for our times, showing that the more things change, the more they remain the same in terms of women’s and minorities rights. Particularly insightful is Blanchett’s portrayal of Mrs. Schlafly, the anti-feminist who is intelligent enough to recognize the holes in her own logic and the hypocrisy of her stance, but is nevertheless trapped in a narrative of her own making and must see it through at all costs…tragic in so many ways. The show is already picking up a host of acting nominations, and I especially hope it will win the Best Ensemble Performance at the SAG Awards. And how about that choice of Walter Murphy’s disco hit A Fifth of Beethoven for the title sequence!

from left to right, the supporting cast of Mrs. America: Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm, Elizabeth Banks as Jill Ruckelshaus, Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem, Ari Graynor as Brenda Feigen, Margo Martindale as Bella Abzug, Sarah Paulson as fictional composite character Alice Macray and Tracey Ullman as Betty Friedan

There are two other mini-series on my watch list that I haven’t yet made time for; the coming-of-age drama We Are Who We Are from Luca Guadagnino (the director of Call Me By Your Name) and the British-American psychological thriller The Third Day.

In a future post, I hope to also write about three new recurring shows that kicked off in 2020 – Lovecraft Country, Raised by Wolves and Snowpiercer.

Best Reading of 2020

I have read 28 books in 2020, a mix of non-fiction, graphic novels, science fiction, crime and social drama. Five of these were published this year, while most were published within the past few years and a few are classics several decades old that I’ve only got around to reading now.

The five books from 2020 were all quite good and worth mentioning:

  • The Last Emperox by John Scalzi: This is the third and highly satisfying conclusion to the action-packed “The Interdependency” space opera trilogy which I’ve briefly referred to in a post a year ago. In the far future, the human race has built a galaxy-spanning empire called The Interdependency, with faster-than-light travel made possible through a mysterious network of wormholes called The Flow. The various human colonies are sustained by intergalactic trade which is controlled by a number of Houses (not dissimilar to those in Frank Herbert’s Dune series), all under the rule of a benevolent Emperor. When the Flow pathways start collapsing one by one for reasons unknown, it sets off a series of political machinations, as one of the Houses (House Nohamapetan) tries to overthrow the Emperor and monopolize whatever resources it can. Through the first two books, I became highly invested in the lead characters – the recently crowned Emperox Grayland II, Lord Marce Claremont, the son of the scientist who predicted the collapse of the Flow, and Lady Kiva Lagos, the foul-mouthed but brilliant member of House Lagos, which is loyal to the throne. Together, these three must foil House Nohamapetan and save the empire!
  • The End of October by Lawrence Wright: Widely reviewed when it came out in April, due to the uncanny similarities with the ongoing global Covid pandemic, Pulitzer-winning author Lawrence Wright’s fast-paced global thriller contains many plot points that will seem all too familiar to us today, although Wright started work on the novel well before the pandemic hit. The factual, journalistic writing style is very accessible, and will appeal to anyone who has enjoyed books by Frederick Forsyth, Michael Crichton, Dan Brown or Tom Clancy. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Netflix or a major studio picked up the rights to the book, although I suspect no one will be in the mood to see something so close to reality for some time yet.
  • Afterland by Lauren Beukes: This is South African writer Lauren Beukes’ fifth novel, and continues her run of speculative fiction, which has previously covered the sub-genres of time-travel, cyberpunk and contemporary magic. Afterland depicts a world three years into a pandemic which has wiped out virtually all men (a very similar premise to the graphic novel series Y: The Last Man). The few remaining human males are kept in government facilities as a precious resource, for experimentation and of course, procreation. The novel focuses on a 12-year-old boy Miles and the desperate efforts of his mother Cole to keep him out of the hands of the US government and gain safe passage to the mother’s native South Africa. The story is primarily written as a road trip/thriller, but Ms. Beukes uses the narrative to shine a light on gender dynamics, specifically the psyche of this preteen boy forced to disguise and behave as a girl, having to get away with the subterfuge while constantly surrounded by women.
  • The New Wilderness by Diane Cook: This is Ms. Cook’s debut novel (she had previously published a collection of short stories) and was long-listed for the Booker Prize this year. In the near future, nearly all available land has been urbanized and people live in polluted cities. One small community is given permission by the government to participate in an experimental project, living a nomadic life in the last available stretch of wilderness, with strict rules in place to minimize the impact of human habitation on the pristine land. The story chronicles the evolving social dynamics within this community, as experienced by one of the families, comprising a woman Bea, her partner Glen (one of the originators of the project) and her young daughter Agnes. It is a depressingly realistic depiction of how social niceties progressively disintegrate when people are faced with the harsh realities of survival and scarcity. If ever we needed encouragement to preserve our current way of living through sustainable practices, this story should do the trick!
  • Piranesi by Susanna Clarke: I am a big fan of Ms. Clarke’s debut novel from 2004, the dark and extraordinarily inventive, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. This year she released her second novel, Piranesi, another work of astonishing creativity and world-building. The novel is named for its title character, and is presented as a series of Piranesi’s diary entries over a period of years, while living in a place called The House. There is only one other person in the House, who Piranesi refers to as the Other. Like peeling the layers off an onion, the narrative slowly reveals who Piranesi is, and how he came to be in the House. I couldn’t say more without giving away it’s extraordinary plot. Unlike Ms. Clarke’s first novel which was a brick at 782 pages, this is a brisk read of only 272 pages. I cannot recommend this novel enough, especially for fans of fantasy/speculative fiction.
Piranesi (2020), a novel by Susanna Clarke

Among the other books I read, the four non-fiction books were all outstanding:

  • The Body by Bill Bryson (2019): I have long been a fan of Bill Bryson’s travelogues and memoirs since I first read A Walk In The Woods in 1998, but hadn’t read anything of his since 2007. The Body is a remarkable guided tour of the human body that is equally informative and entertaining.
  • The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben (2015): Originally published in German, this is an insightful book based on Mr. Wohlleben’s observations of trees and forest ecologies, accumulated during his career as a forest ranger/manager. This is a fascinating read for any lover of nature who wants to know more about the synergy that exists among different types of trees and between trees and other living beings in the forest. There’s a strong link between this book and a novel I read this year, Richard Powers’ Pulitzer-prize winning The Overstory (which is an amazing work of fiction, but I haven’t included in this list of my favourite books of the year as it was just a little too abstruse for me).
  • The Seine: The River That Made Paris by Elaine Sciolino (2019): Journalist and author, Elaine Sciolino’s loving ode to the river Seine is a true delight, deftly weaving together information about the history, geography, food and commerce of Paris and other parts of France through which the Seine flows. This fascinating book describes how the Seine has played a role in the evolution of the French people and during the same time, how the people living on its banks have literally changed the course and nature of the river.
  • Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light by Mort Rosenblum (2006): In Ms. Sciolino’s book about the Seine, she makes a reference to Parisian chocolatiers and in that context, to Mort Rosenblum’s book on chocolate. Naturally, that became the very next book I read! Although less structured and more subjective than the book on the Seine, it was no less informative and entertaining. Rosenblum takes us back to the history of chocolate as a highly valued ceremonial drink among the Olmec, Mayan and Aztec cultures of Mesoamerica, to its “discovery” by Europeans in the 16th century and subsequent transformation over the next three centuries to the globally popular confectionery product it is today. He also throws light on the sad plight of many cacao growers in Latin America and West Africa, who earn a pittance in comparison with the prices commanded by the finished product around the world.

And that brings me finally to the notable books of fiction I read this year, but not published in 2020:

  • The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz (1956/57): Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988 and this multi-generational story of an upper middle class Cairene family during the period between the two World Wars is perhaps his best-known work. The first book in particular, Palace Walk, is virtually unputdownable, so fascinating is the story of respected merchant Al-Sayyid Ahmad ‘Abd al-Jawad and his family who live in central Cairo. Al-Sayyid Ahmad lives two lives; a pious but tyrannical patriarch at home, a beloved companion and voracious lover when out in the evenings with his clique of friends and courtesans. So imposing is Al-Sayyid Ahmad’s character in Palace Walk that the lives of his sons and grandsons pale in comparison in the subsequent books. In particular, I found the long conversational passages involving religion and politics among the youngsters of the al-Jawad family to be quite tedious. Nevertheless, taken together, the books are full of melodrama, humour, irony, pathos and tragedy, providing an unvarnished insight into the cultural, political and religious topography of Cairene society in the early 20th century. An interesting bit of trivia – the books were translated into English only in 1990, and the editor assigned by the publisher Doubleday for the translation was none other than Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
  • The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert (2013): I’ve written a full review of this book soon after I read it in April this year. There’s no doubt this will remain one of the best works of fiction I have ever read.
  • In The Market for Murder by T.E.Kinsey (2016): This is the second of the Lady Hardcastle Mysteries that I’m reading and I’m certain it won’t be the last. British author Tim Kinsey has so far written seven of these ‘light-hearted’ murder mysteries featuring Lady Emily Hardcastle and her intrepid maid/assistant Florence Armstrong, set in the early 1900’s. Having served the British government in some secretive capacity abroad, Lady Hardcastle rents a cottage in the country and settles down for a quiet life. But her natural intelligence and sense of adventure draw her into helping the local police when a serious crime is committed. I love these “countryside” crime stories, like James Runcie’s Grantchester Mysteries and Louise Penny’s series of 16 novels involving Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. Enjoying these stories does require some suspension of disbelief as it’s quite difficult to imagine such a high murder rate in these small villages!
  • The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal (2018): This novel is the second work of fiction I’ve encountered in the past year which presents an alternate history of the US space program in which women play a much more significant role – the other is the web series For All Mankind on Apple TV+. The premise of Ms. Kowal’s novel is much more extreme – in 1952, a meteorite smashes into the coast off Washington DC resulting in calamitous loss of life, but also triggering an extinction event predicted to take place over the next 50 years, due to the greenhouse effect caused by the vaporization of millions of tons of water. This threat results in a global effort to accelerate the colonization of outer space. After initial resistance, women are grudgingly accepted into the astronaut corps and the novel chronicles the experiences of mathematician and pilot Dr. Elma York as she becomes a “Lady Astronaut”. Dr. York is a very human protagonist, determined, capable and intelligent, but not heroic in the conventional sense. Eventually, circumstances and her own sense of obligation to humanity, cause her to take on increasingly significant roles in the International Aerospace Coalition. Ms. Kowal has written one short story and three novels in the Lady Astronaut series and I’ve already started on the sequel, The Fated Sky.

That concludes a rundown of the best books I’ve read in the past year; there’s something for every interest – space opera, murder mystery, dystopian, alternative history, fantasy, family drama and non-fiction.

Favourite female singers of the decade

I grew up to the music of the 1980’s, and like the millions of kids of my generation, I fell in love with the escapist pop music of that era. Madonna, Whitney Houston and Kate Bush were my favourite female solo artists of that time, who consistently pushed out hit after hit into the pop charts. But there were so many others with hit songs that continue to be signposts of that time, such as Tina Turner, Bonnie Tyler, Laura Branigan, Sheena Easton, Cyndi Lauper and Annie Lennox. As I moved away from pop in subsequent years and as popular music moved towards R&B and rap, I realize that very little of the music I was listening to was from female artists, with the exception of a few hits from Janet Jackson and Salt-N-Pepa in the 90’s and Nelly Furtado’s first few albums in the early 2000’s. In the past 15 years, popular music has been dominated by amazingly talented female artistes like Beyoncé, Alicia Keyes, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande and Lady Gaga, and I have listened to and enjoyed many of their hit songs (impossible not to), but it’s rarely music that I actively choose or add into my playlists.

Having said that, in the past few years I’ve realized that there are a handful of female artists, particularly in the soul and jazz genres, whose music I keep coming back to often enough that they can be classified as my favourites of the past decade:

Amerie: Born to a Korean mother and African-American father, Amerie has built a career as a singer, actress and model. Two singles from her debut 2002 album All I Have first caught my attention, the lead track Why Don’t We Fall in Love and the follow up Talkin’ To Me. I really liked the groove-infused, easy-listening soul sound of these two songs, although the rest of the album is fairly generic R&B. In spite of the average reviews the album received, the working relationship between the singer and producer Rich Harrison was cemented. Soon after, Amerie released a cover of Diana Ross‘ 1980 hit I’m Coming Out (co-written by the legendary Nile Rodgers) for the Maid in Manhattan movie soundtrack. Amerie and Rich Harrison next collaborated on the album Touch, released in 2005, which had some great up-tempo percussion-driven tracks. The best example is 1 Thing, which samples the drums from the 1970 recording of Oh! Calcutta by The Meters. Other notable songs are the propulsive Talkin’ About and the title track, Touch, with a looping tabla backtrack. Her next album Because I Love It, continued in the same vein with Gotta Work carrying a catchy sample of the classic 60’s soul track, Hold On, I’m Comin‘ by Sam & Dave. The other catchy songs in this album are Hate2Loveu, Take Control (co-written by CeeLo Green and sampling a Hall & Oates song) and the synth-driven Crush. Since 2010, her recording output has slowed down, with some one-off singles and EPs, none of which have really caught my attention.

Sia: The Australian singer-songwriter has emerged as one of my favourite artists of the past 5 years. I first took notice of her music when Never Give Up played while the credits rolled on the award-winning 2016 film Lion. I then realized that the hit 2014 song Chandelier which I liked a lot, was also by her. So I checked out the album it came from, 1000 Forms of Fear, and discovered a couple of great tracks – Big Girls Cry and Elastic Heart. The album I like the most is This is Acting (2016), which includes the dance hit Cheap Thrills, as well as the searing love song One Million Bullets, the playful House of Fire and Footprints. One of my favourite Sia tracks of all time is Sunshine from her 2017 album Everyday is Christmas. While Sia’s music is up-tempo and is popular on the dance floor, the lyrics are frequently dark and full of meaning. In 2019, she teamed up with producer Diplo and rapper Labrinth, to release the album Labrinth, Sia & Diplo Present… LSD. There are lots of amazing songs on this album – Angel in Your Eyes, Genius (featuring Lil Wayne), Audio, Thunderclouds (amazing music video) and No New Friends (check out the live performance on The Ellen Show). As I listen to these songs, I realize that what I enjoy the most is Sia’s raw and emotional vocalization which reminds me quite a lot of Cyndi Lauper.

Janelle Monáe: I first came across Janelle Monáe at the end of 2016 on account of her double whammy appearances in the critically acclaimed films Moonlight and Hidden Figures. It was only when she released her third album Dirty Computer in 2018 that I started listening to her songs. I was deeply moved by the poignant lyrics on the title track (“I’m not that special, I’m broke inside“) and inspired by her resilience and fighting spirit on the track I Like That (“I’m always left of center and that’s right where I belong, I’m the random minor note you hear in major songs, And I like that…“). Other notable songs are Don’t Judge Me and Make Me Feel. As many critics have pointed out, this album is as much a powerful socio-political statement as it is a work of art. In a relatively short period of time, Monáe has become a voice for diversity, both of colour and sexuality. No wonder then, that she was chosen to open the 2020 Oscar awards as a self-aware nod to the criticism the Academy has faced for its lack of diversity. Unlike many black filmmakers and rappers whose creative work focuses on the misfortunes suffered by people of colour, Monáe stands out because her musical output over the past decade has been built around Afrofuturism, the movement that explores the confluence of African culture and state-of-the-art technology. Afrofuturism as a concept has been around since the mid-90’s but it was only with the release of Marvel’s Black Panther in 2018 that it received global exposure. Monáe’s first two albums The ArchAndroid (2010) and The Electric Lady (2013) were both based on her alter ego Cindi Mayweather, an android inspired by the female robot from Fritz Lang’s 1927 experessionist classic Metropolis. In Dirty Computer, Monáe has shed the Cindi Mayweather persona and revealed her true self (she also came out in real life at the time of the album’s release), creating a more introspective and vulnerable body of work. Of the two earlier albums, I prefer The ArchAndroid, which has such a varied sound – the two singles Tightrope (featuring Big Boi) and Cold War are both reminiscent of the Outkast’s 2003 hit Hey Ya; at the other end of the spectrum, the opening verse of Oh, Maker sounds like it could have been sung by Doris Day or Julie Andrews; Wondaland is pure synth-pop, with operatic backing vocals; Make the Bus is a duet with one of my favourite artists, Of Montreal, and very much reflects their musical style; BaBobByeYa has a distinctive bossa nova sound. From the second album, The Electric Lady, the only tracks I’ve really liked so far are the disco-like We Were Rock and Roll and the jazzy duet Dorothy Dandridge Eyes, sung with Esperanza Spalding.

Dirty Computer, 2018 album by Janelle Monáe

Esperanza Spalding: And speaking of the celebrated jazz singer-songwriter, I had heard of her (first jazz artist to win the Grammy for Best New Artist, invited twice by President Obama to perform at the White House), but listened to her music only this year, when Earth to Heaven played on the radio and I used Soundhound to find out who it was. This led me to the album it came from, the 2016 release Emily’s D+Evolution and what a revelation it turned out be! I don’t think I’ve been so entranced by the distinctiveness of an album’s sound since Kate Bush’s 1978 debut The Kick Inside, which in fact Emily’s D+Evolution does strongly remind me of. This is Spalding’s fifth studio release and she decided to explore a different musical style, creating an alter ego, Emily (her middle name) to release her from her past musical baggage. The album has been a major success, receiving widespread critical acclaim, and rightly so. There are many standout tracks; besides Earth to Heaven, I would recommend listening to Good Lava, Unconditional Love, Judas and the surreal Ebony and Ivy, which sounds like it should play on an episode of The Twilight Zone. I’ve recently started listening to her preceding album, Radio Music Society and am enjoying the music just as much, particularly tracks like Radio Song, the beautiful Cinnamon Tree (“We meet just once in a while but the spice in your smile is magic to me“), Black Gold (shades of Beyoncé) and the Grammy winner for Best Jazz Vocal, City of Roses.

BENEE: This artist jumped out at me from nowhere in the past few weeks, when I heard Supalonely on the radio and was hooked. The 19-year-old from Auckland, New Zealand has been steadily gaining momentum over the past year through two EPs that she released in 2019. The single Supalonely (featuring Gus Dapperton) from the 2nd EP Stella & Steve, gave her international exposure via TikTok. It’s a great song, but my favourites are all from the 1st EP Fire on Marzz, with four of its six songs currently on heavy rotation on my Spotify playlist – Soaked, the super-groovy Glitter, Afterlife and Evil Spider. BENEE has an incredibly soulful voice for someone so young, and the production on the EPs is outstanding, with it’s bass-driven groove and bright guitar sounds, a credit to producers Josh Fountain and Djeisan Suskov (both musicians themselves from the NZ indie music scene). Meanwhile, she also appeared on the latest album from Japanese-Australian musician Joji, with the outstanding, hypnotic and dark duet Afterthought. With all this, I was really looking forward to BENEE’s debut full album Hey U X, which came out on 13th November; on my first run-through, I haven’t come across any songs which have hooked me the first time, so I’ll have to give this another go.

Steve & Stella, 2019 EP by BENEE

As I’m writing this, I’ve been listening to Dua Lipa‘s Grammy-nominated album Future Nostalgia, but it’s too early to tell if she will go on to become a long-term favourite or not. And Swedish soul singer Snoh Aalegra‘s 2019 album Ugh, Those Feels Again has a few songs that I really like, but I just haven’t listened to enough of her music yet to be able to classify her as a favourite artist.

Old favourites release new music in 2020 – Part 2

Following on from Part 1, here’s the second set of new 2020 releases from singers/bands whose songs or albums I’ve previously enjoyed.

My Morning JacketThe Waterfall II (10th Jul): Two of my favourite albums from Part 1 were from one-man-band projects Tame Impala and Of Montreal. My Morning Jacket is another one of those, built around the musical vision of Jim James. This latest release, their eighth, was created from outtakes of their 2015 effort The Waterfall. It contains a number of chilled out, easy listening tracks; very different from the high-energy, strikingly distinctive compositions that I fell in love with on their breakout albums, Z (2005) and Evil Urges (2008). In fact, I was a bit underwhelmed the first time around but after listen to the album a second time, I got into its groove; tracks like Spinning My Wheels, Feel You, Run It and The First Time are perfect for a lazy Sunday morning, with the steel guitar on Feel You absolutely magical, like driving down an empty country road with the wind in your hair. Wasted is the only song on the album that picks up the tempo, with the second half of the 6-minute song featuring some of the heavier guitar grooves that has characterized their earlier work. Overall, this is a lighter entry in their oeuvre, but enjoyable in its own way.

Kansas The Absence of Presence (17th Jul): Although Kansas were considered to be one of the standard bearers of the 70’s prog rock movement, surprisingly all I know about their music is their 1976 mega-hit Carry On Wayward Son. But I figured I’d give their 16th studio album a shot. Founding member and vocalist Steve Walsh retired a few years ago, but two other founding members, guitarist Rich Williams and drummer Phil Ehart (both 70 years old) are still around. The album opens with the epic 8-minute title track, which contains some fantastic musical interludes, anchored by new keyboardist Tom Breslin; very reminiscent of the classic 70’s prog rock sound. And so it continued through the album – Throwing Mountains, Jets Overhead, Animals on the Roof, Never, all mixing a contemporary commercial rock sensibility with some delicious guitar licks and keyboard passages that are a throwback to a bygone rock era. This is definitely an album I’m coming back to, and will most likely lead me to explore more of the band’s back catalogue.

Alanis MorisetteSuch Pretty Forks in the Road (31st Jul): It was only when I watched an interview on CNN a few months ago, that I realized it was the 25th anniversary of Alanis Morisette’s breakout (third) album, Jagged Little Pill. Naturally, much has changed in her life and her music since then and it would be unfair to expect the same angst of that earlier time. In fact, I loved the introspection and inner beauty  that shone through in her 2008 release Flavors of Entanglement. This latest release signals the continued mellowing of Alanis; it breaks no new ground musically and in fact some of the songs are rather awkwardly arranged. Other than the opening track Smiling and the upbeat Sandbox Love, there were no other tracks in this 46-minute collection that held my attention.

Deep PurpleWhoosh! (7th Aug): What a surprise it was to learn that the ageing rockers are still going strong. Their 21st studio album in 52 years was surprisingly good…yes just take a few moments to absorb those numbers. Two songs, We’re All the Same in the Dark and The Long Way Round really dial back the years to the Mark II line-up of the 80’s (Perfect Strangers and The House of Blue Light), the phase that is my personal favourite. Veteran keyboardist Don Airey previously worked with Rainbow and Ozzy Osbourne before taking over from founding member Jon Lord in 2002, and is in full flow on Nothing at All. The Power of the Moon showcases some of the eastern rhythms that the band has been so successful at incorporating into their past hits. Man Alive has some intriguing lyrics and is another fantastic song from the album. Of course, ever since Ritchie Blackmore left the group, once can’t expect those catchy guitar riffs that were such an enjoyable feature of their greatest songs, but Ian Gillan’s distinctive vocals continue to provide the anchor of nostalgia and reassurance to their music. Likewise, veteran band members Roger Glover (bass) and Ian Paice (drums) are still at the top of their game even though they are in their 70’s. Some reviewers gently poked fun at the band for producing an “over the top” album; on the contrary, I think we should be grateful that the band has the hunger, energy and creativity to continue delivering music of this calibre so late in their career. I’ve listened to the album several times now and like a good whisky, it seems to reveal new and surprising notes each time!

The Allman Betts BandBless Your Heart (28th Aug): This is the only band in the list that I’m listening to for the first time. But as it was formed by the sons of Gregg Allman, Dickey Betts and Berry Oakley, three of the founding members of The Allman Brothers Band, I figured it qualified as a previously known artist! And indeed, when that slide guitar kicks in on the opening track Pale Horse Rider, it was a comforting feeling that took me back to my favourite Allman Bros. tracks. But thereafter, the album was a bit of a disappointment. There is a 12-minute long instrumental, Savannah’s Dream which opens with promise and but ultimately feels a bit safe and doesn’t deliver the pyrotechnics that one would expect on a track of this length. And I think that’s a good description for the entire album. In spite of its length (71 minutes), it feels familiar and repetitive, without producing any of the pleasant surprises that one looks for in a memorable album. Magnolia Road is a welcome exception with a great section involving the slide and keyboards, and an overall sound that reminded me of The Allman Brothers’ Florida counterparts Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Sufjan StevensThe Ascension (25th Sep): Ever since Stevens’ seminal Illinois concept album, I have been desperate to fall in love with his subsequent efforts. With the exception of Visions of Gideon, the song that he wrote for the film Call Me By Your Name, my wait continues. I think I’m unable to change my expectations and keep looking for the same virtuosity and creativity that shone through on Illinois. In spite of high scores from critics (80 on Metacritic) nothing on this release jumps out as exceptional. It’s the sort of album I could play in the background while reading a book, knowing the music will not distract me, because I’m not really listening to it.

Blitzen TrapperHoly Smokes Future Jokes (25th Sep): The Portland, Oregon indie folk-rock band’s 10th album is a short one by today’s standards, running to just 37 minutes. The title track from their critically acclaimed 2007 album Wild Mountain Nation was on heavy rotation on my iPod once upon a time and I had listened off-and-on to their follow up album Furr from 2008. This new album contains more of their mellow easy-listening folk-rock sound (sometimes also categorized as alternative country). It’s not an album you listen to for catchy guitar hooks or virtuoso instrumental work. Instead a well-integrated package of vocals and soft guitar sounds. The best examples are Bardo’s Light, Don’t Let Me Run and the contemplative Sons and Unwed Mothers. The title track is the sort of free-flowing, easy-listening song you’d play on a long road trip, very reminiscent of Tom Petty. A couple of songs incorporate the saxophone (played by Ben Latimer), which is not an instrument one expects to hear on a folk-rock album, but it works really well.

Bon Jovi2020 (2nd Oct): I haven’t listened to a Bon Jovi album in full since 1992’s Keep The Faith, and the last hit single I can recall is It’s My Life from the 2000 album Crush, so I was curious to see how their sound has changed on their 15th studio album. Jon Bon Jovi sings at a lower register now, lead guitarist Richie Sambora left three albums ago and gone are the rock anthems. Instead, there are a number of quieter, more contemplative songs and these are the ones that worked for me – American Reckoning, Story of Love, Let It Rain and Unbroken.

Blue Öyster CultThe Symbol Remains (9th Oct): This is the veteran band’s 15th studio album, appearing nearly 50 years after their self-titled debut release. Their previous album, released 19 years ago, was received poorly and appeared to be the death knell for the band, so it’s a pleasant and unexpected surprise to see new material from them, especially with some of the tracks sounding as good as the material from their peak years in the 70’s, including Buck Dharma’s distinctive vocal style. I would characterize this as generic hard rock, the sort of music you would really enjoying while sitting in a bar with a drink. The are quite a few good tracks on this hour-long album, including Box in My Head, Edge of the World, Florida Man and Secret Road (with some great guitar solos).

From this set of nine albums, my favourites are the ones by My Morning Jacket, Kansas and Deep Purple. The ones from Ozzy Osbourne, Blitzen Trapper, Bon Jovi and Blue Öyster Cult carry a couple of strong tracks each and are good enough for a casual listen from time to time. This has been a great experience and I’m now looking forward to the November and December releases.

Old favourites release new music in 2020 – Part 1

This post is the outcome of a personal project that started in late August. I was reading the review for Deep Purple’s new album on Pitchfork; as I scrolled through the sites’s easy-to-navigate Reviews page, I was surprised to see new 2020 albums from other familiar names…some that I’ve been a big fan of for years, and some that I’ve listened to only because of a catchy track heard on the radio. And what a luxury to have every one of them immediately available on Spotify, in comparison with the desperate efforts of years past to access new music. So I resolved to listen to each of these new albums in full and that’s been such a joyful experience for the past two months! Here is Part 1 of my reviews of those new 2020 albums in chronological order of release.

Of MontrealUR FUN (17th Jan): Of Montreal is the first of several bands in this list that revolve around one individual’s creative vision and musical mastery. Kevin Barnes, the enfant terrible of angsty indie-pop has found happiness since I last listened to his music on 2008’s Skeletal Lamping. Barnes attributes all that joie de vivre to his relationship with singer Christina Schneider (who now goes by the name Locate S,1). This 40-minute ode to love is packed with several enjoyable tracks including Polyaneurism (playful vocal theatrics overlay a standard dance beat), Get God’s Attention (catchy chorus), Gypsy That Remains (with a melodious riff reminiscent of ABBA), You’ve Had Me Everywhere and Carmillas of Love. My favourite track by this band has been An Eluardian Instance from Skeletal Lamping, but there are so many tracks on this new album that are just as good.

Stone Temple PilotsPerdida (7th Feb): Much has changed for STP since their breakout at the peak of the grunge movement in the early 90s. Two lead singers have died under tragic circumstances (founder Scott Weiland and Limp Bizkit’s Chester Bennington) and musical tastes have changed immeasurably. But the other three founding members – the DeLeo brothers (Dean on guitars and Robert on bass) and drummer Eric Kretz – persevered and hired songwriter/vocalist Jeff Gutt for a return to the recording studio with a self-titled album in 2018. Now they are back with a new release, styled like an MTV Unplugged recording. With my reference point being 1994’s Purple, I felt like I was listening to a completely different band. Once I got past that, I really enjoyed the album, which has standout tracks like Three Wishes, the amazing Perdida, the wistful I Didn’t Know The Time and She’s My Queen with a Jethro Tull-style flute interlude. With all the songs predominantly acoustic, there’s a yearning, introspective, occasionally melancholic feel to the album, that’s not out of place at all for a Sunday evening! The spare arrangements reveal melodic underlying song structures and I can well imagine some of these tracks being rearranged for a full-on rock version in the future.

Tame ImpalaThe Slow Rush (14th Feb): Here’s yet another one-man-band, the brainchild of Kevin Parker from Perth, Australia. I had listened to 2012’s Lonerism, enjoying it for a period of time, but eventually drifted away from their music. And so, I was pleasantly surprised when I started off on this album, their 4th studio release. Overall, there’s a shift in style from psychedelic rock to electronica. A mix of musical influences shows through…the opening track One More Year sounds like the best of Pet Shop Boys; Instant Destiny sounds like it might have been song by Mayer Hawthorne; It Might Be Time has elements of Hall & Oates and the Doobie Brothers; the first half of Posthumous Forgiveness is psychedelic enough to sound like it could belong to The Mars Volta’s Frances the Mute album. Overall, my favourite song is Is it True, which is so catchy I just can’t stop listening to it. (25th Nov update: The album has received a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Music Album).

Huey Lewis and the NewsWeather (14th Feb): The band last recorded new material 19 years ago. They started work on a 10th album in 2017, but had to abandon the effort after recording just 7 tracks because Lewis was diagnosed with hearing loss. Eventually, the band decided to release what they had, resulting in this 26 minute album. I have always loved the band’s 50’s rock sound (they were a perfect choice to appear in Back To The Future) and listening to this new release was indeed like going back in a time machine. However, the reality is that most of the songs just aren’t very catchy. The one happy exception is Remind Me Why I Love You Again, which definitely brings back the magic of their old hits.

Ozzy OsbourneOrdinary Man (21st Feb): It’s amazing to see a rocker who started his career in the 60’s continue to churn out material half a century later. Mr. Osbourne has played it safe with his 12th album, it follows his tried and trusted sound from the past 40 years as a solo artist; in particular he’s mastered the art of composing rock ballads (like So Tired from 1983 and Mama, I’m Coming Home from 1991) and anthemic slow rock songs. There are a bunch of songs from the new album which fall into this category – All My Life, Goodbye and Ordinary Man. What is commendable are the collaborations on the album – the title track has guest vocals (and piano) from Elton John, with Slash on guitar; on It’s a Raid and Take What You Want, Ozzy shares singing duties with Post Malone, one of the more innovative artists in contemporary music; rapper Travis Scott also guests on Take What You Want; pop singer Charlie Puth plays keyboards on Straight to Hell; Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine plays guitar on Scary Little Green Men; Chad Smith, the drummer from Red Hot Chilli Peppers handles the percussion on all the tracks. Overall, not as great as his first few solo albums from the early 80’s , but not bad either.

Pearl JamGigaton (27th Mar): This is Pearl Jam’s 11th studio album and my benchmark remains their debut release from 1991, Ten. The album is a mixed bag. There are songs like Never Destination which sound a lot like Pearl Jam songs from the 90’s, which I never really cared for. There is some interesting experimentation on Dance of The Clairvoyants, with electronic beats and vocals that sound like Talking Heads! But the best songs for me are when the band dials down the noise and Eddie Vedder’s vocals take centre stage; songs like Alright, Seven O’Clock, Buckle Up and Comes Then Goes and Retrograde. Overall, it’s definitely worth a listen, although I’m not fawning over it like most critics are.

Bob DylanRough and Rowdy Ways (19th Jun): Perhaps the most iconic folk rock singer of all time, Bob Dylan’s 39th album (his first came out in 1962) can be described as introspective, which is not unexpected for a man approaching 80. The highlight of the album is Murder Most Foul, a reference to the JFK assassination, which manages to incorporate dozens of references to American pop culture from the years following the assassination into a 17-minute-long hypnotic, melancholic version of Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire. Another standout track is the bluesy Goodbye Jimmy Reed, an homage to the blues icon who influenced everyone from Chuck Berry to Elvis Presley to The Rolling Stones. Overall, the experience was less like listening to a rock album and more like an hour’s worth of recitations with a poet; he is still an extraordinary wordsmith.

Khruangbin Mordechai (26th Jun): This band is my most recent discovery, having come across their music for the first time only a year ago. I loved their unique blend of Lo-fi dubstep, eastern rhythms and bassist Laura Lee’s ethereal vocals (although most tracks are predominantly instrumental). Their debut release was in 2015 and Mordechai is their third album. It’s their most consistent effort, and I enjoyed it from start to end. The opening track First Class brings back a flood of good memories from the previous albums, while the next song Time (You and I) introduces some funk and 70’s groove, followed by full-on eastern rhythms in Connaissais de Face. Father Bird Mother Bird, Pelota and So We Won’t Forget are the three signature tracks of the album…they are so good, I sometimes feel like I only want to listen to these songs for the rest of my life. Khruangbin (meaning airplane in Thai) is one of the most unique-sounding bands to have emerged in the past few years and I can’t recommend them highly enough for anyone who has enjoyed world music.

HAIM Women in Music III (26th Jun): HAIM’s debut in 2013 was a high profile affair, with critics and listeners alike wowed by their throwback musical style, invoking memories of Fleetwood Mac. Now the three sisters Estee, Danielle and Alana have their third album out, in which they have solidified their sound while continuing to channel some much-loved musical styles. For example, I’ve Been Down definitely made me think of Sheryl Crow and Man From the Magazine could easily have been sung by Joni Mitchell. Overall, the album is really good and pulled me back for several rounds of repeat listening. In addition to the above tracks, Los Angeles and Gasoline had me hooked the first time around. I’m pretty sure this is a band I’ll be listening to for years to come.

Of these nine albums, there are five (from Of Montreal, Stone Temple Pilots, Tame Impala, Khruangbin and HAIM) that I really enjoyed and am already returning to regularly to re-listen to. Tune in for another nine albums in Part 2.

Favourite rock/metal concept albums (Part 8) – Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois

Moving on from Sabaton’s concept album about the First World War, the eighth entry in this series, takes a detour away from hard rock/metal to an album with a unique folk/soft rock sound by musical wunderkid, Sufjan Stevens. At the age of 30, this talented songwriter and multi-instrumentalist released his fifth album to universal acclaim and did enough to seal his place in the musical hall of fame. Stevens has been a proponent of the lo-fi movement, eschewing expensive studio production in favour of basic recording equipment; however, unlike many other lo-fi musicians, his songs involve lush, complex orchestrations which gives the music natural depth and layers without the use of studio trickery. Many of his songs also deal with faith and spiritual matters. Illinois is one of my all-time favourite albums across all genres of music.

Sufjan Stevens in concert, wearing his signature wings

Band: Sufjan Stevens

Albums: Sufjan Stevens Invites You To: Come On Feel the ILLINOISE, aka Illinois

Genre: Culture/history/geography

Narrative theme/concept: Stories related to people, places and incidents related to the US state of Illinois

Best songs: Come On! Feel the Illinoise!, Jacksonville, Chicago, Casimir Pulaski Day, The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts,

What makes it special: This album is a massive effort, running 74 minutes and featuring 22 tracks (although six of these are just interludes of less than a minute). There’s a fine mix of slow-paced folk music (which would not sound out of place on a Simon and Garfunkel record) and some genuinely melodious and catchy pop songs enhanced by the use of horns, strings and keyboards. In particular, the masterful interplay between horns and strings is a recurring feature of the best songs in the album.

The third song Come On! Feel the Illinoise! is the first example of this musical combination – a catchy bass riff on the piano kicks off the track, which then moves to a horn section, followed by Stevens’ soft vocals delivered over the same piano riff; the horn section returns, but this time synchronized with harmonic backing vocals; soon after, a plaintive trumpet gives company to the backing vocals…and all this happens in just the first one minute! About a third of the way in, we switch to a beautiful musical interlude with the horn section, keyboards and strings together raising the listening experience to blissful levels. I still remember playing the CD for the first time and the goosebumps I got when this song came on.

The fifth song on the album is Jacksonville, a slow tempo song in which the lyrics are beautifully interwoven with a soothing string section and punctuated with a horns section; this instrumental combo synchs with a rousing chorus-chant at the end of the song:

Andrew Jackson, all I’m asking
Show us the wheel and give us the wine
Woohoo! woohoo!
Raise the banner, jackson hammer
Everyone goes to the capitol line
Woohoo! woohoo!

Chicago (the song’s full name is Go! Chicago! Go! Yeah!) is perhaps the best known song in the album, having featured on the Little Miss Sunshine soundtrack. It is definitely one of my all-time favourite songs…the music is in turns, stirring and comforting.

This is followed by the simplest of tracks, Casimir Pulaski Day, with just a banjo and guitar accompaniment for the most part and a solitary trumpet from time to time; this is a song about Stevens coming to terms with a friend’s cancer, remembering their times together; plaintive and poignant.

Track no. 12, The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts marks the mid-point of the album. It has a catchy chorus:

“Only a steel man can be a lover
If he had hands to tremble all over
We celebrate our sense of each other
We have a lot to give one another”

At this point, I usually end up taking a break or returning to favourite songs in the first half, and so I’ve not listened to tracks 13-22 as often, or even when I do, the album is playing in the background and I don’t seem to pay as much attention, as the tracks start to sound similar to each other. Even so, there are enjoyable tracks which I may not be as familiar with but are fun to listen to, such as the quirky The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!, the impossibly named They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhh! and the epic 7-minute-long The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders.

Frankly, I couldn’t figure out how most of the lyrics connected back with Illinois, and I have read enough discussion boards of people trying to interpret their meaning. It doesn’t really affect my enjoyment of the songs, the melody, harmony, composition and orchestration. Overall, this is a tour de force album, the likes of which we may not see from another artist in this lifetime, but is similar in tone and intent to other one-man-band projects like Of Montreal (Kevin Barnes) and My Morning Jacket (Jim James).

More post-war Italian Cinema: tragedy and the human condition

After my two week binge of Italian post-war films, I assumed I would be ready to move on to some other short-term obsession. Instead I found that I hadn’t yet had my fill of that era. There was something genuine and unadulterated about the people depicted in the films from that period, (specifically the mid-40s to the early 60s), before Italian films became increasingly lurid and unrestrained, focused more on human excess than the human condition; I certainly feel like this shift away from realism coincided with the transition from B&W to colour movies. So, I went back to the B&W period of the same directors who had lit up my senses a fortnight ago – Visconti, De Sica, Rossellini, Monicelli, De Santis and Olmi. And by sticking to the 40’s and 50’s, I steered clear of sex comedies, satires and farces. All the films I watched were neorealist works, tinged by tragedy and sometimes amplified through melodrama.

Ossessione (1943): I had mentioned in my previous post that I didn’t really care for Luchino Visconti’s two celebrated period films Senso (1954) and The Leopard (1963). Well, clearly I had started at the wrong end of his ouevre. This time around, I tried three of his more grounded works and found them to be much more to my taste. The first of these was Ossessione, Visconti’s debut film, an unofficial adaptation of John M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice (subsequently brought to the screen twice in high-profile Hollywood productions). The movie is a film noir at heart, although also credited by some film observers as a proto-neorealist film, made a couple of years before the Italian neorealism movement officially began. Although I already knew the story, I was riveted by Visconti’s dramatization of this slow motion train wreck of an illicit relationship between an itinerant tramp Gino and an unhappy housewife Giovanna; a relationship built on passion, but later corrupted by greed and fear. Special mention must be made of the camerawork by Domenico Scala and Aldo Tonti, which injects dynamism into the narrative – an early tracking/crane combo shot to show the arrival of Gino at the trattoria and immediately after, a quick zoom/track-in shot (reminiscent of John Wayne’s introduction in Stagecoach) to visualize the impact that his arrival has on Giovanna. Another notable aspect of this film is its homoerotic male gaze that focuses on Gino (played by Massimo Girotti) in his tight-fitting undershirt, rather than on Giovanna. This made sense to me after I realized that director Visconti was gay, openly so at a time when this was neither politically or socially accepted. As it is, the film was so controversial that Mussolini’s government destroyed the film’s negative; fortunately, Visconti saved a print from which all subsequent copies were made. Among the film’s crew was assistant director and co-screenwriter Giuseppe De Santis, who went on to a successful directing career of his own, including the highly acclaimed quasi-noir Bitter Rice that I wrote about in my previous post.

Shoeshine (1946): Two years before Vittorio De Sica shook the world with the neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves, he served up many of the same tropes in Shoeshine; people from the lower socio-economic strata trying to get along with their lives, but constantly thwarted by officialdom and a callous society. Two young shoeshine boys Giuseppe and Pasquale, inadvertently get caught up in a stolen goods racket orchestrated by a group of petty criminals, with the kids taking the rap and being sent to juvenile prison. Not surprisingly, their experience in prison hardens them as individuals, robbing them of their youthful innocence and driving them towards the very delinquency that the system is attempting to cure them of (something I feel strongly about personally as well). The film is anchored by outstanding performances from young actors Franco Interlenghi and Rinaldo Smordoni (the former went on a long and successful film career working with a number of great directors) and leaves a lump in the throat by the time it reaches its inevitable, tragic conclusion. At the 1948 Oscar awards, the film was nominated for Best Screenplay and also received the inaugural Honorary Award for best foreign language film.

Rinaldo Smordoni (as Giuseppe and Franco Interlenghi (as Pasquale) in Shoeshine (1946), directed by Vittorio De Sica

La Terra Trema (1948): Following on from Ossessione, Visconti’s second film was very much a purist entry in the Italian neorealist movement, featuring uncredited non-actors in the lead roles. Set in a fishing village in Sicily, this docudrama tells the story of a young man from a traditional fishing family who attempts to bypass a cartel of wholesalers and set up an independent route to market. He mortgages his family home and initially enjoys success, but his naiveté leads to financial ruin and thereafter, his pride leads to social ostracism. Eventually, he has to accept defeat and seek the favour of the same group of middlemen for a daily wage job, so that he can feed his mother and siblings. It is a harsh slow-burning story, narrated dispassionately and objectively (very much in contrast to Ossessione). I was reminded of Ermanno Olmi’s The Tree of the Wooden Clogs, both shot in local dialect, using a cast of non-actors and presenting an unhurried (it’s nearly 3 hours long) and unvarnished account of the lives of farmers and fishermen. As the film ended, I reflected that in 70 years, perhaps very little has changed for this lot in many parts of the world, they are still literally at the bottom of the food chain.

Europe ’51 (1952): This Venice Golden Lion nominee is the second of five collaborations between neorealist pioneer Roberto Rossellini and screen legend Ingrid Bergman. What began as mutual admiration between these two accomplished artists, quickly led to an extra-marital relationship that caused scandal across Europe, but also resulted in five highly regarded films. I had previously only watched the first of these, Stromboli, which was nominated for a Golden Lion at the Venice film festival. Europe ’51 starts off with a wealthy family suffering a terrible tragedy in the first act, which leads to Ingrid Bergman’s character Irene searching for catharsis and meaning to her life. Rossellini exploits this storyline to expound on his socialist beliefs, using Irene’s desire to help poverty-stricken families as a means to showcase living conditions in housing projects and slums. While these visits give her a sense of fulfillment, she is unable to articulate these feelings to her husband and mother, who become increasingly alarmed at what they see as her erratic behaviour and refusal to revert to their accustomed high-flying lifestyle (they drive a Rolls Royce). While the poor and downtrodden think of her as a saint, her family believes she is going insane and feel compelled to have her committed to an institution. The film features a brief but sparkling performance by Giulietta Masina (Federico Fellini’s wife and the star of a number of his films) as an impoverished housewife living in the slums who manages to feed and care for her bevy of children with improbable cheer! The film initially had to undergo some censorship to dilute its strong socialist/Marxist message and for many years was only available in this edited form, but Criterion finally released a fully restored version in 2013.

Rome 11:00 (1952): On 15th January 1951, a staircase in an apartment building on Via Savoia in central Rome collapsed under the weight of dozens of candidates who had lined up for a job interview, leading to several casualties and one death. One year later, director Giuseppe De Santis (of Bitter Rice fame) released this docudrama which chronicles the events of that tragic day, featuring a large ensemble female cast and a couple of male stars (Raf Vallone and Massimo Girotti) in bit parts. Running at a tight 105 minutes, there is practically no plot to this film, but De Santis develops audience interest by creating personalities and backstories for a few of the women as they arrive one by one in response to an advertisement for a typist. Pretty soon, the news travels down the queue that there is just one vacancy available, triggering feelings of panic, anger and despondency among the predominantly working class women, all desperate for a job. Inevitably, what comes next is jostling and raised voices as some try to cut the queue and suddenly, the spiral staircase collapses. The aftermath is played out in the hospital, as families rush in to check on the victims and give vent to their anger and frustration, especially when they learn that they have to pay for the treatment. Although the women are grateful to be alive, they and their families have to face the reality that without money or influence, they will always remain disadvantaged.

The Great War (1959): Mario Monicelli, the father of Italian comedy, followed up the heist caper Big Deal on Madonna Street (which I raved about in my last post) with this masterful work about the human condition, using the First World War as his backdrop. He snagged Alberto Sordi and Vittorio Gassman in the lead roles, as two reluctant soldiers who compete with each other to pick up assignments that take them as far from the fighting as possible. They are supported by a cast of accomplished character actors and hundreds of extras for the battle scenes. The film is peppered with humorous repartee between Sordi’s and Gassman’s characters, but equally and more importantly, it showcases the futility of war and the many anonymous tragedies that play out in the midst of conflict. One scene in particular brought tears to my eyes – Sordi and Gassman have just finished scamming a local village for contributions to the soldiers (they fully intend to keep the money for themselves) when they come upon the wife of a fellow soldier who has just recently been killed; the poor woman is unaware of the fate of her husband and has taken a train to this staging post so that she can hand him a pair of woolen socks she has knitted for the coming winter. A glance passes between the two men, and next thing they are handing over the money, making up a story that her husband was called away for other duties and had given them the money for her. Silvana Mangano (of Bitter Rice fame) has a brief role as a woman whom Gassman’s character befriends while at his initial staging post, but both know that the war will come in the way of any lasting relationship. The ending is truly poignant as the two slackers make the ultimate sacrifice and redeem themselves in the eyes of the audience. The cinematography is extraordinary, with some of the war scenes worthy of a Steven Spielberg epic. Of particular note is a two minute continuous tracking shot that shows men engaging in light-hearted banter while on a break from a long march and juxtaposes that against an informer being shot for treason. The film won the Golden Lion at Venice, got an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film and features in the Venice film festival’s list of 100 Italian films to be saved (7 of the 8 films mentioned here are in the list).

Rocco and His Brothers (1960): After his first foray into historical melodrama shot in colour with Senso, Luchino Visconti returned to more intimate settings and a B&W palette with this 3 hour long family drama about a widow and her five sons after they move from their village to seek their fortunes in the city of Milan. The film is couched in the trappings of neorealism, but throws them off by the final act to reveal full-blown melodrama underneath…not dissimilar to the story beats of Senso. The film is divided into five seamlessly connected segments, each focused on one of the brothers. But much of the story revolves around the contrasting character arcs and resulting conflict between the second and third siblings, Simone and Rocco, played by Renato Salvatore and Alain Delon respectively. Frenchman Delon’s sensitive portrayal of Rocco paved the way to his stardom, which was further cemented with Purple Noon (released around the same time) and L’Eclisse in 1962. The other key performance is from Annie Girardot, another famous French star, who plays Nadia, the woman who is caught in a deadly triangle with the two brothers. The film ends with a horrifying murder, one which is simultaneously a crime of passion and also a premeditated, cold-blooded execution. Nino Rota’s score is haunting and very reminiscent of the one he created 11 years later for Coppola’s The Godfather.

Annie Girardot (as Nadia) and Alain Delon (as Rocco) in Rocco and His Brothers (1960), directed by Luchino Visconti

Il Posto (1961): After being mesmerized by The Tree of Wooden Clogs a few weeks ago, I rewound the clock to one of Ermanno Olmi’s early successes, Il Posto. First-time actor Sandro Panseri plays Domenico, a shy and rather gauche teenager who has just finished school and is now ready to enter the workforce. He is among a large group of applicants of varying ages who go through a series of tests and interviews as part of a mass recruitment drive by a large corporation. During the interviews, he meets a pretty young girl Antonietta and as they are among the two youngest applicants, they end up speaking to each other during the lunch break and after the interview. Eventually both are hired, although in different departments of the company. The young man slowly starts to figure out how things work in a large company. The only person Domenico knows in the entire company is Antonietta, and he tries desperately to find out which department she works in, keeping an eye out for her during lunch breaks. The director uses this narrative framework to showcase the corporate rate race and how intimidating it must appear to a shy, young first jobber. There is a mildly satirical bent to Olmi’s narrative – an office scene mid-way through the film would not have been out of place in a Jacques Tati film. The film ends with Domenico sitting at his work table, seemingly in a trance, surrounded by the sounds of typewriters clacking, as he contemplates the soul-numbing monotony of a clerical career. An interesting bit of trivia – Loredana Detto, the first-time actress who was 16 years old when she played Antonietta, married director Olmi in 1963 and the couple remained together until his death in 2018. Their son Fabio is a cinematographer and daughter Elisabetta a film producer.

After a month of bingeing on post-war neorealism, I think I can now say that I have a much deeper understanding of this era of film-making in comparison with my previous exposure which was limited to the works of Fellini and the neorealist trilogies of Rosselini and Antonioni. The twenty years of Italian post-war cinema encompass an incredibly rich and rewarding body of work, in equal parts entertaining and insightful.

Revisiting post-war Italian Cinema: neorealism, comedy, melodrama!

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Italian filmmakers made quite a name for themselves on the world stage, producing several hard-hitting films exploring the heartbreaking social and economic conditions in their war-torn nation. These films, which were shot primarily with non-actors and undressed outdoor locations, came to be grouped under the term Italian neorealism, which influenced other key film movements such as the French New Wave, the Egyptian and Indian social dramas of the 50’s and the Indian Parallel Cinema movement that followed, as well as the Polish Film School. Thereafter, as economic conditions improved, so did the tone of the movies, becoming more light-hearted and eventually by the 60’s, more explicit and cynical in their depiction of wealth and its corruptive influence on morals and on society at large.

About 10 years ago, I systematically started watching many of these seminal films, mainly in chronological order:

  • I started with the post-war films from 1945-50 – full of stark images of poverty, squalor and despair – classics like Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy (Rome Open City, Paisan and Germany Year Zero) and Stromboli (the first of five films he made with Ingrid Bergman).
  • By the early 50’s, the rebuilding of the nation and consequent economic growth led to a public rejection of films obsessed with social misery. The attention of filmmakers shifted to protagonists who were street smart and willing to do what it took to hustle their way up the social value chain. This came through in the early works of Federico Fellini such as I Vitelloni, La Strada, Il Bidone and Nights of Cabiria. And with Fellini’s films, one could see the transition from neorealism to magical realism, which would get accentuated as his career progressed.
  • The widespread affluence of the 60’s was reflected in the films of that decade – parties and fast cars – but side-by-side with a sort of moral and spiritual poverty. This was a recurring theme in Fellini’s later works, La Dolce Vita and 8 ½, as well as Michelangelo Antonioni’s trilogy of films, L’Avventura, La Notte and L’Eclisse. This decadence was also portrayed through the genre of ‘Commedia all’italiana‘ (Italian-style comedy); I had watched on example of this, Vittorio de Sica’s anthology film Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, starring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. The overt sexuality of these films created global careers for their statuesque leading ladies (‘maggiorata‘ in Italian slang) Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, Silvana Mangano, Monica Vitti and others.
  • Italian cinema evolved through the late 60’s and 70’s, and I watched a wider variety of genres including epic historical melodramas like Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard and Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900, the newly created Spaghetti Westerns popularized by the two Sergios (Corbucci and Leone) and the later, more nostalgic works of Fellini like Amarcord and Ginger and Fred. The only genre I had absolutely no interest in was Italian horror (‘giallo’) from the likes of Mario Bava and Dario Argento.

In the past few weeks, I somehow developed a nostalgia for these films and realized there were still several notable ones from that period that I hadn’t watched. So I set out to fill the gaps and ended up watching an assortment of 8 famous films, covering the categories of neorealism, commedia all’italiana and historical melodrama:

Bitter Rice (1949): Directed by Giuseppe De Santis, this well-known neorealist film caused some controversy because it was considered too glamorous, stylized and noir-ish by neorealist purists. In addition to its commentary and core message about the struggles of female rice field workers, Bitter Rice features an unusual love-quadrangle, played by four charismatic actors – future stars Vittorio Gassman and Raf Vallone, American actress Doris Dowling and then unknown Silvana Mangano. As mentioned, this film has strong noir undertones and Silvana Mangano’s character was its femme fatale. Her first appearance on screen, dancing the boogie-woogie at the train station, oozing sexuality, is as impactful a screen entrance as one can think of. She became an overnight star, married the film’s producer Dino De Laurentiis and went on to have a versatile four-decade-long film career. Another key feature of the film is the cinematography by Otello Martelli, best exemplified by the two-minute continuous opening shot which brilliantly combines exposition from a radio commentator, a 360-degree pan of women arriving for the rice planting and an in medias res introduction to the plot.

Raf Vallone and Silvana Mangano in Bitter Rice (1949), directed by Giuseppe De Santis

Umberto D. (1952): This film is straight out of the playbook that Vittorio De Sica created for his influential neorealist work Bicycle Thieves in 1948. Umberto D. is a hard-hitting, unflinching portrayal of the travails of the poor and downtrodden in a big city. The protagonist of the film is a retired pensioner named Umberto Domenico Ferrari, who lives in a squalid apartment in Rome with his pet dog Flike, trying desperately to make ends meet on his meagre pension and now under pressure from his landlady to pay the rent or move out. As the narrative progresses, Umberto’s condition becomes increasingly pitiable and wretched. In one heartbreaking scene, he decides to beg on the streets out of desperation, but at the last minute, just as a passerby is about to drop a note into his open palm, Umberto’s pride gets the better of him and he quickly turns his hand over as if checking for rain. The film was so downbeat that it led to a backlash from the public who, after years of war and reconstruction, were tired of having their misery thrust into their faces. Umberto D. can therefore be considered to be the beginning of the end of hard-core neorealism, as filmmakers transitioned to more escapist fare during the mid- and late-50’s.

Senso (1954): Nearly a decade before Luchino Visconti created his sumptuously mounted magnum opus The Leopard, starring Hollywood leading man Burt Lancaster, he had pilot-tested the same approach with the historical melodrama Senso, starring Farley Granger, who had recently made it big in Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. Top billing went to Alida Valli, a well-established Italian actress who had also appeared in Hollywood productions. Visconti was one of the pioneers of Italian neorealism, but Senso was the film with which he cut away and moved to a diametrically opposite filmmaking style involving big name actors and lavish sets shot in colour. I didn’t much care for The Leopard when I watched it some years ago, and likewise didn’t find the subject matter or protagonists of Senso particularly interesting either. Having said that, the final act of the film is melodrama of the highest order, as the ill-fated love affair between Valli’s besotted Italian countess and Granger’s two-faced Austrian military officer ends in a spectacular confrontation charged with self-loathing, emotional abuse and hysteria.

Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958): This film, considered to be the first example of commedia all’italiana, is a hilarious crime caper similar in structure to Ocean’s 11, in the sense that the bulk of the film relates to the meticulous planning of a heist, while the final act is the robbery itself. The key difference here is that the thieves are a set of bumbling (though good-natured and lovable) incompetents. As their preparations progress, it becomes increasingly obvious that their stars are not aligned for success and all that remains to be seen is the manner of their failure, which unfolds in increasingly spectacular fashion through the last half hour. In that sense, the film is also a parody of the 1955 French heist classic Rififi. Director Mario Monicelli loaded the film with talent, featuring early big screen appearances for up-and-coming stars like Vittorio Gassman (who eventually became a poster boy for commedia all’italiana), Marcello Mastroianni and Claudia Cardinale, as well as comedians Totò and Carlo Pisacane (I suspect Brad Pitt modeled the non-stop eating of his Ocean’s 11 character on this trait of Pisacane’s gluttonous Capannelle). Composer Piero Umilani’s superb minimalist jazz score during the heist scene and cinematographer Gianni di Venanzo’s striking chiarascuro street shots are other highlights of this masterwork, which was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars. Welcome to Collinwood, one of the early directorial efforts of Joe & Anthony Russo before they hit the big time with the Captain America and Avengers movies, is a contemporary remake.

(from left) Marcello Mastroianni, Vittorio Gassman, Carlo Pisacane and Tiberio Murgia in Big Deal on Madonna Street, directed by Mario Monicelli (1958)

Divorce Italian Style (1961): This is another early example of commedia all’italiana, specifically the sex farce, of which there would be many more in Italian cinema. Marcello Mastroianni plays a Sicilian nobleman who is trapped in a loveless marriage with a cloying wife (brilliantly played by actress-model Daniela Rocca). He secretly covets his young cousin living in the same family estate and discovers that she has feelings for him as well. His increasingly convoluted machinations to free himself from the marriage (divorce was illegal in Italy at this time) form the basis of the movie’s ridiculous plot. The entire cast plays it straight through various over-the-top scenes to great effect.

Boccaccio ’70 (1962): This chronologically mis-titled anthology film contains works by the four leading directors of the Italian Golden Age – Mario Monicelli, Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti and Vittorio De Sica. With each segment clocking in at about 50 minutes, the entire feature runs for nearly three and a half hours; but each segment can be viewed independently, as they are separate stories, each filmed in the distinctive tone and style of its director. I really enjoyed the down-to-earth narrative of Monicelli’s opening segment, titled Renzo and Luciana, about a young man and woman working at the same factory, who get married but have to hide it from the management due to the ridiculous rules that require female employees to be single. The second segment, The Temptation of Dr. Antonio, is a classic example of Fellini’s magical realism and satire. A pompous, self-appointed protector of public morals who goes around catching lovers in parked cars and ripping out provocative magazine covers at news stands, is appalled when a sexually suggestive billboard for milk featuring Swedish bombshell actress Anita Ekberg is installed at a park in full view of his residence. He takes it upon himself to petition the authorities to have the billboard removed, but ultimately works himself up into such a state that he succumbs to his repressed desires and inner torment. The third segment, The Job, directed by Visconti takes place (not surprisingly) in a luxuriously appointed house and features a protracted conversation between a playboy Count and his wealthy German wife (the money belongs to her father), after he has been caught by newspapers in flagrante delicto with high-class call girls. The wife’s father has frozen the husband’s bank accounts and he must convince her to make a public statement in support of him and get daddy to unfreeze the accounts. Romy Schneider is devastating as the wife, who in spite of all the wealth and resources at her disposal, realizes she is a prisoner in an emotional cage of her own making. The final segment The Raffle, is a sex farce directed by Vittorio De Sica. Sophia Loren stars as a carnival worker Zoe, who offers a night with herself as the prize in an illegal raffle, the proceeds of which are meant to pay off the tax debts of her pregnant sister and brother-in-law! This is quite a contrivance and appears to just be an excuse to show off Loren in stages of undress. Fortunately, Loren proves herself a natural at physical comedy and her on-screen grace and warmth ensures the story doesn’t get too tawdry; it ends in fact on quite a light-hearted note.

Sophia Loren in the fourth segment of Boccaccio ’70, The Raffle, directed by Vittorio De Sica

Il Sorpasso (1962): One of the most highly regarded films in the commedia all’italiana genre, Il Sorpasso literally means “the overtaking”; this becomes evident soon after the film begins as it’s about a road trip in an open-top Lancia Aurelia sports car, with plenty of wild highway driving. The film stars Vittorio Gassman (yes, him again!) as the brash and irrepressible middle-aged playboy Bruno, who takes a shy, bookish law student Roberto (played by French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant) with him on an impromptu road trip, simply because he is bored and has nothing better to do on a public holiday. Over a two-day period, Bruno manages to get Roberto out of his shell, while also coming to terms with his own wild and untethered life. The casting is inspired; Gassman is tall and charismatic – his Bruno is a force of nature – while Trintignant, who is slightly built and soft-spoken, plays Roberto as a hopeless “noob”. The film has an outstanding soundtrack; the cold open kicks off with the crackerjack jazz-based Il Sorpasso theme by Riz Ortolani and the rest of the movie is peppered with various arrangements of contemporary hits including the evergreen Quando Quando Quando and Peppino Di Capri’s foot-tapping St. Tropez Twist. The end of the film is quite a shocker though!

Jean-Louis Trintignant and Vittorio Gassman in Il Sorpasso (1962), directed by Dino Risi

The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978): It’s unusual to have an Italian neorealist film popping up in 1978, but the construct of the film itself is not surprising given the documentary filmmaking credentials of director Ermanno Olmi. This is essentially a three hour long docudrama about a year in the life of a peasant community in the Lombardy region during the late 19th century. It won the Palm d’Or at Cannes and is one of the great examples of humanist filmmaking. Given it’s length, I watched it episodically over 3-4 sessions, but it was engrossing and so relatable even though it portrayed a community a world and a century removed from mine. For the hardworking peasants portrayed in the film, there isn’t much that separates one day from the next and it was heartwarming to see them take pleasure in the simple things – the sounds of music floating over the fields from the house of the landlord; a man shyly asking the girl he is courting if he may say “Hello” to her; the appreciation on the face of a teenager who has recently lost his father, when he is offered a job at the local mill; two little sisters giving each other rides on the wheelbarrow in which they transport dirty clothes to their mother, the washerwoman; a farmer lovingly tending his private tomato garden; Olmi portrays all of this with zero melodrama but with genuine empathy and compassion.

And so that was my highly enjoyable and fulfilling revisit of Italian cinema from the 50’s and 60’s (plus the one film from 1978), replete with pathos, charm, comedy and sexuality. There are still a number of notable films from this era worth watching and that will hopefully give me plenty to write about soon.

Favourite rock/metal concept albums (Part 7) – Sabaton’s The Great War

It’s been two months since the last post in this series about my favourite rock and metal concept albums. All the previous albums in the series have been from the 70’s to the 90’s, but this time I’ve picked The Great War from 2019, by a group that I’ve only recently become familiar with, the Swedish heavy metal band Sabaton. They have been around for 20 years and early on in their career decided to focus their music on historical themes primarily related to war, after watching Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. I have to admit, I’m not comfortable writing about a band that celebrates mass destruction, but I do enjoy the music and hope that stays the focus of this post rather than the purpose behind their music or the type of fan base this may attract. Their previous efforts have included 2008’s The Art of War (about Sun Tzu’s military treatise) and 2012’s Carolus Rex about the rise and fall of the Swedish Empire during the 17th/18th century. The Great War is their ninth album and I got hooked onto it after hearing The Red Baron, a song about German flying ace Baron von Richthofen.

Sabaton in 2019 (from left to right): Tommy Johansson (guitar), Pär Sundström (bass), Joakim Brodén (vocals), Chris Rörland (guitar), Hannes van Dahl (drums)

Band: Sabaton

Albums: The Great War (2019)

Genre: Military/war

Narrative theme/concept: Descriptions of famous battles and feats of heroism from the First Wold War

Best songs: Seven Pillars of Wisdom, 82nd All the Way, The Red Baron, Ghost in the Trenches

What makes it special: There is something strangely appealing about the no frills song-writing centered around band co-founder Joakim Brodén’s gruff speaking-style vocals punctuated by anthemic choruses and packaged within a tightly woven melodic musical structure. There isn’t a great deal of variation in the music from one song to the next, but by the same token the songs are all consistently good and are usually no more than 3-4 minutes long…no fillers or duds in this album. If you listen to the songs while reading the lyrics and accompanying notes on the Sabaton website, it becomes a sort of history lesson and brings alive the tragedy of war. One can only marvel and shudder at the conditions that these men fought under and the horrors they faced.

The best songs in the album are related to famous war heroes, each of whom have been the subjects of literary works and films over the years:

  • The song Seven Pillars of Wisdom is named after the biography of T.E. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia, and tells of his actions as the British liaison to the Arab forces fighting the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.
  • One of my favourite songs in the album, 82nd All the Way recounts the heroic efforts of Sgt. Alvin York as a member of the 82nd Infantry Division in capturing German positions against overwhelming odds during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Sgt. York was one of the most decorated soldiers in US military history and was famously played by Gary Cooper in the 1941 biopic directed by Howard Hawks.
  • The catchiest song in the pack and the one that introduced me to this album, The Red Baron, is about Baron von Richthofen, considered the greatest flying ace of all time, credited with 80 victories and killed by ground fire at the age of 25 a few months before the end of the war.
  • A Ghost in the Trenches describes Corporal Francis Pegahmagabow’s heroism during the War, specifically the Battles of Passchendaele and Scarpe. He was an expert sniper credited with 378 kills and became the most decorated native American soldier in Canadian military history.

At nearly 5 minutes length, the longest song of the album is titled The End of the War to End All Wars. It has an epic feel, starting with a ballad-like intro, transitioning to choral backing vocals, then diving into full-blooded heavy metal riffs.

I am working my way through Sabaton’s back catalogue. Since a number of their other releases have been concept albums, I may end up writing about Sabaton again in this series.