One Miami boy’s dark side of the “Moonlight”

A24 Films

A24 Films

A little boy turns on the stove. Next, the bathtub faucet. He heats a pot of water, pours it into the tub and mixes in dish soap. He’s home alone. Sitting in the makeshift bath, he cups the soapy water and raises his hands above his head before unleashing on to his body. Alone and dejected, he cleans himself.  

Barry Jenkins' superb 2016 film "Moonlight" follows one deeply-compelling boy’s life at three different ages: Little, Chiron and Black.

The movie originated as the semi-autobiographical unproduced play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Years later, Jenkins came on board as writer and director. He knew McCraney’s tale of growing up in Liberty City, Miami, with a drug addicted mother; he’d experienced most of it himself.

"Moonlight" was the last movie I saw in the "Obama years." It served as an unexpectedly cathartic transition into a new administration likely to be unkind to today’s Chirons.

The first black president overseeing the landmark passage of marriage equality. Chiron's story likely wouldn’t have been produced or critically acclaimed eight years ago, or even two. Obama’s legacy allows this story to be told.

It’s no easy film to watch. Moonlight focuses on a boy foreign to guidance and love. An alien in his own community.

Little is tailor-made for a program like My Brother’s Keeper, President Obama’s initiative to promote the lives of young black men.  

He eventually finds his “keeper” in Juan, a crack dealer. Sensing himself in the young boy, Juan divulges his similar upbringing while on a trip to the beach.

“At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be,” Juan says.

The remark, albeit a little too deliberately, sets up the major focus of the film: identity. The relationship between Little and Juan isn’t stale. Juan is no wise old man; Little’s abrupt presence rattles his sense of purpose.

Played masterfully by Mahershala Ali, he creates a hard demeanor with an innate sensitivity peaking out past the golden chains and grill. Juan sees the ill-effects of his career manifested in the life of a lost child — a child he used to be.

But that’s the success; there’s beauty in the pain. Cinematographer James Laxton captures sadness in a tropical, bright Miami.

While at the beach, Juan teaches Little to swim. Laxton immerses the camera bobbing up, down and submerged in the water by a tide. Juan isn’t just teaching him to swim; he’s giving him the tools to swim away from his childhood.

Even in the most standard of scenes, Laxton demands wrought emotional responses.

Chiron spends much of one night aboard subways and platforms since his mother won’t let him come home. He eventually finds himself at the beach where a clandestine encounter occurs with Kevin, a childhood friend.

It’s a tough scene to watch, in part because Laxton so intimately frames each shot. Chiron rests his head on a subway windowsill, dejected. He wanders down to an eerily empty beach while palm trees sway in the night sky. Each shot intrudes further and further in to the yearnings of an isolated child.

In the third act, the two men reunite and reflect on their formative years. Neither of their lives turned out as expected with stints in prison and complex family woes.

A decade later, Kevin finally found his purpose. "It's a life," Kevin says about now living as a single bisexual dad on parole working as a night cook.

Black isn’t there yet. But as he tells Kevin, "What do you expect?"

Growing up a gay, black boy with a drug-addicted mother in the hood of Miami, Black’s life isn’t “saved” by a pull yourself up by your own bootstraps mentality dominating conservative thinking.

However, Chiron isn’t the only one on a journey to self-actualization. His mother Paula too goes through her own metamorphosis, although not one immediately helpful to her son. Naomie Harris brings an understanding — even love — for a working mom’s slow descent into drug addiction.

Even after shaking down her deeply isolated teenage son for money, she demands he go to school. He must better himself, though his environment gives him every reason not to.

Praise again goes to Jenkins, who based Paula off of his own mother. That’s the success of the role; there’s a truth — an identity — behind the character. She’s not just another coked-out absent mom. She’s a former health care professional who, after her own rehabilitation, returns the aid in assisting other addicts. These are characters no doubt dependent on the Affordable Care Act for their health.

Each scene is accompanied by a haunting, almost Gregorian score. Nicholas Britell’s classical composition starkly contrasts to the inner-city setting. That’s the beauty of "Moonlight"; the tug between what is seen and what is felt.

That’s also Chiron's biggest struggle. Who he is and who people see are vastly different. Sure, he’s a poor, gay, black boy, but he also is a caretaker, a student and an individual — that’s intersectionality.

"Moonlight" leads the 2017 awards season with 96 wins. It too picked up eight Oscar nominations. Though, "La La Land" received 14 nominations and tied the all-time record previously set by "All About Eve" and matched by "Titanic."

"La La Land" is receiving praise for ushering in a return to Hollywood's "Golden Age." While undoubtedly a superb, grandiose musical, it’s just not a film indicative of the current political and social landscape. It doesn’t have to be, but it sure picked the wrong year to premiere.

Like Trump’s election campaign, "La La Land" is wild, crazy and fun to watch. "Moonlight" isn’t. It’s a look at the type of people Trump wants to reform: inner-city dwellers, drug lords and the incarcerated.

It’s more than just honest, engrossing storytelling; it’s a memento to a now bygone administration's views of culture, politics and expression.

Don't let 'La La Land' be this year's 'The Artist.'

Courtesy of Lionsgate.

Courtesy of Lionsgate.

Every awards season, one picture resonates with film critics unlike its competition. This movie doesn’t always have to be the front-runner. But with focus on either the film industry or the press, the picture inherently spurs a sort of insider glee. Last year “Spotlight” held the honor by depicting a famed newsroom. Now, “La La Land” follows suit.

Praise for a modern-day jazz musical navigating one Los Angeles couple’s relationship and career turmoil should come as no surprise. Director Damien Chazelle works almost exclusively on jazz films. Starting with 2009’s “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” he followed to high acclaim with 2014’s “Whiplash.” Two years later, he’s finally an insider with a bigger budget and bankable stars on his side.

All of this led “La La Land” to infatuate critics. Variety’s Owen Gleiberman called it, “the new-fangled version of a sprawling Tinseltown classic.”

He’s not wrong. The films extends beyond just a return to cinema's golden age. As Gleiberman notes, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling heartbreakingly depict the loneliness of trying to make it in Hollywood rarely explored with such nuance in film. Mia is any modern ingenue without a secure path to her big break. Then there’s Sebastian, a jazz aficionado angered by his beloved genre’s decline.

The movie exists in Sebastian's world. With whimsy and magic, the film progresses as an ethereal beauty. An epic opening musical number and multiple extended dance sequences provide purely joyous viewing.

However, this pomp and circumstance dupes critics. The glorious vitality blinds an imperfect film. After all, Mia finds her career success; most aspiring actors cannot say the same.

Yet, this insider obsession is nothing new. The hype surrounding “La La Land” recalls another recent return to the classics: “The Artist.”

The black-and-white silent film follows the relationship between one of Hollywood's leading men and an up-and-coming dancer at the dawn of talking pictures. It's the loss of traditional art in favor of new media as told by romantics. Sounds like a familiar tale.

“The Artist” went on to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Since then, the French-film and its stars remain largely forgotten when discussing the best movies of recent years. Looking back, it’s not much more than Hollywood praising a film about Hollywood.

Four of the last 5 best picture winners at the Oscars focused film or reporting. With the exception of 2013's “12 Years a Slave," “The Artist,” “Argo,” “Birdman,” and “Spotlight” all centered around people in or near the profession of film and press. Based on the precedent, “La La Land” should have a safe route to success. 

Though certainly benefitting from industry nostalgia producing critical acclaim, "La La Land" suffers from a problematic storyline. Mia and Sebastian both repeatedly perform segments of the original jazz song "City of Stars." It's undeniably a great track, yet Sebastian pointedly praises jazz for sounding different with every listen. The writing and the output are not cohesive.

The imperfections extend beyond just script snafus. In a series of tweets, musician Rostam Batmanglij criticized the film's lack of diversity. The former Vampire Weekend member condemned a jazz film with black musicians as fringe characters, although he praised John Legend's performance as Sebastian's collaborator. 

At a minimum, it's problematic. The picture is another sad entry in to a long line of Hollywood films ignoring essential diversity.

Fortunately, “La La Land” is certainly no lost cause. It’s the best cinematic musical in recent years, far surpassing 2012's “Les Miserables.” Emma Stone deserves the credit. She's revelatory showcasing a prestige star power never before fully realized.

But the film needs a bigger audience than just the in-crowd. Its biggest competitor does exactly that.

In observing an young man coming to terms with both his sexuality and family, “Moonlight” inherently--and expertly--showcases diversity and exploration of “new” cinematic territory. Meanwhile, “La La Land” is another ode to the romance of film, and film insiders by nature love film. It’s a great feast for a starving critic. Beyond that, it’s more excess fat than meat.

Making Waves with Coast Modern

By: Joseph Longo

By July, the "Songs of Summer" reach their peak. No longer are these effortlessly cool jam, well, effortlessly cool. The euphoric beats and sing-along lyrics agitate with each new radio station and television commercial saturating the once free-flowing tunes. It's a trap many bands fall in to with seasonal smash hits. Everything from the Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" to The Temper Trap's "Sweet Disposition."

And then there are the bands that market off of a "summertime" designation. Katy Perry expanded the buzz of 2010's "California Girls" with a late-August release of her accompanying album, "Teenage Dream." Vampire Weekend flipped expectations for their yacht-club cool with a distinctly all-around heavier third album, "Modern Vampires of the City." Perry embraced while Vampire Weekend disassociated. It doesn't always work, but the smart artists know how to break past the simplistic characterization. 

But, there's a third type. Bands like Coast Modern. West Coast natives Coleman Trapp and Luke Atlas both embrace and disassociate from their pop-rock. The duo juxtaposes. Somber lyrics overlay cool synths and breezy beats. It's an all-encompassing sound. A thinker, of sorts. Ultimately, only the best bands allure listeners to attentiveness. 

Hooligan Magazine chatted with Coast Modern before their Milwaukee Summerfest set on July 8. Read on as the up-and-comers discuss their complex sound, love of reading and Twitter's "little nuggets."

***

Coast Modern is often described as having a distinctly West Coast vibe. Do you think that’s a fitting description?

Coleman Trapp: It’s totally fitting. It’s where we’re from; it’s where the music is born. Having that kind of chill fun, summery vibe is something that comes easy for us. It’s not all we can do or plan on doing.

Luke Atlas: Ya, it’s not really planned out to be West Coast, but it’s inevitable. Being from there, it feels like it’s always summer. I guess it seeps in but not intentionally.

In recent interviews, you've mentioned your music is unplanned. You don’t go in with an end goal. What do you find in going freeform?

A: I think there’s room to surprise ourselves. If we knew what we were going for, we wouldn’t probably be able to hit that. But if you’re just digging around and you stumble on something you don’t really know where it came from, you’re like, “This is actually amazing." Later, you can look back like: “How did I write that? I have no conscious understanding of where that came from.”

Do you feel a pressure to have your own distinct sound and separate yourself?

T: Definitely not. Maybe at one point early on when we were learning our craft. Now, our sound comes from just being open, taking our time and having fun.

A: Trusting that what is exciting to us will be exciting for other people. That’s really the only thing on our minds. We don’t really pay attention to what’s going on too much.

T: Ya, it is refreshing. It takes the pressure off.

Did you intentionally try to mix the light and dark?

T: It’s built in. We explore both of those things. Especially reading, sharing philosophy and just thinking deeply about existence in general. If you were going to try to write a song without darkness, it wouldn’t be realistic. It wouldn’t be true.

A: It’s a nice package for things “deeper.” Things were thinking about, so it’s not super overwhelming. It comes in a shiny boat.

Where do you find inspiration, both from other artists and just out in the world?

A: Oh man.

T: We read a lot. Love reading.

A: Ya, reading is important. I like just exploring in nature. Taking time away from people and expectations. Oftentimes we’ll just be chatting too. And these are things we’re running in to, thinking about or stuff we read somewhere. We have that in our heads, and when we write a song, it just kind of works its way in.

You have a big social media presence in more than just a, “Here’s our music." Why take a more active approach?

A: It’s just fun for us. It’s like a new thing. I’ve been so surprised by how funny and cool everyone is. It just seems natural. I think part of what we want is a more direct, personal feeling with fans.

T: Social media is great for connecting. That’s why playing live is even fun, because you get to actually meet people. Social media is a little taste of that when you’re not on the road.

A: It’s important to realize where this music is going and who is it reaching. I love seeing where it’s traveling to.

Do you have a favorite platform?

A: I like twitter a lot, because it’s instant.

T: Little nuggets.

A: You can kind of say whatever. Can be random, or can be real. 

Breaking "Stereotypes" with Black Violin

Kevin Sylvester and Wilner Baptiste of Black Violin

Kevin Sylvester and Wilner Baptiste of Black Violin

Halfway through their recent set at the Milwaukee Summerfest Music Festival, Wilner Baptiste stopped their renditions of radio hits to speak with the crowd. “Break the stereotypes,” Baptiste said. “You never know what this violin can do, so you have to break the stereotypes.”

On cue, Baptiste along with Kevin Sylvester nestled their violins against their neck and sprung into the duo’s hit single “Stereotypes.”

Together Baptiste and Sylvester makeup Black Violin. The hip-hop violinists garnered recent acclaim for their new eponymous album Stereotypes. As two black men from Atlanta classically trained in the violin, it’s a word they’re all too familiar with.

However, they didn’t set out to challenge cultural norms through producing such a novelty sound. Rather, as two hip-hop loving violinists, it's inherently their world. And, thankfully, they’ve embraced their designation as “different.”

The Stereotypes album excels through an acute self-awareness. In effectively mixing classical and hip-hop sounds, the duo too bridges the cultures associated with each genre -- a socially conscious rap over classical violin. It’s a sound full of innovation and passion reveling in the best of both genres.

***

You have a very unique sound. How did this come about? Was it always the plan to mix hip-hop and classical music?

Wilner Baptiste: It just happened. It wasn’t the plan at all...We grew up listening to hip-hop (and) reggae. We just happened to play classical music, so for us it was natural to put the two together.

Your music is often times very socially conscious. Where do you find the roots for this come from? Some of the themes recall Grandmaster Flash. Was that an inspiration?

B: We definitely grew up in that era. With Common (and) Talib Kweli...conscious types. We perform for a lot of kids, so for us it’s important to carry ourselves in a way that the music that we make represents who we are and what we represent...especially with what’s going on in our society. Take a look at this album, we felt we had to say something. For us, what better way than through our music?

It is what it is, because that’s who we are. We’re two conscious individuals. We have families; we have kids. So it’s like, why not?

Many artists won’t talk conversational issues. They don’t feel it’s their place or don’t want to alienate a fanbase. Was that ever a concern when making the album?

Kevin Sylvester: We are who are. I don’t think we make a lot of stances saying politically or anything like that. As for as a conscious artist, what we try to do is try enlighten everyone else’s consciousness. Just like try to be creative with what you do and what you love. That’s more the message of Black Violin: trying to awaken the best of who you are. That thing that you love to do that you smile doing, do that. Do that over and over, but do it in a way that nobody else is doing. I think that’s the kind of place--we say consciousness. We’re trying to wake people up in that way much more that way than in any way that I think would alienate anyone. If you’re alienating by that, then I don’t know what to tell you. So, that’s kind of how we think about it. We think of something different that we're not supposed to do. We don’t look like violinists. We make the violin do things you don’t think it should or what it is capable of doing. What can you do like that? That’s the crux and core of our message.

B: That may offend somebody. You never know; people are crazy. That right there may offend somebody, but who cares? For us, be who you are. Be you. We’re going to be ourselves. That’s it. If you don’t like it, I don’t know what to tell you.

Your sound is quite unique. How do you make sure it’s not a novelty sound?

B: Because we have original music. If you see our performance, it’s 90 to 95 percent original music. Our album is our music. No covers. It’s a lot of elements to it too. I do a lot of singing on stage. We really tried very hard to get out of that novelty type of music. We used to do a lot of gigs where it was like, “Okay guys, I want you to stand on this barstool and just play.” We’re just hoping we fought really hard to get out of that. We’re artists. We want to express ourselves (and) not be limited.

At Hooligan, we believe in bringing the abnormal to the mainstream. How does Black Violin do that?

S: When’s the last time you heard two violins playing a song on the radio and leading the group?

The cool thing with it is that we’re definitely chameleons. We can come in-and-out of many different genres. Our album is very much hip-hop and R&B, but it’s also very much classical and pop, and also has some jazz to it as well. We kind of weave in-and-out of genres. We’re comfortable that it’s not sticking in one particular place. You hear us on either a television commercial, or the TV show we score, or HBO's Ballers that’s coming out next week, or whatever. For us, we like to be a chameleon that pops up everywhere. To us that’s mainstream, because we’re in everything. Rather than just, “Okay, that’s the hit on the radio" -- which we can do as well and welcome. I think we are in that category, but we relish in that. We love that. We’re always trying to be the best we can be and find different creative ways to be mainstream.

Black Violin performing at the Summerfest Music festival

Black Violin performing at the Summerfest Music festival

Like you just mentioned, you do more than perform live. You do score many different projects. How did that come about?

B: It’s all about connections. The first thing we’d done, we scored this CSI: New York episode. One of the directors saw one of our shows, and then they were like “Oh, they would be perfect for this show.” That's kind of how stuff happens. We did this commercial. It was like a Kobe and LeBron battle commercial. I don’t know how they got our contacts, but our musical travels. Our music was on Dancing with the Stars. A lot of people hear that, and they’re like "What is that?” We get a lot of opportunities that way.

If you go to the show, you see what it is. Sometimes people in the audience may know someone that's in Hollywood who needs music like this. Our music is very different. We’re scoring this TV show that’s coming out in the fall. It’s called Pitch; they wanted our music. They didn’t want anything else, because our music is unlike anything else. They wanted our sound. That’s a great opportunity to get our sound really branded in that world. To me, that’s fun. We’re tip of the iceberg. We haven’t really gotten there yet. The opportunity is endless. We’re doing this TV show; we’re doing this season. Just because of that season, somebody might hear that sound. “Yo that’ll be perfect for Captain America 4.”

S: I wish. I wish.

B: You never know. Our sound is very different, so we just need a chance. We know people love it. We’ve been doing it for 12 to 13 years. The sound is there; people love it. It’s just a matter of continuing to break barriers and getting these opportunities

S: We’re classical musicians who like really hard hip-hop. Not like trap stuff that’s going on now; I like that too. We can relate more to that party hip-hop of the early 2000s -- more southern hip-hop. Something that like Lil’ Wayne would jump on. When you take that beat, blend it with lush classical music. We make epic awesomeness on accident. We don’t even try. I think it lends itself really well to that. We just do that naturally. That’s what we do at our shows, and it connects. For us, we just weave it all together. It shows up in different places. You will be listening to us, and you won’t know.

Lastly, why are you here?

B: Why am I hear? I feel like me personally, I’m here to inspire, uplift, and help people. The joy I get when I either play with somebody, play with some kids, or just talk to some kids -- they can see me. They’re inspired, they're happy, and they’re smiling. That gives me so much. I’ll be there for the rest of my life. That’s what I’m here to do.

S: I’m here for you to listen to music we create.

Getting to know Finish Ticket

They're the type of band you stumble upon. During their recent Summerfest Musical Festival set, lead singer Brendan Hoye introduced them as such. “Who are these guys?” Hoye said. “We are Finish Ticket from San Francisco.”

With a guitar-heavy, tinged sound, Finish Ticket seemingly regurgitates in both sound and style. Reminiscent of Walk the Moon or the 1975, they face an uphill battle to notoriety. 

But, it’s a disservice to simply reduce Finish Ticket to just another in a long-line of boy bands. The up-and-comers need a niche, and they may have found that in stage presence. Performing with a raw energy unrivaled by their peers, they finally standout. It’s hard to deny they bring something to the table. Give them a few years, and Finish Ticket will have found that unique quality.

***

In the past year, you have opened for Twenty One Pilots and Fitz & the Tantrums. How has opening for such big names influenced your sound and your band as a whole?

Brendan Hoye: It’s always a new challenge playing to different people’s crowds. You just learn a lot each time, because it’s a different crowd and a different type of person you’re playing to. Within the first day of the tour every time you kind of realize quickly who you’re dealing with and how you have to command the stage a certain way. Twenty One Pilots is a much younger crowd; Fitz & the Tantrums a much older, dancier crowd. With the Fitz & the Tantrums crowd, we’ll have to keep working them the whole time.

You recently announced a Fall 2016 headlining tour.  This will be the second headlining tour, after completing your first this Spring.  Why such a quick turnaround? Do you just enjoy being on the road?

Alex DiDonato: Our headline tour last time was really eye-opening for us, because we had never done one before. We realized we actually had fans across the country, so we’re kind of eager to get back out and kind of do the same thing again and hit a lot of those same places because we had such a great time. 

H: That was such a big milestone for us. As much as we do love opening, now that we have gotten to do a headline--I think every band prefers playing their own crowds. We had never known that. Before that, we had a few markets like New York and San Francisco, but now we can go do it across the country...It’s a lot more comfortable.

 

You have a predominantly young female fan base. Do you feel any responsibility to be role models or watch what you say for them

D: A little bit, but we don’t want to filter ourselves too much. I think most bands who have fans of any kind are kind of sometimes seen as role models. We generally try to be nice people, even if we weren’t role models. So we’re just continuing who we are and luckily we’re not bad people.

Because you’re coming up in the indie-rock scene, do you feel any pressure to set yourself apart? 

H: Every band has a certain path and it takes certain bands longer. It took us longer; we’ve been putting music out since 2008. I don’t think we found our real sound until 2010. Even back then, our sound kind of fit what would now be the "mainstream alt-rock" sound. We’re still pushing our (When Night Becomes Day) EP, but we have new music on our minds. I think now we have gotten to where we want to be or starting too.

We’re an arts magazine, but we also like to talk about social justice. A lot of artists like to discuss this topic, while others don’t feel like that’s something to talk about. How do you stand on this?

D: We’re not opposed to talking about it. Obviously it’s a little polarizing when you talk about your views as it has to be one way or another. But, we’re all for social justice; that should be a given. Power to the people, but we don’t want skew people away from us just because we might have different personal views from them. Our music is meant to affect whoever feels affected by it. If anybody connects with it, it doesn’t really matter what their other views are. 
H: As individuals it’s important to a lot of us, but until recently we never really had the platform. It’s really a newer thing for us to even think about.

You like to stay active on social media. Why is that important to you?

H: I’m conflicted about it. Social media can be very toxic in any way for every random person, but also just for bands. It makes you really check in, and you have to be involved in social media.
D: It’s how we stay in touch with our fanbase. Most of the fans only really find out about stuff going on with us through social media. So, it forces us to be a part of it regularly.
H: Especially when you’re a band that is up-and-coming. You’re not so massive that world travels through every outlet ever. When you don’t have that kind of power, you really have to rely on social media to get the word out about like the upcoming tour. We stay really active on it so people are constantly reminded of our presence on social media. So when we have big announcements, it will reach them.

You’re arguably best known for “Color,” but what’s your favorite song? 

D: Our favorite song live to play is “Bring the Rain.” It really encompasses our band and our sound more than “Color.” We like to put on a really high-energy (set)--I don’t want to say intense. But, we want to be really captivating, and that sound does that the best.
H: On the EP, there’s one called “Wrong.” Lyrically, I love that one. I’m happy “Color” has connected with a lot of people and a lot of people like it. I can see why it is an obvious single, but us as a band it’s probably one of our least favorites out of everything we’ve done. I don’t mean to disparage anybody that likes that song. If anyone just knows “Color,” delve deeper, check out our last record, and check out other songs on the EP. You’ll get a better idea of who we are.

They’re Nice as Fuck: M. Ward, NAF & Big Thief at Thalia Hall

Photo by  Robi Foli

Photo by Robi Foli

 

M. Ward is teamplayer. By the time the folk legend introduced himself on stage, the concert was half over. Yet, everything that needed saying had already been addressed.

Performing at Thalia Hall in Chicago on June 17, Ward’s opening acts Nice As Fuck (NAF) and Big Thief did much of the talking.

The Jenny Lewis-fronted NAF played an intimate set on the main floor illuminated by a dimly lit peace sign marquee. But this impression of a start-up band quickly dissipated once Lewis began signing. Rolling around on the floor and signing in concert goers faces, Lewis embodied the charisma of the decades-long artist she is.

Along with Au Revoir Simone's Erika Forster, and the Like's Tennessee Thomas, the trio’s confidence felt political. (They originally formed for a Bernie Sander’s rally.) Clad in matching green army jackets and dark green berets, the women stripped down to reveal stark white “Nice as Fuck” shirts and black & white bandanas tied around their neck.

So, it felt natural when Lewis elevated the crowd by singing a snippet of their new song "Guns":

“I don’t wanna be afraid/ put your guns away. There are children dying every day/ put your guns away.”

Photo by Robi Foli

Photo by Robi Foli

As the supergroup air high-fived and walked away, their name “Nice as Fuck” took on a richer meaning. Watching NAF perform is neighborly conversation. For a crowd expecting M. Ward’s signature melancholy folk, they provided the necessary positivity and energy—but with a needed bite.

Big Thief followed followed thirty minutes later, but a notable disconnect accompanied their set. With a haunting, frail voice, lead singer Adrianne Lenker struggled to overpower Thalia Hall’s noisy bar. Unlike the friendly atmosphere and proximity of NAF, a literal barrier stood between this new band and the audience.

Photo by Robi Foli

Photo by Robi Foli

It wasn’t until nearly halfway through their set that Lenker fully caught the audience's attention. And to do so, she too went political.

“This is for the people in Orlando who were shot. And the people who couldn't give blood because of their sexuality and the whole LGBT community.”

A moment of silence followed, accompanied with a masterful guitar riff. The hall was unified for the first time during Big Thief’s set.

Quickly shifting into their next song, the harmony passed as the crowd’s murmurs gradually rose once again. The distraction severely overshadowed the set. But, Big Thief didn’t back down.

Before kicking off their final song, Lenker had one last comment for the audience.

"What's funny is some of you will walk out of here having heard the show. And some of you will walk out of here having not heard the show. The first gets more for their money, I guess.”

Big Thief excluded a different kind of energy. Their work spoke for itself. With intricate instrumental combinations and dense lyrics, appreciating their set required concentration. Some bands never master this balancing act. For others, it comes naturally, like M. Ward.

So when he finally took the stage, it felt like he had already performed. NAF embodied the charisma while Big Thief had the sound.

Little needs to be said about M. Ward’s set. He delivered in all ways the audience expected. Predictably spotlighting his new album More Rain, Ward still satisfied with classics like “Never Had Nobody Like You” and “Here Comes the Sun Again.”

More Rain is sleepy, relaxing folk with a subtle doo-wop underlay. Sounds like something better fit for outdoor music pavilion with sprawling green space. It’s not the loud grit for the small, dark Thalia Hall.

But it is his energy that bridges the gap — and he does so in the most unconventional of ways.

Ward took a risk with an instrumental opener. It paid off. Setting a relaxing, familiar tone the audience eased into his set.                                                                             

Then came the endless switch ups. Whether it was bringing up Lewis for a duet, playing old favorites, or covering a Monsters of Folk song, Ward kept it interesting -- all while maintaining a relaxing familiarity.

It’s no surprise Ward has found immense success as part of the supergroup Monsters of Folk and as the male counterpart to Zooey Deschanel in She & Him. His live shows are equally focused on the opening acts and bandmates.

But, there’s an undeniable star power to Ward. He doesn’t need to promote himself; the spotlight always finds him. His masterful guitarist riffs rivals his signature vocals.

Afterall, that’s his best quality. He’s just as much singer-songwriter as he is producer-performer. Ward cannot be easily categorized. And it should stay this way. The man is at his best when he is uncontained.  

Spotify playlist 

Setlist via Faronheit

I’m A Fool to Want You & Michelle (The Beatles cover)

Radio Campaign (with Jenny Lewis)

Magic Trick

Little Baby

Time Won’t Wait

Confession

Whole Lotta Losin’ (Monsters of Folk cover)

I Get Ideas (Julio Cesar Sanders cover)

Primitive Girl

Girl from Conejo Valley

Poison Cup

Chinese Translation

Never Had Nobody Like You

Eyes on the Prize

Rollercoaster

Rave On! (Sonny West cover)

Requiem

To Go Home (Daniel Johnston cover ft. Kelly Hogan)

Bean Vine Blues #2 (John Fahey cover)

**ENCORE**

Duet For Guitars #3

Fuel For Fire

Here Comes the Sun Again

Helicopter

A previous version of the article miscredited Nice As Fuck's song "Guns" to The Minus 5. The Minus 5 had covered the song in a live performance. 

The Carmichael Show Deserves Your Attention

Chris Haston/NBC

Chris Haston/NBC

by Joseph Longo

A family gathers around the living room in the wake of the father’s announcement. A middle-aged father of two-boys with a doting wife has decided he will vote for Donald Trump. And so it begins. Proudly “feeling the Bern,” his son’s girlfriend scolds the old man for his controversial candidate. On cue, the doting wife interjects. She wonders why her future daughter in-law, a proclaimed feminist, would not be aligned Hillary Clinton. The debate continues doused with comedic one-liners, as the son eventually steps in. The link between all the characters, he offers advice and gets the last word.

This scene from The Carmichael Show feels very familiar. A network sitcom portrays the perceived average American family through the lens of the handsome son. There is nothing innovative or unfamiliar about it. Everybody Loves Raymond and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air found success in adapting this standard sitcom formula.

 

So, it comes as no surprise that The Carmichael Show would follow the same footing. With a mid-season premiere, multi-camera studio production, and cliché characters, it is equally as unsurprising the little-known NBC sitcom received a last minute third season renewal.

But, this is the show’s strongest element. Through an emphasis on conventions, The Carmichael Show fosters discussion of difficult modern-day topics in a comfortable, familiar platform for a wide-ranged audience. All while not feeling like another “Afterschool Special.”

The characters are all black--the most notable divergence from conventional network sitcoms. But what at first feels like NBC’s answer to Blackish or another tokenistic approach to programming severely limits the show’s stellar nuance.

By evoking the understood tone of the standard “black network sitcom,” The Carmichael Show drudges up an initial conservatism. Jerrod bickers with his girlfriend, Maxine, while his brother Bobby cracks one-liners and his parents talk about the “old days.” The viewer feels very comfortable watching; they know what to plot points to expect. If a comparison must be made to staple black sitcoms, think more The Cosby Show.

In fact, that’s intentional. They even did a whole episode on it. Jerrod offers to take his father Joe and mother Cynthia to see Bill Cosby. Unsurprisingly, this does not go over well. Father and son are excited to see the famed comedian, while Maxine refuses to attend. And then there is Cynthia; she remains conflicted. The scene continues on debating the ethical line between supporting a household staple in the family or berating an alleged abuser of numerous woman. While the average sitcom covered conventional age and gender barriers, this show elevates standard sitcom discourse with a mix of new and old wave feminism and cultural diversity. The show exudes an acute self-awareness without preaching.

 

 

However, just as the show devotes to multi-dimensional views of a topic, so too the characters remain fully fleshed. Maxine is not always right in her preaching activism. Nor, is Bobby always the culprit of his own failures. In discussing, Bobby and his estranged wife Nekeisha’s recent eviction—a classic lazy brother living on the couch—the Carmichael’s debate gentrification. On cue, Maxine berates the notion of gentrification, yet Jerrod quips with a reminder they live in a recently flipped neighborhood. These characters do not always get it right. The Carmichael’s find the truth somewhere in the middle—just like normal family matters


Network television recently finalized their fall 2016 schedule. Notably, The Carmichael Show is absent, likely with a midseason season 3 premiere. Yet, two sitcom legends have new shows debuting. Both Kevin James and Matt LeBlanc star in their respective shows as stay-at-home dads maneuvering their new terrain. So, bumbling dads actually having to parent? I’ll take Jerrod Carmichael instead.

Sam Hunt Shines With Between the Pines

By Joe Longo

Courtesy of samhunt.com

Courtesy of samhunt.com

Sam Hunt is country music for the anti-country listener. Though his debut studio album Montevallo embraced the pop country notable of Florida Georgia Line or Luke Bryan, Hunt found a niche in an overcrowded, stale musical climate. Deploying spoken word and undertones of classic 00's R&B, Hunt presents an exciting, unique mixed sound. Much in the same way Taylor Swift expended well beyond on the classic country twang, so too does Hunt.

Yet if Montevallo is country for the pop fan, then his newly re-released acoustic “mixtape,” Between the Pines, is for the true country fans. Serving as a blueprint for Montevallo, the digital reissue of his original mixtape contains both stripped-down versions of his 2014 debut, as well as his take on several songs he co-wrote for other country artists. Thus, Pines’ stripped down, natural sound of acoustic albums naturally embraces a more country-specific tone. There is a soft, muted sound highlighting Hunt, but rarely overtaking him. The two albums expertly portray Hunt’s growth as an artist.

This change is most notable on “Ex To See.” Whereas the original, acoustic predecessor shines as a traditional country male ballad, the mainstream version seamlessly fused the staple Nashville twang with a new, minimal EDM sound. In fact his least “country” single, “Break Up In A Small Town,” with elements of rap and EDM fails to appear on Pines. Instead, the mixtape works to showcase the multi-faceted Hunt. His acoustic take on Keith Urban’s hit “Cop Car,” which Hunt co-wrote and also appears on Montevallo, highlights the strength of his country croon.

Courtesy of roughstock.com

Courtesy of roughstock.com

On its own, Between the Pines fails to stand-out rise above the mass, regurgitated sound of pop country. Yet the mixtape serves as a nice counter to the stronger, mature Montevallo. Presenting a glimpse into Hunt’s musical upbringing, Pines works to reassure his true country artist persona to those concerned of his multi-genre sound. Both signal a strong opening for the new artist, yet Hunt shines when he embraces all elements of his unique, multi-genre sound where he is at his best.

No wonder Hunt is a staple amongst the millennials. Much like Swift, Hunt seemingly has a clear understanding of his image. Even the cover art for Pines signifies a clear message. The polaroid quality reminiscent of Swift’s 1989 album is easily interchangeable with any given photo of a hip, young male Instagram blogger. And it is this keen self-awareness that transcends Hunt beyond just another country crooner. Hunt is on the path to being both the next big country star and also the next pop heartthrob, but only if he  continues to embrace his unique, urban country sound.