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.

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.

 

The Death Of Ultraviolence And The Rise Of Lana Del Rey

By Anna Brüner

Honeymoon, the much anticipated fourth studio album from Elizabeth Grant (better known by her glamorous alter-ego Lana Del Rey), came out on September 18th after a summer of teasing and sneak peaks, just like a burlesque performer. In the wake of last summer’s edgier, sulkier, grungy Ultraviolence, which was the go-to album of 2014 for crying while looking cool, Honeymoon arrives like a warm tropical breeze. It’s dreamy, sexy, cool, and heartbreaking…but it’s all things we’ve heard before from Miss Grant. It’s not as gritty as Ultraviolence, and fails to capture the fun of Born to Die or the theatricality of Born to Die: Paradise Edition. However, Honeymoon may very well be Lana’s most finely crafted album to date, if only we didn’t have her previous albums to compare to. It is certainly the most “Lana Del Rey” that Lana has ever been, and it feels as though she’s finally arrived. 

 

Long gone are the days of the short-short wearing, pink bubblegum chewing, diet mountain dew drinking Lolita that defined Lana Del Rey’s style and iconography in her earliest studio works. What Honeymoon projects is the image of a made woman, an old-Hollywood style star who is both mob wife, mistress, and first lady. While all the familiar imagery is evoked (Lana still croons of JFK and James Dean, and says “soft ice cream” like it’s never been said before in the track “Salvatore”), the persona that is Lana Del Rey has matured into a softer, classier, stronger manifestation of the romanticized American dream. It is the next chapter for a character who has gone from playful young girl, to directionless vagabond, to struggling poet, to both victim and criminal, and has emerged a starlet nostalgic of the bad as much as the good. 

 

While at times it feels as though Lana is parodying herself, that self awareness isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Songs like “Freak” and “High By The Beach” deliver a dose of cool a la “Florida Kilos” from Ultraviolence, while “Music To Watch Boys To” is as flirty and bouncy as the Born to Die days. By honing her intricately orchestrated sound and image, Lana Del Rey seems to know exactly what the people want, and even if it feels a bit recycled at times, at least it is still more, and it is on a new level. “God Knows I Tried” is as beautifully authentic as the earliest EP’s of “Yayo,” and a smokey, The Doors-esque cover of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” is a solid closer to the whole album as well as a gorgeous stand alone tribute. However, the title track “Honeymoon” falls a bit flat, and the “Burnt Norton” interlude feels like a Jim Morrison-style impromptu monologue…without the poetry or pain of Morrison’s or the 60’s influence. 

 

In truth, Honeymoon is a great and beautiful album that firmly establishes Lana Del Rey as a timeless artist. She captures her character as expertly as Marilyn Monroe and invokes a vision of California through both rose colored glasses and opium smoke. It’s only a shame that it took four albums to get here. 

 

 

 

Dynamic DJ Duo Disclosure To Release Second Album

By Kat Freydl

I don’t care how many times you use the phrases synth beats or fusion of garage and house or modern revival of disco elements coupled with a pop-leaning layout and meaningful lyrics—you won’t demystify Disclosure. All of these elements are true, of course, and resonate with increasing fervor in each track that the duo produces, but they don’t quite explain what makes nearly every song they produce a hit. In 2013, the pair had three consecutive Top 20 hits in the UK (“White Noise,” “You and Me,” and “Latch,” clocking in at #2, #10, and #11, respectively). Perhaps some of it can be attributed to the brothers’ young ages at the time of the release of their debut album, Settle; At just 21 and 18, Guy and Howard Lawrence were, for all intents and purposes, rookies. To produce such a high-quality album, rich with kaleidoscopic beats, raunchy motifs, and frankly impeccable bass lines, was relatively unprecedented. Their ages have been beaten to death by the press, but again, this also can’t explain away the magnetic quality of Disclosure’s tracks. 

 In contrast, the upcoming release of Caracal has been prefaced by several pre-released tracks, featuring artists such as Sam Smith, Kwabs, Greg Porter, and Lion Babe. The released songs are moody, almost bluesy in their delivery, punctuated by syncopated synth stabs and the truly excellent beats which the pair is so well-known for. It is not tension, it is realization; they are not tracks you dance to, necessarily, but tracks that remind you why you were dancing in the first place. “Hourglass,” for instance, which features Lion Babe, juxtaposes a lively beat with emotional vocals, a staple of many of Disclosure’s best works.  This is not to say that the album is devoid of dance-oriented tracks; “Bang That,” conceived to be part of one of Disclosure’s DJ sets, is a beat-based track that pays more homage to their house-music roots than the other songs on the album. Though the track skirts dangerously close to monotonous repetition at times, it brings itself home with periodic rhythmic shifts that keep the piece fresh enough to sustain itself. 

The duo clock in at 24 and 21 as of now, proving that their claim to fame isn’t only their age. Though their talents verge on prodigious at times, the product of a musical upbringing, an interest in music theory and classical music, and genuine passion for what they do, Guy and Howard Lawrence have created an album that not only compliments but perhaps even surpasses Settle. The album is bleary summer nights where the colors bleed together like an impressionist painting, sweating out a fever, getting over heartbreak. It is subdued and passionate where Settle is invigorated and carefree. 

There are multiple ways to be impressive. Disclosure has hit on many of them. Far from formulaic, their writing process has at times been less of a process and more of a chain of events, consisting of afternoon-long consultations with featured artists on their tracks leading to the production of a single in the span of one day; in the case of the aforementioned single “When A Fire Starts To Burn,” when schedules didn’t align for the Lawrence brothers to collaborate with a rapper, the duo cut up bits of audio from a motivational speech to create the illusion of rapping, leading to the creation of a video that featured a congregation having a spiritual experience at the behest of a Southern preacher, the repeated refrain “when a fire starts to burn/and it starts to spread/she gon’ bring that attitude home/don’t wanna do nothing, what they like” just barely kept from being monotonous by the lively beat overlaying it. This simultaneously illuminates one of Disclosure’s greatest strengths and biggest weaknesses: while the music coming so naturally to the duo spills into the sound and comes out in a way that appeals to the listener, the fact that many of the songs are created as parts of DJ sets or dance mixes can make them less pleasant to listen to as an album rather than hearing them in a club setting. However, this flaw is all but resolved in Caracal; the tone of the album is fuller and more somber—not just the party, but the moments after. “Willing & Able” feat. Kwabs pleads, “If you don’t feel it the same as me/speak now or hold your peace.” Unlike Settle, Caracal embraces vulnerability, set at an altogether slower tempo without sacrificing Disclosure’s signature garage style. 

Full disclosure (pun 100% intended): I still haven’t demystified Disclosure for you, but maybe I don’t need to. Settle is full of songs that I would love to dance to. Caracal makes me feel okay about when the dancing has to stop.