The year in guns and music

Lin-Manuel Miranda as the Father of the year. (Photo © Joan Marcus)
Lin-Manuel Miranda as the Father of the year. (Photo © Joan Marcus)


Music normally provides a refuge from and a response to the sorrows of the world. But in this bitter and broken year, even music became a war zone. Which makes it even more imperative that we continue to support live music, continue to go to shows, continue to choose art, joy and freedom over fear.  U2’s stunning Paris concert, which HBO aired live on Dec. 7, was a powerful antidote to the vile “keep Muslims out of the U.S.” posturing of Herr Trump that coincidentally dominated the news cycle that day. But, more important, it was a healing gesture — as far as gestures can go — to the city of Paris and to musicians and music lovers shaken by the horror that took place at the Bataclan.

I’m sure I’m not the only fan who once believed to my core that a rock concert is hallowed ground. How can anything bad possibly happen when you’re dancing to the music you love? But it did, and we have to acknowledge that dark cloud. We in the U.S. also have to contend with domestic terrorism wrought by the NRA’s insane GOP-enabled perversion of the Second Amendment. But you know what? Life goes on. Music goes on. Thirty-five years ago this month, John Lennon became a gun violence statistic, murdered by someone who should never have been able to obtain a gun. We thought the dream of peace and love died with a Beatle, but it didn’t. It lives on, even stronger, in the increasingly angry and emboldened response of sane Americans to the mass shootings that have taken place almost daily, and to the racist, xenophobic, gun-humping, misogynistic filth spewing from the mouths of the fringe crackpots the Republicans are trying to pass off as presidential material.

On the night of Dec. 7, after a scrolling remembrance of Paris casualties and shouts of “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite,”  Bono brought an emotional Eagles of Death Metal onstage to sing Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power.” It was a moment of pure rock and roll joy. The audience jumped, cried and howled along on Smith’s progressive battle cry — “The power to dream, to rule, to wrestle the world from fools” — like a great wounded animal stirred. And you never want to underestimate a wounded animal.

Much of the music on my best-of list reflects my state of mind this year, probably more than it does the musical moment. The news was frequently so depressing, I found myself gravitating towards music as an uplifting escape. My Top Seven albums of 2015:

  1. Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Album). No, I haven’t seen it (I’m hoping for a West Coast tour). But the album, oh the album. Hamilton stands on its own as a hip-hop/pop opera, with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s take on Alexander Hamilton — Founding Father, guy on the $10 bill, famous duel victim — a work of straight-up genius in so many ways. Listening to the album reminds me of how, as a kid, I locked myself in my room with Hair and didn’t come out for a year.  Hamilton brings popular music to Broadway in a more original way than jukebox musicals like Motown: The Musical, harnessing the power of rap as storytelling form (and connecting the dots backward to Shakespeare in the process). The show’s electricity comes from how star and creator Miranda frames Hamilton as an outsider with a vision of democracy and equality (“just like my country/ I’m young, scrappy and hungry”). Its heartbreak comes from the audience’s knowledge that the show’s big ideas — the abolition of slavery, the right of women to determine their own destinies, the creation of a strong central government (“Are we a nation of states? What’s the state of our nation? I’m past patiently waitin’ “) — are still regarded as open to debate by a large swath of the population. At the very least, the boundary-crossing popularity of Hamilton might make American history sexy again for a country that often seems sorely in need of a history lesson.
  2. FFS. Franz Ferdinand and Sparks morphed into a defiantly off-kilter entity, serving up an album “so harmonious it enhances the distinct charms of each element, while becoming something entirely new and astoundingly delicious” (as I wrote in June). There was one song on the record that diverged from the upbeat mood, Alex Kapranos’s atmospheric ballad about a man with a gun, “Little Guy from the Suburbs” (“I’m just a little guy from the suburbs/ Who learned to kill better than the others”). As the year went on and the mass shootings by terrorists both domestic and foreign piled up, the song took on a grave kind of prescience. But FFS didn’t let that weigh them down. Their jubilant, inclusive concert at the Fox Theater in Oakland was my show of the year.
  3. Colleen Green, I Want to Grow Up. Achingly lovely and lonely pop from a performer for whom weed, wisecracks and meals alone in front of the TV no longer seem to be enough. The haunting “Deeper than Love,” in which she details her discomfort with intimacy and her fear of aging and death, is as wrenching a piece of confessional songwriting as you will ever hear.
  4. Grimes, Art Angels. Colleen Green works in tight-focus; on Art Angels, Grimes (Claire Boucher) blows her music up to IMAX. This is a big record, in sound, intention and the talents of its creator, and it mostly succeeds. Producer/arranger/songwriter/beat-creator/musician/performer Grimes moves confidently from sugar-voiced yet tough-edged dance pop (“California”) to savage electronica full of other-worldly mystery (“Kill V. Maim”). On Art Angels, Grimes emerges as the spiritual daughter of Madonna in her prime and Yoko Ono at her wildest.
  5. Hot Chip, Why Make Sense?  Glorious electronic dance music about the challenge of growing older without letting the world turn you bitter. My review is here. 
  6. Shamir, Ratchet. This young, agender Las Vegan delivered the debut album of the year, featuring sublime dance hits “On the Regular” and “Call It Off.” On their sassy delivery of those two primary-colored tracks, Shamir calls to mind a cross between Sylvester and Off the Wall-era Michael Jackson. On a downcast song like “Vegas,” the bright lights fall away, revealing a willingness to acknowledge ugly truths: “You can come to the city of sin and get away without bail/ But if you’re living in the city, oh you already in hell.” Shamir’s combination of playfulness and darkness raises the ante for future work.
  7. Elvis Costello, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink. Not actually an album (though there is a companion playlist), but reading Costello’s memoir was exactly like listening to his lyrics. His writing here is dense, assured, filled with dazzling turns of phrase and tricky — unfaithful — when it comes to narrative structure. This is a book of memories that unspools like both a memory and a melody, moving back and forth in time, often steeped in self-loathing, but always returning to Costello’s main refrain and reference point — his beloved, often-absent father, the big-band musician from whom Elvis inherited his sense of showmanship, among other things. This is a deep, rewarding tale, beautifully sung.

And this was my song of the year. I wish it hadn’t been necessary, but the power of it is, still, a comfort.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015



Thoughts on FFS (Franz Ferdinand and Sparks) at the Fox Theater, Oakland (10/15/15)


I know it's blurry. I was dancing! (Photo © Joyce Millman)
I know it’s blurry. I was dancing!
(Photo © Joyce Millman)

The vibe at FFS’s Oct. 15 tour finale at the Fox Theater in Oakland was equal parts warm and fuzzy. The fuzziness was provided by two furry friends on the terrace dance floor, one in full fox costume, the other in cat, who were spotted dancing, snapping photos and generally living their best lives amid the happy throng of Franz Ferdinand and Sparks fans. The warmth came from the way these two bands — one American, one Scottish; one with a career spanning over 40 years, one formed in 2002 — played together as a new entity on stage. There was genuine love and respect in the way Franz’s Alex Kapranos gave Sparks’ Russell Mael a thumbs up and a smile after Mael nailed the final operatic vocal flourishes of Sparks’ “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us,” and in the bands’ final communal embraces after the rock-operetta, “Collaborations Don’t Work.”

Everything that works about FFS on their self-titled record — the joyful blending of two unorthodox, uncategorizable bands into one pop/rock/glam/disco/cabaret rarity — worked even better live. The brainy, self-effacing humor was evident from the moment FFS took the stage to the grandiosely cheesy theme from the British cult sci-fi series “Blake’s 7” to stand motionless while Ron Mael struck the plummy opening piano chords for “Johnny Delusional.” Then, Russell Mael, resplendent in a black and white striped poncho, and Kapranos, in a splatter-print disco shirt tucked into black trousers with a coy orange stripe up the inseam, began a display of the most awksome dancing I’ve ever witnessed on a stage.

But this wasn’t camp. This was a celebration of dancing to one’s own beautiful beat, and a heartfelt expression of two bands’ love for the same far-flung musical influences. It was as if this tour liberated Franz Ferdinand and Sparks from any expectations other than their own, and Kapranos and Russell used their considerable charm as frontmen to pull the audience along with them.

So, on a glitter-ball mash up of Sparks’ “When Do I Get to Sing My Way” and FFS’s “Call Girl,” the band gave us absolutely un-ironic old school disco, Franz’s Nick McCarthy chugging out Chic rhythm chords, while Kapranos did some swirling, hip-thrusting interpretive dancing that referenced both Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever” and David Bowie circa “Young Americans.”  But on “Little Guy from the Suburbs,” the dramatic lighting, lush synthesizer tones and McCarthy’s twanging Spaghetti Western guitar solo placed Kapranos’ world-weary ballad of a failed terrorist into the realm of Leonard Cohen-meets-Lee Hazlewood.  Then there was the candy-bright J-pop of “So Desu Ne,” made even giddier when four band members shared one keyboard, and an indelible image of Russell Mael and Kapranos bouncing up and down in unison (along with the audience) to the meaty, staccato rhythm of Franz’s “Take Me Out.”

Each song took us someplace new, in terms of style and sound, but instead of being dizzying, it was intoxicating. There’s a lot to be said for a band looking like its members are having the most fun they’ve ever had in their lives.

The emotional high point of the show was a transcendent performance of Sparks’ “The Number One Song in Heaven,” with McCarthy, Russell Mael and Kapranos lined up at the mikes, each dancing their own quirky moves, thrusting index fingers heavenward on the chorus. The lyrics are a kind of pop sermon on the mount, except delivering a reverse gospel that music shouldn’t be taken as The Word to remain eternally enshrined and unchanged: “The song filters down, down through the clouds/ It reaches the earth and winds all around/And then it breaks up in millions of ways.” Music is a gift for us mortals to use however we need it, whether that’s (to paraphrase the lyrics) as a hit tune, an advertising jingle or a child’s playtime taunt. Everything about the FFS project, from its “aw-hell, let’s do this” inception to the uninhibited triumph of the live show circles back to the idea in “Number One Song” that music is both universal and communal, yet deeply and thrillingly personal.

For the first opening act, FFS chose Carletta Sue Kay, the female persona of Bay Area performance artist Randy Walker, who stood center stage in a wig and an Angry Birds costume worn as a dress and blew the roof off. Then, for something completely different, came The Intelligence, a Seattle post-punk band. The diversity of the bill added to the one-big-pop-party atmosphere inside the Fox (the furries didn’t hurt, either), potently underscoring FFS’s vision of musical inclusiveness.

“Just think, a world ruled by weirdos,” was how my friend Charley Taylor  affectionately summed up the FFS show he saw in Boston at the start of this short American tour. At the Fox, when Ron Mael stepped out from behind his iconic Ronald keyboard, shed his mask of dourness and burst into a grinning breakdance across the stage on “The Number One Song in Heaven,” you couldn’t help but grin along with him, grateful that, for this night at least, the weirdos won.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015

It’s number one all over heaven

Bomp-bomp, diddy-diddy


FFS: A mind-meld you can dance to

The drummer is always the first to go.
The drummer is always the first one to go.


Consider the Cronut. Croissant, donut — what could go wrong? A lot, actually. Some things, while fine on their own, are not meant to be combined. But once in a while, a collaboration comes along that’s so harmonious it enhances the distinct charms of each element, while becoming something entirely new and astoundingly delicious. Like peanut butter and marshmallow creme. Or, as it turns out, Franz Ferdinand and Sparks.  FFS, the new, self-titled blending of these two outwardly disparate ingredients, is a luscious pop treat, salty and sweet with sticky melodies and savory wit. I mean this in the best way possible: FFS is a big, satisfying Fluffernutter of a debut album.

But first, a digression …

I won’t lie. I never really paid much attention to Sparks until late last year when Franz Ferdinand announced the collaboration. Although I was alive and listening to music in 1974 when Sparks’ breakthrough album Kimono My House was released, L.A.-raised brothers Ron and Russell Mael were too weird for my Stones- and- Zep-loving teenaged self. I knew who they were, from reading Creem magazine (androgynous, falsetto-singing Russell certainly was easy on the eyes), but they weren’t in heavy rotation on the radio station I listened to. Also, Ron’s stern visage and Hitler mustache creeped me out. Some years later, when I was writing about music for a living, I could have and should have given Sparks a chance, but I didn’t. This was wrong and I’m sorry.

So thank you to Franz Ferdinand, a band that I’ve long admired, for challenging their fans to become acquainted with the Maels’ catalogue (22 albums deep). I wanted to hear what drew the impeccable Glasgow art-pop-dance-rock-whatevers to the eccentric Maels, who are now in their late sixties. I started by reading this exhaustive overview of Sparks’ first 20 albums. That led to crate-digging and long trawls through You Tube, and I quickly discovered two things: I love Sparks, and, I am an idiot for not realizing this decades ago.

If I had, I would have known that Sparks got to operatic glam-rock before Queen did, perfected the naif-ish narrative voice before David Byrne and made techno-disco before Daft Punk. I would have had years more pleasure listening to the cerebral/surreal humor of their lyrics, which are like Monty Python with a poker face to match Ron’s. I would have discovered sooner that Kimono My House and Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins (1995) were two of my favorite albums, ever. And when I first heard the shouted-in-unison chorus of Franz Ferdinand’s “What She Came For,” I would have jumped up and said, “Aha! That reminds me of ‘The Rhythm Thief’ from Sparks’ Lil’ Beethoven” album!

Live and learn.


The story FFS is telling about their union is that the Maels approached Franz Ferdinand back in 2004 when the latter were blowing up with “Take Me Out.” It isn’t hard to figure out why Sparks dug the ambitious and unorthodox structure of “Take Me Out”; with its front-loaded verses, it’s all chorus and riff and, in 2004, sounded like nothing else on the radio.

But the more you listen to both bands, the more you see the deeper connections between them. Franz Ferdinand and Sparks share an omnivorous approach to pop music, playing with genre and instrumentation (neither band ever met an electronic keyboard sound it didn’t like). Ron Mael and Alex Kapranos favor intelligent, cheeky jigsaw-puzzle assemblages of lyrics that often become part of the rhythm — listen to the heady clashes of consonants on Sparks’ “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” and Franz Ferdinand’s “The Fallen.” And both bands have a heart, though they don’t wear it on their sleeves;  there is deep empathy beneath the deceptively jokey premise of Sparks’ “The Ghost of Liberace,” for example, and an aching wistfulness shadows the philosophical posturing of Franz’s “Fresh Strawberries.”

FFS choose to lead with their hearts on the new album. The first track, “Johnny Delusional,” is a sad song masquerading as a sunny one, about a poor sap who’s “borderline attractive from afar,” and in love with a woman who doesn’t know he exists. It opens with some stately Ron Mael piano chords, then turns into a bouncing disco beat that would mash-up nicely with Sparks’ Gratuitous Sax version of (maybe) their masterpiece, “When Do I Get to Sing My Way?” Kapranos and Russell Mael alternate on the verses but blend so seamlessly on the multi-tracked chorus and outro that it’s hard to tell where one voice ends and the other begins. Like “When Do I Get to Sing My Way?,” “Johnny Delusional” is a song about a nobody yearning to be noticed and loved: “Though I want you/ I know I haven’t a chance/ Still I want you/ Johnny Delusional here.” Like “My Way,” the song takes a minor-chord dip on the choruses that hits you like a pang of despair.

“Johnny Delusional” sets the theme of the first four songs — little men who want to be big. There seems to be a direct relationship between “Johnny Delusional” and the song that follows,  “Call Girl.” Over a suave synth dance track that wouldn’t be out of place on Franz’s Tonight, Kapranos and Russell sing as one in the familiar Sparks narrative voice: here’s another earnest sap who can’t see the romantic truth staring him in the face. Like Johnny, he’s in love with an unreachable woman. That she’s a prostitute apparently fails to register: “I gave up blow and Adderall for you/ So I’d have dough and spend it all on you/ So call girl, why don’t you give me a ring/ Call girl, pick up and ring.”

The next two songs, “Dictator’s Son” and “Little Guy from the Suburbs,” look at males with delusions of grandeur from two sides of the same coin. “Dictator’s Son”  is a darkly comical profile of an autocrat-in-training, “born with a silver gun,” from “a nation of fearful men and women afraid of them,” as he heads to L.A. to bask in Western culture (“I’m into Hugo Boss/dental floss … coed’s knees, BLT’s”). With its staccato circular piano riff and Russell’s falsetto dominant in the mix, this is the most Sparks-sounding song on the album. But there is nothing comical about the haunting “Little Guy from the Suburbs,” which sounds like the nihilistic last thoughts of a terrorist (or an average, everyday mass murderer) justifying his suicide mission. The atmospheric ballad is sung with a quiet chill by Kapranos, with Russell’s soaring falsetto joining in on the “no heroes, just those who care more for their legend than their life” chorus, the melody of which ranks as one of the most beautiful that Sparks or Franz have ever written.

I also like the back-to-back placement of “Things I Won’t Get,” a list of unattainable intellectual and material goals sung artlessly by Franz guitarist Nick McCarthy, and the social-climbing satire “The Power Couple.” Where “Things” offers a sweet grasp on what’s truly important in life (“When I see you lying by my side looking extra clean/ I’m in a state where I don’t mind/ My thoughts turn obscene”), “The Power Couple” lunges forward on a marching piano and martial drumming, with a choir of Alexes and Russells, all fiercely calculated ambition, declaring, “We must make a good impression/ We must make a GREAT impression!”

The balance of FFS is insistently danceable and fabulously strange. The clever, frenetic electronic pop of “Police Encounters” and “So Desu Ne” fuses the sound and sensibilities of both bands into something vaguely familiar but, ultimately, not easily pegged to either one.  And, as an introvert, I have been waiting all my life for “Piss Off,” a joyous sing-along halfway between a football chant and a 1940s Hollywood musical showstopper that gives the middle finger to all the clattering, nattering intrusions on precious solitude.

The album’s magnum opus, clocking in at 6:42, is the self-referential and very funny operetta, “Collaborations Don’t Work,” a dazzling mosaic of shifting tempos, styles and orchestration reminiscent of the chamber pop of Sparks’ Lil’ Beethoven album. The lyrics chart the stages of collaboration from hopeful beginnings (“you start off deferential and strangely reverential”) to verbal axe-throwing, Russell in full diva falsetto trilling, “I don’t need your navel-gazing!” and Kapranos responding, “I don’t get your way of phrasing!” All six members of FFS enter the fray, each singing lines on the mid-section (yes, even Franz bassist “Silent” Bob Hardy!). And there’s a great moment when Franz Ferdinand feigns, “Oh, screw it,” and asserts its will with the most overtly Franz-sounding passage on the record, all slicing drums and stabby guitars and Kapranos crowing, “I ain’t no collaborator … I am the sadistic young usurper … If I ever need a father, it won’t be you, old man!”

Obviously, he’s joking. What FFS have made together is truly rare; the album doesn’t sound or feel like an awkward grafting of one band onto another. Instead, it’s as if Franz Ferdinand and Sparks have created a musical playground where the cool kids and the freaks could hang together outside of labels and comfort zones. It’s liberating to hear Franz let out their inner nerd, and gratifying to hear Sparks playing modern pop again. FFS begin a European tour this month, with U.S. dates to come in the fall, and it’ll be interesting to see what the fans of each band make of this new entity. Some advice? Don’t let the Hitler mustache scare you away.

“Johnny Delusional” by FFS (Official Audio)

“When Do I Get to Sing My Way?” by Sparks


And then, there’s this.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015

In the rotation: January

The Rails
The Rails (Kami Thompson, James Walbourne)


What I’ve been listening to this month:

The Rails, Fair Warning (Island). I was a latecomer to this debut album, which was released last May but didn’t hit my radar until I saw the married British folk duo’s opening set for Chrissie Hynde in December. The Rails are — no overstatement — Brit-folk royalty: Kami Thompson is the youngest daughter of Richard and Linda Thompson. I guess that makes her husband, James Walbourne, the Kate Middleton commoner in this mix, but his solid journeyman bio includes stints in Son Volt, the Pernice Brothers and the Pretenders. At any rate, the Rails echo the timeless Richard and Linda dynamic — man, woman, existential gloom, romantic doom, a fondness for murder ballads  — without imitating it.

For one thing, they pay a lot of meticulous attention to close harmony, where Thompson’s parents’ never really did;  in the Rails’ hands, a song like the traditional Irish ballad “Bonnie Portmore” becomes a shimmering lost Everly Brothers tune. For another, Linda largely interpreted Richard’s lyrics, but Kami and James are a songwriting team. I’m not sure which one of them is responsible for the lyrics on the the title track of Fair Warning, on which Kami sings lead, but she had me at the song’s opening lines: “I’ll be OK soon, there’s a bottle in my hand.”  On stage, Kami is a figure of elegant self-containment, and that apartness comes through on the song’s depiction of loneliness, depression and self-destructiveness. Her gorgeous voice, low, dark and clear, is enough to rip your heart out

Enter Walbourne, singing lead on roiling songs about seafaring rowdies and breaking out of borstal, to brighten the mood. He’s a deft guitarist in the Richard Thompson flashing-fingers mode, and his voice has a little bit of Glenn Tilbrook lightness in it. Walbourne draws out Thompson’s playfulness on “Younger” (about the insurmountable two-year age difference between them) and the final track, “Habit,” which shimmies along like an old-time music hall soft-shoe, the happy couple in lovey-dovey harmony until the masochism of Kami’s sweetly crooned final verse brings you up short: “You got me in the habit of missing you/ Your evil-hearted ways draw me closer still/ Tie me up, teach me to be good …”  The Rails are full of surprises.

Charli XCX, SUCKER (Atlantic). The bratty punk-pop of “Break the Rules” and “London Queen” and the masturbation-positive message of “Body of My Own”(“I can do it better when I’m all alone”) are fun, but hardly original; those songs’ antecedents are ’80s Joan Jett and Cyndi Lauper. Charli XCX’s real strength is her ability to articulate the emotional anarchy of young womanhood without giving any ground to self-doubt or regret. The massive hit “I Love It,” which she wrote but gave to Icona Pop, is a one-girl riot set to music. While Charli might never top that song’s bonfire chorus (“I threw your shit into a bag and pushed it down the stairs/ I crashed my car into the bridge/ I don’t care, I love it!”), the title track of SUCKER comes awfully close.

This stomping, assertive flip-off of a pop track is an all-purpose comeback to rejection and false-face suck-uppery. Consider the poison arrow of sarcasm in her perfectly snarled reading of the lines, “Oh dear god, do you get me now, do you get me now, oh do you? Wow, you’re awesome.” That’s Johnny Rotten meets the Dowager Countess right there, and I pity the fool who underestimated this electro-pop prodigy enough to have inspired those lines.  Look, you can be 16, you can be 30, you can be an old lady like me, it doesn’t matter, there will always come a point in your life when someone will deeply wrong you, or mansplain to you, or damn your accomplishments with faint praise. At those moments, let Charli be your guide. Toss your snarly mane of hair back (even if it’s imaginary hair, go ahead and toss it), plant a platform wedge on their throat (metaphorically, or not) and shout, from the diaphragm, “Fuck you, sucker!”  A note of caution: On the physical CD of SUCKER, the title track is censored, so that all the “fucks” are bleeped out. But all the swear words on the other tracks are left in. What the fuck?

Sia, “Chandelier” and “Elastic Heart” videos. Ignore the misreading of the “Elastic Heart” video as pedophiliac by some Twitter idiots. These video interpretations are powerful, beautiful, haunting; they enhance the impact of the primal emotions and the wild, sometimes ugly behavior laid down in the lyrics. In the video for “Chandelier,” a wrenching confessional about Sia’s alcoholism, 12-year-old dancer Maddie Ziegler stands in for the singer in a platinum wig and a flesh-colored leotard. The girl literally bounces off the walls of a depressing, grungy apartment in choreography by Ryan Heffington that startlingly mixes tribal moves, ballet, disturbing facial tics (mouth stretched wide to mouth lyrics, fingers popping open one eyelid) and jerking arm and leg motions. Ziegler looks like a doll in the process of breaking apart. Does she represent Sia’s inner self under the influence? Is she a manifestation of her soul, struggling to save itself?  It’s open to interpretation.

In “Elastic Heart,” Ziegler returns, her leotard now covered in dirt, to engage in a savage cage fight/dance with an older male, played by a leotarded Shia LeBoeuf. There is nothing sexual in their contact. This is a difficult relationship, maybe father-daughter, maybe a battle between aspects of Sia’s self, in which neither side finds triumph or peace. It’s shattering to watch, but it’s hard to look away.

Last year, Sia performed “Chandelier” on Ellen with her back to the audience and Ziegler dancing front and center. For her performances of “Chandelier” and “Elastic Heart” on the January 17 Saturday Night Live, Sia’s face was covered by a black veil that jutted out like a visor from under her platinum bangs. On “Elastic Heart,” she stood sideways at the microphone, away from the audience, while Ziegler and an older female dancer, both in flesh-colored leotards and Sia wigs, danced-fought around her. The presence of the older female dancer made the warring-selves interpretation much clearer than it is in the LeBeouf video. “Chandelier” was a letdown, though; still veiled, Sia faced the audience, but with a male mime by her side doing a sad clown routine. Seriously, nobody needs to see a mime doing a sad clown routine.

Predictably, Sia’s veiled face launched a thousand Tweets, with complaints like “distraction,” “gimmick” and “Lady Gaga copycat” tossed into the ether. But I’m fine with Sia performing behind a veil or with her back turned while ceding the spotlight to her dancers; it’s a staging that’s almost Samuel Beckett-like in its deliberate confounding of viewers’ expectations about the relationship between performer and audience. By not commanding our attention on her face, Sia is giving us a rare thing in this age where style is everything — the freedom to really focus on her words and voice and to meditate on the painful, ambiguous visions the dancers conjure.

Franz Ferdinand, Live at the Roundhouse, London 2014 ( Why isn’t this cool and clever Glasgow quartet more appreciated as one of the finest bands working today? I saw their buoyant show when it hit Oakland last year and my mind was blown (also my eardrums, thanks guys) by the sheer number of perfect, thoughtfully-constructed, singable, danceable songs they’ve recorded in their 10-year+ career. I mean, I could listen to “Take Me Out” every day and not tire of its grandly dramatic intro and cunning riff, but there’s so much more. There’s “Michael,” and “Dark of the Matinee,” and “Walk Away,” and “Do You Want To,” and “Can’t Stop Feeling,” and “Bullet” and on and on and on, all of it built to last. Am I the only one who thinks that, in terms of songwriting mastery, they’re the Beatles of their day? Probably. But, yeah. I bought this official boot to confirm my memory that Franz Ferdinand was one of the best live bands I’ve ever seen (non-Springsteen division). It did not disappoint.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015

The best of 2013: An un-list

Was it something we said?

What the world needs now is not another best-of-the-year list. You’re sick of them, I’m sick of them and for all the agonizing shuffling and re-shuffling that goes into them, they have the shelf life of tinsel. So how about we just have a conversation instead? Here are a few thoughts — THIS IS NOT A LIST — about some music and TV that I liked this year. It would be really great if you used the comments section to tell me about something you liked (or hated). OK?


Lorde, Pure Heroine.  The nearly a cappella breakout hit “Royals,” a defiant shrug of the shoulders to  pop’s materialistic excess, is only the beginning. Ella Yelich-O’Connor’s confident debut album is bubbling over with smart, mature coming-of-age lyrics and beat-heavy pop;  this New Zealand teenager has her head on straight and ambitions that go beyond boyfriends and partying. “I’m little but I’m coming for the crown”, she sings in “Still Sane,” and you best believe she means business. Read my “Royals” post here.

Daft Punk (ft. Pharrell Williams), “Get Lucky”.  Sheer bliss. Chic-meets-Earth, Wind & Fire-meets-Michael Jackson in the song of the year. Plus, vocoders! Disco lives, part one.

Franz Ferdinand, Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action. Disco lives, part two. Radiant Euro-dance art-rock from a band that isn’t as appreciated in the U.S. as they deserve to be. I have more to say in this review.

Arcade Fire, Reflektor. Disco lives, part three. I’m not sure why Arcade Fire is getting so much shit lately. A Washington Post critic wrote a particularly nasty takedown, calling them “gigantic dorks with boring sex lives.” Whatever. I have an unprovable theory that the Arcade Fire backlash has something to do with the fact that baby-voiced, heavily accented Regine sounds a lot like Yoko Ono, subliminally freaking out Yoko haters. Anyway, Reflektor could well be Arcade Fire’s Sandinista!:  a big, electronic, multi-genre sprawl that was also dissed by a lot of people when it was released. Those same people will now tell you that they always thought Sandinista! was genius, GENIUS, even the dub side. They are liars. As for Reflektor, the undulating, David Bowie-sprinkled title track is as shiny and sharp as a disco-ball, and the double disc has dance pleasures to spare. I concede that Win Butler’s whiny misfit lyrics are played out, his Michael Stipe eye mask is unfortunate and the videos with the giant paper-mache heads are a wee bit theater-major for my taste. But when I hit replay on Reflektor and let the percolating rhythms, plush melodies and unapologetically resplendent arrangements carry me away, I don’t really care about a few minor affectations.

HAIM, “The Wire”. It took me a while, but I finally stopped hearing an angry Wilson Phillips singing the Eagles’ “Heartache Tonight” and just succumbed to the pop perfection of this ka-chunky ear worm. I still have no idea what they’re saying, but that doesn’t stop me from ka-chunking along.

Richard Thompson, Electric. The most British of British folk-rockers goes to Nashville and makes the most country of country albums. This is what “roots music” is all about. Review here.

Elvis Costello and The Roots, “Walk Us Uptown”. I have yet to warm up to the dense, almost impenetrable, Wise Up Ghost as a whole. But the sinister, bass-heavy single cuts through everything else like a jackhammer on concrete. Angry ska-infused funk with lyrics that Costello hefts like grenades, “Walk Us Uptown” hits me as being about Trayvon Martin and the lethal American blend of racism and guns. In a handful of promo concerts for the album, Costello and The Roots smartly resurrected the Specials’ chilling “Ghost Town,” which seems like a twin to “Walk Us Uptown” in its urban-apocalyptic intensity.

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, “Thrift Shop”. Yes, I know the hit-laden The Heist came out in October of 2012. Yes, I know that all the cool kids were already hip to it way before the rest of us discovered it via Spotify, You Tube and iTunes and made 2013 the year of Macklemore. Yes, I know that by admitting that I love Macklemore in general and “Thrift Shop” in particular is admitting that I am a middle-aged white person. But you know what?  I don’t care, because this song is fucking awesome. See what I did there?


Robin Thicke, “Blurred Lines”. Live from Planet Douchebag comes this date-rapey anthem, sure to turn up soon on the soundtrack to the Fifty Shades of Grey movie. Smirky Thicke and co-conspirators Pharrell and T.I. lift grooves from Marvin Gaye and Prince, yet their skin-crawly lyrics (a lot of “I know you want it” and T.I.’s lovely “I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two”) completely miss Gaye’s suavity and Prince’s playfulness. The video, in which the trio leer at the derrieres of barely-clad, infantilized models, is exactly as creepy, humorless and flat-out misogynistic as you’d expect. And Thicke looks stupid in those striped skinny jeans, so there.


Orphan Black (BBCAmerica). This Canadian import, a sci-fi thriller with heart and humor, gives me the old Buffy tingle. Cockney punk Sarah Manning finds out she’s the result of a mysterious cloning procedure and sets out, with the help of her ragtag family of sister-clones and gay best friend, to find out who made her and for what purpose. Tatiana Maslany is remarkable as Sarah and her half-dozen clones, who each have distinct personalities and upbringings. You will forget that you’re watching one actress refracted, interacting with herself.

The Americans (FX). Fabulously faithful 1980’s atmosphere in this thriller about Cold War Soviet spies posing as an average American suburban husband and wife. Sweetheart-faced Keri Russell is having the time of her life playing the icy, ruthless Elizabeth.

Mad Men (AMC). I am not over this show. I will never be over this show.

“The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders” (Saturday Night Live). A full complement of Wes Anderson quirks, tropes and character-types turn up in this hilarious, perfectly shot- and art-directed parody of a trailer for a non-existent Anderson horror movie. Edward Norton does an eerily perfect Owen Wilson as a genial dad beset by knife-wielding murderers in matching track suits. Extra points for the whimsically eclectic Anderson-ready soundtrack music. Extra-extra points for the divine Kate McKinnon’s Tilda Swinton cameo.

Top of the Lake (Sundance). Jane Campion’s miniseries about a New Zealand police detective with a traumatic past starred a ridiculously well-cast Elisabeth Moss and was as visually lush and sensual as Campion’s The Piano. And the story flowed with familiar Campion cross-currents: female sexual power and independence up against bottled male rage and explosive violence. A strange, haunting trip.

The Bridge (FX). I almost gave up on this murder mystery after a couple of episodes, thanks to the tragically miscast Diane Kruger as a Texas cop with Asperger’s syndrome. But the soft-spoken machismo of co-star Demian Bichir as her conflicted Mexican police counterpart kept me coming back. I also liked the secondary storyline involving Annabeth Gish’s badass cocktail hostess turned society heiress/drug runner. The twists were genuinely surprising and Bichir’s emotional unraveling was heartbreaking. I’m not sure the show can sustain a second season, but I’m curious to see where it goes.

Getting On (HBO). A late entry but becoming a favorite. Big Love creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer adapted this half-hour comedy from a British sitcom about the staff of a geriatric care ward. The tone is dark, the actors are filmed with no makeup under realistic hospital lighting and, somehow, it manages to not be a complete downer. Laurie Metcalf is amazing as paranoid, tightly-wound administrator Dr. Jenna James;  unable to connect on a human level with patients or subordinates, she’s obsessed with collecting fecal samples for a study she’s convinced will bring her the prestige she’s been denied. When she laughs, she bares her teeth like a trapped feral animal. The counterweight to this clearly unhinged authority figure is Niecy Nash’s tired but empathetic Nurse Didi, trying to bring some dignity to elderly patients at the end of sanity and life. Getting On mines the same territory as Ricky Gervais’s sweetly earnest Netflix comedy Derek, but without the slapstick interludes.

Key & Peele (Comedy Central). For the Obamas’ his-and-hers anger translators, for the return of the Substitute Teacher, for the East/West College Bowl II, for the intergalactic-funk band, but most of all, for this:


Downton Abbey. Matthew goes for a drive. I know some people would vote for the Red Wedding from Game of Thrones, but GOT was being faithful to the book. Downton Abbey, on the other hand, was just screwing with us. We are not amused.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2013

Franz Ferdinand: The North Sea sings

Franz Ferdinand apparently spent the four years since their last release listening to Blondie’s “Call Me” on an endless loop and watching Big 80s marathons — in Norway.

Not that I’m complaining. Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action (Domino) is the best thing the Glasgow band has ever recorded, a swoony plunge into the coolly beguiling depths of Eurodisco-immersed alterna-dance. It’s a logical progression from their last CD,  Tonight, which was an ambitious, disco-flecked concept album about one long night’s search for sex, or maybe more, from the dark of the club to the cold light of day. Although the band rose to fame on the stabby art-punk of its self-titled 2004 debut (featuring the titanically popular single “Take Me Out”)  and its 2005 followup You Could Have It So Much Better, they took a long layoff to record what would be Tonight, effectively stalling the momentum of their career in an industry where the new-new thing appears twice a day, every day,  leaving fans wondering if the band had dissolved for good.

After their second album, I made the mistake of thinking of Franz Ferdinand as a rock band; songs with insistent hooks or alluring imagery (the chorus of “Take Me Out,” the gay dancefloor seduction of “Michael”) gave you something memorable to latch onto,  the rest were an enjoyable blur. And while charismatic frontman Alex Kapranos has charm and simmering sexual energy to spare, with a bit of David Bowie drama and Bryan Ferry langour in his louche baritone, his furious intelligence and often cruelly self-assesing lyrics tended to get lost in the propulsion and swagger.

After You Can Have It So Much Better, the band was right to take its time figuring itself out. The disco synth-burbles of Tonight were the answer. Set the time machine for 1979, and suddenly, Franz Ferdinand makes perfect sense. Kapranos’s voice, his sexually compelling combination of remoteness, pale insouciance and vulnerability, all fall into context; you can imagine him as the sensitive lad in impeccably-cut suits swanning around in exclusive discos, sending back witty dispatches about the cuisines he’s sampled on his far-flung travels. (Kapranos actually did this in a series of delightful food columns for The Guardian, collected in the book Sound Bites).

Right Thoughts continues Franz Ferdinand’s dance odyssey, coloring its sound with kisses and rolling it in designer sheets. They’re channeling Blondie circa 1979-81 here, echoing the big, metallic dance-punk of the under-appreciated Eat to the Beat album (1979) crossed with the seminal hard-edged disco of “Call Me” (which Franz cover in concert) and the new wave-funk of “Rapture.”  There’s also a dash of mid-’70s Bowie in the way the production marries the human heat of rock guitars to the glittering chill of technology, and a spectacular broad daylight heist of the rhythm line from the Clash’s “This is Radio Clash” (“Evil Eye”).

Not that it’s all backwards-referencing;  being a canny conoisseur of evolving dance modes, Kapranos shares production (under the name “Prince House Rabbit”) with dance-pop, technopop and nu disco royalty Joe Goddard and Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip, Bjorn Yttling (of Sweden’s Peter Bjorn and John) and Todd Terje,  the Norwegian DJ and editing artist. Befitting the Scandinavian influence, the lyrics keep coming back around to existentialist themes:  the searcher’s hunger to find life’s meaning, the skeptic’s inability to believe in a higher power. Anxiety jitters through the long-distance relationship in “Bullet”; loneliness washes over the end of an affair in “The Universe Expanded”;  madness explodes in the manic “Treason! Animals.”  Death, of course, is a supporting player.  On “Fresh Strawberries,” Kapranos sings, “We are fresh strawberries/ Fresh burst of red strawberries/ Ripe, turning riper in the bowl/ We will soon be rotten/We will all be forgotten/Half-remembered rumours of the old.” He’s referring to youth and beauty and all of human existence, of course, but there’s a tongue-in-cheek subtext, too, given Franz Ferdinand’s long absence between releases.

But, I won’t lie:  The reason I’m completely addicted to Right Thoughts isn’t its lyrics, although you have to love Kapranos for the punning title “Treason! Animals,” and the vibrator references hiding in plain sight on “Bullet,” and for going all-in with the ’70s vibe in the “key party” analogy of “Brief Encounters.” No, I’m mainly in thrall to the sadistically catchy choruses, and the dance beats that I wish could stretch on and on into infinity. “Stand on the Horizon,” a Kapranos/Terje co-production, has replaced Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” as the retro-disco song I want to live inside. I can’t stop listening to this track; I wake up with the swirling, multiply-overdubbed harmonies of the coda in my head:  “The North Sea sings/ ‘Won’t you come to me baby?’/ The North Sea Singing/ ‘Won’t you come to me?”  The four-minute album version isn’t long enough;  luckily, there’s a delirious eight-minute Terje remix available on The North Sea EP, which also includes an extended Terje remix of  “Evil Eye.”

Right Thoughts closes with Kapranos (who’s an atheist) unflinchingly imagining his own funeral and the nothingness beyond in “Goodbye Lovers and Friends,” leaving a litany of instructions:  “I hope you didn’t bring flowers/ Hope you didn’t write a poem/Hope you remember every fight” . . . “Don’t give me virtues that I never had.” The snaky guitar winding  around the verses underscores the venom in Kapranos’s brutal anti-romanticism.  “You can laugh as if we’re still together/ But this really is the end,” is the CD’s last line. If this is also Franz Ferdinand’s suicide note and the band really has made its last record together (perish the thought), at least the radiant, timeless dance grooves of Right Thoughts prove that they’ve taken Blondie’s advice from a track on Eat to the Beat to heart: “Die Young, Stay Pretty.”

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2013