Quick Listen: Love Is Free (2015) by Robyn & La Bagatelle Magique

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Robyn has never quite caught on here in the States, at least not outside indie circles, and it’s a shame, because one listen to any of the songs on this EP exposes American Top 40 Radio as fraudulent. It might seem like songs titled “Lose Control” or “Set Me Free” don’t have much dissimilarities with songs like Ariana Grande’s “Break Free” or Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song”, but there’s an edge to the Swedish Robyn’s lyrics that’s lacking in our pop music. Any EP with lyrics like “Imma give it like a mother / Safe like a rubber” or “It’s all over this city / Sometimes in the nitty, sometimes in the gritty” (referring to love, by the way) knows what it’s doing in a way that our silly songs can’t compare to.

Quicker take: Pop music made by grown-ups for grown-ups.

Song of the Hour: “Hell You Talmbout” by Janelle Monáe & Wondaland Records

With “Hell You Talmbout”, Wondaland Records has stripped down protest music to its barest form, chanting names of black people killed by police (and some that were simply the victims of hate crimes dating all the way back to Emmett Till in 1955) over syncopated rhythms and imploring us to say their names, with interspersed choruses of “Hell you talmbout?” sung in the style of a wailing African spiritual.  It doesn’t go anywhere. It’s repetitive. There’s no artistry to speak of, really, nothing especially creative to commend.

And yet the song is undeniably affecting. Repeating the names, names we’ve heard over and over, removes the numbness we’ve developed to them. I’m reminded of the Plastic Ono Band song, “Give Peace a Chance”. There’s very little to it besides the chorus of “All we are saying / Is give peace a chance!”. The very act of repetition has a way of getting into your heart.

The passion with which these artists beg us to say their names is contagious. The decision to include a variety of artists rather than just one (Monáe is the big name, but she’s only got one segment just like everyone else) reflects the necessity of community for protest. By the end, “Hell you talmbout?” becomes a rallying cry, a shared exasperation about those who pretend these things aren’t happening, and a call to speak up on behalf of those that no longer can.

One Wild Life: Soul (2015) by Gungor

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Back in 2011, my friends and I went to the great Cain’s Ballroom venue in Tulsa to experience David Crowder Band on their final tour. It was an incredible show; Crowder and his band seemed incapable of putting on anything but incredible shows. But equally as impressive was one of the bands that opened for them, Gungor, in support of their acclaimed Beautiful Things from 2010. Michael & Lisa Gungor’s band was reduced to maybe four or five members for that tour. I would see them with their full ensemble (again at Cain’s) after the release of their next album, Ghosts upon the Earth, but even stripped down they made memorable music. It seemed appropriate that they were on DCB’s last tour- the greatest Christian band was stepping down just as the next great Christian band was on the rise.

I haven’t seen them live since that second show, but I imagine it’s a different experience now. After Ghosts upon the Earth received praise in 2011, they changed directions for the next album. 2013’s I Am Mountain was far less concerned with traditional styles of worship music. As much as Ghosts upon the Earth experimented and expanded upon tradition, I Am Mountain was that much all over the place. They mixed and matched genres, combining baroque pop, bluegrass, indie rock, electronic, even embracing Auto-Tune on some songs, but these disparate sounds never cohered into one vision. The message seemed a little directionless as well, drifting from concrete biblical truths and exploring a more mystical side of our connections with God. This was all fine; I Am Mountain just seemed like the album of a band in transition, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There was still a lot of good music on Mountain, even if the album as a whole didn’t hold up with their first two.

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But 2014 was different. 2014 was the year the zeitgeist (well, the online Christian zeitgeist, which…yeah) turned against Gungor. Michael, in blog posts and interviews, began espousing controversial beliefs and doubts. For example, he posited that he was unable to believe in the great flood or a historical Adam and Eve. And he got LIT UP. It didn’t help that he and Lisa began associating and collaborating with public figures who came with controversies of their own. They began a group called The Liturgists, which included Rob Bell and Rachel Held Evans among its number, and many Christians, myself included, began to tear down the favored status we had previously bestowed on Gungor. There were some good, measured responses from sources like Relevant and Christ and Pop Culture, but there were also a lot of histrionics and a lot of clickbait.

Now it’s 2015, and Gungor is releasing an ambitious project called One Wild Life, which is a trilogy of albums spread out over a year. The first, One Wild Life: Soul, was released this month, and it’s breathtakingly good. Gone is the messiness of I Am Mountain. But they haven’t reverted back to traditional worship music by any stretch of the imagination. No, Soul is an introspective pop record. There are still experimental flourishes, but those have always been around on Gungor albums.

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The primary characteristic I’d assign to Soul is quietness. “Light” is a humble celebration of the Gungors’ daughter, born last year with Down syndrome. “Us for Them” seems like it should be a huge anthem, and it’s definitely an anthem, with “hey!”s and “ho!”s, but Gungor is holding back, teaching us to turn the other cheek. “We Are Stronger” is the kind of song that would have crescendoed into a chorus of ohhhhhs before, like “The Earth Is Yours” on Beautiful Things. But the climax on “We Are Stronger” is a subdued Michael chanting about all the lives that matter: black, female, soldiers, the unborn, homosexuals, fundamentalists. It’s a sober reminder of the mob-like hate that marginalizes all kinds of people- including, last year, the Gungors.

Full disclosure: I didn’t expect to like One Wild Life: Soul. I was turned off by the moves the Gungors made last year. I was upset at the company they kept. I wanted them to hold to my understanding of biblical doctrine and conform to my understanding of what the Christian life should look like. But the Internet has a way of exposing the sinfulness in our immediate reactions, and, in hindsight, the Gungors never said anything that contradicted the basic tenets of faith in Christ outright.

I imagine if I sat down for dinner with them, we would disagree on some things. But when you listen to the lyrics on One Wild Life: Soul and you expect controversy, you realize that every song is…right. These songs are about many things- their daughter, savoring life, respecting others- but the majority of them point to Christ and His glory. The final song, “Vapor”, is a gorgeous meditation on the indescribable, unfathomable nature of God. They released it last year as The Liturgists, and I dismissed it because of its association with that group. Listening to it now, with the benefit of time’s humility, it confirms this for me: Gungor is still the best.

Quick Take: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2014)

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While last year’s news that Studio Ghibli isn’t actually shutting down but only taking a break from movies sounds nice, it’s hard to imagine Ghibli without Hiyao Miyazaki, who’s last movie was the very personal The Wind Rises, or Isao Takahata, who announced his retirement with the release of The Tale of Princess Kaguya. But if Takahata must leave us, thank God he took the time to make such a beautiful movie as this. Following the story of a girl born out of a bamboo plant and forced to live the life of a princess by her inept father, Princess Kaguya has a distinct Little Mermaid feel. But this isn’t anything like the Disney movies we know. For one, the animation is made up of paintbrush strokes, which somehow manages to feel more lifelike than ultra-realistic CGI. And there’s no happily ever after at the end, but a plaintive cry for the appreciation of beauty.

Quicker take: Studio Ghibli has released so many great movies throughout its rich history, but Princess Kaguya surely belongs near the top of the list.

Ranking the Mission: Impossible Movies

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The Mission: Impossible franchise is one of the weirdest in film history. The movies tell no coherent story from first to last. The cast of characters is fluid; some stay the same, some leave, some come back after taking a break. Its closest cousin is the James Bond franchise, but there are 23 of those, so the changing cast of characters is accepted as a given. The action has been consistently great, but “action” isn’t much of a tentpole to hang millions of dollars onto every five years.

The one true constant in the M:I movies is Tom Cruise and his stunts, and it’s a testament to his level of movie stardom after all these years that people still want to see him do impossible things. They don’t seem to pay attention if it’s a high-concept sci-fi (Edge of Tomorrow) or a boring book adaptation (Jack Reacher), but if they know he’s going to do something impossible to familiar theme music they tend to turn out in droves, judging by the most recent movie’s opening box office total ($56 million, more than the rest of them except M:I II).

It’s easy to wonder why Cruise didn’t stop making them after the third one. It provided a tidy ending, some semblance of a future for Ethan Hunt outside of the Impossible Missions Force, and diminishing returns after the box office bonanza that was M:I II. But then you remember that Tom Cruise is an alien who comes from a planet where they poop out money, so why would they ever let this franchise die? Indeed, the last two movies have foregone closure for Ethan Hunt, to where it’s not hard to imagine, sometime in the not-so-distant future, a wheelchair-bound Tom Cruise still doing his own stunts.

But in case Rogue Nation is the last one, this is the indisputable ranking of all five M:I movies:

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5. Mission: Impossible II (2000)

This movie made the most money of any Mission: Impossible movie. It’s also the worst. It’s not a good movie, and it’s the only one that doesn’t clear the low bar of “I’d watch that if it came on cable and I have nothing else to do”. One of the fun things about the M:I series is how different directors have left their fingerprints on it. Well, John Woo left his greasy, overstylized prints all over this movie, and it lost any of the first one’s spy movie suspense. But it made the most money, so I must be wrong.

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4. Mission: Impossible III (2006)

J.J. Abrams’s M:I movie is the epitome of good enough. It has the benefit of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s superb villain, the best in the series by far, with the tandem villainy in the first movie a distant second. And III has the most satisfying ending, since it’s the only one designed to bring a modicum of closure to Ethan Hunt’s life, even if Abrams relegates the great Michelle Monaghan to a do-nothing role. The action in this one is nice as well, but it’s not particularly special, especially when compared to what came after. It is notable that there were a couple directors on this one before Abrams and that Cruise called up Abrams specifically to ask him to take on the project when they didn’t work out, which just goes to show that if you can poop money you can choose your own director.

3. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)

Rogue Nation feels so much like a James Bond movie, but it might just be because Rebecca Ferguson is British. Though Tom Cruise never has sex with her or treats her like an object, so you know this isn’t a Bond movie. In fact, Ferguson’s is-she-or-isn’t-she-a-double-agent is what sets this one apart from the others- not that there aren’t plenty of potential double agents throughout M:I’s short movie history, but Ferguson sticks out. She’s every bit Ethan’s equal in terms of spy skills, and the interplay between them is fascinating. Everything else about the movie is par for the course, which is what you get when you let Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher) direct your movie, but par for action movies is always entertaining.

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2. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)

You could potentially make an argument that Ghost Protocol is actually the best of the five, and you might convince me, mostly because the M:I franchise isn’t one I care enough about to argue my case. (In contrast, if you told me that you happen to think The Empire Strikes Back is “not that good”, I’d probably “punch you in the face” and “lose all respect for you”.) It definitely has the best action of the five thanks to the punch that director Brad Bird (The Incredibles) brings to the table. There are endlessly exciting and creative action sequences, not the least of which is the one where Ethan hangs by one hand from the Burg Khalifa, Ghost Protocol’s equivalent of the heist scene in the original in that it’s the scene that everyone remembers because it’s executed absolutely perfectly.

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1. Mission: Impossible (1996)

The original movie (based on the original 1960s-1970s TV show, by the way, which I guess makes the movie unoriginal) feels like the most insular of the five, the one that stands completely on its own. It helps that it actually feels like a spy movie, with operations that are actually covert and a constant, shadowy paranoia. The rest of them come off like Ethan Hunt transplanted into action movies so that he’s just a spy by name. Not that there’s not great action in this one- the final train scene stands with the rest of the canon as one of the best (and most ludicrous) action scenes. And there’s more suspense in the nearly silent heist scene (the one where Tom Cruise is hanging over the computer, trying to keep a drop of sweat from hitting the ground) than in most action movies. Director Brian De Palma, for all his gimmicks in some of his other movies, brought the tightest direction of the five, so that nineteen years later, the first remains the best.

Quick Take: It Follows (2015)

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Horror movies rarely buck the norms. It’s hard in a genre with so many expected beats to break the mold and produce something truly original. Sometimes the only way to go is to take those expectations and simplify them down to their core. It’s what makes Halloween compelling even after all these years, and it’s why all the reboots of the classics that try to tack on complicated origin stories don’t matter in the big scheme of things: we don’t care; we just want to be scared and watch terrified people try stay alive. It Follows, which has a hilariously apt title that could apply to any horror movie but is also uniquely perfect for this one, is horror stripped down. An undefined monster walks toward you, undeterred by anything in its path, maintaining the same pace, taking whatever guise it fancies. When it gets to you, it kills you. Add to that formula the idea that the monster starts following you if you have sex with its previous target and that your only method of getting rid of it is to have sex with somebody else to pass it to them- well, this is the perfect horror movie then, isn’t it?

Quicker take: The simple title belies the smart horror film it describes.

Quick Take: Ex Machina (2015)

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Since his first foray into Hollywood fifteen years ago with the screen adaptation of his book, The Beach (starring Leonardo DiCaprio in his 16th best role!), Alex Garland has become known for projects that bend the characters’ and the audience’s perception of reality. Ex Machina is no different; at different points throughout its plot, we’re not sure who’s playing who or who is even human, as opposed to an android. Playing with this tension of what’s real and what’s not is what Garland has done best for years in his screenwriting, and with Ex Machina he’s proven to be just as adept at it from behind the camera. As young programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) tries to determine whether Nathan (Oscar Isaac) has truly created artificial intelligence in the robot Ava (a breakout performance from Alicia Vikander), Garland’s directing maintains an uneasy claustrophobia until the walls crash in on us at the very end. Ex Machina ends up being about what most science fiction is about: we’re foolish to think we have control over the technology we create. But that idea has rarely been explored more astutely.

Quicker take: Alicia Vikander wows in the best movie Alex Garland’s ever been involved in.

(h/t One Perfect Shot for the pic)

Quick Listen: Dicey Hollow (2015) by Dicey Hollow

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Being related to a famous person inevitably gives off the aura of entitlement, like you’ve had a silver spoon in your mouth from birth. But while Jamie Biden, one half of the duo that is Dicey Hollow, is the veep’s nephew, Dicey Hollow is such an unassuming EP that there’s not a whiff of celebrity. With his friend, the Swedish Petter Erickson Stakee, he’s made a lovely, atmospheric folk record. There are the usual trappings: acoustic guitar, the occasional steel pedal, a vocal twang here and there. But you won’t get the usual vibe; this is a spacey record with occasional delvings into psychedelic rock and indie rock, which cause Dicey Hollow to stand out from the pack.

Quicker listen: (Jamie) Biden 2016!

Trailer of the Hour: Beasts of No Nation (10/16)

Netflix has made some fascinating deals recently. Last year they released a documentary produced by Leonardo DiCaprio called Virunga, which was about conservationists striving against poachers in the Congo. It was nominated for the Documentary Oscar, and deservedly so; it’s riveting from beginning to end. Netflix also has deals for a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel (!), four Adam Sandler movies (…), and a new Pee-Wee Herman movie (!!). The most exciting of all of these might be Beasts of No Nation, directed by Cary Fukunaga, who directed every episode of the first season of True Detective– that’s the season that didn’t become a sad joke, by the way, in case you haven’t watched either. This trailer is incredible. The emotion is palpable, Idris Elba looks terrifying in his role, and it’s perfectly paced. It’s only one short scene, but if the rest of the movie has half the craft, it’ll be worth watching.

Under Branch and Thorn and Tree (2015) by Samantha Crain

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Recently, Jason Isbell’s Something More Than Free debuted at the top of the country charts. Singer-songwriter-rebel Todd Snider declared “the war is over”, implying that real country music had prevailed over Nashville’s pop country. The sentiment is understandable; the lack of artistry in much of country radio is reprehensible if you care about things like, you know, songwriting. But Samantha Crain’s Under Branch and Thorn and Tree is a nice reminder that, for most artists making folk music, there are bigger wars to fight.

Crain is from Oklahoma, home of Woody Guthrie, the original kind of the American protest song, but Guthrie’s not the artist you’d first think of with her music. Guthrie’s protest songs were simple, meant to be choruses people could repeat over and over. Samantha Crain’s songs are story-driven, weaving tales of hard lives and lost chances. On 2013’s Kid Face, the stories were Crain’s own, and it was clear there was a catharsis she needed to reach. Under Branch and Thorn and Tree doesn’t strive for catharsis, at least not as directly as Kid Face did. Crain sounds like she’s made peace with her own demons- now she wants to fight everyone elses’.

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It would be easy to miss the protest part of Crain’s protest songs. It’s often hidden in the stories, but her contempt is biting enough if you look for it. She opens with “Killer”, where she reminds America of the crimes committed against her people, Native Americans (though specifically the Choctaw tribe for her), driving home the idea that “you made us strangers in our very own homes”. “Elk City” chronicles the struggle of a working woman stuck in small-town Oklahoma, paralyzed by the restrictions society has laid on her shoulders. And “You or Mystery” laments a neighbor’s death and the way our culture cultivates isolation and marginalization.

There are personal songs on Under Branch too, but, paired with the protest-minded ones, they only enhance Crain’s working-woman perspective. Crain’s fortunate enough to be able to make music and tour for a living, though it’s not like she’s breaking the bank or anything. She still waits tables when she’s back in Shawnee. And while she may have worked out her demons on Kid Face, Crain’s still human, and she expresses heartbreak and loss at several points on Under Branch, like on “Moving Day” or “When You Come Back”. But those tracks function as threads in a tapestry this time, rather than forming the whole picture. It’s really the ideal folk album: a collection of protest songs that also happen to be inspired by the singer’s personal world.

At a time when Americana’s moment in the mainstream sun is waning, albums like Samantha Crain’s are important. We need to be reminded every now and then that roots music runs deeper than trends and popularity. Snider may have declared the war over, but he missed the point. Mainstream country can be really annoying, but it’s not powerful enough to erase good country music’s substantial influence. Crain is living proof that the power of roots music is self-evident.

Edited: The original post mistakenly placed Crain in the Shawnee tribe. She’s Choctaw. Thanks, Scott Bedgood.