Reviews

'Fire in Babylon': Who Doesn't Love an Underdog Story?

Having lived in Pakistan for ten years, where obsession with the sport borders on religious frenzy, I can attest that there is something about the rhythm of cricket, its endless ebb and flow, that is bewitchingly hypnotic.


Fire in Babylon

Director: Stevan Riley
Cast: Clive Lloyd, Viv Richards, Michael Holding, Dennis Lillee
Distributor: New Video
Rated: no rating
Release date: 2011-10-18

It's a shame that cricket isn't more popular in the USA, because it's a great game. Then again, attention-deficit-prone Americans might have a tough time wrapping their heads around a game whose short version takes an entire day to get through and whose long form takes up to five days and still doesn't always guarantee a result. Having lived in Pakistan for ten years, where obsession with the sport borders on religious frenzy, I can attest that there is something about the rhythm of the game, its endless ebb and flow, that is bewitchingly hypnotic.

It's also a fiercely political sport, one of the great legacies of the British Empire; not as significant as the English language, perhaps, but culturally powerful, nonetheless. A quick rundown of major cricketing powers serves as a de facto snapshot of Victoria's territories: Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, South Africa, the West Indies, and of course, England itself.

Fire in Babylon documents the rise of cricket greatness in the West Indies in the '70s, as this disparate group of islands forged a unified team from a disunited group of players who shared little besides a general geographical homeland. At the time, though, the West Indies were feeling their influence on the world stage—Bob Marley was perhaps the best known musician in the world, and the region was enjoying something of a political and cultural renaissance.

The cricket team felt this shift and wanted to be a part of it. Theirs is a fascinating story, not least because of that political (and racial) subtext—a story of underdogs beating the bullies at their own game, literally, and then being castigated for it.

First, some background. The West Indies were a cricketing punch line in the early '70s, the team providing much material for British tabloid healdine writers, who made snide remarks about "calypso cricket" and whose disdain was tainted with no small amount of racism. Into this unwelcome environment entered Clive Lloyd, the man charged with captaining his team and converting them into an effective unit through a combination of relentless drilling and unswerving discipline.

It wasn't easy. The team had some talented bowlers (the equivalent of pitchers in baseball) like Michael Holding and Viv Richards, but the group lacked the ferocity of other national squads. Cricket has long been known as "the gentleman’s game", and the West Indies still played it that way. The rest of the world, however, was learning not to.

The Australians were particularly vicious. Fast bowler Dennis Lillee was famous for bowling in such a way that the balls would strike the batsmen—no small concern when the hard ball was flying at 90mph or more. In cricket, the ball is bounced on the ground between bowler and batsman, and a skilled bowler uses the uncertainty of that bounce, along with the spin and speed of the ball, to get a batsman out—or in Lillee's case, to strike him in the chest, groin or head. At the time, batsmen wore little protective gear. Broken bones were not uncommon.

When the West Indian team toured Australia in the mid-'70s, they were forced to contend with all this, in addition to the abusive language heaped on them by Australian fans and media and even the team itself. Racial slurs were common, delivered with a vindictiveness that would be shocking even today. Battered and bloody, the Caribbean squad returned home to regroup and lick its wounds.

This is where the story takes off. Through hard work and relentless practice, West indian bowlers learned the tactics of the Australians, then perfected them, then took them even further. On subsequent tours of England and Australia, the outcome would be markedly different.

That pesky racial/ethnic subtext kept popping up, though. Unused to being beaten by a squad of Caribbean islanders, the UK press mourned the passing of "calypso cricket" and called for changes in the laws of the game to prevent the West Indians from employing their new tactics. (Funny—such calls were never heard when the Australians were doing it.) Ignoring this poor sportsmanship, the West Indian squad put together one of the most amazing records in professional sport, playing for fifteen years without losing a game. (It's not unusual for a match to end in no result, i.e., a tie, but nonetheless this is a remarkable achievement.)

Fire in Babylon is a terrific film for fans of the game, reliving one of the great eras in cricket. It's not perfect; I would have liked to see more footage of individual bowlers, especially Michael Holding, whose cheetah-like runups combined an awesome mix of grace and power. And the double-standard I mention regarding Australian belligerence versus Caribbean aggression is barely mentioned, although I suspect it must have been noted, and commented upon, by the players. These are relative trifles, however.

Extras on the DVD are minimal: an inconsequential, three-minute interview with the producer and director. This is a significant disappointment, as there must be hours of footage from the era that could have been used to document the significant players and matchups. As it is, viewers will have to be satisfied with the film itself.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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