Reviews

Dennis Miller: The HBO Comedy Specials

Despite his curious and regrettable turn toward the unfunny, Dennis Miller still looms large as one of the five best stand-up comedians of the past 20 years.


Dennis Miller: The HBO Comedy Specials

Director: Dennis Miller
Distributor: Standing Room Only Entertainment
MPAA rating: N/A
Studio: STANDING ROOM ONLY
First date: 2009
UK Release Date: 2009-03-31
US Release Date: 2009-03-31
Amazon
Director website

At issue is not whether Dennis Miller, after 9/11, lost his mind and starting cheerleading for Bush, Cheney and the Iraq War (he did). It’s also not an outrage that, coincidentally or not, he is no longer near as nimble or gratifying as he was in his prime (he isn’t). What’s important to acknowledge is that, while his newer material is sorely lacking, when he was on his game, he was the baddest—and brightest—stand-up comedian in the country.

For those of us who have pined many moons, equal parts impatient and incredulous, for his inexplicably unreleased HBO comedy specials from the ‘90s; it’s time to celebrate an overdue victory. Dennis Miller: The HBO Specials is exactly what the doctor ordered for fans who remember the days when a thesaurus was a requisite part of the experience. A comic who could make you laugh and think is never something to take for granted, as they are always in woefully short supply.

Miller, from his snarky heyday as Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” anchor in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, was arguably the most consistently entertaining, and intimidating, funnyman on the scene. After admiring him in relatively small doses during the “Weekend Update” segments, it was something of a revelation to see him stretch out and hold court for a full 60-minute set. Starting with Mr. Miller Goes to Washington in 1988, Miller has made seven official specials for HBO, all of which are collected in this very reasonably priced and highly recommended set.

When Miller performed in D.C. for his first special it was more than 20 years ago, but somehow seems even longer. Impossible, almost, to recall a time when Reagan was limping out of office and Miller was not yet middle-aged. Indeed, he was young, confident and he had a hell of a head of hair. He knew it, too. At this point in his career Miller took few prisoners and no target was spared from his lacerating sarcasm. Commenting on his recent gigs in the Deep South, he sardonically observes “Talk about Darwin’s waiting room…there are guys in Alabama who are their own father.”

Later he laments “You spend your whole life stopping at red lights, then at the end there’s a cruel irony when you die: they let your funeral procession run the red lights on the way to the cemetery.” Regarding born-again Christians who insist he’s going to Hell if he’s not born again; he says “Pardon me for getting it right the first time.”

Perhaps tellingly, he has an (admirably) prescient take on terrorists, marveling at the ways horrendous acts can be justified in the name of God/religion. This is the lovably bratty Miller, a smart-ass with a heart of cubic zirconium: he was more intelligent and better-looking than you, and that was all there was to it. Chevy Chase, the first “Weekend Update” anchor, had the corner on this market for a minute, and then Miller ran with the baton for about a decade.

In 1990 he recorded Black and White which, for me, is on the short list of all-time post Lenny Bruce stand up concert recordings: it is an absolute tour de force and easily justifies the purchase of this entire set. Miller begins with a muted bang, claiming “I’d like to start off with an impression…I’d like to, but I’m genetically incapable.” For the rest of the special he is at the height of his “more loquacious than thou” phase and it’s a delight to watch how unreservedly he revels in his own brilliance.

A few highlights, taken at random: “I view the reunification of Germany in much the same way I view a possible Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis reconciliation: I haven’t really enjoyed any of their previous work and I’m not sure I need to see the new shit right now”; “I’m in therapy now, I’m so insecure I get depressed when I find out the people I hate don’t like me”; “(TV preachers) say they don’t favor any particular denomination…but I think we’ve all seen their eyes light up at tens and twenties.”

Of his father, Miller deadpans “My old man made The Great Santini look like Leo Buscaglia,” and on the then-new development of interminable automated customer service recordings, “I don’t stay on the phone that long with friends contemplating suicide.” If you’ve never seen this, you owe it to yourself.

They Shoot HBO Specials, Don’t They?, from 1994, is worthwhile just for its ingenious title, but the show is actually quite satisfactory. Speaking of the post-LA riot tensions, he says “I get pulled over by a cop in LA I don’t even fuck around; I just wind the window down and blow the guy.”

Politically, he has few kind words for Bush the Elder, and no fondness for Reagan, but he’s already dubious at the prospects of Clinton being a successful, or accepted, leader. He actually defends Hillary (!) saying, revealingly, “I think she’s a good woman…we need smart people now; maybe she can help.” And this is a crucial component of his subsequent devolution as a comic: he was never a liberal; he ridiculed pomposity and idiocy which is always abundantly represented on both sides of the political spectrum. Of course, he had a particular penchant for calling out the bullying tactics of media blowhards and the baser instincts (fear, power) that the most cynical politicians prey upon, so it’s impossible to ignore the sad irony of seeing him prostrate himself (for a paycheck?) at the fortress of Pomposity and Idiocy at Fox News.

It certainly doesn’t make his old material any less funny; it just makes it a tad bittersweet to look at, all these years later. In any event, and for the record, my favorite moment of the entire show is when Miller delivers an impassioned—and quite moving—defense of James Stockdale (remember him?), lacerating the media (and public) that found him lacking for the sole reason that “he committed the one unpardonable sin in our culture: he was bad on television”. He ends the show by predicting that the day Dan Quayle (remember him?) successfully runs for president (and he was then threatening to do)” is the day Shelley Winters runs with the bulls at Pamplona.” That’s good stuff.

By 1996 the also impeccably titled Citizen Arcane was in the can, but the first cracks in Miller’s fortress are visible. For starters, he seems a tad lethargic; it turns out the Aspen altitude is getting to him and as he reaches for an oxygen mask, a few folks in the crowd scoff at him. “Well fuck you,” he retorts. “Get a climate!” To be certain, he’s still amusing, and he is still articulate. He offers up perhaps the best summation of Bill Clinton’s frustrating legacy I’ve heard: “The chasm between his potential and his actuality is so vast…and the struggle (to find balance) sets off all his deficiencies.” It’s pretty hard to quibble with that assessment.

But when he observes “we have too many hung juries and not enough hung defendants”, one wonders what his beef is. It turns out, a little bit of everything, as he refers to the US as “one big, violent trailer park.” He is (understandably) outraged at the general inanity of the population, which results in easily duped juries. It just seems odd that for a man so obviously intelligent, he doesn’t (or doesn’t want to) connect the dots between those who are brought to justice and those who have money or influence. In other words, he seems content to scoff at how moronic our talk-show nation has become, but doesn’t seem unduly perturbed that it’s often his fellow celebrities who waltz away from prison time for very obvious—and odious—reasons.

He spends an insufferable chunk of time lambasting the ACLU and has little to say about politicians or the powerful. At one point he declares “I’m looking to make a little bread, build a wall, take care of my loved ones…and stay out of the crosshairs.” Die-hard Dennis Miller fans may have to Windex off their LCD screens after that one.

Miller’s HBO feature for the end of the century, 1999’s The Millennium Special: 1,000 Years, 100 Laughs, 10 Really Good Ones is a terrific idea that is pulled off with aplomb. Miller focuses on the 1900’s and breaks the century into 20-odd year chunks. He does “the news” (relaying the popular stories of the times with his trademark “Weekend Update” shtick): it is clever and mostly funny. There is a trace of a creeping jingoism that would reach its apotheosis in short order.

Miller takes potshots at a few predictable targets: Russia, Germany and (sigh) France; while it’s an exercise of shooting fish in a rather safe barrel; it’s fair to say that the blood, gore and comedy of the last century provide bountiful material. One of the better moments features the famous picture of Elvis shaking hands with Nixon with Miller remarking “And here we see two of the greatest recording artists of the 20th Century.” This one is the last feature likely to prompt repeat viewings.

Flash forward to 2003: we all know what happened in the three years since his last special. The Raw Feed starts off promisingly enough. Miller laments that he does not masturbate as much these days because his expanding waistline obliges him to slip himself the date-rape drug. Later he says “I was raised Catholic: I went to confession the other day and said (to the priest) ‘You first’.”

He retains some spin on his curveball and it is obvious he still belongs in the big leagues. But then he starts in on the Middle East, and things begin to derail as the stand-up turns into an occasionally ugly right-wing rant. As America was about to deploy forces to Iraq Miller, like many like-minded citizens of the time, is blasé to the point of cockiness. He not only returns to the hackneyed ad hominem toward the French, he boasts that once we’ve “won” in Iraq (quickly and decisively, obviously) the French will be sorry that they blew their chance at the spoils. It’s embarrassing.

Then he lays into Sean Penn with the snide pronouncement “Dead Career Walking”. Of course, two Academy Awards later, Miller was about as accurate with that assessment as he was about the course of our overseas adventures. Lest any of this sound like piling on, I’m saving the best for last: Miller actually pauses mid-performance to utter the words “I’d like to thank George Bush for allowing me to respect the American presidency again.” It is, as they say, to laugh—even if it’s for the wrong reasons.

Finally, in 2006 Miller went to Vegas to perform the show recorded as All In. It’s not terrible; Miller is simply too intelligent, too witty and too observant to flop onstage. But one might think he would feel obliged (for the sake of his comedy, for the sake of his integrity) to reign in the rhetoric. Then again, not for nothing is the special is called All In. It takes less than five minutes for Miller to lay into the cowardice of the French.

The rest of the show teeters between Miller’s patented perspicacity and his unfortunate, newly acquired nationalism. Funny bits about being able to access Internet porn anywhere and the plethora of erectile dysfunction commercials give way to longer rants about the dubious science behind global warming, and the benefits of aggressive drilling in Alaska (drill baby drill?). To paraphrase a younger, shrewder Miller, he doesn’t favor any particular political affiliation, but I think we’ve all seen his eyes light up at Dennis Kucinich and Howard Dean.

Bottom line: despite his curious and regrettable turn toward the unfunny, Dennis Miller still looms large as one of the five best stand-up comedians of the past 20 years. This egregiously overdue purging of the HBO vaults should come as a welcome relief to fans who remember watching these specials in real time.

Worst case scenario, the first three (and superior) features are all contained on one disc: if you feel obliged to burn after viewing, retain that first disc and put it in the time capsule. The younger generation might be refreshed to see a less bellicose and more beguiling Dennis Miller, and many decades from now, when Miller’s awkward repartee with Bill O’Reilly is a footnote in unintentional comedic history, his greatest work will be remembered, and justly venerated.

7

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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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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