Reviews

The Wire: The Complete Fifth Season

Lance Reddick as Lt. Cedric Daniels

The dense mythology, painstakingly created over five novelistic seasons, has enough drama packed inside to be easily spun out for the next five, ten, 15 years.


The Wire

Cast: Robert F. Chew, Jermaine Crawford, Steve Earle, Aiden Gillen, Jamie Hector, Clark Johnson, Method Man, Tom McCarthy, Michelle Paress, Clarke Peters, Wendell Pierce, Andre Royo, Dominic West, Tristan Wilds, Michael K. Williams
Network: HBO
First date: 2002
US Release Date: 2008-08-18
Amazon
"There you go. Givin' a fuck when it ain't your turn to give a fuck." -- The Bunk

All good things come to an end. Everyone knows that cliché is true, or at least nods knowingly when it's invoked. That doesn't make it necessarily any easier to deal with that conclusion when it comes around, though. In the same sense, everyone knows it's better for TV series to close up before things take a turn for the worse, when the desire for more seasons eclipses the need for those seasons.

This doesn't mean, though, when a series that could be the single best piece of televised drama ever broadcast decides it's time to close up shop, that one wants to see it go. It's a great thing to go out on top, a beautiful thing. But knowing that fact doesn't quell the petulant little inner voice that is shouting, "What's going to happen to Bubbles? What happens next?"

The dense mythology of HBO's The Wire, painstakingly created over five novelistic seasons, has enough drama packed inside to be easily spun out for the next five, ten, 15 years. With each season creating a new clutch of characters and concerns, each of which are then seamlessly woven into the existing plotlines, the show built such a deep reservoir of stories and faces that the temptation for creator David Simon to keep the show going past its natural endpoint must have been fierce. That said, given that The Wirewas lucky enough to have survived being cancelled due to its stubbornly un-Sopranos-like ratings, Simon may well have just been happy to have gotten as much out of the network as he did.

Since season five was the last time Simon would likely be able to tell his Baltimore stories, garnered over years' worth of reporting from there, he starts off nicely by recycling one of the greater moments from his 1991 book Homicide. Detective "Bunk" Moreland (Wendell Pierce) is questioning a young murder suspect, making out that the kid's buddy in the next interrogation room is giving up everything. To further rattle him, Bunk takes the confused kid over to the Xerox machine (which he's clearly never seen before) and has him put his hand on it. Telling the kid that the Xerox can determine whether he's lying, Bunk asks his name and address.

To each question, out pops a sheet of paper on which they'd printed "true". When asked whether he took part in the shooting, the Xerox prints out another sheet calling him a lair, pushing the kid to promptly give up his accomplice. Replying to an onlooker baffled that such a simpleton's trick (which, again, was actually used by real Baltimore homicide cops) could work, one of Bunk's fellow detectives explains: "Americans are a stupid people, by and large. We pretty much believe what we're told."

It's that unquestioning bovine stupidity which Simon is ultimately addressing in this season. Just as previous seasons were modeled around particular institutions of the modern American city—respectively: the drug trade, vanishing blue-collar jobs, incestuous local politics, and collapsing city schools—this one comes with its own theme of dysfunctional failure: the collapse of mainstream media and a complacent, complicit public. To do that, Simon throws another basketful of characters into the mix, only this time they're a motley mix of stoop-backed and sallow-faced ink-wretches covering the city from their perch at the Baltimore Sun.

This is a clever move, first allowing Simon to sound off on one of his favorite themes (expounded upon elsewhere but never before on his show), namely the evisceration of daily newspapers by out-of-town corporate owners whose yes-men managers blithely implore their staff to "do more with less" while slashing staff. Secondly, setting much of the season in a (convincingly well recreated) newsroom gives Simon another bullpen in which to dispense a continuous stream of literate, obscene word play.

Much of that dialogue is provided courtesy of wizened city editor Gus Haynes (Clark Johnson), who chastens one writer for being a "Tom Wolfe wannabe" and fights to uphold professional standards in the face of managerial bullying for sensationalistic "Dickensian" pap. Like the squadrooms and halls of government in which much of the rest of the show is played out, Simon staffs the foreground with crackerjack actors (not a slouch here) while populating the background with and throwing cameos to the real people who inspired the actors' portrayals. It's a typically generous move for a writer who is as celebrated for his sweeping empathy (the hallmark of great reporters) as he is for his scathing criticism.

When these episodes first aired, some critics who took issue with Simon's take, claiming sour grapes from an embittered prima donna who just wanted to settle scores. One can easily find issue with Simon's characterizations at the Sun, the villains are broad caricatures of indolent management and self-abetting liars (particularly the Stephen Glass-like Scott Templeton), while the heroes like Haynes (whose character should be studied and worshipped in every journalism school across the land) are simply the salt of the earth.

However, watching these episodes again on DVD mere months after their original airing, when newspaper after newspaper across the country has continued to cut staff and demand that their people do "more with less", Simon's vituperation seems less an alarm call than an elegy for something that has already passed. The season seems less to mourn what is passed than to point the way towards the future.

As the too-few and often inexperienced Sun reporters chase phantoms (experienced reporters cost more money), they miss every one of the stories happening in the rest of the show, vividly showing how one can usually only do less with less. Who knows? Years from now, people may watch the whipcrack newsroom tumult of season five with the same sort of nostalgia that people now reserve for things like His Girl Friday and All the President's Men.

What may not seem so surprising to those future viewers, however—who may also wonder at the strange dearth of extra features for such a lauded show; a few audio commentaries and only two rather thin promo pieces—is what the show depicts happening in the rest of Baltimore, barring an urban policy renaissance. As the Sun grinds itself into irrelevance, the show's primary storyline continues, after some time delay, from the end of season four.

Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector, further honing his alien chill) is consolidating his position in the Baltimore drug hierarchy and the homicide detectives are still running down leads on the nearly two dozen victims of Marlo's gunsels found in abandoned buildings. This scenario plays out against the backdrop of political infighting, with the fresh-faced mayor (Aidan Gillen, passionately cynical) starving the police department of funding in order to plug the school's budget gaps, and thus hamstringing any possibility for long-term investigative work that will bring Marlo down.

The same desperation haunting the resource-poor Sun drives the police, too. This leads to a mirroring of lies wherein a detective falsifies evidence to create the appearance of a serial killer (hoping to push City Hall to kick down more funding), while a reporter eager for bylines and buzz starts making up quotes and whole stories, ultimately feeding into the false serial killer story. The reporters and cops even make the same stinging complaints: "Some day I want to know what it's like to work for a real police department/newspaper."

But, none of the above even scratches the surface of what makes The Wire's last season reverberate so powerfully with viewers who have followed these characters for years and identified with their humanity as they would with characters out of the world's greatest literature. There's the addict who talks in a meeting of her inner addict's urges, and how "that bitch wants to kill me". An at-wits'-end Dukie (Jermaine Crawford), one of the schoolboys from season four who is stuck in the streets and playing the drug game whether he wants to or not, asking, "How do you get from here to the real world?"

And there's more. Kingpin Proposition Joe (Robert F. Chew, nothing short of brilliant) playing all sides of every angle like a Shakespearean operator. The reporter eating his cottage cheese lunch and muttering, "Fuck, fuck, fuckity fuck." A bar full of police in a soaring, full-throated singalong of the Pogues' "Body of an American". Those dark streets of boarded-up buildings and the barnacle-like scrum of dealers lurking outside. A whole teeming world of perfectly flawed humanity that just gets richer the more one digs into it.

The Wire concludes much as it has with previous seasons, montages that catch us up with the dozens of major and minor characters, and show the city's life, endlessly playing out. Simon resists the urge or perceived need for a great summing up and the show ends more gracefully without it. In the final episode, Simon has one dealer pointedly say, "Ain't no nostalgia to this shit here. There's just the street and the game and what happens here today."

That line could be read as definitively ruling out any chance of the rumored standalone film. Given the near-perfection of what Simon has already accomplished, that would probably be the smart move. But that doesn't mean I have to be happy about it.

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To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

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Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

The Hall of Fame has been harshly criticized for some of its more inexplicable exclusions and for neglecting certain subgenres of music. Cynicism and negativity over the Hall's selection process and membership is fairly widespread. That said, despite the controversies and legitimate gripes, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still widely viewed as a career milestone. The Hall's stature feeds its surrounding controversies: after all, nobody would care to argue so vehemently about the merits of one artist over another if it wasn't important. Very rarely will a newly inducted artist miss the opportunity to appear at the star-studded ceremony to accept their honor.

The criteria for nomination is as follows: "Artists -- a group encompassing performers, composers and/or musicians -- become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first commercial recording. Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock and roll." Specifically for performers, "This category honors bands or solo artists which demonstrate musical excellence. Such a descriptor includes (but isn't limited to) influence on other performers or genres; length and depth of career and catalog; stylistic innovations; or superior technique and skills."

These standards allow the selection committee wide latitude with their choices, and generating a list that would create zero controversy is an obvious impossibility. As for those deserving artists yet to be included, their time will surely come. There has purportedly been an emphasis on increasing diversity among the nominating committee and voters in recent years, and the list of contenders for the class of 2018 reflects this.

Radiohead, as expected and deserved, are nominated in their first year of eligibility, and there is little doubt they will be inducted. Other nominees include Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, the Cars, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, Eurythmics, J. Geils Band, Judas Priest, LL Cool J, MC5, the Meters, the Moody Blues, Rage Against the Machine, Nina Simone, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Link Wray and the Zombies. It's a strong and varied group.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the list, however, is the British duo Eurythmics. Even though they've been eligible since 2006, this is their first nomination. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox certainly deserve recognition for their important contributions to the musical fabric of the last 40 years. While Eurythmics have always been generally respected, they've never been darlings with the critics like some of their contemporaries. It's puzzling as to why. Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting and creative audacity. Lennox is second to noone as a vocalist, not just in her lead parts but also in the creative, often rhythmic way she uses her voice as an instrument. This nomination could boost the stature and perception of Eurythmics' body of work immeasurably.

Although Eurythmics are often consigned strictly to the synthpop genre, that designation fits only a portion of their repertoire. Each of their nine studio albums has its own unique vibe while retaining the duo's core identity. Eurythmics never repeat themselves, often taking bold risks and swerving in unexpected directions. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Eurythmics didn't "sell out" or compromise by chasing after obvious Top 40 hits. Even their most popular singles aren't commercial in the traditional sense, and they've always sounded like nobody else on the radio.

Despite the sudden emergence of their 1983 single "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" as an MTV staple and international smash, Eurythmics are far from an overnight success story. Their story begins in London, 1975, when Stewart fortuitously encountered Lennox at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. The Scottish singer had recently dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music, which she felt didn't suit her musical interests. Stewart and Lennox strongly connected over their love of music, and they quickly became a couple who were inseparable. Along with singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Peet Coombes, Stewart and Lennox formed a short-lived group the Catch. After one failed single, they added two members and renamed themselves the Tourists.

Coombes was the dominant creative force and primary songwriter behind the Tourists. Lennox and Coombes shared vocals on the band's dour and melancholy power-pop. The Tourists released three albums and managed a handful of chart appearances in the UK. Two of their singles, a peppy cover of Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want to Be With You" and the hard-rocking "So Good T\to Be Back Home Again", made the UK Top 10. The band toured extensively, but their success was fleeting. The Tourists' third album, Luminous Basement (1980), tanked badly despite containing their strongest material yet, and the group dissolved shortly thereafter.

Lennox and Stewart also endured a painful ending to their sometimes tumultuous romance, but they recognized the power of their musical chemistry and decided to continue working together as a duo. They were a pair "who couldn't be together, and who could not be apart", as Lennox reflects many years later in the song "17 Again". History has shown that they made the right decision: Stewart and Lennox compliment each other intuitively through a shared passion for music, the thrill of experimentation, and the need for emotional release that songwriting and performing allows.

The name Eurythmics was derived from a technique used to teach music to children based on sensory and physical methods of learning rhythm. The newly-christened duo signed with RCA Records and in early 1981 headed to Germany to record their debut album with highly-respected krautrock producer Conny Plank.

Plank already had a long string of acclaimed albums to his credit, including collaborations with Neu!, Can, Ultravox, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno among others. The sessions for what would become Eurythmics' debut album, In the Garden, were held at Plank's studio in Cologne. He brought several of his regular collaborators into the proceedings, including bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit of avant-garde rockers Can, Blondie drummer Clem Burke and D.A.F. electronics whiz Robert Görl. Stewart has described the sessions as a learning experience that helped expand his perception of what pop music could be and how it could be created without following any rules, a perspective that served Eurythmics well.

Eurythmics' austere and hypnotic debut single "Never Gonna Cry Again" was released in May 1981. They filmed a low-budget video and landed a couple TV slots to promote the track, but the song's haunted nature did not translate to mainstream success: it barely scraped the lower reaches of the UK singles chart. A second single, the dreamy guitar-rocker "Belinda", followed in August but failed to chart.

In the Garden was finally released in October 1981, but without a hit to generate momentum it was barely noticed. Despite scant sales figures, the album's gloomy psychedelic guitar-pop makes for a rather strong debut. In the Garden exists in late summer shadows, densely atmospheric and shrouded in a veil of dread. Lennox's vocals are understated, subtle and lower in the mix than on subsequent albums. Sound effects, odd vocalizations and bits of sonic experimentation fade in and out like flashes of hazily repressed memory.

RCA wasn't eager to invest in a follow-up to In the Garden after its disappointing reception, so Stewart financed Eurythmics' second album largely through a personal bank loan. Faced with a minuscule budget, they worked in a London warehouse to avoid spending money on studio time. They were able to purchase cheap second-hand equipment for the sessions, including the basic TEAC 8-track on which most of the album was recorded. Adam Williams, former bassist for the ska band the Selectors, helped the duo learn the equipment while co-producing some of their earliest tracks.

The primitive set-up was the ultimate blessing in disguise. Since they were financing the sessions and self-producing, Eurythmics had the freedom to experiment with no oversight. As both Lennox and Stewart were enduring periods of deep personal strife at the time, the sessions evolved into an emotional and creative catharsis that helped shape the mercurial nature of the music. It was out of this environment that a classic was born.

Despite appearing only a few months after their debut album, the first single to emerge from the new sessions proved radically different than any of Eurythmics' prior work. Released in April 1982, "This Is the House" is a flamboyant, horn-driven spectacle on which Lennox belts out a vocal more confident and brash than any of her prior work. The song's odd mix of synthpop, R&B; and latin influences renders it completely unique, but despite its infectious ingenuity and beguiling loopiness (or perhaps because of it), "This Is the House" failed to chart.

The follow-up single that landed two months later is even better. Entrancing and soulful, "The Walk" exudes the anxiety, drama and innovation that became Eurythmics' hallmark. The vocal arrangement is ingenious, and Dick Cuthell (known for his work with Madness, the Specials, Fun Boy Three and others) lets rip a blistering trumpet solo. As in many of their songs, "The Walk" slowly ratchets up the tension through hypnotic repetition and the gradual addition of more layers of sound until it reaches a haywire frenzy. Although a brilliant recording, "The Walk" fared no better than its predecessor.

With the duo's second album Sweet Dreams (are made of this) completed, RCA began a strong promotional push, issuing the opening track "Love Is a Stranger" as a single in November 1982. Lennox's dazzling vocal ranges from icy cool to fiery passion over a relentless electric groove bracketed by sinuous lines of synth. "Love Is a Stranger" rose to #54 in the UK, their highest placement yet, and momentum was finally building for the duo thanks in part to the single's provocative video.

The first significant chapter in a series of visually arresting promotional clips that Eurythmics generated over the span of their career, "Love Is a Stranger" showcases Lennox's dramatic presence and her innate ability to command the viewer's attention. She plays multiple roles, ending the clip with her red hair slicked back and dressed androgynously in a man's suit. Image was quickly becoming an important part of the Eurythmics' equation, with Lennox always compelling no matter which character she inhabits, and Stewart often appearing as her sort of mad-scientist counterpart.

Sweet Dreams (are made of this) hit the shelves on 4 January 1983, along with its title-track, a single that continues to reverberate through pop music nearly 35 years after its release. Suddenly everything changed for Eurythmics. An obscure British duo, barely managing to survive in the music business, soared to the top with one of the more unconventional songs ever to scale those lofty heights.

"Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" has an unusual structure, with no real verses or chorus. Lennox has described it as a mantra, and indeed it is. The lyrics, which Lennox rattled off spontaneously in a matter of minutes, are a simple but profound statement about the human condition: "Everybody's looking for something," the search for meaning and fulfillment, the ephemeral "this" of which sweet dreams are made.

Lennox begins the song with a single line of vocal, then starting with "some of them want to use you" at the 0:24 point it doubles. From there the song gradually builds intensity, with the vocals increasingly layered. A masterful finalé combines all the sonic elements before fading to black, the mantra repeating endlessly, the "this" still stubbornly undefined. The booming minor-key bass riff and the epic string-motif solo starting at 1:31 are played by Lennox on a Roland Juno-6 synthesizer. The main riff (improvised by Lennox while listening to Stewart working on a drum-machine pattern), is a simple two-bar arpeggio that loops throughout most of the song. Two parts were recorded separately and panned on opposite sides of the sound spectrum, creating a richly resonant effect. "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" is no dated relic from the early days of MTV burdened by the limitations the time. Its massive waves of synth flood out of the speakers with enormous power, as inexorably as the tide.

The music video, which became wildly popular on MTV during its heyday, is forever entwined with the song in listeners' collective consciousness. The iconic image of Lennox in her masculine suit and flaming orange flat-top helps to define the new wave era. Her forceful demeanor, nervy confidence and the subtle nuances of her facial expressions amplify the song's inherent tension. She confronts the viewer directly by pointing right in our faces at the 0:24 mark. At 1:56, she offers a sly half-smile with, "some of them want to abuse you", and at 2:15 she pounds her fist just as the song reaches its dramatic apex. Stewart appears throughout the video stoically pecking away on the drum machine he used in the recording of the song, the Movement MCS Drum Computer MK1 (except for that part where he and the cow have, well, a moment… It's all in the eye contact).

After a slow climb up the US pop chart, "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" was finally able to derail the Police's "Every Breath You Take" from its seven-week reign at the top during the week of 3 September 1983. It would be Eurythmics' only chart-topping pop hit in America, and it reached #2 in the UK. In the wake of Eurythmics' new-found fame, "Love Is a Stranger" was re-released, this time becoming a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The album's deep cuts are every bit as strange and fascinating as its better-known singles. The ghostly "Jennifer" is a narcotic reverie of keyboard swells and spectral atmospherics. "I've Got an Angel" and "Somebody Told Me" are serrated neurotic fits, swerving dangerously off-the-rails from anything that would normally be considered pop music. A long and mesmerizing exploration of urban isolation, "This City Never Sleeps" is a powerful finalé. Sweet Dreams (are made of this) is an examination of the human psyche fraught with turmoil, a series of jagged recurring nightmares and anxiety attacks set to music that is soulful and experimental, melodic but eccentric, a stark electronic soundscape that bristles with horns and unexpected sonic jolts.

Next Page: Potent and Ferocious

This film suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

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Here comes another Kompakt Pop Ambient collection to make life just a little more bearable.

Another (extremely rough) year has come and gone, which means that the German electronic music label Kompakt gets to roll out their annual Total and Pop Ambient compilations for us all.

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Winner of the 2017 Ameripolitan Music Award for Best Rockabilly Female stakes her claim with her band on accomplished new set.

Lara Hope & The Ark-Tones

Love You To Life

Label: Self-released
Release Date: 2017-08-11
Amazon
iTunes

Lara Hope and her band of roots rockin' country and rockabilly rabble rousers in the Ark-Tones have been the not so best kept secret of the Hudson Valley, New York music scene for awhile now.

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