April’s Cultural Landscape

Thankfully, winter has (mostly) come to an end. As we’ve collectively stated, ad nauseum, it was one of the most difficult and sustaining blasts of cold that we’ve experienced in a long time. Not only did we have to endure the harsh cold, but, excluding live performance, we also had to suffer through that time of the year that is traditionally void of much that is culturally interesting. That may not sound like a difficulty for many of you; however, if you’re like me, it’s tantamount to being exiled to Dante’s First Circle of Hell. You see, when I wake up in the morning, the first thing that I do is fire up my iTunes account. When I go to sleep at night, I stop listening. Throughout the day, music is my constant companion.

Because of the tremendous push to release and sell music during the holiday season, there’s very little to enjoy during the first quarter of the year. The only somewhat-compelling listen so far this year is Beck’s long-awaited release, Morning Phase. Fans have been anticipating this corollary to his brilliant Sea Change for quite a few years. And, while its production is both lush and gorgeous, it lacks some of the vitality and complexity that help define both Beck and his aural output. In short, it’s too easy a listen. During my third and fourth run-through, I kept hoping for some interesting subtlety or nuance to reveal itself. Instead, I came to realize that, although he’s remarkably talented, this is one endeavor in which Beck decided to play it safe and color within the lines. If you’re looking for some nice background music to listen to while serving up a bowl of pasta and drinking a glass of Chianti, this fits the bill perfectly.

So, if there’s nothing new to listen to, how do I sate my musical appetite from January through April? I go back to the classics. Several years ago, Rolling Stone released its Top 500 Albums of all time, and I’ve used that as a road map to entertain and educate myself ever since. This year, I explored Zeppelin II, Neil Young’s Harvest and the Rolling Stones album Between the Buttons. Decades worth of reviews have been written about each of these three albums, so I’ll keep it brief.

The big surprise for me the past couple of years has been how much I’ve enjoyed Led Zeppelin. Truth be told, I always found the group to be frightening. I have memories of visiting my paternal grandparents while growing up. My Aunt Lisa, who is only a few years older than I am, would hole up in her room and crank the volume on her plastic stereo system from K-Mart. The furtive smell of cigarettes wafting from underneath the accordion-fold door while Robert Plant assaulted my ears with his desire for a Whole Lotta Love seemed both terrifying and, well, a middle finger gestured toward those of us cowering on the other side of the door. Thankfully, years of praise and adulation on the part of rock and roll cognoscenti (and, perhaps, a bit of professional therapy) encouraged me to explore the group, and I’m glad that I have. There’s an underlying intelligence to the music that I would have never expected. My aunt, on the other hand …

Between the Buttons helped affirm that, when it comes to the Stones, there’s nothing I love more than that period that immediately follows this 1967 release. Everything that precedes Beggars Banquet is, in my mind, nothing other than a warm-up to the decade that follows.

I was already familiar with Young’s plangent Harvest and was glad to revisit his nasal ruminations more thoroughly throughout the winter. It doesn’t get much better than Heart of Gold, right?

So, what do we have to look forward to over the next few months? Jack White, The Black Keys, Ray LaMontagne, tUnE-yArDs, Lykke Li and Sharon van Etten all have new releases coming out. No time too soon!

In the meantime, I’m pushing through an incredible television series—one that you’ve probably never heard of but one that you should absolutely watch. Orphan Black is a BBC-produced thriller that premiered last year and made quite a number of critics’ Top 10 Lists this past December. The premise is fascinating, the storyline is gripping, the adrenaline rush is high-octane and the acting is pretty amazing. I’m not being very specific, right? That’s because it’s hard to say much more without revealing the underlying plot. There are only 10 episodes in the first season; I’ve gotten through the first eight in the past week and a half. So, before warmer weather truly takes hold and you have no reason to stay indoors, begin streaming—immediately!

Top of the Lake also made a lot of critics’ Top 10 Lists last year. How could it not? Directed by Jane Campion and starring Elisabeth Moss and Holly Hunter, it’s a slow-moving drama that plays out in the outback of New Zealand. Elisabeth Moss plays a detective reminiscent of Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs. Holly Hunter plays an androgynous sage reminiscent of, well, nothing I’ve quite seen. While I acknowledge that it’s well-made, I wasn’t as engrossed as others. For me, it was too slow moving and too violent. The harrowing final three minutes were, honestly, more than I needed to experience. I’m not certain if there’s going to be a second season of Top of the Lake. If there is, I’ll leave it to Campion and company to explore their artistry without me.

Meanwhile, I just finished David McCollough’s Truman and I’m pushing through Walter Isaacson’s biography of Benjamin Franklin. That, however, will have to wait until next month!