Who would have thought, in the days of her early hits like “Jesus Take the Wheel” or “Before He Cheats”, that Carrie Underwood would one day be a credible purveyor of terrifying murder ballads? This is one of her best yet, easily up to the standard set by “Blown Away” or “Two Black Cadillacs”, and it ranks as one of the most chilling and dramatic songs to chart on the Hot 100 this year. Set to eerie, smoldering music that combines elements of Neo-traditional Country and the Country-Rock Underwood normally favors for this kind of song, the song tells the story of a poor Country girl lured into marriage by a brutally abusive rich husband, whom she ultimately poisons in a combination of self-defense and deadly revenge. A few critics complained because the story the song tells is too similar to the Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl”, but their treatments of that story are very different. “Goodbye, Earl” is, in the end, a (very) dark comedy song, with an almost gleeful tone about the death of the titular abuser. This song, by contrast, is terrifying, a bone-chilling Gothic narrative with no trace of humor whatsoever. This song hasn’t cracked the Top Forty, and even on Country radio it hasn’t done as well as such schlock as Florida Georgia Line’s embarrassing “H.O.L.Y.”, but it might well be the best Country hit of the year so far. In any case, it deserves far more success than it ever achieved, and it represents a level of quality and dramatic power that would have been unheard-of for a Carrie Underwood song five years ago.
Archives for June 2016
Michael Bolton’s bad reputation isn’t exactly undeserved…between his frequently poor material as a Soft Rocker and his often disastrous attempts to reinterpret classic standards, there’s a reason few people take him seriously. But his actual voice is undeniably impressive, even if his decision to perform everything in an overwrought scream often spoils its effect, and he can actually be a wonderful performer when given material that is both, A). good, and B). suitable for his performing style. His early material as a Hair Metal singer is often treated as though it were the only good work he had ever done, but a few of his early Pop singles (“How Can We Be Lovers”, “Love Is a Wonderful Thing”, “Time, Love and Tenderness”) were valid, and this is one of the best of them. This was Bolton’s third hit covering a Classic Soul standard, but while “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay” was just an incredibly wrongheaded choice for Bolton’s style and “Georgia On My Mind” was done in by an awful Soft Rock arrangement, this cover actually works because the original song calls for exactly the kind of Soul Scream that Bolton specializes in. He performs it in almost exactly the same way Percy Sledge did on the original, and it proves to be an ideal showcase for all the good things about his voice. It may be a controversial opinion to state that Michael Bolton’s cover of Percy Sledge actually deserved its Grammy win, but I think I can back this one up.
Verdict: I certainly wouldn’t stick up for all of Bolton’s attempts at classic standards, but this is one of the few times it actually worked.
For my next entry on the art of the villain song, let me show you how a villain can lose on all fronts and still make his exit seem like a victory. This song, which essentially functions as the show’s eleven-o’clock number, serves as the parting words by Steven Kodaly, a heartless cad who uses and manipulates his on-again, off-again girlfriend Ilona and has an affair with his boss’ wife that drives his boss to a suicide attempt, yet is so charming you can’t really bring yourself to dislike him. Just before this song, he has been exposed, fired and dumped by Ilona, yet he makes his exit with perfect poise. This song, an epic combination of withering sarcasm, condescension and veiled threat, conveys all the contempt of flipping the bird with all of the grace and poise of an ironic bow. It serves to make Kodaly’s exit from the show one of the grandest in Broadway history, and certainly stands as one of the theater’s all-time great villain songs.
In 2014-2015, there was a string of terrible Glam and Club rappers with ridiculous names (like Rae Sremmurd Bobby Schmurda) that formed a genre movement the internet has decided to dub “Nu-Crunk” due to its resemblance to early-2000s Crunk music with all the appealing qualities taken out. Apart from a few acts like Rae Sremmurd and Migos who managed to stick around, most of these guys had one or two hits, were proclaimed the darling the moment by the more impressionable published critics, and then went to that great booty club in sky (or the bowels of Hell, depending on whether you think making bad music is a sin). Fetty Wap, however, was the first of them to crack the Top Ten, and while he still has his fair share of detractors, there are a surprising number of people willing to defend him, even among those who otherwise hate this kind of music. He seems to be trying to fill the specific niche left by Ja Rule…a rapper/singer combination with a tuneless singing voice who supposedly makes love songs but fills them with a bunch of generic thug posturing. The weird thing is that, given all of the above, this guy is surprisingly non-abrasive…he certainly doesn’t have a good voice in the conventional sense, but he has a certain odd charm to his singing, and while the posturing and Glam Rap cliches are definitely present on all of his songs, when he does sing about love he comes across as oddly sincere. In fact, this overall song actually comes off more successfully as a Rap love song than the strikingly similar “I Don’t Mind” by Usher from the same year. Fetty’s not a great rapper by any means, but he’s not nearly as bad as you’d expect, especially compared to his inspiration Ja Rule or any of the other acts in his subgenre. He may lack the artistic substance of the near-avant-garde ‘Hook Artist’ acts like Future or Young Thug, but he has a certain hard-to-explain appeal about him, and is certainly a significant cut above the rest of the shallow party-rappers of his era.
Verdict: It’s hard to logically explain why this is good, but it is.
In addition to bringing us a great deal of prominent mediocrity, the ‘05-’06 season gave us this monstrosity, which has my vote for the worst musical-theater score of the decade, or at least the worst to actually get a recording.
This is another composition in Lachiusa’s deliberately alienating style, but unlike the others, it combines the intentional harshness and abrasive qualities of Lachiusa’s work with a massive amount of unintentional incompetence.
The show itself is a shallow, sex-obsessed reduction of a classic play, taking a work with serious themes about class and gender and freedom, and making it purely about a group of teenage girls in heat (seriously…they spend the show running their hands over their bodies and saying things like “My pains, mother, are not the pains of hunger”).
The star is Cosby Show veteran Felicia Rashaad, here absurdly cast as the play’s title character. Bernarda is supposed to be a domineering, castrating matriarch, but Rashaad and an unwise attempt by the authors to soften her have dissolved all the terrifying power she had in the play.
And the score, easily the most unlistenable of the decade, shows what happens when Lachiusa writes genuine floppo numbers (like “The Stallion and the Mare”, about horses having sex) in his trademark, flip-off-the-listener style, combining its skull-pounding beats and wailing vocal parts with some of the most idiotic lyrics of the decade (Example: “I want to feel a fire between my legs/and on my lips/and on my tongue”).
This show has no discernable redeeming features, and it actually serves as a reminder of how legitimately well-written Lachiusa’s other shows really are, even in spite of their aggressively avant-garde styles of music and performance.
This may not the Michael John Lachiusa’s ‘best’ score, but it is unquestionably the most accessible and enjoyable thing he ever wrote. Idina Menzel played the lead in this show, and her presence probably got a lot of people unfamiliar with Lachiusa’s work to listen to it, but almost none of the negative things I’ve said about Lachiusa’s work in the past really apply here.
The idea for the show was frankly brilliant…two one-acts based on the famous Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa, both dealing with the subjective nature of truth. Both one-acts are far more accessible than anything Lachiusa had done in years. The first, based on a modernized version of the famous Rashomon, features some of the most genuinely catchy music Lachiusa has ever written in one place. The standout numbers go to Menzel, of course…the jazzy title-song, the heartbreaking “Louie”, and the scathing tirade “No More”.
The second act is in a classical-influenced vein closer to Lachiusa’s normal style, and, apart from the beautiful “There Will Be a Miracle”, less accessible musically, but it does feature an emotional pull and dramatic simplicity and primality that nothing else in Lachiusa’s oeuvre even approaches. It tells the story of a disillusioned priest who spreads a rumor of an impending miracle in Central Park. The news draws a vast crowd of emotionally desperate modern-day disciples, and, in the words of the main character, “I told a lie, and the lie became the truth. The lie was for everyone, but the truth was only for myself.”
Only once in the show does Lachiusa’s trademark “Theater should hurt” philosophy rear its head, in the second act’s incredibly disturbing “Coffee”, which bears a certain resemblance to “Song of a Child Prostitute” from Swados’ Runaways. Granted, the ‘Kesa and Morito’ bits that frame the action are mostly just embarrassing, but even they seem fairly tame compared to Lachiusa’s other show that season, the grisly Bernarda Alba.
Given that this show came out in one of Broadway’s worst seasons, it actually stands head and shoulders above virtually all of its peers. In fact, it’s probably the best original score of the season, given that the best shows that year were a jukebox musical (Jersey Boys) and an off-Broadway song cycle consisting mostly of recycled material (It’s Only Life). And compared with most of Lachiusa’s output, its straightforward enjoyment value and emotional appeal seem almost revelatory.
Lachiusa claimed this was his attempt to write a light-hearted musical comedy, but that statement seems more than a bit disingenuous. The subject matter is, admittedly, relatively light compared to his usual fare (which admittedly is not saying much), but the opening number, “Days”, although it may be about something as simple as giving up smoking, sounds exactly like the opening of The Wild Party, right down to the dissonant trumpet blasts. It’s funny, characterful and even catchy in a perverse sort of way, but it doesn’t really differ much from Lachiusa’s usual fare.
Granted, after that, we do get a score that, apart from a couple of individual numbers like the dementedly perky “It’s a Sign” or the explosively mocking “Poor Charlotte”, is relatively accessible by Lachiusa’s standards. The song are certainly not conventional musical-comedy show tunes, but they’re fairly euphonious and pretty in a jangly sort of way. Particularly lovely are “Flotsam”, sung in a hallucinatory dream sequence by Anne Frank (yes, that Anne Frank); the moving “Remember Me” for the heroine’s best friend after she’s diagnosed with cancer; and the gently comforting title song. Other notable items include the dynamically pounding “I Ran” for the heroine’s gay friend; the caustically sarcastic but nonetheless pretty accurate “Short Story”, in which the heroine’s ex-boyfriend brutally lays out her failings; and the show’s impressive emotional climax, “Simple Creature”.
And Lachiusa does handle the attempt at something resembling “Musical Comedy” better than his clearest predecessor, the late Elizabeth Swados. I’ve always rather preferred Swados to Lachiusa for a variety of reasons, but I will admit that Lachiusa seems capable of meeting the musical comedy template halfway without completely compromising his style, something that Swados’ attempts at the same thing (like the Doonesbury musical) couldn’t seem to achieve.
The story, a very modern plot about a woman confronting her psychological issues, could have played as a semi-conventional musical comedy with a different treatment, but it doesn’t come across that way here, instead amounting to a kind of self-consciously contemplative contemporary drama. Really, I blame the show’s failure less on Lachiusa’s alienating style and more on the book’s pretentious tone and lack of an actual plot beyond this not-very-likable woman trying to figure out why she can’t connect.
It’s been compared to Sondheim’s Company by a lot of people, including its creators, but the central conflict of Company (the question of whether making a commitment to share your life with another person is worth it) is both much more clearly defined and far more compelling than the vague introspection on display here. Even Alice Ripley, who sings the lead role on the cast album, can’t really do much to make you like or care about this self-involved neurotic whose problems are all of her own making.
This isn’t Lachiusa’s weakest show by any means…the music alone does enough to carry it to put it well above misfires like Queen of the Mist, let alone the utter horror that is Bernarda Alba…but it doesn’t really have the arresting if alienating impact of his best work. It’s not nearly as hard to force yourself to appreciate as Marie Christine or The Wild Party, but it also doesn’t even approach the sheer emotional devastation those shows can achieve. It’s interesting, like all of his work…even Bernarda Alba was interesting in its awfulness…but it stands somewhere toward the middle range of Lachiusa’s output, and while the score is worth hearing, I can’t say I really recommend seeing the show.
Like most of John Mayer’s work, this cover from his live album Where the Light Is has its detractors, but I’d say it’s a near-perfect fit for his style. Probably part of the reason some people objected to it, besides the perceived blasphemy of an act they don’t respect covering Tom Petty, is that this version is quite a bit more mellow and Easy Listening-esque than the original. But the guitar work is, as usual with Mayer, extremely impressive, and both the arrangement and Mayer’s somewhat bland and smug-sounding vocal delivery (which, I admit, has always been his biggest liability) are ideal for this song, which is after all the ultimate anthem to not giving a crap. Like Petty, Mayer sounds bland and self-satisfied when he talks about the girl in question and only shows any passion on the chorus, where he exults in his own indifference, so I’d say he perfectly grasps the meaning of the song. It isn’t quite as thrilling as Petty’s original, but it is a valid and highly effective interpretation of a fantastic song, and ranks as one of the best of Mayer’s live covers.