4 songs

Elvis Costello: You Belong to Me (1978)

I love Elvis Costello, particularly for his 1978 album This Years Model, which I regard as nearly perfect.  My favorite song on the album, “You Belong to Me,” is one that I consider elemental, both in the energy of it and in its message.  The song opens with loose rhythmic plucking of a rockabilly steel guitar, a spirited energy that becomes manic when a rapid paced drum and tambourine hit underneath it.  Then the centerpiece of two loud, basic pipe organ chords rip through, and the song becomes truly addicting.  The lyrics start off with a wistful picture of misspent youth, even including a sly reference to teenage pregnancy (“She’s been to see the doctor so you hope that she recovers”), before rejoicing in the danger and freedom of youth.  And then, Elvis shifts into the expression of true rock rebellion, concluding that “No uniform’s gonna keep you warm.”  This song evokes a smart-ass teenage kid, refusing to join the army, and I can’t think of anything more rock and roll than that.

Vince Staples: Jump off the Roof (2015)

Vince Staples is an exemplary young California-based rapper, and in 2015 his album Summertime ’06 he displayed greatness, particularly with complex, emotional songs like “Jump off the Roof.”  The song begins with two choruses of tortured choirs singing high chords of lament, presumably to prepare the listener for the darkness of the song.  Despite a rapid drumming on what sounds like empty paint cans, a beat that seems like it would feel right at home in a latin-flavored party banger, Vince begins with the sentiment “What’s your addiction, baby?” which links nicely to verses concerning the implacability of drug addiction.  In line with the picture Staples paints of urban hopelessness, he finishes the song with a bitterly satirical reference to a sentiment that in a real way helps perpetuate the existence of an underclass: “It’s fine baby girl I don’t need a rubber, nothing wrong in the world with another mother.”  In this way, Staples describes in an emotionally devastating way that there is a segment of the population for whom suicide may be the best option.

Kasenetz-Katz Singing Orchestral Circus: Quick Joey Small (Run, Joey, Run) (1968)

This is a great pop record born out of an ill-considered idea.  Two record producers, Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz, brought together eight separate groups into one supergroup, an experiment that ended just a year after its conception.  Despite the frankly boneheaded nature of the enterprise in itself, “Quick Joey Small,” the centerpiece of this mishmash, is pure fun.  This song is the story of a work-prison escape, and the verses are belched by what sounds like a frog-voiced field foreman, giving updates on a street corner through a paper cone.  Though this is addictive and grin-producing, the song truly comes into its own at the chorus, where a mass of singers warn Joey that “The hounds are on your tail.”  Then with a slight upturn in pitch they continue, saying that “They’re gonna send you back to jail.”  I’m hard pressed to imagine a song more playful than “Quick Joey Small,” and the fun it inspires will linger long after the last note is struck.

David Byrne: I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Whitney Houston cover) (2008)

The Talking Heads are, all things considered, my favorite band of all time, and since their dissolution, frontman David Byrne has continued to produce occasionally exceptional music.  One example of this comes from his 2008 live album, Live from Austin, TX, where Byrne did an emotionally revelatory rendition of Whitney Houston’s 1987 party-pop megahit “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.”  While Houston’s version is definitely fun, it might give you cavities, and her performance does not correspond with the lyrics.  The lyrics portray a lonely individual, pleading to an empty sky for someone to love, though it delivers no one.  While Houston tackled the depressing nature of these lyrics by simply ignoring them, Byrne instead layers them over a sweeping line of violins, thus giving them a sense of proud hope.  These violins, as well as bongo’s, marimba’s (I believe), and many other instruments I’m unfamiliar with, give the song a beautiful energy, and a wonderful sense of fun.

4 songs

Dirty Pretty Things (2002)

Director: Stephen Frears

Writer: Steven Knight

Stars: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Audrey Tatou

Streaming on Netflix

In America, illegal immigration is now the cornerstone of a certain and ultimately deplorable type of partisan rhetoric, but in Stephen Frears’ 2002 masterpiece Dirty Pretty Things, London’s problems with illegal immigration (far greater than America’s struggles) are tackled in an unvarnished, brutal, and ultimately heart affirming fashion.  The soul of this story is in the marvelously emotive eyes of its devastatingly handsome leading man, Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave, Talk to Me, Children of Men).  The soul of this story can be seen completely through Chiwetel’s fantastic, star-making performance.

The film revolves around Okwe (Chiwetel), an illegal African immigrant living in London and working as a taxi driver, a fancy hotel’s night front desk operator, and occasionally using his extensive medical knowledge to diagnose venereal diseases.  Okwe was a doctor in Nigeria, we are told early in the film, but the details of his history and the reasons for his exile are kept a mystery until late in the story.  Early in the film, he fixes a clogged toilet by reaching down its mouth and wrenches out a human heart.  From here the plot moves swiftly, bringing the audience through a fascinating panorama of London’s immigrant communities.

Chiwetel’s performance, remarkable as it is, is only one fragment of the fantastic cast this film brings together.  Audrey Tatou (Amelie, A Very Long Engagement) brings a complex ambivalence as Senay, a character who’s childish spirit and cheerful naiveté are clearly tempered with personal knowledge of the dark side of life.  Sergi Lopez (Pan’s Labyrinth) brings a seedy sense of fun to his role as the alcoholic hotel manager and black market organ dealer nicknamed Sneaky.  Benedict Wong, as Okwe’s closest friend and hospital crematorium manager, is unspeakably funny saying lines like “I don’t bring (organs) home with me, but I could, if I was weird.”

The thing that cannot be left unsaid about Dirty Pretty Things, despite its depressing subject matter, is how delightfully entertaining it is.  In the middle of the film’s central intrigue, a wonderfully unspoken romance blossoms between the two leads (Ejiofor, Tatou), and by it the story is given wings.  Stephen Frears (The Grifters, The Queen, Philomena) plays all these very powerful and conflicting emotions in perfect balance throughout the film, wrapping it all up beautifully and completely in its brisk hour and a half runtime.

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Dirty Pretty Things (2002)