By Spencer Davis. Yeah, so um, it’s been a while, huh? While you might have noticed Shadows & Noise has been on hiatus for the past couple of years, it’s Halloween weekend and I just couldn’t resist revisiting one of my favorite series we’ve ever done on the site. For me, October is the time to lock yourself in the basement, turn out the lights, and scare the everloving shit out of yourself—preferably with a movie, but hey, you do you. If you’re tired of all the usual options like The Shining or The Exorcist, I’ve got a few more off-the-beaten-path horror options for you to consider. And because real life in 2020 is scary enough already, I’ve also tossed in a few lighter picks that will give you more laughs than nightmares. You can thank me with candy. Continue reading
By Spencer Davis. At this year’s Oscars, it seems like the focus will be less on the awards and more on the half-assed, throw-shit-at-the-wall-and-hope-something-sticks approach that the Academy and ABC have taken to stave off their ever-spiraling decline in viewers. Now I’ve already spent plenty of word count suggesting one novel approach the Oscars might take—nominating movies that people have actually fucking seen—and apparently the Academy listened, nominating blockbusters like A Star Is Born, Black Panther, and Bohemian Rhapsody for the top prize (along with more accessible fare like BlacKkKlansman, Green Book, and Vice, which—while not box office hits in dollar terms—are at least the kind of movies you can enjoy even if you lack a film history degree from USC or a subscription to Cahiers du Cinema).
Unable to just leave a good thing the fuck alone, though, the Academy has also clumsily ushered in a slew of changes to the telecast in an effort to woo back disinterested viewers with a leaner, three hour show. They’ve axed the host (in part because they couldn’t find anyone who wanted the job). They flirted with having only two of the Best Original Song nominees perform (before Lady Gaga threatened to walk, forcing them to recant or lose their biggest star). And perhaps worst of all, they tried to relegate “less important” categories like Cinematography, Editing, Makeup & Hairstyling, and Live Action Short to the commercial breaks, only to backtrack on that too when the all-too-predictable backlash ensured.
All this in a quixotic effort to attract people who have never liked watching the Oscars, at the expense of those of us who actually do. If that sounds a little bit like one of those formulaic 90s rom-coms where the girl spends the entire movie desperately chasing after some self-absorbed douchebag who treats her like shit, while all the time overlooking the faithful best friend who loves her just the way she is … then congratulations, you’re smarter than anyone who runs the Academy these days. With that said, if the Oscars are really so insistent upon “fixing” things, here’s a few more sensible ideas from someone who’s watched every Oscars ceremony since 1980. Continue reading
By Spencer Davis. While I introduced my 2018 Year In Music picks by contemplating why today’s songwriters have mostly failed to tap into the political pulse of this extraordinary moment in history in which we live, I can’t at all say the same thing about the world of film. From the racial divisions tearing apart our elections and our borders to the tectonic shifts still shaking our long-stagnant perceptions of the treatment of women, this year’s best movies seemed utterly oxygenated by the hashtag social movements that have dominated our discourse—and they burned all the more brightly for it. Of course, hovering over all of this has been the constant specter of the Trump Administration, and it should be no surprise that liberal Hollywood chose to challenge this presidency—and everything it means for the life of our democracy—head-on. No film better captured the complete insanity of living in the shadow of rising authoritarianism than The Death Of Stalin. Continue reading
By Spencer Davis. Typically, great art is borne of terrible times. So in these days when hate is rising everywhere, days when some are questioning the decline of democracy itself, you’d expect that “serious” music—particularly music with a strongly political bent—would be experiencing a renaissance. Yet it’s confounding that two years into this critical juncture in history, we’re seeing so little music that speaks to the moment, that provides a vital commentary on the state of our union comparable to the creative explosion of the 1960s or the literary revolution of the interwar period. Music is still searching for a way to do something new, and the best answer anyone’s come up with so far is to cross-pollinate genres or historical influences in a way that aspires to accomplish a seamless new blend—hopefully obscuring the fact that there’s nothing truly new or original about it.
But while my 2017 list bemoaned a particularly weak crop, I’m happy to say that in 2018, the road is curving back in the right direction. And there are even signs that maybe, just maybe, this historical moment of ours could be on the cusp of sparking the next great creative explosion. My hope begins with this year’s brilliant new evolutionary leap from Leon Bridges. Continue reading
By Spencer Davis. Every year, I give you a new batch of overlooked Halloween movies to get you through the night—or if I’ve done my job properly, keep you awake through it—and this year, we go in some new directions. Some might say the world we live in right now is scary enough! And yet it’s perhaps no coincidence that the past two years have brought horror into a new era of acclaim, with hits like Get Out and A Quiet Place being named as serious awards contenders. Even the remake business is being taken a lot more seriously, with bold new visions of Halloween and Suspiria taking over the theaters and proving themselves to be more than cheap cash grabs. But if, like me, you think the best place to seek out your scares is in the darkness of your own living room, then enjoy these under-the-radar film frights. Continue reading
By Spencer Davis. Time for another vinyl time capsule in our continuing series, The Vintage Collector. I’m making my picks for the essential classic albums you need in your vinyl collection. This time, we’re doing barroom piano ballads, proto-hair metal, sultry lounge standards, soul/blues fusion, and a lost album from a titan of jazz. Continue reading
By Spencer Davis. I can trace the exact moment I fell in love with the Fast & Furious franchise to a particular scene in Fast Five. A friend of mine, already indoctrinated in the idiotic joys of the series, suggested we catch the midnight showing on opening night. It was an idea just stupid enough to be brilliant! About half an hour in, there’s a chase scene that culminates in Paul Walker and Vin Diesel going over the edge of a cliff in a Corvette convertible, climbing onto the trunk of the car in midair … and with perfect timing, leaping safely into a river just before impact. As this all unfolded in glorious slow-motion, someone in the audience shouted, “Academy Award!!!!” and the entire theater erupted in laughter. I was sold for life.
If you heard yesterday’s announcement that the Oscars will be unveiling a new category, Best Popular Film, then you probably know why I bring this up. Everyone knows the impetus for this is the telecast’s spiraling ratings, and the best and the brightest minds at the Academy have apparently decided that the way to pull viewers back in is with a shorter, 3-hour show and a new category dedicated to the shitty blockbusters that make all the money.
I have a modest counter-proposal: NOMINATE BETTER FUCKING MOVIES. Continue reading
By Spencer Davis. In the four years since Shadows & Noise launched, my year-end film picks have been all over the map: a heartfelt coming-of-age drama, a sci-fi think piece, a classic Hollywood musical. That kind of schizophrenia isn’t just a function of diverse tastes; it’s a sign of the scattershot directions in which film has been evolving in the past half-decade. With streaming supplanting the theater as our preferred way of watching, with Netflix and Amazon now acting as movie studios in their own right, and with the quality line between television and movies so blurred now that we might as well just call it all “film,” we’re at an inflection point in the history of the moving picture. Indeed, in 2017, we’re finally seeing film critics include shows like The Handmaid’s Tale, Twin Peaks: The Return, and even Ken Burns’s The Vietnam War on their year-end movie lists. But while I could easily list the likes of Legion or Mr. Robot here—shows that are every bit as cinematic and structurally innovative as anything on the big screen—I’m still limiting my picks to movies for just one reason: the difficulty of making meaningful comparisons between a finite film and a television show that is still an ongoing work in progress. It wouldn’t seem fair to list a show here that might, before it’s all over, take a major nose dive. But make no mistake, film and TV now bear equal claim to the mantle of creative greatness. So without losing sight of that, here are the twelve movies that defined my 2017. Continue reading
By Spencer Davis. Last month, I wrote a piece for this website explaining why I fear we’ve reached the end of music. Those ideas have been floating around in my head all year, and there’s a reason for that: I’ve been largely uninspired by the music that was released in 2017. After years writing about the best in indie rock, Americana, electronic, and hip-hop, I feel like every one of these genres has quietly reached a plateau—a Mobius strip of innovation in the guise of imitation, where nothing sounds new and any creativity by the artist is taking place mostly at the margins. We’ve reached points before in our musical history where a particular genre lost its ability to leave an impact. Think back to 1998 and how listless rock music had become after a decade of mopey grunge excess. The same phenomenon happened with the waning days of hair metal in 1990, or with pop music around that same time period, or with jazz in the late 50s. In each of these cases, the exhaustion of one art form made room for the birth of another, and rock-and-roll or hip-hop or grunge or indie rose to meet the challenge.
This time, though, feels different. Precisely because all of our musical forms have reached the exhaustion point simultaneously. Hip-hop has become stale, relying on minimalist beats and safe, Auto-Tuned choruses to speak to an ever-narrowing audience in clubs and on top 40 radio. Americana, once a refreshing throwback to the past, now feels increasingly forced and cliched after a wave of hipster Lumineer imitators beat the horse to death. After a decade of laughable Nashville radio filler, country momentarily offered a breath of something new by looking to the past and imitating the sounds of vintage 70s and 80s outlaw country—but the problem with looking backwards is that it gives you nowhere else to go. Electronic and EDM, while conceptually seeming like the obvious place to go if you’re looking for the music of the future, instead seem content with confining themselves to a niche of the market, endlessly looping the same sounds and textures and beats with diminishing returns. And rock music? It barely exists anymore, with most indie bands relegating the guitar to an afterthought and established rock stars like U2 doing everything they can to shoehorn elements of other genres into their music in a last desperate bid for continued relevance.
If this is a harsh way to start off a list of the year’s best music, I apologize only up to a point. The albums I’ve listed here are certainly good, listenable music—but are any of them truly great? Will we listen to any of them five years from now, or even one year from now? Looking back to my 2016 list, I can’t help but feel that the very best albums of 2017 wouldn’t have cracked the top 15 of that list. And sure, maybe that’s just a sign of a down year; after all, if we’re only a year removed from such superior work, then we may only be a year away from a renaissance. If so, I think it will require something more than repackaging the sounds of the past; it will require new voices, new ideas, and maybe some new names.
So if inclusion on this year’s list now reads like a backhanded compliment of sorts, then so be it. The true greats, including possibly even some of the artists I’ve listed here, will be more then capable of rising to the challenge—or else they’re not true greats. Continue reading
By Spencer Davis. In the closing days of the Cold War, political theorist Francis Fukuyama argued that humanity had reached “the end of history”—not literally, of course, but as a shorthand to explain his notion that, after centuries of evolution, our systems of government had reached their final and logical endpoint in the global triumph of liberal democracy. No other system of government could ever better meet mankind’s inherent social and psychological needs, he maintained, and so we were now at the end of the road. Of course there would always be work to be done in terms of maintaining good governance, passing laws to address new problems, and so on—but the changes would be small rather than big. There would be no more seismic reinventions of government in our future, no viable contender to replace democracy wholesale (as communism and fascism had once tried to promise). History, understood as the story of man’s political progress, had already written its final chapter.
Setting aside the question of how rosy that projection now looks in the age of Trump, you might ask what the hell any of this has to do with this website? Well, I’d like to posit a theory of my own: that in the last decade, we have quietly reached the end of music. Continue reading
By Spencer Davis. This is always one of my favorite columns to write every year, because October horror movies are like the gateway to fall for me. It starts getting dark a little earlier each night, and with Halloween around the corner, there’s no more perfect way to enjoy that darkness than with a good scare. And sure, in a year where horror movies like Get Out and It are dominating the box office—and even earning Oscar buzz—there’s no shortage of great options out there. But once you’re done with all of the more obvious choices, take a dive into the deep cuts with these underrated and sometimes forgotten screen terrors. Continue reading
By Nicole Funari & Spencer Davis. In the latest edition of the Movies That Matter podcast, we discuss the critically-acclaimed World War II film, Dunkirk, from director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Inception, Interstellar). It’s a decidedly unconventional summer blockbuster; though the subject matter and the production values put it squarely into Oscar bait territory, it plays like an action movie or even a disaster flick. Nolan’s pedigree as the thinking person’s crowdpleaser of choice make him the perfect filmmaker to tackle this topic, and he once again plays his usual tricks with time, utilizing a complex intersection of three different timelines to reframe the narrative on the key theme of cooperation in a time of crisis. The result is perhaps the first truly modern war picture—a complete stylistic break with the past. And the movie raises fascinating questions about how our history is written, how we talk about the virtues of military service and heroism, and the basic value of human lives during times that sacrifice them so cheaply. You can download the podcast here or via iTunes.
By Spencer Davis. One of the appeals of exploring foreign cinema is seeing how filmmakers from other countries are free to entertain story ideas that would never get the green light in Hollywood. It’s not necessarily that foreign directors are given more leeway to take risks; it’s that a plot device that seems absurd to us may, in the eyes of another culture, make total sense. With that in mind, let’s look at five more pictures from around the globe that redefine the boundaries of what movies can do. Continue reading
By Spencer Davis. For a kid whose love of rock music was originally sparked by the early 90s grunge movement, seeing Pearl Jam’s recent induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame was an odd sort of milestone in my own musical journey. Standing there together on stage, trying to find words to capture what the moment meant to their music and to their own personal lives, you could almost see Eddie Vedder, Mike McCready, Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard, and Matt Cameron—along with original drummer Dave Krusen!—mentally struggling to grasp the enormity of the past 25 years. There was a childlike shock at being there, as if their adult selves were momentarily jettisoned and replaced with six naive, energetic, swaggering kids from 1991. And from that perspective, the whole thing was no doubt impossible to compute.
But watching on the television, knowing as we do know that, as this was filmed, the world was just weeks away from losing yet another legendary Seattle frontman in Chris Cornell, the induction of Pearl Jam took on a wholly different kind of historical relevance. With so many of their grunge-era contemporaries—Soundgarden, Nirvana, Alice In Chains, Stone Temple Pilots—lost or fundamentally altered by premature death, and so many others rendered defunct by eternal squabbling, lineup changes, or on-again, off-again breakups, Pearl Jam is now the last band standing. And there’s a monumental lesson in that about the nature of fame, creativity, and indeed life—either as musicians or just as people. Continue reading
By Spencer Davis. Been taking a bit of a break lately, but don’t worry—S&N isn’t going anywhere! And what better way to come back after a recharge than with a brand new S&N mix? Well, I say “brand new,” but as you’ll see with this batch of tunes, newness can be relative. Because while these songs all come from 2017 releases, you’ll notice an obvious theme: they make what’s new sound old again. Tapping into a vibe that’s distinctly 80s, these artists skirt that creative line between looking back and moving forward. And they prove it’s not so much a line as a spectrum. Continue reading
By Spencer Davis. Yes, there will be subtitles. That’s the first hurdle you need to overcome when opening your mind to foreign film. But trust me, it’s worth it. You see, when you’ve only watched Hollywood movies, you unknowingly—through sheer repetition—become conditioned to believe that movies have to look and sound and feel a certain way. But popular art is influenced in all these subtle little ways by the culture that produces it. And just as there are distinctive stylistic differences between, say, American and British literature, or Italian and German opera, or even Japanese and Chinese food, the movie repertoire of a particular country takes on its own unique essence, flavored by the language and the history and the cultural values of the people who made it. That’s the magic of exploring foreign film: discovering how something so familiar as the American movie experience can, in new hands, become fresh and provocative and unexpected. Continue reading
By Spencer Davis. Today in our continuing series on the most iconic uses of music in film, we look at two recent transformative illustrations of the music-writing process, along with a small piece of Hollywood history, a slice of brilliant visual comedy, a brief musical interlude in war, and a tribute to a recently-lost icon. Continue reading
By Spencer Davis. Longtime readers of S&N might notice a surprising name missing from this edition of The Consumer: Ryan Adams. His latest, Prisoner, dropped last month, but I’m sad to say I can’t recommend it. Continuing in the vein of 80s power rock that he explored on his 2014 self-titled album, Adams can still pen a great song almost effortlessly—and having heard a few of Prisoner‘s tracks during his live acoustic tour last year, I can confirm that there are some great songs hiding here. But they’re buried under lackluster production and a muddled mix, resulting in an album that feels like a cheap imitation—not only of its more obvious 80s influences (like Springsteen or Petty), but of Ryan Adams himself. So what have I been listening to instead? Aside from some killer EPs by Middle Kids and Maggie Rogers, lots of contemplative songcraft from the likes of Spoon (pictured above), Laura Marling, Leif Vollebekk, and Rose Elinor Dougall. Continue reading
By Spencer Davis. Time to pick back up where we left off with The Vintage Collector, our continuing series on the overlooked throwback records you need to add to your vinyl (or digital) collection. This edition highlights a team-up of jazz titans, plus some innovative punk pioneers, a progressive French provocateur, a delta blues legend, and a classic rock name you might not know—but ought to sound plenty familiar. Continue reading
By Spencer Davis. In a lot of ways, this year’s Oscars figure to tease out the divide in taste that I examined in my Best of 2016 list: between movies that focus on grand visual spectacle and ones that prefer a more intimate, character-based approach. The battle between La La Land and Moonlight is one that is largely subjective, asking you to choose between films that are so different in their end goals that meaningful comparison is impossible. Which one you choose says more about the person you are than it does about the respective merits of the two films. And whichever film ends up taking home the Oscar won’t truly have claim to being the “best picture” in the long run; it will just be the one that struck the right nerve at this particular moment in time. Continue reading
By Spencer Davis. You thought I got it all out of my system last time? HA! Apparently you don’t know me at all, because while the hate I rained down on Frank Ocean, Sufjan Stevens, Beach House, and The Cure was impressive—and despite what you might’ve read in the comments section, totally warranted—there’s plenty more where that came from. So sit back and let me explain why a few more of the so-called artists that Pitchfork and All Songs Considered keep conning you into appreciating are, if you’re really being honest with yourself, stains on the very soul of humanity. Continue reading
By Spencer Davis. January saw a number of new releases from acts facing an identity crisis. The xx (pictured above), Cloud Nothings, Japandroids, and Run The Jewels each come into their third album with the need to refresh their sound or risk becoming stale. What’s fascinating is how they each manage to thread the needle and find ways to say something new without ever abandoning their core. Continue reading
By Nicole Funari & Spencer Davis. In the latest edition of the Movies That Matter podcast, Nicole and I discuss writer/director Mike Mills’s latest film, 20th Century Women, starring Annette Benning as the single mother of a teenage son in 1979 who enlists the help of the jaded teenage girl he loves (Elle Fanning), an artistic punk rock photographer (Greta Gerwig), and a quiet hippie handyman (Billy Crudup) to teach him the ways of women, men, and life. It’s an ambitious movie that’s rife with big questions about the gender roles we impose on one another and the inability to connect across generations, and as Nicole and I agree, it only partly succeeds in meeting those ambitions. We talk about that and plenty more, from the “end of men” to online dating to the status of marriage and divorce in America today. You can download the podcast here or via iTunes.
By Spencer. While there’s been an unsurprising amount of consensus about 2016’s best music, this year’s slate of movies asks you to make some hard and very personal decisions about what exactly takes a film to the point of greatness. Do you care about first and foremost about the story? The acting? The direction? Is it bold innovation or flawless execution that moves you? Does it have to make a statement, or can it simply revel in quiet humanity? While smaller, more intimate films like Manchester By The Sea, Moonlight, and Toni Erdmann have their fierce advocates among the critics, there’s another kind of picture that achieves greatness by going for broke on the magic of cinema itself—a place where impossible fantasies can be given sight and where we can delight in the color and framing of an exquisite series of images that transcend the mundane details of what we call ordinary life. This year, it was a film of this type, a film where dreams constantly intruded upon the real world, that ultimately captured both my heart and my mind—and that film was La La Land. Continue reading
By The S&N Staff. Once again, a group of S&N contributors—Hendricks, Mark, Biff, and myself—have voted on our favorite songs of 2016, and we present them to you here as a Spotify playlist for your streaming pleasure. In a year where politics dominated everything, it shouldn’t be surprising that a number of the songs we picked delve into that theme. But it’s still satisfying, nonetheless, to see that two of the most powerful political statements of the year came from A Tribe Called Quest and Drive-By Truckers. To hear East Coast hip-hop and Southern country rock come together on common ground like that speaks to the incredible bridging potential of music, and maybe offers a little hope about our ability to start a meaningful conversation that connects us despite our deep cultural divides. And there’s plenty more here, too, from S&N favorites like Hiss Golden Messenger and Blood Orange and The Range to some under-the-radar artists who deserve far more of our attention, like Lucy Dacus, Pinegrove, Hinds, and Chairlift. Enjoy, and happy holidays! Continue reading
By Spencer. I’m going to make a bold statement: 2016 was the best year for music in S&N’s three-year history. And I mean that from top to bottom. The top five in my year-end list is a murderer’s row of absolutely ingenious albums—each of them practically perfect from the first track to the last and displaying both infectious listenability and grand artistic ambition. But whereas in past years we saw a quick decline between the top five and everything else, 2016 presented so many good options that it was damn near impossible for me to even compile this list. Since science has yet to find a way to cram more than 20 albums into a top-20 list, though, I was forced to leave many worthy contenders out. Continue reading
By Spencer. For those who love our movie coverage but think there’s way too much reading involved, you’re in luck. This week, all you have to do is listen! I’m guest hosting the latest edition of the movie podcast, Movies That Matter, which focuses on “films going above and beyond the call of box office returns to boldly explore a social issue affecting people’s lives.” On this edition, host Nicole Funari and I share a wide-ranging conversation on this month’s surprise art-house sci-fi hit, Arrival, starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker, and directed by Denis Villenueve (Prisoners, Sicario). It’s a movie full of big ideas about communication, the nature of time, grief, and the things that bring us together as human beings. And naturally, we couldn’t help but get into a little political conversation as well, with some of the film’s themes proving timely in the wake of an election that exposed deep failures of communication between red and blue America. You can download the podcast here or via iTunes. And stay tuned to Movies That Matter, because they’ll be bringing in a number of other guest hosts over the coming weeks to explore some of the best year-end Oscar fare.
By Spencer. In these first days of the Age of Trump, music is a place we can go to seek distractions and maybe even pieces of answers. Several of our featured artists this month are speaking openly of the open political wounds that have been lingering all year, from black lives to women’s rights to the anxieties of small-town America. And if it still seems a little too early to pick at those scabs and you just need something to take your mind off the state of the world, well, we’ve got that covered too, with some earnest and even whimsical songwriting about less complicated matters like, ahem, love. Continue reading
By Spencer. Picking up where we left off with our series on the most iconic uses of music on film, many of today’s picks use song to play with reality, spanning the gap from indie musical to surrealistic nightmare and looking at masters of the form like Tarantino, Lynch, Anderson, and Hitchcock. Continue reading
By Spencer. It’s a good week to focus on simpler times, so we continue our series on the essential vinyl albums with a look at a couple of guitar gods from very different eras; Kurt Cobain’s favorite Depression-era icon; the godmother of punk; and a team-up of the two greatest drummers of all time. Continue reading