• 2018 Newsletter,  music reviews,  reviews

    Matt Bellamy and Sarah Brightman Should Be BFFs

    A Review of Two New Albums

    I have no idea if these two individuals know each other in reality. I suppose I could Google it. For all I know, Matt Bellamy and Sarah Brightman are already dear friends, and a search would yield entire coffee table books of the two dancing through the bluebells with linked pinkies.

    I’m sure if they met, they’d be best friends. The kind of love that they write epics about.

    They have so much in common.

    Sarah Brightman’s Hymn is the latest in her one-word album titles opening with a dreamy instrumental building energy into a crescendo of upbeat pop-like music (in the way that only Sarah Brightman does pop-like music). She dips into crooning melodies and soars into belting arias and leaves you with a track so upbeat your dentures might pop out when you ask Iris to start the record over.

    Are we ever tired of listening to Sarah Brightman’s operatic blasts? She remains, decades after playing the ingenue in her then-husband’s Phantom of the Opera, a voice to be reckoned with. She hasn’t lost an ounce of her power. She also hasn’t gained an ounce of power—or ambition, for that matter. To be fair, it’s hard when you start out in pop music with an anachronistic hit as divine as I Lost my Heart to a Starship Trooper, and songs like Fly to Paradise just don’t stand a chance. They lack the gusto.

    I don’t think Sarah’s recurring vision is without self-awareness. Hymn ends with yet another iteration of Time to Say Goodbye—distinguished from previous outings of this (fantastic, amazing, flaw-free) song only by the fact that it’s entirely in English this time. She knows what people want from her, and she’s happy to deliver it again. And again. And again.

    Matt Bellamy, with Muse, is much the same on a shorter time scale. He has remade the same album for the last four albums, proving that you really shouldn’t fix what isn’t broken. The Resistance was prescient for 2009; it remained timely when his electronic beats, melodrama, and anti-establishment brand of orchestral pop-rock turned into 2012’s marvelous The Second Law. It felt a little tired by the time that his one and only style of modern album was reincarnated in 2015’s Drones, but it’s fresh again in Simulation Theory. Still, the only real addition is jumping feet-first into synthwave—half the songs would sound wholly appropriate on the soundtrack for next season of Stranger Things—whereas the remainder of the auditory elements are shamelessly rehashed. Listen to Madness (off The Second Law) and then Propaganda (off the new album). They strike different emotional notes, but it’s impossible to ignore the similarities, even when you’re rocking the eff out to the splendiferous drama of Propaganda.

    Like I said, if it’s not broken, you don’t have to fix it. These two musical artists know what they’re offering. You can see it as good branding. You can see it as overproduction. You can see it as loyalty to style. However you like to view it, I bet Matt and Sarah would have a great time talking about their reincarnated-into-infinity artistic style over drinks, and I really hope it happens someday. What I’d give to be the fifth generation of a near-identical fly on the wall for that conversation.

  • movie reviews,  reviews,  slice of life

    Nothing Happens in Napoleon Dynamite

    It’s been a long time since Rory and Sara watched Napoleon Dynamite. It came out in 2004—the year that Rory graduated high school and Sara entered her junior year—and even though the siblings shared much of their social group, the confluence of events still led to them watching it separately.

    Rewatching the movie together in 2018 seems both new and familiar. They’ve changed a lot in fourteen years; older, wiser, and having been fatted off the cultural teat of the movie for more than a decade. “I barely remember the movie,” confesses Sara, “even though I’ve never stopped quoting it. Vote for Pedro. Remember that?”

    “The llama is the only funny part,” says Rory. “Tina, eat the food!”

    “Everyone wore Vote for Pedro shirts.” Sara has gone misty-eyed with nostalgia for a movie that she remembers as mostly very boring.

    It’s not a very long movie, but they still don’t plan to commit to it. An hour and a half later, they’ve watched the entire thing.

    “Yeah, I still have no idea what I watched.” Sara is switching to a different movie now. Their PS4 is usually little more than an expensive movie-watching device. The icons indicating games they’ve played haven’t been clicked in months.

    “It was kind of painful,” Rory said. “I always related too much to Napoleon Dynamite. That awkwardness, the displacement. And everything looks the way I remember from my childhood.”

    “Pocket tots is a great idea though,” Sara says. She selects Underworld from 2002, starring Kate Beckinsale. “Now this is a good movie. It makes sense. Napoleon Dynamite made no sense.”

    “Nothing happens in it,” agrees Rory.

    They are seated on opposite corners of a home movie theater. The fake-leather camel-colored couches match the taupe walls—an offensively desert color schema chosen by the previous homeowners, and which Sara (the homeowner) has never gotten around to changing despite her general sense of ennui in such drab confines.

    Both siblings wear thick-framed glasses over noses that are like isosceles triangles sitting on their fat bottoms. They have very little by way of lips, like heroes on BBC Channel dramas.

    On the TV, a vampire superhero-jumps to a sidewalk and sashays dramatically amid an unsuspecting human crowd.

    “My gender identity is urban fantasy heroine,” says Sara, maneuvering her Roblox character to pick up a treat for her honey-gathering bees. She has been playing Bee Swarm Simulator ever since the beginning of Napoleon Dynamite. “I dress just like Selene.” She’s wearing black leggings from Costco and a t-shirt with spooky cats printed on the chest.

    Rory does not reply. They’re currently talking to their Online BFF, who they claim to be a gorgeous queer in Eastern Europe. Sometimes they talk to their Online BFF for hours. It’s very distracting.

    “I think I could do a landing like that if I was wearing those big black platform boots,” Sara says thoughtfully. “Not from very far up, mind you. But I could look really cool.” She’s having ideas now, which are taking her far away from the sagebrush-swept hills, hollow under the crisp autumn nighttime sky, so she switches from her laptop to her Hobonichi journal (“Special ordered from Japan,” she told her husband upon ordering its predecessors—she’s now owned five).

    “Parts of Napoleon Dynamite were funnier than I remembered,” Rory says suddenly. They’ve zoned out talking to their online friend, but snapped back to the previous conversation. “I don’t like how they were picking on him for being weird.”

    “Yeah, but Napoleon is a bad person. Maybe you’re supposed to feel comfortable laughing at his weirdness because he’s bad.”

    “How so?”

    “He uses, you know, the r-word we don’t like,” Sara says. She’s drawing Lucien, the leader of the werewolves (sorry, the Lycans). She spends a long time shading his upper lip. “He’s a jerk to the girl with the side ponytail. He’s always fighting with his brother. Is it just me, or is Lucien hotter than he used to be?”

    “I’m not sure if I’m attracted to him or if I want to be him,” Rory says. “That sort of dirty rockstar werewolf thing. Sorry, Lycan thing.”

    Sara’s drawing of Lucien is not very attractive. She shows it proudly to her sibling. “I think it’s the best I’ve ever done.”

    “Wow,” Rory says supportively.

    “I’m getting to be a really good artist.”

    “You sure are.”

    Their cat, Poe, sneezes loudly. She rolls over so that her paw can rest on Rory’s arm.

    On the TV, vampires are fighting Lycans in the hallway.

    “I like this movie’s aesthetic,” Sara remarks.

    “It was filmed in Eastern Europe.” Rory is an expert in Eastern Europe, movie trivia, and werewolves. “There was one that they filmed in Canada instead of Eastern Europe and it was all wrong.”

    “Eastern Europe? You know, that makes sense. I sensed there was something different. It’s so modern-urban, but not American.” Sara fancies herself an expert in literally everything, and she speaks with knowing authority. “Underworld and Napoleon Dynamite have a little in common. They’re both really aesthetic.”

    “Yeah, but again…” Rory shrugs. “Napoleon Dynamite makes no sense.”

    Whereas Underworld knows exactly what it is, and communicates it clearly. It’s a paranormal romance. It executes every urban fantasy trope flawlessly. “The genres are closely intertwined,” Sara says. “The line gets fuzzy sometimes. Basically you can only tell it’s a paranormal romance if it follows the romance structure, which this just barely doesn’t. It’s pretty solid UF.” UF means urban fantasy. Sara is an author. She can sling terminology around, and does so proudly and frequently.

    She’s still shading Lucien’s upper lip.

    The movie theater is disappointingly quiet through the most exciting battles of the movie. The surround sound has broken. They haven’t replaced the receiver yet, because they’re expensive. Sometimes Sara shops for them on Amazon and leaves in disgust because it’s either another crappy Onkyo or something that costs actual money.

    When Selene opens Viktor’s tomb, it makes a muffled grinding noise that would have sounded great coming out of the subwoofer.

    “Maybe Napoleon Dynamite was a fairy tale,” Sara suggests. “Everyone ends up getting what they want. The Creepy Uncle gets a girl. The brother gets Lafawnduh. Napoleon gets the entire school’s adulation with one stupid dance.”

    “That’s a thought,” Rory says.

    Viktor is annoyed to have been awakened early.

    “This is such a great movie,” Rory adds.

    “So good,” Sara agrees.

    They don’t get to finish Underworld. The kids come home from an outing with their dad, Sara’s husband. The eight-year-old sits through some of it, but bedtime means bedtime, and soon they’re tucking him in.

    Sara is still thinking about Napoleon Dynamite later, sitting on her balcony as she paints the sunset using her iPad Pro with the Apple Pencil. She’s been doing five-minute drills painting the sunset from the same spot to get better at digital painting. She always spends too long etching out all the pine needles on the tree, and runs out of time.

    “I don’t think the movie has any point at all,” she decides.

    At this point, her husband is huddled over Factorio on his laptop, and he turns bleary eyes on her. They are red-rimmed behind thick-framed glasses. His beard is bushy and beginning to show gray hairs among the dark-brown. “What?”

    “I don’t think Napoleon Dynamite has any point. I think it’s just some wacky characters doing things. Sometimes it’s funny. But it’s kinda not, too. You’re just looking in on those lives. Haha, look at the weird dorky people.”

    “Wow, I haven’t thought about that movie in years,” he says. “Vote for Pedro. Remember how everyone wore shirts like that?”

    “I think they’re coming back. Retro nostalgia thing.”

    “Wow. We’re getting old.”

    “We sure are,” Sara says.

    Her alarm goes off. She stops painting. She’s barely rendered the tree, and there is a yellow blur that could arguably be a cloud in front of the sunset.

    “Let’s go to bed,” her husband says. “I’m tired.”

    She takes one last hit off the bong. “Okay. I’ve gotta get up to go to the gym tomorrow early. I’m getting strong, like an urban fantasy heroine.”

    “Sure you are,” he says.

    “Wanna see my bicep?”

    They file inside through the balcony door. The sky is big and the desert is empty, except for all the autumn-yellow rabbit brush swaying in the nighttime breeze. It’s very quiet. A van drives past.

    The door locks behind them.