Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a "memoir of dangerous moviegoing" called Through a Screen Darkly, and two fantasy novels - Auralia's Colors and Cyndere's Midnight. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University's Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for ChristianityToday.com and his own website, LookingCloser.org. He lives in Shoreline, Washington.

Ten Favorite Recordings from 2008
(Give or Take Fifteen)

What would it mean to offer “The Top 10 Albums of 2008”?

Not much. Even an elaborate description of how the selection process would not be enough to make sense of such a list. We all experience music differently. We have very personal encounters. And while there is such a thing as excellence, and yes we can discern the difference between a good song and a better song, it’s almost impossible to come to a decision about which works of art are “the best” of a given year. It takes years, decades, even centuries for us to see clearly which art is really built to last.

And considering how many hundreds of albums were released this year, who can really claim to have heard and comprehended them all?

So… instead, let me humbly offer you a list of the music that caught my attention, held it, thrilled me, and ministered to my mind, heart, and soul in 2008. I highly recommend you check them out. But keep in mind, if you ask me in a few years about the music of 2008, you might get a very different list. That’s the way art works. And aren’t you glad?

1. Sam Phillips – Don’t Do Anything
Since the late 1980s, Sam Phillips has been, in my opinion, America’s best answer to The Beatles – an inspired songwriter, a poet, a whimsical imagination, and a writer of profound spiritual insight.

As she outgrew the limitations of the Christian music industry’s propaganda machine, and left behind the name “Leslie” for her childhood nickname “Sam,” the legendary producer T-Bone Burnett made her the primary focus of his creative energies. He’s produced more of her work than anyone else’s, to the point that it’s been hard to imagine them apart. When their marriage of almost two decades ended, Burnett stayed on as her producer, even overseeing A Boot and a Shoe – that beautiful piece of heartache, that monumental breakup record.

Thus, it was 2008’s most exhilarating surprise when Phillips released her first self-produced album this year, and it turned out to be inspired, unpredictable, and even hopeful.

She’s learned quite a few tricks from Burnett, but she’s got a spirit and an impetuous style all her own. And the songs on this record have what it takes to live on. One in particular, “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us,” has already been covered by Allison Krauss and Robert Plant on their acclaimed record Raising Sand, where it was hailed as the best track on that collection.

Phillips deserves to be recognized as a standalone talent, and with Don’t Do Anything, she spread her wings and soared, solo and spectacular, for the first time. Here’s to the wild blue yonder of her future, in which reviews may at last forego any mention of her former producer, and simply consider the riches that this mystic pop poet has to offer. She hasn’t released a bad record yet, and one can’t help but suspect that her best work is still ahead of her.

(Watch for my in-depth interview with Phillips about her career in the next issue of Image.)

2. Bob Dylan – Tell Tale Signs
In 2008, the word “maverick” was used, abused . . . beaten senseless. But Bob Dylan is stealing it back.

Does this project really qualify as an “album”? It’s more like a scrapbook of music recorded over the last 20 years. Tell Tale Signs is a double-album, 27-track treasure trove of adventure, poetry, humor, wisdom, folk music, and rock-and-roll. Even more amazing – these songs, like those on Tom Waits’ awe-inspiring Orphans collection, are leftovers from Dylan’s recording sessions dating back to 1989. Other artists have every right to shake their fist at their muses and cry, “It’s just not fair!”

Some of these cutting-room-floor discoveries are better than the studio versions of the same songs that we’ve known and loved for years. (An alternate take of “Born in Time” and a live version of “Ring Them Bells” are particularly memorable.) Dylan’s castaways are better than most artists’ best work. Here’s hoping he’ll keep recording for another 25 years, so listeners can continue to enjoy new discoveries like this for a century to come . . . or more.

3. Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks – Real Emotional Trash
For the hilarious cleverness of the wordplay and rhymes, for the inspired and invigorating – sometimes exhilarating – guitar work, and for the fact that most of these long songs never wear out their welcome . . . this is the most extravagant and exciting release of Malkmus’s career, the record that fulfills the potential he’s shown all along. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it rivals the best work he did with his 1990s band Pavement. But be careful if you’re thinking of putting this disc in your car stereo – it’s likely to turn even the most responsible citizen into a reckless driver.

4. Plants and Animals – Parc Avenue
Imagine if The Arcade Fire went to a big family renion and had a jam session with their crazy uncles. Or, imagine if they moved to a hippie commune full of nostalgic rockers. Montreal seems to be a flourishing hotbed of community-rock efforts, and Plants and Animals is barrels of fun.

5. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Dig! Lazarus! Dig!
Two years ago, Nick Cave released a glorious double-album of subversive psalms and apocalyptic prophecies: Abattoir Blues and The Lyre of Orpheus. This year, he introduced another album of Biblical proportions, but this one is darker, stranger, more accessible, and sometimes downright rude. Cave, always a formidable and threatening presence, has never swaggered with more machismo than he does in the open number, or rocked with tongue so firmly in cheek. And the mustache he sports on the liner notes . . . that’s worth the price of the record.

6. Allison Moorer – Mockingbird
It should have been billed as Allison Moorer & Buddy Miller, because Mockingbird has Buddy Miller’s signature guitars and style all over it. Moorer’s voice is both powerful and flexible, bringing fire and eloquence to such ambitious covers as “Ring of Fire,” “Dancing Barefoot,” and Gillian Welch’s “Revelator.” Here’s hoping that this singer/producer team stays together for many records to come. (And here’s hoping that the Buddy and Julie Miller album Written in Chalk, coming in 2009, is every bit as good.)

7. Drive-By Truckers – Brighter Than Creation’s Dark
I’m late to the Truckers’ party, but I’m glad I showed up, because this is a generous album full of humor and heartbreak, powered by blazing guitars and whiskey with lemon. It’s as rusty and dusty as an old Ford truck, and yet the singers aren’t afraid to turn whole songs into meditations on the cinematic philosophies of the great John Ford. The Truckers have made their camp at the border of Country and Rock, and it’s the biggest bonfire in that region. Watch out for rattlesnakes.

8. The Welcome Wagon – Welcome to the Welcome Wagon
The best record for Sunday morning came from Sufjan Stevens, and sounded like the much-anticipated sequel to his acclaimed Illinoise. Strangely enough, though, he was just the producer: The songs belong to the husband-wife team of the Reverend Vito and Monique Aiuto. It’s as casual and improvised as Stevens’ own Christmas albums, but it has moments of real rapture, and enough humor and courage to include a cover of The Smiths’ “Half a Person.”

9. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes
Seattle’s Fleet Foxes prove that the Emerald City will not tolerate being classified as “the Kingdom of Grunge” any longer. With harmonies so pristine that Crosby Stills & Nash would weep to hear them, these Foxes are aiming alternative rock in the direction of monastic chants. In a year of maddening campaign cacophony and bad news everywhere you turned, there was something especially affecting about such distilled and timeless beauty.

10. Fifteen-album tie!
Portishead – Third
The year’s most welcome comeback, Portishead sound as bleak and desolate as ever, while smashing their techno-punk sound into alarming, abrasive new shapes.

Loudon Wainwright III – Recovery
Need cheering up? Spend some time in Wainwright’s contagiously joyful company. In the hands of producer Joe Henry, he’s some of the best songs of his career and rerecorded them in the warm, simple settings that serve them best. The lyrics may be blue, but the deliver is bright as yellow.

Lizz Wright – The Orchard
Her debut album of covers was a breakthrough. Her follow-up, filled with her own songwriting, is just as enjoyable. And most of that is due to her astonishing, sultry vocals. There’s nothing showy about this record at all, but I’m smitten. If I was up past nine any evening this last year, I was most likely listening to this seductive, luxuriant, exquisite music.

David Byrne and Brian Eno – Everything That Happens Will Happen Today
This, their second collaboration of Byrne and Eno in 27 years, will only make you ache for the records they might have made if they’d worked together during all those years in between. And while Byrne has a reputation for cryptic lyrics and and a satirist’s smirk, Everything That Happens is pumped full of pop optimism. Unless I’ve missed something, this is the Talking Heads’ most enthusiastic performance since the Talking Heads parted ways. Eno’s inventive production recalls his work on Paul Simon’s underrated Surprise . . . and that’s a good thing.

Marco Benevento – Invisible Baby
My favorite instrumental record of the year. A fusion of so many styles, it’s hard to keep track – but why bother? Invisible Baby makes a great score for any day of frantic multitasking. One moment, you’re thrilling to the power chords of anthemic rock a la Oasis or Sigur Ros, and the next you’re shooting Asteroids on an old Atari. Fun, funny, and phenomenal. If there’s a film that fits this soundtrack, I want to see it.

Calexico – Carried to Dust
I’m also late to the Calexico party, but I was entranced by this record. It feels like a world-music jam session on the border of Texas and Mexico. Or a cinematic soundtrack to a dangerous road trip. Or a spaghetti-western with meatballs.

She & Him – Volume One
At her best, Zooey Deschanel is charming in her retro, girl-nextdoor style. And M. Ward understands that, capturing her personality in a perfect pop package. Personally, I think she has a lot of room to grow as a vocalist – there are a few sour notes here. (The opening line of “Take It Back” really makes me cringe.) But nevertheless, this is a contagiously good-humored record, and it became my record of choice for sunny afternoons.

Mudcrutch – Mudcrutch
Tom Petty should take a break from the Heartbreakers and stick with this impressive band for a while. It’s more collaborative than anything he’s done since the Traveling Wilburys, and that’s a good thing. It’s also a very generous record-fourteen songs long with one track nearing ten minutes. And there’s not a bad track in the bunch.

T-Bone Burnett – Tooth of Crime
If Cormac McCarthy made rock music, it might sound something like this. Burnett’s songs from the Sam Shepard play of the same title have been anticipated by his fans for about two decades. It’s hard to believe that the record is finally here. It’s also amazing that it’s been worth the wait, especially since Burnett’s last solo record was something of a letdown. And isn’t it a little spooky to hear Burnett singing heartbreak duets with Sam Phillips?

Sigur Ros – Meõ Suõ í Eyrum Viõ Spilum Endalaust
I was beginning to think Sigur Ros had run out of good ideas. I was wrong. You may not be able to pronounce this album’s title, but you sure will enjoy listening to it. Sigur Ros sound like a band tired of their own conventions, turning themselves loose to run naked into new fields of discovery. Okay, if you think that description’s ridiculous, just take a look at the album cover.

B.B. King – One Kind Favor
A solid performance from a living legend, produced with remarkable restraint by T-Bone Burnett. Other producers might have felt compelled to give King a showy, flashy package for his work, but this is just the kind of frill-free recording the master deserves. It lets his artistry speak for itself. In a time when the music industry tries to make pop out of everything, this is what stylistic integrity looks like.

Bill Frisell – History, Mystery
My favorite soundtrack for creative writing this year – a moody, 30-song program from one of America’s most adventurous guitarists. Frisell’s musical wanderlust is so ambitious, it’s hard to know what a “typical Frisell record” might sound like. Perhaps this is as close as he’ll come to it: A fusion of almost everything he’s done so far, characterized by simmering strings. At AllMusic.com, Thom Jurek takes a stab at summing up the styles represented here: ” . . . bebop/post-bop, Malian folk music, tangos, Delta blues, modern classical music, vintage soul, and rock.” Get the idea?

Elvis Costello – Momofuku
Costello’s albums have become mixed blessings. I haven’t heard one that was a knockout beginning to end since All This Useless Beauty. Momofuku may not be as adventurous stylistically or improvisational as other recent works like When I Was Cruel, but the songs are solid and rowdy rock and roll numbers. Given time, they open up as impressive, thoughtful, well-written works recorded while the songwriter was still enthusiastic and inspired.

Over the Rhine – Live From Nowhere, Volume Three
My favorite band celebrated their 20 years of composing underrated, overlooked treasure by putting on a three-concert weekend in Cincinnati. It’s the first time I’ve ever taken an airplane to see live music, and it was worth all of the trouble. Those performances will be ringing in my ears for a long time to come, more exciting than any recorded “best-of” the band could have assembled. But since that anniversary celebration is, alas, unavailable as a recording . . . check out Live From Nowhere, Volume Three – the third installment in Over the Rhine’s series of special releases “for the fans,” a collection of memorable live-performance highs from the preceding year.

U2 – No Line on the Horizon
Okay, it’s not here yet. But the superlatives being thrown around by Bono, the producers, and those who have heard snatches of what is reportedly another ambitious reinvention have filled my head with wild guesses. And I like what I’m imagining. Let’s hope it delivers.

I also enjoyed:
• Bon Iver РFor Emma, Forever Ago
• Beck РModern Guilt
• Jolie Holland РThe Living and the Dead
• Woven Hand РTen Stones
• Sun Kil Moon РApril
• Sixpence None the Richer РMy Dear Machine
• Ryan Adams and the Cardinals РCardinology
• Ron Sexsmith РExit Strategy of the Soul
• Lucinda Williams РLittle Honey
• Emmylou Harris РAll I Intended to Be
• The Dodos РVisiter
• DeVotchka РA Mad and Faithful Telling
• Cat Power РJukebox
• Beach House РDevotion

“In the Parlance of Our Times”:
An Insufficient Appreciation of the Coen Brothers

Burn After Reading, the latest caper comedy by Joel and Ethan Coen, stars George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, and Tilda Swinton. It’s in theaters everywhere, giving the Coens their first #1 box office hit ever.


Brad Pitt in Burn After Reading

It’s been a long time coming. The Coens have been critics’ darlings since their arrival on the scene with the low-budget thriller Blood Simple. And every time a new Coen feature opens, critics use it as an excuse to revisit one of their favorite debates: Which Coen brothers’ film qualifies as their “masterpiece”? And which represents their biggest misstep?

Critics are almost unanimous on the misstep – the crass, misguided, uneven remake of The Ladykillers. But when it comes to celebrating what the Coens do best, it’s hard to find two fans who agree.

Film critic Michael Sicinski, whose work has appeared in Cineaste and Cinema Scope, has rated Burn After Reading with a capital “M” for masterpiece. But he’s taking a lonely stand there. Many have criticized the Coens for resting on their laurels, doing what they’ve done before, and getting lazy with a bunch of big-name celebs.

But then again, many of the Coen brothers’ legendary films were not appreciated when they first opened. The Big Lebowski has become a cult favorite over time, as memorable phrases have worked their way into “the parlance of our times” (a phrase that was itself popularized by that film).

It’s a matter of personality and taste, clearly. The Coens have a unique style-they’ve never made anything that qualifies as a drama, as their characters have exaggerated personalities, quirks, dialects, and mannerisms that suggest they can’t even take a violent gangster movie seriously. But then again . . . comedy? The audience laughs in discomfort, if they laugh at all, at the accidents, executions, and spectacular, grisly murders that often occur in the films’ final moments. Some of the duo’s films lean into the territory of Looney Toons (Raising Arizona, Intolerable Cruelty), while others demand that the audience think things through, discussing themes, aesthetics, and character development (Barton Fink, The Man Who Wasn’t There).

But I propose that there are four consistent qualities of the Coen brothers’ films:

  1. They draw award-caliber performances from great actors. Even Ladykillers boasted a remarkably offbeat turn by Tom Hanks.
  2. They only work with standards-setting cinematographers, and as a result, even their most frivolous comedies are a pleasure to watch.
  3. They demonstrate a good-humored affection for distinct regional characteristics (accents, fashion), which they celebrate through exaggeration – a tactic that some critics mistake for scorn and contempt.
  4. And for all of their outrageous plot twists and stylistic bravado, they are absolutely serious, spiritual tales about human depravity and the corrupting nature of power. In fact, their stories fulfill the definition of “parable” as offered by the theologian C.H. Dodd: “… a metaphor or simile, drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearers by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt to its precise application, to tease the mind into active thought. Whether their characters are after a baby, a suitcase full of cash, a living room rug of particular personal significance, or a paycheck, the Coens always build their stories around some wanted article, and then show just what foolishness people will commit out of greed and desire.

In order to fully appreciate Burn After Reading, and how it carries on this Coen tradition, let’s consider three of their previous works.


John Turturro in Barton Fink

Barton Fink
The Coen brothers won fame and enthusiastic fans with their low-budget debut, Blood Simple, and their comedy breakthrough Raising Arizona (which remains the funniest thing that Nicolas Cage ever did, or Holly Hunter, for that matter). But they staked their claim internationally with Barton Fink, which brought home the Palme D’Or from Cannes.

Barton Fink is, in some ways, the darkest and most troubling of the Coens’ films. Viewers accustomed to their more commercial comedies may be surprised to find that this story about a passionate playwright, who writes to serve “the common man,” is actually a horror movie about what really goes on in “the life of the mind.” It’s a courageous and horrific glimpse through the ego and courage of the human spirit into the frailties, the sins, the emptiness of even the kindest human being’s heart.

John Turturro, in his finest comic turn, delivers a nervous, hysterical performance as Fink, a playwright sensation who is brought to Hollywood to write for “the pictures.” His drive to create a “new theater for the common man” is stifled when he is assigned his first script – a formula B-movie wrestling picture. His frustration with writer’s block is only agitated by the visits of a noisy, overfriendly neighbor (John Goodman) who seems to be a “common man” with needs of his own.

Is Barton really interested in understanding the common man? Or is he really only interested in writing about his own pain and delusions? Is there any such thing as “art for the common man”, or are artists just tooting their own maddening horns?

Everybody and everything in this film is rotten underneath, from heads with ear infections to wallpaper that’s sagging as its sticky glue melts in the heat. A famous writer, Barton’s hero, comes into the picture, and Barton becomes increasingly disillusioned with his own idealized vision of humanity.

A mysterious box wrapped in brown paper appears, and a sense of dread builds as we wonder what’s in the box; yet, whatever the box contains, it comes to symbolize the mystery of each character, of each isolated world in the film. We are all mysteries to each other, and the deeper we dig in our relationships, the more nightmares we will unearth. The only character who dares to show compassion suffers terrible consequences, and remains nevertheless a shining symbol of grace in a world of monsters.

Barton Fink is about the risks involved in looking inside the “box,” listening to our hearts and the hearts of our fellow human beings, and dealing with the pain and the yucky stuff inside. You’ll need to see it more than once to appreciate all it has to offer. See it if only to see just how great an actor John Goodman really is; his work on TV’s “Roseanne” only scratched the surface of this marvelous actor’s abilities.

By comparison, Burn After Reading is full of memorable performances, but it doesn’t demand nearly so much of the audience as Barton Fink. It’s a caper that assumes the depravity of human nature from the opening scenes, and there are few new insights along the way, whereas people will be discussing Barton for decades to come.


Frances McDormand in Fargo

Fargo
You’ve probably seen the Coens’ famous Minnesota comedy, which won Frances McDormand an Oscar for her memorably endearing turn as the pregnant police officer Marge Gunderson. But it may be time to revisit the film again. What lingers in the memory is, alas, the Woodchipper Scene. But when you’ve seen it more than once, the film’s closing moments may outshine those scenes that were initially shocking.

Fargo is dark comedy against a snow-white landscape, with a whole mess of bright blood on the snow. It’s one of the bloodiest of the brothers’ films – murder is a messy business, and it takes a long time to clean it up – but it also stands with Raising Arizona (my own personal favorite) as uncharacteristically hopeful.

What sets Fargo apart from the others is that it is the first Coen movie with a hero that is basically a good person. Sheriff Margie starts out with an overturned car and a dead body, but soon she’s chasing a runaway car salesman, Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), who has made dangerous bargains with deadly men in order to get “a little bit of money.” He wants that money so badly, he’ll have his wife kidnapped by two complete idiots so that her rich father will put up the ransom money. Sure enough, crime doesn’t pay.

That’s about as profound a moral as you’ll get from Fargo, but what makes it special is its characterization and its screenplay. The Coens are unique among American filmmakers in their absolute refusal to cast criminals in an admiring light. The crooks in the their storybook have no sense of cool, no mysterious charm. They’re buffoons and lunkheads. And you almost feel sorry for these laughable jerks as they spiral slowly to inevitable capture.

The ending is bittersweet, a trademark of the Coens, who know that good versus evil is a real battle, but it is never simple. Nevertheless, that last image of Margie and Norm, smiling with their minds set on the future, is as optimistic and heart-warming as anything they’ve given us.

Burn After Reading has its strengths, but it doesn’t have any characters to compare to Margie or Jerry. And it offers a decidedly more pessimistic view of human nature, and where this country is going.


Jeff Bridges, Steve Buscemi,
and John Goodman in The Big Lebowski

The Big Lebowski
Lebowski may be the most unclassifiable and indescribable of the Coens’ films.

But it lives up to the “four rules” of the Coens films-especially in the way it brings out the very best in Jeff Bridges.

Bridges is “The Dude,” an affable unemployed Neanderthal that survived the 60’s, so full of pot smoke he can hardly comprehend what’s happening. We stagger and reel right along with him as he is mistaken for a different Lebowski – “the millionaire Lebowski” – and gets caught up in a kidnapping caper, bouncing between ransacked apartments, parking lots, psycho-nihilists, pornographers’ lounges, bowling alleys, taxi cabs, limousines, and fights with nihilists.

And the movie mirrors its main character. Although enjoyable, The Big Lebowski stumbles in so many directions that its meandering nature is off-putting to many viewers. But the Dude, like the stolen carpet he pursues throughout the picture, is the simple center that somehow “ties the whole room together.” He’s such a lovable oaf.

And the highlights are grand and worth waiting for, especially the Dude’s show-stopping drug-induced musical hallucinations.

Lewbowski covers so much ground so quickly, we only catch glimpses of a world of interesting characters – Jon Goodman: the Vietman vet who pulls his gun at the slightest provocation. Sam Elliot: the cowboy storyteller, accentuating that this is a tall tale. Julianne Moore: a bizarre experimentalist in erotic art. Steve Buscemi: the bowling partner who can’t get a word in edgewise. And best of all, John Turturro in a performance that redefines “over-the-top”: a Hispanic bowling champion and child-molester named Jesus (pronounced like the savior).

And then there’s the Big Lebowski himself. The Coens love the Man Behind the Desk. In Raising Arizona, they had Nathan Arizona. Miller’s Crossing had Albert Finney as Leo, the Irish Godfather of Crime. In Barton Fink, it was the president of Capitol Pictures. In The Hudsucker Proxy, Charles Durning swelled to fill the role of Waring Hudsucker. All of these characters have made lasting impressions of power-abusing control freaks, arrogant jerks, and megaphone big-talkers. The millionaire Lebowski is rich, old, and offensively prideful. Unfortunately, he’s also a bland character. They would have been wise to bring back Charles Durning or Michael Lerner, actors that make that famous Coen dialogue sing.

The Big Lebowski is an exercise in over-the top, a rollercoaster ride of sensory overload. At times it seems like a collage of scenes left over from their previous films. It’s the most flamboyant, erratic, spontaneous movie they’ve made.


Joel and Ethan Coen

In Conclusion
While it proved a head-scratcher for many critics upon its arrival, Lebowski‘s characterizations and turns of phrase slowly elevated the film to cult-status. Similarly, Burn After Reading is not inspiring anything like the enthusiastic reception that met the Coens’ Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men. Its significance may be appreciated more fully in time, but I suspect that it will rate lower on most critics’ lists of Coen favorites. It has no character as endearing as The Dude. It lacks the memorable chemistry of Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter in Raising Arizona, and John Turturro and John Goodman in Barton Fink. There’s nothing memorable about the soundtrack, whereas songs from O Brother Where Art Thou and the musical flourishes of The Hudsucker Proxy are still ringing in my ears. Burn After Reading just lacks that element that will “tie the whole room together.”

Still, Burn After Reading does offer plenty of memorably madcap moments, and some of America’s finest actors at their comedic best. And like all of their movies, it reminds us of just how much can go wrong when people turn greedy and, failing to truly assess “the quality of their intelligence,” they set terrible events in motion.

It proves that the Coens are still dreaming up rich comic scenarios that enable talented actors to play in ways they would never get a chance to play otherwise. They have a rare combination of talents that leave a particularly admirable impression at the end of every film-the impression that their best work may yet still be ahead of them.