Florence Foster Jenkins, Holy Fool

By Asher Gelzer-Govatos

florence-foster-jenkins-2016-meryl-streepIn many respects the new film Florence Foster Jenkins takes a paint by numbers approach to its genre—the classic biopic. It features a meaty role for a star (Meryl Streep), designed to play well to Oscar voters in the next awards cycle. It gets a lot of mileage—comic and dramatic—out of contemporary differences with its chosen time period (1940s New York). And of course it follows a well-worn dramatic arc: historical figure faces personal and professional tragedy, falls to a low point, then overcomes through the power of the human spirit.

In one very important respect, however, Florence Foster Jenkins stands out: its choice of subject. Unlike the typical biopic the film does not focus on someone of extraordinary ability or historical significance. Instead it examines the final days of a woman more notorious than famous. [Read more…]

Against “Amazing Grace”

hymnalIn a world in which it seems that just about everything seems to be complained about online—bitch, bitch, bitch, moan, moan, moan—ad infinitum, here’s a little beef I’d like to proffer, that I don’t recall having seen anywhere yet:

I despise “Amazing Grace.”

Mind you, I’m not complaining about the notion of grace itself, God’s unmerited favor given in the gift of his son to save us from our sins—the distinctive Christian soteriology. It is not, therefore, the theological concept I doubt—though as an Eastern Orthodox Christian, I’m probably a bigger fan of the book of James than a lot of my Protestant brethren.

I don’t even have an issue with the hymn’s composer, John Newton, that poor former British slave trader, who was haunted by the dehumanizing work he had pursued, though not enough to leave it for decades. It was good for him to repent, and write against slavery. I am glad he found forgiveness, despite the horror he perpetuated. (I believe that forgiveness can, indeed, be received. Even for horrendous evils.)

It’s the hymn that’s the problem. [Read more…]

Richard Wilbur’s Poetry Captures Our Days

Minolta x-370

Last night I read a poem that showed me in a flash why I save evening-time for listening to classical music while I knit, or browsing through an art book, or reading fine poems like this one.

I’ve said in a previous post that I keep a volume of poems by my bed for evening reading. But I hadn’t known why until, with Richard Wilbur’s New and Collected Poems the current volume, I opened last night to his poem “C Minor.”

The poem begins with Wilbur and (presumably) his wife having breakfast while the radio plays something of Beethoven’s. Something passionate and angst-ridden; something typical of the C minor tonality which was Beethoven’s favorite for expressing dark, turbulent moods.

The poet’s wife turns off the radio. He writes: “You are right to switch it off and let the day / Begin at hazard…”

What follows for most of the poem is an account of some typical “hazards”—that is, chance happenings of a day.

The morning’s newspaper will present “sad / Or fortunate news.” Then:

The day’s work will be disappointing or not,
Giving at least some pleasure in taking pains.
One of us, hoeing in the garden plot
(Unless, of course, it rains)
[Read more…]

Believing in the Beach Boys

The_Beach_Boys_(1965)The first church I attended as a teenaged new believer swiftly taught me two doctrines:

  1. There won’t be any Democrats in heaven.
  2. Secular music is tantamount to heresy.

The first one was easy enough to get. Reagan had saved us from the devil Jimmy Carter, and now Jesus had the go-ahead to return whenever he wanted. The second proved a little more complicated. What was I supposed to listen to?

The youth pastor’s wife took me to a Christian bookstore so I could tell the musically redeemed clerk about my favorite bands and find equivalencies worthy of the kingdom of God. My ears turned pink as I told the twenty-something, crisp-collared man about the Beatles, Erasure, and Siouxsie and the Banshees cassettes rattling around in the passenger seat of my car. He raised his eyebrows, then grabbed a copy of Maranatha Praise, Volume 6, the closest match. I put it in my tape deck on the way to school the next morning, a first step in my journey of spiritual transformation. [Read more…]

To Illuminate a Small Field: 15 Songs for 2015

By Joel Heng Hartse

Sufjan_Stevens_-_Carrie_&_LowellAt the end of each year, I compile a list of “songs of the year” that I email to my friends (and send to Image) on December 31. These songs are probably not the best of the year, but I don’t know how I would be able to figure those out anyway (Jessica Hopper has a piece on this in her 2015 book The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic).

Instead, these songs are all songs that were released (and I heard and liked, for whatever reason) in 2015. A lot of times it was because they were among the only songs I heard—2015 was a busy year for me. I went to precisely one concert (an utterly stunning one, by Sufjan Stevens) and purchased about five albums. I still care about music, but I don’t obsess over the surface details—band members, release dates, guest lists, record labels—like I used to. What can I say? I’m a grown-up.

I do think these songs are worth listening to, though. Here they are, in four loosely arranged parts. I hope you find something new that you like.

Sad Songs (Let’s Get This Over With)

  1. Bjork: “Stonemilker”
  2. Death Cab: “No Room in Frame”
  3. Sufjan Stevens: “Blue Bucket of Gold” (Remix)

I’ve been listening to Bjork and Death Cab for about fifteen years apiece, and both made their best records in a decade this year. They’re both divorce albums—Bjork’s is clear-eyed and visceral, Death Cab’s subtle and understated. Stevens’ is a record about his estranged mother’s death, and this remix comes close to getting at the grandeur of the tour in which the acoustic songs of Carrie & Lowell became shimmering, cascading bursts of transcendence.

Shouting at God (or, Faith)

  1. mewithoutYou: “D-Minor”
  2. Refused: “Dawkins Christ”
  3. Emery: “Thrash”

I like the way this group of three songs works together. mewithoutYou’s Aaron Weiss wrestles with personal and theological demons; Refused does a crude, hot-blooded, post-hardcore/metal indictment of all religious ideologies (including pop atheism); and Emery’s “Thrash” is a brutal track that depicts the stoning of Stephen, ending in a gospelly beatific vision.

A Somewhat Confused and Surprisingly Long Dance Party

  1. Mates of State: “Staring Contest”
  2. Breakmaster Cylinder: “Reply All Theme”
  3. Roman GianArthur feat. Janelle Monae: “No Surprises”
  4. Erica Campbell: “I Luh God”
  5. DC Talk: “Love Feels Like”
  6. We Are the City: “Keep on Dancing”

A cute love song by my favorite neo-prog-pop duo, the theme song of a great podcast about the Internet, an R&B Radiohead cover, a trap gospel track, a reunion of one of the biggest Christian rock groups of the 90s, and a religiously-minded, dancey, indie-rock group from British Columbia: I just DJed your next post-evangelical hipster dance party! You’re welcome.

Faith (Part II)

  1. Torres: “Sprinter”
  2. Lauryn Hill: “Feeling Good”
  3. Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus: “The Bright Field”

These songs are commendable and their stories interesting, but somehow I feel like to “explain” them in the conventional music journalist way would be to cheapen them. (I’m slowly trying to write a book about the purpose of music criticism, so perhaps you’ll see what I mean, eventually.) Instead, I will reproduce “The Bright Field,” a poem by R. S. Thomas, which is spoken in the final song, in its entirety below. I think this sums up these songs, and, in fact, a lot of songs.

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

To Illuminate a Small Field: 15 Songs for 2015 from jthh on 8tracks Radio.

Joel Heng Hartse writes about music. You can read his previous Good Letters playlists for 2008, 2009, 201020112012, 2013, and 2014, buy his book Sects, Love, and Rock & Roll, and visit his website at www.joelhenghartse.com.

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