REVIEW: American Standard

James Taylor’s new album American Standard has an overwhelmingly familiar feel to it, which I think is both to its benefit and to its detriment. While it delivers on the expectations alluded to in the title (the album contains American musical standards including well-known showtunes and popular songs such as “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” from Guys and Dolls and “Moon River” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s ), it does not really introduce any new material since all the songs featured are covers.

As noted above, Taylor’s new album consists exclusively of covers of well-known American songs. Even though the songs he chose are essentially all beloved tunes, this was a bit disappointing to me, given that Taylor is known as both a singer and as a songwriter. At the least, I had hoped for some original songs, even if they were not written by Taylor himself.

That said, the album still has a lot to offer, and I found it quite enjoyable to listen to. The word that keeps coming to mind in relation to the collection of songs is comfortable. Not only is Taylor’s warm, mellow voice comforting to listen to, but Taylor sticks to a relatively comfortable vocal range and his signature vocal style. For instance, Taylor’s rendition of “God Bless the Child” is undeniably in his own musical mold, and consequently quite different than Billie Holiday’s original version (which has made its own mark as an American standard). I did not, however, find myself constantly comparing the two when listening to Taylor’s version because the way he has made the song is own is rather classic and singular in its own way. There is not anything wild or revolutionary on this album, but that is clearly the point. The instrumental accompaniment is simple and never overpowering, consisting mainly of guitar with some light percussion. It is easy to imagine that Taylor is singing straight to the listener, and each song seems like a story that Taylor is telling personally.

Overall, American Standard blazes no new trails in American music, but it does continue the legacy of one this country’s most popular recording artists. (Taylor has won multiple GRAMMYs, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, and has sold over 100 million records). Especially given the turbulence of the current world, perhaps Taylor’s artistic choice to play off of familiarity was what was needed at this moment.

REVIEW: Silver Landings

Though today Mandy Moore may be better known for her career as an actress – she is the voice of Rapunzel in Tangled and plays Rebecca Pearson on the television series This is Us – she is also an accomplished singer/songwriter. Fans of This is Us will have been exposed to glimpses of Moore’s work on the show, since her character Rebecca is also a singer, but her albums offer a better picture of Moore as her own vocal artist. Silver Landings, released in 2020, is her seventh studio album.

The music itself eludes categorization into a single genre, instead audibly combining elements of pop, rock, and folk both from now and decades past. Indeed, both the musical style and the lyrics seem to be reflective of Moore’s career up to this point. For instance, her song “Fifteen” is in reference to her early success (she was fifteen when her debut single “Candy” launched her into the spotlight in 1999). The deliberateness of this album an especially notable treat for listeners, given that Silver Landings is Moore’s first album in over a decade; her last album, Amanda Leigh, was released in 2009.

Most of the album is upbeat in a relaxed and laid-back sort of way that seems evocative of the ends of long summer days, but one of my favorite songs is actually the slower ballad “If That’s What It Takes.” To the slow strumming of guitar, Moore sings “As the years keep slipping away / We’ll be the birthday cake / While the world turns itself inside out / We’ll be the butterfly / When they’re burning the carnival down / We’ll stay on the Ferris wheel / Oh baby, if that’s what it takes.” Another one of my favorites is the more upbeat but still reflective “Stories Reminding Myself of Me.” The line “Turning a corner so bittersweet” from the refrain seems representative of the entire album.

Overall, the feel of Silver Landings is one of a mature and varied musical style, with the album offering listeners a balanced plate of sonic influences. Moore deftly changes the timbre of her voice to match the lyrics and mood of the song, going from cool and detached to a warmer and richer sound. I found the album to be both mood-lifting and relaxing to listen to, which makes it a welcome escape from the current world.

If you are familiar with any of Mandy Moore’s previous work as a singer or as an actress (or even if you aren’t), I would recommend her newest album, Silver Landings.

REVIEW: The Dutch House

Though Ann Patchett’s novel The Dutch House tells the story of a brother and sister, Danny and Maeve, the real star of the story is the titular estate of their early childhood. The descriptions of it are lavish: the Dutch House “was a singular confluence of talent and luck,” and “seen from certain vantage points of distance, it appeared to float several inches above the hill it sat on.” Its front windows “were as big as storefront windows and held in place by wrought-iron vines.”

In fact, the house takes on a sort of mythical quality as the novel progresses, both in the mind of the reader and in the minds of Danny and Maeve. For the two characters, it comes to represent both an idealized version of the childhood that was taken from them, as well as their mutual hatred of the woman who took it from them. The Dutch House was originally purchased at the end of World War II by Danny and Maeve’s father, marking the beginning of his real estate empire. He was not an affectionate man – according to Danny, “the only thing our father really cared about in life was his work: the buildings he built and owned and rented out” – but he thought the house was wonderful. Danny and Maeve’s mother, on the other hand, felt entrapped in this grand home that once belonged to the since-deceased VanHoebeeks, and she left them when Danny was too young to really remember her. Later, their father was remarried to a woman named Andrea who already had two daughters. The pivotal event of the story, however, is that when Danny and Maeve’s father died, Andrea kicked them out of the house. Danny was still in high school, and Maeve was left to be his guardian, and neither of them had any claim to the Dutch House or any of its contents. The only thing left to them was an educational trust fund, which Maeve strategically drains by forcing Danny to go to medical school.

Though it is by all indications a work of historical or realistic fiction (the story inches closer to modern-day as it follows the siblings through adulthood), the enormous character of the Dutch House makes it read almost like a tragic fairy tale of sorts. It is a place of pain and a place of memories, and it nearly overshadows those of the living characters. The Dutch House’s mythical quality is reinforced by Danny and Maeve’s longstanding ritual of sitting in a parked car on the street in front of the house. It takes the whole story for readers to understand the relationship between the house and the two siblings, as well as the relationship between Danny and Maeve. I will not spoil the ending here, but I will say that the novel comes full circle at its conclusion.

The Dutch House is an engrossing novel of loss, relationships, and loyalties, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for something thought-provoking and enjoyable to read!

REVIEW: Normal People

At first glance, Sally Rooney’s novel, “Normal People”, is extremely simple. It tells the story of two high school students, Connell and Marianne, and their unusual and potent attraction to one another. The book follows the two through the end of their college careers, and the end of their relationship (which still deserves an ellipse and the phrase “for now” stuck on the end of it). The novel, recently turned into a limited series through the streaming platform Hulu, premiered late last month in its entirety. What the television series does so well is it reveals with great dexterity and skill the underlying tension and complexity of Marianne and Connell’s relationship.

Daisy Edgar Jones and Paul Mescal, the main actors playing Marianne and Connell, are fairly new faces to the screen. The series is full of a myriad of close-up shots of the two actors, and several intimate, long, and artfully-shot sex scenes. The two actors’ chemistry on-screen is undeniable, and their performances ground the series in genuine human connection. The ensemble of actors that join them on screen deserves much praise as well; Aislin McGuckin, the actress playing Marianne’s mother, Denise, and Fionn O’Shea, playing one of Marianne’s boyfriends, Jamie, in particular, come to mind for their performances.

One worry I often have when watching screen adaptations of books is not even so much the accuracy of the script, compared to the events in the book, but rather if the on-screen version will be able to capture the same magic and essence of the novel it is adapted from. I think it is telling that Sally Rooney had a hand in writing all twelve episodes; that is to say, it shows. The series has the same careful, diligent, and gentle approach that the novel is so renowned for.

The charm of “Normal People” lies in the title itself. It is a simple story, about two imperfect people who always manage to find their way back to one another. It is shaded by the belief in “soulmates”, and elevates two ordinary characters to an extraordinary love. “Normal People” represents something the majority of the population wants; true, unconditional love. The series is an effective adaptation because it understands the heart of the story, and doesn’t try too hard to extrapolate unneeded details from the source material. It is a simple show; not particularly flashy or thrilling, but it is refreshing to me that it does not have to be. The simplest shots are oftentimes the most captivating. Rooney and the rest of the creative team train the audience early on to find the magic in the details, whether it be the slight raise of Marianne’s eyebrow or the way Connell wrings his hands and laughs when faced with a serious question. “Normal People” has done an exceptional job of parring down the series to exactly what is needed and nothing more.

In a world of endless streaming options, whether it be movies, podcasts, or television series, it can be overwhelming to make a choice of what to view or listen to. I would highly encourage those that are looking for something true, genuine, and delicate to consider taking the time to watch “Normal People” in its entirety. It does more than justice to the beloved novel; it illuminates it.

REVIEW: The Half of It.

The Half of It opens with Plato’s Symposium as Ellie recounts Aristophanes’ creation myth. It begins as a film of poetic quotes about love, of loneliness and endlessly searching for another half, built on the foundations of archetypes and classic storylines like this. This movie is another succession of Cyrano de Bergerac, another story about high school, another experience about the desperate longing of unrequited desire.But within these frames, the characters give nuance to adolescence in Squahamish. Ellie, Paul, and Aster – enveloped inside their own private worlds that rotate around the different constants of their lives – feel the pains of growing up in different ways. They experience the loneliness of being misunderstood or unseen, of wishing for a greater life that’s both intensely moving and frightening to them.

Ellie is created with particularly fine lines, strokes that paint a complex person. She’s characterized by her experience as being “other,” as an Asian-American immigrant in a predominantly white town, an atheist in a church community, a girl who is in love with another girl. These subjects are explored carefully, and there is no right answer to anything. Most of the moments where Ellie grows are quiet and simple, without the cinematic flair of teenage romcoms.

The film uses its created environment well, the town framing most of their interactions, as we see Ellie and Paul again and again in the same places, each layer of the story adding another dimension to Squahamish. Despite the repetition, the cinematography is quite beautiful at times; there’s the scene where Aster and Ellie swim in the groves, talking about intangibly vast things as they float in the water, light and trees all around them.

The second half of the movie veers into more complex character interactions. While the setup of the first half builds steady momentum, the denouement still has to tie together issues that are only brought up in the latter half. The ending has mixed pacing as a result of this, with some plot points that are resolved in a timeframe that feels natural, while others come on more suddenly.

Towards the end, there’s a tonal switch too, where the film ultimately decides it’s not about “getting the girl,” and while romance is important in The Half of It, the movie becomes more about the seduction of a happier life, the romancing of the start of their adulthood. Their unrequited desires move beyond an individual and towards the world and their futures.

The Half of It encapsulates the longing for another half, whether it’s a person, or a dream, or a life. Despite the fine details added to the characters and their surroundings, the film catches the universal feeling of the uncertainty in those seconds before you reach out and make your move into the world you’d envisioned for yourself.

Check out The Half of It on Netflix today.

REVIEW: Future Nostalgia

Around the time I first listened to this album, I saw this article discussing Dua Lipa’s 80s inspiration for the music video to her song “Physical.” That same modernized 80s feel is easy to see in the rest of her latest album, Future Nostalgia. Every song has the bright percussive beat, rounded guitar plucks, and electronic effects similar to those found in classic 80s songs. Similarly, there is little dissonance in the chords, giving the songs a welcoming, sunny feel. This is probably a good part of why I like this album so much. It evokes the same feeling as the actual 80s music that is my go-to for comfort food in music form. As I discovered while writing my review for Niall Horan’s album Heartbreak Weather (the title song of which, incidentally, was also featured in the article I mentioned above – I’ve clearly got a type), the presence of a moving base line also makes a major difference in my enjoyment of a song, and I can hear that in her songs. Her use of backing strings, perhaps most clearly seen in “Love Again,” provides added depth to the music. Musically, the songs in this album are all unique creations. They evoke this nostalgic, familiar feeling, yet the melodies and chord progressions are not generic at all. The songs surprise me as they develop, which makes the listening experience exciting.

I don’t have too much to say about the lyrics, since that’s not usually my focal point in music, but there are occasional phrases where she hits the nail on the head perfectly: for example, “I don’t wanna live another life, ’cause this one’s pretty nice,” she sings in “Physical.” Similarly, the song “Boys Will Be Boys” (though its martial music and social message seem out of place when the rest of the album is about the thrill of romance) is a concisely written summary of the still-daily struggles women live through, encapsulated in lyrics like “It’s second nature to…put your keys between your knuckles, when there’s boys around.”

My favorite part of the album, though, is the fact that all its songs are danceable. That, of course, is a function of the musical elements I wrote about above, but it’s worth a separate mention that the songs on Future Nostalgia make it impossible to listen passively. Like any 80s pop anthem worth its salt, these songs will make you want to move with them, even if you’re just sitting at your desk.