We decided recently to start an offseason series that focuses on the things we find interesting in life that aren't South Carolina-related. The first piece is here.
The question for this week - what is your pop cultural comfort food? Movie, show, album, book, etc. that is not only a favorite, but your enjoyment of it is seemingly non-exhaustive. This shouldn't be confused cultural junk food--that which you enjoy even though you know it's trash. Think of it like you would your favorite restaurant--you've been there a thousand times, you swear by the quality, and dammit, it just makes you happy to be there.
When I first read this topic, I was seized with terror at the thought that I might not actually have an answer. We live in a time in which all sorts of books, TV shows, movies, and albums are at our fingertips and repeat reading/viewing/listening just isn't something that happens as often as it used to. You don't listen to that Modest Mouse record on repeat because it's the only CD you have in the car. Why would you rewatch The Wire when more series are being added to Netflix than you could possibly hope to keep up with? And why read a book when your favorite South Carolina Gamecocks blog is churning out content at such a prodigious clip?
But then it hit me, all at once. The one band that I keep going back to when I'm need of cheering up or when there's a dry spell in album releases: The Hold Steady. Were I forced to pin my obsession down to a specific album, it would be their 2005 release Separation Sunday. The album loosely follows the trajectory of a young girl named Holly -- short for Halleluiah -- who grows up in a Catholic family in Minneapolis, starts hanging out with some sketchy characters in the party/rave scene and ends up leaving town, presumed dead, only to burst into Easter mass years later with her hair done up in broken glass, asking, "Father, can I tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?"
I've never experienced anything like what Craig Finn describes on this album, but that's not the point. That's not why it resonates on the visceral level that keeps me coming back for listens that must be somewhere in the two- or three-hundreds. But I don't think that's why I like much of anything. After all, how much can I relate to what's happening in Game of Thrones or Mad Men?
Like those TV shows that I love so well, Finn just throws you into this strange world with these rich and tragic characters and expects you to be able to figure out the environment as you go. (I've spent countless hours scouring The Hold Steady wiki page in search of meaning for each turn of phrase. I've learned a lot about Minneapolis geography because of this.) Meanwhile, Tad Kubler layers each verse with awesome classic rock tropes and Franz Nikolay's ethereal keyboard makes you think that you might actually be listening to this band play live from the pulpit of your local cathedral.
Still, getting into The Hold Steady can be difficult work. While the intricate character mythologies and songs referencing other songs are cherished by die-hards, those charms can act instead as barriers to the uninitiated. There's also the matter of Finn's voice. He doesn't sing so much as slur, and the result is something that may not be for everyone. For years, it wasn't for me. My younger brother spent several years trying to get me interested in the band before it finally took hold, and I can still remember the day they finally latched onto my heartstrings.
I was waiting in the Hartsfield-Jackson airport, traveling back to Chicago following South Carolina's 41-37 loss to Georgia (SEE HOW I'M TYING IT IN TO SPORTS?) when their live performance of Killer Parties came on my iPhone in shuffle mode and I fell in love. It's everything that's great about the band. The song starts with two minutes of Craig Finn rambling and sounding incredibly sincere about how much he loves being able to play music before adoring audiences for a living. And then the band closes out its set with Killer Parties, a song about visiting strange towns and partying nearly to the point of death.
Check out this performance in Washington, D.C. or find the one I referenced on the live album A Positive Rage.
Most people still revere movies from their childhood. It takes you back to a simpler time in your life, and the nostalgia always overcomes the actual quality of the movie. Years later, you find yourself trying to explain to someone why Goonies is the best film ever, even though they - seeing it for the first time in their 20s - can't comprehend why anyone would love something so much.
As someone who likes sports (who would've known that about me?), I had a soft spot for sports movies in my childhood. And while the Mighty Ducks is still one of the top films of the genre, when the movie Little Big League shows up ten times a month on MLB Network, I find myself watching time and time again.
The movie still holds up because it does what a great science fiction story does - remains plausible once you get over the central absurdity. Unlike Rookie of the Year, which is farcical in every way (I can get over the arm injury, but MLB requires American kids to go through the draft, and please spare me your jokes about how it's ridiculous to see the Cubs playing winning baseball in the movie), Little Big League is a completely reasonable movie once you accept MLB allowing a minor to run the team. It shows how players would handle the situation, how parents would handle it, and how the kid himself would as well. It's not a perfect film, but it's surprisingly good even 20 years later.
Two more things about it that I love. First, it includes a montage with one of my favorite songs:
And second, before sabermetrics really caught on, a young Billy Haywood told it like it was about bunting in a scene where the pitching coach tries to explain to him that he needs to know about situations, right before the boy wonder takes him to school:
I mean, if a 12-year-old from the mid-1990s knew this stuff, why doesn't every college coach?
*Note - I considered picking music here as well, but figured Jorge and Connor would cover that front. They did.
Like Connor, I tabbed a classic indie rock record with which I have heaps of personal history. (By the way, Separation Sunday's a phenomenal choice-hear it if you haven't.) I parallel Connor's Hold Steady fanboyism with a similar hyperloyalty to Wilco, Chicagoland indie rock mainstays with no fewer than four classic records to their credit. One of them dropped in 1999, the product of frontman (and recent Parks and Rec guest star) Jeff Tweedy and the late musical Renaissance man Jay Bennett stealing away from the rest of the band and recording in relative seclusion. The result was a lush, aching indie pop masterpiece: Summerteeth.
When I discovered the album in 2004, I was your garden variety 19-year-old collegiate beta male, trying to shake off lingering insecurities of my youth and come to terms with my bygone adolescence, but also trying to impress girls by posturing as some rough-hewn musician even though I was afraid of cigarettes. So it makes sense that I identified with an album that so deftly captures the ethos of confused young dudes-don't the song titles read like an activity log of the post-adolescent mind? "I'm Always In Love", "How to Fight Loneliness", "When You Wake Up Feeling Old", "A Shot In the Arm". And even now as I approach 30, Summerteeth fires on all cylinders. Nostalgia helps with that, but what also helps is the fact that it's masterfully written, arranged, and produced and those qualities don't go out of style. Not unsurprisingly, the record store clerk told me it was "one of the best records (I'll) ever hear."
Musically, Summerteeth is vivid and dynamic as a broad city skyline, full of rises and falls, shadows and spotlights, catharses and gutpunches. If you require touchstones, think Pet Sounds by way of Velvet Underground feat. David Bowie, maybe? Hell, I dunno; just listen and feel jubilant and pensive and energized and even a tad disturbed (Jeff Tweedy's wife was understandably uncomfortable with the lyric "She begs me not to hit her" even if it was just a rhetorical device). Each track is a vignette, peppered with details that seem spontaneous in their energy despite being so carefully designated. Somewhat ironically, it's not even my favorite Wilco record, but it's one that functions in so many capacities that I find it palatable for any mood or mindset-it's versatile, which is what I imagine the common thread to be in all our selections here.
But pedantic fan-jabber aside, there's a reason any record achieves classic status: because it flows well and it's got a ton of great songs on it. Summerteeth, and some aren't.
Let us know the one pop culture item that helps you bide your time until fall in the comments, or judge us for ours. Happy Friday, y'all.