The second half of a season of a heavily serialized show like Better Call Saul needs to suggest momentum toward some clear — though obviously temporary — terminal point. “Bali Ha’i” suggests that the show is fully aware of this, as it edges our three primary characters toward decisions they won’t be able to take back.
And that particular number of primary characters — drifting around, having independent arcs, setting out on rarely overlapping adventures of their own — can prove troublesome at such a time. No, it’s not difficult, narratively speaking, to push Jimmy, Mike, and Kim separately onto the next step of their developments. But as their paths seem to diverge more often than they converge, what does that mean for Better Call Saul? Doesn’t that make it less about how Jimmy McGill becomes Saul Goodman and more like some shared-universe anthology series?
I’m speaking hypothetically here about the problem, and I don’t mean to suggest that Better Call Saul actually has that problem. But I do think, from the standpoint of artistic construction, that it’s a question worth considering. I’m willing to believe that Kim plays some very clear, very direct, very specific part in Jimmy’s transformation…but is that because of anything I’ve seen in Better Call Saul? Or is it because Breaking Bad already told me where he ends up, and as this is its prequel series I am obligated to assume that she must?
To put it another way, if Breaking Bad didn’t exist, would I watch Better Call Saul and conclude that Kim will become more important to Jimmy as the show progresses? Or less?
The same, of course, can be asked of Mike, but we already discussed that a bit in the last episode. He was off on his own journey, doing his own thing, not really relevant to or interested in whatever the heck Jimmy McGill was doing. That was obvious. Less obvious at the time was that we could have said the same thing about Kim.
“Bali Ha’i” brings the question to a head, pushing Kim right up to a further separation from the initial, core version of the show as she toys seriously with the idea of leaving Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill. No, that wouldn’t necessarily remove her entirely from Jimmy’s orbit…but it would push them, in a logistical sense, a degree further apart.
Originally Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill was the connective tissue for Jimmy, Kim, Chuck, Howard, and indirectly Mike. It’s the one thing, the one setting, the one constant they all had in common. Then Jimmy relocated and joined a different law firm. Mike’s role as a courthouse parking attendant became sidelined to focus on his independent contracting for gang members. Now Kim considers leaving, too. And she might. I hope she will, if only to see what Better Call Saul does once nearly all of its characters have left the mothership.
Of course, as “Bali Ha’i” toys with Kim further splintering the narrative, Kim herself reaches back out to tie it together. She talks to Jimmy again. She invites him to relive the high of the season-opening “Switch” by swindling a vulnerable mark, which is a nice moment. A much nicer moment is the reveal that they don’t cash these checks; they hold onto them like trophies, which is almost adorable.
But the nicest moment is that both Jimmy and Kim — each on thin ice with their respective firms — walk out on their work obligations to do this. They each know that they’re abandoning their careers (again, temporarily) to pursue something that’s more important to them: each other. They’re individually in deep shit. They individually have to claw their way back out. They individually need to atone, professionally, for damaging lapses of judgment.
Goofing around together is important, though, too. And when Kim calls Jimmy to join her, it’s clear that now, at least, it’s more important. To both of them.
One very interesting revelation to me is that Kim also worked in the mail room at Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill. In fact, she did so for six years. I knew that Jimmy met and befriended her when he worked in the mail room — in fact, “Rebecca” tells us that they became close within his first week on the job — but I didn’t realize that she was a direct colleague. I figured she was an attorney of some kind who just happened to get chummy with someone who was a bit lower than her on the corporate ladder. That would gibe with just about everything I’d already concluded about Kim, so I was surprised to find out that they were sealing envelopes and fumbling around with the copier together.
This adds a bit of a wrinkle to my pet theme, which is that you are what you are, and if you try to be or become anything else, the universe will slap you right back down. Certainly that still applies to Jimmy, but now we find that Kim was granted an opportunity to advance. To grow. To develop into something more. Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill even fronted the money for her schooling.
But we don’t know the full picture. She went from the mail room to the conference room, but Jimmy didn’t. We know that. She had her tuition covered. Jimmy didn’t. We know that, too.
That’s all we really know, though. And while it may complicate the theme, I don’t feel compelled to abandon it just yet. Somebody, at some point, for some reason, was willing to nurture something in Kim. Was willing to take a chance. Was willing to elevate her. Whereas Jimmy was preterite. Passed over. Refused. No matter how hard he worked or what he accomplished, he would not be afforded the same chance that Kim was.
Perhaps Kim’s place in the universe has some degree of mobility factored into it. Granted, it’s mobility that comes with a high price (or at least two high prices: firm loyalty and debt), but it is mobility. And, hey, maybe Jimmy’s does, too. We know he doesn’t end up where we see him now. Part of the Better Call Saul experience might just be finding out first-hand exactly the lengths of everybody’s leash.
Then there’s Mike, who this week is in deep shit of his own. Yes, it’s great to see Action Grandpa doing his thing. That will never get old, and I’ll take scenes like his remote-control fakeout every week until the show decides to stop giving them to me. But I have to say that I didn’t expect to see the cousins from Breaking Bad turn up. And I felt the chill when they did.
The cousins menaced Walter White in everyone’s favorite parent show, and they were a very real, very legitimate, very scary threat there. I probably should have expected them to turn up at some point — what with Tuco, Gonzo, No-Doze, and Hector already here, leaving a pretty wide opening for them — but…yeah. That was probably the biggest surprise cameo I’ve experienced in this show yet.
But it made me wonder: how does a show like this handle tension when every viewer already knows who lives? Sure, they silently threaten Mike’s granddaughter Kaylee, and I think it’s fair to say that a drug cartel menacing a little girl is a scary thing by default. But we’ve seen Breaking Bad. We know that they never get to Kaylee. We know that they never get to her mother. Hell, we know that they never get to Mike. (And how great is it that Mike eventually kills one of them directly in “I See You”? He must have felt pretty good about that.)
In fact, the one character who seems to be the most dangerous — Hector — is the one we already know comes out badly. (Though, obviously, his eventual incapacitation may in no way be a result of this particular event.) The characters we like will be okay, and the characters we don’t like are going to suffer.
That should be reassuring rather than worrying.
So…where’s the tension?
To quote an earlier paragraph, I’m speaking hypothetically here about the problem, and I don’t mean to suggest that Better Call Saul actually has that problem. It’s just interesting to consider. If everyone watching already knows who lives and dies (unlike the artful, spiraling uncertainty of Breaking Bad), what do you do?
It’s hard to say, and “Bali Ha’i” doesn’t have the answer. Better Call Saul will have to find a way to make these foregone conclusions feel uncertain, and I know that it can succeed. After all, how much of Better Call Saul did you picture when you originally wondered what made Saul Goodman who he is?
Yeah, same here.
This show has the capacity and ability to surprise. If anything, it might be playing with us by reminding viewers of that certainty before throwing a curveball. But we’ll see.
One wrinkle worth remembering, though, is Nacho. The one character we know doesn’t make it to Breaking Bad. He can still die. He can still suffer. He can still be a victim.
And that can matter. I don’t know if many people watching the show at this point care about Nacho they way they cared about Walt or Jesse or Hank, but the fact is that there were stretches of Breaking Bad that made it difficult to care about Walt and Jesse and Hank. Each of them, and many other characters, shrugged off audience sympathy at various points. Sometimes they deserved to get their asses kicked…or worse. Which is what made it all the more harrowing when it inevitably came…after they became more sympathetic and we had stopped wishing it upon them.
There’s room to play with Nacho, but I don’t think we’re there yet. I look forward to seeing it happen, though.
Anyway, what’s Noiseless Chatter without some needless bitching about something I enjoyed? (Oh, yes, I enjoyed “Bali Ha’i” a great deal. Let me make that clear.)
My Complaint of the Week is that I’m not sure I buy Hector caving to Mike’s bluster. Hector rescinds his offer of $5,000…telling Mike that that time has passed; all he gets out of it now is an assurance of safety for himself and his family. So far, so good.
Then Mike demands $50,000 instead of…y’know…$0. And after much too little deliberation, Hector agrees.
Why? What does he get out of it?
I don’t know. I question that. It’s probably necessary from a narrative standpoint, but I can’t make sense of the character logic.
Maybe at this point in his life, Hector has something of a heart. Maybe he admires Mike. Maybe he sees this as an investment on working with him again in the future. (It’d sure give him something to lord over him if he ever needs a favor.)
Or maybe, more simply, he just doesn’t want to deal with the cleanup and investigation of three dead bodies, which is going to result in far more work for him than a few years scraped off of his nephew’s sentence is worth.
My point is that there are reasons he might acquiesce to Mike’s demand, and I can think of a bunch of them. But I didn’t feel them during that scene, and I’m willing to believe the show wasn’t sure what they were, either. Hector agreed because he had to agree in order to get to whatever the next plot point is.
And that’s a shame.
Because a reason, or even the ghost of one, would have told us a lot about who he is, where his mind is, and what he’s planning next.
Above you’ll find a picture of Bono. The dog, not the human. (The human Bono is not pictured.)
Bono is my girlfriend’s dog. He’s also my dog. He’s also my friend. He’s also family.
A few days ago we received some unfortunate news.
Bono stopped eating. My girlfriend made an appointment for him with the vet. In the meantime, he started eating again. That was good, but then, just as suddenly, he stopped a second time. And he stopped having bowel movements as well.
He went to the vet. They weren’t sure what the issue was. He didn’t seem to be in pain, and he seemed healthy otherwise.
They X-rayed him. They saw nothing.
They asked if we wanted them to perform an ultrasound. We didn’t really have a choice. Not that the vet was pressuring anybody…it’s simply that it was either have an ultrasound, or be okay with the fact that Bono wasn’t eating or going to the bathroom. In short, we’d have to be okay with knowing he was slowly dying. We went with the ultrasound.
They found that he had an obstruction. They wouldn’t be sure what it was until they opened him up. Did we want them to operate on him?
Yes, we wanted them to operate on him.
Inside his tummy they found a plastic squeaker. Something he had dug out of a toy and swallowed. I don’t know how he swallowed it. It’s big so it certainly wasn’t easy. And we don’t know when he swallowed it. We would have stopped him, and he’s never left with his toys alone. But the point is…whenever and however he swallowed it, he swallowed it.
The vet said that the squeaker had been in him for around six weeks. The plastic by the time it was removed was black and warped. His body tried to process it. For a good while, he was able to eat and digest more or less normally, though he was probably feeling some amount of discomfort. Finally, at some point, it shifted, and it blocked him up. He could no longer eat.
The squeaker was in him long enough to do a lot of damage to his insides. He’s eating again, but we need to watch him to make sure he doesn’t throw it back up. If he does well for the next two weeks they’ll remove his staples…but there could still be other surgeries in his future, depending on how he heals.
Now I’ll tell you a little bit about Bono.
Bono’s a good dog. And a good friend.
But Bono’s been through a lot.
My girlfriend and I believe that when he was a puppy, somebody tried to kill him.
She adopted him from a rescue without knowing his history, but there was something clearly wrong. His back legs don’t function very well; instead of walking normally he uses them to hop, like a rabbit. His front legs are huge and muscular, as they do all the work of keeping him upright and mobile. He has at least one rib that was broken and which healed out of place. His eye, at some point, had popped out of his head and had to be replaced surgically.
I don’t know what he went through, but I know it was bad.
When he meets somebody new, he hides. He’s friendly, but he’s too afraid to act on that friendliness. He retreats from affection. He doesn’t trust people. I don’t blame him one bit.
He even took a long time to warm up to me. He’d come close, but when I reached out to pet him he’d flee. He clearly wanted the affection, but he couldn’t be sure that I wouldn’t betray him the way he’d been betrayed in the past. When you let somebody in and they hurt you like that, you don’t forget it.
Eventually he came to trust me. He’s a sweet dog with a big heart. He’s safe now, even if he carries with him memories that keep him scared.
I don’t want to lose Bono. My girlfriend wants to lose him even less.
He’s an important part of our family. He has a place there. He gets to live a life of love and comfort that he probably never thought he’d have.
And now…he may not live.
It was sad enough to find out that he needed surgery. But it didn’t end there. It was successful, but he still might succumb to infection or complications. And even if he doesn’t…he might simply not heal the way he needs to heal. His digestive tract was torn up pretty badly. It could be a matter of time.
The vet bill was around $3,000. That’s money that neither she nor I really have. But he’s family. We had to try. The vet said he was otherwise healthy. He could have another 10 years of life left in him. We had to try, even if we couldn’t afford it.
And more bills could be on the horizon, depending on how he heals. Or fails to heal.
But I’m getting away from the point. The point is that Bono — this particular dog — want from being with people who tried to kill him to being with people who will fight, who will sacrifice, who will do whatever it takes to keep him alive.
I feel for the little guy. We have a lot in common.
Today I turn thirty-six. As I do so, this blog enters its sixth year of operation. In many ways, I wouldn’t have bet on either of us reaching these milestones.
I started Noiseless Chatter as an escape. I don’t mean that at all in a romantic sense; I mean that I had something — some things — that I needed to escape from. This was a way of…of continuing, really. Of keeping myself grounded, mentally and emotionally. Of having something to focus on that wasn’t the literal nightmare I was facing every day.
It was — and proudly remains — a profoundly unimportant site. Nothing here is urgent. Little of it is even timely. The world wouldn’t spin any differently tomorrow if there were no longer any of my wordy, meandering essays cluttering it up.
And yet, in a very real way, it saved me. It gave me something that I needed then. Not that I wanted, or desired, or wished for…but something that I really needed. Today, I don’t need it in that same way. Today, I’m better. Hell, I’ve been better for the overwhelming bulk of this site’s life.
But it’s still here. I don’t intend to quit. Because it still feels important to me. Important in its very unimportance.
On Inauguration Day I changed my mind about something. I had a silly post scheduled to go live. It was a bit satirical, but mainly silly. It was an obviously false essay about Donald Trump’s (invented) favorite films. That’s it. There’s probably the opportunity to get truly biting and vicious with that topic, but I thought the better joke would be something more like an anti-joke. Something that didn’t go for the easy targets…or, indeed, any targets. It was just there. It was the kind of thing where you’d read the headline and immediately guess what followed…except that none of it actually followed.
That’s what I changed my mind about on Inauguration Day. I didn’t post it. I just didn’t feel right about it. Not that I thought it was insulting or idiotic or rude or anything negative at all. I just knew that a lot of people would have strong feelings that day, and would open important dialogues, and would seek a kind of understanding…and I wasn’t going to (and couldn’t hope to) provide anything they might actually need.
I opted for silence over silliness.
I posted something to that effect on the Facebook page, to explain the lack of a post for the week.
Longtime reader and important human being Sarah Portland said this in response:
Don’t trivialize your work, even if it seems to pale in comparison to other things going on. Somewhere in your readership is someone looking for pause and breathe, a tiny corner of the world that isn’t screaming. It’s okay to be that corner.
I didn’t reply to that. I still don’t know that I effectively can. But it struck a chord deep inside of me.
That’s what Noiseless Chatter was to me, too, way back when I started it. A space to pause and breathe. A tiny corner of the world that wasn’t screaming.
If you look at my older posts, you might see some rough writing. You might see some insights I no longer agree with. You might see some outright hogwash. (You can see that in recent posts, though, so don’t bother digging for it.) But you won’t see much of me talking about me. And, again, you still won’t.
I started this site to escape a nightmare. The topics I covered included just about everything apart from that nightmare. Because I needed the distance. And maybe other people do, too.
People now and then contact me thanking me for something I wrote. Sometimes they thank me for something I don’t even remember writing. One specific message came from somebody who was feeling deeply depressed…so he went all the way back to the beginning of the ALF reviews and started reading them again because he knew they’d make him laugh.
I’ve written some intensely trivial stuff on this blog. But to paraphrase Sarah, I shouldn’t trivialize the trivial.
You never know where salvation will come. You never know how or when or even why you’ll find it.
It’s not there one day. It’s there another.
You go through things that should, by all rights, kill you. Then, maybe, they don’t. And things are dark for a while, and scary. You rear back from people that don’t intend to hurt you. You hide inside a shell that you promise yourself you’ll never break for anybody. Your life becomes an ongoing, perpetual response to whatever trauma it is that scarred you in the first place.
But then you meet someone. Or you find something. Or you’re touched in a way you didn’t expect to be touched by something you see, read, hear, or play.
Your life can change. You can open up. A little bit, anyway.
I still see a lot of reluctance in Bono. If I reach out too quickly to pet him, he’ll flinch. That’s because he remembers something. Something I wish I could take away from him.
But I can’t.
All I can do is offer a little space for anyone who needs it. A place without fear or hate…or anger that isn’t directed at a farting, tapdancing alien.
I created that space for myself six years ago. The fact that anyone else, at all, turns to it now is important to me.
As the episode titles for season two rolled out, this is the one that interested me most. After all, it’s the name of a character we haven’t met yet. That’s intriguing. Is she a client? One of Saul’s eventual ex-wives? A friend or rival who makes a return and further upsets Jimmy’s stability? Whoever she is, she’s all at once important enough to have an episode named after her. That’s exciting. It suggests a force, a presence that means something to these characters and yet hasn’t even been mentioned before.
Interestingly enough, I thought immediately of the female colleague of Jimmy’s we’d seen a few times already. If she had been given a name, I didn’t remember it. Perhaps she was Rebecca? Either way, something about that colleague stood out to me. I was able to tell that she was going to be important at some point. Something about her — whether it was some way the camera lingered on her or just an infectious confidence on the part of the actress — tipped me off to the fact that this character, whoever she was, meant something. My quiet guess at the time was that she’d become an eventual rival for Jimmy’s affections…either forcing Kim out or encouraging her to hold onto him that much more tightly.
I was wrong on all counts. Her name is Erin, and it’s pretty doubtful after this week that there will be anything even remotely resembling romantic chemistry between her and Jimmy. But, coincidentally, “Rebecca” is the episode that indeed affirms her importance.
And I’m glad, because my God is Erin great. In fact, she makes more of an impact than Rebecca does, and adds a potentially interesting — though surely temporary — wrinkle to Jimmy’s story.
Okay, so: who is Rebecca?
It turns out it’s Chuck’s wife. Presumable ex-wife, though I can’t remember if a divorce (or death) has specifically been mentioned in the past. I suspect it hasn’t been and, for now at least, it’s possible they are only separated. (Is anyone out there sharp-eyed enough to have noticed the presence or absence of a ring on Chuck?) Now that I’ve seen the episode and I know this, I’m not entirely sure I know why “Rebecca” bears her name.
Is Rebecca that important to Chuck? To Jimmy? Certainly if she passed away or left Chuck at the height of his love for her or something, it would sting. But is the implication here that Rebecca (like the title character of Hitchcock’s Rebecca) a haunting, unforgettable presence for Chuck that affects the way he lives his life?
I don’t know. I certainly wouldn’t have guessed that — or anything like that — to be the case, but we’ll see how things play out. As of right now it feels like a bit of left-field revelation, but I think it’s safe to say that her absence, whatever the reason behind that absence, ties directly into Chuck’s eventual breakdown and electrical paranoia.
One thing we certainly do learn from the flashback that opens the episode, though, is that people like Jimmy…and Chuck envies this. Even his beloved Rebecca succumbs to the charms of Chuck’s fuckup younger brother…the younger brother she was specifically warned against…the younger brother he gave her a signal to use if she wanted him out of the house. She never uses it. He’s silently appalled.
Then there’s Kim. There’s Clifford. There’s even their father, Charles Sr. People like Jimmy. And as much as the boy looks up to his big brother Chuck, it’s Chuck himself who truly feels jealous.
And this — okay, I realize I’m jumping around a lot, but bear with me — really comes to the fore in the great scene he shares with Kim toward the end of the episode. It’s here that we learn about Charles Sr…and the fact that Jimmy singlehandedly and underhandedly sunk his business. Or…did he? “Rebecca” contains one flashback, and this isn’t it; this is just Chuck, in a chair, speaking to Kim. He has his own motives. Many of which we can guess. Others we can infer. And he’s already reminded us of the fact that he’s a bit of a dick, as he sent Kim off to make him coffee after she’d been working all night.
So…did Jimmy sink the family business? Even Charles Sr. didn’t think so. The only word we have to go on is Chuck’s, and Chuck works hard to poison others’ views of Jimmy. He did it with Howard, he did it with Rebecca…and now he’s doing it with Kim.
There are two possible reasons for that, and they’re opposites; either Jimmy is truly a dangerous individual that people should be warned against, or Jimmy’s a good guy at heart and Chuck is refusing to let him get ahead.
I think there’s far more evidence in the show for the latter. And that, honestly, is what makes Better Call Saul a completely separate experience from Breaking Bad. In Breaking Bad, Saul was never a tragic character. In Better Call Saul he’s tragic on a weekly basis.
As with last week’s episode, though, “Rebecca” isn’t really about Jimmy. At least, not directly or primarily. Last week was Mike’s story. This week it’s Kim’s. And while I’ll get to Kim a moment, I do want to say that I’m slightly disappointed that Jimmy got sidelined this week. In “Gloves Off” that was okay, because his story was just spinning its wheels for a bit, and Mike had the more interesting development.
In “Rebecca,” though, Jimmy’s bristling tether to Erin — his unofficial, Davis & Main-appointed babysitter — has some real and very interesting potential. This isn’t a story that I want to see sidelined, and I hope we get more of it in the weeks to come. Jessie Ennis was a delight, and serving as Jimmy’s anthropomorphized ankle monitor gives her a narrative purpose that is bursting with both comic potential and comic tension. I don’t think she should be in the driver’s seat forever, but I think it could either lead to a great arc of its own or add some unexpected complications to his current arc.
Anyway, yes, “Rebecca” is actually about Kim, but Rebecca and Kim have a fair bit in common. They each receive a lecture about Jimmy from Chuck. They each fail to see, understand, or at least acknowledge what Chuck is warning them about. (Though this is likely to change for Kim and may eventually have changed with Rebecca.) They’re both being held back, potentially, by an underperforming colleague.
In both of those cases, Chuck encourages them to cut that colleague out of their lives. To move forward without them. To refuse to be held back. And yet we know — better than any other character knows — the loneliness Chuck faces as a direct result of living by that rule.
That’s not to say that it’s a bad rule. And it’s certainly not to say that Jimmy — specifically Jimmy — shouldn’t be let go of once he becomes an undue burden.
The only question is, has he?
Kim’s talk with Chuck is great, largely due to the acting but also due to the deft writing, which sees the entire conversation spring from a question Chuck doesn’t even answer. Kim asks if she has a future at Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill. Chuck clearly has some insight here, but prefers to enlighten her about something else. Even if she realizes she’s been deflected — and she probably does — she clearly believes Chuck has a point.
We talked a bit in the last review about Jimmy being constantly reminded of his place in the universe, being shoved back down whenever he tries to climb up. “Rebecca” shows us that it’s not just Jimmy; it’s Kim, too. Hell, it might be everyone.
This week Kim works alone, on her own time, foregoing lunch and sleep, just to find, of her own initiative, a client or a case large enough for Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill to remember her value.
…and she does it.
Her hard work pays off. For the firm, at least. It doesn’t pay off for her, as she receives the same kind of fuck-you Howard gave Jimmy way back at his party in season one’s “RICO.” She’s in exile. She’s there because that’s where the people with power put her. And while she may not be there forever, it’s sure as hell not her decision when she’ll be welcomed back.
If it happens, it will be on somebody else’s terms.
No hard feelings, right? Now get back to work.
It’s a devastating moment. Almost as devastating as her treatment of Jimmy earlier in the episode, when he reaches out to her with a potential legal solution to the retaliation she’s facing…and she pushes him away. He’s willing to help, and she declines the help. Which is when he tells her he’s willing to leave his job for her.
…and she declines that, too.
In fact, she doesn’t even think it’s much of a gesture. And who can blame her? The Davis & Main opportunity was narrative convenience more than anything, right? It kept Jimmy employed, kept the show going, gave him a chance to show us how he works in more respectable environs…but, ultimately, it’s there to be thrown away. Right? We know he doesn’t work there forever. Hell, we know what he knows and what Kim knows: it’s a job for him to throw away when throwing it away will advance the story.
Except that later in this episode, he realizes that that’s not what it is at all. He bumps into a fellow attorney from his old days as a public defender, and slowly, reluctantly, gets drawn into a conversation that forces him to realize just how lucky he is. Just how important this job is. Just how much of a gift he’s been given.
And he was going to throw it away?
…well…maybe not anymore.
Is that some indication of the price of Jimmy’s soul? Career advancement over chivalry? Perhaps, but we do get a very clear idea of the price of Mike’s, as Hector Salamanca offers him $5,000 to take the rap for the gun that was found on the site of his and Tuco’s scuffle.
It turns out that Mike’s clean solution wasn’t clean at all…which was sort of the theme of Breaking Bad as well. Every action has consequences. You will deal with them for many episode, or even for many seasons. And you’ll always be able to trace every terrible development to the one that came before, right down the line, all the way back to the first time that you decided to do something you knew — you already knew — you shouldn’t have done.
The best laid plans of Mike and men, etc. etc.
We have some sense of where this will go — where it must go — but it has the potential to offer a few surprises, especially since we know that the Hector we meet here is not at all the Hector we will later encounter in Breaking Bad. Mike isn’t the only character in for a dramatic change.
I liked “Rebecca.” In some ways it felt like a lesser episode, but it had enough to recommend it, and my biggest complaint is that we didn’t get more of one plot thread. Hell, we might get more of it next week, so it may not even matter.
But I will say that it’s a bit odd that, this far into the show, Mike’s story and Jimmy’s still don’t really overlap.
I’m not complaining, but I do think it’s fair to say that this is only something the show can get away with due to our familiarity with Breaking Bad. On its own merits, Better Call Saul can usually hold its own, but this is a case in which it simply doesn’t. Without the parent show, there’d be no real excuse for a weekly drama series in which two separate protagonists bumble around for seasons on end in almost exclusively unrelated adventures.
It’s the one area of Better Call Saul in which the seams are showing. And they’re probably only showing because just about everything else the show does, it does perfectly.
Hey everybody! Better Call Saul is back with a whole new season, and I’m here to…
…wait. We’re still on season two? Crap.
Yes, back when I was reviewing Better Call Saul in more or less real time, I was still reviewing ALF. And there was a new season of The Venture Bros. And…basically…one of those shows had to forgo coverage, if there was any way I was going to retain my sanity. I ended up choosing — more or less by circumstance — Better Call Saul. There was no right answer, really, but I’ve regretted it ever since.
The show deserves respectful coverage. Prompt coverage may not be as important, but the problem is that I never caught back up with it. I moved on…and then didn’t go back. Until now, at least, when my Facebook wall is flooded with people crowing about Gus Fring being in season three and I figure, well, I might as well catch up with my spoilers.
Part of the reason it was hard to go back, though, was this episode. Not that it was bad. It wasn’t. But the problem was that I watched it. I didn’t have time review it, but I watched it. And after enough time had passed that I couldn’t review it from memory, I didn’t feel very compelled to go back and watch it again.
Shows like Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad are a bit like that. You don’t watch an episode over and over. You enjoy one, and then you enjoy the next, and then the one after that. None of this is to say that the episodes don’t deserve multiple viewings, but I will say that, with some exceptions, multiple viewings don’t benefit them in isolation. They are parts of longer arcs, longer stories, longer passages. Every episode functions like a middle chapter. It keeps the momentum of what came before, and pushes the story just far enough ahead that you don’t feel like you’re wasting your time.
Drop back into one episode you’ve seen — just one, alone — and it feels like a strange excerpt. It almost feels wrong, like eavesdropping on the middle of a conversation.
“Gloves Off” is unquestionably a middle chapter. It makes no secret of that. It picks up where last week left off, and it makes you want to dive right into whatever next week will bring. And yet, it does something interesting: instead of ending the episode with a moment that suggests narrative progress, it opens with it.
That’s not something I’m sure I’ve seen before on this show or on Breaking Bad. Yes, we’ve certainly had plenty of episodes that opened at the end, with the episode itself being a kind of flashback establishing how we got to whatever chaos we’ve just seen. To use a thematically fitting example, there’s “Grilled,” which opens with Jesse’s car bouncing up and down in the aftermath of a gunfight. But this is the first time, I think, that we’ve opened with a major evolution for a character.
In this case, it’s Mike. And what I mean by “major evolution of a character” is that it’s not a question of how his face got bloodied and bruised; it’s a question of how he became the guy who sits alone in the dark, obviously battered, lifting his fist in silent triumph. Sure, we wonder what he’s proud of, but mainly we wonder about the change. About the seeming rewiring of who he is. Mike has been so calm and collected across two shows now* that whenever we see the veneer crack, we know to pay attention. Last season it cracked in a tragic way in the great “Five-O.” Now it cracks in celebration.
That’s Better Call Saul‘s way of saying “listen up.”
This means something.
Mike is changing.
The ensuing episode tells us what happened to him, but, more importantly, it tells us what happened inside of him.
But we’ll get to that. This is the Jimmy McGill show; not the Mike show.
Or, rather, it’s Better Call Saul, and “Gloves Off” has a moment of great fun teasing that inevitable change of name for our protagonist. Honestly, isn’t it pretty wonderful that we’re rolling cleanly through season two without the guy’s name even being Saul?
This week Jimmy attempts to seduce Chuck with the offer to abandon his legal ambitions forever. “No more Jimmy McGill, esquire. Poof. Like he never existed.” It’s a cute moment, and I honestly wonder how long they’ll be able to drag out the Jimmy era of Saul’s life. Personally, I’d be kind of happy if it lasted as long as the show does.
The conversation happens because Chuck and Howard seem to have taken Jimmy’s ill-conceived commercial out on Kim, and there’s a lot at play here. (I say “seems to have” because Chuck, unconvincingly, attempts to paint the entire situation as Howard’s decision.) There’s Kim’s nearly blind loyalty to Jimmy, and her obvious questioning of what it’s done to her career. There’s Jimmy’s clear (and almost touching) protectiveness toward Kim, to the point that he’s willing to back out of his career entirely just to put her back where she was.
And, of course, there’s our hero’s relationship with Chuck, which continues to be utterly devastating and painful to watch. (It may even be more painful than Mike’s physical beat-down that ends the episode.) I’m looking forward to seeing just how deeply this show digs into their dynamic, which is believably complex, sad, and toxic. Watching “Gloves Off” the second time I’m able to appreciate how fired up Jimmy is when he arrives at Chuck’s house…only to drop the offense entirely when he sees his brother is suffering.
He brings him water. He brings him an extra space blanket. He sits with him all night. When the morning comes, he makes him tea.
…at which point Chuck takes the offense, and unloads on Jimmy instead.
It’s a deeply sad turn, and one that we know we haven’t seen the last of. Jimmy has always been and always will be the little brother. The fuckup. The one who can’t be trusted…in spite of whatever he achieves, whatever his investigations turn up, however well his plans turn out.
His is a path downward. He’s reminded of that every time he tries to move up. For obvious reasons, it’s always the most painful when it’s his brother pressing him down.
And, sure enough, his commercial was a success. The phones are ringing constantly. A very small financial investment netted Davis & Main, Jimmy’s new employers, a boatload of Sandpiper clients.
But Jimmy didn’t go about it the right way. He went over peoples’ heads. He made a decision that his employers wouldn’t have made. And that’s inexcusable. Throughout the episode there’s a lot of talk of reputation, which clearly means little to Jimmy. He doesn’t care how Davis & Main looks; he cares about the work that they do. The strong implication is that Davis & Main — like Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill — care about how they look. That’s what made all the difference in last season’s “Hero”; sure, Jimmy may have done the work, but he comes off like “the kind of lawyer guilty people hire.”
Jimmy’s playing a game of appearances as though it’s a game of merit. The tragedy isn’t that he loses…the tragedy is that there’s no room for him, and he eventually embraces the flaw he’s been told he had all along. He becomes Saul Goodman.
Mike’s story also has some nice playfulness. There’s the return of Krazy-8, who would eventually be Walt’s first deliberate murder victim in Breaking Bad. There’s Mike taking a “trophy” from a defeated Tuco, just as Hank will eventually do. And there’s Mike warning Nacho that if he bumps off Tuco, it’ll draw Salamancas like flies…which is indeed what happens when Tuco is bumped off in that other show.
But it’s not a playful story overall. It’s the story of how retired-policeman Mike becomes hyper-competent-fixer Mike. And that’s what he’s celebrating on his couch at the beginning…covered in his own blood…face swollen…Tuco’s charm in his fist. He’s celebrating the fact that he did something his way…and that his way worked. He’s suspected that he could do this before — for the memory of his son, for his daughter-in-law, for his granddaughter — but now he knows.
And he can do it, for now at least, without being blood thirsty. Without stirring up undue trouble. Without taking lives. He can do it on his terms…which is all he asks.
…and which will also lead him down a much darker path when those terms are forbidden to him, one by one.
In theory, his non-fatal solution to the Tuco problem might set the stage for the mercy he shows Walt several times over in Breaking Bad. He let Tuco live, and still solved the problem. In Breaking Bad he lets Walt live…but things go a bit differently there.
His confrontation with Tuco here is an easy highlight of both shows. It’s a perfectly tense several minutes of television, with Mike working Tuco effortlessly. Playing the dim old man when he knows it’ll anger him the most, shifting into antagonism when he needs to keep Tuco’s ire up, and then shifting right back into playing the helpless elder to keep Tuco from suspecting anything.
It’s a masterful, incredible scene…one that makes you admire both Mike’s cleverness and Better Call Saul‘s. And I have to admit there’s a fantastic, unspoken narrative brilliance in the ultimate solution. When the initial plan involves Mike killing Tuco, the recurring concern is how Mike will get away unseen. The brilliance is that the plan Mike ultimately comes up with turns that problem into its own solution: he leans into the fact that he will be seen, and we get a much better, much stronger, much more intelligent sequence because of it.
We never do see what happens when Jimmy shows up late to work, or if Kim gets wished back out of the cornfield, or what the next inevitable cloud of fallout from the commercial turns out to be…at least not this week. But that’s okay, because it’s just a middle chapter. And nothing that might have happened in those threads could have compared to Nacho’s weighty, episode-ending query:
“You went a long way to not pull that trigger. Why?”
Mike doesn’t answer him, and so we don’t get the answer, either.
But I think we all know the answer.
The answer is that he went the long way around to see if he could do things his way. Not Nacho’s, not Tuco’s, but his own.
And he can.
And one of modern television’s best characters is born.
Note: I want to point out that I didn’t just stop reviewing Better Call Saul; I stopped watching it as well. Yes, I saw “Gloves Off,” but after that…nothing. I wanted to wait, because I knew I’d be coming back to this series. And now, hey, I am back! So please steer clear of major story spoilers in the comments. For you, this season is almost a year old. But I’m watching it for the first time, and I hope you enjoy that these reviews will still retain their “by-the-episode” approach as opposed to one that looks backward with a greater sense of where these threads lead.
—– * During my ALF reviews, I mentioned that Todd Susman, who appeared in the episode “Hide Away,” played the P.A. voice in both M*A*S*H and Futurama, making him one of very few people who got to play the same character in two of the best shows ever made. I think we can add Jonathan Banks and Bob Odenkirk to that short list as well.
Hello! It sure has been a while since I’ve done this. Forgive me; I’m still getting used to being able to write about things I like again. And, hey, A Picture of Nectar is a thing I like!
My previous installments about Junta and Lawn Boy involved a lot of hesitation to embrace the albums completely, but here, for the first time in Phish’s studio history, the balance tips. For my money, A Picture of Nectar contains more to recommend it than to detract from it, and it’s the first sustained evidence that they could function as an effective studio band. (Their legacy as a live band was never in question.)
Having said that, it’s also their most scattershot album to date. The band tried everything they could to find their studio footing once and for all…and it’s an exercise under which you can feel the album straining. As such, there are a lot of skippable tracks, but when the band hit upon something that worked — which it did quite often here — it really worked, and a few of these tracks are among the best they’ve ever recorded.
A Picture of Nectar is also the first time that the band’s playfulness was captured for the home listening audience, and it’s more successful for it. When the band has fun, we have fun, and A Picture of Nectar is absolutely a portrait of a band having fun.
We’re still a couple of albums away from Phish truly delivering a thorough studio masterpiece, but with this album they learn both how to do it, and how not to do it. It’s an experiment that’s thrilling and frustrating, but moreso the former, and if you don’t mind trimming a few of the lesser tracks from your playlist, A Picture of Nectar gets even stronger.
Speaking of lesser tracks!
…okay, okay, “Llama” isn’t really that bad. But compared to A Picture of Nectar‘s true accomplishments, “Llama” feels like filler.
Choose not to compare it and you end up with a pretty fun — if shallow — rocker with some incredible percussion and a great, swirling synth to carry it along. The lyrics are deliberately impenetrable (people debate to this day what the chorus even is), and putting this at the very front of the album feels like a promise of incoherence to come. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but if it’s not your thing, you may want to skip ahead a few years and pick up a different Phish album.
The band is experimenting, and figuring out what works is neither an easy process nor, necessarily, a crowd-pleasing one. “Llama” lets listeners know that whatever’s to come may be fun, and may be catchy, but it won’t necessarily be polished. In a live setting, “Llama” is an energetic palate cleanser. On disc, it’s practically a dare to keep listening.
…which is what makes it odd that it’s followed up immediately by the quiet, pretty instrumental “Eliza.” In fact, “Eliza” is the second part of the mission statement of A Picture of Nectar. If “Llama” disarmed you, “Eliza” tries to convince you that it’s worth pushing through the rougher patches. You just might find something beautiful, wedged between two monsters.
And it’s right; there’s a lot of beauty to find here. But I do have to admit that “Eliza” is kind of empty. It sounds pretty, and yet also sounds like nothing at all. It’s there…an airy coda to its rampaging predecessor, but it doesn’t register to me the way some of Phish’s other “pretty” interludes do (see “Bliss” or “The Inlaw Josie Wales”).
It’s there. It’s fine. And it lets you know that the whole album isn’t “Llama.” Mission accomplished.
“Cavern” is one of those Phish songs that all of the fans know and seem to love, but which never really clicked with me. It’s not awful, and I can appreciate a lot of things about it (read on!), but its popularity and frequency of appearances in setlists always confused me.
Wait, have I been down on all of these songs so far? I really am a miserable human being, aren’t I?
So, okay, fine, it doesn’t work for me on the whole. Ignore that small detail, though, and I appreciate how well it manages to take nonsense lyrics and weave what feels like an actual story. It’s a bit of an illusion, admittedly, as it relies on the instrumentation to build the atmosphere, set the pacing, suggest narrative climax where — strictly speaking — there is none, but that’s sort of the point of songwriting in general, so it’s no kind of cheat.
The plodding rhythm, the echoing drums, the repetitive grind of the groove…everything serves to underscore an idea, an atmosphere, a setting. And, largely, it works. “Cavern” is a journey I’d have a hard time summarizing, but it’s one I can feel.
Interestingly, “Cavern” isn’t the only song on the album that does this; “Stash” also spins a tale of nonsense that seems important in a way that transcends — or at least has nothing to do with — words as we understand them. But we’ll come to that soon enough.
The other thing the song does well is its triumphant concluding verse — from which the album takes its name — repeated with increasing enthusiasm as long as it takes to really sell the infectiousness. It’s a great conclusion to an otherwise fairly pedestrian track, and it’s why the song works so well (and so often) as a set closer.
On a live note, a horn section enhanced the rave-up swirl at the end of the song several times throughout the band’s live history, and that’s a nice variant to seek out if you’re interested. Personally I do think the brass adds something to the excitement, but the vocals do a good enough job of selling the triumph on their own, so it’s not a make/break situation; it’s just a pretty cool thing to hear after you’ve experienced the hornless version so many times.
A simple bluegrass ditty by bassist Mike Gordon about somebody swiping his tape recorder. It’s…man, I am not doing a good job of selling you on this album yet, am I?
It’s not bad. It’s fun. It’s a bit of a one-note experiment, but it’s brief and toe-tapping enough that it doesn’t overstay its welcome.
But…well, that’s it. It’s just sort of there, and it’s nowhere near Mike Gordon’s best composition or the band’s best dalliance with bluegrass. (See the next album’s “Fast Enough for You” for that honor.)
Now we’re talking. Honestly, don’t the opening notes convince you enough of that on their own?
“Stash” is just…man.
Just…just listen to it. “Stash” is fun. “Stash” is dark. “Stash” is silly and urgent and an incredible meld of composition and musicianship. “Stash” is Phish. And while I’m sure others would point to something like “You Enjoy Myself” as their singular example of what the band is, I think I’d have to point to “Stash.”
It’s an absolutely perfect listening experience. And, yes, it’s a song that takes on new life again and again on stage, with long jams teased out of it unexpectedly or just fiery straight versions played to audiences lucky enough to be there and feed off of it, but its studio version, I think, merits attention.
This is a chance to appreciate the song’s twisting melodies, its tense stop/starts, its masterful interplay between instruments which seem to having important conversations of their own — certainly more important than anything the lyrics have to say.
And yet the lyrics feel like they are saying something important. The story they weave — whatever it’s about, whatever happens in it — has a sense of significance, of weight, of value. And while the lyrics on paper, with all their talk of tunic yankings and solar garlic, seem frivolous, in performance they’re anything but. I couldn’t tell you what anything here is supposed to mean, but I could sure tell you how much it feels like they have meaning.
It’s evocative. What you don’t understand, you still experience. Trey’s guitar work in particular is thrilling. It evokes an endless rush of panic. Near misses. Narrow escapes. The sense that you reach the end of each bar alive by the skin of your teeth.
It’s just all around great, and I think it says something that a song best experienced live is still so solid in the studio, without the energy of the crowd to bolster it, without the benefit of nightly surprise and experimentation, without the freedom of slipping into and out of other songs at will.
“Stash” is one of my favorite compositions, and one of my favorite examples of studio Phish. It doesn’t capture the band’s experimentation, but it does capture their raw, burning power when they’re at their cohesive best, and this one goes down in history books for me.
Here’s a great joke: a band well known for their inventive covers of other people’s work finally records a song they didn’t write (one by Dizzy Gillespie) and it’s just them repeating some nonsense that sounds vaguely like the original song.
The best song on the album, and one of Phish’s best ever.
Listening now I don’t know why I didn’t list this along with “Cavern” and “Stash” as a nonsense song that still tells a story. Maybe it feels less to me like a story than an evocative scene. Maybe it feels less like nonsense. Whatever the reason, “Guelah Papyrus” seems like a truly unique composition…one I’d have a lot of trouble finding direct comparison to.
It’s lovely. It’s gorgeous. It’s rocky and smooth. It’s got an incredibly addictive beat that often finds me playing the song several times in a row. And its instrumental section manages to feel like an organic part of the composition in a way that it actually isn’t. (It was originally an unrelated tune called “The Asse Festival.” So, yeah, the title “Guelah Papyrus” is a definite trade upward.)
It meanders and it drives. It lounges and it hurtles. It spouts nonsense and suggest profundity. It’s a truly great song, and one of the few that I’ve always wanted to hear in concert and never, so far, have been fortunate enough to catch. It’s also, along with “Stash,” evidence that Phish was finding out how to use the studio…how to enhance their compositions rather than distract from them, how to achieve a kind of musical precision they couldn’t rely on otherwise, with embellishments like the echo effect applied to the backing vocals filling out the song in ways that feel natural and not calculated.
I love “Guelah Papyrus.” If I were able to take only one studio Phish song to a desert island with me, it might well be this one. Which is fitting, as the lyrics seem to outline the spidering thoughts of some endlessly drifting, hopeless protagonist who crossed the wrathful, mysterious Guelah herself.
Who is she? What did she do? The chorus claims that “this is the work of Guelah Papyrus,” but what is her work?
It doesn’t matter. What matters is how it affects our singer.
And it affects me in ways that I’m almost glad I have trouble expressing; that means they stay specific to me.
Our first Page McConnell composition, and by no means his best. Page is my favorite member of Phish — his keys anchoring nearly all of my favorite songs and favorite jams — but there’s no denying that he was a bit uncertain of his talents for much of the band’s life.
Later compositions would be marked improvements, but it wasn’t until he embarked on a career outside of Phish (first with Vida Blue, then under his own name) that he really found his voice as a songwriter.
Still, “Magilla” is good. It’s a minor, jazzy interlude that doesn’t do anything wrong, but definitely fails to live up to the rest of the album. It’s also disappointing that the piano-heavy song by the band’s pianist is entirely bowled over by a far superior piano song that takes over as soon as this one ends.
As “Guelah Papyrus” contained “The Asse Festival,” “The Landlady” would go on to be absorbed by “Punch You in the Eye,” a live-only song that fairly gracelessly plopped this tune into its middle when it needed an interlude.
That’s kind of disappointing, as “The Landlady” feels to me like it deserves to be more than breathing room in a different song. On its own, here, in the studio, it’s a great, rollicking salsa that manages to feel like more of a successful genre experiment than “Poor Heart” or “Magilla” did.
Those songs achieved what they set out to do — chart some more sonic territory for the band — but “The Landlady” succeeds at being…sort of great. Not complex, not revolutionary, but great within its own tight boundaries. And it’s an excellent spotlight for both Page’s nimble fingers and Trey’s screaming fretwork. It’s chilly and fiery at once, and it’s one of my favorite studio instrumentals from the band.
Falling where it does on the album, right here in the rough middle, it’s easy to overlook but worth seeking out. It’s a chance to observe the band growing into itself, setting out to dabble and ending up mastering.
“The Landlady” isn’t just a rough Latin sketch…it’s a Phish song. And a good one. “Punch You in the Eye” may have long outlived it, but I really enjoy the evidence that it once had a life of its own.
“Glide” feels like a novelty song that happens to have some very impressive musicianship behind it, namely in Trey’s guitar line. There’s a nice musical evolution that unfolds behind the simple, repeated lyrics, depositing us in some unexpectedly dark places, but ultimately it’s a trifle. One of many experiments on A Picture of Nectar that you can’t fault the band for trying. But it’s also not something I’d recommend seeking out.
“Tweezer” is mainly an excuse to screw around with a genuinely irresistible hook. On stage, though, it’s massive. Hour-long versions are not uncommon, and it’s right up there with “You Enjoy Myself” and “Mike’s Song” for sheer unpredictability. You may recognize the opening notes, but there’s no chance you’ll predict the song’s journey from there.
And that’s both its biggest claim to fame and its curse. When “Tweezer” starts up live, you know you’re in it for the long haul. End up with a great, inventive version with some playful momentum to keep it going and you’ll probably be pretty happy. But end up with the band struggling to find its footing and you could find yourself listening for a huge chunk of the set to four musicians floundering for cohesion.
It’s a crapshoot, and it’s one I’m never willing to bet on. If I find a recording of a show with a forty-minute “Simple” or “Ghost” or “Split Open and Melt,” I get excited. If I find a recording of a show with a forty-minute “Tweezer,” I worry.
Sure, it could be great. And, let’s be frank here, it often is.
But at least as often, it’s stuck in neutral. And as “Tweezer” doesn’t understand the concept of brevity, it’ll be stuck there for a while.
“Tweezer” rarely kills a night, of course, but it does often, to me, feel like it’s taking up a lot of time that another song could put to better use. When you hear a great “Tweezer” you know it, and it’ll make everything I’m saying here sound more like hogwash than usual. But I don’t think it’s great often enough to claim as much real estate as it does.
The A Picture of Nectar version clocks in at around nine minutes…a hefty chunk of the disc. But this version, while, of course, lacking much room for freeform experimentation and reluctant to stray too far from its backbone, is pretty good. While I don’t seek it out I also never feel compelled to skip it. It’s a nice taste of the band loosening up a bit in the studio, without the structural demands of “Stash,” for instance, keeping them from surprising themselves.
So, no, the studio version of “Tweezer” is not revelatory. But it’s reliable, and I always know it will be worth listening to, which is more than I can say for “Tweezer” in general.
Sue me. I like it.
The Mango Song
Another story song? Maybe. As with “Guelah Papyrus” I can’t really decide, but it’s certainly another great example of how nonsense lyrics bring to life distinct (if not necessarily clear) images, situations, scenes.
The abundance of nonsense lyrics on A Picture of Nectar — and, indeed, in Phish’s general output from the time — can seem more wearying than it actually is; because the songs all sound and feel distinct, and behave in such different ways, and serve such different purposes, it doesn’t feel as though they’re using the same excuse too often. And, what with the deadly serious lyrical approach of the next album (on the whole…), perhaps they were unknowingly getting this out of their systems, making way for the more poetic, Tom Marshall-penned lyrics to come. Those would require respect. (A kind of respect.) Here they were free to be kids.
But I’m getting away from this album, so we’ll complete that thought next time.
“The Mango Song” feels less important than songs like “Stash” or “Guelah Papyrus.” It’s more obviously playful, with the lyrics spinning an obscure joke as opposed to an indistinct adventure. It’s cheery. It’s one long punchline. And it’s fun, like so much of A Picture of Nectar, while also being musically complex.
Vocals overlap to produce a kind of sidelong harmony with conflicting lyrics. Melodies chase each other around. Focus on any one instrument and it will sound like it’s working its own, independent magic, that just so happens to fit what the other instruments are doing around it.
It feels like a beautiful accident, and I mean that as a compliment. The studio version gets at least a few bonus points, as well, for the song’s comparative rarity in the live setting. If you want to hear “The Mango Song,” you’re best served by reaching for the CD. And you’ll be happy if you do, because the performance you’ll find there is pretty great.
Chalk Dust Torture
If you want to hear “Chalk Dust Torture,” though, for God’s sake, ignore this one at all costs. That’s easy to do, because the band’s played it frequently at pretty much every point in its life, leaping between blistering, punchier versions and longer, oddly moody, jammy versions…but even the worst live version is sure to be better than this disappointingly lifeless rendition.
That’s not to say it’s bad, but it sure feels limp. The band doesn’t seem all that engaged with it, really, and it feels like they’re more focused on on hitting their marks than playing with much feeling. But the worst part is Trey’s vocal, which is artificially deepened and/or slowed down for reasons I could not possibly try to explain.
It makes the song nigh unlistenable, and while I understand — and appreciate — the many avenues of studio experimentation A Picture of Nectar immortalizes, this version of “Chalk Dust Torture” is poorer for it. And that’s a shame, because I’d love to have a clean version of this great, bluesy rocker to dip into now and again. Instead we get one that answers the question of whether or not it would be a good use of studio time to make Trey sound like Cookie Monster. (THE ANSWER SOMEHOW IS NO.)
Again, it’s not horrible, but those vocals feel like a painful miscalculation.
But, hey, it’s not the last time we’ll hear “Chalk Dust Torture” on disc…
Drummer Jon Fishman wrote a song that’s exactly what you think a drummer picking loosely at an acoustic guitar would be. Evidently this was recorded as some kind of joke at the expense of new age music, or something. Needless to say, it’s hilarious.
It’s a waste of a track. That one.
Okay, yeah, the last stretch of songs on A Picture of Nectar isn’t really notable for anything beyond its willingness to experiment. But “Catapult” is something a little different. It’s only a few seconds long, and it’s just bassist Mike Gordon singing a brief little verse through what sounds like an office PA system, but it’s actually had an interesting journey through the band’s live shows.
Since the album version has no instrumentation behind it, Gordon is free to sing it wherever he pleases, overtop totally unrelated jams or other sonic stretches. And sometimes he does. (Or did. I’m not quite sure when its last appearance was, but it may have been some time ago.) Sometimes Trey does, too.
And so “Catapult” has often become a verse in other songs, just because its lack of anything but a few words to remember means it’s easy to launch into whenever the spirit moves somebody.
But…that’s about it for “Catapult.” Its studio version doesn’t even offer a chance to hear the lyrics more clearly, as the distortion renders it just about as intelligible as you’d be able to glean over crowd noise anyway. It’s kind of cool to experience it in its entirely unassuming, weightless original form, but it’s a novelty, and by no means an intriguing one.
But we end with something kind of cool! A much shorter reprise of “Tweezer,” with an adjusted and key-shifted riff that heralds a great — if predictable — album-ending cacophony. It’s a nice celebratory end to a collection of songs that deserves to be celebrated, even if many of the individual compositions don’t.
A Picture of Nectar found the band trying everything — with each member contributing something they wrote independently, which I don’t think would happen again until 2004’s Undermind — just to see what would work. The unspoken flipside of that is that they’d also see what didn’t work, and this album immortalizes as much of that stuff as it does the successes.
From here on out, they’d know what they were doing. And we’d get some truly great albums out of that knowledge. Our next entry, Rift, is a brave next step. And if it stumbles, it will be the kind of stumble you can only make after you figure out what you’re doing, and start trying to do it as well as possible.
I’ll see you there in 2029.
Oh, but, man, before I go, I have to say that “Tweezer Reprise” is a really great pun that I never see anyone acknowledge, so let me just acknowledge now that “Tweezer Reprise” is a really, really great pun.