Thursday, March 20, 2014

Multiple Choice

Which of these should I have fired out onto the internet yesterday as my hasty response to an article that requires limited response, if any at all?

a. Just gonna casually mention that in my household we love music, but the one of us who reads music is not the one who writes about music.
b. How much must a music writer know about neurology?
c. The funniest part is that by dismissing Daft Punk as a gimmick Gioia misses out on an album that would meet his demands for harmonic nuance.
d. Thanks for trying to ignite a debate, but this is a conversation we already had.

It’s been a great couple of days to be a music writer, to watch as everyone rallies with principled responses to irrelevant, powerful attacks on their professions, and then moves on. These people know their stuff. Here are the ones I looked at:

AS (quoting Mencken; personally I find this line of thinking most helpful)
SFJ (re-linking an old piece, on pgs. 5-6)

I leave you with this excellent parody of nostalgic hysteria from Randy Newman:

Sunday, March 16, 2014


…is the name of a new mixtape, er, mix CD I put together for springtime (put yours together here). It’s named for the last of my childhood pets, put to rest last weekend in the presence of my mom (and there he is, reflected in the disc, above!), and though it’s not really about him, it does contain a couple songs that were important to me during his young cathood. He was two and I was 12* when Sleater-Kinney and Superchunk released excellent late-century albums, and to hear these again after a long absence suggests them as foundational albums from a delicate era, one that I’d like to have back for a day. (If I didn’t learn from these bands everything I love about melody and other feelings only found in music, I might as well have.)

I’ve spent a lot of my life in the past, very little of it in the future, so it’s strange to get to an age where it’s become clear, slowly and now undeniably, that there’s no going back there (pets gone, people dispersed, new busy life, less time for reflection, so that by the time I think about what I might be missing it seems very far away). I remember my sister doing the dishes and Superchunk playing on the radio, one summer, Meldrick sitting nearby I’m sure, and for a long time it was possible to recreate a version of that scene, return home and fall back into old patterns, make sure the music referred not to the past but to a permanently renewable mode of life. But now that it’s not possible, now that it doesn’t do that, now that it really does just refer to the past, it’s best to not let great old songs get shut away in a tomb.

So basically this mix is an attempt to imagine something beyond “A Quarter to Three,” a song with the time-suspending poignancy of The Go-Betweens’ “Spring Rain” and the further, to quote myself, exquisite pain of its placement at the end of its album (if The Hot Rock had been their last album, how might I live?), making the task of working past it all the more difficult. But I’m gonna try:

1. Sleater-Kinney – “A Quarter to Three”
2. Weekend – “Rosaries”
3. Digable Planets – “Black Ego”
4. Neneh Cherry – “Red Paint”
5. Swearin’ – “Mermaid”
6. Barbara Manning – “Smoking Her Wings”
7. The Pretty Things – “Death”
8. Black Hearted Brother – “UFO”
9. Raphael Saadiq – “Just Don’t”
10. Guided by Voices – “Islands (She Talks in Rainbows)”
11. Earl Sweatshirt – “Hoarse”
12. Bronski Beat – “Love and Money”
13. Danny Brown – “25 Bucks”
14. Iris DeMent – “Go On Ahead and Go Home”
15. Jimmie Dale Gilmore – “I’m Gonna Love You”
16. Grant Hart – “You Don’t Have to Tell Me Now”
17. Superchunk – “1000 Pounds”
18. Mercury Rev – “Empire State”

79.5 minutes

In every other case, my peak enthusiasm for these songs goes back to a time no earlier than last summer. A few of them come from albums of 2013 that I didn’t give their due (seriously, how I didn’t become more deeply involved in that Black Hearted Brother album is a mystery, it’s just great and pretty much guarantees that the next Slowdive album will be a fourth masterpiece), while others indulge a subdued, melancholic, early spring mood (Earl Sweatshirt’s “Hoarse,” with production that sounds like a David Lynch/Massive Attack collab, does both), until Iris DeMent (the female voice I need to hear after “25 Bucks”) and Jimmie Dale Gilmore make their late entrances and clear the way for the spectacular high of “Empire State.”

p.s. Formerly, mixtapes were a method of organizing my listening, one that’s never since been surpassed (not with writing, radio, etc.). Themes might emerge by accident but really I just wanted to collect everything new, focus my attention, tell myself that I could pick a favorite song by anyone. More recently, my deliberately quasi-thematic approach to mix-making, once or twice a year, with or without access to a fully functional tape deck, is less satisfying but also the only real option when I let so many songs pass me by, uncollected.

*“12 years old, skinny legs…” I don’t think I ever knew that line from “1000 Pounds,” but, God, can it get any closer?

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Yet Another Year at the Theater

2013, that is.


This is 40
The Thief of Bagdad (1924)
Zero Dark Thirty
Rust and Bone
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)


Warm Bodies


56 Up
Like Someone in Love


Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II (1991)
Ace in the Hole (1951)
The Place Beyond the Pines
Night Across the Street
War Witch


Upstream Color
Iron Man 3
The Great Gatsby
The General (1925)
Star Trek Into Darkness
Spring Breakers
At Any Price


Frances Ha
This is Spinal Tap (1984)
Falstaff (Chimes at Midnight) (1966)
This is the End
Something in the Air
Jurassic Park (3D) (1993)
Before Midnight
Monsters University


From Up on Poppy Hill
Sunrise (1927)
Pacific Rim


The Purge
I’m So Excited
The Way, Way Back
Fruitvale Station
The World’s End


The Spectacular Now
Blue Jasmine
Pacific Rim
Despicable Me 2
Husbands (1968)


Maniac (1980)
Clue (1985)
Shaun of the Dead (2003)
The Heat
Don Jon
Viva Knievel (1977)
Captain Phillips


Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
Criss Cross (1949)
12 Years a Slave
Thor: The Dark World
My Old Fiddle (1970) / A Well Spent Life (1994)
Dallas Buyers Club
Run Silent Run Deep (1958)
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire


After Hours (1985)
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Fear and Desire (1953) / Killer’s Kiss (1955)
Barry Lyndon (1975)
American Hustle
Enough Said
Inside Llewyn Davis
Lolita (1962)

= 70 times

A little off my 2012 pace. I was a much better moviegoer, and enjoyed going to movies more, in Albuquerque. It’s that kind of place. But even now, the theater still accounts for maybe 80% of the movies I see, a figure that’s as absurd as it is unlikely to change.

Brief notes, mostly reactionary edition

Anytime Almodovar gets less than enthusiastic reviews you can bet someone’s wrong. This take on I’m So Excited has the right attitude.

I’m telling you for the last time (for posterity now): The real subject of The Spectacular Now is a secret, apparently, but it’s discoverable (amusingly so, in hindsight) in all those shots in the trailer that show the main character’s giant soda cup. I like the visual weight of a cup as a crutch, and also the way the movie handles its subject, in a non-alarmist way that’s not new for teen movies (recently, The Perks of Being a Wallflower) but that seems surprising when the central issue is an ordinarily adult one.

Dallas Buyers Club makes sense as an Oscar movie, now that it’s become one, but I also want to remind people that two of its key emotional scenes feature Bradford Cox (dancing, then crying), so there are infinities of real-life ways to watch it. Also, Matthew McConaughey in a room full of butterflies, and an early 80s Dallas gay bar – two places the movies had never taken me before.

The “Nebraska condescends” line is routine at best, overcompensatory at worst (for what?), i.e. none of the critics have our backs, really. The movie features some gross caricature, obviously, but that’s also when it’s funny. The rest of the time, I enjoyed its consideration of the parent/child (not father/son!) gulf and its loving mock-deflation of the romantic attitude toward Montana (et al) usually found in major motion pictures (A River Runs Through It, Don’t Come Knocking). Maybe just because I could point to the scene in front of the Billings bus station and say, “I’ve been there,” I got the notion that Nebraska couldn’t have existed before Breaking Bad set new rules for location shooting. Either way, the Jimmy Johns magnet on Will Forte’s fridge – now that’s set decoration!

Probably due to some aspect of the two films’ production schedules, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, for its first half-hour, is as helpless as An Unexpected Journey to show us a single interesting image, but then, sometime around the spider sequence, visual competence rushes in and the effect is sudden clarity (not to be confused with digital crispness), the kind Bilbo experiences when he gets a breath of fresh air from above the forest. Later, Smaug is a magnificent creation, and he’s framed well too, and there’s even a scene in his lair, with Bilbo standing diminished in the center of a wide field of gold (and I think a well-placed eye on the left), that reminded me of Méliès.

Unlike the artist who gives the movie its title, nothing very bad happens to the characters in Gimme The Loot. They’re protected by some invisible buffer, or maybe not so invisible: I was thrown by the title, but it applies, even if its source doesn’t, and it’s probably just something the characters tell themselves, anyway. So, there’s talk of turf but all anyone sells is pot and all anyone gets is mugged (with hilariously devastating frequency, in one case). One character loses his shoes while his friend gains a pair elsewhere, but the movie goes for detail, not for tidy plotting, so the two events don’t converge to offer a solution. It’s very loose, inheriting its sense of vitality and city ambience either from earlier, somewhat better movies (Raising Victor Vargas, maybe) or else its distinctly advantageous amateur quality and hugely appealing “non” actors.

There’s no theory that could possibly unify the various parts of Lee Daniels’ The Butler into a coherent or even incoherent camp classic, a fascinating outsider-as-insider anomaly, etc., but time might clarify. Parts of it really are nothing more than standard and unimaginative historical backdrop drama (though the sit-in/place setting crosscut sequence is particularly imaginative and thrilling). And yet, all the domestic scenes, all the scenes with Oprah, and Oprah herself (so great), these demand to be seen always by some segment of viewers, however small, with whatever various desires and impulses, while the stuff that surrounds these things will probably look like an increasingly odd and irrelevant frame as time goes on.

The Bling Ring:


I somehow didn’t expect much from Run Silent Run Deep as a war movie, but it’s got a death (of a pretty blond innocent, of course) so harrowing, morbid, irredeemable, you’d think it was made ten years later in a spirit of protest.

This time through Barry Lyndon, I just kept thinking of life as a series of connections and relationships that can be shaken off, tossed aside, escaped from under, until eventually they can’t and you’re stuck with those people, that life. Except not really, because even when Barry finally gets in too deep (a family), even then, he ends up disgracefully shuffling back to his earliest existence. After such reflections, the ending “moral” is a doozy.

This will seem a dead point, as history has rightly adjudged the greatness of Eraserhead and the awfulness of Dune, but as complementary programming, I found it funny the way these two Lynch movies suggest the acceptable parameters of weirdness and incomprehensibility for mainstream audiences. That is to say, Eraserhead is much easier to follow on an intuitive level (and anyone who’s ever seen the Little Tramp in action, for example, will be quickly struck by the clarity of the movie’s references and gestures), but Dune gets the money, gets seen, because the faults of its storytelling, however disastrous, can be chalked up to accident. I’m not sure if they apply in the Lynch universe, but there is a kind of audience that won’t take any responsibility for its own viewership, but will forgive any amount of moviemaking laziness, because hey, at least it was supposed to be a ripping yarn.

Ten favorite movies, 2013

1. Frances Ha*
2. Pacific Rim
3. 12 Years a Slave
4. Computer Chess
5. Inside Llewyn Davis
6. The World’s End
7. Behind the Candelabra
8. Captain Phillips
9. The Way, Way Back
10. Enough Said

*As easy a choice as Searching for Sugar Man in 2012, Poetry in 2011, Scott Pilgrim in 2010. What’s the criteria? I could never find the right way to answer or refuse to answer that question re: movies, which might be why my music writing eventually took over.

Oscar favorites

Picture: 12 Years a Slave
Director: Steve McQueen
Actress: Sandra Bullock
Actor: Chiwetel Ejiofor
Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong’o
Supporting Actor: Barkhad Abdi
Original Screenplay: Nebraska
Adapted Screenplay: 12 Years a Slave

/// Until I find more time to write, accounting for my life with lists will be the primary function of this blog. Up next: a new mixtape; the 100 songs of my life (so far).

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

It’s V: Rolling in Green Pastures

Top ten albums, 2013

[1] Julia Holter – Loud City Song
[2] Grant Hart – The Argument
[3] Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
[4] Kelela – Cut 4 Me
[5] The Men – New Moon
[6] Pet Shop Boys – Electric
[7] Deerhunter – Monomania
[8] Bye! – Dreamshit Surfer
[9] Cate Le Bon – Mug Museum
[10] Danny Brown – Old

In words

[1] Pop music abstracted to the point it no longer resembles pop music – such a type of thing often lands at the top of these lists. Holter’s music retains its elusive moments but this is also a wonderfully contained set of songs, rich with physical detail. The subtle grounding of her astonishing musical imagination could have resulted in something too exacting or severe, but again Loud City Song seems just to happen.

[2] I saw Hart play a 25-song set the day after Christmas, new ones sewn in quite unobtrusively, and noted, as I’d already done, that more than one of them sound a lot like “Flexible Flyer.” That’s one of the things I like best about The Argument, the way the songs add up to a staggering piece but have such modest individual lives, to the point of recycled chords. His own catalog and a much broader, older catalog figure into The Argument so that it’s to rock ‘n’ roll what Random Access Memories is to its own corner of the musical landscape…

[3] I don’t care at all whether music sounds good (it all sounds good, no one can afford it not to), except for this, which sounds so good it probably has healing properties. It’s the first disco album I ever loved.

Early on, someone noted the total absence of women on this album, and it sounded damning, but: The world of men, men exclusively, signifies certain other things to me, not necessarily problematic. Forget what I said about Old re: displacement & imagination, sometimes I just want to hear an album according to my own priorities, and Random Access Memories can be a gay fantasia if I want it to be, as the evidence is quite striking.

This is going to sound either incredibly crass or incredibly obvious, but I’d like to submit that the “life” Daft Punk intend to give back to music is all that’s been lost—verifiably, tragically lost—since men danced to this kind of music in the years before 1981. There’s nothing trivial on the album, which contains, at the very least, moments of simple pleasure and grace of a kind stolen from an entire generation. That would make “Doin’ It Right” a song about the anxiety and ultimate helplessness of musicians, but no one can say they didn’t try.

[4] Not the first person to borrow specific sounds from Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting” (on “Send Me Out”) but maybe the first to build her own intimate world, different and complete, from them – and all attendant sonic material, texture, feeling, atmosphere.

[5] No one sticks it out with bands anymore. Apparently only sheer physical impact counts. Deerhunter got typecast as skuzzy this year because that’s what people wanted them to be, The Thermals and No Age presented exquisite reductions of their craft, were thus ignored altogether, and The Men just weren’t loud enough, I guess, on their best and most engaging album by miles. This is the first time their music has shaken off the weight of its history and influences and gelled in a meaningful way. Still, it’s all here, and already by the time I get to the barely held together country of track four, “The Seeds,” there’s nothing I want that this album can’t or hasn’t given me.

[6] I always dreamed they’d make an album I’d love as much as this one sometime during my adulthood. They make everything better, especially when they’re slyly nodding outside the club: My favorite rap verse of the year is delivered quite ordinarily by Example on “Thursday,” but the beat sells it; my favorite guitar moment of the year is the album’s only allusion to the existence of such an instrument, that bit of processed goo on the highly affecting Springsteen cover. I referred to Discography as a guide for living; it’s been updated for modern man.

[7] Fragments of a live review I never wrote, 9/9/13:

Back again at the Fine Line (a more tolerable venue in its current unbranded, transitional stage), Deerhunter initially seemed to be playing a somewhat more difficult show until early chaos (a very long, droning intro to “Cryptograms,” their second song) revealed a method (the song itself) and a band in excellent form. Are they ever not?

This is the only rock group whose inner workings I wonder much about. For example, what are the unspoken rules for the rhythm section, during extended versions? How do they feel about these rules? During a long and then longer “Nothing Ever Happened,” who was accurately judging the audience’s absolute threshold of tolerance and who was simply lost in the music? For Bradford Cox, the one who generally gets to let loose over rigid architecture, if for no one else, there’s infinite potential in songs that get played every night. The locked nature of records (despite tangible unheard possibilities) breaks apart again live. That said, they tended to treat songs from Monomania as unalterable gems.

A catalog as great and varied as Deerhunter’s means that the setlist defines the band, every night they play. They were one thing, and then a great run of songs from Monomania, late in the set, created them again. And yet, despite little suggestion in the music, I believe if they say they only listen to The Carter Family.

Anyone who perceives Cox as an enigma or a weirdo has not seen him live, where it’s immediately apparent he’s simply a great performer. He wore the same black wig he donned for a TV performance of “Monomania,” and then during a set-ending version of that song finally tore it from his head. In drag this is a temptation not to be given into, but in Cox’s performance it marked drag’s violent end, an inverted drama. Later, an audience member, singling out the wig as the means of her assault, preyed on the performer’s reputation but failed to create a scene, was ejected from the venue instead, hopefully to die as ignominiously as anyone who might’ve gone to a Replacements show in the 80s hoping the band was drunk.

[8] Possibly unique among all those recent albums (My Bloody Valentine, Mazzy Star) that bear little relation to the present, parts of this actually were recorded as long ago as 1999, but no matter, as its 33 minutes, from incidental music to “Incidental Music” and back again, follow such a singular, compelling trajectory toward the data dump of our year (

[9] “This is a flawless record. I’ve spent hours and hours listening to it and enjoying it. Perfectly executed,” says Bradford Cox. It made me so happy to read that.

[10] An album I will listen to forever and ever.

+ 8 = 18

Ex Cops – True Hallucinations*
John Grant – Pale Green Ghosts
Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady*
My Bloody Valentine – mbv
Pistol Annies – Annie Up
Primal Scream – More Light
Laura Veirs – Warp and Weft
Waxahatchee – Cerulean Salt*

I can make convincing arguments for all of these, and the starred items might have been in the top ten as recently as two seconds ago (you’ll never know), but the ranking process unravels as soon as I defer to logic rather than what actually compelled me most.

John Everhart on True Hallucinations: “…exhibits just how deep the well of pop music runs when a band has a firm grasp of the fundamentals” – indeed! Universally applicable, too.

+ 7 = 25

Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest
Bill Callahan – Dream River
Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap
Lisa Germano – No Elephants
The Mary Onettes – Hit the Waves
Sad Baby Wolf – Electric Sounds
The Thermals – Desperate Ground

On a personal note

Back in August, I had the great luck and fortune to get to know my #1 all-time music hero, Jack Rabid (a writer and editor, primarily, but also a musician), and so to the kids I say, meet your idols, sometimes it turns out unbelievably well and deepens into an easy feeling of friendship and a series of lovely evenings – four dinners and four live music events, by my count, sometimes with his family, sometimes with mine. At the time, the whole situation never struck me with the major disbelief I might have anticipated, so maybe it’s the fact that I first knew Rabid through his magazine The Big Takeover that I’m so struck by the print evidence, on the publication & acknowledgments page of new issue #73:

It’s also amazing to consider that the new issue of the magazine was put together in the very town where I used to read it so longingly. I’m as touched on behalf of my town as I am for myself.

Of course there’s much more coincidental, full-circle beauty for me in this situation than there is for Rabid, whose great editorial/elegy in the new issue is about the closing of his beloved Maxwell’s in New Jersey, effects of gentrification, and his mournful retreat to the big country. A must-read.

More lists, portrait of living edition

a. Two dollars in the 19 Bar jukebox (one in fall, one in winter):

Primal Scream – “Loaded”
Janelle Monae – “Tightrope”
Magnetic Fields – “The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side” (the original draft of “New York, New York” before Robert De Niro demanded it be rewritten, I joked)
ABC – “Poison Arrow”

Hidden Cameras – “Death of a Tune”
Suede – “So Young”
Yaz – “Nobody’s Diary”
ABC – “Tears Are Not Enough”

Formula: something by ABC + something from the World’s End soundtrack + something from the current century + something I fondly remember choosing or being praised for choosing years ago

b. Records played from the collection of a famous author when he was not at home last week:

Breeders – Last Splash (duh)
Seefeel – ?
De La Soul Is Dead
Massive Attack – Protection
Captain Beefheart – Bat Chain Puller
Big Black – Atomizer (a favorite, but I’d never heard the whole thing before, as Albini hates my kind and excised “Strange Things” from the CD version)

Final moments

But as we realized he was transitioning out of this world and into the next, everything, all of us, just went calm. They turned off the machines, and that room was so peaceful. I put on his music that he liked, Dave Brubeck.

[…] the day before he passed away, he wrote me a note: “This is all an elaborate hoax.” I asked him, “What's a hoax?” And he was talking about this world, this place. He said it was all an illusion.
Chaz Ebert

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Macromix 13

Track/ Rank

1/ 20 Kim Deal, “Are You Mine?”
-/ 19 Kurt Vile, “Girl Called Alex”
2/ 18 Chance The Rapper feat. Noname Gypsy, “Lost”
3/ 17 No Age, “An Impression”
4/ 16 Jeremy Jay, “Covered In Ivy”
5/ 15 The Men, “Half Angel Half Light”
6/ 14 Neko Case, “Man”
7/ 13 Pet Shop Boys, “Love Is A Bourgeois Construct”
8/ 12 Kelela, “Floor Show”
9/ 11 Disclosure feat. Sam Smith, “Latch”
10/ 10 Club 8, “Kill Kill Kill”
11/ 9 Laura Veirs, “That Alice”
12/ 8 The Thermals, “The Sunset”
13/ 7 Ex Cops, “James”
14/ 6 My Bloody Valentine, “New You”
15/ 5 Deerhunter, “Dream Captain”
16/ 4 John Grant, “GMF”
17/ 3 Youth Lagoon, “Mute”
18/ 2 Yo La Tengo, “Ohm”
19/ 1 Marnie Stern, “Year Of The Glad”

An abundance of great 6-minute songs (two of the top three!) makes this the first macromix that doesn’t fit handily on one CD, so I’ll be omitting “Girl Called Alex” from any CD copies I make, possibly replacing it with the only song I can find that’s short (and great) enough, Waxahatchee’s “Coast To Coast.” Remember that albums without obvious standout songs are generally disqualified from macromix consideration, expected to hold their own on the album list, so “Coast To Coast” is only an unofficial space-filler (Cerulean Salt’s standout is its sequencing more than a song).

And here I become conflicted. I’d thought the same thing about Danny Brown’s Old, its sequencing vs. its standouts, but lately (too late) find that “25 Bucks” is a song that resonates individually and that I really like hearing on its own. It took me a while to warm to the sound of Old, a little overbearing compared to the more obviously desolate sound of XXX, but now I’ve remembered that parts of it, like the song under consideration, are the exact color and texture of certain passages from my childhood. It might be a bit of a stretch, since the poorness and the psychological discomfort of my life have never resulted in hunger, coldness, physical discomfort or major dislocation, etc., never required anything but time as treatment (Dad playing craps for a pair of shoes, though, these foggy, distant, unimportant events never really stop), but the way Brown goes over and over and over his past and comes up with songs as compulsively listenable as “25 Bucks”… no artist is doing more useful and instructive work right now.

“It gets tiresome, writing about the same things, hoping this will be the time that someone wants to read it,” I said to a friend, who has stuff of his own he’s tired of writing. It’s certainly true that Danny Brown repeats himself on Old (no sleep in x days; I came too far to fuck it up) but he still has the right attitude for the unending semi-autobiographical project, and the energy and artistry, I imagine, to someday bring it to every living listener, with an enviable lack of shame/embarrassment that makes him approachable on strictly musical terms (i.e. the trauma of writing doesn’t overwhelm the music; most musicians have that, I think, but I don’t, that’s why I mention it). So, the great opening line of XXX (“colder…”) could’ve stood as an encompassing metaphor, screw anyone who didn’t hear it (their own fault), but it gets repeated (inverted, turned inward) on the great opening line of Old (“…heat”). There’s always more to say, and we lose lines like that when writers imagine they’ve found the ultimate words and ultimate audience for an idea.

Back to “25 Bucks,” briefly. “I’ll not get old” – I remember when I thought that, but somehow the hook is as pleasurable as it is painful, and doesn’t make me swallow too hard. The next song on the album is “Wonderbread,” a story I dreamed of writing when I was younger (mine was about a gallon of milk), in an exaggerated epic mode (a mistake), but I lacked the details and experiences to realize it. I only knew what was going on inside my home, if even, not outside of it. But let’s not suppose that locating some thread of identification is key to appreciating Old, etc. I only wanted to suggest an angle from which the album’s method resonates, not some notion that it’s about me. I haven’t even gotten to its second side, which this bullshit article would have me ask, “What’s a gay man doing listening to all this heterosexual sex?” – insulting, especially concerning the work of an artist, not a fantasy peddler. Here’s to the thrill of displacement, also known as the thrill of imagination, which gay men have a historical, necessary affinity for (in more complicated ways than the author of the article has ever dreamed) but seem to be losing.


Cream of the crop*: Justin Timberlake, “Mirrors”

Country songs: Pistol Annies, “Trading One Heartbreak For Another”; Ashley Monroe, “Like A Rose”; Kacey Musgraves, “Silver Lining”

Albuquerque song: Sad Baby Wolf, “Roaming”

*pop crap


Also left to hold its own on the album list: Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. But which song might I have chosen? Let me harmlessly yet probably somehow controversially rank them all, from favorite to least favorite…

1. Doin’ it Right
2. Within
3. Giorgio by Moroder
4. Instant Crush
5. The Game of Love
6. Fragments of Time
7. Get Lucky
8. Touch
9. Motherboard
10. Give Life Back to Music
11. Lose Yourself to Dance
12. Contact
13. Beyond

(If these images are meant to correspond to the two sides of Old then I have them in the wrong order. But no, the first one continues the preceding years’ nightlife theme and the second one is the comfortable alternative.)

Monday, October 28, 2013

Breaking Bad 6.4-6.8

These comments will probably seem as quaint as the events of “Rabid Dog,” for example, seem after watching “Ozymandias,” but, in honor of maybe the first TV drama that ever truly ended, I didn’t want to leave this unfinished.


There have never, ever been that many people in Civic Plaza, not when Los Lobos isn’t playing a free show. Hank calls it the “most wide open public place in all of Albuquerque,” to reassure Jesse, and it’s true, but can you call it a public place when no member of the public has ever been there? Still, the weirdly populated depiction (food carts?!; children?!) of a reliably empty place is another of this show’s crucial amplifications, where reality’s overwhelming realness sets the course of events.

Skyler and Walt’s inability to say the word “murder” as they discuss killing Jesse, moments after Walt’s impatience with Saul’s euphemisms, is pretty funny. It’s easy to forget how timid these people remain on the subject of death.


I love the way that, even now, at the finale of one the most heavily plotted shows ever, characters are still allowed to have quiet private moments (though, given the nature of the show/the plot, these sometimes appear to be moments of cryptic motivation, initially, somewhat masking the beauty): Todd erasing the edge of Lydia’s lipstick on a coffee mug; Walt regarding Skyler and Walt Jr. at the car wash register before getting Jesse’s (Hank’s) fateful text.

I sensed as it was happening, and I think I was right, that the moment when Walt Jr. is star struck by Saul Goodman at the car wash (priceless!) would be Breaking Bad’s last straightforward comic moment (key word straightforward; almost everything in this show is funny from a certain angle).


“Sorry for your loss,” says Todd. He’s often described as the show’s ultimate psychopath, but I always saw him as just really dumb, eager to be useful and, therefore, to prove he knows what’s necessary. Maybe he’d even avoid killing someone if he didn’t see it as practical! (Or not; more about this in the next episode.) So when he says that to Walt I think he stupidly means it, as much as he’s able, and that he’s not trying to reinforce the evilness of Jack’s gang. It’s quite the opposite when Walt tells Jesse the truth about Jane – evil compounded.

So far the story of Skyler and Walt Jr. has been the equivalent of that great Pistol Annies song from this year, “Trading One Heartbreak for Another” (i.e. trading a monster for a fractured home), in particular that moment when the knife in Angaleena Presley’s heart goes in even deeper, with the realization that “he’ll always have me to blame.” I’ve admired the way this show has always protected Walt Jr.’s innocence (how easy it would have been to cut away to a scene of teenage drug use, or Walt Jr. reacting to confusion in some equally ineffective way) even as it’s been the cause of so much pain for Skyler. So that was satisfying when, during the frenetic interior scene (the kind that usually involves cocaine) of domestic violence we’ve all been waiting for (I love how an echo of the episode’s opening flashback, with knife and phone, introduces the scene), he responds to the chaos with something resembling clarity and finally takes his mother’s side. Innocence maintained!

Walt shakes Jack’s hand again, and this time, in daylight and from the opposite angle, we can see the swastika tattoo.

There is, again, a direct correlation between the deterioration of Walt’s physical condition and the amount of physical work he has to do. His cancer has returned, so he must roll a barrel full of cash through the desert.


Robert Forster. That was some brilliant casting, and certainly the appearance of the long-rumored vacuum man was contingent on getting an actor like Forster.

I’m very, very upset that Andrea had to die. It makes no sense and strikes me as the kind of mistake the show couldn’t afford to make in its final episodes since, by calling attention to the hand of the writers, the plausibility of every other decision is brought into question. It’s not that Jesse had anything left to live for, because already he didn’t, and it’s not that I saw Todd as the kind of clueless yet practical guy who would recognize that a bluff would be good enough to retrain Jesse (“I think she got the message,” he says to Lydia, about Skyler). No, it was just the last body/last straw that finally turned this show into a game of who lives and who dies, also an occasional shortcoming of the even bleaker Walking Dead. Up until now every awful thing on this show had a way of deepening an already overwhelming horror, but this time all I felt was a lapse into the void of inconsequence.


There’s a theory that the finale is a fantasy playing out in Walt’s head as he freezes to death in a car in New Hampshire? As far as trick finales go that wouldn’t have been so bad, as it would’ve been a clear response to the helplessness and dislocation of the previous episode. But I don’t see how the finale was any more fantastical than the rest of the series, nor how anyone could have expected that this modern yet far from revisionist Western would end with Walt dying on any but his own (vastly reduced, according to the original premise, but still his own) terms. He’s already mostly dead when he returns to Albuquerque, half-ghost half-myth, and carries out his final errands with floating ease. What happens really happens, literally, and yet… TV rarely requires interpretation beyond the level of, say, character motivation, and Breaking Bad, with its real locations and plausibility as a sturdy backdrop, has mostly inspired more of the same. So, unconvincing as I think the finale theories are, I’m glad that the perhaps implausible efficiency of Walt’s exit has opened the show up to consideration of its let’s say figurative language.

Jesse lives, and for what? Nothing, probably. That’s been obvious for a long, long time, and anything else would be wishful thinking, so how perfect that the last of Jesse is a flash of relief as he speeds away. That’s the rest of his life, right there. Paired with the beautiful vision of his box-making triumph (the show’s final non-narrative flourish), Jesse’s exit allows him to retain his soul, something that would no doubt prove impossible if we followed him another minute.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Breaking Bad 6.1-6.3

Or however you want to number these new episodes. I’m a little behind, but I’ll post my thoughts as I go along.


The world of Breaking Bad has been rotting from the inside out since the first episode, the present (future) state of Walt’s house in the opening scene being the latest, bleakest evidence.

Speaking of rot, Walt’s cancer is back. This seems like a sudden, soft revelation, but the show’s writers don’t do anything lazily, so I’m sure there’s plenty of evidence to be found in the previous episodes, in hindsight. Or, it’s introduced in a way that makes it beside the point, which would be appropriate. And yet, for a while now, the only possible way I’ve imagined the series ending is with Walt’s cancer returning and killing him, per the original premise (final structure: terminal, solutions revealed as digressions). Come to think of it, he doesn’t look very well in the opening flash forward scene.

Breaking Bad becomes the second great AMC show to feature a character pitching a Star Trek episode. Badger’s concept for a pie-eating contest episode, in which the contents of Chekov’s stomach are beamed into outer space, sounds funnier and more wildly creative than the sober, allegorical script that Paul Kinsey gives to Harry Crane on Mad Men (but likely to remain unwritten). It’d be interesting to think of Badger and Paul as versions of the same guy in different contexts, so that what makes Badger funny, lazy, unconcerned (riffing with Skinny Pete), and what makes Paul serious, hardworking, desperate (pleading with Harry), are all the forces in their respective shows beyond their selves.

I’m still amazed by Breaking Bad’s efficiency. The main purpose of this episode is to get Walt and Hank to each acknowledge what the other knows. I could’ve predicted this playing out over a number of episodes, but even within one, it doesn’t feel rushed. And, funny enough, it almost doesn’t happen, but two small black objects (a tracking device, a garage door opener), and one of Walt’s frozen moments of misplaced pride, make it possible.

Jesse’s slack, stony mask of guilt and despair, sometimes broken with moments of vein-popping anguish, has long been the soul of this show, and Aaron Paul still finds new levels of inner torment to half-convey. When he looks sidelong toward the camera, away from Walt’s latest lie, there’s no sense that he’s looking at us, or anywhere closer than a million miles from here.


Skyler continues to get all the best lines. “Am I being arrested?” is nearly as shocking a moment as “I protect this family from the man who protects this family,” and another example of Skyler’s ability, on this show of towering lies, to perceive the reality of any given moment. Let’s not forget that she started the series as an apparently non-working writer, while proving her talents in her field every step of the way. She’s the show’s only successful liar, she manufactures its most convincing stories, and, given a little time to overcome the routine of a life with a man she thought she knew, she always figures out what’s going on.

I’ve read arguments in which Breaking Bad’s self-conscious trick shots are used as an example of what keeps it from the level of cinema. Well, it’s not cinema, it’s a TV show (although, that shot a number of seasons ago in which Walt lands a whole pizza on his garage roof is certainly an example of pure cinema), but I’ve always found these trick shots to be synonymous with what makes the show work, the way it hyper-adrenalizes every smallest fiber of its production. I liked this episode’s money barrel and merry go round shots, and the latter’s misty playground location—further amplification of the show’s raw materials. I never walked through a park like that in Albuquerque.

The comic relief duo (as I’ll call them, though I do remember that one is named Huell) has a great moment in the Whites’ storage container. I always thought the show made too much of Huell’s physical difference, but his decision to lie down on the money pile shows unusual agency, for him, and makes for a good visual concept.


This is the episode I was waiting for: the meeting of the now sparring in-laws takes place at Garduno’s, a restaurant in Albuquerque that would be closed for filming the day after I ate there with my own “in-laws” back in April. Look close enough and you might catch the shadow of our exit. No, you’ll be too transfixed by the scene, which features a lot of standard Walt hypocrisy, as when he demands Hank and Marie leave his kids out of the situation, while trying to use the image of Walt Jr.’s unraveled life as a way of getting Hank to back off.

Walt’s confession is a doozy, and overcomes so many leaps of logic that it seems pretty certain Skyler wrote it.

My only hope for this show’s outcome is that Jesse lives to see the possibility of a future. I’m not the only one. Breaking Bad knows we demand this, and cleverly taunts us with Jesse’s near-getaway. It looks like he blew that chance, but since his ongoing misery has something to do with his feeling of being jerked around by Walt for five seasons, his helplessness in the face of all the damage he’s caused, it seems pretty essential that he finally take an active role in his life and do something drastic, even if only by way of revenge.

Walt imagines for Jesse a future when all the events of the series might seem to Jesse like a bad dream. “It was all a dream” is the worst way to end a story, but, in a different sense, the only legitimate one.


“Lyrics are lyrics and poetry is poetry.” I read that somewhere recently, and agreed with it, and wanted to include it here for fear that history and my own published writing might appear to place me on the wrong side of truth. Earlier, I wrote that Julia Holter’s lyrics “constitute an actual poetry whose…” and very nearly included a footnote* with this statement, but decided it would be best to avoid overcomplicating the review.

*“Contrary to popular belief, lyrics are not poetry set to music. Holter proves this by way of exception.” Or something like that.

The other thing I tend to do is use the word “poetry” in reference to truth and beauty, rather than form. So when I wrote about Laura Veirs’s “America” and mentioned “the force of its poetry,” I can be accused of bad writing but hopefully not of mistaking Veirs’s lyrics for something else.


Since The World’s End is an Edgar Wright movie, all its greatness was sufficiently evident to me in the way it uses its soundtrack (the music, I mean, though the way a ringing bell entirely contains one long Simon Pegg speech is further proof of these guys’ art). The movie’s first four prominently heard songs, all early 90s, perfectly match their corresponding emotional/visual elements, and set the parameters of the universe Pegg’s character aims to recapture—for his pals and, yes (a sad discovery), himself. He’s ultimately failed to convince himself he still lives in that universe, even if the tape is still in his car’s deck:

Primal Scream, “Loaded”
Soup Dragons, “Free”
Suede, “So Young”
Teenage Fanclub, “What You Do To Me”

It’s not all bad news for Gary King. Three of those bands are still active, and two have excellent albums from this year.