Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Cold Comfort Norm

is a story I will write one day.


Avatar was my most intensely emotional moviegoing experience of the year, which perhaps isn’t saying much when you consider that the ending of Revenge of the Sith made me cry. Some have called the movie unimaginative, which is not true but also misses the point, since James Cameron isn’t necessarily trying to create something new here. The story works because it’s a streamlined composite of other alien planet narratives; we’re already primed to respond to the ecstasies of a story like this. The visuals, too, work because they’re so familiar, but through the wonders of technology, more vivid, physical, full and present than ever before. Sin City and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow recycled popular images too, and while I’m not sure why I found the former’s visuals stifling and dull and the latter’s mesmerizing, or why some find Avatar chintzy, I know it comes down to a matter of taste, not aesthetic failure.

Almost as emotional: Of Time and the City

Jim Emerson calls Precious a John Waters-inspired comedy, which at least takes the movie’s peculiarity into account, but I’ve yet to find a review that accurately describes the narrative arc. It is neither a “feel-bad/feel-good story of degradation and redemption” nor a “voyeuristic lesson-movie that goes slumming and then presents itself as an inspirational triumph of the spirit” (Emerson’s expectations before he saw it). It could only be those things if by its end it gave us a protagonist completely knowable in her new happiness. But Precious, as she leaves the screen, is still unknowable, and doomed to further unhappiness, and just plain doomed. All we’ve done is see her through (some of) the worst of it. At least she has seen beyond her drawn shades into Ms. Rain’s Sapphic paradise. Did I mention I liked the movie?

Almost as cruel: Observe and Report, while not quite equal to its ambitions, is an anti-comedy about the way humans celebrate despicable people just because they can throw a punch or shoot a gun.


A Good Man Is Hard To Find by Flannery O’Connor : It’s great, and it’s as if I’ve been unconsciously channeling it for years: The Misfit’s shoulder blades in the title story; “A Stroke of Good Fortune,” which takes on, quite successfully, the losing proposition of trying to describe a character’s every physical sensation and health worry. I should begin rewriting my old stories with all this in mind, and then I will have the benefit of a touch of Flannery even if I fail in every other way.

Spin (which I spent no less than three months, off and on, reading) included some of those annoying things that SF writers do, like the way everyone refers to a human-descended Martian character as “that wrinkled little brown man” even though it undermines their plausibility as human beings. So then why did the ending have to be so satisfactory? I could kick this SF habit if I wasn’t always so pleased with the outcome and didn’t always feel I had come closer to understanding the mysteries of the universe.

Every time I go to the library and browse the new fiction shelves, I find yet another novel about music love in the modern era: characters bonding via cassette tapes, mourning the demise of a punk band, etc. Titles include The Singer, The Song Is You*, Rock Bottom, The Alternative Hero, I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone. I’m curious to read all of these, though I have mixed feelings about their existence. They indicate a market, however meager, for this sort of literature, but also a literary trend that makes my own fiction less than unique. The best I can do to counteract irrelevance is to understand the way I feel about the music I like. Two more I forgot: Joe Pernice’s latest; Peter Bognanni’s forthcoming The House of Tomorrow. I think the latter will be wise about its subject. The cover is awesome, plus the protagonist joins a punk band called The Rash, which sounds like a band that would play at The Smell.


At this time of year, what I like even better than Christmas music are those songs that can almost convince you, if you’re listening to them in a dark enough room, that you have died and been buried in the cold, cold ground. The third track on Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Vol. II, Moby’s “My Weakness,” among others: I think these have no greater goal than to push you right up against your fear of death when you are at your most vulnerable, locked in headphones. DJ Shadow’s (Twin Peaks-sampling) Endtroducing** might work the same way if it didn’t also have the influence of funk and hip-hop. And Moby’s “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters” might too, if it didn’t also sound like a resurrection.

Someone (me?) ought to do a comparative analysis of Atlas Sound’s “Shelia” and Girls’ aforeblogged “Lust for Life.” In both, the singer seems to be wishing not for what he says he wants, but wishing that he wished for what he says he wants. It would simplify life, to want those things.

Speaking of, I’d like to hear an Atlas Sound cover of the “Just You & I” musical number from Twin Peaks. There is much that defies convention on that show, but this sequence—in which the teenagers James, Donna, and pseudo-Laura sit in a living room and, just because they want to, sing to the sound of twinkling 50s guitar—is an especially unmotivated, and perfect, moment. Taken out of context (where it pretty much already exists) it would be one of the greatest of all music videos, the poor lip-syncing a special bonus!

Deerhunter’s Microcastle is the highest-ranking album by a band whose members are roughly close to my own age on my still unpublished list of the best of the 00s. For this reason, and just because it sounds right, I’d say that album is the best so far produced by my generation (not the generation of 15 years ago that I used to think was mine). It features sounds that have been heard before, but the air of lethargy and illness that surrounds them is certainly a new attitude. There’s a song on the companion album called “VHS Dream,” and I think this is particular to late 80s babies: that even technologies I still use everyday I already find remote and somewhat romantic. Also see The xx, “VCR.”

But perhaps you are a serenely, uncomplicatedly, and permanently happy person and believe Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion to be the sign of the times and the sound of a generation (why do I have this attitude about AC fans even though I know it isn’t so?). If I fell in love with someone who loved them I would maybe find myself instantly agreeing, but I find there’s a troubling absence of pain in their music (probably not in the lives of the musicians, so where is it hiding? Even your standard hippie Zen anthem reveals a bit of sadness). So I’ll skip their “I wanna walk around with you” for the time being and stick with the Ramones’ “I Don’t Wanna Walk Around With You.”

The songs on Top 40 radio these days are among the most culture-encrusted music I’ve ever heard. The hitmakers of today will swipe seemingly any musical gesture, and what once made sense and resonated emotionally in the context of rock ‘n’ roll, soul, funk, psychedelia, disco, punk, post-punk, hip-hop, etc., can easily be made just one more layer of cacophony in a pop song. These songs are therefore complex but also banal: so long as the lyrical sentiment is simple and works as a cipher of real human feeling where no real world context actually exists, then even a bit of overprocessed shoegazery guitar might be considered appropriately marketable. I can’t even count the number of musical trends that had to happen before The Black Eyed Peas could create something as unlistenable as “Boom Boom Pow.” How someone can respond to that song—or even be made to want to dance by it—is beyond me; I was able to respond to it twenty iterations ago when it was called “The Twist” and wasn’t carrying tons of cultural trash making it the sonic equivalent of the junked Earth in Wall-E. That said—and for those who are keeping tabs on the mixed messages I’ve been sending about her—I find Lady Gaga’s songs infinitely more palatable than anything else on Ryan Seacrest’s morning show, as the best of them are simpler throwbacks to the mid-90s club stylings of LaBouche, Crystal Waters, etc. Gaga herself is sending significantly fewer mixed messages*** than her contemporaries, by which I mean she displays a straightforward diva mentality and her music is not sonically chaotic or indecipherable.

I had a brief and unspectacular conversation with (Decemberist) Colin Meloy when he played a hometown show at my place of work on Sunday. I also learned from his Twitter that the great Vic Chesnutt has died.


I’ve read eight books published in the last 12 months (a new record!). Here they are from best to worst (i.e. great to quite good): Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, Lowboy, Homer & Langley, The Book of Night Women, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Stitches, Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It, Asterios Polyp.

Also, twelve great movies of 2009: Avatar, Of Time and the City, A Serious Man, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Coraline, Tyson, Bruno, Silent Light, Taking Woodstock, Julia.

*The New York Times review remarks upon the rarity of the male muse in literature, and the myth that women, if they must be poets, must serve as their own inspiration. The book is said to cleverly upend this notion, and it seems doubly clever to me as the male muse is slightly less rare in popular music.

**The central melody of “Stem/Long Stem” recently reminds me of an instrumental light pop with sax track that I used to hear on AOR radio a lot and that signified to me the world of adults and hot Miami nights. Can anyone name it?

***Unless you pay too much attention to what she says.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009



[1] A Sunny Day In Glasgow, Ashes Grammar
[2] Jeremy Jay, Slow Dance
[3] Bob Mould, Life and Times
[4] Bat For Lashes, Two Suns
[5] Idlewild, Post Electric Blues
[6] St. Vincent, Actor
[7] The Sleepover Disaster, Hover
[8] Patrick Wolf, The Bachelor
[9] Mew, No More Stories…
[10] Morrissey, Years of Refusal

This is the list that I carry with me when, in December 2009, I take the train to St. Paul (in transit I travel back in time one year) and knock on the dorm room door of Geoff, age 21, a senior at Macalester College. Younger Geoff looks at the list and immediately recognizes it as a future top ten. It is easy to surmise, because it is only likely that A Sunny Day In Glasgow will go from making the best debut of 2007 to making the best album period of 2009.

He is happy to learn that Bob Mould will rise again. Bob never stopped making good albums, but after this year’s District Line, young Geoff thought he might be done making great ones. Perhaps it’s a matter of how vulnerable Bob makes himself, as Geoff has recently begun to suspect that he is actually a very likable man. It is also good news that Patrick Wolf, whose Magic Position delighted in 2007, will soon reveal himself to be a true artiste, and not just another pop musician capable of hitting the pleasure centers (if young Geoff had heard Wind in the Wires or listened more thoughtfully to The Magic Position, he would already know this).

Idlewild has never failed to impress Geoff. They haven’t even begun recording their next album and he has already paid his money for it. Delivered from the tyranny of a record label, they are bound to deliver. He thinks Post Electric Blues is not a great title, but it has him excited anyway. It doesn’t even matter if the album’s great; he’ll love it anyway. But it is great! (How can I convince you now that it is?) Another no-brainer: Morrissey’s career has been on an upward trajectory since supposed nadir Maladjusted, so he is due to release more of his best work. Will he soon have a trilogy for the 00s to rival ‘88-‘94’s excellent run of Viva Hate, Your Arsenal, and Vauxhall & I? (Yes.)

Geoff is also excited to learn he will have five new favorites by next year’s end. The Sleepover Disaster have a quiet reputation as great shoegaze revivalists. Why hasn’t he taken note yet? Bat For Lashes is a weird-named thing on a mix CD his sister has recently sent him. Why does he not pay more attention? Mew is too often described as prog rock, so Geoff is forgiven for thinking this label is accurate and avoiding them. St. Vincent is that lady from The Polyphonic Spree who has since asserted her selfhood outside the commune. But is she really her own person? Geoff likes that groovy Jeremy Jay single called “Alpharhythm,” but he doesn’t yet realize how emotional dancing can be.

I snag the list from young Geoff’s hand and return to Montana, where I continue to contemplate my favorite albums of 2009. The list reflects my tastes after all, not his.

I notice that bands proper make a weak showing this year. I count only three: Idlewild, The Sleepover Disaster, Mew. All are admirable rock ‘n’ roll units. The Sleepover Disaster make huge sounds (as dense and obscure as the smog of native Fresno) but never try to convince you that they’re more than a three-piece.

No More Stories is similarly grand, and not because it’s lavishly produced but because it’s so lavishly rehearsed. If time is money, then Mew spent a fortune on this one. The album contains some of the most potent and perfectly calculated musical pleasures since Sleater-Kinney’s The Woods, and you don’t arrive there through anything but hard work (and uncanny inspiration). That preternaturally high-pitched “Show me something good” over a quickly de-escalating groove sends shivers like nothing but Corin Tucker’s wail.

Alas, I hope the sort of collective art that a good functional band represents is not on the decline, but for me, 2009 was better as a year of faceless musicians serving the visions of individual artists, bringing to life the singer’s ideas about himself or herself. Actor is a woman standing on a street corner waiting for the light to change, her momentary reveries exploded into fully orchestrated songs. The Bachelor is a boy who has used up all his love and retreated to the moors, where the voice of Tilda Swinton tries to rouse him into action. Two Suns is a lover who wants to be as powerful as the narrator of Little Earthquakes but who simply can’t survive alone, even when no one is deserving of her epic love. Slow Dance is a hopeless romantic walking through the cold city, looking at you through your window. While these albums last you are these characters, or your own versions of them.

There are no characters in Ashes Grammar, but mastermind Ben Daniels similarly empowers the listener. If you’ve had a musical education at all similar to mine, this album tells you that you haven’t wasted your time, that you’ve been listening to all the right music all these years. How can a song sound like R.E.M., Slowdive and The Black Dog all at the same time and not sound like trash? Because there are times, in the lives of many music lovers, when all three are simultaneously all-important. Ashes is pure sound, and doesn’t require the comfort of conjured images to carry you through to the end. I can lie there listening in complete blind stillness and never hit the stop button; in fact I have yet to hear a fragment of this album removed from the whole. The End.

If my list suggests a strong bias toward gay white men, straight white women and Jack Rabid-approved rock ‘n’ roll bands, I apologize, but I hope it also suggests a strong bias toward relevant music.

Sinful omissions: If Dinosaur Jr’s Farm is a sludgefeast, then it is only natural that it gives me a bit of a sludge bellyache. Maximo Park’s Quicken the Heart is like candy to me, and was easily my most played of 2009, but I think it was one spont (unit of spontaneity) short of being truly great. There was much I loved about Wye Oak’s debut last year, but I noted that they lacked any discernible personality. 2009 was the year to commit, and The Knot was another reason to love this band, whether or not they are interesting people.

Here’s everything else I liked this year, so I can’t be accused of forgetting anything I haven’t heard (like new ones by the eminently top-tenable Mary Onettes, Engineers, and Atlas Sound).

Asobi Seksu, Hush
Built To Spill, There Is No Enemy
Camera Obscura, My Maudlin Career
Jarvis Cocker, Further Complications
The Decemberists, The Hazards of Love
Doves, Kingdom of Rust
The Flaming Lips, Embryonic
For Against, Never Been
Adam Franklin, Spent Bullets
Maximo Park, Quicken the Heart
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
Jay Reatard, Watch Me Fall
The Thermals, Now We Can See
The Twilight Sad, Forget The Night Ahead
Wye Oak, The Knot
Yo La Tengo, Popular Songs

Art Brut, Art Brut vs. Satan
Neko Case, Middle Cyclone
Dinosaur Jr, Farm
The Fiery Furnaces, I’m Going Away
The Hidden Cameras, Origin: Orphan
The Isles, Troika
Daniel Johnston, Is And Always Was
The Kingsbury Manx, Ascenseur Ouvert!
Theophilus London, This Charming Mixtape
Metric, Fantasies
Mission of Burma, The Sound The Speed The Light
A.C. Newman, Get Guilty
Sonic Youth, The Eternal
T.S.O.L., Life, Liberty & The Pursuit of Free Downloads
Youth Group, The Night Is Ours

Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion
Blue Roses, Blue Roses
Condo Fucks, Fuckbook
Franz Ferdinand, Tonight
God Help The Girl
Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3, Goodnight Oslo
Adam Lambert, For Your Entertainment
Lotus Plaza, The Floodlight Collective
Micachu & The Shapes, Jewellery
Obits, I Blame You
Joe Pernice, It Feels So Good When I Stop
Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Woods, Songs of Shame

Brown Recluse, The Soft Skin (3.5/5)
Death Cab for Cutie, The Open Door (3.5/5)
Deerhunter, Rainwater Cassette Exchange (4/5)
The Mary Onettes, Dare (4/5)
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Higher than the Stars (4/5)
Phillip Eno, Templestay Forever YSG (4/5)
Superchunk, Leaves in the Gutter (3.5/5)

The Champagne Socialists- “Blue Genes” (3.5/5)
Jeremy Jay- “Breaking the Ice” (4/5)
Sic Alps- “L. Mansion” (3.5/5)
Devon Williams- “Sufferer” (5/5)
Searching for the Now 5 [Liechtenstein, The Faintest Ideas] (4.5/5)
Searching for the Now 6 [The School, George Washington Brown] (4.5/5)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Unlikely, or appropriate?

Is it unlikely that the object of Mike White’s affection (obsession) in Chuck & Buck would become the director of a blockbuster about the vagaries of teen (and interspecies) love called New Moon? Or merely appropriate? That is a question for Chris Weitz.*

Is it unlikely that a man whose two best regarded albums open with songs narrated by the captain of a slave ship and a group of sons of slaveholders, respectively, would write the songs for the first Disney movie to feature an African American princess? Or merely appropriate? That is a question for Randy Newman.


When I was 14 my rampant consumption of the classics made me convinced I would be a film critic. I suppose it’s still possible—if not a viable profession, I believe film criticism will never cease to be an absolutely crucial practice—but I’m often unimpressed with my own intellectual capacity on this blog. I don’t feel any real incentive to elaborate my thoughts or take myself to task for half-formed arguments. But the blog does keep my viewing moving forward, so here are some more nuggets of lazy observation:

Let’s henceforth banish the word “whimsy” from all serious critical discussion, but before we do that, let me say that Fantastic Mr. Fox has a fair amount more of it than Where the Wild Things Are, plus a bit of the pensiveness that is the latter film’s strong suit. A dead rat is given a very haunting eulogy, and Mr. Fox often explains his bad behavior by reminding, “I’m an animal.” Which would be just as true if he was human. But what matters most is that the movie is astonishingly joyful and creative, never in the same way twice, and in ways that Where the Wild Things Are, because it is about children and not just likely to be loved by them, can’t be.

Bright Star is a great evocation of the words of a poet, never a mere recitation. That’s an important point for a film that shows the life of John Keats, who tells his lover that there is nothing to “work out” in poetry, that the important thing is to luxuriate in the words. Bright Star is a movie you can swim through. And I’ll have to disagree with our local film critic, who believes Ben Whishaw to be too good-looking for the lead (a sensitive soul and handsome—too much insult for the common man!). He is attractive, but he doesn’t play the part that way—he is a small, sickly man, often dwarfed, even infantilized, by his lover. It’s a depiction of bodily wastage matched by Tobey Maguire’s war veteran in Brothers, whose best image shows gaunt and pale Tobey reflected in a mirror, into which he is not looking. You’d expect him to look and not recognize himself, but the moment rises above.

Speaking of…

Mirrors: I initially thought the sequence in Spike Lee’s 25th Hour in which Edward Norton speaks racial epithets into the camera was too angry and too confrontational for a film whose big city tensions are all bubbling under. But consider: He speaks them into a mirror. The sequence updates a similar and famous one from Do The Right Thing, in which the characters shout at you. In 25th Hour, the mirror mediates, and you are only implicated to the extent that you identify with Norton. It’s a subtle film, and those critics who say it’s a strong film unsubtly overlaid with evocations of 9/11 must be seeing things I’m not seeing. The only blatant reference I recall is a discussion of the contaminated Ground Zero air surrounding one character’s apartment complex. But that moment is more generally about, like everything else in the film, the impossibility of living in New York. When you can’t even breathe the air…

Last, if you thought the practice of showing the same action from two different angles and thereby disrupting narrative continuity vanished sometime after A Trip to the Moon (1902) and Life of an American Fireman (1903), when filmmakers decided continuity was all-important, look no further than turn-of-the-new-century depictions of urban despair like 25th Hour (I’ve noticed it in Homicide too), where it is used not for spectacle but for… what exactly?

Speaking of…

Our local film critic: When will he stop giving away the endings? His review of A Serious Man includes a thorough description of the final shots, and he has also recently written reviews describing the entire story arcs of Moon and The Informant! For shame!

Speaking of…

A Serious Man: I read a well-considered review of the movie on a blog I follow, and left a comment detailing some of my thoughts. Now I’ve seen the movie again, and I realize my own comments were not exactly well considered. I argued that the film employs a basic MacGuffin structure (I referred to the son’s radio as a cosmic MacGuffin) and signals its ending by reintroducing the father/son crosscutting of the opening sequence and “answering” the question of Larry’s medical tests and Danny’s confiscated MacGuffin. This is an arbitrary yet necessary way to structure a film about the search for meaning, whose only proper ending is the death of the species. Then I went on to describe the ending, in which father and son are confronted with the double spectre of death and destruction, and in which we find the son better prepared to meet the horror, but I ran into trouble by mistakenly thinking that Danny’s radio actually belongs to nemesis Fagel.

My analysis also hinged upon the awesomeness of the song “Somebody to Love,” and while I think scores and soundtracks usually ruin movies, the Airplane’s presence in the movie results in the best overuse of an overplayed song since “California Dreamin’” in Chungking Express.


I can’t really get away with watching the softcore porn vid for Girls’ “Lust for Life” at work, so I’ve only heard the song in fits and starts, but it strikes me as a forceful example of a musician singing through his romantic and social problems and packaging it into the sort of single that should come around once a month, into eternity, but probably doesn’t. I used to think this is what music was all about: bottle up your lust and longing and messed-upness and put it in a song. I don’t know if there’s been a drop-off in recent years in music as misfit therapy (for maker and listener), but if not it at least isn’t often presented in such an unfussy and happily uncool way as “Lust.” It seems only appropriate that poor internet connections around here have introduced another personal element of longing to the song, by keeping me from hearing it in its entirety and truly connecting. It’s like back in the days of radio, when you might hear part of a song that could comfort you in the long term, but you don’t catch the name and never hear it again. Wireless to wireless, heartache to heartache. I’m thankful for discs of pain that I have been able to hear, front to back and again and again, Patrick Wolf’s The Bachelor being a recent example.

Correction: What did I mean when I said The Twilight Sad are wearing their influences more proudly on their latest album? I mentioned Joy Division, but who did I really think the Sad sound like? The Chameleons? No. Joy Division? Not really. This is a thoroughly unique band, at least in the way that such a committed band can seem to exist in the absence of any context other than whatever emotion they’re channeling. I’d compare them to Slint, but only because they’re a similarly intuitive rock band. The shades and textures in the music are spontaneous eruptions and don’t fit into a neat grid. They’re storytellers, I suppose.

Youth Group’s The Night Is Ours is the least of their albums, but they remain firmly committed to creating strong melodies. Many albums go by and leave in their wake not a single memorable or convincing melody; this isn’t one of them. Add to that the fact that singer Toby Martin’s voice has grown into a siren reminiscent of James’s Tim Booth, and this is an album well worth hearing.

Joe Pernice’s latest album It Feels So Good When I Stop is dubbed a “novel soundtrack,” so does that make the corresponding book a “soundtrack novel”? The album is a collection of covers, pleasant if not revelatory, but its chief comfort is my suspicion that Pernice writes fiction for the same reasons I do. The album suggests a novel that pieces pop songs into a coherent narrative, a novel that had to begin life as a soundtrack before it could become a soundtrack again.

For Against are the greatest band to ever come out of Nebraska, and that’s no dubious distinction. It goes a little way toward explaining why they sound so unlike their American contemporaries, and the band’s latest, Never Been, sustains its mood of wintry dawn in a way that’s only possible when you spend twenty-odd years recording in your hometown (and a desolate one at that). The band was still great before guitarist Harry Dingman III rejoined after a 20 year absence, but everything about these last two, including 2008’s Shade Side Sunny Side (4 a.m. to Never Been’s 6 a.m.), suggests a renewal of purpose and a clear artistic vision—from the spare white album packaging to the impressionistic use of guitar and keyboard. The latter is what unites the two albums, despite the first’s post-punkish intensity and the new one’s more somber, painterly, classical approach.**

The band called Shout Out Louds, who once sounded a lot like The Cure, have a new anthem called “Walls” from the forthcoming Work. It’s my favorite song of 2010, and I’m telling you this now before it ends up on TV ads for which it seems destined. Any attempt to appropriate the song for the purpose of selling the triumphs of American industry to young people will certainly be a misreading, however, as the hook (“Whatever they say we’re the ones building walls”) is a sentiment not nearly as triumphant as the exuberance of the playing suggests. Also, the band is Swedish.

*I've been trying to come up with a Twilight equivalent for Chuck & Buck's most quotable, poetic, and unprintable line, but I should probably stop trying.
**Remember my post about the Minneapolis label Words on Music, how they only seem to release new For Against albums and Lucy Show reissues? I went back to their website after a six month absence and found they have two new releases...this latest For Against album and another Lucy Show reissue!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Macromix 09

It's my disc-length playlist comprising the best songs of 2009! Hint: Songs are in reverse favorite order. Albums list coming soon.

1/ 20 Atlas Sound, “Walkabout”
2/ 19 Jay Reatard, “Rotten Mind”
3/ 18 For Against, “Different Departures”
4/ 17 The Kingsbury Manx, “Well, Whatever”
5/ 16 No Age, “You’re A Target”
6/ 15 St. Vincent, “Actor Out Of Work”
7/ 14 Patrick Wolf, “Vulture”
8/ 13 Metric, “Help I’m Alive”
9/ 12 Doves, “Kingdom Of Rust”
10/ 11 The Thermals, “Now We Can See”
11/ 10 The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, “Young Adult Friction”
12/ 9 Maximo Park, “A Cloud Of Mystery”
13/ 8 Idlewild, “Take Me Back To The Islands”
14/ 7 Alicia Keys, “Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart”
15/ 6 A Sunny Day In Glasgow, “Shy”
16/ 5 Mew, “Introducing Palace Players”
17/ 4 Devon Williams, “Who Cares About Forever”
18/ 3 Bat For Lashes, “Daniel”
19/ 2 The Sleepover Disaster, “Funnel Cloud”
20/ 1 Morrissey, “I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris”

Also see the updated sidebar tabs.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

I've Got Something To Say!

Eight things, to be exact.


They say there are no important birthdays after 21, but I’m thinking 25 might turn out to be a pivotal age, and not just because I’ll be able to rent a car. The thought of being able to look back 20 years into the past and recognize a fully formed version of myself is mortifying. Maybe you don’t feel, like me, that you haven’t changed since age 5, but you must at least have some vivid memories from that age.


I just began reading J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories, which bears the inscription: We know the sound of two hands clapping. But what is the sound of one hand clapping? That would be an appropriate quotation for Stitches, a story about a boy with one vocal chord…

Stitches by David Small : Another great “family tragicomic” in the manner of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, though the drawings here recall Quentin Blake, and at times suggest a latent narrative potential in the art of Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. Stitches reveals that David Small had despicable parents who gave him cancer and did not love him, though actually the story is never so reductive, and avoids being an airing of grievances. It is instead an extended mediation on violence, control of bodies, the vulnerability of children, etc. (just count the number of panels in which David is being forcefully held in the hands of an adult). Throughout, David makes childish mistakes, and his parents and grandparents tell him he “needs to learn,” but because these adults are so emotionally impaired, there is nothing he can learn from them. The book is best when it intentionally confuses the idea that life is a series of lessons learned.

The ending: Even though a cliché, I believe that ending with a dream is almost always a good idea, and Stitches helps prove me right. I was left wondering: Do introverts tend to have architectural dreams? Do mute people hear their own thoughts more loudly? David, like myself, wanders through weird buildings in his dreams, including a “temple whose guts had been bombed,” which is of course also a description of himself.

The medium: I can’t think of a medium that better captures humans in the act of peering at and contemplating their surroundings. The outline of a human head, frozen in time, the white space between black lines filled with thoughts… it gets to me. David looks into many mirrors, and these scenes, and scenes of lying in bed at night, should have as their soundtrack The Human League’s “Darkness.” But: Am I the only one who feels vertigo, or perhaps just distraction, when reading comics? Page to page, one can never predict where the eyes must go next.


Songs of the moment:

Janet Jackson, “State of the World”
—The state of the world hasn’t changed much, nor has pop music.

Weezer, “Across the Sea”
—Rivers Cuomo might be the emotional age of his crush, in perpetuity, but he is wise not to touch.

The Magnetic Fields, “Let’s Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits”
—Mother nature’s wrong? Is the narrator’s lust so strong it can only be blamed on nature, or does it suggest a flaw in the architecture of the human body? The bridge is oh so 60s baroque.

Built To Spill, “Hindsight”
—I especially love Doug Martsch’s weird twists on tired phrases, the grass that’s greener because it’s fake.

A Sunny Day In Glasgow, “Shy”
—Continuing to explode my head to pieces.

Modest Mouse, “Dark Center of the Universe”
—I forgot how this band is nearly as energetic as the Minutemen.

Field Music, “Measure”
—I thought 2007’s “In Context” was the culmination of this band’s talents for intricate string arrangements, but I was wrong.

The Hidden Cameras, “Underage”
—Horny outtake from Graceland.

Norah Jones, “Chasing Pirates”
—A melody and arrangement so simple it seems to belong to a different era, plus no vocal tics or attempt at being blue.

Alicia Keys, “Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart”
—I hadn’t heard any Keys since “Fallin’,” so I’m surprised to learn she’s traded the piano for a dampened beat. I can’t go on praising Bat For Lashes while ignoring how lovely this song is.

I request a Critical Beatdown on these last two.


Whitney Houston, now 46 and maybe no longer haunted by demons, sounded really good on the AMAs (and if imperfect, all the better for it), not so different, in her superstar way, from Daniel Johnston, now 48.


I’m almost compelled to consider Adam Lambert’s For Your Entertainment for inclusion on my 2009 top ten. I don’t know if it’s better or worse than any other pop album this year, but I’ve realized the reason I never hear or care about pop stars like Lambert is that I never understand where their audiences come from. I know how bands like A Sunny Day In Glasgow build a following; I don’t know where chart-toppers come from. I’ll be minding my own business, and suddenly some freak named Lady GaGa has five top ten hits and can’t be avoided.

Well, I know where Adam Lambert came from (and I don’t mean the closet!). He was the star of American Idol Season 8, and the only reason I watched all year. I don’t really have anything at stake in his popularity, but I can pretend I do, and it’s been nice learning that he has a fairly sophisticated understanding of pop music and his place in it. He knows the difference between song and production, and that one way to record a song is with too much production, and that this has been the appropriate approach for his first album. Opener “Music Again” (which must be written by the guy from The Darkness) is the blueprint, an escalation of over-produced micro-pleasures that will either make you, like Lambert, want to listen to music again, or never again. I’m still listening, but don’t worry, it won’t be on my top ten.


The elder statesman Chevy Chase is one of many great things about Community, a show that is one half of the half of NBC’s Thursday night sitcom lineup that has no restraints on or formula for its loony-ness.


Another week, another unconvincing Newsweek article. Ramin Setoodeh’s analysis of gays on TV vacillates between a number of half-formed arguments with such force and frequency that it ends up saying nothing. Here’s the worst:

“In fact, when gay marriage has been put before the voters of any state, it has failed every time. Is TV to blame for this? Of course not. The mission of popular culture is to entertain, not to lecture. But if we accept that Will, Dawson’s, and the rest once fostered acceptance, it’s fair to ask if Glee may be hurting it.”

Ah, the old A, therefore B? No! Wait, yes argument. I can’t understand how toning down gay flamboyance on TV (a premise that only makes sense, if like Setoodeh, you think that Jack on Will & Grace, during the good old tamer gay days, merely “swung the more flamboyant way”) will accomplish anything besides making TV boring. The article, like many a Bruno review, assumes that gayness is only a romantic or sexual preference and needs no corresponding culture (however susceptible to stereotyping), and ends with a platitude: “There's so much more to the gay community than the people on TV (or at a gay pride parade). We just want a chance to live and love like everybody else.” What about wanting to see flamboyant people on TV, and at gay pride parades?

But: I do agree with the notion that TV has “helped bring gays into the mainstream,” and I’m not surprised by a GLAAD survey that finds that “of the people who say their feelings toward gays and lesbians had become more favorable in the past five years, about one third credited that in part to characters they saw on TV.” I’ve long found TV the most enlightened and effortlessly enlightening of media in this regard, with an encouragingly flippant tone in even the most special of Very Special Episodes (The Simpsons, the incomparable gay bar episode of Roseanne). And Will & Grace, in hindsight, is better than any other sitcom of the late 90s.

Setoodeh is also spot-on about TV lesbians, who “face a different problem. They are invariably played by gorgeous, curvy women straight out of a straight man’s fantasy—Olivia Wilde on House, Sara Ramirez on Grey’s Anatomy, Evan Rachel Wood on True Blood—and they’re usually bisexual. How convenient.” Indeed, has there ever been a celibate lesbian on TV?


I shouldn’t pick fights with Michiko Kakutani, since I’ve never agreed with her about anything, but her review of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals annoyed me. She wonders (or actually, forces her readers to wonder in her place) “how the author can expend so much energy and caring on the fate of pigs and chickens, when, say, malaria kills nearly a million people a year (most of them children), and conflict and disease in Congo since the mid-1990s have left an estimated five million dead and hundreds of thousands of women and girls raped and have driven more than a million people from their homes.” If one only ever cared about things that are more important than everything else in the world, then Michiko Kakutani would not be reviewing books. But then I’ve never been one to rank suffering, or seen animal cruelty as some petty concern. Kakutani does both, but never explains why she believes that human suffering is more important.

Thursday, November 19, 2009



I’m on a reading kick again. That’s not to say it doesn’t still take me two weeks to finish a normal-length book, just that I’ve regained the uncontrollable urge to read books that I’ve missed since graduation. My most recent read may be responsible…

Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch : My outsized affection for this biography may stem from my lack of familiarity with the genre, but I believe this is the greatest book I’ve read all year. A life, from birth to death, with all its contradictions and unities, in one book: how wonderful. When that life is Flannery O’Connor’s, even better, but Brad Gooch doesn’t just rely on the inherent interest of his subject; he’s done his work, and made it seem effortless.

Flannery had a great way with names and titles for her stories, a talent I can only aspire to. There’s nothing I dislike more than an innocuous title. Flannery’s least innocuous and most evocative titles tend to be borrowed from philosophy, literature, and scripture, while some of my proudest achievements of recent years come from popular song (via The Smiths, New Order, Nico, The Damned, Yo La Tengo, My Favorite, Joy Division), film, film criticism, Shakespeare, and even a variation on one of Flannery’s most famous stories (though not by switching the adjectives, which would suggest a certain kind of story). My favorites of these are also the most inscrutable (“As It Is When It Was,” “No It’s Not Wrong But I Must Add”). I have a whole stockpile of Stephin Merritt quotes waiting for stories, the most promising being “How They Were Not Like Me Because.”

Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy : Daughter of the eminent Helena Meloys, she read here last week, and her brother Colin will perform at my work next month. She has a fine way with dialogue, and the slowly revealed plot; these aren’t the types of stories I’m especially interested in, where what happens resonates more than the language itself, but she’s taken a style I associate with Richard Ford and his (non-feminine) ilk, and shown that it belongs to everyone.


I haven’t seen Precious yet, so I won’t pass judgment, but I’ve been reading about it with interest. The most common criticism (Newsweek, et al) seems to be that the film reinforces the notion that inner city black people are helpless and need outside support to overcome their tragedies. I don’t know if that’s true (and if it is, but the story is well-told, I don’t see why the filmmakers should have to provide an alternative), but the film that Newsweek wants Precious to be already exists, and it’s called Ballast. That film, like Precious is said to, piles tragedy on top of tragedy, and then slowly, by revealing a back story previously withheld but entirely plausible, allows its characters an out, so that it begins to pulse with an overwhelming, because so vulnerable, optimism. Ballast introduces a kind white man early on, but he turns out to be a red herring; the characters’ tenuous striving for a better life comes entirely from within themselves. The final two shots are so perfectly understated, but so precise and unambiguous, that I found myself silently shouting, like I often do, End! End! End! This film followed my command.

How does last year’s equally inevitable Best Picture-winner Slumdog Millionaire fit into all this? I never really felt one way or the other about that movie, and clever as the conceit is, I don’t have the brainpower to think through what it’s saying about improvement of the impoverished. Game shows are a rigged and frivolous form of self-improvement in which no contestant has the upper hand. But Slumdog has the answers! Agency! The host, like the protagonist, is Indian. But where’s this money actually coming from? I give up. But even a reading of the story arc as arbitrary and the style as poverty-porn still gives the film an advantage over the new Sandra Bullock vehicle The Blindside, which is sure to be the most racist movie of the year.

I was wondering why last weekend’s offerings at the Myrna Loy were drawing such big crowds, and then as I gazed out from my perch in the box office, I realized: Coco Before Chanel and Amelia are the first two movies about women we’ve shown since I was hired.

Whatever Works is hardly perfect, but I’d say it’s a better articulation of Woody Allen’s long-held ideas about the world than many of his recent films. And it’s pure fantasy, a mode he should work in more often. He also avoids clichés, stereotypes, and uncomfortable depictions of intergenerational romance (or not really, but when they do crop up, they exist, again, in the realm of pure fantasy), and this is especially remarkable given his biography and the typical homogeneity of his casts. If only Philip Roth was so lucky.


I’ve already voiced my approval of The Office [US], but I caught a rerun the other day that was great in ways I never thought The Office could be. It said things about pride in failing institutions, and paper, and art, that I expect from, well, great art. The episode concerns Pam’s first art gallery exhibition of her drawings, on paper, one of which depicts the building that houses the paper company for which she works. Only the often-blind (or too-seeing?) Michael Scott understands the beauty of this drawing—which I suppose is in a way the equivalent of having a tattoo of your own mother—and ends up privileging art and comradeship over financial gain in a way that might be a valuable lesson to those of my classmates who took jobs in the business world. Though I don't know of anyone who did.

I’ve wondered what Conan O’Brien’s complete indifference (it shows) to most of the musical guests they push through on The Tonight Show says about the state of the music industry. Does his discerning taste and relative youth signal the end of something, and the beginning of something new? But mostly I’ve been wondering if Flannery O’Connor would find him funny, and I suspect she would. That’s only fair, as Conan wrote his senior thesis at Harvard about her.


My favorite local artist is Jim Poor. His recent works are less colorful, and now on display at his studio.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Post Aplenty

I wonder what the relationship is between a nation’s economic prosperity and its number of regularly updated blogs. I suspect that less jobs means more blogs. In these times of the penny pinched and the post aplenty, let me quote Julius Caesar: “The blog, dear Blogger, is not for our stars but for ourselves.” I know that mine is for myself. You’re all welcome to read it, and I’m happy to know you do, but I can’t expect it when I continue to write of things of little consequence to those not named me.


Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow : The reviews I’d read do a disservice to the book, by starting with the image of the mess that the Collyers eventually make of their Fifth Avenue mansion. Doctorow must have started his research there too, but what’s great about the book is the way it tells the brothers’ story relentlessly from beginning to end. The story of the twentieth century ends up locked inside their home, and they, the blind one and the mad one, are accidental curators of the trash heap of the times, victims of the years and its detritus.

A Stranger In This World by Kevin Canty : Canty teaches at the University of Montana, where I’ll soon be applying (again). This is his first book, a collection of ten stories published in 1992, and I can only hope that he hasn’t grown less bitter with age. These are gripping stories, full of a despair so grounded in bad decisions and bad sex that it can’t be called existential. A lot of them end in a moment of crisis; the best, called “The Victim,” goes a bit further, all the way past the routine poetic image (a tumbleweed under car tires) to an acknowledgment by the narrator that yes, that poetic image really sums up how shitty life is. Another, called “Safety,” is about a suburban mother, and while not a mother myself, I was often on the verge of asking, How can Kevin Canty know exactly how I feel, as a mother?

You Know Me Al by Ring Lardner : I wrote a tweet here about this book a while back, even though the tweet is the exact opposite of Lardnerspeak. You Know Me Al is structured as a series of letters that say everything they possibly can until finally they say almost nothing. Which is the precise nature of language. This book is about the sound of an American speaking, not about anything he says.


Record stores have long been among the few places where spending money makes me feel good. During my college radio years, I got most of my new music for free, a habit I’ve continued into recent months with increasing feelings of guilt.* As a DJ, I used to pretend that downloading all the new releases and choosing tracks for radio play was a sort of public service, though I doubt that any song I ever played encouraged anyone to go buy the album. Now I don’t even have this thin justification for excessive consumption. I’ve always been happier when I’m overwhelmed with new music; I’ve never been the type to devote myself completely to any one album, artist, song. But I’ve been feeling a bit of overdose recently, and anyway it’s nice to know that artists and labels I care about are getting paid. So I’ve bought some new CDs (I prefer to have the physical object if I’m going to spend the money, and I’ve never been particularly attached to vinyl) and gotten to know them. You can never be sure where your money’s going these days, and I shouldn’t be using Amazon (I am), but there’s something to be said for placing a monetary value on music. When loving it isn’t enough…

A Sunny Day In Glasgow, Ashes Grammar : Even having thought their debut was one of the best albums of 2007, I still find this a majorly pleasant surprise. I mentioned my newfound musical fatigue above, but this album has really helped free up my hearing and gotten me excited again. Like the band’s debut, this again sounds like the after-image of an echo of some old bizarro dream pop album (in this instance, maybe His Name Is Alive’s Mouth by Mouth), but the debut seems a smidge half-baked in hindsight while the new one flows beautifully through its 22 song fragments, fragment suites and quasi-songs, many of which peak in driving, groovy intensity. I don’t put up with this sort of thing as easily when a band like Deerhunter does it, because they’re so good at being straightforward. But if A Sunny Day In Glasgow were more straightforward, if they had recognizable songs and vocals that weren’t almost-not-there, they’d still be great but they would be a different band. I love them the way they are. Here’s a bad analogy: Ashes Grammar is a mansion with a surprise in every room; when you leave a room, it’s hard to find it again and you can’t remember exactly what it contained. (5/5)

The Twilight Sad, Forget the Night Ahead : The band that gave me another one of my favorite debuts of 2007 is a bit less changed in 2009 than ASDIG, though now wearing their influences a bit more proudly and sounding a bit less unique for it. They indulge in some heavy 1980s bass lines here and there, crib some Sonic Youth chords on “Seven Years of Letters.” They’ve always been comparable to Joy Division, on account of their overwhelming gloominess; now they just sound more alike. Gone are James Graham’s gut-wrenching wails, which never made the proceedings light-hearted exactly, but cathartic and full of struggle. The result is a tougher album, not the over-amplified shoegazer folk music of the debut, but bona fide post-punk. These songs are cheerlessly domestic (but not Gothic, not the dim chambers of English literature), inhabiting modern-day houses where the television’s always on in the next room. But the album’s not cheerless, because it’s musically lovely. (4/5)

(I find the miniature-ness of CD packaging to be quite appealing. Forget the Night Ahead is a handsome little artifact. I think the Japanese might agree.)

Built To Spill, There Is No Enemy : The cover art**—halfway hideous, halfway enchanting—is once again by Mike Scheer, and, like You In Reverse’s weird still life, might look better on a Homestead Records release circa 1988. Even more than the music, the artwork suggests the way Built To Spill has increasingly become a band out of time. I don’t mean that as a bad thing. There was a brief window of time when Built to Spill’s style of music was fashionable; that window has passed, so now they’re free to revisit rock ‘n’ roll’s golden eras—the early 1970s, the middle 1980s—in relative obscurity. Amazingly, they’ve never made an album that sounds like any of their others, and that’s true of the new one, which I would call their quiet album because it’s never very loud, even when the playing is loud and you play it loud. Even a tight little juggernaut like “Pat” seems to have more to do with the serenity of loving rock music than it has to do with rockin’ out. Loving Built To Spill is serene indeed. (4/5)

*My guilt is a lot less when the music’s maker is dead. Does Rhino sell dead people’s music, or just the Rhino experience?
**My copy is also emblazoned with the first “Parental Advisory” icon I’ve seen in years. I guess that’s what you get when you buy your music at a chain entertainment store that’s slowly suffering the deaths of the music, publishing, and movie rental industries. I have yet to detect even a single swear on the album.


Not necessarily by choice, I haven’t been watching much but recent documentaries, many of them for free at my place of work. I will rank them:

1. Tyson : This “self portrait” style approach to documentary might not have worked twenty, ten, or even five years ago. Director James Toback was smart to wait, because the poet Mike Tyson now has the right words to talk about his life.

2. Anvil: The Story of Anvil : A bit like American Movie, a documentary about artists that continuously reveals its characters to be more interesting, thoughtful and intelligent than you realized a moment before. It takes a while to get to the big questions (is it over for Anvil? does the model they’re trying to use for success even exist anymore?) but worth it when it does, though it ends with a few more platitudes than are perhaps becoming in a heavy metal musician.

3. The Cove : Some have asked why the film isn’t more comprehensive, why it doesn’t acknowledge that the beef industry looks very similar to the dolphin slaughter depicted here. I don’t understand why the filmmakers should have that responsibility, especially when they pursue so relentlessly the truth of their particular subject. This is a movie about dolphins and only by extension about animal rights; it wisely never markets itself as an animal rights film. Why is there always some critic who’s hung up about representational responsibility?

4. Capitalism: A Love Story : I don’t have any major misgivings about Michael Moore’s technique, and here he’s once again using to good effect his highly adaptable political essay formula. No one uses archival footage with such zestful irony as Moore, and there are a couple masterful sequences here, making use of Ronald Reagan’s TV commercial appearances and a documentary about the Roman Empire. In 2004, Helena’s film critic wrote about being offended by the use of the word “documentary” to describe Moore’s films. I wrote an angry letter to the editor in response. Five years later, he walks into the box office at my work after screening Capitalism and tells me (not knowing I wrote that letter, and not remembering the time he drove me home from the train station) that he liked the film.

5. The National Parks : Tied up some of its loose ends, but not all.

6. It Might Get Loud : There’s a pretty comprehensive review over at Rockaliser. I’ll add that this is a disorganized mess, intermittently interesting in spite of itself. Someone should have told the director that forced collaborations between musicians rarely produce music as good as their original work, and that getting prolific artists to talk about their craft is just about the most difficult thing you can do as an interviewer. The Edge is the only one among the three featured guitarists whose music I’ve spent any amount of time listening to, and as the film’s ambassador of punk rock love and twinkling guitar, he doesn’t really help me gain entry into the world of the film by coming to a musical understanding with Jack White and Jimmy Page. Everyone remains pretty aloof, saying things just for the sake of saying something while keeping their real opinions to themselves. Or that’s what it seemed like to me. (I disagree with one point of the Rockaliser review: The juxtaposition of The Edge’s memories of terrorism in Dublin with Jimmy Page’s disillusionment as a session man is the most interesting thing in the movie, one of the rare times it has anything substantial to say about the electric guitar and its common presence in an otherwise irreconcilable variety of real life contexts.)

7. Butte, America : Not bad, but too brief. In any case, a handy timeline of the town’s history.

Some of my more explicitly fictional reveries of late: Jim Emerson, the best film critic working today, writes intelligently about Where The Wild Things Are, and while I was also a bit ambivalent about the film’s joy quotient, I came away loving it a bit more than he; The Host has the best monster rampage scene in monster movie history, and some family drama and political satire besides; one of the best moments in Sally Potter’s Orlando is its body reveal, which makes me suspect that Orlando has the same anatomy all along, and that the person’s gender, sex, and sexuality are defined elsewhere entirely. The whole film is so extravagant and provocative that I wish Sally Potter had directed all of Julie Taymor’s movies.


Now on DVD!

On the back of the Twin Peaks: Definitive Gold Box Edition DVD, David Lynch is quoted as saying, “I think this is a great definitive Twin Peaks Gold Set.” Those don’t sound like words that any human being would ever say, not even David Lynch, but I will say that Twin Peaks itself is the great definitive was-this-really-on-CBS? TV series. Even at its most mundane, the show doesn’t take any of the things that humans do for granted, instead shows the strange hidden impulses that make us mysterious to ourselves. The dissolve between the first and second shot in the opening credits is just about the greatest moment of sound and image in human history.

The Honeymooners is one of the great long-form stories about poor people, part of a tradition that includes my all-time favorite sitcom Roseanne.

The Bob Newhart Show is not about poor people, but it is about people equally comfortable in their own lives and equally able to make themselves funny.

It looks like Aaron is about to start watching the great television program Homicide: Life on the Street, so I’ll end this post where I started, with Shakespeare. Harold Bloom says that Hamlet invented the human; I say that Homicide did.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Album [#3]

I’m sorry that I made you cry.

IMAGINE (Apple, 1971)

I could never quite reconcile the co-existence of “Imagine” and “How Do You Sleep?” on the same album. The former is the most hopeful of all atheist anthems. The latter is a vicious and unjustified attack on Paul McCartney, my favorite Beatle! I’ve since realized that “Imagine” is also a little bit hateful, and “How Do You Sleep?” is a little bit funny. But none of that matters. I don’t have to make these two songs fit into the same worldview. They only have to fit on the same album, and they do, because if Walt Whitman can contain multitudes, so can John Lennon.

I haven’t always allowed John Lennon to be as complicated as he needs to be. I’ve wanted him to be just a pop songwriter, like McCartney often is, and haven’t wanted to indulge his early 70s despair, afraid that it might become my own. But each time I listen to Imagine, I come closer to understanding that the John Lennon who barked out “Twist and Shout” in 1963, the John Lennon who loved his family and wrote “Woman” and “Beautiful Boy” in 1980, the John Lennon who felt a different way from one day to the next in 1971, are all one person, trying to communicate something even when he only has bad news. Imagine’s two loveliest moments, “Jealous Guy” (an apology, one of those songs guaranteed to always make me cry) and “Oh Yoko” (a love song), are all the lovelier for being ephemeral, preceded and followed by uncertainty and hate.

Album [#2]

What’s a boy in love supposed to do?

WONDERLAND [US] (Sire, 1986)

If there is a point from which I understand all the other music of the world, Wonderland might be it. All else is obfuscation, distortion, amplification, evolution, de-evolution, replacement and memory loss. It includes some of the earliest songs I can remember, and it’s amazing to think that the music of age 4 has stayed with me and changed with me all these years, if sometimes subterraneously. In the last post, I took Greg Sage’s gloominess for granted and neglected to mention the joy received from his music’s propulsiveness and melodicism (like the exhilaration of a well-made film, however grim), qualities for which Erasure are the reference point and purest expression (for me, to quote Randy Jackson).

A brief history of my history with Erasure: 1991’s Chorus is an album so pre-historic it might as well describe my crib. Much later, I remember driving in my high school’s parking lot playing Pop! The First 20 Hits in my minivan’s tape deck, wishing someone could hear it through the cracked window. Pixies fans were a dime a dozen, but to have found a fellow Erasure lover might have changed my life. Synth pop was a private rebellion, way better than punk rock. I bought Wonderland early in my sophomore year of college, quickly realizing that my prison cell dorm room could not be borne in its absence. I learned the pleasure of waiting for the night. Then as always, there was only so much I could do to clean up my face, but to shave, comb my hair, and put on a clean shirt while listening to Erasure, loud, after the sun had gone down outside that fluorescent dungeon, was a moment greater than anything that ever came after.

And what about the music itself? Well, if “Borderline” ever fails to make me happy, these are the only ten songs that might be able to save me. There’s nothing to indicate that singer Andy Bell and composer Vince Clarke were kindred spirits, or even liked each other, but Wonderland is the sound of two men working side by side, bringing out the best in each other and constructing a vision of the world—not exclusively interior or material, but full of rich emotion and sensation, aural and visual splendor, singable sadness and touchable sound. Ah, you might say, keyboard sounds often seem touchable, but that does not make them any less cheap. Yes, but this is a synth pop album, not a keyboard album, which means that the composer, working with instruments called synthesizers and sequencers, has carefully chosen the sounds and textures heard in his songs. And because Vince Clarke is one of the great composers of the era, the sounds have not just been chosen, but labored over. His arrangements are so good, in fact, that they make up for the often banal lyrics, even imbue them with an overwhelming romanticism, make their generalities more specific. Andy Bell doesn’t have to do much to sell these songs, as a result, so he can reign in the theatrics and simply sing what the words mean to him, expressively, tenderly. The end result, called Wonderland, calculated creation though it is, feels nearly as spontaneous as Pet Sounds, another calculated piece of pop music, very differently arranged and just as unlikely to make you gay.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Album [#1]

(The first in an ongoing series.)

OVER THE EDGE (Brain Eater, 1983)
Disc Three of Wipers' Box Set (Zeno, 2001)

You don’t have to think like Aristotle to know that the album can be a perfect unit of human expression. Artistic forms can feel so natural because they meet our expectations about the way experiences, emotions and ideas should be meaningfully organized. The punk rock record, as it existed in the early 80s, 30 minutes long on average, meets expectations about the amount of time and degree of noise required to exorcise our demons and reconstitute them in a way that leaves us feeling stronger. I often think of Daniel Desario in an episode of Freaks and Geeks, crouched in his bedroom with headphones on, listening intently to Black Flag’s “Rise Above.” His family life’s a mess, his girlfriend halfway despises him, he can’t do math. You know he’ll make it to the end of Damaged, because he knows the album was conceived as a testament to his problems. I don’t know if I’ve ever managed a moment of listening as pure as Daniel’s, but if the album is old enough and loud enough, I still imagine myself as him. Damaged was the soundtrack to my masochistic half-hope that high school would be miserable and allow me to indulge in the album’s miseries. But my problems couldn’t be summed up so easily; my greatest misery was that only in my headphones did I understand the plot.

Wipers’ Over the Edge is just as harrowing as Damaged, but it admits that being over the edge and damaged is an elusive feeling and can’t be named. It can’t be called thirst, police brutality, or no TV. The album starts with a dizzying punch to the floor and ends in the same place, but this time with the hint of a struggle. Greg Sage sounds a little more empowered, a little less overwhelmed. Somewhere in between, he sings about “The Lonely One,” who is you and not he, and all those repeated notes on bass and guitar lose their musical properties and become a spell pulling you out of your “life lived in dreams” or back into it, depending on where you started. You begin to ask: Doesn’t Greg sound a bit too old, a bit too strong for this sadness? He sings from the bottom of his throat and shivers against his guitar from beginning to end. But it’s an album that doesn’t ask you to sympathize, because the only despair on display is your own.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

It Can Be Said

Of Jay Reatard’s Watch Me Fall, it can be said that I liked it a little better when Supergrass recorded it in 1995. But some good ideas never go bad. Jay Should Coco, and he does.

Of The Flaming Lips, it can be said that they are done asking questions. 1995: Where does outer space end? 1999: Is it overwhelming to use a crane to crush a fly? 2002: Do you realize? 2009: They are either dissatisfied with the answers, or never found any. Embryonic marks phase IV in an art-rock enterprise that could have folded phases ago, and the band sounds apprehensive.* The only thing about the album that isn’t rad is its female subjugation imagery.

Of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, it can be said that up until last week I thought the lead singer is female. Finding out otherwise hasn’t changed my opinion of the band, and I’m in fact pleased to learn that the “place where music is happening” is still so remote that I can make mistakes like this.

Of women, it can be said that Hollywood doesn’t like them much anymore, at least not the way it did in 1939 when The Women was released. Watching that film the other night, I don’t know which I noticed first: that the time was passing very pleasantly, or that there were no men to be seen. But the film’s tagline is It’s About Men, so let me mention its director, George Cukor, routinely forgotten as a great auteur when Howard Hawks is so often remembered. Hawks seems the rugged individualist, while Cukor was probably as beholden to the lives of men as the women of The Women.

Of R.E.M., it can be said that they are my mom’s favorite band, and probably mine too. Which makes them perfect car listening.

Of Julia (2008) and Toy Story 2 (1999), it can be said that they are masterworks about poverty and the search for self, respectively.

Of Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814, it can be said: Prince.

Of Prince, it can be said, I’ve been away too long.

Of Jack Keefe from Ring Lardner’s You Know Me Al, it can be said that sometimes our worst qualities make us charming.

Of Roger Ebert’s new Twitter account, it can be said that Roger lets it be said.


Aaron suggested I start a television tab on my newly multi-mediated roundup blog. Last week, all four original Stueven kids and Mom went to pub trivia night and won a bunch of Samuel Adams caps and bottle openers after sweeping an Emmy winners category. I’ve made the joke twice and I’ll make it again: They must assume anyone who watches so much TV is alcoholic. We’re not alcoholics, but like any upstanding lower class citizens we watch a lot of TV, so it’s prime time to tell you about a couple of my programs:

The Office is a show about how much you, the viewer, love The Office and its characters. Jim and Pam’s wedding wasn’t a television episode so much as the paramount social event of fall 2009. Jim makes a speech about the long ago days when Pam had another boyfriend and he could only admire her from afar, but don’t worry, he’s not talking about memories available only to himself: He’s talking about The Office seasons one and two! (Note: This is what I love about The Office.)

My favorite red carpet dresses tend to be universally shat upon by those in the know:

The same is often true of Project Runway, which makes it the rare show where it’s satisfying to see contestants break down and cry in the elimination segment. They’re not crying for obscure manufactured reality TV reasons; they’re crying because their great ideas and imaginations have been misunderstood by boors. I feel for them.

*When the Lips’ At War with the Mystics and Built to Spill’s You In Reverse were released in the same month of 2006, I posited the occurrence as a battle between Warner Bros. label-mates. The battle would be ongoing in 2009 (with Built to Spill’s There Is No Enemy also newly released) if the Lips hadn’t so firmly retreated into their own brains.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

So Cruel

I was going to post a list of my 20 favorite albums of the current decade—another week, another Pitchfork list to remake in my own image—but decided that my previous list of 20 songs is summary enough of my tastes for now. Heck, I haven’t even listened to Exterminator or The Moon & Antarctica in years. I had taken an “autobiographical/ emotional” approach to my capsule comments of the top 20, which allowed me to include albums that have been “signs of my times if not signs of the times.” You would have seen The Shins’ Oh, Inverted World at #1, with the following justification:

The album that survived its own indiefication. I heard it in 2002 and thought it sounded lost somewhere between Bookends and Ocean Rain. The accuracy of my comparisons has improved in the years since, but it’s still the perfect balm for a youthful dreaming mind (better than Deerhunter!). The idea that music this remote and uncertain could be the life-changing music of a generation is weird. It’s more like the greatest retreat, into the buzzy stillness of our heads.

And Ken Stringfellow’s Touched would have appeared at #4, and I would have talked about how I found his Soft Commands in 2004 and knew pretty immediately that it was one of the all-time great singer songwriter LPs, but could only find users on internet music forums to corroborate this fact, and how I then backtracked to 2001’s Touched, and eventually found it to be the slightly more soulful album, with an indie rock sound very much in vogue this decade, but so unaffected and seemingly universal that I felt only Elliott Smith had ever been better, within the confines of his genre, at making me forget my disproportional interest in music by white people.

Which would have brought me to the real subject of today’s post: cruelty. I rate most music from an “autobiographical/emotional” perspective (is anything else possible?), which makes it difficult for me to objectively criticize music perceived by me or commonly perceived as being of poor quality. When I try, I tend to write mean things. I hope dearly that anything mean I’ve ever said on this blog (mostly at the expense of Pitchfork writers) comes across more as an innocent act of complaint than as a vicious attack. I once took advantage of the internet’s anonymous snark potential, and I still regret it.

It’s so rare that I come across music I dislike. This was just as true when I was 17, but back then I was anxious about this, feeling that it reflected on the impurity of my tastes, so I would search out bands just to tear them down. I wrote some mean things about The Aislers Set, a completely inoffensive and quite lovely Slumberland Records indie pop band, likening their aesthetic to another band I then disregarded, My Bloody Valentine (this only because they got so much recognition while the shoegazing bands I knew to be superior were only ever written about in The Big Takeover). Probably no one saw my comment, but The Aislers Set didn’t deserve what I wrote. It’s not cruel to dislike music or to criticize music, but to feign dislike, to dislike via misinformation, or to turn indifference into dislike is a misuse of language and brain cells.

I have friends who like Pink, Katy Perry, and Lady Gaga, and some of them take it very personally when their tastes are criticized (rightly so). I’ve tried to dislike these people and their music, even feigned it a bit, but I don’t have it in me. It’s hard to convince my friends that I don’t dislike their music; if anything I’m jealous that they’ve found a way to make these people a relevant part of their musical lives. When I dislike or discredit music, sometimes it’s music that deserves to be taken down, but usually it means I haven’t yet allowed it entry into my musical-emotional world.

Aside: I would probably find more to talk about with the world’s worst manufacturer of trash music than I would with anyone whose life doesn’t revolve around music.

The title of this post is also the name of a great song from U2’s Achtung Baby. I’m often relieved that people haven’t let the band’s recent pomposity reflect badly on their more charming pomposity of days past. I suppose the seeds of what makes U2 sometimes unbearable today were planted long ago, but to feign dislike of their early material would be, for me, cruel. To quote Bono: “You say in love there are no rules… You’re so cruel.” So I’ve got one rule: to write about what I love. Writing about things whose existence one doesn’t appreciate, unless that thing is evil or opposed to moral progress, can be so meaningless. I don’t know how to honestly criticize things that I have no interest in. I thought I was going to arrive at some grand conclusion, but that’s the least controversial thing I’ve ever written. So I guess what I’m saying is that all YouTube commenting should be disabled.

Moving on to things I am interested in:

Two men I wouldn’t exactly call personal heroes have new albums out this month. That said, Grant Hart is a more attainable model of manhood, than, say, Bob Mould. Hart tends to release an album in every year ending with a 9 (does he realize at the close of each decade that he’s forgotten to produce anything since the end of the previous one?). That’s true in 2009: Hot Wax is his latest. I haven’t heard that yet, but I’ve finally heard his 1989 solo debut, Intolerance. It’s quite good, and has reminded me that I have some unresolved history with this man, to wit: Hart once talked to my roommate at the Turf Club, but not to me; I failed to say “Hey Grant!” when I saw him in attendance at No Age’s 501 Club show; his personal life remains an enigma, but I feel like I’d understand him if I was better at deciphering his lyrics. Anyway, Intolerance is an album that succeeds for a lot of the same reasons as Bob Mould’s solo debut from the same year, Workbook—highly emotional, potentially cathartic, mild discontent tempered with mild ecstasy—except that Hart’s music is always messier, indifferent to professionalism, and assembled from unexpected elements. For example, “All of My Senses” rocks, but it’s driven by the cheapest keyboard organ you could ever hope to find. I suspect that Workbook/Intolerance (which are best heard in each other’s shadows) would’ve made a great post-Husker double-disc blowout, in the manner of Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. But OutKast’s opus was made possible by the CD era, whereas Hart and Mould were still on the cusp of it, and probably hated each other anyway.

Meanwhile, Is And Always Was is a new collection of 11 pretty average Daniel Johnston songs, overlaid with slightly generic indie rock arrangements, seemingly produced by someone who respects Johnston and wants to make sure he maintains his musical good taste (sort of like when The Wondermints saved Brian Wilson’s Smile). I’m not sure about that last part, but it sure sounds like someone is handling this music, even if the songs are unmistakably Johnston’s own. What makes this album interesting is that Johnston continues to be both the most self-aware and least self-aware performer I’ve ever heard. It comes as no surprise that there are songs here with titles like “I Had Lost My Mind,” “Lost In My Infinite Memory” and “Mind Movies”; what’s spooky is the way it seems like some outside observer who has studied the life of Johnston is feeding him these lines. Or maybe this: he has shaped his life around the sorts of songs he wants to write about himself. As plans to finish my Johnston-inspired writing project stretch on indefinitely into the future, his self-mythologizing makes it difficult to want to continue (he’s doing all the work for me), while the weird divide between his honest songs of selfhood and his understanding of their deeper tragedy makes him a fascinating study. So I’ve got to make amends with this latest album, not to mention the man’s new iPhone app, embroidery line, and appearance on the t-shirt of Rock Band’s Kurt Cobain avatar.

There’s much more new music to come. September/October have brought/will bring new releases from A Sunny Day in Glasgow, The Twilight Sad, Built to Spill, Times New Viking, Mission of Burma, Air, Basement Jaxx, Atlas Sound, The Flaming Lips, The Hidden Cameras, and more. How can I keep up?

I’ve been watching a movie:

Ken Burns’ The National Parks has two things that a 12-hour documentary, whose topic seems to promise nothing beyond gorgeous scenery, absolutely requires to sustain interest: clear conflict and clear point-of-view. The POV, a Burnsian celebration of America’s rich natural heritage, as espoused by (mostly) men who (mostly) look like Ken Burns, arises from the conflict: between American commercial exploitation and American primitivism, and concerning the need to protect our land from ourselves. That’s a good organizing structure, and it does sustain interest, but somewhere around hour six I realized Parks wasn’t nearly as messy or as comprehensive as it ought to be and wasn’t going to answer many of my questions, most importantly: If the parks are symbols of the democratic ideal, how do segregation of parks’ facilities, lower classes’ limited access to parks, and the fact that all our parks are stolen land affect our understanding of democracy? Burns pokes at the edges of this question, and is certainly not ignorant of it, but I think he simply doesn’t have the materials to answer it. The minority issue he’s most interested in is Japanese American internment, and that apparently because of the volume of words and images that have survived. The National Parks is preliminary work, and I hope it inspires further research of a subject that hasn’t been popularly covered at such length before.

I’ve read some comic books:

Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli : A knockout in its opening chapters. I don’t know when I’ve seen a comic book so confident and creative, so unrestrained on the page. The joy of the technique doesn’t wear off, but the characters, with the exception of one buxom and philosophical woman, don’t quite earn it. Asterios is a bore. I’ve been wanting to do a thorough analysis of Jarvis Cocker’s Further Complications, an album in which Jarvis creates himself as the sort of character Asterios could have been. Both are privileged white men who have had to struggle to find their own struggle; Jarvis makes himself interesting, and Asterios doesn’t.

Dogs and Water by Anders Nilsen : Ghostly and minimal comic full of cryptic meaning. Good, but unlike the best of Jim Woodring’s Frank, it doesn’t compel me to ponder it at length.