Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Wild for Idle


Best albums of June:

Idlewild, Post Electric Blues : Whoa! Is the title a reference to the fact that this latest album was dispatched directly to fans? Because while these “blues” are mellower than much of the band’s discography, they’re still more “electric” than “post electric” (what would that even mean?). I received my pre-order copy (and am named in the liner notes!) yesterday, and while I don’t have much sense of the band’s popularity in their native UK, I feel that this could be a big album for them when it finds general release later this year. I’ve been waiting for Idlewild to finally be recognized in the US, at least critically, and that’s made them seem perpetually young. But with Post Electric Blues, here’s what you might call the “classic Idlewild sound.” A fine melding of their Americana, Scottish folk, post-punk and chamber pop influences, this is a more successful attempt than 2005’s (still fine) Warnings/Promises to diversify their sound, and unlike that album, this one really coheres.

Here’s a breakdown of the highlights: “Readers & Writers” is the sure-thing lead single, propelled by one of those Los Campesinos! multi-instrumental hyper drum rolls (duly noted by Idlewild skeptic Aaron); “Take Me Back to the Islands” rewrites The Lemonheads’ best ever “My Drug Buddy,” with beautiful results, more fully orchestrated, a bit less profound; “Post-Electric” builds to the type of cataclysmic guitar riff that featured so prominently on 2007’s Make Another World; some vintage Johnny Marr guitar is tucked inside “All Over the Town,” very low in the mix, a minor feature where another band might make it the point of the song; “Circles in Stars” has some of that “Readers & Writers” shuffle, but is unlike anything they’ve ever done, and maybe only their second song whose groovy bass line is its defining feature; closer “Take Me Back In Time” could have earned a place on The Joshua Tree, which may sound like a diss as I’ve never much cared for that album or known anyone who does. Still, they might have just pulled a “With or Without You.”

If we’re looking back to 1987, though, let’s recall that R.E.M. became bona fide celebrities that year, with the release of Document. It’s become easy to think of Idlewild in terms of R.E.M., not because they sound much alike, but because they’ve been making the same progress from album to album as R.E.M. did in their early years. Well, Post Electric Blues is a better Idlewild album than Document is an R.E.M. album, and it sounds like a summation of their career thus far, a template for future successes. Here’s hoping. It’ll probably turn out to be another one “for the fans.”

Patrick Wolf, The Bachelor : He is, to quote Wolf skeptic Ola, a “cutie,” but off-Broadway vocals or not, he’s no Adam Lambert (speaking of, has there ever been a more legitimate and deserved pop star on Idol, only to lose the title?!); Wolf has always been a bit inaccessible, kept himself at a distance, and after the vivacious Magic Position, gloom again predominates on the new Bachelor. I’m currently hooked on “Damaris,” which would have you screaming “Kate Bush!” if Wolf wasn’t a real musician—nay, artist—but this album’s all about those choral swells, or whatever it takes to enliven Wolf’s more than metaphorical “dead meat.”

At the Fine Line last weekend (after three interminable opening acts), Wolf was a charmer, telling tales of his teenage love for 90s indie rockers That Dog (featuring the great Petra Haden), singing along in his bedroom to their anthem “Minneapolis.” There’s no evidence of that influence on The Bachelor—you may instead imagine a dour boy who’s spent his whole life wandering rainy lowlands. As much as he prostitutes himself in his vids, on-stage he comes across as humble and shy, at least until the rail-grinding dance moves of “Vulture”—and what else can you do during a song produced by Alec Empire? Anyway, The Bachelor amounts to a very fine album, one of the year’s best, thanks in large part to Wolf’s immaculate vocals—not off-Broadway at all, not after you’ve heard him tumble through the chorus of “Augustine” live, where you can verify he’s not a robot.

Sonic Youth, The Eternal : They’re indulging some of their lesser impulses here, resulting in an album that has more in common with the terrible NYC Ghosts and Flowers than anything else they’ve released this decade. Why are the lyrics of “Anti-Orgasm” so bad? When did this band turn 50 going on 19? But if this is more jam session than belabored album, well, that’s part of its success. Because Sonic Youth never forgot how to rock, and this is one of their most whip-quick hours. But when I chalk up their ten greatest albums (as inspired by Rockaliser’s tribute to Bob Dylan) I find that The Eternal just doesn’t have the riffs, the intricacies, or the rifficacies to make the cut.

1. Daydream Nation
Well, you could live here.
2. Sister
You could live here too, but it’s easy to forget that Sonic Youth once made punk records as concise as those of their peers.
3. Goo
Lee Ranaldo typically writes two of the three best songs on any SY album, and here we have “Mote” and “Disappearer,” the greyest and raddest rock songs evah. “Mildred Pierce” is crazier than Joan Crawford in a wire hanger factory.
4. Murray Street
A noble attempt at economy, here’s one of their shorter records, with four of its seven songs bordering on epic. A labor of love, equal parts labor and love.
5. Dirty
Sonic Youth post-grunge: they remind everyone they invented grunge, and that they’re cooler than all you suckers. “Sugar Kane” is in competition for best ever, and “Theresa’s Sound World” is close behind.
6. Washing Machine
The first SY record I loved, the one that gave birth to my frequent defense: “No, they do more than just feedback!”
7. Sonic Nurse
Longer, more erratic than Murray Street, but don’t be fooled: they’re not just wandering, they’re looking for something.
They’ve never done the art-damaged thing better, or been more mesmerizing, than on “Tom Violence” and “Shadow of a Doubt,” but the trance gives way to sleep all too quickly.
9. Rather Ripped
A bona fide pop album, or as close as they’ll come. “Do You Believe in Rapture” is like a treatise on restraint.
10. A Thousand Leaves
Sometimes Sonic Youth get lost too, but then they stumble upon some wonders: “Sunday,” “Wildflower Soul.”


If you’re spending your summer in the city, The Dils are just about the only band you need to hear. The L.A. band recorded a mere three singles from 1977-1979, resulting in eight songs that are among the best in the punk canon. The band’s defining feature is their goddamned weirdness, which doesn’t manifest itself in the music so much as in your lingering suspicion about their earnestness when they sing lines like “I hate the rich” and “I don’t listen to the cops, I wish they all were dead.” Well, they’re bona fide punkers, so I guess I believe it, but it’s hardly surprising that they went on to form a cowpunk band called Rank and File and remove the bit about cops when they rerecorded their own “Sound of the Rain.” That song’s got a major hook, and there’s a melodic buzz to all their singles that has less to do with sexual frustration (a la the Buzzcocks) than it does with walkin’ round in the city, feelin’ cool, sun shinin’ down on the parkin’ lot.

Save them for a sunny day, though. If it’s overcast, you’ll want the third album by The Comsat Angels, Fiction (its predecessor, Sleep No More, is just too oppressive for summertime). Here’s your ideal spacious post-punk record, before or after a rainfall. These recommendations have both been scientifically tested on my iPod on the streets of St. Paul, so you can’t lose. If you’re locked in your bedroom all summer, you might try some of those Atlas Sound virtual 7-inches.



Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin : I have to wonder how much of Baldwin is in this book. Does John, his fictional self, end up choosing the narrow path or Broadway? Baldwin chose the latter, so I must ask, When did he stop believing himself to be sinful? John is clearly in love with Elisha, and I appreciate how John’s feelings about this love change throughout the novel’s opening without being clearly anticipated. One moment he seems determined to submerge his sexuality in the church, and the next he remembers he loves blonde movie stars too much. He knows his mind as much as any 15-year old.

Other recent reads:

Post Office by Charles Bukowski : Classic novel about the cruelty of employment. Bukowski alter-ego Chinaski has pretty much the right attitude about his situation, which is the situation of most people—overtime, unreasonable superiors, numbness and pain as a result of monotonous tasks. I shouldn’t talk, but I’ll need a job soon myself, so this is timely. Chinaski, despite his misogyny and racial anxieties, is a charming guy, and if he can get through it, there’s hope for us yet. Did I mention it’s funny?

The Arrival by Shaun Tan : Fantastic wordless novel, more linear and straightforward in its telling than the woodcut novels of the 20s and 30s with which I’m familiar, but with a similar dreamlike quality. The objects that immigrants bring with them to a new country, the way our environment determines the objects we invent, the way immigrants take ownership of the new objects they encounter–all of this is conveyed in a language simultaneously literal and symbolic, in a way that only pictures allow. Those fantastical landscapes—are they really there, are they how a newcomer sees the world, are they symbolic representations of the landscapes’ meanings? I think the way the ending parallels the beginning suggests it’s all real.

The Ballad of the Sad CafĂ© by Carson McCullers : Has there ever been a more empathetic (or better) writer than Carson McCullers? The goings-on in this novella are essentially a vehicle for statements like the following: “The good people thought that if those two had found some satisfaction of the flesh between themselves, then it was a matter concerning them and God alone”; “Often after you have sweated and tried and things are not better for you, there comes a feeling deep down in the soul that you are not worth much.” The story has its charms though, and does what stories are supposed to do, which is describe a world in which people act, strangely or not, with or without motive. I can’t express how much I love this writer. Only Truman Capote and James Baldwin are in her league.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Merrier Month of June

This blog has been going for a year. How did you celebrate?


I picked up We Got the Neutron Bomb again and found this gem courtesy of Gerber (a.k.a. Michelle Bell):

“We [Gerber and Darby Crash] were trying to figure out sexually if we were actually human beings. We’d look at ourselves naked in this full-length mirror with Bowie lyrics cut out and glued on it. On acid it was as if I didn’t believe I was a human being.”

I’m making up my summer reading list. Recommend me something.

Other recent reads:

Lowboy by John Wray : This is a very good novel, and having read it close on the heels of Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances and Scott Heim’s We Disappear, I feel that I’ve detected a new trend in science fiction writing. None of these novels are SF per se, but they do seem to indicate that the only relevant SF plots in this modern era of confusion and doubt might be those that exist in the minds of the mentally ill. Galchen’s narrator believes his wife has been replaced by a doppelganger, Heim’s narrator’s mother believes she can save all the missing children of Kansas, and Lowboy believes he can save the world from apocalypse by losing his virginity. I don’t think that the irrational beliefs of the characters in these stories signals a critique of the irrational extrapolations of SF itself (I’ve never known there to be a high incidence of schizophrenia among SF writers). Rather, these writers have a sincere wish to illuminate the way that the human mind creates meaning, and the immense faulty (or true) structures it is capable of sustaining. These are books about characters who peer dangerously beneath the surface of things, who read meaning in every element of their environments—“lit up like fireworks by the ideas inside them,” as Wray puts it—and narrators who don’t question them, who come to accept their hostile view of the world. This approach might be nothing new—Philip K. Dick made a career of it—but these three books together make up a persuasive trilogy for 2009.

It might be worth noting that Lowboy and We Disappear are twinned in another way—their depiction of mother-son relationships. Lowboy is the more psychologically acute novel—We Disappear is an emotional work first and foremost—but both throw out “child is the father of the man” for “mother is the mother of the son.” That’s a clunky phrase that won’t be adopted by the psychiatric community anytime soon, but it’s there from page one in both works, whether or not Lowboy’s ending blindsides you.

Skinwalkers is the ideal mystery: crime in chapter one, motive in chapter two, and if you’re like me, no solution until the very end. That’s satisfying enough, but what’s better is Hillerman’s deep sense of his characters and the way they are defined by their environment. It’s in the details; he even knows what day the mail comes.

The best stories in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned come at the end, when Wells Tower strays from his comfort zone, away from forty-ish divorced male narrators and blatant metaphors (though I will say that the rotten meat in “Retreat” is important not so much as a metaphor as it is for the way it tests the characters). The eighty-ish single male narrator in “Door in Your Eye,” the spiteful young boy in “Leopard,” and the insecure teenage girl in “Wild America” are all beautiful creations, giving such crystalline shape to their stories that I have to take back what I said earlier: with characters like these, the short story can never exhaust its possibilities. “Wild America” is the standout, so loaded with details of being thirteen and unwanted that you might have to cry. The title story overcomes its own silliness and is crucial to the collection, putting in plain view all the subtle cruelties that simmer through the rest of the book.


1) They played “Baby, I Love Your Way”—the Big Mountain version from the Reality Bites soundtrack, I think—at the CVS in Helena recently and I realized that it’s not often that I haven’t thought about a song since the last time I heard it. I bet I’ve even thought about Lisa Loeb since the last time I heard “Stay.”

2) I was remembering how wonderful Oh, Inverted World is, and how unfair it is that The Shins are often associated with Garden State (decent movie though it is), and how incorrect it is that that movie’s use of their songs is often equated with The Graduate’s Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack. The Shins owe something to Bookends, I suppose, but if the impenetrable and mumbly “New Slang” is this generation’s equivalent of the easily legible “Sound of Silence,” does that mean that life’s meanings are no longer apparent? I choose not to believe it. “New Slang” has nothing to say to you, except that pop music is very beautiful. Nor does it want to be a definitive song, or anything but a chilling lead-in to “The Celibate Life,” the most sublime minute-and-a-half of earphoria since the Television Personalities.

3) The word “dated” doesn’t compute for me, at least not as an indicator of quality. I am pretty good at determining the age of songs, but my favorite old songs aren’t those that have aged the best but those that are the best. Erasure doesn’t have better synths than Spandau Ballet, just better songs.