Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Unbeatable, or Nearly So

1) If Kathryn Bigelow doesn’t win the Best Director Oscar next year, the glass ceiling will have another 18 million cracks in it, as a result of the sheer awesomeness of her achievement. Also, I will weep. Roger Ebert called The Hurt Lockera return to strong, exciting narrative” and “a film shot clearly so that we know exactly who everybody is and where they are and what they're doing and why.” That’s no small point, and I’m glad critics have been picking up on this. The Hurt Locker is not only the best-directed movie in a while, but also the rare action movie that seems to have been directed at all, rather than assembled from barely usable fragments in the editing room.

Note: I’ve just learned that Yogurt agrees, generally, though maybe not with all my wretched phrasings.

2) That a song as huge as “Funnel Cloud” was made by a trio (The Sleepover Disaster), and seemingly with a minimum of overdubs, is a fact almost more astonishing than the song itself. Here’s a perfectly patterned rock song, one that’s simultaneously monstrous and beautiful. It’s the best song this year and the crowning achievement on Hover, which alternately recalls a number of diverse vintage shoegazing bands, while always proving the musicians versatile and virtuosic, never generic. Rock.

3) I’m finally catching up with For Against’s Shade Side Sunny Side, which already strikes me, belatedly, as one of the best albums of 2008. For (not against) newcomers, the band formed in Lincoln, Nebraska in the mid 80s, sounding much more like the British post-punk bands of five years before (Chameleons, Comsat Angels, Cure, Sound) than like anything that was happening in America at the time. Blame it on Nebraska. 1988’s December is every bit as gloomy as that other Lincoln fable, Boys Don’t Cry. And I don’t mean the Cure album, though I would compare December to that band’s Seventeen Seconds, with its sharp melodies set against a dismal landscape. For Against always set their own style though. The drums with those super-tight toms; Jeffrey Runnings’ sweet, clear, choirboy voice.

Twenty years later, the band are contemporaries of Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr, bands that realize that the dense, deep, intricate guitar rock of their youths is good enough to spend a whole life pursuing. All these bands have ceased pushing musical boundaries, but continue to explore new emotional terrain. And speaking of emotional terrain, Shade Side Sunny Side is a peculiar title. 2002’s Coalesced walked the sunny side, with its considerable jangle quotient, while the new disc seems all shade. It’s some of the most enveloping late night headphone guitar-drums-and-voice music I’ve heard in ages.

Note: All the aforementioned For Against albums are available from Words on Music, located down on University Ave in Minneapolis. Words on Music was also responsible for an attractive reissue of The Lucy Show’s Mania a couple years ago. The label doesn’t seem to do much more than re-release lost post-punk classics and release new For Against albums. But they do those two things very well, and they have a $5 summer sale.

4) I’m a bit surprised, but not too much, that an album with ambitions as modest as Jeremy Jay’s Slow Dance continues to be my favorite of this year. It has a winning romantic sensibility, and an idea about the world. It ostensibly takes place in some L.A. where it’s never very warm, where angels walk the streets and solemn couples dance by the fireplace (or where lonely men long to do so). Even so, and despite the album’s slick and simple pop songs, you might imagine Jeremy Jay hunkered down in the Chelsea Hotel in the mid 70s, looking out at the dark and lonely night and smiling about the loveliness of it all. There has certainly been more accomplished music released this year, but Slow Dance is a singular experience that can tell you what life is worth.

5) Wuthering Heights is weird, in all meanings of the word. Mostly those having to do with the supernatural, the strange, and the fated. I don’t know how to account for half of the violent and bizarre behavior in the novel (except as it relates to the incestuousness of life on the moors) but it bewitches me utterly. I picked the book up while reading The Book of Night Women, after realizing I was out of practice with older British prose. Marlon James’ style has much more in common with the books that would have been available to his characters, than it does with anything being written today.

6) My life has become consumed completely by the spectre of Bradford Cox. Despite not knowing the guy, I feel I can say what Catherine says about Heathcliff: “I am Bradford.” There’s this interview where he talks about his childhood and his loves, there’s his very cool blog, and there’s his new album cover, which is either brave or brazen, and very selective about what it reveals. His music is great, too.

Bonus: Three more rad songs

a) The Fiery Furnaces’ “Lost At Sea” has some of the best Pavement crunch I’ve heard in a while.

b) Rediscovering Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville has been groovy, especially now that I am the same height as the first song.

c) Lloyd Cole’s “Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken?” isn’t the best song on Rattlesnakes, and I was initially suspicious of its oversold charms. But: its loveliness is ultimately undeniable. Highlights include the spot-on lyrics about cynical friends, and, well, the hook, after that opening guitar picking. Woosh.

Also, download this and get with this.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Merriest Month of July


I’ve been a bit surprised by the critical reception of Bruno, and wonder how it might be viewed differently if Sacha Baron Cohen was a gay Alabaman. Well, he’s not, so I guess that’s a silly question, but even as a Jewish Englishman, his duty to properly represent a group of people is no greater. GLAAD wants a vision of homosexual normality in Bruno, which is insane, since Cohen’s first allegiance is to comedy, regardless of how many people see his movie and with what false motives. That said, Bruno strikes me as an entirely less troubling, more tolerant, and much funnier movie than (the over-praised) Borat, because its central characters exist in a somewhat recognizable comic universe. Who can truly deny that the love story with Lutz is kind of sweet, and that the family that comes into being at the end, with young OJ, is as close to normal as any family needs to be?

When GLAAD says that Bruno doesn’t “help America understand the hundreds of thousands of gay families who get up every day, do the carpool then rush home to make dinner and be with their children,” I believe they are simply saying that sex is bad and marriage is good (which is not a surprising position for them to take when marriage has become the entire focus of the gay rights movement). Granted, much of the gay sex depicted in Bruno is far from realistic, but GLAAD’s attitude allows critics to continue calling the film “cringe-worthy” because they are unable to differentiate between what is simply good fun and what is absurd theater. I never felt that Cohen was denigrating anyone’s sexuality or sex practices; the only truly cringe-worthy moment is a scene with Ron Paul (simply because the film makes him look foolish in a way that has nothing to do with the point of the satire, so you sit there distracted by the downcast eyes of poor Ron Paul) and the only depicted sex that seems capable of endangering anyone is the humorless business at a swingers party.

Public Enemies
tells its story efficiently, but has no real interest in any of the elements that make the story worth telling: the Great Depression, John Dillinger’s fame, motivations, the minutiae of criminal life. The movie is great to look at, and at least we have Michael Mann to show us what digital video can do. He’s a great stylist, but the look of Public Enemies sits uncomfortably with a typical Hollywood score, overbearing sound effects, and bad bad bad CGI at the crucial moment (Mann could stand to spend some time at the Dogme 95 school). It’s not all bad: it has the best crowd head-turning scene since Strangers on a Train. The actors are good, but Christian Bale’s role is so limited that you might wonder why his character went on to kill himself 30 years after the events of the story, why you should care, and why the movie has chosen to tell you this.



The Book of Night Women
by Marlon James :
A thrilling narrative so far, in the midst of all its colors and violence. Take blog-approved John Crow’s Devil and multiply it by two, and you’ll have this in length and power.

Other recent reads:

Passing by Nella Larsen : Great in all the expected ways, and timely in a couple of unexpected ways. First, it fits in well with the new science-fiction-of-the-mentally-ill genre that I noted a while back, at least in the way that the narrator is finally so overcome with her perception of meaning that her last act is to faint. What did that mean? As she began to work it out in her numbed mind, she was shaken with another hideous trembling. Not that! Oh, not that! I would be surprised if any reader has ever been able to divine what the narrator has discovered in these sentences. She is not mentally ill, just unable to cope in a world of passing.

Second, the character Clare Kendry, in light of recent news, reads like the original of Michael Jackson. The ways her patterns of behavior might be interpreted are the same as the ways Jackson’s life has been interpreted in recent weeks—the loneliness, the desperate need for attention. Whether or not passing was the central dilemma of Jackson’s life, he seems to exist in this book from time to time.

Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin :
I had hoped that John would decide between sin and salvation in a way that sprang organically out of the story, but then there’s that long scene on the threshing floor in which he’s inhabited by a spirit and has the choice made for him. I balked at first, but it becomes apparent that this spirit or curse is something that’s existed in the speech of his ancestors for generations, and his choice will always be defined by history and things out of his control. And there’s more at stake than salvation; religion is the realm of family for John, so choosing the opposite denies much more than God. But salvation is a continual process, so with my mind always on Baldwin, I know that he may fail immediately after the story ends.

Going to Meet the Man
by James Baldwin :
Maybe the best collection of short stories I’ve read, and “Sonny’s Blues” is without a doubt the single best short story I’ve read. The latter makes evident, both explicitly and through the forcefulness and honesty of its telling, the reason these stories need to be told. “Come Out the Wilderness” is a nice companion to recently viewed My Dinner With Andre, suggesting that we are all lost and don’t know what we’re doing, but maintain an illusion that we know because we’re afraid to find out that everyone else is lost. There’s such a variety of narrators in these stories, a variety of attitudes about black people and white people, an awareness that even the enlightened few have blinders on, that I have to wonder who was this man James Baldwin? How was he so brilliant?


1) Unless they have an undiscovered classic I’m unaware of, I wonder why The Everly Brothers never recorded their own Pet Sounds in the early 60s, defining “the album” as an art form, swapping ideas with The Beatles, and leaving The Beach Boys mere forgotten hitmakers. The Everlys’ best songs of the late 50s have all sorts of neat twists and turns, and “Cathy’s Clown” (1960) is a thrilling arrangement and has the best harmonies I’ve ever heard outside of “God Only Knows.” But I guess the brothers were always just a couple of country singers.

2) In the past 12 days, I’ve seen live performances by Elvis Costello, Meat Puppets, No Age, local acts Gay Beast and Baby Guts, and a veritable cavalcade of opening acts (Gay Witch Abortion, Knife World, Manimal Quartet, Mayor Daley, Pterodactyl, Tiger Gash, Atomic Annie, Kill to Kill, the not-noisy-in-the-least Kate Voegele) for a grand total of $19, which also got me a delicious falafel sandwich. Either this is the way things go in the summer, or I’ve just been lucky. All those local bands almost give the impression that there’s a vibrant music scene here, but I’m still not sure.