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.