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.