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.


Geoff said...

Quite by accident, my three most recent posts have been made on the same days as three posts in 2008. I am scheduled to post again on the 21st, maybe.

aaron said...

I have friends who like Pink, Katy Perry, and Lady Gaga, and some of them take it very personally when their tastes are criticized

i don't think you're doing anyone a favor by not pointing out that that music is atrocious trash. they're all part of a legitimately villainous culture industry, and offer a simulacrum of female empowerment rather than the real thing. i.e.:

katy perry: lipstick lesbianism that caters to straight males; le tigre: the real thing

pink: rock-chick not afraid to tell it like it is (though too obsessed with her record sales to come out of the closet); pj harvey: the real thing (and she's even on a major label, but clearly harvey is in control of her own career and music)

i used to think mbv were overrated too, but they're like big star and power-pop. sure, you can be a power-pop band as good as big star, but you can't be a better one, because they were perfect.

Geoff said...

But I think there's a way to like all those ladies that isn't villainous. I haven't quite figured out what that way is; Ms. Hanna and Ms. Harvey are for sure more personally fulfilling. I've always thought Katy Perry is for people who don't remember/weren't around for Jill Sobule, but she serves a (limited, fleeting) purpose. The friends I referred to are not straight males.

aaron said...

The friends I referred to are not straight males

quite irrelevant, i doubt that capitol would have pushed a mainstream pop single had they thought that the song would make people uncomfortable (note that i kissed a girl's narrator has a boyfriend). anyways the point isn't that katy perry fans are villains. that's my take anyways.

although i'm not sure that jill sobule would agree:

did you hear there's a daniel johnston video game/iphone app called "hi, how are you"?

Geoff said...

I agree. I just don't agree that the song primarily caters to straight males, even if it was written by one. Or do you mean 'cater' in a sense other than 'appeal'? Indeed, my original point was (I hope) about emotional response to music, good or not, and not about record industry villainy.

And apparently he doesn't even know what an iPhone is.