Monday, February 8, 2010

I Make No Claims To Certainty

The declaration above is a title that I was going to randomly affix to any forthcoming post, but now it proves more than just generally relevant, as I have been reading…

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin : Franklin, like me, considered certainty, coupled with love of argument, to be an inferior quality in people, to wit: “I wish wellmeaning sensible Men would not lessen their Power of doing Good by a Positive assuming Manner that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create Opposition, and to defeat every one of those Purposes for which Speech was given us, to wit, giving or receiving Information, or Pleasure.” I have had it easy, as I have always been naturally uncertain of everything I think and do, but I know there are many who have to work hard to cultivate modesty (e.g. the U.S. Senate, whose public chastisement was the best part of Obama’s State of the Union speech). Franklin’s early life and thoughts are filled with other wonders, particularly his youthful flirtation with vegetarianism, for which he is “chid for his singularity.” Anyway, our lesson: anyone who tells you he knows something for sure is due for a major humbling (so it seems to me).

Angels at the Ritz by William Trevor : Trevor is a national treasure. Not ours, but someone’s. There are standouts among these 11 stories, but what is most amazing about them on the whole is the way they begin with dual protagonists and by the end shift toward the point-of-view of one or the other, or some third party, anyone who has the most clear-eyed understanding of what has transpired in the preceding pages.

J.D. Salinger died (or became ultra-reclusive, as someone put it) and I realized I never said much here about Nine Stories, which I read a couple months back. For those only familiar with The Catcher In The Rye, it’s easy to be swayed by the strength of Holden Caulfield’s voice and celebrate Salinger as the voice of a generation before celebrating him as a storyteller. And while Holden is chief among Salinger’s misfits, what Nine Stories makes clear is that, as a writer, he could make you understand the disappointments and modest joys in any American life.

I’ve been perusing the new fiction shelves again, so add these to my list of recent books about characters with various connections to pop music: I Can See Clearly Now, Pop Apocalypse, Putrefaction Live. I might read this last one, about a Navajo heavy metal band.



To the (not great) extent that I used to categorize the music I liked, there was nothing better than the grand 1990s tradition of lengthy and expensively produced British rock ‘n’ roll albums, “major statements” that stated only this: “Rule Britannia” has never been truer! I include in this tradition What’s The Story Morning Glory, Dog Man Star, Everything Must Go, Drawn To The Deep End, Urban Hymns, The Man Who, and exclude spikier contemporaries like Elastica, The Great Escape, et al. (However: Nothing is so tidy, and there’s a fine line between Liam Gallagher’s hedonism and bro Noel’s Lennon-complex, between “Charmless Man” and “The Universal,” etc. I continue to confuse the issue in the sentences to follow, but the point is that while all these bands had a sense of fun, there is something special and universally appealing about them when they are at their most self-absorbed and -indulgent.)

I'm going to start randomly incorporating
photographs I have taken and/or posed for,
and sometimes iPhoto modified, into my posts.

I don’t think this tradition came to an end (you only have to open an issue of Q to find another pale and misbehaved quintet standing tall and skinny behind their instruments as if no one else has ever been so cool, or perhaps a pale foursome with a humbleness matched only by their earnestness), but with the exception of my love for Doves and Engineers and my awareness of Elbow, I lost track (not so their spikier contemporaries, Maximo Park and the like). Which is why I am so happy to have made acquaintance with just such a band as I parenthetically describe above…

The Horrors, Primary Colours : I don’t know what era this album really belongs to, or on which side of my arbitrary grand/fun divide it lies, but it’s damn exciting, even terrifying at times, in a way I thought exclusive to Primal Scream’s Exterminator. By which I mean: with their funhouse organ and aloof brutality, these songs exist at the Swinging London happening of my dreams, but with an overlay of 80s post-punk jitters, 90s Brit-jam excess, and 00s feedback chiaroscuro that bring them up to the present day. One might find these guys a bit stage managed (another grand tradition) but I’ve decided they’re the real deal, and the British press agrees and feels that this sort of thing is here to stay, still. That’s one constant I can rely on.

Engineers, Three Fact Fader : One smart critic called this something like the hangover to Primary Colours' all-night bender. These guys seem like elder statesmen compared to The Horrors, maybe because it took them four years, not two, to follow up their debut, and because that debut suggested so many possible directions that Three Fact Fader has required them to make a conscious choice about the type of band they want to be. They’ve decided to favor the gently psychedelic, the dreamily grandiose. Even if they’re the last Brits making albums so resplendent, somnolent, orderly and overstuffed, the last ones singing “Rule Britannia,” through the force of their modest ambitions they’re not an anachronism.


I tell everyone who will listen about how Sweden is a wonderland, maybe in actuality or maybe just in my imagination, or both. This is mostly based on the strength of their arts scenes and something I read about ways that the government there helps ease a person’s transition from male to female or vice versa. I could now regale you with declarations of my love for Ingmar Bergman, and then Lukas Moodyson, Let The Right One In, and the perfection of Sweden’s teen angst. And then I could list my 50+ favorite Swedish bands, but I will limit myself to recent happenings in my continually unfolding mental panorama of Northern paradise.

Frida Hyvonen is not the first person to not rhyme in her lyrics, but she makes an art of it and you might think no one else has ever so thoroughly freed her muse and sang her heart out in prose. She embodies the old cliché about how someone could sound good singing out of a phone book. (Phone books tend not to rhyme.)

The film You The Living, like The Knife’s Silent Shout, is completely unlike anything else that has ever existed, and almost as pitch black, albeit arriving there via washed out pastel greens and pinks. Sweden: the last frontier?

jj’s music, on the other hand, completely meets my expectations of what Swedes do best, and last year’s no 2 is a total knockout, the best thing that happened to me in January (you know, among the things I write about here; original name for this post: “jjanuary”). The album has the sort of globetrotting travelogue vibe that makes Air France so wonderful, but, in the way of these things, is also quite hermetic and best at its most insular and introspective. …I know the ship will still sail on long after I’m gone… This has been called the summer album to forthcoming no 3’s presumed winter, though I don’t think these things are absolute (e.g. a “shivery” guitar can sound “like a summer wind” or “glacial”) and can easily be taken too far. Summery jj has made my favorite winter ’10 music.


I’ve worked on magazines and newsletters, so my justification for seeing The September Issue was that I find it interesting to see how publications come together. But I took “issue” with everyone at my place of work who suggested that this movie isn’t for everyone, only for fashion-savvy women. Because I saw it for the fashion too, and took special delight in watching these people who ignore everything else that happens in the world, although Grace Coddington, genius of the fashion image, never seems disconnected.

Stanley Tucci is good in The Lovely Bones, as advertised, though I find it a bit disturbing that he has been consistently singled out for awards nominations, his creepy and unredeemed child murderer meant to represent the entire movie. That goes to show what an over-directed muddle of a movie it is. Stanley Tucci can’t feel good about it either. I never want to see a close-up of his fingertips again.

Precious continues to gain power in my imagination, and I’ve begun to think of it, perhaps incorrectly, and only in part, as a feverish and impassioned mash-up movie-movie in the manner of Inglourious Basterds. I watched Two Women, one of the films it directly cites, for this reason, and it’s amazing to think that the big tragedies and bigger emotions that make that film’s ending such a knockout have been reclaimed and given new life in Precious. Director Lee Daniels cites Pedro Almodovar, John Waters, and Julian Schnabel as his influences, and if you look close enough you can probably find pieces of their visions floating around in that weird hybrid of a movie.

I can’t object to anything in the very classy Invictus, except that the final rugby match might have been a bit mishandled. During certain slow motion sequences, I became so hyper-aware of the sound effects editing (men grunting slowly on a soundstage somewhere in Hollywood) that I couldn’t take anything seriously. And I don’t like big rousing sports finales to begin with, except the one in Breaking Away. It’s always weird to remember how movies are pieced together, sound stitched to image, but I don’t blame the filmmakers for my moment of awareness. I just briefly got separated from movieland.

One of the best movies of 2009, The Road comes closer to my understanding and imagining of the source material than any other adaptation I’ve seen does to its original. I never thought the book unfilmable, just that it would require the sort of director who believes in the power of images and who could resist the temptation to narrate. John Hillcoat, of 2006’s great The Proposition, is the man, and the result puts to the test one of Ebert’s most quotable lines: “No good movie is depressing. All bad movies are depressing.” The Road is exhilarating, not least because the filmmakers care about our future.

I haven’t seen the original documentary, but the way the HBO retelling of Grey Gardens plays like a standard drama might initially seem inappropriate to the subject matter. In fact, it’s the perfect approach to take: weird as young Edith is, she always believes herself an undiscovered star, and this movie allows her to be the star of her own sordid life story. Drew Barrymore is great as a woman who succeeds in all her failures, while Jessica Lange, as Edith Sr., knows that the story is in fact no great Hollywood drama, and that she’s merely playing a part in Barrymore’s movie. I love that, when a story’s subject justifies what one might consider its shortcomings.

Newsweek published its obligatory piece of Hurt Locker contrarianism, but all it taught me is that the author (a) believes movies that are open to interpretation are inferior to movies with strong, clear messages, and (b) storytellers should have no limitations, and Hollywood directors in particular should be made to apologize for not telling stories completely beyond their understanding of other cultures. This last part ignores the best thing about The Hurt Locker—and here’s a bit of my interpretation, made possible by the smart choices of the filmmakers—the sad, painful admission that it can be dangerous for a soldier to connect on a human level to the innocents whose land he inhabits (i.e. the situation with the young boy).

Other recent movies I’ve liked, and approaches I might have taken in commenting on them: Big Fan (the purity of a certain kind of unthinking partisanship—see Franklin above—and its relation to loving bands); Up The Yangtze (the pitfalls of tourism, actual and cinematic); Lorna’s Silence (sympathy for junkies); Art & Copy (my continued disbelief that any advertising is good, yet simultaneous awe at certain campaigns); D Tour (life’s messiness, tragedy, even within the history of a band I love in a pretty impersonal way).

Twin Peaks: long-form movie, or TV show cut woefully short? It’s a crucial distinction, on which one’s interpretation of the ending depends completely. The simple answer might be that the show’s makers, aware that it would probably be cancelled, tried to have it both ways by imagining a bright future for the show that might grow out of a perfect, cynical ending. In particular, three unresolved plot points can be understood as resolved in these ways (vague spoiler alert!): Benjamin Horn, having lost one daughter, cannot reclaim the one he denied, so it hardly matters what his bleeding head signifies; all those adults, with their absurd teenageresque romances, realize their folly when it becomes clear they have been taking advantage of a woman’s mental illness and delusions of youth; Agent Cooper...sadly, he made the same mistake twice. And while it kills me that the show ends the way it does, it’s also true that it never quite favored good humor over a cold, hard stare into the face of evil.


--Devon Williams, “Fragile Weapon”
One of our preeminent pop romantics. Within the small part of his small catalog I’ve heard, only “Who Cares About Forever” bests this, which makes me think that his songs’ greatness is directly proportional to their structural intricacy. Prefab Sprout could cover this 25 years ago.

--Engineers, “Sometimes I Realise”
I wasn’t the first to call it a jam, but that’s what it is, a familiar sort of tune whose elements all have different degrees and qualities of buzz, resulting in instant brain fizz.

--Clinic, “Distortions”
The “ballad” on perma-classic Internal Wrangler, this is where Clinic momentarily forget how much they love every outsider musician of the twentieth century and sing one from the heart. I’m glad about how much less this song reminds me of Radiohead than it used to, proof that it has withstood the test of time and of authenticity. But it wasn’t made in a vacuum, and these guys learned something from jazz: the coda is a snatch of double time, I think, not just a quickened pulse, while “Goodnight Georgie” nearly out-sads Vince Guaraldi.

--The Twilight Sad, “And She Would Darken The Memory”
Head up dear the rabbit may die! Anyone who thinks James Graham’s depressiveness outweighs his vitality needs only to listen to the moment he stops singing that line and screams it. (I could revise that Ebert quote: “No good music is depressing, all bad music is depressing.”) Graham has that rare voice that is never disembodied; he sings so deeply you can almost see the chest the words pour out of. Many versions of this song exist, but the album version (with the punchiest drums) is best.

--The Besnard Lakes, “Albatross”
The Lakes want to set your heart racing this time around. Like Wye Oak’s “Tattoo,” this is a different kind of worship music, and the coda, maybe the best of its kind since GBV’s “Don’t Stop Now,” is the moment of oneness.

--Blue Oyster Cult, “True Confessions”
Agents of Fortune is my 70s radio rock album of choice, and this song, so modest compared to the song that follows it (cowbell...), is a true summer jam.

--Gang Gang Dance, “House Jam”
Not my favorite practitioners of everything-at-once quasi-dance music, but this song reveals that all they need is a steady groove and a diva vocal to sort out the culture clutter.

--No Age, “Sleeper Hold”
I think I have underestimated the melodic power of Nouns. When you’ve essentially got a nine-note vocal and a few chords, you have to choose wisely, and this song kills like the best of New Day Rising.

--The Joy Formidable, “The Last Drop”
Jack Rabid is going nuts about this band (the best to emerge in five years, he says). They are indeed the sort of tight post-punk unit (recalling Lush) that I think deserves nothing but admiration, and with enough listens this song might become part of my every waking moment.

--Echo & The Bunnymen, “Stars Are Stars”
If they’d been American, this is the band Ray Manzarek would have been producing in 1980, and there’s a particularly American type of longing and wide-openness in this one.

--Oasis, “Cigarettes & Alcohol”
This is just one of the great boozy and drawled out vocals ever recorded, and the song is such a simple rock ‘n’ roll jam (no great feat for Oasis) that nothing keeps Liam from owning it. I was looking for some akk-shee-un...

--Basement Jaxx, “Always Be There”
A lot of electronic dance music asks you to rearrange your mind like a computer, but the best creates its own headspace, an enchanted land of the interior, that has nothing to do with the technology that made it. Basement Jaxx tap into that pretty effortlessly.

--Iris DeMent, “Our Town”
God, anything to banish this wintry fog and gloom! Even if this song is about the disappointments and regrets of a life lived small, DeMent’s voice is so winning, as some of my readers know, that she never sounds like she’s letting herself feel low about her situation (pluck, I think they call it).


aaron said...

might want to double check that hurt locker link. or maybe that's your way of insulting it?

newsweek wants to boldly claim that "the hurt locker" is a cowardly film. i suggest the nuance-blind critic who wrote that watch it again. i did last weekend, and was surprised in the way that small details tip their hat. there is meaning in the specifics, seth coleter walls!

Geoff said...

Fixed that. I don't know what happened there. It seems you found the right article though, and I also wonder if you're insulting it by inserting an extra 'e' into the author's name.

aaron said...

not intentionally.

didn't realize you had such a bergman regale us!

Geoff said...

Probably not more than most people. Maybe some other time.