Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Usual Subtexts

My brother-in-law just finished a new album called Earthquake Lake. It’s very good as usual, and while most copies have probably already been handed out to friends and family, for my own amusement I designed an album cover, which looks like this:

This is the fourth album cover I have done (not to mention the dozens that will never be used), and the first done entirely by hand. It is an embellished tracing of a photograph of Deerhunter’s Locket Pundt, a method I have used before (Patrick Wolf on a birthday card; Devendra Banhart on a going-away card; myself on a t-shirt) and which I recommend to non-artists like myself as it tends to produce good results. Because they are always at hand, I often use a set of six earth-toned Faber-Castell pens, and for Earthquake Lake, I believe the colors and the subject matter of the album art suggest the qualities of the album itself. I hope. The original:

Comment on this post if you’d like to hear the music. I will probably make a music video this summer if I can get my camera fixed, but in the meantime check YouTube for others I have directed: “Dull Moment” and “As Far As I Can See”, recorded under the name of my brother-in-law’s former one-man band, The Sugarbeeters.

Speaking of album covers, the best I have seen in a while is the new one by Sade, which recalls those odd Roxy Music covers of yore in a way I didn’t think possible in 2010.

The Magnetic Fields, Realism : Stephin Merritt has never operated without a premise. Racking my brain to think of a normal Merritt project, only a couple Magnetic Fields albums and one or both Future Bible Heroes albums seem like possibilities. Not even certainties! So unless the premise is quantity (69 Love Songs), his premises are always threatening to ruin him. He has escaped unblemished so far, and I think he does again on Realism, but only because half of the songs are pretty wonderful and not because the premise makes any sense.

Realism is presented in part as the flipside to 2008’s Distortion, which in every way but the packaging it is not, and which only goes to undermine Distortion’s startling cover design: the simultaneous cognitive dissonance and consonance caused by a bright pink background, the male restroom symbol, the word ‘distortion’ in a not-quite elegant font. When was the last time you were so shocked without knowing why? What advertising genius, nay artist, thought this up? Barbara Kruger? But in what way Realism’s paper-bag brown, female restroom outline, and quainter font are analogous to Distortion’s iterations, I don’t know. It also doesn’t meet its promise of being a folk album, unless within his definition of folk music Merritt includes all the categories and traditions he has always utilized. None of this matters, of course, except when the songs are so miniaturized, as they often are, that they fail to give the album a shape determined by the quality of the music. But there are wonders too: opener “You Must Be Out Of Your Mind,” with its instantly recognizable Merrittian melody; “I Don’t Know What To Say,” a surprisingly haunting formula song; “Better Things,” the rare moment when Merritt’s greatest quality, sentimentality, wins out over his second greatest, cleverness; “The Dada Polka,” a joke song that works in every way; and of course, the always breathtaking voice of Shirley Simms. These things work on their own terms, but with some future album we might need Merritt to contextualize his ideas in a commentary booklet, just like we would if Quentin Tarantino ever made a bad movie.

Update: There’s not a song on Realism I dislike, but the problem of extreme smallness persists.

Field Music, Measure : This album, maybe because it is so good, only makes me want to repent for not giving Sloan’s Never Hear The End Of It the praise it deserved in 2007. That record, the eighth by Canada’s greatest band (a fact worth noting in these Olympic times) was one of those unprecedented long-form bursts of creativity, experienced by all the band’s members in equal measure, that doesn’t need a unifying concept to distract from its ceaseless onrush of good ideas (think Double Nickels on the Dime). Field Music were good contenders to make such an album. Their previous record, Tones of Town, didn’t have a bad idea in its 32 minutes, and featured a Kinks/Small Faces-style quaint rockingness that seemed due for an expansion. But because Field Music has two songwriters to Sloan’s four, because this is their third album and not their eighth, and because they are more of a “head” band than those power pop Canadians, Measure is not as instantly gratifying as Never Hear The End Of It. Perhaps if you’re a Dave Marsh acolyte you’ll listen to it five times back to back tonight, but I prefer Sloan’s cavalcade of should-be hits. But… more on Measure soon, I hope.

--If I had to handicap my 2010 top ten albums list in this very premature month of February, I would say Owen Pallett’s Heartland will do well, and I have as yet only heard four of its songs! Not only that, but I had never listened to Pallett’s recordings under the name Final Fantasy, expecting labyrinthine string arrangements whose eccentricity would prove too much for me. Alas, Heartland—a place where pop music, string virtuosity, and North American imagery, storytelling and violence meet—features music that I think could be called culture-enriching, and which could well produce a more responsible and liberated generation of artists who are neither purely progressive nor purely traditional. Give this man a Guggenheim! Or are those not given to Canadians?

--Is it wrong to still be loving Basement Jaxx’s “Raindrops” all these months after the parade? Popular music’s transience is no bad thing, and just like the actual raindrops that fell in summer 2009, perhaps “Raindrops” existed to be loved once and never again. But no one has ever put an expiry date upon “My Girls” or “Lisztomania,” and similarly euphoric-at-the-end-of-the-world “Raindrops” is a hotter jam in every way. Here’s hoping we all live to see another summer. I will put it on a mixtape.

--I am such a devotee of the album format that I always prefer to hear a one hit wonder’s one hit in context rather than out, even if the “context” is 40 minutes of filler and tripe. But such cannot be said of A-Ha’s Hunting High & Low, Alphaville’s Forever Young and Modern English’s After The Snow, which are all fabulous albums despite containing hits so awesome (“Take On Me,” “Forever Young,” “I Melt With You”) as to seemingly preclude further awesomeness from whence they came. “Take On Me” is the only one that’s even in competition as the best on its respective album, although it’s the rare moment so heart-tuggingly lovelorn that Morten Harket has to strangle his beautiful voice into a nearly shameful falsetto. But not shameful, because it’s that sort of song.


Willa Cather’s My Antonia is a classic lesbian text, I have learned since I began reading it. The fact that it is written in first-person is all you need to know to understand why, I suppose. And it’s hardly surprising anyway, as I can’t name many great American authors, writing in a time when there were still restrictions on what could be written, who can conclusively be said to not have had a non-traditional sexuality. When uncertainty exists, it can make for great literature, potent readings. I’ve been thinking a bit about that, and about the two Russian bachelors, neighbors of our Antonia and our narrator, who live together, and what Cather might be telegraphing, possibly without knowing she’s doing it. But when I’m reading the book, I’m simply swept away, because when you find yourself on the plains of Nebraska and all the details you normally latch onto in fiction disappear, everything that remains takes on such great importance and vividness, especially in this present season that makes me hate the seasons.


Roger Ebert once tweeted that he has read all of Ms. Cather’s novels more than once. Ebert is probably the only writer I have read as extensively as he has read Cather. Since I began regularly reading his reviews and watching his old show in 2003, he’s never been out of my mind for more than a week at a time, which is something I can’t say about anyone else excluding my family. This is a fact I can hopefully rely on for a good while longer, but clearly not forever, as a new Esquire profile and Ebert’s own response to the profile suggest. The image that accompanies both, very sad or perhaps just very human, will become iconic, and makes Ebert’s recent articles about pleasures now denied him, like dining and making out, all the more touching. I’ve also been thinking about his original review of 2004’s The Sea Inside, which has stuck with me ever since I read it, particularly the bit about reading tomorrow’s newspaper. When much of what exists in blogland seems so perfunctory, like it was never written at all, Ebert’s online journal suggests a man wandering the corridors of his mind, finding and sharing solid truths.


I have nothing but love for most of mankind’s handiworks, and as you may have surmised from my various appraisals on this blog, that also means I love most everything that is mainstream. My tastes align pretty closely with the interests of those who are arts-conscious but not quite arts-critical. Maybe I am such a person, but positively, Lost is one such mainstream thing I love. You may have heard that the show is beginning to answer some of its most burning questions in preparation for its finale, which doesn’t really matter to me so long as it continues to be interesting, which it has been, eminently, this season. Here’s the premise of one episode: A woman holds hostage another woman, now a complete stranger to her, but whose child she raised in an alternate universe. There’s not time enough in the world to think through what this says about the nature of existence, and I doubt the show’s creators have taken the time either, but this is one of those identity puzzles Lost is perpetually setting up that doesn’t have to mean anything because it is just inherently fascinating.


I will duel anyone who does not love Shutter Island. I should have said the same about Avatar right after I’d seen it and before the skeptics made themselves known, but I hate to seem like some bozo movie fan who purposely ignores rational argument and relies too much on the word “awesome.” But once it becomes apparent that Shutter Island is a literal thrill ride through the human subconscious, it is awesome indeed, as giddy-making as a chase through John Malkovich’s dimmest memories. If you believe that Hitchcock’s Spellbound and Psycho have not just great endings but crucial endings; if you believe movies don’t do exposition as good as they used to; if you believe that dreams and not reality are the proper setting of fiction; and if you believe that 50 years post-Psycho our greater awareness of mental illness hasn’t made us better people and it’s still impossible to know that what we know is actually so… you will probably love this movie, and I won’t have to duel you. This is Marty’s Solaris, but entirely less ponderous. I fully expected the closing shot to zoom out and reveal Ashcliff surrounded by a roiling alien sea.

1 comment:

Geoff said...

I knew Owen Pallett had done strings for Arcade Fire, but now I find he's done the same for the Hidden Cameras and Fucked Up. Holy guacamole! That also reminds me I might have been premature in calling Sloan Canada's greatest band.