Sunday, July 25, 2010


The music festival of my dreams is happening next weekend:

That dream won't be coming true for me, but a related one just has. Think of my article(s?) for this new venture as an extension of the blog (or vice versa), but with mercifully less of the first-person.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Krell Vid Blogger

The Real Cool Killers by Chester Himes : Richard Ford famously axed most of the adverbs from the manuscript of Independence Day to cut down the word count. The Real Cool Killers is exploding with adverbs. The literature of real estate agents doesn’t exactly demand adverbs, but they are crucial in a crime novel as violent as this one, in which something is always happening, and happening in a particularly vivid way. In the bravura opening scene, set in a Harlem nightclub, a knife slashes a man’s tie and the knot blossoms “like a bloody wound over his white collar.” The arm holding that knife is then axed off “as though it had been guillotined” and the owner of the arm scrabbles about the floor “searching for his severed arm,” then loses consciousness and falls on his face. This heavy and active prose (though I left out all the adverbs!) might have become tiresome, but then the book starts to shift toward long passages of dialogue, another of Himes’s great strengths. You might call The Real Cool Killers anthropological in the way it hears its characters so sharply, but I’m not sure. What do their voices add up to, when none of them seem to have a very clear idea of the world they inhabit? A barman and a detective argue over how a black man would respond if he found a white man in bed with his girl (the barman thinks he could be bought off, and that white men don’t count as cheating anyway; the detective thinks it might lead to murder), but the argument is never resolved. That conversation starts to hint at the deep, deep racial prejudices that somehow don’t quite register in the book’s opening chapters but which feature more and more explicitly as the tangle of murder unravels. That same detective lays it all out with a great speech: “If you white people insist on coming up to Harlem where you force colored people to live in vice-and-crime ridden slums, it’s my job to see that you are safe.”

Scorsese by Roger Ebert : The pieces in Scorsese by Ebert started life as stand-alone reviews and interviews, so the fact that they add up to a book well worth reading cover-to-cover, and an interesting narrative experience that could almost be called biography, is quite something. Ebert may harp too much on certain elements in Scorsese’s films (the Madonna-whore complex, the evocation of a Little Italy childhood spent watching the gangsters come and go across the street), but it’s this sort of redundancy that gives the book weight, that provides a long and varied life with its necessary ghosts and obsessions. Ebert has always been smart enough to not suppress his old writings even after his ideas have changed, so when this book is at its best, it’s not just about Scorsese but about a filmmaker and his most visible critic journeying through life side-by-side.

A Newsweek article wonders what the difference is between an episode of Jerry Springer and some recent movies like The Kids Are All Right and Please Give, and then, as if some great critical thought has gone into the intervening paragraphs, concludes that they are different because of the way they treat their subject matter. Really? Roger Ebert’s rule, that movies aren’t about what they’re about but how they’re about, could have saved this article from ever being written, but at least it arrives at a reasonable conclusion, however belabored. Sadly, though, the final line intervenes: “But let’s not pretend that the subject matter, whether set to Joni Mitchell or onstage in front of an angry mob shouting, ‘She’s! A! Dude!’ is not, at heart, the same.” No one’s pretending, because we’re all too busy using critical systems that understand the nature of context.

I understand the solace of finding the perfect pair of jeans, but I wish the ending of Please Give was a bit more ambivalent, given how perfectly the rest of the film reflects its characters’ complicated feelings about shopping. Last year The Hurt Locker contained that moment when Jeremy Renner stares at an endless expanse of cereal boxes at the grocery store with a blank look on his face, but that shot was meant to be particular to the mindset of a soldier returned home from the war. Please Give contains a similar moment, one that springs from the characters’ daily lives, when Catherine Keener spies her young daughter looking at makeup at the other end of the aisle, starting off on life’s fraught journey of buying things. Keener sometimes has a look in her eye, asking, is this what I’m supposed to do with my life, buy things? Will her daughter end up wondering that too? She doesn’t yet, not at the moment of the perfect jeans, which I just can’t accept as the end of the story.

Why does young Andy love his toys so much? All children love toys, but Andy is obsessed, to the point of mania. Instead of a family portrait on the bulletin board in his bedroom, he has a portrait with all his toys. With Toy Story 3, I’ve finally realized that these nagging questions have been the key to these movies all along. The movies are finally about, in a fairly explicit way, the absence that has always been at their center. Up gave us a single parent family last year, but Toy Story 3, and its predecessors, presents one with such little fanfare that I’ve only just now begun to understand the trilogy’s essential tragedy. First there is Andy, whose parting words to the audience (and to presumably fatherless Bonnie) before going to college are about his beloved toy and father figure Woody: “He’ll never let you down.” Then there is his mother, who has lost her only son and who will remain alone at home with only a decrepit dog and an oblivious pre-teen daughter to keep her company. In even its most veiled metaphors and subtle implications, Toy Story 3 contains more of the stuff of real life than the sum total of this awful, awful summer of movies. Consider the Claw, which is divine intervention and random coincidence all bundled up into one persuasive philosophy. After the Claw rescues the toys from the fires of hell, they conclude that maybe Andy’s attic wouldn’t be so bad after all. Of course!

Note: The family opted to not see the movie in 3D. After some pleasant 3D experiences last year—the first two refurbished Toy Story films (my first novel experience of the phenomenon), A Christmas Carol (a dark, dark London that benefits from being seen as dark as possible), and Avatar (projected at an appropriate light level, probably per JC’s orders)—Alice in Wonderland broke the spell for everyone, tolerable only when I raised my glasses to see that things were actually happening, vividly, on the screen. I imagine most moviegoers have experienced a similar trajectory by now. No more 3D for me, at least until Hugo Cabret or Avatar 2.

Here are two reviews of Inception, one of which accepts the movie on its own terms and finds it to be pretty good, and the other of which expects the movie to conform to real human experiences of dreaming and finds it to be pretty bad. My own feelings exist somewhere at the intersection of these two reviews. I was able to accept Inception’s weirdly precise un-dream logic (and even thrilled a bit at its loony formulas for elapsed time in different dream levels, etc.) without liking it very much. Yes, Inception has nothing to do with dreams as they are experienced by any person now living, but that hardly matters, since the elaborate and clever rules that govern the world of the film have only sloppy directing and editing to enforce them. Here’s one example of a three-shot sequence that I hope I am recalling correctly: [1] Leo looks through the window of a closed door and sees Prof. Michael Caine sitting at his desk in an otherwise empty classroom; [2] closer shot of Caine, being startled by off-screen voice of Leo; [3] Leo sits in the room facing Caine. This scene does not ostensibly take place in a dream (though perhaps it inadvertently ascribes meaning to the film’s final shot), so I suppose the implication is that Leo has the ability to walk through closed doors in his waking life.

As poorly edited movies and the internet continue to evaporate our brains, I’ve been finding more and more articles about the benefits of slow cinema and slow reading. These aren’t really the same topic (one is under the control of the artist and the other under the control of the audience), but commentators tend to define “slowness” as some sort of aesthetic choice (readers too make aesthetic choices, after all) when I would consider it a simple human imperative. People (or at least I) don’t comprehend information at the alarming rate that hypertext and quickly plotted and edited movies require. Consider Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, an ideal movie because its actions and meanings unfold at the same pace. Action without meaning is chaos. I don’t know if I believe that, but it sounds like a good manifesto.

Metropolis is another movie that proceeds at just the right pace for my slow brain to comprehend it. The new footage in the 2010 restoration can easily be deduced according to the quality of the image, and aside from a number of lengthened scenes, which heighten the film’s emotional impact, the only really “new” discovery here is a sequence in which a minor character takes a cab to a Metropolis nightclub. Funny that no one has seen this sequence since the film’s first premiere, considering that this is one of the moments that I find echoes most strongly in the films of the past 80 years. The way the lights flash through the window in the back of a shadowy cab, the suggestion of a vast and glittering city that an endangered character can only experience in passing, we’ve seen in all this film’s direct descendents (Blade Runner, Dark City), in the entirety of film noir, in Pulp Fiction too.

But since we’re talking about a silent film, this new cab sequence in Metropolis doesn’t function as a bridge between larger scenes, but as one among a series of tableaux, each given equal weight. Indeed, I propose a new “tableau” theory as a way to unite silent cinema and the art of the hip hop album. In the last post, I wrote about Janelle Monae’s hip-hop-by-design record The ArchAndroid as if I had uncovered some sort of linear narrative in its songs that made its Metropolis-themed concept worthwhile. Rather, the album works as a series of linked set-pieces, which anticipate and illuminate each other and add up to an experience that could be deemed “cinematic” (an adjective most commonly found in hip hop reviews?). Metropolis can be viewed that way too, although it also has a narrative that can be followed.

Ben Allen has produced the new Deerhunter album, out September 28. This worried me a bit from the first, for the simple reason that Deerhunter knows best how to produce Deerhunter, and now that I’ve heard “Where I’m Going” from the next Cut Copy album, out in January and also produced by Allen, I’m considerably worried. Ben Allen is best known as the man behind Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, a much-celebrated head trip album that is all a-muddle to me, or at least, minus some brilliant patches, never hits the way it’s supposed to. I would liken Allen’s influence to the teleportation devices in Larry Niven’s SF classic Ringworld. Instead of leveling human culture, he seems to be leveling modern music, so that everything sounds culturally, geographically and emotionally unspecific and pitched at the same level of ecstatic chanting/dancing. I don’t know what separates the new Cut Copy song from any recent Animal Collective song, or what it’s supposed to make me feel besides a desire to feel joy. Will all of humanity soon unite over their shared love of this sort of music while I’m left out in the cold? I’m not being misanthropic; instead I feel that Ben Allen’s work does a disservice to people with complex emotions. And Deerhunter has never lacked for complex emotions, either in their content or the way they wrangle content into dynamic sounds.

Speaking of that indefinable line between production and content, it’s been on my mind while pondering what makes the greatness of Big Boi’s Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty separate from the greatness of OutKast’s Aquemini. It is simply this: I’m so wowed by the sounds on Left Foot that I’m unable to hang on every word, the way I do when Big Boi raps about his West Savannah upbringing or the charms of Suzie Screw. I can hardly believe I’m even talking about the same Big Boi. Whether or not Sir Lucious is a “mainstream” record, it probably seems so current because it is so purely aural, even when the songs are about something. Does anyone think the album would actually be better with the awesome “Royal Flush” on it? Not only do the George W. lyrics date the song, but that dating would call undue attention to the lyrics on an album that generally doesn’t.

El Perro Del Mar’s Love Is Not Pop, so beautiful and hushed, is belatedly one of 2009’s best, and scaled exactly right: 7 songs in 33 minutes, each song long but not epic, like brief moments of repose sustained for a few minutes and then blown open into tiny symphonic reveries. I never expected that Lou Reed’s solo catalog would be one of the great influences on 21st century pop music, but I’ve been hearing him everywhere, in most things minor-key and modest, in the work of musicians who sound like survivors of drugs, even if they’re just survivors of melancholy. Love Is Not Pop contains one Lou Reed cover and six would-be Lou Reed covers, though I shouldn’t underestimate the influence of Kate Bush (which you’ll also find all over Chico Dusty), Sam Phillips, and those gentle early 80s records by King Crimson.

Meanwhile, I’ve liked every Pernice Brothers album (up through Live A Little) better than its predecessor, and while the new Goodbye, Killer could be nobody’s idea of their best album, it earns bonus points for this same sense of modesty and smallness. Could it be that musicians are cutting back their excesses in these “tough economic times”? I don’t think it’s that; instead, we’re losing our suspicion of understatement, thank God.

Mom and I made our annual trip to the ballpark last week, and more than I felt the inevitable loss of the Helena Brewers, I felt my continued conviction that baseball is the only team sport worthy of my attention. This has nothing to do with the history of the game or its all-American status, and more to do with the beauty of its rules—so precise and uncluttered, so absolutely mathematical, so free from the tyranny of the clock. Then there are those silences between the plays when its players are revealed not as athletes but as men in an impossible situation, waiting. Football has those moments of waiting, too, but they conceal the threat of imminent violence, which makes the game unpleasant and possibly immoral. If baseball contains violence, it is only psychological.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Save You're Wisdom Teeth

Special Fiscal Year End Double Issue!

If my writing style had a name, it might be Buttwich (given the prevalence of the “but which” construction).


[1] I’m afraid my previous comments about The Radio Dept.’s Clinging to a Scheme will be hopelessly confusing to anyone not familiar with a piece I once wrote in Marlon James’ non-fiction class. In this essay, entitled Thrift Store (meant to explain why I’m motivated to write), I wrote:

1989 was the year of the collage. I was two. De La Soul put it all in there when they recorded 3 Feet High and Rising, and the Beastie Boys did the same with Paul’s Boutique. Keith Haring was doodling to commemorate the French Revolution. Acts like these are a bold dabbling in the concrete things of this world, but a writer isn’t always so bold. A writer may not want to go dig that James Brown record out of the crates and sample it on a new song, but prefer to bring him to life with a simple naming. That eureka moment. Let there be “James Brown.”

Pardon the teacher’s pet middle school student style of the writing, but I hope this clarifies things. Clinging to a Scheme is not a hip hop record; Saint Etienne’s Foxbase Alpha might have been a better point of comparison, as that’s another album whose generous, outward-looking aesthetic is matched by an insular, inward-looking emotional world. Clinging, because of this latter quality, and because of its brevity, is an album that can be seen all at once, as a melancholy and miniature artifact, even as its most gripping moments are its bold snatches from the record crates: Thurston Moore (I was right!) speaking about youth culture, a graffiti artist telling why he writes (“for us”).

[2] I forgot to mention the exact moment I decided to abandon my Gaga post, which happened as I was listening to Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville. It’s not up to me to tell anyone what they ought to be listening to, but I feel the young women of this world are being done a disservice anytime this album is kept from being a primary piece of their cultural currency. I fear that Gaga is jamming up the works. Sorry to mix metaphors, but no one should have to peer over Gaga’s glimmering wall of fun and faux lust, romance and world-weariness to get a glimpse of that distant concrete paradise called Guyville where the truth about such things is told. My playlist for teenage girls: “Fuck & Run”; “Flower”; “Divorce Song.”

[3] My cats are getting along pretty well now. I met the moment of meaning’s perception, but unlike Irene in Passing or Will in Lowboy, instead of losing my mind, I rode out the violence until the end.

[4] I got so caught up in the religiosity of the finale of Lost that I failed to note the subtle symbolism in the following evening’s 24 finale. 24 has never been much about the power of the image. I can think of plenty of iconic situations from the series, but the rare iconic image that comes to mind is a Season 7 masterpiece that shows a man sprawled out on a map of the world after being clubbed to death by Jon Voight. The piece de resistance in Season 8 comes at the very end, when Jack is saved from execution after being spotted on a government satellite. He looks up into the bright sky, there is a brief glimmer of light, and he acknowledges the tiny speck that wrought his salvation. This may not fall under the category of “iconic image,” but it is a rare moment when an image in the show means something unrelated to the plot—related to the divine, in fact!

[5] Unbelievable as it may seem, I think that the consistency of lyrical subject matter in Matt Pond’s songs is a sign that he is a passionate individual, and not that he is awkwardly grasping for poetry. He’s obsessed with fawns! This is all to say that I would like to call for a new approach to writing about lyrics in music reviews, as I believe some critics are dropping the ball. Sadly, my frustrations with some recent music writing have not yet sorted themselves out into practical advice for the budding critic, but any new critical system would have to recognize that the lyrics on The Hidden Cameras’ Origin:Orphan do not represent a retreat, and that those on Teenage Fanclub’s Man-Made are celebratory, not mournful. The problem is that my conclusions are derived from looking at each album as a whole, whereas a preliminary album review is better suited to looking at details. But sometimes details are misleading, especially the ones that most eagerly call out to be written about.

[6] I don’t think I did a very good job of explaining what I liked so much about Jeremy Jay’s and A Sunny Day in Glasgow’s albums last year, perhaps because my passion for them was too all-consuming, but now, given a new album and new EP, respectively, I have a chance to make amends. First, I think I bought in too easily to the way Jeremy Jay presents himself on Slow Dance (The Romantic in Winter) and believed this to be his essential persona, failing to recognize that he is in fact quite versatile and also a very expressive guitar player. These two qualities are abundantly clear on the new Splash, a loose-limbed and energetic album that could be considered the Stephen Malkmus to Slow Dance’s Lou Reed. He’s a campfire rock ‘n’ roller, and it’s clear now he makes music about love and doesn’t make love about music. Second, my notion that Ashes Grammar exists at the level of pure sound and yet somehow contains remnants of every band I’ve ever liked seems a bit contradictory. If forced to choose between these two options, I’d go with the former, as ASDIG are rarely referential, but this doesn’t mean that there are no parameters to the music they make. The Nitetime Rainbows EP reinforces that they do occupy a specific musical world; it’s just hard to tell, because this world includes most everything I like.

[7] This has got me thinking about the summer of 2001, the year I became a “cinephile,” watching countless movies under conditions entirely contrary to accepted notions of proper cinephilia. A history: I woke up each morning that summer (and all the high school summers after) at 9 am, got a bowl of cereal, put one of my family’s multitude of recorded videotapes, or a Hastings or Center Stage rental, into the VCR, and—working my way through the history of Oscar winners and AFI’s 1998 list of the 100 greatest American movies (with quite a few well-considered detours, which became the norm as time went on)—by noon each day had finished viewing some film or other on the 19” TV we’ve had in the family since before I can remember, and which still works great, despite requiring an ever-higher setting on the brightness spectrum. Phew. These videotaped movies tended to be from commercial TV (up until the glorious day we started getting Turner Classic Movies in 2003), not letterboxed (though I was watching a good deal of stuff made before 1953), and were sometimes ancient recordings and difficult to hear. Picky as I am about such things today, I don’t think any of this ever occurred to me at the time, when I was lounging and viewing on the couch like some serene pre-genius Orson Welles watching Stagecoach on celluloid at the museum. Even a degraded videotape transmits an amazing amount of information, and I always felt I was getting a more valuable education during these summers than I was at school. Which is all to say that I don’t think viewing conditions matter a bit, especially if you’re young and falling into that spell into which the curious and the inclined (or reclined?) often fall. A great movie in any form can foster the desire to know, even if the “knowing” comes later, as it did for me.


[1] Out of the Past has a structure that pretty much functions as a definition of my feelings about The Movies, and enough style to make this so. We know that black-and-white films are “dreamlike” and that old studio pictures are shimmering emanations from the dream factory, but Out of the Past does this cliché one better by locating cinema in memory. You know the way even the loneliest and most tragic scenes from your life can feel heroically lonely and tragically romantic when you remember them? Out of the Past works like that. It knows that the silver screen, like the screen of memory, makes everything look good and brave, so it places its most heroic and romantic scenes in the frame of a modest present. As Robert Mitchum narrates his story, we know it couldn’t have been the way he describes it: that unreal Mexico full of unreal heat couldn’t have been anything but hot and lonely; the beautiful woman he followed there couldn’t have been any more beautiful than the “plain,” present-day girlfriend he tells his story to. But it’s a glorious, lurid lie while it lasts. Later, firmly rooted in the dismal present, Mitchum tells a cab driver that he’s worried he’s being set up by the baddies: “I can see the frame. I’m going in there to look at the picture.” He can only see the frame because it hasn’t yet passed into a distant memory, one that he can lie about, make as beautiful as he wants it to be. But we, the viewers, can’t see the frame, only the picture, because we’re still locked in the black-and-white movie world where everything is past.

[2] A man with no personal attachments in all the world makes a job of entering the lives of strangers and telling them they’ve lost something very important, and comes to realize he is looking for a family of his own, a sense of place and purpose. I’m not describing the story of Up in the Air, but I don’t want to suggest that its companion piece, The Messenger, isn’t a unique film. It is, especially in the way it avoids every cliché that it seems to set itself up to trip over. Take the Woody Harrelson character, who’s introduced as the straight-laced officer who operates strictly by-the-book. Watch the way he plays the scenes in which he actually has to carry out his duties. Take also, if you will, the “illicit” relationship between the Ben Foster character and war widow Samantha Morton. Notice I call it a relationship, not a romance, because this is a romance that proceeds at a pace unlike any I’ve seen in a film before, one that ends (perhaps…) where most movie romances begin.

[3] Other recent viewings, and approaches I might have taken in writing about them: Seraphine (art as a barrier against, not a symptom of, mental illness for those with a deep connection to the natural world); Ajami (the way narrative confusion can be harnessed to suggest that the cycle of violence has no beginning or end, and touches everyone); Two in the Wave (my own formative film experiences, or: the way Truffaut and Godard’s eventual theoretical rift is hardly surprising given the disparity of their origins, even though it represents something of a “flip”); Splice (the extent of its insanity but curious absence of a second child, which would allow even more wicked permutations of the sin that is a synonym of the film’s title); My Darling Clementine (the inscrutability of Fonda in his shade-straddling chair, or: how some of the shots are so extraordinarily composed that it’s amazing when the camera moves, somehow chooses to look away from perfection).

[4] I would like to see Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders (the lesser but perhaps more underrated of his two 1983 S.E. Hinton adaptations) recut with an all-Deerhunter soundtrack. I’ve forgotten the specific moments of sound and image that occurred to me as I watched, but I recall my general notion that Deerhunter’s songs would serve the film as well as Elvis Presley’s, both musicians capable of evoking the American landscape and the weird young creatures who inhabit it, seeming all the while to be speaking truths, not building myths. The movie contains an astonishing shot of Ralph Macchio’s face, a high angle close-up of the most sullen and doomed expression you’ve ever seen. This shot doesn’t need music to suggest the submerged violence and thousand dreads on Macchio’s face, but a Deerhunter song “inspired by” this moment would have to feature their persistent undertow, able to convey turmoil without loudness, and their lyrical fascination with childhood. The soundtrack might also include Jeremy Jay, Jay Reatard and A Sunny Day in Glasgow, all of whom are/were certainly music geeks but who seem to get their ideas not by listening to records but by simply absorbing the humid air of rock ‘n’ roll America.

[5] For entirely boring reasons that have nothing to do with my desire to hear it (to quote Ebert), I have a copy of Liars’ new Sisterworld, and am surprised to say that I like it quite a bit. From this band’s stray wisps of ominous atmosphere and Frankenstein’s monster-meets-Thom Yorke vocal groans (as heard on Drum’s Not Dead and Liars), I’d never been able to assemble anything like compelling or dangerous music. Sisterworld still loses itself when it goes loud, but its quieter moments (which make up the majority) have that nightmare lullaby quality, especially when I’m tired, that soothes just before it terrifies, and then soothes again, in a sequence that can’t be predicted.

[6] It’s almost possible to crack apart the songs on Emma Pollock’s The Law of Large Numbers and figure out where they came from, but she doesn’t make it easy. You might say “Red Orange Green” mixes late period Abba (when they were often channeling The Beatles at their most baroque) with a stormy Chameleons guitar pattern, but there’s also not an element in the song that isn’t distinctly Pollockian, a quality that is difficult to define but which is equal parts toughness and delicacy. She’s gone back to basics, which means that these new songs are much less basic than those on her spry solo debut.

[7] There has rarely been music more exciting than what The Chemical Brothers were making in the late 90s. Their latest Further continues their belief that nothing is capable of creating greater thrills than music, even if it’s a bit less polished and its gears are showing. I’d heard they’d fallen on hard times, but, surprise, this is real electronic music, the kind that especially excites me because it contains the hallmarks that I might rely on if I was capable of making music. Noise crescendos that stabilize just before the surfacing of micro-grooves… Neat! These are tricks, and The Chemical Brothers are still relying on their tricks. If they sound liberated, it’s not a liberation from formula, but from the pursuit of perfection that a while back proved their undoing.

[8] The band Harlem doesn’t really need to justify the type of music it makes, but “Someday Soon,” the opening track on their new Hippies, tells you they are no slacks, and suggests how to listen to the rest of the album. The song begins as a tuneful pebble of garage rockin’, but by the time it gets to its tale of a person engulfed in flames and a desperate plea to be put out, the guitars stop sounding routine and start sounding like they’re on fire, shooting flames into your eardrums. From that point on, the songs are similarly ablaze, by association and by volume. That’s all it takes: tell the listener what all your noise is about, the rest is cool.

[9] Whether a product of volition or chance, a number of my favorite albums of late have some remarkable similarities, and I’ve wondered if it would be possible to place them on a map, along with some of my older faves. I don’t think music belongs on a map, which suggests it can be reduced to a network of simple associations, when in fact a more subtle ebb and flow of inspiration and innovation is at work in the unfolding saga of the soundtrack of our present lives and past lives. But the Pleiadic alignment of my recent listening has made me consider that a map might be just the thing to help me think about what Joanna Newsom shares with Joni Mitchell (a belief in her own powers) or with The Roches (a quality that might be called “pure singingness”). Therefore:

I call it “Tapestry,” allowing Carole King to be the patron saint of this star cluster, rather than one of the stars herself, as she doesn’t quite belong. I chose albums rather than the women who made them, as it would be unwise to reduce an entire musical life to a nodule in a network. I recognize that Blue Roses predates its progenitors, but it doesn’t predict them, because it is much less than the sum of their successes. So I just let it exist halfway in between.

[10] The Pains of Being Pure at Heart did a subtle but striking realignment of their sound on last year’s Higher Than The Stars EP, whose second and fourth tracks pointed back to their sunblazed debut, and whose first and third tracks we now learn pointed forward to cooler and gentler new single “Say No To Love” and b-side “Lost Saint.” It seems they’ve traded any remaining American influences for British ones, though “Lost Saint” suggests that Canadian lovelies My Favorite are perhaps not irreplaceable. It takes a delicate touch to turn troubled teens into saints, but The Pains got it. Meanwhile, they’re more energized on the a-side, and they pull a neat little trick at the 2:23 mark that must have taken a lot of takes to get right, but which totally justifies the pursuit of perfection.

[11] Latest update on my travels through the world of mp3 blogs: After a few listens to Delorean’s “Stay Close” and Fang Island’s “Daisy,” I can report that I’ve never heard two songs so intent on making me have a good time. And for that reason, I rebel, and can take no pleasure in them whatsoever. When did America’s indie rock musicians become the joy enforcement police? I’ll have a bad time if I want to, assholes. Next stop: the noisy villa of Male Bonding!

But as I jet away to a new mp3 vista, I’m left with a question: Are young bands being discovered too soon in this age of the internet, before they have a chance to refine their tastes and influences into a better sound? With an across-the-board 90s revivalism now taking place, it seems that no one can remember what was bad and what was good among that decade’s trendy sounds. I have some small affection for Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, EMF, Jesus Jones, and the rest, but every time I hear what must be their influence in current music (in The Big Pink, Liars, even my beloved School of Seven Bells!), I groan a little. A good band will eventually privilege their better influences, but they need time.

[12] Currently reading:

Happy by Alex Lemon : Full disclosure: The author was my first-year creative writing teacher at Macalester College, so I feel there is a lot at stake for me in the events of this book. As Lemon ignores the warning signs of recurrent brain hemorrhages and comes close to death, I have to wonder, what if he had? Would I have followed the same college trajectory? I didn’t like his class, but still I feel that things would be different if such a large piece of the puzzle had been replaced.

Sorry, that’s trivial. This is an interesting memoir. I would ordinarily object to the street poet manner in which all the characters speak, and the way the book’s gaggle of college students are treated like soldiers in an obscure war instead of the extraordinarily lucky young people they are. But because the narrator is Lemon, who (like the family in Prodigal Sons) contains tragedies much sadder than the one advertised as the central premise, all is forgiven. He has a curious knack for reentering a mindset that could easily have proven inaccessible to him, and for avoiding all bullshit introspection and telling it like it was, with extra poetry. The result is a good portrait of the body in turmoil, the soul entombed in live flesh, the heart not knowing what it wants and unable to apologize to the people it hurts as it searches. The setting is my old Macalester dear, so I recognize everything and everyone in it, even though Lemon and his chums were the sorts of people I tried most desperately to avoid, and who I still can’t quite believe exist in this world.

[13] I’m digging up an old Sasha Frere-Jones article (published in The New Yorker in 2007), not because anything more needs to be said about it, but as a vehicle for a certain point I want to make. You know how in high school and college they tell you that you have to write persuasively, create strong arguments, drop the qualifiers, etc.? I never liked this state of affairs, and have always tried to get away with as many seems so’s and probably’s as I can in my writing. I would say that Frere-Jones’ article exists under what I will call the Tyranny of Certainty, and what seems like a bad argument would seem much better if liberated from this tyranny. To wit: Frere-Jones’ perception of a trend is transformed, via strong language, into a declaration that said trend exists. His argument, that black influence has disappeared from American indie rock, is constructed well enough, as a thesis backed up with specific examples. But because of the startling number of obvious counterexamples to his argument, it seems that he is purposefully leaving out a big part of the picture and looking for examples to validate his claim. I’m willing to believe this isn’t the case, that he’s arrived at his premise via a series of dispiriting experiences at concerts and in his headphones, but even though there’s a fair amount of autobiography in the piece, the whiteward tendency of music isn’t framed as something that has been noticed, but as something that is. Even though it isn’t. One imagines that the editors at The New Yorker told Frere-Jones he must say something is happening here, even though he doesn’t quite know what it is, that Mr. Jones. Anyway, I know I’m being a bit obtuse, but I feel that an argument is never as interesting as the perception of the person making it.


[1] There have been biographies about great people, novels about ordinary people, and even novels about great people, but there have been very few biographies about ordinary people. (I’m thinking of biography here not necessarily as a work of non-fiction, but as a work about a fictional person or a deceased real person that records information differently than a novel does, attempting to capture the whole of a life and reclaim its meanings via inanimate materials.) Given the amount of stuff and the number of severed connections that even the most ordinary person leaves behind in death, it’s hard to say why this is so. A good biographer should be able to find plenty of material to sift through in any life, however subtle and unspectacular its meanings. I can imagine two approaches to this “biography of the everyday”: curatorial, which would simply be an organized presentation of the subject’s artifacts, writings, etc.; and emotional, which would be the same approach, but presented by someone close to the subject, and who could try to imagine the subject’s emotional world in relation to these artifacts. Such a project would be a pain to organize, but the best way might be to present artifacts according to the order in which they’re discovered by the curator/author.

[2] I’ve never liked those film restorations that attempt to give butchered masterpieces their proper due by intermixing production stills and explanatory title cards with the existing footage. I’ve waded through the four-hour version of Greed and nearly three-hour version of George Cukor’s A Star is Born, and while no amount of padding can detract from these films’ defining features (Erich von Stroheim’s astonishing ambition and Judy Garland’s astonishing talent), it seems to me better to experience them incomplete than in a context that makes them mere historical curiosities. So the news that we can now have it both ways with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (nearly complete and free of plot-clarifying filler) is quite something. My full report in the next issue!

[3] And perhaps I will include in my Metropolis essay a discussion of the Lang-inspired concept of Janelle Monae’s The ArchAndroid, an album about love among the robots in olde Metropolis, as I understand it. I found this concept neatly affected but entirely unsubstantial upon first listen, and kept wondering why most of the album is produced to sound like the second half of “Computer Blue,” but never the first half. Now the album gets better the more I let myself believe in its concept, which also allows me to think about its production in “cinematic” terms. Indeed my favorite moments might be the dreamy buried vocals on the album’s two overtures and closing tracks, which sound like echoes from Ernst Lubitsch’s The Merry Widow or some other foggy musical of the early sound era. But storyline concerns were not my primary obstacle to falling in love with this ‘Droid, an easily likable album that nonetheless has required a bit of jiggering of the gears in my head, for the simple fact that I haven’t heard a new hip hop album in years. Well, it’s not a hip hop album, but it is by design. A new genre: Science Fusion? Last, I would like to make an unsubstantiated prediction that Janelle Monae will play the lead in a new version of A Star is Born, to be directed by Martin Scorsese, sometime in the next two years.


[1] I came across the term “affectional orientation” for the first time ever the other day, in an apartment lease of all places. Now I wonder, would it be appropriate to say that Stuart Murdoch is sexually oriented toward men and affectionally oriented toward women? In any event, I’ve never known a gay man to write so many songs in the third person.

[2] For all their sonic force, could it be that the Ramones’ greatest talents were as listeners? Someone had to hear that split-second of firepower in “Do You Wanna Dance,” about two-thirds of the way into the word “you,” and know it could be channeled.

[3] If we could watch our memories slowly resolving into the original images they made in the mind’s eye (a fence, a street sign, a dirt road, some old impressions of Missoula, Montana, rearranged and stitched back into the space that once contained them), what would it look like?