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?


diamond meadows said...

you know, I've always wondered that about stuart murdoch too...yes! liz phair as herself could castrate gaga in boy drag (excuse me, "jo calderone") or gay fellow drag ("lady") more comments forthcoming once i thoroughly digest your rich and majestic post (iffen it had a gastronic match, that would have to be a heavy dose of [fair trade] 98% cacao)

Geoff said...

More bloated than majestic, but certainly rich with text.

aaron said...

*you had hastings too? the ames one closed recently, but i can still reminisce about how it took 4 tries to buy the used copy of "stankonia" with an 18+ sticker on it

*"hippies" isn't the the first harlem album. their debut was called "free drugs ;-)" or something like that

*did i ever mention that i wrote a paper about that s.f.j. article?

*"A good biographer should be able to find plenty of material to sift through in any life"
careful. i'm reading stephen greenblat's "will in the world" which is 400 pages of barely substantiated conjectures about what shakespeare's life may have been like. i agree, however, that ordinary people could use their plutarch.

Geoff said...

Are you subtly giving this post a 4-star rating?

*I thought Hastings was a NW phenomenon, but that's a great story. Why didn't your parents help you out?

*My bad, though I think it was a reasonable assumption.

*That article is ripe for analysis by college students. Can I read your paper? (I'm guessing not.)

*I love barely substantiated conjecture, but I guess I wouldn't call it biography. Maybe Steven Millhauser could be the Plutarch, but he prefers ordinary people who are also extraordinary.