Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Herewith, Dave Barry's year in review:
Shortly thereafter McCain stuns the world, and possibly himself, by selecting Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a no-nonsense hockey mom with roughly 114 children named after random nouns such as ``Hamper.""

"On the Republican side, John McCain emerges as the front-runner when Mitt Romney drops out of the race, citing "motherboard issues."

In the presidential debates, John McCain, looking and sounding increasingly like the late Walter Brennan, cites Joe the Plumber a record 847 times while charging that Obama's tax policies amount to socialism. Obama, ahead of McCain by double digits in the polls and several hundred million dollars in money, skips the debates so he can work on his inaugural address. The New York Times declares his performance ``masterful.''

"Barack Obama, in a historic triumph, becomes the nation's first black president since the second season of 24, setting off an ecstatically joyful and boisterous all-night celebration that at times threatens to spill out of The New York Times newsroom."

The economic news is also gloomy for the U.S. automotive industry, where General Motors, in a legally questionable move aimed at boosting its sagging car sales, comes out with a new model called ``The Chevrolet Toyota.''

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Pacific Ocean Poo

Thank you, Matos, for expressing what I thought in July when I heard Dennis Wilson's rightfully withheld masterpiece. I'll only add that: (a) nobody in the late seventies sounded this addled and lachrymose unless you were Leif Garrett, and, on certain cuts, that's the kind of standard Wilson achieves; (b) if you're going to essay studio-rock, please be sure your singing and arranging are up to the standards of the genre and the players you hire.

Monday, December 29, 2008

When I saw the trailer for Doubt, I smacked my lips: it looked like an (un)holy combination of Agnes of God meets Notes From a Scandal, a mix of religio-mystic hokum and melodrama. Sad to say, Doubt was a lot worse. This farrago, adapted by and from John Patrick Shanley's play, lacks the basic mechanics of filmmaking to bring off Shanley's wisps of ideas. His idea of "opening up" his play is to visually dramatize a parable that Philip Seymour Hoffman tells (it involves the feathers from an opened pillowcase flying in the wind, of course). Ambiguities that might have teased onstage look like cop-outs on screen: is Hoffman a pedophile? Is the student gay? What are Amy Adams' motivations? Shanley's inspiration for this turgidly paced nonsense seems anachronistic: the manner in which he develops his ideas could have come from some 1950's conception of "provocative" subject matter (think Picnic, with William Holden in a wimple). Only Viola Davis comes closest to presenting something human and terrible onscreen, but if Shanley wanted real fireworks – real tragedy – why did he bury Davis' revelations in the middle of the movie instead of moving it to the beginning, where they would have forced the audience to reckon with them over the next ninety minutes? A similar eye-opener of a fact about Streep's personal life is mentioned once, an aside almost, and it changes not a bit of our understanding of her. Stephanie Zacharek: "Have no earthly idea what point Shanley is trying to make? It's all good -- you're just having Doubt."

Sunday, December 28, 2008

I contributed a couple of blurbs to Jeff Weiss' blog, which L.A. Weekly is publishing simultaneously: Hercules & Love Affair and TV On The Radio's "DLZ."

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Xmas

One of my favorite Christmas songs, not least because it sets the mood for Steve Sanders' anguished parting from his friends as he begins the search for his real mother in season two of "Beverly Hills 90210."

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Albums!

1. Erykah Badu - New America Part One (4th World War)
2. TV on the Radio - Dear Science
3. Robert Forster - The Evangelist
4. Ne-Yo - Year of the Gentleman
5. Bob Dylan - Tell-Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8
6. Portishead - Third
7. Conor Oberst - Conor Oberst
8. The-Dream - Love/Hate
9. Hercules & Love Affair - Hercules & Love Affair
10. Drive-By Truckers - Brighter Than Creation's Dark
11. T.I. - Paper Trail
12. Wale - The Mixtape About Nothing
13. Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend
14. Randy Newman - Harps and Angels
15. Lil Wayne - The Carter III
16. The Magnetic Fields - Distortion
17. No Age - Nouns
18. Dolly Parton - Backwoods Barbie
19. Arthur Russell - Love is Overtaking Me
20. Taylor Swift - Fearless

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Top Singles of 2008

Likely the ballot I'll submit to Pazz and Jop (the first ten anyway):

1. Hercules and Love Affair - "Blind" (Frankie Knuckles remix)
2. The-Dream featuring Rihanna - "Livin' a Lie"
3. Cut Copy - "So Haunted"
4. Q-Tip - "Gettin' Up"
5. The Juan MacLean - "Happy House"
6. Raphael Saadiq - "The Big Easy"
7. Big Boi feat. Andre 3000 and Raekwon - "Royal Flush"
8. Taylor Swift - "Hey Stephen"
9. Hot Chip - "Ready For The Floor"
10. Mary J. Blige - "Stay Down"
11. The Killers - "Human"
12. Beyone - "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)"
13. Erykah Badu - "The Cell"
14. The Drive-By Truckers - "The Righteous Path"
15. Estelle feat. Kanye West - "American Boy"
16. Of Montreal - "Gallery Piece"
17. Kanye West - "Love Lockdown"
18. T.I. feat. Justin Timberlake - "Dead and Gone"
19. Al Green - "Stay With Me (By The Sea)"
20. David Byrne-Brian Eno - "Strange Overtones"

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Friends know how I feel about Husbands and Wives, Woody Allen's ode to bad marriages, Judy Davis perms, and Shakeycam. Nick Davis has written one of the best evaluations.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Although I've owned it for two years, I don't use my iPod "properly." It mostly acts as a musical way station, into which I upload the new albums I'm reviewing or interested in, or older favorites I need to hear at that moment. But I've never used all its memory capacity; as of eight-thirty this morning I've got a grand total of 57 songs uploaded, and it won't change soon. I'm still attached to physical copies of CD's, so the procedure goes: I get sent a digital copy of, say, Dear Science, I listen to it a half dozen times, then go buy a copy. When I want to hear Comes A Time or Please, I do what millions of listeners did before the advent of personal listening devices: I listen to it in my car or wait until I'm home. I've neither the time nor the inclination to upload hundreds of albums that I may not want to hear in the next few days. Besides, I'm a natural deleter: wasted space offends me. Ask my students how much I love ripping pages off essays and defacing paragraphs with red sharpies.

Yeah, yeah -- I contradicted myself. Buying CD's when I've already got a digital copy takes up space. It's an odd sort of redundancy. But my habits haven't adjusted to the paradigm shift of which Joe Levy speaks in his jauntily defiant response to remarks by Robert Christgau on the changing nature of music consumption: from home stereo system to laptop speakers and headphones. Christgau worries that the "privatization of music consumption that the iPod-computer speaker model assumes," along with diminishing word counts for reviews, has constricted the ability if not the desire of rockcrits to think beyond their prejudices.

Whew. The remarks may deserve their own space. As much as I enjoy drawing correspondences between subtle changes in the thinking patterns of the world at large and the banal/personal, and as much as this midthirtysomething gets off on a certain earned orneriness, I don't see the atrophy that Bob does -- not yet. I do see a lot of good writers struggling to express their thoughts in shrinking space, some of whom adjusting better than others, as usual -- nothing new in that. My iPod does have lots to teach me about managing shrinking space, though.

PS: Check out the roundtable at Slate between Jody Rosen, Ann Powers, and Christgau.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

This grows on me the more I listen to it.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

When you amuse George Packer, he laughs long and hard, as he does here in this assessment of Sean Penn's journalistic talents.
I don't yet own the remastered first-time-on-DVD Earrings of Madame De... (I treasure my videocassette copy), but it would have to be a pretty sterling remastering to knock 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment's job restoration of F.W. Murnau's Sunrise from the top of my list of the year's best. It's quite likely that the 1927 classic has never looked this good: the once-removed videotape copy I checked out of the university library in 1996 popped and cracked like a toddler walking on bubble wrap. Released as part of the firm's Murnau, Borzage and Fox collection, it does much to restore not just Murnau's reputation, but introduce most of us to the work of Janet Gaynor, the first winner of the Academy Award for Best Actress. She's sweet, not saccharine, and the simplicity of her effects foils Murnau's fluid, baroque staging; we root for her as the only human being, in spite of a blond wig that's like a shower cap with a ponytail.

Don't look at silent films for a realistic depiction of human behavior, let alone coherent plots. This is a film in which we're asked to extend our sympathy to George O'Brien after a City Girl, sultry and slinky like Jezebel, tempts him into murdering Gaynor -- he really does love her, you know. Concentrate instead on Murnau's extraordinary visual effects and eye for emotional verisimilitude: a dog running through the water to catch up with the boat carrying his master away; O'Brien's proto-Frankenstein walk

Dave Kehr provides excellent context.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Somehow Hitchens taking down the dreary, sinister propaganda of modern Christmas isn't so funny anymore, not when he sounds like Bill O'Reilly protecting a town square manger. And I blanched when he called The Weekly Standard "humorous." These days my irony-meter rings in suspicious tones around him. 

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Now that the auto company bailout, Blagojevitch, and pictures of Meryl Streep in a wimple have distracted the nation, it's time to consider the old battle between pragmatism vs ideology, as it manifests itself in the shaping of Barack Obama's Cabinet. Ta-Nehisi Coates' post covers a lot of things: the by now threadbare comparisons betwee Obama and Lincoln's Team of Rivals (Doris Kearns Goodwin and Mr. Goodwin can wish themselves a very merry Christmas); the connection between "centrism," "bipartisanship," and Beltway insiderdom; and the "fetish" we make of pragmatism. He's not completely correct: his reading of Lincoln's views on race don't account for the subtle evolution of his thinking. Relying on Lincoln's to our ears dispiriting reluctance to admit social equality between black and white in 1858 and his 1862 letter to Horace Greeley, not to mention Lincoln's request to assembled black leaders to seriously consider a proposal to take freed black slaves to Liberia -- one of the few really dumb ideas Lincoln ever told anyone, which Coates doesn't mention -- shortchanges how delicately he looked past his own prejudices in his private letters and public statements.

Even the comments section maintains a fairly high level of intelligence.

Friday, December 12, 2008

What a relief that Stephanie Zacharek refuses to spread gifts before Meryl Streep, the Dowager Empress of Actor's Acting:
Streep's performance scales new heights of absurdity. Like you, I've heard all the critical (or, more accurately, not-so-critical) rumbling: "Streep's performance will surely win an Oscar!" That's observant: It's so lousy that it probably will. The nuns in "Doubt" are members of the Sisters of Charity, which means they wear puffy hoods that tie under the chin, instead of the more familiar veil-and-wimple penguin getup. It's a costumey look that does no actor any favors, but it seems to have had a particularly deleterious effect on Streep, turning her into an overplaying maniac. She glowers from behind her austere little spectacles like Sunbonnet Sue on a PMS tirade.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

I still don't know if I'll make the journey to D.C. for the inauguration, but here's hoping the bars stay open late.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Rich as usual is a great read. I haven't seen Milk yet, but his thoughts on the ignorance of gays about their own culture are worth pondering.

Monday, December 8, 2008

If you want to get a sense of why all three Cuban-American Republican incumbents in South Florida sailed to re-election last month (one comfortably, the other by a landslide), why Washington DC pays obeisance to Miami, the real capital of Cuba, and why resentments run deep in this most bitter of family feuds, read Roger Cohen's NYT Magazine cover story. The Cuba of Cohen's story isn't so much a totalitarian death trap as an abattoir of numbing boredom, closer to Milan Kundera's The Joke than Czeslaw Milosz's The Captive Mind (the title of which accurately captures the sense in which lines for moldy bread and an institutional suppression of Internet activity has squelched the imaginative life in post-Castro Cuba):
But of course Cuba is not totalitarian East Germany. Fidel has been nothing if not a brilliant puppet master. He once said that some revolutionary fighters “let their enthusiasm for the cause overwhelm their tactical decision-making.” Not Fidel, whose training as a lawyer has been evident in his mastery of maneuver and brinkmanship, not least in his dealings with the United States. There have been hundreds of executions, especially in the early years, but he has never been a bloodthirsty dictator, a Caribbean Ceausescu. Nor has he tried, in the style of some despots, to sweep the past away; he has merely let it wither.

“There’s a very intelligent repression here, a scientific repression,” Yoani Sánchez, the dissident whose blog is now translated into 12 languages, told me. “They have killed us as citizens, so they do not have to kill us physically. Our own police is in our brains, censoring us before we utter a critical idea.”
Sanchez, who's about my age, has allowed a number of her blog posts to get translated at Babalu Blog.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Another example that my Congresswoman has a good sense of humor: Ileana Ros-Lehtinen hangs up twice on the President Elect. She also held her own against Jon Meacham and Ashton Kutchner a couple of weeks ago (is that how she learned about being punk'd?).

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

I want to accept Simon Reynolds' judgment on Kanye West's 808s & Heartbreak -- that the album's "cold and dehumanized sounds" reveal an unusually transparent Kanye -- but the damn thing is so monotonous; what's transparent is the paucity of ideas. Sure, the 808 programs, string arrangements, and the artist's fixation on misery as signifier of aesthetic ambition weave a temporary spell; but West's shortcomings as a melodist become clear. After the Violator-era Depeche Mode worthy "Welcome to Heartbreak," the anti-single "Love Lockdown," and maybe "Robocop," the rest is a slog. As an admirer of Kanye's public rants, I balk at the kind of perversity that requires us to accept his rejection of capitalism. Money doesn't buy him happiness -- okay, fine. But capitalism got him the fancy gizmos he deploys to uneven effect here. If Kanye wants to continue to be the venal human being that we've loved for years, he must understand that therapy need not require the unfurling of blue-shaded dolor for the entire session.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Feeling cocky and drunk (on one Blue Moon Ale) at a domino game with buddies on Saturday night, I burst into the scat part of Anita Baker's "Caught Up in the Rapture" (da-da-da-da-DAAAAAH....). She's been on my mind the last week. I grew up listening to her: Mom, a Beatles and CCR fan growing up (I inherited her albums), eased gently into adult contemporary in the eighties, mostly Hall & Oates, Lionel Richie, and "Ebony & Ivory," but also gobs of Baker and Basia (remember her?). It's difficult to remain objective about Baker's output between 1986 and 1990: road trips to Disney World required the diplomatic acumen to balance the proper exposure to Mom's favorites and Dad's preference for George Benson and, um, Najee (last seen befouling the only completely terrible album of Prince's career). But I've warmed to Rapture over the years; Greil Marcus be damned, it's a minor classic, anchored by a voice so willing to be caught up in the rapture that she ignores the MIDI presets and pedestrian songwriting ("Sweet Love" is impossible to sink, though). So too "Giving You The Best That I Got," Baker's biggest hit and a perfect example of what adult commitment should sound like from a middlebrow singer-songwriter.

Thanks to Thomas for writing about it sympathetically, and for reviving his excellent blog.

Welcome, December

Wait, for now.
Distrust everything, if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven't they
carried you everywhere, up to now?
Personal events will become interesting again.
Hair will become interesting.
Pain will become interesting.
Buds that open out of season will become lovely again.
Second-hand gloves will become lovely again,
their memories are what give them
the need for other hands. And the desolation
of lovers is the same: that enormous emptiness
carved out of such tiny beings as we are
asks to be filled; the need
for the new love is faithfulness to the old.

Wait.
Don't go too early.
You're tired. But everyone's tired.
But no one is tired enough.
Only wait a while and listen.
Music of hair,
Music of pain,
music of looms weaving all our loves again.
Be there to hear it, it will be the only time,
most of all to hear,
the flute of your whole existence,
rehearsed by the sorrows, play itself into total exhaustion.

– Galway Kinnell, "Wait"

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Oh, look: one of the most ubiquitous peddlers of the Bush administration's company line on cable and network channels has ties to a defense contractor. The NYT has the scoop on General Barry McCaffrey, who in his public apperances has always sounded like Mike Huckabee might after his bass guitar was locked in a cupboard overnight. But McCaffrey was doing his employers' biding; NBC News has no excuse. As Glenn Greenwald reminds us, this is not the first time that this story has shamed the networks -- and hardly the first that the corporate behemoth has pretended nothing happened.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Etc

The Visitor

The enthusiasm with which this movie was received shouldn't have surprised me; what did though was how reliable skeptics like Stephanie Zacharek and A.O. Scott willfully chose to forget the candy apple liberal sentiments that it espouses. In the first third, writer-director Thomas McCarthy (who played the Jayson Blair wannabe in "The Wire"'s last season) and lead Richard Jenkins (of "Six Feet Under") remind us of their background in the Corduroy Elbow Pad School of Television Realism, whose values force you to project to thirty million people as if you were John Barrymore at the Old Vic: every miserable thing about depressive Jenkins' life is pinned down with plastic scissors. When he learns to play African drum in time, or gratefully receives his first Fela Kuti album from illegal alien Haaz Sleiman, it could be Jack Nicholson's Midwestern loser Schmidt writing letters to his East African pet pal. But the warmth of Sleiman's performance – his smile defines "infectious" – and some understated writing in the last two-thirds redeem the picture, with big help from Hiam Abbass as Sleiman's mother. A superb camera subject, Abbass pulls the impossible trick of being at once stoic and sexy. I'm once again frustrated by the writer-director's decision to concentrate on the wrong character. How much more vivid The Visitor might have been with Abbass at its center – the tragedy of an educated, mildly Westernized Syrian woman who has to live with the fact that she played a role in fucking her son up for life.

Tropic Thunder

Zoolander,
fifteen minutes longer. Down-low jokes (including Lance Bass cameo), expected riffs on "the industry," Tom Cruise "expanding his range," Ben Stiller constricting his, Robert Downey, Jr. deepening his.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

There are worse things than spending a Saturday afternoon watching My Man Godfrey. Terrence Rafferty gives Carole Lombard her due. If I had my druthers, though, I'd ask him to spend more time on Hands Across the Table and To Be Or Not To Be. It occurred to me yesterday: Judd Apatow might be the only director who could do something with Lombard (and she'd certainly curse, which she did, uninhibitedly and gleefully), but I'm not sure her male costars would be up to the task.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Among other things, Barack Obama's most charming bad habit is his smoking. Michael Kinsley, after jumping through too many hoops to convince his audience that he considers smoking a disgusting habit, agrees.
Well, here's something from it's-news-to-me file: Jackson Browne and John McCain wrangling over the fair use of "Running On Empty" during the campaign:
The first is a standard motion to dismiss, claiming that McCain's use of the song was fair use. The campaign's fair use reading is based on the application of the standard four-factor test that includes the purpose and character of the use of the song (McCain argues it was non-commercial and transformative); the nature of the work (McCain derides the song as old, old, old, with a title that's an acknowledged cliche); the amount and substantiality of the use of the song (McCain only used the title phrase, and cites a recent judgment against Yoko Ono, who had sought to prevent the unauthorized use of John Lennon's "Imagine" in a film); and the effect of the use of the song (McCain says that rather than damage the song's commercial potential, his use "will likely increase the popularity of this thirty year-old song"
I can't argue with the last point; I think I saw "Running on Empty" in the iTunes top 20 a few months ago. As for Browne, he's an example of the kind of Angry Liberal that my, shall we say, intemperate colleagues over here claim they work with and make their lives miserable.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

On his first (released) solo album since 1999, Q-Tip's burr, halfway between a mumble and a giggle, is as compelling and fluent as ever. "Gettin' Up" is his sexiest love man jive since the underrated "Find A Way" and maybe "Electric Relaxation"; the Raphael Saadiq duet and "Dance On Glass" are the kind of hip-hop elder statesman equivalents of those late eighties/early nineties records by Richard Thompson and Lou Reed that scored well on Pazz & Jopp...and yet, and yet...I have unreal expectations of Q-Tip. I expect more from a self-produced, self-written album like The Renaissance. Now that he's demonstrated he can step back in the game, he should try a little harder to step on Mos Def's thoughtful-polymath toes.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Bravo!

Can Jon Meacham and Ashton Kutcher go on a nationwide tour calling for the repeal of Proposition 8 and Amendment 2?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

I watched Only Angels Have Wings last night -- on videocassette. I still own a VCR. Beyond the fact that I don't want to subject myself to the time and expense of replacing some favorites I've owned since the early nineties (Blockbuster's used movie bin was a godsend), the medium's unwieldiness has its own attraction. When I'm at the market and want to listen to King Sunny Ade's Aura, I can't upload it onto my iPod or play it on my car's CD deck -- I have to get home and dig out my vinyl copy; the same goes for His Girl Friday, Tootsie, and a couple of others on VHS (Earrings of Madame De... is no longer an option, alas, thanks to this). Thus, as long as we're not subjected to things like Be Kind, Rewind, the sad death of the VCR is (slightly) exaggerated.

Anyone else still own one?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

I've written nasty things about Carrie Brownstein's NPR blog, but the former Sleater Kinney guitarist pens an affectionate tribute to the Go-Betweens. She admits that her writing on The Hot Rock "was inspired completely by their music." Incisive bits of criticism on Robert Forster and the late Grant McLennan (he "sounded like the search party and the lost soul at the same time").

If you haven't heard it yet, Forster's The Evangelist is one of my favorite albums of the year.

(H/t to Simon)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Enough mothers behave like Debra Winger in Rachel Getting Married to remind me of how Virginia Woolf might have rewritten the Shakespeare's-sister bit in A Room of One's Own: since mothers have to perform constantly, it's really no stretch for a fiftysomething actress to accrue Oscar buzz for the effort. But Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Jenny Lumet show no interest in turning Winger's Abby into a plasticine doll like Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People. Although we're never told why she and Bill Irwin divorced, Demme and Lumet are subtle enough to hint at a basic incompatibility, hardened by the consequences of the unexpected horror for which daughter Anne Hathaway is responsible (no spoiler here). But they have enough in common: Irwin's Paul is one of those bumblers with a pathological interest in smoothing over conflict; Abby has remarried a smiling, rather dim George Hamilton type who "goes down to Washington" weekly -- a diplomat or civil servant? Cathy, a Washington hostess? As played by Winger, she's a reformed hippie type who keeps her hair frowzy, drinks tea by the gallons, and might read a Eckhart Tolle tome at the recommendation of a friend. Her smile dazzles; she's still unassumingly, powerfully sexual. A Washington hostess. Cross her, though, and she'll explode...and you'll receive a genuinely apologetic note in the morning.

There's a lot to recommend in Rachel Getting Married: the return of Jonathan Demme from necrophiliac remakes of genre pictures for which he has no affinity; the return too of Winger, who briefly in the early eighties had it in her to be a star and talent to which screenwriters could dedicate careers; the ease with which different races and characters of indeterminate sexuality mingle on screen, sharing wine and jokes; Demme's use of music, which, he seems to say, is the force that binds us even when it's background noise (an appearance by a healthy, warm Robyn Hitchcock strikes one of the movie's few gimmicky notes, though); Tunde Adebimpe serenading bride Rosemarie DeWitt with a non-embarrassing a cappella version of Neil Young's "Unknown Legend" at the altar. But I want to praise Demme for capturing the simmer of blood relations. The sense in which, for example, we rarely know whether our parents' kindness conceals hurts and unspoken compromises between how we are and what they expected us to be, unfolds in the way Hathaway, Irwin, Winger, and Dewitt look and talk to each other. Dishwashing contests and nervous toasts to sons-in-law serve as palliatives -- and they're also fun in themselves. The worst part about being thirty-three is forgetting that I can't talk to my parents as adults: they simply don't want to know about certain parts of our lives. Hence the recourse to office gossip, football games, and Christmas presents. Watching Rachel Getting Married, I made fists during a couple of the more episodic sequences; there always lingered the suspicion that anything can happen.

I almost congratulate Demme's daring: the movie should be this self-congratulatory ode to liberal Connecticut inclusiveness, and it is, in places, and more. To say it's better than last year's Margot at the Wedding is like arguing that Charade is superior to The Truth About Charlie.
Oxford University compiles a list of the ten most irritating phrases in public discourse.

I'd add "The fact that," "fairly or unfairly," and "going forward."

The top ten:

1 - At the end of the day

2 - Fairly unique

3 - I personally

4 - At this moment in time

5 - With all due respect

6 - Absolutely

7 - It's a nightmare

8 - Shouldn't of

9 - 24/7

10 - It's not rocket science

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Last Election Day-related post, I swear...

As the stories about Barack Obama's unprecedented cross-country grassroots network metastasize like the members of the grassroots network themselves -- this one about how he won my home state, for example -- I become more disheartened by how abysmally opponents of Florida's Amendment 2 and California's Proposition 8 failed to organize. We needed action like this before the election.

Ahem. Back to regularly scheduled programming tomorrow.

Friday, November 7, 2008

One of an Obama adminstration's most pressing jobs is to lift the spirits of a moribund federal bureacracy. Employees have complained about inertia from the Oval Office infecting the morale of workers, The Washington Post reports:
Regulatory agencies -- including the Departments of Interior and Labor, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Consumer Protection and Safety Agency -- have been the hardest hit by morale issues, mainly because of Bush's anti-regulatory posture, workers and union officials said. Hundreds of federally-employed scientists, researchers and agency lawyers have drafted, studied and restudied regulations that went nowhere.

At EPA, a regional staffer who works on wetlands protection said the agency's political appointees have stalled and erected roadblocks on work to clean air, water and soil. Headquarters waited a year to advise staff on how to handle a Supreme Court decision that threw wetlands rules into doubt, then issued vague, "useless" guidance, he said.

"There's been an inability for people to do their jobs and do it well, " said the staffer, who asked to remain anonymous. "The administration's purpose has been to do nothing."
There's a line by Henrik Hertzberg from 2004 (can't find the link) about the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq war that still rings true: the administration is forced to staff operations it doesn't believe in.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Remember William Ayres? David Remnick bumps into him on Election Day morning.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Change I Can Believe In...Maybe


So there it is. I'm not a reporter, so I can't tell you how "grueling" and "endless" this election cycle has been. I don't have cable news either -- Black Panthers, William Ayres, terrorist fist-tapping, and Neiman Marcus shopping trips didn't worry me so much as it did my parents.

Now it's time for full disclosure: I did not vote for a president of the United States.

As I explained to friends yesterday, Barack Obama had me spellbound from the moment he delivered the keynote address at 2004's Democratic Convention, that dreary affair in which his call for interparty inclusion (he actually said the word "gay" aloud) rendered the hollow man from Massachusetts that my former party nominated even more of a hack. Andrew Sullivan's Atlantic Monthly cover story last year, and reading of Dreams From My Father confirmed what I suspected: this guy is too composed to yield to kitsch, to cheese, to boilerplate. I cheered when he beat the awful Hillary Clinton in primary after primary, and when John McCain became his GOP rival I anticipated a knockout blow that fortunately happened.

But if yesterday I couldn't mark the ballot in his favor, I put the blame entirely on his party of chickenshits, of which he is now its leader. When a right wing asshole on AM radio laments the "loony left Reid/Pelosi wing' of the Democratic Party that will push Obama around as it did President Bush, I want to buy them reading glasses and a Russian bouncer to make sure they read the legislation. Whether it was war authorization or the support of illegal wiretapping, the Democrats in Congress, led by Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, kowtowed to President Bush. When the country, fed up with six years of chicanery and law breaking, gave them the mandate to change in 2006, implicit in their vote was the order to get more liberal, not less.

So what does the junior senator from Illinois, poised to claim an even bigger mandate for change than his legislative branch colleagues, do when it's time to vote on a craven "compromise" on illegal wiretapping and telecom immunity? He says "aye." During an election cycle in which every pundit on both sides claimed that the Democrats would not just keep their majority in the Congress, but expand them, Obama votes for the compromise, thus immunizing himself from charges in the fall that, in the words of the Beltway media, he's "weak on national security." Besides, as I wrote in June, "why wouldn't he support cool new executive powers allowing him to pursue deeds worthy of his most soaring rhetoric?" What some of his right wing critics write is true: Obama does have a messiah complex, constructed in large part from an unusual (for a politician) self-awareness that's rightly assured him of his superiority to the average pol. American history is littered with failed messiahs: the self-important kind whose rectitude inures them to the gamesmanship of politics (Jimmy Carter) , pompous blowhards who impose their interpretation of American exceptionalism on the rest of the world and the body politic (Woodrow Wilson), and the genial kind who call shit on one kind of evil while supporting others (Ronald Reagan on the Soviet Union, contras, apartheid, and death camps). In this climate, a few more boring Benjamin Harrisons wouldn't hurt.

Then as now, constitutional law expert Glenn Greenwald, whose inquiry into the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act rivaled The New York Times', was on the money:
The excuse that Obama's support for this bill is politically shrewd is -- even if accurate -- neither a defense of what he did nor a reason to refrain from loudly criticizing him for it. Actually, it's the opposite. It's precisely because Obama is calculating that he can -- without real consequence -- trample upon the political values of those who believe in the Constitution and the rule of law that it's necessary to do what one can to change that calculus. Telling Obama that you'll cheer for him no matter what he does, that you'll vest in him Blind Faith that anything he does is done with the purest of motives, ensures that he will continue to ignore you and your political interests."
At the time I was told to "grow up," to "understand that Obama is a politician," that politics "is all about compromise"; but if you didn't think in June that the next president of the United States was being chosen in part to correct the illegalities and clean the incalculable mess that eight years of George W. Bush have bequeathed to generations, then you had no business lecturing anyone. The truth is, Obama caved. Then he chose as his running mate the senior senator from Delaware, the Honorable Joseph "MBNA" Biden, a public servant who can always rely on huge contributions from credit card companies but, goddamn, can he smile like a motherfucker. Maybe Biden did help him win Pennsylvania; maybe Biden will show him "how Washington works" (as if he needed the advice from Biden). We'll see.

But I still teared up last night, especially after I saw the reaction shot of Jesse Jackson listening to Obama's victory speech. I kept mouthing, "President-Elect Barack Hussein Obama" to my friends. It's still somewhat unreal. I like Obama a lot, and wish him all the luck in the world (so does the world). If his deeds match his rhetoric and the hopes of his followers, then I'll be proud to vote for him in 2012.

Finally, while I'm happy the country chose the better candidate, I'm pissed that social conservatives can gloat about, well, this:
California is huge, of course. It proves that when it comes to marriage, there are no blue states/red states. Americans believe unions of husband and wife really are unique and deserve a unique status in our culture and law.

Florida is huge because we had to get to 60 percent — and we surpassed that with 62 percent of the vote.

Arizona is huge because Arizona was the only state ever to reject a marriage amendment in 2006. This year, Arizonans decided to correct that anomaly, bringing to 30 the number of states that protect marriage in their state constitutions.

And also: giving marriage a perfect 30 out of 30 record of victory at the ballot box.

All victories are temporary in a fallen world. But this one is sweet.
This wet kiss is courtesy of one Maggie Gallagher, who drops into The Corner whenever she hears sodomites in her kitchen. Thanks to Gallagher and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, my friend Thomas and new husband Jeb face the possibility of having their marriage annulled. Florida voters also enshrined a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage -- a redundancy when one remembers we already have a law, and, besides, the Defense of Marriage Act (signed by President Bill Clinton) takes care of the rest.

Thank you, America. Our four-year experiment with democracy remains as thrilling, frustrating, and infuriating as ever.

EDIT: One of the grimmer ironies we can tease out of the remarkable turnout this election: all the new black voters might have brought their prejudices to their precincts. Black Americans remain one of the last bastions of homophobia. I hope it's not true.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A final note

See you all on the other side.

A message

Dear Early Voters - 

Thank you for the effort, especially those of you who waited as much as six hours to vote on Sunday. It's thanks to you that I waited 25 minutes today, and received a free Starbucks coffee. 

Respectfully,


as

Monday, November 3, 2008

Listening to T.I.'s Paper Trail, I'm trying to figure out if he's as boring as I suspect; if so, please explain "No Matter What," "Swagger Like Us," and the astonishing "Dead and Gone," on which Justin Timberlake's chorus hook evinces more yearning and fear within the possibilities of melody than I thought possible?

Anyway, return to worrying about tomorrow night's results.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

A batshit list of the greatest presidents compiled by the Times Online. The only detectable criteria? Executive authority and imperial ambitions. Thus, the high ranking of Polk, Truman, and Reagan. As usual, the Woodrow Wilson entry cops to the disappointed wail of a hundred boring historians: Wilson was "reluctant to lead the US into the First World War, but was then instrumental in building a multi-lateral post-war consensus which included the League of Nations, even if Congress never allowed America to join it." No mention of the Espionage Act, the Palmer raids, or manipulating us into World War One, the craftiest example of passive-aggressiveness in our political history. Small comfort, I suppose, that our former masters across the Atlantic remain such willing collusionists in the composition of our national mythology.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Welcome, November

What a trip the next few days will be. For distraction, I turn to wishing it was my birthday, and that someone would buy this for me, especially after reading this review.

In the meantime, Robert Lowell's "Waking Early Sunday Morning," hours before Daylight Savings Time ends:

O to break loose, like the chinook
salmon jumping and falling back,
nosing up to the impossible
stone and bone-crushing waterfall –
raw-jawed, weak-fleshed there, stopped by ten
steps of the roaring ladder, and then
to clear the top on the last try,
alive enough to spawn and die.

Stop, back off. The salmon breaks
water, and now my body wakes
to feel the unpolluted joy
and criminal leisure of a boy –
no rainbow smashing a dry fly
in the white run is free as I,
here squatting like a dragon on
time's hoard before the day's begun!

Fierce, fireless mind, running downhill.
Look up and see the harbor fill:
business as usual in eclipse
goes down to the sea in ships –
wake of refuse, dacron rope,
bound for Bermuda or Good Hope,
all bright before the morning watch
the wine-dark hulls of yawl and ketch.

I watch a glass of water wet
with a fine fuzz of icy sweat,
silvery colors touched with sky,
serene in their neutrality –
yet if I shift, or change my mood,
I see some object made of wood,
background behind it of brown grain,
to darken it, but not to stain.

O that the spirit could remain
tinged but untarnished by its strain!
Better dressed and stacking birch,
or lost with the Faithful at Church –
anywhere, but somewhere else!
And now the new electric bells,
clearly chiming, "Faith of our fathers,"
and now the congregation gathers.

O Bible chopped and crucified
in hymns we hear but do not read,
none of the milder subtleties
of grace or art will sweeten these
stiff quatrains shoveled out four-square –
they sing of peace, and preach despair;
yet they gave darkness some control,
and left a loophole for the soul.

When will we see Him face to face?
Each day, He shines through darker glass.
In this small town where everything
is known, I see His vanishing
emblems, His white spire and flag-
pole sticking out above the fog,
like old white china doorknobs, sad,
slight, useless things to calm the mad.

Hammering military splendor,
top-heavy Goliath in full armor –
little redemption in the mass
liquidations of their brass,
elephant and phalanx moving
with the times and still improving,
when that kingdom hit the crash:
a million foreskins stacked like trash ...

Sing softer! But what if a new
diminuendo brings no true
tenderness, only restlessness,
excess, the hunger for success,
sanity or self-deception
fixed and kicked by reckless caution,
while we listen to the bells –
anywhere, but somewhere else!

O to break loose. All life's grandeur
is something with a girl in summer ...
elated as the President
girdled by his establishment
this Sunday morning, free to chaff
his own thoughts with his bear-cuffed staff,
swimming nude, unbuttoned, sick
of his ghost-written rhetoric!

No weekends for the gods now. Wars
flicker, earth licks its open sores,
fresh breakage, fresh promotions, chance
assassinations, no advance.
Only man thinning out his kind
sounds through the Sabbath noon, the blind
swipe of the pruner and his knife
busy about the tree of life ...

Pity the planet, all joy gone
from this sweet volcanic cone;
peace to our children when they fall
in small war on the heels of small
war – until the end of time
to police the earth, a ghost
orbiting forever lost
in our monotonous sublime.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Diner is a great movie, worthy of the popular comparisons to Federico Fellini's I Vitelloni, another coming-of-age film in which the male director turns a bemused, pitiless gaze on the behavior of young men who don't get enough tail or for whom tail is no longer enough. James Wolcott remembers his favorite moment: the roast beef sandwich exchange between Paul Reiser and Steve Guttenberg, watched by Daniel Stern and Kevin Bacon as grinning Furies. Sure, Quentin Tarantino no doubt rewound this scene at the video store at which he worked many times; the rhythms predict what he'd do with a half dozen hit men in a coffee shop discussing the decline of Madonna's songwriting.

According to Wolcott, Pauline Kael (whose review of this unreleased film in 1982 was instrumental in getting it played somewhere, anywhere) admitted her own bafflement at the screening -- the young Wolcott served as "interpreter to [Diner's] strange tribal ways." Even acknowledging how familiarity dulls us to an older generation's shock, I can't say what struck her as so weird about the roast beef scene. My favorites moments in Diner rely on the "disjointed" rhythms that Wolcott mentions. The post-introductory credits school dance, for example, at which we meet most of the main characters, features Mickey Rourke descending to a basement to rescue a shockingly young, callow, harmless Kevin Bacon. Rourke interrupts Bacon smashing windows. When asked why, Bacon shrugs and says, "For a smile." As we later discover, it's a perfect encapsulation of this spontaneous, doomed character, but in that minute it has the smell of something offhand that analysis can't contain -- it evokes life as lived. I felt protective of Bacon, and Rourke's slight pause as he tries to figure out how to respond is an echo; he wants to protect his buddy too.

Another gem: the close-up of Tim Daly as he stares stolidly into space, while Guttenberg and his mother reenact their habitual coming-home argument: he wants a bologna sandwich, she won't make it, he insists, she surrenders. Daly, also home for the holidays, knows how this scene will play, and he's bored stiff; but we know he'll be back next year, and he'll protect his integrity by signaling his boredom again.

It's true: with the exception of Bacon, and maybe Barkin, not one of the actors has struck these grace notes, or pulled something notable out of themselves this notable again (I say this as a fan of Reiser's King Smarm turn in Aliens). Nor Levinson, for that matter.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

McCain the Socialist

At an October 2000 appearance on "Hardball," before a college audience:



Sarah Palin's an even bigger egregious apostle of Marx, Hendrik Hertzberg reminds us:
For her part, Sarah Palin, who has lately taken to calling Obama “Barack the Wealth Spreader,” seems to be something of a suspect character herself. She is, at the very least, a fellow-traveller of what might be called socialism with an Alaskan face. The state that she governs has no income or sales tax. Instead, it imposes huge levies on the oil companies that lease its oil fields. The proceeds finance the government’s activities and enable it to issue a four-figure annual check to every man, woman, and child in the state. One of the reasons Palin has been a popular governor is that she added an extra twelve hundred dollars to this year’s check, bringing the per-person total to $3,269. A few weeks before she was nominated for Vice-President, she told a visiting journalist—Philip Gourevitch, of this magazine—that “we’re set up, unlike other states in the union, where it’s collectively Alaskans own the resources. So we share in the wealth when the development of these resources occurs.” Perhaps there is some meaningful distinction between spreading the wealth and sharing it (“collectively,” no less), but finding it would require the analytic skills of Karl the Marxist.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Silly, but I'm a sucker for pastiche like this -- in this case, Edmund Morris' fictional recreation of how Theodore Roosevelt, John McCain's political hero, might have said about the presidential campaign had he been a paid consultant on FOX News or MSNBC (fat chance). As author of one of the great multi-part biographies of the last thirty years, Morris understands how his subject's conflict between staying loyal to an instinctual embrace of muscle-flexing and respect for "logothetes" might have provoked an unprecedented throwing up of hands by the great Bull Moose himself.

On Obama:
A. He may and probably will turn out to be a perfectly respectable president, whose achievements will be disheartening compared with what we had expected, but who nevertheless will have done well enough to justify us in renominating him — for you must remember that to renominate him would be a very serious thing, only to be justified by really strong reasons.

Q. He doesn’t have Mr. McCain’s foreign policy experience. As president, how would he personify us around the world?

A. It always pays for a nation to be a gentleman.

Q. There’ll be Joe Biden to counsel him, of course. Assuming Mr. Obama can keep track of what he’s saying.

A. (laughing) You can’t nail marmalade against a wall.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

If I'm to believe Mom's complaints, ACORN is this election's bugaboo. Two of the best rebuttals to claims of voter registration and voter fraud -- or, rather, the conflation of voter registration with voter fraud: Christopher Hayes himself votes twice (sort of); and Dahlia Litwick, who ignores now irrefutable evidence that the presidential election of 1960 was rigged but nevertheless points the finger at the public figures responsible for perpetuating the paranoia as recently as last year (hint: the acronym rhymes with "bloatus") .
These two posts offer comfort. It's hard to consider art when you're constantly checking political blogs until November 4.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Should John McCain win in 11 days, he can't credit his team, which has run the shallowest, most image-centered campaign since the 1988 presidential race. Robert Draper's excellent NYT Magazine story (published this Sunday) may have the same effect as Ron Suskind's infamous Bush White House piece published shortly before Election Day. What emerges from Draper's story is the pathetic fumbling of a man whose eminently marketable virtues – virtues he has never stopped trumpeting – failed to mesh with the designs of his advisers. 

Oh dear:
Despite their leeriness of being quoted, McCain’s senior advisers remained palpably confident of victory — at least until very recently. By October, the succession of backfiring narratives would compel some to reappraise not only McCain’s chances but also the decisions made by Schmidt, who only a short time ago was hailed as the savior who brought discipline and unrepentant toughness to a listing campaign. “For better or for worse, our campaign has been fought from tactic to tactic,” one senior adviser glumly acknowledged to me in early October, just after Schmidt received authorization from McCain to unleash a new wave of ads attacking Obama’s character. “So this is the new tactic.”
"Tactics." When you rely on "tactics," you doom yourself to play defense. The real tragedy is how a person who depended as much on literal and metaphorical war wounds to bolster his integrity as John McCain found, too late, that these wounds and the "tactics" of modern campaigning are irreconcilable. He can talk to Bob Dole about it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Pokey in spots, and Juliette Binoche's dye job makes her look like she's auditioning to play Courtney Love, but I rather loved The Flight of the Red Balloon, especially since the original film is oh-so-precious. Rewatching a scene in which Binoche and Song Fang gently argue over the acceptance of a gift in the former's apartment, I was struck by how wittily Hou pans between the child and the adults; it's like James' What Maisie Knew -- this child barely cognizant of what these confused adults are up to; yet there's enough distance between his perceptions and ours that the two women's interactions are regarded quizzically, affectionately (the apartment in which most of the drama unspools becomes a fourth main character). As a Hou dilettante (I've only loved The Flowers of Shanghai and the silent bit in Three Times), I accepted the substitution of Paris for Taiwan, and the injection of Binoche's starpower into a scenario which under different circumstances might try my patience as much as it did Godfrey Cheshire's; if we can accept this beautiful woman as harried to the point of desperation, we can absolve the visual didacticism enforced whenever that damn red balloon bumps against a window. Star power as jus' folks.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Ned and I had the same thought about the most important part of Colin Powell's endorsement of Sen. Barack Obama: he emphasized the damage that repeated invocations of "Muslim" does to young men in Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Pakistan watching Al Jazeera:
We have two wars. We have economic problems. We have health problems. We have education problems. We have infrastructure problems. We have problems around the world with our allies. So those are the problems the American people wanted to hear about, not about Mr. Ayers, not about who’s a Muslim or who’s not a Muslim. Those kinds of images going out on Al-Jazeera are killing us around the world.

And we have got to say to the world, it doesn’t make any difference who you are or what you are, if you’re an American, you’re an American. And this business, for example, of the congressman from Minnesota who’s going around saying, “Let’s examine all congressmen to see who is pro-America or not pro-America” — we have got to stop this kind of nonsense, pull ourselves together and remember that our great strength is in our unity and in our diversity. And so, that really was driving me.
And Ned's anecdote is wrenching.
A scary loop:

Friday, October 17, 2008

Movies!

Paranoid Park: By far the most effective of the series of teen anomie films that Gus Van Sant has released since abandoning a potentially lucrative career grinding out Good Will Hunting clones. The Warholian stoner ogling of vacuous, pillow-lipped boys around which Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days were centered still dominates, but the chronological games awaken him. Exploiting non actor Gabe Nevins's wan interest in sex and the world of adults is a shrewd move; when things go wrong, so completely is the film's sensibility tied to Nevins that we get no sense of imminent doom, which makes PP's impact vaguely horrifying hours later.

Standard Operating Procedure: Although much more effective than Errol Morris' hagiographic portrait of former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara called The Fog of War (it could have been called The Fog of Interviewing), it fetishizes blood and guts (closeups of dripping noses and mouths) and intercuts dramatic recreations of events that look like "Unsolved Mysteries" stock footage. Another strike: who told filmmakers that Philip Glass-inspired scores suggest mystery and seriousness?

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist: In 2020, teens will watch this on their computers and smirk at the fashions, attitudes, and music. Director/screenwriter/retired child actor Michael Cera will explain their intentions on a rueful, punchy commentary track. Adults will note that hackneyed plot contrivances and vomit jokes still charm the young (and some adults). Michael Cera is smart enough to note it publicly too.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Ross Douthat's latest post is rather stunning, considering its source. Lacking the national profile of a David Brooks or George Will as the Liberal's Favorite Conservative, he's quietly plowed a steady, unnoticed furrow this last year, pointing to the upcoming GOP disaster all year with grace and insights.

But now he's had it. Specifically mentioning Victor Davis Hanson, Mark Steyn, and Mark Levin, he questions the logic of casting out apostates from a party too beholden to an orthodoxy that can no longer attract the young, gays, women, blacks, and military families:
Even if Brooks and Noonan and Buckley and Dreher and Kathleen Parker and David Frum and Heather Mac Donald and Bruce Bartlett and George Will and on and on - note the ideological diversity in the ranks of conservatives who aren't Helping The Team these days - are all just snobs and careerists who quit or cavil or cover their asses when the going gets tough and their "seat at the table" is threatened, an American conservative movement that consists entirely of those pundits with the rock-hard testicular fortitude required to never take sides against the family seems like a pretty small tent at this point. And if I were Hanson or Levin or Steyn I'd be devoting a little less time to ritual denunciations of heretics and RINOs, and at least a little more time to figuring out how to build the sort of ship that will make the rats of the DC/NY corridor want to scramble back on board, however much it makes you sick to have them back.
Former Bush speechwriter David Frum's in the same snit, after a series of posts questioning Sarah Palin's qualifications and John McCain's sanity:
I receive emails from readers every day who tell me that the only possible motive I could have for expressing doubts about the McCain ticket is my desire to attend cocktail parties, appear on TV, apply for a job in the Obama administration etc. Now I see this line of accusation appearing in the Corner too.

Let's develop this thought a little. Suppose it were true? Suppose I were indeed a venal, light-minded chaser after television appearances and social invitations. What difference would it make?

Do my correspondents (and now my Corner colleagues) truly believe that - but for my pitiful media and social ambitions - nobody in America would have noticed that Sarah Palin cannot speak three coherent consecutive words about finance or economics?
I'm tempted to say, "Eat me." But every political party faces a moment of similar crisis: the Democrats did after the 1980, 1984, and 1988 presidential elections. The Dems had their version of crackpots like this, the paranoia exposed when you teeter on the edge of defeat. The wilderness can be refreshing.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Just when you think the right can't get any more desperate, it accuses William Ayres of ghostwriting Barack Obama's Dreams From My Father. Their argument? Since before the memoir's publication Obama's paper trail was thin, we have no way of ascertaining how Obama developed as a writer. Further: since Ayres' own memor includes descriptive passages (which are, actually, the most leaden bits in DFMF; it's Obama flexing his creative writing class muscles), we must assume that his "associate" had a hand in them. In short, the book is too well written.

Friday, October 10, 2008

A sweet, mild-voiced crooner, Ne-Yo was best enjoyed in singles. "Sexy Love" topped my 2006 list, and "Because of You" came up one notch short of doing the same last year. Co-written with the Norwegian team Stargate, these exquisitely upholstered songs nevertheless were as basic and fleet as MINI Coopers. They said what they meant, incrementally elaborating on lyrical tags atop pizzicato harp and thwackety percussion. In My Own Words was hits-plus-filler, though, and Because of You more so. I had no expectations for Year of the Gentlemen, especially after first single "Closer" irritated me.

But in this case, "no expectations" prepared me for "surpassed expectations."Not only is YOTG his best album, it's one of the most assured R&B albums of the decade (this review was encouraging). By honing his lyrics and vocals to the restraint of the Stargate productions, Ne-Yo comes damn close to recording the modern equivalent of a Smokey Robinson and the Miracles album. His wordplay isn't particularly clever, but he's mastered a way of adapting a shopworn phrase so that it illuminates an unpredictable situation -- the situations in which all lovers convince themselves that no one else has been in them. Ne-Yo says what he means and then some; he's the gentlest, most pliant love man around. He avoids bathos by virtue of the unstinting precision of his singing and writing. In "Mad" and "Fade in the Background," he's passive without being a pushover. "Why Does She Stay" asks a question that implicates the interlocutor as much as the subject. But he's a horny bastard: "Single" presents a challenge that makes you worry about her endurance. Only "Stop This World" gets goopy.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

People just float

A couple of reviews of Bob Dylan's Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Volume 8 have praised the directness of the demos and alternate arrangements of several songs that producer Daniel Lanois subjected to the Lanois Treatment on 1989's Oh Mercy and 1997's Time Out of Mind. While I've never balked at revisionism, this is unfair. Were I to pitch an Idolator column, I'd title it "Most Overrated Comebacks by Major Artists," and TOOM would head the list. Although this Dylanphile listened to it as much as any other product in 1997, admiring especially how that croak harmonized with Augie Meyers' organ, I thought the album itself played like a collection of sketches of a mood, and a mood the artist could not limn beyond broad strokes. Eleven years later, I still can't hum or mention a single memorable line in "Can't Wait," "Til I Fell In Love With You," and "Million Miles" (the titles should have been dead giveaways, or DOA's). Lanois' voodoo consists of conjuring heavy drapes he can drop over songs of questionable merit and poorly conceived intent, and he exacerbates the problem by ordering several guitarists and keyboardists to search for the melody line that Dylan himself hasn't written; Time Out of Mind is Dylan's version of a late eighties Bryan Ferry record.

Oh Mercy's another story. I'm sentimental about the record, admittedly. I bought it after the four old farts and wannabe old fart in the Traveling Wilburys convinced me with their album that their respective back catalogues were worth the exploration. My local library owned the OM cassette, and I listened to it obsessively in the spring of 1990, getting off on how Dylan's aged sneer jabbed at Lanois' atmospherics; it was a draw, but I loved both, and naive me preferred Dylan's voice to his lyrics even then. But Dylan was on some kind of songwriting roll. As Chronicles confirms, he felt sufficiently jazzed by the New Orleans setting in which he recorded the album to bolster his flagging self-confidence. I'll take "Man in the Long Black Coat," "Where Teardrops Fall," "What Good Am I," "Shooting Star," "Most of the Time," and "What Was It You Wanted" over the TOOM deadweight I cited above. As much as I adore Blood On The Tracks, I also have a lot of time for Dylan albums which reflect the artist's confused miscellany of influences and moods: Blonde on Blonde, New Morning, Empire Burlesque. For all its craft, TOOM sounds like Dylan on a creative writing assignment: define despair. Oh Mercy's relaxed groove and we'll-try-anything-once spirit (embodied by the boneheaded "Political World" and "Disease of Conceit") suits a newly middle aged man who's just beginning to turn inward in order to confront the world.

This serves as a long preface to the song I really wanted to write about. The OM outtake "Series of Dreams" appears on Tell Tale Signs unblemished by the synths and echo -- no doubt this is how Dylan prefers it, as the outtakes of "Love & Theft"'s "Mississippi" make the original sound like New Order by comparison. I understand why Dylan didn't include "Series of Dreams" on OM: it's portentous in a way none of the other songs are; it would have been like including "Every Grain of Sand" on Knocked Out Loaded, or hell, "Blind Willie McTell" on Infidels. "Series of Dreams" does its title justice -- the demos don't. Lanois' instincts, finally, were correct. The keyboard swells that hug the sudden chord change signaled by the perfect line "Dreams where the umbrella is folded" evade common sense much like Dylan's vocals. It's the best self-written song he recorded before 2000's "Things Have Changed," only this time you can't separate the singer's authority from the production in which it's safely encased. Dylan doesn't bleat or bellow; as in all his best work, he trusts the path his lyrics trod. It's the culmination of what he attempted on 1985's Empire Burlesque (around which there's a thriving cult anyway) on tracks like "Something's Burning, Baby" -- there's something happening here, he don't know what it is, yet he's old enough to guess, with a little help from his friends, even if they wear their hair in ponytails or sport "Miami Vice" jackets.

So do me a favor and remember the possibilities in Dylan's voice, and how Lanois and Jack Frost (har har) best served him.
This really sucks. Learning how bad it looks dumps cold water on a recent positive development, about which I'll have more to say soon.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

James Wolcott, in prose so purple it looks like Dino the Dinosaur's skin tone, spells out what's at stake for me in November:
I harbor no grand illusions about Obama, he isn't my messiah (I don't have a messiah, the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson supplying more than enough transcendence to last a lifetime), and I'm still not sure how much he comprehends how gravely this country has been gutted over the last decade. My rooting interest is less about Obama himself than about how big a hurt he can put to the Republican Party. I don't want the Republican Party simply defeated in November, I want to see it smashed beyond all recognition, in such wriggling, writhing, anguished disarray that it can barely reconstitute itself, so desperate for answers that it looks to Newt Gingrich for visionary guidance, his wisdom and insight providing the perfect cup of hemlock to finish off the conservative movement for good so that it can rot in the salted earth of memory unmissed and unmourned in toxic obscurity.
.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Not quite human

Although their two previous albums are firmly in the okay-to-pretty-good category, The Killers have been a consistent singles band (their only dog is "Bones"). The Jacques Lu Cont remix of "Mr Brightside," "When You Were Young," and the Pet Shop Boys' remix of "Read My Mind" have made my singles best-of list for the last three years; only Missy Elliott has a comparable winning streak. Brandon Flowers' voice, while pinched and too wispy at the high end, is attractive in a Phil Oakey sort of way: if it wasn't for his band, he'd probably be the manager of a chic cigar bar in Chicago, one who selects the in-house music, most of which is composed of selections from New Romantic synth-duo acts. He's so awkward. They're so awkward. Every song, even the ones I like, teeters on the edge of collapse as a result of a misplaced guitar riff or Flowers' overwrought emoting.

But it's endearing. Flowers and the three ugly guys in his band hide behind the glossy mirrorball pulse, and when it throbs as insistently as it does on their new single "Human," they can make you forget that the bland roundness of Flowers' face isn't the only indicator of how whitebread his ambitions and lusts are. Andrew Unterberger writes, "They idolize David Bowie, but sound awkward and confused singing come-ons. They wanna be as important as U2, but don’t care about anything in particular." I would say, "Like Bowie, they're awkward and confused singing come-ons; like U2 they want to be important but care about nothing in particular." Which is why a chorus like "Are we human/Or are we dancer?," positing an ontological tease as mere mirror moves, is his most convincing twaddle yet. David Keunig's treated arpeggio, with its echoes of Lu Cont's work on Madonna's "Sorry," adds the right kind of tinsel.

The Killers make excellent targets: those absurd mustaches, their Texas ties, the symphonic pretensions. Flowers' gay envy is touchingly misplaced, but without it they'd be one more modern act with revved-up sonics and a dry jockstrap. The Killers need it; beneath the pulp they're emotionally opaque. I'd tempted to classify them as "post-adult" for the clumsiness with which their lyrics inflate teenage melodrama into teenage poetry, and the distance between Flowers and the din of the music.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

As economic and political news have dominated headlines, the Hurricane Ike recovery effort has received little coverage. This account of what dead or missing victims told surviving loved ones is grim reading.
Dolores Brookshire, a 72-year-old part-time cashier, called her niece, Joann Mier, at 5 a.m. on the day the outer bands of the storm arrived. She had no car and lived in a house in Port Bolivar with her son, Charles Allen Garrett, 42, who used a wheelchair.

Ms. Brookshire told her niece that the street was already filling with water and that a neighbor who had promised them a ride to Dallas had never shown up.

“She says, ‘I’m calling you to tell you that I love you and to tell you bye,’ ” Ms. Mier recalled, “and I said, ‘Why? Where are you going?’ and she says ‘Nowhere. Me and Allen are going to drown.’ ”

Then Ms. Brookshire told her niece she was going to try to push her son through the rising water to a brick grocery store where she worked. They have not been seen since.

Friday, October 3, 2008

There are plenty of hacks in the Democratic Party, and plenty of starstruck twaddle uttered in Obama's behalf, but Rich Lowry and Peggy Noonan are supposed to be adults.

I'm sure I'm not the only male in America who, when Palin dropped her first wink, sat up a little straighter on the couch and said, "Hey, I think she just winked at me." And her smile. By the end, when she clearly knew she was doing well, it was so sparkling it was almost mesmerizing. It sent little starbursts through the screen and ricocheting around the living rooms of America. This is a quality that can't be learned; it's either something you have or you don't, and man, she's got it.

Noonan:
The heart of her message was a complete populist pitch. "Joe Six-Pack" and "soccer moms" should unite to fight the tormentors who forced mortgages on us. She spoke of "Main Streeters like me." A question is at what point shiny, happy populism becomes cheerful manipulation.

Sarah Palin saved John McCain again Thursday night. She is the political equivalent of cardiac paddles: Clear! Zap! We've got a beat! She will re-electrify the base. More than that, an hour and a half of talking to America will take her to a new level of stardom. Watch her crowds this weekend. She's about to get jumpers, the old political name for people who are so excited to see you they start to jump.
Have Noonan and Lowry ever gotten laid?

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Live blogging the Veeps

10:38: Andrew Sullivan on the real loser: "Gwen Ifill. She was intimidated, peripheral, neutered. The rules didn't help. But Ifill put in a dreadful performance." Time for a smoke!

10:33: More Reagan talk. More talk about Mellencampian small towns.

10:30: We're out of wine. Perfect timing!

10:27: "I've never questioned their judgment," Biden said admirably regarding his Senate colleagues, throwing in a cute reference to the late Jesse Helms' adopted son. Interpret that as you wil.

10:21: Biden chokes up when discussing his dead wife and son. Palin looks thrown. Her scripted answer looks heartless and tinny. Can't she improvise a response?!

10:16: Iffill asks her first intelligent question: the expanded authority of the vice president in the post-Cheney age. Biden reminds us that the vice president's powers are defined under Article One of the Constitution. Palin was clueless. It's possible that this empty-vessel approach to the job means her implied powers would be...restricted. She'll be no Cheney, doubtless.

10:13: Palin gave a shout-out to third graders. This is getting great.

10:12: Palin said "Doggone it." Reagan never said "doggone it."

10:11: Why does Palin glow with good humor when she mentions higher taxes and lost jobs on Main Street?

10:09. Palin: "What do ya expect? We're a team of mavericks!" Third glass of wine.

10:04: My own EKG meter is flatlining. Biden, transforming himself into a Smart Warmonger, dithers on his Iraq votes, yet supports intervention in Darfur; Palin just chirps anti-Washington banalities.

9:59: Re Biden: so "more troops" in Afghanistan isn't a "surge"?

9:56: I Love Everything's Autumn Almanac: Biden on Israel "he totally Gandolfini breathed."

9:53: After a desultory quarter of an hour, Biden's warming up. "The only thing on the march is Iran. Its proxies now have a major stake in Lebanon, as well as on the Gaza strip." The eagerness with which Israel becomes the Lil' Bo Peep of American foreign policy pisses me off, though.

9:49: This is the part of the debate in which each side shows which has the bigger foreign policy dick.

9:47: The more I think about Palin's answer on same-sex rights, the more angry I get that Iffill let it go.

9:46: Did George H.W. Bush ever call Reagan "Ron"? Did Al Gore ever refer to Clinton as "Bill"? Stop this phony informality.

9:44: Palin's breath control is impeccable. Can't say the same about her smile control.

9:37: Palin won't even say "gay" aloud. She and Biden both support visitation rights and insurance benefits, which is less heinous than what we're used to...but still. The determined way in which both chomped down hard on the "No" regarding gay marriage tells me we still got a long road to travel before candidates talk like adults.

9:34: Totally incoherent responses on drilling from Biden and Palin.

9:26: Ugh. Why must Biden give Palin (bless her heart) credit for a "windfall profit" tax refund when it's basically a huge dole?

9:25: Second glass of wine.

9:23: "Bless their hearts," Palin purrs, regarding the heads of Alaskan oil cartels.

9:21: After a long-winded answer in which Biden recites a litany of figures that scared the shit outta me, he inserts his first zinger -- something about the Bridge to Nowhere, naturally. No sweat glistens.

9:17: "Redistribution of wealth" = 'nother buzzword. Biden really needs to stop smiling: the reflected gleam doesn't work against the power of Palin's glasses. And she's so DEE-lighted when she scoffs at the federal government.

9:14: Palin's first use of the gutter populism to which she and her supporters have turned when logic fails ("I'm not going to answer the questions the way you and the moderator may want"). It doesn't play as well here as it did at the GOP convention.

9:10: Cut to Biden during Palin's response: he's shooting General Zod death-beams from his eyes.

9:08: Oh I see. What McCain really meant when he said that "The fundamentals of the US economy are strong," he was referring to the "strength of our workforce."

9:05: Palin says "You betcha!" like Fargo's Marge Gundersen. She's staring right at the camera, and her answer as a result was admirably direct. So was Biden. I suspect these two are gonna be like two taciturn geezers at the saloon, except their teeth gleam.

9:04: Biden makes the first reference to "Main Street."

9:00: Bryan Williams, out of the gate with the evening's first generalization: "We've never had an election like this one." Tom Brokaw notes Gov. Sarah Palin's "puckish sense of humor."

9:03: Palin approaches Biden and gushes, "Can I call you Joe?!" Biden beams.
In a little while I'll attempt to live blog the vice presidential debate, over a couple of glasses of wine, gin and tonics, and a couple of loud friends. In the meantime, let me post this excerpt from Adam Gopnick's review of a new John Stuart Mill biography:
[Mill] was often hooted, and became notorious for having once described the Conservatives as “necessarily the stupidest party.” What he meant wasn’t that Conservatives were stupid; Disraeli, who was running the Tory Party then, was probably the cleverest man ever to run a political party, and Mill’s own influences from the right were immense and varied. He meant that, since true conservatism is a complicated position, demanding a good deal of restraint when action is what seems to be wanted, and a long view of history when an immediate call to arms is about, it tends to break down into tribal nationalism, which is stupidity incarnate. For Mill, intelligence is defined by sufficient detachment from one’s own case to consider it as one of many; a child becomes humanly intelligent the moment it realizes that there are other minds just like its own, working in the same way on the material available to them. The tribal nationalist is stupid because he fails to recognize that, given a slight change of location and accident of birth, he would have embraced the position of his adversary. Put him in another’s shoes and he would turn them into Army boots as well.
This reminds me of that remark of F. Scott Fitzgerald's, drawn from Keats' theory of negative capability: the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. This calcifying of thought is the contagion with which politics, even in the purportedly febrile environment of the think tank and magazine blog, is afflicted. Which is why Scott's response to the scrutiny of Palin is where I'm at today.