Wednesday, April 30, 2008

In which Carrie Brownstein reminds us why she's cooler than you and me by giving Madonna the NPR treatment. When she tells us how she discovered music with "fewer filters and disguises, less affect, greater intensity, and most of all, substance" after the apostasy of her youth, it's as if she never listened to her former band's "Milkshake & Honey" and "Combat Rock," both of which have more affect, more filters and disguises, and less intensity in their quest for substance. But she knew this already – The Woods has a ditty called "Entertain" (get it? Irony!) that could only have been recorded for a valedictory record; the extra time off meant she got to watch Classic VH-1 once in a while. 

Monday, April 28, 2008

Prince covers Radiohead's "Creep"

Recorded at Coachella this weekend. Listen quick, before the Little One's record company decides to pull it. Surprisingly crisp sound too. It would be redundant for me to point out that he's the only one I want to hear cover this -- hell, perform this.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Rob Trucks' touching interview with Robert Forster adds new wrinkles to his story, not the least of which is the revelation that he's finished a few of his late partner Grant McLennan's notes for songs for The Evangelist, Forster's first solo album in 12 years (more on the album next week). As in the best Go-Betweens songs, a cursory line reverberates in unexpected ways:
"My idea of what the future's going to be and what's going to come has gone completely out the window," Forster says. "I can no longer predict things."
He's referring to his experiments in rockcrit, which have led to a monthly column in The Monthly and publication in 2007's edition of Da Capo Best Music Writing (thanks to a eulogy to McLennan). Now he's finishing his partner's songs, and very likely singing them on tour. He can't predict things, and he can.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Letter from and to a contrarian

I recognize in Christopher Hitchens a kindred spirit – a spirit that relishes combat, embraces contrarianism, and has no problem pissing off friends. My brief flirtation with supporting the Iraq War was inspired partly by the seductive idea of supporting a president whose mediocrity, obtuseness, and messianic zealotry dovetailed with my long-brewing sense that we had to atone for the Reagan-Bush era's chicanery in the Middle East. In 2002 George W. Bush's repulsiveness made him the ideal vessel through which ideologues could put long-deferred ideas about "regional transformation" into action; call it a redress of grievances. Leftists like Hitchens and (to a lesser extent) Paul Berman understood the paradox – had made peace with it – in ways that their colleagues, schooled in dialectics, could not. Sometimes your enemy has a good idea. Even a stopped clock is right, etc. A perverse experiment I could afford to make because I'd nothing at stake except a handful of glares from friends, and I'm sorry about it now.

This profile of Hitchens is the most thorough I've read, in large part due to Alexander Linklater's prodding his subject into defining himself. Linklater is not afraid, like so many of Hitchens' interlocutors, of challenging him; the analytical transitional paragraphs are occasionally more enlightening than the quotes. The results are not very attractive. Linklater exposes the authoritarianism inherent in contrarianism, the deep vein of orthodoxy that runs through its most fervent adherents. If Marxism at its purest subordinates individuals to history, contrarianism is its unacknowledged accomplice, showing an equal disregard for casualties and principles. Those who've known suffering understand the consequences. Linklater quotes Kanan Makiya: "`Bodies matter. I come from a tradition in the far left, back a long time ago in my life, where… bodies did not count...You know: the historical process, the victory for the working class. I would not make that argument any more. It is utterly repugnant to me.'” Hitchens' acknowledgment of this fact allows the reader a rare compassionate sigh (the other is a fairly horrifying account of the death of his mother and her lover, which I knew nothing about). Otherwise we get these bits:
What Hitchens says he experienced after the 2001 attacks was exhilaration, a sudden return of a kind of energy that he last recalled from 1968—a sensation described as “encouraging signs of polarization” by his friend Israel Shahak. “As soon as I saw the impact of those planes, I realized what was going to happen,” he says. “I knew it would be something apocalyptic from Islam. It was the flash that illuminates the whole scene, a way of thinking from the days of the old left. And I also knew what all the comrades would say, and what I would have to say about that.”
In the days after the death of Jerry Falwell, Hitchens assured himself a generous royalty stream for God is Not Great by rightly denouncing this repulsive man's cruelty and ignorance, the worst manifestation of which being his statement after the 9-11 attacks that the victims had it coming to them. Now imagine Falwell – "giggling and smirking" and pinching his "chubby flanks," as Hitchens said last May – saying what Hitchens told Linklater. It's not a stretch, is it? Of course a contrarian would welcome the apocalypse: bodies in mounds, chances to extract delight not so much from being right as in seeing the look in your opponent's face as his brown eyes realize that he's wrong.

For all that, there's a dialectics in contrarianism too, and Hitchens makes clear that he's got principles. One can deplore the quickness with which he betrayed former friend Sidney Blumenthal at the height of the Bill Clinton impeachment nonsense yet acknowledge that the former president's comportment this primary season comes close to proving Hitchens correct:
“My dislike for [Clinton] stemmed from his discrediting of something precious to me: the alliance between the anti-war and civil rights movements of which he’d been a vestigial member in the 1960s, and which was my formative politics. The way he cashed that in, lied about whether he was a draft-dodger; the way he smarmily pretended to be more in favour of civil rights than he had been at the time, the way he cheapened everything. He was nothing but a cynical, self-seeking, ambitious thug, and the reali[z]ation that this would be the closest that my class of ’68 would get to the top job gave me a terrible sickening feeling.”
To wish that Hitchens would devote himself entirely to literary criticism (in which he's shown discrimination and an embrace of contradictions from which his agitprop side would surely benefit) is missing the point. Take his friendship with the late Edward Said – the latter's insatiable appetite for literature could not be severed from his sense of how art demands the conflict of the world as much as it illumines the compromises and defeats of political beings, which we all are. Final word:
“I’ve never been impressed by middle-ground or art-of-the-possible stuff,” he says. “Why would people bother with politics if that’s all they wanted to do? If you weren’t trying to see if you could expand the art of the possible, break the limits of the feasible, redefine it, expand it — why would you bother? Who wants to be just a manager?”
My review of the King Khan track "Torture." Their Pitchfork Music Festival show should be fun.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

It was fun reading The Art of War again, if only to imagine Bill Kristol reciting one of Sun Tzu's maxims through clenched Cheshire Cat teeth. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

When I saw Daisy Kenyon a few weeks ago, I thought it was not just Otto Preminger's best film noir, but his best film. Putting his considerable craft to use in enlivening a Joan Crawford love triangle in which the corners (Henry Fonda and Dana Andrews) are regarded as partners worthy of her respect and therefore ours, he comes closest to satisfying David Denby's wildest dreams about his ecumenicism. Daisy Kenyon would be memorable just for the rare opportunity of watching Crawford play a human being of warmth and grace without telegraphing semaphores of empathy with her Eyebrows of Death to the lady in the very back row of the theatre; it may be the most attractive performance I've seen of hers. Matt Zoller Seitz:

Crawford never seems like she's slumming in these parts. She treats "working girls" with respect, embodying their hopes, their dreams, their small pride in possessions, their sadness. Crawford came from nothing herself, and her trip to the top was probably interspersed with many questionable choices. She understood compromise. She knew what it took to make it. So when I see her in Daisy Kenyon putting on a smock to get to work, fluffing up her couch pillows, crying because she's had a fight with O'Mara or lying in bed disgruntled because Peter didn't call when he was supposed to, I am not aware of Crawford the actress acting. I see Daisy Kenyon doing the best she can, trying to work things out.
And Dana Andrews is a wonder. This man got not one Oscar nomination, yet in films like this, Where The Sidewalk Ends, Fallen Angel, and The Best Years of Our Lives, he's the most believable man-of-the-world of forties cinema.

I won't go so far as to agree with James Wolcott that Daisy Kenyon surpasses Laura, but it's the work of a man whose flirtation with humanism allowed room for an irony that had no use for Douglas Sirk's paintbox colours and outsized Brechtian gestures.

Monday, April 21, 2008

"So Haunted" is one of my singles of the year -- plaintive, insistent -- and it surrenders pleasure after pleasure in ways that its host album In Ghost Colours can't. As practioners of a post-New Order, quasi-DFA dance aesthetic just catholic enough to allow an Alan Moulder glaze on the vocals and guitar fuzz, Cut Copy have enough craft to work out their one or two ideas with imagination, but the glaze also covers too many aesthetic shortcomings; the album isn't just soft on the feet, it's soft in the head. Weeks after mishearing "So Haunted"'s chorus "Feel so haunted that I misunderstood tonight" as "Feel so horny that I misunderstood tonight...," I hold it against the band instead of my ears -- the misheard lyric sounds like it's articulating something real, something we've all experienced; when the sequencers start to bleep and phased harmonies straight out of My Bloody Valentine's "To Here Knows When" blow air trails into the microphones, it's the closest thing to sublimity I've heard this year. If Cut Copy remind me of anyone, in fact, it's A Flock of Seagulls, and that band's talent for evoking nostalgia and hurt out of dim scenarios that need all the keyboard swells and crypto-Edge guitar they can get to send them into deep space. "So Haunted," like "Wishing (If I Had a Photograph of You)", reminds me of how adolescent experiences still sting when remembered, and a way out if we listen hard enough, maybe. Just don't listen too closely -- the chorus will disappoint.
My hometown colleagues at Babalu Blog are having so much fun. After hearing my grandmother go on a tear about Obama's "socialist tendencies" yesterday, I wonder if a warning went out over the Cuban AM radio stations this weekend.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Is David Byrne angling for new mainstream viability? I know, it's not a "comeback," he hasn't gone anywhere. But first there's this news. Then he shows up on stage yelling "You Can Call Me Al" with Paul Simon. Successfully waving aside the gnats of revisionism, despite assaults from white boys who can't dismiss Vampire Weekend without alluding to "Afro-pop" (whatever that means), Rob reminds us of Graceland's greatness ("neurotic wordplay as a second language") and makes a case for The Rhythm of the Saints' too.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Best mock question in last night's pathetic Democratic debate

One President Keyes on ILE, posing as George Stephanopoulos: "Senator Obama, if your wife were raped and killed by an American flag, would you salute it, burn it or lethally inject it?"

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

No hesitating, not at all

It's inevitable to compare Mariah Carey's "Touch My Body" and Timbaland featuring Justin Timberlake's "4 Minutes" (yes, an intentional mistake, calm down); when two women break two different Elvis records it deserves mention, no? Where Carey still manages a commitment to brain-free sultriness no matter how many keyboards and triple-tracked harmonies blow up her skirt and stimulate an overstimulated cooter, Madonna jumps hither and thither, a frenzy of elbows and hips and something that looks like hair, kinetics without erotics. Since she long ago shed human skin (Justin coos "Ma-DON-na" in the voice of Robin Williams' queen in The Birdcage as if to remind us of how long she's been a mere icon), all she can rely on is a barely pliant self-reflexiveness, which either reminds her to submit to the beat like a good dance diva (Confessions On A Dancefloor) where before she used to ram against it with that blowtorch squeak, or make herself into a subject worth celebrating, worth the adulation.

I like "4 Minutes" ok, but it's definitely in the second tier of her singles. The chorus is a graduate class in pop craftsmanship, and for young Justin an internship in iconicity -- don't think that for all the nimble two-stepping and well-deployed squeals he isn't keeping a sharp eye on the boss, hoping to break her own 36-Top-Tens streak after he's become an event instead of a person. Mariah, meanwhile, has shown little interest in celebrating herself; she likes mirrors, sure, but she uses them to find her private parts, thanks (Stephen Thomas Erlewine has a nice line in his review of E=MC2: "she's not about longevity, she's about being permanently transient"). Mouthing gibberish about roads to heaven and good intentions, Madonna halfway convinces that "Sorry" and "Hung Up" weren't the real "4 Minutes," i.e. felt statements about what pop's supposed to feel like when you're under the illusion that the whole world is dancing with you. Instead, this "4 Minutes" sounds like what pop does to you if you stick around long enough. We'll dance if we want to, and we left our friends behind years ago.
New Gregor Samsa single review here.

Monday, April 14, 2008


I love libraries -- I visit my university branch every day. I grew up in them. But this Sullivan post is just, well...:
The hush of the reading rooms, the turn-on of a great book, the spasm of what you thought was an original thought, which lasts about as long as a male orgasm: it's better than porn.
The best comment on the campaign season, and the problem of political reporting, inspired by the flapdoodle "controversy" (as Matt Lauer sternly warned us this morning) over guns and church:
...But it matters in a completely self-referential way, it matters only because it matters, not because it means anything about Obama, or illuminates anything about his potential presidency. It's a hollow scandal. Those housing plans, by contrast, don't "matter" in a way that convinces the media to cover them, or to relentlessly hound McCain about the inadequacy of his proposal. They don't "matter," but they are meaningful. And this is why I don't like writing about the campaign. It's full of hollow scandals and ignored travesties. But you have to cover the hollow scandals, because they're are blown up until they're definitional in the campaign. And that leaves me writing about high-profile non-events in a way that helps cement their importance, even if I'm writing to deride their legitimacy.

If you're ever interested in really getting to the bottom of what's wrong with political journalism, incidentally, spend some time thinking about the fact that most of its leading practitioners came up through campaign reporting, and writing about verbal gaffes and off-the-cuff comments is what they trained to do. The tone of political journalism is set by people who are thrilled -- on a professional level -- that Obama said this thing, and now we can cover this story.

I'm back

After nine hours, four airports, and mild motion sickness, I'm back in 80-degree weather (and a possible cold front!). It was great to see friends and colleagues in Seattle, as usual, and, while EMP Pop Conference itself was good not great, I particularly enjoyed these three papers, as well as presentations by Todd and Tal. The decision to include more papers by academics injected an unwholesome amount of pedagogical oratory and jargon into several promising ideas (I never want to hear about "praxis," "teleological," and "heteronormative valences" in my presence again). In my experience, academics care little about audience reactions because the lecture format isn't particularly kind to the reception of ideas; it's just irrelevant. Also, academics have been taught to expunge their presentations of opinions, so their relation to the material they're presenting is often mystifying, often reflected in neutered prose. Pop music promises a utopian notion of community, and some of the presentations betrayed purely ascetic experiences that often clashed with the inchoate nature of the songs under discussion.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Blogging will be light this weekend, as I'll be here.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008


...Paglia sounds off: on the "compulsive war-room mentality" of Hillary Clinton's campaign, Luchino Visconti, Madonna's election to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and calls being born gay "a crock." Misinformed, scarily correct, as stiff as a graduate essay on George Meredith, and earthy, all served red-hot.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Struck by how irrepressible new single "Eyes Wide Open" was for a group of fiftysomething survivors a couple of weeks ago, I've been revisiting The B-52's catalogue. The only one I don't own is the death-tinged Bounding Off The Satellites (though "Ain't It A Shame" and "Summer of Love" are wonderful). The eponymous debut still sounds unearthly – the work of misfits who've learned to assemble their identities from rubbish and grade Z sci-fi films (with Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson's harmonies and Ricky Wilson's guitar as the paint and plaster, respectively) in as painstaking a fashion as the Pet Shop Boys would later do from Italo disco, Derek Jarman, and Armani. To the same end too: the Athens combo's psychosexual urges needed a Day-Glo carapace to render them less threatening. When "Dance This Mess Around" and the Party Mix version of "Give Me Back My Man" parted the curtains for a bit, the results were a little freaky; to these ears the 1981 remix of "Give Me Back My Man" reaches Joy Division levels of hysteria, without the release.

But Cosmic Thing deserves a mention. I've listened to it most in the last week, despite an Amazon screwup that resulted in my receiving a cassette instead of a CD copy. Even today it seems underrated, which is easier to fathom after you've turned the radio dial upon hearing "Love Shack" and "Roam" for the fourth time in two hours. Why had it taken radio and MTV so long to embrace them? Their sensibilities fit the format to a degree that even Simon and his Le Bon Bons on a yacht couldn't match. I remember a lot of warmth when the album became a double platinum Top Ten hit (Duran Duran's 1993 comeback inspired similar aw's, only without much rockcrit love) Cosmic Thing shows a band reconstituting itself for one of those back-to-basics moves which rarely do anyone except promoters of summer tours any credit, except that in The B-52's case their devotion to frivolity had only deepened, protecting them from charges of "self-parody" – compare this album to Steel Wheels, the Rolling Stones' own back-to-basics self-parodic move. The effort of creating a South that doesn't exist (the trilogy of "Dry Country," "Junebug," and "Bushfire") inspires the girls and guys to color a Technicolor fantasia as bold and bright as Gone With The Wind on ". The girls have never harmonized to such thrilling effect as they do on "Deadbeat Club," in which they surpass the Roches in their dedication to sheer vocal awesomeness. To his credit, Keith Strickland doesn't mimic Wilson's tunings; his rhythm riffage on "Roam" and "Channel Z" is elastic enough to give Nile Rodgers lumbago (how delicious that Rodgers produced half the album). The band even pull off a terrific instrumental closer. Anthony is right!

If anyone's heard Funscale, let me know.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

A not entirely successful mix of film noir and agitprop, No Way Out is nevertheless one of the most interesting and least commented on films by All About Eve director-screenwriter Joseph L. Mankiewicz. In his film debut, Sidney Poitier showed how the plaster saint he would become in the 1960's began the canonization process, playing a doctor from a bourgeois black family (with Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis!) who had the misfortune of seeing the brother of vicious thug Richard Widmark die in his care. Widmark vows revenge.

It's churlish and probably tacky to criticize Mankiewicz for creating exactly what he envisioned, especially since what we see onscreen in 2007 still startles -- the casual manner, for example, in which Poitier lays a hand on Linda Darnell's shoulder; think of the famous case a few years later in which a Southern black boy was almost beaten to death (his eyeball dangled from its socket, according to LBJ biographer Robert Caro) because he was seen talking to a white girl. Milton R. Krasner's unfussy black and white framing only sharpens the social and racial divide between the two characters (and actors). Even in 1950 Poitier's eyes registered the faint boredom with the role, balked at the limitations imposed on him, and Mankiewicz, perhaps aware that he's gone as far as he could with this daring subject matter, obliges by imposing those limitations. The best scenes show the Mankiewicz who just won directing and screenwriting Oscars for A Letter to Three Wives: a relaxed, beautiful, brief exchange between Darnell and the fiery Amanda Randolph (playing a housekeeper); and a sustained scene between Poitier's most committed advocate at the hospital and the hospital administrator that gives both actors the kind of juicy dialogue often confused for "literate" and "elegant" yet imposes subtlety on a film committed to a strenuous abandonment of it (at its worst, Mankiewicz's work suggests the Christopher Walken character in the Fatboy Slim video -- the besuited shill, so delighted with being naughty for once that he can't stop his pirouettes).

But by all means rent the film or catch it on TCM, where it will probably play (if it hasn't already) as part of its Richard Widmark appraisal. As anyone who reads this blog or my published work, I'm most attracted to artists working in genres or forms in which they're least comfortable. Speaking of Widmark, his villain isn't as indelible as Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death; in moments he seems to be auditioning for James Cagney's role in White Heat, all pre-Method paroxysms (Dave Kehr wrote a nice line about Widmark's acting generally in his obit). Reportedly he apologized to Poitier years later for hurling words common enough in Birmingham, Memphis, and Atlanta but he never lets the audience off the hook; from his lips "sambo," "nigger," and "coon" sound particularly repellent. I wish James Baldwin had written about No Way Out suitable for The Devil Finds Work, his collection of film writing.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Richard Price and his magic bus

Question to my mystery-loving readers: is Richard Price's dialogue as delightful as James Wood describes? I mean, really: "would have to get very drunk or ride on a magic bus to hear the kinds of anarchic metaphor, wild figuration, mashed slang, and frequent poetry that Richard Price creates on the page."

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

(It's so silly that I don't write about books more often, since my gig at eMusic audiobooks should in theory complement this kind of writing like my music commentary here complements my published music reviews.)

Rereading The Secret Agent proved disappointing. Wonder it inspires, but it's a labored wonder, strenuously earned, like Joan Crawford in her MGM films. When he wants to create portent and delineate the Deep Mysteries he lapses into a ponderousness of expression that gives the lie to partisans ready to defend the superiority of his secondhand English. Like Henry James he wrote around his weaknesses. So many aspects of human behavior remained foreign to him that he invented these fabulous structural music boxes that played odd dulcet-hued melodies with unexpected dissonances that eventually wear out their welcome. James however always attempted to unravel the figure in the carpet, as it were. He wasn't creating mystery -- he was solving one. James understood his characters more than the reader, so his endings seem ambiguous only at first (remember The Portrait of a Lady or The Golden Bowl) because we haven't untangled his subtleties. Perhaps that's why James stayed a genuine, wary fan of Conrad's, on one hand praising him in one of his last essays as one of the best of the younger generation (Conrad was well in his forties) and on the other praising Chance as an improvement over Under Western Eyes, The Secret Agent, and Nostromo, or, as he referred to them, the "three or four impossibilities, wastes of desolation." That Chance itself is an attenuated parody of those three superior novels makes the criticism especially obtuse (and Conrad's only major best-seller, as obtuse as James' own commercial bombs The Wings of the Dove and The Ambassadors). But James, as usual, hangs fire, exquisitely: the novel's predicatment, he writes, "was not imposed rather than invoked, was not the effect of a challenge from without, but that of a mystic impulse from within."

In Conrad there's a sense in which he reveled in the phantasmagorical; he sees ever more complex figures in the Jamesian carpet, most of which fail to cohere into patterns. Nostromo is a masterpiece of atmospherics and suggestion, even though its characters' motives are writ large; the boldness with which he sketches, say, Martin Decoud's idealism fails to account for the murkiness of the caesuras into which the reader tumbles (reading even the best Conrad is like walking into a familiar swamp and still oblivious to the quicksand you've almost drowned in before). It's almost as if Conrad tries to elevate stories that are essentially pulp, and was working in the wrong genre. Hitchcock's adaptation of The Secret Agent (as Saboteur) cuts the novel to size yet uses Stevie's death for non-exploitative effects in a genre known, even in the thirties, for using children as props to be exploited.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

"Right On Track"

I've always loved this song. VH-1 Classics used to play its video often -- a video that defined "whimsy." You remember it: the one with the backup singers dressed like chickens taunting the band from the window as they play the song in a checkered tile nightmare of a kitchen. "Right On Track" is what the name says, a dance track with one skittering foot firmly in 1987 and the other in some giddy "Pee Wee's Playhouse" no man's land. On first listen Dan Gilroy's pipes sound wispy and uninflected, but there's a hint-- a very slight one -- of a hip-hop influence in the way he throws away some words and comes down hard on others, like he's negotiating a space between Rev Run and Green Gartside. This track is a kissing cousin of your favorite number on Cupid & Psyche '85, but substituting urgency for wit. You know about the drummer if you know anything about the Breakfast Club: Stephen Bray, producer/cowriter of Madonna's "Into the Groove," "Angel," "Express Yourself," and "Keep It Together," among others. What is a surprise is how crisp those snares snap for a 1987 dance track.

For those interested, the superb Uptown Mix.

Hello April

The Kimono

When I returned from lovers' lane
My hair was white as snow.
Joy, incomprehension, pain
I'd seen like seasons come and go.
How I got home again
Frozen half dead, perhaps you know.

You hide a smile and quote a text:
Desires ungratified
Persist from one life to the next.
Hearths we strip ourselves beside
Long, long ago were x'd
On blueprints of "consuming pride."

Times out of mind, the bubble-gleam
To our charred level drew
April back. A sudden beam . . .
--Keep talking while I change into
The pattern of a stream
Bordered with rushes white on blue.

– James Merrill