Sunday, June 29, 2008

Well, yes

David Thomson, reviewing Tom Kalin's tentative film career and his pretty good (and, until Savage Grace, only) film Swoon:
It was hard to see Swoon without detecting a gay film, but that mood was no more pressing or less complicated than the fact that Goodfellas was a claim made for heterosexuality in an essentially gay world. In other words, no film is simply about sex, even if nearly every film is also always about sex.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Hardly fashionable, but my Oldie of the Week is OMD's "So In Love," their first of four American Top 40 hits. Everyone knows "If You Leave," which then and now I've always found one of the worst beloved hits of all time -- garish and obvious, from the synthesized percussion to the breathy way in which the vocalist (I can't tell them apart) sings "Seven years went under the bridge/Like time was standing still" as if it took seven years under the bridge to come up with the lines. Since I'm lukewarm on many of OMD's early electro ditties, the straightforwardness of "So In Love" often grabbed me whenever I heard it (not often). I love how the synth-strings outrace the piano line, with Andy McCluskey barely holding the high notes; the song, like his rapture, gets away from him, barely returning to earth in the final minute before lifting him to the English Electro-Gloss Heaven populated by the likes of Roxy Music's "Over You" and New Order's "True Faith." Speaking of which, Stephen Hague had a hand in shaping this one; his reins-holding here reminds me of what he'd do two years later on "True Faith": constructing sturdy but porous blocks of electronic sound that insulated the band from their own excesses but allowed their conviction to seep through.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

I haven't written about movies in a while. Let me catch up.

Enchanted (2007): One of the movie's least remarked on jokes is that no one in Manhattan blinks an eyelash when Amy Adams' cartoon princess steps out of a manhole cover in Guinevere drag; it says little when prince James Marsden jumps atop a crosstown bus with a sword. But disrupt rush hour traffic and they get PISSED. Sure, it's New York -- its citizens are accustomed to oddities -- but it's no accident that the characters materialize in Times Square, practically owned by the Walt Disney Company, which also produced this film. America has become an extension of the Magic Kingdom; thus, the callow likes of divorce lawyer Patrick Dempsey (as Adams' real true love) incarnates the fantasies of millions of little girls. Why believe in lovelorn princes when a bland flesh and blood one with a six-figure salary makes for an able substitute?

Still, this is a pretty good spoof; a multibillion dollar behemoth like Disney can afford to be generous. During one of my last visits to Walt Disney World, we ate a character buffet, at which we were visited by, in quick succession, Alice (from Alice in Wonderland), Belle, and Piglet. Amy Adams reminded me of those young women. There isn't a scintilla of irony in her performance; she's committed to playing Disney's conception of a princess as fully as Ronald Reagan played an American president. Like Reagan, you don't dare make fun of her to her face: she wouldn't get it, so fully do they inhabit their parts. Meanwhile Marsden, relieved that he wasn't cast in the Dempsey-patsy role for once, mugs and throws his stumpy arms hither and thither as if he's never heard of Errol Flynn.

Amidst the amiable jabs at pop psychology and modern publishing (as well as an unexpected twist on a familiar denouement between a dragon and the True Love), there's a truly sinister conclusion: Adams heads a booming princess-gown trade in a place that looks a lot like a gift shop on Main Street, U.S.A. You can argue that she teaches other girls to enact the fantasy she's made flesh (literally), but the glint in her eyes doesn't just signify a determination to believe in true love -- it also projects a yen for lucre. Imagine Snow White and her prince moving to a loft on the Upper East Side to manage their plush toy business. Its most popular items? The Seven Dwarfs.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Circle in the Sand

A couple of weeks ago, former Stylus colleague Jonathan Bradley thought it would be a nice idea if the rest of our former colleagues assembled summer mix tapes. I collaborated with Dan Weiss on mine. Download the mix here; the tracklist is below. Here are the prefaces we wrote:

Mixing this was a necessary challenge. I'm in constant worry that the constant tide of new sounds to parse will eventually swallow my instinct for putting music together or catching the hairpin logic of a loop in potential. I'm really proud of these results, though. Alfred is a natural collaborator for me because he's one of the few critics of my time who zeroes in on melody, rhythm, songwriting...the boring essentials that some people will go as far as SunnO)))) records to avoid. I can count on him to present me with a new way to hear E-A-B-C# again (Kathleen Edwards' brilliant Amy Rigby stunt "The Cheapest Key") or discern visceral arguments of longevity from inscrutable favorite-band-ism (Pet Shop Boys' "Minimal," as exciting as they've ever been in 20+ years). I was delighted by his picks, nearly all of them unknown to me. In fact, his choices set the bar so high I went back and redacted a few of mine that I fear relied too much on my weakness: classic alt-rock comforts. Even still, no summer can jam without Weezer, Weezy or Belinda Carlisle. Thanks for luring me out of the cheapest key.

-- Dan Weiss

After studying our mix, I noticed that we were most concerned with space -- how artists and shrewd remixes suggest vastness. In the context of summer, vastness suggests the abrogation of responsibility: school and relationships, mostly, and the moral sinecures they provide by necessity, against which we strain with some success, and towards which we return as the days start to shorten, and bank balances begin to shrink. These songs are guideposts: towards danger and release.

-- Alfred Soto


1. The Reputation - Face It
2. Arthur Russell - That's Us/Wild Combination
3. Cut Copy - So Haunted
4. Yo La Tengo - Today is the Day
5. The Cure - A Japanese Dream
6. Be Your Own Pet - Super Soaked
7. Lil' Wayne - I Feel Like Dying
8. Belinda Carlisle - Heaven is a Place on Earth (Heavenly Version)
9. Mike Doughty - Like a Luminous Girl
10. Hercules & Love Affair - Shadows
11. Pet Shop Boys - Minimal
12. Katy Perry - Waking Up in Vegas
13. Wussy - Soak It Up
14. Kathleen Edwards - The Cheapest Key
15. Jens Lekman - A Sweet Summer's Night on Hammer Hill
16. Bryan Ferry - The In Crowd
17. Weezer - Everybody Get Dangerous
18. Al Green feat. John Legend - Stay With Me (By the Sea)
19. Duran Duran - Meet El Presidente (7" Remix)
20. The B-52s - Eyes Wide Open
21. We are Scientists - After Hours
22. Liz Phair - Lazy Dreamer
23. Rosanne Cash - Hold On
24. Bob Dylan - Clean-Cut Kid

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Doin' The Things That They Want To

What I admire most in a beloved musician is what I call colloquial mastery, and Matos' post on Prince's "Blue Light" is exactly what I had in mind. I only warmed to"Blue Light" after absorbing Prince's other work, and for other reasons: it's a song recorded after the artist, having nothing further to prove, refines his craft by concentrating on the quotidian events that you and I take for granted -- that they, in their quest of greatness, took for granted in their youth.

I feel the same about Lou Reed's eighties work. Although praised highly at the time by the likes of Christgau, among others, the consensus has swung back to canonizing Transformer and Berlin, two albums I find unconvincingly sketchy and leaden, respectively (listening to Transformer is like watching a friend putting the moves on a gay man because he's flattered by the latter's attention). I can understand why -- The Blue Mask, Legendary Hearts, and New Sensations often sound horrible, despite the skill of the best band Reed's worked with since the Velvets. Reed's idea of production glitz, for example, consists of pilfering the drum sound of Private Eyes-era Hall & Oats. But there's rewards to this approach too. After writing about heroin, bondage, and putting jelly on your shoulder, Reed's devotion to banality requires a similar accommodation on the part of the listener. He did run out of ideas too (1986's Mistrial and even New York are collections of slogans looking for arrangements, even melodies). Still, for me, Reed has never sounded more human and Reed-like than on "My Friend George," "Rooftop Garden," "I Love You, Suzanne," and "Doin' The Things That We Want To." Like "Blue Light"'s use of what Matos calls "Taxi" (as in the TV show) synth lines and a loping reggae rhythm to which Tom Cruise and Elizabeth Shue might have danced in Cocktail, Reed's use of decidedly unsubversive arrangements underlines his commitment to normality, illuminated by his superb ear for the unexpected fillip. The situation he delineates in "My Friend George," in which bumping into a friend inspires frustration and renewed comradeship, gains more resonance as I approach my mid thirties and respond to Facebook requests from high school alumni. No rancid putdowns or labored analogies here: he doesn't need them; his wise-ass personality underpins the song. Beginning with a violin line straight out of mid eighties Peter Gabriel duetting with Reed's strummed electric guitar (and the return of the thin, white, dreaded H&O drums), "Doin' The Things..." is more adventurous musically, and its arrangement adds heft to the song's simple premise: Reed swoons over a Sam Shepard play; it reminds him of what he loved about Martin Scorsese's New York films. Years after he claimed on a famous Berlin psychodrama that he didn't give a shit about people suffering, it's touching to hear Lou drop his guard like this, playing the fanboy. Like Reagan meeting with Gorbachev one year later after Reed recorded New Sensations, Lou could get away with it thanks to two decades' worth of accruing a reputation for doing the opposite. The title is descriptor and manifesto: without grandstanding, Reed puts himself in the company of fellow experts of the demotic, of men who make art after punching the clock.

Other examples: Van Morrison's "Cleaning Windows," Stephen Malkmus' "Gardenia," the entirety of De La Soul's The Grind Date, the Go-Betweens' "Here Comes The City."

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Bravo, Senator Obama...

...for reminding us that you can pander as abjectly as your colleague, Senator John McCain. As I've written elsewhere, this was an especially sordid move when every poll shows that the Democrats will not just keep but expand their Congressional majorities. So why are they afraid of being called Soft on Terror by chicken hawk Republicans?

Glenn Greenwald, who's been following this story since 2005, sums it up:
This bill doesn't legalize every part of Bush's illegal warrantless eavesdropping program but it takes a large step beyond FISA towards what Bush did. There was absolutely no reason to destroy the FISA framework, which is already an extraordinarily pro-Executive instrument that vests vast eavesdropping powers in the President, in order to empower the President to spy on large parts of our international communications with no warrants at all. This was all done by invoking the scary spectre of Terrorism -- "you must give up your privacy and constitutional rights to us if you want us to keep you safe" -- and it is Obama's willingness to embrace that rancid framework, the defining mindset of the Bush years, that is most deserving of intense criticism here.
But, hey, Obama wants to be president, and stands an excellent chance of winning, so why wouldn't he support cool new executive powers allowing him to pursue deeds worthy of his most soaring rhetoric?

Friday, June 20, 2008

To be responsible, I listened to Girl Talk's new one twice, but I knew I hated it upon hearing the third track. As I wrote somewhere else, this is the album-length equivalent of participating in a music trivia night at your local bar, with the dork at the table (okay, me) identifying Survivor tunelets. I disagree with the Idolator folks: Jive Bunny's "In The Mood" at least nodded to history, and you could dance to it, sorta. Apart from the juxtaposition of "Whoop (There It Is)!" and Big Country's "In a Big Country" -- due mostly to acknowledging how marvelous the Stuart Adamson riff sounds cranked good and loud -- this album is the most witless example of sampling/mashing to date, the sort of horror which discredits its possibilities.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Tim Russert's dead. It's awful, world-historic, so much so that yesterday NBC Nightly News actually showed a clip of Brian Williams mourning the death of his colleague while footage of the Iowa floods played in the background. If you need further examples of the depravity of our punditocracy, watch this video of Wesley Clark being interviewed by a pair of nobodies on MSNBC. Note how the anchors splutter when Clark makes a terribly obvious point about John McCain's purported national security "experience" ("He's never been responsible for policy formation. He's never had leadership in a crisis or in anything larger than his own element on an aircraft carrier or in managing his own congressional staff"). In their quest for easy digestion, pundits will chew on anything malleable, such as Andrea Mitchell, among others, characterizing Barack Obama's appeal back in the antediluvian days of November and December 2007 as "rock star," as if that said everything you needed to know about him. In this case it's John McCain the War Hero, as if being a prisoner of war qualified one to be an effective Chief Executive, which is like saying that I'm qualified to serve as editor in chief of a newspaper because I was once a reporter. Obama, of course, has even less experience, but that's the point: both candidates, all things being equal, are equally qualified to be president, despite the bleatings of our local Republican bloggers, most of whom can't make a point without their carotid arteries throbbing in public.

National security is indeed the most salient "issue" facing us this election, but we should worry as much about how fighting a perpetual war corrodes an executive branch that's itself barely survived the abuses of the Cold War. As Immanuel Wallerstein notes:
The biggest unknown is how far he will go to dismantle the quasi-police state structures that the Bush regime has instituted under the umbrella of a war against terrorism. This involves far more than appointing better judges. It means a radical revising of both legislation and executive policies and exposing the ultra-secret rules and practices to the light of day. Much can be done, as we know from what was accomplished in the 1970s, reining in the CIA and the FBI. But the situation is worse now and requires more. History may well judge Obama most of all on what he does in this domain. Up to now, he has been quite silent about this arena.
Make no mistake: Obama's rhetoric at its most affirmative and swollen makes me tremble. In context, I'm relieved that the paleoconservative rag American Conservative has also realized, in tones more paranoid than I'd adopt myself, that an Obama administration might (they say "would") "parrot precisely the Bush regime’s panic-packed arguments about the horrendous threats facing America," especially when he remarks, as he did last year, that "this century’s threats are at least as dangerous and in some ways more complex than those we have confronted in the past. They come from weapons that can kill on a mass scale and from global terrorists who respond to alienation or perceived injustice with murderous nihilism. They come from rogue states allied to terrorists and from rising powers that could challenge both America and the international foundation of liberal democracy.”

You can spin this as Obama's way of countering the "perception" that he's "weak on national security," but he said those words, and he must account for them. American history is strewn with the bodies of presidents who appealed to our better natures by leading us into unsolicited wars of choice. The real audacity of hope would be if a President Obama shirks the call to higher duty.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Driving home on Father's Day, I had the pleasure of catching on the adult contemporary station one of the very best ballads of the nineties. Although it led to the inevitable saccharine Disney ballad, and remains the peak of Vanessa L. Willams' career in the era before Mary J. Blige, Aaliyah, and Brandy effected a version of the R&B ballad toughened and inflected by hip-hop, "Save The Best For Last" is also a kind of peak for this kind of deliberately classic songwriting: the metaphors are rote but rounded neatly, and for once the piano and strings don't smother the singer -- who, by the way, sounds like a real human being; this song wouldn't be as memorable in the hands of a self-appointed Classy Dame like Anita Baker or gimlet-eyed up-and-comer like Mariah Carey. "Save The Best For Last" conveys a modesty without banality: living within your means, learning without ostentation, loving and being loved not an iota more than you deserve ("Love Is," her other Top Fiver from the era and a duet with Brian McKnight, is almost as memorable).

ADDENDUM: Wow. I had no idea this even existed. Greil Marcus always surprises you.
Deborah Solomon a cranky and rather useless interview with Gore Vidal, who can't be bothered anything but growl stale bon mots. But his paranoia is so succinct it's funny:
And what about Mr. McCain?

Disaster. Who started this rumor that he was a war hero? Where does that come from, aside from himself? About his suffering in the prison war camp?

Everyone knows he was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam

That’s what he tells us.

Why would you doubt him? He’s a graduate of Annapolis.

I know a lot of the Annapolis breed. Remember, I’m West Point, where I was born. My father went there.

So what does that have to do with the U.S. Naval Academy down in Annapolis

The service universities keep track of each other, that’s all. They have views about each other. And they are very aware of social class and eventually money, since they usually marry it.

How, exactly, is your cousin Al Gore related to you
? They keep explaining it to me, and I keep forgetting.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

So-called "social conservatives" take heart: gay marriage in Massachusetes is as banal as marriage for everybody else:
Some same-sex couples say being married has made a big difference, and some say it has made no difference at all. There are devoted couples who have decided marriage is not for them, couples whose lawyers or accountants advised them against marrying, and couples in which one partner wants to marry but the other does not.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Tim Russert

In one of those coincidences without which life would lose its flair, only yesterday Glenn Greenwald bitched about the intimacy between Washington and much of the media figures ostensibly covering it, linking at the end of his column to this Daily Howler piece chronicling how Tim Russert, Tom Brokaw, Barbara Walters, Judy Woodruff, and a cast of thousands chased John McCain around New York in August 2004 singing "Happy Birthday" (as a good friend in Charleston reminded me a few minutes ago, "John McCain is the last fucking person who should be complaining about press coverage"). Since for years "Meet The Press" has replaced the Bloody Mary as my preferred hangover emollient on Sunday mornings, I can't complain too much about his inflated reputation; but I suspect Big Tim would have been the first to pounce on the obvious fact that he died on a Friday, guaranteeing two days of blanket coverage, complete with a "Meet The Press" round table presided over by David Broder and a parliament of septuagenarian media elite. Russert looked like such an amiable sort -- the ruddy cheeks which no pancake makeup could mask bespoke a taste for the best kind of Irish tippling -- that I kept wishing he'd show more backbone. As I wrote a couple of years ago:

Tim Russert's reputation for "objectivity" is based upon the diligence of his staff, which actually take the trouble to sift through a politican's record for contradictions. In response the politician stammers that he was "taken out of context." Whereupon Russert DROPS THE SUBJECT. If he actually questioned their incoherent jargon, called them on their use of cliches (look to the language, Orwell always said), forced them into retreat, then he would deserve his reputation.
"Meet The Press" was usually a politican's last stop, akin to the confessional, wherein Fr. Russert would scowl and look paternal (meanwhile the guest would look penitent and humble, yet eager for more self-abasement) before administering a figurative sign of the cross and blessing. Of course, this is considered Real Fair and Balanced journalism (I can't imagine that when the obits for Seymour Hersh are written we'll see many references to his empyrean detachment). Journalists shouldn't be merely "respected" and loved; they should inspire odium and fear.

If I'm being too harsh on Russert, it's a response to the adulation he inspires in most of my reporter friends. The world in which they operate allows so few chances for uncompromised reporting that Russert's occasional feints look honorable in context. All the best to Big Russ, the father he adored, who shouldn't have to endure this on this of all possible weekends.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Inarticulate speech of the heart

Robert Plant in an interview with Rob Trucks:
Once upon a time," sayas Plant, "all we knew about Elvis was that he sang like a motherfucker. And that was all that mattered. You know, when you gas up and you go to pay inside the gas station and you hear Elvis singing 'Surrender,' you know that the mystery of that guy, at that time, was everything. The voice and the mystery and the not knowing. And I think the great thing about anything that you hear over the waves is, you don't want to know too much, you know?"
In the same issue, Rob Harvilla's review of Weezer's The Red Album, specifically "Pork And Beans," Rivers Cuomo's attempt at "Silly Love Songs," an inarticulate defense of a lucrative ethos:
Is Cuomo that inarticulate, or is he amazingly good at articulating the feelings of inarticulate teenagers in their own words? Much of this record isn't so much good as it is entertainingly mystifying: a 16-car pileup that may or may not have been staged for your benefit.
If I may: a 16-car pileup looks the same to an adolescent as it does to geezers Plant's age. "Entertainingly mystifying" is a response to art with which most of us have some acquaintance, familiarly so, and hence not so mystifying in itself. Surfing YouTube and contemplating "Mystery Train" will stiffen the geezer and the adolescent's determination not to know too much.
Camille Paglia's always worth a chuckle. Her description of the end of the Bill and Hillary Show:
I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised at the ecstatic media lockstep praising Hillary's so-called concession speech last weekend. This is the same herd of sheep who bleated to Bush's beat and brought us the Iraq fiasco. I first heard the speech on the radio as I was driving back to Philadelphia from a family event in upstate New York. I was shocked and appalled at Hillary's inflammatory demagoguery, which was obviously intended to keep her candidacy alive through the August convention and beyond. The echo in the museum's marble entry hall gave the event an eerily retro quality, as if it were a 1930s fascist rally. Hillary's turgid, preachy rhythms were condescending and manipulative, and her climaxes were ear-splittingly strident. It was pure Evita, a cult of personality masquerading as populism. When I later saw the speech on TV, I was disgusted by how Hillary undercut her insultingly brief endorsement of Obama with a flat expression and cold, dead eyes. The only thing that got her blood racing was the blatantly stoked hysteria of her screeching worshipers.
So it overdoes the horror. Fine. But it reminded me of an exchange with a former HRC supporter at the bookstore yesterday. I'm skeptical of Obama, but for the Clintons and their claque, now roaming the desert eating locusts, skepticism is for wimps.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Oh for god's sake.

Youwannadekitsch? Here you go: Brokeback Mountain: The Opera.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Per Ned, I follow these instructions:

“List seven songs you are into right now. No matter what the genre, whether they have words, or even if they’re not any good, but they must be songs you’re really enjoying now, shaping your spring. Post these instructions in your blog along with your 7 songs. Then tag 7other people to see what they’re listening to.”
So. Seven songs selected randomly from my iPod:

Lil Wayne - "Shoot Me Down." This Kanye West production (or so the credits say) from Weezy's insanely anticipated Da Carter 3 churns like it's 1995 all over again -- in Bristol, that is. Wayne moves from chuckling at his absurd tuff talk to muttering gritted-teeth imprecations with the hairtrigger quickness of Maxinquaye-era Tricky (think "Pumpkin"). The guitar hook is so insinuating that you don't notice when it turns into a noose. Then Wayne's own solo breaks it.

Arthur Russell - "That's Us/Wild Combination." I finally warmed to this purported art-disco pioneer a couple of months ago. This sounds like no disco I know; with the warm, grateful, abashed vocals of Russell leading the way, this is seduce-a-rama heated by smothered blankets, sunlight through hastily closed blinds, and his breath on your shoulder.

The Hold Steady - "Sequestered in Memphis." Alternative title: Smothered in Miami.

The Raincoats - "Shouting Out Loud." The strongest tracks on Odyshape articulate a secular version of Al Green's "Jesus is Waiting" and "Simply Beautiful" -- the vocals and instruments, swirling and impatient, scratch at the ineffable because the singers' idea of the numinous can barely keep apace with their own humility in articulating it (I've been relistening to Al Green a lot).

Ashlee Simpson - "Outta My Head." Ay-ya-ya-ya-ya, they're talking way too much, and I'm referring to her friends, not enemies. But just when I think Frank and Chuck aren't doing her cause much too good, a track like this proves they're right.

Digable Planets - "Pacifics." As far from the numinous as Brooklyn. Most of us would prefer "Hawaii Five-O" reruns to reading Jean-Paul Sartre novels too.

Lightning Seeds - "Sense." See Arthur Russell above. When you're here, it all makes sense. By "you" I mean house keyboards and call-and-response vocals. The slightly fusty arrangement reminds me what I love best about early nineties New Order-influenced English pop.

I tag:

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Whenever a Washington "insider" publishes a book, it flares up and vanishes. Grim economic news and Obama's virtual coronation dominated the news cycle this week, but Dennis Perrin's take on the juicy bits contained in Scott McLennan's "shocking" expose deserves a chuckle or two:
*Karl Rove's ghastly halitosis which, in McClellan's words, "inspired President Bush to reminisce about the Mexican prostitutes he frequented in his youth, speaking in a strained Spanish accent while dancing around Rove, snapping his fingers."

*Al Gore being bribed into conceding Florida in 2000, using secret funds channeled through the Saudi royal family and delivered personally to Gore by Merv Griffin.

*Ari Fleischer gargling with peroxide before each press briefing, having McClellan pinch his nipples for luck while clapping his hands and saying, "Groovemaster's comin' to get ya!"

*Dick Cheney's penchant for handing subordinates pornographic playing cards, then smirking, "That's me in the mask."

*Barbara Bush disrupting a cabinet meeting by letting loose her pet Gila Monsters, Candy and Spank, on the conference table, warning Colin Powell and Condi Rice that the lizards loved "dark meat" before serenading her "babies" with a strange lullaby about sun-baked rocks.

*President Bush's obsession with sodomizing Saddam Hussein. According to McClellan, "For weeks before the invasion, the president went into intimate detail about how he would, in his words, 'Fuck that sand merchant's shit pipe,' complete with humping gestures, graphic sex talk, and always ending with a very theatrical fake orgasm, his face twisted with pleasure, his tongue darting back and forth. Afterward, the president would mime zipping up his pants, then say to whoever was in the room, 'That's the plan, anyway.'"

Friday, June 6, 2008

I got two of the best birthday gifts imaginable a couple of years ago when my friend Mallory bought used copies of Kingsley Amis' Every Day Drinking and On Drink for me. The trouble is, gifts they've remained. After chuckling at Amis' offhand, rather surly advice ("Champagne is only half a drink"; "Dealing with wine in a restaurant used to be quite a nervous business, and the chief generator of nervousness was, of course, the wine waiter himself"), I put them away and ignored his sagacity regarding hangover, which, as any of my readers over thirty know, get more severe.

Now you can get Amis' slim, edifying texts in one collected edition called Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis, complete with introduction by fellow hard tippler Christopher Hitchens. For your father you can't purchase much better.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Although it's debuted in the Top Twenty and she performed its latest single "Stamp Your Feet" on "American Idol" a couple of weeks ago, Donna Summer's Crayons hasn't gotten quite the attention it deserves -- she hasn't released a new album since Amy Grant and Bryan Adams were scoring Top Ten singles. It's not great, but then again Summer's classic LP's weren't either, which is to say, they're better than hits-plus-filler, but not by much. In my review, I insist that Crayons' moments of weirdness -- mostly genre hopping and funny accents -- are of a piece with Summer's recorded work, and, coming from a woman pushing sixty, unexpected and inspiring. Summer's best songs set their own terms for judgment; she was never the Pete Bellotte-Giorgio Moroder puppet some of her fans' backhanded praise suggested. She wrote and recorded great songs after 1980's The Wanderer just as she wrote and recorded awful ones before it (speaking of which, if anyone's got a copy of the eponymous Quincy Jones-produced 1982 record I'll be much obliged). All I'm saying is, program"I'm a Fire" after Hercules & Love Affair's "Blind" and the B-52's "Eyes Wide Open" and you'll think it's 1979 again.

This says it all...

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Tapes, Part 2

Jimmy Iovine and Bob Clearmountain on the credits should tell you what you need to know about Get Close, The Pretenders' one bald attempt at chart success, 1986 style: swollen drums, keyboards filling every corner where "Higher Love" backup vocals don't go, and guitar parts punched on a Casio's "shred" program, of course, but also the blurred generalizations of stadium rock. Coincidence doesn't explain why "My Baby" ends with recorded audience fanfare – that's the crowd to whom Hynde's band directs its songs. Still, from the album title on down Hynde always means what she says, and if stadium-rock was how pop stars in 1986 understood outreach she did her damnedest to signify as a person. To this day, she's never sung so beguilingly; this album epitomizes the concept of vocalist transcending material. "Message of Love" doesn't trip over its "Within You Without You" bullshit because Hynde extends an Indian melody way beyond the point at which George Harrison would have sprayed his larynx over the neck of his sitar. Ditto "Don't Get Me Wrong," in which Hynde signals her submission to True Love with vocal pixie embellishments. To say it's cute would risk Hynde kicking me in the shins. Detractors who wish she'd stuck with tattooed love boys will find plenty to gripe with here: "How Much Did You Get For Your Soul?" attacks Michael Jackson for his naked consumerism while the backing track wheezes like 1985-era Starship. She saves her aces for the conclusion. "Hymn To Her" eroticizes sisterly companionship, and "Chill Factor,"over rolling soul organ, blasts Jim Kerr for turning their kids against her; the longest held note of her career mitigates the self-pity.

I didn't hear Pretenders until the summer of 1994, and it startled me. Depending on my mood, I might admit that it's my favorite album. The hairpin chord changes and thundering rhythm don't disguise how filthy it sounds; this album doesn't just stink of sex, it wallows in it (I learned more from Pretenders than I did in school). Just as I became aware of realpolitik in relationships, Hynde and her cohorts wrote about how lust turns to anger and how "you" shoot your mouth off while showing her what that hole is for. When she asks, "Where's my sandy beach?" in "Mystery Achievement," she's not clinging to a fantasy, she's wondering why, after all the tattooed love boys she's fucked, she ever believed the fantasy in the first place. So Get Close is a redress of sorts: the "maturity" Hynde copped to in 1986 demanded self-flagellation on drum risers.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Bo Diddley - RIP

This is the best time to thoroughly acquaint myself with the man's music, of which I know little except the epochal A-sides. I didn't know much about him either, so this much-cited Neil Strauss profile from 2005 does a splendid job of rounding out a life that, blessedly, didn't need rock and roll as much it needed him -- and, indeed, why should he need rock when rock did shit for him financially?

Anyway, the interview's got sensational bits:
"I got some shocking things I want to do before I decide to say, 'Hey, I'm giving up,' " he says as we climb into his Ford minivan, which is equipped with a Diddley-built wooden console full of drink and map holders. "But I'm not doing anything at the moment because I have a very undecided problem. They call it a matrimony problem. I'm going through a separation, a divorce, whatever you want to call it." In his deep, rich voice, Diddley explains that he has decided to lay low creatively, in case the courts decide that his fourth wife should have a piece of any new project.

We pull into the driveway of an old white house. Lola, a white pit bull missing an eye, greets us.

There is only one item in his hallway: an overturned washtub with a three-foot board screwed into the side. Running between the center of the washtub and the top of the board is a nylon string. Diddley steps up to the washtub bass and begins picking at the string, adjusting the pitch by tilting the plank backward and forward. Whenever he gets a particularly resonant sound, he chuckles happily. We are in Bo Diddley's playpen now.

In the first room off the hallway is a giant amplifier, at least six feet long, that Diddley made. It sits next to another one of his inventions. "It's a board game," Diddley says, gesturing to a giant wooden tabletop covered with squares of writing. "The Bo Diddley Horse Racing Game."

"If I put the guitar down today or tomorrow, I would not starve," Diddley continues as he leads me to the next room, his studio. "I know too many damn things. I can decorate. I can cook. I can do electronics and wire any kind of electric shit. I can figure anything out."

Leaning against the studio wall is a gorgeous square guitar made of blond wood and covered with eagle stickers. His picks, which he rarely uses, are coated with Velcro and attached to a Velcro patch on the side of the instrument. Next to it is a guitar with a misshapen head that's at least two feet long. Inset into this surreal instrument is a CD player, which has been rigged to play backing tracks while the guitar is played.

"I built that motherfucker, but I built that motherfucker too big," Diddley says, sighing.

He sits behind a desk strewn with recording equipment: a Mackie mixing board, a sixteen-track reel-to-reel recorder, a cassette deck, keyboards and half a dozen effects. On a nearby shelf there are dozens of boxes of Ampex tapes stacked in unwieldy piles, dated from 1958 to the present. "See all that over there," Diddley says, gesturing lazily at the shelf. "That's stuff people ain't heard before."

Diddley turns on a drum machine and picks up a microphone. What follows is a rare insight into the musical mind that helped invent rock & roll. His performance lasts nearly two hours.
Besides the "color" every reporter lives for, Strauss gets Bo to 'fess up to a reality which five score indie artists know: no one wants my shit, so I'm going to record it myself. But not one has his rhythmic smarts. Almost as touching: the suggestion that art is only worthwhile when you're sure you can surrender the urge to create it when the mood strikes. Maybe art isn't worthwhile at all.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

A strange kind of feelin'

Sifting through a box of cassettes this weekend, I was struck by how many of the goddamn things I still own. Belinda Carlisle and Thompson Twins you'd expect, but also albums as recent as Massive Attack's Mezzanine and PJ Harvey's To Bring You My Love. So I've decided, inspired in part by Thomas' now-defunct tape blog, to review a couple of these a week. I don't have a name for this feature yet. I have no interest in reviewing the justly famous ones either -- I'm interested in explaining why I got albums by artists who must have done something to capture my interest besides an asymmetrical haircut and involvement with the Traveling Wilburys. I might even share an anecdote or two (heavens). Anyway, I'd an album like this one in mind....

Peter Murphy - Deep

In 1990 I was fifteen. I used to bike to a local record store beside a bowling alley called Jukebox Records, which has long since closed shop. I would read SPIN and race over to buy the Stone Roses, Michael Penn, Lenny Kravitz, Public Enemy, and the Blue Aeroplanes. On a whim, I'd bought the cassingle to "Cuts You Up." That synthesized violin hook combined with Murphy's portentous basso and inscrutable lyrics defined the ineffability of art on adolescent terms; it sounded, er, deep (Murphy never defined what exactly "it" was that cut you up and spit you out -- love? sharks?) . The album doesn't disappoint either. If you like this sort of thing, it's the best of its kind: sharply arranged, hooky, Goth-inflected alterna-rock cresting just as Disintegration and Pretty Hate Machine were making KROQs of every college radio station. "Crystal Wrists" and "Deep Ocean Vast Sea" jangle and churn, respectively, all praise due to walloping production and how proficiently Murphy's band the Hundred Men negotiate the tricky chord changes, especially when he decides to ascend an octave without seemingly telling them; and "A Strange Kind of Love" lives up to its title, a mostly acoustic hymn whose open door to a wide vast dominion exposes an emotional range of which Murphy's hollow cheeks seem scarely aware. He would spend the next few years trying to conjure its houdou again, to diminishing results ("Hit Song," "Let Me Love You").

Replaying it in the car a few days ago, I was impressed by how well it held up, despite my long-since-filed reservations about Murphy's Bowie/Iggy affectations (the less Bowie you own, the more original Murphy sounds) and how little love I've got for the two records bookending Deep. Eighteen (!) years later, Deep serves as one of those chart anomalies that signaled the end of the era rather than the culmination of one: despite the album and single's Top Fifty placing ("Cuts You Up" was also Billboard's number one "modern rock single" that year, back when this meant something), it did little for Murphy's commercial standing besides getting him on Dennis Miller's show in 1992 to perform "The Sweetest Drop," and was the last and greatest hit by this brand of eighties pretension before the charts stank of teen spirit. Shows how much we knew: teen spirit comprises much of Murphy's striking of received poses.

No Second Troy

Ah, Democrats. You're so much fun to watch.

Why should I blame her that she filled my days
With misery, or that she would of late
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
Or hurled the little streets upon the great.
Had they but courage equal to desire?
What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?
Why, what could she have done, being what she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?

--W.B. Yeats
Welcome June.