Thursday, August 28, 2008

In a career of autograph hound hysteria and enthusiastic bootlicking, this sentence by Kathryn Jean-Lopez is breathtaking in how badly it missed the point, in response to Barack Obama's claim, during his acceptance speech, that "we are a better country than this": "I don't know if you win an election making people ashamed of themselves and our country."

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Marcello Carlin's new blog examines, with his typical daft scrupulousness, every number one album on the UK chart. I pick up on his distillation of the appeal of Frank Sinatra's Songs For Swingin' Lovers!, one of the man's many triumphs but still, to my ears, his most poised and insouciant recording. Writing about the interplay between arranger Nelson Riddle and Sinatra, Marcello writes:
Riddle's triumph lies in the fact that his arrangements and orchestra speak to and with Sinatra, answer him back, such that there is the feeling of an ongoing conversation - barroom or otherwise - seldom found in pop at the time. The opening "You Make Me Feel So Young" very properly sounds like a shiny, yellow herald of a new and better world; Harry "Sweets" Edison acts as Sinatra's unspoken conscience almost throughout, adding his muted trumpet comments to nearly every track, but look also at Riddle's subtle use of flutes, for instance; on "So Young" they flutter like autumn leaves in response to Sinatra's "old and grey" and at other times talk in the manner of the woman who is making him so happy. There is a beautiful inevitability about Riddle's build-up, especially when the cathartic bells materialise at the request of Sinatra's "bells to be rung" to say, away with the war, with the old, with paying back, with saying sorry; now and tomorrow are what count, the new marriage made in post-war heaven, a beauty so cherishable that you can easily excuse and understand Sinatra singing "you make me feel so spring has sprung" in the second verse.
So deservedly does Sinatra's voice get the lion's share of attention that his role as bandleader -- his understanding of how instrumental coloration deepened the emotional chords he was wringing from that voice -- gets too little attention (a funny anecdote in Bill Flanagan's chronicle of U2 in the studio and on the road At The End of the World shows the band clearly shocked that, when Sinatra joins them in the dressing room in 1987, he knew so much about music and music-making; apparently no one ever talked about music with Sinatra). Personal favorite: "Too Marvelous For Words."

Monday, August 25, 2008

On my iPod, I've got Wire's "One of Us" and David Byrne-Brian Eno's "Strange Overtones" back to back, unintentionally. The Byrne-Eno track is obviously about the act of creating music; the Wire song is too. Opening with a bass hook that's instantly the catchiest thing this Calvinist foursome has come up with since 1988's "Kidney Bingos," and a first line that spells out their intentions as clearly as if Pink Flag was recorded in 2007 ("Can't make it plainer"), Wire carve out a piece of agitated agit-pop whose arrangement is a capitulation and delineation. It's about the band's relationship with its audience, and a dry acknowledgment of what we expect from Wire: mystery, aural and lyrical, coated with ugly vocals and a guitar tone that, in 1977 and now, sounds Pro Tooled within an inch of its life. Their music is all strange overtones. Vocalist Colin Newman seems as human as Byrne has since 1983 copping to insecurities like "Are you an also-ran/Finished, inconsequential?" (Answer: not quite). Since Byrne-Eno collectively and separately have meant more to me over the years than Wire, I'm inclined to prefer their small triumph, especially when they harmonize over the chorus : if you think Newman's transformation from Tin Man is something, you'll really dig how vulnerable Byrne sounds singing at the top of his range on the verses.
From Woody Allen's Spanish diary:


Scarlett came to me today with one of those questions actors ask, “What’s my motivation?” I shot back, “Your salary.” She said fine but that she needed a lot more motivation to continue. About triple. Otherwise she threatened to walk. I called her bluff and walked first. Then she walked. Now we were rather far apart and had to yell to be heard. Then she threatened to hop. I hopped too, and soon we were at an impasse. At the impasse I ran into friends, and we all drank, and of course I got stuck with the check.


Once again I had to help Javier with the lovemaking scenes. The sequence requires him to grab Penélope Cruz, tear off her clothes and ravish her in the bedroom. Oscar winner that he is, the man still needs me to show him how to play passion. I grabbed Penélope and with one motion tore her clothes off. As fate would have it she had not yet changed into costume, so it was her own expensive dress I mutilated. Undaunted I flung her down before the fireplace and dove on top of her. Minx that she is, she rolled away a split second before I landed causing me to fracture certain key teeth on the tile floor. Fine day’s work, and I should be able to eat solids by August.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Enjoying, after fitful attempts, the copy of Bonnie Raitt's Luck of the Draw that I bought in April for just over 12 cents, I wondered why it's taken me so long. She's made a couple of classic albums that show up on many all-time lists; she's a role model for women playing slide guitar; she scored one of the great, if not THE great, Grammy upset of the last two decades, and its subsequent commercial enshrinement; I admire how LOTD humbly includes self-written compositions with covers, John Hiatt boilerplate, and L.A. songs-for-hire -- a model that I wish more men would follow (there's a fascinating essay to be written about the ease with which female artists from Aretha to Rosanne Cash include their own songs as afterthoughts on their classic recordings). What's not to love? Maybe she's too damn tasteful; there's little sense that she's an artist whose well-documented personal excesses dovetailed with aesthetic overreach. In any case, LOTD offers lots of pleasures. Even in high school, during the summer when The KLF's "3 AM Eternal" and Crystal Waters' "Gypsy Woman (She's Homeless)" struggled to relieve Bryan Adams' Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves horror from the Number One slot, I thought that "Something To Talk About" was a well-deserved hit; it's sexy in an adult, fully cognizant way. You'd have to go back to Fleetwood Mac's "Little Lies" to find a Top Five hit sung by a fortysomething woman this sly. "I Can't Make You Love Me" takes static melancholia to a new peak. "All At Once" and "One Part Be My Lover" are the keepers: anchored by Raitt's own electric piano, she deepens the middle-aged euphoria of "Something To Talk About" with shrewd remarks about fights with her grown daughter and accepting the limitations of her aging body. At any rate, now I'm very curious. Recommendations besides the ones I know?

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Dennis Perrin's dyspepsia is where I'm at these days:
My inbox fills with liberal "alerts" and related wailing about the pro-McCain media, how unfairly Obama's being treated, and yappity yap yap yap. Jesus, I swear on what little honor I possess that I honestly want Obama to win the election. Hell, I may actually break down and vote for him if the polls look tight. Not that I have any serious belief in Obama the Change Genie. Too many hands rubbing that lamp as it is. No, I simply cannot stomach another four years of liberal self-pity. Plus, I'm anxious to see liberals supporting imperial war and making excuses for the state.

Some believe that a President Obama will disillusion his liberal supporters. I think the opposite will happen -- that libs will embrace a warmongering mule prez. I remember when New York Dem Liz Holtzman defended Bill Clinton's bombing of Serbia on some cable chatfest, calling critics of that "humanitarian" exercise un-patriotic, insisting that the president must be fully supported during a time of war, etc. It was delicious to see. I want more of that in the next four years. The reactionaries have had their fun. Let liberals swim in the blood for awhile.
The purging of the Justice Department of career lawyers, the rewriting of scientific and environmental studies, our failure to observe the Geneva Convention, and, oh, right, torture are matters of such importance that I'll overlook liberal self-pity. Maybe I'll even join them.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The false dichotomy between European hedonism and American psychotherapy aside, Vicky Cristina Barcelona really does live up to the hype as Woody Allen's best movie since at least Sweet & Lowdown, and the best use of a big-name cast since Husbands and Wives (I worried that Patricia Clarkson would head down the same road as Claire Bloom, Helena Bonham-Carter, and Uma Thurman, until Allen lets her gobble a scene or two in the last third). To continue the superlatives, it's also got, in Penelope Cruz, the most intense performance in an Allen project since Judy Davis' in H&W. With long (dark) unkempt hair, a snarl that looks blowtorched, shouting Spanish imprecations, she's mercurial and brilliant, eyes ever on the alert for a slight or for a possibility -- any possibility. When she enters, she turns an okay movie into a very good one. Allen is such a didactic filmmaker that he casts Scarlet Johansson in as (blond) mercurial counterpoint, the American kind. Her chemistry with Javier Bardem redeems nearly every musty idea about art and libertinism they're forced to utter; Bardem's thick eyeballs, heavy with erotic languour, soften the thud of lines praising wine and love that are the equivalent of September's "Let's go to the city -- I want to catch that Kurosawa film festival" routine. Even Woody's rehash of the Mary Beth Hurt wheeze from Interiors -- the absurd archetype of a woman whose mere talent and sensitivity inhibits her from artistic expression -- is in Johansson's hands kinda charming; he pokes gentle fun of her while shooting her ravishingly. This is the first movie in which her heavy-footedness and limited acting chops are an asset. Never mind what Armond White tells you: Eric Rohmer never had the fortune of shooting Johansson and Cruz on a hillside picnic, beneath an overcast sky.

Monday, August 18, 2008

How to disappear completely

Not an official release, of course, but this version of "Ceremony" by Our Heroes is exactly the kind of simulacrum of despair for which they still receive too much credit.

Since it's Florida... must be hurricane season. The latest is Tropical Storm Fay. This one is a rainmaker and an annoyance, not a disaster like Hurricanes Katrina or Wilma. I'll read, listen to Lindsey Buckingham's Law and Order, prepare pork chops and black beans with rice, and venture out to a movie tomorrow if no drowned Muscovy ducks wash up on my doormat.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

How on earth do you explain this oddly defensive review of James Wood's How Fiction Works? If Walter Kirn hasn't read Henry James or Homer, maybe he shouldn't use the anti-intellectual tropes of mainstream politicos. I mean -- Wood "flashes the Burberry lining of his jacket whenever he rises from his armchair to fetch another Harvard Classic"? Really? In Kirn's estimation, people like Wood who care about literature are "vicarish," and "sequestered in [their] chamber[s]." How is this different from dismissals of Adlai Stevenson as an "egghead" or Johns Kerry and Edwards for looking and acting "French"? Finally, I'll give a dollar to anyone who can safely interpret this line: "Part of the fiction writer’s true vocation appears to be acoustic regulation — the engineering of a mental space in which literary whispers can be heard." With appraisals like this, who needs enemies?

R.I.P. - Jerry Wexler.

Thanks for Patti Page, "In The Midnight Hour," "Respect," among many others (although not Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody").

Thursday, August 14, 2008

In accordance with this meme, here's my pick for the worst alt-rock classic of the nineties. Maybe it's no classic, but The Cranberries' "Zombie" was Number One for several weeks on the college charts in the fall of 1994, and was inescapable for months afterwards; its "ZOMBIE-AH!" hook segued without a hitch into Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know" the following summer. While "Dreams" and "Linger" were plaintive little morsels somewhat overrated in 1993, "Zombie" launched Dolores O'Riordan into depths of sincerity and meaningfulness not seen since Natalie Merchant tackled white imperialism on 10,000 Maniacs' "Hateful Hate" in 1989. The best example of this song's awfulness is how witlessly O'Riordan's lovely pipes crash against the thud of the power chords: it's like hearing Dusty Springfield backed by KISS. What's this farrago about? I don't know, and neither did its fans, many of whom were so taken that they confused exoticness with originality, as they did a few months earlier with the Crash Test Dummies' "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm" (what an awful year for alt-rock number ones).
I found this quite by chance: a new Whit Stillman interview! Among the burning questions answered: (1) yes, The Last Days of Disco will see a domestic DVD release "soon"; (2) his films don't necessarily "telegraph a conservative agenda"; (3) his next film, according to The New York Post, is set in "Jamaica in the early '60s about the gospel church and the music scene from pre-reggae days, including ska."

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Not much to say about the situation in Georgia besides chuckling at the predictable analogies between the present and Czechoslovakia in '68, Hungary in the fifties, and, the right wing's favorite, Munich in 1938. When one presidential candidate's main foreign policy adviser worked as a lobbyist for the Georgian government and our current president once looked into the soul of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and saw goodness, it's fair to say that we've forfeited our own moral authority. Andrew Sullivan (who's not blameless either) summarizes the U.S.'s dilemma.

Monday, August 11, 2008

As Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl" approaches its second month at Number One, it's time to come to terms with it. Until Thomas told me a few minutes ago that this was a Cathy Dennis-Max Martin collaboration (the producer and Perry herself are also credited), I assumed a Linda Perry-wannabe cobbled it together from disparate parts belonging to Pink and "I Touch Myself." Furthermore, I'm surprised by the number of straight guys I know offended by its sentiments. Jonathan Bradley mentions how the song's been framed as "oh my god lesbian exploitation"; Josh's reaction ("honestly I'm even inclined to defend the lyrics if only because the counter-argument is so stale and automatic") makes sense too. Meanwhile Thomas hates it: Katy Perry turns homosexuality into a fetish. Hell, I burbled once, "The world's waited for an answer to Franz Ferdinand's `Michael' long enough." I wish.

A unabashed enthusiast for any song that bulldozes instead of sneaks same-sex sentiment into the Top 40, I was ready to endorse it had Perry given me a clue as to how she wants me to respond. Where Carrie Underwood would have unearthed some ambivalence in the chorus and Rihanna delighted in the transgression to her value system, Perry just sounds blank; she could be the female edition of Bret Easton Ellis' protagonist in Less Than Zero, to whom things happen in an expanding, scarcely credible chain of randomness. In its way "I Kissed A Girl" tells us much about America in 2008: we're tired of being forced to take a position on those damn gays, tired of this president, and we're not so crazy about the funny old white guy and slick black guy running to replace him. Its anomie can barely rise to annoyance.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Isaac Hayes - R.I.P.

Besides his contributions to Sam & Dave, this is still the only song of his I really love, channeling three decades' worth of iconicity into one transcendent piece of self-parody that's, well, kinda sexy. Rick James would kill for those background synths.

Phew. Atonement is the most inept adaptation of a novel I've seen in years. What a relief to avoid dwelling much on the competition. The Dunkirk scenes are the wrong kind of showy; from the way Joe Wright stages them we could be watching Keira Knightley pouting in an English garden again. It's not as if I haven't wondered whether the Ian McEwan novel is overpraised (I prefer him when he writes tony porn and ersatz social commentary), but this kind of farrago makes me question whether I'd been conned into liking the book in the first place. Casting actors like Knightley and James McAvoy would seem to be Wright's aces; if there's one thing McEwan does well, it's suggest carnality between lovers, young and old. Knightley acts like she hasn't been introduced to the rest of the cast, much less McAvoy (when she smokes she could be chewing on a piece of licorice). Wright's use of a clacking typewriter on the soundtrack is the kind of portent used by third-raters with no confidence in their material or in the audience's ability to figure things out (where's Jessica Fletcher?). Nevertheless, Vanessa Redgrave, voice strong and clear, pulls off a miracle: in the film's last ten minutes she creates a woman who understands the movie's title, who's been fucked and fucked over, who might herself have written better novels than Atonement itself.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

It's true

My friend Eric Henderson on the Olympics: "[I'm such] a film geek [I] thought the opening ceremony totally looked Zhang Yimou-ish."

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Re-watching The Last Temptation of Christ last night, I told myself that Peter Gabriel's score is maybe the best thing this ugly studio rat's ever done: it's certainly the liveliest thing he's committed to tape since his rerecording of that Laurie Anderson number on So. I bought the cassette in the summer of 1990, and, as it was for most people, it was for a few years my gateway to "world music." The years have revealed Gabriel's very real passion for Linn drums mixed loud and prominent, and some of his keyboard work is equally strident; but, still, this is the rare fusion that honors its sources while perfecting the artist's obsessions (how you feel about the artist's obsessions is up to you). Especially touching is my realization that the music and images often collide, never more so when Scorsese aims for a Tarkovksy kind of reverent contemplation; the vulgarity of a few of the pieces is what I'd expect from an English introvert with too many keyboards and a studio at his disposal. Nevertheless, it's best to appreciate Passion as a stand-alone album: a purer listening experience, let's say, if against the creator's wishes.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

"A total tongue bath," avers Camille Dodero in her review a few months ago of Martin Scorsese's Shine A Light. The first fifteen minutes spent "backstage" with the five pensioners is supposed to show their human side. But when Bill and Hillary Clinton and their retinue show up late and position themselves on stage with as canny an understanding of blocking as actors at the Old Vic, I don't know whether to feel more sorry for the upstaged Mick Jagger (looking uncharacteristically flummoxed) or Charlie Watts, who can't understand why the Clintons weren't scheduled with the rest of the meet-and-greeters. Meanwhile Scorsese does an excellent job of impersonating frustration as he stares mournfully at the speaker phone while Jagger tinkers with set lists until the moment of performance (Scorsese's eyebrows are as much a extraterrestrial wonder as Jagger's copyrighted lips).

Speaking of which...they range from pneumatic to pretty great. Scorsese captures an unexpected tension between Jagger and Richards during "As Tears Go By": Richards looks so jazzed – as if it was Richards appearing with his heroes for the first time and not Jack White –
that he undercuts the precision and rue that Jagger carves into the lyrics. Nice versions of "Connection" and "You Got The Silver." They kick up a nice storm through "Undercover of the Night" (everybody: "OAN-DAH-COVAH OF DA NOIGHT!") and open up "Tumbling Dice" without flattening its classic tumbling rhythm. Not a single tune from A Bigger Bang (during rehearsals we watch Jagger practice his slide guitar part on "Back of My Hand"); not a single tune younger than "Start Me Up."

Monday, August 4, 2008

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn - R.I.P.

From what (shamefully) little I knew about Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, he was Tolstoyian. First the beard and haunted eyes; then this writer of surpassing meticulousness became, as Hitchens reminds us, a crank in the last fifteen years, much like the Tolstoy of What is Art? In this tract, Tolstoy lambasted Shakespeare and much of Western art for its moral turpitude: folktales and the Bible, he argued, told the real truth. The Solzhenitsyn who decried the influence of rock music on youth and considered the Renaissance a mistake was plainly in this line. Occasionally, when protesting UN peacekeeping action in the Balkans, morally blind to a stupendous degree. To call him a "useful idiot" of the right would be an insult to so granitic an intellect. I prefer Czeslaw Milosz's remark, quoted in The New York Times' obituary: "Like the Russian masses, he, we may assume, has strong authoritarian tendencies." Given the direction in which Putin has taken Russia since the fall of Yeltsin, this makes sense.

Simply accept that most artists are cranks, and the kind of horrorshow that Solzhenitsyn lived absolved him from feeling anything at all. He lived to see the empire of terror that tried to crush him itself molder. His life made a mockery of Kissingerian realpolitik: what authority can it command when an American president, one of its gleeful enablers, couldn't be seen with Solzhenitsyn in the White House? But he was also human. He could have been Primo Levi, and chose instead Norman Podhoretz as an ideological comrade. No one with a soul can begrudge him this.

Meanwhile, the fearsome edition of The Gulag Archipelago sitting in my closet needs to be dusted. Robert Conquest's The Great Terror, Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism, and Martin Amis' Koba the Dread remain suitable preparation.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

I had to get these out of the way.

The Hold Steady - Stay Positive

I get the complaints that these guys haven't "evolved" much, but with their triumphant Pitchfork Music Festival performance still ringing in my ears and head, it's hard to begrudge this move towards positivity, and, yes, the key is the title; you can practically hear Craig Finn grinding his teeth into a smile, even on numbers as bleak as "One for the Cutters." Neither as well-observed nor consistent as the now-maligned Boys and Girls in America, this one flows like a failed attempt at The Cars' Heartbeat City, in which three or four theoretical hit singles compete with really interesting filler -- bejeweled with harpsichords, talk boxes, and Night Ranger guitar solos -- for your celebrated summer's earhole. As with the Cars album, the singles are the simplest and hence best numbers. But theoretical hits they'll remain, and that's where my cavils interfere with my enjoyment; you'd be forgiven for thinking that Stay Positive is an instant Top Ten and MTV consolidation like Heartbeat City. Finn and co. try so hard to stay positive that the album tracks designed to give context and heft to "Sequestered in Memphis," "Yeah Sapphire," and the title track carve a distance that Finn's never-more-committed performance can't cross. Recounting hard-luck tales for non-members of A.A. (figuratively, that is) takes a charisma quite beyond what this band is capable of, especially when they were more convincing writing from the scene instead of about it.

Robert Forster - The Evangelist

I haven't said much about this record because I'm wary of accusations of favoritism; and, really, if you don't care by now there's no way I can convince you. But as a Go-Betweens fan who thought the frontman with the dolorous talk-singing and cramped melodic sensibility only made one very good solo album (back in 1991), I was ready to show mercy anyway in the wake of Forster's personal loss. How condescending. Despite a couple of blank spots, this is a damn fine record, written, sung, and played by an adult, and I can't stress that point enough. Forster's not American, but an article like this advances the wrong idea about "literateness" in rock music. Every song, failures included, is well-observed and taut. Forster has not only adapted his demotic singer-songwriter-isms to three-dimensional production -- his voice and guitar, wry and colorful, remind us that he's alive and committed to this world. As the author of "Darlinghurst Nights" and "Born to a Family" has shown, he's absorbed the late Grant McLennan's tuneful generosity so that The Evangelist's numbers about him aren't so much elegies as full collaborations, credits be damned. This album is neither a funeral nor a wake -- it's a conversation in a bar between friends.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Can anyone tell me something else about K'naan? This sounds promising.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Welcome, August

When you plunged
The light of Tuscany wavered
And swung through the pool
From top to bottom.

I loved your wet head and smashing crawl,
Your fine swimmer's back and shoulders
Surfacing and surfacing again
This year and every year since.

I sat dry-throated on the warm stones.
You were beyond me.
The mellowed clarities, the grape-deep air
Thinned and disappointed.

Thank God for the slow loadening,
When I hold you now
We are close and deep
As the atmosphere on water.

My two hands are plumbed water.
You are my palpable, lithe
Otter of memory
In the pool of the moment,

Turning to swim on your back,
Each silent, thigh-shaking kick
Re-tilting the light,
Heaving the cool at your neck.

And suddenly you're out,
Back again, intent as ever,
Heavy and frisky in your freshened pelt,
Printing the stones.

-- Seamus Heaney
"The Otter"