Monday, September 29, 2008

Paul Newman - RIP

David Thomson wrote today: "He outlived his beauty, his uneasiness and his bright blue eyes, and he came into that mixture of elegy and remorse that is the lot of most old men - if they are lucky. He was absurdly popular as a young man, and then waited or endured until that had worn off, and he could face all the abiding tests of honesty without glamour or celebrity to divert him."

I wish the Newman entry in Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of Film was available online; the chapter shows how it takes death to burn elegy and remorse from analysis. Newman, Thomson argues, was too reluctant to deconstruct his image, and when he tried (Mr. and Mrs Bridge, say) he backs away from the precipice, afraid of what's at the bottom. This is nonsense, and incorrect. The wonder of Newman isn't that the better actor he became as an older man didn't coast on that vinegary rasp of a voice (in stuff like For Love of the Game and Blaze, it was all we could rely on). He became the American actor's equivalent of Luis Bunuel, creator of Belle de Jour and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie -- films created in the autumn of the writer-director's years whose superficial superficiality bespoke Bunuel's resourcefulness, wit, and command of craft. Their power rests on their simplicity of effect; they're like fables told to children, delivered by adults. Similarly, in performances in movies like Absence of Malice, The Color of Money, Nobody's Fool, and Twilight, Newman reduced his acting to the performative square root: his effects seemed larger when other actors went up against him.

I'm with Thomson on this: the early performances look gauche. The Hustler has always been compromised by the hollowness of Fast Eddie's triumph, one with which we're never sure director Robert Rossen wants us to sympathize or condemn (there's a better movie about George C. Scott's wicked Bert, a Mephisto playing with saps and frauds). Also, Newman's Method straining is most unbecoming; the part has too many Academy Award-worthy moments of exertion. He's cooler in the much inferior The Color of Money. When I want to remember Newman as a great actor, it's in seriocomic roles in dreck like Absence of Malice, or worthy minor films like Nobody's Fool or Twilight, or in part requiring delicate maneuverings between the two like Fort Apache, The Bronx or Blaze. Here's hoping that Jeff Bridges, the contemporary American actor who reminds me most of Newman, can hold his own when he's seventy.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The last time around, we piled up a bunch of referents and adjectives attempting to do justice to TV On the Radio's Return of Cookie Mountain, when most of us were really trying to hide what we really thought of the album's second half ("Peter Gabriel circa 1977 singing atop Lust for Life-esque grooves with symphonic pretensions," I wrote in 2006, for the record).

With arrangements every bit as clotted as Cookie Mountain's, the new Dear Science is TVotR's DOR move, its groove more sensuous and buoyant than I ever thought these guys capable of. Fuck Radiohead: the layering of programmed over real-time percussion, the horn sections, the oily lines of Fender Rhodes, and the full-throated vocal attack of Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone evoke a party at ground zero; this thing never lets up, cedes not an inch to comprehensibility. Which is to say: I know what the songs are about, but I credit the music, not the intelligent bricolage coming from Malone and Adebimpe's mouths. I won't go all Greil Marcus and project the sociopolitical moment onto Dear Science, but this is clearly product meant for projection. I don't read the title "Dear Science" as a greeting so much as an endearment: in creating a record this luxurious, this beholden to the plenitude of the modern recording studio, TVotR mourn the collapse of an economic system to which they remain grateful, even though they limn the gratitude with enough self-loathing to fund a hundred other indie-rock bands. My favorite track, "DLZ," works because Adebimpe, summoning the John Lennon of "How Do You Sleep?", blasts a "death professor" for the mess he's made of things. Too scattershot to stoop to the usual indie-rock trope of confusing personal for global apocalypse (one line goes "This is the beginning to feel like the long-winded blues of the never"), it gathers its strength from an anger that's too fierce for containment. This is the real "Wolf Like Me."

Thursday, September 25, 2008

"Foreign countries are our neighbors"

Some things write themselves.

The most succinct criticism I've ever read of Governor Sarah Palin is by political junkie/ILE denizen gabbneb, with whom I've disagreed often in the past: "basically, we're dealing with a mental midget who thought she could just go as far as she could through sheer sticktoitiveness and people skills and managed to get far in a small, backwater pond, and now, after being thrown into a huge ocean by a guy who's not the brightest bulb himself, is realizing that she has no idea how to swim."

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

No one can accuse the John McCain campaign of boredom. Or honor. Ned's response to the news that McCain will have is Dwight Eisenhower I-will-go-to-Korea moment of theater (worthy of Gilbert & Sullivan) is entirely correct. In bureaucracies, as I've observed, subordinates appear during conversations between their bosses and colleagues to score points by "being of some assistance."

Then CNN reported this morsel:
McCain supporter Sen. Lindsey Graham tells CNN the McCain campaign is proposing to the Presidential Debate Commission and the Obama camp that if there's no bailout deal by Friday, the first presidential debate should take the place of the VP debate, currently scheduled for next Thursday, October 2 in St. Louis.

In this scenario, the vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin would be rescheduled for a date yet to be determined, and take place in Oxford, Mississippi, currently slated to be the site of the first presidential faceoff this Friday.
Delicious. It knocked this nasty bit of bad news about McCain's campaign manager off the front page.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Since one of my jobs involves preparing young men and women for the world of professional journalism, the collapse of newspapers interests me. No question: it doesn't look good for print. Unless advertisers heavily reinvest in print journalism, newspapers will go the way of the telegraph. Online journalism, however, is healthier than ever. If only ad/PR firms would start gearing their operations towards the growing segments of their readership base who depend on their computers for news, any news. The only people I know who still buy or subscribe to newspapers – the ones who fetishize the Sunday morning ritual of, to quote Wallace Stevens, late coffee, oranges, and sunny chairs – are those who work in newspapers.

Anyway, as a recent convert to "The Wire," I was disappointed by how facile creator David Simon's insights into the business were. It's as if the unconcealed contempt that give Simon interviews their pungent kick finally crimped his art; he moralized instead of delineated. He's too close to the material: at least when he's dealing with the world of corners, the re-up game, public schools, and the Neapolitan intrigue of the Baltimore police force he can rely on imagination to support the facts. The Atlantic Monthly's Ross Douthat agrees – "a score-settling retread of Shattered Glass," he writes. More:
At a moment of maximum crisis for American newspapers, with daily paper after daily paper collapsing into mediocrity under the pressure of collapsing revenues, David Simon decided to use his HBO soapbox to rail against ... the newspaper industry's obsession with Pulitzer-bait stories. It's the equivalent of doing an entire season about the plight of the American inner city in which the drug war was a presence, but way in the background, and the story focused primarily on the evils of, I don't know, check-cashing services or something.

Monday, September 22, 2008

A facile but spirited column on the similarities between the convulsions that have shaken our system and the nationalization with which the Land of Lafayette experimented in the eighties. We're both victims of market forces:
Even in the strongest sectors in the U.S., there's no getting away from the French influence. Nothing is more sacred to France than its farmers. They get whatever they demand, and they demand a lot. And if there are any issues about price supports, or feed costs being too high, or actual competition from other countries, French farmers simply shut down the country by marching their livestock up the Champs Elysee and piling up wheat on the highways. U.S. farmers would never resort to such behavior. They don't have to: they're the most coddled special interest group in U.S. history, lavished with $180 billion in subsidies by both parties, even when their products are fetching record prices. One consequence: U.S. consumers pay twice what the French pay for sugar, because of price guarantees. We're more French than France.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

With three-quarters of the year over, it's time to list my favorite albums so far. I've come around to the Drive-By Truckers thing, Shonna Tucker and bloat be damned; Cut Copy and No Age are slightly overrated; and I've made peace with Portishead's miserabilist maunderings.

1. Erykah Badu - New Amerykah Part One: 4th World War
2. Robert Forster - The Evangelist
3. TV on the Radio - Dear Science
4. Portishead - Third
5. David Byrne-Brian Eno - Everything That Happens Will Happen Today
6. Conor Oberst - s/t
7. Hercules & Love Affair - s/t
8. Dolly Parton - Backwoods Barbie
9. Wale - The Mixtape About Nothing
10. The-Dream - Love/Hate
11. Vampire Weekend - s/t
12. Randy Newman - Harps and Angels
13. Drive-By Truckers- Brighter Than Creation's Dark
14. No Age - Nouns
15. K'Naan - The Dusty Foot Philosopher
Chill out, dude.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Out of the Cradle may be his most conventionally solid album (it's about death and other deep subjects), and Law and Order his most Tusk-like, but I'm afraid that Lindsey Buckingham hasn't yet recorded the great solo record we all thought he had in him (I've never heard Go Insane except for its clickety-clackety title track). Under The Skin ain't much better

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Norman Whitfield – RIP

The most diverse staff songwriter ever? That's what a friend suggested when he emailed the news. From "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" to a string of ever-ambitious hits for the Temptations that are like an aural history of the post-liberal collapse. Ambition had its diminishing returns too, as his increasingly baggy mid seventies anthems show; listening to a Tempts comp from "Ain't Too Proud To Beg" through "1990" will illustrate how Nixonland succeeded the Great Society. He did funky paranoia better than Sly Stone. He did subcultural exploitation better than What's Going On (The Supremes' "Love Child" maybe comes closest). Fact Others Probably Knew Before I Did: he wrote "Love Don't Live Here Anymore" for Rose Royce; this kissing cousin to the masochism of "(I Know) I'm Losing You" was later slaughtered by Madonna.

Monday, September 15, 2008

I contributed an essay to Dan Weiss' blog: a reconsideration of Bonnie Raitt's Luck of the Draw. Raitt's career doesn't need re-appraisal, but her post-Grammy career does; she's one of those veterans Taken For Granted.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

My favorite ballad of the nineties, one responsible for introducing me to so many dangerous substances: shufflebeats, Neil Tennant, Bernard Sumner lyrics, twelve-string folk flourishes in postpunk contexts.

Saturday, September 13, 2008


I confess, I hated David Foster Wallace's fiction, and considered him a dangerous influence on the young (my favorite thing of his remains a piece on David Lynch published before the release of Lost Highway); but, wow, this is unexpected.
Governor Sarah Palin's story gets more...complicated.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A must-read profile of Alec Baldwin in this week's New Yorker. To quote Addison DeWitt from All About Eve, he's maudlin and full of self-pity, but magnificent. Baldwin comes off as an actor of above average intelligence, a healthy sex drive, and silver tongue, the sanest person in a batshit family, and capable of several Evelyn Waugh-style novels about Hollywood:
On a cool rainy day in June, the parking lot in the center of East Hampton was no more than half full, but Baldwin drove around it slowly, as if not seeing the many available spaces, and then drove around again, and stopped only when he saw someone he vaguely knew—a youngish woman with a large umbrella. “You’re a vision with your umbrella,” he called out through the window, in a neighborly way. (In public places, Baldwin’s broody gaze seems to be drawn about equally to women and to young children.)
"In East Hampton, I’m a nudist and I eat meat,” Baldwin—a vegetarian—had said before my visit, expanding on the idea that he lived a quite different life on Long Island than he did in New York. “I shoot deer with a bow and arrow. I smoke the deer meat and eat it every morning with my eggs and toast. I am a homosexual. I listen to rock music, loud.”
The article doesn't talk enough about his vinegary triumphs in a host of supporting roles: The Departed, Running With Scissors,The Cooler, The Good Shepherd, though.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Anyone own Under The Red Sky? Sandwiched between 1989's Oh Mercy and 1997's Time Out of Mind (and two covers albums), it doesn't even get mentioned with the smirky derision of Down in the Groove or Dylan & The Dead. But give it a chance. Thanks to a Don Was production that's pure gutbucket raunch, UTRS points towards "Love and Theft." Clearly Dylan wanted to record an album's worth of inspired throwaways, of the kind he donated to the Traveling Wilburys projects, and while you might think an album sporting the most superstarry roster of his career (Slash! Stevie Ray Vaughan! George Harrison!) is incapable of spontaneity, Kenny Aronoff is there to keep things greasy. The reliance on nursery rhyme structures ("2 x 2," "Wiggle Wiggle," the title track) coaxes a gentle, lovey-dovey crinkle from Dylan's vocals that, at the time, was unheard of -- the ideal reaction to the determined solemnity of Oh Mercy. "T.V. Talkin' Song" hits its target with an accuracy that earlier rants like "Neighborhood Bully" only approximated. And when he invokes the numinous, the gelid "Born in Time"'s got the voodoo, even though, like "Series of Dreams," its title is nonsense and its lyrics non sequiturs. You can get this album cheap.

Monday, September 8, 2008

In which three smart NPR hosts (including former Sleater Kinney singer-guitarist Carrie Brownstein) act like total schmucks when discussing the eighties (i.e. "Were They [the eighties, not the three NPR hosts] Really That Bad?"). Of the three, Brownstein is the least offensive; perhaps the memory of this screed shushed her. Robin Hilton and Steven Thompson giggle like fourth graders making fun of the fat girl when they play Tears for Fears' "Head Over Heels," and when it's Deniece Williams' "Let's Hear It For The Boy"'s turn, they exhibit her like a victim ready to be tarred and feathered. In a nearly hourlong broadcast, they don't bother to acknowledge that the "poptimists" won; that a generation of limey dolly boys with synthesizers didn't balk at sullying their aesthetic principles with pure commercial ambition; that the false dichotomies they proffer (the "timelessness" and "earnestness" of indie music on guitars vs the "datedness" and "preening" of synthesizer-based music) mean little to anyone who's danced to Gang of Four and a-Ha in the same club. Like Brit Hume, Charles Krauthammer, and Bill Kristol dissing Obama on the same show, this panel was an echo chamber in which unanimity -- of tone, subject, and purpose -- ruled. You saps, I wanted to say, you lost.

Chacun a son gout and all that. Fine. But why bother proselytizing for The Bats or Bush Tetras? Why the false dichotomy between their "values" and The Outfield, or between "I Will Dare" and Starship's entry in the Worst Song of All Time list? Other than the by now obligatory nod to Bad Brains and praise for Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" (guess why Hilton and Thompson loved it in 1988), no mention of black people. Michael Jackson's absence was galling, as if 2008 was MTV circa late 1982. Not a syllable about Prince. Or Scritti Politti, cleverly toying with gleaming surfaces; they tell me a lot more about how I respond to music than the Bats, whose pretty good to excellent punk-folk offered straightforward pleasures that a R.E.M. circa 1984 fan could appreciate (and MTV played a few Reckoning videos, so...).

Broadcasts like this illuminate practices rather than preferences. From the number of qualifiers uttered by Hilton, Thompson, and Brownstein (which sounds like a second-rate law firm) and the sense of shame when they admit to digging something they shouldn't, the inescapable conclusion is that for them music listening is akin to working for the secret police of a totalitarian state: their subservience to ideology binds them to ruining everyone else's fun, while they secretly worry about their own arrest for thought-crimes.

As for the hapless Deniece Williams and her Footloose soundtrack Number One, I like it. Unassuming, perky, and rather sweet, "Let's Hear It For The Boy" is the ne plus ultra of teenage crush anthems (Shanice's 1992 "I Love Your Smile" and Robyn's "Show Me Love" are worthy rivals). Of course, I grew up listening to the innocuous little thing; beside its fellow soundtrack horrors, Ann Wilson and Mike Reno's "Almost Paradise" and Kenny Loggins' title theme, its humility is almost a state of grace. Correspondences form: the programmed drum introduction reminds me of Stevie Nicks' "Stand Back," a Top Five hit a year earlier that's like a letter written by Williams' college-age big sister. Thomas, however, disagrees -- he may retract this when he finds out that he's on the same side as Carrie Brownstein about something.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Rupert Murdoch offers this morsel of wisdom, when asked who will win the presidential election. “Obama — he’ll sell more papers.” Indeed. Like The Dark Knight and Titanic, Obama is one of those domestic phenomena so much more marketable worldwide. So much for progressivism; hello, Clintonian liberalism.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Thursday, September 4, 2008

K-Lo Watch

A few minutes ago:
Danger Zone [Kathryn Jean Lopez]

I want to believe Kenny Loggins is a Republican.

Has anyone kept track of Top Gun references at this convention?

And the night is young.
Although I'm still absorbing Randy Newman's Harps and Angels (he's still relatively new to me; he's one of the few artists whose critical adulation has scared me), my ears perked up at "Korean Parents," which, like "Sail Away" and "It's Money That Matters," is one of Newman's trademark submersions into minds so different from his that the line between possession and description gets roughened by his pseudo-lachrymose Ray Charles timbre. Alluding to Barbara Ehrenreich and Lady of the Tramp, Jeff Chang's exegesis reminds me of the country that Rich Perlstein described in Nixonland: a place where resentments often bloom into an unexpected acceptance of differences -- as long as you don't threaten the existing order. Just listen to a certain vice presential nominee's acceptance speech last night.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Narrative 101

The Narrative, as written by former Reagan/Bush 41 speechwriter Peggy Noonan:
Because [Presumptive Vice Presidential Nominee Sarah Palin] jumbles up so many cultural categories, because she is a feminist not in the Yale Gender Studies sense but the How Do I Reload This Thang way, because she is a woman who in style, history, moxie and femininity is exactly like a normal American feminist and not an Abstract Theory feminist; because she wears makeup and heels and eats mooseburgers and is Alaska Tough, as Time magazine put it; because she is conservative, and pro-2nd Amendment and pro-life; and because conservatives can smell this sort of thing -- who is really one of them and who is not -- and will fight to the death for one of their beleaguered own; because of all of this she is a real and present danger to the American left, and to the Obama candidacy.

She could become a transformative political presence.
The Narrative, unraveling:
Chuck Todd: I also think the Palin pick is insulting to Kay Bailey Hutchinson, too.

Peggy Noonan: Saw Kay this morning.

CT: Yeah, she's never looked comfortable about this --

Mike Murphy: They're all bummed out.

CT: Yeah, I mean is she really the most qualified woman they could have turned to?

PN: The most qualified? No! I think they went for this -- excuse me-- political bullshit about narratives --

CT: Yeah they went to a narrative.

MM: I totally agree.

PN: Every time the Republicans do that, because that's not where they live and it's not what they're good at, they blow it.

MM: You know what's really the worst thing about it? The greatness of McCain is no cynicism, and this is cynical.

CT: This is cynical, and as you called it, gimmicky.

MM: Yeah.
The Narrative, dissected:
[Presumptive Vice Presidential Nominee Sarah Palin] just has to read it from a TelePrompter. It's not that hard. And the crowd will be lifting her up to the rafters. There will be almost nothing about foreign policy because she has demonstrated a total lack of even interest in it her entire life, and has no knowledge of it whatsoever. There will be plenty about drilling and oil and "reform" and an attempt to dress up what is unavoidably a very short career in a very distant and sparsely populated place into a template for the future of Republicanism.

And there will be a swing, as there often is, in the polls, magnified by a huge, temporary sigh of relief that the nightmare of the last five days have at least been lanced by an actual public appearance that is more than a quick intro. The GOP is an operation these days that creates its own reality. There were WMDs in Iraq. We do not torture. We are fiscal conservatives. We have won the Iraq war. You know the drill by now: just keep saying it again and again and refuse to answer questions and as long as you have God on your side, everything is okay.
Peggy Noonan shouldn't have been a presidential speechwriter: she should have written scripts for John Ford, who understood the place of personages in history. Unable to regard history as the recounting of events, he preferred a elegant, pictorial representation of mythologies, of stories our grandfathers told us about Great Men and Women. It's my fault that I'm not entirely unsympathetic to this approach -- except that she's beholden to a party whose elevation of mythologies to dogma has resulted in outright lies the last eight years.
It's time to start thinking about EMP's 2009 Pop Conference. This year's theme: "Dance Music Sex Romance: Pop and the Body Politic":
Though Prince seems to have bowdlerized "D.M.S.R." in his concerts since becoming a Jehovah's Witness, the relationship of pop music to sex, love, physical movement, and the body rarely stays hidden very long. For this year's Pop Conference we invite presentations, addressing any period or style of music, that bring erotic and sensual issues to the forefront and connect them to political and aesthetic concerns. Rock and roll has long congratulated itself on riding the Big Beat over all sanctimonious opposition, but can we take our sense of these archetypal struggles somewhere beyond, say, Footloose?

Topics might include, but are not limited to:

* Languages of desire and union in pop: the relationship of ballads, tenderness, and couplehood to carnality and the commerce of bodies.
* Dancing and dance crazes as forces in pop history and the dancefloor as a particularly charged space of friction, play, and unsettling possibility.
* Pop passion as a conduit for capitalism, modernization, and transnational flows, but also local scenes, community formation, and religion.
* How the pop body is marked by, and marks out, race, gender, nationality, class, and region; music as a means for bodies sharing space.
* Music and the negotiation of sexual norms: sonic fetishism, erotics of pain and disorder, representations of beauty and ugliness.
* Social media and D.M.S.R. A YouTube answer video as a kind of love letter; the libidinal economy of music-sharing communities and Web 2.0 culture.
* Scandal and excess: the pop urge to take it to the limit; celebrity culture and indie puritanism; humor and hyperbole.
* Voice, gesture, and other modalities of embodiment and disembodiment.
* The diva figure, with all the complexity/trouble/pleasure that term carries.
* The many musical iterations of what a German Jewish immigrant, arrived at the dawn of modern pop, called "Makin' Whoopee."
I've got an idea that I've been tossing around with a co-presenter. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Accuse me of being wobbly, but is it wrong to admit to liking the Conor Oberst album -- like, a lot? While I'm not sure it's a top ten album, its craftsmanship and the filigrees in Oberst's vocals and lyrics -- he's like Neil Young imitating Robert Forster -- remind me of no one else (maybe the shorter songs on Stephen Malkmus' Real Emotional Trash come closest). I'm speaking as someone who once thought Oberst's energy outpaced his acumen; and, moreover, any artist determined to form an unofficial, updated version of the seventies singer-songwriter mafia (Jenny Lewis as Carly Simon, Ben Gibbard as Jackson Browne) made me head for the hills. His is the kind of banal sensibility who finds something beautiful in blue sky reflecting on water, yet he's able to convince you that he's come to this realization by his own damn self. He's like a guy with a GED-level education who surprises you by admitting that he loves Dickens. It takes a twinkle in the eye brighter than previously expected to redeem lines like "so I remain between her legs/sheltered from all my fears," and a nimble tongue not to trip over sequined nonsense like "peacock people kept their plumes in a pile." The ruminative road number "Moab" suggests that assurance -- aesthetic and otherwise -- is no cure for loneliness, and a young guy with so much ambition and energy knows he's too much in thrall to both to forgo their rewards, however short-term.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Welcome September

Hurricanes, vice presidential nominations, conventions, and a new Lindsey Buckingham record. September augurs lots of shakeups. Best to relax and remember that, in the words of James Joyce, silence, exile, and cunning are required to survive days like these; or, in the words of one of my favorite poems:

That civilisation may not sink,
Its great battle lost,
Quiet the dog, tether the pony
To a distant post;
Our master Caesar is in the tent
Where the maps ate spread,
His eyes fixed upon nothing,
A hand under his head.

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.

That the topless towers be burnt
And men recall that face,
Move most gently if move you must
In this lonely place.
She thinks, part woman, three parts a child,
That nobody looks; her feet
Practise a tinker shuffle
Picked up on a street.

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.

That girls at puberty may find
The first Adam in their thought,
Shut the door of the Pope's chapel,
Keep those children out.
There on that scaffolding reclines
Michael Angelo.
With no more sound than the mice make
His hand moves to and fro.

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.