Monday, March 30, 2009

You can always count on Democrats to blow it when they own DC. Jonathan Chait shows how a Democratically controlled Congress devolves to its days as a fragmented, barely assembled coalition held by local paladins.

I'm not so sure, by the way, that it's a bad thing that the Congress is asserting itself as a co-equal branch of government -- an insight the GOP lost when George W. Bush was landing on aircraft carriers in G.I. Joe fatigues. But a Democratic Congress broke Jimmy Carter over its knee in the late seventies (Walter Karp's Liberty Under Siege is the only book chronicling the sordid affair), and it's got its own problems with, shall we say, undue influence by lobbyists (a Jack Murtha biopic would be so much fun). Times are different: Barack Obama is more popular and focused than Carter, and he's in a much bigger hole. We have a unique president facing an all-too-familiar legislative scenario. Let the good times role.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Blender Magazine - RIP

Guess what? More colleagues looking for work.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Pet Shop Boys - Yes (Pt III)

(The third part of a discussion on the new album Yes, among other PSB-related esoterica).

Hey guys -

Until Thomas chimes in, I'll hold back any more thoughts I have about Yes
(needless to say, a LOT of back and forth going on in my brain about it these last couple days, and Alfred makes some good points), but I feel like jumping in here just to clarify my thoughts about the PSB's catalog prior to now, and I invite you both to do the same if so compelled.

The early years are easy to discuss: for regular LPs, I love -- almost unconditionally -- everything up to and including Very. My only slight hedge is with some of the more ornate sections of Behaviour which do drag the thing down just a bit, though the highs on that album are high enough so as to make that feel like mere nitpicking on my part. Alfred mentioned my un-enthusiasm for Bilingual and Nightlife, and it's a fair enough point considering some things I've said about those albums on ILM and elsewhere (second piece I ever wrote for Chuck Eddy in the Voice was a review of Nightlife, which I semi-panned, not very coherently and probably somewhat foolishly), but in general my thoughts on this phase of their career tends to grow more and not less appreciative with the passing of time. I've *always* enjoyed sections of Bilingual, and even at the time I thought it was pounced on unfairly by critics. The Spanish-drum-corps disco stuff works extremely well in spots ("Se a Vida E" is maybe the loosest-sounding single they've ever made, and I don't distrust its exterior sunniness in the slightest), and the CD overall is their boldest -- by which I mean the biggest, brassiest, most in-your-face -- production to date ("expert craftsmanship" goes a long way with me, always has, always will). A few tracks are forgettable but also forgivable in light of the overall approach.

On the other hand, I offer right here right now a big mea culpa for Nightlife, which has grown on me considerably over the years. I re-listened to it again yesterday in fact, and damn if I didn't enjoy almost the entire thing, and yeah, it coheres conceptually -- I mean, I buy that line of reasoning -- for reasons Alfred suggests. (Nice try, though, trying to lure me in with a Greil Marcus quote!). The only real negative for me is "Vampire," which for some reason still makes me recoil -- what an atrocious excuse for a chorus.

I depart somewhat with Alfred on Release: it's by no means a great album, but in terms of songcraft (though definitely not production) I rate its strongest moments -- "Home and Dry," "London," the Eminem tribute, maybe "Samurai in Autumn" -- a little higher than Bilingual's, though yes, the Oasis-Unplugged move was admittedly ill-considered. We definitely depart on Fundamental, which I say with the caveat that it is the album of theirs I have listened to the least, something I hope to correct at some point... if I can ever find my damn copy of the thing. I like "Minimal" a lot, as already noted, and "Psychological" is pretty good as well; not a single other song grabbed me at the time, though the idea behind "I'm With Stupid" was moderately amusing. (Very much dug the post-Astaire top hat look too, btw.)

In regards to non-regular PSB LPs: I liked the first Disco a lot, but I don't find most of those 11-minute workouts very useful anymore and I never listen to it. (A couple years ago, I actually removed "Paninaro" from my iPod, as it just seemed to drag on forever.) I couldn't stand the second *Disco* and may even have traded that CD in. It had shorter mixes, which was a bonus, but every damn one reminded me of David Morales: fraudulent deep-bass/minimalist/whatever jive. (Even at the height of my dance mix/12" singles obsession I never understood the deal with that guy at all... mystifying.) Needless to say, I haven't purchased any future parts of the *Disco* series. Weirdly enough, I totally love Relentless, the bonus ambient-space-house disc that came with early copies of Very, and it's cued in my iPod to listen to on the way to work tomorrow (um, I don't always plan this stuff out). I don't own Discography because I don't feel I really need it, though I'd happily recommend it to any PSB newbie. I own *Alternative* on vinyl, but need to get the CD or download it as I'm not inclined to use my turntable much anymore. I'd say I know half of it fairly well and like most of what I know but probably not to the point of obsession. (I also own all the bonus-cuts discs of the first several albums, and I have never made it through all the second discs. What I love about those, mostly, are the liner notes.)

I LOVE at least half of Liza's Results, and Dusty's "Nothing Has Been Proved" is probably my favourite song by her; i listen to it more than any of her great '60s tunes. (I'm on a first name basis with these dames, as you may have noticed.) Probably some other PSB productions and one-offs I've listened to (and a run-thru of their singles catalog would be a different story entirely), but that seems to cover the main stuff.

Sorry to go on so long with this detour... with any luck, it may add some perspective when I delve a little deeper into the new one.


Monday, March 23, 2009

Pet Shop Boys - Yes (Pt II)

Scott, Thomas -

Excuse my delay: I've a houseguest this weekend, of whom I can say has a great ear. Upon hearing the line "You don't have to read Who's Who to know what's what" on "Did You See Me Coming?" he asked, plaintively, "Did he really say that?"

My initial reaction mirrors yours, Scott. As a fan who thought the Boys recorded only one dud disguised as an acoustic experiment in the last 15 years since "Very," I have no problem with taking them seriously. For one thing, The Boys and I have aged together. Even in the "West End Girls" days, Tennant has never positioned himself as a member of youth culture; he wrote, thought, and sang like a man who thought he earned his right to detachment. Those in the know conflated his detachment with gayness and, of course, they were right, but it reduces the mix of camp, melodrama, and genuine emotion on those early album to semaphores sent to a knowing cult, when the Boys were really interested, like all great pop stars, in projecting mass consumer society's regard for itself back at it.

But something happened during the recording of Behaviour and Very: the loss of their American Top 40 audience, prolonged exposure to Bernard Sumner's swelling gut, or the realization that Tennant was approaching 40 and had rarely written expressly about himself. "Where The Streets Have No Name" and "Very" are two of the happiest records ever recorded -- indeed, who would ever have thought that the Boys would record one of the great testimonials to joy in modern music? -- because Tennant had learned to reconcile his talent for detachment with his need for public reveling in a happy love affair (which is why "I Wouldn't Normally Do This Kind of Thing" works as statement and song). There isn't another record with the tone of "Very." Of course the Boys couldn't follow it up. BTW I find it fascinating that in 1993, the year grunge went mega, enough of the Boys' American audience rallied to place Very in the Top 20 -- their highest peak since "Please" -- and to certify it gold.

Scott, I know you're not so found of the two follow-ups. I like Bilingual and love Nightlife because Tennant was still sketching the contours of the new persona. If Bilingual was expert craftsmanship and hence skippable (to most), "Nightlife" brought us full circle to the club culture celebrated in Disco and Please, only Tennant and Lowe are in their mid forties, and as any gay man knows, prospects, expectations, and possibilities change. As Greil Marcus wrote at the time: "Here the group could be starting over from the beginning, in an '80s nightclub, dancing to the drum machine, all possibilities of love and fear present in the way your partner looks you in the eye or over your shoulder." The sumptuousness of the arrangements suited the heightened emotional palette from which Tennant painted this rueful study of a man trying to club because he doesn't want to die alone. He'll settle for any compromise, no matter how embarrassing ("as long as I hear your footsteps in the dark, that's all I 'll need," he sang).

This is a long way of saying that, while I'm still getting taste for this thing, I agree superficially: Tennant hasn't found any new wrintkles in his personal; the record, while blessed with their ususal melodic smarts, sounds like more craftsmanship; no discoveries, not even the expert way in which Tennant-Lowe married their detachment to political commentary on "Fundamental" (an album I also liked a lot). Before I turn to song-by-song analysis in my next post, let me say a good word for "The Way It Used To Be," which builds and swells with all the suppressed passion of their best work.

Whew. Digest this.


Pet Shop Boys - Yes (Pt I)

Three guys who've written or published close to thirty million words on the Pet Shop Boys join forces to discuss the Boys' new album Yes. Scott Woods posted his first envoy to Thomas Inskeep and yours truly. Read all week for continuing developments.

Alfred, Thomas -

What do you say we kick this off? I want to hear both of your thoughts on *Yes*, the new Pet Shop Boys album. Thomas mentioned before that he obtained a copy of the "bonus" edition which I hadn't heard about when he mentioned it but which I've since learned through the wonder of Wikipedia to be an extra disc of remixes, plus an additional track with guest vocalist -- wait for it -- Phil Oakey! I'll try and track those extras down eventually, and am happy to discuss any of it here with you guys, but at least for my first couple of entries I'll be sticking to the main disc.

I've listened to *Yes* around six times thus far, though some listens have been much more focused than others. I've listened to it in the car, at work, in public transit on my iPod, and a couple times this morning while cleaning the house. I intend to listen to it more as I hear your own impressions, but I gotta say, my initial verdict is lukewarm bordering on why-do-I-still-bother? apathy. In fact, it's the same question -- why bother? -- I asked myself last time around, with 2005's *Fundamental*, and I'm starting to wonder if I'm not at this point merely going through the motions of being a Pet Shop Boys fan in the same way that it sounds to me like they're going through the motions of being Pet Shop Boys? I mean, I'm such a fanboy of these guys that I give them way more leeway than I've ever given any other pop artist, most of whom (from Bowie to Costello to god knows who else) I've felt absolutely no qualms about dropping like a hot potato once their music started to blow (which probably makes me the kind of critic-fan most artists would -- not unfairly -- consider a total cretin). I've hung on to my PSB fanhood for a couple reasons: 1) I just think Neil and Chris really are among the coolest people on the planet; I mean, I really like *them*, which is to say I like their personas as members of the Pet Shop Boys, and Neil Tennant always gives an interesting interview; and 2) Even when their albums have dropped in quality (and I don't think any album they've made in the last 15 years has come at all close to matching the heights of *Very*, *Please*, etc.), there have usually been a few moments worth savouring, and a classic Pet Shop Boy-sounding single or two. (Never mind that in actuality it's been *21 years* -- 21 years! ponder that figure -- since they scored a Top 40 single in *Billboard*.) Even *Fundamental* had the loopy spelling-bee disco track, "Minimal," which I liked a fair bit despite not hearing much of anything else on the album. This time around, I'm not convinced that any of these songs are going to stick with me very long.

I know I'm being a bit harsh. There are some moments I think are pretty good here. The album commences with laudable (and audible) energy: first single "Love Etc." (which sounds to me like one of their singles in the "Can You Forgive Her" mold, though I'm vague as to why I'm drawing that connection) followed by "All Over the World," which nicely turns a Tchaikovsky riff into a slow-throb disco and contains one of those classic PSB lyrics that could be about PSB and about pop music itself: "It's sincere and subjective/Superficial and true." If any song will stick with me over the long haul, I suspect that may be the one. The rest of the tracks, at this point, veer from ho-hum to pretty good to hey-that's-not-so-bad to WTF. Well, the WTF moment is "Beautiful People," which might just be the weakest song I've heard by them, with music I'd describe as folky miserablism, and banal lyrical sentiments that *might've* seemed believable 25 years ago (am I projecting too much here? do either of you believe Neil Tennant feels like such a detached, downtrodden soul in 2009?).

Oh wait, there's a nice ballad as well, King of Rome," which I prefer lless for its rather blasé beat than for Neil's lovely vocal (enhanced, it must be noted, by some delightful reverb or chorus effects). In fact, "blasé beats" is maybe what gets at my problem with the guys over the last couple albums. Neil sounds good (Neil always sounds good; Neil is Neil). Their music, however, seems to become more anonymous-sounding with each successive album. There's something pedestrian and tired about so much of it. (Also, one unfortunate comment about Neil: have you guys noticed that he hardly ever *raps* anymore? That was always one of my favourite modes of his: the bored rapper. I don't think there's a single rap on the album.)

Hate to start off on such a downer note, but those are some early thoughts. I hope one of you guys can tell me what I'm missing here. I'll have more to come, but you guys are up.

Hit me!


Saturday, March 21, 2009

Excuse the light posting: I've been on vacation this week. But if you ignore Matt Taibbi's hysterical prose you'll actually get the best breakdown (yes, pun intended) of what's happened between Wall Street, the Fed, and Congress in the last ten years, and it's truly frightening. The abdication of Congressional regulatory power, cronyism, and concentration of power in the hands of a few men in pinstriped suits -- all here:
When one considers the comparatively extensive system of congressional checks and balances that goes into the spending of every dollar in the budget via the normal appropriations process, what's happening in the Fed amounts to something truly revolutionary — a kind of shadow government with a budget many times the size of the normal federal outlay, administered dictatorially by one man, Fed chairman Ben Bernanke. "We spend hours and hours and hours arguing over $10 million amendments on the floor of the Senate, but there has been no discussion about who has been receiving this $3 trillion," says Sen. Bernie Sanders. "It is beyond comprehension."
As for AIG:
In essence, Paulson and his cronies turned the federal government into one gigantic, half-opaque holding company, one whose balance sheet includes the world's most appallingly large and risky hedge fund, a controlling stake in a dying insurance giant, huge investments in a group of teetering megabanks, and shares here and there in various auto-finance companies, student loans, and other failing businesses. Like AIG, this new federal holding company is a firm that has no mechanism for auditing itself and is run by leaders who have very little grasp of the daily operations of its disparate subsidiary operations.

In other words, it's AIG's rip-roaringly shitty business model writ almost inconceivably massive — to echo Geithner, a huge, complex global company attached to a very complicated investment bank/hedge fund that's been allowed to build up without adult supervision.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

This is the man praised by the faithful as the "philosopher pope"? A determined, spiteful dismissal of empirical data ill-suits a church still reeling from scandal and lawsuits. Then again, most intelligent Catholics have reconciled their conflicts with matters of dogma and doctrine -- like, say, my mother, a pro-choice Rush Limbaugh conservative. Embrace contradiction, then: it allows us to make fun of idiocies like this.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Natasha Richardson

Sad. I liked her, but having never seen her on stage I don't know whether she ever delivered a film performance that lingers in the mind (I've never seen Patty Hearst either). But she belonged to one hell of an acting dynasty, and I feel for her mother, who still delivers uncannily effortless performances in all-too-infrequent film appearances.

Monday, March 16, 2009

I have to think about some of its central points, but Clay Shirky's essay on how the Internet destroyed print journalism and how the major news conglomerates failed to adapt in the late nineties makes a number of must-read points. The first one is the most obvious: "Printing presses are terrifically expensive to set up and to run." I should know: the college newspaper I help advise uses more than sixty percent of its budget on fixed costs, the bulk of which is printing. The interconnectedness of media and multinational businesses like Target and Wal-Mart is barely acknowledged; why do you think your Sunday newspaper has so many coupons and ads for them? When they hurt, newspapers hurt, and when newspaper hurt, they bleed, producing casualties like this.

But, ultimately, publishers got it all wrong:
Revolutions create a curious inversion of perception. In ordinary times, people who do no more than describe the world around them are seen as pragmatists, while those who imagine fabulous alternative futures are viewed as radicals. The last couple of decades haven’t been ordinary, however. Inside the papers, the pragmatists were the ones simply looking out the window and noticing that the real world was increasingly resembling the unthinkable scenario. These people were treated as if they were barking mad. Meanwhile the people spinning visions of popular walled gardens and enthusiastic micropayment adoption, visions unsupported by reality, were regarded not as charlatans but saviors.

(Hat Tip: Andrew Sullivan)
I was reminded yesterday of how well this song has aged.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

"Lurid" is a tame word to describe what happens in Narrow Rooms, James Purdy's 1978 novel about a young man's perverse entanglements with a, well, really fucked-up family. The style and tone were unique: a mix of the arty pulp of Faulkner's Sanctuary and the matter-of-fact depiction of horrors. Like many readers, I credit Gore Vidal's appraisal for leading me to Purdy. Well, now Purdy has died. Although his biography has plenty of lacunae, I suspect he was more boring than we think.

Friday, March 13, 2009

How progressive are you?

A few questions are bullshit, as all questionnaires are. 

I scored, somewhat surprisingly, a 237. 

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Vicky Christina Barcelona hasn't aged well in the memory, as James Wolcott reminds me: "The sheer boringness of this movie is an insult, as if Allen couldn't be bothered to put more work into his skeletal script."

He's wrong on Barcelona, though. As much as I like Metropolitan (I don't remember The Last Days of Disco), it's not the Congreve-esque comedy of errors that Wolcott imagines (what the hell is a "bustling scenario" anyway?).

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

I know men and women like Happy-Go-Lucky's Poppy. They work for my division: sinister optimists who would use emoticons in conversation if possible. Their commitment to operational and institutional clichés isn't calculated to toady up to their bosses; these people genuinely believe that everyone should have a great day, that anyone can be a leader, and there isn't a problem for which discussion wouldn't serve as the best cure.

Poppy isn't this delusional. Writer-director Mike Leigh creates a woman who surprises us (and herself) every few minutes. Most of the reviews don't suggest her complexity. For one, she's no airhead; in a conversation with her pregnant sister she makes an okay joke about five-year plans that references Joseph Stalin, and breezily dismisses a tome on unified physics*. She uses cheerfulness to keep her distance from people who don't deserve a second look. The ones she likes -- her roommate, the child in her classroom with family problems, the hunky, knob-chinned social worker who becomes her boyfriend -- don't get the fluted, nervous chuckle and aren't pummelled by her inclination to always get the last word. The much-praised confrontation between Poppy and the bum strikes a false note: it's the one time that I thought Sally Hawkins was too self-possessed to risk her safety.

Otherwise, Happy-Go-Lucky is one of my favorite Leigh films: crisp and light on its feet. Erotic too: a post-coital conversation on a balcony between Poppy and the social worker, simply and beautifully captured in long shot with the actors' backs to the camera, bridges the distance between Poppy's attitude towards the world and how different striking poses seems when you've spent the night with someone with whom you might fall in love.

*EDIT: A reader who knows more about unified field theory than Alfred Soto suggested that I correct this line. I thank him.

Oh, Christ

More bad news for South Florida media: The Miami Herald cuts 175 jobs. A student interning at the Kendall bureau just told me that it's closing at the end of April.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

As a public figure Paul Krugman is simultaneously high-strung and jerkily self-confident (the scarves he chooses for dust jacket photos are sharp!); but he's got a Nobel Prize now, and his plea to the Obama administration to nationalize the banks makes sense. Elsewhere, Elizabeth Drew assesses the first thirty days.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Like Joan Armatrading, Neko Case's huge, generous voice is often the only thing keeping us listening. Like Lyndon Johnson, Case's material shows how an incomplete education (or an indifference to one) results in peculiar turns of phrase and points of emphasis (coming up with a line like"You know they call them killer whales" and delivering it just so, for example). Like both, she has enviable audience empathy. Often obscure, she's never precious. I respect her, and her huge, generous voice blasts lived-in subtexts into the New Pornographer librettos she's hired to intone. Unfortunately, her songwriting and taste in arrangements flatter the NPR and Rolling Stone crowd from whom she gets most of her acclaim and sales; she lacks Armatrading's directness and Johnson's vulgarity.

Starting with a song in which she compares herself to a tornado and whose best cut boasts the line "I'm a man-man-man, man-man-maneater/But still you're surprised prised prised when I eat ya," Middle Cyclone gets by on personality, like a lot of good country. But great country consists of more than just personality, and requires a shrewder ear than one that finds transcendence in Sparks and Harry Nilsson covers, both of which she understands more than absorbs. At times, on tracks like "Fever" and the interminable "Prison Girls," the echoey production enforces a distance between meaning and emotion that Case's voice can't bridge. Middle Cyclone is the kind of album that will reward attention when revisited during the summer doldrums, but is also the sort of achievement I'm ashamed to trumpet, not when her claque can blow a lot harder than me. I can't say she deserves better when Middle Cyclone is exactly the kind of album she wanted to make.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Oh, look: another example of the incompetence of the anti-Proposition 8 people. The results were close enough in November for this to have made a difference.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Philippe Claudel's I've Loved You So Long finds no visual or written correlative for the closed curtain of Kristin Scott-Thomas' face. If I hadn't seen Rachel Getting Married, I might have more tolerance for this story about a Bad Sister who moves in with her younger sister after a fifteen-year stint in the hoosgau for murder; how she maneuvers (subtly, of course) into their good graces – especially in the face of a Javert-like brother-in-law's hostility – is the stuff of predictable drama. Scott-Thomas' Big Secret revealed in the last ten minutes offended me as another example of rickety dramaturgy. As the scripts of Doubt and Frost/Nixon showed, modern screenwriters still rely on third-act contrivances that were already pointless on fifties Broadway. In the movies, shocking surprises work best when the director allows the audience to consider how it shapes their emerging perceptions. And the surprise here isn't even so shocking -- a pity, since with her sullen, vacant, slightly bemused expression, Scott-Thomas looks capable of anything (see, now she looks like someone who would fall hopelessly, tragically in love with old wet Ralph Fiennes in The English Patient). Still projecting the hauteur that has never made her a box office star, she wanders around a movie which flatters her too much. Claudel seems afraid of his own film. So maybe I've Loved You So Long does find a visual and written correlative for Scott-Thomas' face, at that.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

A warm, laughing David Byrne, skewered by Colbert, compensates for a tepid version of Everything That Happens Will Happen Today's best songs.
Turns out the Bush administration sought (and gained) more power to override Constitutional protections than Jane Mayer, Charlie Savage, and Glenn Greenwald ever dreamed of. Scott Horton:
[Justice Department lawyer and memo crafter] John Yoo’s Constitution is unlike any other I have ever seen. It seems to consist of one clause: appointing the President as commander-in-chief. The rest of the Constitution was apparently printed in disappearing ink...We may not have realized it at the time, but in the period from late 2001-January 19, 2009, this country was a dictatorship.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Richard Milhouse Nixon's greatest gift to Americans remains the thousands of hours of tapes he recorded, the bulk of which is still unheard but lots of which has leaked out just when we're ready to forget him. The latest objects of his curiosity: "All in the Family" and faggotry. Note the sensual manner in which he says "hardhat." Note -- as usual for an avowed fan of Mao -- the unveiled admiration for totalitarian society ("The Russians. Goddamn it, they root'em out...Do you think the Russians allow dope? Hell no!") and

Welcome March

How I'm feeling these days:

We stood by a pond that winter day,
And the sun was white, as though chidden of God,
And a few leaves lay on the starving sod,
—-They had fallen from an ash, and were gray.

Your eyes on me were as eyes that rove
Over tedious riddles solved years ago;
And some words played between us to and fro-—
On which lost the more by our love.

The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing
Alive enough to have strength to die;
And a grin of bitterness swept thereby
Like an ominous bird a-wing...

Since then, keen lessons that love deceives,
And wrings with wrong, have shaped to me
Your face, and the God-curst sun, and a tree,
And a pond edged with grayish leaves.

-- Thomas Hardy, "Neutral Tones"