Sunday, May 31, 2009

Poor Bill Clinton, still champing at the bit.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Hugs Are For Thugs

I plead guilty to cultivating a certain detachment -- one of my best friends calls me The Tin Man -- but my Cuban blood, which demands chaste kisses on the cheek between male relatives, pulls me in other directions. In short, I'm trying to be more expressive; a handshake just won't do anymore.

This thoroughly odd story in today's New York Times set off mild chatter in my little corner of the blog world. Some parents, educators, and behavioral psychologists, alarmed by the rise in hugs between adolescent students, want to monitor how much physical affection the children under their care receive. While I'm as repulsed by exhibitionism and the heart vs mind cliches that animate most popular culture (the truest line Steve Malkmus ever penned was "We need secrets"), we can stand to see less friction between bros and ladies. The characters in this farce don't seem to remember that Hispanics will soon outnumber blacks as the largest minority in the country, none of whom exactly stint in expressing themselves. Ethan Frome and The Scarlet Letter are so nineteenth century.

One Beth Harpaz, a columnist for the Associated Press, provided a quote that proves what fallow terrain the novelist irrigates when seeking to lampoon the shibboleths of modern psychology:
“And there doesn’t seem to be any other overt way in which they acknowledge knowing each other,” she continued, describing the scene at her older son’s school in Manhattan. “No hi, no smile, no wave, no high-five — just the hug. Witnessing this interaction always makes me feel like I am a tourist in a country where I do not know the customs and cannot speak the language.”
The last sentence reminds me of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's more apocalyptic pronouncements.
For the Who Woulda Thunk It file: Ted Olson and David Boies join forces to overturn California's Proposition 8. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

With comic book movies having reached a post-Nero stage of decadence, it's instructive to return to hip-hop, in which Marvel tropes still adduce good/evil dichotomies while the MC's croak that it's all in the game. I've never warmed to MF DOOM's: he seemed a GZA-esque smart guy whose internal rhymes demonstrated prolixity without ever cohering into the narratives that the detailed musical backdrops promised. No matter how many superhero or villain identities he assumed album to album, DOOM still coughs up that hydroponic denseness. Rapping alongside Ghostface on The Mouse and the Mask's "The Mask" or the new Born Like This' "Angelz F" does him no favors either; he sounds out of breath or confused, which is expected when your partner can shift tones and points of view faster than Clark Kent can jump in a phone booth. But Born Like This is his best anyway: the running time (Forty minutes! Gracious!) keeps him tight, the production an airy, nimble synthesis of every hip-hop trend of the last thirty years, from Run-DMC drum skitter ("Supervillainz") to vertiginous RZA keyboard downshifts and tempo changes ("Gazillion Ear"). DOOM understands a supervillain's only as good as his henchmen, so his henchmen don't distract -- with one exception. If I were him, I'd keep an eye on someone called Empress Starrh, whose MC'ing on "Still Dope" makes me suspect she ran off with more than the song. Best Unexpected Didactic Bit: "Crime pays no dental, nor medical"/Unless you catch your time in county, state or federal."

Monday, May 25, 2009

Happy Memorial Day

I never thought I'd agree with a Jackson Browne opening monologue...

Stanley Fish, responding to President Obama's mission to appoint a successor to Justice David Souter who values "empathy" as much as "abstract legal theories," writes a typically astute column distinguishing between law and morality, even though it sputters to a conclusion. There's a whole tradition of twentieth century jurisprudence that valued results over legal formalism, and the tradition transcends ideology (Rufus Peckham, author of the notorious Lochner vs New York, is as results-oriented as William O. Douglas and Earl Warren). Maybe newly graduated lawyer Andy can hash this out.

Friday, May 22, 2009

More singles reviews: Tommy Sparks, The Big Pink (really), and N-Dubz.
You're not really president until the Disney Company preserves you in plastic, silicon, and wire.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Christian Bale, James Wolcott reminds us, is not a human being, nor does he inspire to be one. For a time I thought this was a limitation; now I wonder if he was smarter than the rest of us, including other Hollywood youngbloods who don't realize the future isn't in middlebrow Oscar dramas, but genre pictures with tony filigrees -- that is, The Dark Knight and The Bourne Ultimatum, not Good Will Hunting and Atonement.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The hosannas heaped on Green Day's 21st Century Breakdown by a couple of my favorite critics worry me a little. I don't hear a note of the commitment, songcraft, and political acumen they seem to think runneth out of every pore. They hear maturity; I hear a band confident enough to embrace the garbled agitprop and received liberalism they ignored in their youth when were too busy recording superior albums of comfortable but not painless apoliticism. It's like three obnoxious graduate students cornering you at a bar to convince you of the "realness" of Kurt Vonnegut. As Theon put it:
This is a seventy-minute lump of three thirtysomething fuckwads yelling received ideas about "revolution" over guitars that just grind and grind and grind and grind and contort themselves in the dullest ways unless they decide to drop out for some cocktail piano
Or what H.L. Mencken famously said about Warren G. Harding's prose:
It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up to the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.
I can understand how teens looking for gateway drugs might hear chimes of freedom (imagine it's 1976 and Wings at the Speed of Sound teaches you how to hear Rubber Soul), but adults should know better, especially adults whose greatest strength is letting the enthusiasm they honed in their youth inform their adult quests for wisdom.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Today Christopher Hitchens called Wanda Sykes the "Sable Sapphist" in his Slate column

Friday, May 15, 2009

Andrew Sullivan isn't known for temperance. This is a guy about whom it can truly be said that he's all id. His passion, though, makes for one of the more enternaning recent Pet Shop Boys interviews I've read (as publicity for a not terribly good album, alas). Nice kicker too: 
Chris Lowe: We once met these fans backstage. I started chatting to them, and they quickly realized that I simply didn’t know enough about the Pet Shop Boys and turned their backs on me and carried on talking. I just got elbowed out of the conversation because I was literally worthless to them. It was really funny.

It’s true, though. At some level it’s our Pet Shop Boys, not yours.

CL: Quite. I understand that. It’s nothing to do with us anymore.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Some scattered reviews: Runaway, Alice Munro's marvelous 2004 collection of short stories; and blurbs on the Taylor Swift and Miranda Lambert singles. I'm heartened (and maybe not too surprised)

Mother Lovers

Catch this before the Lords of NBC pull it. Justin can do skits like this into perpetuity, Andy Samberg not so much. Where's Lance Bass?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

As criticism struggles to remain relevant in the age of media bankruptcies and blogs like mine, I'm grateful that MSN cares enough to publish Christgau's Consumer Guide, despite a redesign so unwieldy that I suspect it'll appall more people instead of increasing its hit count. My discovery of the year is Wussy and their eponymous new album. If it isn't quite at the level of Shoot Out The Lights (to which Christgau breathlessly compares it, I'll claim that Wussy matches the Afghan Whigs' Gentleman in sound and fury, and Chuck Cleaver's vocals a sui generis combination of Ira Kaplan and Adam Duritz. Tender, hypersensitive, and ruthless, Cleaver's voice suits Wussy's well-shaped psychodramas, such as the opening cut, in which Cleaver tells his partner that the punctuation in her latest letter hits him like a truck. 

Friday, May 8, 2009

Stylus' former singles jukebox editor William Swygart has roped in several of my favorite critics to review, well, singles. I've got blurbs here and here on Meg and Dia's "Black Wedding" and Katy Perry's "Waking Up in Vegas" respectively. Katy Perry's creator needs to melt her down and start over again. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

I've longed to read a bad review of "The Wire." Jason Kotke compiles bad reviews from Netflix comments -- as in, badly written bad reviews.

(H/t to Simon Crowe)
At barely over eighty minutes long, Wendy and Lucy already had me. I wasn't a fan of Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy, whose attention to the shifting rhythms between landscapes and her characters' inchoate emotional states nevertheless grew taxing with actors as uninteresting as Daniel London and Will Oldham (I never bought his tearful confession for a moment). A flintier McCabe & Mrs Miller suddenly seemed possible.

W&L still emits that smell of rotting pine and animal fur that gave Old Joy its verisimilitude, but it's got an actress who can smoulder without working our tear ducts. Playing an Alaska-bound traveler with just a beat-up hatchback and her dog Lucy, Michelle Williams does all kinds of things with her pinched face. The car breaks down, she's forbidden from sleeping in a drugstore parking lot, she's arrested for stealing dog food, and her damn dog goes missing, yet she cedes not an inch to bathos. Reichardt's camera is like a stress test, lingering on Williams' face as if waiting for it to crack. I liked that W&L neither condescends nor gives unnecessary credit to the yokels whom Williams meets; they're exactly as kind as they need to be, and no more. When Williams accepts an obliging but alert watchman's offer to use up his cellphone's free minutes, the gesture is so unexpected but welcome that it's like water in the desert. Wally Dalton's unactorly performance helps. The supporting cast, especially Michael Brophy as an infuriatingly self-righteous grocery store stock boy, interacts with Williams with no fuss (only Will Patton as an is-he-really-an-asshole? mechanic seems too overtrained for the proceedings).

Reichardt's got her material figured out, all right, for better or worse. This kind of indie minimalist miserabilism unsettles me; the way in which these movies don't mind dipping into sentimentality makes me wonder whether Reichardt can film adult emotions instead of flattering the desires of her audience (when Williams hums an unknown tune to herself, I assume it's Will Oldham's). Someone send her a good script.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

It's hard these days to write about music with the guarantee of a mass audience and decent pay (in that order). Charlie Bertsch's excellent, excellent analysis of the EMP Pop Music Conference's impact on the rockcrit community -- not all of it complimentary by any means, especially in its early days -- reminded me that enclaves needn't be support groups; that meaningful discourse is appreciated by a group of die-hards as sizable (i.e. as small) as the ones who read Christgau, Eddy, Levy, Arnold, and Bernstein in their salad days. Since I only started attending in 2007 (and missed this year's), I missed the acrimony at the beginning of the decade. Suffice to say that former Sleater Kinney guitarist/vocalist Carrie Brownstein sounds as compelling and insufferable as usual, while Alex Ross proves he's a terrific critic even when his awareness of writing for a mass audience causes him to bristle in unpleasant ways.

Monday, May 4, 2009

No analysis of David Souter's jurisprudence, just a brief portrait of the life to which the Supreme Court justice returns. There's something deeply admirable about a man saying "Fuck this" and retiring from public life to read Henry Adams and Proust, and repair the roof of his ancestral home.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Troy Patterson on what made "The Golden Girls" a memorable sitcom. It really is hard to believe that the show was a ratings smash -- on a Saturday night! Americans watched sit-coms on Saturday nights! I rewatched a few episodes a few nights ago. Patterson's quip that the writers shaped one-liners to the characters so well that these scripts would work for radio is apt. If "The Golden Girls" never rises to the heights of "The Cosby Show" -- it never feels as lived in or comfortably rumpled (blame the old bats' shoulder pads too) -- it's because its creators treated the old birds as a gimmick, complete with instant rimshot laughter to reinforce the ping-pong patter.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Welcome, May

The oaks, how subtle and marine,
Barded, and all the layered light
Above them swims; and thus the scene,
Recessed, awaits the positive night.

So, waiting, we in the grass now lie
Beneath the languorous tread of light:
The grasses, kelp-like, satisfy
The nameless motions of the air.

Upon the floor of light, and time,
Unmurmuring, of polyp made,
We rest; we are, as light withdraws,
Twin atolls on a shelf of shade.

Ages to our construction went,
Dim architecture, hour by hour:
And violence, forgot now, lent
The present stillness all its power.

The storm of noon above us rolled,
Of light and fury, furious gold,
The long drag troubling us, the depth:
Dark is unrocking, unrippling, still.

Passion and slaughter, ruth, decay
Descend, minutely whispering down,
Silted down swaying streams, to lay
Foundation for our voicelessness.

All our debate is voiceless here,
As all our rage, the rage of stone;
If hope is hopeless, then fearless fear,
And history is thus undone.

Our feet once wrought the hollow street
With echo when the lamps were dead
At windows, once our headlight glare
Disturbed the doe that, leaping, fled.

I do not love you less that now
The caged heart makes iron stroke,
Or less that all that light once gave
The graduate dark should now revoke.

We live in time so little time
And we learn all so painfully,
That we may spare this hour’s term
To practice for eternity.

-- Robert Penn Warren, "Bearded Oaks"