Tuesday, June 30, 2009

"Absolute Beginners" is one of my favorite Bowie songs, and probably one of my favorite songs, period. It is consistently overlooked, which is not to say entirely forgotten - but still, it's a classic and deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as similarly-themed ballads such as "Heroes" and "Time".

If you need to be convinced at this late date about the depth and breadth of Bowie's catalog, remember that this track dropped in the middle of what is generally considered his nadir - 1986, right between the twin supernovas of suck Tonight and Never Let Me Down, and right before the ill-considered Tin Machine period. (Of course, there are still things on both of his mid 80s albums which I quite like, and Tin Machine certainly has its share of admirers.) Regardless: it wasn't even an album cut, but a one-off recorded for the soundtrack to a forgotten adaptation of Colin MacInnes's novel of the same name. Bowie did quite a number of these soundtrack bits in the period, and it's easy to dismiss them en masse because of their abstruse relation to his "proper" discography*. But a track like "Absolute Beginners" is proof that even at his very worst, he was still capable of sloughing off a true gem when the mood struck him.

Like most of his 80s work, there's no "persona" in play here, no conceptual baggage (aside from the film connection) as in his peak 70s or 90s resurgence material. Just a simple love song, almost a silly thing, with a slight doo-wop vamp and some orchestral flourishes. For any other artist this would be a career-defining hit, the type of thing that gets played at high school proms from here to eternity (cf. Seal's "Kiss From A Rose"), but for Bowie, because of his critical reputation as a "serious" songwriter, a track like this is seen as a fluke. I'm hardly a fan of contemporary pop balladry but Bowie pulls it off because, you know, this is the guy who sang one of the greatest doomed love songs ever written, this is the guy who had a huge chart hit with a song called "Modern Love" which wasn't actually about love but about anxiety and social conformity (set to a great New Wave beat so you could still dance to it, 'natch).

So yeah, if he wants to sing an actual, honest-to-God love song, complete with a sweeping chorus and saxophone solo? Well, hell, let's give it a go.
As long as you're still smiling,
There's nothing more I need.
I absolutely love you,
But we're absolute beginners;
But if my love is your love,
We're certain to succeed.
Simple words, simple sentiment, but never simplistic: it's just a simple, beautiful song, consistently forgotten and underrated. One of these days someone is going to latch onto this song and make it a huge hit - could be some up-and-coming indie chanteuse, a jittery British punk band, or even an American Idol finalist. It's a good enough song that you can easily see it surviving the transposition into any number of other idioms. It's underperformed even by Bowie, never covered, highly obscure: ripe for rediscovery.

* For the life of me I'll never understand the affection for "This Is Not America", which commits the twin cardinal sins of pop music by being both boring and pretentious.

Part One, Two

Monday, June 29, 2009

X Marks the Spot

So, I've been thinking a bit about the X-Men lately. This is perhaps my favorite new blog, and is I think of some interest even to folks who have little actual interest in the X-Men themselves. Recapping every mainline X-Men title from the 90s, and many of the spin-offs and associated books, highlights two things primarily: 1) the books were by and large incredibly repetitive and 2) they were also overwhelmingly bad.

Now, let's think about that for a minute. The X-Men were the #1 franchise in comics for two decades, only falling off in recent years due to the unexpected resurgence of the Avengers line. The X-Men as individual characters and as a general concept is popular enough that it was able to survive not just the loss of its founding father, Chris Claremont, in 1991; not just the loss in 1992 of some of the most popular artists in mainstream comics history - creators whose popularity had enabled them to reorient the entire line to suit their whims in the early 90s, a reorientation that included getting rid of Claremont in a Soviet-style putsch; but the books were able to thrive as the #1 franchise even though the books themselves floundered through a seemingly endless succession of meaningless, ill-received events and useless spin-offs. Sure, people have fond memories of the Age of Apocalypse - and it was pretty good, as these things go. But, you know, that's one storyline, and when weighed against, say, Onslaught, The Phalanx Covenant, Operation: Zero Tolerance, The Twelve . . . well, you see, it starts to add up after a while.

It seems as if every 12-18 months back in the mid-to-late 90s you'd have a big new relaunch with new creators who'd do a gushing Q&A in Wizard bragging about how they were going to "shake things up" and get fans excited again. Mark Waid, Joe Kelly & Steven T. Seagle, Alan Davis . . . all of them started big but soon fell down the rabbit hole of forgotten or truncated storylines, lost plot threads, obvious editorial interference, and increasing irrelevance. And yet one thing remained constant: it always sold. Always. Even when the rest of the comics industry was struggling to survive, the X-Men always sold - even when competition was fierce in the height of the early 90s crossover & Image armageddon, the X-Men always sold. People bought the comics no matter what.

Although the X-Axis website is no more, Paul O'Brien continues to read just about every new X-Men book as it is released and review it for his current website. O'Brien is one of the best writers on mainstream comics currently active, and that is primarily due to the fact that he manages to be both a canny industry observer and an unrepentant fanboy - a neat trick considering that the two goals are not usually complementary. In recent months O'Brien has focused increasingly on the fact that the books are violently floundering. The flagship books are still popular, but the franchise isn't #1, it hasn't been #1 for long enough that the tumble can't be perceived as a temporary fluke, and despite the fact that Marvel still thinks the franchise is capable of supporting many more books than seem healthy in the current retail climate, no one is interested in secondary and tertiary X-books anymore. When sales were up and it didn't matter what they put in the books so long as they shipped, they could keep the illusion of momentum going strictly on the strength of sheer popularity. With that automatic popularity having dwindled, it's hard to hide the lack of momentum and the chronic wheel-spinning that characterizes even the most well-received modern X-books.

So, I'd like to talk some about why this is, because as one of the most popular franchises in the history of comics I think there is some significance to be found in their current dire straits. So I'll throw this one out there: based on the above preliminary thoughts, what is your perception of the current state of the X-Men? That's a pretty wide question, so let's see where that takes us.

Friday, June 26, 2009

News You Can Use

I haven't done a lot of music writing for other venues recently - truth be told, after four or five years of writing music reviews and doing music journalism, it started to get really repetitive and I burnt out. Plus, with everything else that's been going on, I haven't had a lot of time to devote to non-academic writing - to which this blog's spotty publication history will attest. However, I have been easing my way back into it lately, and I contrited a handful of entries to Popmatters' big 10th Anniversary feature, spotlighting the most memorable and important (which does not necessarily mean "good") discs from 1999. I love the music of the 90s - not to sound like a grumpy old fart, but dammit, in many respects this current decade was a big come-down from the last one. If you're under 25 maybe you'll have reason to disagree, but it's been kind of a bleh decade for music.

Anyway, I wrote some of these you might be interested in. Scroll down the page for the appropriate bits:

The Chemical Brothers - Surrender
Leftfield - Rhythm & Stealth
Le Tigre - S/T
Basement Jaxx - Remedy

A couple of them are rush jobs and I had no idea how they'd end up reading, but none of them are terribly embarrassing. (OK, maybe the Leftfield one.)

Thursday, June 25, 2009

You Have To Watch Them In Order To Get The Full Effect

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Although at the time it seemed like an unaccountable tragedy, in hindsight it makes a grim kind of sense that The Woods was Sleater-Kinney's final album. (Although they've been careful to specify that they went on "indefinite hiatus" instead of merely just splitting - purposefully leaving open future possibilities - for all intents and purposes they're broken up.) It sounds like a final album: it's got that air of finality to it that you associate with albums like Terror Twilight, Abbey Road and Strangeways Here We Come. These people knew, even if maybe they hadn't articulated it in as many words, that this was probably the last time they were going to be able to pull this off. Last chance to put it all together, last opportunity to say what they needed to say, what could only be said with the folks in that room. There aren't going to be any encores so you might as well blow the P.A.

The album debuted to uniformly good if occasionally baffled reviews: great album, they seemed to say, even if it doesn't really sound that much like Sleater-Kinney. But that was part of the problem. Sleater-Kinney 2.0 (i.e., the version everybody knows, with Janet Weiss on drums to replace original drummer Laura Macfarlane) had released four universally acclaimed, universally beloved albums of tight power-pop-punk, getting regular write-ups in unlikely venues like TIME magazine and generally receiving acknowledgment from all corners that they were one of, if not the best, rock combos in the world. But these albums, if all great, were at the same time slightly frustrating. And here's where I take some shit from S-K's hardcore fans: if you're honest, you'll admit that by 2002's One Beat they had fallen into a rut, dare I say, a formula. There's one thing to be said for consistency, another entirely for repetition, and the slight changes to the formula with every new album had started to seem cosmetic. They were just so good at what they did that it was easy to lose sight of the fact that they were beginning to spin their wheels. You can demur if you choose, point out that One Beat was a harder, more melancholy album; that All Hands on the Bad One was frothier, more "classic" pop; that The Hot Rock was more "indie" less "riot grrrl", etc. But these arguments are academic.

They were smart enough to know that they needed to change or die. But there was also something else in the mix besides the understandable desire to mix things up - a desire that, by itself, could have easily been satisfied with the facile introduction of, say, a synthesizer player or perhaps an acoustic tour. Listening to The Woods it's immediately obvious what that extra element is: they're pissed. But "pissed" is too small a word. They'd been pissed before - One Beat is a pissed album. The mood isn't just angry, it's dark, it's depressed. The light touch that had maintained the group's overriding tuneful alacrity despite the occasionally mordant or political subject matter was gone. In its place was a single-minded, terrible purposefulness that verged on monomania. All the little pieces of quirky cuteness that defined their earlier albums had been obliterated: no "Rock and Roll Fun", no "Little Babies", no "Milkshake and Honey". This isn't a fun album by any stretch of the imagination. The emotional palette has been constrained, and in light of this it's easy to see why the album was received with some ambivalence by their fanbase: again, it's not a fun album. It's an album that consists of ten songs on the general theme of failure, and all the emotions that accompany it on the Kübler-Ross spectrum - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Fuck Korn's Saturday-morning banality, or Slipknot's cartoonish buffoonery: this is hard rock distilled from real, honest-to-God anguish, the sound of three women collectively raging against the dying of the light. I can't go on, I will go on.

So it's a hard album to get one's head around. It's not an album to put on for tooling around the house. Otherwise, you might have trouble seeing past what most critics fixated on as a Led Zepplin pastiche, and might generally think the album was an uncharacteristic, one-note downer, respectfully filing it on the shelf but rarely taking it down in favor of hearing All Hands on the Bad One again. Given my history, it might seem odd that such a resolutely old-fashioned slab of hard-rock might rate so highly on my personal list. This isn't some genre-defining milestone or an example of any kind of post-millennial avant garde, or even, heh, pseudo avant garde. Sonically, this is the simplest album represented. But moreso than any other album on this list, and I'd wager, more than any other album of the last decade, The Woods is simply harrowing.

It feels sorrowful in such a clear, unambiguous and true fashion that it leaves the listener feeling as if he or she has been well and truly gutted. It's a rare feeling, such genuine anguish. There's a little bit of it on Nirvana's In Utero - especially some of the acoustic demos released on the box set (I'm not a big Nirvana fan but I generally regard Cobain's solo, unaccompanied demos to be superior to the studio versions of his songs). The Manic Street Preachers' Holy Bible comes close, particularly on tracks like "Die in the Summertime" and "4st 7lb". (Tellingly, these albums were both recorded right before the songwriters' suicides.) But it's hard to find ready comparison because, unlike most examples of dark pop music, there's nothing theatrical or histrionic on display here. It's real, it's earned, it's heartbreaking.
I booked my ticked
Packed my bags
Flight is leaving
Our time has passed.
I'm tired of knocking on a door that just won't budge,
Locked out of the engine, It's a wheel that you have spun
But who's to say I don't have wings?
The problem is that the "wings" which present the only glimpse of hope at the end of "Steep Air" fly for the briefest of durations - that is, the four seconds it takes to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge in "Jumpers".

More to come.

Best Music of the "Aughts"
10.The Field - From Here We Go Sublime
9.Spoon - Gimme Fiction
8.The New Young Pony Club - Fantastic Playroom
7.Girl Talk - Night Ripper
6.The Roots - Phrenology
5.LCD Soundsystem - Sounds of Silver
4.The Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Show Your Bones
3.Radiohead - Kid A
2.Sleater-Kinney - The Woods
1.Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot 1, 2

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Fame '90

David Bowie wanted to be famous, and he certainly got his wish.

I was listening to Lady GaGa the other day - more or less out of morbid curiosity, since she seems to have overcome the usual resistance to vapid pop tarts in "indie" circles and gained some degree of popularity among people who wouldn't normally like that sort of thing. The interesting thing about Lady GaGa is that she is obviously an extremely intelligent and canny performer: her music is constructed with the most methodical attention to detail imaginable. Every song is built around multiple hooks, every hook is coated in sugar-sweet candy coating, and every available inch of said candy coating is polished to a militaristic sheen. It's ruthless, and the overwhelming, maniacal ambition underlying the proceedings strips it of a great deal of charm or appeal. It's catchy like the plague, but ruthless in execution and intention. I guess the desire to be famous isn't that obscure a motivation in contemporary society, but it nonetheless strikes me as a sick motivation.

Why would someone willingly choose to climb into the maw of the panopticon? Yeah, OK, it's not exactly a new idea but it's appropriate here: in order to be famous a person has to give up everything about themselves in order to become something new, and that new thing is not necessarily of their own choosing. Privacy ceases to become a right and becomes instead a luxury, which means that what most of us regard as our normal, everyday quotidian existence becomes a rare sensation, to be hoarded and jealously guarded. Because if you're famous, most of your life isn't yours: you become a blank slate on which other people, thousands or millions of people, draw their own ideas and their own conclusions. All the millions of eyeballs looking at you act as an exteriorized superego, imposing control through passive and not so passive observation. The term "role model" carries an unavoidably positive connotation, but in terms of celebrity I think our contemporary society has turned the idea of celebrity into a neutral kind of "role modeling": for better or for worse, celebrities serve as avatars of behavior - they inhabit certain supra-real roles - that is seen as socially desirable, regardless of its negative or unpleasant consequences. Paris Hilton, to pick the most egregious and obvious example, is a role model (or was, before her fifteen minutes expired a while back) - not of the behavior you might want your daughter to replicate, but certainly of the type of lifestyle and attitude for which your daughter might just yearn, contrary to best wishes and common sense.

But the problem is that people want to be famous without realizing quite what that means - or, at least, I don't honestly believe they can know, until it's already too late. I don't as a rule like whiny celebrities whining about what a drag it is being famous,,but Radiohead's Meeting People is Easy is a fantastic examplar of just what being "famous" entails: literally soul-crushing exhaustion, boredom, lack of privacy, and just plain constant confusion. Who needs the state to impose the panopticon to regulate our deviant behaviors when we will volunteer for the chance to enter an even worse type of panoptic experience than anything Jeremy Bentham conceptualized, becoming the focal point of a process in which not only our individual behavior is shaven down to the most horrifying mean but our most embarrassing and unpleasant attributes are magnified and replicated across society?

I don't usually like the word "meme" but that's exactly what we're talking about: popular celebrities cease to be people, they become caricatures, and these caricatures become far more "real" than any flesh-and-blood three-dimensional reality. Celebrity caricature is a meme that spreads throughout society with all the virulence of the plague.

So when David Bowie set out to create his own mythologies, he was aware of the way that personality memes can take off and find a life exterior to the original. By putting forth a blatantly fictional template in lieu of a more naturalistic self-caricature, he was engineering the most effective meme he possibly could: a fantasy that fans and admirers and music journalists could latch onto, writing their own fantasies into the little corners of the (really very vague) storyline provided by the albums and the album cover art. To put it another way: how many people can imagine themselves writing Beatles fan-fic? Sure, everyone loves and knows the Beatles, but except in their movies they're still very recognizably real people. But Ziggy Stardust? Alladin Sane? The Thin White Duke? (And are Ziggy and Alladin and the Duke really just the same person in different guises, like a Time Lord?) I would be surprised if there wasn't tons of Bowie fan fic out there, because these identities are gilded invitations to tailor-made all-inclusive immersive fan experiences.

But when fans buy into these mythologies - and it's not just fans as "fanatics", per se, but general audiences and music journalists who accept these ideas as ready applicable shorthand for the man's career - they give credence into the notion of mythologies, the artificial narratives of celebrity culture designed with the express purpose of simplifying - commodifying - people into the form of readily digestible bite-sized chunks. As much as I like Bowie I'm uncomfortable with the notion of identity confusion at the heart of so much of his work, especially his classic period: it smacks a bit of action figure manufacturers designing a dozen different variations of Batman in order to sell as many different versions of the same toy as possible. If you don't have the Arctic Warrior Batman you can't fight Mr. Freeze; you need the Bat-Cycle to get around the Gotham City playset; you need the Ziggy Stardust makeup and t-shirt for the Ziggy Stardust tour, and God forbid you're still dressing up like Ziggy after he's moved on to Plastic Soul.

So there's something very disingenuous about "Fame" - it's my least favorite Bowie song - at least of his prime period, not counting anything from the later, suckier albums. (Amazingly, James Brown plagiarized the vamp - which is remarkable for the fact that it just doesn't sound very funky, more like a coked-up white dude's idea of what funk should sound like, a la "Bennie and the Jets".) It was concocted in the studio with John Lennon on a lark, and it sure sounds like it: just a couple of rich, probably stoned rock stars bumming around, vamping on a lazy riff and coming up with some of the laziest rhymes of either career. It doesn't help that it's just a nasty song, and even more so considering how defensive the whole thing is. Yes, there is good reason to be defensive, because becoming famous means voluntarily abjuring the individual superego, the metaphorical dura of what we regard as our own unique personality. Bowie adopted fictional aliases which became, in the eyes of millions of screaming fans who wanted not merely to be near him but to replicate him, to become him and to be him, more "real" than he actually was. Left without the protection, he's just a disembodied ego under the domination of his supercharged id: lots of cocaine, lots of sex, hell, let's dress up like a Nazi while we're at it. (Of course, Bowie fans don't like to talk about the Nazi thing but what else do you expect from someone as fucked-up as Bowie was at the time?)

So when they're complaining about being famous, there is some truth to the lament, because being famous is an incredibly destructive process that destroys people as often as it empowers them. But at the same time, what did they expect? Lennon gets an out because there is literally no conceivably way he could have predicted the Beatles would be as big as they became - essentially the biggest pop-culture phenomenon of the last half-century. But Bowie? Bowie knew what he was getting into. He waited impatiently for years for his opportunity to jump into the maws of the machine - and then he's got the gall to act surprise when it spits him out piecemeal?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Thin White Duke Returns

(There's been some talk on the subject of David Bowie.
Let us join the fun in progress.

Let me tell you a story about a man.

He's a man with many faces. There's the face he gives to the world, and the secret face inside - the name his mother uses and the name the world uses. And then in addition to these names there are various multiple identities that go along with these names - changing identities to fit every situation and happenstance, changing mood and thoughts and body language to match every change in the world around him. He's a chameleon, from back when being chameleonic had any meaning. He's got as many different answers as you've got questions, and a different suit for every day of the week.

So what happens to the man who tries to incorporate so many different, disparate and mutually-contradictory attributes into some kind of single gestalt personality? He starts to lose it: things fall apart, mind-altering chemicals are introduced, and in general life gets a hell of a lot weirder. Finally, however, with the most Herculean effort our man overcomes these terrifying existential crises and emerges on the other side of his ordeal leaner, meaner and maybe even more deadly - with a focused, integrated personality and renewed sense of purpose.

Who am I talking about - Bowie in the 1970s or Grant Morrison's Batman?

It is absolutely no surprise that Bowie is so popular among nerds. Of all the canonical rock stars, his life and career are the most mythic of them all - intentionally so. From the very beginning his personae were as integral to his presentation as the music itself. This was an interesting and perhaps inevitable step in the cultural growth of pop music. Since the advent of the genre, rock music had risen on the strength of strong, charismatic personalities - the obvious inception is Elvis Presley, but every other significant star from the first generation of rockers was similarly outsized in one manner or another - Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, etc. The Beatles and the Stones accrued mythology in direct proportion to their popularity, and the idea of celebrity in time became as integral to the conception of rock and roll as the music itself. Bob Dylan was a rock star long before he plugged his guitar into the wall.

Bowie came out of the first post-Beatles generation, kids who grew up during the British Invasion (or, as it was called in Britain, um, I dunno) with the express ambition of being not merely musicians but actual honest-to-God Rock Stars. The idea of being a rock star didn't even exist a decade earlier - you had Elvis, certainly, and Frank Sinatra and other hugely popular singers - but as the sixties got under way the idea of "rock stardom" as a specific phenomena cemented itself in the public's mind. Rock stars were different, strange, outre, sexually outrageous, enigmatic. The accumulated trappings of rock stardom were a product of the fame and celebrity that resulted from being a really popular musician - and at some point the trappings and by-products became the main event. Bowie, along with exact contemporaries Elton John and Queen, wanted to be a famous rock star almost as much or more than he wanted to be a musician.

In order to be a rock star, David Jones had to become David Bowie, and in order for David Bowie to become a rock star he had to change even further. He used the public's insatiable appetite for rock star iconography to create his own mythology - he essentially tricked the world into believing he was the biggest rock star in existence by merely asserting the fact in as straight-forward a fashion as conceivably possible. It doesn't really matter that it took him the better part of a decade to hit lasting success - once he hit big he hit for good.

I am uncertain, after listening to Bowie for decades, as to what exact value his variable identities possess. There is something very profoundly juvenile in his constant costume changes, and I don't necessarily mean that in a pejorative manner: he's young, nascent, unformed, trying on a new identity with every new mood that hits. One day he's a glamorous transvestite, the next a sci-fi savior, a burnt-out vampire martyr, a wobbly American soul singer, a hollowed-out revenant haunting the ghost of Old Europe . . . all this in the space of about five years. It usually takes Batman longer to change identities so completely. If Batman can be both Adam West and Frank Miller, then Bowie can be both Afraid of Americans and Jareth the Goblin King.

The problem is that Batman isn't real, and David Bowie - at least in theory, is real. He's even got an apartment in New York across the way from Moby.

So, it comes as no surprise that he's popular with nerds. He's Batman in human form. Batman blew his mind out in an isolation chamber and needed the (maybe) imaginary figure of Bat-Mite to guide him on a quest to regain his will and purpose; Bowie snorted a metric ton of cocaine and needed the (probably not but you never know) imaginary figure of Brian Eno to guide him to Berlin. Instead of killing the devil with a God-Bullet, Bowie wrote "Heroes" instead - same difference.

More to come.

Friday, June 12, 2009

All I can see is black and white /
And white and pink and blades of blue

This isn't a pipe. We all know this example, René Magritte's La trahison des images, famously utilized in the pages of Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. This is the painting that introduced semiotics to popular comics theory. It's a simple illustration that covers a deceptive lot of ground in relation to the meaning and legibility of cartoon images, and the sequence introducing the concept is one of the more memorable sequences in McCloud's book.

But I'm going to take the idea one step further. Let's listen to "Pot Kettle Black" by Wilco off Yankee Hotel Foxtrot:

What about the arrangement of this song jumps out at you? The guitars - either the frenetic strumming of the acoustic, or the spare licks of the electric? The drums? The quiet marimba in the background?

How about - none of the above?

There is no guitar on "Pot Kettle Black". Certainly, "Pot Kettle Black" is a song that can be played on guitar - it's been played on guitar hundreds of times by Wilco in concert. But the version of the song on the album, the one that everyone knows, has no guitar in it, no drums, no bass, no marimba, no singing: it consists of electrical impulses recorded onto either magnetic tape or digital sound file, manipulated in an editing machine and mastered before being either printed onto a magnetic signal on the bottom of a plastic disc approximately 120 mm in diameter; or pressed onto physical grooves on the surface of a black plastic disc 12" across. These signals - either the digital signal reproduced on the bottom of the compact disc, or the grooves on the record album - are read by the appropriate stereo equipment and finally fed to speakers wherein the electrical impulses translate into minute vibrations of speaker cones or rotating magnetic coils.

No matter how naturalistic any music may sound, regardless of how well the acoustic guitar is recorded, no matter how authentic the music may be in relation to its particular ethnic or national tradition, if the music has been recorded it has been transformed and reinterpreted digitally. Quantitatively, there is no difference between an .mp3 of Autechre's "Altibzz" and Hank Williams' "(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle". A person listening to the .mp3s on their iPod can certainly tell the difference between the two, but the mechanism is entirely the same. Authenticity, however you might interpret the concept, has no meaning except in the interpretation of the listener - an interpretation dependent on cultural convention.

The chimerical notion of "authenticity" has become essential to our understand of contemporary music, even if the idea is ill-defined, impossible to quantify, prejudicial and just plain inappropriate. After punk, "authenticity" burrowed into our collective unconscious and has remained firmly ensconced ever since, despite our best attempts to dislodge it. So, what is this "alt-country" thing the kids are talking about these days? Well, how about we go back to the "old school" and play some country-based rock and roll the way our fathers and forefathers in the Flying Burrito Brothers used to do. Hell, let's put more twang in our rock than anyone in Nashville. we'll put out some albums with funky band names like Uncle Tupelo and Whiskeytown. Screw Shania and Garth - this is the real shit right here. Just like, you know, reggae died with Bob Marley - what the hell is this dancehall shit? Those damn Jamaicans don't know shit about reggae, but me, I got a copy of Legend, that's how reggae should always be.

Uncle Tupelo broke up and two bands sprang from the wreckage: Wilco, who matter, and Son Volt, who do not. Wilco released an album, called A.M., composed of whole-hearted orthodox alt-country, so orthodox in fact that it practically verged on self-parody. (Sample lyrics: "You're gonna make me spill my beer, / If you don't learn how to steer".) They got sick of that, gradually moving away from their "roots" and closer to a Big Star / Alex Chilton melancholy power-pop mode, an approach that peaked on Summerteeth. But after Summerteeth things got strange, and the wheels started to fall off the wagon.

So, you've got this band, Wilco, with both feet firmly set on a solid foundation of "traditional" American roots music - folk and country - or at least a late 20th century conservation-minded proto-hipster notion of what traditional forms should sound like. But then people started doing things like take lots of painkillers and hanging out in the studio too long, and then there was critical attention and the pressure of bickering bandmates and hey, let's just throw this new guy into the mix, this producer guy Jim O'Rourke, he works with folks like Nurse with Wound and Sonic Youth and Merzbow, surely that'll make a great fit. We'll make it work somehow.

And the result was an album suspended in the air between these two mutually contradictory notions of sound: sound as the faithful representation of live performance, and sound as raw digital matter, infinitely plastic. The first sound on the album is not drums, guitar or voice, but the high whine of electricity - and then, slowly peeking out from under the noise, you hear drums shuffling awkwardly under the cover of darkness. "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" doesn't begin like a normal song, it coalesces, it constructs itself out of spare parts left sitting around the studio, a ramshackle pile of chaotic limbs falling all over each other in a clattering mess before finally falling apart again.

If you listen to the album a few times you'll notice something strange: many of the songs don't know how to end, they just fall apart. Instead of coming to a neat conclusion, a track like "I'm The Man Who Loves You" explodes, people forget how to play their instruments, strange noises appear out of far corners of the mix. They're trying to hold it together, they're trying to make a nice rock song, but whatever it is that's keeping them together can't do so indefinitely. Things are getting more and more frantic, more desperate, more urgent. With a song like "I'm The Man Who Loves You", the obvious question for the listener is, who are you trying to convince? Are you telling your lover that you love her, or are you trying to convince yourself that you still do? When you tell me that you "miss the innocence I've known / Playing Kiss covers beautiful and stoned", you're looking back with nostalgia on a time that is obviously firmly in the past, calling to mind an implicit comparison with a present moment which is neither innocent or beautiful. What is going on in the here and now that has you so damn fucked up?

The answer emerges from the mist with "Poor Places" - the beep of a heart monitor in a hospital room. But it's not just a dead or dying relative, no, that's a feint. It's the singer himself: there's bourbon on his breath, there's weakness and paranoia, the confessions of a self-loathing agoraphobic. He doesn't want to leave the house, he's not going outside.
My jaw's been broken,
My heart is wrapped in ice,
My fangs have been pulled,
And I really want to see you tonight.
He needs something that he's not getting, there's something missing, some firm foundation to hold him that has just crumbled and he's falling as far and as fast as he can. He's having a nervous breakdown: the sound gets faster, guitars and synthesizers and pianos and drums pile up one on top of another, and everything has been transformed into a whirlpool pulling every scrap of human emotion as deep into the ocean as possible. Sonic legibility has eroded alongside emotional legibility, as the band's attempt to play a normal rock ballad has been subsumed by chaos. The wall of sound in the song's harried final moments recalls the towering sustained E-major at the conclusion of "A Day In The Life" - unlike the latter, however, "Poor Places" is no majestic conclusion but a profound, insoluble aporia: the death of certainty as the individual is set loose, adrift in his own infinitely recursive mind.

And all that's left when the chaos subsides is a slow, slightly out-of-tune piano, accompanying a weak voice making a delicate, awkward confession:
How can I convince you it's me I don't like,
And not be so indifferent to the look in your eyes,
When I've always been distant,
And I've always told lies for love.
These aren't particularly poetic words, they aren't original and they don't even rhyme. But after the gradually escalating, increasingly caustic and defensive pain of the last hour or so of music, "Reservations" comes off as a cool bath, not exactly a resolution of the tensions that inspired his breakdown but an exhausted resignation. There is no way to reconcile all the different conflicting forces at odds in the album's narrative, no way to make ends meet between the poles of musical representation. There is an ineradicable tension between authenticity of content and malleability of form in contemporary music, and the album's inability to forge any kind of rapprochement between these two approaches both signifies and symbolizes the more profound emotional tension at stake. This Is Not A Rock Album: in fact, it's a small plastic disc containing electrical impulses. This Is Not A Rock Star: it's a guy falling apart because he can't seem to make sense of the world around him.

It is nothing more than absolute coincidence that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, recorded late 2000 and early 2001, contained a song with these lyrics:
Tall buildings shake,
Voices escape singing sad sad songs,
Tuned to chords strung down your cheeks
Bitter melodies turning your orbit around.

Voices whine,
Skyscrapers are scraping together,
Your voice is smoking
Last cigarettes are all you can get,
Turning your orbit around.
Not to mention the fact that the album cover is a photo of two identical towers standing side-by-side against an ominous blank background.

For all the horrendous pieces of music written about the September 11th attacks, there hasn't been a single song that hasn't failed utterly in its attempt to formulate some kind of cogent response to inestimable tragedy. Somehow, writing and recording long before September 2001, Wilco managed to anticipate and encapsulate a series of sensations and emotions that, at the time, we hardly knew we'd be suffering: the collective nervous breakdown of western civilization. Sometimes consolation works like that: all the most well-intentioned attempts fall flat or phony, but the meaning imparted by an audience long after the fact lingers in the memory. Kurt Cobain was listening to Automatic for the People when he shot himself, an event that implies both the anticipation and the eventual consolation of grief - meaning and significance only emerging ex post facto.

It's been a hard decade. I haven's always wanted to leave the house - it's been hot in the poor places, all over to the sea. It's been stifling.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Thought of the Day

It's accepted wisdom that resurrections are never as big a deal as deaths. But what if instead of merely just coming back to life on his own, Captain America were resurrected by . . . Barack Obama? Maybe that would get the media blitz going.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Quick Hits to the Face

Sean linked to my off-the-cuff musings - mostly reiteration of previous postings - on the subject of the Star Wars prequels. In the comments to Sean's post, Tom Spurgeon said:
I think the sequels still suck, and I say that despite the fact I would love to think the opposite because this puts me on the side of people I'd much rather spend time annoying.

90 percent of the arguments for them I read don't seem genuine, either, they read like people staking out a position for the sake of taking a position.
I have no idea whether or not this was aimed at me in particular. In all honesty I have no real idea what other peoples' defenses of the prequels look like (other than the fellow I linked to the other day whose post inspired my initial thoughts). But, in the spirit of good humor, I'll speak to Spurgeon's assertion.

I don't just like the movies because I think they're thematically more satisfying - that would a pretty fancy way of saying that the movies suck but I'll find something to like so I sound smart. No, I really couldn't explicate the ways I think the Prequels "work" if I didn't think they "worked" as well as I do: they're fun movies, extremely enjoyable and highly rewatchable. Even when the action onscreen lulls - like, say, any of the times when the less-polished actors have to emote (you know who I'm talking about) - there's always something fun happening around the edges.

In the original trilogy, for instance, pretty much any scene that Mark Hamill has to sell purely on his individual acting ability clunks like a brick down a well - but you don't really care because, hey, he's talking to Yoda, or he's looking out on a beautiful Tunisian desertscape with two suns on the horizon. Likewise, it's easy to forgive Hayden Christensen the fact that he really doesn't seem to understand how to not look like an idiot in the context of the film's hyper-stylized exaggerated fantasy idiom (a la The Lord of the Rings). Not everyone can sell that type of material: not entirely coincidentally, the best Star Wars actors tend to be British or at least to have some kind of traditional theater background - think Liam Neeson, James Earl Jones or, obviously, Alec Guiness. They can speak in weighty sub-Shakespearean stentorian tones and pull it off. (The sole and major exception is Harrison Ford, but Han Solo is an old west outlaw getting by on quintessentially American charm and attitude - and, tellingly, his character has no analogue in the prequels, unless you count Jar Jar.) The original trilogy was set in a fairly accessible American idiom, the prequels were pure sturm und drang. Hence, Christopher Lee and Ian McDiarmid steal every scene they're in, whereas Christensen and Natalie Portman are ineffable black holes of acting talent. But then, neither Hamill or Carrie Fisher were that great either. The former got by on the fact that nobody really liked Luke Skywalker to begin with so we didn't care all that much whether or not he could act (it's true! Luke is a dishrag); the latter due to the fact that she did have some authentic chemistry with Harrison Ford.

But no one goes to Star Wars to see actors acting: the whole point, whichever era we're talking about, is that the actors not get in the way of the spectacle, the mise en scène, the fun stuff, the slam-bang. Just off the top of my head, these are the moments and ideas that pop out at me about each film:

The Phantom Menace

- Everybody always talks about the last duel between Darth Maul, Qui-Gonn and Obi-Wan. Rightfully so: the last half-hour or so of this film is just masterfully put together. Just like the end of Jedi, you've got at least four tracks going - the palace coup, the lightsaber duel, the Gungun assault, and Anakin's spaceflight. (This last bit may have seemed corny at the time but, in hindsight, seems creepy as fuck - they didn't see any problems in the fact that the kid was so good at blowing things up when he wasn't even trying?) But all the other elements take a backseat to the duel.

Everyone complained that Darth Maul was onscreen for such a small bit of the film's running time, but I think that's actually pretty cool: you wanted to see more, you wanted to know more about this incredible badass. One thing Lucas almost always knows is that when it comes to bad guys - and even good guys of questionable ethics like Han Solo - it's far more interesting to show rather than tell. Darth Maul is so much more interesting as a deadly enigma than, you know, a dude with an origin.

That's how the movies created such a strong pull for fans, by creating the sensation that every bit character and walk-on part had a story, and even if you would never know what that story was, it created a depth of field that made the onscreen universe uniquely immersive. I'm glad I don't know more about Darth Maul, because the Darth Maul in my imagination is far cooler than the Darth Maul that might exist in whatever Extended Universe novelizations might exist. You could make the argument that this is the weakness at the heart of the prequels: giving Darth Vader an origin guts the character. But that horse already left the barn in 1983 with Jedi - the moment we see his face and his tearful goodbye to Luke we know he's not just a villain but a tragic figure despite his lifetime of evil. It's far more convincing to argue that Boba Fett's origin in Attack of the Clones did that "character" - character is too strong of a word considering how much of an intentional cipher the guy was - a mortal harm. Sure enough, Lil' Boba's adventures with his dad in Episode 2 provide one of the most wrong-footed sub-plots in the whole series.

- The pod race. The Phantom Menace pissed people off in part, I believe, because it was actually a childrens' adventure film and not the gritty, hardcore action film that the aged fanbase believed they wanted. But, you know, these are kids movies. This scene is probably note-for-note the purest distillation of awesome moviemaking skill in the entire series - yes, all six movies, I'd say. There isn't a kid on the planet who wouldn't be floored by seeing this in a theater - hell, I was floored, and I can still to this day remember all the different thunk-a-thunk-a noises the different pod chariots made in the deafening THX theater sound.

Attack of the Clones

- Looking back I think this is the weakest of the three, mostly because it carries the weight of a great deal of the exposition for Episode 3. But even with all the infodumps, there's still the matter of the last forty-five minutes or so, against which the busy final act of Phantom Menace seems positively sedate in comparison.

There's a moment in the ramp up to the climactic battles - hell, we'll call it The Moment - when things have been going haywire for a while, Padme and Anakin and the Droids are in trouble, and it looks like things are only going to get worse. And then: we see a close up of boots walking slowly down a corridor. Brown boots and beige leggings, a purposeful stride. We didn't see him arrive but we know immediately who it is: Mace Windu.

Now, there's an old saw from Chekhov that goes something along the lines that if you show a gun in the first act, it needs to go off by the third. Likewise: if you give Samuel L. Jackson a lightsaber, you have to eventually see him go buck wild with that lightsaber. He stayed in the background of Episode 1, but by the end of Episode 2 it was time to see some action. I still remember the reaction when Jackson first flipped on his lightsaber, going from wise Jedi master to Bad Mother Fucker in as much time as it took to hear the electric "vwoooosh" - in all my years I've never heard as ecstatic a reaction from any film audience, ever, as that moment where Mace Windu first throws down. The crowd exploded.

When Yoda finally decides to join the fray, it's just sick. People had been waiting not three years as in the case of Windu but 23 years to see just what that damn green Muppet could actually do - and sure enough, seeing him jump around looked about as silly as you probably imagined. But you know, silly or not, he was still hardcore. You can argue that a great deal of Attack of the Clones is fanservice, but you know what? That's kind of the point. Star Wars is not great art, it does not exist to defy expectations: it exists to meet and exceed expectations of both fans and general audiences who want a thrilling carnival ride of a movie. People had been waiting almost a quarter-century to see what Yoda could do, and when he finally did it, it was pretty damn amazing.

Revenge of the Sith

This is a hard film to watch, in some respects, because it's really quite relentless. The earlier prequels are very fun movies, full of action and thrills and suspense. But as this one plays out the action becomes more and more desperate, the fights become more brutal, the enemies more unrelenting. The good guys lose, they lose big. I know I keep reiterating the point that these are kids movies, but if I were a parent I don't think I'd show this to a younger kid, even if there's nothing in the five other films I would find too objectionable: this is just too intense. The sensory overload of the earlier, lushly-crafted, downright bucolic prequel films steps over the line into garish confusion here, and I think that's a purposeful choice: the beautiful digital paradise of Episode 1 has become hectic, fraught and downright sinister.

If there's one battle that stands out in a film full of battles, it's Obi-Wan's relentless duel with General Grievous. Now, General Grievous is a great character design that profts greatly from Lucas' "less is more" approach to supporting villains. I don't know anything about the guy other than what we see on film: he's an evil cyborg general, maybe an ex-Jedi (or Sith?) who hates the Jedi with a passion, enough so that he collects their weapons like trophies and possesses an almost unparalleled skill with the lightsaber. But you know when he steps onscreen that he's a bad dude. Not only that, he's got character - the way his spider-like robot body whirs and slides is vaguely disturbing. He's got this cough thing he does after he's been fighting the Jedi for a while, just one of those small throw-away gestures that makes the monster seem like he might actually be made of three-dimensions and not just pixels on a hard drive. When he's fighting he digs in his heels and stalks like Arnold's Terminator - just relentless, implacable and inhuman.

- But the image I remember most from Episode 3 isn't one of the battles - it's the last shot. Obi-Wan gives the baby Luke to Owen and Beru and wanders off into the desert. Even after everything has occurred and Anakin has become Vader, you know that Owen and Beru are relatively safe because of their connection to Anakin's mother - and hiding the child with them is the safest choice, the proverbial "hiding in plain sight". Of course, eventually things change - the Rebellion comes home after those strange Droids are found wandering the desert, and when people start asking questions about Ben Kenobi everything starts to fall apart and people die. But that last shot, in the wake of the storm after the Jedis' defeat and the fall of the Republic - drawing the explicit parallel between Luke's arrival and later Luke's departure from home at the beginning of Episode 4 - that's the shot the whole prequel trilogy was building to, the bridge between the past and the present. It's the crux of everything that happened and everything that will happen - a moment of bittersweet triumph, but a triumph nonetheless, A New Hope for the future of the Republic cradled in the arms of his family. It's, basically, the apogee of Star Wars in one single shot, all the bluster and sentiment, epic scope and cheesy serial origins, the melodrama and the ham-fisted intellectualizing, the emotional pull of childish nostalgia and the legitimate gravity of melancholy adolescence. It's all there.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Almost Perfunctory By Now

I was thinking about Star Wars again recently, which I hadn't done in quite a while, when I realized it had been ten years since The Phantom Menace was released. God, I honestly love that movie in a totally uncynical way - it's great. Every bit of it, even the wooden acting and goofy supporting characters are totally in line with the best and worst tendencies of the original films. I was reminded of this when I came across this piece earlier. I can't quite see who this person is (besides "grebok_sod") but I agree with them wholeheartedly. I said some similar things a couple years back. I stand by what I said then (including the bit where I said: "News flash: none of the Star Wars movies are that great to begin with, cut, print.") But we love them all the same despite their massive faults and general not-very-goodness, because they touch something deep, comforting and atavistic in the hearts of every nerd, proto-nerd or recovering nerd.

So yeah, let's remember the Prequels fondly, shall we? I love them because they aren't based on Joseph Campbell's retarded Hero With A Thousand Faces bullshit crypto-Christian manichaesim, but rather more contemporary and historical notions of power, corruption and pride. Yeah, they're kid's movies through and through - even Sith - but at the same time they're also about how hubris can destroy men and nations. Much the same way Wall-E is about a cute little robot looking for his true love but also ecological devastation and the trauma of crushing loneliness. Something I didn't realize until recently is that the Prequels actually, in my eye, makes the originals better, because they open up Obi-Wan and Yoda's motivations to more ambiguous interpretation. Think about it: these old, failed warriors spend three movies filling Luke Skywalker's head with all the same superstitious mumbo-jumbo that caused their downfall in the first place, and then send him off to do not merely what they failed to do in the first place, kill his dad and granddad, but to fix the problem that they had started by allowing Palpatine to exploit the grave weaknesses inflicted by their own pride during his rise to power.

If Lucas ever did wake up one morning and decide to actually do - or at least give his blessing for - a sequel trilogy, that would almost certainly be the hook: an older Luke Skywalker sees through the bullshit self-justifying hubris that Yoda filled his head with and plots a middle path between the two self-reinforcing and self-defeating extremes of dark and light. Which makes a lot more sense if the Force is less a manifestation of God (yawn) than a parasitic bacterial infection that endows great strength and longevity but also drives the infected insane unless usage is rigorously curtailed through punishing self-control. The choice then is either to become a self-abnegating, self-righteous monk or go nuts in short order, basically.

That's a much more interesting dynamic than "good vs. evil". Let's forget about Lucas "raping our childhoods" and just remember the films fondly, for actually trying to transcend the ideological morass of the original and make something novel: a moral fable built on the presumption human nature is fallible, and absolute ethical imperatives inevitably foster hubris which leads to abuse. And the best part is they wrapped the whole thing in a nice, shiny package built to sell lots of toys. Neat trick, that.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

. . . And We're Back

Wolverine #72
Fantastic Four #566

I'll give him this: Mark Millar sure knows how to structure his stories. The problem is, that's all most of them are, just empty structures. Reading "Old Man Logan" feels less like experiencing an actual story and more like skimming a plot outline. All the beats are here, all the "moments", but not a damn thing in between. Like this issue, with Wolverine going buck wild and slicing the Red Skull's head off with Captain America's shield. It looks like it should be cool, but there hasn't been any kind of build-up or suspense leading to this particular moment. This was the first time we'd seen the Skull other than as a name on a map. This was just a cool moment with nothing but empty scaffolding to carry it aloft, no build-up, no emotional pay-off, nada.

The issue ends as we knew it would - with Logan finally popping his claws and swearing to go ape-shit on whomever killed his family. Millar is so confident that this is the climactic moment of the entire series that he devotes two pages merely to the sound effect - trust me, you know which sound effect I'm talking about. But the results can't help but be perfunctory, because this conclusion has been a fait accomplis since the very first page of the first issue of the story, and everything else has been building towards it so ruthlessly that the result has been nothing short of amazing in its mercenary terseness. But what exactly is gonna happen next, he's going to track down the Hulk gang and kill them? Hardly a climax worthy of these hundreds of pages of build-up. Maybe Doctor Doom will finally show up after skulking around the outskirts of the plot for these last few issues. But still, there's been no real building of a story, just a bare skeleton.

This whole thing is pretty much stillborn - and I say that with a great deal of affection for what Millar is doing simultaneously in the pages of Fantastic Four. He gets a lot of criticism, and most of it is well-deserved - but he can write well when he feels like it. Whenever he can find some kind of character hook to latch onto, something human in the midst of his trademark vapid violence and empty bluster, he can be quite good. Wolverine, however, really isn't a character so much as a coathanger: really only as good as the stories that are hung on him.

Fantastic Four is a hard book to get wrong, at least in terms of the characters - there have been many rotten Fantastic Four stories, but even the worst could still fall back on the indestructible character dynamics Stan & Jack put together all those years ago. The beginning of Millar's run was rough, but as he's progressed further he's figured out how to write these guys. I'm still a little bit skeptical about his plans for Doctor Doom: this latest story hinges on Doom's self-identification as a villain, which is a pretty tin-eared interpretation of comics' most complex antagonist. But still - his Reed, Sue and Johnny are identifiably themselves, and for old-timers like myself, just seeing these guys act like themselves can be sufficient treat to while away a few minutes. Furthermore, I have a theory that the Thing has to be the easiest character in comics to write, because he brings out the best in even the hackiest writers. This issue proves no exception - if you were wondering where his engagement sub-plot was going, the action here is pretty devastating. Good stuff, and a great cliffhanger. The Scotsman is bringing his A-game here, but apparently left it at home for Wolverine.

Uncanny X-Men #510

Hey, here's an idea: how about you hire an artist who can draw fight scenes to draw an all-fight issue? Because this vaunted Matt Fraction run sure isn't getting off to a great start - wait, it's been going for almost a year? Does that qualify as stillborn by now?

And boy that last page isn't doing anyone any favors. If we must have someone back from the dead, I much prefer Shatterstar.

Batman and Robin #1

So, hmmm. Yeah, that. What happened to putting so much plot into a single issue that it was barely coherent? What happened to that? Because this I read in less time than it takes to zap a Hot Pocket. It's really gonna seem slight when the book becomes a quarterly, any . . . minute . . . now.

Ms. Marvel #38-39

For over three years Ms. Marvel has limped along as the least beloved Marvel book in existence, a book that somehow managed to avoid being canceled time and time again despite no one caring in the slightest. And it's not as if the people working on the book haven't tried their damndest - the book has practically reeked of frustrated ambition and futile effort. Lots of people whose names I can't remember have thrown their heads against the wall trying to make a Ms. Marvel comic book that someone, anyone, would want to read. They didn't succeed, until now. The secret? All they had to do was get rid of Carol Danvers. Considering what a long and storied history the character has, she is unerringly boring - Moonstone, however, is fun. Moonstone flying around as an absolutely amoral Ms. Marvel actually makes the whole Dark Reign thing seem like not such a bad idea. This is a book that has legs (in more ways than one, heh). I wouldn't be surprised if there was an ever-so-slight uptick in sales once this new direction gets around. It ain't Proust, but it's fun, which is something the Carol Danvers' iteration absolutely refused to be.