Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Thor #10

Is it churlish to point out at this late date just how awful Fear Itself ended up being? It's hard not to be constantly reminded of this fact when so many of Marvel's more high-profile titles are still playing with the story beats imparted by that crossover. Most specifically (but obviously not surprisingly), Matt Fraction's two main books - Thor and Iron Man are deep in the middle of long storylines jumping right out of the final pages of the event. (And, of course, the Captain America titles were also completely rebooted after the event.) So every time you pick up an issue of Thor you're reminded that, yes, Fear Itself is a thing that happened, and no, it isn't getting any better in hindsight.

But if you squint past the boring crap of the main storyline - Thor dead, again, his role usurped by a pretender, again - you just might see something new for a change. One of my pet peeves about fictional kingdoms - and you can pretty much pick any fictional kingdom in the Marvel or DC universes and this will still apply - is that they are all to a fault absolute hereditary monarchies. I know that for many people that's just the default mode into which any fantasy setting should fall, but the fact that we still just take it for granted that people like the Sub-Mariner and Black Bolt are absolute monarchs cut from the same authoritarian cloth as the Saudi royal family, is more than a little bit unsettling. So for once they're trying a different tack: with Odin dead and three women sitting in his throne, the inhabitants of Asgard are actually trying out something resembling to representative democracy. I think that's fascinating, not because I'm a progressive liberal whose heart jumps when he sees democracy taking root in the Third World (you know damn well the Storms of the Jotuns have read their Fanon, fuck this "inalienable rights" bullshit and keep your smallpox blankets to yourself, man), but just because it's something different. Such an obvious idea, and it's amazing no one has ever thought to try it before, at least that I recall off the top of my head. (They did do something similar in a Ka-Zar miniseries last year, but because it's Ka-Zar about as many people read that book as are reading this post.)

Whether or not the idea pans out or is simply swept back the moment Big Daddy Odin makes his inevitable return to the main stage and we can once again indulge in our racial longing for a return to the glory days of paternalistic Nordic feudalism, remains to be seen. Still, his generally acknowledged shortcomings as a mainstream superhero writer notwithstanding, Fraction remains one of the very few guys in that building who might maybe conceivably at some point in their lives have read a book about politics and political theory that wasn't A) Don't Think Of An Elephant, B) A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity or C) The Butter Battle Book.

Justice League #5

I know we're supposed to be jumping on this book like it's some kind of leper. Oh well, it's not that bad. It's not great. It's basically how the Justice League has gotta be these days: loud, dumb, and stupid like a Jerry Bruckheimer film. Only, you know, by modern standards those classic Bruckheimer productions of yore look positively like David Lean. People yell and do stupid things because the plot is a hungry monster which must be fed. Yadda yadda.

The real reason why this is an enjoyable book is the art, but not for the obvious reason. The obvious reason would be that "Jim Lee draws pretty pictures" - which is technically true but not particularly interesting. It's no secret after all these years that of all the original Image artists, Lee was the one with the most actual drawing ability. (Silvestri came in a close second but his skills have atrophied pretty hardcore, as anyone who suffered through his epic one-and-a-half issue run on Hulk can attest.) Lee can still draw but the dilettante's schedule with which he's been operating for the past decade and change has done a lot to drain the interest out of his work. When he draws now, he can usually afford to take the time to make sure everything is perfect - and since he's such a dab hand with composition and texture, that means that he can work over a drawing near to death.

But being once again put into a position where he positively, absolutely has to draw a comic book at a monthly pace is doing strange, wonderful things for his style. (Sure, the book was one week late, but seriously.) He's already dribbled away whatever head-start he had going into the New 52. He's back on the balls of his feet playing catch-up. So a lot of his illustrative tricks are getting thrown out the window. His figures are getting looser and his layouts a lot simpler. It's great to see because he's always known how to draw, but he hasn't always been the best cartoonist: seeing someone with such obvious skill being forced to work past their comfort zone in order simply to get the job done of telling the story is quite something. Don't get me wrong, we're not into complete primitivity yet. He's not suddenly morphed in Gary Panter, and the four inkers roped into the production of this comic attest to the fact that the company is doing their damndest to cover up the fact that the star artist is beginning to falter. But it must be said: the "faltering" is the fun part. Lee has some life left in his bones yet.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Not the only dust my mother raised.

Miscellaneous T

Are there any more dreaded words in the English language than "B-sides collection"? By definition these are albums composed of the stuff that wasn't good enough to make it onto the regular albums. These are the types of albums designed specifically to appeal to fans - many of whom probably own some of the material already, or who come along later in hopes of catching up on what they missed. How do you judge these things? The fans, because they're fans, will love the material in whatever format it is released; casual fans and critics are usually advised to steer clear. Think back for a minute on just how many B-sides compilations you own that actually reward repeated listenings. I'll give you Incesticide, Black Market Clash - I'm sure you can think of a few others. (Sixties groups don't count, for reasons which should be obvious once you think about it.)

They Might Be Giants maybe aren't quite in the same category as Nirvana or the Clash, but the material from their fertile late eighties / early nineties period nevertheless represents their peak, the point where years of hustling in the New York club scene began to pay enormous dividends in terms of skill and songwriting prowess. If there is one element that has defined the group since very early on and through to the present, it's professionalism: as weird as some of their weirdest material can get, their strangest songs nevertheless sound incredibly solid. Their debut was the closest they ever got to actual "lo-fi" material, and from that point forward the band became increasingly professional. By the time they reached Lincoln even their off-the-cuff song doodles sounded focused and rich. The material released on Miscellaneous T represents a snapshot of the band at the exact moment of its transformation from a pair of strange, ambitious amateurs and into the same well-oiled nerd rock machine that recorded the world's least likely platinum record, 1990's Flood.

Miscellaneous T is a B-sides album of the old school: a compilation of the tracks included on their first four singles, with a couple oddballs like a remix and radio edits. Everything except for the single mix of "(She Was A) Hotel Detective" was eventually reprinted in the 1997 box set Then: The Early Years. This disc is out of print and, really, if you have Then you have everything you need. And yet every time I need to rip a copy of Then onto a new iPod or iTunes, I always take the time to replace the tracks from that box set into their Miscellaneous T play order. I wasn't fortunate enough to actually buy the singles on their initial release - of course not - so this album was my first exposure to these songs. And in my mind, after listening to this album so many times in the early and mid 90s, this is how these songs should be heard. It's not a "real" album, but it's a good album that holds together as a cohesive unit shockingly well given its portmanteau nature.

Make no mistake: this shouldn't be anyone's first They Might Be Giants album. But if your first exposure is Flood or Lincoln, this is a perfectly fine candidate for your second They Might Be Giants album.

Many of these songs are obviously what we would consider B-side material: something like their pseudo-industrial synthesizer cover of Rodgers and Hart's "Lady Is A Tramp" would probably have seemed even weirder in the context of a proper album. "Hello Radio" and "Mr. Klaw" are very brief sketches that wouldn't have been out of place on their debut but wouldn't necessarily have added anything, either. Every TMBG fan has a soft spot for track thirteen, the "untitled" skit produced from a long message accidentally left on their "Dial-A-Song" service in the late 80s. "Who's 'There May Be Giants?'" asks a bemused middle-aged New York matron.

But then once you cut away the fat, you're left with a core of tracks that are every bit as good - and in some cases even better - than most of the material from their first two records. "Hey Mister DJ I Thought You Said We Had A Deal," "Nightgown of the Sullen Moon," "It's Not My Birthday," "We're the Replacements" - some of their very best tracks, sloughed off for B-sides. Gave upon their works, ye mighty, and despair.

Next: The Big Time.

(out of five)

Monday, January 16, 2012


Battle Scars #2

I don't read Malcolm Gladwell but I like the fact that he's so good at thinking up pithy little titles to his books about how incredibly complex phenomena can always be boiled down into manageable chunks of middlebrow pop psychology. Sometimes you blink, sometimes you hit the tipping point, sometimes you look like Andrea Fraser. That kind of thing.

Let's see if we can find our way through one of these, it's been a while:

Gladwell's books are the kind of thing you can imagine business travelers ingesting on their way from Dubuque to Miami for a sales conference: pithy, vaguely quirky but never too quirky to be monstrously optimistic about the world. Someday Gladwell needs to think up some sort of magic formula to cover the concept of creatively bankrupt inertia. Because, man, the idea is strong enough and central enough to our current conversation on mainstream comic books that I wish we had some sort of catch-all phrase we could point to at a moment's notice for mutual convenience. Like, how about "drowning not waving"? This is a story of the comic book companies who kept right doing what they were doing until they noticed the water had already come up to their necks, but by the time they realized what the problem was and started to make some noise, the boat was so far away that everyone on deck just started waving back, thinking the tiny bobbing figure on the horizon was having an awesome time.

Marvel comics have looked so much alike for so long that the idea that they ever looked different from how they do now seems like one of those "we've always been at war with Eurasia" moments. All these little things that seemed so unusual at the time have compounded themselves for so long that we don't even blink anymore.

Think back to the early days of Nu-Marvel: it was the Wild West. There were dozens of different things happening all over the place. I do not want to overemphasize or exaggerate just how good the comics produced during this time were, as I've already begun to see here and there over the course of the last few years - but stop and consider for a moment just how hard it is to make a comic in an environment as complicated and fraught as Marvel Comics. Any comic. Most of them are terrible. Even the ones that are good are still terrible - never forget that! Those of us who know better stick around because we don't have anywhere else to go. Seeing the occasional Good Book poke its head up from under those waters seems to be a miracle of downright messianic significance. This is turning into a crappy history lesson, something about which most people reading this either already know or don't give two shits. The point - there is a point - is very simple: the reason why they did so many weird, different things after the turn of the millennium is that things were pretty bad. The company had just been (literally) bankrupted and had suffered the ignominy of seeing its two flagship franchises - the X-Men and Spider--Man - dragged through years of sewer-gargling shit. (Seriously - just go back and look at the types of stories Marvel was publishing around December 1999, if you dare.) Things were bad enough that they were willing to do anything to make them better.

Whenever you feel like dramatizing the creative output of a corporate entity, it's always good to remember that the best stuff almost always occurs when people are either A) desperate or B) not paying attention. So those things that hit the wall and stick? That's what you build your franchises around. And when it works? When it works you stick the saddle on and ride it for dear life, because there is no telling when (if ever!) these things are going to run out of steam, and in any case by the time the gravy trains stop running on time hopefully you'll be far away.

Somewhere along the line the single most important question at issue in Marvel comics became Who Was In Charge of the superheroes. This is really weird: 2005's House of M was Marvel's first line-wide crossover since 2000's Maximum Security (an event so bad it was terrible), and the plot was basically Who Gets To Be In Charge, the Avengers or the X-Men. The winner was, of course, the Avengers, because House of M ended by kneecapping the X-franchise for years to come. But if the jockeying for dominance was metaphorical in House of M it became literal in Civil War: Who Gets To Be In Charge of the superheroes. If superheroes were real obviously they'd be run like any other branch of the federal government, so who gets to be the guy in charge of that agency (The Initiative). And then when that happens what happens when the guy in charge of the agency falls down on the job and lets a bunch of aliens invade (Secret Invasion) meaning that the new guy in charge is the looney ex-con who just happened to be in the right place at the right time to shoot Space Osama in the head (Dark Reign). And then the looney guy in charge goes nuts and leads his branch of the government right over a cliff (Seige) and then it's time for Daddy (AKA Captain America) to step in and take care of things. And from then on out it's all basically a story about all the characters getting in on Daddy's good side, because of course Daddy is the government and we all want Daddy's approval, right?

Because, you know, if there's one thing I always really wanted when I was a kid growing up reading superhero comic books, it was for stories about superheroes working for the government. There is a reason why, for decades, the idea of "government sponsored super-hero time" was usually synonymous with villains. No real hero would take their orders from a bureaucrat. Spider-Man and the X-Men were outlaws, the Fantastic Four were always having trouble with landlords and lawyers, even the Avengers - Earth's Mightiest Heroes! - had adversarial relationships with their government liaisons and the city of New York. That always worked for Marvel because Marvel wasn't Your Dad's superheroes: Marvel was the choice of the New Generation. There is, perhaps, something in the fact that Nick Fury has never been able to maintain a successful solo series not set in the distant past of World War II: guardians of the status quo just don't work in Marvel as headliners. That's the whole point of Captain America, for God's sake: he's not a symbol of the government, he's a symbol of idealism and rebellion, a man who has more than once given up his costume when faced with the government's failure to live up to his ethics. And now he's In Charge, he's the Daddy signing paperwork in the front office making sure all the different Avengers teams fill out their personnel forms by the end of the government's fiscal year.

At some point Marvel started receiving advertising money from the US Army. So here's the big new launch, one of two series spun out of the final pages of the underperforming Fear Itself event, starring a decommissioned Army officer on the run from . . . well, the government, I think, for unknown reasons that have not yet and do not promise to be explained any time soon. And the bulk of the book is this dude - Staff Sergeant Marcus Johnson, fresh off a two-year stint in Afghanistan - running from other dudes with guns and there's another guy with a sword (Taskmaster, pretty much the definition of the kind of villain you use when it really doesn't matter what villain you use just so long as there's someone to fight Captain America in passing) for reasons which - I want to stress again - we don't know. I know what they think they're doing: they've got this great idea for a story and it requires a slow burn, a long roll-out of pertinent information intended to drive the audience into a kind of tizzy over all the wonderful shit that is being withheld from them. It'll be like Christmas and Marvel is Santa Claus and if only we know how awesome Christmas morning was going to be we'd be so thrilled to be reading this book that we'd basically just plotz on the spot from the excitement.

The only problem is no one - and I mean no one is going to care to stick around six months for the resolution of the most boring mystery in the history of comics. WHO IS MARCUS JOHNSON? asks the advertising copy - my answer remains: someone about whom I know nothing 1/3 of the way through a limited series devoted to telling me the answer to precisely this question. It'd be one thing if this was 1981 and this comic cost 50 cents - fuck, scratch that. Even if this whole story cost $3.00, that'd still be too expensive. As it is, one issue of this book costs $2.99 - meaning, in order to get to the very premise of the story, the explanation as to why exactly the reader should have cared about Marcus Johnson this whole time - one must expend $18 basically on faith. On pure faith that the dreamengineers and fantasybuilders at the House of Ideas sure do have a real humdinger hidden up the sleeves of their viridian wizard's robes.

Remember back when I said that Marvel was buying advertisements from the US Army? I don't suppose on the face of it there's anything particularly wrong with that, per se - that's not on me to criticize children's' entertainment for idolizing men with guns, after all. But what is this? When I went to college - the first time - I roomed with a guy who was obsessed with ROTC, and with the idea of being an Airborne Ranger. Never mind the fact that he was rail-thin and kind of on the short side, he was still COMMITTED to the idea in a way I could only admire, albeit from a carefully-calculated ironic distance. Reading Battle Scars is a bit like having to play an AD&D campaign with that guy, dealing with his rationalizations about why his well-trained special forces character armed only with a Ka-Bar could take down the biggest Orcs in Darkwind Forest because the US Army is the best trained fighting force on the planet. So of course we get plenty of stuff that goes along the lines of "These men may be SHIELD agents, but I'm US ARMY" - not an exact quote, but Jesus who's counting. What little respect I have for this comic would be instantly trebled if they just had the balls to come out and have a page where Johnson rips off his clothes and reveals a giant phallus with the US flag tattooed on the glistening head while screaming "I AM GOING TO FUCK YOU WITH THE POWER OF THE ARMY, TEN HUT TEN HUT BITCHEZZZ." Because that's about the size of things, ahem.

The problem is that at some point Marvel's current approach to making comics became so powerfully calcified that it became impossible for the people involved to realize that they had long since reached the point of terminally diminishing returns. Because there are many worse things than bad comic books: if you like mainstream books at all, you know full well that a bad comic book is better than a boring comic book. A boring comic book is simply a sin. How do you take something with all the raw potential of brightly-colored superheroes bashing into each other for 22 pages with huge sound effects and make it boring? Oh, I know: let's take the superheroes out of the book and replace them with identically uniformed government employees, and instead of having them fight about weird symbolic adolescent displacement, let's have them fight about mishuffled paperwork and redacted government reports. Because you know what kids love? The Pentagon Papers. That right there is exactly what we need to create. Having superheroes talk about their position vis a vis the government worked well for a few years there, I'm sure people will never get tired of them having this conversation.

I just have to wonder about the mindset of the people working at Marvel who can read this book - who can approve this script, see the pencilled pages, see the inked pages, see the coloring, the lettering, see the book at every step of its creation - and not, never once, say, you know, this is boring. This is a comic about generic people in brown civilian clothes running around and fighting about things they don't know and we don't know. There's no discernible villain, the conflict is poorly defined (sure, this guy's running from the government, but why?), characters we do know (Captain America) are acting in inexplicable ways . . . for a big new character launch coming out of last year's major crossover event, this is simply an abortion.

Somewhere along the line the company lost the ability to see that comics like this were terrible. Because it essentially apes the surface qualities of hundreds of other similar comics that were not quite so terrible, it's probably hard to tell the difference at this point. But just because they were "not quite so terrible" doesn't mean they still weren't terrible, and that this whole well of vaguely paramilitary, pseudo-espionage superheroics didn't pass its expiration date a long time ago. To the people involved in making this comic: is this what you want to do with your lives? Is this the kind of story you wanted to tell when you grew up and fell in love with superheroes? All those wonderful stories of brightly-colored gods and men flying between planets and fighting all the metaphorical embodiments of existential fears and anxieties, living larger-than-life soap-opera lives and making out with all the hottest babes on the printed page - this is what you wanted to do? This is garbage - unimaginative, derivative, so purely, unabashedly tasteless as to be complete drivel. If you were involved in any way with the production of this comic book for any reason other than that you needed money to pay your rent, you really need to take a hard look at your life and question your priorities. Is this a story you needed to tell? If that is the case might a suggest that you shouldn't be a storyteller, because this is not a story. It's a hook on which a publisher has hung its logo, a logo which has come to be recognized as synonymous with tired.

The worst part is that I'm almost certain that this isn't a story anyone needed to tell. This is what Marvel does now: makes stories meant to be read on iPads by business travelers on their ways from Dubuque to Miami. Tom Clancy for illiterates. It took three people to come up with the "story" here, another of those three to actually write the "script," before it was passed off to a disinterested penciler who has produced much better work in his time. There were fully five editors involved in the making of this book, to say nothing of a Chief Creative Officer, Publisher and Executive Producer. I'm guessing most of the people involved in the making of this comic book did so because it was their job to do so: in which case, that's perfectly fine, I begrudge no one their right to make a living. But whomever involved in the making of this comic actually thought up the idea for this comic - whichever of you gentlemen (I'm trying to avoid using names here because there's no need to get personal) actually though this story up, you need to maybe have one of those late night / early morning walks along the beach that usually accompany mid-life epiphanies. Because if you can read this comic and not realize that you've wasted your life, you haven't looked hard enough. Drowning not waving.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

. . . Bringing Up the Rear II

4. Cut Copy - Zonoscope

I know In Ghost Colours was their breakthrough, but that album never really caught on with me despite repeated exposure. This album, however, immediately appealed. Maybe if I went back to their previous material I'd be more receptive now. All I can say for certain, however, is that I really like Zonoscope. It's a strong album that only gets better with repeated exposure. A lot of dance bands - and I think Cut Copy are still a dance band despite the fact that they write pop songs - seem to think you don't necessarily need to have good songs if you can have a good rhythm section. Cut Copy, however, have plenty good songs. Very good songs. Although they are definitely still working within the confines of an established genre (80s-inflected faux-glam disco pop, a rich vein these past five or so years), they never let obeisance to their source material dominate their better instincts as songwriters. This is the kind of album that makes you think, y'know, these guys could be one of those bands to whom we're still paying attention in ten or fifteen years.

3. Yacht - Shangri-La

Although 2009's See Mystery Lights was actually YACHT's fourth album, it might as well have been their first in terms of people actually paying attention. The reason for this is dreadfully simple: on that album the full membership expanded to a duo with the addition of singer Claire Evans. Suddenly the band had a distinctive, very sexy voice to sing its very catchy songs. However, See Mystery Lights didn't fully utilize Evans' voice the way Shangri-La does. She's the singer and - in the most hoary, time-tested formula known to man - a group with good songs and a boring dude singer will always be trumped by a group with good sings and an appealing girl singer. That's life. Pop music without charisma is a dead letter.

Considering how tempting it must have been to stretch this album out to Herculean proportions - it's a concept dance album about political utopias and atheist spirituality - it's really quite a blessing that they managed to keep it reigned in to only 43 minutes. The concision works quite well. There are even a few instances where you find yourself wishing they would actually ease up on the clutch and let some of these grooves expand - this is a DFA album, after all, and if this were James Murphy 2/3 of these songs would clock in over eight minutes. But no, the restraint succeeds because the album never wears out its welcome. Ten tracks, 43 minutes, and when it's over you wish it had been longer. Isn't that how they all should be?

2. Destroyer - Kaputt

This was a front-runner for Album of the Year from almost the moment of its release, so it might almost seem like something of an anti-climax to once again ratify its greatness. But no: it's still good. Dan Bejar has been bubbling up just beneath the surface of a breakthrough for years, putting out a pile of well-regarded solo albums in addition to his work with the New Pornographers. This album, however, seems to have been the tipping point in terms of transforming Bejar from someone to whom you should be listening and into someone to whom you actually do listen.

It helps that, for all the eighties nostalgia that has dominated indie pop music for these past however many years, Bejar found a relatively untapped vein: the soft-focus glam rock (not the same as "yacht rock") of later Roxy Music and solo Lindsey Buckingham. On paper it seems as if it would be a particularly hard style to adapt - the reason why (for instance) "Avalon" sounds the way it does is that it is the result of painstakingly long hours of exacting technical recording filtered through the studied appearance of languorous disinterest. It's not the kind of sound just any schmuck with ProTools can successfully ape, in other words. But the sound made for an uncanny match with Bejar's own studiously facetious personality, and the result was - strangely enough - the most sincere-sounding record of Bejar's assiduously ironic career. Bejar is enough of a stylistic chameleon that it would be hard to imagine him sticking with this sound for another full album - if anything, it would probably just become a gimmick. Here, though, what should have been a gimmick is merely just a surprisingly powerful and affective pastiche, an exercise in consummate craftsmanship that never descends into mere formal nostalgia.

1. tUnE-yArDs - w h o k i l l

I know w h o k i l l was Merrill Garbus' second album, but it is still essentially correct to say that she came out of nowhere this year. I still remember the first time I heard tUnE-yArDs, on a tinny YouTube video on my laptop screen: usually not the most auspicious first exposure to a promising new band. And yet there was something so strong and confident in Garbus' voice (the track was "Bizness", as you might have guessed) that it completely surpassed the limitations of medium and lodged itself firmly in my brain. I went out and bought the album the very next day and the rest was history.

There's something about Garbus' songs that almost make me feel uncomfortable listening to them. They're highly personal, but not really in any kind of queasy, autobiographical way - they're personal in that she is really putting herself out there, belting out strange and eccentric lyrics with the authority of someone who has lived every nonsense syllable and scat-rhyme. It seems almost as if we're hearing something we shouldn't be - it's not as if she's saying anything particularly private (most of the time!), but the way she says it seems so intimate, so unguarded and wild, that hearing it seems like a terrible imposition. But we're not talking about some lonely piano dirges or solo sad-girl acoustic guitar music: this is bold, brassy, full-band funk, complete with a horn section and pounding percussion. This is music with muscle in addition to nerve, highly kinetic while never losing sight of its unabashedly emotive core.

I had the privilege of seeing tUnE-yArDs in performance this past May. It was just a few weeks after w h o k i l l had been released, at the very beginning of her tour. She hadn't been on national TV, she hadn't played huge festivals or posted near the top of critics lists. It was a small - a tiny venue - a community arts center in Easthampton, Massachusetts, standing room only, the type of place you usually see local singers or crafts fairs. She's from New England, went to Smith, so it was very much a hometown crowd, filled with friends and family, definitely a quiet moment before the real business of touring and promoting got underway. She ate dinner in the front row of the space during lead-up to the opening act, not four feet away from me while she ate rice from a take-out container. That's an odd sensation: it wasn't a big crowd crowd and there's not a lot to do while you're waiting for the music to start, and wow there's the star you paid to see eating and chatting with old friends right in front of you. That's the type of show it was - so you'll understand me when I say it was an intense performance, joyous and enthusiastic throughout.

I don't go to very many shows but I'm very happy I went to that one. I don't think she'll be able to play many shows like that in the future. No more tiny community arts spaces - she's been on national TV, scored #7 on Pitchfork's end of the year list, basically become a star. And it's hard not to think we won't be hearing much, much more along those lines.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Bringing Up the Rear

Back in December I promised that when I had more time I would write more about the top-ten album list I submitted to this year's Pazz & Jop poll. (I'm so completely out of the loop that I didn't even bother submitting a singles list this time around.) Before we get too much farther into 2012, I should go about doing that.

Top Ten of 2012

(With the previous caveat that there was still a lot of stuff I hadn't heard as of the moment when the list was due.)

10. Bill Callahan - Apocalypse

In a year that was partially dominated by bearded men with guitars making over-produced albums of gloopy soft-rock schlock, there was room for counter-programming in the form of a man with a guitar singing sparse, starkly minimal guitar ballads about the death of America. There isn't a single moment of this record that doesn't feel exquisitely crafted, and yet the result is never overstated or affected - it simply sounds perfect, thoughtful and quiet in equal measures, without ever quite devolving into mere tastefulness. I didn't think much of it the first few times i heard it, but a few months after the album came out I started hearing tracks from Apocalypse popping up on the local college radio station. I was struck by the serenity of these songs in a way that hadn't necessarily been evident on first exposure, and it's a sensation that has only grown with subsequent listenings. Given time to breathe the music grew on me immensely.

9. PJ Harvey - Let England Shake

Here's where you get to snicker at me for being a predictable old dude just plugging his list with SPIN magazine's top artists of 1996. Yeah, we can all admit that her last couple albums were weak and / or strange (not to say that they don't have their admirers), but that's OK now because a few years in the wilderness making weird harpichord music gave her the confidence to make another album of frightening potency, the kind of album you could never have predicted she'd have the guts or the chops to make based on her career trajectory some twenty years' gone. All artists firmly into their third decades of continuous recording should be so ambitious: an album that is simultaneously lovely and horrifying at the same time, a "concept album" with neither useless narrative or unnecessary pomp. This is some very pretty music that nonetheless cuts right to the bone.

8. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - Belong

I cannot for the life of me understand why this album has been so systematically ignored by most of the other critics' lists. I had to double check to make sure this was actually released in 2011 - sure enough it was, but for whatever reason all the hype from the first quarter of the year had entirely dissipated when it came time for people to hash out their preferences. I listened to this album pretty much exclusively for a couple weeks back in the Spring - it's strong from beginning to end and sounds like a dream. Nostalgia only gets you so far without the tunes to back it up: any group who can write a track like this does not deserve to be so casually dismissed. If you find yourself wondering why they don't make more music that sounds like Psychocandy spiked with bits of the Psychedelic Furs and New Order, the answer is that they still do and it's fantastic.

7. The Rapture - In the Grace of Your Love

I don't think I could improve on what Marty had to say here. Leave it merely to be said that I'm basically a DFA fanboy who buys any record with the lightning bolt logo on sight - and I've got the Prinzhorn Dance School CD to prove it. So maybe my opinion is suspect: I'm genetically preconditioned to want to like the Rapture. But like it I do nonetheless. The actual, sincere revelation at the core of many of the songs only adds to the appeal, a reminder that there is a world and history of dance music outside the province of nervous white kids with skinny jeans.

6. They Might Be Giants - Join Us

I've spent enough time talking about these guys recently, but again for emphasis: this is a complete return to form, with their strongest batch of songs in fifteen years.

5. Low - C'mon

Sometimes I feel like the last Low fan in the world. I love these guys: there's something about their quiet intensity that never seems to get old for me regardless of how dated an idea "slowcore" might seem at this day and date. I think Mimi Parker has a gorgeous voice, and they know how to write songs that spotlight that instrument wonderfully. Isn't that enough?

Next: the final four.

Monday, January 09, 2012

. . . And we're back.

After a computer-less month, ladies and gentlemen we are once again floating in space.

The really bizarre part is how, before I even did anything on my new computer, I was able to plug my old hard drive in and upload every single file from my previous computer onto the new. So when the new computer started for the first time, everything was exactly the same as it had been on the dead machine - only, it was a lot faster. It even restarted Firefox with the exact same pages that had been open when the computer died.

The one brown spot on the whole experience was the fact that my old Microsoft Office suite, which I had used since I got the old machine in 2008, no longer worked on the new laptop: apparently the old program ran on something called Power PC that the new OS Lion does not support. Which seems odd, because the result of this was that Apple made me go out and pay $100 for a new Microsoft program: seems like strange and (almost?) certainly unintentional collusion. I mean, seriously, they don't actually expect me to use whatever type of janky bullshit word processor Mac is hawking, do they?

And as an aside, I even managed to get an iPhone despite myself. Let me explain: as a belated Christmas gift I bought Violet a new iPhone 4GS - she is basically addicted to her iPhone and her old 3G was getting more and more decrepit as the weeks passed. So, fine, we go into the AT&T store with the intention of getting her the new phone. And then during checkout the clerk asks if I want an iPhone. I say that no, I don't want an iPhone. She says that the old 3Gs have gone down to $30, and that putting a new phone on Violet's plan would be only $15 or so more a month to her bill. Well, so I got a smartphone . . . I'm still not entirely sold on the idea. I am against smartphones on principle. I didn't actually get a cell phone of any kind until 2008, at which point I got a $20 pay-as-you-go number that lasted three years until the battery started to go. At which point i went out and bought another $20 cheap phone. But now I've got an iPhone. Honestly, it's fun and all, but so far I haven't really done anything but customize a ringtone and set a background picture. I don't see myself becoming as dependent on the phone as some people are . . . I just hate looking down at the tiny screen and trying to read a webpage or my e-mail. But not every situation is such that I can whip out my laptop and surf the internet at will, either.

Within two days, therefore, I joined the 21st century.

So, back to the old grind. Next week is the eighth anniversary of this blog - slightly less impressive than, say, Mike's eight anniversary, seeing as how he posts every day and I barely post at all. And yet, it's worth pointing out that whereas most blogs at some point slow their rate of posting and eventually just peter out altogether - usually the old "boy, it's been a long time since I posted!" post is the death knell - The Hurting somehow always manages to survive and return from even the most protracted malaise, like a particularly indolent and occasionally sarcastic cockroach. I'm going to keep slouching 'til the wheels fall off.