Monday, May 25, 2009

Not Dead Yet

Really I'm not. I had finals and then right after I finished with that I got on an airplane for sunny California for a funeral service, where I have been for five days. Life got in the way, as per usual.

Talk amongst yourselves.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

I Have Decided I am Going to Protest the New Trek Movie

I will be picketing the theater with this on a huge sign:

People are going to ask me, "What was Picard right about?"

And I will answer:

I am an American aquarium drinker /
Eye assassin down the avenue

(This is actually from the show I saw last summer,
and pretty good quality to boot.)

I'm a music critic; even when I'm not actively writing about music (like now, for instance - I've been a bit burnt out on music writing for a while) I listen to music like a critic. If I had to define what that means I guess I would say that I am an above-average educated listener, with an eye towards historical development, influence and stylistic novelty. I think about music in narratives. I think about music in terms of cultural theory and criticism. It's not an affectation: I've been listening to music and reading about music obsessively since I was in high school, and writing about it for long enough that I've basically trained myself to outline music reviews in my head for every new piece of pop music I hear. That's one of the reasons I eventually got burnt out: when listening to music becomes a chore, when you have trouble separating passive enjoyment from active critical dissection, you have to change your habits or give up one of the most important things in your life. I don't know how folks like Christgau can do it. I've gone through periods in the past couple years when I just didn't feel like listening to any music of any kind for days at a time - it wasn't relaxing anymore, it felt like work.

With that in mind, I realize my list of albums is a music critic's list. I listen to the type of music music critics do, and my criteria is that of a music critic. I share the snobberies and affectations of music critics. In the comments for yesterday's post, Jolly Jinkins said, in effect, these kinds of lists were useless because the listening public had grown so divided and disparate that there was no common cultural ground. Sadly - or not so sadly? - this is absolutely true. Because media is diffused, media intake is splintered. There just aren't very many universal experiences in culture anymore. We're not even talking about the longstanding divisions of "low" and "high" cultures - we're talking about divisions between subdivisions of microtrends.

Who was the biggest artist of the decade? Kanye West? Eminem? The Strokes? Well, obviously not the Strokes. But the fact that the Strokes were hailed so widely by critics and ignored so soundly by the vast majority of music consumers says something about this division. I'm not here to beat up on the Strokes - they were pretty good, and even if their first album was nowhere near as good as some critics thought, their third album was far better than anyone had any reasonable right to expect. But they started the decade as the "next big thing", back when the music industry was still girding itself for seasonal recalibration along the lines of Nirvana or Michael Jackson. Didn't happened. Hasn't happened so far this decade. Probably will never happen again. The only "seasonal recalibration" we got was the invention of the internet and virtual communities as weapons to demolish the established practices of the music recording and publicity industries.

Looking back to the previous decade, things were radically different. At the end of the 90s SPIN Magazine released a list of the "90 Best Albums of the 90s". It suffered from the same problems all of these lists suffer from, but was nevertheless pretty well constructed. It reflected conventional wisdom pretty accurately, and as such did exactly what these kinds of lists are supposed to do: present a snapshot of contemporary opinion and critical consensus, with an eye towards posterity. We can certainly quibble: I think most people would scratch their heads nowadays over the inclusion of Hole - sorry, Courtney Love fans; I'd probably switch around PJ Harvey and Pavement; maybe slide Bjork (whose influence seems, in retrospect, circumscribed) down the list and bring up OK Computer, an album whose influence and appeal continues to grow. Regardless: it's not a bad list, and most of the choices carry an obvious logic that is still readily comprehensible. Nirvana was the most important group of the decade; Public Enemy were by far the most important and influential rap act of the era even if their politicized hip-hop soon mutated into something far more coarse; Pavement essentially created contemporary indie rock, etc etc.

What is SPIN's 00s list going to look like? Will Kanye's College Dropout be #1? In Rainbows? Is This It? The Marshal Mathers LP? Arcade Fire? Coldplay? Wilco? Depending on which way the wind is blowing you can imagine any of these getting the nod, or none of them - maybe it's your decade, Daughtry. Honestly, I don't have any idea what people's idea of the aughts (or, if you prefer, the zeros) are going to look like. It's frustrating for me, not because I necessarily care about the creation of any kind of historical canon - I don't - but because, more importantly, the disparate musical climate is making any kind of historical project fraught. Lists like these aren't canon: canon is necessarily exclusionary, history is merely narrative. Where's the narrative now?

I could blame the musical fashionistas who gutted rock by turning it into a revolving door of gradually-more-pallid instant-supernova critical phenoms that all disappeared in as much time as it took for the blogs to manufacture a new cause célèbre. (Ahem: the Strokes, Tapes'n'Tapes, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Interpol, Arctic Monkeys, Vampire Weekend, Of Montreal, etc.) I could but I won't - the fact is, there is so much music nowadays, and everything is going so fast, that you almost get the feeling that this is how it has to be. It's as Darwinian as it ever was: good music will out at least some of the time, hard work will be rewarded at least some of the time, the strongest will always survive. But the definition of "strongest" is changing on a daily basis. All those groups I listed up above? They could all easily roar back into the spotlight with a killer album that forced everyone to pay attention again. Is it likely that they all will? Or that any of them will ever record anything worth listening to ever again? I dunno. Used to be we had record labels to act as gatekeepers and tastemakers for us, people hired to make the hard decisions for us poor peons. I can't say that was in any way a better system, because it obviously wasn't, but this brave new world can be pretty vertiginous. What is the purpose of criticism if there's no story to get behind? Where's the narrative?

The same place it ever was: in the critic's head and on the printed page (or glowing screen). Nowhere else.

Which is why Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is my favorite album of the decade. This album tells a story, and for better or for worse, it's a story I associate with our decade - melancholy, frustration and desperation - leavened by buoyant hope and occasional wild romanticism. Everything's falling apart, but right before all hope is completely lost, something arrests your attention - maybe not the perfect salvation, but some kind of salvation, even if only illusory.

In my mind, for what it's worth, I've always twinned Yankee Hotel Foxtrot with OK Computer. Maybe it's lazy - the result of too many bad music mag headlines calling Wilco the "American Radiohead" - but in terms of scope, density and ambition the two albums are really each others' only peers in the modern era. I think I've actually grown to like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot a little bit more than OK Computer. The latter album, for all it's undeniable mastery, begins to seem more settled into its historical niche the further we recede from its historical moment. For those of us who've listened to it and lived it and inhabited it these last twelve years, it holds few surprises - I hesitate, for obvious reasons, to say no surprises.

The 90s was a strange time: we all thought the future would be like the big-screen version of OK Computer, filled with technological alienation and multi-national cosmopolitanism, urban anomie and dislocation. Let us not forget that in 1997, OK Computer was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize alongside the Chemical Brothers' Dig Your Own Hole, the Prodigy's Fat of the Land and (the eventual winner) Roni Size and Reprazent's New Forms. The future was on peoples' minds. We were all interested in the future, for that was where you and I were going to spend the rest of our lives.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to the millennium: we took a left turn on the way to Al Gore's promised techno-utopia and ended up in Texas. Everyone across the planet went to Texas. And the funny thing about Texas is that despite the detour, all of the things Radiohead were singing about basically came true. Just not quite the way anyone was intending. Evil corporate robot voices intoning "Fitter, Happier" just don't seem that frightening anymore. Remember the riots that accompanied the G8 meetings in Seattle in '99? I'm not trying to say that resisting globalization wasn't a good idea - given the current state of the global economy, more people should probably have paid attention at the time - but in hindsight it can't help but seem slightly quaint. You want to hop into a time machine and tell them all, "you think things are bad now? Just wait a couple years until you're afraid to leave your house because of anthrax in the post office box . . ."

It's all well and good to be afraid of sci-fi car crashes in the next world war. But in the here and now, while we're actually living in a world at war, I feel more like Jeff Tweedy than Thom Yorke. Thom's talking to robots; Jeff's left alone muttering to himself because he's too afraid even to leave the house.
Someone ties a bow
in my backyard to show me love
My voice is climbing walls
smoking and I want love

My jaw's been broken
My heart is wrapped in ice
My fangs have been pulled
and I really want to see you tonight

And it makes no difference to me
how they cried all over overseas
It's hot in the poor places tonight
I'm not going outside
More to come.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

What the Fuck, Let's Pull the Trigger Already

The Aughts were one hell of a decade. I don't mean that in a good way. Whereas the 90s were (or, at least, people remember them to have been) an era of general prosperity and good feeling, lifted by a strong feeling of optimism in the waning years of the millennium, the first decade of this new millennium has been pretty shitty from the get-go. It started off well enough, but went careening off the cliff far more quickly than we could possible have imagined on December 31st, 1999. I'm sure I don't need to go into details, we can all cite chapter and verse. Everything about these past ten years has been peevish, disheartening, soul-crushing and painful - the incredibly euphoric, seemingly authentic optimism of the last year or so notwithstanding, we're not out of the woods yet.

I'm not just speaking in terms of national and global politics, but personally as well. Long-time readers should remember that this blog began as a beacon in the darkest hours of my life to date, and has remained throughout all the ups and downs that followed. I had reason to reflect on this recently when I saw that both Polite Dissent and PostmodernBarney turned five - this blog is a few months older than those, and just a few short weeks younger than Progressive Ruin. It's funny, I can't even remember all the blogs that have fallen by the wayside in that time - it seems like a whole bunch of us all sprung up around the same time, and only a few are still standing. Of all the old guard, I'm still the most erratic and inconsistent - yay! That's an achievement, of sorts. And nowadays you don't even see new single-proprietor blogs sprouting up anymore - it's all groups blogs, group blogs coming out of your ass. Phooey, I wouldn't join any club that would have me for a member. (What's that you say? Bitter I didn't get asked to join the Savage Critics? I assure you that I have no idea what you are talking about.)

Right now, a few nagging financial disasters aside (remember to tip your blogger!), things are pretty good. I daresay that if I work my ass off, at the end of '09 I may have successfully clawed my way back to where I was in December of '99. Perhaps in a few years' time we will all be able to look back on these years as a collective "lost decade" - here's hoping! So, basically: let's all just forget this decade ever happened.

Except time won't let us, we're still stuck with the awesome responsibility of writing up the inevitable best-of lists.

I hate best-of lists. They piss me off. I have to grind my teeth every time I go to the Comics Reporter between November and March because I know half the links are going to be to best-of lists, the contents of which I have read little and have no feelings for other than rank jealousy for people who are better able to organize their reading time than myself. But even if I ignore them (lists, that is) that doesn't mean they'll go away. Right now I can already hear the collective red pencils of magazine (and internet) editors across These United States being warmed up in anticipation of the "Best of the Decade" lists which should begin to hit newsstands sometime around September. (And yes, I know the pedants will say that the decade doesn't end until 12/31/10, but let's just acknowledge the fact that no one cares.)

So, what are the best albums of the decade? Although I do not assume the responsibility of making imaginary blog lists lightly, I will nevertheless conduct myself with a solemnity befitting the occasion. So, let's give this whole thing a go, pull the trigger, get the car out of the garage: let's start thinking about the decade that was, and all the ways it sucked, and the very few ways it didn't. Let's put the last few years into the ground already, shall we?

Oh look, here's a handy-dandy list in convenient top-ten form, like the kind you can imagine soliciting comments about and discussing in depth over the next couple weeks:
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
Let's get this party started, like the Black Eyed Peas.

Monday, May 04, 2009


I know everybody checks out Bully every day, so you've undoubtedly already seen the latest installment in his classic "Ten of a Kind" feature. I looked earlier today and I saw the above cover - and I haven't been able to get it out of my mind since. Look at it a moment: what the hell is going on? That's a comic? Like, a real comic people paid money for at some point in history? Really?

I'm no expert on Marvel westerns - and now that I think about it, I don't know anyone who is - but every time I come across anything from the line it invariably seems a little odd. This is particularly true for the mid-60s books published after the company had already found success in the revitalized superhero market. It's obvious that by the time the above comic was released (1964) the company was retooling everything in their line on the fly. People who accuse Marvel of shameless pandering and the unceasing pursuit of any passing "trend" of even dubious commercial value should remember that those two principles have underlined their business model from the very beginning, all the way back to when Martin Goodman occupied the corner office. In many ways, the current contemporary comics world is a product of this mentality: as soon as Marvel smells anything remotely resembling a hit, they flood the market with a dozen things that look just like it. The did this with superheroes in the early 60s - because, famously, DC's Justice League was monumentally popular - and the Marvel Age of Comics was born from this fecundity.

Therefore, just a quick glance at the series' covers reveals that Kid Colt was hardly a western book for people who really loved westerns, it was a western book that was willing and able to be everything else under the sun if it meant hopping on a potentially lucrative bandwagon. Case in point:

This hit the stands in November 1962, on the tail end of Marvel's brief obsession with the Kirby / Ditko monster comics that kept the company alive in the late 50s and directly spawned Fantastic Four. Now, from any perspective, this looks pretty awesome: kids love cowboys (or, at any rate, the did in 1962), but if there was one thing kids loved even more than cowboys it was giant monsters. Putting the two together was a natural fit for Marvel.

Just a few months later in May of 1963, with the "Marvel Age" (what a great marketing tool - an advertising slogan that doubles at a period marker) well under way, Kid Colt became a de facto superhero. Which is not to say that he hadn't always been a kind of superhero (secret identity and all, although that probably owed as much to the Lone Ranger and Zorro as Superman), but now he even had supervillains to prove it:

Also, this next one is a great cover. It's a striking design, with great use of color - look at the way the bright orange pops out against the greyscale Native Americans in the background. But the captions ruin what would otherwise by a fearsome image: Warroo? Seriously? You're celebrating 100 consecutive issues of publication and the biggest arrow in your quiver is Warroo? I guess all the good monsters were being used over in Journey Into Mystery.

But back to the Fat Man. If we can all agree that cowboys and monsters are great, and cowboys with supervillains are good too, well, that still doesn't explain this. For all the good ideas Marvel was putting out at this time, we must remember that early Marvel villains weren't exactly winning any beauty prizes: for every Dr. Doom and Green Goblin, there were thirty Kurrgos and Miracle Men. Hell, you can easily make the argument that despite their subsequent importance, the Puppet Master and the Mole Man are hardly that great, either. (And since we're talking about the first ten issues of Fantastic Four, let's not forget that fully half of these issues featured either Doctor Doom, the Sub-Mariner, or some combination thereof.) For that matter, who remembers a single villain the Hulk fought in the first six issues of his own book? Anyone?

Sure, Fantastic Four and Amazing Spider-Man had great villains, but reading any random pile of Silver Age Marvels, besides these two "flagship" books, you get the feeling real quick that they were throwing up anything just to see if it would stick - and the least important element of the story was often the antagonist. It's blind luck (and a heaping dollop of Ditko's great eye for character design) that Spidey's early rogues gallery was so damn strong: it took Spider-Man about five years (from ASM #1, with the first appearances of J. Jonah Jameson and the Chameleon, to ASM #50 and the first appearance of the Kingpin) to build one of the top-two rogue's galleries in comics. The only other contender, Batman, took thirty years to accrue as many good villains, and even then some of his better villains didn't arrive until the late 60s and early 70s. With this in mind, is it any surprise that the westerns got the dregs of the villain sweepstakes? If Stan Lee thought up a great new villain like Mysterio, where was he gonna put him? Amazing Spider-Man or Kid Colt? So, we've got the Fat Man.

And just in case you think I'm picking on Kid Colt, I should point out that by the standards of the day Kid Colt was relatively tame. Let's look and see what the Rawhide Kid was up to in spring of '64:

Amazingly, given the context, Two-Gun Kid seemed positively sedate in comparison. To judge by these covers, his book actually stuck fairly close to the Western template through the 1960s, with just a slight diversion for this modern classic:

I suspect no one has read most of these comics, because just a quick glance at the GCD archives hints at a veritable treasure trove of undiscovered wackiness. If you are someone, like me, who believes that the Platonic form of all comics blogs exists in the act of mocking old issues of Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane, you will join me in salivating over the possibilities inherent in such unmistakably weird books. I wonder if there's a torrent anywhere . . .

But anyway: Fat Man. Boomerang. Is this supposed to be threatening? Were boomerangs some exotic artifact back in the early 1960s? I mean, you've got Captain Boomerang at DC, and this guy - was there a famous boomerang dude on Ed Sullivan or something that got all the kids excited about the open-ended play possibilities of a stick that would return to the owner once thrown? You don't really see these kinds of one-object specialist villains anymore. If I were 8 in 1964, would I have been excited by the images on display in this cover? Would I have wet myself in anticipation of the resolution of Kid Colt's pulse-pounding battle to the death with the Fat Man? Really, Kid Colt doesn't seem that concerned - you can tell by the look on his face that this is just another day in the office.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Things I Like Which No One Else Does

Part Three

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band: The Movie

It occurs to me that explaining my strong affection for this movie might be difficult. I'm not going to try and convince you that it's a good movie, because it's not. It's really not. But I don't like it as an object of camp, and I have no intention of making fun of it. I know camp. Something like Blood Sucking Freaks, which is also a very bad movie, but has no real redeeming factor other than it's universal awefulness, is obviously camp. The thing with Sgt. Pepper is that, while on first (and second and third . . .) examination it just seems like a bad movie, it's also an incredibly sincere movie. That's probably the best word for it: sincere. I think that everyone involved wanted to do their best by the Beatles, because - honestly - why else would they have done this? What else could possibly have compelled the people involved in this movie to make this movie in the first place?

You probably are thinking that the answer to this question is "money", and of course, you're probably right. But there's something else at work. The thing is, the Beatles do funny things to people. It's been almost fifty years - think about that, people! - but the Beatles still have that thing - cache is too small a word. Aura. Glamour. Whatever. Part of it comes from Apple Corps' absolutely zealous protection of the brand. Part of it - a huge part of it - stems from boomer nostalgia. But that can't explain all of it. There are tons and tons of cameos in this film - everyone from Etta James, Curtis Mayfield, Frankie Valli - hell, even John and George were on the set for a day. Why would so many otherwise rational and sane individuals (and Carol Channing) agree to appear on film for something that must have seemed from the very outset, to anyone with two ounces of common sense, like the world's biggest Thanksgiving turkey? Because it's the Beatles.

(Skip ahead to around 5:10)

And I'm not immune myself - far from it. I went through a fairly massive Beatles phase back in high school. Raise your hands if you went through "a fairly massive Beatles thing" in high school - I imagine there's a lot of people who fit that bill, going all the way back to the folks who were actually going to high school when the Fab Four hit Ed Sullivan. And then, after a couple years of listening obsessively - well, I just stopped. I was sick of them. Familiarity, contempt, etc. And to tell you the truth I haven't been able to come back to them since in any meaningful way. Occasionally I'd pull Abbey Road or the self-titled "White Album" down off the shelf, but I knew all those old songs so well it was like staring at a picture of the back of my hand.

But then, a few years ago when I was still living in Worcester and working nights, I DVR'ed a showing of the film on one of the late-night movie channels. I'd never seen it before but I knew all the history and the (negative) hype. And then for whatever reason I felt compelled to watch and rewatch the movie some half-dozen times over the next few weeks. I don't think I erased it off the DVR for a year. It's hypnotic, that's really the only word I can use to describe it.

There's a point near the end of the film where Peter Frampton is singing "Golden Slumbers" over Sandy Farina's coffin and you realize - wait a second - this isn't just absurd, it's so absurd it crashes through to the other side of absurd and comes back to incredibly, monumentally poignant. Because, dammit if it isn't one of the most devastating songs ever written, and not even a clown like Peter Frampton can really fuck it up. And really, it doesn't even matter that he's such a clown: he sells the song, God dammit, he sells that shit like Alec Baldwin just marched into his dressing room and screamed "COFFEE IS FOR CLOSERS!" at the top of his lungs. There's a fifteen minute or so sequence beginning with "Golden Slumbers" where Frampton and the Bee Gees take turns singing all the most melancholy songs from the Beatles' catalog - "Golden Slumbers", "The Long and Winding Road", "A Day In The Life" - and then right when Peter Frampton tries to kill himself by jumping off a building, a magic golden weather vane transforms into Billy Preston, who starts shooting rays of solid blue magic energy from his fingertips, saves Frampton's life and sings "Get Back" - all while wearing a gold lamé marching band outfit.

Regardless of how "bad" the movie is, regardless of how many careers it destroyed and lawsuits it launched, watching the movie you know, you are absolutely 100% certain, that the people who made this movie really believed it, at least for a while. They really believed that music could save your life, and that a sad song could bring the dead back to life, and that sometimes happy endings just happen. Watching this film, you might believe it too - because, for a few awesome moments, despite the silliness, despite the oddity, despite the awfulness, you know that a handful of good songs are all you really need. If you've got "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "You Never Give Me Your Money" - what more do you need, really?