Friday, November 30, 2007

Modern Library Top 100: #97 - The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles (1949)

When you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you. --F. Nietzsche

Unless you happened to eschew pogs and calvinball for complex philosophy in your formative years, I suspect most of us encountered that Nietzsche diddy at about the same time I did, as the cryptic epigraph to 1989's The Abyss, a rather underrated James Cameron disaster joint that, among other things, invites us to consider the (empty?) expanse of the unknown.

In his quest to do likewise 50 years earlier, Paul Bowles effectively created two abysses in The Sheltering Sky, a tale about Port and Kit Moresby, a daft young American couple who forge deep into the Sahara for all the usual reasons and encounter all the usual dangers. The obvious abyss is the ineffable Sahara, so fathomlessly large it can only be described by its dusty parts. But the other, more pressing vortex is the novel itself, so void of good storytelling that I sometimes wonder how The Sheltering Sky hasn't collapsed into itself like a mini-black hole to suck in all the other, better books on my shelf.

Still, while the The Sheltering Sky can only be called a spectacular failure, it at least falls on its face nobly. An expatriate American living in Tangier, Bowles can at the very least (and at the very most, come to think of it) be commended for his novel take on the foreigner-gets-consumed-by-alien-environment trope that, even in the most skilled hands, is rarely pitch-perfect. Wishing to articulate the desolation to his South yet recognizing that the publishing industry had already carpet-bombed America with fish-out-of-water tales, Bowles decided to abandon the traditional character-driven/plot-heavy Western narrative in favor of indistinguishable one-dimensional characters and scene descriptions.

The result is a 200 page socratic monologue (dialogue would suggest at least a smattering of meaningful interaction), wherein the characters speak to the reader and each other not in their own voices but as Bowles. That's a shame, because it so often distracts from what Bowles has to say. First and foremost a composer (he created all the incidental music to Tennessee Williams' Broadway shows) that music is abundantly evident in Bowles' prose. Witness perhaps the best meditation on mortality you're ever likely to read:

Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don't know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life. It's that terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don't know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that's so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.

Beautiful, no? But it's a sentiment undercut by the fact that it's impossible to remember who said it, and that even if you could, it wouldn't really matter anyway.

That leads us back to what seems to be a recurring theme here at Neon Hustle; namely, when can innovation and challenge go too far? Bowles wanted to focus on ideas (death) and setting (the Sahara) rather than characters and plot, and as much as I can admire the driving logic to differentiate himself from the past and the future, it nevertheless makes for an agonizing read. I've never thought of myself as a conservative, but I guess in the literary realm I may be.

If The Sheltering Sky were distilled into a 30-page non-fiction essay or travelogue it would probably be required reading in English classes worldwide. That's a testament to Bowles' spot-on observation, and his ability to transport us to a world that all but the luckiest few of us will never know. But in expanding those thoughts into a shiftless, unstructured novel, whatever substance is left is stretched paper-thin, like too little butter on too much toast, leaving us with a world we'd prefer not to know.

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Sunday, November 25, 2007

Less Than Zulu

They graduated from Columbia, they seem to dig sweaters and Polo button-downs, and they’ve listened to “Graceland.” A lot. This is all the information your average alterna-media news source has likely gathered thus far about Vampire Weekend, the four-piece indie outfit from New York City whose debut album will be released in January on XL Recordings. Yet despite a dearth of consumer-ready product by the band, they have prompted a tremendous buzz of blog hyperbole courtesy of two singles and a seeming omnipresence at new music showcases such as last month’s CMJ.Vampire Weekend’s aesthetic owes heavily to their background as honest-to-goodness preppies, and their widely-internet-circulated “Blue CD-R” (an apparent leak of the forthcoming full-length) is littered with allusions to enduring touchstones of upper-crust Americana. These 10 songs reference the neo-baroque architecture of the old-money Northeast (“Mansard Roof”), fun ‘n sun vacation spots (“Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”), and the band members’ own private university education (they learned the finer points of the “Oxford Comma” on their own Ivy League “Campus.”) With lyrics that name-check Luis Vuitton and a video depicting the band soft-rocking the boat, VW’s carefully-sculpted packaging ultimately epitomizes a Yuppie-chrysalis/larva stage straight out of Neil LaBute’s Young-Reaganauts-in-Hate period.

Still, what may well be the most frequent issue taken with “Vampire Weekend” will be in the substance 10 tracks, an aggressive pastiche of several African pop music forms and the modern indie canon. The resonant, distortion-free guitar tones and percussive rhythms are immediately recognizable as the product of Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon and others’ synthesis of “world music” into pop solutions palatable to white audiences those decades ago. The hooks are catchy and the beats are as equally well-suited to dancing at SXSW as they are sipping tropical drinks on vay-kay from Princeton by your parents’ pool. Upon first listen, there really is quite a bit to enjoy.

However, despite the band’s attempts to shrug off over-intellectualized interpretations of their self-described "mash-up," it is hard to ignore the implications of racial insensitivity which will inevitably follow such an undertaking as Vampire Weekend (the band and the album.) Backlash against white artists rummaging through the history of global musics for their own reinvention is certainly not new. One particularly potent criticism has been the claim of racial/classist tourism on behalf of comfortably safe westerners seeking a fresh stimulus. Though unfairly reducing the genuine open-mindedness of many adventurous listeners, it is ultimately more an accusation levied in disdain for those sheltered, idle Americans who, in an effort to justify their own considerable privilege, claim to engage in meaningful ways with other cultures through little more than 40 minutes listening to a Ladysmith Black Mambazo LP.

In this way, the re-appropriation of multicultural influences in faddish art rock trends may recall the legacy of western imperialism that stripped the African continent of its resources, precluding the later development of any sort of stabilizing infrastructure and precipitating decades of civil ethnic conflict. Vampire Weekend’s own approximation of their sound is adorably described as “Upper-West side Soweto.” Putting cuteness aside, the referenced place is actually an area of Johannesburg populated historically with the poorest of black Africans, ghettoized following the expulsion of migrant workers of the region's gold mines from other sections of the city by the local and municipal governments. A cursory knowledge of South African history remembers the legacy of violence and degredation following the race-riots of 1976, and the economic despair of the locale sees that Soweto remains synonymous with “slums” in the lives of the thousands who reside there. In this light, Vampire Weekend’s venturing back to the Dark Continent is now colored by their overt references to the preppy culture of the 80s, and is particularly damning of a band that seemingly glorifies a lifestyle epitomized by wealthy white Americans during the time of apartheid. This sort of insensitivity speaks to ignorance at best and exploitation at worst.

Perhaps what's most irksome about Vampire Weekend’s disproportionately monstrous hype is the knowledge that exactly this style of genre bending has appeared quite recently. Another mid-profile indie rock record by Montreal post-Unicorns project Islands incorporated such songwriting experiments far more subtly (and more successfully), producing one of the most underrated and enduring releases of 2006. Ultimately, it might be that restraint is what lends an artist’s forays into multiculturalism credibility for personal expansion a much longer half-life of artistic relevance than anyone can expect of an internet flavor-of-the-moment.

Both our instincts and critical conventions tell us that authenticity of origin counts for something, but what, exactly? And what ills can even our honest interest in such experiences really absolve us of when they’re half-hearted at best?

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007


Over dinner last Friday, I found myself in an argument over whether music ought be challenging. This didn't so much start because I have strong opinions one way or another, but because I advanced Brendan's once casually mentioned "Band of Horses as quintessential The OC soundtrack band" theory/objections in a conversation about the year thus far in music. Which didn't so much start because I have strong opinions about his beef with Band of Horses, as because we started talking about Band of Horses. And if there's one thing I don't have a strong opinion about, it's Band of Horses.

As I started going through the music I'd picked up this year, I found myself subconsciously putting releases into one of two categories - better or worse than Cease to Begin, BoH's sophomore release. More than the usual ordered preferencing that goes into these lists, which occurs by the very nature of lists where everything is invariably either better or worse than an arbitrary line in the sand, it seemed necessary that I make this record my balancing point. To me, it is the universal signifier for 2007 - a "much anticipated follow-up record" by an indie rock band with some twang - between these three characteristics I might be able to sum up most new releases I heard this year. It has also left me mildly disappointed, another feature it shares with most music I found this year.

Everything All the Time came out to the great anticipation of most everyone who had ever listened to Carissa's Wierd, promising something along the lines of alt-country shoegaze northwest indie-rock. As it turned out, it delivered on the first, kind of ignored the second and third, but knocked out of the park the most radio-friendly version of the fourth this side of a Grey's Anatomy soundtrack. Unfortunately, Cease to Begin doesn't do much but work within the template of their first release. It rocks a bit harder at points, and croons a bit sweeter at others, but it never really gets beyond the catchy melodies into really interesting songs that beg putting the record on repeat.

When I first heard Some Loud Thunder, I wasn't impressed. Hot on the heels of their stellar self-titled debut, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! were on the verge of breaking into the mainstream, or at least whatever part of the mainstream the Shins inhabit, and proceed to pull the musical equivalent of a rickroll. The first track's distorted-to-hell production left me convinced that my leaked copy was messed up, and the second song sounded like a pale imitation of their first record. And thus, I went into the album with an admittedly negative disposition that took the varying tones and moods as a lack of focus, the stronger songwriting for lost spontaneity and creativity. I somehow missed the raucously wailing "Yankee Go Home," which was the track that the blogosphere meant to choose when it instead started hyping "Satan Said Dance." Then, with a little more distance, I started listening to it again. As it turns out, that first track, "Some Loud Thunder" might be the most frustratingly great pop song of the year. And I mean that as a compliment.

Since my turnaround on this record, I've grown to appreciate many things about it, but the vocals really do deserve mention, along with the de rigeur mention of David Byrne. It isn't just the similarities in the emotive, exposed delivery and curious arrangements that bring him to mind, but that I haven't heard someone sing with this sort of melancholy and longing since Speaking in Tongues. Sure, it's nasal, and the songs, while they develop better than the sketches of songs in their first release, don't have the sort of verse-chorus-bridge structures that the collective pop consciousness clues into immediately, but that's part of what makes it so rewarding.

The last artist I wrote about here was Tullycraft: no doubt there's something to be said for pop music in its purest, most obvious, grab-you-by-the-earworm forms, and it's the reason why the 60's were fucking awesome (even?) before the hippies took over. Is music bad because it doesn't challenge us? Of course not. But is it good because it challenges us?

We will always be playing catch up to artists who are beyond us - insomuch as they create and we consume, we will always be a step behind. In the same way that artists pushing the limits of their form is good, advancing as it were, working to an understanding of the off-putting or out of the ordinary or the just plain weird is how we as listeners grow. As we catch up, we discover gems that we didn't realize were there - history is littered with genius unrecognized until after its time. So this means everyone be listening to John Cage? Hell no.

Perhaps challenging music is an end in itself - music exists as a search for better and more perfect forms of expression and staying atop that evolution is thus clutch - but more likely music has other places, other functions, fills other needs in your life. For me, it's the emotional and aesthetic qualities - how music makes me feel, what music says about life, how fucking fantastic some melodies can sound, how some rhythms just seem to catch me, and how all those pieces fit together. And that's why "Some Loud Thunder" has become my favorite track on the album.

I've heard plenty of explanations for why CYHSY! tweaked the sound on the track, but I'm not sure if I care what the real reason was; to me, the song's themes of alienation and loss are just made that much more powerful as you listen through the broken-speaker-sounding drums to decipher the words. Cease to Begin is a solid album, but it delivers its message as crystal clear as the reverb on the first single's vocals. I may not have had to work for that album, but I also haven't really wanted to listen to it for the last month out of anything other than the obligation to write this post. Some Loud Thunder is one of the few albums released lately that I find getting better with time. Sure, I didn't love it as much on first listen as I did their first record, but I'm willing to catch up to them. It's been worth it.

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Friday, November 16, 2007

Time Just Moves Slower in Canada

The Weakerthans’ newest album is a sore hangover. I don’t mean this as a description of the character or content of “Reunion Tour,” but rather more in the acute sense upon waking up that- even more than that bottom-shelf bourbon- you have something to regret. Now, nearly three months after its initial release, conversation across the internet and in its extra-dimensional facsimile has turned from a general praise for the band's demonstrated ability to pen credible anthems for the educated everyman into a general disinterest in even hearing such once-tantalizing prospects as new entries in the “Elegy” and “Hymn” song sets, or the return appearance of Virtue the cat. Somewhere in the four years passed since their frequently praised last album, “Reconstruction Site,” this band of learned Winnipeggers (not a slur), once beloved attendants of the shared ennui of suburban nonrenewal, have become posterchildren for our inability to take pleasure in what we ought to value most: the commonly great.And no, “Reunion Tour” is not that great of an album. However, my initial reaction upon first listen was almost identical to the first time I heard “Reconstruction Site,” or “Left and Leaving,” or “Fallow.” I found melodies that worked their way into the deepest recesses of my brain, chord progressions both familiar and catchy, variety in songwriting and instrumentation, and convincingly high-quality lyricism, just as I have come to expect of John K. Samson and co. Indeed once was enough to recognize this record, like the three that preceded it, should certainly fill out any proper list of the most utilitarian of indie rock releases of the year. The entire Weakerthans’ discography seems faithfully built to earn repeated play for being both enjoyable and (mostly) non-challenging, with plenty enough sturdy contruction and delivery prowess to deserve both our attention and our affection.

So why the tepid reception for the predictably decent “Reunion Tour?” Have the band in some capacity offended? No, our plucky canucks committed no crime greater than having somehow become hoplessly, cripplingly uncool compared to all the nifty new bands who have sprung up in their absence. None of them has been subsumed into any bizarrely specific role as niche percussionists in the New Pornographers or Broken Social Scene. There are no YouTube Blogoteque videos of Indie Prodigy-Du-Jour singing a beloved album cut. In fact, the single greatest criticism of the album that I could assess is that it is “merely” good in the same way that every Weakerthans record has been, as though all that was preventing "Reunion Tour" from ascending the ranks into thepantheon of All-Time-Greats was a some minor novelty that probably would have grown tiresome and detracted from its value eventually anyway.

Coolness-as-commodity is as deeply inundated into our general culture as it is pronounced in our music-snobbery subculture. This weekend, a Discovery Channel Programming Event caused me to become what I can only assume was the first person ever to watch “Planet Earth” while not high. In one segment, the narrator impresses us with the claim that though there more than a thousand species of lovely birds of paradise like the ones we were shown, the Bluebird of Paradise was now to be seen for the first time in recorded history. And when the small, azure avian was finally shown, I was struck immediately by how… ordinary it seemed. Compared to its more “common” cousins, the Bluebird was plain in every way, and I immediately longed for more high-def shots of cascading ornamental plumes and dazzling, multi-hues tails.

Certainly we know that scarcity does not equate to quality. Blood diamonds aren’t any shinier than cubic zirconia. We don’t need every Bowie CD reissue to reveal yet another of the 3,000 versions of “John, I’m Only Dancing” from 1972. And we don’t need to know what was said in the 18½ minute gap to know that Nixon was an evil motherfucker. Following the millenia of years of evolution prior to the Blue Bird of Paradise’s debut to humanity, the little thing couldn’t help but dissapoint- it was just a fucking bird, man. It wanted nothing in life but to eat some bugs and to never be described as “extra tasty crispy.”

And this is exactly the problem that the Weakerthans face. We claim to love the uheralded genius, yet our ardor for the Next New Thing puts our discoveries on a clock, with the demand of new iterations of themselves to be produced regularly, lest we be not entertained. The lucky bands assure themselves at least another 15 minutes. The unlucky seem to get less than 15 seconds. The irony in this of course is that rarely, if ever, are we capable of loving the next installment of our favorites as much as we did our firsts. Our most lasting impressions of the music say as much about ourselves of the time and place of our initial discovery of it as anything else. Our nature as snobs is to fetishize and promote our discoveries until they attain a personalized mythology we see as befitting our feelings about their work, but it is within the unabashed thrill of that moment that we develope sentimental attatchments to an artist, and exactly those attatchments are what render impossible any hope of ever loving their later works.

But we’ll come back to you, Weakerthans, because your consistency transcends all. The brightest burning may flame out fast, but the consistently good never have to fade away. We the faithful will carry your torch and abide the waiting with saintly patience, because we know that your getting a fair shot ever again will be a miracle.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Chinese Democracy

This past week, death sentences were given to five Uighurs accused of "extreme religious activities and advocat[ing] holy war and establish[ing] a terrorist training base" in the western Xinjiang province. Whether or not these charges are valid - the People's Republic of China claims they were found with explosives, grenades, and 'suicide bombs' - PRC policy regarding the Turkic-speaking Muslims in the so-called "Eastern Turkmenistan" is flying remarkably low on the media radar. With forced relocation programs and a slew of other policies that seem intent on eradicating the Uighur people, the government has been hiding behind the same War on Terror rhetoric that Russia used to crack down in Chechnya and the surrounding regions. "Free East Turkestan" hasn't replaced "Free Tibet" as the bumper sticker of choice yet, but give it a year or two.

This is a frightening situation no matter how you slice it - either they really are violent, Islamic separatists and there's about to be another state created to sponsor for global terror, or the PRC is using shelter found in American foreign policy rhetoric to carry out egregious violations of human rights all too reminiscent of those seen in the Great Leap Forward and Tibet. But the media isn't concerning itself with this. Rather, it's picked up on boats and basketball.

The former, wherein the PRC surfaces a 160 ft Song Class diesel-electric sub in the midst of US Naval exercises in the East China Sea, came "as big a shock as the Russians launching Sputnik." Considering it was our space gizmos, naval superiority, and huge stockpile of nuclear weapons that were letting us sleep easy as the PRC started to modernize its military, this latest incident, along with the anti-satellite technology demonstrated in January, means we're back to the Cold War-era strategy of praying to the God of Mutually Assured Destruction.

There are any of number reasons why this incident is so troubling - starting perhaps with the fact that the US government had no idea that the Chinese military could do this. Maybe more unsettling, however, is the brazen reveal. Not only does this say that the PRC feels secure enough in their naval power and technology to shadow American military exercises, but they don't care if we know that they've been doing it. It would be bad enough for the PRC to stand up and say that they're fixing their deck, that we don't know what's in that deck, and that they're willing to show us some tricks they can do with it while we're holding what seem to be live fire exercises, but this comes less than a week after Secretary of Defense Robert Gates went to China to "help strengthen understanding and trust between the two militaries." Yeah, trust.

Two days prior, China made headlines with another showdown: the China NBA Derby, as the showdown between Yao Ming's Houston Rockets and Yi Jianlian's Milwaukee Bucks has come to be called. PhDribble is the place to start here: the close reading of the People's Daily article is spot on, but it leaves open the question of the broader significance of all the conclusions. The game parties are intriguing as a redefinition of the public and private spheres in the PRC, but perhaps more interesting is that they are the creations of internet based fan clubs. Stop to consider for a moment a country where freedoms are curtailed with regularity, and where civil society organizations like churches and trade unions can't exist without state sponsorship, but where teenagers can organize through new media to cheer on a game taking place across the globe.

That there can be such pro-western, collectively organized events that bleed loyalty to individuals before teams is not remarkable in the sense that it should be anathema to Communism - such ideological strictures as would have precluded this have long been replaced by state run capitalism - but in how it exemplifies the bizarre limbo that the PRC is in today.

No longer followers of the One True Path toward international socialist revolution, the government has been trying to create the illusion of openness as it uses its very visible, very heavy hand to guide the country's military and economic modernization. Where the USSR might not have been able to tolerate these groups (my admittedly brief internet research has yet to determine if sports clubs in the USSR had non-state fan clubs), China has preempted the question. Rather than outright banning association, the PRC has circumscribed the role it can play. Perhaps by allowing people the right to gather for basketball games, it can avoid the people pressing to gather for democracy.

Still, the clubs may yet present a challenge for the PRC. Not only does the means of organization itself create a training ground for would-be activists, but the exercise of autonomy within the system may breed demands for more spaces to act freely. This is to say nothing of the ramifications of cheering for players in the international game of individual glory. And of course, it is still an American league.

The people of the PRC have their eyes on American basketball. The government of the PRC has their eyes on America's place as the global leader. Meanwhile, America writ large has their eyes somewhere else entirely. Most definitely not on Xinjiang province, and, with two wars in progress, generally not on the PRC at all. Those two wars, however, are revealing an America no longer as strong as it used to be. It doesn't matter whether the wars have rendered us drastically less able to materially project power globally, or whether it has just made the world believe that we have lost the ability, or even whether it only exposed a pre existing decline in American military strength, the fact remains that the world is changing. But perhaps there doesn't need to be a readjustment of the global balance of power quite yet - we can probably wait until the playoffs are over.

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Norman Mailer and Me

Norman Mailer died Saturday of renal failure at the age of 84, and the world yawned.

It's hard to overstate just how sad that is. Of the three truly famous novelists of the past few decades (Vonnegut, Vidal, Mailer) only Vidal is still puttering around, wheeling from campus to campus to gleefully assume his role as the bee in America's bonnet. There's just no contemporary comparison to those three's cultural importance--these were men who challenged the status quo, were hounded for (and gladly proffered) their creative thoughts on all the subjects du jour, and who became celebrities not by dint of luck or connections but by originality and talent. But writers today have assumed a more passive role, which may explain the media's relatively muted response to Mailer's passing, whose activist legacy seems particularly anachronistic nowadays. JK Rowling seems more content to cash her checks than take a strong stand. Thomas Pynchon won't even give an interview outside of his Simpsons bits. Stephen King can't be bothered to write about anything outside of the Red Sox. And how many of our generation has even read anything by Don Delillo?

But Mailer was something different, his legend born from the first serious post-WW2 novel (The Naked and the Dead, #51 on the Modern Library List, which means I'll review it here in, oh, three years or so). He wasn't an angel; he was a conservative prude and bully who thought that sex was designed for two consenting members of the opposite sex, and to consider any alternative was tantamount to making a lunch date with Lucifer himself ("Good fucks make good babies"). Mailer lived his life as a nouveau Hemingway, carousing with boxers and athletes (whose chiseled bodies presumably made him squirm) and embracing the fuzzy feelings of fermented beverages to an alarmingly destructive degree--in one drunken frenzy he stabbed and nearly killed his second wife, who demonstrated her fidelity by politely declining to press charges.

But he was also, improbably, deeply compassionate. His "Armies of the Night" was an empathetic description of a march on the Pentagon, published at a time where popular opinion was still firmly with the administration and its memorable capers in Indochina, sentiments Mailer fiercely derided to the point of being arrested for his anti-war activism. But that current of social consciousness was best expressed in the first novel of Mailer's I'd ever read, The Executioner's Song, a probing, 1500+ page historical novel detailing the last few years of Gary Gilmore's life.

It's hard to imagine now, but there was a brief period in the 60s and 70s where grassroots organizing and prisoner's rights movements pressured the Supreme Court enough to actually bring about the abolition of the death penalty in 1972. Of course, this being America, that drastic action was swiftly overturned, and Gary Gilmore of Utah (natch) was the first victim of the death penalty's glorious encore in January of 1977.

Through extensive interviews and letters, Mailer tried to re-piece Gilmore's life, not combing for a Rosebud so much as examining the nature of evil acts. In the process, Gilmore becomes not only a vicious criminal who ruthlessly butchered a motel manager deep in Mormon country, but an obviously tortured soul touched by madness, crafting beautiful letters to his girlfriend and lawyers (many of which were reprinted verbatim in the book) and painting canvasses alternating between exultant and disturbed. In a perverse conflation of guilt and pride and even fame-hunting, Gilmore ultimately refused to appeal his case in the wake of legal counsel suggesting that such an appeal would spare his life.

It takes a master's touch to undermine an audience's sensibilities without the aid of a blunt instrument, and it takes an awful lot of courage to depict a murderer as singularly human. Mailer possessed both but Hollywood seems intent on destroying such qualities, as handily demonstrated by the only "serious" look at the death penalty offered at a theater near you in recent years, The Life of David Gale, a comically bad sledgehammer of a movie. As the great American Writer--and, by extension, the Great American Novel--begin to solemnly fade away, so too will the various shades of gray that make all great art so timeless and world-changing.

The Executioner's Song is a rich tapestry of personal loss and conflict, of grief and madness, that ultimately eradicates the Manichean notion of good and evil so pervasive in our culture. That's a lesson that not even 3 years as the ward of the socially-conscious Jesuits could fully hammer home for me; Mailer did so in a couple of weeks. Not bad for a book idly chosen for its length to fill some dark winter nights. RIP, Norman Mailer.

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Friday, November 9, 2007

Hardpower and the Hardcourt

If you aren't reading FreeDarko, you aren't reading the best sports blog on the internet. If you are, then you've already seen Matthew Yglesias's guest post, Love, Basketball, and Imperialism.

The argument, while no doubt interesting, is too far from the mark to call insightful. Not only does the imposition of NFL Europa and the extensive U-Bahn advertising in Berlin for the Thunder challenge the isolationist label of football, (was this direct imperialism, perhaps?), but my friend in Serbia who plays linebacker for domestic clubs and does Serbian language television commentary for NCAA games would probably challenge any claim that the sport has yet to cross the pond. Though the fact that he backs the Cardinals does show they've got a lot to learn about it. And while Yglesias disregards soccer, this is perhaps excusable as football-as-politics similes have been played out by politicos, essayists, and journalists to a pathetic degree of predictability. Hockey is indeed painfully dystopian and Canadian, perhaps that is why I love it.

Why Do Bombed Buildings Look So Grey?.jpg

Yglesias rests his analogy on the notion that our successes have come from alliances in the name of good, and basketball talent has similarly been attracted to the cause of excellence in the NBA. Just like Operation Enduring Freedom brought Australia into the fight to create a free and stable Afghanistan, Georgetown brought Dikembe Mutombo to a long and prolific career on the court. Perhaps coincidentally, both the War in Afghanistan and Mutombo started out great but now just can't seem to get the job done.

Beyond that soft case for America-as-rallying-point, he argues for basketball-as-multilateralism, which might be interesting if the whole point of FreeDarkoism weren't in complete contradiction to that argument. Which is what exactly?

OH NOES!.jpg

On Chicagoist, FreeDarko is described by two of the creators as such:

That being said, can you use FreeDarko as an adjective in a sentence?
BS: jewish wedding in new orleans zoo with dixieland band playing klezmer = totally Freedarko
DLIC: Freedarko to me symbolizes simultaneously unrealized and unfulfilled potential … lots of wild animals are freedarko

But perhaps a better description can be found circuitously, describing it by analogy. Matt Ufford of KSK guest lectured on the topic of Purple Jesus:
Somewhere in the archives of this website rests a discussion, or possibly discussions, of how FreeDarko’s soi-disant ideal of style can be applied to the NFL, wherein the authors and commenters -- if memory serves, which it often doesn’t -- came to a general consensus resembling this: The NFL has Stars, yes, but football’s dependence on highly specialized roles working together to accomplish success reduces the ability of a single individual to take over a game. But running backs, it was argued and largely agreed upon, displayed the FD tenets of style, substance, and imagination on the canvas of athleticism with the most regularity

If FreeDarko is the apotheosis of the talent above the team, why the hell is Yglesias talking about alliance building in an international system based on liberal internationalism. Rather, FreeDarko seems to be realism in its pure, unadulterated, Henry Kissinger worshipping, counterbalance Iran back to the stone age, amoral, "fuck the team, I'll carry the team" anti-glory.

Or perhaps it isn't. Perhaps FreeDarko isn't about the player and their ability to take control of a game and shape it to their will. Perhaps it's about what that player's control over the game does to us, and perhaps that's why Yglesias is writing about the right things in the right place for the wrong reason. It isn't just excellence, it's about potential. By that particular yardstick, America is the most FD country on earth. Where the French Revolution was the rejection of the old order to be replaced by the new, The American Revolution defined a nation of free peoples under a liberal democracy not by opposition to the ancien regime but in regard solely unto itself. We are not defined by our tradition, we are our own tradition. We are America (And So Can You!). It isn't that we are the bastion of freedom and the city on the hill, it's that we're still trying to be. America's story is ultimately one of recently or as yet unfulfilled potential, but that's what gives hope.


A search for "Be Like Mike" on Google just turned up over 170,000 hits. This was a line from an ad campaign that started in 1991, after Al Gore invented the internet but before he had time to advertise it real good, and this is why Yglesias was right. Alternatives to realism aren't at their strongest when bombing Serbia into liberalism, but when convincing Serbia to move towards liberalism on its own. Yglesias closes with a reference to that bombing, but what he doesn't address is how much the Serbs love basketball. Whether it's talking about Divac's contributions to his native land or gathering in the dining hall of a cheap hotel on a ski resort mountain to watch their countrymen take down the USA in the FIBA U-19 World Championship, they love this game.

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It's a Fine Line Between the Monkey and the Robot

As much fun as a song about zombies or pirates or robots or some other hipster hullaballoo can be, the line between "good, catchy indie-pop song" and "kitschy novelty track that won't be listened to again after three weeks" is a fine one. The Besties "Prison Song" takes the title and turns it into a sad but poppy letter on separation and longing. "Zombie Song" takes male/female vocals and a killer chorus down a dead end road of a song that you only follow on Halloween and when in discussions about zombies. These are the "I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness" of songs, where all of the creativity went into the concept and the execution kind of sucks. Given the rather dicey risks that these sort of songs face, Tullycraft's Every Scene Needs a Center is all the more remarkable.

In the broadest strokes, this is an astonishingly catchy series of songs that seem written for mixtapes and movies. From the character portraits (Georgette Plays a Goth, One Essex Girl) to the mini-stories (The Punks are Writing Love Songs, Dracula Screams of Tiger Style, If You Take Away the Makeup Then the Vampires They Will Die) to the meta-scene commentary (Bored to Hear Your Heart Still Breaks, We Know You're Cute You Told Us), the pop sensibility of this story packed CD would almost be overwhelming if it weren't so well paced an album. "The Lonely Life of a UFO Researcher" might not be the best song on the album, but its half-whispered, searching vocals are the best way to split the scene epic of Dracula-as-rock-star that comes before it and the stellar, upbeat "A Cursed Miss Maybellene" that follows.

It isn't that much of an accomplishment to find a song that can fit a theme so well - there's enough music out there that you'll find any number of songs about aliens, lovelorn punks, or goth girls named Georgette - but Tullycraft is remarkable in that their strength is highlighted in their quirk. The weak points on the album are not where they stretch the kitsch factor too far or too awkwardly, but where their efforts at generically universal, second person narratives fall short of their emotional mark. The arpeggio that opens "Misgiving" has all the stark simplicity of a Minutemen song, but it quickly pairs the sugary sweet vocals with borderline-adolescent "omg relationships" lyrics with a schoolyard melody. Opinion is probably split on "One Essex Girl," but I like the equivocally sympathetic character sketch and unrepetant anglicisms, especially when it's paired with the sort of paint-by-number guitar solo that has you involuntarily singing along with the melody before you realize there aren't any words to go along with it.

More than anything though, "Essex" shows just how good Tullycraft can be when they focus their writing on, well, stuff. Once freed from the gymnastics of universally identifiable songwriting, they're on their game and it's beautiful. Phrasing pulls couplets together, melodies cascade into other melodies which cascade into still more, backing vocals slide in to harmonize in the gaps, and there are handclaps. And really, if there were only handclaps, it would have been enough.

The high point of all this skill and hand-clappery is most definitely the late arriving indie pop masterpiece "If You Take Away the Make-Up (Then the Vampires They Will Die)," which is also the reason why pick up a Tullycraft CD: one minute and forty three seconds of tambourines, handclaps, harmonicas, "aaahhh"s, and awesome. The group chant-a-long chorus begs you to sing along until the lead carries on with the story.

The strength of these songs doesn't come from their being so particular as to preclude identification with them. On the contrary, what makes them so good is that they can be identified with, albeit in spurts. Whereas songs like "Misgiving" substitute cliche for invention and are written so broadly as to make them blank canvases for whoever is hearing them, the realist detail of the topical lyricism, when paired with great music, will have far more emotional resonance.

We caught the first bus out of memphis
stood in line like we were dead
and with a boarding pass in one hand
you looked up at me and said
without the Revlon Girls of Macy's
Peter Murphy won't survive

I wasn't there, but I think I might know what he was getting at.

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Thursday, November 8, 2007

On Gilbertology

Two months ago, I didn't know who Gilbert Arenas was. Today, I was hoping he would kick the shit out of Wil Wheaton.

There are a lot of reasons why I should want Wil Wheaton to win the 2007 Weblog Award for Best Celebrity Blog. I've been reading his blog on and off for a couple of years, he and I are both nerds, he's a talented writer with an interesting voice. But there I was, reading the repeated pleas from Gilbertology to vote for Agent Zero and hoping he pulled a Nixon in '72 style landslide on WWDN. Seriously, fuck Wesley Crusher. And fuck George McGovern.

So here I am, backing a blog that I don't really read, written by a basketball star that I only recently learned existed, over a cultural icon of my demographic. In part, I'll admit it was an urge to back the underdog in a way that completely recasts the definition of "under" -- where else but the blogosphere is a decades removed, moderately successful child actor cum cult hero the presumptive favorite over a star in a major professional sports league? Maybe WWDN has also been on a bit of a downswing lately as Wil focuses on his new book and a guest spot on Num3rs. Or maybe it's this: 20 grand on whether Gazo the Pranksta can shoot a better percentage of college range 3's one handed than DeShawn Stevenson can shoot from pro range two handed.

It isn't just the win, it's the challenge. And that's why I backed Arenas. Still, I was also glad to see him win, if only for comments like this:

That’s amazing that you can beat out 30 years of Star Trek followers in two days. They should be ashamed of themselves...

Wheaton fell apart in the competition worse than Britney Spears’ career has.

The other people didn’t have a chance. No one was close. Kanye ... 500 votes? Yeah, I got 10,000. You can’t tell me nothing.

Yeah, he deserved it.

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Modern Library Top 100: #98 - The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain (1934)

A while back, Nick Hornby wrote an entire essay dedicated to his alarming realization that he had forgotten nearly everything he'd ever read.

My own experience is a lot like that, which is mostly why I started up with these updates on my novel progress. With rare exceptions--essentially these four books of my childhood, which I can probably still recite if pressed--I can't for the life of me remember what I read last week, let alone last year, as is the case with The Postman Always Rings Twice, a novella consumed last Christmas. So while I remember finding the experience ultimately pleasant, and I can tell you the overall plot with little difficulty (hardscrabble Californian seduces his boss's wife before killing him before getting a face full of karma), if you want details on the intricacies, you're barking up the wrong tree, mister (or madam, for you feminine types).

Still, one would think I'd've had a more lasting experience with it--great novels really ought to leave a mark, y'know? Not just some evanescent frisson of pleasure, like eating a chocolate chip cookie or something. And up to this point, all on the Modern Library list had left me with some overriding, irrepressible impression that I still vividly recall, even if it was just a slight case of abject loathing.

That doesn't make The Postman Always Rings Twice an inferior book, necessarily, just an inferior experience, and I'm not sure which one is more damning.

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Welcome to the Rock Show

It got dicey there for a while, but the prophet’s words still ring true: Hey hey, my my, rock ’n’ roll can never die. Exhibit A? The Mezzanine in San Francisco this Tuesday, where, for the better part of three hours, Art Brut and the Hold Steady delivered one simple message: Welcome to the Rock Show.

For the full post, click here.

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Monday, November 5, 2007

11/5/2007 Potpourri

Taking a break from online scrabble (as magnificent a time waster as has been invented) to keep my post count higher than Darryl's until I can finish up a few long forms I've been crafting.

1) The Writer's Guild of America strike is seriously going to suck for all us fans of late night television (which unfortunately includes Messrs. Colbert and Stewart), and it's being covered pretty well by both Alan Sepinwall and Ken Levine (look to the sidebar) so I won't touch too much on it here, except to say that it's going to piss me off if the two new shows I've come to enjoy so much ("Chuck" and "Pushing Daisies") don't get picked up for 13 more episodes, leaving us poor shlubs stuck with more reality television.

2) Speaking of the Daily Show, has anyone else noticed how sluggish it's been lately? I want to blame the exodus of Steve Carrell, Stephen Colbert, Rob Corddry and Ed Helms as part of it, but I think John Oliver and Aasif Mandvi are two of the funniest guys the show's ever had (and I've been watching since the Craig Kilborn era, and no, I didn't have a life then, either).

I think it comes down to a couple things. One, outside of Oliver and Mandvi, the remaining correspondents (Jason Jones and Samantha Bee especially) don't really carry the razor-sharp political wit that the others do, or did. It seems like they're doing more of a stand-up routine rather than political satire. (Meanwhile, the other ridiculously talented correspondent, Dan Bakkedahl, has been shunted off to the writer's room, probably because his face isn't even radio friendly.) The other is that, more and more, Jon Stewart is just a Democratic shill. A few years ago, under the long shadow of the Bush administration and the concomitant media adoration, it was refreshing to see Stewart go after Bush. Now, though, with Bush essentially neutered, and Clinton basically enshrined as the next POTUS, Stewart's lost his edge. His assaults on the Bush administration have lost their acid, and he won't really go after Hillary (or any of the other Dems, save poor Dennis Kucinich) on any substantive issue. It's almost like he's deflated. Even the Larry Craig stuff wasn't that funny, and you couldn't ask for a better comedy mine.

3) Somewhere along the way the contrarian in me reacted against the mp3 generation, and as a consequence I scoffed at anyone who could think of proper music outside the context of an album. That's a long way of saying that the new Neil Young record, Chrome Dreams II, is just abysmally bad, but miraculously saved by two simply brilliant songs that are some of the best recordings Young has ever done. "Ordinary People" is 18 minutes but doesn't feel like it at all, with a loping piano/bass and a rocking, anthemic feel. And "My Way" is so hushed and pretty it's almost a Beethoven sonata, but for Young's scratchy voice superimposed against a children's choir.

So what should I do? I love these songs, but the completist in me is compelled to keep the rest of the detritus if I want to keep listening to these songs. When it comes time to pare down my music collection, there's gonna be a difficult choice to be made.

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Friday, November 2, 2007

Makes the Dream Work

Walking into a Man Man concert unprepared is like going to a carnival, equal parts disconcerting and beautiful, where the organ has been commandeered by the craziest mother fuckers you have ever met. Walking into a Man Man show is like taking a filter that steps up the crazy, the weird, and the loud and using it on Captain Beefheart and his Magic Pirate Band. Walking into a Man Man show might be one of the best decisions you make this holiday season. But I've written about walking into a Man Man concert before. And this isn't about seeing Man Man. This is about telling people about seeing Man Man.

Ever since that night in Austin, where I was converted by a chance wandering into a club show, I've been convincing friends that they need to see this band. Not even that they need to hear this band, which I wholly support and even enable, but seeing this band. I've used all kinds of words in the process of dancing about the utterly bizarre, angular, organic, Zombie-Frank Gehry-on-acid that is Man Man's sound, but it usually comes down to this: if you go, you will have one hell of a time. At the very least, you won't be bored.

As luck and scheduling would have it, I've only seen Man Man twice - both medium sized clubs, both ending in "-mo's." Seeing as they're set to be taken on tour with Modest Mouse, it's looking less likely that I'm going to get a repeat of that. Well, maybe the naming scheme. I'm not concerned with Man Man getting bigger, I'm glad they're getting this shot and I think they deserve it. I was similarly stoked on the role they played in Weeds, not just because it got them some more fans but because at least my students can get that cultural referece. Tom Waits hits blank stares. Don't ask about Captain Beefheart.


Like I said, I'm not sad about them getting bigger, well, maybe I am a little bit, but that's only because of a separate issue that's only partially related to every other music blogger losing "his band" post that I don't want this to be. Not just to bring Kevin Durant into my third of three posts, but I watched his NBA debut the same night I read this news, and I have to wonder: what's going to happen to Man Man when they step onto their over-stretched analogy of a pro court? Even if the tour is mostly taking them through Canada and states that Democrats habitually avoid in general elections, they're still playing venues large enough for Modest Mouse sized crowds in the post "Float On" era.

Man Man is a band with a lot of strengths. Their musicianship, their songwriting, a vocalist with swagger to his gravel, an affinity for kitchen appliance based percussion. But more than any of these, they're a live band in an era where there aren't many left. Dan Bejar, when performing as/with Destroyer, doesn't talk when he breaks between songs, but performs them all fantastically. I'd list more examples, but they'd be superfluous when even the best of the rest (Ted Leo) is a testament to one man's force of nature as an individual performer in a band of experiential footnotes. Man Man is a group effort. From the coordinated outfits to the non-verbal give-and-take through the continuous set, every move is purposeful, adding something more to not just the songs, the show. Where most bands would make this a gimmick, Man Man makes it work. In a set where they just. don't. stop., let alone banter with the audience, they build a connection with them. The music is chaos, but it's all orchestrated, and the audience becomes a part of it all.

Is it going to take some time for Man Man to adjust to life on the big stage? Or playing as an opener again, instead of a destination point for a small but fanatic base? And now a new label, on top of it all? Sure, but Man Man is a band that hasn't stopped surprising me yet. After their live set, we thought they couldn't be captured in a studio. After I heard Six Demon Bag, I thought they'd found their niche and might not keep getting better. But between their cover of Etta James' "I'd Rather Go Blind" (available on their Myspace) which manages to feel true to the original and the band's sound at the same time, and the new live track circling the internet, "Zombies," that pairs the junk band pirate shanty rhythms of Six Demon Bag with free jazz horn parts, I can only believe that this band has more places to explore than most of us can even imagine. I'm hoping that Man Man brings their A game to these sets, and I hope the Modest Mouse fans listen through it bewildered, enraptured, and intrigued. Exactly like I was.

I believe this can happen, because I believe in Man Man.

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