Friday, January 25, 2008

Brighter Than Creation's Dark

Last Tuesday, Drive-By Truckers released their 7th studio album of the past decade, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, a sprawling, ambitious album that clocks in at 75 minutes over 19 tracks. The following is our attempt to make sense of it all.

Steven: One of the reasons why I enjoy Drive-By Truckers so much is that they're bold and talented enough to look into the minds of people who aren't like them, and somehow wring from that an impressive verisimilitude. That’s a talent that shines through most clearly on "The Righteous Path", which is without question my favorite track of this album, because it so perfectly captures the fear and uncertainty of the American middle class, both in economic and spiritual terms.

But really, the whole thing is peppered with the points-of-view of so many different people -- a soldier in Iraq; the ex-best-friend of a meth addict -- that, at the end, you're left with more a mosaic of contemporary Americana than a simple rock album. In that respect, there’s not much different, ideologically, about the songs on this album than any of the Patterson Hood/Mike Cooley offerings on The Dirty South or Decoration Day. That’s certainly not a bad thing, mind you. Call me classist or priggish or whatever, but I think the experience of listening to a kaleidoscopic album that tries to convey the American experience (whatever that is), or hell, any experience in an immediate way, is ultimately more rewarding than the mostly-meaningless lyrics of, say, The National (and I say that as a big National fan).

Still, it’s not all business-as-usual here. The sound of Brighter Than Creation’s Dark is defined by the absence of Jason Isbell (who, alongside Hood and Cooley, shared singer-songwriter-guitarist duties on the band’s previous efforts until he left to pursue a solo career). Isbell was always the most pop-friendly of the three, as his songs were the most likely to venture out of the southern-rock/alt-country niche that the band had consigned themselves to since they released Southern Rock Opera in 2001. But Isbell’s replacement, John Neff, primarily plays the pedal steel, obviously not an instrument you freely associate with the Billboard charts.

What we’re left with, then, is Drive-By Truckers totally embracing a new ethos, not quite alt-country but not quite southern-rock, which is uniquely and distinctively theirs. No one will ever confuse the brilliant opener “Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife” as anything other than a DBT track, even if the majority of alt-country/southern-rock acts are interchangeable.

Drive-By Truckers have long ago transcended the notion that they were little more than an empathetic Lynyrd Skynyrd, but Brighter Than Creation’s Dark propels them higher still, as one of the best bands working in America right now.

Brendan: One of the enduring criticisms of alt-country (and its indie-blues, folk, and southern rock variants) is the genre’s fetish for the stories of poorest of the poor during the Dust Bowl. And while I wouldn't exactly imagine Jay Farrar jerking off to The Grapes of Wrath, the vicarious experiences sought and documented by so many of the form's practitioners never did really lend their music the credibility that permeates those Folkways anthologies that inspired them. And, perhaps its greatest crime of all, alt-country never really added anything but superlatives to the legacy of Dylan, Cash, Young, Cooder, Parsons, and the five-headed genius from Big Pink. No matter their approximation of long-forgotten traditional American musicians' work, alt-country’s practitioners never sounded anything better than an impression of their impressions- sort of like how nobody remembers how George H.W. Bush actually talked so much as they remember Dana Carvey's version on SNL.

This is where the most glaring exception to my argued rule should be recognized: Drive-By Truckers make a more convincing case for redefining the terms of alt-country than I could refute. DBT are a band that remembers and respects the self-reflexivity of traditional American music. The original line of our black-originated music splits into millions of tributaries and flows again into itself, becoming blues, jazz, folk and rock in the same initial chronology while splitting and combining again across thousands of miles to flood our land with an extraordinarily rich and deep musical tradition.

Today we're simply too far downstream to really remember where the river began, so Drive-By Truckers look for points of reference closer to the currents that carry them right now, namely the "classic" and country-influenced rock of 70s and 80s AOR programming popular in their native Alabama. Brighter Than Creation's Dark is a work that clearly accepts the horrible truth that Ronnie Van Zandt and Marshall Tucker were, for better or worse, our rightful heirs to Muddy Waters and Lead Belly. With this accepted and unapologized for, Hood, Cooley and Tucker's dispatches from a thoroughly depressed (and depressing) modern South- rife as they are with drugs, poverty and everyday struggles to find the promised beauty of an uniquely American locale- ring with greater historical resonance than their contemporaries' ever could.

Darryl: My first discussions of this album with Brendan were overwhelmed by ambivalence. I’d had a chance to hear the album, and fell into agreement with the same take of the album that I had heard from most corners. That is to say, an impressive work that, while much too long, hits notable highs that excuse the lows. “You and Your Crystal Meth” is in this sense a defining conversation point for the album. The character is drawn vividly, though in lyrics that fall flat compared to the rest of the album, but most notable is the abysmal production that seems to condemn the entire concept of audio engineering and vocal effects processing in particular. But to cast aside the record for this misstep, or “Bob,” the Middle American version of the Geto Boys’ “Damn it Feels Good to Be a Gangsta,” seems both callous and premature. Yes, the album clocks in at 75 minutes, and it isn’t flawless. But there are things I’d change about London Calling too.

I think the characters drawn in Brighter than Creation’s Dark are compelling because I’m never left feeling that the only character drawn to the nuance of humanity is the singer-as-narrator. Not knowing as much about this band as either of you, I don’t know if the songwriters lived these experiences, and I don’t know if the disconnect I feel in some lyrics is due to my distance from the experience or theirs, but it seems much more to be the former if only because I believe them. The care (and I’m keeping this word) that seems taken in choosing the words, and with the arrangements that accompany them, makes the experience all the more engrossing.

Of all the songs to kick in as I write this paragraph, “Self-Destructive Zones” just started. I said that I was ambivalent to this record on first listen, but the second time around changed my mind. I sat down to read, cued up the record, and decided to scrap the book. I spent the rest of the evening lying in bed, listening to this record from start to finish. The record, from start (as has been pointed out by Brendan, the opening track is brilliant, no doubt) to finish (I’m not sure whether “Monument Valley” should come after “A Ghost to Most,” but it still works out great to finish it off) is well-paced and filled with good material, but what made me fall for the record was “Self Destructive Zones.” Perhaps it’s the unrepentant pop melody, or the characters and the locations painted in the particular universal that make the best pop song stories. Or maybe it’s just the closest to a certain ineffable quality about Lucero that I’m not sure I’ll ever get over.

Whatever it is, it comes between the country drinking ballad “Daddy Needs A Drink,” the aforementioned “Bob,” and one of the I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-Neko female fronted tracks by way of “Home Field Advantage.” In this one album, perhaps this one stretch, I think DBT has succeeded in capturing so many of the varied streams of the contemporary alt-country/southern rock/etc. I think that this fact alone justifies the length of the album; it can be so broad but still so cohesive only because it has 19 songs over which to work. Of course, there are elements unrepresented, but as “Home Field Advantage” breaks down into the territory of Wilco’s “I am trying to break your heart,” I think they really have got this shit down.

Are they the best band in America? A topic for later. Is the pedal steel awesome? No doubt.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Nocturno De Cloverfield

“I am dying now, but I still have many things to say. … So, propped up on one elbow, I will lift my noble, trembling head, and rummage through my memories to turn up the deeds that shall vindicate me and belie the slanderous rumours the wizened youth spread in a single storm-lit night to sully my name.”

Roberto Bolaño’s “By Night in Chile,” an unbroken paragraph over 134 pages, is by turns a memoir and an apologia. The death-bed confession of Father Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix, a man of letters and a perfunctory priest, is a narrative that winds down the path of memory, well-worn but overgrown. In the fits and starts of uncertainty and self doubt, our priest finds the recollections of his choices in the same breaths he tells the story to justify them. Borges’ suggestion is inescapable: “of a novel in the first person, whose narrator would omit or disfigure the facts and indulge in various contradictions which would permit a few readers - very few readers - to perceive an atrocious or banal reality.”

One of the strangest sights at tourist destinations across the globe is that of the Videographer. He (and it is almost always a he) walks through the vacation and goes through the paces of sightseeing, but does so through the LCD viewfinder of a handheld videocamera. Where Sontag once saw tourists traveling to capture images, today’s travelers have upped the stakes - trying to seize the lived experience of their trip. Focused on the screen as he practices the rites of tourism, his rewatching of the tape will provide an exact representation of the sights he saw. Perhaps in Hi-Definition, it will be more real than when he first saw it. Though lacking the taste of the air, the smells of the street vendors, and the ineffable qualities that come with traveling; the videotape will be the neatly circumscribed experience that he lived, and so its memory will be flawless. Cloverfield is this man’s movie.

While it may possess all the guts of a monster film, Cloverfield is the beast lay belly-up, dissected, and stitched back together once more. This story is not retold by an omniscient narrator who can pan from our heroes on the street to the generals in the forward deployed command center to an aerial shot of the Monster in terrifying but exotic clarity. Rather, this is the story of a hand-held camera directed by the friend of Our Hero - from the second person perspective of the character so self-interested and unsympathetic that we are wholly unsurprised when his most common response to requests for aid is “I’m documenting.”

Where other films may explain the origin by way of the state, the mystic, or the friendly interlocutor, Cloverfield eschews the traditional search for movie monster truth and opts for the (literally) man-on-the-street approach. Insomuch as structures like the media and the military exist as sources of information, they are merely glanced upon by the camera, as much to illustrate their irrelevance as for their utility. The information they present is less to be digested by the viewer than exhibited by the narrator as a jumping off point for his presentation: they are links in the vlog of the apocalypse.

There is little chance that Cloverfield will be mistaken for the work of a subtle Latin American novelist, nor should it be. With the simplicity of the plot, the shallowness of the characters, the pandering reveals of the Monster in terrifying but exotic clarity, Director Matt Reeves makes enough concessions to the genre to keep the film from being too interesting. Still, the structure alone is enough to make it an artifact worth mention. Where most monster blockbusters allay the fears of the audience, either by keeping them informed of the nature of the threat or maintaining a belief in the government’s infallible security safety-net, Cloverfield casts these aside and refocuses the terror through the eye (camera?) of an ordinary person living the experience.

It is the presentation of this tape - as a recovered file archived by the Department of Defense - that is perhaps the strongest argument against this reading, but it seems an afterthought to the film when the frame is left open when the credits roll. Moreover, the audience is almost forced to forget this, lest they wonder why the DoD preserved (let alone exhibited) the opening party and closing memory scenes.

That closing clip - the hokey, feel-good return to Coney Island - is what brings the movie back together, and may ultimately salvage it. Where Bolaño’s recollection is intruded by tangents and distracted by forgotten passages, the camera’s supposedly perfect and objective recollection is no less flawed. The camera lingers on Marlena at the expense of exposition, key events are captured only fleetingly, and the distant past persistently reappears, imposed within the present of the story.

Memory is not what it used to be. Twitter allows people to mark their activities at any time, from any place, for anyone to read. Social networking sites are used to schedule events and then recount the happenings in shared photo albums and blogs. Even the most vigilant diarist never approaches this technological drive to catalog one's life, taken to its extreme in Cloverfield. Though perhaps less self-indulgent than a Xanga, the narrator is made believable by that same desire to represent reality instead of participating in it. That same desire that drives the videographer. A desire completely alien to Father Urrutia Lacroix, whose confession was retold unaided by reference or diary. Whose retelling was no less flawed.

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Left of the Damned

Future of the Left have produced one of the best rock albums in years with their debut long-player, "Curses." Refining everything great about singer/guitarist Andy Falkous’ late, lamented trio Mclusky, the Cardiff, Whales-based combo has produced a throbbing mass of 14 tracks full of pounding, intense rhythm and acerbic bite. The pairing of former Mclusky timekeeper Jack Egglestone and Jarcrew frontman-turned-FOTL-bassist Kelson Matthias proves formidable here as they rumble and strain at taut reins, lashing tough grooves to Falco’s ever-pointed (and catchy) caterwauling with dogged melodic purpose. As improbable as it might be, listening to “Curses” today, on the eve of its American release, asserts that every second of its 37 minutes is as good as and better than anything in those preceding bands’ catalogues. It is, in the simplest of terms, a fucking excellent album.

Of the many notable qualities in Future of the Left’s music and persona, it is Falkous’ knack for turning a phrase that most readily catches so many listeners. Capable of matching his music's sheer brutality with even the most parsimonious of spoken sentiments, his lyrics are alternately hilarious and horrifying- and often both at the same time. Yet Falkous has clarified time and again that his lyrics, while certainly the product of work and a refined craft, are often generated from near-random impulses of inspiration and may at times be separated from greater meaning by vast gulfs of syllabic dissonance. Some things merely sounded good at the time they were thought of apparently, and anyone who insists on attributing purpose to FOTL's non-sequiters is surely, to borrow a phrase, "an elephantine pedant."

But insisting that there are no bold statements in his paradiddles shouldn’t suggest that those excercises in language are totally without honest emotional content. While never really more than implied, the constant interplay of the personal and political more and more seems to me the origin of this band’s thrilling tension. This is, after all, a band whose very name evokes the uncertain path ahead for a group of their own self-identification since the Mclusky era. Still, I’m not fully sure if, in their hesitance to stake themselves to something weightier than simple criticism, Future of the Left could ever be the howling voice of anybody’s generation. Is this a band willing to appear representatives of a youth class that is both intelligent and angry at our times or instead merely intent to present themselves as driven to such alienation as to be willfully apathetic to them? I can’t tell if this band wants us to know that they have an agenda or not, and as this question had me driving myself crazy for the last two weeks, I eventually wondered: should it even matter either way?

And it is in this light that, as a statement of self-definition, “Curses” brings to mind almost no influence more prominently than George Orwell, whose own creativity was driven by dread-filled ruminations on a world in upheaval- on power, struggle and the multiple impending deaths that awaited everyone in those tribulations. One gets the unmistakable sense of both Orwell and Future of the Left that each produced their works from a similar place of intellectual terror. Orwell’s definition of tragedy was in those occasions when “…it is felt that man is nobler than the forces which destroy him.” Future of the Left are precisely, if nothing else, a soundtrack to the feeling of being destroyed. Likewise, Orwell wrote that, in his own contentious time, man had sunk to a depth at which “…restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.” If any common sentiment can be gleaned from the post-Xers regarding our modern condition, I’m not sure what you'd hear, but I'd believe that we’re actually all pretty pissed off about… well… everything. That’s why “Curses” is, even without named targets or an overt politicization, a listen that’s as cathartic as hell for feelings we don’t even really have to understand.

The most resonant art, throughout our centuries, adheres to the same basic principles of connection with its audience. We relate to expressed emotion on both cerebral and visceral levels. Ours are the generations destined to be defined by 9-11, George W. Bush, unfathomable genocide, religious terrorism, continental plagues, the post-Soviet capitalist vacuum and what we did and didn’t do when confronted with them. I wish Orwell was alive today. We need an Orwell to make sense of our world (and a Vonnegut too!) Since we don’t have them, we’ve got Future of the Left to gut out the no man’s land of our zeitgeist, applying the Ego’s voice to the Id’s sentiments at breakneck speeds, meted not by boundaries of taste for sparing we doomed the knowledge of our miserable fate. And given our state, it's all the more appreciable that they can deliver us with such diabolical a sense of gallows humor. But if you’re troubled by the silly crudeness of assertions like “Colin is a pussy! A very pretty pussy (cat),” remember that even the wisest among us once said that irreverence could be a most powerful instrument of liberation, that even dirty jokes are a sort of mental rebellion.

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

There Will Be Boredom

Sometimes the crush of rave reviews is so overwhelming that you just have to attend that play, or listen to that album, or buy that book, even if it you normally wouldn’t. To that end I finally succumbed to There Will Be Blood, the newest film by Paul Thomas Anderson, which is currently tracking sky-high on both Metacritic and RottenTomatoes. Anderson, who made his mark with the torpid Boogie Nights, has always received such generous praise that it brings to mind the famous maxim by that other PT, to the effect that there’s a sucker born every minute. But what’s ten bucks and a couple hours if the payoff is a great film?

That’s a question that I can’t answer. There Will Be Blood is not a great film. It’s not a good film, either. It’s a mess. Certainly it has some dazzling moments, but those moments are so few that their aggregate effect can’t possibly lift the movie above its mediocrity.

The story of There Will Be Blood, to the extent there is one, is based on Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!, wherein a brooding, resentful oilman makes a small fortune, then makes a bigger one at the turn of the 20th Century when he starts drilling in a remote California hamlet. At the end of his life, he sits, unshaven and alone, in his stately pleasure dome, having alienated all his friends and family in the ribald quest for wealth.

But all that is ancillary to the main thrust of There Will Be Blood, which, like Anderson’s other films, is less concerned with story than with its characters. How they interact. How they change (or how they don’t). That’s a perfectly fine narrative device, provided you have a stable of interesting personalities to play with. Here, though, aside from Daniel Day-Lewis’s rapacious oilman and Paul Dano as his preacher-foil, the characters are paper-thin. Day-Lewis’s son is little more than a wide-eyed afterthought, who speaks so little that even when he becomes deaf-mute, the change is scarcely noticeable. There’s also a long-lost brother that gets shoehorned into the movie halfway in, who doesn’t add anything to the movie except minutes to its runtime.

What you get, then, is a universe where everyone and everything exist simply to be subsumed by the oilman. Day-Lewis plays Daniel Plainview as such an inexorable storm that his apotheosis is all but inevitable. Given the movie’s source material, perhaps that’s unsurprising. Upton Sinclair has never been known for his narrative subtlety, preferring to denounce the greed of the status quo rather than offer deep introspection, and that sentiment pervades There Will Be Blood. As Day-Lewis grows richer, he abandons his son, destroys the village identity, and undermines Dano’s religious conviction. For Anderson (and Sinclair), black oil always stains more than clothes.

But it’s hard to care. His son is a cipher. The village is nondescript. And while the film’s most magical moments, the scenes between Dano and Day-Lewis, crackle with an energy that leave one wondering what a great experience There Will Be Blood could have been, they are inexplicably abandoned for great lengths of time. Instead, we get to see Daniel Plainview act predictably, as the corruptive forces of money blah blah blah. We get it. Robber barons are bad. Money is pernicious. It’s been done before, and done better.

We’re coming up on 100 years of cinema, yet some still haven’t grasped that a novel and film are separate beasts. A novel will engross you for weeks and so can incorporate many themes, issues, characters; a cinematized novel at 2 hours will necessarily suffer if it is trying to replicate its source material perfectly. Anderson tries to do that here, and the result is that there are so many half-explored themes and unessential characters it feels like a product of a freshman film class.

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Sunday, January 6, 2008

In 2007: Poor Sports

The Beckham’s $250 million Los Angeles vacation, Barry Bonds’ controversial homerun record and indictment for perjury and abstruction of justice, and Michael Vick’s plea to federal charges of dog-fighting all indicate 2007’s most disturbing trend in the world of sport. Where legend holds that once players longed only for the satisfaction of victory and the title of “Champion,” we have more recently lamented that the only modern ideal left in sports are the mind-boggling contracts offered to those willing to (in the salary cap era) trade winning seasons for obscene amounts of money. And that really was fine by us. After all, if these men could run faster, jump higher, and hit harder than anybody else, why shouldn’t they be entitled to a proportionally greater share of the insane profits reaped by their respective leagues? Revenues reached new heights, ages old pastimes were revitalized for new generations, and we got used to unpronounceably long names for our stadiums and teams to draw those extra bucks. Life was maybe a little less innocent, but we were generally happy with it all the same.

While it’s tempting to get wrapped up in the issues surrounding Bonds’ alleged abuse of performance enhancers when he belted his 756th homer in 2007, the greater question still remains why exactly he would choose to do so. By all accounts, prior to suspicion of wrongdoing he was one of the greatest hitters in the game’s history, and would have retired with many of baseball’s offensive records (if, perhaps, not the mythical 751.) When the Beckham(TM) media blitz descended on the US, every cross-cultural touchstone possible was employed to obscure the fact that he was, you know, getting old. At Becks’ age, his skills might not exactly be degrading, but his game will certainly never have the flashy hyper-athleticism required to capture the attention of an American audience for those Galaxy games played between prioritized stints with England’s national team. And most publicized of all, Michael Vick’s involvement in dog-fighting show the darkest side of the competitive drive, wherein a successful young man whose livelihood is wrought from organized brutality every day is summarily drawn to even the most gruesome and cruel modes of contest for his off-time thrills.

The drive for individual glory has always been present in professional sports, but in 2007 the chasing of Glory broke new boundaries of personal ethics. Bonds’ pursuit of unnatural immortality came at the costs of sacrificing his own knees as well as the public’s ability to actually like or care about him as a man. Beckham’s last big score seems now nothing less than a callous attempt to stretch the global brand for one more run at stateside relevance (and dollars.) And Vick’s 23 month prison sentence shuts the door on a phenomenal talent’s potential for achievement in the game he (and we) loved above all others. If nothing else, 2007 will be the year that makes us long for the days when our biggest complaints were a lack of fundamentals and that the kids were being paid too damned much money.

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Tuesday, January 1, 2008

In 2007: Earth Died Screaming

Al Gore wins the Nobel Peace Prize. Oil hit $100 per barrel. Congress finally increases fuel economy standards. In a year where climate change was the cause celebre, there are almost too many events essential to understanding the last twelve months. From those that emerged after years of neglect on our part to those that we undertook in an attempt to stave off future woe, this was supposed to be the year that the world got serious about global warming. It wasn't.

The latest in a storied history of global benefit concerts, Live Earth sought to raise the profile of climate change with the combined charisma of Al Gore and every rock star on the planet. What it became was a grade school arithmetic lesson on what happens when you add negative and positive numbers; proving that Al Gore's black hole of charm can suck the wind out of an international conference of rock stars and that learning is never cool. Even when Jennifer Garner is telling you about recycling. From the beginning, the concerts were engulfed in controversy. If it weren't bad enough that rock stars were flying across the world to rock out on power draining stages, only to be watched by fans who traveled to the venues in fossil fuel burning cars while leaving piles of waste behind them, Al Gore's son got busted for possession the night before while pulling 100mph in his hybrid Prius in Southern California.

The concert came and went with a whimper, not a bang, and what does the world have to show for it? Some pledges were signed, and it was likely the most eco-friendly global rock show by a significant margin. But there was no global shift in consciousness spurred on by an Alicia Keyes duet. The Spinal Tap Reunion may have helped inch the Bali Summit forward, but we still don't have a harder, better, faster, stronger Kyoto Accord. Maybe if they'd gotten Daft Punk, the post-Bali world would be a zero-carbon emission, techno-robotic wonderland. Maybe.

Climate change is a crisis of both magnitude and urgency, and no event this year encapsulated both the enormity of the challenge and the impossibility of immediacy than Live Earth. Even more essentially, however, it shined a light on a path oft-ignored by the media. Where intergovernmental conferences may create the framework for long-term, cross border solutions to carbon emissions, we can only count on governments so much as we can count on ourselves. To that end, Live Earth was the trans-national conference of the global grassroots. The pledges may not seem like much, but at least it didn't tank as badly as Bali.

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