Thursday, June 26, 2008

Hagiography for the Hostile


George Carlin died of heart failure Sunday in Santa Monica, California. He fucking mattered.

Our last true living link to the time of revolutionaries like Bruce and Pryor, he possessed a decidedly more intellectual lean than either yet possessed neither man’s trappings of lifestyles. We seem prone, in our least optimistic times, to ask what could have been but for Bruce’s casual-turned-consuming drug use (a predictable result of the na├»ve Beats’ junk affectation and, arguably, listening to jazz) or Pryor’s surprising expiration at the age of 65 (the inevitable result of such prolonged use of heavy narcotics and, arguably, those movies with Gene Wilder.) We had such a relic among us for all those years, and a man who stayed long enough to see more than one boundary to push in a lifetime. Of all the icons to inspire so many generations of comedy writers, Carlin seems the most immediately traceable to our modern “alternative” sensibilities, and he can also be remembered as a life lived in example to his philosophical descendants.

In all these ensuing decades of hack pun-smiths and observational retreaders coming to typify our expectation of comedians, Carlin’s routines were not only as clever and utterly original those years ago, but remarkable in their acuity and economy even today, defining a style truly unique from his peers and imitators. At his best (and he was always at his best, right up through his final performance just one week before his passing) he could proudly call himself the finest bullshit detector we’ve ever had, and to George Carlin that was a responsibility. Where imitation has lead so many to comics to (lucrative) mediocrity bereft of legitimately dangerous insight, Carlin never lost his edge or his nerve. Equal parts performance artist and dedicated semanticist, he remained every bit as attuned and committed to his roles as Andy Kauffman or Umberto Ecco. The vanguard of all enemies of the status quo, Carlin spent a career in our invented social covenant of language and put our skeletons out to bleach in the sun. His methods of subversion were both novel and precise, and his most memorable works sprang not only from the absurdities of the things we’ve experienced, but the very ways in which we talk about them.

But contrary to what many of us would like to think, commentary isn’t always activism. You have to earn the distinction of having ever changed anything, and Carlin won his bona fides many times over. A dirty, pierced long-hair in the button-downed entertainment industry of the 60s and 70s, one of the only outspoken atheists to remain in the public eye through the “moral majority” uprising of the 80s (and again in the 2000s), and a vital source of anti-institutionalism through the new century, he can be pointed to as someone who has definitively and profoundly altered not only popular culture, but the nature of American public discourse as well. And, of course, Carlin also has a badge of honor that none of whom we consider “edgy” comics today ever will- his “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” bit was so damned good it was played before the justices of United States Supreme Court.

In recent years we’ve seen the departures of the only voices of dissent to have ever made any difference: Hunter S. Thompson, Norman Mailer, and now perhaps our last great critic of convention, all in an era when we need them at their most volatile in an all-too urgent way. We’ve spent so long in numbing self-delusion that his clarity of vision could only be called miraculous, and his willingness to share it was among the closest things I’ve ever known to a promise of redemption that I could believe in. Before the official canonization, let me declare his nomination here: in our shared cultural mythology, George Carlin is our saint of words.

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Thursday, June 5, 2008

Live Blog Listening Party: Stay Positive by The Hold Steady

While we at Neon Hustle certainly esteem each other’s opinions, we’re by no means monolithic in our likes and dislikes. Even if we tend to agree or disagree on the specific quality of something, oftentimes the reasons for those assessments are at complete odds. So when a band we all admire (for predictably different reasons) releases a new album, we're of course going to try and make sense of it all.

The Hold Steady will issue their fourth LP, Stay Positive, in July on Vagrant Records. One of the most anticipated new releases of 2008 (at least in our camp), we’ve consequently wasted no time in assembling. What follows are our opinions of the album—biased in orientation, baseless in gestation, and bellicose of argument—as produced in real time listening to Stay Positive. Our missives have been edited only for length, coherency, and to mask the scent of three budding alcoholics.

Into the breach...

*********

Brendan: Any things to say about The Hold Steady or Stay Positive before we begin? Thoughts, expectations, etc?

Darryl: As a general thought, I have enough faith in Craig Finn as an artist that I was willing to put in the effort to work through some tracks that irked me at first (like “One for the Cutters”) and at this point I'm a pretty big fan of the album. I'm not yet sure where I put it overall in their work.

Steven: It’s not as good Boys and Girls in America, certainly, but that album was pretty freaking spectacular. It's strange, the Hold Steady sort of assumed the mantle of being the voice of America's youth with Boys and Girls, and this album seems a very concentrated reaction against that.

Brendan: In terms of literally using their age to reconnect with adolescent experience, this seems a more overtly pop-punk record. But my initial reaction is that I immediately connected with a higher percentage of songs on Stay Positive than any other Hold Steady album.

Steven: Okay, well let's go.

TRACK 1: “Constructive Summer”

(Tattoo by Adam Suerte, Brooklyn Tattoo. Thanks to Mr. Lee.)

Darryl: The unreconstructed pop-punk fan in me adores this track. So does the rest of me, but that part especially.

Steven: Yeah, I'm a total sucker for unadulterated optimism, which this song has in spades.

Brendan: "Constructive Summer" marks the first Hold Steady track with backing vocals by Lucero's Ben Nichols, who guests on 3 tracks.

Darryl: Wait, he's somewhere other than here and “Magazines”?

Steven: I didn’t even know he was on this track! The only time Nichols ever distinguishes himself at any point in this record is in "Magazines".

Brendan: Here's my problem: people seem to like the shout-along choruses that started in earnest with "Chips Ahoy!", but I think the band is underselling itself by not letting any other member of the band/guest compliment Finn with a true backing vocal. Nichols sings in his lower register the whole time and he's absolutely buried in the mix.

Darryl: I think the other vocalist is a false need. Yes, there are amazing bands with great second vocalists (Saint Mick Jones?) but I by no means think they need to define the band. Even sing-along songs can work with layered vocals by a single singer.

Moreover, I think the inclusion of a second vocalist with presence risks diluting the impact of a band whose identity is in so many ways defined by the consistency of Finn's gravel. Insomuch as second vocalists come in, they fill specific needs (“Chillout Tent,” “Constructive Summer”). I dig.

Brendan: So why even have the guest vocal then? What specific need is filled here? I mean, Nichols has a unique enough voice to be used well, but he really seems noticeably buried in this mix. Like, it stands out that the response vocal is so low.

Darryl: Could the story in “Chillout Tent” be told as well by Finn? Maybe, but the fresh voice adds so much to it. On this track, I think it's a matter of creating a dynamic that follows the sort of band/concert/summer/experience evoked by the song. I can almost envision Ben leaning into a mic at a live show to sing this, and I think that's what it's supposed to sound like.

Brendan: I do have another point quickly if we're off that one. What's the threshold on Minneapolis shoutouts? The "double whiskey coke no ice" lyric in "Constructive Summer" is, in a song otherwise not actively acknowledged to be set in Minnesota, is a reference to Dillinger Four.

Darryl: I appreciated it. And I appreciated Dillinger Four. It's subtle, which is nice.

Brendan: The band is from fucking Brooklyn . Pick a loyalty already. At some point, you fail to be from your hometown.

Darryl: Says the man who reps Texas but still has the "I Love the OC" shirt.

Brendan: But why is Brooklyn not a part of their mythology?

Steven: Inertia?

Brendan: Of course, Newton! What a fool I've been!

Steven: Seriously, if you're going to be a hyper self-referential band, you have to call back to your old albums. And for whatever reason, Finn sang first about Minnesota. That was what, 10 years ago now?

Brendan: More than that if you count Lifter Puller, which I do.

Darryl: Whether conscious or not, there's always a degree of resistance to change. Which in some ways is representative of some of their characters, and in other ways simply a product of growing up and not being quite willing to let go.

Do we want to move on to “Sequestered in Memphis”?

Brendan: After this: “Constructive Summer” is so far is the #2 best opening track on any album this year. Because it rocks face. That is all.

TRACK 2: “Sequestered in Memphis”

Darryl: I had my doubts about this track when it premiered, but I've since come around to everything about it. The story, the characters, the sound, the instrumentation.

Brendan: This is Nichols’ second track.

Steven: I'd have never known.

Darryl: When you talk about them addressing a new range of experiences, is this one of the tracks you're talking about?

Steven: Yeah, this is certainly part of that. It’s the first time any of Finn's protagonists deals with the fallout from their actions.

Darryl: Exactly!

Brendan: I don’t know about that. He's flippant about the "consequences".

Steven: Sure, but even if the protagonist is dismissive of those consequences, he's still dealing with them if only because he’s being questioned by the police. The acceptance of those consequences comes later in the album, which we’ll get to. It’s a soft-build up, but an important change in the usual HS narrative.

Darryl: I think it's as much about the context as anything else. "Reality" or "the law" or whatever is an abstract or perhaps nonexistent entity in other tracks.

Brendan: "Do you think I'm that stupid? / Well look, what the hell, I'll tell my story again …" This guy doesn't give a shit; you’ve got nothing on him.

Darryl: It bears mention that even if the same kind of character is still dodging the same kind of issues, the story is being told from a different perspective than usual, which I think is a notable difference. (This might be Gideon in twenty years.)

Steven: It's THE noticeable difference, in my mind. I completely agree that the character's paradigm hasn't shifted at all. But, again, the previous consequences were usually detoxing in some way or another. This dude's got a shitstorm of problems coming his way beyond “my head hurts”.

Brendan: In any event, as the only one of us who has lived in both Texas and the Memphis metropolitan area, I am tempted to make this my banner HS song. I probably would too, if I didn't place a horrible stigma on first-singles from albums.

Steven: You could do worse. This is a kick-ass tune. For instance, you could choose....

Brendan: Uh oh

TRACK 3: “One for the Cutters”

Steven: … this one. We’re entering the two-song doldrums of the album.

Darryl: It's such a drastic shift, and it references back to something altogether different both in style and era from the first tracks.

Brendan: I’ll bite. I love this track. Go off.

Darryl: First listen: Too long, weird instrumentation, your songs are NOT sing-along songs!

Steven: The harpsichord is cloying. It's too long. And Finn’s first foray into economic/social justice just feels false to me.

Brendan: Tell me why "When one townie falls in the forest does anyone notice" aren’t the best lyrics on the record.

Steven: It’s didactic.

Brendan: Ah, but why isn't this growth? I mean, he's spent how many years now playing on the middle-to-lower class sandbox? Previously, the only upper-class characters were there to score, and we get that.

Darryl: A friend of mine was a big fan of Separation Sunday, but found Boys and Girls too "sing along song" for her tastes. Of course, she reads a lot of Joyce and lived in Greece for a while. She doesn't love HS for the Springsteen drenched opening of “Stuck Between Stations,” or the chorus of "You Can Make Him Like You." She liked the fact that Finn could tell a story with words, punctuated by music, like nobody else these days. That's what SS did, and that's what this song does. Awkwardly, it puts its musical adventurism totally in service of the story.

With this song, if I listen to the music, I want to tear out my headphones. If I hear the words, I'm pretty much hooked.

Brendan: I love the harpsichord. Why is the instrumentation not rewarded?

Darryl: Because it sounds like a troubadour traveling through Sherwood Methampheta-Forest. This is not a great song. But it's not "The Greatest Man that Ever Lived" either.

Steven: So why are you so taken with it, Brendan?

Brendan: This song, to me, is when Stay Positive hooks me. It’s lyrically engaging, and if you can't take harpsichord, I understand. But if you like the sound, this is an exceptionally well paced track, and Franz gets double credit for the rising piano scale.

Steven: Yeah, the piano is fantastic.

Brendan: If you like the piano, recognize that it is a direct foil to the harpsichord. You like it because the melodic work is already being done in another register!

Darryl: I like this song for the characters it creates and where it puts them. I like the sound insomuch as it carries me into a mildly unsettled feeling that I think is something key to the story. The Stranglers were a post-punk band, but they never had the dancey-ness of New Order or the heart on the sleeve emotion of the Cure, but what made them interesting is how they created sweeping, dark, and occasionally operatic songs that were drenched in reverb, experimented with synthesizers and other instrumentation, and were dark in the most pathetically 15 year old deadjournal way, but were still interesting because they held you with their melodies and their ideas.

What ultimately gets me, though, is that I never liked the Stranglers that much. And I don't like this song this much, even if it's got some incredibly redeeming qualities.

That's pretty much all I wanted to get out there. And also that I don't really think I'd call it well paced.

TRACK 4: “Navy Sheets”

Steven: Continuing with the theme of "totally wasted backup vocalists," that's Patterson Hood you can barely hear on this track.

Darryl: Continuing my theme of not knowing that a backup vocalist was brought on...

Brendan: This record has a weak as hell mix.

Steven: I only know it’s Hood because of the band’s website. How did you know about Nichols?

Brendan: His voice is more distinct, plus there was the promo material.

Darryl: Also, Brendan stalks Lucero.

Brendan: Not since That Much Further West, thanks.

Steven: That was the one album Darryl recommended to me! No wonder I dismissed them.

Darryl: Damn, my bad. I can't remember when I'd have put that as my Lucero pick. I like that album, but I'm not sure I'd have ever put it over Tennessee as an intro.

And is Is it safe to say that, given the digression, that no one has overwhelming opinions on this track?

Steven: Yup.

Brendan: We just spent the whole of "Navy Sheets" talking about another band!

Darryl: I don't know what this song reminds me of.

Brendan: It reminds me of the re-done CGI in the Star Wars re-releases of the late 90s.

Hey guys, if I ever meet George Lucas, remind me to punch him in the junk

Steven: It reminds me that I want to skip this track whenever it comes on.

TRACK 5: “Lord, I’m Discouraged”

Steven: Craig Finn said this album was about growing up, and this is most clear-cut example of that. It’s definitely the album’s highlight.

Darryl: I figured that would be your take. Given your DBT appreciation and affinity for this sort of song, this was written for you.

Steven: Yeah, I’m predictable.

Darryl: And probably right.

Steven: I can't think of a single fault with it. Seriously, a copy of this song should be buried in a time capsule or sent into space or something, just as evidence of the worthiness of human endeavor in the 21st century.

Brendan: Even though Kubler goes to the finger tapping in the 4th minute? Seriously, is the guitar solo worth a fucking thing anymore?

Steven: I'd say absolutely, but then I'm a DBT fan

Darryl: I'm not sure the guitar solo can really exist as an independent entity anymore. Especially with a guitar solo like that, you can't help but be reminded of every other shredder to do the same, or some similar thing, before it. Hair metal ruined any stretch of notes that fast and that long for future generations.

Steven: So does that mean I'm a dinosaur? Because I’m a total sucker for guitar solos.

Darryl: No, it just means you're not as jaded. This song really is fantastic. I think I’m willing to indulge the guitar solo in the sense that it seems to fit in a bizarre, depressed way.

Brendan: Someone tell me what this story is about.

Steven: It's a guy with an ambiguous relationship with a girl who's clearly on the downward spiral, praying for her salvation. So it's the first ever HS protagonist outside the prism of the usual lowlifes.

I think that guitar solo is there just to make sure that we know the guy hasn't given up all hope. In the first couple of verses he’s just listing off all the things gone wrong, but after that solo, the tenor of his confession changes to one where he puts the resolution in the hands of God, who wouldn’t handle the situation any worse than he has. There’s something powerful in that.

Brendan: That last line might also be the admission that he's completely moved on. He hoped she's alright because she's not in his life to watch over anymore.

Steven: Oooh, I like that, even if I’m not sure I totally agree.

TRACK 6: “Yeah Sapphire”


Steven: This is a fucking great song, even if it’s pretty redolent of “Constructive Summer,” musically speaking.

Brendan: Only slower and not as propulsively interesting. Nothing here speaks to my 16 year old self, except the Sacto shoutout, where I was born and hope never to return to.

Steven: I thought we had decided this album was beyond the 16 year olds? Anyway, this is a pretty cookie-cutter HS song, but there’s a ripping line I’ve totally latched on to: “Dreams they cost money, but money costs some dreams.” I also think its tempo works great after “Lord, I’m Discouraged”.

Brendan: I never agreed that this wasn’t for “The Kids.”

Darryl: Structurally, this could be a sing-along. It has all the makings of the Boys and Girls tracks that put us in that place, but it's more restrained. I'm not sure if that's intentional or whether they swung for the fence and missed.

Brendan: Is Boys and Girls really a sing-along record? I sing along to “Chips Ahoy!” and “You Can Make Him Like You”, but is that the REAL HS?

Darryl: I don’t know if there’s a “real” HS. I think there's a continuum of evolution, I don't think they're static.

Steven: Is “sing-along” a pejorative term for you guys?

Brendan: No, I like sing-alongs, but not without a defined secondary vocal presence (see “Magazines”). But I consider a straight ahead rock song that I can sing along with to be an unevolved version of what I used to like, back before I realized that I couldn’t mute every other chord effectively enough to play ska.

TRACK 7: “Both Crosses”


Brendan
: Worst song on the album?

Steven: This is a very dense track, lyrically speaking, that is frankly beyond me without access to the lyrics. With that caveat, it’s pretty bad, but what makes it so? The banjo doesn’t help things, I know that.

Darryl: The indulgent instrumentation and dense wall of sound.

Brendan: Are Finn's lyrical pretensions towards Catholicism an affectation at this point? Do they serve a purpose beyond saying, “I went to Boston College!”?

Darryl: I think Catholicism is a crucial element of some of his characters.

Brendan: Ah, but this is not a character-driven record.

Darryl: Not in the broader sense, but I think it's still stories about people, and still very directly so.

Brendan: But without the context of the other characters.

Darryl: You mean across the whole album/catalog?

Brendan: Yeah. There is no connect on this album’s characters. It’s not a story record.

Darryl: I think that's true - and in the sense that the characters could sometimes be drawn without Catholicism and be no less full, I think it can sometimes be a crutch for him.

TRACK 8: “Stay Positive”


Darryl
: The pacing on this album is really great.

Steven: Yeah, we've been listening to this thing for about two hours, and that's the one thing that's struck me most about it. There's really only one off note ("One for the Cutters").

Brendan: So, is this one a reach-out to the kids? You’ve got shoutouts to Youth of Today and 7 Seconds.

Darryl: Only if you reach out to the kids these days with references to bands that started in the 80s.

Brendan: Ah, but the throwback shit is popular with kids (like me).

Darryl: True, but the song rags on the actual youths of today (not the band) pretty heavily. “The kids are too skinny, the kids are gonna have kids of their own, etc...” It seems like it’s looking at the scene by looking back.

Also, this is Stay Positive’s reference-every-other-HS-track-ever song.

Steven: "Stay positive" the song is to Stay Positive the album as that long guitar solo was to "Lord I'm discouraged": bit of levity before the resignation and fatalism set in (in the album’s case, the last three tracks).

TRACK 9: “Magazines”

Steven: Wherein we finally meet Ben Nichols.

Brendan: Somebody please tell me why "Magazines" shouldn’t be a hit?

Steven: I'm actually surprised that this wasn't the first single.

Brendan: This is the most adult of any relationship Finn seems to write about. Not to say middle aged, but characters with real jobs and the same leanings they had when they were 17. You know, like anybody else.

Darryl: I think that's pretty accurate; it's definitely a lot closer than anything on Separation Sunday, but I'm still put off by some of the lyrics. “Hits her like a tambourine,” "I know you're pretty pissed, I hope you'll still let me kiss you." It's this sort of lyricism more than any other factor that reminds me of the mall-emo genre. There's a casual misogyny and a dynamic of objectification that's eerily reminiscent of Fall Out Boy, Brand New and company. Which isn't to say it's a bad representation of that character, but it weirds me out.

Brendan: I'm just saying, these are as fully formed as any characters on the record. Why can't their experience be taken as a matured relationship?

Darryl: Because I think after the first verse, the character of the woman isn't really defined by much apart from the way in which she's pursued by the men.

Brendan: Is “Magazines” the best song on the album?

Darryl: I don't think it's the best song on the album, but I do think it's probably the best single on the album.

Brendan: Do either of you have significant issues with the hypothetical of if the album ended now? Would you miss the latter songs?

Darryl: No. It was a great album up to this point, and resolves pretty well here.

Brendan: And how can you not love that “Magazines” ends with the exact note as “Holland 1945”?

TRACK 10: “Joke About Jamaica”

Steven: So does your previous observation make these next two tracks superfluous? Because I really like the narrative conceit of this one. I think it's pretty important to the album, both as a warning against superficial self-worth, and a pretty sardonic take on ossifying in a youth-dominated culture.

Brendan: Explain.

Steven: It's about a groupie who thinks she's hot shit till she gets older, at which point the bands won’t have anything to with her. So she gets bitter: “The boys in the band, no they’ll never be stars.” It doesn’t really add anything to the album thematically, but it reinforces the themes. And it's very listenable.

Darryl: But being written from the perspective of a woman, I think it is a different take.

Steven: Yeah, but I think there's also a bit of transference there. The fears of age squeezing you out of a youth-dominated scene are probably front and center for Finn and Co.

Brendan: Why the marked lack of Tad's leads? This is the first track to feature them since "Lord, I’m Discouraged". I remember when I first started listening to HS, Kubler’s guitar was all over 'em. But I think there are 2 guitar solo tracks on this entire album.

Darryl: I think the role of the guitar changes pretty significantly in the style of the last few songs. With Boys and Girls there was a pretty significant shift to other instruments, though.

Brendan: I half want to enter a philosophical deathmatch with Steven over guitar solos. But okay, let’s move on.

TRACK 11: “Slapped Actress”


Darryl: What's the best album closer HS have done?

Brendan: “How a Resurrection Really Feels”

Darryl: Yeah, that's always been my pick, too. Both for what it does for the album and for the song itself just kicking ass.

Steven: “Killer Parties”

Darryl: That was my second choice. I think “Slapped Actress” is third, with “Southtown Girls” coming in last.

Steven: Considering “Southtown Girls” is a pretty strong track, that's still some high praise. They certainly know how to close out albums, in other words.

Brendan: That, or they have a high percentage of good songs equally worthy of praise.

Darryl: I dunno, I don't think “Killer Parties” would have worked nearly as well had it been placed anywhere else on the record. “Southtown Girls” is the exception in that I think it may have been better somewhere else.

Brendan: Let’s wrap this up, then. Best songs: "Magazines,” "Lord, I’m Discouraged," "One for the Cutters"

Darryl: “Lord I'm Discouraged,” “Slapped Actress” and “Constructive Summer”

Steven: “Lord, I’m Discouraged,” “Constructive Summer” and “Sequestered in Memphis”. So there’s a general consensus about the best songs, with the obvious exception being “One for the Cutters”.

Brendan: So is this album a progression? A regression? A holding pattern?

Darryl: I think it's a progression. If you look at Separation Sunday and Almost Killed Me as records heavily focused on stories and words, and at Boys and Girls as their first step towards a more musically adventurous band, I think it's hard to see this as anything but a further progression down that line. There’s a question as to whether it's been a success—there weren't the missteps of “One for the Cutters” on Boys and Girls—but I don't think it's regressing or holding. I think they're pushing themselves for sure.

End Transmission


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Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Big Laydown

It started in late 2006, with the curio announcement that Scarlett Johansson- yes, that Scarlett Johansson- was to make an album. What’s more, she was to make an album of Tom Waits covers. Eye rolling turned into a sustained level of interest, which was piqued with the accompanying details. Dave Sitek, musical backbone of the adored TV on the Radio, had been tapped to create a backdrop for the assuredly surreal sounds to come. Cameos and collaborators piled up with each infrequent press release, along with rumors and gossip, whisperings of Ziggy Stardust sightings in the bayou, and speculation as to whether or not Johansson could actually, you know, sing. More than a year and a half later, Anywhere I Lay My Head arrived.

The average music fan has probably heard some of mostly the same criticisms. The record certainly has its rough spots, and yeah, the lows are pretty low indeed- especially the painfully-obvious music box on “I Wish I Was in New Orleans” and the hideously juvenile dance track train-wreck that is “I Don’t Want to Grow Up.” But it is also true that the highs are actually quite close to… stunning. Sitek’s now-trademark percussive drone, highlighted by string and woodwind flourishes, pair beautifully with some of the melodic highpoints of Waits’ career, which manage yoke the sometimes meandering and abstract tendencies of Sitek’s own band to some plain perfectly-written songs. While Johansson’s immature contralto stands out repeatedly in the record as a glaring point of weakness, it is, at the very least, an interesting diversion in places and occasionally manages to reach peaks simply not suggested possible by her previous known work at the mic.


It turns out, that we could reverse the billing on the closing duet “Who Are You” and have a decent case that Tunde Adebimpe alone would have made this a terrific TVoTR release. Consider his tracks as nothing more than a collaboration between him and Sitek, and we could easily extrapolate Bowie's sample into an album we’d call at least 3.4 times better than Heathen and proceed to argue its relative merits alongside Scary Monsters as his last good albums. In all actuality, pretty much the entire first half of the album (up to and including the co-written Johansson/Sitek original) is an unqualified success. Johansson’s taste in covers material is vindicated by some long-overdue attention paid to a couple of Waits’ should-be classics. The Brooklyn all-star backing band cameos (members of TV on the Radio, Celebration and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) exceed their ill-defined expectations and produce some great instrumentals. Bowie remains convincingly Bowie-like (in shades of Lou’s “Satellite of Love” no less) and Sitek absolutely produces the shit out of everything. Then we drink some lemonade, maybe watch Manhattan again, and head home happy in the early summer night.

Yet although most reviewers have claimed pretenses wanting to of give the album a fair shake, everybody seems to hedge against venturing any kind of strong sentiment as to the ultimate quality of these eleven tracks. The resulting critical response has come in deceivingly mediocre ratings and disingenuously superficial assessments. No attempt is made by anybody to reconcile the phenomenon of why this album, once a nexus of fairly intense fetishism by more than a few people, has been met with such absolute indifference upon its arrival. Given the principles involved and lopsided results, it seems that there would be at least a little spirited debate about Anywhere I Lay My Head. Yet a glance around the media reveals that it’s not just that the major outlets aren’t into it, but the fact is that nobody seems to be into it, and the question of why has consumed me...

Right around the time that anticipation of the Scar-Jo record had mounted, another musical debut by an indie-crush-worthy actress arrived with little fanfare. She & Him is a collaboration between Zoey Deschanel, she of healthy filmography and radar-straddling profile, and M. Ward, he of notably consistent (and Pitchfork-approved) folk-inflected solo career. The two have produced, by all accounts a lovely little collection of songs entitled Volume One, consisting of both covers (by the likes of key Ward influences Smokey Robinson and the Beatles) and originals credited to Deschanel and produced by Ward. With a studio band assembled by Ward and featuring members of the Decemberists and Devotchka, the duo manages to recall the pop highlights of obvious idols Tammy Wynette and Patsy Cline. Despite a few missteps, like the poorly-placed slowdown of “Take it Back” and a completely useless afterthought of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” (seriously), the album is full of affecting, hook-filled songs that know when it’s better to quit than risk going too far out of their depth.

At a loss for explaining the different receptions for Johansson’s and Deschanel’s respective efforts, my mind wandered among a number of possibilities. Obviously, the subject of novelty in music has been on my mind recently. When and why a given project may be dismissed out of hand while another is celebrated for whatever reasons still evades me. What I have come to understand, in a very “hipster-bashing is a totally hipster thing to do” kind of way, is that coolness-as-commodity requires a level of sub-cultural protectionism. This is often taken (rightly or wrongly, but mostly rightly) as exclusionary and elitism by the world at large. And, for people who spend as much time listening to and thinking about music as I do, the single biggest conceit we seem to make for our obsession is the lonely life of being a definitive arbiter of our own tastes.

Of course, these standards become compounded by the fact of indie-rock being a still largely male-dominated society, begging the engagement of forces beyond rationale, and sometimes bordering on misogyny. Scarlett was everybody’s dream girl from Ghost World through Lost in Translation. Now we respond to the unmistakable signifiers of her being finally and totally co-opted by the mainstream: appearing in lousy Bruckheimer summer blockbusters, going bicoastal (and unabashedly “Hollywood”) and, most painfully of all, dating Ryan Reynolds. As such, these recent albums are more than anything a referendum on the state of the people who made them. Anywhere I Lay My Head isn’t especially bad, but the collective yawn it has elicited is our final proof that Scarlett Johansson just isn’t cool anymore. Divorcing our opinion of the woman’s work from any ability to care about it is the only mechanism we have to protect ourselves from the fact that such an undertaking high likelihood of being an abject failure. To invest ouselves now risks seeing Scarlett make a joke of herself- and, by extension, us- in the most demoralizing way possible: on the E! Network between comments about her upcoming role in yet another shitty (and profitable) movie.

It is now abundantly clear that only thing Ms. Johansson could have done to change anybody’s opinion of her record was to be less famous when she made it. In the hands of an unknown (preferably male) quantity, we’ll not only forgive such a “novelty” project, but applaud it heartily, as in the case of the Dirty Projectors, whose Rise Above was a fixture on every cool kid’s favorites of 2007 list. A collective based in the consensus Center of the Universe (Williamsburg, apparently) has every advantage to produce- without fear of reprisal- a Black Flag covers abomination that remains, nine months after its release, as flimsy and frequently unlistenable as it did the first time I ignored it.

Likewise, Deschanel gets a pass for essentially being so far out of the greater public consciousness that it doesn’t matter when she fails. And she inevitably will fail. Volume One, for all its pleasant moments isn’t exactly announcing itself as a definitive work of an assured new voice to take the medium by storm, though Deschanel’s prominent role in M. Night Shyamalan’s forthcoming The Happening promises to be a debacle enough to ensure that she’ll have the chance to produce a few more volumes of She & Him to try for something even better. And you know what? I’ll bet they’ll be pretty good, too. If only the poor movie star would be afforded the same chance.

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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Battlestar Galactica: Season 4, Episode 8, "Sine Qua Non"

After three straight adrenaline-fueled episodes, Battlestar Galactica returned from its Memorial Day hiatus with “Sine Qua Non”, a frustratingly uneven character study probing into the collective consciousness of those left behind in the wake of the events in “Guess What’s Coming to Dinner?” It’s tempting to think of “Sine Qua Non” as a regression of sorts, a callback to the meandering character sketches of the first few episodes of BSG’s fourth and final season. But whereas those earlier revelations often felt frivolous, exploring the remaining fleet’s reaction to the disappearance of their President, to say nothing of half the fleet’s military strength, was of the utmost importance.

“Sine Qua Non” opens up promisingly enough, with a blizzard of washed-out hallucinatory sequences imagined by Natalie, the gutshot cylon leader, superimposed against a flurry of medical activity, as Galactica’s medics rush to resuscitate their new ally. They fail through no fault of their own, and with her last act Natalie, true to the sensuous nature of her model, grasps blindly for one last physical touch, here provided by the good Doc Cottle. Apparently I was wrong in my speculation that she might be the dying leader. Ah well.

Elsewhere, Vice President Tom Zarek, the former terrorist and master politician, attempts to assume control of the Presidency, as stipulated in the constitution. In a strange turn, the normally expedient Admiral Adama—the man who accepted the presidency of Gaius Baltar, for goodness’ sake—outright refuses to acknowledge Zarek’s legitimacy, and so the youngest member of the quorum, the Admiral’s son Lee, is tasked to find a suitable replacement for Zarek, while the Admiral is forced to look within for the first time in a great while. Thus are the two main thrusts of this episode launched.

It was always apparent to anyone paying attention that Lee’s foray into politics was going to result in him becoming President. And that’s okay—inevitability is a perfectly acceptable narrative choice, provided the journey in question is handled deftly. Unfortunately it hasn’t been. Lee has always been the least defined character on the show, and his dealings with the quorum this season have totally compounded this. Jamie Bamber is a great actor, but his recent scenes, apart from negotiating the safety of Gaius Baltar, have always seemed perfunctory at best, superfluous at worst. That dynamic continues here, as the writers had to bring in Romo Lampkin, erstwhile public defender, just to get Lee sped along.

Lampkin is a bit like Anton Chigur—he’s a force of nature, more a collection of tics than anything recognizably human. I always liked him, but he was totally unnecessary in “Sine Qua Non”. The entire point to his presence was to reiterate and reilluminate the survivor’s guilt, which of course brings up a problem. The logistics of Galactica ensure that we’re never far away from any of the survivor’s guilt, so focusing on Romo’s anguish didn’t add anything to this equation. Indeed, it was mostly mimicry, as Romo Sixth-Sensing his wife’s cat echoed the guilt of both Saul Tigh, who sees his dead wife in the face of his current lover, and Admiral Adama, who has conversations with his dead ex-wife each anniversary. Lampkin is a secondary character in the midst of the show’s final season, and having him complete a totally unbelievable arc (in the span of a single episode, no less) was a colossal waste of time.

As Galactica moves more and more towards character-specific episodes, it often leaves us some crucial character in the lurch. Take Saul Tigh, who has been largely relegated to the periphery for much of this season. Because we haven’t seen much of him, two starting developments—Saul impregnating Caprica-Six (what’s Baltar gonna think?), and Saul assuming command of the Galactica, didn’t strike home with nearly as much force as intended. But hey, at least we got to see Romo get a new dog.

Lampkin also pops up in Bill Adama’s narrative, as he once again tells someone something they should already know, namely, Bill hearts Laura: “Sine qua non … those things we deem essential, without which we cannot bear living. Without which life in general loses its specific value, becomes abstract.” From Galactica’s outset, there has been romantic tension between Adama and Roslin. But they’ve always danced around it, which, come to think of it, is probably a good thing. When BSG’s other two leads, Starbuck and Apollo, finally decided to explore their oft-ignored personal feelings, it erupted in an angsty, completely forgettable mess that was painful for both viewer and character to watch.

But Adama’s intentions here are much more pure. Starbuck and Apollo hooked up because they could; Adama, thanks to Roslin’s abduction, has his hand forced. He might not ever unite with his love—this is Battlestar Galactica, after all—but as the camera pulls back on his lone raptor framed against the oblivion of space, it's clear that he’s damned sure going to try.

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Monday, June 2, 2008

False Promises and Indiana Jones

Steven Spielberg’s most blockbustery films have always wed big-budget commerciality to some stream of deeper issues running beneath the narrative’s surface—the collapse of childhood in ET, the psychology of fear in Jaws, and most importantly, the danger of cloned dinosaurs running amok on a Costa Rican island in Jurassic Park. But take away either the commerciality (as in Amistad, or A.I.) or the depth (as in 1941) and you’re left with an unsettlingly mediocre experience, and that's just what you get with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Midway through its first act, our eponymous hero, having just been launched a preposterous distance by the force of an atomic blast (in a 50s-era refrigerator—but at least it’s lead-lined, so we know this is all totally plausible), scampers up an embankment to survey the oblivion. Lurching into frame, Indiana is dwarfed completely by the iconic mushroom cloud billowing heavenwards. It’s the first of many hints that Indy has aged into a world beyond him, a world in which the miracle of the split atom is every bit as important as the miracles of the Lost Ark or the Holy Grail. In a literal flash, everything that defined Indiana Jones over the past three decades seemingly disappears: once a fierce detractor of the US government, Jones has become an OSS agent in the intervening years; a lone wolf defined by his transient relationships, Indy somehow picked up a steady sidekick in the War.

It’s a promising proposition: rarely (if ever) is an audience given the perspective of enough time to watch a character—much less a cultural icon—evolve into something completely different, whether by conscious decision making or by fading away into obsolescence. But that potential payoff quickly disappears, as we’re quickly reminded that, while our own reality is suffused with vicissitudes both bitter and sweet, movie heroes suffer no such indignities. At a stroke, Spielberg undermines whatever deeper currents may have been at work for Crystal Skull. “We’re at an age where life stops giving us things and starts taking them away,” Indiana opines to an old friend, just after receiving news of his dismissal, but neither he nor Spielberg ever really mean it. Indiana hasn’t lost his breezy self-confidence or his superior physical skills: he’s able to crack wise and crack skulls with the same old aplomb, and all the while careening down a narrow dirt lane in a Brazilian rainforest to boot. And as for that whole life-taketh-away thing? By film’s end, Indiana ends up with a family without even trying.

At the climax, Indiana once again surveys a scene of spectacular destruction, as a spaceship twirls with enough force to destroy an ancient temple and divert the mighty Amazon from its course. It’s the perfect inverse bookend to the mushroom cloud shot earlier on. Indiana is master of this domain. He has engineered these events, and he watches not from below but from above. He is no longer a solitary figure defined against the grandeur in the distance; He is the Almighty observing his creation. He is Zeus on Olympus. He alone knows what it all means, and he alone knows where it’s all going, as the promise of a fallible American hero once again circles the drain.

Maybe next time.

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