Quickies

New Pornographers, Challengers

Either they’re losing their enthusiasm for the concept or I am. Most of these masterpieces of filigree beguile after the fourth listen, but in the end I’m left wondering why I bothered. Neko’s Case deepening husk is even more beguiling (her work on the title track is the only keeper); too bad Carl Newman’s more interested in gnarled song titles to notice.

Lil Wayne, Da Drought 3

On timbre and diction alone he’s major. “Black Republicans” proves that he can adduce timbre and diction to support an uproarious analogy. Bless him for besting Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s attention span – he won’t settle for court jester when he’s clearly aiming for the throne, using tried-and-true methods: insinuation and flattery. Speaking of which, Ciara’s inexhaustible “Promise” once again reveals itself to be a two-way street.

The politics of feeling good

Kevin Baker’s article on the horrors of a Rudy Giuilani presidency is the best I’ve read in months: pungent, well-researched, and original. He rightly sees the continuity between the Big Business flirtations during the Clinton years and the marginalization of progressive forces in this country. Walter Karp might have agreed with this:

The old power brokers would be swept away, along with traditional liberal
and conservative politics. What the Clintons learned from this, and would learn and learn again over the course of their many years in politics, was that progressivism could be advanced only in the most incremental installments, and only with the imprimatur of powerful corporate and financial elites. They would adopt a sort of “post-ideological” politics — a politics that abandoned the old ideologies and claimed none of its own.

Adorno would be a lot more eloquent than I about the reificiation of progressivism, etc. However, his conclusions are too wistful; serious about wanting a coalition of voters united behind something beyond mere pragmatism, Baker admires the evangelical wing of the GOP for its commitment to principles and hopes that liberals learn something from them. While I admire how this liberal avoids smugness towards a subculture that appears weird to him, I can’t see why we can’t rely on a document as lucid as our Constitution to illumine the better angels of our nature.

neon bright vs neon white

There’s a Bluffer’s Guide to post-Thriller Michael Jackson waiting to be written; hell, I may write it myself. Much is made of the symbolism of Nirvana’s Nevermind knocking Dangerous off the top of the Billboard album chart in January 1992; but like all symbolic acts it crumbles under closer scrutiny. Dangerous is as paranoid and angry as “Polly,” “Lithium,” “Drain You,” and any Nevermind pearl you care to mention. The production is the pivot on which reception turns: Dangerous is so expensively clattery — and Jackson’s public persona now swollen beyond control — that you couldn’t hear the paranoia and anger; Nevermind is so bright (Eric Weisbard once said Butch Vig’s mix “assumed a social dominance alternative hadn’t yet achieved”) that Kurt Cobain’s angst assumes mytho-poetic dimensions. I haven’t thought too deeply about this yet, but this is really an untold story.

(inspired by relistening to Bad‘s “Man in the Mirror,” Dangerous’ “In the Closet” and “Who Is it?” and Blood on the Dance Floor’s fucking psychotic “Morphine”)

I take great pleasure in baiting my friends into thinking I’m a flaming conservative. Credit my natural contrarianism; also an innate distrust of feel-goodism, which even the most humane liberalism can’t keep from curdling into something sinister. I won’t dismiss my Cuban-American upbringing either, or the inherent paradox in the exile community’s traditional embrace of the GOP: for all their contempt for government interference and admirable pragmatism, their success is due to the largess of U.S. Cold War politics, which in the business of saving them from dictatorial thuggery and Fidelism granted them social services unparalleled in the twentieth century — services and status enjoyed by no other immigrant community. The relationship between the U.S. and Cuba is Borgian in complexity. I’ve admired Burke and Macaulay for years; it’s only recently that I realized that the times have outpaced them. Their sobriety, once a palliative, seems as anachronistic as Shelley’s “Defence of Poetry.” In short, I can’t imagine how Hugh Hewitt, Mark Steyn, or any member of the Podhoretz dynasty can reconcile their paranoia and smutty writing with classic conservatism.

It’s news like this that confirms what the polls suggest: the GOP has lost the youth vote for a generation. When my het students suffer no embarrassment from admitting publicly that they have gay best friends, how are they supposed to react when even exemplars of the obsolete branch known as the Goldwater western conservatives have to get their jollies from playing footsie in an airport men’s room stall?

Alberto Gonzalez, the protagonist in a self-written narrative in which a man of Mexican descent overcomes “adversity” to join the ranks of A. Mitchell Palmer, John Mitchell, and Ed Meese as bullet-headed hacks in thrall to a President who’s less an Executive than a scion, is finally given the blessing by his master to work as a consultant in the Heritage Foundation. George W. Bush, as John Dickerson remarks, makes a “fetish of loyalty.”

Under the spotlight…

STE is right about Rilo Kiley Mach II: Jenny Lewis’ control is as inexorable as Natalie Merchant’s over the 10,000 Maniacs circa Our Time in Eden. I say for the better: on their previous albums (the ones I could listen to all the way without getting up to make a Denver omelet), Blake Sennett made the usual mistake of perfecting songcraft at the expense of rhythm and weirdness; and while Lewis’ songs still deny the former, they’re long on the latter. Never mind the encyclopedic pop ambitions of Under The Blacklight — this is a woman whose appetites are so strong that she’ll sate them anywhere and anytime, and whose own songcraft almost matches her emotional demands. Unfortunately, the Lewis regime is hell on her bandmates, all of whom to a man are indistinguishable from any Grade B studio hack. Sennett’s one tune evokes, as Joshua Klein pointed out, Mirage-era Fleetwood Mac, alas: like Lindsay Buckingham on the reified followup to Tusk, Sennett sounds embarrassed if not declawed, as if he’d been on the wrong end of a lecture. The mix is laxative-smooth; it could be the indie-pop Gaucho (with his work here and on Maroon 5’s latest, Mike Elizondo could be repping for Gary Katz’s cred). Hook her up with, say, Lloyd Cole, Fred Maher, and Matthew Sweet, and you may get first-rate adult entertainment.

A couple of other reviews (including Erlewine’s) suggest that Lewis is striving to be her generation’s Anais Nin or something. “There is nothing but bad sex here,” Erlewine writes. As if! (can’t you enjoy bad sex?). Perhaps if Lewis ditched these guys and started to limn the rich showbiz kid life for material instead of teasing us we’d really get the Gaucho we deserve; as the sassy Dusty in Memphis-inspired “45” intimates, she’s smart enough to let her lyrics delineate the irony that her big voice is incapable of embracing.

Under the spotlight…

STE is right about Rilo Kiley Mach II: Jenny Lewis’ control is as inexorable as Natalie Merchant’s over the 10,000 Maniacs circa Our Time in Eden. I say for the better: on their previous albums (the ones I could listen to all the way without getting up to make a Denver omelet), Blake Sennett made the usual mistake of perfecting songcraft at the expense of rhythm and weirdness; and while Lewis’ songs still deny the former, they’re long on the latter. Never mind the encyclopedic pop ambitions of Under The Blacklight — this is a woman whose appetites are so strong that she’ll sate them anywhere and anytime, and whose own songcraft almost matches her emotional demands. Unfortunately, the Lewis regime is hell on her bandmates, all of whom to a man are indistinguishable from any Grade B studio hack. Sennett’s one tune evokes, as Joshua Klein pointed out, Mirage-era Fleetwood Mac, alas: like Lindsay Buckingham on the reified followup to Tusk, Sennett sounds embarrassed if not declawed, as if he’d been on the wrong end of a lecture. The mix is laxative-smooth; it could be the indie-pop Gaucho (with his work here and on Maroon 5’s latest, Mike Elizondo could be repping for Gary Katz’s cred). Hook her up with, say, Lloyd Cole, Fred Maher, and Matthew Sweet, and you may get first-rate adult entertainment.

A couple of other reviews (including Erlewine’s) suggest that Lewis is striving to be her generation’s Anais Nin or something. “There is nothing but bad sex here,” Erlewine writes. As if! (can’t you enjoy bad sex?). Perhaps if Lewis ditched these guys and started to limn the rich showbiz kid life for material instead of teasing us we’d really get the Gaucho we deserve; as the sassy Dusty in Memphis-inspired “45” intimates, she’s smart enough to let her lyrics delineate the irony that her big voice is incapable of embracing.

Boys will be boys, pt. I

I haven’t seen Superbad yet, but this putatively no-contest John Hughes-vs-Judd-Apatow debate got complicated quickly, and there’s several points to consider:

(1) Films about the deceptively placid, ostensibly platonic relationships between men are rare. Seth Rogan and Paul Rudd’s affection in Knocked Up is so powerful and instantaneous that marriage is seen as a necessary but painful interruption. From my own experience, if there’s anything more powerful than a man and woman falling in love, it’s two men realizing they’ve got a connection. Knocked Up shows how having stuff in common is a suitable substitute for sex; when you’ve got nothing in common — like Rogan and Katherine Heigl — sex is the only substitute (It’s one of the film’s many subtle pleasures that Rogan’s gingerly, non-stop jokes around Heigl don’t hide his discomfort, as she and the audience are perfectly aware. The film doesn’t condemn Heigl for being a square either).

(2) It’s probably true that Apatow’s female characters lack the dimensions of their male counterparts. But let’s remember: like Hawks or Linklater, this is a director for whom behavior matters as much as written dialogue. If Katherine Heigl and Leslie Mann seem set in alabaster and shrewish, respectively, that’s not how these actresses play their parts. This suggests a weakness on Apatow’s part. He’s created such a reliable stock company that he can write to their strengths. Casting a less congenial actor may reveal the chinks in his conceptions. A film that mixes tones to such vertiginous effect as Knocked Up renders binarities like the Madonna-whore complex obsolete.

As for my response to the Lamentations of David Denby, I wrote this last month, in part:

Denby’s latest exercise in sincere befuddlement finds modern romantic comedy wanting beside — you guessed it — the triumphant silliness of the screwball comedies of the thirties and forties. The problem isn’t with his premise; most intelligent filmgoers are probably as depressed by the privileging of “high concept” ideas over actual, you know, scripts. No, Denby is troubled by the preference of the contemporary filmgoer for slackers over the bejewelled playgirls and brilliantined boys that populated the movies of Ernst Lubitsch, Gregory La Cava, and Howard Hawks. Although Denby is smart enough to accept that the social context which allowed for this sort of milieu has vanished (indeed, never existed in FDR’s Depression-racked America), he’s repelled by our embrace of Judd Apatow’s stoner heroes. He won’t even give us the benefit of the doubt — he thinks we adduce Seth Rogan’s antics as proof of our resistance to the values of classic thirties screwball. He’s in love, in short, with a myth; and if there’s anything we’ve learned, myths can occlude the finest judgments:

As fascinating and as funny as Knocked Up is, it represents what can only be called the disenchantment of romantic comedy, the end point of a progression from Fifth Avenue to the Valley, from tuxedos to tube socks, from a popped champagne cork to a baby crowning. There’s nothing in it that is comparable to the style of the classics — no magic in its settings, no reverberant sense of place, no shared or competitive work for the couple to do.

Is he kidding? “No reverberant sense of place” (like Rogan’s apartment and sister-in-law’s house didn’t smother us in their smothering verisimilitude)? The clue’s in that rancid polarity, “from tuxedos to tube socks,” as if we could choose, as if Knocked Up didn’t articulate a discomfort of which Bringing Up Baby and My Man Godfrey were incapable — a real tapping into the Zeitgeist that Denby himself acknowledges (“the picture is unruly and surprising; it’s filled with the messes and rages of life in 2007”)*. The second clue is Denby’s dew-eyed elevation of those Woody Allen films of the late seventies. Certainly they’re as ambivalent and messy as Knocked Up, but Denby upholds them as avatars of grace and elegance — “they took romantic comedy to a level of rueful sophistication never seen before or since.” Given Denby’s roots in the upheavals of seventies cinema, I’m shocked he didn’t cite Paul Mazursky’s freewheeling, overloaded comedies (Blume in Love, Next Stop, Greenwich Village, or An Unmarried Woman) as better examples.

Since Denby’s incapable of the dialectical play that distinguished Kael (or, hell, Lubitsch), he must distinguish, grindingly, like a scold you nevertheless can’t help but pity, between “sophistication” and “adolescent stupor.” That he really loves Knocked Up — that he senses that Apatow’s film is on to something, tapping into something inchoate in American heterosexual relations — is unmistakable; but his brain, dulled by the whiff of pot smoke and the sight of Rogan and Paul Rudd in tube socks, has to punish his instincts. You can sense his delight in snapping, like a hippo, at what he thinks is a salient demurral: Apatow has no idea what to do with his female characters. Leslie Mann, he writes, is “not a lover; she represents disillusion.” But she’s a supporting character. Does Denby hold Eve Arden in Stage Door or Ruth Hussey in The Philadelphia Story— both used as much for their talent for bitchiness as their ability to incarnate archetypes — as examples of three-dimensional womanhood? (Were I to mention faggoty Kate Hepburn foil David Wayne in Adam’s Rib Denby’s righteous head would collapse).

This article, with its dewy evocations of beloved plot points in His Girl Friday and Adam’s Rib as if the reader he was trying to address hadn’t already seen them, does Denby no favors. Remember: Greil Marcus rather nastily wrote, “Nothing will ever rescue him from mediocrity” in that hit job. I fear that results like this are inevitable when you try to explain zeitgeists and such to an ageing audience — you sound like a tabby stepping on piano keys….

(care of A Grand Illusion)

Good night

Some things, nino, some things are like this,
That instantly and in themselves they are gay
And you and I are such things, O most miserable…

For a moment they are as gay and are a part
Of an element, the exactest element for us,
In which we pronounce joy like a word of our own.

It is there, being imperfect, and with these things
And erudite in happiness, with nothing learned,
That we are joyously ourselves and we think

Without the labor of thought, in that element,
And we feel, in a way apart, for a moment, as if
There was a bright scienza outside of ourselves,

A gaiety that is being, not merely knowing,
The will to be and to be total in belief,
Provoking a laughter, an agreement by surprise.

— Wallace Stevens
“Of Bright & Blue Birds & the Gala Sun”

Good night

Some things, nino, some things are like this,
That instantly and in themselves they are gay
And you and I are such things, O most miserable…

For a moment they are as gay and are a part
Of an element, the exactest element for us,
In which we pronounce joy like a word of our own.

It is there, being imperfect, and with these things
And erudite in happiness, with nothing learned,
That we are joyously ourselves and we think

Without the labor of thought, in that element,
And we feel, in a way apart, for a moment, as if
There was a bright scienza outside of ourselves,

A gaiety that is being, not merely knowing,
The will to be and to be total in belief,
Provoking a laughter, an agreement by surprise.

— Wallace Stevens
“Of Bright & Blue Birds & the Gala Sun”

Daryl Hall: "I love the fact that record companies are all going down"

A lively Daryl Hall interview in, of all places, Pitchfork. He tells Clive Davis to go fuck himself, laments the standards-strewn road down which Rod Stewart walks in the autumn of his career, sympathizes with Kelly Clarkson, and talks warmly of his collaboration with Robert Fripp, Sacred Songs.

I adore Hall, but he and interviewer Chris Dahlen give themselves too much credit for Hall & Oates’ purported indie cred. In the context of an act that scored a Number One, a couple of Top Tens, and several charting small hits, the late seventies period during which they released stuff like Along the Red Ledge and X-Static were just fallow commercially (and, what do I know, artistically too); they stayed on a major label and eventually prospered, hugely. As a result, this interview largely ignores the eighties, which is bizarre: imagine interviewing John Lennon and asking him about the Cavern Club and recording Mind Games, while devoting one question to the Beatles. As one of the greatest beneficiaries of generational revisionism, H&O’s big hits (it’s difficult for those who weren’t in the U.S. at the time to imagine how omnipresent those hits were) really did synthesize all that was au courant and underground: glacial synth pop, the stirrings of Big Chill-inspired sixties nostalgia, Arthur Baker dub.

I find his arrogance for once cute, a sign of enormous self-confidence and pride, even in this bit where he answers the perennial what-does-John-do question:

We are not an equal duo, and never have been. I’m 90% and he’s 10%, and that’s the way it is. And he’d say the same thing. He has plenty of ideas, he’s a finisher, he’s a good musician, he is an attention-to-detail person. He is overshadowed by me because I’m such a strong vocal personality. I also always believed that you can only have one singer in a band. The ping-pong thing doesn’t work. We’re not the Bobbsey Twins. He stands there, he’s the quiet one – it’s sort of like Jagger-Richards or something. And I’m out there banging away. And I’m much more prolific than him. I have much more energy than him. He’s more lazy than me – [laughs] – in music. But he’s a meticulous person.