“A tropical entropy seemed to prevail,” Joan Didion wrote in Miami, “defeating grand schemes even as they were realized.” All the butt-shaking and arm-waving obviated any sense that entropy prevailed at the M.I.A. show at Studio A last night, but it made me re-examine my own M.I.A. problem. I overheard this exchange a few minutes before she went on stage:

She: [M.I.A.]’s so good.

He: I like the CD you made me.

She: She sounds so Indian. Like, exotic.

Now, until last night’s show, I had no idea who bought her albums beside rockcrits and readers of their prose. Which isn’t entirely fair: I’ve students who went to her show in early 2006. But it was a coterie, and (teen) musical coteries store facts like granaries store wheat, without digesting them. Thanks to a grainy pre-concert film showing an authoritarian Ceylonian head of state and a Soviet kepis that M.I.A. sported (crowning a baggy gold sequined blouse thing that Phyllis Diller would have loved), the coterie had some inkling that her music was “political” even if its content was lost on them. On me too. Anthony articulated some of my discomforts a couple of months ago, predictably more sophisticated than protests from Ethan Padgetts of rockcrit. She gets too much credit for statements that wither when listened to as manifestos; her many good songs, as he rightly put it, “revole around not just facile slogans but facile questions.”All I could glean from “Boyz” and “Sunshowers” is what I’ve enjoyed from noted theorist Prince Rogers Nelson: there’s fucked-up shit in this world, so let’s dance and fuck. While I’m not accusing her of cynically exploiting her background to add a patina of social relevance to those shape-shifting beats, she gets toomuch credit for them; or, rather, the beats are ever so much weirder than her lyrics.

I live in Miami. M.I.A. could have been Gloria Estefan, “Sunshowers” and “Boyz” could have been “Get On Your Feet” and “Rhythm is Gonna Get You” — songs by another dark-skinned exotic who gets points for being friskier than what was on most of the audience’s iPod’s. Since she (and us) was having such a great time I don’t begrudge her reluctance to turn into Linton Kwesi Johnson, but there’s a reason why “Paper Planes,” live and on record, remains her most conflicted statement and most striking musical moment — she hints that she isn’t the only one up for indictment.

RIP, part two

Simon Reynolds has the best short obit (dovetailing with a run of less than cheerful dispatches on the state of music and music writing, a subject my final essay will also address), specifically addressing Stylus’ relation to Pitchfork:

And for purely selfish readerly reasons I’ll miss Stylus’s off-kilter approach, which I’ve often fancied sorta made it vis-a-vis Pitchfork what the [late Eighties] Melody Maker was to the [late Eighties} NME. Except that’s quite unfair to Pitchfork which is way better than NME was then… but the analogy nonetheless has something to it: P-fork as the Accepted Authority, saddled with a certain responsibility, and Stylus thereby freed up to be the younger brother/maverick/underdog.

Stylus RIP

As the world of rockcrit knows by now, Stylus will cease publication this week. I have a lot of thoughts I haven’t sorted yet which I may post as inspiration comes, but my unfinished valediction to be published on Thursday is an attempt.

Milquetoast on hambone

Since I don’t suck on Hollywood hambone too often, I looked forward to watching Mr. Brooks. Not a good idea when the writer/directors wrote Stand By Me and Kevin Costner plays a mild-mannered serial killer, but whatever. William Hurt! Kevin Costner playing a mild-mannered serial killer! Did I say William Hurt?

Alas, Mr. Brooks is about 80 minutes too long. It equates funereal pacing with Serious Drama. It’s got Costner discussing abortion with a teenage daughter who’s probably his girlfriend. Faithfully adhering to Hollywood serial killer movie rules, there’s a scene in which Costner burns his clothes and a few incriminating possessions of his victim’s while crouching in the nude (we get no scenes, alas, of Costner sticking his dick between his thighs and penciling eyeliner to the accompaniment of Colin Newman). Demi Moore’s in here too, playing, you guessed it, the determined cop out to get Mr. Brooks, grinding her teeth so fiercely that bicuspid ash oozed from her jaws. Fortunately Lindsay Crouse is on hand, as a crypto-dike police captain who’s minutes from turning into Laurie Metcalf-playing-Joan Crawford. The biggest disappointment is Hurt, relegated to glowering in the shadows and committed to playing this shit role like it’s Iago; he does experiment with an cackle he stole from Dr. Evil, though. Once again the filmmakers missed an opportunity in not switching the roles: how much more delicious would this film be if William Hurt, as the serial killer, took advice from alter ego Kevin Costner, especially if Costner is still allowed to act this milquetoasty?

If you happen to catch Mr. Brooks on cable, make sure you make it through the first thirty minutes. Costner utters a line of dialogue destined for the annals of camp. To serial killer apprentice (don’t ask) Dane Cook: “I feel I must warn you — if it turns out you enjoy killing, it can be very addictive. It can ruin your life.”

Good Neil Young albums begin with throwaway openings that are nevertheless lots of fun; you could fill a dandy quarter of a CD-R with Sleeps With Angels‘ “My Heart,” Comes a Time‘s “Goin’ Home,” Time Fades Away’s title track, and a handful of others. Chrome Dreams II’s “Beautiful Bluebird” isn’t one of them — it’s a reminder that, when he wants to, Young can still be mawkish in a melodious way. Don’t laugh: it’s some kind of achievement after good will and healthy sales. The proletariat concept album, Bush-bashing album, and Jonathan Demme-enshrined country-rock record are the kinds of modest achievement we expect from veterans who still read The New York Times and haven’t forgotten how to plug their electric guitars into amps; Prairie Wind even became his first new album in more than a decade to be certified gold. I don’t own a one, and I’m not too ashamed to confess that I’ve lost the tracks I’ve preserved after a hard drive meltdown a few months ago. I haven’t paid much attention to him since “I’m The Ocean” proved too sloppy for Pearl Jam in 1995 (to their credit, they’ve absorbed its lessons, to commercial shortfall).

Chrome Dreams II’s backstory is more interesting than the album itself, but its slapdash nature is good for Young; it reminds us that lots of his great albums, particularly Rust Never Sleeps and Freedom were cobbled together, indifferent to abstractions, “concepts,” or any notions of gestalt that Young’s concentration couldn’t focus on. Its ramshackle charm feels earned. “The Believer” tunefully rewrites After the Goldrush‘s “I Believe In You” (and alludes to it in the chorus call-and-response vocals) for post-fiftysomethings. “Dirty Old Man” takes the “Piece of Crap” riff around town, gives it a Jagermeister shot, and forces it to drive home. It’s a stupid song, but for Young “stupid” allows him to record essentialist statements beyond his self-important peers (Dylan, with all his newfound senescent grace, seems incapable of it).

Of course “Ordinary People” will get all the attention. After years of spotty bootleg appearances, it sprawls for nearly twenty minutes on an album incapable of supporting the song’s conceptual ambitions. Despite visible signs of age (note the hearty “Lee Iaccoca people!” Neil shouts, a reminder that maybe he thumbed through Talking Straight in 1986 while admiring Ronald Reagan’s Miss Liberty tribute on TV) it makes its pretensions pay off. Or stupidity — Neil’s ideas about “the people” might as well come from the lyrics to “Hands Across America,” oblivious to Joseph Cotten’s contemptuous dismissal in Citizen Kane. How reassuring that he’s not settling for mere iconicity. Who cares that we’re not sure how many new songs he’s written for this album — that he’s still possessed by the spirit of “T-Bone” and “Welfare Mothers” at 93 or however old he is is a boon in this climate of Starbucks-ified boomer-rock.

Good Neil Young albums begin with throwaway openings that are nevertheless lots of fun; you could fill a dandy quarter of a CD-R with Sleeps With Angels‘ “My Heart,” Comes a Time‘s “Goin’ Home,” Time Fades Away’s title track, and a handful of others. Chrome Dreams II’s “Beautiful Bluebird” isn’t one of them — it’s a reminder that, when he wants to, Young can still be mawkish in a melodious way. Don’t laugh: it’s some kind of achievement after good will and healthy sales. The proletariat concept album, Bush-bashing album, and Jonathan Demme-enshrined country-rock record are the kinds of modest achievement we expect from veterans who still read The New York Times and haven’t forgotten how to plug their electric guitars into amps; Prairie Wind even became his first new album in more than a decade to be certified gold. I don’t own a one, and I’m not too ashamed to confess that I’ve lost the tracks I’ve preserved after a hard drive meltdown a few months ago. I haven’t paid much attention to him since “I’m The Ocean” proved too sloppy for Pearl Jam in 1995 (to their credit, they’ve absorbed its lessons, to commercial shortfall).

Chrome Dreams II’s backstory is more interesting than the album itself, but its slapdash nature is good for Young; it reminds us that lots of his great albums, particularly Rust Never Sleeps and Freedom were cobbled together, indifferent to abstractions, “concepts,” or any notions of gestalt that Young’s concentration couldn’t focus on. Its ramshackle charm feels earned. “The Believer” tunefully rewrites After the Goldrush‘s “I Believe In You” (and alludes to it in the chorus call-and-response vocals) for post-fiftysomethings. “Dirty Old Man” takes the “Piece of Crap” riff around town, gives it a Jagermeister shot, and forces it to drive home. It’s a stupid song, but for Young “stupid” allows him to record essentialist statements beyond his self-important peers (Dylan, with all his newfound senescent grace, seems incapable of it).

Of course “Ordinary People” will get all the attention. After years of spotty bootleg appearances, it sprawls for nearly twenty minutes on an album incapable of supporting the song’s conceptual ambitions. Despite visible signs of age (note the hearty “Lee Iaccoca people!” Neil shouts, a reminder that maybe he thumbed through Talking Straight in 1986 while admiring Ronald Reagan’s Miss Liberty tribute on TV) it makes its pretensions pay off. Or stupidity — Neil’s ideas about “the people” might as well come from the lyrics to “Hands Across America,” oblivious to Joseph Cotten’s contemptuous dismissal in Citizen Kane. How reassuring that he’s not settling for mere iconicity. Who cares that we’re not sure how many new songs he’s written for this album — that he’s still possessed by the spirit of “T-Bone” and “Welfare Mothers” at 93 or however old he is is a boon in this climate of Starbucks-ified boomer-rock.

Couldn’t have said it better…

I like Kevin John Bozelka a lot. The best bit of (seemingly) tossed-off criticism this week.

I always thought “I Want It That Way” was a fine piece of product. But it wasn’t until Joe Gross in the 1999 Pazz issue compared it to Gertrude Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation that I realized it was no piece of product at all. Or rather, it was the ultimate proof that the pop assembly line could produce poetry of an almost disquieting singularity. The well-trained sincerity (NOT an oxymoron) of the voices; the sturdy, non-distracting backing track; the overall arc from quiet to quiet; the “ain’t nothing” hooks which are really cascades of question marks – all are designed to streamline what is at heart a mystery so that “I Want It That Way” means exactly what you (or I) think it does. It’s like DeBarge made solid

Couldn’t have said it better…

I like Kevin John Bozelka a lot. The best bit of (seemingly) tossed-off criticism this week.

I always thought “I Want It That Way” was a fine piece of product. But it wasn’t until Joe Gross in the 1999 Pazz issue compared it to Gertrude Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation that I realized it was no piece of product at all. Or rather, it was the ultimate proof that the pop assembly line could produce poetry of an almost disquieting singularity. The well-trained sincerity (NOT an oxymoron) of the voices; the sturdy, non-distracting backing track; the overall arc from quiet to quiet; the “ain’t nothing” hooks which are really cascades of question marks – all are designed to streamline what is at heart a mystery so that “I Want It That Way” means exactly what you (or I) think it does. It’s like DeBarge made solid