Monthly Archives: June 2008

Well, yes

David Thomson, reviewing Tom Kalin’s tentative film career and his pretty good (and, until Savage Grace, only) film Swoon:

It was hard to see Swoon without detecting a gay film, but that mood was no more pressing or less complicated than the fact that Goodfellas was a claim made for heterosexuality in an essentially gay world. In other words, no film is simply about sex, even if nearly every film is also always about sex.

Hardly fashionable, but my Oldie of the Week is OMD’s “So In Love,” their first of four American Top 40 hits. Everyone knows “If You Leave,” which then and now I’ve always found one of the worst beloved hits of all time — garish and obvious, from the synthesized percussion to the breathy way in which the vocalist (I can’t tell them apart) sings “Seven years went under the bridge/Like time was standing still” as if it took seven years under the bridge to come up with the lines. Since I’m lukewarm on many of OMD’s early electro ditties, the straightforwardness of “So In Love” often grabbed me whenever I heard it (not often). I love how the synth-strings outrace the piano line, with Andy McCluskey barely holding the high notes; the song, like his rapture, gets away from him, barely returning to earth in the final minute before lifting him to the English Electro-Gloss Heaven populated by the likes of Roxy Music’s “Over You” and New Order’s “True Faith.” Speaking of which, Stephen Hague had a hand in shaping this one; his reins-holding here reminds me of what he’d do two years later on “True Faith”: constructing sturdy but porous blocks of electronic sound that insulated the band from their own excesses but allowed their conviction to seep through.

I haven’t written about movies in a while. Let me catch up.

Enchanted (2007): One of the movie’s least remarked on jokes is that no one in Manhattan blinks an eyelash when Amy Adams’ cartoon princess steps out of a manhole cover in Guinevere drag; it says little when prince James Marsden jumps atop a crosstown bus with a sword. But disrupt rush hour traffic and they get PISSED. Sure, it’s New York — its citizens are accustomed to oddities — but it’s no accident that the characters materialize in Times Square, practically owned by the Walt Disney Company, which also produced this film. America has become an extension of the Magic Kingdom; thus, the callow likes of divorce lawyer Patrick Dempsey (as Adams’ real true love) incarnates the fantasies of millions of little girls. Why believe in lovelorn princes when a bland flesh and blood one with a six-figure salary makes for an able substitute?

Still, this is a pretty good spoof; a multibillion dollar behemoth like Disney can afford to be generous. During one of my last visits to Walt Disney World, we ate a character buffet, at which we were visited by, in quick succession, Alice (from Alice in Wonderland), Belle, and Piglet. Amy Adams reminded me of those young women. There isn’t a scintilla of irony in her performance; she’s committed to playing Disney’s conception of a princess as fully as Ronald Reagan played an American president. Like Reagan, you don’t dare make fun of her to her face: she wouldn’t get it, so fully do they inhabit their parts. Meanwhile Marsden, relieved that he wasn’t cast in the Dempsey-patsy role for once, mugs and throws his stumpy arms hither and thither as if he’s never heard of Errol Flynn.

Amidst the amiable jabs at pop psychology and modern publishing (as well as an unexpected twist on a familiar denouement between a dragon and the True Love), there’s a truly sinister conclusion: Adams heads a booming princess-gown trade in a place that looks a lot like a gift shop on Main Street, U.S.A. You can argue that she teaches other girls to enact the fantasy she’s made flesh (literally), but the glint in her eyes doesn’t just signify a determination to believe in true love — it also projects a yen for lucre. Imagine Snow White and her prince moving to a loft on the Upper East Side to manage their plush toy business. Its most popular items? The Seven Dwarfs.

Circle in the Sand

A couple of weeks ago, former Stylus colleague Jonathan Bradley thought it would be a nice idea if the rest of our former colleagues assembled summer mix tapes. I collaborated with Dan Weiss on mine. Download the mix here; the tracklist is below. Here are the prefaces we wrote:

Mixing this was a necessary challenge. I’m in constant worry that the constant tide of new sounds to parse will eventually swallow my instinct for putting music together or catching the hairpin logic of a loop in potential. I’m really proud of these results, though. Alfred is a natural collaborator for me because he’s one of the few critics of my time who zeroes in on melody, rhythm, songwriting…the boring essentials that some people will go as far as SunnO)))) records to avoid. I can count on him to present me with a new way to hear E-A-B-C# again (Kathleen Edwards’ brilliant Amy Rigby stunt “The Cheapest Key”) or discern visceral arguments of longevity from inscrutable favorite-band-ism (Pet Shop Boys’ “Minimal,” as exciting as they’ve ever been in 20+ years). I was delighted by his picks, nearly all of them unknown to me. In fact, his choices set the bar so high I went back and redacted a few of mine that I fear relied too much on my weakness: classic alt-rock comforts. Even still, no summer can jam without Weezer, Weezy or Belinda Carlisle. Thanks for luring me out of the cheapest key.

— Dan Weiss

After studying our mix, I noticed that we were most concerned with space — how artists and shrewd remixes suggest vastness. In the context of summer, vastness suggests the abrogation of responsibility: school and relationships, mostly, and the moral sinecures they provide by necessity, against which we strain with some success, and towards which we return as the days start to shorten, and bank balances begin to shrink. These songs are guideposts: towards danger and release.

— Alfred Soto


1. The Reputation – Face It
2. Arthur Russell – That’s Us/Wild Combination
3. Cut Copy – So Haunted
4. Yo La Tengo – Today is the Day
5. The Cure – A Japanese Dream
6. Be Your Own Pet – Super Soaked
7. Lil’ Wayne – I Feel Like Dying
8. Belinda Carlisle – Heaven is a Place on Earth (Heavenly Version)
9. Mike Doughty – Like a Luminous Girl
10. Hercules & Love Affair – Shadows
11. Pet Shop Boys – Minimal
12. Katy Perry – Waking Up in Vegas
13. Wussy – Soak It Up
14. Kathleen Edwards – The Cheapest Key
15. Jens Lekman – A Sweet Summer’s Night on Hammer Hill
16. Bryan Ferry – The In Crowd
17. Weezer – Everybody Get Dangerous
18. Al Green feat. John Legend – Stay With Me (By the Sea)
19. Duran Duran – Meet El Presidente (7″ Remix)
20. The B-52s – Eyes Wide Open
21. We are Scientists – After Hours
22. Liz Phair – Lazy Dreamer
23. Rosanne Cash – Hold On
24. Bob Dylan – Clean-Cut Kid

Doin’ The Things That They Want To

What I admire most in a beloved musician is what I call colloquial mastery, and Matos‘ post on Prince’s “Blue Light” is exactly what I had in mind. I only warmed to”Blue Light” after absorbing Prince’s other work, and for other reasons: it’s a song recorded after the artist, having nothing further to prove, refines his craft by concentrating on the quotidian events that you and I take for granted — that they, in their quest of greatness, took for granted in their youth.

I feel the same about Lou Reed’s eighties work. Although praised highly at the time by the likes of Christgau, among others, the consensus has swung back to canonizing Transformer and Berlin, two albums I find unconvincingly sketchy and leaden, respectively (listening to Transformer is like watching a friend putting the moves on a gay man because he’s flattered by the latter’s attention). I can understand why — The Blue Mask, Legendary Hearts, and New Sensations often sound horrible, despite the skill of the best band Reed’s worked with since the Velvets. Reed’s idea of production glitz, for example, consists of pilfering the drum sound of Private Eyes-era Hall & Oats. But there’s rewards to this approach too. After writing about heroin, bondage, and putting jelly on your shoulder, Reed’s devotion to banality requires a similar accommodation on the part of the listener. He did run out of ideas too (1986’s Mistrial and even New York are collections of slogans looking for arrangements, even melodies). Still, for me, Reed has never sounded more human and Reed-like than on “My Friend George,” “Rooftop Garden,” “I Love You, Suzanne,” and “Doin‘ The Things That We Want To.” Like “Blue Light”‘s use of what Matos calls “Taxi” (as in the TV show) synth lines and a loping reggae rhythm to which Tom Cruise and Elizabeth Shue might have danced in Cocktail, Reed’s use of decidedly unsubversive arrangements underlines his commitment to normality, illuminated by his superb ear for the unexpected fillip. The situation he delineates in “My Friend George,” in which bumping into a friend inspires frustration and renewed comradeship, gains more resonance as I approach my mid thirties and respond to Facebook requests from high school alumni. No rancid putdowns or labored analogies here: he doesn’t need them; his wise-ass personality underpins the song. Beginning with a violin line straight out of mid eighties Peter Gabriel duetting with Reed’s strummed electric guitar (and the return of the thin, white, dreaded H&O drums), “Doin‘ The Things…” is more adventurous musically, and its arrangement adds heft to the song’s simple premise: Reed swoons over a Sam Shepard play; it reminds him of what he loved about Martin Scorsese’s New York films. Years after he claimed on a famous Berlin psychodrama that he didn’t give a shit about people suffering, it’s touching to hear Lou drop his guard like this, playing the fanboy. Like Reagan meeting with Gorbachev one year later after Reed recorded New Sensations, Lou could get away with it thanks to two decades’ worth of accruing a reputation for doing the opposite. The title is descriptor and manifesto: without grandstanding, Reed puts himself in the company of fellow experts of the demotic, of men who make art after punching the clock.

Other examples: Van Morrison’s “Cleaning Windows,” Stephen Malkmus‘ “Gardenia,” the entirety of De La Soul’s The Grind Date, the Go-Betweens‘ “Here Comes The City.”

Bravo, Senator Obama…

…for reminding us that you can pander as abjectly as your colleague, Senator John McCain. As I’ve written elsewhere, this was an especially sordid move when every poll shows that the Democrats will not just keep but expand their Congressional majorities. So why are they afraid of being called Soft on Terror by chicken hawk Republicans?

Glenn Greenwald, who’s been following this story since 2005, sums it up:

This bill doesn’t legalize every part of Bush’s illegal warrantless eavesdropping program but it takes a large step beyond FISA towards what Bush did. There was absolutely no reason to destroy the FISA framework, which is already an extraordinarily pro-Executive instrument that vests vast eavesdropping powers in the President, in order to empower the President to spy on large parts of our international communications with no warrants at all. This was all done by invoking the scary spectre of Terrorism — “you must give up your privacy and constitutional rights to us if you want us to keep you safe” — and it is Obama’s willingness to embrace that rancid framework, the defining mindset of the Bush years, that is most deserving of intense criticism here.

But, hey, Obama wants to be president, and stands an excellent chance of winning, so why wouldn’t he support cool new executive powers allowing him to pursue deeds worthy of his most soaring rhetoric?

To be responsible, I listened to Girl Talk’s new one twice, but I knew I hated it upon hearing the third track. As I wrote somewhere else, this is the album-length equivalent of participating in a music trivia night at your local bar, with the dork at the table (okay, me) identifying Survivor tunelets. I disagree with the Idolator folks: Jive Bunny’s “In The Mood” at least nodded to history, and you could dance to it, sorta. Apart from the juxtaposition of “Whoop (There It Is)!” and Big Country’s “In a Big Country” — due mostly to acknowledging how marvelous the Stuart Adamson riff sounds cranked good and loud — this album is the most witless example of sampling/mashing to date, the sort of horror which discredits its possibilities.