I can walk you through the park if you’re feelin’ blue, or whatever

I don’t understand the concept of “makeout music.” If you’re going to makeout with someone, you’re concentrating on your lover, not on whether a Marvin Gaye or Animal Collective album is putting you in the mood. Thus, affixing this moniker on what Maxwell does mystifies me. Like Roxy Music’s Avalon, BLACKsummer’snight, his first record in almost eight years, evokes eroticism instead of being itself erotic or provoking erotic feeling.To me he’s “erotic”  like the Donna Summer of “I Feel Love,” who at least shouted psychotherapy from a height of 40,000 feet; Maxwell’s voice and come-on rely on perceptions of grit and “groudedness.”

As one of the best engineered recordings of the last several years, BLACKsummer’snight offers sumptuous pleasure: every rim shot, guitar strum, and doubletracked vocal has a presence missing in a lot of pop music, let alone “neo-soul.” Several plays lately, I’m not any closer to understanding what Maxwell’s intentions are — is he expressing lust or is he expressing that he wants to express lust? The confusion wouldn’t itself bother me if he wasn’t adapting soul signifiers to gloss it. This is the kind of album whose craft stifles an artistic sensibility that you’d think would transform these signifiers into weapons. Not enough to dissuade me from listening: “Stop the World” is the natural single “Pretty Wings” wasn’t, and a splendid companion piece to Raphael Saadiq’s expert soul cryogenics last autumn. “Help Somebody” boasts a keyboard hook lifted from Tricky circa 1997, horns blasts borrowed from early seventies Stevie Wonder, and a fuzzy guitar from god knows what; the groove’s so expertly coiled that I have no wish to ask it to surrender its secrets. If BLACKsummer’snight isn’t quite at Avalon‘s level, credit Bryan Ferry’s choice to sculpt music whose instrumental filigrees, which blare and disappear through the synthesized mix, conjure a detachment that Ferry’s vocals don’t quite convince you he feels. On “Love You” and “Pretty Wings,” Maxwell wants to breathe on your ear, but the arrangements restrain him; the tension between singer and band isn’t strong enough; in a couple of spots it exposes the weakness of his melodies. But when he strips down the music and wraps his voice around a fetching metaphor (“Playing Possum”‘s hunter-gets-captured-by-the-game tricks) and a trumpet solo that David Sylvian would die for, he’s irresistible.

You’re just kissing to be clever

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If you can snag a copy of Dave Rimmer’s Like Punk Never Happened used on Amazon or eBay (it’s available), please do: it’s a wonderful companion to Simon Reynolds’ Rip It Up and Start Again.  Renewed interest in Culture Club’s Colour By Numbers provoked by an I Love Music poll persuaded me to request the book through my university’s interlibrary loan. Rimmer published his book a year after UK New Pop, in Robert Christgau’s trenchant words, conquered the world and then went pfft. A former writer for Smash Hits during Neil Tennant’s tenure as editor, Rimmer writes with intelligence and sensitivity about how the convergence of punk, disco, and the resurgence of youth culture produced a shift in popular culture that was truly seismic across the pond.

Rimmer’s triumph is to get bands to admit to the crassness of their motives without using these admissions to condemn their music; the shortcomings of Spandau Ballet and Howard Jones to my ears notwithstanding, they at least accepted their place in a plutocratic society. They adduce his thesis that the relationship between consumer and product had changed utterly in 1983 and 1984; these acts could claim, while looking you in the eye, that They Really Mean It and demand twenty pounds for that concert T-shirt, thank you very much. I wish Rolling Stone‘s early ’84 Duran Duran cover story was available online (the famous “Fab Five” cover): it’s one of the best testimonials to rampant, naked arrogance that I’ve ever read (you read it and understand why it took a generation to re-evaluate their music). Since 1984 was the peak of Reagan’s popularity as president and Thatcher’s on British popular culture, it’s no surprise to hear statements as honest as Thompson Twin chief operating officer Tom Bailey’s:

“A multinational corporation,” he says, “is exactly what we are, in a business sense. We’ve got a monstrously big turnover internationally. A lot bigger than a lot of companies that are quote don the Stock Exchange.”

The book concentrates on the rise of Culture Club, all of whose members come off as media savvy, quite aware that they’re on the ride of their lives and determined to have fun before the fall they see coming (and fall they did). Sandwiched around accounts of a Japanese tour and the processes by which bands make money off royalties and merchandise, we get character portraits: drummer Jon Moss, the not-so-closeted Tory and out-to-everyone-else lover of Boy George (was Rimmer the first journalist to reveal the secret? Inquiring minds want to know.); the detached bassist Mikey Craig; guitarist and all-round affable bloke Roy Hay. As for George Alan O’Dowd, Rimmer captures him at the height of his global popularity — the gal was on “The A Team,” for god’s sake. He also isn’t afraid to puncture holes in George’s sexuality, represented by Borscht Belt bon mots (when asked if he’s bisexual, George chirps, “No, I never had to buy sex”). Besides pointing out that George’s stonewalling made “sound commercial sense” (it kept everyone guessing), he demonstrates how it’s nothing new: “the path of  fame and fortune in the world of British pop began with the casting couch. A clique of homosexual managers ruled the roost.”

It’s a week of correspondences. After contributing to an ILM thread devoted to The Cure’s Wish, I remembered a fantastic profile in Details published in ithe summer of ’92, in which Robert Smith comes off considerably more human and thoughtful than he ever did or would again. After checking said magazine (I own lots of back issues from Details‘ 1992-1996 glory years), I noted: Smash Hits colleague and author of two fantastic Pet Shop Boys tour chronicles Chris Heath wrote it.

Negotiable space

The idea of Top 40 radio as what Tom Ewing calls “a place where ideas about pop could clash and mutate” is exactly the vision through which Casey Kasem and Shadoe Stevens’ competing but not much different tallies of the most popular songs in America seduced me. This might explain why I’m so tolerant of Sheena Easton, Paula Abdul, Phil Collins/Genesis, Roxette, and countless other third-stringers. Nostalgia, inevitably, has something to do with it; but even then I was conscious of liking a “Cold Hearted” here or “Dangerous” there because contact with songs I loved like “Enjoy The Silence,” “Me, Myself and I,” or “3 AM Eternal” inoculated them against visceral disdain. Liking or loving them, as Ewing asserts, is quite beside the point; it’s how they negotiated spots in a room whose sanctity depended on the purchasing power of millions of Americans. The mass audience who sent “Dangerous” into the top five also made “Enjoy The Silence” a Top Ten hit! Songs that become pop hits take victory laps around our ears; we can’t ignore them. Although my iTunes/CD player vs car radio listening is roughly 90-10, I can’t shake the sense that hearing your favorite new song on the radio — it happened last summer with M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” — is a triumph that our atomized marketplace can’t easily replace. My song can compete. That’s why I lose patience with colleagues who still — in 2009! — assume that their favorite song remains a shared experience between the band and the listener.

(Hat tip: Matos)

The Onion couldn’t have put this more gracefully:

In a surprising development, the Roman Catholic church has moved to officially endorse masturbation. The result of an intense theological debate, the decision is seen by progressives in the Vatican as a major step forward in bringing Catholicism into the twenty first century.

“Whether we like it or not, masturbation is fast becomin’ the preferred method of sexual activity in today’s society,” opines Bishop Brendan O’Fugh, one of the leading pro-masturbation campaigners. “With people increasingly turnin’ away from matrimony and choosin’ to live on their own, whacking off represents the one form of sex outside marriage which doesn’t involve sodomising another man, commitin’ adultery or havin’ to pay for it! We’ve no choice but to embrace it!”

You SPIN me

For three dollars (including shpping and handling) I bought the June 1985 issue of SPIN Magazine. Bob Guccione, Jr’s side project hadn’t yet acquired its reputation as the hipper, bohemian version of Rolling Stone of its late eighties and early nineties salad years but you can see the gestation. The photo of Talking Heads, that month’s cover story on the strength of the imminent release of Little Creatures, is dwarfed by one poor excuse for a banner headline and several subheads above it. The mustard-yellow background looks splendid against the logo and David Byrne’s black suspenders. A decent rendition of Warholian design, all things considered.

The writing is often tentative, lacking in force, and as shockingly lackluster as what you’d find in any college newspaper’s music section. There’s a John Forgerty profile, promoting his comeback hit Centerfield, that’s little more than an abbreviated biography on which the excellently named Bart Bull sprinkles sugary asides on Fogerty lyrics like “Green River.” Billy Joel shares more dyspeptic thoughts on the terrible thing of turning thirty. Nick Rhodes tells readers that, despite he and Simon’s recording with Andy Mackay, Duran Duran will make another record. A ambisexually challenged British band called The Smiths forces the editors to rub their chins in confusion. John Swenson praises the “Lou Reed-inspired hymn to individuality” called “Face Up” on New Order’s Low-Life, while Arto Lindsay’s Ambitious Lovers project Envy is awesome enough to plant false hope in the reviewer’s head that it’ll play in an club beside Madonna.

Speaking of the reviewer, John Leland’s fantastic 12″ single review column sports the impressive (and now predictable) eclecticism of an ILM round-up: he likes Simple Minds’ “Don’t You Forget About Me,” the Beastie Boys’ “Rock Hard,” The Time’s “The Bird” (“A major flaw of Purple Rain was that it asked us to believe that Prince is a better liv act than The Time), and the Commodores’ “Nightshift” (“Its spare, lilting Caribbean groove dispenses with the group’s penchant for schmaltz…”).The collision of baby boomerism (Fogerty and the Commodores), punk, and New Pop in its English and American incarnations resulted in a product that these days has little to nothing in common with its heirs; that kind of serendipity happens once a lifetime. It’s obvious in the tone too, which vacillates between reverence for elder stateman and indulgence towards the college radio stars.

You know, we call them killer whales

Interesting and almost contentious argument today on the Stylus Foundation message board (where former Stylus writers treat their former home as a club room in which to discuss ideas, like Robert Bork and Jonah Goldberg at the Heritage Foundation) wherein I tried to put the rest friend Chris Gaerig’s notion, first proffered last fall, that Neko Case does far more interesting things as a country artist than Miranda Lambert. I posited that Case, whatever her origins and flirtations on her first two albums, isn’t a country artist per se:

Neko Case and Lambert have little in common except that they’re both women and play occasional guitar. Neko Case is not country. Comparing them is like comparing Maxwell and Lil Wayne.

Case, I write, is a “country-inflected artist” while Lambert, to use the dreaded adjective, is the more authentic country person.

Lambert fits every definition of country going back forty years: she writes conflicted songs about sex in small towns. She can’t decide whether she likes it as much as she’s been taught and whether it’s worth the risk. Half the time she struggles to conform to the expectations of her fellow small towners. She’s a descendant of Loretta Lynn, Wynette, Parton, K.T. Oslin, and Reba McIntyre.

Now, of course, that’s not to say that, say, Feist or Joanna Newsom show no conflict about sex; but in the music of the gals I mentioned there’s an emphasis on community values, of conforming to them, of the risks in flouting them. You can’t forget where you came from because that’s what you are. That sort of thing. The genre seems to thrive on city mouse/country mouse dichotomies. The injection of what I’ll reluctantly and reductively call big-city values into small towns that stretches back to at least the New Deal years has produced a tension between nostalgia and utopia with which even male country artists are familiar (note Merle Haggard, “country-inflected” rock like the  Drive-By Truckers and the new, rather good Brooks and Dunn song).

I won’t dip into the familiar argument that fellow travelers  like Elvis and Ray Charles busted the genre open with the tricks learned from triumphing elsewhere; but since Lambert and Case are nowhere near their level, we have to evaluate them against the traditions they’re embodying and whether their talents, as Harold Bloom might say, break their vessels. As the better singer, Neko Case projects herself as a force of nature every time she opens her mouth. That’s why she was A.C. Newman’s not-so-secret weapon. However, her own songs, which are often as inscrutable as Newman’s, signify more than define. Middle Cyclone will probably make my top 15, but the problem remains: she sounds less confused than she should be because she sings so well. Her songs have a tendency to avoid semantic and narrative logic, musically and lyrically, and often it’s a drag. She’s “poetic” in that Mysterious Woman way — imagine Kate Bush recording Court & Spark. I suspect she’d be far less liked by the Pitchfork crowd if she showed more interest in geography and storytelling.

I’m tempted to throw Rosanne Cash in here too; the eighties biggest country chart star used her clout to blur the lines between L.A. studio-rock, New Wave, and introspective singer-songwriterdom. But in her choice of covers and original songwriting she was bracingly clear; she means what she sings, no bullshit. Others might make the argument that Cash is country because she has this in common with her forebears: the tremor in her voice, audible in “Seven Year Ache” and “Runaway Train,” suggests a bloodline between the introspection she takes very seriously and the maturity that Lynn and Parton couldn’t suppress despite the girlishness that came to them as easily. When Lynn, Parton,  Cash, and Lambert worry, there’s a sense in which they adduce the shared values of their communities, a common history; there are consequences. Case, on the other hand, with her gift for projecting past confusion, can’t see beyond the next lyric.

I’m not suggesting that Lambert triumphs because she knows her history; dichotomies offer either woman little justice. For some listeners, though, Case matters because she reminds them enough about country without being country. She won’t make you cringe in obvious ways: no distinctive “regional” accent, no appeals to patriotism, no mawkishness. Right at home in Starbucks then.

F*** The Police

Jonah Goldberg, who considers himself a serious thinker thanks to the success of Liberal Fascism (since Hitler was a vegetarian, and lots of progressives are vegetarian, Goldberg claims, his smile big and luminescent, therefore progressives are fascists), shows how deeply he’s pondered the implications in the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and the man’s subsequent claims of racial profiling:

The responses from readers are interesting in that they reflect a divide running through conservatives I’ve noticed before. About half the readers think Gates is hilariously in the wrong. The other half, give or take, think that the cop was transparently to blame for the whole mess. That’s a gross generalization of several dozen e-mails, but I think it reflects how conservatives, like Americans generally, are of two views when it comes to cops. One side is inclined to distrust them, see them as potential abusers of authority — mere men with badges and guns. Another side is deferential to police. That is not to say they condone abuse or sanction cops being above the law. But they give cops the benefit of the doubt for a host of reasons.

I’m more in the latter camp. I think being a cop is a very tough job, requiring a lot of patience and decency, with lots of headaches. And, I believe that citizens should err on the side of trying to make cops’ jobs a little easier. Yes, I’ve had confrontations with police before and I don’t think they were always in the right. But as a matter of instinct, that’s where I come down. But I know plenty of conservatives — including many relatives — who instantly assume the cops are just taking advantage of a little power and are loathe to defer to them.

Nowhere does Goldberg mention that Gates was arrested in his own home, after he’d shown police proof of residence. The arresting officer refused to give him his name or badge number, according to Gates. Goldberg quotes no conservatives — most of whom, if they weren’t decrying the existence of a Right to Privacy, would presumably regard the home as sacred — who would wonder why the cops wouldn’t simply give their badge numbers and get the hell out of there in pursuit of a real crime. I’m more apt to dismiss Gates’ complaints about claustrophobia and throwing nonsense about “narratives” in the cops’ faces precisely because this was his house and the cops were intruding. The “patience” and “decency” that Goldberg expects from police are exactly what they didn’t extend to Gates, and Goldberg’s own golly-gee tone cedes not an inch to the victim — he berates him, actually, for getting miffed (“I immediately sympathized with the cop who had to deal with a very high-status guy trying to bully the cop”). “Bullying” a cop for assuming by habit that this man could not have lived in this house, and were, according to Gates, reluctant to show ID. Note, finally, the implication that Gates got his comeuppance because he, after all, was a “high-status guy.”

The Mental Floss History of the World is a most entertaining recount of the last 8000 years of human civilization. If it’d dropped some of the snark, it’d have been perfect; as it is, it’s quite wonderful airport reading. My review here.