Good news at last from the Obama administration: White House announces end to HIV travel ban. George W. Bush, who signed the bill last year, actually deserves some credit. The lion’s share, though, goes to bill cosponsors John Kerry and Gordon Smith.
After a hasty revisit, the second side of R.E.M.’s Out of Time does contain their most melancholy material, no? Certainly the sequence from “Shiny Happy People” through “Me in Honey” shows a willed accommodation to uncertainty; it’s “Crimson and Clover” extended to almost thirty minutes, beginning with phony optimism and, in the Michael Stipe and Kate Pierson harmonies of “Me in Honey,” a mutual acknowledgment that they kinda like each other because the loneliness of the alternative is too much to bear. “I need this, I need this,” Stipe sings, then howls on “Country Feedback,” as Peter Buck’s guitar and the rhythm section answer, mock, distort.
Watching Grant Gee’s excellent documentary Joy Division (which offers more insight into dreary Manchester and the perils of getting involved with Ian Curtis than Anton Corbijn’s Control), I remembered how gleaning any scrap of data about New Order when I was younger felt like a triumph. I became a fan in 1991 after buying a copy of Electronic’s eponymous debut (an album that, in many ways, remains my favorite New Order/Smiths-associated project, on which I might write something more detailed soon if I get the time), and even then, just before the apex of their American popularity, buying a used vinyl copy of Low-Life was like gaining access to a cult, sensuous yet imperious. Lots of people have already discussed the impact of Peter Saville’s album art and the absence of instrumental and lyric credits; what startled me then — what startles me now — is the gulf between the deliberate obfuscation and the very human qualities of Bernard Sumner’s vocals. A perfect coquette, that Barney, I thought, as I read microfiche and bound periodicals at the public library for old album and concert reviews on the band. Hell, I didn’t even know that Gillian Gilbert was a girl until chancing across a brief Select profile on The Other Two, which of course cited her as drummer Steve Morris’ girlfriend and NO’s keyboardist-second guitarist.
Ah, those days before the construction of the Information Superhighway.
George Will is such a sucker for power that he undercuts his professed elitism. He has a talent for making contrarianism look like sycophancy. He’s useful only when he’s useful, such as his opposition to the Iraq war (on which he demurred only when the bodies started to mount and the chatter at Cokie Roberts’ Sunday afternoon brunches turned grim) and his indifference to McCain’s silly national security credentials. I couldn’t take Will seriously again after Eric Alterman’s evisceration of him in Sound and Fury. Will’s purported Toryism and mastery of polysyllabic words, to paraphrase Alterman, serve as tokens of erudition; his vacuous columns, which adduce Edmund Burke and Madison, coat received Beltwayisms in prolix displays of learning. Will’s splendidly appointed home sports a library, but the only purpose its books serve is as repositories of epigraphs he can pilfer and insert into a column, like a fourth grader using a stencil to juice up a book report title page.
But back to my first point. Today’s column is a mea culpa for not endorsing John McCain and his running mate. He actually takes Michele Bachmann seriously; he calls her an “authentic representative of the Republican base” without a hint of irony. She’s so authentic that he takes the trouble to note the deliberateness with which she put on jeans and “a tattered sweatshirt” to attend a town hall meeting in 2000. She’s jus’-folks, you see (her hagiographer, it’s important to remember, had to ask those in the know whether jeans were appropriate attire to the infamous Bruce Springsteen show he attended in 1984 — the one at which Will concluded that Springsteen implicitly endorsed Reaganomics).
But this is my favorite morsel:
Born in Iowa but a Minnesotan by age 12, Bachmann acquired what she calls “her family’s Hubert Humphrey knee-jerk liberalism.” She and her husband danced at Jimmy Carter’s inauguration. Shortly thereafter, however, she was riding on a train and reading Gore Vidal’s novel “Burr,” which is suffused with that author’s jaundiced view of America. “I set the book down on my lap, looked out the window and thought: ‘That’s not the America I know.’ ” She volunteered for Reagan in 1980.
Analyze this passage for a second. What “Hubert Humphrey knee-jerk liberalism” means to anyone born after 1970 is anyone’s guess, but it’s probably better than Will’s; besides, by the late seventies Humphrey, perennial loser and party hack, was as dangerous as a chocolate bunny. Will’s next point is correct: whatever else you might think about Gore Vidal and his “jaundiced view of America,” Burr does indeed force you to put down the book, stare thoughtfully out the train window, and say, “That’s not the America I know.” It’s a devious, petty, jejune, and marvelous America — the kind of America in which Aaron Burr himself might vote for Ronald Reagan for the sake of a good dinner party conversation. Will, who serves as court historian on This Week With George Stephanopolous, would have recognized this America had he read any history; but all he can remember is what he wants to forget, before remembering again. What poetic sense it makes that Will once indentured himself to Reagan as a debate adviser: these consummate performers could forget facts as soon as they sensed a camera in the room. Someone can correct me, but I don’t remember Reagan slipping into a tattered sweatshirt for the sake of populism — or wearing a bow tie for intellectual clout.
In this week’s batch, Vampire Weekend unload some manure that smells like an exotic drink, an attempt at pandering to their new audience; Animal Collective are apparently influential enough to deserve answer songs by bands named after shrubbery; Rokysopp almost scrubs my brain clear of Fever Ray; and Major Lazer makes his first below-average single of the year.
Major Lazer ft. Ricky Blaze and Nina Sky – Keep It Going Louder
Royksopp ft. Karin Dreijer Andersson – This Must Be It
Taken By Trees – My Boys
Vampire Weekend – Horchata
The Flaming Lips – Silver Trembling Hands
The Mountain Goats – Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace
Britney Spears – 3
Usher – Papers
This Bronson Pinchot interview has circulated over the interwebs the last few days. The former star of “Perfect Strangers” dishes on the continuing mystery of Tom Cruise’s sexuality and the public manifestations thereof, and the meanness of Denzel Washington (“Denzel Washington cured me forever of thinking that there is any amount of money or anything that could ever, ever make it okay to be abused. The script supervisor on [Courage Under Fire] said it’s like watching somebody kick a puppy. He was so vile.”). Who cares if any of it is true?
Oh, he thinks Tom Hanks is a peach of a fellow.
One of the great lost Madonna singles, uncollected in Celebration, and found only on the Who’s That Girl soundtrack. It peaked at #2 for three weeks.
The excellent Digby revives this Rick Perlstein (of Nixonland fame) review of a couple of appalling “revisionist” takes on the Vietnam War, none of which, I trust, are on Barack Obama’s nightstand (I can’t speculate about Gen. McChrystal).
Americans, even “neoconservative” ones, are prone to liberal sentimentalizing about the possibility of “good” wars. But war is not good. War is the attempt of one group to violently impose its will on another. Fields of blood and fire are no kind of workshop for Jeffersonian democracy.
Both of our political parties have a penchant for war porn, alas.
Let’s make this clear: Leonard Cohen can sing. Stamina, gravitas, braggadocio, and any other noun in a foreign tongue applies. That’s not what I expected when I saw him last night at the Bank Atlantic Center: the guy has recorded music generated by a couple of $80 Casio keyboards since 1988, and to my ears it’s his best: its determimed chintz undercuts lyrics whose cynicism often looks crass when you’re supposed to admire them on the page like the poetry they aren’t. A five-minutes-plus version of the unbearable “Bird on a Wire” was revelatory: Neil Larsen’s Hammond B-3 mocked, underscored, and coughed at every one of its flights of metaphorical whimsy like Al Kooper was fingering it and Cohen was that other major North American/Jewish would-be poet with a crack touring band (don’t worry, Casio lovers: Lenny performed his infamous “Chopsticks”-style run on “Tower of Song” like the unabashed amateur he is). As for Cohen, he yanked and stretched his vocals when necessary (“The Future” and “In My Secret Life” were more conversational and intense than ever), hung fire when required. Hell, the guy even sang three-quarters of the set in a crouch. A seventysomething man. Whatever the financial remuneration that this tour promised, it seems if nothing else a physical one.
The number of heterosexual couples around us holding hands and staring enraptured at the chansonnier as he rasped hymns to intellectual beauty got me thinking: Cohen’s music is very far from romantic. Sensual, sure. His muse, though, pledges troth to the god of Onan. Like Bryan Ferry, his songs touch me because I’m moved by the purity of his quest; I root him for him as if he were the pot-bellied nerd, talking up yoga and the Tower of Song because lots of women love that stuff. But since Death of a Ladies Man if not before Cohen’s made self-effacement an integral part of his schtick. He’s so awesomely self-composed that his jokes about himself don’t curdle into Burt Reynolds’ Johnny Carson act from the mid seventies, in which the Cannonball Run star invited Carson and the audience to laugh at him for picking awful scripts (fully aware that he walked off stage and told his agent to accept City Heat in as much time as it took to call Tim Robbins’ Griffin Mill an asshole in The Player). In any kind of mood you’ll catch me muttering imprecations against transcendence, but if it teaches former multimillionaire scions of good taste the kind of generosity which moved Cohen, in his envoi, to wish us single people with no one to come home to the grace to stand it — well, that’s a grace unbesmirched by cynicism.
Unsurprised by my colleagues’ indifference to Girls’ “Laura” (which is, seriously, a pretty good sampler of the album, if that’s your kind of thing; and, pace Chuck Eddy, yes, the guy’s voice does remind me of Graham Parker and Elvis C’s, thank you) and enthusiasm for anything Terius Youngdell Nash records. As for the cute Death Cabs, I give them points for the Madison Square Garden lighter-waver, but using a context-free polysyllabic word in a title is indifferent songwriting.
The singles, with my score out of ten beside it.
Foo Fighters – “Wheels” (3)
Crookers ft. Kardinal Offishall and Carla Marie – Put Your Hands On Me (4)
Stephanie Heinzmann – No One (Can Ever Change My Mind) (4)
Duck Sauce – aNYway (4)
Girls – Laura (8)
The-Dream – Sweat It Out (6)
Reigning Sound – Stick Up For Me (7)
Death Cab For Cutie – Meet Me on the Equinox (6)
The first band whose original songs use huge swelling Cure keyboards without smothering their sentiments. This is a minor band, but a really good one, and Saint Etienne once again show their shrewdness as remixers by highlighting the rhythmic underpinnings of TPOBPAH’s post-shoegaze core. At their best they cross The Boy with the Arab Strap-era Belle & Sebastian with My Bloody Valentine’s “Soon.”