The Dumb Approach


Poking fun at the monsters in The Corner is as easy these days as insulting a three-headed baby, but once in a while one of those guys post something whose cynicism takes the breath away. Editor in Chief Rich Lowry tonight:

At this point, Obama needs to settle for a “dumb” Afghan strategy. He’s clearly trying to be too cute and clever, and micro-managing aspects of the military campaign that are beneath his pay-grade. If he believes success in Afghanistan is important and a counter-insurgency campaign is the best way to achieve it, he should give McChrystal the troops he says he needs (actually, he should probably give him more if possible, to reduce the risk of failure). This business of examining the troop numbers province-by-province, and devising various “off ramps,” and parsing out what troop commitment will best pressure Karzai is a foolish attempt at an impossible exactitude. No plan so finely tuned from on high is going to survive its first contact with reality. Obama needs a “dumb” approach — figure out the basic strategy, resource it, and leave it at that. If it’s a successful strategy, most of the other things will probably follow — the off ramps, the welcome effect on Karzai, etc.

Wow. To Lowry, trying to avoid sending more American men and women to die is “cute” and “clever,” a symptom of “micro-managing” — unlike, say, George W. Bush, who never turned down a troop request from Donald Rumsfeld or the Joint Chiefs of Staff even when the strategy was generally recognized a failure. In fact, Obama’s cuteness is an “impossible inexactitude.” Look, stop niggling, Barry. Do what the Beltway insiders say General McChrystal should do: commit the troops and get the hell out of the way. It worked for Bush, right? After all, success means that “most of the other things will probably follow — the off ramps, the welcome effect on Karzai, etc.” Please study that last phrase. Focus on the “Karzai, etc” bit. Lowry doesn’t even pretend to suggest that the decadence of the Karzai government matters in anyone’s calculations. For Lowry, the Dumb Approach to Afghanistan will inevitably lead to Afghans treating us as liberators, like the Iraqis did in 2003: throwing flowers at our feet, that sort of thing.

Or, instead, study the image posted upthread. Lowry is the lackey who claimed we were winning the war in Iraq in 2005.

“I’ve never been so good at shaking hands”

Julian Casablancas’ first solo album Phrazes for the  Young has two superb tracks: the adolescent shaggy-dog story “Left and Right in the Dark” (which a friend said made him imagine young Julian listening to his parents having sex in the next room), with help from a synthesizer riff pilfered from a Rod Stewart track circa 1981, proves that Casablancas can shout quite effectively without a megaphone, thank you very much (e.g. the aw-how-cute “wake up wake U-H-H-H-P!” punctuating each chorus); and the single “11th Dimension” cobbles together a bunch of aphoristic doggerel (“your faith has got to be greater than your fear”) into a manifesto that only an art-damaged recovering alcoholic can believe in.

The rest of the album is attenuated synth-pop in search of a context, and Casablancas a singer in search of vocal melodies.

Old news is good news

Unsurprising news, considering the state of the industry. I can’t say I ever agreed with the segregation of older (or “catalog”) albums, as if they were nursing home habitues who had no business mixing with the young. A continuing pleasure in my Billboard-obsessive days in junior high and high school was noting the likes of Led Zeppelin IV and Prince’s Controversy scraping the bottom of the Top 200, surrounded on either side by Teena Marie and Hooters albums. The interaction created a plausible narrative: people cared about the old and new with equal affection. A year in which Michael Jackson and the Beatles outsold their progeny means that the public’s aware of it too.


Hollywooders like John Mayer and Pete Yorn and Scarlet Johansson scored the highest this week.


Timbaland ft. Soshy – Morning After Dark. (3)

Q-Tip ft. Norah Jones – Life is Better (5).

Marina and the Diamonds – Mowgli’s Road (3).

Wild Beasts – All the King’s Men (5).

The xx – Islands (5).

Pete Yorn and Scarlet Johansson – Relator (6).

John Mayer – Who Says (6).

It’s the rich who are socialists

I don’t much care for Frank Rich, but today’s column is notable for accusing the Democrats on the Hill and in the White House of endorsing and, more grotesquely, duplicating the conditions under which the economy tanked last fall. It came as no surprise that corporate media — born out of the deregulation madness by which the Clinton administration was possessed twelve years ago — buried the news last week that Congress voted to emasculatekey provisions in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, passed in the wake of the collapse of Enron and WorldCom in 2001 (disasters which no one talks much of anymore, by the way). Rich:

Arthur Levitt, the former Securities and Exchange Commission chairman, told me on Friday it was “surreal” that Democrats were now achieving the long-held Republican goal of smashing “the golden chalice” of reform. If investors cannot have transparency, Levitt said, “the whole system is worthless.”

To those conservatives who think Obama is Stalinizing the United States, please ask yourselves how you can accuse an administration of socialist tendencies when it boasts Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers in the cabinet, MBNA whore Joe Biden as vice president, and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut in the Senate? Maybe they’re right — what this looks like is oligarchy or plutocracy. Or maybe these conservatives had Gore Vidal’s adage in mind: socialism for the rich, free enterprise for the poor.

History as farce

A Serious Man closes with the most apocalyptic, devastating (literally), appropriate  shot of the Coen brothers’ career. It’s hard to explain why I found the meanness in this movie preferable to just about everything these prolific directors have done in the last twenty years. Maybe the clue is realizing that the movie boasts no real sourness. In detailing just how far you can beset a humorless but essentially decent Midwestern Jew with troubles that would break Job, they go way past misanthropy to a muted compassion. Their virtuosity finally settles on the right objective correlative; A Serious Man is Ingmar Bergman’s Through the Glass Darkly edited and shaped like Drag Me to Hell. Although the first ten minutes, set in Poland at the turn of the century, don’t gel with the rest of the film, its point is clear: establish A Serious Man as a modern folk tale.

For the first time in their careers, the Coens immerse themselves in a milieu without trying to distance themselves from it; you don’t need to know they’re Jews to appreciate what they’ve done here (it makes the “fatalism” of Woody Allen’s Match Point all the more pathetic). The film is alarmingly well-cast, which goes a long way towards dispelling the suspicion that casting grotesques is easier when your film has a thesis. Besides the round, fishbowl-sized face of Michael Stuhlbarg, who registers every horror without putting quotation marks around it, there’s Aaron Wolff as his son, projecting a detachment so complete that his weed smoking is incidental; an unnerving impersonation of fatuousness by Fred Melamed, actually playing a character named Sy Ableman; and Richard Kind as Stuhlbarg’s brother-in-law, a useless man whose secrets represent his only tie to the rest of the world. It’s the most moving performance in a Coen film since John Goodman’s in Barton Fink.

Which do you choose — a hard or soft option?

I had been aware of Tom Ewing’s years-long project of blurbing every British number one hit, but of course I had to note today’s entry — Albion’s most popular song on 11 January 1986.

My relation to “West End Girls” does not reflect flatteringly on my fandom. At first I regarded this song as a novelty – like “I Wanna Be a Cowboy” or Swing Out Sister’s “Breakout,”  say; in the States, remember, it hit Number One in the same period in which “Rock Me Amadeus” and “Sledgehammer” showed MTV’s hegemony over pop radio. Certainly that’s how audiences embraced the Boys  in their late eighties heyday, during which they scored five American Top Tens  (and Please, more impressively, actually hit the Billboard album chart’s top ten) — as one of the last examples of bored-looking Brit synth-pop duos with baroque videos releasing catchy songs around and over the release schedules of hair metal bands. Ewing, understandably, records a different phenomenon. He remembers the impact of “West End Girls” thusly:

London in the mid-80s, the years of Big Bang, wine bars, braces, Canary Wharf, all that Thatcher boom iconography. 1986 was her zenith: political opposition in civil war, unions routed, privatisation program in full commercial swing, and now the old press and banking establishments in retreat.

I read that and think, “Well, yeah.” He had in mind Stephen Hague’s production, which transforms a decent, dinky, adenoidal, moody stab of 1984-era Hi-NRG into a masterpiece of austerity, cognizant of the uncertainty, even dread of smart English liberals lamenting the dilution of  New Pop, Toryism regnant, or something  (kudos to Hague, Chris Lowe, or whoever for persuading Neil Tennant to cut the “all your stopping, stalling and starting /Who do you think you are Joe Stalin ?” bit, which is camp in all the wrong ways) . Thanks to the string of imperial hits to come, I understood “West End Girls” retroactively. I “love” it without having strong feelings, so it’s strange if reassuring to read that lots of ears pricked up when they first heard this; it didn’t immediately sound special. My earliest memory of this song is sitting in the passenger seat as my father turned up the radio, tapping the steering wheel in time to the thick synth bass. Very odd. Mom, thanks to my sister and me, was the top 40 person; Dad stuck to Basia, George Benson, Najee, and other smooth jazz favorites. How did he know “West End Girls”? It was part of the atmosphere — even in 1990. For me it didn’t delineate a landscape where “things are breaking down, structures and meaning replaced with an endless sell” — it was a pop song that my father hummed alongside “Give Me The Night.”

She once was a good friend of mine


I suspect that we’ll be hearing a lot more records inspired by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ Raising Sand in the coming years, of which Rosanne Cash’s The List is one. This is not to say that Cash deliberately emulated the record; but The List‘s midtempo respectable covers of mostly midtempo, respected, respectable songs does summon the snap of acoustic guitar strings and prominently mixed vocals, tremulous in their sincerity, percolating out of the speakers of your neighborhood Starbucks. Since I adore Rosanne Cash and make it a habit of listening to at least two of her songs once a week, I can defend The List as the kind of integrated, deeply serious collection (and respectability) with which she’s toyed since 1990’s Interiors; it  shares a sonic imprint with 2006’s all-original Black Cadillac. Also, she’s always covered songs.  Of course, how this plays depends on your relationship with Cash’s music since Interiors, which got lots of good press at the time but like many “roots-rock” records it’s faded in ways that flashier albums like Rhythm and Romance and King’s Record Shop haven’t.

Which is to say: The List is boring. But you knew that. Good news though: her take on Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country” is revelatory, creating a link between it and her same-sex adaptation of 1987’s John Hiatt cover “The Way You Make a Broken Heart.” The suppleness with which she shifts from the high notes denoting the present and the low ones undergirding the past and what she’s lost doesn’t make me miss Alison Krauss. Jeff Tweedy offers exemplary inoffensive harmonies on “Long Black Veil (Elvis Costello on “Heartaches by the Number” is just inoffensive, in case you wondered). Bruce Springsteen, resurrecting the fruity baritone from the Darkness in the Edge of Town days on the appropriately named “Sea of Heartbreak,” summons collective memories of dying grandfathers on porches, in croaks and moans that have nothing in common with the electro-roots glitz in which Brendan O’Brien has encased his arena swag of late. Cash, it’s clear, doesn’t have another “Hold On” or “Rosie Strike Back” in her; these meticulous meditations represent her idea of adulthood. But “Girl from the North Country” will sound great in the Cash mix of your choice — and would wake up one of those inevitable Dylan tribute albums with which Columbia will bless us when the fucker finally croaks and moans himself to the grave.

Hello November

From the usually just okay Richard Wilbur, a splendid poem:

To claim, at a dead party, to have spotted a grackle,
When in fact you haven’t of late, can do no harm.
Your reputation for saying things of interest
Will not be marred, if you hasten to other topics,
Nor will the delicate web of human trust
Be ruptured by that airy fabrication.
Later, however, talking with toxic zest
Of golf, or taxes, or the rest of it
Where the beaked ladle plies the chuckling ice,
You may enjoy a chill of severance, hearing
Above your head the shrug of unreal wings.
Not that the world is tiresome in itself:
We know what boredom is: it is a dull
Impatience or a fierce velleity,
A champing wish, stalled by our lassitude
To make or do. In the strict sense, of course,
We invent nothing, merely bearing witness
To what each morning brings again to light:
Gold crosses, cornices, astonishment
Of panes, the turbine-vent which natural law
Spins on the grill-end of the diner’s roof,
Then grass and grackles or, at the end of town
In sheen-swept pastureland, the horse’s neck
Clothed with its usual thunder, and the stones
Beginning now to tug their shadows in
And track the air with glitter. All these things
Are there before us; there before we look
Or fail to look; there to be seen or not
By us, as by the bee’s twelve thousand eyes,
According to our means and purposes.
So too with strangeness not to be ignored,
Total eclipse or snow upon the rose,
And so with that more rare conception, nothing.
What is it, after all, but something missed?
It is the water of a dried-up well
Gone to assail the cliffs of Labrador.
There is what galled the arch-negator, sprung
From Hell to probe with intellectual sight
The cells and heavens of a given world
Which he could take but as another prison:
Small wonder that, pretending not to be,
He drifted through the bar-like boles of Eden
In a black mist low creeping, dragging down
And darkening with moody self-absorption
What, when he left it, lifted and, if seen
From the sun’s vantage, seethed with vaulting hues.
Closer to making than the deftest fraud
Is seeing how the catbird’s tail was made
To counterpoise, on the mock-orange spray,
Its light, up-tilted spine; or, lighter still,
How the shucked tunic of an onion, brushed
To one side on a backlit chopping-board
And rocked by trifling currents, prints and prints
Its bright, ribbed shadow like a flapping sail.
Odd that a thing is most itself when likened:
The eye mists over, basil hints of clove,
The river glazes toward the dam and spills
To the drubbed rocks below its crashing cullet,
And in the barnyard near the sawdust-pile
Some great thing is tormented. Either it is
A tarp torn loose and in the groaning wind
Now puffed, now flattened, or a hip-shot beast
Which tries again, and once again, to rise.
What, though for pain there is no other word,
Finds pleasure in the cruellest simile?
It is something in us like the catbird’s song
From neighbor bushes in the grey of morning
That, harsh or sweet, and of its own accord,
Proclaims its many kin. It is a chant
Of the first springs, and it is tributary
To the great lies told with the eyes half-shut
That have the truth in view: the tale of Chiron
Who, with sage head, wild heart, and planted hoof
Instructed brute Achilles in the lyre,
Or of the garden where we first mislaid
Simplicity of wish and will, forgetting
Out of what cognate splendor all things came
To take their scattering names; and nonetheless
That matter of a baggage-train surprised
By a few Gascons in the Pyrenees—
Which having worked three centuries and more
In the dark caves of France, poured out at last
The blood of Roland, who to Charles his king
And to the dove that hatched the dovetailed world
Was faithful unto death, and shamed the Devil.

–Richard Wilbur



More middling scores than usual this week. Funny how Pottery Barn shopper favorite Michael Buble’s single is both the least offensive and most successful at what it attempts — he’s a more attractive blank than the current Rihanna, say. As for Chris Brown, he longs for blankness.

Michael Buble – Haven’t Met You Yet (5)

Rihanna – Russian Roulette (5)

JLS – Everybody in Love (4)

Saint Etienne – Only Love Can Break Your Heart (Richard X rermix) [5]

Paramore – Careful (4)

Karen O and the Kids – All is Love (4)

Egypt – In the Morning (5)

Joss Stone ft. Nas – Governmentalist (6)

Melody Gardot – Baby I’m a Fool (3)

Chris Brown ft. Lil Wayne and Swizz Beatz – I Can Transform Ya (3)