Unspooled: the older brother problem

What kind of profile do Neil Finn and co. boast? I fell in love with Crowded House the way Matos did with Marshall Crenshaw’s Field Day. For reasons I don’t know, “Don’t Dream It’s Over” experienced a revival in the fall of 1992. It was all over the radio, its stately gait, unforgettable guitar hook, and melancholy organ showing up the vulgarity of The Heights’ “How Do You Talk To An Angel” and Toad The Wet Fucking Sprocket. So many breakup songs, so little time, yet “Don’t Dream It’s Over” really sounds as good as the likes of Dave Marsh have claimed. Refusing to pin down the “it” that’s over, Finn as vocalist  croons, holds back, and belts while Froom’s organ pushes and prods, as Nick Seymour’s bass and Finn’s guitar sketch the contours of the subtext they won’t reveal. If I ever scripted the perfect gay dance sequence in a high school prom movie, “Don’t Dream It’s Over” would soundtrack it. As a jaded chart watcher, I’m amazed that a song this subtle peaked at number two in the worst pop year of the decade.

(Here’s a peak at Crowded House’s live — and sartorial — prowess during this era)

I bought the 45 rpm single of “Don’t Dream It’s Over” at a local megastore that sold them; this particular pressing had Crowded House’s only other US top ten single “Something So Strong” on the flipside, so, really, it was eight minutes of what Grant McLennan once called hope then strife. Besotted, I got the House’s eponymous 1986 debut, and after a hurried listen through “World Where You Live” and “Mean To Me” concluded that the hurdy-gurdy keyboard sound in which producer Mitchell Froom was just beginning to specialize and odd time signatures were exactly what I missed in college radio (AllMusic’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine’s actually interesting review made the same observation…from the perspective of a college student in 1986!). A seventeen-year-old accommodating to adulthood whose knowledge of romantic despair hoodwinked him into assuming he knew something about bliss leaned very heavily on “Can’t Carry On” and “I Walk Away.” After playing the album repeatedly through December, I bought Temple of Low Men, whose diminishing returns (success sucks + no songs except the ones about how success sucks + our producer’s weird keyboard noises = second album) did little to dim my enthusiasm for Finn’s chops. He still gets little credit as a singer — something of Crenshaw’s way with playing with scales at will plus the hint of a self-mocking detachment.  It’s only because of my discovery of the Go-Betweens, actually, that I’ve overlooked Finn’s considerable talent.

I had some acquaintance with Finn’s past: “I Got You,” the tune he wrote and sang for older brother Tim’s act Split Enz, still got a lot of airplay. Curiosity drove me to buy an Enz comp, regrettably. While I’m the person least susceptible to the shibboleths of punk, this band’s music struck me as suspect: beholden to the gimmick, musically and lyrically; garish; too many months in a leaky boat with fellow travelers like Pete Townshend, Paul McCartney, and other fortysomethings so bewildered by the state of things that injecting wacky synths into three-minute songs counted as membership fees for a club whose decor was more familiar than they expected. Crowded House’s one album with Tim Finn Woodface served as a tonic: a homespun affair, with an air of burning oak in the fireplace. Nothing like it in either CH or Split Enz’s catalogue, just a collection of acoustic ballads which use Revolver as a starting-point and don’t look back (maybe I’ll write something about this album someday; it’s a lost minor classic).

A long introduction to Tim Finn’s Before & After, but I have to emphasize my reluctance to embrace him as little more than the usurped victim, the older brother whose above-average talent was too recessive to get noticed without the aforementioned gimmicks. B&A’s anachronistic sound is closer to 1987 than 1993: several people credited on keyboards, contributions from veterans like Richard Thompson (the Finn brothers are revered by bizzers, as their latter-day collaborations with Radiohead, Johnny Marr, the Dixie Chicks, and Eddie Vedder prove). No, this album reflects a studio-rock aesthetic closer to a John Hiatt effort, with the financial renumeration: I succumbed to a few critics at the time who praised T. Finn’s “classic” musicianship. The single and Thompson co-write “Persuasion” is actually the best song; its indelible acoustic hook and passive-aggressive charm distinguish it from the glop bordering it on either side. The rest is better sung than Hiatt could manage, but betrays a similar weakness for singer-songwriter tropes like walking-you-home that a Bonnie Raitt or, yeah, Marshall Crenshaw could transform into something that signifies.

Incidentally, this post concludes the first set of my Unspooled series. Please vote on the next bunch of cassettes unearthed from my stash. I apologize in advance for their white paunchitude; these all date from a time when I actively reached out for this sort of thing. Please vote.

Paul Simon –  The Rhythm of the Saints

Duran Duran – Notorious

Lindsey Buckingham – Out of the Cradle

The Bangles – Different Light

Tom Petty – Into The Great White Open


For a lot of us in South Florida the kidnapping and subsequent murder of Adam Walsh in the summer of 1981 was our first exposure to what we call now “the news cycle”: the drip-drip-drip of coverage that begins with the known facts of the abduction, followed by steady updates culminating in a grisly climax. I was six years old, already the veteran of several distracted wanderings away from Mom at the mall, but the Walsh murder, to be blunt, changed everything by scaring the shit out of parents (I seem to remember even President Reagan commenting on it).

Now The Miami Herald unveils evidence that perhaps Ottis Toole, who confessed to the crime that year and whom the police publicly accused in 2006, didn’t do it. It can’t bring the Walsh family any solace that Herald reporters have uncovered circumstantial evidence of Jeffrey Dahmer’s culpability. A tentative case, I might add — lots of hearsay admissions to actions that witnesses may or may not have seen almost thirty years ago (Also: Toole’s mugshot is the kind that wakes you up in the middle of the night, screaming).  But the disgraceful way in which law enforcement of various counties treated records should make one pause, especially devoted fans of Florida’s unusually open and liberal Sunshine laws.

Mongrel hearts

James Mercer has the tunes, Danger Mouse has the beats, so you’d think they’d make lots of hooks if not quite lots of money (even in this chart climate). But their Broken Bells collaboration offers plenty of hooks and beats yet no justification for the effort. An abstruse lyricist in the best of times, Mercer relies on his nasal, slightly screechy voice and the unpredictable tugs of his home band The Shins to pin down his romantic dolor; his melodic strengths are considerable enough for me to consider whether he can pull off an acoustic Conor Oberst-style experiment. Danger Mouse’s backdrops remain on the safe side of “interesting,” though. Song for song Broken Bells is the sort of album for which critics play Spot The Influence because those songs don’t signify on their own (e.g the way Mercer-Danger Mouse evoke Everlast’s “What’s It’s Like” on “The High Road,” and the guitar hook on “The Mall and Misery” does mid-period New Order). No embarrassments here, just okay guitar pop with an unusually resonant sonic sheen. It’s like Danger Mouse’s mission is to build a CV on Nigel Goodrich’s achievements.

Singles 3/25

In descending order. After two months of living with it I’m slightly nauseated by the chimes on “Giving Up The Gun,” but I still adore it, like a beloved roommate who leaves his dirty socks on the kitchen counter.

Vampire Weekend – Giving Up the Gun (8)

Corinne Bailey Rae – Paris Nights/New York Mornings (7)

Owen Pallett – Lewis Takes Off His Shirt (6)

Love and Theft – Dancing in Circles (6)

Gary Allan – Today (4)

McLean – My Name (3)

Miley Cyrus – When I Look At You (3)

Point and shoot

Brothers confirms three things: (1) while Natalie Portman has gotten so gangly-gorgeous that I considered reparative therapy, she recites lines like an assistant director keeps walking out of her line of vision with the cue card; (2) Jake Gyllenhaal, after a series of somnolent do-gooder performances, delivers his best work since Brokeback Mountain, taking his cue from the three-day scruff on his cheeks. Growling his lines and feasting on the sight of Portman’s hips, he registers as a man who gets, like, horny and stuff; (3) Jim “Point and Shoot” Sheridan is a disgrace. My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father got their tension and excitement from two pairs of vibrant actors (Daniel Day-Lewis and Brenda Fricker, Day-Lewis and Pete Posthlewaite, respectively), but I don’t remember scenes consisting entirely of people in medium shot walking towards the camera. He botches a purportedly moving one by failing to establish the relationship between his characters and their landscape. Crossing a bridge, Gyllenhaal tells Portman that over there’s the river out of which his brother pulled him when they were kids. Sheridan’s cut to the ice-coated river is practically subliminal. The words have no impact (Portman’s looking blanker than usual doesn’t help). ; They could be walking out of a car garage. One defense of Sheridan’s methods is that he gives every scene equal weight. The problem: they’re equally weightless.

Unspooled: God’s footballer

Johnny Marr earned so much good will from his work with The Smiths and on Electronic’s eponymous album that his participation on Billy Bragg’s “Sexuality” persuaded me to trust him one more time (I gladly avoided his work on The The’s Mind Bomb). Propelled by a sequencer track and Marr’s foregrounded acoustic strum, the track screams 1991; wait till you get a load of the lyrics. Post-AIDS pansexualism, and you can practically see the paisley shirts. Just because you’re gay he won’t turn you away, but remind him of his past as a lefty recording agitprop over trumpet/guitar accompaniment and the best he can come up with is “If you stick around/I’m sure that we can find some common ground.”

Don’t Try This At Home is a long album. Very long. This was one of the first times I noticed CD-era bloat and its consequences. Even in 1991 — when I was still learning how to sort through albums I didn’t like and trust my own judgments — I balked at the abundance of rather tuneless acoustic plaints over perky pop like “Sexuality.” When a girl I dated that year made a mix tape of Bragg songs gleaned from Talking with the Taxman About Poetry, I was startled in a pleasant way to hear the aforementioned agitprop; at least it wasn’t equivocal, universal, and liberal; it was radical. On DTTAH he approximates these convictions on, of course, another Marr co-production/collaboration, “North Seas Bubble,” in which he anticipates Gore Vidal’s nasty-awesome remark about contemporary England (it’s not a country anymore, it’s a U.S. aircraft carrier) by almost twenty years and nearly snaps his guitar strings in doing so. The only other song fans of Bragg and Wilco’s later work adapting Woody Guthrie is the country-folk shuffle of “You Woke Up My Neighborhood,” to which Michael Stipe contributes patented tuneless backing vocals.

One more note about Johnny Marr in 1991: he also wrote a song with Kirsty MacColl called “Walking Down Madison,” the closest she ever got to a college hit in this country (my local Top 40’s Sunday night “post-modern music” show played it quite a bit). In the blessedly abbreviated canon of English white people adapting hip-hop, this ranks very high; MacColl is smart enough to situate herself as an outsider, a flaneur whose travels force her to notice blight. Just think of how dire it could have sounded. For clues, remember how former radical Billy Bragg approached the nettlesome matter of affecting a Social Consciousness while attempting a pop crossover.

News flash: Western civilization “a slowly sinking ship”

John Derbyshire, whose crankiness fails to amuse, proves why conservatism has had trouble attracting the young. He also sounds, oddly, like Gore Vidal:

It’ll be over soon. We’ll be down in the cold, lightless depths of imperial despotism — in which, after all, the great majority of human beings, throughout history, have always lived. It’s the natural way: liberty is an unstable temporary aberration.

Just because I believe in devolution myself doesn’t mean I want to spoil your fun.

Too much information

So long as it sticks to its roots as a nasty political comedy with a few thrills instead of a suspense film, The Ghost Writer justifies the accolades heaped on it by critics eager to support Roman Polanski’s art yet willing to scratch their heads at his moral and legal acumen.

Most of the cast looks worn, which makes sense when you consider how they’re playing characters hounded by the punishing demands of the new media; the line between public and private self vanishes as quickly as the retired prime minister’s aide de camp (Kim Cattrall) releases a hastily scribbled statement to cable media. As the prime minister — who’s such an obvious stand-in for Tony Blair that I’m disappointed Polanski and cowriter Robert Harris didn’t include a frantic phone call between Blair and Noel Gallagher — Pierce Brosnan finally plays the old rotter that The Tailor of Panama hinted at. Conversation is seduction (when he’s seducing he probably keeps talking). When he moans about living in a bubble and never needing to carry money, his ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) tunes out, Brosnan himself tunes out, the audience tunes out (I’ve never looked down at Nixon and George W. Bush for screening the members of a crowd during a political rally; who’d want to listen to their crap all day?). But when challenged, he’s a viper, ready to hurl an expensive Grand Marnier in McGregor’s face.

The real star of The Ghost Writer isn’t McGregor, it’s the Massachusetts setting (it’s actually Germany but you can’t tell) — all grays, whirling sand, rain, and Eli Wallach playing Walter Brennan. Lots of rain.  I haven’t seen so much rain in a movie since Stormy Monday. Brosnan’s house takes second place: the sort of ultra modern domicile whose furniture wouldn’t dream of boasting corners, whose closets have wooden drawers, and whose Filipino maids cut the corners off chicken salad sandwiches. McGregor, though, doesn’t err as the patsy — long-limbed and acerbic, he’s the sort of guy who’s lived too long on keeping people (even friends) at a distance. I’m tired of a couple of  monikers that friends who’ve seen this movie have tossed in his direction, though. Since we all adore The Third Man it’s difficult to separate the adjective “alcoholic” from “hack,” the noun it modifies; but if the Ghost drinks a lot, it’s no more than a lot of thirtysomethings would if suddenly offered top-flight scotch and white wine (the latter provoking one of the movie’s funniest, driest one-liners); and if he’s a “hack,” then so are we all if we don’t Follow Our Dreams. On this The Ghost Writer is shrewd: Brosnan wanted to be an actor, chasing girls and sleeping in on Saturday afternoons, not 10 Downing Street’s most infamous war crimes suspect. But McGregor is dense, really dense. My grandmother uses Google with greater ease. Anyone who watches five minutes a day of FOX News is acquainted with Halliburton (sorry — “Hatherton”). You don’t call phone numbers scribbled in pencil behind photos (even if the Ghost doesn’t read David Brooks, he probably watches Polanski films). And approach with care the prime minister’s wife, played by Olivia Williams, snapping at lines like a peeved turtle now that she’s lost her looks (she can play Glenda Jackson roles now that Jackson’s an MP)

But while I appreciate Polanski’s reluctance to include the briefest of scenes showing the Ghost’s political awakening, the lack of outrage at the perfidy of Brosnan and Tom Wilkinson (as a Heritage Foundation type with a face like aged veal) looks like a loss of nerve. It’s as if Polanski thinks he’s too smart to choose sides; the film could have been directed by the Ghost. As it marches towards an exceptionally well-choreographed denouement, disappointment starts to creep in. Thirty-five years after a cop blew a hole through Faye Dunaway’s face in Chinatown, Polanski still thinks fugget-it-Jake signifies as an insight.

Alex Chilton: RIP.

Like a lot of eighties kids, my first acquaintance with Alex Chilton happened when I fast forwarded around The Bangles’ cover of “September Gurls” on Different Light. A decent cover — sung by (I think) bassist Michael Steele, with the right amount of rue. Most importantly, the album’s multiplatinum sales garnered Chilton maybe the decent royalties of his long career.

I never loved Big Star like a lot of friends, but I always look forward to playing the butchered Third/Sister Lovers, one of those harrowing statements of despair and orneriness that uses space, echo, and twelve-string jangle the way that Neil Young’s contemporaneous Tonight’s The Night used jokes and out-of-tune vocals for the same ends (see: “Holocaust,” “Kangaroo,” and the devastating envoi “Take Care”). When I bought it about twelve years ago, I understood what Paul Westerberg heard, and what he celebrated in 1987’s raucous, inchoate eponymous tribute: children by the millions sang for Alex Chilton when he came ’round, wondering what perfect should-have-been-a-million-selling-pop-hit should have competed with Elton John on the charts.