Singles 4/21-4/29

While the score for Courtney Love’s would-be comeback sounds about right, I can’t stop playing it. I’m a sucker for the way Love inhabits a song so thoroughly that she can at the same time step back and delight in the audacity of her performance. “I Need a Dollar” was the other striking song, most of whose points I awarded based on Blacc’s charisma.

Hole – Pacific Coast Highway (7)

Kelis – Acapella (7)

Aloe Blacc – I Need a Dollar (6)

Titus Andronics – A More Perfect Union (5)

Drake – Over (5)

Marina and the Diamonds – I Am A Robot (4)

Broken Bells – The High Road (4)

Portrait of a Bush: Laura Bush’s memoirs

I like Laura Bush. Blame my attraction to self-possessed middle-aged women. Her fashion sense, skin tone, modesty, obvious intelligence, and gravelly tones (which sound as if they’ve been roughened by brandy and lots of cursin’) — all pluses. It’s no intellectual exercise for me to consider her the best First Lady of the last forty years despite her marriage to the worst president since Warren Harding. I suppose her devotion to literature helps too. I wish I could find the newspaper interview from 2004 in which she says surprisingly apt remarks about Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty. Before anyone claims that the Nazis listened to Wagner and Mozart as they sent the hated to Buchenwald, let me remind them that Mrs. Bush wasn’t in power.

The uneven Michiko Kakutani sees the same virtues in her unexpectedly warm review of Mrs. Bush’s memoir:

The opening sections of this book, however, are as revealing and evocative as the later ones are guarded. Writing with impressive recall, Mrs. Bush conjures her hometown, Midland, Tex., with enormous detail, lyricism and feeling. It’s a small town in the 1950s and early 60s, when children looked forward to ice cream sundaes and pony rides, and teenagers hung out at drive-in movies and drive-in restaurants.The world is part “The Last Picture Show” and part “American Graffiti,” but less sophisticated — a place where people gather the tumbleweeds that blow through town in the winter, tie them into threes and spray “them with white flocking to make desert snowmen for their lawns.” A place where people want houses with familiar floor plans (“a living room at the front, a den behind it, and a hallway with three bedrooms”) and think nothing of driving six hours to Dallas or El Paso for something to do.

“It was easy perhaps to be sad in Midland,” Mrs. Bush writes, “sad from loss, sad from loneliness. ‘Terrible winds and a wonderful emptiness’ were the painter Georgia O’Keeffe’s double-edged words about the Texas desert plains, which I read years later, after I was grown.”

Mrs. Bush adds that life with her parents was “not sad,” but a sense of loss and loneliness does blow through her descriptions of her childhood. Her mother had three miscarriages, and those “lost babies” haunted the young Laura. She says she knew how much her father wanted a son, and she longed for siblings when she found herself a solitary “child among the throngs at a crowded amusement park.” Instead there were solo picnics in the park over on the next street and hours spent reading books like Nancy Drew, whom she identified with as another only child.

I know Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife examined how an Isabel Archer at the zenith of power could find shelter in books while a monstrous husband plotted in other rooms. Still, it’s nice to know that Mrs. Bush has a sufficiently literary sensibility to perceive, however indirectly, why it was important to marry this swaggering failure of a man named George Walker Bush. Put aside what we’ve learned in the last eight years. What Mrs. Bush eagerly abandoned in Midland warped her sensibility enough so that she could withstand two presidential terms of smiling through White House functions she may or may not have despised.

A new translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex which, yes, remains unloved, unread, and unfashionable. You’ll have an easier time of it if you treat it as a novel whose narrative voice switches from colorless to unforced empathy depending on whether it’s dealing with recitations of essential facts or the psychosexual maturation of teenage girls.

4/21 Singles!

I wax and wane on the LCD Soundsystem single. After eight years of discussion I don’t want to hear about them anymore. In a more ecumenical state of mind I would have forgiven James Murphy’s tics as examples of how he’s “deepening” his songcraft.

All songs ranked on a ten-point scale.

Pill – Hear Somebody Comin’ (7)

LCD Soundsystem – Drunk Girls (7)

Drive-By Truckers – Birthday Boy (6)

Janelle Monae ft. Big Boi – Tightrope (6)

Plan B – She Said (3)

Scouting For Girls – This Ain’t a Love Song (2)

35 Shots of Rum: Shot of Love

It took thirty minutes of watching 35 Shots of Rum to figure out that Lionel (Alex Descas) is Josephine’s (Mati Diop) father, not her lover. In the manner of the Taiwanese cinema with which she shares stylistic affinities, Claire Denis places considerable demands on the audience’s patience. What links her work with recent films by countrymen Oliver Assayas (Summer Hours) and Andre Techine (The Witnesses) is its puzzling over the composition of the family. In an era when immigration from former colonies has changed the molecular structure of nationhood, why define family as a unit that shares blood relations?

As quick and fluid as the part of a story that in the memory erases the extraneous, 35 Shots of Rum suffers like most Denis films from a lack of tension; her camera tends to arrive at conflicts already resolved, or before arguments erupt. Movement is her favorite subject. The second most erotic-touching moment between father and daughter occurs when Descas, ravaged by a hangover, allows his daughter to nurse him to health as if he were suffering from a disease. “Erotic” yes, sensual definitely, but not sexual. Diap’s long arms uncovering crock pots and pouring water suggest a woman very far from feeling indentured to her father; she’s accepted that this is the most fulfilling relationship in her life. The biker boy played by Gregoire Colin (playing a variation on his pouty-lipped cad from The Dream Life of Angels) merely satisfies bodily urges.

As for the film’s most erotic moment, it takes place after this makeshift family, all of whom live in the same apartment complex, suffer a tire blowout and takes refuge at a cozy dive a few minutes from closing time. They dry off and wait for their food by dancing to the Commodores’ “Nightshift.” The combination of water, the warming effect of one drink, and a spontaneous overflow of emotion lends both the pas de deux between Diap-Descas and the cybersoul elegy to Marvin Gaye a sense of unrealized possibilities; with this song, in this bar, at this moment, these characters can go anywhere, and it frightens them. To follow these people this far you have to trust Denis’ method, and what she does with these actors, who once again show that acting isn’t pretending so much as behaving. The wonder of Denis’ method is to satisfy despite ending the movie exactly where we expected. And yet — why is Descas’ final grin so enigmatic?

Unspooled: Don’t monkey with my business

Before I knew how Robert Christgau felt (“As public figures and maybe as people, these imperialist wimps are the most deplorable pop stars of the postpunk if not post-Presley era”), I knew how their bass lines and gauche synthesizers felt: slimy, delicious around the edges, lacking nutritive qualities. I’ve said repeatedly that my parents didn’t pay for cable, so, like Madonna, Double Duran projected themselves solely as a radio act during the greatest Top 40 era of the last thirty years. My mother bought a vinyl copy of Seven and the Ragged Tiger; only”New Moon on Monday” and “The Reflex” got any home stereo play (still haven’t heard a tune called “Tiger Tiger”). “The Reflex” was especially fun for a ten-year-old’s overstimulated imagination: a couple of tricky drum parts, comically contorted vocals, lines like “I sold the Renoir and the TV set” and, my favorite, “I’ll cross that bridge when I find it.” By the summer of 1984 my world had crossed that bridge into Duranmania. A girl named Sylvia with Molly Ringwald hair boasted Trapper Keepers with Simon and John’s faces. My friend Alcides hummed “The Wild Boys.” The following summer the first of my inexplicable crushes hit me, and the Power Station didn’t deserve it.

That was that as far as my loyalty to The Fab Five went. I have no recollection of their late eighties fall from grace – not even the fairly huge “Notorious,” a #2 hit in late 1986. I did hear “I Don’t Want Your Love” and “All She Wants Is” on Shadoe Stevens’ American Top 40, but payola probably greased their chart success. Their 1993 “comeback” generated a lot of good will. Friends said, “Hey, they weren’t so bad after all!” When “Come Undone” followed “Ordinary World,” this rather homely incarnation of DD accomplished what Jesus Jones did in 1991 and Oasis couldn’t three years later: a British band scoring consecutive top tens. They recorded an album — desultory, charmless except for the idea of turning “Femme Fatale” into a Mr. Big song — but nobody played it much. I actually listened to Arcadia’s eponymous 1985 record (a dollar at the university bookstore) more often: the Le Bon-Roger Taylor-Nick Rhodes axis’ slower, portentous, pretentious version of a Duran recording. I can imagine them offering drinks to guests Grace Jones and Andy Mackay, but what on earth could they have said to Sting (“Yes, Gordon, we think it’s a wonderful idea for you to tour with Branford, if it’s for the rain forests”)?

I bought Notorious at the same university bookstore, the cassette gnawed on the side as if by a wolf, mouth alive with juices like wine. The Nile Rodgers production sound I knew from Let’s Dance, Like a Virgin,and Cosmic Thing had calcified into a flat, brassy din in which instruments sound like they’re rattling around in an oil drum. Still, the Le Bon swagger —  endearing or bone-chilling, take your pick — and flair for the garbled aperçu injected  energy into tracks whose grafted horn passages, soul girl wails, and elongated synth parts couldn’t compensate for the loss of crucial band members, not to mention the sonic spritz that was inseparable from the celebration of opulence and consumption (I suspect that the lyrics to “The Reflex” or “New Religion” accurately reflect the state of a mind clinging to what it can remember about high school poetry and the Herb Ritts shoot it took in evening last, sated by cocaine, sex, and hair gel). However, before you’ve had a chance to miss Andy Taylor’s fourth-rate Steve Vai imitations, Le Bon’s falsetto ably substitutes on “A Matter of Feeling.” A song called “Vertigo (Do the Demolition” [the what? Is the Demolition like the Safety Dance?] rhetorically wonders about real life in your illusion hiding behind a dark cloud of confusion but actually boasts a pretty chorus that goes down smoother as a Bond anthem than Pat Boone’s favorite song about hellfire released a year earlier (“Vertigo” is closer to a-Ha than a-Ha’s own Bond anthem, which sounded a lot like Duran’s. Confused?). The best song on Notorious is the forgotten third single, remixed for release, a rewrite of Roxy Music’s “In Every Dream Home a Heartbreak,” vulgarized for the eighties. The second best is the chugging “Hold Me.” The rest sounds like Arcadia and the Power Station meeting once for the sake of the kids before the divorce hearing, which means it’s a classic-era Duran album in all but spirit. No one who cares about Duran after buying Rio need own this, but consistency’s your hobgoblin they are scarier ones than Notorious.