Monthly Archives: January 2011

I heard the record it’s all right – Destroyer’s “Kaputt”

With his nasal voice and penchant for song titles like “Jackie, Dressed in Cobras” (the comma is the most offensive part),  Dan Bejar projects the kind of archness that tempts fans into seeing layers beneath layers. I could never get past his voice: North Americans imitating Brit poseurs rub me the wrong way. Within the context of the New Pornographers’ power pop, Bejar was George Harrison: contributing songs whose impeccable melodies justified the expression of his point of view, even if like me you preferred the anonymity of innocuousness.

What makes Kaputt, the latest album by his Destroyer project, a listenable exception is the meticulousness with which his grooves evoke the art-funk-damaged glossolalia of the mid eighties: the prissy upper register of The Blow Monkeys’ Dr. Robert, the Jon Hassell and Mark Isham trumpet stylings of Brilliant Trees-era David Sylvian. Ruminating instead of confessing, drifting with the music instead of situating himself as the focal point, Bejar is sillier than ever yet vivid. Forget what you might have read about the “yacht rock” signifiers — the most striking thing about Kaputt is how it reminds me of the genealogical branch from which Al Stewart’s “Year of the Cat,” Scritti Politti’s “The Word ‘Girl’,” and Sylvian’s “Nostalgia” all hang. The influences coalesce into a soundscape called “Savage Night at the Opera,” in which a synthesizer shanghai’ed from Bowie’s Low harmonizes with Bejar’s wordless chanting as a motorik beat thuds into infinity. “You’ll never guess just where I’ve been/Abandoning a horse in midstream,” Bejar whispers before a violent guitar solo takes over. The title track, another highlight, offers Bejar at his most endearing, doubletracking himself singing a lyric like “Chasing cocaine to the back rooms of the world all night” while a trumpet goes up his nose. He doesn’t sound desolate; his trick is to retain the memory of desolation. Better this than to have him elbow his pain in your groin.

When I’m in the wrong mood, Kaputt is mere perfumed air; if you winced from the Blow Monkeys allusion, wait till you read what Bejar does to Prefab Sprout in “Downtown.” But if like me you’ve been waiting to find the proper way to appreciate Bejar’s talent, Kaputt is state of the art mood music: Bejar’s voice and trumpet arrangements intrude on your thoughts just as you’re getting comfortable.

The perils of Jesus chicken

A note to my students, one all Chick-fil-A aficionados: “‘“If you’re eating Chick-fil-A, you’re eating anti-gay.’” Me, I don’t give a damn about their sandwiches — on the soggy side, no? — but as long as the corporation isn’t supporting, financially or otherwise, the death of gay Ugandan activists I’ll keep muttering darkly over my Pollo Tropical chicken caesar sandwich.

Kristol blue persuasion

Paul Berman, one of those conflicted liberals whose Terror and Liberalism persuaded me into brief support of the Iraq War in 2003,  reviews the collected Irving Kristol. Not much need be said about the father of Bill Kristol in 2011, except that these New York intellectuals took their Trotskyism, recanted or otherwise, seriously enough to debate its merits for decades. If you were lucky, Alfred Kazin or Daniel Bell (RIP, by the way) wrote an essay in Partisan Review mocking your dilettantism. Occasionally I’ll hear a scion of the rockcrit press yearn for the days of what he (these sentimentalists are invariably male) calls the “monoculture;” to read the survivors, buried alive in their mausoleum,  The New York Review of Books, it becomes impossible to take seriously any political debate since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, which is epochal in many respects: it signaled the reemergence of a personality whose rouged cheeks and blunt rhetoric faced down its moribund Soviet counterparts with almost offensive good health; and traced how the FDR liberal coalition, comprised of  enfeebled progressives, conservative union members, recalcitrant socialists, and newly recruited black, women, and gays,  sputtered to an ignoble end, failing to realize that no one cared about their woes unless these same woes were reified as complaints in network television and Hollywood movies (then came the Man From Hope in ’92, cobbling them back together).

An issue of Partisan Review from the seventies boasted Kristol’s neoconservatism in rich, decadent flower:

I have reached certain conclusions: that Jane Austen is a greater novelist than Proust or Joyce; that Raphael is a greater painter than Picasso; that T. S. Eliot’s later, Christian poetry is much superior to his earlier; that C. S. Lewis is a finer literary and cultural critic than Edmund Wilson; that Aristotle is more worthy of careful study than Marx; that we have more to learn from Tocqueville than from Max Weber; that Adam Smith makes a lot more economic sense than any economist since; that the Founders had a better understanding of democracy than any political scientists since; that . . . well, enough.

What liberal, I ask, then and now, can compose a passage equal in dogmatism? Liberals, you might argue, would be embarrassed to string together such unwieldy a display of referents (e.g. what do Raphael and Picasso have in common, never mind Lewis and Wilson). But therein lies the success of the post-Reagan right: it doesn’t matter. Repeat these banal binaries, and others like them, often enough and what the disenfranchised, disillusioned voter notices is not their specificity, but their sweep. Whatever else they do right, liberals suck at self-promotion. In the last thirty years of his life, Kristol noticed it too. The subtleties of dialectic thought pale next to the chance to convert millions of magazine subscribers — and Republican voters.

Singles 1/28

The busiest singles week of the new year, during we evaluated every genre except zydeco and new Miami Sound Machine records. The best: the most committed Wayne performance since the Bush administration, and a sweet quasi-onanistic country tune. The worst: the two-divided-by-zero collaboration between Rihanna and David Guetta.

All records graded one to ten. Click on links for full reviews.

Lil Wayne ft. Cory Gunz – 6 Foot 7 Foot (7)
Blake Shelton – Who Are You When I’m Not Looking (7)
Dr. Dre ft. Akon and Snoop Dogg – Kush (6)
Jazmine Sullivan – 10 Seconds (6)
Britney – Hold It Against Me (5)
Sara Evans – A Little Bit Stronger (4)
Jay Z ft. Kanye West – Ham (4)
Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson – Don’t You Wanna Stay (3)
Sugarland – Little Miss (3)
Plain White Ts – Rhythm of Love (1)
David Guetta ft. Rihanna – Who’s That Chick (0)

Sense and Sensuality: Night Nurse

Pauline Kael on Night Nurse (1930):

William Wellman directed this picture in his fast, unvarnished style; it has a grungy likability. Clark Gable is the sexy villain, a thieving gigolo-chauffeur in a black uniform; his specialty is socking women. Stanwyck gets it right on the jaw. But Wellman knew how to use Stanwyck for her unsentimental strength, and she does some no-nonsense slugging of her own that startled audiences at the time–and helped make her a public favorite.

Coincidentally, I had a brief discussion with a bright student today about the “inferiority” of thirties film. I would point him to this terse potboiler, in which the pieties — Stanwyck develops a conscience by challenging Gable over a pair of starving trust fund babies — for once elevate the material, and it’s largely thanks to a sensational Stanwyck, who like Joan Crawford made an awful lot of awful movies but is unforced and empathetic in every one. More than Katherine Hepburn, maybe more than Bette Davis, Stanwyck understood screen acting: economy, body movement, injecting sensuality when necessary (the one area in which Davis was deficient, although it wasn’t her fault), and the enjoyment of sin; it’s the sensuality of a woman who had to remind men she wasn’t attractive in a conventional sense. In their last scene (in the screen capture above), Stanwyck and Gable makes it clear that, were it not for the requirements of their parts, their characters would fuck the shit out of each other. Training won’t create these instincts.

EDIT: A brief example of Stanwyck’s uniqueness. When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded her an honorary Oscar in 1981 (to its eternal disgrace, the four-time nominee never won), Stanwyck, in a rich smoky voice, devotes more words and enthusiasm to thanking the “electricians, property men, stagehands, camera men…and my wonderful group, the stunt men and women who taught me so well” than to her writers and directors. Her tribute to William Holden defines class. I can’t embed the clip, but here it is.

Neil Tennant: Hatred can be “positive”

Ned reminded me of an essay by Neil Tennant published in Details in the summer of ’92. Reading it at the time, I couldn’t finish it, repulsed by self-recognition. Now it’s a manifesto.

If not for hatred, I wouldn’t be doing what I do now. I became a pop star because I hated football at school. I hated that whole attitude of being one of the crowd. Becoming a pop star was my revenge. Revenge for being bad at football. For not being athletic. For being mocked.

That’s the thing about negative energy, about hatred. It can be positive. It throws into relief all the things you know you like. It tells you, by elimination, what you’re about. Sometimes you can only define yourself by what you hate. Hatred becomes an inspiration; it makes you think, “What I’m doing now I totally believe in, and I don’t care what other people say.” Guided by hatred, you don’t have to follow the herd.

I hate the way people all like the same things at the same time. I’ve never understood it. When people are told about Coke – “It’s the real thing” – they should think, “No, it’s a hideous soft drink that is fantastically unhealthy to drink, full of sugar that turns into glucose that turns into fat.” They should look around America and think, “God, there are so many fat people here! Why? Because they all eat hamburgers and drink cola.” And they should hate the people who represent that. They should hate Michael Jackson for trying to foist Pepsi onto them, to make them fat victims of their own society. They should hate more. Hate Pepsi, hate Coca-Cola, hate Michael Jackson. Hate George Bush. And think about the alternatives. That’s another good thing about hatred. It makes you think about the alternatives.

Of course, these days it’s more fashionable to be positive. I hate positivity. The problem with positivity is that it’s an attitude that’s decidedly about lying back, getting screwed, and accepting it. Happily. It’s totally apolitical. It’s very, very personal and one-on-one. It’s not about changing society, it’s about caring about yourself. In fact, it’s totally about ignoring one’s economic role in society, and so it works in favor of the system. Just look at work years of personal consciousness theories have given us: those icons of the status quo, George Bush and John Major.

Positivity is fundamentally middle-class. It’s about having the time, the space and the money to sort out where your head is at. Therapy is just another side of positivity. It’s a leisure activity, a luxury for people who don’t have any real cares. It’s new age selfishness, the new way of saying that charity begins at home.

And positivity makes the world stay the same. Hatred is the force that moves society along, for better or for worse. People aren’t driven by saying, “Oh wow, I’m at peace with myself.” They’re driven by their hatred of injustice, hatred of unfairness, of how power is used.

That’s as true for pop music as it is for politics. I always feel the reason so much music comes out of Britain is because there’s so much hatred. You see or hear something and grow envious. Whereas if your positive reaction is, “Wow, that’s great,” you just sit back and think how great it is and you don’t do anything. You relax.

Luckily, I’ve never been a very relaxed person. When I look at pop music, I immediately hate things. I look at singers who say they are taking two years off to work for charity when, in fact, they’ll spend two years working on their album, and I hate them. Right now I really hate performers who make a big deal out of playing benefits and donating the proceeds from the sales of their records to charities. They could give plenty of money to charities and not tell anyone, but instead, they cash in on the fact. That’s not charity, it’s marketing. It’s about selling albums under the guise of a moral imperative. They say they’re trying to raise consciousness, as if being a celebrity gives them power and endows them with the answers to the world’s problems. But really they just want to be seen as heroes. I think it’s breathtakingly cynical and I hate it.

Another thing I hate, and another inspiration for what the Pet Shop Boys do, is the way people misunderstand pop culture. It annoys me that after more than twenty-five years, Top of the Pops, Britain’s most important pop-music TV program, changed the rules so that you have to sing live. Why? Because the people in control are the kind of conservatives who think that in the ‘60s, everything was much more talented than they are now. It’s all about Rolling Stone rock culture, which is essentially a fear of the new. Rolling Stone’s idea of a musician is Jerry Garcia, from the 60s. Look at all the ‘new’ artists – Curtis Stigers, Michael Bolton, Lenny Kravitz – all of them living in the past. I think you have to live in the future. Or at least in the present.

The Pet Shop Boys have always hated most of the prevailing attitudes and tried to do the opposite. Our hatred of what other people do has always helped us redefine our actions. To hate a lot of things is tantamount to really caring about others. If you like everything, you deal with nothing. When people hear Chris and me talking, they’re sometimes shocked by how negative we are. We’re constantly critical of everything, including ourselves. But I come from a generation that liked its artists to say what was wrong with our lives. I retain the old-fashioned belief that pop music is meant to be a challenge to society as well as an affirmation of it. And so I consider it my duty to hate things.

Find the issue, by the way: the best features magazine of the early nineties.

Mummified: The American

I thought the failure of Solaris (2002) had taught George Clooney the peril of choosing roles in which he’s asked to impose his unimpressive physicality over his talent for glib chatter. The American, Anton Corbijn’s attempt to turn Clooney into Alain Delon, is attenuated and vacant; it nods towards the “leisurely” thrillers of the seventies without justifying the homage. Why do we need patient takes of Clooney assembling assault rifles in the twenty-first century? To remind us that men wrote and directed this film, The Love Interest, played in a distracted manner by Violante Placido, is also a prostitute whose relationship with the Cloonster “redeems” her. Said redemption is complete after she enjoys some awesome cunnilingus and orders a complex meal (and wine) in Italian, eliciting an exasperated eyeroll from the waiter. Sydney Pollack died before Corbijn could cast him as the crusty but benign handler.