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.

If you’re over thirty, you don’t have much time for Elvis Costello: you’ve solved at least seventy percent of the conundrums in which he ensnared himself his first ten years. I love Trust because it was and remains a confused, confusing record. What was he trying to say? Why is the blasted thing such a hodgepodge? What the fuck is “New Lace Sleeves” about, and, better yet, why is its organ part so insidious?  “Trust is messier and harder to summarize,” Rob Sheffield concludes in his excellent reassessment.

The fly in the ointment: Wire’s “Red Barked Tree”

Wire has made three albums since reuniting in the new century: 2003s’ Send, which did little more than collect a couple of tracks from their Read & Burn EP series and include a few new ones designed to destroy the levels on your car stereo; and 2008’s Object 47, a return to “proper” songs which, the fantastic “One of Us” aside,  signified as gestures rather than achievements. On the new Red Barked Tree, they’ve returned to the unsettling midtempo guitar songs on which they deepened their post-Pink Flag rep. Each song boasts a rudimentary hook, and like all good Wire, these songs register as discrete sonic terrariums; no other punk act  devoted itself to formalism with such rigor. This band comprised of ugly fiftysomething English art school grads has, reassuringly, discovered sex — even bassist-singer Graham Lewis, whose M.O. since 1979 has been to remind his audience that they’re English art school grads, a task made not too difficult thanks to Lewis’ portentous and pretentious baritone. “Please Give” is his best showcase since “Ambitious,” in which a Head on the Door-era Cure guitar hook sweetens Lewis’ savoring of consonants, especially the letter “N,” which he savors like Macallan 18 (to remind us of how uneven he remains, the band allows him the aptly titled “Bad Worn Thing”). As for leader/singer/guitarist Colin Newman, he still understands how the intersection of his winsome tenor and musical oddness produces fascination tension. Years after he had Lewis complain that they all had “sand in their joints,” he admits in “A Flat Tent” to being comfortable with a GPS.

I deeply admire what these guys have done: since they infuriate as often as they thrill me, they’re the most worthwhile reunion project, outside the Go-Betweens, of the last fifteen years. Not a newly recorded note dishonors their legacy, for better or worse (as the link above suggests, I prefer their eighties work to 154). Let’s hope Spoon can maintain Wire’s level of austerity into their fifties.

Happy Sunday

One of the best songs that Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr have written, together or separately. A ravishing chord sequence, poised Sumner vocal with lyrics to match (“I don’t know if we could get lost in a city this size if we wanted to” is one of my favorite opening lines ever), and, best of all, the most beautiful oboe solo not played by Andy Mackay. Trying to outdo themselves, Sumner-Marr double its melody with an orchestral synth of the kind no one plays anymore. Beautiful.

Pazz and Jop singles chart: Abandon hope all ye who enter

Al Shipley examines the Pazz and Jop’s singles chart with a cold eye and finds a disturbing development: “Today’s Pazz & Jop electorate has a much harder time engaging with the charts,” as in, the pop charts:

Granted, you may think that pop music is at a nadir right now, and critics are right to turn their backs on it. But many people surely felt the same way numerous times in the last 30 years, and the Pazz & Jop voters still managed to engage with the Hot 100 and separate the good from the bad. Now, the critics that vote for albums by indie rock bands like The National or Arcade Fire simply rubber stamp the same artists onto their singles ballot, whether or not they ever heard those songs anywhere but in the context of their parent albums. 

I’m not including singles from albums already in my top ten unless its life force was such that it generated its own energy outside the album (e.g. repeated plays on my iPod, making it to CD-R’s I burn for friends). Examples this year: The-Dream’s “Yamaha” and Vampire Weekend’s “Giving Up The Gun.” Apparently a critic placed three National songs in his top ten — news more troubling than Rihanna’s failure to score any.

Singles 1/21

Welcome back. In the first real competition of the year, Nicki Minaj reminded me why Christgau believes in her and the rest of us want to. Disgusting and fag-haiting, “Roman’s Revenge” allowed two incorrigible role players room to act. Em sounds great, but using the phrasing and intonations that wowed us in 2000 in 2011 does not constitute progress.

As for the rest, I’m grateful for any chance to show why Katy Perry is dangerous. If Ryan Tedder had demonstrated the ability to produce another hit as big as “Apologize” or “Bleeding Love,” I might have been harsher.

A reminder: all singles graded from one to ten. Click on the link for the full review.

Nicki Minaj ft. Eminem – Roman’s Revenge (8)
Adele – Rolling in the Deep (6)
Diddy Dirty Money ft. Skylar – Coming Home (6)
The Lonely Island – I Just Had Sex (5)
Jamie Woon – Night Air (5)
Bruno Mars – Grenade (3)
Nicole Scherzinger – Poison (3)
Katy B ft. Ms Dynamite – Lights On (3)
Black Eyed Peas – The Time (Dirty Bit) (3)
Far East Movement ft. Ryan Tedder – Rocketeer (2)
Katy Perry – Fireworks (1)