Oh noes!

Kathryn-Jean Lopez and Maggie Gallagher, all is forgiven:

WASHINGTON—Reports continue to pour in from around the nation today of helpless Americans being forcibly taken from their marital unions after President Obama dropped the Defense of Marriage Act earlier this week, leaving the institution completely vulnerable to roving bands of homosexuals. “It was just awful—they smashed through our living room window, one of them said ‘I’ve had my eye on you, Roger,’ and then they dragged my husband off kicking and screaming,” said Cleveland-area homemaker Rita Ellington, one of the latest victims whose defenseless marriage was overrun by the hordes of battle-ready gays that had been clambering at the gates of matrimony since the DOMA went into effect in 1996. “Oh dear God, why did they remove the protection provided by this vital piece of legislation? My children! What will I tell my children? 

Oscar roundup

My ballot for the major categories. Although readers will note I’m not a fan of The Social Network, it’s a better acted, written, and conceived film than the timid, meretricious The King’s Speech — qualities I would not associate with John Adams, I might add. Let me also note: the Academy will likely reward Melissa Leo and Christian Bale for the kind of acting that makes me want to murder babies.

Best Picture

WILL WIN: The King’s Speech
SHOULD WIN: The Social Network

Best Actor

WILL WIN: Colin Firth
SHOULD WIN: Jessie Eisenberg

Best Actress
WILL WIN: Natalie Portman
SHOULD WIN: A toss-up. I’m taken with both Bening and Williams’ performances.

Best Supporting Actor

WILL WIN: Christian Bale
SHOULD WIN: Mark Ruffalo

Best Supporting Actress
WILL WIN: Melissa Leo

Best Director

Singles 2/25

Now that “Born This Way,” which I’d reviewed here, has generated the expected slew of thoughtful responses, we can turn our attention to R. Kelly’s best ballad in ages. For me that’s saying something — the man is as empathetic as Stalin.

All scores from one to ten. Click on links for full reviews.

No Age – Fever Dreaming (8)
R. Kelly – Love Letter (6)
Toro Y Moi – Still Sound (6)
Nelly ft. Kelly Rowland – Gone (6)
Smith Westerns – Weekend (6)
Nicki Minaj ft. Drake – Moment 4 Life (5)
James Blake – Wilhelm’s Scream (5)
Lady GaGa – Born This Way (4)
The Jezabels – Mace Spray (4)

Unions: A long death knell

Since I’m currently beached on pg. 404 of Conrad Black’s massive FDR biography, the popularity of a certain quote going around the internetz regarding Roosevelt’s characteristically ambivalent attitude towards collective bargaining struck me as the product of a coordinated effort; no less than four different people of divergent political persuasions have emailed it to me. Here’s the quote in question:

The desire of Government employees for fair and adequate pay, reasonable hours of work, safe and suitable working conditions, development of opportunities for advancement, facilities for fair and impartial consideration and review of grievances, and other objectives of a proper employee relations policy, is basically no different from that of employees in private industry. Organization on their part to present their views on such matters is both natural and logical, but meticulous attention should be paid to the special relationships and obligations of public servants to the public itself and to the Government.All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.

It has its distinct and insurmountable limitations when applied to public personnel management. The very nature and purposes of Government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with Government employee organizations. The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives in Congress. Accordingly, administrative officials and employees alike are governed and guided, and in many instances restricted, by laws which establish policies, procedures, or rules in personnel matters.

Taking a politician as wily as FDR out of context exposes one to ridicule. The period between 1937 and 1939 — during which he expended political capital in a futile attempt to reconfigure the Supreme Court, tried to run legislators who failed his personal liberalism test out of office, and nudged, in frustrating increments, the country out of its neutrality — was the most trying of his presidency, and especially troublesome for liberals who’ve tried to explain his pivots to the right and conservatives who mistrusted those pivots. Besides, Roosevelt couldn’t know how collective bargaining contributed to the overall improvement in the conditions of American workers in the fifties and sixties.

Kevin Drum, in a superb essay, analyzes how the Democrats abandoned unions in the seventies, and how the working class abandoned Democrats when it realized the party would sacrifice it for expendiency’s sake.

Magpies of a sort: Radiohead’s The King of Thieves

As the running time of their albums shrinks, Radiohead’s morbidity has decreased, a development that is inversely proportional to their fans’ knowledge of the “chillwave” and dubstep from which the band draws its inspiration these days. Since both genres depend on dark-nights-of-the-soul, Radiohead’s affinity for them makes sense; what the Thom Yorkers record now more than ever is semi-expert melancholia, with percussive loops still stuck in the Napster age. Far less inhabited than 2008’s In Rainbows, The King of Limbs depends on a peripatetic groove for attention. The tracks are diffuse, meandering, and reliant on one’s unfamiliarity with the genres they’re sampling; the album is “difficult” if you’ve never heard James Blake, Villalobos, or Four Tet. But that’s the point: if you haven’t, its reticent qualities are exactly what a certain fan expects from Radiohead. The “difficulty” is the point — the selling point. Because The King of Limbs sounds nothing like Drake or Destroyer, this represents a victory of principle over accessibility. Whatever else they are, Radiohead are near geniuses at marketing.

My disdain for these men stretches back almost twenty years. I liked OK Computer, especially now that “Don’t get sentimental/It always ends up drivel” became, for better or worse, the band’s Words To Live By. The first side of Kid A is pretty good; in Miami every indie club between 2001 and 2004 played “Idioteque” at least once (what a perfect excuse for cute boys to go mad with twitching). I like “Knives Out,” “There There,” (career high), “Bodysnatchers,” a couple of others. What they recorded before 1997 is unlistenable: the arena moves of anthemic nineties Britpop are as alien to them as a Rihanna duet. But as Thom Yorke’s portentous prattle has surrendered its claim on importance, his voice as texture has taken its place — a development just as chilling (it’s like  a Death Row suspect offered the choice of a firing squad or electric chair). The King of Limb‘s “Separator” and “Lotus Flower” would register as beguiling surfaces if Yorke, swathed in echo or experimenting with a stratospheric register, respectively, didn’t insist on meaning.

The ditherer: Elizabeth Bishop

William Logan reviews the latest collection of Elizabeth Bishop letters, most of which are directed at The New Yorker‘s persnickety poetry editors. Logan, the critic with the most pungent style in contemporary letters, reminds us that the magazine’s current incarnation, home to exposes like Lawrence Wright’s frightening one on Paul Haggis’ break from Scientology, is at odds with its genteel history:

The New Yorker has been the premier American literary magazine for most of a century. To be published there is a rite of passage for a young writer, though when the magazine was founded in 1925, after a decade in which Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens had revolutionized American poetry, it devoted itself to light verse. Later the magazine was spurned by Robert Lowell, who objected to the triviality of New Yorker poems. (Pound in his dotage was published there for the first and last time, Moss once told me, because the magazine learned he needed major dental work.)

Singles 2/17

The Indie Stalwarts Edition: Fleet Foxes and Decembrists, resorting to snowflakes and oversized gestures, fall short.

All scores from one to ten. Click on links for full reviews.

Chase and Status ft. Liam Bailey – Blind Faith (7)
Tinie Tempah ft. Ellie Goulding – Wonderman (6)
The Decembrists – Down By The Water (5)
Jessie J ft. B.O.B. – Price Tag (3)
Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues (3)
Cage the Elephant – Shake Me Down (2)
Gyptian – Nah Let Go (1)

Fiscal: a synonym for wanton

I don’t often care for Talking Points Memo, a Politico for liberals, but it sometimes produces excellent reporting. It doesn’t surprise me that not one news story I’ve read today in traditional media outlets has mentioned how Governor Scott Walker, in just six weeks, drove Wisconsin into a fiscal rut by asking for — you guessed it — tax cuts, which, of course, teachers and other unionized public employees will pay for.  An excerpt from The Cap Times:

In fact, like just about every other state in the country, Wisconsin is managing in a weak economy. The difference is that Wisconsin is managing better — or at least it had been managing better until Walker took over. Despite shortfalls in revenue following the economic downturn that hit its peak with the Bush-era stock market collapse, the state has balanced budgets, maintained basic services and high-quality schools, and kept employment and business development steadier than the rest of the country. It has managed so well, in fact, that the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau recently released a memo detailing how the state will end the 2009-2011 budget biennium with a budget surplus.In its Jan. 31 memo to legislators on the condition of the state’s budget, the Fiscal Bureau determined that the state will end the year with a balance of $121.4 million.

To the extent that there is an imbalance — Walker claims there is a $137 million deficit — it is not because of a drop in revenues or increases in the cost of state employee contracts, benefits or pensions. It is because Walker and his allies pushed through $140 million in new spending for special-interest groups in January. If the Legislature were simply to rescind Walker’s new spending schemes — or delay their implementation until they are offset by fresh revenues — the “crisis” would not exist.

Ignore the Republican demands for “fiscal responsibility” — what does fiscal responsibility mean if you endorse tax cuts you can’t pay for? Don’t answer the question: the Obama administration did when it surrendered on the Bush tax cuts in December. If you want to read inchoate, drooling rage, take a gander at Jay Nordlinger’s posts here, here, and here. As a teacher, I was most offended by Nordlinger’s idea that we have an easy time of it. In Florida, my adjunct salary per class has not changed since 2007. Cost of living expenses have risen. Yet Governor Rick Scott wants us to contribute an additional five percent of our salaries towards pensions. Yet another example of the adage, “Socialism for the rich, free enterprise for the poor.”

Dinars, bodies, and Merrie Ole England: PJ Harvey’s “Let England Shake”

Where on previous efforts Polly Jean Harvey’s guitar (care of Rid of Me), organ (To Bring You My Love), and duet partner (Thom Yorke on Songs From The City…’ “This Mess We’re In”) grated in the most deliberate fashion, now it’s her high register. On White Chalk it and her untutored piano brought tension to harrowing material of uneven melodic strength; the album was the very definition of The Worthwhile Failure.

She finds the objective correlative for the vocal switch-off on Let England Shake, which, in sound and subject matter alone, is the most unusual album released in years. Since most musicians espouse a received leftism, this examination of English decline, mediated by an empathy with the death-steeped nature of the blues, at first sounds confused. Anchored by a mix that’s at once spare and dense (credit again to Harvey’s new vocal strategy), Let England Shake is more than half in love with easeful death, hard electric guitar strums, and lyrics about jagged mountains jutting out and bodies piled up in mounds. If the line sounds familiar, it serves as a reminder that Harvey’s experiment rests as much on what she’s learned about history via Dylan and other musics than any study of Churchill’s memoirs or Wilfred Owen poetry — her limitation too. What she reminds me most of is the Sinead O’Connor of “Troy” and “I Am Stretched On Your Grave,” of “A Prayer for England,” a collaboration with Massive Attack on their 100th Window album in which her blood-stained falsetto hovers over an electro landscape whose evocation of despair pales beside (a) its familiarity with sentiments far beyond its singer’s ken (b) its own strangeness. On the wordless introduction to “England,” Harvey answers her own keening with a playback of a harmony mimicking what sounds like a muezzin. Appropriate:  the country that she loves boasts citizens whose bloodlines she can’t trace back to the Norman invasion (“people throwing dinars at the belly dancers,” she sings, or drops, or states as fact in “Written on the Forehead”).

In a career full of provocations and experiments, Let England Shake is PJ Harvey’s most provocative and experimental; yet if I hesitate in fully endorsing the album, blame Harvey’s reluctance to explain what exactly she misses about England. What does “England” mean to Polly Jean Harvey? Lamentations without cause aren’t her metier. Note the collaborators: still wedded to Nick Cave favorites Mick Harvey and John Parish’s conflation of darkness with significance, she coasts on the decay as if it was enough. Statements like “Bitter Branches” and “In the Dark Places” certainly are. But an album which requires as much from the listener as Let England Shake must offer more than hints and allegations, more than portents of doom. If she’s succeeded in pinning them down musically in 2011 — she really has never sung better, nor maneuvered through space this shrewdly — she’s still wedded to lyrical binaries incommensurate with her bandleading acumen. Remember that lame/cool Ric Ocasek lyric, “Alienation is the craze”? Let England Shake offers a lexicon’s worth — the “wave goodbye” refrain in “Bitter Branches” serves as envoi and motif. What Harvey has produced is a highbrow English version of The Suburbs, the Grammy-validated Arcade Fire album whose empathy for the kids who triumphed over middle class alienation didn’t compensate for the band’s implicit endorsement of the conditions that produced it; it’s a Geoffrey Hill audiobook. How it pained me to write that sentence.

Happy Sunday

I suppose it’s no surprise that Lloyd Cole’s mid eighties peak as an overeducated musician with an underdeveloped melodic sense matters less than the golden moment in 1990 when he hooked up with Fred Maher, Robert Quine, and a young google-eyed bassist named Matthew Sweet to make a softier, crunchier iteration of Lou Reed’s The Blue Mask and Legendary Hearts. Here’s the best of those moments: sly, mean, and catchy as hell.