More than meets the eye

David Edelstein shows us how to write an uproarious review of a terrible summer blockbuster:

The first hour of Dark of the Moon is tighter than Revenge of the Fallen, but it still has that self-parodic vibe. Bay has too much testosterone to shoot a simple dialogue scene, smashing together disparate shots while actors like John Malkovich (as Witwicky’s new boss) pitch themselves into the frame as if it’s a gladiator arena. Malkovich knows that Transformers regular John Turturro will be making an entrance later in the picture and that he has to work fast to give the film’s weirdest performance — and he’s up to it, being, unlike Turturro, untethered by known laws of human psychology or cognition. But even Malkovich is no match for Ken Jeong, representing not just himself but all Asian races for the Who Can Abase Himself/Herself Most for Money in a Michael Bay Movie? As a scientist in over his head with the Autobots’ archenemies, the Decepticons, Jeong throws himself at Shia in a men’s room stall, jabbering wildly and pulling a top-secret memo from between his legs. Korea wins! Freed from Jeong’s overacting, Shia reasserts his male dominance by pawing Rosie in an elevator while “You Light Up My Life” issues from its speakers.

A Malkovich-Turturro duel? Shia TheBeef in a men’s room stall? “You Light Up My Life”? Let me at it.

By the way, I will never watch this because when I watched “Transformers” in grade school Megatron did not look like six dozen pipe cleaners glued together.

Latinates: ugly cravats

Justice Anthony Kennedy offers advice for writing legal prose, but it applies to anyone attempting prose worth a damn:

Interviewer: You have some pet peeves as a writer — among which, you don’t like adverbs, do you?

Kennedy: I do not like adverbs. In part, it’s because it’s a rule that I want to have for myself. They’re a way for you to qualify, and if you don’t use them, it forces you to think through the conclusion of your sentence. And it forces you to confront the significance of your word choice, the importance of your diction. And it seems to me by not using the -l word . . . or, pardon me, the -ly word, you just discipline yourself to choose your words more carefully.


But I have other pet peeves about writing. One is I’m a traditionalist. This is something that I will admit. And I do not like nouns that are turned into verbs: I task you or I was tasked with this assignment or I was tasked with this opinion. A “task” is a noun; it’s not a verb. Impact. This impacts our decision; impact is a noun, and it seems to me trendy. I don’t like trendy words. Now, the language obviously grows; it can’t be static. The beauty of the language is its dynamism and its growth, so I accept that. I don’t like the word “grow:” We’re going to grow the economy. It seems to me that you grow a carrot; you don’t grow the economy. But after a while I have to succumb to some of these things [laughing].

Interviewer: What do you think about incentivize?

Kennedy: I think incentivize is highly objectionable for two reasons: Number one, it uses -ize. I do not like -ize words, which are also made-up words. And that’s also…it’s a word that reminds me of someone wearing a very ugly cravat.

The King’s Speech

Martin Amis’ introduction to the late Kingsley’s The King’s English, in which its author reminds us of the true definition of  “infamous” and the imprecision and sheer ugliness of words and phrases like eke out, brutalise, and decimate. Amis forgot other noun-cum-verbs like victimize and impact. I quiver with joy at the thought of what short work he’d have made of “hate on,” as in, “Why do you hate on Rihanna?”

Coincidentally, my students will discuss “Politics and the English Language” and an example of a magazine or newspaper article replete with semantic and linguistic barbarisms of the kind that Orwell described.

Usage is irreversible. Once the integrity of a word is lost, no amount of grumbling and harrumphing can possibly restore it. The battle against illiteracies and barbarisms, and pedantries and genteelisms, is not a public battle. It takes place within the soul of every individual who minds about words.

The most useful rule (and Martin applauds Kingsley’s pragmatism): “The aim of language is to ensure that the speaker [or the writer] is understood, and all ideas of correctness or authenticity must be subordinate to it.”

Sadness without cause: Bon Iver

It had to happen: Toto, Sade, and the Blow Monkeys have gotten their due. Thanks to Ariel Pink’s Before Today, Destroyer’s Kaputt and Bon Iver’s new eponymous album, the most fervently untrodden musical paths of the eighties now boast fresh footprints. Keening vocals struggling to articulate romantic and/or existential vagaries dominate these albums; their musical correlative relies on rippling, “tasteful,” guitar and keyboard chords, the occasional sax solo, and stately rhythms that flirt with indolence (I wrote an article about sophisti-pop a few years ago). Although Destroyer and Bon Iver in particular want sounds and instruments on their records that we haven’t heard since “Digging Your Scene” and “Valerie” hit the top fifteen, there is an important (de)evolutionary difference: because these acts maintain a tentative, almost nervous attachment to their lo-fi origins, their albums project sophistication instead of embracing it. Mimicry or mere replication they don’t want, and as a result a gulf between ambition and results opens as cavernously as the sound of a gated drum through car speakers.

Bon Iver’s approach is the most unusual. Synthesizing the necessarily histrionic qualities of eighties sophisti-pop and the inwardness of post-Elliot Smith acoustic folk produces songs that don’t know whether to float or settle. Patterns emerge, cohere, disperse. Frontman Justin Vernon picks out chords or sings phrases in a falsetto, sometimes disrupting the attempts at prettiness with a couple bars of distortion. The approach works best on “Calgary,” which begins with a sustained synth line that I swear come out of the Pet Shop Boys’ “Being Boring.” The clanging electric piano and suspended notes on “Beth/Rest” could have played over the closing credits of the Rob Lowe-Demi Moore farrago …About Last Night. All that’s missing is, of course, a sax (skip backwards to “Minnesota, WI”). Where Destroyer’s Dan Bejar mumbles through an admixture of slogans, lines that sound like quotes from articles you think you’ve read, and uncooked aphorisms, Vernon hasn’t thought through his angst enough to impose order on what is ultimately, to quote Wallace Stevens, sadness without cause.

Same sex marriage: how it happened

After last night’s extraordinary legislative session in Albany, the reckoning. How did it happen? An alliance between Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Catholic, and Wall Street fat cats who, according to Michael Barbaro, saw more clearly than their Republican puppets on the Christian right that supporting same-sex marriage was the most conservative act they could conceive:

But, behind the scenes, it was really about a Republican Party reckoning with a profoundly changing power dynamic, where Wall Street donors and gay-rights advocates demonstrated more might and muscle than a Roman Catholic hierarchy and an ineffective opposition.

Singles Jukebox 6/24

In the busiest reviewing week of the year, three country singles were the best of a batch that included two “efforts” by Lil Wayne to continue sullying his legacy – and Aldean currently sits in the pop top ten. Imagine: a world in which Michael Bolton outranks Lil Wayne.

All scores based on a one to ten scale. Clink on links for full reviews.

Trace Adkins – Just Fishin’ (7)
Little Big Town – The Reason Why (6)
Jason Aldean – Dirt Road Anthem (6)
Adele – Set Fire to the Rain (6)
The-Dream – Fuck My Brains Out (6)
Paramore – Monster (5)
Yasmin – Finish Line (6)
Diddy-Dirty-Money ft. Trey Songz – Your Love (4)
Jason Derülo – Don’t Wanna Go Home (4)
The Unthanks – Queen of Hearts (4)
Calvin Harris ft. Kelis – Bounce (3)
Pitfull ft. Ne-Yo, Afrojack, and Nayer – Give Me Everything (3)
The Lonely Island ft. Michael Bolton – Jack Sparrow (2)
Big Sean ft. Chris Brown – My Last (2)
Lil Wayne – How To Love (2)
Jennifer Lopez ft. Lil Wayne – I’m Into You (2)

Weak in the presence of beauty: Frank Ocean’s “Nostalgia, Ultra”

I haven’t heard an R&B album* this year as fulsome as Frank Ocean’s Nostalgia, Ultra. This member of the Odd Future collective specializes in spare, slivery tracks in which admissions of swinish behavior and professions of love intermingle, uneasily. On one hand, Ocean can ask, “Is it really wrong that I want to be your baby daddy/Is that a love crime?” over a deflated piano melody and an outro sample of a pissed off woman letting her man have it; on the other, he’s begging for novocaine from a lady dentist to numb the pain of said swinishness. Sin and salvation — does it get more R&B than this? Speaking of which, “Hotel California” serves as the exoskeleton for a crucial track, which is appropriate: the Eagles were the original Wu-Tang Clan. He’s compelling in both modes though, especially when he stumbles upon a correlative for his restlessness as fetching as the MGMT sample on “Nature Calls,” a song in which he admits, “I’ve been meaning to fuck you in the garden/We’ve been breathin’ so hard we both could use the oxygen.” Ray Parker, Jr. couldn’t have said it better. What Ocean could say better are doubts beyond whose skirt his hand is up: did the U.S. put the flag on the moon? Is marriage between man and woman? Liberal sentiments or conspiratorial drivel? He doesn’t yet have the personality or patina to make the ambiguity signify on its own.

Nostalgia, Ultra deserves any success it gets. A resourceful songwriter, Ocean already has Beyonce on his phone: the best ballad on 4 is Ocean’s “I Miss You.”  Should The-Dream and Ne-Yo ever falter, a career as songwriter for divas beckons (and he’s better at sin-and-salvation than Terius Nash). Let me anticipate criticism: after a raft of articles in the last six weeks about Tyler the Creator and the other Odd Future members, the kudos has turned Ocean into the Acceptable Face of an impolitic collective. I was going to review Tyler’s thing a couple of weeks ago but deleted the post after deciding his smut-rap was decidedly unfunny and clumsy. It’s all on Nostalgia, Ultra anyway.

* Technically not an album. The record company hasn’t officially released Nostalgia, Ultra.


“Complete nonsense”

Bruce Bartlett, domestic policy adviser in the Reagan administration and Treasury adviser to George H.W. Bush, quietly dissects GOP drivel about the regenerative effect of tax cuts.

What none of Bartlett’s new liberal friends will mention — Lawrence O’Donnell included — is how well Bartlett and his supply side friends cooked the books in the first half of 1981. He may have known that the Reagan tax cuts would generate no revenue for the federal government, but he didn’t say so at the time.

Money, money, money: Beyonce’s “4”

Of course Beyonce “has a voice.” She “knows how to sing.” My decade-long reluctance to embrace her sprung from skepticism of a larynx whose pyrotechnics immolated us, the song, and Beyonce herself. Blessed with the looks and talent that most of us wrongly assume require no nurturing, she’s hopped from “Bills, Bills, Bills” to Dreamgirls without suffering from unnecessary aesthetic pangs. As a performer she’s not narcissistic exactly; she wants us to see her hard work without applauding her sacrifice. In her songs she presents herself as a better role model than human being — a tough Independent Woman who reminds men that they’re not ready for her jelly or to start thinking they’re irreplaceable. Yet her timbre also projects coolness; her songs celebrate the moment of sexual consummation (“Say My Name,” “Naughty Girl”) or its histrionic end (“Irreplaceable”). She has no interest in limning scenarios: that’s none of our business, sport. The shrewdest insight presented by the SNL spoof of “Single Ladies” starring Justin Timberlake was noting how little use Beyonce actually has for other people. The guys’ dancing didn’t put her out; she looked rather stunned, like a woman who extends a hand but gets a hug instead. Could this be why gays have never worshiped her? Odd: in her commitment to slogans, bromides, and catch phrases, Beyonce is actually a better Lady Gaga than Gaga herself.

Luckily the texture of her voice — she’s the only convincing belter in pop music — exudes considerable sensual pleasure. On 4, she and her producers provide the most convincing demonstration of its capacity to seduce. At last she’s got the ballads she was too coy about performing well; for such a megastar Beyonce’s reticence about perfecting the mirror moves required of balladry distinguished her from the competition. Frank Ocean’s cavernous, spare Massive Attack-worthy  “I Miss You” might be her warmest performance to date. “Best Thing I Never Had” is an “American Idol” tour de force in the best sense (note the clever insertion of melisma on the “It sucks to be you” refrain), complete with a buried guitar motif that sounds like Marnie Stern snuck into the studio beneath the steamers. When she coos, “Boy your lips taste like a mad champagne,” you can taste the sticky lips and champagne, not to mention the madness. I don’t know whether to credit a better sense of craft: B’Day was the rare contemporary album under seventy minutes and without flab. But all her tricks — her wit, energy, commitment — have the command of a theater piece rehearsed to the beat of a metronome.

In an excellent review, Alex Macpherson notes her fascination with money, an attitude that, in his perfect phrase, “a hedge-fund manager would identify with.” 4 boasts few songs explicitly about filthy lucre — why should it when each song glistens like the rims of a new Benz? In its pursuit of excellence from Ocean, The-Dream, Ne-Yo, Consequence, and Switch, 4 offers a case study in resource investment. Whether it will linger in the imagination as long as B’Day is another story; this one has no left field delight like “Suga Mama.” Ryan Tedder and hack-for-life Diane Warren wrote the worst ballad, and Beyonce herself knows it (the cliches she’s asked to enliven expire like flies around a window). On “Party,” Kanye contributes the worst cameo in a career full of them. But when the compensatory delight of “Love on Top” with its ascending key changes sashays into the most troublesome sequence as the rarest kind of after dinner palate cleanser, I’m prepared to overrate this record.

RIP Clarence Clemons

More than his sax solos, which were at best memorable (think “Jungleland” and “Bobby Jean”), Clemons’ smile epitomized the generosity of the E Street Band. The moments I choose to remember are in two hits from 1985: his solo in Aretha Franklin’s “Freeway of Love” and “You’re a Friend of Mine,” his duet with Jackson Browne, in which The Big Man forces Browne to smile so much that his dimples crack from the effort. It doesn’t feel smarmy — how can you deny a force as benign as Clemons?