Happy Sunday

Someday Robert Plant’s solo albums will get the reassessment they deserve; hell, maybe I’ll attempt it. To his immense credit, his peripatetic spirit welcomed spacious, wet keyboard arabesques like “Big Log” and “Ship of Fools.” When he felt like it he created post-Zep hoarse-rock like “Burning On One Side.” Sometimes he mixed the two (“Tall Cool One”). Very occasionally he studied those contemporary acts that he’d impressed reporters by mentioning (Visage! Big Black! Tom Verlaine!) and coughed up something so unexpected that to this day no one but Chuck Eddy takes seriously. I wish YouTube carried 1985’s “Too Loud,” a righteous, endlessly weird amalgam of Plant’s sneer, record scratching from the South Bronx, serious guitar riffage out of “Rock Box,” and a Near Eastern melody treated and warped by the latest in synth technology. “Little By Little,” also from Shaken ‘n’ Stirred isn’t as good, but it’s a strong hint.

Uneasy prophets: Jonah

The Book of J, Harold Bloom’s most rewarding book, posits an Old Testament god as petulant and erratic as any Olympian. Yahweh isn’t a god you worship: he’s a god you collude with or outsmart. Along those lines, I liked today’s NYT blog post about Jonah, his favorite book in the Bible. The great critic Randall Jarrell agreed: forty years ago he included Jonah in his anthology Book of Stories.

Singles 7/29

An odd week, punctuated by the death Martin Skidmore, one our longest serving and best writers. Such an odd week, actually, that Gililan Welch beat Beyoncé.

All scores based on a ten-point scale. Click on links for full reviews.

Gillian Welch – The Way It Is (7)
The Good Natured – Skeletons (6)
The Horrors – Still Life (6)
Beyoncé – Best Thing I Never Had (6)
Wild Flag – Romance (6)
Zack Brown Band ft. Jimmy Buffett – Knee Deep (5)
Selena Gomez and The Scene – Love You Like A Love Song (4)
Lady Antebellum – Just a Kiss (4)
David Guetta ft. Taio Cruz & Ludacris – Little Bad Girl (1)
Down With Webster – She’s Dope (0)

That naughty “fiscally responsible” centrism

The first paragraph of Elizabeth Drew’s article in the current The New York Review of Books clears the rubble:

Someday people will look back and wonder, What were they thinking? Why, in the midst of a stalled recovery, with the economy fragile and job creation slowing to a trickle, did the nation’s leaders decide that the thing to do—in order to raise the debt limit, normally a routine matter—was to spend less money, making job creation all the more difficult? Many experts on the economy believe that the President has it backward: that focusing on growth and jobs is more urgent in the near term than cutting the deficit, even if such expenditures require borrowing. But that would go against Obama’s new self-portrait as a fiscally responsible centrist.

I can’t wait to update this post in a couple of days!

Ground control to Major Jake: Source Code

Source Code is shorter, fleeter, and better acted than Inception, but still boasts an absurd time-warp plot that mixes Groundhog Day, Donnie Darko, and Philip K. Dick, which counts for creativity these days. Darko darkling Jake Gyllenhaal plays a soldier who, mortally injured in combat, is exploited by glowering government officials (embodied by Jeffrey Wright, in crutches and with a Dr. Strangelove-ian malice) who have almost mastered the art of teleporting or whatever an agent into situations in which terrorists kill civilians. Gyllenhaal is condemned to solve the same crime — somebody blows up a train en route to Chicago — ad infinitum. The gimmick also involves substitution, as Gyllenhaal realizes he’s stuck in the body of a history teacher named Sean stuck flirting awkwardly with his girlfriend (Michelle Monaghan). Duncan Jones, who directed the antiseptic Moon, has an eye for sardonic comedy and the kind of editing which gives each scene its appropriate weight. Gyllenhaal, eyes so comically large they’re like a special effect, does his best acting since Brokeback Mountain whenever he must emote against the blue screen on which Vera Farmiga, blue eyes a-twinkle, directs his activities. Jones compensates for not figuring out what the hell is going on by ending the movie just over the ninety-minute mark — and as unsatisfactorily as Minority Report‘s.

Working class heroes: Potiche

With hues and costumes as colorful as a box of Crayola 64’s, Potiche appropriates the language of camp and parody to deepen a narrative whose consequences are as contemporary as the phony battle over the debt ceiling. The film’s only misstep occurs after the opening credits: on her daily jog wearing fire engine red Adidas, comfortable bourgeoise Suzanne Pujol (Catherine Deneuve) watches animals fuck with the vaguely stunted air the attentive viewer will recognize from another Deneuve performance in which naivete and curiosity mingled, Severine from Belle De Jour (1968). After a heart attack incapacitates her philandering husband Robert (Fabrice Luchini), Suzanne takes over his umbrella factory, smoothing relations between management and employees on strike demanding higher wages and fair working hours. Gérard Depardieu, as big as the Pyrenees, is the union negotiator and former childhood lover of Suzanne. The usual complications ensue when Robert returns to work and confronts a different environment: the secretary he’d finagled (an alert Karin Viard) now has a genuine idol in Suzanne, and his children — a son peeking out of the closet (Jeremie Renier) and a Goneril-esque schemer of a daughter (Judith Godrèche) — ensconced in leadership positions for which they’re well-suited.

Self-referential without making a fuss, Potiche alludes to Deneuve’s breakthrough role in Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and to Depardieu’s decades-long experience playing proles. Director Francois Ozon, adapting Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Grédy’s play, holds true to Keats’ adage that “some shape of beauty moves away the pall/From our dark spirits.” Deneuve, cast as much for her iconicity as for her acting chops, does the best kind of star turn as a kind of Mildred Pierce whose concern for the workers has more feeling precisely because Ozon regards her as a comic figure. Depardieu, with a voice as large as his paunch, is in on the joke.  He saves his richest one for when Depardieu and Deneuve hit a disco and shimmy to “More Than a Woman.” The working man and the aristocrat, bound together in awkward chains of desire and necessity, square their differences under the mirror ball.

Amy Winehouse R.I.P.

The late Amy Winehouse had one of those voices from which I recoil: the British showbiz voice that’s brassy, unafraid of histrionics; the kind of voice that requires illustrative hand gestures while singing. The descendants of the Shirley Bassey school include everyone from Annie Lennox to Adele. But in the right circumstances Winehouse’s belting commanded attention, in large part because Winehouse already sounded like a sample; for many fans she signified “soul,” a taxonomical distinction which in recent years has come to mean the dramatizing of self backed by “real” instruments.

As I’ve written offhandedly in a few places today, the stupid lizards — male, most of them — that could not assess Winehouse without resorting to a variant on “slut,” “skank,” or “bitch” yet consider Keith Richards a bad ass disgust me. Moreover, the relentlessness with which social media, accelerating changes brought forth years ago from our obsession with therapy, legitimizes the notion that appreciation requires insights drawn from the artist’s biography is a menace which must be combated. We’ll know soon enough what happened to Winehouse. For the moment let’s appreciate her legacy. Above I posted what I still consider her greatest moment. Winehouse and Ghostface prove such a delicious combination that it’s a shame they couldn’t have recorded a Marvin and Tammi-style duets album.

Singles 7/22

The best single is by Mr. Miranda Lambert, and it’s not as good as her best — or even “Who Are You When I’m Not Lookin’,” released earlier this year.

Blake Shelton – Honey Bee (7)
Florrie – I Took a Little Something (6)
Bjork – Crystalline (6)
Drake – Marvin’s Room (6)
Tove Stryke – High and Low (5)
Lupe Fiasco ft. Trey Songz – Out of My Head (5)
Patrick Stump ft. Lupe Fiasco – This City (5)
JLS ft. Dev – She Makes Me Wanna (4)
Lloyd ft. Andre 3000 – Dedicated To My Ex (Miss That) – (4)
Rick Ross ft. Lil Wayne – 9 Piece (3)
Tine Tempah ft. Wiz Khalifa – Till I’m Gone (3)
DJ Drama ft. Fabolous, Wiz Khalifa & Roscoe Dash – Oh My (3)
Wilco – I Might (3)
Enrique Iglesias ft. Usher, Lil Wayne & Nayer – Dirty Dancer (3)
The Wanted – Glad You Came (2)
Nadine Coyle – Sweetest High (1)

The Hitchens Problem

The Awl publishes a long, truculent, loving analysis of The Christopher Hitchens Problem. Maria Bustillos identifies what makes Hitchens crusade — I mean this literally — against religion such a bore, even to those of us who embrace the instinct with enthusiasm:

God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Hitchens’ best-selling diatribe, enumerates his (quite justifiable) hatred of the crimes committed in the name of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, etc., without bothering to acknowledge that the cruel and greedy will twist any institution at all, religious or secular, to suit their purposes. All three authors appear to believe that Islam, Christianity, Judaism, etc., are literally evil organizations.

Can these authors (one of whom wrote The Selfish Gene, one of the most fascinating and brilliant books of the last century,) really be so boneheaded as to fail to understand that every institution, political, academic or religious, can be, and has been, ennobled by free-thinking, brilliant men and women as often as they have been perverted by criminals and thieves and idiots? Yes, there is Pat Robertson, and there is Fred Phelps, and there are also Dr. Rowan Williams and Reinhold Neibhur and Bishop Fuglsang-Damgaard and countless principled and even heroic men and women of faith, it seems ridiculous to have to say.

Bustillos is incorrect about one point: after scoffing at Hitchens’ disinterest in the King James Bible and Dalai Lama, she wonders: “Hitchens mawkishly advises that we seek the infinite in ‘the beauty and mystery of the double helix’ instead. Why not a rose? Seriously.” I can find several instances in God is Not Great, among other Hitchens books, in which Hitchens praises religious art, Milton, George Herbert, and, yes, the King James Bible itself.

But I defend him for the same reasons Bustillos does:

But there is the business, there is the performance of a journalistic persona, there is the professional bon vivant, and there is also the man, whose voice on the page is still so young and alive, and who belies all the bullshit sometimes, even now.

She closes with an excerpt from an address delivered squarely at the young audience of the Prestonwood Christian Academy — a beautiful one. I won’t cite it here. Read it yourself.