I’m sick of being misread: Stephen Malkmus

The solid musicianship and songwriting on Mirror Traffic force me to ask: does Stephen Malkmus suck now or did I forgive his annoyances? I started to notice them when he wrote a song called “(Do Not Feed the) Oysters” in 2003, a gormless metaphor draped over a raucous hook. Please note the cute parentheses too; that’s how Malkmus thinks these days.

Here’s my review in The Quietus.

CCR: “jam band”?

I had an argument today with a guy who called Creedence Clearwater Revival “the ultimate jam band,” a conclusion that not only appropriated the language of VH-1 but was dead wrong. Have you actually looked at the running time of CCR singles? Average length: just over three minutes. “Don’t Look Now,” to my ears their most powerful political statement, is an ear-numbing 2:12. When I asked this guy if he knew their cover of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” in mind, he said he hadn’t heard their spooky eleven-minute-plus version, which takes the title seriously enough to explore every one of its emotional permutations. Listen to John Fogerty’s guitar: jealousy transforms into paranoia. The still underrated rhythm section holds it together. In my interlocutor’s mind “jam” denoted “aimlessness.” I didn’t bother asking if he’d heard “Pagan Baby” or “Walk on the Water.”

Back to life!

A two-year hiatus and about as many months enduring my cutting remarks ended last week when Thomas Inskeep resumed updating Rock Me Tonight, his outstanding run through the number one R&B singles of the eighties. As far as I can see no rust either, as the blurbs on Soul II Soul’s “Back to Life ” (“A bit more chuggingly uptempo, but still a relaxed uptempo, a perfect summery groove for the autumn”), Jermaine Jackson’s forgotten “Don’t Take It Personal” (“This is one hateful record”) and Regina Belle’s so-rote-it’s-harmless “Baby Come to Me” (“if the syrupy Najee-esque sax solo wasn’t a tip-off, yes, covers of this have become a smooth jazz staple – it’s got a simple melody. A very simple melody”). Only a handful to go.

Singles 8/26

Never in my time reviewing for The Singles Jukebox have my tastes so closely aligned with consensus. In the same breath, I’ve also never so vigorously dissented from the consensus either. I found “Video Games” a bore on first listen, and it didn’t change on the sixth. On the other hand, “Love Done Gone,” the first country song to garner such universal acclaim, gets better.

ASAP Rocky – Purple Swag (8)
Billy Currington – Love Done Gone (8)
Taylor Swift – Sparks Fly (7)
Kasabian – Switchblade Smiles (6)
Azari & III – Manic (6)
Lena Katina – Never Forget (5)
Tonight Alive – Starlight (3)
J2K ft. Kenzie May – WTF (Electrik) (3)
Cobra Starship ft. Sabi – You Make Me Feel (2)
Lana Del Rey – Video Games (2)

Whoo! – The Rapture

I won’t know until December whether I’ll play The Rapture’s In the Grace of Your Love as much as Pieces of the People We Love, whose release if I remember occasioned some snickering and didn’t cause half the impact of the second album and its putatively epochal but okay “House of Jealous Lovers” (a sound in search of a vocal and proper disco beat, but don’t tell Pitchfork). I miss strophes as batshit as “”Whoo! Alright — Yeah… Uh Huh” or “First Gear.” Where the 2006 album relied on the propulsion of rather straightforward post-post punk recombinations of Luke Jenner’s guitar and a tumbling rhythm section, In the Grace of Your Love embraces most of the dismissals hurled at the act over the years: goofiness, deplorable singing, the tension between arena rock and arena disco. Indeed, I still think Jenner isn’t up to the task of singing the likes of “Roller Coaster” and “Sail Away,” especially when his band can’t decide whether to leave him screaming by himself into the mic or helping him carve a Latin-indebted post-house groove as infectious as “How Deep is Your Love.”  Jenner whines and mewls — unfortunate traits in a band of any configuration. But The Rapture, curious beyond its post-9/11 DFA origin, ventures far afield for accordion noises (“Come Back To Me”) and a superb horn arrangement on what can best be described as Kid Creole meets Public Image Ltd collision that is “Never Die Again.” Even “Roller Coaster” boasts a bass line and guitar solo more sinuous than the competition (is there any?).  Post-punk lives!

Doubting Thomas

I am no lawyer but I probably should have been because I am a pedant and can argue any side with conviction. But I’ve read enough fiction and history to know that what legal scholars call “originalism” is a load of codswallop. If I were to argue in an essay for a literature class that we cannot seriously interpret, say, Conrad’s Nostromo or Eliot’s “Gerontion” without studying the intentions of the writer and confining ourselves to What The Words mean, I would not only produce an essay of embarrassing brevity but bore my readers as soon as soon as they picked themselves off the floor from laughing*. What Charles Evans Hughes once said about the Constitution is as true about it as it is about literature: The Constitution is what we say it is. One of the few points on which Thomas are in agreement is his disdain for stare decisis: if precedent on matters of consequence is incorrect, then correct it. Interpretation is redress. Thomas, however, would cite for intellectual ballast a fidelity to the text of the Constitution and of the Framers. Again, I will not venture too far into theories of jurisprudence for fear of looking like a prat, but consider: are Thomas and (to a lesser extent) Justice Antonin Scalia such empty vessels that their paid appearances before rapt audiences reflect exactly their constitutional views? Or, to put it another way, why does their jurisprudence coincide with the political activism of, to cite three random figures in modern conservatism, Steve Calabresi, Michelle Bachmann, and Ed Meese? (It’s also worth nothing for yuks that Thomas the ultra-Catholic officiated Rush Limbaugh’s marriage to a member of Rush’s harem).

Jeffrey Toobin’s essay on Clarence Thomas’ legal philosophy, such as it is, and wife Virginia Thomas’ vigorous proselytizing on its behalf dismisses the notion — which I too admit is condescending — that Thomas exists as a Scalia hack, a reputation acquired in part after his years of monastic silence during oral argument (he hasn’t asked a question since Donald Rumsfeld ran the Pentagon and Nelly Furtado scored her first #1 single). Thomas, according to Toobin and the delighted conservative jurists and politicians he cites, is in fact the most conservative justice since the days of Willis Van Devanter, Pierce Butler, George Sutherland, and Joseph McReynolds — the quartet known as the Four Horseman of Judicial Reaction who irritated FDR so in the thirties. Toobin:

Scalia is the figure most often associated with this school of thought, but he refers to himself as a “fainthearted originalist.” Scalia means that other factors besides his own understanding of the intent of the framers, most especially the long-established precedents of the Court, influence his judgment on the resolution of constitutional disputes. “If a constitutional line of authority is wrong, he”—Thomas—“would say let’s get it right,” Scalia told a reporter in 2004. “I wouldn’t do that. He does not believe in stare decisis period.” In other words, there is nothing fainthearted about Thomas’s convictions about the meaning of the Constitution.

Thomas’ extra-judicial remarks and writings brim with that special blend of herbs and spices known as right-wing self-pity, in which the victim reminds his audience of not only how poorly liberalism served him while studying in the heart of socialist academe (Yale in Thomas’ case), but how the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune drove him to lead the army of the righteous. I take Thomas’ point that we — we as in academe, bureaucracies, and other members of the culture industry — take the Ivy League much too seriously. I’m glad he hires clerks from second- and third-tier law schools. But must he keep reminding us of how he writhed in these purgatorial flames? As a symbol of my disillusionment, I peeled a fifteen-cent sticker off a package of cigars and stuck it on the frame of my law degree to remind myself of the mistake I’d made by going to Yale,” Thomas writes in a passage of his memoir quoted by Toobin. “I never did change my mind about its value.” Reading Jane Mayer’s excellent The Selling of Clarence Thomas a few years ago, I was amazed by the tortured ambivalence with which he regarded his education and job in the Reagan administration: Yale and the EEOC only accepted him because he was black, therefore, he reasons, there’s something wrong with those institutions, with me, or both. Contemptuous of affirmative action because it will not allow black men and women to rise on their merits, he can’t live with the probability that his own extraordinary rise resulted from tokenism, as of course it did, and so what? Thomas Sowell aside, how many black conservatives did National Review endorse?

The best conclusion a sensitive analyst will reach is that in originalism Thomas found a way of thinking about law whose certitudes soothed his doubt and rage. The other conclusion: the Obama Justice Department better have Thomas’ jurisprudential counterpart ready when Ruth Bader Ginsberg retires.

* There’s a reason why most law students majored in English or history.

Lovebuzz: Thurston Moore

Finally catching up with the Thurston Moore solo album Demolished Thoughts, released a couple months ago, I was first struck by how well producer Beck Hansen, shaping the best corrective to his own soporific Sea Change, arranges the kind of string arrangements which can rumble like thunderclaps, accompany a melody line played by Moore’s acoustic guitar (“Mina Loy”), or swoop in like birds of prey at the sight of carrion (“Circulation”). Beck and Moore are on to something here: they’ve recorded the American version of a late sixties Caetano Veloso record, with Moore whispering romantic goop as if screaming skulls and Lydia Lunch duets were the childish things he hid in the attic with the KISS dolls (on “Mina Loy” the closing refrain is actually “without shame”) — or maybe he just discovered the Dean Wareham of 2002’s Romantica. Not enough “Catholic Block” in this here thing, though (“Would you like to fuck?”); lethargy often cripples Moore’s melodies. Without the power of the full Sonic Youth behind him, these sweet nothings dissolve into a prettiness that occasionally rises to the contemplative heights of A Thousand Leaves‘ “Hits of Sunshine” — a contemplation of the object so intense that it acquires a spiritual dimension. “Illuminine” rises to that level: a kinder version of 2006’s “Incinerate” that isn’t gentler.

As for Beck, he’s next heard producing Steve Malkmus and the Jicks’ Mirror Traffic.

Where the 1990’s go to die

I wish musicians would stop spreading the fallacy that the nineties were, according to Stephen Malkmus, “a weird dead zone.” Further: “‘The ’90s had the Internet, great. I don’t know what really traumatic thing happened in the ’90s. It’s probably going to seem like this ideal time to a lot of people, eventually.’” Yes, yes, a Holiday From History and that other post-Fukayama drivel now peddled by anti-nostalgists like Malkmus.

On the other hand, the article also mentions that Beck is producing tracks for Dwight Yoakam.