Performance by numbers: Bryan Ferry

Exhaustion, boredom, a Campari and soda guzzled backstage – Bryan Ferry can no longer sing. At last night’s Fillmore Miami Beach performance in support of an album he supposedly cut last year called Olympia, Ferry confronted the problem with admirable forthrightness: when a Roxy Music number demanded high notes he could no longer hit or a complex harmonic shift for which he couldn’t squeeze sufficient air from his lungs, he would nod or point towards one of the pairs of backup singers positioned stage left and right and they’d take over. After all, Ferry is in his mid sixties, and, besides, even during his Roxy days he projected an air of baffled amusement onstage; he has never been one of those introspective artists who discover a talent for the outsized gesture before an audience. Ferry saved his passion for his records. If someone can link to a classic Roxy or solo live clip in which he inhabits the song as fully as he does in the studio, by all means. As I’ve pointed out a couple times over the years, there probably has never been a more boring major rock and roller than Bryan Ferry: not one memorable exchange with the press, no quips, no reading suggestions that send you running to the library. No wonder Ferry reveres T.S. Eliot: as turbulent a private life as Ferry no doubt endures you will look towards the work in vain for a single autobiographical crumb.

Still, the rather well-paced show confirmed Ferry’s oddball grace. He may condescend to the yeoman work of album promotion, but the audience still felt affection for him, going so far as to regard the slinky writhing dancers and black and white clips of anodyne lovers that looked like Armani ads as evidence that this man incarnates romance. Capital-r-Romance is more accurate. Ferry’s most lasting contribution to rock is illuminating the lengths to which we’ll soar for the sake of a fantasy, the depths to which we’ll sink to believe in a myth; belief in a god is redundant when, as the man himself wrote in his greatest song, “the search for perfection/your own predilection/goes on and on and on and on.” He may have found a dram of it in his backing band. Chris Spedding brought his expert twang and slide talents, the man known in Roxy circles as The Great Paul Thompson drummed with unexpected vibrancy and force, and a snake-figured young man with long center-parted hair named Oliver Thompson proved as apt an effects man as Phil Manzanera or Neil Hubbard were. Ferry himself played more keyboard than expected, including an elegant variation on his solo in the otherwise vacuous “My Only Love” (for which Ferry has had an undue regard in the last ten years). As for the ostensible purpose for this tour, it got a couple of airings: the galumphing “Alphaville” and a solid “Reason or Rhyme,” the best song on Olympia.

But if you’re over, say, forty-five you pay sixty dollars so that you and your sweetie can sway to “Avalon” and “Don’t Stop the Dance,” jab your fist to “Let’s Stick Together” and “Kiss and Tell,” or chant “Love is the Drug,” all of which were performed after intermission in what amounted to a victory lap. The artist’s freshly moussed hair accounted for the sudden vibrancy of these performance after a rather sleepy first half in which the pair of Dylan covers and appearance of 1972’s “If There is Something” were the highlights, especially when Ferry, with admirable poise, ceded the most impassioned, ludicrous verses of his career (“I’d put roses ’round your door, sleep in the garden/growing potatoes by the sco-o-o-o-o-o-r-r-e!”) to one of the backup vixens. Don’t call it humility though – the Love God merely demonstrated how thoroughly his fans had absorbed his prayers.

“A dick record” — R.E.M.’s Monster

J. Edward Keyes’ review of Monster comes closest to explaining that blighted record’s continuing fascination for me:

Arriving on the heels of the dignified Automatic for the People, Monster was a hand job in a seedy theater, and the album that got R.E.M. out of the cabin and back into the arenas, and asserted their place among the legions of grunge bands they’d inspired. It is, as Stipe put it at the time, “a dick record,” leering and lascivious, unsafe to take on an unchaperoned date. If Big Black hadn’t already nicked the title, they could have called it Songs About Fucking. Before this (and, one could argue, immediately after), the group provided the po-faced template for Conscious Rockers, so self-serious that they were on speed-dial for things like Greenpeace benefits and the Clinton inauguration. Monster proved that if they couldn’t be bipartisan, they could at least be bi-curious.

Givin’ the world some bonhomie: Kid Creole

Late to the lifeboat party, I bought my first Kid Creole and the Coconuts album in 2008. A compilation of Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, leader August Darnell’s more profitable disco-era project, didn’t impress me as much as the numbers on 1982’s Wise Guys. And numbers they were — productions in the Old Hollywood sense, reminding me of Buster Poindexter and solo David Byrne but with a ironical deployment of call-and-response female vocalists and horn section. A decaying world peeked beneath the giddy textures, which Darnell’s tunes didn’t mitigate (Machine’s “There But For The Grace of God Go I” is closer to life during wartime than the contemporaneous Talking Heads song). Their new album I Wake Up Screaming, produced by Hercules and Love Affair’s Andy Butler, sounds grateful instead of angry, but formally it’s close to unimpeachable. Andy Beta’s interview with the Kid depicts the travails of being almost famous — an insoluble dilemma but a reflexive one too, if you consider how often Darnell’s own songs almost veered off script from rave-up to editorial (check out 1987’s “Part of My Design”).

Faith and devotion: Of Gods and Men

An entry on Trappists in Wikipedia:

“Strict Observance” refers to the Trappists’ goal to follow closely St. Benedict’s Rule, and take the three vows described in his Rule (c. 58): stability, fidelity to monastic life, and obedience. As Benedict also insisted on silence, it has some importance in their way of life. However, contrary to popular belief, they do not take a vow of silence.[4] Trappist monks will generally only speak when necessary, and idle talk is strongly discouraged. As described by St. Benedict, speech disturbs a disciple’s duty for quietude and receptivity, and may tempt one to exercise one’s own will instead of the will of God. Speech which leads to unkind amusement or laughter is seen as evil and is banned.[5] In years past, a Trappist Sign Language, distinct from other forms of monastic sign language, was developed to dissuade speaking. Meals are usually taken in contemplative silence, as members of the order are supposed to listen to a reading.

Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men, takes its cues from these beliefs. Hushed, replete with widescreen shots of monks tending gardens, interacting kindly with Algerian villagers, or singing hymns during Mass, it recognizes faith as the ultimate in what Wallace Stevens would call an idea of order. A crude description of this film would reduce it to a clash of civilizations worthy of Samuel Huntington: Islamist fundamentalism makes martyrs of a half dozen monks in mid nineties Algeria who will not heed the counsel of government functionaries, themselves impatient with the monks’ rigor. But self-righteousness, fascinatingly, is absent, or perhaps the monks’ devotion to duty is itself an example of self-righteousness.

But fissures course through their devotion. The head of the order Father Christian (Lambert Wilson, with a passing resemblance to ascetic, lantern-jawed Woodrow Wilson) allows brothers to vote their conscience. Beauvois fills the screen with close-ups of old bald men stone-faced with confusion; like men on a sinking ship, no one wants to be the first to claim they deserve a spot on the lifeboat. The most responsible — the ones with the deepest tie to the Muslim villagers — elect to stay, among them Lucien (Michael Londsdale,  vast as a cathedral), an asthmatic doctor inarticulate about everything except healing. His empathy requires provocation: he replaces the shoes a woman has outgrown without putting her through embarrassing paces.

Of Gods and Men‘s politics are liberal in the ways that count as well as the ways that don’t. Fr. Christian can defuse the Islamist threat by quoting a relevant bit from the Koran (that the fundamentalists implicitly acknowledge the good the Trappists have done for the village helps too), but only for a while. I wish the film had more tension than the obvious one of waiting for the fundamentalists to make their final move against the monastery. As I implied above, the movie so wants to avoid the clash-of-civilizations theme that it gets too ecumenical. It’s an honest conundrum. Does the Jean Renoir line of thinking — that everyone has their reasons — work with material this charged? I’m left appreciating Beauvois’ affection for ritual, like Lucien treating his brothers to an excellent wine during what amounts to a last supper.

Two strikes: Moneyball

Defying years worth of expectations, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), general manager of the Oakland A’s, assembles a team whose ailments, deformities, and acumen matter less than their ability to accumulate runs, thanks in large part to the prodding of Yale graduate and Jonah Hill-double Peter Brand, played by Jonah Hill.

I will trust the sports fans among my readers to provide the nuance — I haven’t even read the book on which Bennett Miller and screenwriters Steven Zaillan and Aaron Sorkin base their movie — but what I see onscreen is rather flat. Tonally, Moneyball confused me: it wants to be a “smarter” sports movie by eschewing locker room banter (Beane won’t even fraternize with the players in case he has to trade them) in favor of the grim statistical machinations between Beane and Brand Miller yet the script builds towards the Big Game anyway before sputtering towards a couple of false endings. Moneyball should have taken its cue from Pitt’s quiet self-mocking performance. I’ve waited a quarter of my life for the performances Pitt has given in the last three years. Finally he’s not treating acting like a foot stool he trips over. We can see the damage wrought by playing Brian Beane, another I-coulda-been-a-contendah, all the time; there’s a tension between Beane’s coolness (not once in the film does he enjoy a light moment with a colleague) and his bursts of violence, and Pitt, long legs crossed on desks, eyes bagged and tired, handles this with unexpected finesse. As misshapen as a manhandled pillow, often dull, Moneyball is still worth a look.

“It’s hard not to get romantic about baseball,” Beane says near the end of the movie when he himself is near the end. It’s equally hard for directors not to get romantic about baseball movies. My favorites concentrate on peripherals which are nevertheless imbued with the game’s romance: both, coincidentally, released in 1988: Bull Durham and The Naked Gun. Everyone remembers “Hey! It’s Enrico Pallazzo!”, the use of “I Love L.A.,”  the fat woman tumbling in slo-mo; what I return to is the shot of Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) as pitcher, face glowing with euphoria as he realizes that position’s power to manipulate audience reaction. More importantly, he’s swept up in the game. That’s romance.

Ros-Lehtinen: It’s personal

If this is true about my representative, it explains a great deal. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is the only Republican supporter of the “Respect for Marriage Act,” designed to repeal the odious Defense of Marriage Act. Why?

For Ros-Lehtinen, the move has been gradual, thoughtful, and painfully personal. Her daughter Amanda publicly came out as a transgender man named Rodrigo; he’s field organizer for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

Bravo.

Singles 9/23

Ms. Knowles triumphs like Reagan in 1980.

Beyoncé – Love On Top (8)
Los Campesinos! – By Your Hand (7)
Glen Campbell – Ghost on the Canvas (6)
Blush ft. Snoop Dogg – Undivided (5)
Ayumi Hamasaki – Brillante (4)
Coldplay – Paradise (4)
Iyaz ft. Travie McCoy – Pretty Girls (3)
Big Sean ft. Kanye West & Roscoe Dash – Marvin & Chardonnay (1)
My Chemical Romance – The Only Hope for Me is You (1)
New Boyz ft. Chris Brown – Better With The Lights Off (0)

Musicsexlovesoundz: Wild Flag

I’ve been too hard on Carrie Brownstein since she published an entry in her “Monitor Mix” column for NPR on the shallowness of Madonna. Naturally — she sang “Entertain” on Sleater Kinney’s 2005 swan song The Woods and “Combat Rock” on 2002’s One Beat. I didn’t mind their didacticism — Sleater Kinney were at their best at their most hortatory — but Brownstein sang them as if she aimed to kill fun, which is strange considering that Sleater Kinney made the line “I’ve found a way to put the fun back in sin” resonate like a prayer in 1997.

Her new project Wild Flag flirts with self-righteousness too, and it’s in these failed conceptual moments that I miss Corin Tucker most; she never sang like Mark Hollis with tonsillitis. But on most songs Brownstein’s new band can handle her dynamics and chordal shifts. On “Boom,” Helium guitarist Mary Timony does all kinds of cool sliding movements up and down the fret while Minders’ keyboardist Rebecca Cole injects organ riffs at correct intervals (another highlight: her Jimmy Destri-worthy work on “Endless Talk”). The glue, as usual, is drummer Janet Weiss, whose performance overall reminds me of how shitty a bandleader Stephen Malkmus has become. Brownstein is so in love with music that at least a third of Wild Flag’s tunes pledge troth to it as muse. For anyone else this would bespeak insularity, but Brownstein formed part of the trio responsible for “Words & Guitar,” “You’re No Rock N Roll Fun” — musicsexlovesoundz I’m still listening to.

It’s the end of the band as we know them: R.E.M.

Dan Weiss: “R.E.M.’s attention was never centered around one sound at a time, or else its members would’ve played a whole lot more mandolins.” Among those sounds Weiss didn’t mention but are favorites: funk-metal more arch than the Roxy Music of Flesh + Blood on Monster, ARP synthesizer on 1996’s “Leave,” discovering that you can pronounce “laughing” as “lahhhh-ti-i-i-n,” covering Lou Gramm’s fantastic “Midnight Blue,” smearing harpsichord over a love/whatever song as devastating as “Losing My Religion” (“Half a World Away”), and appropriating Montgomery Clift and his “movie thing” as a symbol of loss.

I could add two dozen examples. The difficulty in recalling that R.E.M.’s mainstream breakthrough in 1987 and move to global stardom in 1991 were once lauded (they were Stars Who Didn’t Act Like Stars, unlike, you know, U2) is inversely proportional to the evanescence of their career since the unexpected departure of drummer Bill Berry in the mid nineties. Five albums, and not a song to rival the ones collected in their great Warners run, which to my ears still sounds like one of the more fecund artist-label relationships since Donna Summer and Casablanca; everybody profited, including Bill Berry’s 401K. No wonder Kurt Cobain cited them as exemplars of aging with talent intact. Forget “grace.”

My first R.E.M. album was Green, won free at a radio station giveaway (the others: Roy Orbison’s Mystery Girl, Jody Watley’s Larger Than Life, and the Tequila Sunrise soundtrack). 1991’s Out of Time was as much the soundtrack of my junior and senior years of high school as Nevermind and Electronic’s self-titled debut, with a difference: the ubiquity of “Losing My Religion” was my first encounter with a hit whose ambiguities grew deeper and stranger on the thousandth play. Murmur tracks like “Moral Kiosk,” “Catapult,” and “Talk About the Passion” were as epochal in 1993 to yours truly as they were to new fans exactly a decade earlier; I even titled a short story “Not Everyone Can Carry the Weight of the World.” But 1998’s Up was the last of their albums to trouble my yearly top ten, in which the thing registered as an EKG blip instead of a statement. I saw the end a few months earlier at the Tibetian Freedom Concert. Michael Stipe, defibrillating a comatose “Airportman,” the “Eno-esque” first track from Up, wore a sari and danced as if he hoped to find movement.  Even Eno-ambient sported a rhythmic undertow.

So long, guys.

My R.E.M. top five:

Out of Time
Murmur
Life’s Rich Pageant
Monster
Reckoning

Takin’ thrills: Pistol Annies

A friend who snagged a review copy of Miranda Lambert’s forthcoming album called it lackluster, which is a pity; even on the hysterically overmixed Revolution the country artist still sounded like she was searching for nuances in familiar material or finding buried strength in the new. Maybe Lambert exhausted her energy recording the terrific Pistol Annies side project, an album called Hell on Heels recorded with Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley. This minor record provides some of the year’s most consistent pleasure.

My review for The Quietus here.

Wage stagnation

Middle-class wage stagnation began in the early seventies, says John Quiggin:

Real wages for high school educated males haven’t risen since 1970, on the standard measures, but a man born in 1950 would not only earn more lifetime income than his father, assuming both had high school education, but would be much more likely to have gained a college degree. By contrast, a man born in 1980 is no more likely than his father to have completed college**, and, assuming high school education, would have similar lifetime earnings.

Never mind. We need tax cuts for everyone.