Watergate: deep moat

Wondering whether Richard Nixon authorized the Watergate Hotel burglary in 1972 is at the center of the least interesting whodunit in recent American political history (the second: whether Ronald Reagan okayed the diversion of funds from the sale of TOW missiles to the Contras). A president who discussed the possibility of firebombing the Brookings Institute is not one for whom the moral disquietude of a break-in would cause him much sleep or time in the Old Executive Building with his grumblings and yellow legal pads. In anticipation of Robert Redford’s upcoming documentary, Ron Rosenbaum, however, dissects the evidence and affirms the principle of Occam’s Razor:

Magruder is referring here to evidence that ace Senate Watergate Committee investigator Terry Lenzner had turned up, evidence that there had been a $100,000 illegal “campaign contribution” (read: bribe) paid to Nixon by Howard Hughes through Rebozo, purportedly to influence government decisions about his business interests. In other words, Nixon feared that O’Brien, as Hughes’ minion, might have learned about a Hughes’ payoff to Nixon and have evidence of it in his files at his office at the Watergate. In which case, the potential revelation could sink Nixon’s re-election campaign.

Magruder is Jeb, a flak for the Committee To Reelect The President; O’Brien is Lawrence, chairman of the Democratic Party. Howard Hughes — Howard Hughes everywhere.

Art Dealer Cheeky: Miguel

R&B singer-songwriter Miguel is hungry, a flâneur who peaks through store windows, buys on impulse, regrets it, and keeps walking. His breathless tally includes 2010’s full length All I Want is You and a series of EPs archly titled Art Dealer Chic. The latest, leaked during last Friday afternoon news dump, is the weakest of the three: confused in its intentions and confusing as music. But as a workbook in which Miguel Jontel Pimentel has limned the possibilities of influences like El Debarge, Sly Stone, and Here, My Dear-era Marvin Gaye it hints at an addled Economist-addicted power-chord-mad smooch-fusion that should allay Maxwell fans mourning his comparatively indolent work habits. In other words the middling at best chart performance of “Sure Thing” on Top 40 stations versus its mind-boggling commercial triumph on R&B radio might be the last time Miguel scores a hit, any hit, reliant on the post-Stargate ethos.

Volume 3 begins with the kind of minor chord synth-drenched partyup anthem familiar to fans of Prince’s Dirty Mind and Controversy (it’s called “Party Life”). “Ooh Ahh!” boasts falsetto, handclaps, and single chord guitar vamping. By far the most interesting track is “Candles in the Sun, Blowin’ in the Wind,” a tentative step into introspection defined by Miguel’s stuttering “other-other-other” like it’s 2007 and “Umbrella” looks like the future in pop. But this element isn’t half as perplexing as the decision to interpolate a John Lennon interview in which he denounces conservatives liberals, socialists, fascists, and every other twentieth century political phenomenon. Intended as exclamation point, it also adduces Miguel’s naivete. Denounce “extremes” in the hopes of sitting one’s rump down in a self-created centrist sphere looks like bravery to Thomas Friedman types, and while I don’t expect political sophistication from a musician I do want him to offend somebody.

No “Adorn” or “Gravity.” It’s possible he’s thinking those masterpieces of sexual healing. Let’s hope his growing cult sustains him long enough for him to posit rock star moves like the video for “Arch & Point” as genuine crossover possibilities (it’s the sexiest thing I’ve seen all year). Here’s to him — us — accepting the wisdom of the truest lines he’s ever written: “Nobody’s perfect/We are alive.”

Happy Saturday

“For Once Then Something”:

Others taunt me with having knelt at well-curbs
Always wrong to the light, so never seeing
Deeper down in the well than where the water
Gives me back in a shining surface picture
Me myself in the summer heaven godlike
Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs.
Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb,
I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,
Through the picture, a something white, uncertain,
Something more of the depths—and then I lost it.
Water came to rebuke the too clear water.
One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple
Shook whatever it was lay there at bottom,
Blurred it, blotted it out. What was that whiteness?
Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.

“Water came to rebuke the too clear water.” Robert Frost, you keep killing me.

Singles 4/27

A banner week: the year’s first nine heralds two other singles I’ve played since acquiring them last week, including a Miguel single as sinister-sexy as anything Usher’s recorded. I’d award “Springsteen” an 8 now; the inflation was for the sake of sneaking the song into our yearly top ten. Blame guilt too: I ignored Chief last summer; its Stones riffs, Church’s expert drawling, and Sunday morning redresses would enliven recent Drive-By Truckers, Blake Shelton, and Jason Aldean albums respectively.

Eric Church – Springsteen (9)
Miguel – Arch & Point (7)
Kendrick Lamar ft. Dr. Dre – The Recipe (7)
tUnE-YarDs – My Country (7)
Carly Rae Jepsen – Curiosity (6)
Shaka Ponk – My Name is Stain (6)
Alabama Shakes – Hold On (5)
Bella Thorne – TTYLXOX (5)
Fiona Sit – 9:55 pm (6)
Of Monsters and Men – Little Talks (5)
Namie Amuro – Go Round (5)
Mystery Jets – Someone Purer (5)
Linkin Park – Burn it Down (4)
Kerli – Zero Gravity (4)
The Mars Volta – The Malkin Jewel (2)

Density…

A public service:

Sarcasm is a form of communication that relies for its effectiveness on contextual cues, a sort of “knowing wink” between the sender and receiver(s). Nowhere in Delgado’s article is there any indication that he is intending these remarks sarcastically, nor that he or Barton have any sense of the article’s possible audience, which is ostensibly well beyond those unfortunate few who find remarks conflating Jennifer Hudson’s weight and the tragic death of her family members entertaining or enlightening in a “sarcastic” way.

DJ Quik: “Right now I’m a beast!”

I’m a recent DJ Quik convert — I didn’t own one of the records under his own name until four years ago. Then the twin knockouts Blacqout and The Book of David sent me scurrying backwards. I didn’t hear another record as confident as The Book of David last year, for which I duly rewarded it — it was my number one. I acquired Rhythm-al-lism six weeks ago! But I haven’t stopped playing it, especially “Thinkin’ Bout U” and the El Debarge collaboration “El’s Interlude.”

Besides being a prodigious example of resourceful interviewing, David Drake coaxes the producer into making memorable asides, some of which are memorable only because he uses “bitches” too casually for my taste. But the memories about writing and recording “El’s Interlude” are my favorites:

The name Rhythmalism alone tells you what I was doing. I was mixing up rhythms. I was meshing R&B with hip-hop and jazz. And a little bit of comedy. I love the intro on Rhythmalism. The Rhythmalism intro is funny as shit. I’m trying to do rock and roll-grunge-metal and end up dying at the end of the song, hyperventilating, passing out.

“El Debarge, that record was really about him. I was going for Q4, I was going to do ‘Safe & Sound 2,’ after ‘Safe & Sound.’ But when I met him—I met him at the House of Blues. He was everything that I thought he was, just seeing him on TV and listening to him on the radio.

“He showed me what I was doing wrong. He would stop me like, ‘Naw, man you’re fucking up.’ I needed that. He taught me how to be a better producer. How to be more multi-faceted. Taught me arrangement and shit. Right now I’m a beast!

“Even though our music is passe. Right now, if this was still the gangster rap era, I could produce a record that’s so fucking awesome it’ll rival all the big hip-hop records. And it’s just because of some of the techniques that El Debarge taught me.

Head above water: Hall & Oates in the eighties

A friend asked about a post I wrote almost seven years ago about Hall & Oates’ peak period for my first blog home. I preserved as much as I could. The Big Bam Boom entry didn’t reflect the CD rerelease though, as the additional comments reflect.

Voices – 1980

It kicks off with “How Does It Feel To Be Back,” the last John Oates composition released as the first single, and no wonder: it crawled, like every post-“Rich Girl” single, to a top thirty peak. No reflection on its quality though. As the first example of their debt to New Wave, G.E. Smith’s twelve-string guides the duo through the kind of sustained sneer mastered by Elvis Costello. “Big Kids” is even better: Peter Gabriel’s “Games Without Frontiers” told straight, without the parable nonsense. The only peak-era album whose album tracks outdo the singles — this is the one with “Kiss On My List” and “You Make My Dreams” — Voices showed H&O at their magpie best. The self-production is the trick: the songs vibrated instead of sounding as if smothered by pillows. I’m surprised Spoon hasn’t tried the doo-woop meets Joe Jackson wonder “Gotta Lotta Nerve (Perfect Perfect).” Guess they’re waiting for fun to flop with it first. Grade: B+

Private Eyes (1981)

Having found their, er, voices, H&O set about creating three-minute pop songs with a touch of soul and more than a little hysteria. Form redeemed content. The handclaps and multitracked vocal of “Private Eyes” helps you forget that Daryl Hall is an uncommonly jittery frontman. The three or four overlapping synth lines (played by Hall, an underrated keyboardist) on “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” are worthy of Dare-era Human League. Although “Did It In A Minute” wouldn’t be out of place as the theme song to an early ’80s sitcom, “Head Above Water” and “Looking for a Good Sign” are too frantic to have fit in anywhere. The sleeper is “Your Imagination,” whose woozy organ hook and sneering John Oates harmonies deserve sampling by Basement Jaxx. Grade: A-

H20 (1982)

Despite his enthusiasm and considerable finesse, Daryl Hall is not a convincing soul man. Insistent without the charm, he’s an A student who wants the class to read his history essay. And he’s a truly confused songwriter. Where, say, Bryan Ferry went so far into narcissism that he emerged reborn as the Love God he always aspired to be, Hall just sounds like a creep. “One on One” is H&O’s best smoochfest, but Hall erodes his outreach by insisting he wants to sex her up. But the band — saxophonist Charlie DeChant, bassist T-Bone Wolk, and drummer Mickey Curry — is up to every trick. The sudden tempo changes and sonic crunches in “Family Man,” the synth pads over which Hall yells paranoid cry after paranoid cry at an unfaithful woman — they adduce a sociopathic mind. This is, I suspect, the root of Robert Christgau’s distrust. Elsewhere, H20 finds H&O at their peak. The guitar-pop throwaways at the end of the record (“Delayed Reaction,” “Guessing Games”) wouldn’t be out of place on a Marshall Crenshaw album. “Maneater” definitively proves that any song which appropriates the bassline to The Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love” is a guaranteed classic. John Oates comes up with the album’s best hook, impressing the Italian girls in the song of the same name with his knowledge of vino rosso. Grade: A-

Big Bam Boom (1984)

Title and cover art say it all. H&O hire dArthur Baker to remix several cuts to give their most “eighties” album an electronic rhythmic foundation (opener “Dance On Your Knees” is a ringer for New Order’s “Confusion”). The big hits were “Out of Touch” (also their worst video, in a career full of appalling ones) and “Method of Modern Love,” whose title gives away the game: Daryl, who can’t resist lecturing his conquests, explains How It’s Supposed To Work even while his delicious falsetto distracts us from the fact that his hand is unbuttoning your shirt. There’s not much else here except for the unexpected tact of the ballad “Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid” and John Oates’ ominous “Cold Dark & Yesterday”. H&O’s crack touring band, responsible for the crisp arrangements on the preceding three albums, has a noticeably diminished profile. Baker’s echo-heavy, Synclavier-happy production has the effect of accentuating Hall’s increasing smugness (she’s an “All American Girl” because she wants it all — and guess what “all” rhymes with?). Get the early 2000s CD release, however, and the album transforms: revelatory extended remixes of the singles plus the full seven-minute version of “Dance On Your Knees” prove how conversant H&O were about technology. Big Bam Boom would prove a most effective sendoff; Hall would go on to a big-haired solo career (peaking with the swirling David Stewart-produced hit “Dreamtime, a better “Don’t Come Around Here No More” than Tom Petty’s), while Oates went on to race cars, cowrite Icehouse’s 1988 Top 10 “Electric Blue” (how’d that happen?), and become an undeserved laughing stock. I still haven’t heard 1988’s ooh yeah! and won’t because I’m not a fan of ungrammatical titles designed to be cool. Grade: B

Oh?

Really?

On eight of 13 questions about politics, Republicans outscored Democrats by an average of 18 percentage points, according to a new Pew survey titled “Partisan Differences in Knowledge.”

The Pew survey adds to a wave of surveys and studies showing that GOP-sympathizers are better informed, more intellectually consistent, more open-minded, more empathetic and more receptive to criticism than their fellow Americans who support the Democratic Party.

“Republicans fare substantially better than Democrats on several questions in the survey, as is typically the case in surveys about political knowledge,” said the study, which noted that Democrats outscored Republicans on five questions by an average of 4.6 percent.

The widest partisan gap in the survey came in at 30 points when only 46 percent of Democrats — but 76 percent of Republicans —- correctly described the GOP as “the party generally more supportive of reducing the size of federal government [italics mine].”

“Correctly”? The party of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush generally supports reducing the size of the federal government? I’m sorry: I fell asleep and forgot when Reagan reduced the deficit and eliminated the Department of Education; and when Bush stopped keeping the Iraq war off the books and said no to No Child Left Behind and tax cuts.

Class dismissed: Monsieur Lazhar

Many school districts share draconian rules about curriculum and conduct with their Canadian cousins. No “personal contact” between students and teachers. “Grief counseling” that addresses the need for succor without confronting the source. Assigning novels for dictation that “aren’t on the list.” No favorites. I place these phrases in quotation marks to tag them as jargon, meaningless stripped of context yet part of language all the same. The mystery at the heart of the Oscar-nominated Monsieur Lazhar is as tantalizing and resistant to notions of “closure” as the key plot point: what happened between Simon (Émilien Néron) and Martine, the teacher whose suicide by hanging leaves the school suspended in an awkward state of quasi mourning?

Into this so-called zone of indeterminacy comes Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Said Fellag), an Algerian seeking political exile after terrorists blew up the apartment building housing his wife and child. His classroom manner defies taxonomy. Although he shows no fear when reading from a Balzac novel with which the students are unfamiliar, he doesn’t flinch from the warmth offered by Alice (Sophie Nélisse), a sharp-eyed blonde who shows the most promise as a writer. A confrontation between Lazhar and a well-intentioned but obtuse child psychologist — assigned to the case because that’s what school districts do — drew knowing titters from the audience. I couldn’t catch how many of them recognized themselves in a scene where the parents of a pedantic child imperiously reject Lazhar’s advice on how to approach their child — advice offered with all the solicitude and mildness a good teacher can offer.

Resisting Mr. Chip-isms, writer-director Philippe Faradeau puts a lot of trust in lacuna. There’s more material in his script than what he films. A flirtation between Lazhar and a colleague begins and ends with a sputter of red wine. His own erudition is unexplained. To demand of a director to make a good film a better one by developing the material is rare enough. In its current form Monsieur Lazhar offers quiet pleasures, earning the wisdom proffered by the teacher’s counsel as an envoi to coworkers: “Don’t try to find a meaning in Martine’s death; there isn’t one. A classroom is a place of friendship, of work, of courtesy, a place of life.”

California dreaming: Mildred Pierce

I didn’t read James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce until last June — a mistake. The novel is marvelous: occasionally coarse and explicit but cognizant of the way in which sexual politics dictate class politics in early thirties California. The scene in which Mildred explains why she will vote for FDR in ’32 (he’s going to balance the budget! Unlike that spendthrift Hoover!) is as true as anything in Murray Kempton’s Part of Our Time or Edmund Wilson’s The American Earthquake. I also learned good recipes for fried chicken and waffles and the complexities of buying restaurant appliances, reminiscent of Dreiser’s descriptions of seamstress labor in Sister Carrie or the skullduggery in the publishing world in Balzac.

Todd Haynes’ five-hour miniseries gets the milieu right without being pedantic. For example, when Mildred (Kate Winslet) visits her lover Monty (Guy Pearce) at the polo club the bejeweled patricians drinking illegal liquor titter quietly during FDR’s inauguration speech. I hope its merits don’t eclipse Michael Curtiz’s 1945 adaptation though, which has an advantage over Haynes’: Joan Crawford as Mildred. The audience doesn’t need to know the actress’ biography to see how well Mildred’s streetwise cunning, poor education, and obsession with privilege dovetailed with Crawford’s limitations as an actress; she got the mooncalf passivity right. To be fair to Crawford, the DVD release of little-seen forties classics like Daisy Kenyon proved she had imagination when the role suited her. By contrast Winslet, though a physical match for Cain’s Mildred, is too quick an actress to put up with the pretensions of Veda (the remarkable Evan Rachel Wood, whose starchy blondness bears a creepy resemblance to Diana Scarwid’s in — of course — Mommie Dearest). It isn’t just that Winslet carries associations of her defiant Rose in Titanic; she’s just too damn smart to put up with anyone’s shit.

Bangs flopping, skin damp as if he bathed in gin and tonics, Guy Pearce is every inch the dissipated gigolo. While it’s clear Haynes views sex as the only way to bridge the class divide between Monty and Mildred, he indulges the actors: too much sighing and pawing, too many shots of wet butts (speaking of indulgence: a swollen James LeGros as amiable ne’er-do-well Wally is a far cry from his svelte My New Gun days). The fetish for surfaces leads to visual decadence: Haynes shoots Mildred through windowpanes and before mirrors. For all the formal daring he’s demonstrated in Poison and I’m Not There, Haynes’ strengths run closer to unreconstructed Curtiz-indebted narrative than he thinks. But he needs constrictions. Ask Steven Soderbergh, who transformed the heroine of Erin Brockovich into a Strong Woman in the Cain tradition and used the dusty light of a California suburb encroached by desert to isolate her authority. It is perhaps a reminder of his queer sensibility that Haynes reserves narrative storytelling for his movies about women (Safe, Far From Heaven) and pretzel logic for the dudes (Poison, Velvet Goldmine, I’m Not There), with the early Superstar the hybrid. With its insights into the relation of working female arriviste in a consumer culture shaped by men, Mildred Pierce is the Sirk film without quotation marks he didn’t shoot in 2002.

Singles 4/20

Is Blake Shelton a man? Despite “Who Are You When I’m Not Looking,” his performances and appearances are tentative; he’s like a tourist from Duluth standing in front of the Eiffel Tower for the first time (maybe that’s why Miranda Lambert accepted the marriage proposal). Every song I believe less and less, which is why Luke Bryan ably plays the Stolid Love Man role this time. Speaking of love, Kanye sure sinks below the level of the company when the guests indulge their vinegary wit.

Niki & the Dove – Tomorrow (7)
Luke Bryan – Drunk on You (7)
Flux Pavilion ft. Example – Daydreamer (7)
Young Moe – Take a Breath (6)
Kanye West ft. Big Sean, Pusha T, 2 Chainz – Mercy (6)
Demi Lovato – Give Your Heart A Break (6)
Blake Shelton – Drink on It (6)
Kanye West ft. DJ Khaled – Theraflu (5)
Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney – Feel Like a Rock Star (4)
Amelle Berrabah ft. DBX – God Won’t Save You Now (4)
Tenacious D – Rize of the Fenix (4)
Jennifer Lopez ft. Pitbull – Dance Again (3)
Don Omar ft. Natti Natasha – Dutty Love (2)
Scissor Sisters – Only the Horses (2)