Singles 11/30

I must cool my lust for tracks like “Benediction.” Minor chord keyboard riffing, high end synth notes, subliminal electrobass – seriously.

Hot Natured ft. Ali Love – Benediction (7)
Whitehorse – Devil’s Got a Gun (6)
Das Racist – Girl (5)
Lee Hi – 1, 2, 3, 4 (5)
Netsky ft. Billie – We Can Only Live Today (Puppy) (4)
Epik High ft. Park Bom – Up (4)
Mike Delinquent Project ft. Lady Leshurr – Step in the Dance (3)
Amanda Palmer & the Grand Theft Orchestra – Do It With a Rockstar (3)
Trace Adkins – Tough People Do (2)
McFly – Love is Easy (2)
Bullet for My Valentine – Temper Temper (2)
will.i.am ft. Britney Spears – Scream & Shout (1)

Hate is on trial

Reading Ian Cohen’s oral history of the recording of Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights and the rise of the early 2000’s New York City scene was like stepping out of an plane and breathing the air of a foreign country. Cohen writes terrific travel journalism — he evokes the restlessness of Brooklyn parvenus waiting for Something To Happen so well that I wanted more. The scene fueled a lot of my partying, and “Obstacle 1” sounded splendid on the dance floor between Fischerspooner’s cover of Wire’s “The 15th” and The Hives” “Hate to Say I Told You So,” or between Ladytron’s “Playgirl” and The Strokes’ “Someday,” but otherwise Interpol were a pickup you had no intentions of taking home to Mom and Dad despite a terrific time. The tectonics shifted under my feet the night I reviewed their October 2003 show at the Ice Palace for The Miami Herald (behind the paper’s firewall, alas). What sounded callow, boorish, and stupid was obviously galvanic to the somebodies dancing in place around me who closed their eyes and mouthed ever Paul Banks lyric. To me the fouresome were hustlers whose jive and bass lines reminded fans of the music they were going to download tomorrow. Look, Peter Murphy introduced me to a lot of British music, in particular an artist named David Bowie, but I don’t regard Deep as a touchstone, and a touchstone becomes a millstone around the wrong sort of neck. And Turn on the Bright Lights is now a classic.

On principle musicians who come on like rent boys using anomie as a trick are okay with this Duran Duran fan — as long as what Robert Christgau, with hauteur as chiseled as Carlos Dengler’s sideburns, dismissed as “brightly tuneful meaninglessness” remains tuneful and bright; I count at least four nullities on TOTBL. Plus, behind the dismal pitch Simon Le Bon was just another dork in lizard pants with a purploid romantic streak; Banks couldn’t write a lyric like “It could be the atmosphere sinking/I don’t know what you’re drinking/But it keeps this heaven alive” if Herb Ritts offered his camera free of charge. Or sing them. Le Bon tries. Banks by contrast is a Numanoid in search of a context. To Interpol’s credit, they wrote a few bangers: the aforementioned “Obstacle 1,” the magnificently batshit “Evil,” whose stop-start dynamics, rhythm guitar strums, and utter concentration on Joy Division catch each Bankism as it falls from his dry lips. “Hate is on trial.” “Write, we’ll take you place, yeah maybe to the beach.” My favorite? “Make revision to a dream while you wait in the van,” a phenomenon with which I was acquainted in 2004 when the bar ran out of tonic to chase my gin. But Our Love to Admire sounded like ‘N Sync recording 154, and, tonal and stylistic incongruities aside, writing about it was great fun (I still get an angry email every seven or eight months).

Give them this: Interpol modeled themselves as an installation project for post-Enron new money, at which they succeeded.

Nobody is watching: Day Night Day Night

I missed Day Night Day Night in 2007, so after watching The Loneliest Planet a few days ago I gave it a shot. Using a a handheld camera, writer-director Julia Loktev forces the audience to ask why a foursome of thirtysomethings want to set a bomb off in Times Square and why the unidentified young woman (Luisa Williams) with a hooded, wounded expression joins them. Soon after her meticulous toilet, the would-be terrorists arrive. The commander drills her on age, height, birthplace. On and on it goes for minutes, and the ingenuity of the scene is how this rigor is in a sense redundant: she’s nothing to the audience, therefore she can be anyone. Elision as rhetorical method is often effective; elision as aesthetics can be a problem. No doubt suspicious of “motivation,” Loktev presents characters in a sociopolitical void. This isn’t Mojique from Talking Heads’ burbling, unfathomably mysterious “Listening Wind” or the Professor from Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. A tidier, Independent Spirit-type film emerges, indifferent to being conversant with history.

But when the young woman, expression never glassier, she emerges from the station into the rush hour bustle of a major intersection a few minutes from Times Square, Day Night Day Night becomes more involving. Loktev follows her with over-the-shoulder camera. The woman orders pretzels with mustard from a street vender. She refuses to take a photo of an Asian couple. Her adamantine sullenness cracks when she can’t get the trigger in her backpack explosive malfunctions. She pees. Loktev includes an amusing sign-of-the-times detail: the incredulity of pedestrians when she asks for a quarter to call her superiors (“For the phone?” an earnest white professional wonders). As the light changes and dusk descends, the woman’s desperation becomes clearer. The rigidity of Koktev’s method starts to work — she won’t let the amateur off the hook.

More grand bargains and fiscal cliffs

I suppose this is encouraging:

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), who has almost become the liaison to the left for cuts to federal health care programs in the grand bargain, gave a speech today at the Center for American Progress that included a couple important points:

• Durbin sequenced the provisions of the deal, saying that Republicans would have to build the framework on taxes, which includes an increase in the top marginal rates, before any Democrat will even begin to talk about social insurance programs. This seems like a hardline stance, but it just mirrors the dominant conversation, which has focused on taxes to the exclusion of practically everything else.

• Though Durbin has sought to bring rank-and-file Democrats along on a grand bargain that would include cuts to those social insurance programs, he set out some red lines. In addition to rejecting the privatization of Medicare or Social Security and the block granting of Medicaid – a common tactic to reject the extreme view to provide space for more modest but still damaging cuts – Durbin took Social Security almost entirely off the table. This matches White House Press Secretary Jay Carney’s statements yesterday. It does appear that’s been filed away for the time being.

On the other hand:

In addition, Durbin said, regarding spending cuts on anti-poverty social programs, “Let me be clear: Those cuts will not happen.” And he sought to line up with the Administration’s viewpoint that any changes to Medicare and Medicaid can happen without cuts to benefits, through payment reforms or provider cuts. This would “strengthen” those programs through the reform, he said. He also wanted to exempt infrastructure spending fully from any cuts.

“Changes” to Medicare and Medicaid that would “strengthen” them? I’m sorry if “grand bargain” insults the intelligence as much as “fiscal cliff.”

Three is the loneliest number: The Loneliest Planet

Alex and Nica have an enviable relationship: they’re engaged, and Hani Furstenberg looks like a young Jessica Chastain and Alex is played by Gael Garcia Bernal. In The Loneliest Planet they backpack through the former Soviet republic of Georgia, pausing for skewered chicken, some dancing, and to pick up a guide (Bidzina Gujabidze). Although the trio to burst from sexual tension, writer-director Julia Loktev concentrates instead on the couple, whose happiness is ruptured after a dangerous confrontation with a whiskered native bearing an assault rifle provokes Alex into a brief but shattering moment of cowardice.

This takes place in the first sixty minutes, and therein is the problem with this worthwhile but frustrating movie. Shooting the trio in extreme long shots against the Verdant Majesty of the Georgian hills, Loktey wants the interaction between landscape and psychology to provoke the same frisson it would in a Tsai Ming-Liang or Antonioni film, but the actors don’t give performances so much as semaphores of ecstasy and, later, rue. They’re cute, in good health, and like to travel; Loktev transforms then into avatars of modern youth (not a smart phone in sight though). After the second scene of campfire drunkenness and the third trek across damp sand, the movie sputters. Until the guide shares his account of sexual frustration, nothing feels at stake; even after the encounter with the armed, anonymous native the couple stumble through a geography as devoid of history and violence as the lunar surface. Which, I suppose, leave space for Alex and Nica to play with each other’s toes and share a poncho in the rain.

“An exercise in which actors can blow off steam”

The Democrats were supposed to lose the Senate and David Denby is always wrong, so imagine my shock when I read his dismissal of Silver Linings Playbook (locked behind The New Yorker‘s formidable paywall) and thought it a pithier reaction than mine, particularly in his judgment of how Bradley Cooper’s character and performance are compromised at the conceptual level: “What’s supposed to be clinically wrong with him as a man is inseparable from what is merely infantile in him as a character.”

It’s not your fault…it’s not your fault: Silver Linings Playbook

From the title to Bradley Cooper ordering raisin bran in a diner, Silver Linings Playbook is as inexplicable as a credit default swap. Although it’s based on a novel, what writer-director David O. Russell puts on screen comes from any number of Robin Williams pictures in which free spirits need someone to love. Sprung from a mental institution in Baltimore if he promises to attend therapy and take his meds, Pat (Cooper) returns to his Philadelphia home, dominated by a father (Robert De Niro) with a neurotic and creepy attachment to the Eagles. Pat’s teacher ex-wife may have have the perspicacity to put a restraining order on him but apparently still receives his letters without saying piss off. Obsessed with reconciling, Pat decides to read all the books on her syllabus, one of which, A Farewell to Arms, is thrown in disgust through a closed attic window after he recoils from the ending. Through ways I’m still trying to understand, a widow and fellow nutjob named Tiffany coaxes him into dancing lessons so that they can enter a contest. One of their first meet-cutes is set to Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash’s “Girl From the North Country” but before you can say “Hungry Eyes” Pat and Tiffany are sizing each other up on the dance floor.

Everything that goes wrong with SLP occurs in the first ten minutes: Cooper, De Niro, and Jacki Weaver as the mom (long suffering, of course) shout expository dialogue at each other, Cooper tosses the Hemingway novel out the window (he should have chosen For Whom The Bell Tolls), and Cooper awakens his parents at 4 a.m. to rail against the book. It’s like a sitcom with muffed laugh lines. De Niro’s getting credit for not mugging his way through a performance, but bearing the weight of playing a concerned father and an Eagles fanatic mad enough to risk his and Weaver’s retirement on a bet defeats him. Russell’s approach to mental illness is repulsive anyway: Cooper may be bipolar enough to have almost killed the tenured professor (that’s supposed to be a laugh line) who fucked his wife in the shower (I’m dying!), but what he projects is adolescent hysteria; he’s as convincing as Dan Marino in a kimono. No illness, physical or mental, can pierce those impenetrable and frightening blue eyes of his. I don’t think Cooper has sneezed once in his life. Cooper talks, De Niro talks — all they do is talk, and it isn’t even psychobabble, it’s declarative sentences bullied into sounding imperative by affixing exclamation points to them (this from the creator of Flirting with Disaster and I ::heart:: Huckabees?) Poor Lawrence has it worse. She’s not playing a person — she’s playing a Lovable Kook in the Geena Davis-Mira Sorvino vein. Jogging after Cooper, picking an inexplicable fight in a diner, boasting that she’s slept with everyone at the office (“Women too?” Cooper of course asks), shouting more often than necessary that she hates football yet during a crucial scene impressing De Niro with shop talk, Lawrence is treated with contempt by a director who orders her to jump through too many hoops.

But Silver Linings Playbook isn’t content to treat mental illness as an irresistible impulse by love-mad saps: it also has the cheek to wipe Pat’s bipolar condition from the last hour of the movie. The grisly ending is a David Lynch tableau shot straight: the six protagonists enjoying domestic bliss in the old homestead (the decoration of which, in hideous shag rugs and fake wood cabinets, is the movie’s most true-to-life element), storm clouds gone. Take your Flintstones vitamins, Pat, and your cold will disappear. Not SLP’s Oscar chances apparently.

Singles 11/23

As we approach the time of year when retrospection involves considered study of grades and waist lines, how fitting that this week’s best track looks backwards but doesn’t lose its footing.

Tensnake ft. Syron – Mainline (7)
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros – That’s What’s Up (6)
Foals – Inhaler (6)
Corb Lund – Gettin’ Down On The Mountain (5)
The Band Perry – Better Dig Two (4)
Gary Allan – Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain) (4)
AKB48 – Uza (3)
50 Cent – Money (1)

Who do they think they are?

Robert Christgau’s rediscovery of Saint Etienne was one of the year’s best surprises, thanks to the smashing Words and Music by Saint Etienne, one of the year’s best. A search for trinkets as gorgeous as “Heart Failed (In the Back of a Taxi),” “Who Do You Think You Are,” and even the comparatively gaudy Paul Van Dyck collaboration “Tell Me Why (The Riddle)” led me to a stack of uneven albums.

But I found twenty songs worth relistening to for the sake of an ILM poll:

1. Who Do You Think You Are
2. Mario’s Cafe
3. Only Love Can Break Your Heart
4. Heart Failed (At the Back of a Taxi)
5. Tell Me Why (The Riddle)
6. Lose That Girl
7. DJ
8. Pale Movie
9. He’s on the Phone
10. Conchita Martinez
11. When I Was Seventeen
12. You’re In a Bad Way
13. People Get Real
14. Tonight
15. Boy is Crying
16. Join Our Club
17. Mr. Donut
18. Burnt Out Car
19. Action
20. Finisterre

It’s November 2012

Barring sudden inclusions, this looks my top twenty.

Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream
Jessie Ware – Devotion
Dwight Yoakam – 3 Pears
Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
Jens Lekman – I Know What Love Isn’t
Kellie Pickler – 100 Proof
Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel
Angel Haze – Reservation
Rick Ross – Rich Forever
Saint Etienne – Words and Music
Dawn Richard – Armor On
Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.a.a.d. city
Jerrod Niemann – Free the Music
Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory
Leonard Cohen – Old Ways
Imperial Teen – Feel the Sound
The Men – Open Yr Heart
Usher – Looking 4 Myself
Todd Snider – Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables
Sinead O’Connor – How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?

How much will you get for your soul?

Ed Kilgore on the fissures in the so-called Obama Coalition. I hadn’t thought about how the depth of minority support for the president will buoy him for years and hence make it worse for a progressive candidate in 2016:

At a minimum, if Obama accepts as part of some “grand bargain” on fiscal issues actual benefit cuts in Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid, and/or major structural changes in how these programs operate, there will be a backlash among Democrats in and out of Congress that could be significantly fiercer than the one favoring a “public option” which for a while threatened the enactment of the Affordable Care Act of 2010. And now that the threat of a Republican president has subsided, we can also expect to hear much more vocal Democratic objections to Obama’s foreign policy, particularly its continuation of the “war on terror” and its heavy use of drone strikes in the Greater Middle East. Long-simmering progressive resentment of Obama administration positions on civil liberties, and on its support for relatively high defense spending, will also re-emerge for the same reason.

There is, however, a paradox at the center of any prospects for a revolt-from-the-left against Obama. Nothing mobilizes intra-party opposition quite like disgruntlement with a president, as LBJ, George H.W. Bush, and at some points Bill Clinton could have told you. But as I often observed in dismissing the prospects of any significant primary challenge to Obama in 2012 despite occasionally white-hot anger from liberal elites, it is almost impossible to launch a left-bent intraparty challenge to a Democratic Party leader who has a strong personal bond with minority voters (this was true to some extent even with Jimmy Carter back in 1980, and also had something to do with the failure of unhappy liberals to challenge Clinton in 1996, and neither man had remotely the kind of support among minority voters that Obama has enjoyed since he first announced for president).

However, to expect a revolt over drone warfare is some bullshit.