Monthly Archives: January 2013

High Rise

Loving “Young Turks” isn’t revisionist in 2013. For the generation which knew Rod Stewart as the spandex-clad raspy wonder with the grasshopper legs prancing through video after video, it’s considered as indelible as “Maggie May.” I’d rescue quite a few of eighties Rod singles: “Tonight I’m Yours”; the Jeff Beck collaboration “People Get Ready” in which he gamely fails to outsing the gale force guitar noise; the oh-god-I-wish-I-was-still-a-folkie-tonight “Oh God I Wish I Was Home Tonight”; the Out of Order‘s “Crazy About You” and “Lost In You” (A-minus sleaze but the latter cowritten, of course, with Duran Duran’s Andy Taylor). I even treasure “This Old Heart of Mine” — better Christmas music than the competition.

“Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” still needs modest defenses. Eerily mimicking the feel of the Stones’ “Miss You,” Stewart’s band plays every extant disco signifier: four on the floor drums, locked-down bass, guitar fills too groove-conscious to do anything besides stay out of the way, sax solo. The key, though, is the amazing synth line, lumbering across the track, suggesting a scenario much colder and sleek than the one written by Stewart (noting the synth is one of my earliest memories). This is the second curious thing about “Sexy”: it’s a singer-songwriter narrative bedecked in polyester, which, thanks to the synth and rhythm section, intensifies the comedy. It boasts a handful of sharp lines too, with “She sits alone waiting for suggestions” and “Give me a dime so I can phone my mother” funnier than whatever singles bar denizen Bryan Ferry was yodeling that year. No wonder so many critics thought Stewart a joke: he’s so committed to the situation that they couldn’t help but see him as the loser in the high rise apartment. I wish the rest of the track measured up to the synth, or Rod wasn’t faffing around in a boa as if killing time for the limo to take him to Studio 54.

Rural life done right: The Southerner

What a disappointment to learn that, no, I hadn’t rented a new version of The Southerner but merely a transfer as crapulous as what I watched on VHS in 1997. Considered Jean Renoir’s best American film by the fortunate who’ve seen the others, The Southerner follows the Tucker family as they start a farm with nothing than a couple mules and scraggly crops. A warm and unaffected Zachary Scott plays patriarch Sam, so determined to succeed that we watch (and, on the soundtrack, listen) to his boy cry to himself to death thanks to a case of pellagra because Sam won’t accept a $7 a day factory job to pay for the required milk and vegetables. Renoir is alert to these unpleasantries. Plagues too common to be Biblical afflict the Tuckers: a grotty neighbor reluctant to share his well; the fallow soil; a flood that wipes out their cotton and vegetables.

Renoir and cameraman Lucien Andriot show a remarkable empathy for the cruelties of rural life, as well as an eye for spontaneous poetry like a chicken perched on floating furniture after the deluge. With the exception of Betty Field as Nona Tucker, bedecked like a finishing school ingenue, the cast looks like they really leaned into their plows (Beulah Bondi as nasty Granny is a bit much too). Film lovers for whom La Bête Humaine, The Rules of the Game, and Diary of a Chambermaid represent an unsurpassed hybrid of improvisation and affectation will find much to savor in a wedding party, where Renoir catches an aborted love roundelay (Sam and the daughter of that grotty neighbor) or just lets his camera watch as the cast dances to jug music. Although Renoir gets full script credit, William Faulkner appears as a consultant, and it’s impossible to imagine he didn’t rural-lize the dialogue and scenario. Astonishingly, Renoir received a Best Director nomination from the Motion Picture Academy — his only one.

Abolish the Senate

Alex Pareene on the DC Court of Appeal’s decision finding recess appointments unconstitutional:

But, you know, in another, more important sense, who gives a shit what the Founders intended with their vaguely written delineation of the separation of powers, because half the point of their system was to create an undemocratic government unresponsive to the will of the people, which is why they invented the Senate. If you take this court’s side, that the Constitution doesn’t give the president the power to hire the people he wants to run the regulatory state, then the Constitution is broken, and the last century of apparently invalid recess appointments were an example of the sort of constitutional end-arounds that are the only thing keeping this nation manageable at all. The Constitution was written for a tiny, agrarian pre-industrial slave state. The only good bits, for real, are the amendments, and the amendment process no longer functions as a means of fixing the document because we have 50 states instead of 13. (And even the Bill of Rights, the one cool thing in our Constitution, has the weirdo Second Amendment, which made some sort of sense at the time but which was written in a fashion that ensures that we’re the only advanced nation incapable of passing a handgun ban.) The French Constitution of 1793 is way better, and even the Canadians got a better one than us in the 1980s.

In lieu of a new Constitutional Convention (which would probably just conclude with a Constitution written entirely by finance, energy and agriculture industry lobbyists), the solution is still, now and forever, to abolish the Senate. It’s awful. I realize that the Constitution says there is supposed to be a Senate, but if we could manage to get direct election of senators, we could surely manage to strip the Senate of most of its authority.

I must remind myself: should my students need an example of the importance of accurate grammar, look to the slovenly way in which — even by the standards of the eighteenth century — the Framers wrote the Second Amendment.

As for using filibusters for judicial nominees:

Admittedly, the filibuster, as a last-ditch option to be used only in extreme cases, makes a great deal more sense with judicial nominations — which are, after all, effectively for life — than for political appointments or even legislation, which can be vetoed or repealed fairly easily. A judge can serve for a half-century after his initial confirmation, and should therefore be held to a higher standard. (The judges who decided the recess appointment decision were of course appointed by Republican presidents, and the one Reagan put on the court is a lifelong movement conservative. As has been the case since Reagan, Republicans appoint revolutionary conservatives and Democrats appoint mainstream liberals. Or they appoint no one at all, like Obama.) But that power goes both ways, and it’s worth asking if the ability to block particularly vile judicial nominations is worth the price of all reasonable judicial nominations being blocked forever for no reason. I say no, but I also say “abolish the Senate,” and it’s clear that no one is listening to me.

Jeffrey Toobin with more context on the DC court’s decision.

Weightless in your eyes: Dawn Richard

Ambition she’s got, and her talent will keep apace. Take the aptly named “’86,” the unstable nucleus of Dawn Richard’s Goldenheart. A three-note synth hook evoking So-era Peter Gabriel shimmers while Richard performs like a woman confronted in a hall of mirrors by her multitracked, distorted longings. A disembodied male voice tries and fails to distract her. Finger snaps and what might be a Linn drum add pinpricks of tension. When she sings “It’s ’86 all the time,” she also dips the madeleine into her tea. The persistence of memory is Goldenheart‘s thematic obsession. Memories of a love affair reduce Richard into an ignis fatuus of allusions and metaphors: Peter Gabriel again (“In Your Eyes”), Thermopylae, or the film version thereof (“300”). In “Northern Lights” she inverts notions of chivalry: she‘s the knight. Then she rematerializes in the present day. She doesn’t hide in the technology she celebrates in “Frequency” — it amplifies her desire.

This reads better than it plays — like a war narrative. Since it’s the singer’s job to define and own songs, Richard’s incorporeality also coincides with her weaknesses as a presence. The so-called “interludes” drift. A track called “Tug of War” kills the second half’s momentum (“’86” and “In Your Eyes” enliven things). Sometime there are fits of interpolation so novel — the hip-hop breakdown in “Northern Lights” — that I longed for, shall we say, synergy between them and Richard. The conventional tracks better exploit Richard’s ethereal qualities: “Riot,” her attempt to score a Rihanna-type jam complete with dreaded sawtooth synths and stuttered “eh’s,” marches onto the club dance floor spears up and mail glittering. The title track “outro” plays with the “Clair de Lune” melody, and the tension between the classical piano melody and Richard’s pitch-bent vocal is a gorgeous correlative for Richard’s time-past/time-future games.

Flirting with vaporousness in a way that confounds expectations, Goldenheart is an album to return to periodically and in excerpts (the ten-song EP Armor On, which barely missed my top ten last year, boasted similar virtues but wasn’t this wearying). Like the will o’ the wisp I mentioned above, Richard will tease all year.

Lady Antebellum – “Downtown”


Inspiration and lightness of being all but dissipated since the deserved smash “Need You Now,” the boys and girl return with a slinky, sly number about city kids who work among “storefront mannequins sleepin’ in lights” but sneak into clubs cuz they know the band and — guess what — grow up to be Grammy winners. Thanks to unexpected fills, aggressive guitar picking, and those dusky male harmonies, it’s best in years. Whether by Petula Clark or Lloyd Cole, no song named “Downtown” has ever failed. Miranda Lambert apparently had first dibs, but for Lady A the marriage of material and persona deserved a triumphant ending.

Jean-Louis Trintignant: “His lack of apparent definition”

I missed this Terrence Rafferty appreciation of Jean-Louis Trintignant — “a hard actor to get a fix on, though, because he never really had a type, and he didn’t take especially flamboyant, awards-ready roles, either — published in December:

Mr. Trintignant appears to have realized early on that he was, in the usual terms of movie stardom, only an average specimen of homo cinematicus: of modest height, medium good looking, possessed of a pleasant, expressive, but not terribly memorable voice. And he wasn’t distinctive enough to settle into a particular character type, either: not a working-class hero like Jean Gabin, or an aristocrat like Pierre Fresnay, or a wise guy like Jean-Paul Belmondo, or an existentialist heartthrob like his “Z” co-star Yves Montand.

. He overstates the actor’s ordinariness though; the will and intelligence always shone.

What he chose to do was amazing. He emphasized his averageness, turned his lack of apparent definition into a weird kind of strength. In movie after movie he presents himself as a man so unremarkable that you have to wonder if anything at all is going on underneath that opaque surface. And then slowly, painstakingly, he unwraps the package and shows you what’s inside. He always seems cautious and watchful, waiting for the moment when he can (or must) reveal himself.

The Trintignant moment I treasure most: offering Irène Jacob pear brandy in Red.