Monthly Archives: June 2014

Singles 6/27

The spelling change hasn’t affected Ameriie’s approach to record making. I’m less sanguine about “What I Want”‘s making it to the end of my year-end ballot though (its commercial prospects were nil, if her past is an indication); the “Apache” interpolation succumbs to the merely novel. Many of the other songs suffered from conception problems: Jessie Ware and Slow Club’s new singles are too midtempo for my tastes in June 2014, the Knife remixed themselves into the periphery, and on Platinum Little Big Town demonstrated they need Miranda Lambert’s orders.

This week’s winner was immune to my cavils. Although John Grant is no one’s idea of a house singer, he adapts to the Andy Butler ethos or else Andy Butler found the most kinetic context for Grant’s writerly musings. Hold the snickers. Neil Tennant needed Chris Lowe too.

Click on links for full reviews.

Hercules & Love Affair ft. John Grant – I Try to Talk to You (7)
Ameriie – What I Want (7)
Dierks Bentley – Bottoms Up (7)
Jessie Ware – Tough Love (6)
Charli XCX – Boom Clap (6)
Passepied – Tokyo City Underground (6)
Caribou – Can’t Do Without You (5)
The Knife – Without You My Life Would Be Boring (5)
Little Big Town – Day Drinking (5)
Tennis – Never Work for Free (5)
Jetta – Crescendo (4)
Slow Club – Suffering You, Suffering Me (4)
Psy ft. Snoop Dogg – Hangover (4)
Ella Henderson – Ghost (3)
Monarchy – Living Without You (3)

Willie Nelson, Isaiah Rashad

Willie Nelson – Band of Brothers

The by my count dozen albums he’s released since 2002’s The Great Divide — the last album I bought — probably have good material awaiting compilation, but he was always a prolific fellow. I paid attention to this one because it’s sold a few more copies beyond his cult (I don’t pay attention to chart positions, meaningless in an era when five figures getcha into the top forty, as Swans learned a few weeks ago). Band of Brothers sounds no different: his idiosyncratic way with a meter and guitar picking remained undimmed. Cowriting most of the songs for the first time since the nineties isn’t the difference either. The difference, then, is the quickness with which Nelson has discarded duets, crossover collaborations, and silly love songs that aren’t about his road crew and guitar — the only things he understands at eighty. “Free us from this minor key we’ve both been livin’ in,” he sings on “Guitar in the Corner, followed a few bars later by the kind of solo that means coitus in Nelsonworld. But on “Hard to Be an Outlaw” he turns to Billy Joe Shaver for the sentimentality and almost gets away with it. Credit the guitar in the corner.

Isaiah Rashad – Cilvia Demo

Fascinated enough by “Soliloquy” in February to download, I stuck this Black Hippy hire’s mixtape in the wrong folder and forgot about it. Then I clicked on “Heavenly Father” and finished the rest before lunch. Last year’s stunner “Shot You Down” appears at the end, proof of Rashad’s confidence. His trick of chopping off consonants so that he can savor the onomatopoetic possibilities of vowels he sometimes extends for whole songs; sometimes they are the songs (“Brad Jordan”). But for most of Cilvia Demo he pulls off the trick of being ruminative about his bad habits. On the title track he wonders whether his son will look at him the same way Rashad looked at his own deadbeat dad, the one whom, according to “Soliloquy,” Rashad left in ’97. Occasionally the beats sound as if they were programmed in ’97 too; there’s no “Man of the Year” on Cilvia Demo unless “Menthol” gets a doozy of a remix (it also sports the best simile: a gun “knock caps like it’s senior year”). But the Antydote’s post-Dilla spooks — low-mixed choruses and minor key organ ripples — on “Ronnie Drake” and particularly “Banana” work a night mood; Rashad’s yelling himself hoarse on the latter disturbs the equilibrium.

Forty-five best albums 2010-2013

The forty-four best albums I’ve listened to since January 2010. A few didn’t make my top twenties at the time; a few matter more now than then. It’s important for me to note that the places matter less than that I mentioned them in June 2014. Every entry I’ve listened to in the last twelve months. No 2014 albums yet because I’m difficult – with an exception.

Pistol Annies – Hell on Heels
Vampire Weekend – Contra
Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream
Rick Ross – Teflon Don
DJ Quik – The Book of David
Fantasia – Side Effects of You
Destroyer – Kaputt
Paramore – Paramore
Taylor Swift – Fearless
Ashley Monroe – Like a Rose
Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.a.a.d. city
Miranda Lambert – Platinum
The-Dream – Love King
Marsha Ambrosious – Late Nights and Early Mornings
The Men – New Moon
John Grant – Pale Green Ghosts
Against Me! – White Crosses
Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap
Katy B – On a Mission
Dwight Yoakam – 3 Pears
Beyonce – 4
Jessie Ware – Devotion
M.I.A. – MAYA
Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
The Mountain Goats – All Eternals Deck
Diddy Dirty Money – Last Train to Paris
Jens Lekman – I Know What Love Isn’t
Kellie Pickler – 100 Proof
Holy Ghost! – Holy Ghost
Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel
Angel Haze – Reservation
Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas
Robyn – Body Talk
Saint Etienne – Words and Music by Saint Etienne
tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l
Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory
Javiera Mena – Mena
Dawn Richard – Armor On
Shabazz Palaces – Black Up
Lady Gaga – Born This Way
PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
Four Tet – There is Love in You
Paul Simon – So Beautiful or So What

Why say why? Obvious Child

Like its heroine, Obvious Child dribbles on for fear of lingering on the unpleasant. The heroine is Donna Stern (Jenny Slant), a part-time comedian at Brooklyn’s Trash Bar. She has a habit, which the movie considers outré, of raiding her biography for material. The night she pokes fun at her and her boyfriend’s sex life is the same night he dumps her for a common friend who can’t stop texting while it’s happening. So begins a cycle of self-recrimination and drunkenness. Her puppeteer father (Richard Kind) offers platitudes; her mother (Polly Draper), a professor of business, offers sternness; Gaby Hoffmann as her roommate offers both. She has a night of rebound sex with a guy named Max, precipitated by dancing semi-clothed in his living room to Paul Simon’s title song because why not. As played by Jake Lacy, Max lives behind the beat; he’s not funny but is game to try, and he gets bolder the more time he spends with Donna. He says he’s from Vermont and if the boat shoes and perfect oxford button-downs and excellent bag are any indication a resident of J.Crew County. Trying on a dress for a temp job, Donna notices her breasts have swollen; a pregnancy test confirms the obvious.

At this point Obvious Child turns in the direction for which it’s gotten much praise: Donna decides on an abortion. There’s never any doubt about it. The question instead is whether she tells Max. It’s clear she doesn’t return his ardor but the movie still has thirty-five minutes to go. Obvious Child, the second new release I’ve seen in ten days that struggles to inch past the eighty-minute mark (filmmakers are learning!), can’t resist accepting the notion that men and women need to be together during fraught moments, which might explain why Donna’s jokes draw blood only if watching a loose-haired brunette of twenty-eight make fart jokes offends your sense of propriety. Writer-director Gillian Robespierre, clinging to TV-style editing and medium shots like her comedians onstage do their mike stands, lets purportedly cute moments drag, such as the time when Max steps in dog shit on the street; Donna laughs so forcefully that it reminded me of these two walking out of Platoon. Mom even drops her imperious act and lets Donna crawl into bed with her to swap stories.

Donna’s choosing to joke about her abortion at her last shown performance represented the only time Obvious Child risked its amiability. I saw the men and a few women in the audience squirm. But the sanctity of the American couple is never in doubt. Whether Max and Donna will continue depends on what happens when and if they finish watching Gone With the Wind on the cable channel.

George W. Bush and gays

Linking toPolitco is like drinking water in which a dead toad has decomposed for weeks, but I must hand it to Timothy J. Burger for writing an excellent account of what it was like to be gay in the George. W. Bush White House. As impossible as it is to recall, Bush, as the article reminds me, came into office as the most gay friendly GOP candidate in years. The only substantial legacy of “compassionate conservatism” is Bush’s effort to funnel hundreds of millions of dollars in American aid to Africa for antiretroviral AIDS drugs — the only genuinely decent act of his administration and which caused a near rebellion in his party and for which I will give him full and unequivocal credit.

Burger’s story has anecdotes like these:

Jeff Berkowitz was in his RNC office in February 2004 when Bush first backed the amendment during a White House speech. “This was something I didn’t agree with and didn’t know was coming,” he says now. He sat at his desk for what felt like an hour thinking: “What do I do? Do I resign in protest? What was the point? I wasn’t on the reelect because I thought Bush was good on marriage equality. It was because he was going to kill terrorists and was good on economic issues.” Besides, Berkowitz believed Bush’s Democratic rival John Kerry, who did not, in fact, support gay marriage in that campaign, was no better on gay rights.

Dan Gurley, who was also working at the RNC, was in St. Louis to teach a campaign seminar when Bush came out for the marriage amendment that February. “Up to that point I was fairly convinced that he would never support it,” Gurley recalls. “But he did, and that really felt like somebody punched me in the gut, to be honest. I understand the politics of it, but it doesn’t make it any easier to acquiesce to.”

Gurley returned to his office in Washington to find that a framed 2-by-3-foot photo of Bush reviewing the troops was waiting for him. Gurley had ordered it before the trip to St. Louis and planned to hang it in his office when he got back. “It was propped up against my desk. I saw it there, and I said, ‘Oh, shit.’ And I put it back behind my desk. It took several weeks before I could put it up on my wall.”

But Gurley put it on his wall, reminding me of the late Christopher Hitchens’ acerbic remark about George Schultz learning that men in Ronald Reagan’s White House had sold arms to the men who ordered the death of Marines in Beirut and diverted the profits to the Contras: he wasn’t so upset that he surrendered his limo privileges. Depressingly, Bush’s most notorious henchmen still don’t get it. It boggles the mind that Alberto Gonzalez served as the country’s premier law enforcement officer. Read him in 2014 defending the Bush-Cheney campaign’s 2004 efforts to back “marriage amendments”:

If Rove saw political gain, other Bush aides saw a legal preemptive strike—against exactly the court-driven change that is now playing out. “The president’s position was that gay marriage could be imposed on the country by a federal court decision. One judge could do it,” says McConnell, the speechwriter, who is also a lawyer. McConnell says he understood that after a 2003 Massachusetts court ruling raised the issue, then-White House counsel Gonzales advised that “the only way to prevent that is a marriage amendment. It’s not an unreasonable position. It certainly was not anti-gay.”

It certainly was not anti-gay. A sixth grader taking a standardized reading comprehension test in Valparaiso would draw horns on Gonzalez’s head and laugh. But one of Bush’s gay speechwriters agrees:

I believed the president was taking a principled position, and the words he spoke on that issue were always reasonable and tolerant. That hasn’t always been the spirit of the debate, but it’s always been the spirit of George W. Bush. There was never a day I wasn’t proud of him and the vice president.”

These are weasel words, gruesome words. When I remember the extraordinary power that George W. Bush wielded from September 2001 until January 2005, after which Terri Schiavo, Hurricane Katrina, and the Iraq War reduced him to Andrew Johnson in 1868, I consider time lost. For a man whom his acolytes revere for believing in a “big tent” GOP he had no qualm turning war opponents, un-zealous Christians, and gays into enemies. He had no interest in a coalition government because he lacked the acumen, guile, intelligence, and empathy to think beyond political victories. This is why I award him little credit for “immigration reform” — it came too goddamn late. It’s almost as if he campaigned for it knowing his political capital was too depleted to cajole Congress. Yet the Beltway class wants to credit him for keeping silent as the war he started kills more Iraqis and threatens another American president.

Sweet Tooth: post-2000s coolness

In 2002 Ian McEwan wrote a novel called Atonement that sold hundreds of thousands of copies for finding a respectable context for his macabre trick edge. In dense, clotted prose McEwan showed how a young schemer upsets the complacencies of the generation between the wars. It was a good book but a labored one, designed as a showcase for McEwan’s ability to write about distant times and places. But the consequences were immediate: it was a marker dividing “old” from “new” McEwan, the former having been what a New York Times critic called an expert in “all cool post-1960s perversity.”

Sweet Tooth‘s Serena Frome practices her own cool post-1960s perversity. “Reading was my way of not thinking,” she says early in the novel. The daughter of an Anglican bishop and submissive mother digests, rather indiscriminately, Austen, Solzhenitsyn, and Ian Fleming. At university she majors in maths. It’s 1969, the nadir of the Vietnam War, the start of Britain’s slow humiliating decline into inflation, trade union strikes, three-day weeks, and prime ministers with elbow pads sewn into their coats. An affair with a professor leads to a job with M15, although Serena expresses political views of no interest and is motivated by a sense that sex is power: “I managed week to week, but did not feel part of a glamorous clandestine world.” A purgatorial stint as a clerk ends when supervisors ask her help in wooing impoverished writers of promise into accepting secret financial renumeration from one of the Information Research Department’s front organizations. Dismissing worries that these writers would get paid to disseminate propaganda, Serena’s M15 superiors have subtler aims, as the excellently named Peter Nutting explains:

We’re looking for the sort who might spare a moment of this hard-pressed fellows in the Eastern bloc, travels out there perhaps to lend support or sends books, signs petitions for persecuted writers, engages his mendacious Marxist colleagues here, isn’t afraid to talk publicly about writers in prison in Castro’s Cuba. Generally swims agains the orthodox flow.”

George Orwell, he reminds her, gave the Foreign Office a list of thirty-eight communist fellow-travelers. The Encounter incident is mentioned and also dismissed. Her target is T.H. Haley, a short story writer responsible for “a goodish piece about the Berlin Wall.”

The Encounter incident refers to the exposure in the American press of the extent to which the CIA had subsidized intellectual life since the dawn of the Cold War. One of McEwan’s ur-texts is Frances Stonor Saunders’ The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, which as I wrote last February captured the moment when obsolescence compelled these intellects into accepting deals for far less in return because it meant listening to Pablo Casals in the same room as Jackie Kennedy. The seduction of Haley is for McEwan conventional stuff; there’s no suspense possible when a first-person narrator explain what she must do, what will happen if she does it, and the indecision about not doing it. Thanks to the dough but clueless about its source, Haley squeezes a novel out of himself, a dystopian nether world familiar to J.G. Ballard fans. It wins a major literary prize. Martin Amis and Ian Hamilton make scabrous cameos, the first a reminder of which post-sixties literary scion would be most acceptable to the fogies, the second a symbol of fogie respectability. Max, the supervisor with whom Serena was supposed to have an affair, takes a predictable sort of revenge on Serena.

The admixture of crude misogyny and covert homosexuality animates the best parts of Sweet Tooth (last week I read The Misgiving, another first-person narrative written by a male novelist about an independent woman in the sixties seducing a closeted bisexual). By McEwan’s standards the “twist” in the last twenty pages is tired, changing nothing about the way in which McEwan had presented Haley. Tensions dissipate. A novel about a character as self-contained as Serena – note the name – requires foils; at a slim three hundred pages, Sweet Tooth is an uninhabited novel. When it most demands some engagement with the world it was at pains to depict it hesitates. To expect a Harlot’s Ghost from McEwan is unfair, but for an okay Le Carré novel I can go to Le Carré, who is still writing okay Le Carré novels.