Monthly Archives: November 2017

Lovelorn and loving it: Destroyer and Sam Smith

Destroyer – Ken

Whatever else, Dan Bejar has perfected this shit: an incongruous mishmash of early eighties Cure synth pads and Dan Fogelberg daintiness filtered through a profoundly unlikable voice. The result? The most unsettling adult contemporary album in modern history; the only album by a major player I can think of that strives for Ken‘s determined unimportance is Bryan Ferry’s Boys + Girls in 1985. “Strike an empty pose/A pose is always empty,” he purrs in “A Light Travels Down the Catwalk,” and he would know. So long as the pose remains as musically beguiling as Destroyer’s they can keep striking them as often as they like. On occasion the pose, to quote another poseur, feels like love. In “Tinseltown Swimming in Blood” he even sounds lovelorn. Maybe the sequencer helped.

Sam Smith – The Thrill of It All

Three years ago, I tsk-tsked Jessie Ware for stooping to write with Sam Smith; now he’s recorded a better album about heartache than Ware even as it also gets on my nerves before the final cut. Avoid the Motown cliches redolent of Phil Collins’ Supremes cover (“Baby, You Make Me Crazy”) and one of the better examples of British soul emerges since the days of Paul Young, Alison Moyet and, on “Pray,” Julia Fordham. The title must be a joke – thrills don’t excite Smith so much as pain. The memory of the closet is cold fire – and a muse. “I regret that I told the world/That you were with me,” he moans on that manifesto, still a lad of sixteen. Although James Napier handles the tracks with palatable electronic touches, the addition of Tyler Johnson, who has collaborated with Keith Urban and Cam, suggests that the likes of “Palace” and “One Last Song” might be Smith’s attempts at queering country. I enjoy about half this record, but as with Moonlight, I’m uneasy with normalizing queerness by emphasizing despair. With Smith’s affecting quaver the musical equivalent of Barry Jenkins’ closeups of a devastated adolescent Chiron, it’s as if the only way for a gay artist to hit #1 in America is to reassure heterosexuals that gays revel in guilt.

Worst Songs Ever: Lenny Kravitz’s “Fly Away”

Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.

Lenny Kravitz’s “Fly Away”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #12 in May 1999

The equivalent of getting sprayed with Windex in the mouth, “Fly Away” reactivated Lenny Kravitz’s career when many of us have thought his commitment to necrophilia had come to a pretty pass. It took a while for this hawt chunka-chunka number to cross over, though: I have distinct memories of “Fly Away” getting album rock radio attention in early summer 1998 yet look at when it peaked. Whereupon, slipping off its shoes and fixing itself a drink, it made itself comfortable on top forty radio for at least two years. A gross cover of the Guess Who’s “American Woman” followed, then the requisite greatest hits compilation, whose new song “Again” became the second biggest American hit of Kravitz’s career.

A useful gateway, Lenny Kravitz worked when you were fifteen and hadn’t heard Prince albums, i.e. me. Let Love Rule rocked my spring of 1990, and when, frightened, I gave it a spin last summer it still held up as a B-level amalgam of Prince, Sly Stone, and CSNY. In a sense, Let Love Rule‘s modest chart success was the American equivalent of the Madchester scene: a psychedelic revival with filters and gated drums by people who should have known better but were kids given record contracts. “I Build This Garden For Us” and “Mr. Cab Driver” still work as elementary school psychedelia: peeved and liking it. I hope Lisa Bonet did too. 1991’s Mama Said laid the flower power gloss on too thickly; the heavier it rocked, the less convincing it sounded (it’s even got a Sean Ono Lennon co-write!). The #2 “It Ain’t Over Over Til It’s Over” is what you would expect an A-student of seventies black crossover to create: pretend the Spinners and Earth, Wind & Fire’s “That’s the Way of the World” don’t exist and you’ve got an ace prom anthem. Concise and assured, 1993’s Are You Gonna Go My Way‘s title track checked off yet more boxes.

Ah, but “Fly Away.” Foregoing lightness, Kravitz overdubs himself into a hundred annoyances. As an arrangement, “Fly Away” suggests the opposite of flight: the dull churn and its all-chorus intensity give listeners no space to breathe. It made sense that in the summer of the new Woodstock “Fly Away” and “American Woman” were inescapable — the flattening of so-called modern rock by a nu-metal consensus.

This is why the GOP sticks by Trump

Buried in the Washington Post’s letter section is this reasonable little missive:

I calculated the impact of the Republican Senate and House tax “reform” bills based on my 2016 income tax return and found that my wife’s and my tax liability would rise by 26 percent for 2017 over last year based on the elimination of the personal exemption and the state and local income tax deduction. Eliminating these deductions would increase our taxable income by $20,000. Our tax liability would rise by $5,300. We are in the 25 percent tax bracket. Paying one’s taxes is a cost of living, just as corporate taxes are part of the cost of doing business. With the personal-income-tax increase, our cost of living would rise, so we would adjust our life budget to compensate for the increased expense.

Damon Greer of Bethesda took the time to open his calculator app and do the math. Millions of Americans can’t take that time because they’re working at jobs that won’t give the time. In a few years as their corporate overlords laugh at all the drivel about “reinvesting in jobs” twaddle repeated by Paul Ryan and the GOP Senate, Damon Greer of Bethseda will give more of his money to the federal government so that those corporate overlords can keep their tax cuts.

While the failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act surprised me, the horror of the tax bill for which the Senate is prepared to vote and whose version will get reconciled with the House’s doesn’t, in this sense: this was the horrific legislation I had in mind as a result of the 2016 election results. Donald J. Trump would sign any bill that Ryan McConnell hand him. Remember the brave, uncompromising Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Ron Johnson, and John McCain? They surrendered, and it wasn’t easy. Collins’s reasons for support are particulary moronic:

She also said that Mr. Trump was supportive of backing legislation to help stabilize health insurance markets under the Affordable Care Act, which she said would help mitigate the effects of ending the law’s requirement that most people have insurance, as the tax bill would do.

How Collins think the market will get “stabilized” when the individual “buy-in” is gutted is a problem I hope she and Jessica Fletcher of Cabot Cove, Maine solve together over sherry and biscuits. To quote VOX, the bill creates a health insurance crisis it has no idea how to solve.

But the GOP, no matter the degree to which Trump represents the culmination of Reaganism, renounced Trump until he won the Electoral College, therefore it owes his voters nothing. The tax bill satisfies the donors who pay for those expensive Senate races (note the mention of the Koch frères in the NYT story above).

Worst Songs Ever: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Almost Cut My Hair”

Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Almost Cut My Hair”

At this point, anything associated with this lot deserves contrarian takes. Beloved at the time as American successors to the Beatles, reviled for excesses no worse than Janis Joplin or Fleetwood Mac’s, and confined to nostalgia tours now, the quartet minus Neil Young deserves a thorough re-listen, to which I’m willing to submit for the right price and/or an air fare to France. Friends have already persuaded me that the web-like acoustic textures of David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name are as haunting as anything by John Martyn. Maybe Graham Nash’s Songs for Beginners works too. I’ll take any suggestions from readers.

But I still gotta deal with the dog shit of “Almost Cut My Hair,” the fervor with which David Crosby attacks the subject Bryan Ferry has taught me a lot about, but in the hands of principal arrangers Stephen Stills and Neil Young is turned into a self-pitying ode to hippies: if “they” can come after soldiers in Vietnam, then they’ll come after my goddamn hair lice. Songwriter and singer Crosby admits he’s paranoid, and sings it that way. His Wikipedia page, by the way, fascinates me. “He is known for his use of alternate guitar tunings and jazz influences,” it avers. The former might be true, I don’t know; the latter, by my estimation, comes down to what you think about the way Crosby sings a line like “Must be because I HAD THE FLU. For CHRIST-M-A-A-A-A-SSSS” with the intensity of a Hollywood scion’s son watching a friend set fire to his bong.

What’s hilarious about “Almost Cut My Hair” is how comfortably it wears its pomp — it doesn’t once crack a smile, starting with Graham Nash’s organ. Neil Young’s contributions are too perfect: the familiar way in which he shred-skips across a couple notes lends an intensity to “Almost Cut My Hair” that it doesn’t deserve. Which works for me — what a fine metaphor for the generation to which Crosby belonged. Protesting the Vietnam War, bringing attention to the gap between black and white, howling against the Nixon administration’s assaults on civil liberties — it came down to getting self-righteous about follicles. Merle Haggard could’ve sung it and suggested with just a crinkle and a pause the ambivalence of a member of the silent majority who grew his mutton chops to frying pan width. With Crosby at the mike, I side with H.R. Haldeman and his buzz cut.

The best films of 1932

I wish I’d seen Me and My Gal, starring Joan Bennett and Spencer Tracy and directed by Raoul Walsh, which reading about has made the craving worse.

1. Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch)
2. Boudu Saved from Drowning (Jean Renoir)
3. Scarface (Howard Hawks)
4. Shanghai Express (Josef von Sternberg)
5. I Was Born, But… (Yasujiro Ozu)
6. Freaks (Tod Browning)
7. The Old Dark House (James Whale)
8. Horse Feather (Norman Z. McLeod)
9.  I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (Mervyn LeRoy)
10. Vampyr (Carl Dreyer)

Objectivity isn’t a suspension of judgment

Saturday’s NYT profile about an American Nazi who loves cookies and shopping at Target or whatever has inspired unusual, deserved resistance, and it underscores a tendency I see in journalism programs. We teach students objectivity, too often confused with lacking a point of view. Objectivity I regard as a limited kind of omniscience: the camera eye seeing every person in the frame in all their multifoliate variance, interacting with their environment. Objectivity does not mean a suspension of judgment. Often we fail to emphasize that we shouldn’t publish false information from a source unless we explain to readers that the information is false.

The NYT story fell into this easy trap. To show how boring racism is as silly as showing how wet water is. As I wrote last week, for many people the only act that qualifies is racist is something obviously despicable – a use of the n-word, a lynching, picking on minority children in school. Ezra Klein, with whom I’m often disagreed, is correct when he excoriates the article for failing to “face up to the absence of mystery.” Klein:

Racism, bigotry, anti-Semitism, xenophobia — none of it is aberrant, none of it is ahistorical, none of it is rare. Even Nazism isn’t unknown in America — I grew up in Orange County, California, and I remember seeing swastika armbands at concerts and hearing about neo-Nazi gatherings. They didn’t receive feature profiles, but they were there.

The more crippling flaw, he writes, is the way in which the article unintentionally does the devil’s work:

What is new is the sense many Nazis and racists have that the wind is at their back. Fausset mentions, but does not dwell on, Hovater’s feeling that “the election of President Trump helped open a space for people like him.” Fausset even goes on to say that “the movement will be looking to make use of people like the Hovaters and their trappings of normie life — their fondness for National Public Radio, their four cats, their bridal registry.”

The victims of people like the subject of the NYT profile: the Jewish and black neighbors who may have endured a hundred slights over the years. Action is character. Details aren’t character – a mistake that even Iowa Writers’ Workshop grads make.

Worst Songs Ever: The Cranberries’ “Zombie”

Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.

Cranberries’ “Zombie”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #1 on Modern Rock chart in October 1994.

The fall of 1994 was a dark age: Newt Gingrich-controlled House; Pulp Fiction about to unleash a wave of loathsome imitations; I dropped a college math class; and Dolores O’Riordan ululating over power chords would prove a robust musical response to the Warrington bombings. For the record buying public, it was. “Zombie” went into heavy rotation on MTV and college stations, boosting second album No Need to Argue to sales of more than seven million copies. According to iTunes, “Zombie” remains the Cranberries’ best-selling song. And it may have killed their careers.

How? By encouraging a lissome Irish quartet to settle for a mode for which it was, to be kind, ill-suited. When the Cranberries hit the top ten in America months earlier with “Linger,” fans of the Sundays wondered if that quiet pearly sound, as indebted to Cocteau Twins as it was to the Smiths, was finally crossing over in America – indeed, the Sundays had gotten their first (small) taste of mainstream acceptance when their cover of “Wild Horses” started popping up in commercials and on Gap playlists. Even better was the followup “Dreams,” which suggests that such a thing as good Stone Roses existed. Guess who was a fan of “Dreams”? Why, My So-Called Life‘s Angela Chase, and few people were cooler than Angela, or, rather, few things were cooler in the fall of 1994 than admitting to liking My So-Called Life.

To chide O’Riordan for her subject matter is offensive, but “Zombie” falls into the trap of many protest anthems, a trap diagnosed by countryman William Butler Yeats: we make out of the quarrel with others rhetoric, out of the quarrel with ourselves poetry. Hobbled by a lumbering rhythm that soaks listeners in portent, “Zombie” has an arrangement that can neither limn the scale of the atrocity nor summon a musical release commensurate with the outrage. Worse, O’Riordan’s vocal choices (the notorious “zombie-EH zombie-EH” chorus) call attention to herself; I’m too busy wondering what the hell she’s doing to get angry at the tanks, bombs, and guns. As shown on Morrissey’s Viva Hate and Blur’s period work, producer Stephen Street is a wiz recording airy music with lots of acoustic guitars and keyboards (the same album’s “Twenty One” is one of the Cranberries’ loveliest songs), miscast at recording thicker music. Mixing the Cranberries to sound like tracks from Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral is a delicious thing to read, not experience.

And they got worse. Credited as the only writer on “Zombie,” O’Riordan and former partner Noel Hogan only wrote four tracks on 1996’s To the Faithful Departed, which led to the horror of Dolores Unbound.  She had become what every pop star wanted to be: an expert in geopolitics, a consigliere to Brent Scowcroft. “At times of war we’re all the losers/There’s no victory/We’ll shoot to kill and kill your lover/Fine by me,” she intones on “War Child.” But she and Hogan are responsible for “I Just Shot  John Lennon,” a fictional re-creation of what it must have been like to be Mark David Chapman from the point of view of a writer who hadn’t read any fiction and hadn’t heard any spoken English. The adverb and cause and effect problems in the following verse alone would devastate STEM courses: “He had perceptively known that it wouldn’t be nice/because in 1980 he paid the price,” with the guitars playing a kind of electro flamenco.

Chastened, the Cranberries released the less strident Bury the Hatchet in 1999, shifting a half million units instead of their double platinum ceiling. Who knows what damage “Zombie” caused to their career. Possibly none — the slings and arrows of outrageous whatever, etc. But time has been kind: I still hear “Dreams” and “Linger” on A/C radio. And “Zombie” has given birth to boneheaded progeny, as Brad Paisley and LL Cool J don’t want you to know.