Singles 9/28

The comments section in the Silk City-Dua Lipa boasts a fascinating conversation between several writers regarding the presentation of Dua’s ethnicity in her most recent musical contexts. I would draw a line between this exchange of views and what we wrote about the horror of Hozier’s well-intentioned collaboration with Mavis Staples. Acknowledging his limits as a white longhaired Irish soul boy, Hozier has Staples sing, “Power has been cried by those stronger than me” as an apology, but the mangling of English (how do the strong cry power?) dishonors her. We’ll never get it right, the track implies, even when we try. So I turn to Aya Nakamura.

Click on links for full reviews.

Aya Nakamura – Copines (8)
Julia Holter – I Shall Love 2 (7)
Silk City ft. Dua Lipa – Electricity (7)
Pale Waves – Eighteen (7)
Denzel Curry ft. JPEGMAFIA and ZillaKami – Vengeance | Vengeance (7)
Idles – Great (6)
Avril Lavigne, Ashley Tisdale & G.E.M. – Trophy Boy (5)
Kanye West & Lil Pump ft. Adele Givens – I Love It (3)
Annalisa ft. Mr Rain – Un Domani (3)
Carrie Underwood – Love Wins (3)
Eminem ft. Joyner Lucas – Lucky You (3)
Hozier ft. Mavis Staples – Nina Cried Power (0)

Deborah Eisenberg: she’s back

The occasion of a new volume of Deborah Eisenberg stories is cause for huzzahs. Few volumes get consulted in my laird with the frequency of 2011’s Collected Stories. Her talent for the startling, apt metaphor (“The woman’s features were like a pile of root vegetables screening her expression”) dovetails with the hairpin turns of her plots.

In advance of the publication of Your Duck Is My Duck, Giles Harvey interviewed Eisenberg for the NYT. He offers an anecdote from the writer’s college years:

In 1963, the year of the Birmingham campaign and George Wallace’s stand in the schoolhouse door, she heard from a school friend about a racially integrated social-justice summer camp near the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. It was a perfect opportunity to put some distance between herself and her mother, who seemed only too happy to let Eisenberg go. One night, the campsite was raided by local police officers. At first, Eisenberg recalled, the officers joked about shooting the camp leaders along with their young wards right there. Instead, they tried to make a legal example of them. Eisenberg was charged with “lewd behavior” — that is, interracial sex (“I can assure you I was having sex with no one,” she clarified) — and, after spending the night in jail, was sequestered for several days in the basement of a local church. Thanks to the efforts of a courageous local lawyer, Eisenberg and her fellow campers were released. The case eventually fell apart.

The greatest shock, however, came after she returned home. “No one said, ‘You’re lying!’ ” she explained. “It was just sort of: ‘Oh ha-ha, dear, of course! You’re a teenage hysteric!’ That was the subtext. And I was a teenage hysteric, but I knew what was happening.” The realization that, as she put it, “it’s very, very, very difficult for people, particularly people with a certain level of comfort or privilege, to take in the reality of a situation” was, in a sense, all she needed; artistically, she has been living off the interest of this insight ever since.

Included too are Eisenberg’s observations about what she saw in Central America during the grim 1980s, backdrops for and subjects of some of her most startling work. I was familiar with “Under the 82nd Airborne” but after reading this interview I returned to it; my chest seized up as Eisenberg in the last third cued the intimations of violence.

Ranking Wire albums

Gelid masters of role playing, protean dilettantes, Wire became known for honing an approach to punk, then for working, occasionally with strain, to erasing any memory of that approach, which meant they were the truest punks of the lot. When I argue, as I often have, that “coldness” is a compliment, Wire are a few of the artists I’ve in mind: ice burns like fire. Continue reading

Seeing villains as misunderstood victims

“There was, in this performance, not even a hint of the sagacity one expects from a potential Supreme Court Justice,” Doreen St. Félix writes in The New Yorker.

More than presenting a convincing rebuttal to Ford’s extremely credible account, Kavanaugh—and Hatch, and Lindsey Graham—seemed to be exterminating, live, for an American audience, the faint notion that a massively successful white man could have his birthright questioned or his character held to the most basic type of scrutiny. In the course of Kavanaugh’s hearing, Mitchell basically disappeared. Republican senators apologized to the judge, incessantly, for what he had suffered. There was talk of his reputation being torpedoed and his life being destroyed. This is the nature of the conspiracy against white male power—the forces threatening it will always somehow be thwarted at the last minute.

Many of us who are writers embrace complexity; we impose subtlety on men and women who repel it. Listening to Kavanaugh sound the horn of the forever maudlin when mentioning his kids, mom (a judge), and the number of female clerks whom he’s hired, I thought these things could be true without being exculpatory. Kavanaugh may have assaulted a woman as a teen and years later pick up the newspaper for the old lady who lives across the street.

Then, after Lindsey Graham trampled on the vineyards where the grapes of wrath were stored, I changed my mind: I don’t want to think of Kavanaugh and his conservative enablers as good men. To think they are would ascribe to them a complexity they don’t deserve. Abigail Nussbaum:

It should go without saying, but: a good guy doesn’t lie under oath. A good guy doesn’t brazenly spread falsehoods that he knows everyone can see through, in the arrogant belief that his privilege will protect him from any consequences or loss of public regard. A good guy doesn’t rant and rave about taking revenge on his supposed enemies while interviewing for a job synonymous with impartiality and open-mindedness. And, oh yeah, a good guy would admit to his wrongdoing, apologize for it, and withdraw his name from consideration for the highest court in the land, in recognition of the fact that he doesn’t deserve to be there. If Black believes Ford, as he claims to, then there’s simply no way to categorize Kavanaugh as a good guy, no matter how many carpools he drives or how nice he is to his poker buddies.

…People who blatantly don’t care about the safety and wellbeing of women are bad. But so are people who are so deeply invested in constructing a narrative of redemption for abusers and bad actors (privileged ones, obviously) that they irreparably skew the conversation in that direction, and train the rest of us to see villains as misunderstood victims.

Ford kept her composure as she explained why her life was ruined; Kavanaugh lost his when he did. Every GOP senator apologized to Kavanaugh for the ruin his life has become; every one of them hid behind a female sex crimes prosecutor and said nothing to Ford.

Sullying a dirty record

Comments inspired by a day of unrelieved sordidness:

(1) As boys we’re told not to cry. Depending on how machista your family is, the implication is that women cry: they cry because they’re emotional. Christine Blasey Ford’s voice quivered but she didn’t cry. Judge Brett Kavanaugh sobbed, bawled, rent his garments. As several women I know remarked, this is the behavior of someone whose ideas of living have not once been challenged in thirty years of public life. This is a man who worked in the Bush White House, an Oval Office full of potential war criminals, and survived; this is a man on Judge Alex Kozinski’s email list of fifth-rate sexual puns and remarks.

(2) Ted Kennedy told the truth about Robert Bork. Bork spoke at length and grossed out any American who believed the Fourteenth Amendment had a place in our lives. The somnolent Reagan White House wanted to withdraw the nomination. Bork refused. He lost the confirmation vote. That’s what “borking” means: telling the truth about a judicial nominee. Even people who’ve become #NeverTrumpers like former RNC chair Michael Steele believe the Bork Myth. It’s a foundational conservative myth — one of the last ones unexamined by political reporters and commentators. For the full sordid story read Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer — yes, that Jane Mayer — account Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas.

(2) In the remote chance that Judge Brett Kavanaugh loses his confirmation vote, he’s not ruined. If he doesn’t get the nod, he’s got a future on the right wing Bork outrage circuit.

(3) The relish with which Lindsey Graham attacked Democratic colleagues laid bare his truest thoughts: he had no intention of believing Ford, despite the Long Look He Took Into Himself when writing a campaign memoir supported by his subsequent record of rebellion.

Ranking Leonard Cohen 1985-2016

I wrote at length already about Leonard Cohen two years ago, and I don’t intend this list as comprehensive. His only dud between 1985 and 2016 is Dear Heather — an indifferently sung and written album, to my ears, redeemed by the title track. Many Cohen fans going back to his terrible novel Beautiful Losers may prefer his seventies work, the subject of a future ranking; but I argue that what happened in Cohen’s career during peak Dynasty represented a significant enough break to sever from what he recorded with acoustic guitars and (slightly) stronger vocal range. He needed kitsch arrangements; he needed one-finger keyboard solos.

1. Various Positions (1985)

As elegant as a stiletto sheathed in a velvet glove, Various Positions wastes not a one of its thirty-five minutes; its terseness is its own satisfaction. The prayer “If It Be Your Will,” in which Jennifer Warnes joins Field Commander Cohen at the mike for one of his last vocals in his higher register, is his greatest song. The loping “Coming Back to You” uses its roundelay of a hook for a conclusion of underplayed deviousness. “The Law” matches them. As for “Hallelujah,” well, his estate is grateful for the royalties.

2. The Future (1992)

Advancing further into cha-cha presets and crap Casios as if responding to a dozen years of profligacy, blood letting, and the purloining of the public trust in government, The Future is a skull years after the flesh has been burned off. The title track bids farewell to that David Lynch nightclub sound; the rest of the nineties wouldn’t be so kind to it, especially not in 1992, the year of Nirvana. “Light as the Breeze” would be the secret highlight if my ears didn’t still ring with Billy Joel’s yowl.

3. Ten New Songs (2001)

I can’t listen to “A Thousand Kisses Deep” without key scenes from The Good Thief, writer-director Neil Jordan’s unjustly forgotten film, playing in my head. Amiable shell of a jewelry thief and man Nick Nolte gets off the needle for One Last Heist. Cohen’s courtly duet with collaborator Sharon Robinson — so courtly he’s almost throwing a raincoat over a puddle for her sake — suits the mood of wrecked glamour. Like the Dylan of “Love and Theft,” Cohen’s goblet-of-ash whisper is appropriate to material that allows the old ham to underplay for once.

4. I’m Your Man (1988)

As epochal as Dylan Goes Electric, I’m Your Man re-invents Leonard Cohen as a Master of Chintz, using the cheapest means necessary to present himself as a troubadour slightly above it all in his tower of song but not so much that he wouldn’t whisper Lorca verses over Casio synth lines. A marvelous record, and one with legs. Hearing “Everybody Knows” on the Pump Up the Volume soundtrack introduced Cohen, and it’s like the singer-songwriter of Songs of Love and Hate never existed. I’m Your Man is the debut.

5. Popular Problems (2014)

It’s hard to remember which songs appear on the comeback albums, but to my ears Popular Problems is where the performing chops gained by a tour necessitated by money problems. What I wrote in 2014: On first or even fourth listen it sounds slight: Ten Croaked Hymns. Female backup singers in “Did I Ever Love You” do the lifting; when Cohen actually sings on “Did I Ever Love You” he sounds like someone lifting a Buick off his back. But I’m Your Man, Ten New Songs, and Old Ideas sounded slight on fourth listen too. Placing “Slow” first in the lineup was shrewd, for it contains one of his truest confessions: “I always liked it slow…and not because I’m old,” he rasps over a blues riff played by a somnolent horn section. With Patrick Leonard and his organ licks more prominent and essential than on Old Ideas, Cohen offers more melodies than the fans who think he’s a words first guy are willing to admit, starting with “Samson in New Orleans” — a farewell to an idea, graced by a violin solo so fulsome that I hope Cohen’s around to take Alexandru Bublitchi on tour.

Worst Songs Ever: Daryl Hall and John Oates’ ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling’

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.

Daryl Hall and John Oates – “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #12 in December 1980

When in doubt, record a vestigial cover. Continue reading

Ranking favorite Pearl Jam albums

“Admiring non-fan,” Robert Christgau averred once about his relationship with Elvis Costello albums. Attracting some of the most reactionary fans on the planet, as I saw firsthand in 2003 when during Sleater-Kinney’s killer opening set several dudes in front of me snickered, “Who are these dykes?” Pearl Jam have nevertheless grown in declamatory power as they’ve shed many of those troglodytes: I’ve seen them four times, half of which for anthropological purposes their performances have exceeded. Continue reading