I’m counting the grains and they’re so sharp: the best of Wire

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Well, I figured Graham Lewis and Colin Newman deserved a snotty reappraisal. My piece on Wire’s 154 triggered a a week’s worth of hate (e)mail when such things existed. Intended as provocation, the essay pretends the rest of Wire’s career didn’t exist, and it’s only then that the Graham Lewis show pieces I hated make sense. If anything, the recordings they’ve released since 2000 honor their commitment to a paradox that no other band, let alone punk band, has ever mastered: histrionic austerity.

In this list I’ve included tracks from every Wire period ending with 2013’s ultra-competent and too aptly named Change Becomes Us and Colin Newman’s first solo album. For Wire, their career was all in the art of stopping, then restarting. Anti-nostalgia will consume itself. If the song at the top of the list is startling, I owe it to them. I can think of few bands using English who’ve written as primal, mysterious, and devastating as “Kidney Bingos.” In 1995’s epochal SPIN Alternative Record Guide, Eric Weisbard mused that to prefer The A-List, compiling Mach II Wire’s experiments with echo and Depeche Mode synths, you’d have to be as coldly pure as Wire themselves. Well.

1. Kidney Bingos
2. Ex-Lion Tamer
3. Map Ref. 41°N 93°W
4. Practice Makes Perfect
5. Lowdown
6. Mannequin
7. I Am the Fly
8. 12 X U
9. The 15th
10. French Film Blurred
11. Pink Flag
12. I Don’t Understand
13. Ahead
14. On Returning
15. A Series of Snakes
16. Outdoor Miner
17. Strange
18. Sand in My Joints
19. Drill
20. Bad Worn Thing
21. Another the Letter
22. One of Us
23. Reuters
24. In the Art of Stopping
25. Eardrum Buzz (Single Mix)
26. Two Minutes
27. As We Go
28. I’ve Waited Ages
29. Ambitious
30. Better Late Than Never

New and true and gay: The best of Luther Vandross

Eleven years ago, I wrote a consideration of Luther Vandross for Stylus. Many of my points now embarrass me, but I’ll post it anyway. To call Luther Vandross the greatest R&B singer of the era reminds me of what my French teacher said about Victor Hugo: greatest isn’t “necessarily” the best. Yet listening to the songs on the list below as I’ve aged has been an education in comprehending how we worship love as a substitute for love itself — the coppery taste of desire, ungratified and persistent. Votive candles lit for unseen presences are comforts.

1. Give Me the Reason
2. Glow of Love
3. Stop to Love
4. The Other Side of the World
5. It’s Over Now
6. Never Too Much
7. Sugar and Spice
8. If Only For One Night
9. So Amazing
10. Power of Love/Love Power
11. I’ll Let You Slide
12. Any Love
13. The Night I Fell in Love
14. Searching
15. A House is Not a Home
16. I’ve Been Working
17. She Loves Me Back
18. Dance with My Father
19. The Rush
20. The Best Things in Life Are Free

Don’t hold back — just have a good time: Janet Jackson

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Deflating expectations with modesty, “No Sleeep” is a perfect first single, the first Janet Jackson single since 2006 to bear the co-writing/co-production credit Janet Jackson-Jimmy Jam-Terry Lewis and no one else. This partnership, thirty years old now, has weathered New Jack, Dre, wardrobe malfunctions, and the death of brother Michael. I can’t trace the moment when Jackson started asserting herself — “Control” off her 1986 breakthrough answers the question. But sometime in 1993 the specificity of her lusts felt all hers, leading Jam and Lewis to respond with the hardest, most operatic music of their careers. “The balance of power had clearly shifted, but this was no bitter emancipation,” Josh Love wrote in an examination of the Jackson-Jam-Lewis axix published as part of Stylus Magazine’s induction of the producers into our hall of fame (others: Electric Light Orchestra and Kate Bush). And “No Sleeep” has succeeded beyond its modest hopes: despite a flatfooted J.Cole rap appended for the kids, the single is a mainstay of adult R&B.

The Slant Magazine staff, boasting a Janet expert as devoted as Eric Henderson, compiled their twenty-five best songs. Lots of overlap between their list and mine, despite my including more tracks from The Velvet Rope, an album I hope my readers stream or buy soon. As minimal as Missy Elliott’s contemporaneous Supa Dupa Fly, The Velvet Rope compresses Jackson’s voice to its smallest expressive unit; it’s the quietest horny voice in nineties R&B. Which makes the sadomasochistic and bisexual fantasies less lurid: if she isn’t getting off on convincing us they’re outrageous, neither should we. That’s the point. Her commitment to staying within the demands of her scenarios, indivisible from her limitations as a singer, gives bone and sinew to those fantasies. Janet Jackson is us. It’s like she’s saying, Of course you have special needs, it’s okay.

I’m less moved by subsequent appearances. Don’t knock the list’s brevity; by this point her catalog boasts enough surprises, from guest appearances on tracks by Herb Alpert to an insouciant, sun-kissed collaboration with Luther Vandross, Jackson’s commitment to the pleasure principle has proven infectious.

1. Control
2. The Pleasure Principle (Long Vocal Remix)
3. Go Deep
4. Escapade
5. Love Will Never Do (Without You)
6. If
7. This Time
8. When I Think of You
9. Alright
10. The Velvet Rope
11. Because of Love
12. Someday Is Tonight
13. What About
14. Diamonds (w/Herb Alpert)
15. You
16. Doesn’t Really Matter
17. You Want This
18. Rhythm Nation
19. Got Till It’s Gone
20 The Best Things In Life Are Free (w/Luther Vandross)
21. Rope Burn
22. Feedback
24. Anytime, Anyplace
25. Throb
26. The Great Forever
27. All For You
28. No Sleeep
29. That’s the Way Love Goes
30. The Velvet Rope

Air can hurt you too: Talking Heads 1980

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Vinyl copies were available, but spottings were rare, like female cardinals in South Florida. I saw one in the late nineties; I bought a Japan album instead or some shit. So when Rhino issued The Name of This Band is Talking Heads twelve years ago I got as excited as David Byrne on stage. What good timing too: 2004 marked the peak of the Heads’ new influence on dance-oriented rock issued by DFA Records. Traces even appeared in the work of Interpol and Fischerspooner and other casualties of the first Bush term. About time too. Along with Bowie and Ferry, Talking Heads suffered from that excess of influence. I read this Chris Frantz interview done at the time of the Stop Making Sense anniversary and shared his wistfulness (“”We were almost overrated during our day, but we’re almost too much forgotten now”).

In one of my first reviews for Stylus, I revisited that two-disc wonder. It still sounds terrific.

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Talking Heads
The Name of This Band is Talking Heads
8-27-2004

The name of its leader is David Byrne. Until 1987, when U2 and R.E.M.’s declamatory arena moves flexed the populist muscle Byrne could never manage, his band Talking Heads was the biggest alternative band in the world—back when “alternative” signified a hell of a lot more beyond gormless marketing. Two double platinum albums, not a single year in which the band didn’t place an album in year-end polls and a Time magazine cover story—all for a band whose evolution from buttoned-up preppies to gonna-see-you-sweat synthesists of Afrobeat rhythms and art-school detachment should have confounded any commercial aspirations.

It was Jonathan Demme’s 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense that cemented Talking Heads’ mainstream acceptance. Unfortunately, the soundtrack, which remains the band’s biggest selling album, is a bit redundant, whether in its original configuration or in 1999’s expanded edition. The music was inseparable from Demme’s sustained flowing takes, as much dependent on how textures and images interweave as the Heads’ Remain in Light in 1980. The soundtrack fails because Byrne’s gonzo athleticism, otherworldly mugging, his sheer weirdness, is missing.

The 1982 The Name of This Band is Talking Heads was always the better live document; too bad not many people heard it. Out of print for at least 20 years (if you were lucky you’d find it in a good used-vinyl store), Rhino Records has reissued it with 12 previously unreleased tracks, a booklet of photos and a collection of press clippings (all of which prove how a band’s originality can make decent writers struggle for colorful adjectives). But this is no cynical cash-in; every new track adds gestalt to an album which in its original incarnation was pretty damn great to begin with. Versions of “Born Under Punches” and “Drugs” in particular disembowel the originals.

On its 1980-1981 tour, Talking Heads expanded its original quartet (singer/guitarist Byrne, drummer Chris Frantz, bassist Tina Weymouth, keyboardist/guitarist Jerry Harrison) to include keyboardist Bernie Worrel (of Parliament fame), guitarist Adrian Belew, backup singers Nona Hendryx and Dolette McDonald, second bassist (!) Busta Jones, and percussionist Steve Scales. The result was glorious—as bustling, loud, funky and unhinged as Manhattan itself. Byrne especially was a revelation: the original Boy with Perpetual Nervousness reincarnated as Iggy Pop; he gave hope to every white guy who dreamed of being dorky and sinuous at the same time.

The Name of This Band…
is gratifyingly looser than the Stop Making Sense soundtrack. You’ll hear this lithe10-piece trying to assimilate the polyrhythms the band and producer (and by now co-composer) Brian Eno constructed so painstakingly on Remain in Light, and it’s a little touching to discover that the parts don’t always mesh (that’s the chance you take when you construct polyrhythms with Brian Eno). Byrne’s pig grunts on “Animals” and elongated vowels on “Mind” are either appropriate or mannered or both, depending on your mood; Belew’s borrowed Robert Frippisms matches him, screech for screech.

The album also vindicates Tina Weymouth, a notorious troublemaker whose run-ins with her neurotic leader have soured her contributions to this day. Two bassists in a band are like six wheels on a car: not only unnecessary, but dangerous. But Weymouth’s steady bottom on the early uptight classics “The Book I Read” and “Pulled Up” encouraged her to experiment with the looser dynamics of “I Zimbra” and “Born Under Punches.” The same goes for underrated utility man Jerry Harrison, whose lead work on “Found A Job” serves as effective counterpoint for Byrne’s chaka-chaka attack, while his synth fills on “Stay Hungry” are as eerie as intended.

Radiohead and Wilco get undeserved credit these days for “stretching the boundaries”, whatever that means. Talking Heads may have been just as pretentious, but for Byrne and his mates their nerd-pop origin wasn’t a boundary; it was a starting point, a Year Zero, from which the next 12 years were a refinement, a man shedding clothing styles until he’s comfortable. The Name of This Band is Talking Heads reminds us that there’s no shame in being white so long as you’re willing to embrace it.

Memory wastes: Grant McLennan

Ten years ago tomorrow, a couple of Saturday night plans got canceled, so I turned, “as I usually do,” to quote the late Prince, to my computer. Post punk’s greatest melodist had died during the nap he took before his first housewarming party. What stung most about Grant McLennan’s death was the quashed hope: months earlier the Go-Betweens had released one of their very best albums. Middle age looked as promising as freshly transplanted begonias. I chose the simile because McLennan’s songs had the pungency of wild flowers and the strength of old bark. His partner Robert Forster, I suspect, has never quite recovered; when I interviewed Forster a month before his friend’s death, he spoke of albums waiting to be recorded, songs to finish. The Evangelist was the fruit two years later, although not the way he would have liked.

Below is the obit I wrote for Stylus.

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Didn’t Know a Heart Could Be Tied Up and Held for Ransom
5-09-2006

Grant McLennan was never going to be a star. Look at him. For most of the last five years of his life he’d gained enough weight to resemble a ceramic Buddha; he was even bald like one. While his songs weren’t flabby, the ones he chose to include on the first two records he and Robert Forster released upon reactivating the Go-Betweens suggested that he had either entered a sort of Zen state in which craft dazzled in a way that art couldn’t anymore or had grown lazy (Forster’s songs, on the other hand, had become quiet miracles of illumined offhandedness). His voice had lost inflection. His guitar was content to strum instead of pick. I’d like to think he was in a relationship before he died—a remarkable woman, worthy of his intelligence, at his deathbed; something to explain how the restlessness of “A Bad Debt Follows You” and “Someone Else’s Wife” dissolved into the easy prettiness of “Going Blind” and “Poison in the Well.”

Then he and Forster recorded 2005’s Oceans Apart. With producer Mark Wallis and bandmates Adele Pickvance and Glenn Thompson being obtrusive in the best possible way, McLennan’s songs shook off their verse-chorus-verse fustiness. Wallis’ rococo embellishments tease open, bit by bit, the petals of “No Reason to Cry,” as it approaches its triumphant coda. He played solos again—listen to the searching, soaring lead on “The Statue.” He lost weight and, in the concert pictures I’ve seen, looked fit and content (then again, to expect McLennan to look saturnine is like asking Mick Jagger to look bucolic by posing with a garden hoe).

For the uninitiated, he was simply the most gifted melodist to emerge from the generation influenced by the punk ethos. This means: better than Pete Shelley, Roddy Frame, Morrissey-Marr, Bob Mould-Grant Hart. History will bear this out. McLennan, in Robert Christgau’s succinct words, was “the hooky Go-Between.” Melodies poured out of him. A natural, like the other “Mac”—the famous one who was awakened by a snatch of tune and the phrase “scrambled eggs.” But because he was unusually intelligent for a rock guy he was as incapable of la-la-la banality for its own sake as the other Mac was powerless to resist it. It wasn’t that McLennan was incapable of irony; in the warm light of his truthful-not-mimetic rendering of reality it was simply irrelevant. Forster’s oft-repeated ambition upon forming the Go-Betweens—to merge Tom Verlaine and The Monkeys—culminated in 1983’s “Cattle & Cane,” McLennan’s quiet exercise in Queensland nostalgia, anchored by his Peter Hook-worthy bass line and scalpel-sharp verses (“His father’s watch, he left it in the showers”). Childhood, the song suggests, remains a zone of indeterminacy, a heap of broken images assembled in confusion.

It’s because of “Cattle & Cane”—not just that it exists, but what it says about how we use our past—that I worry most about Robert Forster. I know little about their relationship, but if the songs can be trusted (why not?) theirs is the kind of intimacy for which even the word “love” is inadequate. It speaks volumes about their friendship that it survived the rancor of the Go-Betweens’ first implosion in 1989 (a Rumours-worthy scenario: Forster broke up with drummer Lindy Morrison while McLennan was falling in love with violinist Amanda Brown). But the women were mere muses. The best Go-Betweens songs are missives written by and sung to men whose gradual acceptance of life as a beautiful, sad, and absurd thing was prompted by midnight discussions in the touring van, fueled by Keats and beer, on the perfidy of women. Don’t think Forster was unaware of his debt to McLennan. Shunning the rather forced dolorousness of his early material Forster embraced his partner’s melodic generosity so that later albums like Tallulah and 16 Lovers Lane hurt the ears in the best sense, triumphant testaments to what three-minute pop songs can say about the elusiveness of comfort and joy. Listen to Forster’s “Dive for Your Memory” and you’ll hear the affirmation “Cattle & Cane” won’t yield. You couldn’t tell Robert and Grant apart, lying in the unmade bed of their songcraft, arms and legs entwined.

I keep forgetting that Grant’s dead. My first thought upon hearing the news was a variant on that famous Billy Wilder line, about Ernst Lubitsch’s death: “Agh, no more Ernst Lubitsch pictures.” No more Grant McLennan songs. Hearing “Bachelor Kisses” on my Discman on a late afternoon stroll around Columbus Circle in 2000; a would-be lover driving away as the exultant chorus of “Bye Bye Pride” chased him; a chilly South Florida night, warmed by the thunderous “Lighting Fires…”

Memory wastes.

‘Like the lion of Judah, I’ll strike my enemies down’

I was supposed to review Art Official Age for a publication but the request got pulled; it would’ve been the first new Prince album in whose honor I wrote a few hundred words since Planet Earth in 2007 (I still don’t mind “Breakfast Can Wait.” Oh well). Below is that review, published in Stylus and which I reprint as part of my reclamation project before its archives vanish into the ether. Another three-star Prince album, although to my ears it didn’t halt the commercial momentum he’d built since 2004’s Musicology; it was a lesser record released as traditional sales began their erosion. The concluding trio is expert; “Chelsea Rodgers” is his best jam of the year this millennium. Don’t discount “Lion of Judah” though.

————
Prince
Planet Earth
7-23-2007

ver the shape-shifter, Prince Rogers Nelson makes his most outrageous move yet. Lots of fans grumble about the lengths to which the artist formerly known as the Artist will go to ensure listenability. No doubt about it: distributing an album with The Mail is a masterstroke.

A shame, then, we’re not discussing another Parade or, hell, The Gold Experience, but lately Prince puts his talent into recording albums and his genius into marketing them. In 2004, for example, he included Musicology with the price of a concert ticket and forced the RIAA to like it. Although he’s released plenty of indifferent albums since 1988’s Lovesexy, this is the second time he’s pulled a Steel Wheels: recording an album as an excuse to tour (like Steel Wheels‘ “Mixed Emotions,” the mildly compelling nostalgia of Musicology‘s title track, the first single, embraced dubious notions of musical solidarity). 3121 was a little better: he was studying the Billboard top ten (“Black Sweat”) as much as he was copying himself (the title track). Planet Earth marks a slight improvement on that one, which is progress of a sort, but incremental advances like this almost guarantee that the marketing hoo-hah will get more attention anyway.

However, since this is Prince and not another middle-aged white songwriter/guitarist he’ll force us to listen to Planet Earth for three tracks so ebullient that you understand why he records albums as excuses to tour. “Chelsea Rodgers” might be the best use of a brass section in the Prince songbook since “Housequake,” and the most compelling evidence that witnessing for Jehovah hasn’t stunted his imagination; mitigating this story of a reformed libertine with a piano part swiped from Sylvester’s “(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real” is the kind of perversity we used to take for granted from him. He doesn’t sound crabby; he’s reminding himself that even God-fearing wretches like him need parables to explain himself to the rest of us; that Sylvester could hear gospel in disco. The irresistible bitchery of his guitar work on “Lion of Judah” redeems the Bible-adducing triumphalism of its chorus. Finally, the good will Prince has accumulated doesn’t clarify the lyrical equivocations of “Resolution” (the musical ones though—like the concluding synth swoop—are a delight), but if you want anti-war slogans go listen to Neil Young.

If smugness erodes the empathy he extends to the putative love objects that populate Planet Earth‘s fair-to-good ballads, his skill compensates. Thanks to Jesus and a lifetime of teetotaling, his voice remains impossibly supple, and as elastic as he thinks his dick is. So is, of all things, humor. Unlike R. Kelly, Ne-Yo can tell the difference between smarm and charm—to be fair, it’s Kells’ confusion that makes him intermittently excellent—but he couldn’t put over pillow-talk piffle like “Future Baby Mama” like Prince can (not enough to convince you that it won’t join “Call My Name” and “Beautiful, Loved, Blessed” in second-single limbo, mind).

Speaking of smarm-vs-charm, “I love you, babe, but not like I love my guitar” is the asshole come-on he’s been trying to write since Controversy, and more devastating for being apt. Just don’t remind the little guy of his lifetime of broken promises. Listening to “Guitar” brings to mind the seven-minute entreaty in which he let his axemanship show what his heart couldn’t, even when this entreaty was called, simply, “I Could Never Take The Place of Your Man.” That song was a lifeline, while “Guitar” comforts itself with being a manifesto. Manifestos can incite passions, but the chance always exists that you’re speaking in an empty room.

Planet Earth
may, like 3121, top the charts. Credit those amazing live shows and what he signifies in pop culture; everybody likes the idea of Prince. Not exactly encouraging for an artist this fecund, who hasn’t shaken off the millstones of his past achievements as thoroughly as he thinks. It may be enough that Prince transforms what’s already a strong case for his own solipsism into a moral imperative.

Bryan Ferry, afraid of his shadow

Bryan Ferry is a marvel. After releasing this farrago, the minor pleasures of Olympia and Avonmore were like a glass of cold Pellegrino after a day of beer drinking. From the cheapo cover to the indifferent song selection Dylanesque is the dullest album with his name on it.

————————
Bryan Ferry
Olympia
July 3, 2007

Why the God of Love yielded to an irresistible urge to cover more songs by the God of Song is less a mystery than an inevitability. Bryan Ferry may dress better than Bob Dylan, and probably plays better piano too, but like his idol he understands the paradoxical demands of a great cover: subsume your personality yet don’t ever let your audience forget who’s singing. Re-listen to Ferry’s 1973 version of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” Although Ferry transforms the original’s plodding accumulation of nightmarish images into what Robert Christgau called “high camp” that nevertheless “reaffirms its essential power,” there’s also a sense in which the impending doom Dylan evokes seems more terrifying when barked by a singer who sounds like a masculinized drag queen alternately charmed and nonplussed by the sound effects and girl backup vocals. The ironies are telling: it’s a hard rain, alright, if a singer this grotesque can get away with this farrago.

“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” is the greatest cover in rock history, as scary and wondrous now as it ever was. No one expects Ferry to wrinkle his pants any more—no one expects an exertion of any sort—but we do demand, even through the velour, flashes of vulgar wit, of the kind he showed on 2002’s cover of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” How sad then that Dylanesque resigns itself to being merely a better-sung, better-played Bete Noire, an album committed to irrelevance and Ferry’s sui generis conflation of pedigree and competence. To be fair, you try wringing something worthwhile out of “All Along the Watchtower” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” in 2007. He does better with a glacial “Gates of Eden,” on which his talent for languor infuses every line with a sinister preemptoriness; for once the space between Ferry and his boring band is committed, not unintentional. They also alchemize the vitriol of “Positively Fourth Street” into something approaching pique—the only emotion Ferry understands in 2007. You suspect that Ferry insults the hapless target of Dylan’s barbs because she had the misfortune to attack his fashion sense (one glance at the album cover and you’ll think she had a point), so one wonders why his version doesn’t go far enough.

Ferry’s in an enviable position. Tiptoeing daintily past one contemporary trend after another, extending polite hauteur to his followers, he’s free of any ties. No other artist from his generation can rally his powers for some kind of autumnal triumph. It’s clear that the contemporary pop landscape frightens him; that’s why returning to Dylan provides a little succor. That Dylanesque finds him unfit to a task his own idol—as equally repulsed by Modern Times—succeeded in transcending makes me worry about his future.

No time to be a decent lover: Paul McCartney’s Memory Almost Full

As my readers know, I like a few Paul McCartney solo albums. Certainly they know my affections for synth/New Wave experiments like McCartney II and ’80s megapop like Press to Play. In 2007 I reviewed one of his many billed comebacks. This one worked. Here’s my Stylus review:

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Paul McCartney
Memory Almost Full
6-08-2007

Since I’ve dutifully avoided the half dozen studio albums released since he scored his last Top 40 hit in 1989, I’m in no position to discuss the “evolution” in Paul McCartney’s music. As rock’s most incorrigible niño lindo, he’s clung to certain verities—the belief in the studio and the belief in the spontaneous—when the evidence shows that he isn’t as resourceful (i.e. young) as he used to be. As to the former, he means not the studio-as-instrument a la Eno, but as sandtrap, in which good songs and common sense run aground; as to the latter, it’s regarding the unfinished or the third-rate as an expensive bauble, attractive if you’re in that mood, but by its very nature meaningless beyond its original context. Sometimes the tension in McCartney’s aesthetic has resulted in whole albums of madness, testaments to his loathsome infatuation with his own cuteness. How else do you explain soiling wonderful tunes like “Letting Go” and “Junior’s Farm” with solos by the third-rate Jimmy McCullough? It’s as if, to prove that he’s a genius, he hires incompetent sidemen for some albums so that on the likes of McCartney II he can then play all the instruments himself—a tactic he employs, by the way, when he imagines that the public wants a Paul “comeback” after its interest in his wonderfulness has ebbed.

Let me add that McCartney’s solo work, with or without input from the vassals he dubbed “Wings,” is extensive enough to reward deep sea diving—or excavation. I’ve defended the Doobie Brothers knockoff “Arrow Through Me” (whose vocal is supple and soulful enough to halt my grousing) many times. I’ve defended whole albums. I’ll go along with the revisionism that has elevated the likes of Ram to a pastoral masterpiece—if these same critics will grant that genius is erratic in the best of cases (as in, say, Prince), and, to be generous, irrelevant when it’s married to whimsy. Maybe it took divorce to rid himself of the chimeras to which his muse was beholden (no matter how bad Heather Mills might be, you try staying married to Paul McCartney). Maybe he’s smoking the right pot. Regardless, the triumph of Memory Almost Full is of an artist not following his instincts so much as dismissing them, of invigorating his command of the studio with an ersatz kind of wisdom: he’s not the Cute Beatle anymore, he’s the Surviving Beatle, and just try to take any of these titles away from him.

Since Paulie is as incapable of a Time Out of Mind as Dylan is of a “Say Say Say,” we have to accept on face value that the jauntiness of tracks like “Ever Present Past” and “That Was Me” are sonic and lyrical updates of an old trick he mastered as early as “I’m Down” (i.e. set an account of vastation and despair to an uptempo if not downright cheerful musical track). I can only hope that an advance copy of the upcoming Traveling Wilburys box set sent by the George Harrison estate is responsible for inspiring lines as right-on as “I’ve got too much on my plate / Don’t have no time to be a decent lover” (this box set, incidentally, does for Harrison’s solo work what “Love and Theft” did for its predecessor: plunges it into a memory hole). Producer David Kahne gets a pleasingly scrappy guitar sound on “Only Your Mama Knows” and proves capable of “Eleanor Rigby”-esque baroqueness (if nothing else) on “Mr. Bellamy.” The biggest surprise is the strength of his paymaster’s voice; James Mercer may be only one of a legion of contemporary popsters who splash the shoals of McCartney’s range, but only his idol can unleash his patented yearning growl on a questionable piece of abstruse pop like “House of Wax.”

I don’t want to overstate McCartney’s achievement. Memory Almost Full is as good as an album as this devotee of frivolity can make in his mid-sixties. It’s one of the few times his modesty doesn’t sound like arrogance (“That Was Me” actually sounds as if Macca had absorbed Bertolt Brecht’s theory of aesthetic distance). A line from the rather wonderful “The End of the World” encapsulates how this album stands in relation to the rest of his work: “This wasn’t bad / So a much better place would have to be special.” He could return to silly love songs on the next one. Craft does have its disadvantages; “craft” and “character flaws” are often synonymous. While I commend McCartney for preferring patness to smugness on “Gratitude,” he’s spent every album since 1970 proselytizing the wonders of this or that domestic virtue. Whether you take him on his word this time depends on your tolerance for the pulpit; it’s why I’m a proud atheist.

Love on the rocks: Brokeback Mountain

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Many budding gay men learned about the power of spit lube from Brokeback Mountain, for which we should be grateful to Annie Proulx and director Ang Lee. In 2016 it’s hard to believe this Hollywood weeper started such chatter in early 2006: talk show appearances in which an uncomfortable Jake Gyllenhaal and less uncomfortable Heath Ledger laughed off their kiss; thousands of words of slash fiction exploring every doomed facet (I read one where livid rancher Joe Aguirre, played by Randy Quaid, does unspeakable things to Jack Twist because he’s more repressed than Ennis Del Mar); and an Oscar ceremony proving with the coronation of Crash that the worst Hollywood partisans are Hollywood partisans. They got something right, though: insiders will take the message picture over the romance. Sam Goldwyn and Louis Mayer knew. It even won an Oscar for Best Cinematography because Academy voters confuse National Geographic nature photography for compositions.

In my series of Stylus Magazine excavations I’ve republished my review, written the day before Christmas Eve. I liked the movie so far as it went, recognizing its absurdities and limits. For a while, however, Brokeback Mountain became one of those decent movies that affected me. I got defensive when people knocked it. In 2005 and early 2006 I referred people to Tropical Malady, aware damn well that it was all for nought. Now the picture looks like what David Thomson predicted: a curiosity.

——————–
Brokeback Mountain
12-23-2005
Stylus

They meet, they herd, they fuck, they marry women, they die. Looming before Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) is Brokeback Mountain, in whose shadow they’ll remain for the rest of their rather miserable lives. On the slope which gives Ang Lee’s film (based on E. Anne Proulx’s 1997 short story) its name, Ennis and Jack revel in the love-that-dare-not-speak-its-name, with the full awareness that what began as a impulse born of loneliness will remain so.

The year is 1963. Hired by a scowling rancher (played by Randy Quaid, chewing a toothpick with quiet menace) to tend his flock of sheep for the summer—an idea that rightly confounds a contemporary audience—Ennis and Jack’s days mostly consist of smoking and cutting trees for firewood. What little talk occurs comes in grunts from the reticent Ennis, whose year in high school and miserable childhood (he was raised by a sister and brother) don’t give him much to talk about anyway. On a cold night, awash in whiskey, Ennis crawls into Jack’s tent; Jack, the more brazen of the pair, makes the first move.

Their relationship—I use the term loosely—will mimic the clumsy groping of their first sexual experience. Each acquires a devoted wife (Michelle Williams) who, in Ennis’ case, will care for ailing children and register with devastating quietude the sight of her husband making out with another man; and in Jack’s, the heiress of a farming equipment fortune (Anne Hathaway, of whom there is precious little) whose increasingly outré hairdos have more verve than Jack himself.

A director almost sunnily at ease with repression, Ang Lee can’t make Brokeback Mountain very erotic, let alone funny. So let’s get this out of the way: there isn’t enough sex in this film, and I wanted more of it. Just a handful of scenes between Ennis and Jack show the gingerly, coltish affection that only two young men in love can project; never let it be said that homosexual courtship follows hetero patterns. The actors (Gyllenhaal in particular) are game; Lee and screenwriters Larry McMurty and Diane Ossana don’t match their daring. If we are to believe that Ennis and Jack’s love hollows them, Lee must trace how a physical attraction deepens into this earthshaking phenomenon. These are, after all, two men, not a man and woman, and as such the feel of flesh should provide the metaphysical elements Gyllenhaal’s Jack yearns for, and the didactic screenplay makes explicit. Your mother wouldn’t get offended.

It’s strange: in films like The Ice Storm and this one Lee subverts his gift for narrative by resorting to rather portentous symbolism (remember all those shots of frozen flowers?). For Lee, block-letter narratives bespeak his commitment to maintaining the integrity of his source material, and it lets the audience off the hook much too often. The contrast between the airy, green vistas of Brokeback (where Ennis and Jack did their foolin’ and fuckin’) and the dank rented rooms and trailers in which Ennis and his family live is reductive (to be fair, this hobbled the Proulx story too). The obvious answer is the old adage: if repression’s your theme, you probably wear a corset yourself.

Heath Ledger has generated a lot of acclaim for his ay-yup performance, and he’s certainly memorable: Ennis is like one of those men you meet casually on an airplane whose craggy sullen faces disguise a lifetime of sorrow. Ledger makes us understand that Ennis’ reserve is actually a distortion of his homosexual panic, as well as a shield which attempts (and fails) to hide the fact that Ennis is essentially a ne’er-do-well. Around his children he’s stagy and awkward, with a forced good cheer a lot like Ronald Reagan’s. He can barely muster the libido to nuzzle his wife (although with all those kids maybe he thought he didn’t need to). Even his relationship with the increasingly desperate Jack never breaks the harmless rhythm of a strong platonic attachment, and it’s here, in the picture’s last third, when Lee taps Gyllenhaal’s strengths to create something truly sad.

Given his weakness for characters of vaporous sensitivity that prefer the company of talking rabbits and Jennifer Aniston, it’s a relief that Gyllenhaal actually gives a performance instead of relying on those doleful and admittedly beautiful blue eyes. Brokeback Mountain is the first film in which he’s tacitly acknowledged that nothing gives us as an audience greater pleasure than to admire gorgeous people. He’s never been sexier than in the scene, barely five minutes into the movie, in which, leaning against a trailer, he sizes up Ennis as if thinking, This will do. It’s worthy of Montgomery Clift (who no doubt writhed in sodomic longing too). To the audience (and probably Ennis too), Gyllenhaal’s Jack seems the most obviously gay—at least that’s how Lee tags him. His father-in-law can barely conceal his contempt for the ex-rodeo star; he visits Mexico to pick up hustlers; and even, in a manner of speaking, comes out to his parents when he shares his dream of tending a ranch with Ennis. But essential to Gyllenhaal’s acting is the naiveté that is as much a tragic flaw as Ennis’ self-hate.

Brokeback Mountain ends with Ennis worshipping Jack, a memory now as worthless as the ashes of those fires they lit on the side of their beloved retreat. Everybody’s got his number now: his wife, his oldest daughter (a lovely performance of benumbed alertness by Kate Mara), the girlfriend he won’t marry. Earlier in the film Lee had shown us the wages of fear: Ennis, framed like a parody of John Wayne in the last shot of The Searchers, vomiting at the conclusion of his and Jack’s golden summer. This was most unconvincing; Ennis would as soon throw up as read Proust for solace. Brokeback Mountainis effective and hence affecting when Lee swallows his characters’ suppressed ardor in his austere conceptions and compositions. It’s a curious achievement, alright: a powerful film celebrating renunciation. On second thought, forget Mom and ask Pope Benedict XVI to be your date.

Mustaches and gay panic: The Killers

For a couple years I got more hate mail for this piece than anything I’d written to date. I was happy to be proven right: Brandon Flowers’ queer envy and talents finally meshed on the daft and intermittently powerful The Desired Effect, and he shaved the mustache.

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The Killers
Sam’s Town
10-02-06

More than a few critics have knocked The Killers for recording a soupy version of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, but they haven’t suggested which Springsteen albums the band should have been emulating. I suggest Born in the U.S.A., 12 synth-anchored nuggets which get down to basics instead of shilly-shallying with poesy as unfathomable to Springsteen as it is to Brandon Flowers. Face it: “She’s the One” and “Jungleland” are silly songs no matter whose neck veins are straining at the mic. Whatever Sam’s Town’s scant merits, the album reminds artists to be more careful about their role models—and to avoid Bono’s phone calls.

While promoting 2004’s Hot Fuss, Flowers’ interviews proffered a hermeneutics of Mormonism acceptable to Teen Beat subscribers and fans of Duran Duran’s first eponymous album: he drank and smoke on occasion; he admired the Pet Shop Boys and Morrissey; he tacitly acknowledged that, while the Killers may have been his first band, he’d had the smarts to hire three of the ugliest men in rock so that only he could hog the spotlight. If Hot Fuss was intermittently powerful enough to support Flowers’ pretensions, the album’s uncertain amble signaled that either The Killers didn’t believe a fucking word of their interviews or that they could mime New Order performances like their namesakes when the albums don’t ship platinum.

Sam’s Town
puzzles, like Flowers’ new mustache. It is simply appalling that no one reminded the band about the album’s ridiculous sequencing. A reminder, kids: an “Enterlude” should be, you know, the first song, not the second. Burying “Read My Mind,” the album’s only surefire hit, in the second half when it should have followed first single “When You Were Young” smacks of carelessness or stupidity: Flowers can spell “hurricane” but not “gestalt.” The spectacularly named “Bling (Confessions of a King)” is a showcase for guitarist Adam Keuning’s imitations of The Edge, not Flowers’ duet with Jay-Z. The cautionary tale “Uncle Jonny” fails to work up a sweat about drugs or rhyming dictionaries (“When everyone else did cocaine / My Uncle Jonny did refrain”); it must rankle Flowers that Justin Timberlake’s recent “Losing My Way” deploys anti-crack bombast more affectingly.

Romantic tropes, as Byron and Kate Bush understood, are useful simulacra for coitus. If Flowers has had sex since the release of Hot Fuss, Sam’s Town is a woeful advertisement. The low bass throb of “Read My Mind” evokes the cumulatively desperate crawl of Jacques Lu Cont’s Thin White Duke remix of “Mr. Brightside”; but where Flowers limns the latter’s paranoid scenario in garish three-dimensional hues, the former has restless-hearts, promised-lands, and other Springsteenian table scraps that won’t impress anybody on a first date. It doesn’t help that Flowers sings his big numbers like a soccer ball had winded him a minute before opening his mouth—a damn shame, since a pip of a tune like “All the Things That I’ve Done” showed what a singer whose emotional range compensated for a limited physical range can do. In a touching display of solidarity with their leader’s hysterics, the band insert awful fills and accelerate the tempos on sex-jive like “Bones” and (really) “The River Is Wild.” It’s not that Flowers writes songs he’s physically incapable of singing; he writes songs that no one wants to sing.

An album as straight as Sam’s Town forces one to deploy grad school jargon like “hetero-normative,” but from the new influences to the performances this is a classic example of gay panic. Perhaps Flowers was genuinely unaware of how many men watched the “All The Things That I’ve Done” video just to swoon at the sight of him washing his hair (I’m not one of them, but he was dorky-cute in a ten-gallon hat like Dave Gahan’s circa 1990). Perhaps he fails to note the relish with which he bites down hard on the “beautiful boy” line in “When We Were Young.” Perhaps he forgets that he used to wear makeup and love the Pet Shop Boys and Morrissey. Their susceptibility to a homo reading lent those early songs their soupcon of subtext. Despite Flowers’ gaseous poetry and weedy melodramatics he carried the flag for a new prototype: the straight guy who wishes he was as cool, stylish, and awesomely self-assured as he imagines his gay best friend to be. To realize this synth-swish/muscle-queen mythos, he will have to understand that Born in the U.S.A. showed a more variegated Springsteen than its mega-sales (not to mention Born to Run) suggested. The Boss also had the foresight to wear jeans as tight as the gates on Max Weinberg’s drums—the little boys and girls understood.

Al Green: It’s all okay

The streaming age hasn’t made appraisal of Al Green’s catalog easier. When the wedding standards from Greatest Hits pop up on Spotify, I understand why the young hate weddings and old people. From breakthrough Al Green Gets Next to You through Al Green is Love, the R&B singer-songwriter-sensualist recorded full length statements, boasting album tracks as fulsome and ravishing as the chestnuts playing on quiet storm as I type. I’ve a special affection for Livin’ For You because even the likes of “Sweet Sixteen” and the “Unchained Melody” sport growls; he recognizes that, as Joni Mitchell sang two years later, love’s a repetitious danger.

In 2007 I wrote an appreciation of “Beware,” the last track on Livin’ For You. It represents what Harold Bloom would call a breaking of the vessel: drummer Al Jackson and bassist Leroy Hodges disregarding their terse three-minute structures/strictures. Call it Al Green Explores Your Tolerance. Finding the danger in sex, Green stumbles into his future calling as preacher.

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Al Green
“Beware”
2007-01-30

You think you know me, but you don’t. I contain multitudes. That’s what Al Green’s “Beware” tells the trusting listener. Livin’ for You has never been as popular as Call Me or I’m Still in Love With You in the pre-Belle Album canon, although it’s home to sizable hits like the title track and “Let’s Get Married,” whose line “I’m tired of your bright ideas about losing me” augurs Green’s approach on “Beware.” Don’t think that this meticulous recordmaker didn’t know that bookending two variations on this theme would inject a welcome snark to an album of tepid tried-and-true’s and remarkably unremarkable covers.

At 8:12, “Beware” is one of Green’s longest tunes—an expansion of what was by 1973 a seasoned craftsman’s obsessions. If “Let’s Stay Together” and “Call Me” rendered Green as the star in his own billowy romantic fantasies, and “Here I Am (Come & Take Me)” was the PG-rated simulacrum of “Tired of Being Alone”’s hard-dicked impatience, “Beware” subsumes them in a groove whose predictability, borne of equal parts confidence and mercenary instincts, doesn’t mitigate Green’s determination to show how finely shaded the Love Man pose was if you were staring hard enough (imagine if Bryan Ferry had fused “If There Is Something” and “Just Another High”!). It’s the work of an artist with an uncanny grasp of how he stood in relation to his audience. Compared with sonic cousin “Your Love Is the Morning Sun,” the drawled hush in which Green sings “Beware” signifies a rapture as besotted with its own ability to provoke rapture as the earlier tune was at delineating the afterglow of one monstrous night of passion.

A chunk of “Beware” maintains a pace as unhurried as “…Morning Sun,” even with Leroy Hodges plucking a bass line as quietly propulsive as a finger thrust up a skirt. Over electric piano and Al Jackson’s as-ever metronomic drumming, Green sings:

The way people smile and say
Using me in every way
It’s all okay
Tired of changin’
Life is upside down
No reason to cry loud

I want to concentrate on the line, “It’s all okay.” Enunciating the two syllables, he assures us that the statement is an unambiguous admission of exhaustion—or is it? The ominous churn of keyboards and drums say otherwise; it’s not okay if one glance at the vinyl tells us there’s still six-plus minutes of all-okay. Then the truly odd: “So many people think life is fun / We’ve only just begun.” Sung in Green’s most fetching growl, you understand why pleasure—fleeting and limited to one’s capacity for re-invention—cannot be contingent on joy. You understand what led Green to affix a “Reverend” to his name after a bowl of grits scalded his back. “Beware” explores pleasure, not joy; this explains its crawl to a triumphant, thundering climax. To approach joy he had to crawl, as he would to Jesus a couple of years later, note by note, testing each instrument, spitting couplets and epithets with homiletic intensity when clarity failed him.

The rest of “Beware” isn’t so interesting: Green, at last figuring out where he’s got to take the track, leads the band through a more loping version of “Love & Happiness.” But a hint of the looser arrangements Green would pursue on The Belle Album appears at midpoint: an acoustic guitar, picked by Green himself (“Play my guitar,” he murmurs, with an infectious pride), weaving between the pistons of Jackson’s drums, coyly, nimbly. The last minute is perfection: Charlie Hodges plays an electric piano motif that’s right out Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way, Jackson hangs in there, and there’s Green, chuckling. “Every time he laughs mischievously at the passion elicited by his boyish come-on, he shares a joke about the pleasures of the tease,” Robert Christgau once wrote (remember Justin Timberlake’s own giggle in “Senorita”). This unassuming mélange of gospel intensity and post-jazz introspection is one of those hybrids for which Green got so little credit from an audience who wanted wedding standards—and from the artist himself, who would have himself kept recording these standards had not grits and a misunderstanding of the pleasure principle hardened him against a secular muse to whom he could have pledged a troth of a more beguiling stature.

The aesthete meets the laptop: Scritti Politti

When I reviewed my second favorite record of 2006, millennial appreciation of Scritti Politti was in its pupal stage. I myself didn’t own Cupid & Psyche ’85 until early 1999; during the Rodney Jerkins and Timbaland era of R&B and hip hop it sounded of the moment (I still don’t own the album he released later that year with a Mos Def appearance). Its sparse arrangements perhaps a product of economic necessity, White Bread, Black Beer sounded like 2006 too, the summer of Hot Chip and Gnarls Barkley. I still like the record. And believe Green Gartside can record another, better one.

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Scritti Politti
White Bread, Black Beer
7-24-2006

Audiences ignore the travails of an aesthete who digs Gaultier pants and Immanuel Kant. Critics are more stupid. But when the aesthete hires producer Arif Mardin and a coterie of New York’s finest musicians, outdoes Kate Bush in Fairlight synthesizer mastery, and listens to Debarge albums, the audience responds—and applauds. We can forgive Green Gartside almost any indulgence because Cupid and Psyche ’85 exists, because its lone American hit “Perfect Way” is being played by an ‘80s station as I type, because Green’s Michael Jackson imitation is way more convincing than Justin Timberlake’s (he may, in fact, even be a more convincing Justin Timberlake).

White Bread, Black Beer is only the third record Green’s released under the Scritti Politti moniker since CAP’85. He spent most of those years—by his own admission—in Wales blowing his dough on beer. Beware solitary drinkers. If you want to get lachrymose, at least make sure an audience slaps you around. With its laptop beats and closely mic’d intimacy, White Bread, Black Beer conforms to the dictates of a creator with endless time to play all the instruments and no one to please but himself, regrettably. The melodies are gorgeous, but so are Paul McCartney’s. What gives the album its frisson of fascination is Green’s invigorated take on distance, his favorite theme: in one of those yummy ironies savored by Green the post-structuralist, the aural vacuousness of WBBB itself embodies this distance—from the audience who paid for the ale-fueled exile.

The absence of human referents forces Green into self-reflexiveness. “The Boom Boom Bap” alludes to 1988’s determinedly weightless “Boom! There She Was,” although shunning the compulsion to create approximations of banality lends poignancy to the former’s clever delineation of how language fails at a moment of crisis. The best numbers, like “Road to No Regret,” tweak readymade phrases one at a time, compensating for failed song suites (“Dr. Abernathy,” “Mrs. Hughes”) betrayed by skeletal arrangements; if you’re emulating the Beatles, be sure you hire George or, better, Ringo. “Snow in Sun” and “Robin Hood” remind me of the glistening “Oh Patti (Don’t Feel Sorry for Loverboy”). That song, with its mournful Miles Davis solo, relies on a third-person narrative to mitigate Green’s terrifying erotic desolation. He’s more cheerful these days, just tickled about being a loner. On “Robin Hood,” aggressive strumming frames his crème brulee vocals and these lyrics, his best ever:

I’ve been wishing my life away
For Robin Hood to be king one day
We’ll share the treasures of the world
I will get the girl

Green pauses between “king” and “one day.” It’s no accident that “Robin Hood” concludes the album; no follow-up is possible with a song whose last line is “Never never gonna go back,” punctuated with celebratory guitar peals. Wow. Never returning to syndrums. R.I.P. Robert Quine and Arif Mardin. This is not quixotic vagueness: this is a hortatory schemer hustling us. If you’re in Wales this summer, have a pint with the goateed Goliath. He’s the one playing darts with the locals. An amiable chap.