Thursday, November 30, 2006

People Call Me Circuit City

Sorry. I know I've got to update, or you'll all stop checking. I'm going to make the usual school / holidays excuses and leave it at that. I'm lazy. If you've gotten this far, you know that.

Music stuff again -- I'm going to throw up my hands here and ask: have any of you out there heard this Joanna Newsom person? Apparently this is the new thing we're all supposed to be excited about. Like, if Sufjan were a girl, or something. I'm sold, but I can't get to the record store so often these days. Remember when we could walk to the record store on our lunch hour? That was nice. Now I don't even have the new Pernice Brothers album that's been out for a month and I'm like the guy's biggest supporter in Ohio. I could order it at Borders but how much of a part of the problem do I want to be?

Sufjan's got a Christmas album, if you care. I guess he hadn't put anything out in three months or so, so it's expected. We're playing it at Borders, and it's very pretty.

Bought Bonnie "Prince" Billy -- sounds good, but I haven't had time to judge it. The Long Winters album is solid but not particularly essential -- still a minor cousin to Death Cab and the Decemberists. I actually saw the Long Winters open for the Decemberists in '04 or so. It was good, as I recall. They played the terribly exciting "New Girl," but not their de facto signature tune, "Cinnamon." That's a good song, and you know why? It's got four verses. So many lazy songwriters think they can stop at two and we won't even notice. We do.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

They'll Need a Crane

(Review of The Crane Wife, by the Decemberists)

There comes a time when we all have to ask ourselves: how do we feel about songs about chimney sweeps? For plenty of people, that’s further than they’re willing to go – once a rock band brings up the chimney sweeps, or sailors, or Victorian street-urchins, they’re getting off the bus. It’s hard to blame them. If you’re a fan of the Decemberists, however, that’s where the trip begins. Over four albums or so now, Colin Meloy et al have carved out a distinctive niche – perfectly crafted, evocative little folk-rock ditties incorporating an absurdly elevated vocabulary, loads of period detail, and a healthy dose of pitch-black humor, all delivered in Meloy’s distinctive adenoidal croon.

The new album, The Crane Wife, will not surprise anybody who’s been paying attention. Sure, it’s got not one but two multi-part folk-prog epics: the title story, which is apparently based on some Japanese folktale, and nautical murder-ballad “The Island.” But this is a band that had epic ambitions from the beginning – the bleak, disturbing “Odalisque,” from 2001’s Castaways & Cutouts clearly pointed out that they had no intentions of being some sort of retro-joke act. The problem is that they’ve already taken this sort of thing as far as it could possibly go with their 18-minute Celtic-themed song-cycle The Tain. I like this new album, and I like “The Island,” but when I listen to “The Island,” what I mainly think is: boy, this makes me want to listen to The Tain. The Tain kicks ass! ("The Tain, Part 2" kicks so much ass that it is literally painful to sit down afterwards. It’s like Morrissey showed up to sing Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.”)

But the first part of “The Island” is mighty fine, despite wearing its progginess on its sleeve. Lots of organ and accordion and that sort of thing. (Rachel’s brother heard about two minutes of it and said “Jethro Tull!”) Return readers take note: it does give a nod to The Tempest – Sycorax gets a shout-out. And if you didn’t like rock bands singing things like “curlews carve their arabesques,” you would never have even considered touching this record. Parts two and three, well, they’re okay. A little cutesey, perhaps – is there really ever any reason to say that you were “a-ramble down by the water?”

What really matters to me are not the epics, but the regular tunes – I love The Tain, but for me this is the band of “Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect,” “Song for Myla Goldberg,” and “On the Bus Mall” – songs that essentially couldn’t be improved upon. And the tunes are there on The Crane Wife. Do they deliver? Well, yes, mostly. We’ve got a lovely Civil War death-duet, “Yankee Bayonet” – if you’re going to do a damned Civil War duet, it better be lovely, and I think they pull it off. We’ve got a West-Side-Story-type teen death ballad, “O, Valencia!” which is pretty fun. I love exclamation points in titles, and I love the poetic “O” – I’ll forgive a lot if you give me those things. “O, Valencia!” doesn’t quite do it, though – the chorus is big, but not big enough, and the subject matter is just so so tired that I don’t know how Meloy could let himself write it. I can see how it would probably be pretty majestic if you played it live; it really wants to rock. On the record it’s not quite there, but I’ll still take it over most pop songs. (Meloy said in an interview that the main guitar figure was supposed to sound like R.E.M.’s “Seven Chinese Brothers.” He went on to say, a little too proudly, that he’d asked Peter Buck’s permission to use it – presumably when they both were working on Scott McCaughey’s last Minus 5 album. Two things: Meloy’s vocal turn on that record, “Cemetery Row,” is by far the best thing on it and also as good as most any Decemberists song. And also, “O Valencia” makes me want to listen to Reckoning.)

And hey, we’ve got “Summersong.” I can’t complain about that one. One review I read called this song “insufferable,” but nobody who would think that has any business reviewing a Decemberists album. Is it precious? Oh my, yes! (“My girl / linen and curls / lips parting like a flag all unfurled?”) But that couldn’t be any less relevant – it’s a melody you can’t really argue with, unless maybe you think it reminds you of Oasis. If that’s the case, then please just try to forget everything you know about Oasis and remember why “Wonderwall” was a hit.

What else? There’s “Shankill Butchers,” an attempt at a creepy, Tim Burton-ish childrens’ song in the spirit of Castaways' hilariously indefensible “A Cautionary Song.” But that sort of thing is only slightly funny once. There are some admirable attempts at expanding the pallet – “The Perfect Crime #2” is an enormously fun, cartoonish little gangster tale, complete with an invocation of the Muse. I couldn’t help but think of Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket, and of course it’s by far the funkiest thing this band has ever done by default. It’s a shame the chorus doesn’t deliver, or it would be a highlight. “When the War Came” is puzzling, but admirable; it seems to be an attempt at oblique political commentary in the vein of Picaresque’s much-more-sprightly “Sixteen Military Wives,” but it’s darker and thornier. One review called it “polite hard rock,” which I thought was a terribly backhanded compliment – in my opinion, when a band that sings about vengeful mariners and barrow boys decides to get heavy, then, well, it’s just that much heavier. “When the War Came” is pretty damned solid, I just don’t know what it’s saying, exactly. Why are parts of it in Latin? And how does this new “war is bad” message square with the “war is totally gay” message of Her Majesty The Decemberists’ “The Soldiering Life?”

The final verdict might depend on how you feel about the title song, or songs. “The Crane Wife 1 & 2” is long and slow, and if you can’t get into it than you may ultimately decide this album was a waste of time. But on its own terms, it manages to be graceful and affecting in spite of itself. “The Crane Wife 3” was chosen to start the album, out of sequence, and it’s a decision that makes a certain perfect sense, finally. It’s got the right mix of effortless wordplay (“under the boughs unbowed,” a line that only Colin Meloy could start a record with) and aching regret in the soaring chorus (“I will hang my head low.”)

Really, though, we’re all still waiting for the next step. Like their close associates and fellow Portlandites, Death Cab For Cutie, the Decemberists have won a loyal following and made the jump to a major label. They’ve got a dozen or so tunes, from “Shiny” to “Red Right Ankle” to “Summersong,” that anybody would be proud to have written. But at some point we’ll have to see whether they’re going to be remembered for more than singing about chimney sweeps.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

This Thing of Darkness I Acknowledge Mine

So. Here you are. Thanks. Apologies in advance. For everything.

Gonna start things off real nice and highbrow: I took in some theater this past week. Seriously. Technically it was for school, but really that's only my excuse. You see, Dr. Wikander at UT managed to secure a small number of tickets for the Royal Shakespeare Company's residency in Ann Arbor this week, and he offered them to his students first. I snapped one right up as quick as I could, and not just because I'm a literature dork. On this particular evening they were doing The Tempest, and the marquee star, doing his farewell tour with the RSC as Prospero, the retiring magician, was one Patrick Stewart.

That's right. Jean-Luc Freakin' Picard, in the flesh, hamming it up for the upper crust of the midwest. Good stuff. So much lovely pop-cultural resonance that you hardly know where to start. (Professor Charles Xavier, of X-Men, with his loyal army of mutants - how is he like Prospero with his spirits? Discuss.) What a lucky guy, Patrick Stewart, who took his stage training and admittedly awesome voice and did really, really well for himself out of American geek culture. But who can begrudge him? He totally carried Star Trek on his back for all those years - they'd never had a real actor before! - and he never passed up a chance to spout some Shakespeare whenever the galactic situation called for it. Does anybody remember him reciting Hamlet's "what a piece of work is man" speech at Q, the scenery-chewing alien supervillain who just wouldn't leave the Enterprise alone? (From a certain angle, that whole series was about the enmity between those two. Discuss.) Picard's trying his best to defend the human race's interstellar reputation, so he pulls out this well-worn set piece - "in form and moving how express and admirable," and so forth. But here's the thing: Hamlet didn't really mean it. He was a miserable guy, he'd lost all his mirth, and he was being sarcastic in front of his college buddies, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He wasn't any more fond of humanity than Q was. And it's only my surmise, but I think that Stewart knew this, and that it was he who insisted that Picard preface his speech by intoning "and what [Hamlet] said in irony, I say with conviction!" It was such an awkward, pedantic thing to say; nothing like what a Star Trek writer would have put there, but absolutely correct. I remember being very impressed by the whole thing, as a fifteen-year-old.

And it wasn't just Star Trek and X-Men! What about Gurney Halleck, from David Lynch's incomprehensible 80's Dune movie? Or Guinevere's Dad in John Boorman's bizarro Arthurian epic, Excalibur? Now that's a resumé. But put Dune and Excalibur together, and you just might have a story as ape-crazy-bananas as The Tempest.

What are we to make of this thing, now? It's beloved, we know, and not without reason, but what, exactly, is the deal? Shakespeare got a bit flaky there towards the end. He'd had a hell of a decade - who's had a better one? - doing stories about startlingly real people doing sort-of-realistic things while reciting some really staggering speeches. But as he wrapped up his career he wanted to do fairy tales and miracles. Was it just fashion? Because mostly it doesn't age well - only we specialists read A Winter's Tale or Cymbeline these days. But we have decided we love The Tempest - and I guess if you pin me down I can't blame us. Especially if it's got Captain Picard in it.

To begin with, they made it cold. That's almost perverse - so much of the poetry is about how lush and fertile Prospero's island is, but they set it in the Arctic. The set was made to look like fractured sheets of ice, and the shipwrecked characters spent the whole play shivering. And not only is it the Arctic, but it seems to be the American Arctic. The spirits chant in some lost tribal language, and Prospero is some kind of shaman; he summons the storm wearing a huge animal-skin robe with an elaborate pointy headpiece, his back to the audience. (It's an eerie moment that the play never quite lives up to.)

Ariel's not American - he's Goth. He's played as some sort of frost-demon in his white face-paint and floor-length Billy-Corgan-style trenchcoat, and he almost steals the show. The tense-but-productive relationship between him and Stewart's Prospero is the most convincing one onstage. He glides in and out of scenes without seeming to move his legs, and, in the show's one jaw-dropping moment, emerges dramatically out of the corpse of some kind of dead walrus-beast. (I wanted to check my text - where does it say "enter spirits with dead walrus?" I looked it up during the intermission; it turns out it was supposed to be a "banquet." I think Shakespeare would have dug the dead walrus.)

Anyway, Stewart is a bipolar kind of Prospero - he's erratic, he's moody. He's really powerful, and there's no telling what he'll do! His relationship with Miranda is sometimes touching and sometimes played for laughs. His most famous speech, "our revels now are ended," etc, is delivered in a state of distraction, half irritated, half in tears. Miranda un-selfconsciously hugs him when he hits "we are such stuff as dreams are made on," and it's a good, solid, lump-in-the-throat moment. The comic characters are not nearly funny enough for the amount of time they're onstage, but this is unavoidable. (Apparently this kind of thing was popular in 1610.) Ferdinand is a cipher, but that's how he's written. Antonio is a cipher of a villain, but that's how he's written. Alonso is confusing enough that he's kind of interesting, but he still doesn't make any sense. (He's sad his kid's dead, but not sad enough. He's happy his kid's alive, but not happy enough. And why is Prospero so eager to forgive him?) Sebastian is a little too good - he's one of those bad guys that Shakespeare couldn't resist giving the good lines to, and the actor made the most of it - but of course the character doesn't go anywhere.

And Caliban. What are we going to do about Caliban? We're stuck with him. He's a "thing of darkness," he's a slave who wants out, and you can't trust him with the white women. Shakespeare goes out of his way to make him not human - apparently he's kind of fish-like - but, honestly, does that really help the situation? He's a savage, created just about the time that white people started buying and selling them. All you can say in Shakespeare's defense is that at least Caliban's resentment is given to us bluntly, and at least he's allowed to speak in verse, which is more than can be said for his co-conspirators Stefano and Trunculo.

(Because the verse, after all, is why we care about this weird play, I suppose. "The isle is full of noises," and "I'll drown my book," and "our little life / Is rounded with a sleep." How can you argue with that? Especially me, who came at this thing all backwards - I got my Tempest and my Dante and my Ovid and my Spanish Tragedy and my Sanskrit when I was seventeen and fascinated with "The Waste Land." Eliot was trying to tell us that all of that was over, that he was the Last Word, but I guess I missed the point -- I remember those are pearls that were his eyes.)

...and do you remember the one where everybody thinks Data died in a shuttle accident but he's actually been kidnapped by some crazy gadget-collector guy? It's heartrending; everybody's in mourning. Picard is going through Data's personal effects, and he just can't help bringing Hamlet into it. "He was a man; take him for all in all," he muses. "I shall not look upon his like again." For sci-fi TV, a pretty effective, if pompous, moment -- especially since Data would be mightily flattered to be called a "man." But of course that's Hamlet on his late dad, which puts a whole new spin on the Picard-Data relationship. (And Data's miraculous "resurrection" has a real Shakespearean-romance flavor to it, doesn't it? "Weeping again the king my father's wrack..." We could do this all day.)

Which brings me back to the RSC, and the secret reason that Prospero and Ariel's labor-relations problem was so interesting. At the start of the last act, Prospero's got all of his enemies under his magical control; he can do whatever he wants to them, but he decides to be merciful and give everybody a happy ending. That's why it's a romance. It's hard to make this dramatic -- since nobody can really threaten Prospero, he's not much of a hero. You can make him tormented, like Stewart did. That's fine; it makes sense. But what they also did was unexpectedly make Ariel his conscience. It's there in the text, sort of -- Ariel does argue for mercy, and Prospero agrees. But this production really obviously made that moment the climax of the play. Ariel says: you know, if you could see how miserable these guys are now, your heart would just melt. Oh, do you think so? Prospero asks, and Stewart turns this into biting sarcasm; he doesn't believe it for a second. "Mine would," Ariel says, deadly serious, "were I [long pause] human." They stare at each other for about fifteen seconds, then Prospero starts weeping like a reformed drunk and talking about how he's going to kick the magic for good this time. Astonishing stuff, but especially astonishing because there had to be a significant part of the audience that, like me, was thinking: "Whoa! Ariel's Data!" He might be practically a god, but according to the creators of this show, (who must have watched Next Generation a time or two,) all Ariel wants is to be a real live boy. O strange new worlds, that have such people in them!