Thursday, December 27, 2007

Pillar of Fire

It’s been pointed out to me that for a literature major who works in a bookstore, I really don’t write about books a whole lot—the implication being that I’m some sort of a damned fraud. There is probably some truth to this. Especially since becoming a Scholar, I haven’t really kept up with the new fiction the way I used to. It’s been frustrating. If you’ve read my little Blogger profile, you’ve seen that I list a whole bunch of impressive highbrow novelists as my supposed favorites—but a significant number of those people have had new books out in the past year or two, and I’ve hardly read any of them. Don Delillo. Robert Stone. Martin Amis. William T. Vollmann. John Banville. Richard Powers. And so on. I did get through Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach a few months back, but that’s because it’s, like, sixty pages long. (It was okay, but forgettable for McEwan.)

But when I saw earlier this year that Denis Johnson had a novel coming out, his first in nearly a decade, I still couldn’t help getting a little bit excited. And when I saw that it was going to be six hundred pages long, I got a lot excited. And when Tree of Smoke was released and garnered extravagant praise, including Johnson’s best-ever reviews and the National Book Award, I couldn’t wait for my damned thesis project to be over so that I could read it.

Well, the thesis project is over with. And perhaps you’ve heard about how that didn’t go so great. But at least I finally got to read Tree of Smoke, and I can tell you that yeah, it really is that good. I finished it last week in a thrilled caffeinated overnight reading binge of the kind I hadn’t had in years, and I felt wrung out and wrecked. I felt like I was living in that novel for the rest of my sleep-deprived day. (Of course, large parts of Johnson’s book are set during the Vietnam War, and when you’re on the retail front lines in December it’s obscurely comforting to imagine that you’re in a combat zone.)

I have to start by saying that Johnson does something pretty remarkable here that only a tiny minority of his newly expanded readership will be able to appreciate. I didn’t appreciate it myself until I was most of the way through the novel—at about four AM, in other words. I got a sudden startled chill down my spine and had to leap up and go over to my bookshelf. What happened was that I suddenly recognized one of the novel’s secondary characters, a drunken and basically worthless enlisted Navy man, who seemed to command his own plot thread, which meandered around alongside the other threads for obscure reasons. In the novel’s last act, this guy returns to America, and takes to wandering the streets drinking, wearing a leather jacket with no shirt on, and he all at once seemed startlingly familiar. Wait a minute, I thought. Bill Houston? Bill Houston! And I went to the shelf and saw that I was right: Bill Houston was the drunken and basically worthless criminal antihero of Johnson’s debut novel, the searingly bleak Angels, which I’d read some seven or eight years ago. So Tree of Smoke exists in the same fallen world as Angels, which says an enormous amount if you’ve read that book, or indeed any of Johnson’s others.

Have you? If anything, you’ve read Jesus’ Son, which was by far his best known and best-loved work until now. I was talking about it with a co-worker, and we realized that we’d both lent our copies of it to other people and never gotten them back. It’s that sort of book. Jesus’ Son is something of a cult classic, a memoir-disguised-as-a-novel-disguised-as-a-story-collection, a heartbreaking and hilarious picture of a an aimless youth of violence and addiction, played out against a flat, sunlit Midwestern landscape that was entirely too familiar to me. (Maybe if anything you’ve seen the movie, with Billy Crudup and Samantha Morton, a perfectly adequate but uninspired attempt to turn a deranged, visionary work into something that people would watch in a movie theater.)

Anyway, after those two indelible books, Johnson had a long and quirky career as a novelist and poet in the eighties and nineties, with modest success and modest acclaim. He wrote an utterly bizarre post-apocalyptic fantasia, Fiskadoro, and a couple of novels, The Stars at Noon and Resuscitation of a Hanged Man that featured helpless and damned protagonists like the characters in Angels, but weren’t as much fun. Then he wrote the enormously fun and enormously underrated Already Dead: A California Gothic which had drugs and hippies and hitmen and cops and witches and demons and wannabe Nietzschean samurai übermenschen—everything you could ask for, basically. This was followed by an unremarkable novella, The Name of the World, which was followed by essentially nothing. I felt a bit cheated, frankly, like I’d discovered the guy just in time for him to decide that he was going to let his reputation dwindle to nothing, to become the guy who wrote that Drug Book that the kids like. But now he’s back, and the Literary Establishment has endorsed him; he’s won big prizes. I don’t think he’s been on Oprah yet, but it may only be a matter of time. If it happens, I forgive him.

So yeah, Tree of Smoke is indeed a Vietnam War epic, but it’s a hell of a lot more than that. Very early in the novel, William “Skip” Sands, naïve young CIA officer, thinks about his mentor and uncle, Colonel Francis X. Sands, whose shadow looms over the novel like a drunk and jovial Mr. Kurtz:

The colonel, his closest trainer, had made sure each of his recruits memorized “The Lee Shore” from Melville’s Moby-Dick:
But as in landlessness resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God—so, better it is to perish in that howling infinite than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety! For worm-like, then, oh! who would craven crawl to land!

Like the colonel, Johnson’s other characters live in a Melvillean sort of world, forever on difficult terms with a god who is alternately terrifying and terrifyingly absent. Skip Sands worshipfully follows his uncle first to the Philippines and then to Vietnam, and into an impenetrable moral fog from which he never really emerges. Colonel Sands is a force of nature, a greathearted national hero whose love of freedom is desperately sincere and principled—but he’s also a self-aggrandizing alcoholic, who may in fact be a rogue agent with his own private army. Skip is absorbed into the Colonel’s murky and unexplainable “psychological warfare” campaign against the Vietcong, but also into his death-struggle with the elements of the military and intelligence communities who have come to see him as worse than useless.

Parallel to Skip Sands’ story is the story of Private James Houston—brother of Seaman Bill Houston and also a secondary character in Angels. James is an archetypal Johnson character, innocent but out of control, who ends up an infantryman in Vietnam for lack of anything better to do, and gradually descends into his own heart of darkness. This would all be the stuff of a hundred ‘Nam-movie clichés if Johnson didn’t write the way he does—James’ journey into chaos is first grimly hilarious and then grimly horrifying. The confusion, the prostitutes, the peculiar incompetent officers, the endless boredom. (Thankfully there’s no Jimi Hendrix on the soundtrack. You’re free to imagine it if you like.) Houston of course ends up the recon platoon that has been bound through inexplicable bureaucratic channels into servitude to the mysterious Colonel Sands, and like everyone else is completely unprepared for the Tet Offensive, which is described in some of the most harrowing and terrifyingly funny combat scenes ever written. After Tet, James goes AWOL for a while, and seems to be offered a chance at redemption—in a moving sequence, he tries to keep a maimed soldier in a brothel from killing himself. But then, at a crucial point, Johnson puts him in the path of the Colonel, who clearly recognizes something useful and fatal in him. Colonel Sands helps him patch things up with his superiors and gets him attached to a long-range recon unit—essentially a band of marauders terrorizing the countryside, in the company of whom he descends into a circle of hell only imagined by the numb and wasted characters of Jesus’ Son.

Meanwhile, Skip Sands has a strange and diffident affair with a weird and god-haunted missionary, and spends a lot of time going through the personal effects of the dead French doctor who had lived in the safe house Skip is inhabiting while working for the Colonel. Skip, who has a talent for languages and a lot of time to kill, translates from French the doctor’s musings on Antonin Artaud. (This is why the novel is six hundred pages long. I’m not complaining.)

Eventually, of course, everybody’s position becomes untenable. That’s pretty much how that war ended up in real life, after all. But we’re given a brilliantly written and exciting climactic sequence of intrigue and violence, followed by a number of unexpectedly moving epilogues. The Colonel’s aide, Sergeant Jimmy Storm, who until this point has seemed to be some sort of court jester figure, a combination of the Dude and the surfer guy from Apocalypse Now, is permitted the most extravagantly redemptive gesture in the novel—a peculiar sacrifice on behalf of the Colonel and every other American.

Don’t want to say too much; probably I have already. But it’s just sort of great that Johnson has written a book this huge that fits so well into what he’d been doing all along. At one point, the Colonel’s Vietnamese pilot, Nguyen Minh, thinks about his brother, a Buddhist monk who has burned himself alive in protest:

He imagined his brother burning—he often did—Thu’s body in the flame, dreadful pain outside, going up his nostrils and in. And then as a monkey holds two branches for an instant, lets go of the first and clings to the new one, he was no longer the body, but the fire.

Read that, and remember the haunting final passage of Angels:

But that was just a story, something that people will tell themselves, something to pass the time it takes for the violence inside a man to wear him away, or to be consumed itself, depending on who is the candle and who is the light.


Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Disorient Express

A new Wes Anderson movie is something like a new Radiohead album. It doesn’t happen very often, and you greet it with anxious excitement. You know you’re emotionally vulnerable, here, and you don’t want to get hurt. This is somebody you’ve come to rely on, but at the same time you never know if this is going to be the time they break your heart.

(Sometimes people tell me I take this stuff too seriously. I don’t know what they could possibly mean.)

Okay, this is an absurd conceit, (not to mention one I’ve already used,) but I’m going to run with it. Bottle Rocket is The Bends, right? Precocious and startling. Rushmore of course is Ok Computer, life-altering and era-defining. The Royal Tenenbaums could be Kid A, I guess—an idiosyncratic style taken to its logical extreme. And Life Aquatic roughly corresponds to Hail to the Thief—a satisfying synthesis of what’s gone before, if you like it, self-parody if you don’t. (I like them both, but I think Hail to the Thief is more of a success.)

Sure, Pablo Honey is the anomaly, but it always has been. I guess it could be the short film version of Bottle Rocket, which I’ve still never seen. (It’ll have to make it onto DVD someday.)

Now, though, I have to find a way to fit a new pair of works into this little scheme of mine—and I can already see it falling into place. First In Rainbows and now The Darjeeling Limited—each announces the beginning of the artist’s All Grown Up phase. Neither startling, both traversing familiar territory, but both satisfying. My heart remains unbroken.

If you’re reading this you’ve probably seen some or all of these movies, so you’re at least roughly familiar with the components that make up the Wes Anderson Experience. Men. Sad men. Impulsive, grandiose, domineering men with a childlike vulnerability. Missing parents. Dead parents. Lost friends. Melancholy and whimsy in equal measure. Bill Murray.

It’s all here in The Darjeeling Limited, although Murray is held to a priceless cameo, his crumpled face saying as much as any five pages of the script. Another family story, another sad and shattered family like the Tenenbaums, but like them united against the rest of the world. Three wealthy, miserable brothers, played by Anderson regulars Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman, as well as new initiate Adrien Brody, take a quixotic “spiritual journey” across India—though it gradually emerges that they are looking for more than simply enlightenment.

I wasn’t sure going in how this Adrien Brody thing was going to work, since he’s been sort of an underachiever thus far. He made a big splash in The Pianist, but has been a puzzle ever since, mostly showing up in forgettable films. (Hollywoodland, anybody? The Village? ) And The Pianist was an impressive, if heavy, piece of work—but as it turned out, Brody wasn’t acting! He really is that thin! But Wes Anderson, just as he did with Bill Murray, has found the True Reason For Adrien Brody, given him a home. As a leading man, he was sort of absurd, but here, as Peter, he’s a wonder to behold, a glorious cartoon version of himself. A bundle of sticks wearing shades, with that astonishing nose stabbing out at the world. (Putting him opposite Owen Wilson was genius—it’s a clash of the Nose Titans; it’s the nasal version of Pacino and DeNiro in Heat.) We joked after seeing the trailer for this movie that Brody was clearly playing the Luke Wilson role, what with the long face and the dark glasses—but actually Peter is the character that you have to believe Anderson had Ben Stiller in mind for. He’s jagged and tightly wound and resentful, Chas Tenenbaum if he had two brothers to be driven to distraction by. And it works: in place of Stiller’s bristling compactness, we have Brody’s clumsy, angular disarray. (Damn it. You just can’t write about this guy without using the word “angular.” You try it!) To see him running for a train in loving, Andersonian slow-motion is a revelation—he’s aerodynamic!

The other two leads, of course, are known quantities in this context; in fact, Anderson essentially co-created them both, made them what they are. They’ve each played the essential Anderson leading man—hyperkinetic and perpetually grief-stricken—and for each of them it was a defining moment. Owen Wilson’s Dignan was his triumphant debut, and he still hasn’t equaled him—he was both utterly irresistible and utterly helpless. (They’ll never catch him, because he’s fucking innocent! ) And Schwartzman’s Max Fischer, of course, is an icon; he’s part of our collective unconscious now—a portrait of the artist as a love-starved human tornado. It’s good to see the two of them together onscreen, finally. They do well.

Schwartzman, post-Max, hasn’t exactly shown a lot of range—he can give you neurotic, bumbling, or neurotic and bumbling. But here Anderson makes a conscious decision to play him against type—Schwartzman’s Jack, behind his ridiculous moustache, is numb and disconnected; something’s been drained out of him. And this is the time to mention The Darjeeling Limited’s most distinctive structural quirk—which might just be a gimmick and might be completely new. Because Jack appears before either of his brothers, in a brief Parisian prologue, in which he has bitter post-breakup sex with Natalie Portman. This would be a perfectly fine way to start the movie—except that it’s not presented as part of the movie at all. Nominally, this little story is a short film called Hotel Chevalier; it’s got its own opening and closing credits, and when it’s over the studio logo is shown again before The Darjeeling Limited proper starts. It was indeed apparently filmed in Paris, and the Darjeeling Limited was really filmed in India, so they really were entirely separate shoots. And Hotel Chevalier was available for download on iTunes for weeks before the film was released. So it does actually have a life of its own. But in what sense is it a separate film, exactly? The Darjeeling Limited, as far as I know, has never been shown without it, and it provides important exposition, particularly about Schwartzman’s character. Indeed, it emerges during the film that the story of Hotel Chevalier is a story that Jack will write. So in a way Hotel Chevalier exists within the world of The Darjeeling Limited, and it’s hard to imagine separating them. (Of course, Quentin Tarantino has just released Death Proof as a stand-alone film, presumably so everybody involved can make just as much money again when Planet Terror comes out. But it’s hard to imagine even those guys trying to release Don’t! or Thanksgiving from Grindhouse as an independent work.) So Hotel Chevalier might be a bold experiment in narrative technique, or it might just be a very clever marketing scheme. It’s cool with me either way.

But that Paris-to-India leap reveals another subtle shift in Anderson’s vision: he’s brought the characters closer to his own world. Dignan and Max (and Eli Cash, for that matter) come from dingy and faded blue-collar environments, and a veiled class resentment is hidden inside their fierce ambition. But Peter, Jack, and Francis are rich, because their father was rich. None of them even have to work at all—though Francis at least might. They’re free to wander the earth and be miserable, just like Wes Anderson and Jason Schwartzman.

And just like Owen Wilson—and it’s Wilson’s performance that you remember from this movie. Which is a little surprising; after all, he’s the Movie Star of the group, and he drawled and sleepwalked his way through Life Aquatic. But he spends most of The Darjeeling Limited with his head swaddled in elaborate bandages in the aftermath of a rather curious car accident, and still manages to be both funny and unsettling. Yeah, it’s a little obvious to say that Francis’s bandages and scars are outward signs of the deep injuries all three of these guys are suffering from—but it works because he looks so ridiculous, and because he still plunges implacably forward like an older and angrier Dignan. And of course it’s impossible to watch this film and not get a little chill thinking about Wilson’s recent failed suicide attempt. Because the character Francis of course was written for him, just as Dignan was—and of course Wilson himself, as co-writer, had a hand in creating Dignan, and Richie Tenenbaum, and Eli Cash himself, lovesick , drug addled, and helpless in the face of his own absurd success.

I called it a Grown Up movie, I guess, because there’s a sharp and bitter streak at the heart of it that wasn’t there in Rushmore or Tenenbaums. Both of those movies had blood and tears in plenty, they had characters who were suffering, but they both had a careful structure that led them to a tipping point—Dirk comes to see Max to try to bring him back, Richie wakes up in the hospital—after which each film seems to relent, somehow, each delivering a final act constructed as a series of longed-for redemptions. In lesser hands this would be a manipulative or schmaltzy device, but because those movies are so funny and so sad it has a powerful and unique effect. I still get a bit weepy at the end of Rushmore—“I didn’t get hurt that bad.” In The Darjeeling Limited, I think consciously, Anderson doesn’t deliver the same carthartic recessional—all the redemptions are equivocal, and the film’s real climax is one more abandonment in a long series of abandonments. And when Francis finally takes off his wrappings and stares at his own ravaged face in a mirror, it could be a sentimental or overblown moment—but the stunned and haunted look on Wilson’s face makes us accept it. “I’ve still got some healing to do,” he says. Yeah. We get that.

(Okay, I’ve been thinking about this some more, and something was bothering me: what about The Eraser? Well, I came up with an answer of sorts: The Squid and the Whale is The Eraser. Because, you know, Noah Baumbach co-wrote Life Aquatic, and this is his solo project. And, it’s practically a Wes Anderson movie, right? Sad, pretentious young men with parental abandonment issues? Yeah, it’s a stretch, I know.)

(Also--I wrote approvingly of Owen Wilson's battered looks in this movie, but the use of a shockingly and visibly injured central character like this reminds me a lot of Dave Eggers' You Shall Know Our Velocity, which in many ways is a similar kind of story. You think Eggers and Anderson have met? Have they been invited to the same parties? And if so, was Sufjan Stevens there? Picture the three of them eyeing each other warily. They'd have to have some kind of whimsical death match.)

Friday, October 26, 2007

Water Music

…but actually, it’s a bit richer and stranger than that. Okkervil River turns out to be only one side of a peculiar and interesting coin. I knew all along, vaguely, that Sheff had a side project, Shearwater, and that I would probably check it out at some point. But I wasn’t in a big hurry. Finally, on impulse I bought Palo Santo, which was originally put out in 2006 but had just been re-released on Matador in entirely new packaging with a bonus disc and with some key songs actually re-recorded, apparently to be bigger and better. Didn’t know what to expect, exactly, but I understood Shearwater to be some kind of sedate folk outfit—an outlet for all the songs not rockin’ enough to make it onto the Okkervil records.

This, to put it mildly, was not correct.

To begin with, Shearwater isn’t really Sheff’s project, not any more at any rate. It began as a joint endeavor of Sheff and Okkervil River keyboardist Jonathan Meiburg, but as Okkervil has gained attention, Shearwater has become almost entirely Meiburg’s child—and it turns out to be a wild, naked child, with leaves in its hair and an alarming expression. Okkervil River build their serious adult tunes over what’s essentially a traditionalist folk-rock framework, but Shearwater is pure art-rock—song structure and catchy tunes be damned. Meiburg doesn’t have any use for any of my traditional record-review cliches: he’s passed right over Evocative and Gripping and gone straight for Mythic. It’s still pianos and strings and horns, but Meiburg’s defiantly eerie singing—in the Buckley/Yorke tradition, but creepier—is foregrounded throughout. (If you listened to The Stage Names, that’s Meiburg’s feral wail in the background of the “Sloop John B” coda—“in the way I had planned…”)

And what’s he singing about? Well, honestly, you’ve got me, but it sounds like something very important—which for this sort of thing is what really matters. This kind of record has to work, if it’s going to work, by suggestion and misdirection and esotericism. Whether it’s Ok Computer or In the Aeroplane Over the Sea—and if you know me, and you see me using those comparisons, then you’re going to sit up and pay attention—this kind of Epic Rock has to successfully seem to create a separate world, a world where something deeply signifigant is happening, even if we can’t quite tell what it is. And like Jeff Mangum’s mysterious private language on Aeroplane, Meiburg’s lyrical space is shot through with grief and loss, with missing and dead children, with grieving parents, and with a kind of elemental terror of nature, of the ocean and the sky. (The lyrics aren't printed, but apparently they were printed in the original European release, and this guy has helpfully transcribed them, if you're curious.) Palo Santo starts quiet, with just piano and an almost whispered vocal—“Something is breathing in the air / Something is moving in the water / And the winds in you are blowing.” Maybe a little unsettling, but at this point you could be excused for thinking that you were listening to a Pretty Record, if you’re even paying attention. Then, out of dead silence, a blood-freezing howl, “Bring back my boy!” And the song starts to stutter into life, but now you know that it’s real, that enormous things are apparently at stake. The stirring, scary “Red Sea, Black Sea” begins with a sinister banjo (not enough sinister banjo in the world!) and one insistent pounding drum—then Meiburg, deadly serious, tells us that “In place of the sun, In place of the moon / A terrible light will flood every room.” Something terrible is happening; this is Apocalypse Folk. Later, on “Nobody,” we hear that “the bombs finished falling / and ashes were drifting along the roads.” (This, along with the constant veiled presence of fathers and sons, makes me think both of Aeroplane and of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. That novel may have come out too late to be an influence, however.) Birds and the ocean are everywhere, right from the alarming cockatiel on the cover—in fact, though I initially thought that “Shearwater” was just a mysterious, evocative name, Wikipedia will tell you that it’s the name of a kind of seabird—one that lives longer than almost any other bird. The sea is terrifying—“That splintering wave takes so many lives / And now your hands are gripping the edge of such a waste,” on “Seventy-Four, Seventy-Five.”—but you can’t get away from it. And when all else fails, give a nod to The Tempest: “Took me out on the tide / To make pearls of my eyes,” in the monumental “White Waves.” (Of course that could be The Tempest by way of “The Waste Land.” There’s a thesis waiting to be written on how T.S. Eliot Rocks—pretentious singers just can’t help bringing “Prufrock,” or “The Hollow Men,” into the conversation, and I love them for it. Would have appalled the grouchy old bastard, however.)

This all probably seems a bit over-the-top. It’s just a proggy overserious chamber-folk-rock record, after all, without any of the luminous tunes of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, or the wit of a Decemberists record, say. But this feels like the Real Thing to me, a work of genuine vision, even if, like Aeroplane it is never successfully followed up. And then, put it alongside Black Sheep Boy, and it starts to seem like we’re looking at something Big, even if only a few of us ever know about it. Meiburg and Sheff have arrived at a peculiar symbiosis which is turning out to be incredibly fruitful. We’ll see which of them can come up with the next masterpiece. What rough beast slouches toward Austin to be born?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

River Music

The occult circuitry of the pop-culture unconscious: who can figure it out? Remember when there were two disaster movies at the same time about volcanoes? Or two disaster movies at the same time about asteroids? (That’s something we were all worried about in 1997, or whatever. Sure.) What does it mean when we have two indie-rock songs in the same year about the suicide of John Berryman? Is that a little odd?

Okay, so nobody feels bad, I’m going to come right out and admit that until last year I had only the vaguest notion of who John Berryman might be, so if you didn’t either, that’s cool. Some poet, right? Yeah, so Wikipedia told me. American poet, jumped off a bridge in 1972, considered central to the Confessional school of poetry, whatever that might be, best known for The Dream Songs. Unhappy guy. But apparently, though nobody knew it at the time, he totally rocked, because the rockers are paying him tribute. First we had the Hold Steady’s fist-pumping “Stuck Between Stations,” and now we have Okkervil River’s majestic album-closer, “John Allyn Smith Sails.”

These records came out only about eight months apart, and the bands work in different cities, so there’s no way anybody influenced anybody on this one—but it’s still right, somehow. In their own way, both bands are central to what’s happening Right Now, showing in their completely opposite ways how much can still be done with this music now that everything’s been done. And both have clearly read a lot of books. On the one hand you’ve got Craig Finn’s bruised retro-populism, just fake enough to be real (if that makes any sense.) Meatloaf with an MFA. And on the other, Will Sheff’s cracked folk grandeur—Conor Oberst if he knew about irony, Jeff Mangum if he could pull himself together. You’ve got Finn’s mordant “she said “you’re pretty good with words, but words won’t save your life,” / And they didn’t, so he died.” And Sheff’s mournful “I knew that my last lines were gone / While stupidly I lingered on…”

Which is all by way of asking: have I talked about Okkervil River? I haven’t. Maybe I tried to make you listen to them, but I haven’t written anything yet. (For that matter, my definitive Hold Steady piece has yet to be written, too. But I’ve thought about it. It’s called “This Was Supposed to Be a Party.”) Anyway, Okkervil River are an American indie-rock band, on Jagjaguwar, from New Hampshire by way of Austin, and they’re just starting to get real attention with their fourth LP proper, The Stage Names, which is terrific.

The basic idea has remained unchanged—they started in something of a countrified chamber-folk mode, with banjos and woodwinds and whatnot, on the self-released Stars Too Small to Use and their official debut Don’t Fall In Love With Everyone You See (2002), but this was always a song-based band whose success or failure depended entirely on their songwriter. And Will Sheff, while his singing is spectacularly shaky at the best of times, is a real, undeniable talent, who writes not only dense hyper-literate narrative songs, but also remarkable melodies, with lines that stretch out far longer than you think they’re going to, that make you sit up and pay attention.

Down the River of Golden Dreams (2003) is where I got on board, and it’ll always be my sentimental favorite, but it’s Black Sheep Boy (2005) that was the breakthrough, an inscrutable double song-cycle that seemed to be both about a failed relationship too sad and uncomfortable not to be real, and about the title character, the Black Sheep Boy, who seems both Satanic and kind of sympathetic. And The Stage Names, while it isn’t perfect, is a mature, satisfying piece of work that deserves the attention it’s gotten.

Black Sheep Boy was beautiful, but outside of “For Real” and “Black” it tended toward the funereal—the first surprising thing about The Stage Names is how much it rocks. Guitars and drums snap and crackle all over the place—though there’s still a very solid ballad in “A Girl in Port,” and also a bit of a weak link in “Savannah Smiles.” (As far as slow-as-molasses story songs go, both “Maine Island Lovers” and “Yellow” from Golden Dreams were better.) There seems to be some kind of theme, here—as the title indicates, there’s some kind of obsession with Performance, and Artifice—but it never gets pretentious. Indeed, there’s a sly wit in these songs that Sheff really hasn’t shown before, which is very encouraging. Consider especially the biting “You Can’t Hold the Hand of a Rock and Roll Man” and the remarkable “Plus Ones.” That one, on paper, is a novelty song—a series of comic riffs that do well-worn numeric songs one better. The ninety-seventh tear, the hundredth luftballon, the seventeenth candle, etc. But it’s deadly serious, shot through with real life and real consequences: “the fifty-first way to leave your lover / Admittedly it doesn’t seem to be as gentle or as clean as all the others.”

Then, eventually, you get to “John Allyn Smith,” and you start to see how much is really going on here. For the first two minutes and thirty seconds, it’s a bitter but nimble lament in the voice of a dead poet: “by the second verse, dear friends / My head will burst, my life will end…” But then Berryman, and Sheff, make that leap—and something happens. The song slows down, and shifts to a different, simpler rhythm. A new melody suddenly bursts into being, as the dying Berryman remembers his own father’s suicide—“I hear my father fall / I hear my mother call…” But you think I know this tune, what’s going on? and then it hits you. Weirdly, impossibly, we’ve landed in a bleak alternate version of “The Sloop John B,” that old Beach-Boys-approved folk chestnut. It was always sort of mournful for a Beach Boys tune, anyway, but now it’s been alchemically transformed into a literal suicide note. This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on. Then a squeal of feedback, and The Stage Names surges to the finish line, as you realize—oh, wait, John B, it all makes some kind of weird impossible sense—and guitars and drums spill out some miserable guy’s last thoughts: I feel so broke up / I want to go home. Yeah, exactly.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Back to Save The Universe

…oh, you thought I meant me? It’s true that I haven’t done this for a while. I’m a fragile, delicate flower, as you may know, and it’s been a good stretch of months since I felt like I could really write anything except the occasional email. Just wasn’t going to happen. And on top of all the suffering I know that this caused all six of you, or whatever, it was an especially bad thing since I’m supposed to be writing a thesis. But now, with the semester just about half over, I feel like I’m getting it back. Got up at 5:30AM yesterday and wrote a philosophy paper, which is so out of character that it’s in fact alarming. Actually wrote some pages today about Macbeth—my chosen thesis topic; don’t ask—and that was an enormous relief. Wrote a decent little scene for screenwriting class. Got a gold star. (She really gives gold stars, and when you crave approval as I do, this is no laughing matter.)

And now, just in time, I can write about the Event That Will Shake the Music Business to its Core, and Change Us All Forever. I’m referring of course, as you can tell from my title, to the peculiar unveiling of In Rainbows, Radiohead LP #7. You’ve heard about this. (It’s free, you know!) Internet only, for now. Sticking It to The Man, i.e. iTunes. (Didn’t Thom Yorke used to have an Apple sticker on his guitar?) Pay what you want. We ride tonight. We hope that you choke. Etc.

Since you’re asking, I gave them £5. Or “bob.” Or “quid,” as we call them. Which worked out to about ten bucks—seemed reasonable to me. Now that I’ve gotten through it one and a half times, I feel like maybe owe them a few more bucks.

Yeah, yeah, I’m a sap, you say. A fawning fan-boy. But you know, it was great to feel like that again, even for an hour and a half or so. It’d been a while. They’re the special case, you know? This enormous presence for a decade now, but somehow insular and unapproachable. None of the bands that have tried to sound like them are any good. (But, Matt, you own three Coldplay albums, I hear you saying. Yes. Yes I do. And they suck.) They don’t really sound like any of the bands that supposedly influenced them. They’ve always been exactly themselves—and I, and probably anybody bothering to read this, would be an entirely different person if OK Computer, say, did not exist.

So I couldn’t help feeling a little excited, and also plenty ready for disappointment. Because that’s the fear, isn’t it? You hear that they’re putting it out themselves, untouched by hand of record company, and you’re always half afraid it’s going to turn out to be their Jazz Odyssey. Twelve minute songs about fair trade, or the Kennedy assassination, or something. I dunno, accordions. (Actually, that would probably be good.) Especially after the long delay—you had to wonder what we were in for.

But so far, I’m really happy with it. It’s certainly not a dramatic departure from anything but a marketing standpoint. Nobody who’s listened to Hail to the Thief or The Eraser is going to be shocked by anything here. But it’s all assured and dense and powerful and not boring for a moment. There aren’t even any noodling experiments like “Treefingers” or “Hunting Bears.” It’s ten songs, start to finish, and they’re rock songs, all of them, with melodies and beats. It’s Radiohead, of course, so the beats are nervous, stuttering, and often counted with odd numbers, and the melodies are plaintive and unsettling—but that just makes the moments of sweetness, like the ravishing “All I Need” stand out more. “Nude” is the spooky child of “Sail to the Moon” and “Pyramid Song.” “Bodysnatchers” has an eye-opening “Paranoid Android” riff. “Faust Arp” (uh, great title, guys) carries on in the dizzy, word-drunk mode of “Wolf at the Door,” though it isn’t that sinister because nothing is. In the end, In Rainbows is icy, sharp, and bracing. It’s the middle of October and it’s been 80 degrees where I live for weeks, almost creepily summerlike, but today it was fifty, and damp, and I walked around in the wind and felt like I could breathe again. This album sounds like that.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Harry Potter Is Dead

…well, not really. From what I can gather from reviews, at the end of Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows, the eponymous wizard-boy is simply forced to grow up and lead a normal life. Evil vanquished--then the wife, the kids, the house. So he lives on. But we in the book business are finished with him. After tonight, he’s dead to us. And I, for one, could not be happier.

It’s funny—I’ve worked at bookstores throughout the ten year run of this series, but I’ve only had to work at release parties for the past two. It didn’t occur to anyone to keep a store open until midnight to sell a children’s book until Rowling’s fourth magical doorstop was released in 2000, and I managed to avoid having anything to with that event or the following one. But for volumes six and seven I’ve been unavoidably trapped at Borders #653 here in Toledo, giving up a Friday night to this thing that people who get paid to write about books invariably refer to as a Phenomenon. I just got back from The Last Harry Potter Party Ever, which is why I’m writing at a quarter to four in the morning, it was a dispiriting, exasperating experience, and I demand that everyone pity me.

You want to appreciate it; to see the fun in it. I do, a little. It’s nice to be able to sell somebody something they really want, and I got to do a lot of that tonight. All the shakingly eager kids are kind of endearing, if a little bit intense. But for some of the kids, and nearly all of the parents, the whole thing is clearly just another joyless, grubby pop-cultural hoop to be jumped through. You have to take the kids to see Shrek. You have to take them to a Mud Hens game, whether you know or care anything about baseball. And you have to buy them the Harry Potter book, whether it would ever have occurred to you to buy a book before the year 2000 or not. So many of them were appalled to realize that they would have to wait in line for an hour, apparently unable to work through the simple chain of reasoning: I am here at midnight because for whatever reason this book is a Big Deal. Therefore, many other people will be doing the same thing. This book should NOT be easy to get, because it is SO AWESOME. That is why we are all here. They couldn’t understand, probably because they don’t normally go to bookstores, that bookstores don’t normally have and aren’t really designed to handle a thousand customers at once, and things can’t really be expected to run with theme-park like precision. There was a lot of whining.

Pity me, I say!

And I’ve just been stunned from the beginning at the overwhelmingly arbitrary nature of this whole thing we’ve just lived through. At the end of the day, why these books? To the kids who grew up with them, they must have seemed like a one-of-a-kind life-altering thing that had dropped out of the skies one day in 1997—but there were so many adolescent fantasy novels being written, in 1997 and in every year before or since, and I really haven’t ever been able to believe that it was anything but dumb herd instinct that turned Rowling’s series into this monumental, generational thing. Into, yes, a Phenomenon.

I’m sure they’re not bad. That’s all I can say. I’ve seen them praised many times for being wildly inventive and involving. I’ve never seen anybody try to praise them as art. From the little I’ve seen, Rowling’s prose is workmanlike at best, and they seem just as derivative in theme as pretty much every other fantasy novel since Tolkien. When people ask me if I’ve read them, just because I, you know, work in a bookstore, I want to look at them like they’re crazy. Don’t they have any idea how many grown-up novels are published every month that I want to read and never will because I’ll never have time? I’m going to read eight-hundred page tomes about Wizard Boarding School?

As for them creating a generation of readers, I’m afraid that all they’ve done is create a generation of readers of bad books. I can guess this from my own bitter experience. I love The Lord of the Rings. I do. As an adult reader, I can see everything that’s silly and retrograde about it, but its dazzling level of invention and its author’s unembarrassed love for his own linguistic games had an enormous effect on me and on my literary sensibility in the long term. But in the short term, as an adolescent, it just made me want to read a whole lot of crappy imitations of The Lord of the Rings, of which there were many in the nineteen-eighties, and of which there are more all the time. The same thing will happen with these kids today—and Rowling is no Tolkien.

The last word on this subject was spoken some years ago, by Harold Bloom, of all people. In many ways he’s an absurd old crank, but I saw him on Charlie Rose once, and I’ll always remember it. At one point in the interview, he had his eyes closed as he leaned contentedly back in his chair and recited the last ten lines or so of Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” and it made me want to give him a big hug. (“We are not now that strength which in old days / moved earth and heaven…”) And then Rose, trying to stick up for the present in the face of Bloom’s "Decline and Fall of Everything" rhetoric, mentioned the whole Phenomenon, and how it was making all these young folks read ever so many books instead of playing with their Pokemon or their cellphones or whatever. Bloom just sighed a huge Falstaffian sigh, and intoned, “…but that’s not literature, Charles.” Right on, Harold.

Monday, May 28, 2007


Watched The Proposition. Sort of. Saw it in a roomful of people, with several conversations going on at all times. If you’ve been to one of these little film-watching events at my house than you know what I’m talking about—it’s a sort of controlled chaos that’s better suited to oddball genre stuff like The Calamari Wrestler (which we also watched). The kind of thing that you can look over at occasionally and wonder did I just see that? Was that an octopus fighting a squid? In a boxing ring? And then go back to whatever you were discussing. The Proposition, unfortunately, is an actual movie, one that I feel like I’ve seen a third of. Or seen all of with a third of my brain. I fully intend to write about it anyway, though, which is like one of those, what do you call ‘em, metaphors for what all of us are doing here on the Internets. Lecturing from a postion of ignorance—I recommend it!

Anyway, if you’re not familiar, The Proposition is the Nick Cave western—and that’s all the review you really need if you’re familiar with the western genre and the Cave ouevre (try saying that out loud.) Certainly it’s enough to make a lot of people edge away—I was careful not to mention the screenwriting credit when I was trying to get my guests to watch the thing. But that’s because there’s this caricature of Cave as some sort of absurd, self-important Goth Elvis (that’s Glenn Danzig!) rather than just a smart and funny guy who can write pretty damned well. Maybe it’s the moustache.

So, we’ve got an Australian western—which is a sub-genre well-steeped in insanity already. Sun. Flies. Dust. Blood. Sweat. Funny accents. Guy Pearce and Danny Huston are brothers and outlaws, Ray Winstone (or “Sexy Beast” as he will forever be known in my house) is a tormented and extremely unhealthy lawman, Emily Watson is his long-suffering wife, John Hurt is a spectacularly hammy bounty hunter. People get flogged, stomped to death, and shot in the head, although not in that order. Virtue and vice are both extravagantly punished. I think it’s pretty good.

Interesting connections: I read more than one review of this movie that tossed around the name of Cormac McCarthy. This is a slightly lazy comparison, based mainly on the western setting and the presence of lavish violence punctuated by philosophical musings, but it’s still interesting. It may just be coincidence, but Proposition director John Hillcoat is supposed to be in line to direct the movie of McCarthy’s most recent novel (and Oprah’s current Book Club pick!) The Road. Which could, you know, be pretty awesome. I just read The Road—for class, no less—and knowing what I knew, I couldn’t help but think that there was a certain Nick Cave vibe to the whole thing. I also thought it seemed pretty unfilmable—it’s mainly about scrounging for canned goods after the end of the world—but no one should ever let that stop them.

Friday, May 25, 2007

I See You've Played Knifey-Spooney Before.

So, I mentioned Spoon earlier without mentioning the extremely important, extremely troubling fact that their upcoming album has a really stupid title. (Have I mentioned that titles matter? They do.) Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga? What’s that? Did I even get the correct number of “Ga’s?” They announced that title some months ago, and I kept waiting and hoping that somebody would come out and say “aw, we’re just messin’ with ya. We’re not really gonna call it that. It’s gonna be The Bloodening. Or Smell the Glove. Or something.” It didn’t happen. Apparently it’s for real. This is a problem, especially if the album turns out to be really great—which could very easily happen. I don’t want to be put in a position where, five years from now, I’ll have to stroke my chin thoughtfully and say something like “the piano part on this track is extremely reminiscent of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga-era Spoon.” Because, you know, I’m not going to do that.

This from the band that made Girls Can Tell. Now that’s a great title. Sigh.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The National Interest

This guy has an admirable, if geeky, goal—he’s blogging every R.E.M. song. Not quite as ambitious as an album for every state, but still a hefty job of work. Sure, every reasonably popular band has one or more of those lousy “stories behind every song” books written about them, but those are inevitably just cash-in fan junk pasted together from interviews—this is more of a labor of love. I suspect some of you may recall that I was once quite the fan, back in the Clinton era; I had to suppress the urge to start posting comments immediately. (Hey, why all the hating on “Wendell Gee?” Pretty tune! Banjo! What more do you want? And “Can’t Get There From Here” is clearly the worst song on that album.)

Anyway, I could totally do that with Radiohead, but I’m sure that about 17,000 very serious teenagers already have. I might do it anyway; I’m smarter than those damned kids.

Plenty of non-nineties music to write about, though. It’s been a good spring, and it just got better. I got the Wilco album, and so far I’m pretty happy with it. It’s very easygoing and approachable, superficially nothing like the scary, sandblasted vibe of A Ghost Is Born. So—going back to the nineties for a moment—if Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was the “difficult but acclaimed” album, the OK Computer, if you will, and Ghost Is Born was the “pseudo-avant-garde-nervous-breakdown” album, the Kid A, then in theory this record should be Hail to the Thief. And frankly, I’m not hearing it. No “Myxomatosis” or “Wolf at the Door” here, just lots of laid-back tunes and really, really well-produced guitar playing. So maybe we can all relax about Wilco, is what I’m saying, and so much the better. They’re going to be okay!

(And yes, of course, that means that Summer Teeth is The Bends. Why wouldn't it be? "She's a Jar" = "Fake Plastic Trees." Obviously. Why is this so hard for you people?)

You may now get excited about the National, however, If you hadn’t already—I keep trying to force them on people. “You just haven’t seen my good side yet,” Matt Berninger pleaded anxiously on Alligator, their really excellent 2005 album, and he was pretty much exactly right. He was definitely not singing about his good side, and it was great. Alligator was dark, and funny, and seductive—thirteen songs spent in the very entertaining company of people you normally wouldn’t want to be in a room with. But Berninger may have been more right than he meant to be, because Boxer came out this week, and it may very well be better. I haven’t been able to stop listening to “Fake Empire,” the first song, since I downloaded it a month or two ago. (First of all, I’m a sucker for that whole three-over-four rhythm thing they do when the drums kick in—real muscians are no doubt completely unimpressed, but for me that works every time; it always feels like the song is trying desperately to fall into place and can’t quite do it.) They can play. And this guy can write, and he can sing. No spectacular vocal acrobatics here—for you nineties fans, Berninger’s cracked baritone is a distant descendant of the late lamented Mark Sandman’s (of Morphine) and today the closest match seems to be Britt Daniel of Spoon. But Spoon is inseparable from their icy, perfect minimalism—they’re the American indie-rock band as expensive brushed-aluminum coffeemaker; the National’s music is lusher, darker, and more romantic, and Berninger’s lyrics are more anxious and more arresting. “Tired and wired we ruin too easy,” and “it’s hard to keep track of you falling through the sky,” and other weird and startling things that leap out at you as you listen. I’m still working my way into it. Somebody else get this, so we can argue about it.

(Also, that's a disturbing cover. I didn't have a wedding, but if I had, I'm not sure I would have invited the National to play. Might, you know, freak out the squares, what with all the songs about stalking. And drinking. And dancing naked on the coffee table.)

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Missing

Hey, everybody. Been gone a month. Got married. The Departed was overrated.

Oh, don’t act so surprised. I’ve lived with her for seven years, and Scorsese clearly only got the Oscar out of pity. Sure, Raging Bull wasn’t “Best Picture,” and neither was Goodfellas, but if you get all your A-list friends together and make a big ol’ blood-soaked ball of silliness, Academy-love will follow. Every time.

That movie was okay, don’t get me wrong. It’s high time we all realized that Mark Wahlberg is a comic genius. Few people know this. I’m not sure that Mark Wahlberg himself does. But in the right hands, he’s a force to be reckoned with. Did you see I Heart Huckabees? Yeah, nobody much did, but ol’ Marky-Mark is a terrifyingly hilarious force of nature in that movie—the sort of person you should avoid at all costs. And in The Departed, he almost steals the show with a) his sincere, undying hatred of Matt Damon’s character, and b) his terrible haircut. Good stuff.

And if you’re reading this, you know where to send gifts. Not that I encourage that sort of thing.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Curtis Granderson Knows a Lot About the African-American Experience!

Seriously, you've got to love this kid. First of all, unlike his teammate Nate Robertson, he actually writes his own blog. In his last post, he described, with his own blend of gee-whiz enthusiasm, about blogging from the official Tigers airplane. (!) On his laptop. (!!) And about how nobody on the team was quite sure how to get internet access from way up there. It was adorable.

He also updates, like, every couple of days. Unlike Robertson. And unlike me. All this while hitting 250/325/611. (And that's after an 0 for 4 tonight.)

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Senator Inhofe Welcomes Our New Overlords


Gore Warns of "Planetary Emergency"

I know this is serious business and all, but I can't help but think that it had to be really exciting for whoever gets to write the headlines. How often do you get to write the words "planetary emergency?" And, if you're an ex-future-president, wouldn't you secretly love saying it, at least a little? Everyone will be doing it soon. If somebody declares a "galactic crisis" next week, I'll be suspicious. ("Our taxpayers should not have to bear the burden of repelling the Saucer People!")

Saturday, March 17, 2007

...But they lost out to the dead guy.

Neon Bible debuts at #2. David Marchese in Salon begins the most halfhearted backlash in history. ("Gee, everybody, are we sure about this?") Biggie firmly maintains his grip on the top spot from beyond the grave, so it's not like the world is really turned upside-down or anything. But it's still a funny moment--between this and the Shins (also #2), this music is officially big business. It's all kind of fun, but a hundred thousand would-be hipsters can now stop pretending to be on the cutting edge of anything. (You can include me in that category if you like, but nobody's ever accused me of being cool.)

...and look at the rest of that top 10! Reliant K? Yeesh. (Aren't they into Jesus?) Though I know that some of you are fingering your copiesw of Korn Unplugged as you read this, muttering resentfully. You know who you are.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Rebellion, Lies, Repeat

So, today I went ahead and got the Most Important Album Ever to Be Released or That Ever Will Be. The cultural authorities told me to do it. (This guy too.) But hype aside, I’m pretty excited about it. I liked Funeral as much as the next fashion victim—and it really, really was that good. And the tracks I’ve heard so far from Neon Bible sound like more of the same, but bigger. (I didn’t see the SNL performance; I downloaded some of the audio. Everybody said it was great.) It’s on the headphones right now; I’m getting happy! Funny, I tried to turn on my friend’s radio show the other night and I heard this song that I'm listening to right now, “Keep the Car Running.” I immediately assumed it was some old Springsteen song I hadn’t heard, which would’ve made sense. Then I thought—hey, this is the Arcade Fire! Then I realized I was listening on the wrong night and that it was just some hipster doofus who’d decided to throw that on.

But while I’m on the subject I need to bring up a painful issue that we’re all going to have to face up to and resolve: just what exactly is the name of this band? It’s a problem! Do they have a “the” or not? For a long time it seemed as if they weren’t sure, or didn’t care. On the self-titled album, it said “Arcade Fire” on the front and “The Arcade Fire” on the spine. Funeral, I’m not sure. Writers have seemed to use both versions interchangeably—that NYT writer uses “the,” Frere-Jones at the New Yorker doesn’t. With this album they seem to have definitely dropped “the” across the board. (And Sasha F-J, uber-hipster, would’ve been sure to get it right. Though in the current issue he’s enthusiastically endorsing Fall Out Boy, so anything is possible.)

Anyway, it’s fine. Really. They can call themselves whatever they want. But they can’t pretend it doesn’t matter! Names matter!

Got the new Bloc Party a couple of weeks ago, and I just don't know what to say. Maybe it'll grow on me, but it felt like a pretty big disappointment. Silent Alarm used to get me so excited! There's a select group of albums that are exactly perfect for my usual fifteen-minute super-intense stationary bike workout--naturally, they're the albums that start with the perfect fifteen minutes. Primal Scream's XTRMNTR, Songs For the Deaf by Queens of the Stone Age. And at the absolute top of the list, Silent Alarm. I could listen to those first four songs all day. But apparently, for this new album, the band sat down and decided that what was good about Silent Alarm was...all the other songs. The slow ones. A Weekend In the City wants to be all big-sounding and serious--people have accused them of wanting to be U2, but this isn't even as much fun as a U2 record. I will say that "Hunting for Witches," and "I Still Remember" are almost as good as "Little Thoughts" from Silent Alarm, which was the fifth best song on that album. But that's all I'll say. I'm gonna go listen to "Helicopter" again.

The new Sparklehorse is pretty good. Please don't make me type the title; it's long and stupid. Just click the link. The songs are what you'd expect if you've heard the others: pretty and dusty, with occasional bursts of fuzz. But boy, this album just sounds great--Danger Mouse did the production; it's all rich and warm and crisp. Like a cookie, or something.

I got this Six Parts Seven album today, too. Never heard of them until a few weeks ago, but WOXY plays them a lot. I checked the album out on a listening station, then started downloading stuff. It's real pretty. Hypnotic, soothing instrumental rock stuff--guitars, pianos, whatnot. I need a certain amount of that in my life--and they're from Ohio! Who knew we had our own Mogwai? Though these guys never get scary like Mogwai or Explosions in the Sky, so they may be too soothing for a lot of tastes. But there's a scary viking dude on the cover! They're not tame! (This band has a "the" problem too, I have to add. Though it seems more clear cut: they definitely used to have a "the," and now they definitely don't.)

Links for all! (Right-click or control-click; you know the drill.)
Falling Over Evening -- Six Parts Seven (Gentle. But if that's not good enough...)
Welcome, Ghosts -- Explosions In the Sky ('s something a little rougher. But still pretty.)
Black Mirror -- Arcade Fire (This is nowhere near the best on the album, but it's the free one.)
What Light -- Wilco (And a new Wilco track! Before you can buy it!)

Good Movie, Troubling Resemblance

Hey, I really liked Andrew Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation. You probably should check that out. This is the second of two tiny-budget movies for Bujalski—2002’s Funny Ha Ha was the first. (Worst. Title. Ever.) They’re both rambling, elliptical, and defiantly deadpan. An aimless hipster musician arrives in New York to get a new band together, and bounces seemingly at random among parties and gigs and long conversations that don’t appear to go anywhere. Gradually he develops a crush on his best friend’s girlfriend. And that’s pretty much all that happens—some critic trying to be clever said that “every generation gets the Jim Jarmusch it deserves.” But that’s really pretty lazy—there’s not really a lot of common ground between the two except for a superficial minimalism. Bujalski doesn’t have any of Jarmusch’s cheerful surrealism, or his love of genres and types—his films are aggressively naturalistic, and they’re centered on very particular sorts of people.

The dialogue is what you notice first; it seems to be made to be as close as possible to actual speech without being unlistenable. Plenty of people would argue that it is unlistenable, there’s so many awkward pauses and so much muttering and stuttering and sighing. But for me, it works wonderfully, especially considering there are no real actors in these movies. It’s not at all like improvised dialogue, like you’d get in a Mike Leigh movie or something. You can tell it’s all as carefully, lovingly mapped out as a Whit Stillman or Noah Baumbach script; it’s just not mannered or clever like that. Bujalski is a poet of awkwardness, diffidence, and passive-aggression. Everybody in these movies is in constant emotional danger; they can’t help hurting each other and getting hurt. Justin Rice’s Alan can’t reject the clumsy advances of his drummer’s sister, but he can’t really go through with it, either. He’s likable and sincere, but there’s a blankness and a distance to him. He knows he’s fumbling around on borrowed time. Funny Ha Ha’s Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer) can’t escape her hopeless attraction to a completely unworthy friend, while Bujalski’s character Mitchell can’t stay away from her. Bujalski beautifully smudges the line between goofy-but-endearing and downright creepy—Mitchell suddenly dropping a full beer off of Marnie’s balcony when he starts to realize he’s not going to get the kind of attention he wants is hilarious, scary, and just embarrassing all at once.

This could be bleak material, but the movies have a kind of sweetness to them—Mutual Appreciation actually ends with a group hug, for crying out loud. Everything may or may not be okay for the three principals, but for a moment at least they all want it to be. You could believe that Bujalski maybe isn’t a million miles away from Lawrence, his Mutual Appreciation character, who just can’t be mad at his friends.

One more thing that I have to bring up. It’s a little disturbing.
Am I being completely paranoid here? Monsieur Bujalski, c'est moi!

Saturday, February 17, 2007


I know it’s gotta be totally lame and the mark of a true amateur to start every post by apologizing for the length of time since the last one, but here I am doing it again. It’s the last time, I swear! New leaf turned!

Really no excuses not to be writing this past week—after an ominously mild December and January, we finally had the Perfect Storm this past week. Snow actually closed the University; I hardly had any classes at all, so in theory I had lots of time for personal growth and artistic development. You can see how that turned out. But it was nice not to leave the house at all on Wednesday, even to get the mail. It was like house arrest, which I have to say has gotten a bad rap. I could go for a spell of house arrest.

I guess I’ve seen some movies. Which ones? Saw Pan’s Labyrinth, to complete the Great 2006 Mexican Trilogy, after Babel and Children of Men. Pretty damned solid. (I think I liked it better than Babel and not as much as Children.) Compared to those two movies, Pan’s Labyrinth is a stroll in the sunshine, which is saying something since it’s still pretty dark. Director Del Toro is working in part with fairy-tale material, but the movie earns its R-rating. The “real world” plot of the movie, in which a sadistic fascist officer (Sergi Lopez) tries to crush a band of leftist guerrillas in the hinterlands of civil-war Spain, is grimly thrilling and bloody as hell. The other half is the story of a little girl whose mother, in an act of spectacularly bad judgement, has married the creepy officer in question. The girl, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), like many a movie kid before her, is obsessed with faintly disturbing fairy tales, and we can’t help but notice that she has a life well suited to the genre. She has a Wicked Stepfather, after all, and she has been taken against her will to something like a castle in the forest, with the ominous—and unexplained—ruined stone labyrinth of the title lurking nearby. With all this to set her off, it’s not surprising that she builds an elaborate fantasy to hang out in, inhabited by delicate insectile fairies and a seven-foot faun who tells her that she is a princess, the daughter of the King of the Underworld. That sounds comforting, but Ofelia’s fantasy doesn’t seem like much of an escape—the faun seems capricious and cruel, another bad parent-figure, and the tasks that he sets her to prove herself seem arbitrary and strange. But Del Toro knows how to make disturbing creatures—even if you haven’t seen Mimic or (yikes) Blade II, you’ve at least seen pictures of the Eyeball Monster, right? Sure you have. Imagine being the sort of kid that would dream up that guy. But you believe that this girl would—she’s strange and compelling and wants so badly to be heroic. She’s so much better than the little wide-eyed screechy girl in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, which in many ways is the same movie.

Pan’s Labyrinth is sort of a companion piece, almost a sequel, to Del Toro’s 2001 film, The Devil’s Backbone, a ghost story set in a 1930’s Spanish orphanage. I sort of feel that he needs to make another movie, to complete a Spanish Trilogy of his own. These movies aren’t politically or historically sophisticated or anything, but he’s clearly got a way with this material and his heart’s in the right place. We’ll see.

Lots of new music and stuff, too, so plenty more to come this week. I have DSL now, which may be the greatest time-waster yet invented, but now I can get all kinds of free songs and stuff, so I’m having a fun time. Maybe I’ll put some links on here, when I’ve a moment.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Modest Expectations

Class canceled! Jubilation reigns among the youth!

I tend to be disappointed when I get this excited about anything, but I have to say that I'm pretty excited about this. Modest Mouse album in two months, their first as Big Rock Stars, and there's a new guy in the band. Some English dude, maybe you've heard of him. Johnny Marr?

I mean, Johnny Marr, for feck's sake. It's like getting Hendrix to come back, or having Jesus as your shortstop. Never mind that you can't really remember anything he's played on in twenty years (Marr, not Jesus.) It just doesn't matter! "This Charming Man!" "What Difference Does It Make!" Gaaah!

(Also, that guy from the Shins apparently sings on it, so it's sure to change your life.)

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Baby, We'll Be Fine

In the dystopian future Britain of Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, illegal immigrants are rounded up and herded into refugee camps by something called the Department of Homeland Security. It’s no Ministry of Love, but it’s a nice touch, a good solid Orwellian name—exactly the sort of thing you need for your science-fiction script. The joke, of course, is that we already have one of those Departments. That’s one of the many things this movie gets exactly right—if you want to make a good, bleak movie future, you have to stitch it together out of bits of Right Now. I don’t mean satire, either—it’s real easy to come up with fake future TV shows and have it be funny, but the trick is to play it absolutely straight. You know the premise of Children of Men, right? It’s the future, everybody’s infertile, humanity is doomed, etc. Pretty extreme stuff, but all the details are, well, not surprising at all. When the Youngest Person on Earth dies at the start of the film (in some kind of sordid bar fight, apparently) everything just kind of grinds to a halt; people call in sick to work, weep in public, and pile up flowers and stuffed animals against fences in exactly the way that they do when this kind of Media Death Frenzy actually happens. (Although you can argue that poor “Baby Diego” has a better claim to fame in the world of the film than Diana Spencer, say, had in ours.) The refugee camp looks like, well, a refugee camp, complete with the obligatory Angry Islamist Funeral. (It’s probably more shocking for British people, who might be familiar with this “Bexhill” place in the present day, before everything goes to hell.)

Plot-wise, the movie’s got a pretty standard chase/quest structure. (If, in this awful world, somebody could have babies, that’d be a pretty big deal, right? People would be interested?) It’s got a pretty standard Reluctant Hero (Clive Owen), who used to Have Ideals, but now drinks whiskey from his flask whenever he’s alone onscreen. He’s got a Wisecracking Old Mentor who must make a Noble Sacrifice (Michael Caine.) And yes, there is a scene in an abandoned elementary school—get it? And outside the school, there is a concrete statue of a triceratops—GET IT? Hard to avoid this sort of thing, I guess.

But if you get beyond all that, it’s pretty impressive. To begin with, Clive Owen kicks ass, as usual—there’s no comparable American actor right now who can just show up and be himself like that, without being funny or showing off, and still command attention. He doesn’t get a lot of room to maneuver in this movie, but he pulls it off. The action, when it comes, is convincing, something hardly any serious movie—and surprisingly few unserious ones—can pull off. (Hey, why did everybody like Little Miss Sunshine so much? Children of Men makes you understand what it means to really have to jump-start that car.) The violence, when it comes—and a lot of it comes—is hard and fast and unsentimental. Everybody who’s written about this movie has been awestruck by the final-act set piece, an endless street-battle in the aforementioned refugee camp, and I’m not gonna dissent. My girlfriend will get mad if I call it a tour de force, so I won’t—but by the end of one endless handheld shot, there’s fake blood and mud spattered all over the camera lens.

Your final opinion may depend on how you feel about the climactic scene, which is indeed a little hard to swallow. I’m not going to ruin the movie, but the entire plot hinges on one of those pseudo-religious scenes where Everyone Stands In Awestruck Silence Looking At Something Amazing. It’s not what I would have done, but I was willing to let it go—I felt the filmmakers had earned it by that point. Reasonable people may differ on this—one of the people I saw the movie with kept saying “you know, it’s just a baby.” She wasn’t wrong, but I still felt like I’d gotten my money’s worth.

More: in an aside, Owen’s character visits his brother (brother in law? something like that.) who is in charge of something called the Ark of the Arts—they’re trying to preserve humanity’s legacy in the face of extinction, so that aliens, presumably, can appreciate Shakespeare and Michelangelo’s David. But during the whole introduction of this sequence, the soundtrack is blaring “In the Court of the Crimson King,” by King Crimson. And when Owen and his brother, or brother-in-law, look out of the window of the Ark, for some reason we see the giant inflatable pig from the cover of Pink Floyd’s Animals. Apparently, according to the filmmakers, an important part of humanity’s artistic legacy—the stuff we want the aliens listening to—is 1970’s prog rock. Curious.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Same As the Old Slang

Back to the schooling this week--hopefully that doesn't mean I'll stop posting entirely. It's not as if I was wildly prolific even when I had a lot of time to kill. Now I'm going to have to spend more of my days reading really really long poems about shepherds, so I don't know what's going to happen. But here I am!

Anyway, this made me laugh, from the AV Club's wacky piece on defunct college football bowl games.

6. The Garden State Bowl

Mid-December in New Jersey? Not fun unless you're a Rutgers fan, and unfortunately, Rutgers only played in the inaugural edition of this game, in 1978. The remaining three years were far drearier, except for the time when the PA announcer played The Shins, and totally changed everyone's life.

Apparently that Garden State moment--when Princess Amidala makes JD put on the headphones--has achieved a lame kind of pop-culture transcendence. They're makin' jokes about it on the AV Club, and everybody writing a profile of the Shins feels like they have to at least mention it, if only to be incredulous. Really, Natalie? The Shins? But they seemed so polite!

But I was listening to "Phantom Limb," the new Shins song, on the way to class, and I really did have to, you know, stop and take stock of things. Because this song is basically "New Slang II!" (Or III, if you think that "Saint Simon" from Chutes Too Narrow already took that spot.) The quirky little melody, the "oooooo" chorus, all of that. It'll change your life again! It'll change it back to whatever it was before, maybe! Try it!

Good tune, though. I keep wanting to put it on and play it again, like Ms Portman in the waiting room. This is usually the sure sign of a song I'll be sick of quickly, but we'll see.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Best Music 2006!

Well, I guess we did all we could. Not a bad year. Good election, bad World Series, that's the way it goes. But I'm going to take this last possible moment to give you my Big Final List.

Yeah, yeah, these things are a terrible cliché. But we need them, at least I know that I do. I’ve always been a sucker for a year-end list, if only because they’re so fun to sneer at. How could they leave off Donnie Darko / The Killers / Big Momma’s House II / [your favorite neglected masterpiece] we ask ourselves, and we feel like we’ve made some small stand. You can begin sneering at me in five minutes, as soon as you’ve read this. Sorry there aren't any pictures.

Camera Obscura Let’s Get Out of This Country
This list is going to have some obvious choices on it, the stuff that’s on everybody’s list, so I’ll start it off with a quirky one that’s maybe not particularly known. Though for me, this is a no-brainer. It’s quaint? And pretty? And Scottish? Belle & Sebastian protegés? Sign me up! Honestly, though, there weren’t many releases last year that gave me more simple pleasure, or made me sing quite so much like a lovelorn sixteen-year-old girl while washing the dishes. I will also take this opportunity to use the word “Glaswegian.” [A special nod to Matt C, who didn’t just recommend this album, he actually mailed it to my house.]

Belle & Sebastian The Life Pursuit
…and while we’re on the subject, here you go: not their best, but how could it be? This is hardly the same group that made If You’re Feeling Sinister at all, but they’re still a justly beloved institution, and they seem to only now be reaching the peak of their powers. The Life Pursuit is graceful and funny and soulful, and on songs like “Dress Up In You,” you can still hear the old bitter wistful charm.

Pernice Brothers Live A Little
Again, not their best, but so much better than other people. See my review elsewhere.

The Flaming Lips At War With the Mystics
Secure now in their transformation from vaguely punk-ish weirdos to inspirational postmodern hipster performance artists, the Flaming Lips release another solid collection of tunes. Not a great leap forward, maybe—the only twist seems to be a newfound sense of political irritation. (“Free Radicals,” “Haven’t Got a Clue,” and “The W.A.N.D,” can be read as some sort of anti-Bush trilogy.) But it’s all satisfying: “Pompeii A.M. Götterdämmerung,” is every bit as huge as the title requires; my only complaint is that it isn’t twelve minutes long. And “My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion,” joins “Do You Realize???” and “Waitin’ For a Superman,” in their collection of what I have to call Uplifiting Death-Hymns, songs that dare to bluntly and cheerfully say that Everything is Not Going to Be Okay, but that somehow That’s Okay.

Granddaddy Just Like the Fambly Cat
Stupid title. And go ahead and skip the intro with the child asking about the cat over and over. I do. This is still a wonderful, sad, last collection from this dear departed California group. The basic formula never changed: thick sludgy guitar, silly childlike keyboards, and Jason Lytle’s tired Wayne Coyne-ish croon, singing about robots and trees. This might actually be their best album taken as a whole. “This is How It Always Starts,” shows everything they did right: the sweet washes of electronics, the swooning background vocals, and the bitter little lyric that soars off the ground without seeming to move a muscle. This is how it always ends, though. Too many good bands don’t make any money.

The Decemberists The Crane Wife
The Decemberists, on the other hand, seem to have had no trouble at all managing their career. They were nowhere five years ago, now they’re a world-bestriding colossus sporting a monocle and a cardigan. Luckily, they have the work to back up their every-magazine-cover ubiquity. I reviewed the record already. It’s good.

Sufjan Stevens The Avalanche
I’ve already used the word “ubiquity,” but here’s Sufjan again, everybody. He’s wormed his adorable banjo-plucking way into our hearts, and he’s here to stay. I gave his Christmas album to my mom. Yes, The Avalanche is supposed to be an outtakes album, like it says on the cover; it’s supposed to be leftovers from the Illinois record. But it’s still seventy minutes long, and it still made my top ten. There’s filler, sure—you can probably skip most of the instrumental stuff and two of the three additional versions of “Chicago.” Enough great songs are left to make you shake your head—Illinois was freakin’ long to begin with. This guy must drink a lot of coffee. Anyway, banjos, flutes, pianos, you know the drill by now. Listen to “The Mistress Witch From McClure,” and “No Man’s Land,” definitely. Then ask yourself: how many albums will California take?

Thom Yorke The Eraser
He’s a reasonable man; get off his case! I think everybody who might read this probably has The Eraser already. Radiohead has occupied their frosty, unapproachable place in our canon for so long that there was no way we could ignore this record. But that didn’t mean it had to be good. It is. We can mock Yorke all we want for being prickly and paranoid, not to mention hideous to behold, but he’s really honestly the real deal both as a singer and a writer. Even when he was singing alt-rock ballads in 1993, there was a unique, unstable tinge to how he sang “I want you to notice when I’m not around,” or “Can’t afford to breathe in this town.” Now that he’s surrounded himself with computers and keyboards, his face looking sickly in the pale light of his PowerBook, he sounds more in his element than ever. This is emphatically not an album of self-indulgent electronic noodling, any more than Kid A was back when people were complaining about it. These are actual songs, despite or even because of all the whirring and bleeping and clicking, songs with real, painful emotion in them. Listen to “Atoms For Peace”—I hear “no more going to the dark side with your flying-saucer eyes” and I remember 1995’s “Black Star,” and its same sense of helplessness in the face of someone else’s collapse. (“I get home from work and you’re still standing in your dressing gown…”) “Skip Divided,” isn’t catchy, but it hisses with menace, with Yorke’s threatening murmur “when you walk in the room I follow you around like a dog.” “Harrowdown Hill,” it turns out, is about the death of UK Defence Ministry official David Kelly, and it seems to endorse the conspiracy theory that he was killed by the Blair government for blowing the whistle on the exaggeration of the threat posed by Iraq. Is that important? Probably not, and it’s probably not true, anyway. Before I knew all that, I knew that song had an arresting sort of grief to it—it was clear enough that it was about somebody dying. Nothing to fear, nothing to doubt.

Neko Case Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
Before this year, I mainly knew Neko Case from her singing with polite Canadians the New Pornographers, on whose records she stood out like a flashing red light. The songs were fairly consistent—wordy, ultra-clever, and polished to a high gloss. But singing these songs, you had two white guys—two Canadian guys—with standard inoffensive indie-rock voices, but then occasionally you had this woman, with her voice like a megaphone. She was their secret weapon! I knew she was actually American, and that she had a career of her own, but I didn’t really care until this record got so much praise. Turns out it was deserved. Besides the singing, the songs are solid almost all the way through, with some remarkably intricate, literate lyrics. Just listen to the first song, “Margaret Vs Pauline,” with its “girl with the parking lot eyes,” whose “jaw aches from wanting.” And then the black sting in the tail of it; it was a tiny little breathtaking moment for me. It’s all like that.

The Hold Steady Boys and Girls In America
Here it is, the worst Hold Steady album ever. I’m only about one-quarter joking. If you’ve heard Almost Killed Me and Separation Sunday (and here the nod goes to this guy, who gave me illicit copies of them,) then you know what I mean. Otherwise…well, just imagine a whole lot of 1970’s-era classic rock—Springsteen, AC/DC, Thin Lizzy—but with some guy growling an enormous quantity of very carefully thought-out words over it, words about teenagers, and drugs, and Billy Joel, and Jesus. This sounds like a terrible idea, but you have to hear it. And no, this album isn’t as viscerally satisfying as the other two, but that’s only because they were trying some things. The tunes got bigger, occassionally reaching near-Meatloaf levels. (One reviewer came right out and said “Sal Paradise by the dashboard light,” and I wanted to smack myself in the head. Why didn’t I think of that?) The production got bigger—they’ve been saddled with the label of the World’s Greatest Bar Band, and this album seems to be blasting out of the World’s Greatest Bar P.A. And the subject matter got a tiny bit lighter—the characters in “Chillout Tent,” just want to hook up at a concert, and they probably won’t even end up dead or in rehab. (Dave Pirner from Soul Asylum sings! Yikes!) One girl (in “Chips Ahoy,”) has a supernatural ability to pick the winner of horse races—but her boyfriend is irritated because he “can’t tell if she’s having a good time.” That's a shame.

But it gets plenty heavy, too—the Minnesota poet John Berryman kills himself in the opening song. (“He loved the Golden Gophers but he hated all the drawn-out winters.”) The snarling “Same Kooks,” is another missing piece of the Separation Sunday song cycle, with its stupid wasted Catholic kids moaning that “it’s hard to feel holy when you can’t get clean.” And “First Night” feels like the final end of that story, an epilogue or valediction. It leaves Charlemagne and Holly (from the first two albums) shaking in the streets and crying in the hospital, respectively, and leaves the singer trying to remember what they all used to look like when they first met. This sounds horribly sentimental if you haven’t heard all these songs; if you have, then you’re already sort of choked up thinking about it. It’s going to be okay. Just remember what somebody (Holly?) said to Berryman—“you’re pretty good with words, but words won’t save your life.”

Honorable Mentions—Band of Horses is good. (One reviewer called it “the Shins deep fried in My Morning Jacket.” The metaphor police have been notified and are proceeding on foot.) The Long Winters is good. Mogwai is good. Morrissey, bless his heart, had some good songs. The Raconteurs, sure, sure, fine, whatever.

Best Design: The Eraser (Fancy woodcuts!) Worst: Boys and Girls in America, ironically. What’s up with that cover?

Second Best Title On an Album I Didn’t Listen To: Return to Cookie Mountain, by TV On the Radio.

And the Best: I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass by Yo La Tengo. What, twenty years into their career and they’re still filled with rage? They’re talkin’ to you, Sonic Youth!