Saturday, May 31, 2008

Islands - Arm's Way

Of all the idiosyncratic indie rock bands in the world, Islands are front-and-center the weirdest and proudest. It is almost impossible to be more idiosyncratic. From the Unicorns untimely demise, to the weird lineup shuffle after the first Islands album, to the change in direction hinted at by Nick Diamonds, to the dropping of the stage name to Nick Thorburn, and to the disdain for a nearly universally-approved first album voiced in an interview, they are certainly as full of interesting digressions for the gossip column as any others. More to the point though, each of their albums is a big deal.

Unicorns Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone was arguably one of the best debut albums to be released in the early 00's, only to be forgotten a year later when that band would implode just as their audience was getting huge. Shortly thereafter came Islands Return to the Sea, which didn't sound like the Unicorns, but was still recognizably the same guy. That album was praised, and justifiably, but it is mostly a happy time, "mellow," pop album.

The second album from Islands, Arm's Way, is much more interesting. For starters, I don't know how much longer it actually is, but it feels like one of the longest albums I've listened to in years. That may be a bad thing for some people, but I don't feel like it really gets boring. What's weird is, the last three tracks sort of blend together for me, so that I always think, "Okay, this is the really long last track," and then it keeps going! The album is clearly longer than an hour and I would even say it flirts with the 70 minute mark, but I haven't actually checked the time yet. For another, like the previous two albums from this artist, it sounds different than everything they've previously done.

And yes, I bought the Scarlett Johansson and Mudhoney albums the same day as this (I did not buy the new Free Kitten album, even though it was only $9.99), and I feel this is the best of those three.

The opening title-track sounds a little like "Swans (Life After Death)," their previous albums opening track, for about thirty seconds. Then it switches into the primary hook for the song, which I can only describe as being a more straightforward pop-rock song than Islands/Unicorns have typically gone for. Second track, "Pieces of You," continues on in a similar vein to a not unpleasant effect. These are two of the more generic songs on the album, and though they may not be as funny (except for a line in the first one about a bee and honey), they are, adequately good.

The album picks up the pace up a bit more on the third track, "J'aime vous voir quitter," probably the poppiest song on the album and the best candidate for radio airplay. It also sounds more like "Rough Gem," than anything else here. Not a bad thing, and the song is also potentially the most gossip column-y, with obvious reference made to ex-Unicorn, ex-Island J'aime Tambeur (j'aime, j'aime, j'aime, partez-vous, but can i blame blame blame blame you?), which could make one consider this Islands' take on the concept for the Sebadoh song "The Freed Pig."

"Abominable Snow" follows, and the 1-2 punch of these tracks is the most satisfying on the album. This is also the best song lyrically, which is about abominable snowmen and whether or not they exist.

"Creeper" sounds like Islands trying to approximate Of Montreal and isn't a total failure of an experiment. It actually might be able to be passed off as a radio single in some circles. So could the next track, "Kids Don't Know Shit," another great song lyrically, and the third poppiest song on the album. It wouldn't be right to say it sounds more like the Unicorns than Islands, but it's about as unhinged as Thorburn allows himself to get. In general, that's the way I feel about this album though. It's closer to Unicorns than it is to the previous Islands album, but the songs do have that "really long" Islands quality. I just realized it's really complicated to discuss all three of their albums at once, especially to someone who isn't necessarily familiar with them in the first place.

"Life in Jail" is another excellent song lyrically, and is probably on par with Interpol's song "Not Even Jail," but it is far less melodramatic. It is still contemplative though. It signals the second half of the album, which is way different than the first.

"In the Rushes" seems like a crazy long song with a bunch of different parts, and to a certain extent, "We Swim" and "To a Bond" are the same thing. These three songs, actually, are hard for me to differentiate, or describe. They're just long, and indistinct.

"I Feel Evil Creeping In," the album penultimate track, also seems really long, but you know you're listening to it because Thorburn keeps repeating the line, and you know there's only one more song left after.

"Vertigo (If It's a Crime)" is not far off from "Swans (Life After Death)" except it's the closing track instead of the opening track, and it's probably more effective in that position than the latter is respectively. I've done a terrible job of describing what the second half of the album sounds like--you just get lost in it. It's slower, the lyrics are more contemplative, and in general it's not as good as the first half of the album, but it's easy to listen to all the way to the end because it's epic, and it's never really unpleasant. This is better than Return to the Sea, though only by a little really (they really are different albums), but it is still nothing compared to the Unicorns. As much as I will go see Islands when they play here, I would so rather be seeing the Unicorns, but the world doesn't revolve around me now does it?

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Mudhoney - The Lucky Ones

Okay, just for the fun of it, let's look back at the 12 bands featured in Our Band Could Be Your Life.
-Black Flag
-Mission of Burma
-Minor Threat
-Husker Du
-The Replacements
-Big Black
-Butthole Surfers
-Sonic Youth
-Dinosaur Jr.
-Beat Happening

Of those 12, 4 of those bands are still operating with all their original members intact (though 2 of them underwent extremely long hiatuses). Of those 12, all but one or two have principal members still actively working under whatever moniker(mostly going solo...Henry Rollins (on IFC), the Stooges, Bob Mould, Paul Westerberg, Shellac, Calvin Johnson). This is really starting to be amazing as most of these bands earliest seeds were sown nearly thirty years ago. Thus, the only 2 bands to survive an extremely long haul with only slightly varied original units--Sonic Youth and Mudhoney--and of those two, it seems incredible that one of them goes on regardless, when it would appear that 90% of the population might recognize the name Sonic Youth and less than 10% might recognize the name Mudhoney, but that is probably also the case for the Melvins, and they are probably a better comparison to make here. But in any case, Mudhoney is arguably as strong a band as they have ever been, despite their advancing age, and their newest album The Lucky Ones could serve as some sort of career-defining final album--of course that would be sad, but one look at the inside of the CD and one listen to the title track makes it seem all too apropos.

Opener "I'm Now" is amazing for how it can make one feel that the last eighteen years haven't really happened. Except the subject matter is very focused on the aspect of timekeeping. There are a couple instrumental flourishes that maybe Mudhoney wouldn't have used in the early 90's (keyboards here). "The past made no sense/The future looks tense/I'm now" is the chorus, and Mark Arm sells it the way he typically can. "Inside Out Over You," I can only describe as saying it sounds like "Sweet Young Thing Ain't Sweet No More" and I'm probably only saying that because Superfuzz Bigmuff was reissued the same day The Lucky Ones was released. And with the 1-2-3 punch of this album approaching the 1-2-3 punch of that album, it's almost as if Mudhoney is saying, "See, we're just as good as ever."

Title track, third track, is a radio-ready single for any alternative rock radio station, but they're probably all too fucking dumb to play Mudhoney. It could be a #1 single in the same way grunge could chart in 1992. Styles have changed, but "The Lucky Ones," I can hardly see as anything but an elegy for Kurt Cobain, and perhaps a few others--though who really knows who Mark Arm could be referencing in this song? "The lucky ones have already gone down/the lucky ones are lucky they're not around," again, another simplistically worded chorus that Arm, and probably only Arm, is able to pull off. (Could anyone make "Fuck You!" sound so awkward and awesome at the same time as he does on "You Got It (Keep It Outta My Face)"?) This is the longest song on the album, and it reminds me a lot of everything on Superfuzz Bigmuff, especially "In N Out of Grace," for some reason. But the subject matter is brutally depressing, and potentially dangerous for teens with suicidal thoughts (!), so obviously it's very deep and meaningful.

Unfortunately, the rest of the album begins to seem tedious when "Next Time" arrives with its plodding, repetitive, dirgey, drum-bass-guitar. Now, I can stand repetitive, simple music, if Mark E. Smith is providing the lyrics. However, Arm sounds more like Iggy Pop than MES, or he has more similar energy. He wants to play loud punk rock still. And that is very endearing, when someone such as myself is able to see Mudhoney play Chicago (September 1, 2006) and have a beer bottle land on his head (damn drunk Chicago assholes) and emerge from the pit drenched in sweat, as if he had been through a washing machine or bathtub or shower or lake or ocean or pond or similar body of water and see Mark Arm go totally nuts on stage (doing "Hate the Police" as an encore sans guitar, leaning into the over-frenzied crowd) and have his ears ring for 24 hours and have one of the best concert experiences of his life despite not knowing 70% of the 30 or 40 songs they must have played.

They're in the same class as Sonic Youth from that original book lineup because they've had years and years of practice. They haven't rested on their laurels because they haven't necessarily been able to--they're a real, working, very long-running punk rock band, and one of the last existing ones that continue to be vital in the scene. The rest of the album is not as sweet as the beginning, and only the title track could be considered as good as the best work in their career, but it is not a "phoned-in" performance, and understanding how hard Mudhoney partied, it is surprising they lasted longer than most of those other units. If anything, it's from sheer determination and a punishing live experience. Thank God Mudhoney do not want to hang up their jerseys yet. I would love to see them again. Ideally, doing a Don't Look Back performance of Superfuzz Bigmuff and then playing "The Lucky Ones" and "Touch Me I'm Sick" as encores. Maybe a Meat Puppets comparison would be more apt than the Melvins or Sonic Youth or Iggy Pop ones were.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Scarlett Johansson - Anywhere I Lay My Head

Before I begin talking about this album, let me state that I have had a crush on Scarlett Johansson roughly since Ghost World. So, that's about a six year crush, and both of us have gone on to do wonderful things in those years (she did Lost in Translation and I did a bunch of little writings that are not worthy of the public's attention), but I was very excited to hear she wanted to do something as bold and risky as release an album, and what's more, an album of Tom Waits covers, and what's more, with Dave Sitek, Nick Zinner, David Bowie, Tunde Adebimpe (sp? I just want to say "TV on the Radio" in general, because that's what it sort of sounds like), making it an actual "indie cred" album. However, I remember when a friend of mine went to go buy the Zwan album at Other Music roughly six years ago, and the record store clerk looked at her blankly when she asked for it and then said, "Oh, I guess they've got some cred."

So maybe Anywhere I Lay My Head is comparable to Mary Star of the Sea in its goodness, but I will actually take SJ over BC in this instance. While her voice is not what made her famous (her acting talent, her grace, her beauty), apparently she used to aspire to musical theater, so she is living out a side of her dreams at least, and her voice is more soothing than Billy's. However, that comparison is completely off-base--the only way it makes sense is to say that both artists wanted indie cred so they recruited backup musicians from various indie rock supergroups--except in the case with Scarlett, it seems like she actually just likes that music (in her liner notes, when she mentions sharing a mutual appreciation (with Dave Sitek) for New Order, of course I want to melt further into my crush). Enough people respected her to agree to be a part of this album, and while it may not be one of the top 10 albums of 2008, it probably deserves to be in the top 50, and is a very sucessful experiment as far as albums go from actresses. I would not dissuade her from doing another a few years down the line.

Really, just the title track emphasizes the strengths of the album--it could be good music to sleep to, as Tom Waits might be if he didn't occassionally go crazy on his albums with all the booming and clanging and dog barking. I can only describe her voice as being somewhat similar to Chan Marshall's. I would not compare her to Neko Case--she does not reach as high a register. She does have a very limited range, but as a crooner, she does everything she needs to on this album. I think in an interview she said she didn't want it to be like "coffee shop" music, but she has more succeeded in making "lounge" music. But it is not "lounge" music in the same way typical Waits (piano-era-Waits, which Johansson does not cover much of here) could be--drunken and sad. It's more like "after lounge" music, if that makes any sense.

Some of the songs are sad, and some of the lyrics are awesome to hear Scarlett sing (like on "I Don't Wanna Grow Up," which vaguely delivers on its New Order-y construction), but more awesome is hearing Bowie sing on "Fannin Street." "Green Grass" and "Town with No Cheer" are my favorite songs she picked, and they are done decent justice, though "Grass" to a better effect than "Town."

Nick Zinner does not bust out any YYY's moves, but Dave Sitek does make the album sound like a TV on the Radio album, and with several guests from the band on many of the tracks, any fan of TVoTR will at least appreciate the production value. Otherwise, is the album worth buying? If you have a crush on Scarlett, like me, and you hope to meet her in L.A. and have her break off her engagement with Ryan Reynolds by praising her album and knowing everything about it and about her and about what makes her great, then you might like this album. I don't think many people are going to get it--she's not going to be as big as JLO. But it is a low key album, a low key release, despite the Bowie presence, and a quality listen. It might be a better album to burn off your friend (I recently read that Scarlett did not attend the premiere of the new Woody Allen movie she is in because they wouldn't provide an $8,000-a-day make-up artist for her, and while this sounds completely out of character, I'd rather presume she wanted to be in the States on the day her album was released) because she probably doesn't necessarily need the money, but please listen to it before you make fun of me for saying it is good or just laughing off the thought of it. She is very concerned about whether or not Mr. Waits is going to like it. I'm not sure how he is going to feel about each individual track, but overall, I have to think he would be very complimentary to Scarlett. It's clear that a lot of effort was put in here, and a covers album isn't necessarily going to be a revelation (unless you're Chan Marshall maybe), so I believe she's done about as well as she can, and done a very respectable job of releasing a debut. As weird as everything sounded in concept, the finished product is actually pretty nice.

Monday, May 19, 2008

No Age - Nouns

No Age and Times New Viking are different bands. Pitchfork recently gave No Age's LP its best new music listing, not long after TNV's, and in it briefly mentioned how they, "like TNV, employ a layer of fuzz." We have to be a little more specific about what layer of fuzz means. For TNV, it equals unlistenable. For No Age, it equals Deerhunter approximating My Bloody Valentine, or, if you still want to call this "lo-fi," this is what really good lo-fi sounds like.

No Age is an L.A. band that is apparently made up of two militant vegans obssessed with truth and not setting restrictions on the age limits at their shows. They're a serious indie rock band that seems to have worked their way through the system before their big buzz arrived with this album, and it is complementary for them that the lady who sold me my copy said she had sold three in the last hour. Rip it Off is not going to win TNV any new fans; Nouns is one of the best albums of the year, and I feel comfortable saying that in May. They're not going to get talked about like Vampire Weekend or be as big a band as Arcade Fire, but they're going to be big enough that they can sit comfortably alongside Lightning Bolt or Battles. That is not to say they are instrumental heavy--they are positively pop-song oriented on at least two tracks ("Teen Creeps" and "Sleeper Hold," best song on the album). They sound like what TNV would sound like if they had better production. Or, if their recording was more bass heavy than treble heavy. The "muddled" production on Nouns works to excellent effect, burying the vocals beneath the sound, but always so that they and the music are mutually complementary.

A track-by-track analysis of the album is too hard for me now. The album runs along like one huge song, with the more individual one sticking out from the rest (the previously mentioned two). I'm not saying there's only two good songs on the album and it's a masterpiece. It's complicated. It's not far off the mark to compare them to TNV; it's just far off to NOT ADMIT that they know how to make good music and TNV knows how to make it seem like they know how to make good music.

One final note: Nouns is great, but it's not a masterpiece. There will probably be 10 better albums than it this year, but it is damn good, and if their next album is a more fully-fleshed out pop album, then they will be hard to top. For now, there is too much formlessness, too much noise, it all blends together. It blends together nicely, and those two songs are really sweet, so yeah, they're a really good new band.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Fall - Imperial Wax Solvent

Well finally, here we are at the review for the next Fall album. It was "officially released" in the UK on April 29, and nowhere is it being sold in the U.S. Thus, limewire. Will I buy the album when it comes out? Good question.

It's certainly worth the $15, but since I already have the tracks in my I-tunes, unless there's something extra that makes it worth the price, I'm not going to shell out for something I already have. Narnack Records and Castle Records should learn how to deal with MES if they want better record sales. Maybe MES doesn't want to appeal to American audiences (highly doubtful), but keeping the record unavailable in the States, but available via British import (with it usually being an "out of stock" item) or for free via illegal file-sharing, well, makes the question a bit easier. There is a lesson here for the record industry, but it's really irrelevant. The Fall are truly in their own class.

Imperial Wax Solvent, then, is a return to their string of successful albums like 2000's The Unutterable, 2004's The Real New Fall LP, and 2005's Fall Heads Roll. Some may argue with me about the merits of the final mention, and I can understand why production values may turn some off this album, but regardless, "Blindess" is on it, and "Pacifying Joint" continues to be played frequently on Fall sets, to say nothing of "What About Us?" 2007's Reformation Post TLC suffered from lesser production and seemingly half-written songs. Still, "Systematic Abuse" and "Reformation" to a certain extent were very good songs, and I still like "The Wright Stuff" and "Scenario" is an awesome song live. I think Reformation Post TLC could have been as good an album as any of those three if it had been more fully fleshed out. But perhaps "Insult Song," which pokes fun at the backing musicians at the time, three Americans from L.A. County, could symbolize that era--MES had respect for the Americans, they proved themselves worthy, but it was all sort of a joke to begin with (having been incited by the plantain-throwing incident which ended in the Fall Heads Roll lineup abandoning MES, and Narnack Records stepping in to find replacement musicians---INTERESTINGLY ENOUGH an event that a good friend of mine happened to work out administratively, strangely enough, dumb Narnack Records, Brooklyn hipsters, had no clue what to do with the Fall. You don't get the Fall signed to your record label and misunderstand how to market them.): The Darker My Love replacement scheme, however, worked out well in the end because everyone got along, and an album resulted from it--"the tape they were wasting..."

Some have already hailed Imperial Wax Solvent as the best album the Fall have done since 1982's Hex Enduction Hour. I would say that praise is, a bit inflated. For one thing, the Fall in 2008 aren't the same thing as the Fall in 1982. True, there are still really weird songs, but MES is not spewing the kind of verbosity on display in Grotesque, anymore, but his mentality is no less punk. Of course, punk is probably the wrong word for it at this point. How about "no less cantankerous" or "no less alcohol drenched" or "no less hubris-filled?" I feel cruel at that last one. MES is not hubristic. No one can attest to his career. There is no one else like him. Mick Jagger, one can draw comparisons to him. Bob Dylan, one can certainly draw comparisons to. Neil Young, perhaps, one can draw comparisons to. Bowie, Lou Reed, and Iggy Pop, you could compare. But MES is younger than the bunch, more prolific than the bunch, more underground than the bunch, more lukewarmly-received than the bunch, and, unlike all the others, has maintained a consistent quality output with much shorter "weak" periods. It's fair to say the Fall and Sonic Youth are about equals in terms of prolificacy, quality, cultural importance, and influence. Imperial Wax Solvent is about as good as Rather Ripped, which is to say, it's surprising they got it so right.

IWS does not always get it right, but the first six tracks or so do, and to some minds that is enough to reason the buy the LP. Opener "Alton Towers" continues in the vein of weird opening Fall tracks like "Ride Away" or "Mansion"--songs that don't fit with the rest of the album, or enhance the mood of their surrounding pieces. It goes on for a while, and MES says something about "You look very different," and it ends, and "Wolf Kidult Man" starts and you remember why the Fall are the best band ever.

"Wolf Kidult Man" could easily be a single on the radio, but it is hard to say how close the Fall come to approximating the perfect 3 minute pop song. Their version of it is so twisted, I wonder if it really could be played on the radio today. "Blindess" was used in the Mitsubishi Outlander commercial to stupefying effect. Henry Rollins commented on it on his show on IFC, saying it was okay for bands to license their music, because it meant more people liking it (massive paraphrase). Well, I don't see the Fall's audience expanding rapidly because of a commercial now do I? I just feel like a dork when I listen to it. But that's not true--it's an awesome song anyways.

Regardless of whether or not "Wolf Kidult Man" could be a radio hit, "50 Year Old Man," the third track, is 12 minutes long, and that really says it all. It is, in a way, a bit of a sequel to "Hip Priest"--incredibly long, MES ostensibly talking about himself, talking about "imitating" in both--but also much more catchy than "Hip Priest," much louder, and much more structurally complex, with four separate "movements" or whatever you want to call them. It's an amazing song, with MES saying "I've got 3/4 Rock Hard On, but I'm too busy, to use it," "I go in a hotel, I go through a towel, I throw it down, and I piss in it," "I'm a 50 year old man, and I like it," "I'm inferior product man, at 2/3 the cost, and I'm proud of it." Inscrutable, or incredibly telling?

"I've Been Duped" keeps the energy going by having MES's wife take the vocals, and it is about as good a song as "The Wright Stuff," (except there's no line about "I'm a celebrity, get me out of here!") and indeed is probably more catchy and radio-friendly than most other tracks remaining.

The Groundhogs' "Strangetown" is the requisite MES cover song, after the Move's "I Can Hear the Grass Grow" and Merle Haggard's "White Line Fever." Each of the three is awesome. "Strangetown," honestly, is probably the weakest of them. However, it's strangely optimistic/realistic delivery keeps it interesting enough until "Taurig."

"Taurig" is the requisite experimental MES track, along the lines of "Das Boot" or "Paintwork" or "Unutterable." But this is a really good experimental track. It's extremely repetitive (duh) and it almost sounds as if MES has been influenced in his own way from working with Mouse on Mars in Von Sudenfed. In general, this is a very good thing. The Fall would be relevant if anybody cared, or if they wanted anybody to care.

I can't really dismiss the rest of the album. "Can Can Summer," "Tommy Shooter," "Latch Key Kid," "Is This New," "Senior Twilight Stock Replacer" and "Exploding Chimney" are no worse than the first six tracks. They are just not as interesting. They're all basically pop songs, or the closest "generic" sound to what the Fall offer in the studio at the present moment.

So, this album may have some "filler" on it, but eh, it will still probably make my top 10 of 2008. Then again those spots are filling up quickly.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Be Your Own Pet - Get Awkward

The members of Be Your Own Pet are basically 20-21 years old. I bought their single "Damn Damn Leash" used for like $3 in a record store in Memphis, and I had a brief conversation about them with the clerk. "They're from here, aren't they?" "They're from Nashville." "Are they good?" "I saw them once, yeah they're good."

"Damn Damn Leash" is a pretty good song, and so are the two others on the EP, but it unveils none of the mastery that BYOP exercise on Get Awkward, as consistent and energetic a 29 minute album as is practically possible to make. Now, I do not have BYOP's debut, but it's supposed to be good too, and I may go back to Amoeba Music and get it soon. Get Awkward is awesome.

Maybe it's only awesome for me, though! I don't know if BYOP has relocated to L.A., but if "The Kelly Affair" is as authentic as it sounds, few songs have painted as appropriate a picture of the city, even in health-conscious 2008. The song, the first single, is a little bit annoying with its chorus "Everybody here parties all the time/Everybody here has sex on their mind/Everybody here is popping pills," but is also pretty awesome for the same reason. More personally, "It could be dangerous/Living in this valley" makes one typical L.A. resident remember when he was contemplating moving there, considering all the positives and negatives ("weather" (i.e. 420) vs. a generally dismissive attitude from the other 49 states), finally deciding it is worth the risk, but with the feeling that something bad could still happen. In the context of the video for the song, or a Beyond the Valley of the Dolls-influence, the lyrics make total sense--if you are young, hot, critically-adored, on the verge of your greatest success, you will be eaten alive by manipulators and sycophants--perhaps to the degree that you confuse the two. Other people can capitalize on your success, too.

The rest of the album is a mouthful for me to write about, but mainly I just like the way Jemina Pearl sings and I like that she sings about what she does. Like the first track, "Super Soaked," is pretty sweet all the way through, but the best part for me is when she goes, "I don't wanna listen to you!" Sometimes it almost sounds clumsy and it makes even more endearing, as tight and flawless as the band is for 97% of the record.

Notably, each song on the album presents something special about it, rendering skipping around not totally necessary, though there are obviously better songs than others ("Super Soaked," "The Kelly Affair," "Heart Throb," "You're a Waste," "Bummer Time," (despite being goofy) "Zombie Graveyard Party!" and "The Beast Within," which ends the album absolutely awesomely, almost like a refrain from "Kelly Affair"---with Pearl screaming about how she doesn't want to go to bed, and about how she's got nothing left to learn, only time to burn, and probably the most concise tossed-off line, "Can't you tell I don't give a fuck?"). Once I had a friend play me a recording of her singing a song with a live band karaoke-backing her up, and I had trouble telling her who I thought she sounded like, but I settled on Joan Jett. Were I to hear that again, I would say, "You sound like Jemina Pearl!" And she, Jemina, could front the Detroit Cobras or the Paybacks.

BYOP very much has that garage-y, sped up, "power" rock and roll sound, but they are truly a band steeped in the punk tradition. Does anyone still not know that Thurston Moore "discovered" them and added them to his roster on Ecstatic Peace? That's kind of the first fact people mention about them (that and "They're young"), and indeed their lyrical and musical approach does not do much revolutionizing of the punk paradigm, beyond taking Beat Happening type-subject matter and marrying it with Black Flag-type frustration and viciousness. Sure, you could compare BYOP to YYY, but that's far off the mark. YYY are much more arty. BYOP can't drink without someone knowing they're breaking the law (!) and they sound like a band in that position. Let us hope that two more years of growing older does not convince them they should start taking themselves "more seriously" as artists--at present, they're doing just fine.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Desolation Angels - Jack Kerouac

Of all the great 20th century American novelists, Kerouac stands as probably the coolest. He will probably remain the coolest novelist of all time until for establishing so much of the American “hip” character. But he himself is not proud of this achievement! Desolation Angels is Kerouac’s attempt at explaining himself fully, without ornament, and apparently, more directly from his own diaries than in any of his other work. For further proof that I am not crazy in thinking Kerouac was not proud of creating an archetypal image of hipness, see the experience captured in Kurt Vonnegut’s Palm Sunday of Vonnegut’s son returning to his father’s house on Cape Cod carrying a duffel bag and wearing a white t-shirt and jeans, with Kerouac sitting at the table, suddenly starting up, claiming, drunkenly, “You don’t know anything about me!” or his ruminations appearing near the end of Desolation Angels, documenting the period in which Road was published:
“And just like in New York or Frisco or anywhere there they are all hunching around marijuana smoke, talking, the cool girls with long thin legs in slacks, the men with goatees, all an enormous drag after all and at the time (1957) not even started yet officially with the name of “Beat Generation.” To think that I had so much to do with it, too, in fact at that very moment the manuscript of Road was being lineotyped for imminent publication and I was already sick of the whole subject. Nothing can be more dreary than “coolness” (not Irwin’s cool, or Bull’s or Simon’s, which is a natural quietness) but postured, actually secretly rigid coolness that covers up the fact that the character is unable to convey anything of force or interest, a kind of sociological coolness soon to become a fad up into the mass of middleclass youth for awhile. There’s even a kind of insultingness, probably unintentional, like when I said to the Paris girl just fresh she said from visiting a Persian Shah for Tiger hunt “Did you actually shoot the tiger yourself?” she gave me a cold look as tho I’d just tried to kiss her at the window of a Drama School. Or tried to trip the Huntress. Or something. But all I could do was sit on the edge of the bed in despair like Lazarus listening to their awful “likes” and “like you know” and “wow crazy” and “a wig, man” “a real gas”—All this was about to sprout out all over America even down to High School level and be attributed in part to my doing! But Irwin paid no attention to all that and just wanted to know what they were thinking anyway.” (358-359)
True, it may all be “dreary,” but it’s amazing how many people will namedrop Kerouac having only read Road (if even all of it, word by word) and diffuse so much of his energy through their own ambitions towards literature or celebrity. Kerouac is notorious for having written Road the way he did (people disagree with me, but I believe I am correct in saying, in three weeks, on one long sheet of paper (which no one debates, and which was actually on display in a bookstore in Boulder, CO one day I happened to be there, but which I passed up, for what reason I do not know, something stupid, so many stupid decisions of late…) and probably on some form of pep pills or something or other), and less-famous for the Subterraneans (a three-day-novella) and justifiably noteworthy for the crisp, more-straightforward narrative of The Dharma Bums. Now, after Desolation Angels, which I am prepared to say is my favorite Kerouac novel so far, my interest in him has been resuscitated, if only especially because everyone seems to have missed his point. And studying him for the purposes of literature ends in claiming that he himself often threw caution to the wind when it came to providing work worthy of “literary criticism”—there is a passage I will quote later (when I find it) where he details his method somewhat iconographically. There are no secret Nabokovian games Kerouac plays (he usually doesn’t leave the reader in the dark), beyond giving one character appearing in a brief moment the last name of Nabokov, certainly not an invisible personage several years after Lolita came into print. He doesn’t need to, because he’s got Irwin Garden and Bull Hubbard to talk about, and their equally famous recently published masterworks “Howling” and “Nude Supper.” Other characters pop in and out—famously Cody, who more or less makes a series of cameos, Ben Fagan, a Frisco buddhist appearing significantly in The Dharma Bums, Raphael Urso, a New Yorker poet who I still don’t was in real life, Simon (Irwin’s lover), his younger brother Lazarus, the Ruths Heaper and Erickson, Julien, who plays a large role in Subterraneans, Alyce Newman (Joyce Johnson, who wrote the introduction of the edition I read), and finally Keroauc’s Mother, often talked about as if a legend, finally given a total portrait to close out this amazing 400 page + prose masterpiece. I have not read Proust. I may have mentioned that before. But Kerouac does it so well. The self-styled novel-memoir can only be taken so many places. I must read Proust. I must read Big Sur. I must read Tristessa. I must read Doctor Sax (which I remember reading somewhere that he wrote entirely on “tea”). I must read Vanity of Duluoz. I must read Swann’s Way before most of those, though.
Kerouac’s importance in literature is often undersold by scholars and oversold by dilettantes who don’t really understand him and just like getting fucked up, and writing while they’re getting fucked up, and believing they don’t need to revise because everything a person says is holy and true when uttered in that one, original, unique moment, and everyone is God and everything is God, and we’re all far too uptight about the way we go about our lives. Important lessons all—but if we are going about it all wrong, what is the right way, Mr. Kerouac? He offers many instances of appreciating life, but finds little all-consuming happiness. With Ruth Heaper and Alyce Newman there appear fleeting moments of “normal” American domestic bliss, but after an opium high in Tangiers, he suddenly realizes that he no longer wants to participate in life. He wants to live in a quiet house and have no one bother him. All of the madness of his youth and the Beat generation has gotten him nowhere, except it has made him famous. One of the funniest lines in the book is when Raphael says, “Don’t comb your hair!” when talking about the Life magazine photographer coming to take pictures of the three of them together.
His love for his Mother, which some may laugh privately at, or roll their eyes at, or furrow their brows at, is actually one of the most beautiful sections of the book. There are only about forty or fifty pages with Kerouac and his Mother as the primary characters, but the way Kerouac describes her—how good she is to him, how greatly she still takes care of him even though she is 62 and he is 34, how she is willing to try to move from Florida to Berkeley with him on cross-country Greyhound bus trip, how he takes her to Mexico briefly and she experiences a higher revelation, how she drinks with him on the bus and talks about how she doesn’t like the Rocky Mountains because she thinks they’re going to fall over and crush them at any minute—is more loving than any other character portrayal, with Cody being the only one that even comes close. When he first mentions her he says, “Now we’re getting to the best person in the book,” and indeed that’s exactly what she seems. Though the narrative with her may actually deal more heavily in frustration than the other segments, and though it may not present anything so nearly transgressive or titillating as the rest of the book by the literary standards of the mid 1960’s, it is sort of the perfect ending for the book—slow, contemplative, and finally true, more honest and true than any other section in the book.

And at the end Kerouac seems to sneak in a few “trailers” for his other books, talking about Cody’s fate, saying something tragic happened, but then things went back to the way they used to be, and even though he swore off living wildly, Kerouac still goes out to have an adventure at Big Sur that he alludes to. The complete story of Kerouac can only be known to someone who takes the time to read all of his books, and then maybe someone who takes the time to read his journals and his letters to analyze how much truth and how much fiction comprised his work. I would say it highly consists of truth.

Try - Dennis Cooper

Of all the books that friends could recommend you, Try may be the most hit-or-miss. You may have a friend tell you to read it, and you may end up hating that person forever. Alternately, you may have a friend tell you to read it, and you may think that person is really fucked up, but you’ve probably already taken the time to understand them, so instead you are just, concerned. In the last case, you’re told to read it, you do, you are blown away, you do not think about modern literature quite the same way again, and you decide, even if they’re not as good, you want to read the rest of Cooper’s books.

Oeuvre rule: I shared an apartment in Paris with a girl who had The Hipster Handbook, which was mostly a joke-text, but which did pin down the Williamsburg-type to a T. However, some elements of hipsters struck me as oft-kilter, namely the “hippest authors,” which included your usual bunch (Salinger, Hunter S. Thompson, Kerouac I think…) but placed Cooper at the #1 position and simply said, “Hipsters have read all of Cooper’s novels.” I find this hard to believe. I can count on one hand the number of people I know that are familiar with his work. Now, all five of those people may be hipsters, but I know more than five hipsters. This really doesn’t matter at all. My point is, Cooper is 55, Try was published in 1994, and if you don’t know who he is by now, then you probably won’t hear of him in the future, though that is up for debate, as one of his more recent texts, God Jr. has him flirting with the mainstream. You can find that volume in many mass-market arenas, but you will almost never find Try anywhere except in a library.

In my opinion, Try is Cooper’s definitive volume, at least so far. His other books explore similar terrain, but always with a focus on violence that at times I find confusing. Try is an extremely violent book, and contains at least three scenes that will make you audibly gasp. I found myself surprised that I took everything in stride until the penultimate scene in the novel, when I had to groan for a graphic description of “fisting.” However, this is my second time reading it. The first time was in Paris, and with a bottle of wine. The second time was in Silver Lake, and with a bottle of wine. Both times it was read in one evening. I feel it is appropriate to read the novel this way because all of the characters get so fucking messed up through the course of its 200 pages that you don’t feel so left out if you’re getting shitfaced as you’re activating the text with your mind. Also, it may make you cry more easily. I did not cry last night. I cried this morning (for different reasons, but probably because of some of the emotional turmoil left over from reading it last night). Try is extremely emotional. The last two pages are about as good as the last two pages of anything else I’ve read. You’d think I’m fucking crazy if I described this as a “tender” book, but on the second reading, that side of it seems more apparently resonant than the violent aspect.

A note on structure seems prudent, as Try is one of Cooper’s least –structured and most predictably forward-moving novels. There are several different “perspectives” that break up the text into chapters of sorts, though the action takes place over the course of two or three (really) crazy days. Upon reflection, it is not all the different from my first novel, except there are way less characters here, and there is nothing so pretentious as separate chapter titles for each different character perspective about to push through the next several pages of the story. No, the perspectives are Ziggy’s, Calhoun’s, Roger’s, Ken’s, and that’s sort of it. You go back between those four characters—the main one, his best friend, his father (the only one in first-person POV), his uncle—with a nearly symmetrical precision until all of the energy contained within the work is used up and exhausted.

Regardless of the deeper implications of the text, the story in Try is clearly its most salient element. The majority of Cooper’s other volumes sacrifice some level of story in favor of abstraction. Or else, their stories tend to be too similar. Frisk seems to have a very intricate story drawn up around it, but while it may boast an intelligent structure, the “page-turner” aspect is not quite the same. Do not get me wrong—while Try may be a page turner, it is not destined for Oprah’s Book Club. Giving away the story probably ruins a few surprises, but I will summarize it quickly anyways: Ziggy is 16, obsesses over Husker Du, edits a zine entitled I Apologize, a Magazine for the Sexually Abused, lives with his father Brice, rarely goes to school, when he does it is only to see Annie, a drug dealer who supply things with names like Superchunk, has a best friend named Calhoun who is a year older than him and so has graduated high school, but is only working part-time in a record store and is a massive junkie who slowly writes fiction, has an uncle named Ken who spends the entire novel sexually mutilating a thirteen-year-old Slayer fanatic on film, and finally has another father named Roger, who is a rock critic in New York, and who has decided that he is going to take Ziggy back with him, all while being somewhat overly-obsessed with “rimming.”

The subject matter is obviously a bit rough and sketchy. However, few books tend to take up this material so head-on. Anybody interested in figuring out the long term (though the work mainly deals in the short-term) effects of sexual abuse would be well-served to begin here, as there are few other novels to deal in it so unflinchingly. What is different is the complicity, the realism, the lack of options, the truly confused state. Anyone who has in fact been sexually abused would no doubt reap a great benefit from reading this text, even if it may force them to revisit painful memories. However, in that potential case one risks becoming fixated on Ziggy, perhaps the only character one could clearly state “is more fucked up than you are.” The part that makes the novel a masterpiece though, is that, despite how fucked-up Ziggy is from everything life has given him, he doesn’t complain, he does what he has to, and he does not give up on his search for happiness. Try is life-affirming in its own extremely fucked up way.

The fact that it is fiction lends the outside world the same appearance after reading it. It seems so, so made-up. It’s totally not realistic at all—at least the Ken sub-plot is completely absurd, unless you’re trying to say there are still more Gacys and Dahmers left that the world will never know about. But even though it’s ridiculous, even though few people will find themselves caught up in a situation like Ziggy’s (as atypical a nuclear family scenario as is practically possible), you cannot help but be moved to attempt to glean something from the text. One can dismiss the book in the first place, saying it’s “pulpy” or something, but Cooper never exactly stops writing about his characters like they’re still real human beings, and for that there is a whole world of understanding that can be brought out of his literature. I recommend reading Try while getting your choice of really-fucked-up, alone in your dwelling.

Control - Dir. Anton Corbijn

3 ½ out of 4 Stars.

“Control,” Anton Corbijn’s much talked about biopic of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, is only playing at one theater in L.A. (at the early date on which I saw it, ed.). The first time I tried to see it, twenty minutes before show time, a line snaked around two blocks of the movie house—Nu Art Cinema—and I gave up before even trying to enter the box office. This time I came two hours before the show to ensure a ticket, and returned twenty minutes before the show to stand behind fifty more people in line. This is probably one of the most anticipated movies playing in this town right now (was, in October 2007). Ian Curtis and Joy Division and Factory Records and Tony Wilson and Manchester and the legendary Sex Pistols show and all the rest from the post-punk mythology dated 1977 to 1980 have been given their proper documentation and celebration in the iconic 24 Hour Party People in 2002. Five years later, the same material, with an emphasis on the Joy Division side of things, springs up, and while it cannot claim to cast as wide a net as its predecessor, in time it will coast alongside it as the two most essential movies made about the period.

To compare it to Last Days, Gus van Sant’s “fictional exploration” of Kurt Cobain’s demise, would be instructional. In fact, these two films taken together demonstrate the division between success and failure in the musical biopic genre, and in this case, the incredibly influential musician who killed themselves genre. First of all, the film must reflect the attitude of its subject and his music. Last Days was more interested in the depressing side of Kurt Cobain—the drug-addled, lazy, moping, messy house, hangers-on-housing, meditative, anti-social, tortured artist. This was one side of the persona, but not the one that should be documented, which apparently it will be now that Courtney Love wants one to be made. But no multiple versions of Ian Curtis’s life need appear: Control is not going to disappoint anyone.

The enormous pressure of the film rests on Sam Riley’s shoulders. Riley’s most notable film role previous to this was playing Mark E. Smith in 24 Hour Party People. While he couldn’t have had more than a line or two in that film, his performance here is designed to be scrutinized. For two hours, Riley is Curtis, and is only off-screen for brief moments throughout the film. This is a huge task, and knowing how many admirers there are of Joy Division’s music, a lot of criticism could be leveled at the attempt. There may be one or two moments that fans may scoff at, thinking Ian Curtis would never act like that (like crying in the middle of sex or something), but overwhelmingly the performance is incredibly nuanced and believable and never feels awkward when going to its extremes. There will be no Oscar for Riley knowing the establishment of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, but he is just as deserving of recognition as Jamie Foxx or Joaquin Phoenix or Reese Witherspoon. Michael Pitt was rather unlovable in Last Days, but Sam Riley legitimately and warmly humanizes Ian Curtis.

Worth noting especially is the role of music in this film. This is the one quality in which it outshines 24 Hour Party People. That film utilized classic songs from the era brilliantly into its catalog of bands, but they were always the same versions you would hear on the records themselves. Control should also be nominated for Best Song (“Love Will Tear Us Apart” being the obvious choice), but probably won’t. What sets this music biopic apart from others is that the music is recreated by the actors themselves. Ray used lip-synching, and while Walk the Line used real singing, Control uses a real band playing. I can’t be sure whether The Doors did that or not, but I’m not sure—I think Val Kilmer did do his own singing though. Sam Riley does an admirable job of recreating Curtis’s doomed baritone, and the actors who play Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, and Stephen Morris (James Anthony Pearson, Joe Anderson, and Harry Treadaway) should all tour together because their Joy Division cover movie soundtrack is so spot-on. Their acting performances are underutilized—the emphasis of this film is clearly on Curtis—but they make a movie about New Order seem like not such a bad idea.

The plot of the film should be predictable to anyone even vaguely familiar with the Joy Division legend: Ian Curtis starts becoming obsessed with Bowie as a teen, goes to first Sex Pistols show in Manchester with future Warsaw/Joy Division bandmates, calls Tony Wilson the c-word, gets signed to Factory Records, experiences epileptic seizures while playing live, records two albums with Martin Hannett, becomes popular, gets ready to tour America, listens to Iggy Pop’s The Idiot, and hangs himself. This is all pretty much documented in 24 Hour Party People, and on many points the two films are incredibly similar in their depictions and sometimes even in their dialogue. Craig Parkinson must have studied Steve Coogan’s performance because his Tony Wilson is almost exactly the same, albeit with far less relevance in the story. Don’t expect many new revelations on the history of the band—just expect a quality recreation of the Joy Division experience by some very talented actors and the equivalent of a greatest hits session—including “She’s Lost Control,” “Transmission,” “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” “Digital,” “New Dawn Fades,” “Isolation,” “Dead Souls,” and several others as well.

Does the film shed light on why Curtis committed suicide? Yes, another point on which it differs from Last Days, and another point on which it should be taken as a model. The epilepsy is directly and sometimes jarringly displayed. Curtis’s troubled relationship with wife Debbie (Samantha Morton in the film’s other Oscar-worthy performance) is given nearly as much focus as the music of the band. This is only point on which I would say the film weakens. It is a slow and contemplative film—it is black and white, and certainly a work of art in terms of its photographic beauty—but the story only becomes boring when centering on what is at the end a rather mundane and common domestic dispute. Note: it is almost impossible to think Ian Curtis is not an asshole after seeing this movie. He is given the “dressing down,” as it were. The plot is positively TV-movie-of-the-week quality at certain points, but the consequences following up these points, and the performances driving them are nevertheless compelling. At the end of the day you don’t want to blame anyone for anything that happens, the only mistake that anybody can be said to have made is that they made a commitment when they were probably too young to know what they were doing. It is a shame that things had to end the way they did, but few can match the body of work that Curtis left behind, and for dying as young as he did, few exert a stronger influence, shorn of new material, 27 years and counting.