Wednesday, March 19, 2008

So Many Bright Flowering Young Men

It’s not hard to see why Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke would be at least superficially an ideal candidate for all sorts of lionizing book awards and best-of-year rigamarole. It’s weighty, comes from a name author very conspicuously “branching out,” and tackles a theme (Vietnam) with tons of trendy potential since it’s been so lately overlooked during our current clusterfuck in Iraq. I’m surprised the thing doesn’t already have it’s own Stuff White People Like entry.

As a novel, TOS is involving but unspectacular. Johnson prods themes of otherness and moral guilt so relentlessly he doesn’t just invite the influence of Greene and Conrad, he practically screams it out loud, something I was doing to myself wrt Greene even before a character specifically mentions The Quiet American. To his credit, I think Johnson does a brilliant thing by making the chaotic, largely unsatisfying morass of his plot mirror that of the war itself. If something as spectacular and revolutionary as certain plans suggest really did go down, it would make for a far more thrilling read, I’m sure, but the confusion and fuckery that actually ensues feels far more true to life.

Johnson also has some really worthwhile things to say about myth as well as youthful ennui, the latter of which I’m guessing shouldn’t be too surprising to those who’ve read Jesus’ Son (I haven’t, which is why I’m only guessing). True enough, the scenes depicting the last high school days of a soon-to-enlist kid named James are the novel’s most skillfully drawn, admirably conveying that familiar mixture of nihilism and big dreams that stirs inside so many frustrated young men. For the most part, however, Johnson’s style is what lets him down. He’s just not a terribly distinctive writer, and very rarely in the course of 600+ pages did I catch myself on a particular sentence or description and felt compelled to savor it. He also didn’t seem to know what to do with certain characters, introducing a Dennis Hopper type rather carefully early on and then turning him loose to damn near ruin the novel’s ending.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

I'm a Ford Tempo, You're a Maserati

Kathleen Edwards isn’t blessed with a great voice, but she uses each of its limitations to her advantage. When quiet, her conversational tones are heartbreakingly human and intimate – you almost forget she’s even singing since it sounds so much more like confiding. When she belts, however, it’s even better. The way her rounded pipes flatten and swallow up chunks of words should be a detriment, but it only makes her working-class chronicles more heroic. No one would accuse Springsteen of being Van Morrison either. Crucially, and also in keeping with the Boss, Edwards’ words are so damn good that you end up straining to catch every last one, pulling you deeper into the music, something that wouldn’t happen as easily if she enunciated more clearly.

Something plainly poignant or comically hard-bitten or just wondrously quotable jumps out of almost every song on Asking for Flowers, the early album of the year candidate that’ll shortly send me scurrying back to Edwards’ debut (which I was thought was half-brilliant but kinda fell off at the back end) and her sophomore effort (which I missed entirely). “If you look at other girls / working out in the nighttime / I don’t mind but I don’t want to know.” “You tell me that you’re tired / ten years I’ve been working nights.” “Love is the harder times / take it from me.” All of the hilarious “I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory,” and there’s plenty of great stuff in “Alicia Ross” and “Oil Man’s War” that needn’t be taken out of context.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

33% of my posts will not be about DBT, I swear...

...but Rob Harvilla's piece in the Voice about the so-called best and worst songs from the Truckers' newest record got me seeing a little red. I'll admit Southernness is a badge I may wear too proudly at times in the popcrit sphere, mainly because we're such an obvious minority and because "our" music has so often been ignored, misrepresented, or lauded in patronizing tones. Harvilla's intentions here seem totally fine, but as a (presumed) Northerner I think he's (perhaps inevitably) reacting too skittishly to the supposed cultural cliches embedded in "Bob." We as Southerners live much more comfortably with these motifs and tropes, and while we may sometimes take umbrage to lazy swipes at pickup trucks, NASCAR and redneckery in general, it doesn't change the fact that these things DO permeate our region, and believe it or not, they ain't all bad! From my first listen until now, "Bob" strikes me as simply a clever, quiet vignette. To me the line about not bending over isn't an insinuation of possible queerness so much as just a quite wry and on-the-nose depiction of how a guy like Bob would probably think about such things (though I'm not discounting the queer reading either).

Much of my frustration also goes back to something I brought up in my own Pitchfork review of the record, namely the puzzling insistence of most (Yankee?) critics to put the complicated Hood on a pedestal at the expense of his ostensibly more generic, joke-a-minute sidekick Cooley. Certainly, Patterson's lent the Truckers a distinctiveness relative to their genre(s) of southern rock/alt-country/whathaveyou that the Stroker Ace might not offer, but don't forget that ever since Southern Rock Opera it's basically been Cooley alone who has infused DBT with the sense of humor that's allowed the band to truly stand out in a pervasively dour No Depression field.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Looking Pretty Hood in Pink Polos

I'm not difficult to please. In my pop music I want plenty of slanting, disorienting, otherworldly weirdness, and in my so-called "weird" music I want moments of gloriously shining, cloud-breaking pop. 2008 is starting off on a good foot thanks to a few artists who embrace one or the other of those dichotomies. On the side of palatable strangeness I've witnessed the likes of Evangelicals and Bon Iver taking off-kilter, oddly halting art fare and then shooting it through with occasional bursts of unabashed pop prettiness and/or straightforward fervor. It's a trick Panda Bear and Marnie Stern performed with aplomb last year, and it's thrilling when it works, when disparate messy threads suddenly coalesce into something that strikes directly at the heart.

Perhaps even more exciting, and certainly more subversive, is mass-appeal pop that distorts and refracts convention in unexpected places to create something catchily immediate yet alluringly unfamiliar. The dude who's really knocking my socks off right now with this strategem is The-Dream, heretofore best known for penning Rihanna's uber-inescapable "Umbrella." As you'd expect with this record being a songwriter/producer's baby, the stakes don't seem quite as high as if The-Dream was some studio/label's creation, and hence he's free to indulge in all types of chicanery, gleefully mashing ethereality up against sweet sweet raunch like a true inheritor of Prince and R. Kelly's mantles. The disembodied, floating quality of "I Luv Your Girl," the terrific contrast of head-rushing chorus and syrup-sippin' sample on "She Needs My Love," (not to mention Kells-approved filth like "she keep them thongs ch-ch-chewing on her asshole") and the sheer audaciousness of "Falsetto" -- it all adds up to maybe my top record so far in '08, fuck if it came out on 12/11/07.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Wherever You Are

It’s impossible to read Carl Wilson’s terrific Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste without reflecting on your own personal history of preference, and scrutinizing it under scientific and anecdotal microscopes the author uses to brilliantly refute pretty much every reason there is for disliking the book’s ostensible subject, Celine Dion (the fact that Wilson still can only sell himself half-heartedly on Dion’s music at the end of his project adds another fascinating layer to his study).

I recognize that I had to dig out from underneath years of educational and cultural skewing to get to a point where I could meet Ashlee Simpson and Kenny Chesney on their own terms, though I also acknowledge being kind of a dick to the extent that I sometimes take an inordinate amount of satisfaction in these "breakthroughs." Wilson’s book is an excellent serum for unearthing some ugly truths – inside my own head I have an unfortunate tendency to distinguish myself favorably from some of my fellow critics by my comparative distance from certain trendy spheres and identity markers. After all, I live in the South, and rabidly follow sports, and most of my non-cyber friends don’t give the slightest shit about music beyond listening to stuff like Linkin Park.

In my less-proud moments I tend to think of those identifying traits as being part of what makes me more genuine and less tainted by hipster bullshit than some of my comrades (along with my super-omnivorous taste, of course). What’s likely closer to the truth is that the socioeconomic role in which I’ve placed myself (consciously and unconsciously) has allowed these tastes to ferment with far more ease than they would have if I’d been approaching them from a different background and in a different environment. In other words, how much credit should I get for listening to Carrie Underwood and Maroon 5 when I live in a condo in Raleigh, NC with my wife and cat, and work in the Admin Services department of a state government commission? How probable is it that I’d listen to this stuff if I lived in a loft in Williamsburg with three or four Deerhoof fans and worked for Busted Tees?

(Wilson’s examination of shame is spot-on too – even in the kind of office where I work, I was inordinately self-conscious when listening to Celine last week. Lauren and I often joke that given much of the stuff I pipe through my computer’s speakers in the office – Britney, Kylie, the Veronicas, Roisin Murphy, just to name a few in recent heavy rotation – some of my colleagues are liable to have questioned my sexuality, even knowing I’m married).

Saturday, January 12, 2008

A Man Come on the Radio

Chan Marshall’s last two records feature muscular, expressive R&B backing bands that nonetheless perform few favors for her vocals. Marshall’s own instrument is haunted and evocative for sure, but when she’s forced to project it to match the swell of the musicians behind her, that voice often dissipates into an indistinct smear. With at least three-fourths of artists I prefer loudness and clatter to quietude, but Cat Power’s a quintessential exception, my two favorite moments of hers being "Metal Heart" from Moon Pix (her best record) and the stunningly reimagined reading she gave the Stones’ "Satisfaction" (teasingly, bracingly withholding the trademark refrain).

Reckoning those two songs choice cuts should make Jukebox my idea of heaven, considering it’s almost wholly a covers record plus Cat reworks "Metal Heart," in essence covering herself. Unfortunately, Chan has to contend with a band for this version of the track, a band that raises a tautly modest clamor and consequently renders Marshall’s closest approximation of "belting" as something bland and colorless.

Chan doesn’t have the command to wrest Dylan’s "I Believe in You" from her funk-dealing players, but thankfully enough of Jukebox is spare and intimate that it’s still a considerable improvement on 2006's flaccid The Greatest. Most surprisingly, given her struggles rendering Dylan coupled with her otherwise suspiciously outsized reputation as an interpreter (obviously three-original-albums-in-eight-years Chan is susceptible to doubts as to just how much she has to say), the lone newbie, a Dylan tribute called "Song to Bobby," is all kinds of fascinating, its ruminative chords a perfect complement to Chan’s stream-of-consciousness musings. I have a feeling the song’s subject would approve of the way Marshall moves from using hazy poetics to describe the experience of listening to Dylan ("I was 15, 16 maybe," "this wind came blowing in") to using concrete details to describe actually meeting Dylan ("New York office" "backstage pass," "Paris, France"). Navigating the space between myth and man makes it a natural companion to I’m Not There as well as Dylan’s Chronicles.

It’s better than most of her covers because, rather than putting herself and her own persona into a song, she’s extracting new meanings and resonances from something that was already there (see also: "Satisfaction").

Monday, January 7, 2008

Last Night I Slept With My Boots On Again

The new Drive-By Truckers rekkid (I'm pretty sure it's legally mandated that all their releases be referred to as "rekkids") is the band's best since Decoration Day. I wouldn't go so far as to say I'd given up on the band, at least certainly not to the extent I'd soured on the Fiery Furnaces before they delivered last year's outstanding Widow City. Still, A Blessing and a Curse was DBT's most "musical" rekkid, as useless a designation as determining the Clapton album with the best lyrics. Even at Blessing's power-pop best the Truckers were merely competent tunesmiths; this fan had long since made peace with the group's graceless stomp, provided I was getting the masterful storytelling and tough-nut humor that's always put DBT head and shoulders above most of their insurgent country-rock brethren.

Mike Cooley remained sharp amidst the decline, and while Jason Isbell's Blessing material was fairly weak, he could claim a couple of the best songs on 2004's The Dirty South. Really it was Patterson Hood who'd primarily lost his fastball, his heartfelt but always satisfyingly scuzzy narratives suddently getting gooey with empty platitudes and self-help banalities.

Finally and fortunately, however, Hood's figured out a way to keep the sentiment but still make it sting, namely by focusing on the family. The opening track's title "Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife" provides the subtext for virtually all of Hood's contributions, though his quandries with hearth and home turn darker and deeper as the album progresses, culminating in a pair of tremendous war-themed efforts, "That Man I Shot" and "The Home Front," that examine global conflict as it touches individual lives, families and communities, much as erstwhile DBT member Jason Isbell did with last year's brilliant solo meditation "Dress Blues." "That Man I Shot" is particularly poignant, with Hood eliciting the album's strongest chills for his rumination on whether the enemy he just struck down had "little ones" of his own.

Speaking of Isbell, I thought his departure might be fatal for DBT considering he'd been arguably the band's best songwriter during his tenure. I guess it's further proof of the mysteriousness of band dynamics that his exit seems to have coincided with artistic rejuvenations from Hood and Cooley. Patterson might be glum and grave here, but luckily Cooley's still taking the piss, and doing it as well as ever. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the new album is the return of the genuine, wise-crackin', shit-kickin' C&W that marked the band's first two (criminally underexposed) rekkids. The country-rocker "3 Dimes Down" fucking blazes, but even when Cooley turns off the juice he still whips ass, laying down sly, sleazy little acoustic vignettes like "Bob," "Lisa's Birthday" and "Checkout Time in Vegas" that damn near meet the gold standard of his early gems "Panties in Your Purse" and "Love Like This."

Oh, and as I'm sure every review written about this album will mention, it's longer than a motherfucker. Which I reckon accounts for this 495 word post.