Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music

All The Single Ladies: The Problem with Feminist Anthems

On The Sexist, Amanda Hess lists the Top 5 Pseudo-Feminist Anthems, and as an introduction to these questionable songs, she declares, "Empowerment has been a convenient posture for pop music to assume."   This is often true, but I took umbrage with a couple of the songs included on her list, and perhaps with the implicit suggestion that pop songs can and should function as purveyors of messages.  (Wait--isn't that what Christian rock is for?)   Yes, girls and young women need mentors and positive role models, but might this article be taking that idea too far?   I don't want a feminist anthem if it requires aesthetic restraint and an avoidance of emotional honesty. When I was young, I loved Madonna's "Material Girl."  This song did not ruin my ability to have a healthy and meaningful romantic relationship as an adult, nor did it rot my sense of self worth.  I am a feminist, and I still like this song.   I also like Beyonce's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)," which Hess includes on her list.  She argues: The sheer awesomeness of this song is almost enough to make me overlook the anti-feminist weirdness. Beyonce looks and sounds even stronger on this track than she does in the more traditionally girl-power songs in her catalog (”Independent Women Part I”; “Survivor”). I mean, she has a bionic arm in the video. What’s not to like? Well—a few things. Beyonce referring to herself as “it”? Equating herself to bling? Handing herself over to a man who will determine her self-worth through a demeaning, years-long game which can only end with Beyonce emerging triumphant as his symbolic property, or crawling away as a meaningless ex? I must disagree with Hess's interpretation of the song, which assumes a lot about the speaker.  Firstly, when Beyonce says, "Put a ring on it,"  she certainly isn't, as Hess says, "equating herself to bling."  That would mean she was singing, "If you liked bling you shoulda put a ring [bling] on bling."  Huh? The song's cleverness lies in the instability and elasticity of that word "it."  One could argue that "it" refers to her finger, but the phrase uses "it" twice:  "If you liked it, you shoulda put a ring on it" [italics mine].  The second use of "it" refers, literally, to her finger--one places an engagement ring on the left ring finger.  But the first "it" isn't so literal--or is it?  The speaker seems to refer to both her literal body, and thus, her vagina,  but also the "it" that was their relationship, the pleasure of being together, of being close and intimate.   "If you like having sex with me, you should have committed to me," is the gist of her argument.  (Notice that it's "if you like it," present tense, but "shoulda" is "should have"--as in, you missed your chance...maybe.) Perhaps it's anti-feminist for sex to lead to marriage, or to desire that.  But why?  Why is it unacceptable for a woman to require commitment from the man she's sleeping with?  Hess's brand of feminism prohibits marriage as a viable choice for women, and the goal of feminism--or so I thought--was to give a woman choices.  To marry, or not  marry.  To have sex or not have sex, with whom she chooses.  To have children, or not.  To be a working mother, or a stay-at-home mother. In "Single Ladies"  I get no inkling that Beyonce is "crawling away as a meaningless ex," as Hess believes.   She's in the club (or, 'da club), singing a final ultimatum.  She knows her lover is jealous, that he's ruing his past behavior.  She isn't putting up with his shit any longer.  She admits, "Your love is what I prefer, and what I deserve," a bold announcement of desire and self-worth.  And--okay--I love when she says, "Pull me into your arms.  Say I'm the one you own.  If you don't you'll be alone."  Yes, the notion of marriage as "ownership" might make one uncomfortable, but, then again, what if that ownership is requested?  If it's consensual?  There's the implicit sense that once this man owns her, and her body, she will also own him, and his body.  Here, the "ring" signifies a union of love and sex, and that it will, by necessity, carry with it the whole fraught history of marriage as a cultural institution.  I might go so far as to argue that Beyonce's playing a little wink-wink game with the notion of wife-as-property.  It's her mandate, not his, and she's in control. One can't separate "Single Ladies" with its phenomenal video, where Beyonce and two other women dance in black leotards and high heels.  Beyonce's waist-to-hip ratio and strong quads are out of sight, as are her dancing skills.  This video is actually an homage to Bob Fosse, who choreographed a slightly similar routine for his wife and two other dancers, and also shot on a stage in one take.  Beyonce's video modernizes this choreography, much in the same way the song itself modernizes, or at least complicates, a traditionally female desire for commitment.   Perhaps "Single Ladies" can't be a feminist anthem because, to reduce it to a rallying cry, a slogan, does not acknowledge it for the complex song that it is. Now, if you'll excuse me, I must head back to the library to dissect Taylor Swift's "You Belong With Me."  (Or, like everyone else, maybe I'll go film a living room-homage to Beyonce's video and post it on YouTube...)
Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music

Phil Spector: Guilty of Creating the Greatest Christmas Album Ever

If I told you that the single greatest Christmas album ever made was created by a murderer, you might think I was talking about the plot of some holiday horror b-movie like Silent Night, Deadly Night. But no, the album I’m referring to is none other than the 1963 classic A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector. Before the crazy hairdos and trials, Phil Spector produced some of the most exciting music of the 20th century. Best known for his work on girl group hits like “Be My Baby” and “He’s A Rebel”, Spector also produced albums by John Lennon, Leonard Cohen and The Ramones to name just a few. But for my money, his most important contribution was this album of Christmas favorites. If you look at the track listing, you might not think there’s anything special to be heard. The titles, for the most part, are familiar to nearly everyone. “White Christmas”, “Winter Wonderland”, “Sleigh Ride”, the favorites are all here. But the heart of this album lies in the one track written by Spector, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)". I think the first time I remember hearing this song was during the opening credits for the film Gremlins and later in Goodfellas. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m not really a Christmas person. The entire season usually leaves something to be desired as far as I’m concerned. But here’s the thing, I have always secretly envied those people who get into the “Christmas spirit”. Over the years I’ve looked for something to spark that feeling. And the only thing to do it so far is this song and the album that contains it. The song is performed by the great Darlene Love, a Spector favorite and someone who isn’t nearly as well known as she deserves to be. Don’t get me wrong, I love Aretha, Gladys and Diana. But if I had to choose only one, I’m taking Darlene Love hands down. When I think of the 1960s, I don’t really look at it like your traditional decade. You know, the kind that are ten years long. No, the sixties had a late start and a wild finale. The post-war idealism of the 1950s actually extended a few years into the 1960s. The last day of that period, that Father Knows Best era, was November 22nd, 1963. When John F. Kennedy’s pulse stopped, the real sixties began. November 22nd, 1963 was also the day A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector was released. It’s certain that Phil Spector had no idea while he was recording this material that the entire world would change on the day of its release. And that simple coincidence is the beauty of it. This music, intended to fit in with the happy-go-lucky mood of the day, ended up being a much-needed dose of joy in a dark and confusing time. Even though I could listen to this album year-round and enjoy it, I make it a point not to until after Thanksgiving. It gives me something to look forward to the way others look forward to the holidays. If only Phil Spector had been listening to this music on February 2, 2003, he might not be serving 19 years to life. But who listens to Christmas music in February?
Screening Room, Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music

This Is Michael Jackson

I’m not sure what made me so certain I wanted to see Michael Jackson’s This Is It.  It wasn’t the reviews, I hadn’t read any.  In fact, I knew absolutely nothing about it, except for the trailer that came on in the middle of the baseball game and made my eyes grow wide and something tingle in my rear-brain. (I’m not even much of a cinema-goer these days, Netflix is more my speed.) And it wasn’t that I considered myself a “fan” exactly. Over the last decade, like most on-lookers, I’ve cringed at news of Jackson’s bizarre personal life and shuddered at the barrage of tabloid visuals chronicling his macabre cosmetological quests and seeming death-by-emaciation. But there I was, at Magic Johnson Theaters in Harlem, on a Friday night.  I dragged a semi-willing friend, paid for his ticket. “The early show,” he’d said, dreading the crowds that I (not-quite-consciously) was seeking.  “Fine,” I said, a concession. The audience for the 5:30 show was sparse.  Older people and younger people mostly; a scattering of children. I don’t think I have ever in my life left a movie theater and immediately called someone to say, “You have to see this,” which is exactly what I did once the credits finished rolling.  (Okay, in fact, I sent a text – mesmerizing…nourishing…body and soul – but only because I was embarrassed in front of my friend.)  My friend did not share my enthusiasm.  Shoddy filmmaking, sub-quality sound, packaged product, blah blah blah.  (He’s a media guy, of course).  I was incredulous, aghast, I wanted to throttle him.  The last time I got this emotional over a movie was… never. Reading a few reviews afterward, I gathered that critics who were lukewarm cited the same “rough” feel of the film.  Indeed, it is a patchwork; highlights from Jackson’s more than 100 hours of taped rehearsals for the 50-concert comeback tour that he and director Kenny Ortega were preparing for when Jackson died in June.  The footage, intended for Jackson’s personal archives, never aimed for movie-quality.  But herein lay my incredulity; what could be more compelling than film footage of the King of Pop so clearly not meant for our eyes? I was nine years old when Thriller came out; it stayed on the charts for two years.  So Michael hit me at the heart of my tweens, back when there was no such consumer category, technically speaking, and yet I can’t imagine why not.  I was the youngest of three girls, and so in a sense I was nine, eleven, and thirteen all at once.  (Imagine if Titanic had come out in 1982; instead of moon walking, I suppose we would have learned to hock loogies, stand on our tippie-tippie toes, and sketch nudes.)   But then, watching This Is It, it all came back to me -- the trauma, the apparently repressed memory: my sisters trotting off to the Thriller tour concert at RFK Stadium with their friends (Jill and Lisa, also sisters, their age), waving their glitter-gloved hands at me.  I’d been deemed too young. Regardless.  For two years, we played and replayed our Thriller LP and 45-singles.  When Michael performed or when his videos premiered, we were glued to the TV,  we had never seen anything like him before.  No one had.  He didn’t just dance, it seemed as if he was inventing the human body. I am no Joan Acocella, I don’t mean to make grand statements that make dance aficionados and scholars of Fred Astaire, Baryshnikov, and Nijinski scoff.  But, Christ Almighty. We were budding adolescents, we hated and feared our bodies, we were figuring out so many dark and exhilarating and terrifying things about these fleshy vehicles that were taking on a life of their own; and here came Michael.  He made the jiggling and slithering of our bodies cool, and creative, and communal, and fun.  As we left childhood behind (or it left us behind), our bodies’ shapes and sizes—the ways in which we were able to adjust and make ourselves appealing (to ourselves, to others) or not—would begin to separate us, create cruel physiocracies.  But back then, for a time, a short time with eternal qualities, Michael brought us together, he synchronized us. We shimmied our shoulders and clapped our hands over our heads; we wore black loafers and white socks and kick-twisted our right legs like karate chops; we threw our arms out in front of us, limp and aggressive at once, revving invisible motorcycle handles.  Right arm left leg, left arm right leg.  Pull and pelvis, pull and pelvis.  We practiced practiced practiced. Like infants, we discovered our limbs anew.  We fully inhabited our bodies, un-self-consciously; perhaps for the last time. We sang, hooted, and hiccupped.  Later (because we discovered Off the Wall and The Jackson Five later), we wept because she was out of our lives, and we recruited the neighbor kids so that we could, in rapid-fire succession, spin around on the balls of our feets and bow down while we rolled our fists. Even the boys loved Michael; even the boys.  It wasn’t “gay” to love Michael. To us, he was beyond sexuality, he was, in a way, the answer to sexuality before we could even articulate the questions.  His whisper-high voice and crotch thrusting was unquestionably, miraculously, of a piece. We were not there when Jack Kennedy was elected, or when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.  We were not there when Rosa Parks refused to stand up or when Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream.  We were not there for Elvis Presley, or James Brown, or The Beatles.  We were not there for Stonewall or Roe v. Wade.  We were not there for much, because we came of age in the ‘80s.  But we were there, we were all there, for Michael Jackson. "I'll be there," he sang, and as kids we waved our arms like we never did in church.  But would he?  Would Jackson be all there in This Is It?  I braced myself, as many viewers did, for God knows what. At first, the shaky-grainy cam frustratingly keeps us from making determinations about just how decrepit and grotesque he’s become.  We are aware of our own morbid urge to ogle him; we want to know, we want to see, if the circus-show is on. We enter his and Ortega’s world fully expecting to remain the subject to Jackson’s object; we are the upstanding humans, he is the ravaged creature.  Then, in one rehearsal segment, he is gloveless and without the bandages we’ve often seen mysteriously flagging his fingertips; he gestures dramatically, the camera shot is straight on, we see his hands.  His hands, his real flesh and substance, the flesh, yes, of a 50-year-old man. He is thick-fingered—a contrast to his pencil-stick legs—nails slightly long.  From that moment on, for me, Jackson begins to inhabit the screen. The collage-edited rehearsal footage is the meat of the film, the marvel and privilege of seeing Jackson in action—hands-on with musicians, dancers, and back-up vocalists, all marveling at the privilege as well.  Ortega succeeds in showing us that MJ is and always was a man who, as one of the musicians puts it, “knows his music,” and for whom, as Ortega himself puts it, “everything is larger than life.”  He comes across as a perfectionist of both artistry and kindness.  “It's not right, but that's OK," he says. "It's all for love." Then, "Just get it there."  Fascinating especially is seeing his creative intuition, both exacting and ethereal, at work:  “Let it sizzle,” he says, or “It has to bathe in the moonlight.”  His music director asks him to let him know if the arrangement needs more “booty.”  “That’s funny,” Jackson says, to which the music director replies, “Yeah, but you know exactly what I mean.”  In a rehearsal for a particularly fun black-and-white Hollywood homage set to “Smooth Criminal”– featuring Jackson in a white pinstripe suit and spliced into interactions with Rita Hayworth (from Gilda) and Humphrey Bogart—Ortega and Jackson discuss cues, i.e. Jackson wanting to revise the timing for his entry.  But how will he know to begin, Ortega asks, without the music to cue him; to which Jackson replies, thoughtful but confident, “I’ll just have to feel that.” The rehearsals draw heavily from MJ’s older hits, notably from Thriller, which satisfies most of the fans; but we also get a Jackson Five segment, and later hits like “They Don’t Care About Us ” “Man in The Mirror,” and “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.”  He sings each song as if it’s new, as if he’s listening for its (re)birth right then in the moment; and yet still aware, distinctly, of the fans.  “I want it to sound like how they hear it,” he says.  “If it works on the album, that’s how I want it.” The choreography belongs of course to MJ, and in no other realm is it clearer who’s in charge. Before the final round of dance auditions, Ortega tells prospects that "dancers in a Michael Jackson show are an extension of Michael Jackson."  Writes David Edelstein in his review: “And they do seem projections of his will: He dictates every beat to his dancers, musicians and crew.”   We recognize the dance moves, and we can’t believe how good they (still) are. His dancers, half his age at least, seem to bring the muscular pump of hip-hop with them into their movement (how could they not), but it’s still MJ’s crackle and pop that electrifies the stage. For decades, we’ve seen dancers imitate the moves that have become as familiar as any ballroom standard; but when Michael does them—yes, 50 years old, and  fallen from grace, so they've told us—we are reminded of the crucial, dare I say spiritual difference between imitation and original.  When Michael Jackson is center stage, his “extensions” following his lead, it’s not merely entertainment, or even art; it’s phenomenon.  Watching him move again, all these years later – with such precision, and emanating the thrusting, gyrating “goo” and “ooze” exhorted upon the auditioning dancers – is like the very confirmation of one’s true sight; we were there, we were not deluded, we were not imagining things.  The emperor’s clothes are real and they are fabulous. It’s all deeply, healingly of a piece, witch-hunting sexuality police be damned. This is Michael Jackson. And this, I suppose, is the takeaway.  Michael Jackson was real until the day of his death, despite the media’s honing in on drug dosages and Neverland.  For all the emotional and psychological damage he may have suffered and projected, something in him remained whole, thriving, larger than life.  Something elemental and tangible, evidenced in his creative process, his movement, even his temperament—all of which is on display in This is It in a way (we ambivalently recognize) most of us may never have been able to witness had Jackson lived to make his comeback. It’s not that the data disappears in a poof.  The day after I saw This Is It, I read through a detailed MJ bio at MTV.com that enumerated the blow-by-blow of his maudlin man-child exploits, perplexing creative detours (those final minutes of the “Black or White” video indeed disturbing), and somewhat creepy Messiah complex. I took it all in, weighing it together with what I had just seen and experienced (and remembered), and was certainly tempted to go the route of cynicism and disappointment: corporate packaging for mass consumption, MJ just another artist qua commodity, even/especially in death.  Silly schoolgirl me, eating it all up, like so many mindless consumers the debt-ridden Jackson Estate must be counting on. Indeed, if This Is It were a film that Jackson himself had creatively controlled, that cynic's myth—of irredeemable darkness and degeneracy—may well have supplanted the original myth of genius.  In this sense, Jackson was possibly his own worst enemy, feeding media distortions with prismatic fun-house refractions he couldn't somehow escape or manage. But This Is It, ultimately more honest in its accidental conception than any hyper-crafted concert movie could have been, makes a welcome argument of which Jackson himself may have approved: trust your instinct, trust your sight… let it all bathe in the moonlight.
Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music

Matt & Kim, Beat & Beckett

I like to be delighted and watching Brooklyn duo Matt & Kim (Matt Johnson and Kim Schifino) at the El Rey Theatre in downtown Los Angeles last week, I was. If you enjoy anything half as much as these two enjoy performing, count yourself among the blessed. And their pleasure is infectious: you might well feel, as I did—misanthropic soul that I am—a pleasure hardly less than theirs in watching them. The energy of their music and performance style is infectious too, which you'll know if you've heard "Daylight," the duo's best and most popular song (it is, perhaps unfortunately, now featured in a Bacardi commercial). If you haven't, check out the video: While there are bands that will impress you more with musical virtuosity and melody, Matt and Kim's sound—arresting in its beat-driven-ness and bright in its jangly piano and synth-poppiness—has an insistent, invigorating effect.  If you watch the music video for "Daylight," note the scene in which Matt and Kim are sitting in a dumpster, nestled amidst the trash, playing their instruments.  A man throws more trash in on top of them and they continue to play. Kim continues smiling her radiant smile (also a little unsettling in its relentlessness), and keeps pounding her drumsticks on the edge of the dumpster. Watching this, listening to it, I feel strangely as if I am in the presence of a euphoric musical reincarnation of Samuel Beckett: "Quand on est dans la merde jusqu' au cou, il ne rest plus qu'a chanter." (When you are up to your neck in shit, there's nothing left to do but sing.) Beckett's Endgame also comes to mind: Nag and Nell in their ashbins—toothless, legs amputated but still asking for pap.  The duo's other videos—I'm thinking particularly of "Yea Yeah" and "5K"—reveal the world of absurdist comedy and violence to be milieus familiar and comfortable to the Brooklynites. The world may be a nonsensical and painful place, they seem to say, but if we choose to approach it with sufficient energy and humor we might achieve that best of modern states (Beckett again) "I Can't Go On, I Must Go On." Matt & Kim's lyrics have an abstract nonsense quality that evokes e.e. cummings as well—the words might seem not to mean anything but, perhaps, for our time, they mean everything: I have five clocks in my life and only one has the time right I’ll just unplug it for today I'll just unplug it for today Open hydrant rolled down windows This car might make a good old boat And float down grand street in daylight And float down grand street in daylight This is what our life is: Ordered nonsense that we all accept helplessly ("Yea Yeah, Yea Yeah, Yea Yeah, Yea Yeah…"), but the horror is lessened if we can approach it with energy, pound the shit out of it with an uncompromising beat. The video for "5K", banned on American MTV,  shares a certain kinship with Daniel Johnston's song "Devil Town," best known in its cover versions by Bright Eyes and Tony Lucca.  For all of the little and not-so-little girls mooning over the creepily paternalistic and Humbert-Humbert-y Edward from Stephenie Meyer's Twilight, Matt and Kim's "5K" video speaks much more intelligently of our culture's resurgent love of vampires than does the idiotic and thieving Twilight series.  (We are all vampires now, even authors of vampire fiction.  Twilight is an amalgam of plot elements sucked from the barely dead Buffy the Vampire Slayer series and the still quite alive Sookie Stackhouse novels, with a bit of Shakespeare and Emily Bronte more explicitly snatched and patched in along the way.  Only the faults of Stephenie Meyer's novels are her own--Would that she had imbibed more in the way of character and dialogue from Joss Whedon and Charlaine Harris, or, albeit less probably, from Shakespeare and Bronte.) No, the happy dismemberment of Matt and Kim's "5K" video displays a jolly cannibalistic feast that leaves everyone dead at the end (and recalls in its homemade gorefest effects early Peter Jackson movies like Dead-Alive); in this, it shows us the vampires we have become unbeknownst to ourselves.  We consume violence in our movies, our food (most of which, as it is currently produced, makes the planet and its creatures suffer), our wars, our dependence on cheap consumer goods whose cheapness is the result of exploitative labor practices. We cannot abstain from vampirism, as Twilight's Edward does. To be dismayed by the video—man happily dismembering man with eating utensils—is to see our culture plain, a culture that we cannot but participate in. Our inexhaustible appetite for new stuff, our willingness to countenance inhumanity in the name of efficiency and convenience makes us all petty Draculas. But I digress.  Matt and Kim's bodies proclaim how delighted they are that you are listening to them and it is an experience rare in its authenticity and energy.  Whether Kim's smile, or her biceps, or her sailor's mouth is more impressive (according to her husband/Matt she has been described as having "the body of a 15-year-old boy and the mouth of a 69-year-old sailor") is yours to decide.  I also note that the show at the El Rey is the only one I have been to where crowd surfing was actively encouraged and participated in by the band, as well as tolerated and managed by the stage security.  But don't trust me. I am a paranoid, delusional melancholic with a tendency to over-read.  See for yourself! The band is on tour in the States through October, and then in Europe through December.  Worth a look and a listen, in spite of Rolling Stone's mild dismissiveness.
In Person, Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music

Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music #4: Serenaded by Jonathan Richman

Jonathan Richman, along with his long-time drummer Tommy Larkins, took the stage, strummed his acoustic guitar and began to sing. Nothing. The mikes weren't working. Where other performers, and indeed lesser legends, might have turned diva, Jonathan simply announced - loudly, to make up for the microphone - that he and the techies would confer for a few minutes, sort out the problem, then the show would go on. Nothing to get uptight about. It was all very casual and friendly.True to his word, he returned to the stage a few minutes later and tried again. Still nothing. And where the diva might have stormed off, Jonathan simply walked to the side, and with clear, unmiked guitar and his best project-to-the-back-of-the-room voice, he began to sing.The audience in the sweltering hall seemed to make the extra effort to keep quiet, almost leaning in so as not to miss anything, and Jonathan responded by singing loud and clear. It was the best "show-must-go-on" moment I've ever experienced. Ten minutes later, the mikes began working. For me, the magic of those few unamplified moments set the tone for a glorious evening.This was the second time I'd seen Jonathan Richman over the past decade, and each time it's like a visit from an old friend, albeit one who plays killer Spanish guitar and seems to have an extraordinary facility with languages. Worldliness aside, his are the most personal of shows, full of joy, optimism, wonder and romance. But also songs of caution, imploring us in his own way not to get too caught up in technology.Early Modern Lovers songs like "Pablo Picasso" take on a new life in this setting, and sit comfortably amid later fare like "In Che Mondo Viviamo". One minute he's swiveling and gyrating through "I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar", the next he's singing songs about cell phones and the demise of human interaction.The truest of troubadours, Jonathan Richman goes from town to town sharing his latest musical offerings, his latest stories, letting us into his world for a couple of hours while he serenades us in the most intimate of settings.
Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music

What’s Not to Like? The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

Oh, to be so winsome as The Pains of Being Pure at Heart! All aspects of the unwieldily named indie pop quartet are uniformly captivating - their music, their lyrics, their persons, their demeanor on stage and in interviews - and newspapers and blogs from their home city (New York) to LA and San Fran are quite rightly singing the praises of their self titled debut album. Although I've always sympathized with Elvis Costello's view of music criticism ("Writing about music is like dancing about architecture."), my profound affection for The Pains prompts me to violate my own prohibition against mansard roof waltzes.The greatest pleasure of The Pains is that they have made pop music something real again; they (and Vampire Weekend, with a very different vibe) remind me that pop can be more than over-produced plastic-y tween cotton candy. All of The Pains' songs have a bright, quick, melodic quality that will give children of the late eighties and early nineties alt music scene intense bouts of nostalgia and deja vu. For me, The Jesus and Mary Chain's Psychocandy album, particularly the song "Just Like Honey" is the dominant topnote in The Pains musical bouquet, but their music is also strongly redolent of The Cure, The Smiths, and more sythesizer-y 80's stuff like New Order (the lovely Peggy Wang plays the sythesizer for Pains as well as sings whispery and suggestive back-up vocals). There are also echoes of The Stone Roses (songs like "Elephant Stone" and "This is the One"), the short-lived 1990s DC band Black Tambourine ("Throw Aggi off the Bridge"), and other 90s bands like Catherine Wheel, Moose, Pale Saints, Lush, and Chapterhouse. The Pains lyrics remind me of Belle and Sebastian's dark school stories and psychological subtlety. (Some part of me thinks there might also be a Joy Division component to their sound too, but that is likely because the Pains lead singer Kip Berman has a very slight physical resemblance to the ill-fated Ian Curtis.)As with the Jesus and Mary Chain's "Just Like Honey," the Pains music has a wall of sound-y feel: the instrumentals are thick and echo-y and encompassing, particularly the guitar parts (at their show this week in LA, they had an extra guitarist onstage to accompany lead singer and guitarist Berman). The instrumentation engulfs and softens the band's vocals and lyrics (a trademark of the late 80's sub-genre dubbed shoegazing) and their high-energy, happy, heavily melodic sound belies and muffles the sinister tales their songs narrate: "A Teenager in Love" is about "a teenager in love with Christ and heroin" (for months I'd thought, naively, that the lyric was "in love with Christ in Heaven"), "This Love is F***ing Right!" is about incest, "The Tenure Itch" - a "Don't Stand So Close to Me" for our time - is about a young girl having a self-destructive affair with a professor:He makes corrections, you shut the blindsYou're talking less and less,But the words aren't hard to find.His last suggestion, it makes you ill,Still one more lesson leaves you twisting to his will.But you don't feel like this is what the song is about while you're listening to it casually. The sparkly chorus, "Every night, he comes and goes again," is really quite sinister and depressing once you know what the song is about, but because it takes pretty concentrated listening to make out the lyrics, I felt only delightfully energized by it the first 10 or so times I heard it. What I think is their best song, "Young Adult Friction," is an ambiguous account of a sexual encounter in a library:I never thought I would come of age,Let alone on a moldy page.You put your back to the spinesand you said it was fine if there's nothing really left to say.Now that you feel, you say it's not real.The end of the song describes both participants as damaged by the encounter (possibly rape?), but, again, you wouldn't know it listening to the music, nor watching the band's charming low-budget music video.This cognitive dissonance itself - the incongruity between the Pains music and their lyrics - is really satisfying: All of the adolescent sensual pleasures of pop concealing the menacing complexities and perversities of adulthood.The Pains of Being Pure at Heart are touring right now through the fall with shows all over the US and Canada as well as a stint in Europe. They're playing small general admission clubs, mostly, and the tickets are cheap and well worth it. They're touring with the LA band the Champagne Socialists who have a striking 50s and early 60s vibe that's also worth a listen (and a look: their lead singer is transfixing in fishnets and vintage hotpants). For the tour schedule, tickets, free downloads, and more visit the Pains site.[Photo: Annie Powers]
Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music

From Wilco, With Love

Practically from the moment that Jeff Tweedy murmured the words "I am an American aquarium drinker," the opening lyric of 2002's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, an album that re-imagined what a rock album could be, Wilco has enjoyed a position of high prominence in the panoply of American bands. Yankee was rightly hailed as a masterpiece. That first, seven-minute track, "I am Trying to Break Your Heart," is defined by shimmering instrumentals, a lovely, lurching drum signature, and Tweedy's smug-but-vulnerable, slurry vocals. For all their windy nuance, Tweedy's words have a sly-sensitive, penetrating observational clarity, like the ramblings of a heartbroken anthropologist on his sixth beer. This clarity is a hallmark of Tweedy's songwriting, where imagery is always being melded to emotion. The emotional content in Yankee moves from crankiness to near-suicidal despair, to sentimentality, to a strident refusal to accept an American culture in atrophy. "You have to lose," he sings in "War on War," a driving mid-tempo rock song that is somehow both aggressive and subdued. "You have to learn how to die." About six weeks ago, Tweedy's primary collaborator on Yankee, the songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett, did die, of an accidental drug overdose. His death came as Wilco was getting set to release its latest effort Wilco (The Album). Bennett was booted from the band right after it completed work on Yankee. The conflict between Tweedy and Bennett is plain to see in Sam Jones's excellent documentary about the making of Yankee, also entitled I am Trying to Break Your Heart. Bennett's death coming shortly before the release of Wilco's new record is a coincidence, but it does reinforce some of the ideas that Tweedy has always been preoccupied with as a songwriter, and sought to communicate. How does one even begin to go about living in this world? Such is the precious agony of time. Wilco (The Album) attempts to answer that question in as straightforward a manner as a rock band can: the band will be, as Tweedy proclaims in the first track, "A sonic shoulder for you to cry on." The song, "Wilco," is upbeat, self-reverential, and great. "Are times getting tough? / Are the roads you travel rough? / Have you had enough of the old? / Tired of being exposed to the cold?" Tweedy stacks up the interrogatives like blocks before knocking them over: "Stare at your stereo / Put on your headphones before you explode / Wilco / Wilco / Wilco will love you baby." It's a funny sort of braggadocio that is somehow more heartfelt than solipsistic. Seven years on from the brilliant, narcotized dysphoria of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Tweedy seems to have arrived at a place where he is willing to not try and do too much - and maybe not reach quite as far - but the results are still rewarding for the listener. Also, as another critic pointed out, the song does have an oddly Velvet Underground feel, which becomes an ironic theme of Wilco (the Album), its very title such an on-the-nose stamp of individuality: some of the songs consciously reference songs that have come before. I should pause here to talk a bit about Wilco the band. The collection of musicians has changed and expanded over the years. The holdovers from the Yankee days are bassist John Stirratt and drummer Glenn Kotche. Stirratt is great, but, as a drummer myself, I must take a moment to give Kotche his due. He may be the most tasteful drummer out there, possessing great instincts for both density and space, and the odd quality of power in restraint. Unfortunately, the drum parts on Wilco (the Album) don't always showcase his ability (and I also felt that especially on later tracks they are recorded in a sort of heavy way that I didn't especially dig), but if you doubt my assessment of Kotche's virtuosity, pick up Yankee and give the drums a good listen. You'll see what I mean. The lineup is rounded out by keyboardists/multi-instrumentalists Pat Sansone and Mikael Jorgenson, and guitarist Nels Cline. Cline is stalwart. He got his first opportunity to really stretch out in 2004's A Ghost Is Born, the follow-up to Yankee and an excellent album in its own right (See comment below for correction--Jim O'Rourke played lead guitar on Ghost.) The two talented multi-instrumentalists in the band round out the sonic palette nicely, but an essential ingredient to both Wilco's mastery of the straight-no-chaser rock form and its ability to be experimental is Cline's guitar playing. If Ghost was more of a driving rock record, then 2007's Sky Blue Sky was more contemplative and more musically experimental. The album contained the seeds of the kinder, gentler Jeff Tweedy that is in evidence on Wilco (The Album). For this latest record, Tweedy seems ready to accentuate the positive, even if that old bleak outlook does occasionally cloud over the proceedings. "Deeper Down" showcases some pretty work from Cline on the pedal steel guitar, and the surprising and playful surge of a harpsichord, played by Sansone. "One Wing" is a ballad centered on a delicate guitar lick and a characteristically spacious and imaginative drum part from Kotche. "You were a blessing, and I was a curse / I did my best not to make things worse / for you," sings Tweedy. So the old angst isn't entirely gone. "Bull Black Nova" gets us back into the warm lap of mid-tempo rock, with nice interlocking guitar lines followed by a quirky call-and-response instrumental layout that seems to involve the whole band in successive bursts. It's a song about a car -- with blood all over the trunk. One thing I always enjoy when listening to Wilco is how much power they can conjure in their sound without being heavy-handed in terms of volume and dynamics. The instruments are balanced and play off one another. It's cleverly orchestrated music with the right rough touches. For "You and I," the mood shifts to acoustic, and Tweedy shares the vocals with Leslie Feist. It's a solid song, if a bit twee for me. The most intriguing oddity on Wilco (The Album) is track six, "You Never Know." It's the most referential song of the bunch, borrowing almost exactly from Sly Stone's "Everyday People" for its foundation groove. It's Sansone and Jorgenson's time to bring it, with a dense, pulsing fusillade of piano and Hammond organ, and Kotche leans into the groove. Incorporated into the guitar solo and final choruses is a note-for-note reproduction of George Harrison's descending guitar lick from "My Sweet Lord." Of all the songs on the album, this one is growing on me the fastest. "All you fat followers get fit fast / Every generation thinks it's the last / Thinks it's the end of the world," Tweedy chides. "I don't care anymore, I don't care anymore / You never know." Wilco (The Album) is a good record from a great band. If it doesn't quite finish as well as it starts, well, that's okay. The back end of the album is more a tribute to the band's pre-Yankee, Uncle Tupelo roots - some down-home-sounding, catchy numbers. It concludes with an anthemic, almost schmaltzy love song, "Everlasting Everything," that's a bit overwrought. But there's so much to chew over on this record. As always, the band sounds lush and lithe, and the words and music exist in a rare harmony. In the end, a record that at first blush seems oddly self-centered is mostly outward-pointing. When Tweedy proclaims that "Wilco will love you baby," the effect is suitably seductive.
Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music

Musical Exercise: Creating Literary Soundtracks

Some books just demand a soundtrack - they either are about music and musicians or music is threaded through the book like a character. Pandora, one of several sites where you can create your own radio stations, has long been a daily musical companion of mine, but recently I've been thinking of it as a tool for building open-ended literary soundtracks. So, far I've built three such soundtracks - a pair based on two of my favorite non-fiction books about music and a third based on a novel with a finely wrought musical backdrop:My station Please Kill Me is based on the oral history of punk by Legs McNeil. The book (and my Pandora radio station based on it), trace the early origins of punk from MC5, The Stooges, and The Velvet Underground, through to the New York heyday of The Ramones and British invaders like The Sex Pistols, not to mention various new wavy offshoots like Television and The Talking Heads, all of which get through treatment in McNeil's book.My station Our Band Could Be Your Life is based on the book by music journalist Michael Azerrad that chronicles the rise and fall of thirteen seminal indie rock bands. Detailed chapters on Black Flag, The Minutemen (whose line from "Double Nickels on the Dime" supplies the title of the book), Mission of Burma, Minor Threat, Husker Du, The Replacements, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, Big Black, Fugazi, Mudhoney, and Beat Happening effectively constitute the history of indie rock for a generation of music fans.My station Fortress of Solitude delves into the realm of fiction and is inspired by Jonathan Lethem's 2003 novel. Music is integral to the book - especially its first section, in which protagonist Dylan Ebdus befriends Mingus Rude, son of soul superstar Barrett Rude, Jr., and funk and early rap music is heard on Brooklyn street corners. In the book's second half, a grown up Ebdus is an obsessive music writer with a CD collection spanning a generation of soul music and with music tastes and knowledge far beyond. The book's publication spawned a question in the early days of The Millions about where a supposed soundtrack compiled by Jonathan Lethem to accompany Fortress of Solitude could be found. It turned out to just be a pair of "mix CDs" that Lethem was handing out to friends at readings, but lucky for us, a Lethem fan posted a track listing (and the site he posted it on - now defunct - was archived by archive.org). Scroll way down on this page to find the track listing. As much as was possible, it was used as the basis for this station.There are no doubt thousands of non-fiction and fiction books that could be augmented with soundtracks (largehearted boy's "book notes" project in which "authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published books," would be a great source). Share some of your own ideas for literary soundtracks or links to soundtracks you've made in the comments below.A note to our international readers: Pandora, because of music licensing issues, is only available to U.S. listeners. Sorry about that, and if there is a similar site to Pandora available in your country, hopefully you can try it there.
Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music

Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music #3: Sidelined By Pete Doherty

This isn't the music post I'd planned on writing today. I was going to tell you all about the time a certain British guitar legend from the 60s shouted at me and a friend (yes, at us - specifically at us) across a packed hall in Greenwich Village eleven years ago. I was all set to tell you about that. But that'll have to wait. Another time.You see, I've been sidelined by a contemporary album. This almost never happens. But on Friday I bought Grace/Wastelands, the new solo album from Pete Doherty. I popped it into the CD player when I got home, strapped headphones onto my unsuspecting head, and within seconds I knew I was done for.I'd always had an appreciation for Pete Doherty. Despite all his personal problems and addictions, the few tracks I'd heard from The Libertines and, later, from Babyshambles, I'd liked. I found his writing to be sharp, engaging. But I still wasn't prepared for this. Grace/Wastelands is a masterful album from start to finish. Thoughtful, evocative, musically textured and, above all, beautifully written and sung.It's been about 55 hours since I first put the CD into the player, and virtually every waking hour has been spent listening to it. Even when I was physically elsewhere - with friends or family - I had it going through my head. I was pretty much useless as a friend or son for the last couple of days. I was mentally trying to redirect every conversation toward contemporary music. I wanted to talk about this record, but without getting sidetracked by a discussion about Tabloid Doherty.I wanted to express to people just exactly why their lives were incomplete if they hadn't experienced the sweeping organ in the final minute of "Lady, Don't Fall Backwards," or the way the vocal melody of that song floats down and then up and then down again. I wanted them to experience the opening acoustic strum on "Arcady", the lovely, lilting harmonies that belie the sadness of "Sheepskin Tearaway" and to hear the catch in his voice when he sings the word "scars" near the end of the song. They needed to hear the ragtime piano on "The Sweet By and By". They needed to both hear and feel the rhythmic pulse of "Last of the English Roses" and the way one is left hanging before hearing the final consonant in the phrase "...her Winstons from her Enochs." And, especially, the evocative "Salome" - perhaps the finest song on the album - with great guitar-playing by Doherty and Graham Coxon from Blur who share guitar duties on almost every song on the album. This is an album full of melancholy - sometimes wistful, sometimes painful. Always gently poetic.This level of musical obsession happened frequently when I was younger. In school and in early university I would breathe Beatles and Rolling Stones albums. Then a bit later I would inhale albums by The Kinks and Bob Dylan. In the years that followed, the occasional album would turn into an obsession - but it, too, was generally something from an earlier era. Rarely something contemporary. In the past decade, I can clearly recall the few cases of me obsessing over something current: In The Belly of the Whale by Canadian songwriter Danny Michel, Blur's 13, Michael Penn's Resigned and, especially, each successive release from The Walkmen who hit a new peak last fall with their stunning You and Me (about which - more [much more] in a future post). So it's a pretty limited list. There's nothing fleeting here. Every one of these albums is part of me, even after the initial obsession subsides. And I can add Pete Doherty's Grace/Wastelands to the list.
Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music

Today: Neko Case.

Middle Cyclone, the new album by my favorite redheaded crooner, Neko Case, was released yesterday. At the time of this writing, I've listened to the album twice as I worked on my novel, and then I repeated a few songs so that I could dance and swoon around the apartment.My friend Robin Benway, fellow Neko Case-lover, and author of the music-centric, young adult novel Audrey, Wait!, pointed me to this piece in Paste Magazine: "17 Things I Love, by Neko Case." In the article, Case lists the books she read while making her record, including Watership Down by Richard Adams, What It Is by Lynda Barry, and Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell. I love this literary insight into Case's gorgeous, passionate music, and the combination of authors does seem to translate into something Neko Case-ish. (Starting with that rabbit world...)Perhaps when I'm done with my novel, I'll write a list of the albums I played as I wrote it. I have a feeling Middle Cyclone will make an appearance (along with Case's previous album, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood.) I'm curious if Neko Case, New Order, Beirut, Songs: Ohia, and silence (lots of silence, actually, as I revise), will reveal anything about my book. Any thoughts? And, for the writers out there, what do you listen to, if anything, as you work?