Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Dinosaur Jr. - Farm

Dinosaur Jr. - Farm (5/5)

The first decade of the new millennia, often characterized by an extreme sense of nostalgia, saw the resurrection of many 80s and 90s era rock bands. While each band who came back from the bargain bin engendered reactions ranging from “I should have known” (The Smashing Pumpkins) to “I never would have thought” (The Pixies), there were a couple of groups who truly did the unthinkable and released new indie rock albums that were just as good as their old alternative rock albums. One such band, Dinosaur Jr., shocked everyone when they came together to record a new album not only because of their vitriolic breakup, but because the album in question, Beyond, wound up as one of the best albums of the year. In a turn of events that should have surprised no one, but probably shocked many, Dinosaur Jr.’s follow up, Farm, is even better than their last album.

Farm’s cover art, consisting of two Ents carrying naked children in the palms of their hands, provides a psychedelic connection from J. Mascis to the guitar rock gods of yore (c. 1970s). Some of the longer set pieces twist and turn until they invert themselves to reveal expansive guitar solos. The penultimate song, the almost nine-minute “I Don’t Want to Go There,” begins with a tempo that chugs along like an old car, but as it makes its way across different landscapes, the soaring song finally ends with a monster solo that bites off the entire second half of the running time. Mascis’s proficiency with guitar solos so sharp they could skin cats is a singular gift to be sure, but his talents can be traced back to his acknowledged inspiration, Neil Young. I must admit that, aside from Mascis’s voice, I never gave much thought to the comparison, but on Farm you can see the band growing into the profile of Young, much as a man’s bones stretch in later years to reveal his grandfather’s hidden genetic mark. In some ways Farm sounds as if Neil Young had continued to follow the punk rock inspiration he found when recording the album Rust Never Sleeps.

That’s not to say the album is devoid of the great pop songs the band has always delivered. Both “I Want You to Know” and “See You” skip along with such ease that the band makes them look easy, even if few bands write songs this enjoyable two decades into their career. “Over It” is notable for not only being one of the most radio ready songs off the album, but because the song title easily plugs into narratives about the reunion of once avowed enemies, J. Mascis and Lou Barlow. For his part, this time around Barlow’s harmonies float higher and his songs are tighter. It is this ability to balance guitar solo freak outs and pop songwriting that makes such a long album seem epic but not overblown (Arcade Fire, take note).

Like a circus daredevil who moves on to higher, more dangerous, heights, many are waiting to see when Dinosaur Jr. will fall. After two outstanding comeback albums how does a band keep on creating excitement? At this point it is probably safe to no longer see Dinosaur Jr. as a reunion band because these albums fit so well within their canon of work. There will be other great albums (and probably some not as great albums) but it is safe to say that watching this band follow its muse into the new millennium will be as rewarding and unpredictable one of Mascis’s searing solos.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon

Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon (4/5)

Central to each essay that makes up Michael Chabon’s collected work of non-fiction, Maps and Legends, is the notion that genre fiction—including gothic horror, noir mystery, dystopic sci-fi, sword and sorcery, etc.—has been regulated to the ghettos of literature and abandoned by writers with any pretense to literary seriousness. Instead of learning to enjoy the sensation of goose bumps on our skin while reading a ghost story or the heart palpitating shock found at the end of a Victorian mystery, readers and writers alike have learned to ignore the joys of these visceral sensations for what is considered the more cerebral pursuits of the Joycian short story, replete with inner musings and epiphany inducing endings. Chabon believes this distrust of genre as serious literature is tied to the negative connotations associated with “entertainment,” which he describes as a word that “wears spandex, pasties, a leisure suit studded with blinking lights.” We have learned to distrust anything whose primary purpose appears to entertain us.

Of course, despite being tied to images of ivy covered brick buildings, stagnant classrooms and tweed jackets, even James Joyce’s short stories have immense propensity for entertainment. Chabon understands that entertainment is found not only in the unseemly pages of genre fiction but in all works of literature, despite how esoteric they may at first seem, and he proposes “expanding our definition of entertainment to encompass everything pleasurable that arises from the encounter of an attentive mind with a page of literature.” He is attempting to expand the definition of entertainment, so that it may appropriately describe both reading Poe under a blanket with a flashlight and reading T.S. Eliot in one of those ivory towers while sipping on a pipe, while simultaneously refusing to dilute the definition. It is equally subversive to describe Neil Gaiman as entertaining as Herman Melville as it is to describe Herman Melville as entertaining as Neil Gaiman.

Chabon makes this argument in the book’s first essay, “Trickster in a Suit of Lights: Thoughts on the Modern Short Story,” and it is from this essay that all others in the book spawn. Because he refuses to define genre in pejorative terms, Chabon is given the authority to write an elegiac rumination on the comic book pioneer Will Eisner’s death or discuss Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in terms of its relation to other novels of apocalyptic science fiction. The following fifteen essays serve to reinforce Chabon’s literary worldview, and it becomes apparent how arbitrary it is to regulate one genre outside the realm of serious literature while keeping other genres within the confines of literary good taste. After all, the epiphany ending short stories of Joyce and Hemingway are a genre in themselves. In the essay “The Other James,” about the ghost stories of M. R. James, Chabon points out that Balzac, Poe, de Maupassant and Kipling—no minor figures within the literary canon—all wrote ghost stories, a genre that has been shuffled, under point of gun, to the confines of the genre ghetto. While maintaining one’s literary credentials, a graduate students can analyze The House of the Seven Gables through a New Historicist framework, but don’t you dare get caught reading the latest Steven King novel on the subway.

The collection is not without its faults. And while Chabon is a consummate novelist, I feel he has always struggled in more constrained mediums like the short story or essay. Many of the works in the second half of the book feel slight, as if there was some unifying concept that was lopped off the end. Or, to use a genre metaphor, these essays feel as if the two plots of a detective noir story never converge into one by the end of the novel. The slight frame of his lesser essays seem incapable of holding up Chabon’s thickly woven prose. However, when he is at his best, Chabon’s thoughts reshape how genre is viewed by everyone from the casual reader to the acolytes of literary critics like Bloom and Frye. At the very least Maps and Legends will give many the courage to keep the book jacket on that collection of post-apocalyptic-mystery-ghost-stories when they are reading in the park.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich

Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich (5/5)

Love Medicine tells a multigenerational story that spans many decades, lives, marriages, loves, and deaths. It is an ambitious novel that both attempts to provide a widescreen view of life as it interconnects across blood and generations while simultaneously reserving the right to zoom into quiet moments that, while they may seem insignificant at the time, blossom in import as author Louise Erdrich scales back her view to reveal the intricate nature of her story. The novel centers around the two poles of the Kapshaws and the Larmartines, two families who live on an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota. These families are not made up of traditional nuclear units, and Erdrich must provide an intricate and looping family tree just so the reader understands who is related to whom.

Each chapter of Love Medicine presents itself as a short story, a common technique for a first novel. However, what separates Love Medicine from other novels who have taken the same approach is the way Erdrich utilizes the shifting point of view to provide a multifaceted view of characters and events. Most chapters are written from the first person and provide an opportunity for Erdrich to play with tone and voice that depends on the character. For example, Lipsha Morrissey, a teenager growing up in the eighties, utilizes videogames for metaphors. The death of a veteran returning from Vietnam is treated as an accident or a suicide depending on the author. The technique, if a bit less experimental even if simultaneously more grand, is similar to Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.

By revisiting events, and even placing some events in non-chronological order, Erdrich’s stories accumulate momentum and power as the novel progresses. As readers, we are aware that we are privy to only moments in a larger story that takes place off screen. In ways Love Medicine is like a collection of close photographs of a single skyscraper – a bird’s nest on a ledge, an American flag, the sun reflecting off a window – without ever revealing the whole object. We recognize the whole from the aggregate because of our familiarity with both, and in the case of Love Medicine the whole is life from family.

Perhaps the single most impressive aspect of Love Medicine is Erdrich’s prose. Her writing is just this side of magical realism, and while certain characters may believe in magic, Lipsha Morrissey believes he has a healing touch, because these very same characters are telling the story we are welcomed to doubt their powers. However, Erdrich’s writing is often imbued with an effervescent mysticism. In the chapter “The Island” narrated by Lulu Nanapush, Lulu leaves her home to live in a cave on an island with Moses Pillager, perhaps a more surrealist chapter than the rest of the novel. Upon consummating her romance with Moses, Lulu, who would go on to father many children with many fathers, informs the reader: “I want to grind men’s bones to drink in my night tea…I want to be their food, their harmful drink, to taste men like stilled jam at the back of my tongue.” These moments of surrealism are equally matched by a prose that seems permeable and effervescent, as if the words can barely capture the events before us.

Erdrich is responsible for populating her novel with a myriad of characters whose lives bend and bounce off one another, and while we may not condone the actions of every one of them, there is a clear understanding that their actions rise from a shared pain. Because these characters are connected through a webwork of relations, their loneliness seems that much tragic.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

The Black Lips - 200 Million Thousand

The Black Lips – 200 Million Thousand (3.5/5)

The Black Lips are not for looking over the rainbow or beyond the horizon or over the next hill; the Black Lips are for looking back. This is true enough for their latest release, 200 Million Thousand, and if you are cursorily familiar with their older work then you know what to expect here: flower punk (their term) played with sloppy abandon and lyrics about cruising around in cluttered cars, taking drugs, drinking, and other miscellaneous fun. A strain of nostalgia runs throughout the album. For the Black Lips nostalgia is most easily distilled in the time of their late teens, when the novelty of owning a car hasn’t worn off and the appropriate response to screwing up is to “drink some more beers.”

The Black Lips’s sense of nostalgia has never been a drawback for the band, and if anything it has been their reason for existing. Everything from their easily recognizable influences to flat mono sounding production values help transport the listener back a few decades. Some of the songs do this beautifully, such as the bluntly titled “Drugs,” about picking up women and driving around aimlessly while, you guessed it, on drugs. Many decry the Black Lips’s snot nosed brat personas, but with lyrics that begin with the line, “my nose is a-runny” the Lips have little qualms over this guise. And why should they, it’s worked well so far? “Starting Over” melds the easy sentiments of beginning anew sung over the jangly guitars of the Byrds. Like many of the high points on this album, and there are quite a few, these songs give the appearance of an old classic, now forgotten, that has serendipitously made its way onto the radio DJs mix.

However, what do you do when a band whose rason de’etre is to shuffle through used tunes, like most of us peruse Good Will stores, starts looking to “mature”? The results are not pretty. “The Drop I Hold,” a song that drags its belly from beginning to end, is an embarrassing attempt to rap/sing over a vaguely hip hop beat. I’m all for mixing of genres and actually believe that since the nineties too many musicians have been hold up in their own musical corner, but here the song not only sounds out of place but the rhymes sound like they’re delivered through a bad cold. Missing is any sense of storytelling found in the best hip hop, or even on other, superior Black Lips songs. The closer, “I Saw God,” begins with a lengthy found sound of a kid ruminating on “God” that manages to be both pretentious and childish. Childishness is expected from the Black Lips, but I can’t think of anyone who goes into a Black Lips album looking forward to half assed ruminations on God.

In their attempt to recover sounds of old, the Black Lips have brought back something that should have stayed in the sixties: the front loaded album. It has been my unfortunate observation that too many sixties rock and rollers stuffed all the goods on side A in what I assume is the belief that when it comes time to flip the record the listener will be too stoned to stumble over to the record player. Similarly, the Black Lips may be hoping that you rip the songs you need and forget about the filler. For those of us who still listen to full albums this isn’t an option, and by the time the Lips start rapping you will probably wish they would start singing about snotty noses some more.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Edgar Allen Poe - "The Masque of the Red Death"

Edgar Allen Poe – “The Masque of the Red Death”

Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, “The Masque of the Red Death,” like many of his gothic tales, is concerned with the aristocracy of the old country. As the story opens, the red death is spilling over the countryside causing symptoms such as “sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores.” Juxtaposed against this grim depiction, Poe introduces the only character with a proper name: “But the Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious.” In the midst of a national pandemic, Prospero has locked the castle gates in an attempt to form a damn between him and the waves of the red death, and the prince even plans a gaudy gala for the occasion.

Of course, because this is a gothic tale, things do not end well for Prince Prospero. After one of Poe’s typically phantasmagoric description of the prince’s seven chambers – each chamber is lit through different colored stained glass and decorated in a similar color scheme – the author introduces us to the decadent fashions of Prospero’s guests: “There were much of the beautiful, much of the wanton much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust.” Throughout the evening a pendulum driving clock marks the passage of each hour so loudly that the band playing must stop until the bells have finished their toll. This carnival of the grotesque is interrupted by a lone figure whose costume far and away exceeded that of the party goers, or, in the words of Poe, the intruder “out-Heroded Herod.” When he finally summons the courage, Prospero lunges towards this party crasher but quickly falls dead on the floor. The other partiers rip at the intruder’s garb only to discover that the pieces of cloth covered no tangible form underneath, and then they too succumb to the affects of the red death.

Poe’s story deals with themes important to the new American democracy, particularly the anxiety over the old world’s titled aristocracy and whether that aristocracy exists in the United States under a different name. Prospero’s attempt to shield himself from the outside world is indicative of a society built on two tiers. Prospero assumes the atrocities outside his walled castle have no bearing on what goes on behind those walls. Natural law does not apply to Prospero and his guests. Nature, as suggested by the loud incessant clock, eventually catches up to each of, and the same is true of Prospero and his aristocratic friends. Death is the ultimate democracy because it is the only true assurance of equality. The theme of a masque suggests Bactin’s concept of carnival, whereby the natural order of society is upturned. Indeed, while Prince Prospero believes himself above those who must suffer the red death, he finds himself mired in the same bloody death as the peasantry.

Much of Edgar Allen Poe’s story seems timely today. It is easy to think back to Prince Prospero when you hear about billion dollar ponzi schemes, business men faking their own death and banks receiving taxpayer funds with little asked, while homeowners are being chastised for lack of personal responsibility. As Prospero’s name suggests, the real difference between the aristocrat and those suffering an agonizing death outside of his castle isn’t the title of Prince but rather the acquisition of wealth. There is a reason Poe’s story would have resonated in a country without such titles, and that is the fear that the double tier of prosperity still existed. And of course it did. There is more than a little catharsis found in “The Masque of the Red Death,” and I challenge anyone not to root for the red death just a little. Of course, catharsis can only go so far. What the United States needs now is a complete re-imagining of our economy so that no matter one’s class, the aristocracy cannot profit while the rest of us vacillate outside their wall.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Ted Leo - "Dancing in the Dark" (live)

It seems as if these days it is impossible to turn on the television, open the internet, flip through a magazine, listen to music without running into Bruce Springsteen. From The Hold Steady to The Arcade Fire every indie band is citing him as an artistic touchstone. He played the inauguration, released a new album out, and will play the superbowl. Not bad for someone from New Jersey. I can't say I ever really caught Springsteenitis, but I like a few bands who have, namely Ted Leo & The Pharmacists. In fact, Ted has been proudly displaying his love of Springsteen long before it has become popular, and when I saw his solo concert a month ago he did a rendition of "Dancing in the Dark," a crowd favorite. Here is a little taste of Ted Leo covering Springsteen courtesy of Bruce Springsteen's own website:

Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Office - "Prince Family Paper"

The Office – “Prince Family Paper” (4.5/5)

What do you do when the TV show you based on a two season British comedy continues into its fifth season? That’s the question that must be troubling the writers of The Office. The central conceit of the British Office was a look into the life sucking world of the mid-level corporate world, and while this same theme continued in the American version, some time in season four the show’s interests detoured, like Michael’s GPS directed drive into the lake, towards the soap opera lives of the characters. Sure, I liked the “will they or won’t they” storyline between Jim and Pam, and Andy’s cuckolding at the hands of Angela and Dwight was particularly entertaining, but the show has also veered dangerously close to making it look like selling paper might be a fun job.

If the show did in fact jump the proverbial shark, it may have occurred in the episode, “Job Fair,” when Jim, Andy, and Kevin go golfing with a potential client and Jim, through pluck and determination, lands himself a big sales commission. Hey, I’m watching this show so I can laugh at the soul crushing everyday minutia of corporate America, not to watch Horatio Alger climb his way to a comfortable life of sitting in the big chair chomping cigars and, to amuse himself now and then, using a factory worker as a foot rest. Even worst than Jim’s pluck, was Pam’s contrived decision to leave graphic design school early so she could return to her once hated job as secretary. What happened to the satire of season two, like when Dwight delivers a speech by Mussolini to rousing applause? What happened to those times when we watched this show because of its keen observations on post-collegiate middle class life as well as race, gender and sexual orientation in politically correct America?

It was a bit of a relief, then, when this week’s episode of The Office, “Prince Family Paper,” harkened back to those days when it was possible to laugh while realizing these characters’ day to day lives had existential crises hidden in every meaningless paper transaction. Michael is assigned to investigate a small paper supply company set up in a blind spot where Dunder-Mifflin has no offices. The plan is to either buy out the company or run it out of business and thus take over the territory. The plan is for Michael to pose as a potential client while Dwight poses as a potential hire so both can scope out the operation. The company turns out to be a small family owned business in the post-war American tradition (of course, in this case the war happens to be Vietnam—when Mr. Prince tells Michael he started the company after returning from Vietnam, Michael replies that he’s heard it’s very nice over there). The Princes extend one generosity after another, from a cup of coco to fixing Michael’s broken car. Their penultimate act is to hand Michael a list of their clients as references for the quality of their service. What he first sees as merely the case of a “big shark eating a smaller shark” becomes a moral conundrum, and Michael is reluctant to hand over the client list to his bosses in New York. Dwight, of course, tries to convince him otherwise.

The episode is a wonderful juxtaposition of the instinctual workings of contemporary corporate America against what was once seen as not only the ideal workplace but as the expected relationship between employer and employee. That is, family—metaphorically speaking if nothing else. The episode spoke to the amorality of corporations, a welcome message in an era where someone who makes minimum wage is, in part, paying for multi-billion dollar executive bonuses at a time when those very same companies are losing money. But, it also speaks to a much older principle of comedy: tragedy and comedy are the closest of genres. After all, who can laugh at someone else when a smile is already spread across his face?