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.