Thursday, April 24, 2008

4/24/08 Politics - Do we want what we think we want?

I try to do my best to follow politics, at least the ones that take place on the macro level. I’ve always read the newspaper, which once seemed like demographic rebellion and now is a point of quixotic pride, as how in the world can they even continue to exist in such a brutally unfair marketplace?

I’m no political junkie; couldn’t tell you what’s going on in local politics, and really only follow down to the level of congressional races when there’s a flashy story or scandal or what have you that gives off enough sparks to draw attention. The presidential race is where the meat of the story is.

And even I can’t follow it too closely because it’s just way too depressing, how bereft of content and ideas the whole thing is. To watch McCain and Clinton scratch and claw for victory is to watch two people set each and every last principle on fire in the name of their ambition. Lurking in the classic Faust narrative is Obama as the prequel; the man who claims the straight and narrow principled lane and seems like the hero of some unwritten F. Scott Fitzgerald tragedy per the famous quote.

All of which led me to wonder the titular question - why do politicians, by all accounts smart, ambitious people for the most part, reduce themselves to unpalatable gruel over the course of the presidential election season? I mean, Hillary's ridiculous assertion that she would "obliterate" Iran if need be? It's impossible to read about a comment like that and not want to throw my hands up in disgust and ignore the whole thing. This is presumably an intelligent woman, right? With a high-powered education and a whole set of beliefs and plans? So why the hell is she diving headfirst into the mud puddle of the lowest common denominator? What idiot actually believes that this thinking woman (no matter your overall opinion of her) would obliterate another country? It just makes her look ridiculous, transparent, like just another saleswoman of snake oil.

And it would be one thing if it were just Clinton, but John McCain WTF? One of the best reads about politics I've ever encountered was David Foster Wallace's essay about following John McCain around, and his impressions of the political world in general and McCain in particular. One of the things that stood out to him, as it has to so many members of the press, is the persona that McCain's still trying to sell- that of the straight-talking man of principle, the Hollywood action hero persona scaled to fit politics. But McCain's been just as ridiculous as Clinton - the man was one of the only Republicans to show half a brain when it came to the idiocy of Bush's tax cuts, and now he wants to make them permanent? I mean, I understand that you've got to appease your core consituency, but does it have to be at the expense of everything you believe?

It would be nice to see a recognizable human run for office, instead of squinting at the ridiculous platitude-constructed human simulations provided by the candidates and trying to divine some kind of personality. And maybe an actual person is too messy of a thing to fit into the news culture of today, when the slightest misstep can be cross-sectioned just so to move the Stratego pieces areound on the board just so. But I think that the short gains that are made on the tactical level are a piece of a greater tragedy, which is the loss of any semblance of the messy nature of actual people from the seekers of presidential office.

But this is not really the candidates' fault, as they just reflect optimal conditions for victory. If juggling cats were a requirement for being president, you could bet Obama's face would be scratched to pieces. So the ridiculous and cynicla exercise of selling out one's principles in the name of state-specific sound bytes must work, on some level, or else it wouldn't be done. I wonder, though, if a candidate would for once take the tactical hit and just say "screw it, this is me", they would get rewarded by an electorate that seems to be more logical and down-to-earth on the whole than the squinting analysts can conceive of it being.

Monday, April 21, 2008

4/21/08 Grunge Influences - Whither Nirvana?

For all the oceans of mythologizing ink devoted to Nirvana and their influence, a little distance – Nevermind is 17 years old now – pegs their influence as stranger and more far-reaching than the standard “musical touchstone” type influence. They were both more influential and less than they were perceived at the time.

The dominant critical meme in the immediate post-grunge climate was that Nirvana’s success had, in one fell swoop, wiped the kind high-style, low-content ‘80s metal off of the map, along with prefab pop and glossy synth/dance music. Supposedly, the watershed moment was Nevermind supplanting Thriller at the top of the charts; the Moment that marked the changing of the musical zeitgeist.

Well, sort of. Prefab pop laid dormant for a while as grunge music suffered from the usual cycles of diminishing returns (A-Listers like Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam, and Stone Temple Pilots giving way to B-Listers like Dishwalla, Collective Soul, and Live and then to C-Listers like Matchbox 20 and Third Eye Blind), but came roaring back with a vengeance when Jive records unleashed the Backstreet Boys, NSync, and Britney on the world.

Plus, oh yeah, hip hop simply blew rock out of the popular reckoning. Not a lot of critics saw that coming. You want influential? Try Biggie. Way more of an impact on the last 15 years of popular music than Kurt Cobain, and his lyrics are a lot better written. Doesn’t scream as well, though. All the disposable top of the charts lowest-common denominator stuff that Nirvana was supposed to sweep away in some kind of musical tidal wave? Say hello to Sisqo. Have you heard? He likes thongs.

Nonetheless, even if in retrospect the radio heyday of grunge looks like the last dying light of the supernova that is/was rock’s stranglehold on popular music (which doesn’t mean that rock itself is over and done – just that it is now another in a series of viable genres, with another genre holding chart primacy over it), the question of Nirvana’s actual musical influence is an interesting one.

One immediately curious thing about Nirvana’s success is that so few bands sound like actual musical descendants of the band. And, rest assured, this is not because their sound is so unique and out there and impossible to replicate. Sure, a lot of bands had success with the quietLOUDquiet formula (Better Than Ezra – "Good", Radiohead – "Creep", Stone Temple Pilots – "Big Empty", etc. etc. etc. etc. etc.), but it can be argued (and often is) that Nirvana just took that from the Pixies. “Gouge Away” and “Gigantic” are the obvious touchstones, both for the melodic nature of the bass lines and because they carry a lot less of the Santiago guitar madness that sonically distinguishes the Pixies from Nirvana – I challenge anyone to find surf rock influences anywhere in the Nirvana discography, whereas it’s all over the place for the Pixies).

Nirvana’s sonic template is the musical template of “the personal is political” – raw, extreme pain communicated in universal terms, alternatingly bludgeoning and off-putting (“Milk It”, “Stay Away”) or bruised and inviting in the manner of bird with a broken wing (“Lithium”, “All Apologies”). Foregrounded always is Cobain’s pain; sometimes specified, often not, and, by virtue of his gift for melodic phrasing and genuinely powerful vocal abilities, inviting rather than alienating. Even at its most abrasive, Nirvana’s music has a warm, tactile quality lacking in the dentists-drill vibrations found in the Pixies most abrasive concotions.

This empathy-inviting pain is communicated in simple, catchy melodies wedded to simple, punk-inspired piledriving instrumental sections, often pared down to 4 chords or so. Basically, the extreme end of power pop is the result (and why that term has been appropriated for the limp stylings of Todd Rundgren types is a mystery for another day) – tuneful melodies girded by titanic, galvanizing, and simple chord progressions/melodic bass work. On top of that, layer the sarcastic sense of humor behind lines like “It’s ok to eat fish because they don’t have any feelings” and to title a song “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter”. And scream a lot, especially at the climax of the song (see Daltrey, Roger – "Won’t Get Fooled Again")

Nobody followed this template. Instead, everybody tried to copy Pearl Jam, whose music was also labeled grunge, but whose musical template was way, way different: mushy, complex interlocking guitar parts, chunky Neil Young-style chord progressions, a lot of acoustic/electric interplay. Longer songs, with more complex instrumental parts. Vocally, the incomparable Eddie Vedder, who I have come around on but once believed to be the worst vocalist in the entire universe. Like I said, I’ve come around, but Eddie influenced way more rock vocalists than Kurt did, namely in the following ways: heartfelt singing, without the sneer. Lyrics that reach for the mystical. Deep mumbling, with a whole lot of vowels. A distinct lack of irony. And, weirdly, ballads that are much, much more tuneful than the rockers (just compare the melodies of something like “Better Man” to something like “Why Go?” it’s not even a contest).

So, while Nirvana got all of the copy; admittedly, most probably because of the suicide, Pearl Jam had the influence. Nobody banged out albums of tuneful, sarcastic, 4 chord sledgehammer expressions of anger. Or, I should say, no one did that reached the top of the charts. Everybody released songs that sounded like Pearl Jam (Staind – "It’s Been Awhile", Seven Mary Three – whatever that song is, even Hootie and the Blowfish sounded like watered down Pearl Jam half the time – listen to "Let Her Cry" and tell me that couldn’t be a PJ song. The bands that achieved success in the post-grunge, pre-Backstreet radio days did so with songs that sound like Pearl Jam rips. It wasn’t until “Get Free” from the Vines came out that I realized it, because that was the first song I heard on the radio that sounded like a Nirvana rip-off.

The only band that sounded like they were actually influenced by Nirvana to me was Local H, a band that I hold dear to this very day. Only where Kurt’s pain was inviting, Scott Lucas’s was alienating in a way that Kurt just never could pull off, mostly because of that whole wounded baby bird thing.

Lucas, the songwriter/guitarist/semi-bassist/driving force behind the band, has a regular-guy practicality in lyrics and persona that lend the aggresive drive of Local H's music a bitter bite that Nirvana often deployed. Listening to the open, ringing phrasing of a song like PJ's "Daughter" or "Evenflow", what's notable is the claustrophic economy of the song. Where Eddie Vedder often writes in generalities, painting a feeling with images that's not always clear, and where Cobain often just strings together phrases for maximum frisson/impact, Lucas keeps his lyrics sharply trained on the objects of his wrath; which run the gamut from 1)himself to 2)other people.

"One more thing/before we go/stepped over everyone I know" goes the climax to "Fritz's Corner", a 3 line cocktail of triumph, rage, alienation, and guilt wedded to a supercharged pick scrape into that familiar 4 chord bludgeon. Sure, Nirvana did it first. But who else even attempted it?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

4/17/08 Nash and CP3

I was the shortest kid in the class for a long, long time - probably until midway through high school, and remain undersized. I also love playing basketball. These two things are, sadly, not the best fit. They would fine if I were quick (I am slow) or had a really solid outside shot (which I do not), but the fact remains that without that nigh-essential basketball skill, height, my abilities are always going to be on the bottom end of the average pickup league.

For that reason, I am consistently enthralled the the players that are able to dominate while being short. While I can barely conceive of what it must be like to tower over the paint, throwing down vicious dunks and sending impertinent perimeter penetrators' shot attempts into the 5th row, I can at least at the outer edges of my fantasies imagine myself weaving into the land of the giants, deftly passing or scoring. This never happens, but it is at least less ludicrous to imagine myself playing that role.

It is that reason (if not that reason along) that my coming back around to the NBA had a lot to do with Steven Nash and the Suns. Telegenic, media-hyped, surely, but I've never had NBA allegience (perhaps I was lined up with the Hornets, but I never liked the NBA growing up and then they left Charlotte and the Bobcats just don't feel like mine) so I flit about from style to style, player to player, narrative to narrative. In terms of allegiance, I am the definition of the casual, bandwagon fan, but the more I follow the league the more my fandom of the game of professional basketball itself deepens. It is the polar opposite of my NCAA fandom, in which I live and die by one team and one conference and could really care less about the rest of the CBB universe until March rolls around.

So, a short, white point guard, playing the position the way that in my wildest dreams I could very faintly imagine - this has the resonance that makes a person sit up and pay attention. I could never legitimately say that I'm a Suns fan, but a Steve Nash fan, absolutely. I could rehash all of the reasons that he's such a compelling player to watch, but that is all covered better elsewhere. And, with the the Shaq trade trimming back the Suns' wings a bit, Nash has played off the ball more this season, which from a strategy perspective is better but from a selfish perspective (mine) means there are less opportunities for him to work his particular alchemy.

And then, staying up late, watching game 1 of NO-Dallas, the Chris Paul tsunami. Now, this is a man who I should have seen play- after all, he was the PG for Wake Forest for 2 years, and is born and bred North Carolina. But these two years were among my years in the sports wilderness, so to my shame I hadn't yet seen the MVP candidate play all year. Well, except for in the All-Star game, in which his talent shone bright enough for me to declare that he was fantastic. Which he was.

But good Lord. The All-Star game is a basketball themed party. The playoff are basketball through and through. I tuned in shortly before halftime to watch Kidd (who I find repulsive more for his off-the-court domestic abuse issues than with any flaws in his game, but, like I said, when it comes to the NBA I'm a cherry picking fan) help push the Mavericks to a dozen point lead, and saw Paul not do much special.

2nd half. Paul WENT OFF. It actually felt like watching an explosion, or a series of them, like the climax of a bombastic 80s action movie. Paul with a step-back, good. Paul with a hesitation teardrop floater, good. Paul to Chandler, alley-oop. Paul with a flurry of 15 foot jump shots. Paul stealing the inbounds from what looked like Croatia. And on and on and on and on. At a certain point, I thought Kidd might actually cry. It was the sight of the future machine-gunning the past down with with extreme prejudice.

And Chris Paul is legitimately six feet tall. And a hardcore bowler. And I caught his appearence on "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me" and damned if the guy isn't effortlessly charming, as well. Unlike the dry reticence tinged with humor of Nash's public demeanor (when asked who he supported in the Democratic primary, he remarked that it was no secret that he was a "liberal young gentleman"), Paul is open, engaging, and seemingly regular.

And, like Nash was before Shaq arrived, Paul is 80% of the Hornets offense. Not to take anything away from Amare Stoudemire, David West, et. al, but Paul dominates the NO team the way that Nash did in his two breakout seasons, and it's just so damn rare to see that kind of dominance from the shortest player on the court (Iverson is the only example that leaps immediately to mind, although from what I've read it seems that Isiah was similarly dominant - I just didn't watch the NBA when he was playing). Watching it is watching David and Goliath, over and over, competing in a state of aethletic grace for 45 game-minutes.

Monday, April 14, 2008

4/14/08 Preaching the Gospel of Max Martin

Like others whose radio lives during high school/middle school were dominated by grunge and then the post-grunge smorgasbord (OMC - How Bizarre, because, well, why the hell not), the teen-pop boom that achieved absolute and sustained domination until Napster and file sharing sent the music industry cratering into rubble was an awesome and terrifying force to behold, definitely, but a distant one, like an exploding supernova way off in the universe. I was busy listening to Radiohead and waiting for Weezer to reunite, and pretty much cherry-picked what I thought was the best of the teen pop boom off of the rest of America's computers (O glorious Napster, I lament thee). I didn't have to endure the onslaught directly; I'm sure there are people just slightly younger than me for whom NSYNC was their NKOTB directly, as in, inescapably dominant and perhaps transcendently irritating, but me I observed from afar.

Imagine my delight, then, when the cream of the teen pop crop of singles turned out to be such a series of blissful peaks. I became (and remain) convinced that the finest singles of the early 2000s teen pop boom stand their ground with some of the finest teen pop singles of any era. Sure, Phil Spector's a sonic saint (though hardly a real life one), but I'd hold "Baby One More Time" up against half of his peak Ronettes output. The sonic trappings are different, sure, but both are defiantly maximalist for their respective eras, rearing back and slugging with the desparate haymaker force that comes from a true reaching for the stars on the backs of kids whose every moment is an epic writ large in their own minds. A parasitical enterprise, perhaps, but a devastatingly effective one.

With a little more research, then, I was awed by the fact that just as Spector's fingerprints are all over the '60s girl-group crime scene, one man had an equal impact on the best of the 2000s version - a certain Max Martin (given name: Karl Sandberg). The genius Swede absolutely owned the peak of machine-tooled 00s teen pop, and his empire didn't just stop there. Just read over the list of songs that the man wrote or co-wrote, and marvel at the magma-temperature hot streak:

Backstreet Boys: As Long as You Love Me
Backstreet Boys: Everybody (Backstreet's Back)
Backstreet Boys: I Want It That Way
Britney Spears: "...Baby One More Time"
Britney Spears: "Crazy"
Britney Spears: "Oops I Did It Again"
Bon Jovi: "It's My Life"
Kelly Clarkson: "Since U Been Gone"

That's pop domination in 8 easy steps. My favorite part of the list is final song, a song so good that I remember an article in Spin or Entertainment Weekly or some such talking about how almost every musical notable couldn't stop talking about how good it was (I remember specifically Dave Grohl being really into it), and they are absolutely right. That song kicks ass. All of them do. I don't mean in an ironic fashion, I mean these are all great pop songs. But "Since U Been Gone" is something else entirely, and to me it really sums up the genius of Martin (and his co-writer, Dr. Luke). As they tell it, they were trying to write a Strokes song. They were frustrated that all of the Strokes songs never made the big rock move, or the big pop move, or whatever you want to call it. With a nod to Potter Stewart, you know it when you hear it; it's the "Whoa-OOOH!" part of "Livin' on a Prayer", for easy reference. So they set out to write a Strokes song with a big rock move, and that was that. They did (hint: it's the beginning of the chorus, as it should be).

And what it really shows is that this guy is on another songwriting level from all of the bands that get venerated by the rock critics, and on another level from those that produce the tasteless pop that fades away after the sugar buzz wears off, because I would never argue that all pop music is great. Sometimes, obviously, it is spectacularly awful. But Martin basically said, OK all you Strokes/Vines/Datsuns/Yeah Yeah Yeahs/insert "rock is back" band here, I see what you're trying to do here, now let me DO MY THANG! And he wrote an anthemic stunner that everyone can agree is a)catchy as hell and b)a great rock song. And, more than that, it can be be karoaked to within an inch of its life, because of the cocktail of drive and energy that he melded to the usual big shiny hook. Plus it directly steals the bridge to "Maps", which is kind of shameful, but also kind of awesome. And in so doing he wrote a better song than the Strokes ever did, while performing the valuable service of reminding anyone with ears that the best songs, and the best bands, and the best songwriters, have at one time another just closed their eyes and tried to knock it out of the whole damn ballpark.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Thursday Narrative Post - Sports & Narrative

As a Tar Heel born and bred (if not educated), it was quite painful to me to watch the boys in blue lay a giant stinkbomb in the first half against KU, especially after looking so dominant for the rest of the tournament. Hansbrough was hitting face-up 20 footers against Louisville, for God's sake. Then they, what? Forget they're one game away from the final? Watching Kansas come out and shove a live grenade down Carolina's throat to the tune of a 40-12 lead in the first half was literally the sight of a dream season ending. Unbeaten on the road? Oh, how about another easy layup following an uncontested interior pass? They couldn't have played worse at a worse time if their life depended on it.

I rationalize and say that, with the way Memphis played in a magnificent title game 2 days later, there would have been no way the Heels could have beaten them. Carolina couldn't stop Sherrod Collins from getting into the lane, Derrick Rose would have blown their minds. And so I say I'm happy for KU to put on the crown following that incredible Chalmers 3, but the truth is that every second of watching the game was haunted by the ghostly question of "how would Carolina be playing right now?" And, as with the Georgetown debacle last year, the what-if question will hang over me for a while as basketball season fades.

Still and all, it is these failures that make sports so compelling, the ways that real life, in the form of televised childhood games played by athletically freakish millionaires, sometimes lines up with the stories we tell and sometimes does not. In watching a movie, or a TV show, or reading a book, the audience member is entering a narrative compact that is rarely broken: things will end appropriately, is the promise of the writer. Not necessarily well, or happily, but in a way that satisfies the narrative drive. One of the pleasures of fictional narratives lies in seeing how the various strands that are laid out reach a satisfying conclusion. Genre often helps - for the comedy we implicity understand that things will end happily; the pleasures lie in the twists and turns along the way. In tragedy, or suspense, the Aristotelian catharsis is the implied payoff for the weight of awful events/threats/mishaps that form the narrative.

When a work of fiction does not resolve to the root chord, the audience often feels cheated, and the work itself can feel cheapened. Witness the great outcry over the Sopranos finale. Fade to black, no resolution, life goes on (depending on your preferred conspiracy theory). The series ends without resolving on anything; it is an ending in the literal sense - it ceases to be, and the narrative strands are left dangling. The question remains; does this make the vast rich middle any less compelling? A subjective answer, I'd argue - for myself I'd say yes and no.

The glory of sports is that they contain resolution every single time out on the micro level (someone always wins, someone always loses), but they do not always provide narrative resolution. The Cinderella team in the NCAA tournament does not always win. Davidson does not always hit the last second three against Kansas. Sometimes a team led by a devil incarnate (cough Christian Laettner cough) wins a championship. There's no guarantee that real life will follow any narrative drive. And when it doesn't, it feels unsatisfying, but not in the same way that it feels unsatisfying when a movie/tv show/book doesn't achieve resolution. In those cases, the lack of resolution is a deliberate choice from the part of the author, thus feeling like entitlement withdrawn. In real life, it feels true. It resonates with the thousand petty disappointments that all of us feel over the course of a lifetime.

So, when it does happen...when Davidson beats Georgtown, when Roy Williams wins the Big One (and then Kansas wins the Big One after vanquishing Roy Williams), when Memphis is tragically, Shakespearian-ly done in by missed free throws after Calipari's blithe assertion that they'll make 'em when they count, when, unbelievably, the smarmy Belichick and his Death Star Patriots fall just short of the ultimate prize (with their matinee idol QB spending a good portion of the game on his back in the grass), the pleasure is doubled, trebled, even exponentially increased because there really is no guarantee. If a satisfying ending is exquisite pleasure in the realm of fictional narrative, it is on another level when comes from real life, which so often gives no quarter and unspools with such little rhyme or reason.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Monday Music Post - The Maligned 2nd Album

The second album is a tricky thing, especially when the first is successful. The playing field tilts from the impact of expectations, which are in most cases absent for any band's debut (although there are clear exceptions to this - see Velvet Revolver). Any band's successful debut is followed by a crushing cycle of touring/adulation/backlash, and after the tornado survives the band is invariably in the position of waking up, looking around, and wondering: where the hell is my house, and why are there pieces of half of the neighborhood in my former front lawn? A debut album carries all of the pent-up energy and craft of the long series of songwriting sessions, rehearsals, bonding, arguments, etc. over the long lifespan of the band from first gathering to album unleashing. The second album is often written hastily, often on tour - ye gods how I dread to read an interview with the chief songwriter of a band with one album down talking about how they've gotten a lot of really good songs written on "the road" - and often is either directly or indirectly narcissistic: informed more by the tornado of fame than by the truths of the everyday that great music contains.

This is a well-worn narrative, and a cliche. Because so many 2nd albums follow this pattern, it's automatic to assume that all 2nd albums will follow it until the end of time. To name some albums that fall into this category: The Strokes - Room on Fire, The Breeders - Last Splash (yes, Cannonball is one of the best songs of the last 20 years; the album is not that great), Bush - Razorblade Suitcase, No Doubt - Return to Saturn, Nas - It Was Written, Guns N Roses - Use Your Illusion (10 great songs, 10 tons of filler), Kanye West - Graduation, other suggestions welcome.

Often, though, the 2nd album is where the band's vision comes through to fruition, and makes the first album look like a blueprint in retrospect, while the follow-up seems like the completed building. For a set of these albums, see: Nirvana, Nevermind vs. Bleach, Pixies Surfer Rosa vs. Doolittle, Whiskeytown, Stranger's Almanac vs. Faithless St., Wilco, Being There vs. AM. This path has just as venerable a tradition (if not more so), but because of the quick-response critical culture that has arisen with the Internet there isn't really room in the critical mass to take this wait-and-see approach. Overall critical momentum in an instant-response climate excels at hyping up a new band, but is not as great at sticking with a band's development. The known quantity is always less sexy, less interesting than the potential of the great unknown.

This does a critical disservice to those bands that get it right the second time around; like the first-time novelist, they've already gotten their shot to impress. Case in point: the Darkness. Catsuit wearing lead singer, ridiculously awesome video for "I Believe in a Thing Called Love" (seriously - they fight a killer octopus with laser guitars. Music videos reach no higher pinnacle), and a set of songs that mash castrato Queen-style vocals to Van Halen-channeling guitar rock songs. In concept: genius, and no wonder that they were hyped to the stars.

Still and all, with the exception of "I Believe in a Thing Called Love," the first Darkness album is all sound, no song. It's as if once they decided on the stylistic outlines of the band, they filled the songs in by numbers. So you get an opener like "Black Shuck", a ragin' rockin' song about a killer dog that, technically speaking, "rocks", but doesn't really have a memorable vocal melody or hummable guitar riff, and boils down to more of an overall sound than a song. It's got all of the jackhammer energy of the '80s glam rock they clearly idealize, but that's about it. Energy will only take you so far; at a certain point you need a damn hook.

The chief error, to my ear, of the Darkness's debut is that they attempted to land by the wrong guiding lights. The sonic fury of "Permission to Land" has the clinical, mechanical drive of early Van Halen - rock 'n' roll with the blues surgically removed and replaced by a kind of punk-driven abrasiveness. It's easy to hear what the band is going for, it's just as easy to hear that they don't get there, and it has to do with the frontman discrepancy. Early Van Halen works because Eddie's terrifying, mechanical guitar perfection wrestles with Roth's carnival barker vocals. DLR can't really "sing" all that well, but his flesh-and-blood carnival barker energetic imperfection meshes perfectly with Eddie's bloodless guitar mastery.

Justin Hawkins, of the Darkness's ear-slicing falsetto, has a vocal instrument that's a lot closer to Eddie's guitar in tone and temperament, so wedding it to driving punk/metal tracks just robs the album of an entrance point - listening to it is like trying to climb up a glass wall. Sometimes polished rock perfection works to, well, perfection (Def Leppard: exhibits A-Z), but in this case it results in an album that brings to mind a dentists drill.

Still and all, a successful album, a hit, and all that. So when they released "One Way Ticket to Hell and Back" there wasn't a whole lot of critical evaluation of the Darkness's musical evolution.

Listen to any of the tracks off of "One Way Ticket" though, and it's clear that with one simple philosophical frame shift, the Darkness have exponentially improved their music. Namely, they started imitating Queen. The punk abrasiveness and dentists-drill texture is all gone: what takes its place is the air quote laden glam rock whose closest kin is a song like "Fat Bottomed Girls". The harmonies are emphasized, the guitar tones are softened, and the solos are constructed out of more melodic patterns instead of amp-to-11 blooze-runs. And did I mention the harmonies? They're awesome, and Justin Hawkins has the soprano to stand toe-to-toe with Freddie M. Queen is a better fit, too, because Hawkins has a songwriting sensibility that's closer to Freddie's camp showmanship than it is to Diamond Dave's blunt carnival barker's.

Just as Freddie singing "Fat Bottomed Girls" as the most ineffectively closeted man in a band called Queen could possibly be is an act of irony, so too is the Darkness writing a sweet song about a girlfriend's new hairstyle and calling it "Knockers". Both songs dutifully hit the required caveman-stomp notes of glam rock while pointing out the reductiveness of such attitudes though the irreconcilable contrasts of context (Freddie's homosexuality, "Knockers"'s fundamental sweetness) with content (the misogyny/objectification in the lyrics/titles of each song). Both songs, meanwhile, pull off these contrasts within the 3-minute microcosm of melodic glam rock stompers whose chief musical foundation is a catchy vocal melody. And not incidentally, both songs feature incredible and incredibly cheesy harmonies in the chorus. Seriously, the vocal harmonies have to be heard to be believed.

The reward of this strategy are all over "One Way Ticket to Hell and Back", and it's a stronger and more interesting album for it. So, if you wrote the Darkness off after Permission to Land, give the 2nd album a go. It's a different beast entirely, disguised with the same skin. Also, for all the critical assumptions that the Darkness didn't "mean it", just look at what ultimately destroyed the band. Justin Hawkins's cocaine addiction, which is addressed as honestly and unapologetically as it comes on "One Way Ticket's" opening track. The Darkness meant it, all right. It's just that when you "meant it" the way that Queen "meant it", some people are going to miss the message.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Wednesday Narrative Post - Disappointments of the Dark Tower

Spoiler Warning: If you haven't read the Dark Tower series and plan to, don't read any of this. A lot of discussion of plot points throughout the first five books below.

I returned my copy of “Song of Susannah” (the 6th book in Stephen King's Dark Tower series) to the library today without even opening it. I felt a little disappointed, both in myself because I don't like to leave books or series of books unfinished, and in Stephen King, because I've felt for 2 books now that the series has been descending in quality like a leaky hot air balloon. This is frustrating, because book 2 of the series (The Drawing of the 3), was so incredibly compelling,
with book 3 matching it and raising the stakes.

I was afraid of this slow decline in quality before I even started the series, though, because of King's stated reluctance to outline his books. It's not a new observation, but this aspect of King's narrative craft tends to lead to 2 things - great setups/plot developments, and terrible, terrible endings. I respect King's belief that the spontaneous nature of writing without the net of an outline leads a narrative down exciting, interesting, paths, but if those paths just dead-end then I think it can have a detrimental effect on the work as a whole. When this work is something like "IT", and the collapsing ending takes the form of the nameless terror appearing as a giant spider and then some sort of cosmic lightbulb (not really that scary), it's kind of a bummer but doesn't completely ruin the suspense and terror of the earlier parts of the book (the haunted house, the evil bird, etc.). What's left on balance is 800 great pages of setup and development, and 200 pages to get through the whole Evil Lightbulb in the Cosmos part.

But this lack of an outline really bites King in the ass over the course of a 7 volume fantasy series. The best long-form works of fantasy are works of nigh-obsessive attention to detail, from the totemic Lord of the Rings on down. And while I don't think it's necessary to create an entire freaking language to play in the long-form fantasy sandbox, I do think that when you're dealing in a multi-volume epic there has to be some sort of long term plan. Otherwise, instead of looking at 800 pages of setup and 200 fizzle, you're looking at 4-5 solid books followed by an epic 2 book long bellyflop into a pool of cement.

The problem is even more exacerbated by the epic length of the Dark Tower. The flaws start to pile up around the halfway point, in book 4, when King steers off of the main plot to give us an extended flashback Roland's youth.

After the high-suspense jolt of the lobstrosity threat that shapes Book 2's narrative drive and the hell-in-a-handbasket ride through the diseased city of Lud in Book 3 (which similarly serves as the suspenseful fulcrum of The Wastelands), King presents a long, unwinding tale of Roland's past that is too bloated by half. Alain and Cuthbert remain shapeless archetypes, even while Roland's character is deepened through his experiences with Susan. The villains are cardboard cutouts; mean and stupid men with tattoos of coffins, a far cry from the seductive and insane Blaine, the mad beating heart of the dystopian city of Lud. Against such colorless villains and allies, the slow pace and texture of the story brings the momentum of the overall series to a halt. It's one of King's patented left turns off the main road, and though as a standalone volume it has plenty to offer, it's location in the middle of the 7-volume epic is really the point at which King's tendency to build and build and build some more when he should start the process of wrapping up starts to rear its ugly head.

Book five doesn't recover the momentum, seeing as how its narrative arc is that of a hybrid Western/mystery and the solution is incredibly dull (the Wolves are mechanical, just like Shardik the bear! OMG!). This leaves the Western, which is servicable, but not particularly interesting, especially since the Calla is another outpost-style town that resembles nothing so much as the setting of the Wizard and Glass. After going to such efforts to flesh out his post-apocalyptic Mid-World, King pulls back drastically to portray 2 books worth of the small town blues. Meanwhile, the details of Mid-World itself, instead of beginning to resolve into a greater narrative, start to just pile up into an unwieldy mess. The structure of the Beams, the cosmos existing inside a rose in Midtown Manhattan, the suggestions of a Chief Malevolent Baddie by the name of the Crimson King: all of these details rob King's imagined universe of its internal consistency as a believable place that works according to its own rules and logic. It starts to come to resemble a cosmic stew of the supernatural.

By the time that a Stephen King book shows up at the end of Book 5, I knew I was done. Sure, sure the 4th wall and all of that, but fantasy breaks enough rules as it is that it paradoxically requires a greater internal consistency and logic in its imagined worlds. The metatextual touch of Father Callahan reading about himself in 'Salem's Lot didnt' give me chill bumps. It made me angry, as it seems the ultimate example of King writing himself into a corner.

As the internal logic of King's Mid-World breaks down, the flaws of his writing start to grate more. Eddie Dean, always speaking as the hepcat cool guy, delivering the wiseass SK lines. No major characters dead. No new major characters added. Sure, they're a traveling band, but the reduction of our cast of heroes to basically the same crew from book 2 onward flattens and constricts the imaginary universe. The narrative flaws begin to illuminate the flaws in charaterization, and the whole series goes south fast.

Compare this to the exquisitely plotted His Dark Materials, for example, where upon the conclusion every action, bit of dialogue, and description, seems to expand the universe and drive the overall plot forward, or to something like Gaiman's Sandman's, in which every digression is spun off of one of the central themes, and the Dark Tower shrinks as an achievement. The fight against the Wolves of the Calla is a b-grade mystery/western that doesn't speak to King's themes of a world moving on. The "Ramadan" chapter of the Sandman, in addition to being gorgeously written and illustrated, is a direct exploration of one of the central meaning's of the word "dream", namely the cost and pain that lies in the space between desire/aspiration and reality. The caliph would rather his kingdom endure in a dream than exist in reality only to be lost to memory, and thus sacrifices the prosperity of the now for the "Arabian Nights" romance of a dreamed Baghdad. This story slots neatly and naturally into the overall arc of the King of Dreams, almost as if Gaiman had (gasp!) outlined it be thus.

King, writing out on a limb, has no such option, and thus I find myself abandoning ship before it sinks even further. I have no faith that things are now on their way to resolving; instead, I fear the Deadlights ahead again.