Sunday, August 31, 2008

8/31/08 Playing the self

I never used to watch much TV, but with the advent of Netflix and TV on DVD I've been conducting a kind of one-show-at-a-time cream of the crop skimming, picking up only those shows that have been close to drowned in critical plaudits: Six Feet Under, the Sopranos, Firefly, the Office, the Wire.

One thing that this TV viewing has done is given me new appreciation for the difficulties successful TV actors face when making the move to film. This was something I never did understand when I was younger, when I didn't really watch TV, when magazines like Entertainment Weekly would publish breathless articles about "Can Jennifer Aniston escape Rachel?" Big deal, I thought. Plenty of movie stars just play variations on a theme - it's not like Tom Cruise really disappears into the skin of his characters, unless those characters are tightly wound yuppies in need of comeuppance/life lessons/just a little lovin'. Harrison Ford, Schwarzenegger - surely if movie actors can get away with the same persona, then TV stars wouldn't have such a hard time. Plus, if they could actually act then, well, theoretically the sky's the limit.

What I failed to account for, though, was the way that the longevity of a TV series lends deeper and deeper imprints of a character in a way that movies do not. It's a cliche at this point to label televsion novelistic (in its best forms), but what is true is that some of the unique strengths of book-length narrative are present in long-running TV series. It's interesting to me that Hollywood is always adapting novels to the screen, when really movies are the narrative equivalent of short stories - in fact, the list of great movies adapted from short stories is a longer one than you would think:

In The Bedroom

Brokeback Mountain
The Birds
Rear Window
The Shawshank Redemption
Of course, there are plenty of duds in the bunch, but what's notable about those movies, as with other movies adapted from short stories, is that they don't have that curious truncated sensation common to movies adapted from novels. Adapting a full-length novel to film is by necessity transforming one form of narrative to another - cuts are required, mandatory, characters are lost or assimilated, plot is compressed - obviously, because a novel that may span centuries with multiple protagonists (Everything is Illuminated, say), becomes a Cliffs Notes version of itself by necessity.

Television, though, can work with the same long build and payoff of novels, when it is operating on all cylinders. Characters can cycle to the forefront and leave, long time periods can be explored, in general there is just so much more time available that the narrative universe is much larger and expanded - longhand to shorthand of the movies. Because of this long build, and the deep imprinteur the fictional universe can leave, actors in television series become much more locked in as their characters. Harrison Ford is Indiana Jones, but only for a grand total of 6-8 hours of screentime. Contrast this with, say, Josh Holloway as Sawyer on Lost: at 4 seasons of 22 episodes a season, that's ~100 hours and counting. In the popular perception, it's much more difficult to wrench one's mind around the fact that Holloway is NOT Sawyer than it is to accept Ford as NOT Indy.

This makes it difficult to watch prodigiously gifted actors like Isiah Whitlock, Jr. of the Wire appear in bad TV commercials - a work that has a purity of artistic voice and vision should be able to fully own Sen. Clay Davis, not share him with Virgin Atlantic or whoever. If anything, Whitlock should get the cream of the crop - let him work his way out of the Clay Davis groove with something meaty, not at the level of the Mac Guy. Such are the vagaries of the life of the actor, but it seems cruel for TV actors to be punished merely by the medium in which they work.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

8/18/08 - On Radiohead

I saw Radiohead at the Outside Lands Festival in SF, and, much like the previous time that I saw Radiohead (on the Amnesiac tour at Madison Square Garden), was left with an inescapable conclustion - Radiohead in the last five years have established themselves as peerless large-scale rock performers.

This is, in some ways, exceedingly strange. Radiohead is very different from artists like The Killers, or Kid Rock, or other bands whose stock in trade is pump-the-fist-toward-the-sky anthems. The last time Radiohead put out an album of fist-pump anthems it was 1996 and they called it The Bends. In fact, you could even argue that The Bends, though exceedingly guitar centric, is almost an anti-anthem album, seing as how it's shot through with the alienation of a band attempting to reject the hell out the success of "Creep". Which really means that you have to go back to 1993 and Pablo Honey to find a Radiohead album that finds the album consciously reaching for the rafters. It's hard to remember now, especially since the band has lapped Pablo Honey artistically again and again, but go back and listen to a song like "Anyone Can Play Guitar" and it makes sense why critics kept citing U2 as such an influence on early Radiohead.

The major chord chorus in that song is the "Beautiful Day" move, basically - after the grungy noodling of the verse, Yorke & the gang deploy that chorus like a set of afterburners: Pablo Honey Radiohead was looking for 60,000 strong singalongs.

But then they got it with "Creep" and took a left turn that just kept on going. "Black Star" and "Street Spirit" on The Bends are fairly anthemic, but the rest of the songs on that album, while definitely guitar-based rock, are not really stadium anthems, and then with each successive album the music got steadily more moody and introverted. Yorke's vocals reached more towards drone, and the electronic textures that were such dynamic accents on OK Computer were brought more and more to the fore. By the time of In Rainbows, the lead single was a moody ballad couched no longer in acoustic guitars and Yorke's falsetto choruses, but in electronic synth textures and a kind of meandering mantra-like chorus.

Which doesn't mean that it's not good - on the contrary, late-period Radiohead turned out to be way more interesting than anyone predicted when Yorke was rocking a dyed blond ponytale playing the MTV Beach house in the mid-nineties. But what the recorded discography suggests is a band that increasingly skews internal and moody and away from external and anthemic. This would seem to logically suggest that as a live band, Radiohead should have gone from better at performing large shows to being much, much worse. The Smashing Pumpkins are an obvious corrollary here - who in their right mind would prefer to see the Pumpkins on the Adore tour as opposed to the one for Gish or Siamese Dream?

Fascinatingly, however, the move toward greater introversion in their recorded output was matched by the sculpting of a ferociously dynamic live performance aesthetic, so that listening to Radiohead in the headphones is almost a completely different musical experience from listening to them rock a crowd. Live, they let the guitars drive the songs, just as they did on Pablo Honey and The Bends, but Johnny Greenwood uses the electronic accents developed through the latter albums to drench the songs in an otherworldly haze of sonic effects that make them harder, stronger, and more compelling.

"I Might Be Wrong" live is a towering, walloping beast of a song, complete with audience clap-along and tambourine. Similarly, the introverted anthems of late-period Radiohead are turned inside out, and Yorke expertly brings intimate dynamics into play at large-scale shows. This, I theorize, is the secret of Radiohead's success as a live band - they expertly scale up the dyanism of their songs, such that the quiet desparation of "Exit Music (For a Film)" is exquisitely balanced by the guitar explosions of a "Paranoid Android". I only wish that they would bring to bear all of this firepower for the next album; it seems strangely miserly to keep it only in the ephemeral realm of live performance. Although quite possibly it just keeps it special.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

8/14/08 Michael Phelps, Alicia Sacramone

The twin faces of the Americans in these Olympics to me were newly elevated golden god (according to NBC) OMG MICHAEL PHELPS, and Alicia Sacramone, disgraced (yet silver-medal possessing) gymnast. As per the old "Wide World of Sports", the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat personified.

There is something of a twin symmetry to Phelps's achievements and Sacramone's disappointments - it became too easy, at a certain point, to marvel at Phelps's sheer aquatic dominance and conclude that we were watching some kind of half-dolphin, half-man at play in its natural habitat. It was difficult to conceptualize this striving, the difficulty, the punishing training and the ascetic-style devotion to one activity only for days, months, and years at a time. All that we (the television audience) saw was someone closing the gap from potential to kinetic energy, destiny made manifest.

Which is not to say that Phelps made it look easy, necessarily. No, that honor goes to Usain Bolt, who looked like he could have won the 100, broken a world record, and still had time to eat a ham sandwich before crossing the finish line - in terms of smoking the competition, Bolt's only competition was Guo Jingjing, the Chinese diver that seemed to operate on a similarly higher plane.

Still, though several of Phelps's golds were indeed contested, that only served to sprinkle a little drama on top of those eight, to give the narrative of his quest its requisite bend and snap. Eventually, everything fell into place, and now he's got neck bling for miles. A quintessentially American narrative, featuring as it did challenges, adversity, and ultimately the triumph of the Yanks and a happy ending (plus a mom that NBC is about ready to spin off into her own show).

Sacramone, on the other hand, experienced the kind of Olympics that makes you realize that what these people are doing is extremely, extremely difficult. There's nothing quite like seeing someone fall off of the balance beam to make you realize, as a viewer, that the thing is just as narrow and scary as you might remember from long-ago gym classes, and that the women and men flipping all over it are just as vulnerable and mortal as any other member of the species.

In addition, the increasing nervousness that played across her face and overall demeanor as she was delayed, delayed, and further delayed speak to the shaking hands, the sweating, the choking that bulk of us feel in athletic endeavors. The terrible calm and quieting of the basketball game at the free throw line, the lining up of the game winning kick, the beginning of a vault that literally endangers life and limb - mastering these require a forced ice water of the veins, the kind displayed by Jingjing and Sacramone's teammates - the kind of terrible calm that is the envy of all of those who have ever had nerves get the best of them. That Sacramone undeniably choked when the pressure was on makes her as undeniably human and American as Phelps's glorious races against his own presssures and expectations.

Repeatedly, the gymnastics announcers emphasized that this was a young woman's sport; the Chinese gymast's age a point of controversy because young people are more flexible but also have a surfeit of abandon with which to throw themselves around in such acrobatic and terrifying flight. Alicia, at 20, had far more of the terrors of self that plague all of us from time to time than the younger Liukin and Johnson. For the inspiring, look no further to the 33-year old German medalist that beat her out at the vault. For the flip poignant side, look at Sacramone losing a judged contest to someone that landed on her shins, falling off the balance beam, and claiming a silver medal with her teammates in the all-around that should by all rights be gold, ages of the Chinese gymnasts dependent.

Monday, August 11, 2008

8/11/08 - Why Did Everyone Go Insane With Echo?

Maybe this is an elementary question, easily answered by the most neophyte music historian, but nonetheless it never fails to completely baffle me - why did everyone go echo-heavy in the '80s?

The occasion of my wondering is reading about Paul Westerberg's new album, which always gets me to go back and listen the Replacements stuff that I have since it's all so legendary and all that, and, though I readily admit that the band put out some classic, classic, songs, it's a strange legacy for me to grapple with because of issues of sonic quality. Quality not bad vs. good in this sense, but rather in the sense of sonic qualities, like "a sonic quality of Lil' Jon's club hits is a reliance on repetitive siren-like hooks" (YEEEEAAAAHHHHH!).

When I dove into the most critically respected part of the discography (Let It Be and Tim), I found that the songwriting on Tim, especially, was a high-water mark whose praises seemed deserved (Let It Be I think gets overrated - more filler on that CD than the critical conscensus would lead one to believe). "Bastards of Young" and "Little Mascara", especially, are simply two of the best-written and tuneful rock songs that any post-Beatles four-piece have put together. To me, those two songs sound the most like the Replacements conjured up by their critical reputation - desperate, a little unhinged, but melodic and empathetic and gorgeously and passionately sung.

But good God. They practically drown under all the production goop. The echo and reverb is so overpowering that it sounds like the band is playing in some kind of rock-flattening underwater room. The drive and kick of the songs is clearly detectable underneath all of the slathered-on echodrums, but only because they are so exceptional. Hearing the power of the songs, in some ways, requires listening past the way that they were recorded. Mountains of echo are all good when you're talking about Def Leppard, but the ragged glory of the Replacements at their best needed production that highlighted immediacy and volume - something like the way that the Rolling Stones were produced - another outfit that balanced ragged and tight.

So clearly there was an epidemic - this band was so reactionary (musically) as to record one anti-MTV screed and follow it up with a video consisting of speakers in an unmoving room, so it's not like they were necessarily lockstep with the sonic times. Randy Newman's '80s album drown in echo and synthesizers as well, and the man spent the '70s working a masterful variation of piano trios and orchestral arrangements. Plus, the Replacements were a rock band - Newman is an arrangement whiz that's done full-on legit film scores- his choices were undeniably deliberate.

What's even more strange about the echo epidemic is that modern rock production dials it completely back. The '70s rock production style is what's being approximated by Newman (on his most recent 2 albums) and every single guitar rock band to release a debut album in the '90s and beyond. The Strokes stand as an exreme - they bathe Casablancas's voice in echo, but the instruments are as clean and clear as obvious sonic touchpoint Television. The scrim of technology that the echo production lowered over every '80s rock song was raised again, making an entire decade of rock music (give or take) a constant battle between its production style and its songwriting.

Because ultimately, the siege of echo contains the energy spilling out at the margins that mark the best rock songs. "Pour Some Sugar On Me" is a masterpiece, but it's a pop masterpiece - there's no real danger or edge to the song. Impeccably sung, machine-buffed, not a note out of place, the production style fits with the glam aesthetic. But "Bastards of Young" is an anthem of listless confusion, a howl (or mumble) into the abyss of young adulthood - it shouldn't have the same drum sound as Def Leppard. For the pop end of the spectrum, echo/processed sounds were just another ingredient. But they seriously degraded (and continue to degrade) some top-notch rock and roll songs.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

8/7/08 - Olympics...So compelled!...So bored!...So confused...

I kind of love the Olympics, although I don't find myself particularly compelled to watch much of them, because the truth is that the televised summer Olympics are for the most part boring as sport. As spectacle, they're almost unbeatable, but I like spectacle with sports when the sports themselves are highly telegenic. And gymnastics is pretty telegenic, but it's also a solo act committed by small girls who I want set free from the tiny prisons of their bodies/training regimens.

But so much of the Olympics, as sport and a series of images removed from context, are fantastically boring. I'm as caught up in Phelpshype as anyone, but I have to convince my brain that it's exciting to watch eight guys swim really fast in a straight line. There was a window of time when the only 2 Olympic sports on were softball and beach volleyball, and I found myself channel-surfing to the food network, where a New York chef was making lame lion jokes in the middle of South Africa. My significant other claimed that the only Summer Olympic sports are track, swimming, and gymnastics, and was absolutely incredulous that beach volleyball was a sport. After watching a point or two of the match, I was inclined to agree except for the fact that I found the swimming to be just as yawn-inducing. Women's softball? I find an MLB no-hitter to be boring enough.

And yet.

Divorcing the events from the context of what they mean is a deliberate missing of the point, like eating fried chicken without the skin. The delights of the Olympics are all in the way that untelevised, un-telegenic sports like synchronized diving and table tennis and all the rest of the bizarre galaxy is infused through context with a grand master narrative. It's almost beside the point what the events are - as long as it rolls around every 4 years, and involves country vs. country action, there is enough large-scale narrative momentum to sustain the most mundane and/or bizarre of competitive "events".

So swimming is boring to watch, yes. But somehow everyone who had watched the astonishing Lezak rally couldn't stop raving about it; plugged into the communal Olympic spirit that charged an admittedly nigh-superhuman feat with the thrills that Lezak was doing if for 'Merica, dammit. We may not be able to invade the right country, and the French may have been right about the way, but they won't be able to...outSWIM us! I was not immune - I watched the whole thing replayed and got goosebumps all over my arms when Lezak touched the wall and the rest of the Americans screamed.

I would not have been so excited if not for the grand narrative trappings, the gloriously overstuffed opening ceremonies, the drama about China's cloudy skies and human rights record, the knowledge that just these minutes, these seconds are all the only windows that these athletes have to be venerated like the secular gods of the NBA, NFL, NCAA, etc. LeBron can have a bad night in at the Palace, but he'll be back next Thursday astride TNT like a colossus. Alicia Sacramone has these...minutes...and, not the steady uptick and downturn of a public athletic life, but a legacy that rests on the head of a pin. Context is all, as it is in most things, and to conclude: USA. #1.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

8/5/08 - Trope Dissection - Whaa! Power pop never has hits! Whaa!

A popular trope in music criticism is referring to whatever power pop band the critic is referring to as having songs that "should be" or "would be" hits in some idealized alternate universe, while bemoaning the fact that melodic guitar pop songs just don't become massive hits anymore. I'm going to have to call BS on this assertion, and I think it's interesting to look at why it gets made so often about it and why it's so wrong. I was reminded of this when I heard "Hey Jealousy" the other day on the radio, and remembered how critics always cited the Gin Blossoms as one of the few bands to escape the power pop ghetto to have honest-to-God hit songs.

The cause for all this bemoaning is, I think, rooted in nostalgia - Pete Townshend apparently coined the term in 1967 to describe the early Who, and the bulk of the critics that I used to read were formed by the musical output and developments of the '60s and '70s. Nowadays, when music can be plucked from the air thanks to filesharing & iTunes, or sampled without cost on YouTube/muxtape/internet radio, there's much more cross-pollination and acceptance of genre, but until Napster broke everything wide open, I'd say that musical subgenre was still something that critics put a huge stake in. Since guitar pop was pretty much the name of the game until disco & punk broke, there's a vested interest in the part of critics whose musical tastes were formed in those decades to champion the form. It's the same way that I respond instantly to songs from the '90s grunge mode - music etches its deepest grooves in certain years.

So, nostalgia - critics feel that breezy guitar pop songs should be hits, because they used to be.

Secondly, the genre name is a misnomer. Power pop in its ideal is a fantastic idea - in its practical term, the bands that get the appellation are often practicing something much different from the platonic ideal. What Townshend was speaking to was the way that aggression and angst form such an aesthetically pleasing dialectic when paired with catchy hooks and shiny instrumental surfaces. What results is a kind of musical sucker punch - the sing-along melodies draw you in, but the naked aggression (of, in the case of something like "I Can't Explain" the drums and manipulativeness of the lyrical narrator) provides the cathartic, emotional release.

Most of what gets labeled power pop is anything but - it's just shiny, empty, major chord guitar pop without about as much staying power as the deep tracks on a T-Pain album. For the most part, what gets labeled as power pop is a whole lot of pop with very little power.

Let's take a touchstone - "I've Been Waiting" by Matthew Sweet. So, this is off of Girlfriend, which says "melds all of Sweet's influences into one majestic, wrenching sound". Well, that would be nice, but there's nothing majestic or wrenching here. The song is about as saccharine as a ten-gallon bag of equal. Sweet hits every note without a trace of emotion, and the 12 string guitars jangle prettily, but it's pretty much all sweetness and light. Catchy it is, but there's no really no "power" to bounce the pop off of. Ok, he wants the girl, he's waiting, he may not get her, but nothing really feels at stake.

Contrast with "Sick of Myself:

This one's got more distortion driving the main riff, and the singalong chorus is a pure expression of self-loathing; instantly, much more dramatic friction around the same subject. Any wonder that "Sick of Myself" was Sweet's biggest hit?

In looking at the "power pop" bands/songs that have broken out and become hits, this comes into focus - either the instrumental parts are actually, you know, powerful and aggressive, or else the lyrics contain enough sleaze/depression/anger/sadness/twistedness to play off of the shiny surface of the instrumental part.

A sample:
"My Sharona", the Knack - all about leering at younger women.
"Hey Jealousy", Gin Blossoms - a drunk screw-up returns to his hometown to ask his ex-lover if he can crash at her place and maybe drive around and get chased by the cops.
"Semi-Charmed Life" - Third Eye Blind - crystal meth addiction
"Buddy Holly," Weezer - So what I'm a geek - I dig you, baby!

etc. etc. etc.

I would also argue that a lot of songs are classified as something else but should be power pop. Sorry, Kurt, but "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is a classic case - sing-along song crammed full of hooks, with volume & lyrics about alienation to provide the friction. For some reason, power has come to mean 12 string jangly guitars in the critical vocab, when everyone knows power comes from power chords (duh, it's right there in the word itself!)

Other songs that actually fit the "power pop" literal definition, not the music criticism version:

"When I Come Around," Green Day.
"Mr. Brightside", the Killers
"All The Small Things", Blink-182
"Interstate Love Song", Stone Temple Pilots
"Last Nite", the Strokes
"Remember", the Raveonettes
"Stars" - Hum
"A Praise Chorus" - Jimmy Eat World
"I Got You (At the End of the Century) - Wilco.

Ah ha! All of the sudden it looks like we have a viable subgenre on our hands, doesn't it? So let's throw our Rickenbackers in the closet and play some rock and roll already.