Tuesday, September 30, 2008

9/30/08 - My Morning Jacket and the DNA of Lynyrd Skynyrd

I saw My Morning Jacket at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley; after said experience I will recommend it to anyone. They put on a titanically powerful show, dropping all of the reverb from their recorded output and pushing the rock throttle into the red. Of note and impressive was the facility MMJ displayed in moving from longer, moodier, almost Pink Floyd-ish songs to bashing rockers steeped in a hefty amount of Replacements-isms. Floyd, actually, is what I kept coming back to as a touch point, especially when the light show started playing through the Bay Area fog in earnest as Jim James unleashed his howling tenor. Usually, I'm a lyrics person, but I have to admit that with the exception of "Golden" and "Mahgeetah", I usually don't have the faintest idea as to what James is singing -partially because of the reverb-soak, but partially because he deploys his voice instrumentally- all high lonesome vowels with very little enunciation.

There was also a whole lot of righteous guitar soloing, which I support without reservation. As I've written before, the guitar solo seems to be a lost art these days, but MMJ pulled out some serious guitar duels throughout the night. Unlike the kind of white noise production that passes for instrumental passages for many rock bands these days, these solos were clear and piercing, and mostly melodic and forward moving.

Which got me thinking about Lynryd Skynyrd, since the guitar stomps tended to sound Skynred-esque, instead of Floyd-esque; they were swampy instead of spacey. I realized, though, that, much as Floyd has, Skynyrd has become a very specific aural touch point for bands in way that speaks to true cultural penetration. Not only are the sonic qualities of Skynyrd and Floyd instantly identifiable in the manner of most unique and potent bands, but they stand on for an entire aesthetic conception of music, a rarified height for a band to achieve. Even the most influential and respected bands do not always stand in as the ur-band of their genre; and even when a band is "first" to break through in that musical style they are not always blessed with ur-band status.

Skynyrd, though, stands as synonymous of Southern Rock to the point that in the hackneyed hypothetical of "If Aliens Landed And Asked What [Subject] Is..." you would hand said alien a copy of Gold and Platinum: Lynyrd Skynyrd's Greatest Hits and call it a day. If the alien was still confused you'd probably suplement it with an Allman Brothers album, but the Allmans are a little on the jammy side, a little jazzy, a little highbrow, a variation on the ur-text. Skynyrd is the pure strain, the Platonic ideal of Southern Rock.

It's always impressive, then, when another band doesn't just display influences from a band like that (because, really, the whole point of being the Platonic ideal is that everyone genre-wide is influenced by your sound) but rather starts to seem like a complementary piece of the fundamental picture. There were points during the show when MMJ would launch into a set of dueling solos where it felt like watching the next step of Southern Rock; that they had not merely taken Skynyrd as an influence but had fully integrated the sound and philosophy and were serving as modern emissaries of it.

This I know runs counter to MMJ's stated goals of innovation and boredom with traditional rock structures, and as Evil Urges gives way to the next genre experiment I have no doubt that MMJ will follow the Wilco path of expanding into fresh territories only to encounter diminishing returns (I hold that Being There was Wilco's masterpiece, not Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, because it marked a true experimentation with roots rock orthodoxy instead of leaving it behind almost completely). This evolution has not reached their live show yet, though - if you've ever listened to "Sweet Home Alabama" and had it go straight to the heart despite the ossification of classic rock radio, you owe it to the 'Merican South to see this band before it's too late.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

9/20/08 - RIP DFW

"I heard the news today oh boy..."
-A Day In The Life

When I found out that David Foster Wallace had killed himself, suicide by hanging, I was quite unprepared for how deeply it would affect me. He's not a writer I Grew Up With, by any stretch. In general, in terms of aesthetics, post-modernism is not something that interests or engages me. I like a good story, well-told, and formal oddities in the realm of the novel/short story leave me a little cold. I tend to respond to the workmanlike craftsmanship of a Stephen King over the pyrotechnics of a Borges or Barth, which doesn't mean that I don't appreciate the advances in the field, it's just that it makes it seem that Wallace would not naturally be an author that I engaged with.

I've never read Infinite Jest, never read any of his short fiction, so to me Wallace is not even a fiction writer. And in much of the praise for his work and his person it his achievements as a fiction writer that get a lot of play, that designate him as a VIP worthy of the magazine obituary. What has not gotten a great deal of emphasis is the fact that David Foster Wallace was the best American essayist and non-fiction writer since James Baldwin.

Storytelling, I would gather, was not necessarily Wallace's project, but when he latched onto a story in real life, or an idea rooted in reality, and then applied his formidable talent to it, he created entire worlds that lived inside one mundane experience. Whether it was watching Roger Federer play tennis, taking a luxury cruise, going to the state fair, or reflecting on the vapidity of athletic memoirs, Wallace was able to penetrate the subject and its attendant weirdnesses, twists, and turns to a degree that calls to mind the virtuosity of Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg variations. Which is not to say that Wallace fell into the perils of shtick - surely, the Wallace-goes-to-Middle-America pitch for an essay could have extended ad infinitum (imagine Wallace writing on Disneyland - the piece practically writes itself), but he wrote primarily on what was interesting to him, which was just about everything. So along with those masterful pieces were achingly hair-splitting essays on English usage, on Kafka, a book about the concept of infinity, etc. etc. etc. Forget the novels - Wallace's non-fiction was and is so penetrating, hilarious, and insightful that he deserves a place on the shelf and a section in every journalism course for that part of his career alone. I wish that he wrote essays about everything that I've ever done - literally, that's not an exaggeration - and treasure the experiences and ideas that he did deign to document.


Follow that link, read that essay, and marvel in the presence of a genuinely capital G capital W Great Writer. A short excerpt, just a brief slice: Wallace summarizing an evening of enforced fun aboard the luxury cruise ship the Zenith (which he has dubbed the Nadir, unable to resist deploying his formidable intellect for sub-adolescent name-calling):

"10:00 AM: Three simultaneous venues of Managed Fun, all aft on Deck 9: Darts Tournament, take aim and hit the bull's eye! Shufflboard Shuffle, join your fellow guests for a morning game. Ping-Pong Tournament, meet the Cruise Staff at the tables, Prizes to the Winners! Organized shuffleboard has always filled me with dread. Everything about it suggests infirm senescence and death: it's a game played on the skin of a void, and the rasp of the sliding puck is the sound of that skin getting abraded away bit by bit. I also have a morbid but wholly justified fear of darts stemming from a childhood trauma too hair-raising to discuss here. I play Ping-Pong for an hour."

Here is an authentic, masterful authorial voice. He mixes in genuine penetrating insight (the way that shuffleboard reminds one of death) with genuinely funny self-deprecating humor (the jellyfish incident) and the kind of perfectly chosen detail (choosing to play Ping Pong) that give you, in one short paragraph, what seems to be a full understanding of "David Foster Wallace": brilliant mind, thoughtful human being with a scalpel-sharp sense of humor, a little neurotic but not off-puttingly so.

That the "real" Dave Wallace struggled with, and eventually succumbed to severe and deep depression, only makes the achievement of his authorial voice all the more impressive - the gulf between Wallace as he wrote and Wallace as he lived required hard work and talent to bridge. "Shipping Out" is an essay laced with despair, sure, but that despair is played off against an everpresent desire for authenticity and connection that ultimately we all share. Postmodernism gets a lot of shit for not dealing with human feeling/emotion/connection; ironic, then, that its poster child was a fierce and tenacious champion of such things.


Monday, September 15, 2008

9/15/08 - Randy Newman Would Prefer You Get Off His Lawn

Of all the '70s rock dinosaurs, singer-songwriters, disco divas, and punk agitators, only Randy Newman now seems, in retrospect, that he had a plan all along on how to stay incisive, relevant, and consistently excellent: he decided that he was going to be old starting in his 20s, with his very first album, with his very first song.

Interviews with Newman, from his own website.

"Love Story (You And Me)", the song in question, traces the arc of a relationship, from the first verse detailing the courtship, the second verse describing adult life, and then the black-veined final verse:

"When our kids are grown/With kids of their own/They'll send us away/To a little home in Florida/We'll play checkers all day/Until we pass away"

Sure, Newman suggests in the song, there are songs to mine out of the experience of falling in love, but unlike so much of popular music's treatment the subject, from early Beach Boys to Usher, Newman follows it all the way to the (possibly bitter) end. Not just interested in the fireworks of infatuation, the push and pull of attraction, repulsion, and coming together, Newman drives ahead to the end, equally engaged with what happens at the end of a relationship, at the end of the life, and how the knowledge of that greater endpoint makes the initial feeling so much more special and poignant.

Newman's one-eye-on-the-endgame attitude has long made him an odd fit among whoever happens to be his contemporaries at the moment. My favorite photo of Randy is the recent one in Rolling Stone, showing him in the 70s with Lou Reed, Tom Petty, and Bruce Springsteen. The other three all wear the cloak of easy cool that comes from being rock royalty - the slouch and sneer of early Presley all shimmering around them. All three are smoking, all three wear T-shirts or V-necks untucked; loose rock star glamour.

Newman stands apart, his button-down shirt tucked in, his hands in the pockets of his khakis, his glasses and haircut making him look more like an offbeat teacher than a rock star. Who knows how much of this image is deliberately cultivated on his part, but still it's a bright bold line that he has drawn in his music over most of his career.

A lot of rock lyrics are written in the first person by the author's rock persona at the very least - presumably we are to assume that the Bruce of "Thunder Road" bears more than a passing resemblence to Bruce Springsteen himself. After all, rock 'n' roll is primal, and often gives a lot of play to expressions of the id. Randy Newman, by contrast, in interested in using songs as a medium to explore the psychology of character, often a kind of "Randy Newman" that is materialistic, shallow, and boorish, but often also characters that have very little to do with Newman himself. Thus, the huckster slave ship owner of "Sail Away", an angry God in "God's Song", a rich decaying New Orleans playboy in "Shame", and many others.

What is often shared in Newman's characters is a blithe ignorance of the kind of endgame awareness in something like "Love Story". The fallible fictional creations of Newman are often so concerned with their own localized pleasures and challenges that they have no sight of the length and arc of a life, and of how many of the shallow trappings they care so much about matter so little in the end, when having your kids put you in nursing home and you play checkers until you die actually counts as one of the happiest endings of all.

The fact that Newman is very aware of this, I think, is what accounts for the consistently high quality of his original albums. 1999's Bad Love has just as many great songs as Sail Away from the '70s. Many artists have recorded "return to form" albums, especially Newman's contemporaries in that photo, but if critics are honest there's no way the most of the rock stars of today can live up to their work when they first burst onto the scene. Newman is an exception, the man with the plan. If his vision strikes some as overly dark, it's possibly just because he's able to see a little farther into the tunnel at the end than most.