Tuesday, June 30, 2009

6/30/09 - Michael Jackson RIP - a double helix of genius and strangeness

It's a question that comes up again and again when it comes to any art form: how does one reconcile phenomenal work with disreputable living? The death of Michael Jackson has produced a lot of commentary about the man, his music, and his life, which opens up a whole Pandora's box of queasiness.

MJ is one of the more extreme cases; he's got one of the widest divides between artistic accomplisment/reception and personal freakiness in recent memory. As high as the artistic peaks are; equally taboo-violating and strange are the personal freakiness episodes. And unlike some artists whose work seems to resonate with their own negative personal tendencies, Jackson's life and the way that it produced sadness and revulsion in the observer was directly opposed to the aims of his work, which aimed for univeral pop inclusiveness (not in any sort of altruistic sense - the man wanted to sell his music to the maximum amount of people, he was a pop artist in every sense of the term). So while it's easy to square, say, Hank Williams the man as a nasty alcoholic with the content of his songs (all that cheating, drinking, and sadness), it's a lot harder to square the ecstatic dance floor rushes and sparkling love ballads aimed at max pop penetration with a man whose life seemed to involve a whole lot of family abuse, possible child molestation, self-mutilation, and racial angst. If I were to guess at what Jackson's music sounded like based solely on the biographical details of his life, I'd guess something on the order of early, urgent Nine Inch Nails, or Nick Cave - machine-tooled and rage-filled, or dark and Gothic.

Jackson's life is a full-on tragedy - one of the cases of a celebrity whose life no sane person would wish upon him/herself, and by virtue of how many taboos he violated, it's no wonder that the urge is to remember him up until about Thriller, when he still seemed to be in full command of his vast array of gifts. For giving so many people so much pleasure, he sure seemed to have a sad and lonely life; which has always made listening to his music feel a little vampiric to me. It's not on the same level of a Fleetwood Mac, where one can dip into the drama-laden Rumors and know that everything eventually worked itself out from the long cocaine/infidelity bender. Jackson never recovered his equilibrium, and really, it seemd like he never quite had it to begin with. The artist that he reminds me of in this sense is Phil Spector; a murderer responsible for some of the most gorgeous music of the '60s. The accomplishments don't pale, exactly, when the life is factored in, but the coloration and connotations of every note and lyric change in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. "Human Nature"? I mean, what the hell did that even mean to Jackson?

Still, though, the artistic peaks are towering. "Billie Jean" may be the best song of the '80s. "PYT" is the hands-down best song of most singer's careers, and it's not even the best song on Jackson's top-selling album. Just a list of the radio hits is staggering. There's a reason the man was a superduperstar - he was exceptional talented as a singer, songwriter, dancer, and businessman in the music industry. Michael Jackson was no f'in joke, until, by the end, he had become one.

Some takes on Jackson's death that I found interesting:


A great write-up of the child molestation trial:


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

6/23/09 - Infinite Jest, pages 1-80

All right, so what makes a better summer beach book than David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest? Nothing! You can learn new words while you listen to the surf crash on the shore, and if anyone attempts to take your shiny new beach chairs you can beat them off with a book that weighs about as much as a small dog. That's right, this is one intimidating mutha of a book; and, truth be told, I'm thankful that Wallace was able to crank out his magnum opus before his disease got the better of him - he's too good a writer to have not attempted a batshit crazy epic, so God bless him for getting this thing written. It's a doorstop, but it ensures that all readers of Wallace have a north star to guide them by, and it's this attempt of Wallace's to write the epic of modern living, or so it would appear from the reviews, hype, and snippets gleaned from various Wallace interviews.

So, then, how did I come to this book? Like many, primarily through Wallace's non-fiction, which as I've written about previously is simply stunning in its brilliance. Moored to everyday reality, with the events of real life (somewhat) providing a natural grounding force for a towering, towering intellect, Wallace just owns the essay form. The best essayist I've read since James Baldwin, and that means not a lot since I don't read many essayists, but his short-form journalism is simply amazing. Plus, it's accessible. I've only read Oblivion, of his fiction, and while also brilliant, it's a harder read, because Wallace can really get bleak in his fiction in way that he rarely does in his non-fiction. His non-fiction voice quizzical, ironic, questioning. His fictional narratives in Oblivion plunge full-bore into depression, anxiety, confusion, and despair, with a lot less of the humor that characterizes his non-fiction. Granted, he was struggling with some pretty heavy stuff by the time that story collection came out, but it still gave me pause at opening up Infinite Jest.

Well, imagine my surprise then to find that Wallace the raconteur is in full effect in Infinite Jest. He doesn't write comic setpieces in the Confederacy of Dunces sense, but already in the first 80 pages of the book he sets up very vivid scenes of anxiety that are shot through with the kind of ironic good humor that he uses so effectively in his non-fiction. Thus, the scene of Erdedy waiting for a delivery of marijuana is a humor and dread tour de force as Wallace burrows deep in the man's mind, tracing his every attempt at reformation, which always involves throwing out all of his bongs, weed, and smoking paraphenalia, only to have to buy it all again when he is fiending anew.

What's also stands out is Wallace's Jules Verne-like take on entertainment in the future. Published in 1996, which if I remember right is about the time of AOL demo discs spreading the gospel of pay-by-the-hour dialup throughout the land, it's incredible the way that Wallace's imagined Teleputer anticipates the whole laptop/iPhone/Hulu/streaming video axis of constantly available entertainment. Roku came out this year, and Wallace is writing with his usual easy facility about purchasing entertainment online and watching it instantaneously. It makes the whole near future in which Infinite Jest is set seem both more contemporary and more prescient.

The novel also has genuine narrative drive, which is more than I expected from both the stories in Oblivion (which are structured like more-or-less detailed sketches - few of them really hit any sort of climax or rising/falling action) and the usual critical writeups of the book. But Hal Incandenza, Don Gately, the nameless marijuana addict, and a whole host of other supporting characters are all well-drawn - the footnotes are a lot less intrusive than they are in, say "Host" (the essay about talk radio in which the footnotes were visually designated and quite distracting), and all told, reading the book is a lot more straightforward than I expected, even with the requisite alternate future and chronological shifting.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

6/18/09 - The Cars, Band Out Of Time

The Cars exist, still, decades later, as a band out of time. Their sound is definitely '80s, but in a sui generis way, such that to hear a Cars song on the radio is not to feel that it could only have been a hit in 1982, but that it could have been a hit today with the sound of '82. One wouldn't necessarily react that way to, say, "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun", which has much more of a time capsule feel.

The Cars, though, have a sonic influence that has proven remarkably widespread. Despite criticism of the time that tried to fix the band into the New Wave movement (where they undoubtably belonged), the Cars sound has wormed it way into some unexpected places. From the Rolling Stone review of Candy-O, the second album:

I don't dislike Candy-O—after all, it sounds better than practically anything else on the radio—and I still like the Cars. They're a good band. Their virtue is they're never anything less than that. Their limitation is they've yet to prove they're anything more."

This fixes them purely into the times while missing the Cars true legacy - a sound that has made them one of the few bands serve as a sonic touchstone whenever any band straddles that classicism/futurism divide by busting out the synths. Potter Stewart-style, any pop music listener can instantly identify the "Cars" sound - there's only a handful of ingredients, after all. Mid-tempo; crucial because you don't want to shade into punk on the fast end or sludge on the slow end, brightly wheedling synth sounds; needed for the the bright melodicism combined with the sleazy undercurrent of a suggestion that All Is Not Right Here; and hooks redolent of '50s proto-rock and British Invasion rock of the '60s.

Bands have taken and stretched these sounds to fit their own ends, but in doing so the Cars sonic legacy never fails to shine through. Take a song like 12:51, by the Strokes. It's not just that the synth-sounding guitar is a nod to the Cars the points up their bizarre and particular influence, it's the way that that instrumentation combined with the hook-laden vocals make the song sound not like a Cars-influenced Strokes song, but like a long-lost Cars song wearing some kind of surface Strokes mask. The sound endures eternal.

The destabilizing sonic element of the Cars, the synths on top of power chords, account for why they're such an influence on a lot of the noisy '90s bands, the ones that were all supposedly about bringing rock and roll back from the cheesy neon lights of the '80s. So you get Poison rejected, but the Cars embraced, as in the Smashing Pumpkins, of all bands, covering "You're All I've Got Tonight". There's even a Nirvana cover of "My Best Friend's Girl" floating around out there, and why not? Trojan horse pop destabilization was Cobain's game. Just as Kafka's name as adjective lives on more vividly even than his most trenchant stories, the most resonant aspect of the Cars might well be their blueprints, not their buildings.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

6/16/09 - Kobe Kobe Kobe (sigh)

So, the LA Lakers get another title, Kobe gets another title, the Magic go home empty-handed, and Turkey Glue, D12, and the rest of the Magic get a summer to console themselves with the soothing purchasing of Lamborghinis and the launching of vanity rap careers and watching Transformers 2 and whatever else a millionaire NBA star does to console himself in an offseason not washed in the glow of a championship. I'm pretty sure they'll be just fine.

But from the sports narrative perspective, I'm disappointed that Kobe got another title, because of the way that it validates this whole athlete-as-steely-warrior meme that holds that to have a killer instinct a pro (or amateur) athlete has to be kind of a jerk. Or a lot of a jerk, depending. The goofballs (Dwight Howard), the dry wits (Steve Nash), the happy-go-lucky spotlight-eschewing beach-loving space cases (Lamar Odom) don't get much slack in the perceived mental toughness department, maybe because of the way that athletic competition serves as proxy war, and war tends to the serious. Although this breaks down as a straight 1:1 - what of the dark, cynical gallows humor? That takes place, if at all, definitively offscreen, away from the viewing audience. And, additionally, there is a viewing audience. It's entertainment, after all.

Nontheless, it's disappointing the way that the warrior/grinder is celebrated. Kobe is validated because winning is so important to him, when clearly what's most important to him is winning while being awesome, and as an occasional pickup basketball player (go-to move, the airball), there's no type of player I'd least rather play with.

Here's the subtitle for the article SI did on Dwight Howard toward the beginning of the playoffs:


"Great centers don't come any more easygoing than Orlando's Dwight Howard. But can he take the Magic to the Finals—and get one big, bad dude off his back—while keeping his smile intact?"

And the article proceeds to follow that, with the main thesis being that Dwight Howard, with his goofy nature, imitations of his coach, ADD photo shoot style, and all the rest, just isn't and serious and focused enough to win the NBA title. Which is infuriating. Because last I checked, basketball is a game. And sure, to make a living at it, and to play at the highest level, it's a lot of work, but it's still a game. There's still a lot of it based on fun, and on artistry, and on improvisation (within a defined context), so I don't get the binary that states that one must be a basketball Terminator in attitute to win it all. It's like the asinine dress code on ESPN, whereby grown men and women dress in power suits to talk about football. It would be a lot less disenguous, and a lot more reflective of the kernal of truth at the center of sports, if ESPN anchors would just sport sweatpants and the jersey of whoever their favorite player is. Because it comes off as dressing up something fundamentally non-serious as something important, when any spectator can see that despite the passions they inspire, sports have their foundation in play; ergo, playfulness should not be so shunned.

So, great, Kobe wins, the grinder wins, the warrior wins. Now can he please retire the bizarre underbite-as-intimidation facial expression. Because it makes me want to reach through the screen and tell the man to grow up, already.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

6/11/09 - Southeast Engine, a recommendation

I'm not usually the first on any below-the-radar bands, since my music discovery tends to follow the stampede of the written word, but I'm going to have to give a plug to Southeast Engine, I band that I came to by following a fairly convoluted route: In reading the Onion's AV club "Popless" project, I believe, the writer mentioned that Southeast Engine was a band that he was getting into after his vacuum chamber away from music.

Curious, I found my way to their website, where they've got a generous slice of songs on display (link below)


I was (and remain) impressed, which is partially because I think the band is way tighter and polished than their level of exposure. Back when I was first getting into music seriously, I had a kind of rage against the machine mentality, when I thought that there was a whole universe of music outside of the mainstream push that just didn't get exposed for some reason. I was excited about going to shows and seeing the opener, and about all the random bands I'd never heard of. I quickly learned that most (MOST, not all), bands that aren't head of are obscure for a reason - rarely do I go see openers at concerts anymore, just because the vast majority of them are mediocre-to-poor. Still, I'm not ignorant to the fact that good music is bound to slip between the cracks, and I think that this band is a good example of that.

I'm not going to make any grand pronouncements about why - the band is playing straight-up Band-style Americana, but pulling that off without being insufferably boring and turgid is a tough trick. Now that Wilco decided they wanted to be the American Radiohead, instead of the 2000s version of the Band, the slot is open for a roots-rock band with ambition, that's not just obsessed with pedal-steel formalism, but rather in the way that the intersection of folk, country, and rock can speak uniquely to the open space and frontier mentality that's such a part of American culture, for better and worse.

For further reading up on the Popless project, proceed to: