January 2004 Archives
A night of very, very loud things. Lisa and I went to the NW Film Center's screening of "Screaming Men," a documentary about Mieskuoro Huutajat, the "men's shouting choir" from Finland--30 or 40 men in suits and rubber ties who scream the lyrics to national anthems, trade agreements, etc. in unison. They're a magnificent parody of masculinity--the group's director is a harsh disciplinarian for no particular reason (or pretends to be), they march in lockstep, they're dressed to slice, they scream so hard they're covered in sweat, but you can tell that most of them are basically just nervous geeky guys. The documentary plays the "look, they're making fun of fascism!" subtext up a little too far, but it was still sort of hysterical to see them in action.
From there, we headed over to the Meow Meow (a converted warehouse in a middle-of-nowhere industrial block that reminded Lisa a little of the meat-packing district in the West Village) to see Blöödhag at the Everyone Reads show. Turned out that the band had been stuck behind a 75-car pileup on I-5, but another band had volunteered to play and buy some time for them. They were called Ass (not to be confused with Brian Turner's mighty former band Äss), they were crusty hardcore kids from the Midwest, and, uh... "this song is also an antiwar song about how much the whole Iraq thing sucks!" "this song is called '21,' and it's about how it sucks not to be able to get into shows that aren't all ages!" "this song is about how the educational system totally locks you into prescribed traditional gender roles!" All pretty much followed by Cookie Monster vocals. I kept waiting for the song about how much Ronald Reagan sucks.
But Blöödhag did eventually show up to rock the house. For the uninitiated, they're a high-impact metal band from Seattle, all of whose songs are about and named after science fiction authors (they introduce each one with a brief lesson about his or her life and accomplishments before going into the shred/Cookie Monster bit). Their slogan is "The Sooner You Go Deaf, the More Time You'll Have to Read"; their hefty singer throws SF paperbacks into the audience as they perform, or rather wipes his brow, armpits, etc. with inner pages of SF paperbacks and then throws them into the audience. The crowd was about 80% crusty kids, 20% amused librarians; this being an event to promote everyone in Portland reading Fahrenheit 451, most of the hurled paperbacks were that. (When they took requests, I yelled for "Joannna Russ"--who knows if they've even written one for her--but I think they ended up doing "Isaac Asimov" instead.) After the show, I bought one of their T-shirts: this one. I always wanted a Mötörhead shirt anyway.
Oh, also: my first piece in The Nation appeared today!
...for reasons I can't even fully articulate: it's been announced that Mos Def will be playing Ford Prefect in the forthcoming Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy movie. I can imagine the casting conference where somebody suggested him--everybody tapping their foreheads with three fingers and going "of course!"
Figured I'd blow off some steam by stopping by La Palabra's all-night poetry shindig. Didn't bring anything I'd written, but brought the Kalevala (from which I read the chapter about the drowned girl), and was pleased to see that a few others brought other people's poems too. But there always has to be one drunk jerk--dude, announcing "You said it!" and "Ain't that the truth!" at the end of every fourth line someone else reads barely plays at a full-on spoken-word slam, much less ten people sitting around a cafe with some grapes and chocolate. There was a European guy whose poem, I swear, contained the passage (you must read this with a Euro-accent for full effect): "Even if I could be with Meg Ryan/I'd still be sleepless in Seattle/the home of Starbucks/the international corporation." ("Tell it, brother!") When one of the more timid guys started reading the third in his series of 26 "experimental" (read: free-associative, low-meaning, clearly unedited, long) prose poems (each of which was, he haltingly explained, inspired by a picture, a number and a letter of the alphabet), I figured maybe I should get home to the spouse.
All of which is not to say that I don't believe that there is unbelievably vile shit that goes on right under our safe domestic noses, including sex trafficking. I'm saying that Landesman did a crappy job of making his case for it (I believe and I don't know), I'm pissed because I think it's important, and even if the exact numbers aren't worth fighting over, the orders of magnitude actually do matter, and pulling a number out of one's ass doesn't help anybody.
So Julianne (whose writing has been pretty extraordinary lately, I have to say) comments over at Sasha's blog in reaction to his reaction to a couple of links I sent him in response to his powerful response to Peter Landesman's article about sex-trafficking rings in America.
Anyway: Julianne writes "Why would anyone even care if the sex-slave epidemic was exaggerated, if it's even happening AT ALL?" Well, the implications of that question are that if you're writing an exposé of something terrible and upsetting, you're under no obligation to prove your assertions. The big problem with Landesman's piece is that almost all of its assertions about the presence of sex trafficking in the U.S. proper are non-falsifiable: yeah, it might be absolutely right, and it might be anywhere between slightly and seriously bogus, and there is no way of contradicting it if it actually is wrong. As Jack Shafer puts it, "Landesman's supporting evidence is vague. Where it is not vague, it is anecdotal. Where it is anecdotal, it is often anonymous, too. And where it is not anecdotal or vague it is suspicious and slippery."
The point of Landesman's article is not to prove that sex slavery is horrible (of course it is), or that it exists in the U.S. (Landesman cites one example right up at the top), but that it's epidemic in the U.S.: that it is everywhere here, and condoned by people in a position to do something about it. It's not a "denial" to note that he gets to that point via consistently flimsy evidence and hot-button pushing; similar techniques have been used to make similar cases for ritual Satanic abuse and, not to get all topical, but WMDs in Iraq. I agree that both Shafer and Radosh's tones are unnecessarily snarky, but Landesman's credulity w/r/t all things Internet-related is part of what contributes to his article's fearmongering. "If this article prevents one person being harmed, you can have journalism back, whatever that is," Sasha writes. I suspect that why Shafer and Radosh (and I) are frustrated with Landesman's article is that we believe that good reporting does a lot more to protect innocent people from harm than vague, anecdotal, suspicious, slippery reporting.
Also, Radosh points out that, on CNN, Landesman claimed that sex slaves are being held at "one more address that I couldn't get into the story for legal reasons. But try the Upper East Side of Manhattan in the East 80s, a brownstone nine blocks from where my parents live, actually." Do the police know about this? Could Landesman not have said "in a brownstone in the East 80s" in the Times, if he can say it on CNN? That rings very false to me.
IQU at Dante's tonight were so good, so on point--I hadn't seen them play live for at least three years, I think, and they hadn't made a record in longer, but the new stuff is awesome. I loved the curdled disco song Michiko sang about "...the powder room/You powder me and then I powder you," and the one she sang through a Vocoder for that Daft Punk effect, and Kento playing "Loving You" on a theremin (and later playing theremin and guitar simultaneously), and the beat that started out as the break from "Hook & Sling" and rapidly got thicker and heavier. I want the album NOW. (It's done, but not out yet.)
Marcel describes the forthcoming Arthur Russell album, Calling Out of Context: "Imagine that Hall & Oates were infinitely wise giant bunnies from outer space." I'm reviewing it elsewhere, so won't go into much detail here, but that's a pretty good starting point.
The infamous Smallmouth column has been revived, and Seattle Weekly's running it every three weeks. Might be coming to a more easterly coast soon. I'll keep you posted. (I considered changing the name to something more up-to-date, like "Bloodsucker" or "Velvet Hammer," but decided against it.)
Houseguests this weekend. More updating slightly delayed, but will happen, honest.
Idea swiped from Vulgarweed, with a slight twist. The BBC has posted the results of "The Big Read"--the U.K.'s 200 best-loved books. I've read some, haven't read others, and have never even heard of a bunch. The ones below are the ones that are totally alien to me. If there's one I should read, please tell me which one and why.
13. Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks
31. The Story Of Tracy Beaker, Jacqueline Wilson (and a bunch of other books by her)
37. A Town Like Alice, Nevil Shute
49. Goodnight Mister Tom, Michelle Magorian
50. The Shell Seekers, Rosamunde Pilcher
57. Swallows And Amazons, Arthur Ransome
59. Artemis Fowl, Eoin Colfer
61. Noughts And Crosses, Malorie Blackman
72. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell
82. I Capture The Castle, Dodie Smith
94. The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho
95. Katherine, Anya Seton
105. Point Blanc, Anthony Horowitz
107. Stormbreaker, Anthony Horowitz
127. Angus, Thongs And Full-Frontal Snogging, Louise Rennison
142. Behind The Scenes At The Museum, Kate Atkinson
156. The Silver Sword, Ian Serraillier
160. Cross Stitch, Diana Gabaldon
163. Sunset Song, Lewis Grassic Gibbon
172. They Used To Play On Grass, Terry Venables and Gordon Williams
183. The Power Of One, Bryce Courtenay
Jess H. quite rightly calls me out on a particularly stupidly put note about Outkast, as Matos did earlier. (To explain a little: what I meant by Andre 3K "improving on" the music of raav kultur, and should have said much better, was not that "GhettoMusick" is better than, you know, all of dance music writ large, on the grounds that they're Outkast & everything they touch smells like roses rather than woo-woo-woo. But I was impressed that he'd taken a couple of great big clichés--good Lord, that synth tone, I wish I knew its preset number!--and moved them from one context to another and made something much less expected, and totally fun, out of them. Like, I don't know, "Watching the Detectives"; not like Bowie's drum 'n' bass album, say. Does that make more sense?)
Matos's benign monster, meanwhile, is indexed here, and is going to be an enormously useful tool for a lot of people for the next few years, I suspect.
Also: the Collating Bones sub-blog has returned after a couple of years away, at Kate and Brandy's request. It's an excuse for me to note down quick thoughts about some of the albums I'm listening to (and for which I don't have a particular assignment)--just to keep track, basically. Boneheaded stuff, as above, will abound, even more than usual. You've been warned.
And thanks to everyone who pointed out the stuff I forgot about, or got wildly wrong, yesterday. I'll narrow down my question a little: are there any visual artists or filmmakers of the last 50 years who've made significant work under names other than their own, as well as under their own name? "Alan Smithee"-type don't-look-at-me pseudonyms don't count--I'm thinking parallel career under a different name, not disowning a failure.
Thanks to the Multnomah County Library's marvelous hold policy and liberal boxed-set buying policy, I've been gradually devouring The Complete Hank Williams over the past few days (liner note that appeals to the way I like to think about certain things: "To the extent that country music is populated with clichés, they're Hank's clichés"). One thing that's particularly captured my attention (and I know it's old hat to anybody who knows their Hank, but that's not me): the Luke the Drifter stuff. Williams was most commercially popular as a singer, but he also liked doing recitative-over-music stuff; his label hated the idea of anyone putting a coin in a jukebox, punching up a Hank Williams song, and getting a spoken sermonette. So they created the persona of Luke the Drifter, who got to do maudlin spoken-word stuff in a sonorous T. Texas Tyler voice. (The liner notes say that Hank claimed they were for "the take-home trade.") Some of them are not bad--I like "No, No Joe," the anti-Stalin rap, which he delivers as amused advice rather than the hectoring it might have been--but they're much more the records Hank wanted to make than the records anyone else wanted to hear.
Obviously, I like the idea of separate personae to write (or record) something diferent--I've done it enough! I do find it kind of strange, though, when even when jukeboxes don't enter into it, well-known musicians can pursue one direction so far that, when they want to do something different, they have to do it under another name, essentially creating a whole new persona with its own career. (I remember the bad techno record that I think Paul McCartney made as "The Fireman" a few years ago--is that right? And I've wondered in public a couple of times what might happen if Nick Currie recorded a solo album, i.e. not as Momus.) I'm also trying to think if people do that in any other kinds of art. I guess Julian Barnes did it with the mysteries he wrote as Patrick Cavanagh (although, for the kind of situation I'm imagining here, Stephen King's Richard Bachman books don't count, since I'm told King didn't really write differently as Bachman--he was just trying not to flood the market, I think).
Who else? And why?
I went to a little record fair at a local Eagles Club today. (There was a bored-looking guard at the door to make sure that people who came in were members of the Fraternal Order of Eagles, or at least guests. Which anyone could become by paying a dollar and signing a piece of paper.) The record that captured my heart and my five bucks, though, pretty much ambushed me. I knew before I'd heard a note of it that I had to have it.
It's an album by Clydie King, whose name rang only the faintest of bells with me. The cover has her face in profile, close-up, blurred slightly, smilling a touch uneasily, approaching a microphone that's still a good foot away from her mouth. The background is black. Her name is in the most horrible drop-shadow font ever, all in orange. The title's below that, much smaller, in a badly typeset serif font that's almost as horrible: "DIRECT ME." Down in the lower left-hand corner is the label's logo. The label is called Lizard, and its hand-drawn logo has the word "LIZARD" with a stylized cat wrapped around it. Not a lizard, a cat. The general design, her hairstyle, her makeup, etc., scream "1972."
On the back cover, there's a photo of her leaning against a wall, wearing bell-bottom jeans and a very unbuttoned shirt. The track listing includes a cover of "The Long and Winding Road," as well as songs called "Direct Me" and "Ain't My Stuff Good Enough?"; the musicians include Billy Preston and nobody else I'd ever heard of; the liner notes are by photographer/designer Chris Van Ness, who should not have done any of his three jobs. (They do, however, note that "when she was eight years old, Art Linkletter called her 'the next Marian Anderson.' But that's not really where it's at." Also that she'd sung with the Beatles, of which I can find no evidence, and CSN, and had been a Raelette for three years. They're followed by testimonials from Preston and Quincy Jones: "when she and Billy Preston did a song I wrote for the film, The Split, she wiped me out; and I guess we became kind of spiritually attached. What can I say; she's something else.")
I think anyone who knows me fairly well would realize at this point just how badly I needed this album.
I did a little research on her when I got home. Turns out she'd been a backup singer for a lot of big names, if not the Beatles; she sang on Exile on Main Street and with Lynyrd Skynyrd, and was Bob Dylan's favorite backup singer/duet partner for some years (they may have been romantically involved). She'd had a Labelle-ish trio called the Blackberries, who made an album for Motown that never got released for "political reasons" (?). It appeared that she'd been recording for Specialty Records in the late '50s--that might've been a different Clydie King, or it might've been her, given the eight-year-old Marian Anderson thing, and the fact that there seems to exist at least one single by a "Little Clydie King."
The record itself is... uh, not very good, at first listen--she's got the kind of skinny whoo-oo voice that I'm sure sounds great when she's doing backups, but doesn't carry a lot of weight on its own. But I still think it was five dollars well spent, because now I'm fascinated.
Anyone know more?
Went downtown tonight to see some rock and roll. Attempted to see Casiotone for the Painfully Alone at a place called Hotel, which isn't a club, really, more a sort of empty space at the end of a corridor on the fourth floor of what I suspect is a punk flophouse. As I got there, a band called Better To See You With was just starting--screamy grindy hardcore, and very precise. They played five songs in six minutes, then lugged their fourteen hundred pounds of gear into the corridor. Somebody else set up even more gear and started doing pedal-knob twiddling that that controlled huge waves of X-Treem electronic noise. I wanted plinkety little indiepop songs tonight, so as much as I liked the scene (there was a 50ish woman there who seemed as into it as the badge-and-piercing teenagers, and in general everybody seemed very happy) I realized I just wasn't in the mood for extreme volume.
So I headed over first to Dante's, where I determined that the Country Teasers would be playing way too late to dream of catching public transportation home afterwards, and then to Berbati's Pan, for the "Sex Workers' Art Show" that Kate had emailed me about. More a sort of cabaret thing than an art show, really, and more a very long series of readings than either. Note to self: the first night of a band's tour is a good time to catch them; the first night of a reading tour is not. Fortunately, Kate was there, and so was a fabulous friend of hers, and we hung out at the back and talked, drunkenly. Except I hadn't been drinking.
I'm feeling a little disconnected from my NYC circle, though. New Yorkers who are reading: wouldn't this be a great time to drop me a line and let me know how you're doing? Of course it would.
To support a little writing assignment I was doing last week, I bought a copy of Pet Shop Boys' new best-of, PopArt, and have been playing it as a reward for myself: after I've listened to everything I have to listen to for the day, along with a couple of discs from the slush pile and maybe an old favorite something as I cook dinner. Something about it feels like a pleasure I have to earn every time I want to indulge in it. I had somehow convinced myself that they had gone downhill after Discography, which I played senior year of college until my friends were probably tearing their hair out. (Even as I've bought virtually all of their singles...) Wrongo. It's true that they've never since made a full album as great as Introspective (which remains my favorite making-drudgework-pass-quickly album). But this is glorious, glorious, the newer stuff at least as much as the older. Neil Tennant was a pop critic before he was a pop star, and I bet he was the kind who liked to buy a stack of new singles every week, play the same one over and over at home, and try to figure out what exactly made it work. (They've got the best command of intros of any band this side of the Smiths.) I also note that the sequencing plays up the fact that they're a brilliant cover band: disc 1 starts with the Village People's "Go West" played for the poignancy nobody would have guessed was lurking within it, disc 2 ends with West Side Story's "Somewhere" played as a gigantic gay disco anthem like it had never been anything else.
My favorite PSBs song of all, though, totally flew by me for the first few years I heard it--it took Robbie Williams' version to make me realize how good it is. I've been teaching myself to play "I Wouldn't Normally Do This Kind of Thing" on the new guitar. It's about one of Tennant's favorite lyrical themes, the way love can blindside you and turn you into somebody you didn't suspect you were. (The subtext in their version, of course, is about coming out, but Tennant-the-pop-student knows that the more open to an individual performer's or listener's spin a song is, the better it is.) Tennant's such an ironist ("I love you/you pay my rent"--WHAT a line) that his straightforwardness here hits doubly hard: no, he's not the sort of singer or performer who gets to sing a celebratory anthem, but that's the position he's in. And the structure of the song is perfectly joined and tightened: the jubilant downward chord progression from the intro keeps showing up a little bit before the chorus, like it can't wait. Even the bridge ("If people say I'm crazy I tell them that it's true...") starts out acting like it's going to be a bit of a breather before the next verse, and then Tennant gets so excited he starts rattling off the words at the top of the song's buttoned-down range ("denigrate or speculate on what I'm going through..."--the "going through"/"going through" rhyme actually works for once), flips the hook around ("because it isn't the sort of thing I'd normally do!"), and we're off into that opening riff again. (The only way to play the riff, incidentally, is huge vigorous downstrokes--it doesn't work at all otherwise.) So great.
Made my weekly comics-shop trip today, a bit late (Cerebus #298 was... rather different from what I'd dreamed; it includes an extended Citizen Kane homage, a pretty brilliant piece of drawn-out suspense, a Lawrence of Arabia look-alike claiming, in a very roundabout way, to be the Sphinx, and Dave Sim's assertion that ending the possessive forms of words that end in S as "s's" rather than "s'" is a feminist plot; oh dear). Also picked up Ultimate Fantastic Four #1, about which I have very mixed feelings.
The problem with reading any incarnation of Fantastic Four is that it's one of those comics whose entire aesthetic was determined by its original creators. The X-Men moved past Lee/Kirby to Claremont/Byrne, and more recently Morrison/Quitely (well, Morrison/whoever); Daredevil had no Platonic form until Frank Miller got his hands on him, and Bendis/Maleev seem to be moving toward another kind of way of treating the series altogether. Batman has no specific look-and-feel, aside from "sort of dark." And so on. Getting away from an aesthetic that's defined a series can mean rejecting it outright, and even that can't work without a very bold and original approach.
But, for the last few decades, Fantastic Four has been entirely about Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's issues, and specifically the span from maybe #25 (after they figured out what they were doing) to #75 (when they started to burn out and repeat themselves). When FF stories read like prime-period Lee/Kirby stories, they're derivative; when they don't, they don't work; when somebody tries to change the status quo, it reverts to the Lee/Kirby setup as soon as they realize they've made a terrible mistake. There hasn't been a memorable or noteworthy-in-a-good-way Fantastic Four story in a very long time--the only exceptions I can think of since Kirby left in the early '70s are bits of John Byrne's run and the Walt Simonson/Art Adams sequence, both of which were blatantly in thrall to Lee/Kirby. I may have missed one--I haven't read it regularly for at least 15 years--but every so often I pick one up, and I don't think I'm missing anything.
So Ultimate Fantastic Four--the latest of Marvel's "reboots" of their '60s series, for present-day young readers and (more likely) the older readers who like to see what they hope present-day young readers will get into--is an opportunity to put a new stamp on the concept. I've enjoyed a couple of the Ultimate series so far, but have regretted that none of them except The Ultimates (Mark Millar's Avengers re-think) have a strong writing-and-art identity of their own. (By "strong" in this context I mean "something that somebody might want and be able to rip off.")
It's got Brian Michael Bendis and Millar writing it (the dialogue is total Bendis); this time, all we get is a short history of the new Reed Richards' youth (he's a science geek, he gets picked on a lot, his best friend and protector is Ben Grimm, you could've told me this). By the end, we're seeing the Baxter Building and a whole lot of futuristic Kirbytech gear, and we've met Sue and Johnny Storm, and the Negative Zone has been namedropped as the N-Zone, and it's pretty clear where all of this is going: straight into prime-era Lee/Kirby FF, except with younger protagonists, possibly on the grounds that that's Easier for Young People to Identify With.
Here's their inability to identify the difference between Lee/Kirby's ideas and style, though. The meaningful concept of the FF is "interpersonal bonds pull people to places they don't expect," in the same sense that the concept of Spider-Man is "power carries responsibility" and the concept of the Hulk is "rage transforms the self." The shiny tech, the skyscrapers, the modernized-but-still-awful costumes that we see on the cover of Ultimate FF--that's all the Kirby touch, and it feels unpleasantly nostalgic, even vestigial. (Likewise with every "clever" little nod to the original series: Ultimate Willie Lumpkin must go away NOW.) I don't want to see modernized versions of Dr. Doom and the Mole Man and, I don't know, Blastaar--I want to see Bendis and Millar figure out what's compelling about this set of characters at its absolute core, and purge every hint of what the FF's creators did with that compelling idea.
Good Lord. So I came back home from Seattle, and there was a care package from Jad--a new single, a drawing, and three new CDs. One of which was Superfine, by Jad with Jason Willett. They've always been pretty prolific as a duo (and I had the honor of releasing one of their duo albums), and I thought that three-cassette set on Shrimper a few years ago was hyperproductivity even by their standards. This one, though--it's a 20-song CD with 135 MP3 bonus tracks. I'll be digesting it for a while.
In Seattle, I was part of the program committee for the Experience Music Project conference in April. We spent a day sitting around a very long table, going over around 200 proposals for papers, and picking out the best 75 or 80 of them. (Some of them are REALLY cool.) Also got to visit with Becky and Matos and Ms. Gaw and Kira and Eric. And spend about 15 hours on trains to and fro, looking out the window at the ice-stalactites.
I seem to have come down with something throat-oriented; will try to be a little less and-then-I-went-to-the-store when I'm a little healthier.
I'll write about the Seattle trip later. In the meantime, I'm back in Portland; in bed with some sort of throat-constricting cold that made me take a couple of hours to get to sleep, I just had a vivid and convincing dream about Cerebus #298--which apparently exists, although I haven't yet seen a copy or read about what's in it. (Those who don't read the series, which I think is actually everybody who reads lacunae, can safely skip this entry.)
In my dream, though, #298 starts with him very much younger than he is at the end of #297. In the first and longest scene, he's in a very fancy rock and statue garden somewhere, meeting an older woman in an extremely sharply tailored grey suit who leads him up a slope in the garden that's a little too steep for him; her belly is rather larger than it should be for a woman of her advanced age and general gauntness. "I gave up everything to follow you," she tells him, and they have a long, abstract conversation on power and its abuses, and what makes a just leader (well, she's trying to make it abstract, and he keeps bringing it back to skewed examples from his personal experience).
(In the dream, I don't know who that character is, but then I go over to the house of a friend of mine [not someone I know in real life], and he points out that the scene is a flashback that takes place sometime late during the Five Bar Gate years, and that the woman is Theresa, Astoria's old assistant; what he thinks is that "I gave up everything to follow you" refers to leaving school to work on his campaign, but in fact what she's hinting at and doesn't say outright is that she actually rose up in the anti-Cirinist Rebellion in "Mothers and Daughters," was very nearly killed in the counterrevolutionary purge, and managed to rescue a small cell of the fellow rebels she'd organized, although she went into exile afterwards until enough time had passed and she was no longer recognizable; she's now dying, and has arranged to have one final meeting with Cerebus--the implication is that Astoria's dead too, but that Theresa has become the vector for her ideas, and she wants to see if any of them have rubbed off on Cerebus. Which, of course, they haven't.)
Then there's a short scene (with no backgrounds) where we see a panel apiece on each the people that Theresa organized and saved. They are all ferocious caricatures of the late-period Cerebus fans who've been discussing the series on the Net, with their names slightly changed; the descriptions make it clear that none of them has picked up a damn thing from Theresa & Astoria's ideas. (One, a rather well-known one, actually has an orange sticker pasted in at the top of the panel with a caption to the effect that he's waiting for the invention of Internet porn; struck me as sort of uncharacteristic of Dave.)
And then the final page of the issue is in color (!), and a Gerhard extravaganza. Two panels of a fancy wooden garrison office. The top one shows a general from one of the early issues (I think; might've been one of the Python politicians from #42 or so) at his desk; there's a caption (yes, also very un-later-Dave) that says "The general successfully put down three rebellions." The lower one is the same shot, but this time the desk is empty, and there are four arrows in the back wall (actually that makes it make sense that it's the Python commander); the fourth one is pinning his scalp to the wall. Creepy.
On reflection, it's the sort of thematic tying-up that I'd have expected ten years or so ago, and have no cause at all to expect might happen now.
Ventured out only briefly today, and I think it was a mistake. The melt-and-freeze cycle has now produced a sheet of solid ice on the city, horizontal and vertical (the bus shelters were coated on all sides, and the trees were heavier than trees here ever get--I didn't see many fallen limbs, but that was probably because the instant sudden ice layer is providing structural integrity). The layer of ice over the 6 inches or so of snow is almost enough to support the weight of a typical 34-year-old bass player without cracking and plunging his feet into the airy freezing wet depths below at every other step. You'll notice I said almost. Most businesses were closed, or closed early; buses ran at the weather's whim; a lot of vehicles had chains on their tires. La Palabra had a sign up: "We are closed today due to the FUN WEATHER!"
I like the idea of Keith's new project a lot, but what's he going to do when a single album dominates the #1 spot for months on end? Probably just get really clever, is what. That's the sort of thing Keith does.
Off to Seattle in fewer hours than I care to think about. I suspect it makes me a bad person that I can't think about their airport without remembering a Robyn Hitchcock line: "Viva viva viva viva viva Sea-Tac/They've got the best computers and coffee and smack."
It doesn't snow in Portland, ever; nobody here has seen any stick to the ground for more than an hour or so in the past five years. So everyone here is shocked and paralyzed. MLK, this morning at 8:30, hadn't been plowed, and that's a pretty major street. I made it to yoga anyway (my teacher gave me a lift back home), and have been housebound the rest of the day. With one significant exception: taking the trash out tonight. That was not a small effort. The snow had briefly been supplanted by freezing rain, or by melting snow, so it had formed a hard crust of not-quite-ice on top of the soft stuff. Then it got more of the soft stuff. The trail I made on the way from where the trash can lives to the roadside looks like some major tectonic damage.
Listening of choice for the past couple of days has been the King R&B Box Set; looks like four discs, is really three plus a "bonus" (unreleased tracks and three long recordings of Syd Nathan talking to his staff). King was James Brown's label until the early '70s (specifically until "Escape-Ism" and the second version of "Hot Pants"--all historical events from 1956 to 1975 are now correlated with the relevant JB single in my head, that's just what happened in the course of research), and ground zero for a lot of what I find interesting in pre-'60 R&B--and located not in L.A. or New York but in Cincinnati, so I'd wanted to hear this for a while, as I'm becoming a dedicated provincialist.
First shock of the set: the photograph of King's boss, Syd Nathan, on the first page of the booklet. I knew that the guy had a business sense that was way ahead of his musical sense (he was openly contemptuous of a lot of his label's biggest hits), and I knew he was sort of how shall we put this square, but... maybe it's just that the people who assembled the set found the most unflattering portrait of him they could: he looks like the most horrible executive vice president in charge of widget-manufacturing that has ever been poured into a mold, and is wearing bi-level cola-bottle-bottom glasses that are the very essence of unbecomingness.
As far as this box is concerned, the King R&B era begins with a record that was actually on its early subsidiary Queen (Bull Moose Jackson's 1945 cash-in on a Lucky Millinder hit, "I Know Who Threw the Whisky in the Well") and ends, just as a gesture, with James Brown in 1965, doing "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." (It really ends two years earlier; only two other songs postdate Live at the Apollo, not counting a couple of cool Hank Ballard oddities on the bonus disc.)
And between them? Jazz-trained, road-honed musicians, mostly, trying to make something cheap and fun--that's the short version of what I'm getting from this foreshortened version of King. That means silly stuff ("Why Don't You Haul Off and Love Me"), nudge-nudge "party records" ("Big Ten Inch Record"), and probably too many answer records and sequels. Nathan never had a hit he didn't try to milk into the ground, which may be part of why King artists' albums tend to be unsatisfying: any Bill Doggett album will have ten songs that groove like "Honky Tonk." But Nathan's expedient ideas were usually good ones, in practice, mostly because he had incredible singers working for him. Having Wynonie Harris record the country song (Hank Penny's, was it?) "Bloodshot Eyes" got them two hits with one tune, and also resulted in Harris peeling the paint off three counties' worth of walls. (Why didn't he follow that up with more country/R&B crossovers? Someone should write an alternate history story.)
I just made my first (and long overdue) contribution to Boogie Fever. Well, somebody had to do "White Christmas." In early January, yes. But Bea Booze is up next.
Freezing drizzle predicted here for tomorrow--went out today to stock up on staple groceries, and it was pretty nasty as it was. (Very important thing I neglected to bring from NYC: gloves.) Also started my immersion course at the Alberta Yoga Shala, in Vinyasa yoga. I've never done it before, but it seems very mellow compared to the Iyengar training I got last year from Columbia-at-Columbia. We spent the first 25 minutes of class practicing breathing--by that point in my Iyengar class, we'd have been in Mangledpretzelasana II, and at least a few of us would be yelping for mercy while Columbia yelled "Use your laigs!" (Actually, we spent the first 10 minutes of class today waiting for the teacher to show up, but that's another story.) (And when I say "we," I mean there was one other student--who won't be there for half the classes. Hey, personal training!)
If you weren't at Lisa's and my place yesterday morning, you missed some really good blueberry-cornmeal pancakes and carrot-sesame-tofu scramble, as well as the inevitable screening of The Apple. You can always hear excerpts from the soundtrack, though.
Lisa, who is officially the Best Spouse Anywhere Ever, came in this afternoon with my birthday present (I opened the door for her, so saw it early): a brand-new Stratocaster. It's light metallic green, has a light tan case, and is unbelievably beautiful. It's the sort of guitar that somebody would pose with on the cover of a solo album if it were bright red, but I don't know that I've ever seen another guitar this color; this particular shade seems to be a 2004 thing (as do metallic pastels in general). Which maybe means that in 10 years it'll be an embarrassing 2004 color, but in 20 years it'll be a hyper-cool 2004 color.
I've actually never owned a decent electric guitar before--in the closet in L.I.C. I've got a terrible guitar I bought for I think $20 that has Earl Slick's signature on it in gold metallic pen, and a whammy bar that sends it instantly and hopelessly spiraling out of tune, and I think that's it. But Lisa's got her Telecaster here, and I've got my bass and the 4-track, and now I've got a STRAT. Tremble, hapless globe.
Other musical birthday presents that arrived today: 137 or so 2003 songs from Matos; a CD-R of new songs from Alig; a copy of I Like It, vol. 1 from myself. And I discovered La Palabra and its Nutella/lime/cayenne crepes. I'm going to be eating a lot of those, and spending probably unhealthy amounts of time playing with the letterpress gear.
Favorite "singles" (by the Voice's definition, meaning songs) of 2003, in alphabetical order because that way I don't have to put them in any more numerical order (and with sound samples where I was able to find them):
Angel Racing Food: Venus Bigfoot (Little Teddy)
Jowe Head was the weird Swell Map and the weird Television Personality, and that's saying something, in both cases. He sent me a demo CD of his new band quite a while ago, which I promptly misfiled. Ages later, I turned it up, put it on, and loved it, especially this song, even if I still don't quite know what they're singing in the chorus (it's not "she's the only girl for me," but something like that). I somehow imagine their conception of Venus Bigfoot as kind of the yeti equivalent of Robert Crumb's Angelfood McSpade--a fantasy construct that's horribly wrong but hilarious because it's so wrong. The hooks, though: those are nothing but right.
Antibalas: Che Che Colé (Daptone)
My love for the Daptone/Soul Fire axis (the former Desco people) is pretty well documented--they like the same kind of hard funk I like--and people outside New York are finally catching on to how great Antibalas are as a live band. But I'd been hoping for a while that they'd break away from the strict Kutian Afrobeat they've been playing for a while, esp. since their occasional Ethiopian covers are so good. And I remembered that they'd talked in the early days about how they were a Latin/Afrobeat fusion--and now they've done it. In some sense it's a plug 'n' chug exercise (one side Latin/Afrobeat, the other side Latin/Afrobeat/makossa), but what a good idea for an exercise. (You can hear samples of it here.)
Bangles: Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution) (Koch)
The one song on Doll Revolution that allows me to fantasize, briefly, that everything since "Hazy Shade of Winter" has just been an awful dream, if one can have an awful dream involving many years of silence. And the harmonies are wonnnderful, even if I'm still always slightly bugged that they got that one weird chord in the chorus wrong (I say "wrong" because it's nonintuitive in Elvis Costello's own version--maybe he didn't include it in the demo he made for them).
Jaga Jazzist: Animal Chin (Gold Standard Laboratories)
I have a weakness for very clean smooth recordings that go much faster than I can process in my head--Cool Breeze's "Watch for the Hook," Frank Zappa's "G-Spot Tornado," etc. This is one of those, with the added advantage of a live band's Tortoise-isms. (There's a streaming MP3 of it here.)
The Juan Maclean: Give Me Every Little Thing (DFA)
There was something kind of special about John Maclean's old Six Finger Satellite, and this was not it--not anything like it. But I'm also a little hesitant to say that it's the DFA touch that makes this single what it is, because "You Can't Have It Both Ways" was so awesome too, and both are so unlike the rest of the DFA continuum. And each other: "You Can't Have It Both Ways" mutates over eight minutes; this one stays in a single crabbed form, stomping on the ground until the whole house thumps in sympathy. Is it fair to say on the strength of 2 1/2 singles (one of which I don't even like that much) that he reminds me of Arthur Russell?
Ludacris: Stand Up (Def Jam)
Because Hot 97 is the greatest radio station in the world, and they were playing this every time I turned on the radio for about three months, so it has to be great. And I think I only changed the channel on it once or twice.
Outkast: Hey Ya (Arista)
Radiohead: Myxomatosis (EMI)
Yes, together: riffs of my year. One of my three or four favorite places in Portland so far is Big City Produce, a grocery store a few blocks from the intersection of Albina and Killingsworth--a little bit of a walk from our place, but not bad. It's got really cheap, fresh, good produce, marked-down slightly-expired boxed food, and cooking staples for a whole bunch of the area's cultural cuisines--it's probably got a more ethnically mixed clientele than any other market I've seen. There's a fun little veggie-friendly café in back; Mireaya, the World's Friendliest Clerk, chats with everybody at the register. And the stereo system always seems to be playing Outkast and Radiohead on shuffle, and it sounds awesome.
(Actually, Outkast-wise, I almost like "GhettoMusick" better--I remember the first time I heard it, on Maya's computer, grinning because Andre had discovered rave culture--"feelin' good, feelin' great"--and improved on its music.)
Stereolab: "...sudden stars" (Elektra)
I think Tim Gane said, in an interview I can't find any more, that he'd assembled this from some unused Stereolab recordings from 1992, some more from 1996, and some newly recorded stuff. Well, if it's fair to do that with a writing or songwriting notebook, why not with recordings? He seems to be putting together a lot of "suite"-type songs over the last few years, but the pieces belong together here---when it goes into that classic Stereolab motorik beat halfway through, I still get a little shock. A year or so ago, I dumped all the Stereolab singles onto my hard drive and burned myself a CD-R of all of them in reverse-chronological order (starts all dignified with "Captain Easychord," gradually devolves until it ends with the blowout of "Super-Electric"). I loved it like that, but on a hunch, right before Lisa and I left to drive across the country, I re-assembled it with "'...sudden stars'" (what's it a quote from? does it have something to do with the "instant O"?" is it a quote from Messaien?) at the beginning. Now it's like a little overture, but with stylistic rather than melodic excerpts of what comes after it. Hope it gets to be in the same position when they do their real greatest-hits.
Tender Trap: ?Como te llamas? (Tell Me Your Name) (Elefant)
Late-in-the-year records always have an advantage in this kind of exercise. According to Tender Trap's own site, this one's not even out for another few weeks. Too bad: I bought it at the beginning of December, and kept singing it to myself all month. Probably propped up a little in my estimation for excellent linguistic/sexual politics. Propped up more for tune tune tune tune tune and more tune. (There seems to be a RealPlayer stream of it here.)
If anybody hears something they like for the first time because of the music links (here or below), can they please let me know?
And about time it's 2004 already, because this is OUR BEST YEAR YET, dammit, and we've been waiting for it. (But yes yes yes the blogoolies say, we want your top tens, time to get decimal on us.) Fine. Just carved up the butterflied ballot for the Peanut and Jelly Poll, and here's what we've got and why. Albums today, singles maybe later if you'd like.
1) Melt-Banana: Cell-Scape (A-Zap)
Because it grabbed me by the tailbone and hoisted me eight feet into the air and then swung me around as if I weighed no more than a theoretical linguistic construct. Because they've finally made an album as physical as they are live. Melt-Banana are what my old co-worker Cheryl used to call "Douglas-Rock"; by that she meant, probably, stuff I adored that nobody else could understand why I liked so much, but I sometimes tried to figure out if there was a specific formula for it. Fast-loud-and-squeaky is one formula for it, and this is that, but one thing I've realized over the past year is that I like things that are entirely idiomatic--that is, that take artists' or performers' innate style as a starting point, and work from there. "Show the hand" is my private jargon for it, and Melt-Banana do it constantly. I really appreciate Cell-Scape's dramatic pacing, too--it'd be easy for the middle eight songs to get lost in one big jalapeño rush, but there are enough swerves and surprises in every song that I played it straight through more than any other record this year, and usually wanted to pogo to it. Or, when nobody else around, did. (A few MP3s, courtesy of Aquarius Records, are here.)
2) The New Pornographers: The Electric Version (Matador)
Lisa bought a Zumpano CD a few weeks ago, and as we were listening to it in the car, I thought: this sounds sort of like the New Pornographers (obv. because Carl Newman's singing), but it's just pretty good. And The Electric Version is great--did Newman get that much better as a songwriter? Well, probably, yeah, but he also got more charged-up as a performer, and he also started working with Neko Case and Dan Bejar. I love Bejar's songs in a very different way from Newman's--for a certain kind of band, having a second songwriter is key. I also love the idea of a band having an essential offstage member (Martin Swope/Bob Weston for Mission of Burma, Grrrt for Dog Faced Hermans)--one of my maxims this year was one from Brian Eno that Franklin Bruno quoted to me: "an arrangement is when someone stops playing."
Two other great 2003 New Pornographers-related memories: playing "The Laws Have Changed" for Sasha, which got the deadpan response "You know what this band's problem is? Not enough hooks"; seeing them play at Warsaw and insist that people get up on stage and dance with them, "except no guys who are assholes." (After the audience was a little reticent, Carl announced "okay, we take it back: it's okay if guys who are assholes want to come up and dance." Eventually, they had about 50 people up there shaking it, including only a couple of guys who were assholes.) (A couple of MP3s are here.)
3) The Thermals: More Parts Per Million (Sub Pop)
And not just because we're in Portland now. Totally derivative in conception (less-than-170-second punk songs!), totally distinctive in execution, and it took so little to pull it off--that filter on the singer's voice that makes it sound like the concentrated residue of 1978 goes a long way. These are the kinds of songs I'd like to write if I could figure out how to make them simple enough: very smart, distilled down as far as they'll go, crackly, funny, a little harsh, not at all predictable. Something about them suggests a different direction Warsaw might have gone (as does something about Prosaics, who might be on this list next year--but that's a different direction still). Extra points for fully satisfying 25-minute live sets. (There's an MP3 of "No Culture Icons" here.)
4) Goodbye, Babylon (Dust to Digital)
I'll mention it here one more time. Five discs of mostly shellac-boom-era Southern gospel, black and white, plus a disc of sermons ("legit" and quasi-jackleg, and mostly at least partly musical) from the same era, a book with all the details I can handle, extraordinary presentation, a triumph of the curatorial art. I'm still writing about this one for publication, so won't go into too many details here, but really, this is an achievement on the level of Harry Smith's Anthology, and the only reason it's not listed higher is that it didn't give me as much entertainment-type pleasure as the top three. (Well, okay: my top 10 includes four compilations of pre-2003 recordings, plus an album that came out originally when I was two years old, and as much as I want to respond to The Naked Maja's opprobrium for people who cling to pre-modernity in year-end roundups by pointing out that any record you haven't listened to is a new record, and if you've heard more than like 15% of the stuff on Goodbye, Babylon before then feel absolutely free to dis me for thinking it's the hot new thing but please otherwise give it a rest, there's still a way in which stuff that just got played seems more... uh, something to me.) (This page links to 15 pages from the book and their associated sound files; I'm not gonna tell you where on the site you can find MP3s of the entire first two discs, but it shouldn't take much effort. Try "Lift Him Up That's All" and "Lover of the Lord.")
5. Velvet Tinmine (RPM)
This is what I mean about curation, too--I spent more time listening to other people's mixes this year than ever before. I'd only ever heard of two of the performers on Velvet Tinmine before I got it, but Phil King, Bob Stanley (of St. Etienne!) and Mark Stratford, who put this together, love all the crappy glam-rock that came out in England trying to get a piece of Marc Bolan's mojo and record sales so much that they've put together a mix tape of 20 pieces of it that really truly move. I don't think I'd necessarily want to spend money on a full album by any of these bands (except maybe Simon Turner, who's a special case), but I'm very glad I heard all of these songs. (Sort of hard to track down MP3s of this stuff, but everything by Stavely Makepiece is here, including "Slippery Rock 70s," which is on VT.)
6. Gétatchèw Mèkurya: Negus of Ethiopian Sax (Buda Musique)
Not even new album: just a newly reissued record that I played all the time for pleasure last year, by an Ethiopian saxophonist who recorded a roaring album and a few singles' worth of pentatonic boo-ga-loo with a super-hot organ-led band (possibly the Police Orchestra?) sometime in the very early '70s. According to the liner notes, "he still knows nothing about Ornette Coleman or Albert Ayler, about free jazz and the critical battles that were to ensue from 1960 onwards." Which is a strong argument for parallel evolution. Supposedly, this is "warlike music"; if we must have warlike music, let it be like this. In the Dept. of Blogrolling: thank you so much, Mer, for convincing me to buy this one.
(No MP3s to be found; teeny little sample of one intro here.)
7. Belle & Sebastian: Dear Catastrophe Waitress (Rough Trade)
I liked it at first, but was a little dubious--it seemed to be too unserious, too goofy, too much Stuart Murdoch imitating himself, ripping off Arthur Lee, and ceding territory to the lesser songwriters in the band. Then I realized that Stevie Jackson is a "lesser songwriter" by no reasonable standard. Then I heard it playing in the background somewhere and realized that I could listen to it endlessly, and that the real hero of the album was one of my oldest musical heroes, Trevor Horn--that he'd made all the arrangements and mixes rustproof and matte-smooth. Then I listened to it at home again and had the sense to crank up "Stay Loose," which is Stuart Murdoch not repeating himself at all (and I love that Elvis Costello missing-beat trick). Then I realized that the most Arthur Lee line on the album--"killing people's not my scene," in "If You Find Yourself Caught In Love"--is preceded by one of the best and most Stuart Murdoch lines of the year: "If you're going off to war then I wish you well/But don't be sore/If I cheer the other team." (No MP3s on this one either, sadly.)
8. Oedipus: Oedipus (InPolySons)
And off we go into conflict-of-interest-ville. Will everybody please just get it into your heads that John Pearce/Alig Fodder/"Johnny Kash" is a freakish genius of songwriting, so he can sell a bunch more records and his songs can become standards already? He's absorbed a lot of songwriting modes that don't have a lot to do with the new wave, but I always feel the shiver of alien freshness about his songs. This album is Alig (and lyricist/singer Anne-Marte Rygh) in European pre-electrical pop song mode, mostly just voice and accordion or guitar; in a few ways, it's 20 years further down the track of Family Fodder's All Styles 2x33 album. (Two MP3s, including the sublime "Que lindo meu amor," available here. And of course there's their "Hybrid Phase Yellow" single from Dark Beloved Cloud.)
9. The Rapture: You Are Here ("King Biscuit Productions")
A bootleg, pretty obviously, made from their set on BBC1's "Essential Mix" show. Ranted about this already here, on Dec. 17. I loved their singles, and had mixed feelings about the "real" album--a lot of what I like about them is in fact their echoes of other things I like, and they were so eager to show off their range on the album that I was left with very little idea of how they play or sing or write these days when they're not trying to sound very much like their favorite records. But as curators, they turn out to be awesome: this was my A-1 dancing-around-the-new-apartment album. (The track listing is here. No audio, though--too bad.)
10. Radio Java (Sublime Frequencies)
Still writing about this one elsewhere, too, so I'll hold my tongue about it other than to be purely descriptive. It's subjective ethnomusicology: a bunch of tapes made in Java by the Sun City Girls' Alan Bishop and a friend 14 years ago, sliced up and rearranged into a collage that has more to do with Bishop than with its source. (The label is here; no audio available.)
This is of course the part of the top 10 list where I point vague regrets at all the honorable mentions, which include your favorite album. Of course.