(Kenny writing)

The reason Pink has for years seemed like a person, unlike Brittany or Amy W., is because she wants to go to rehab.  Not from some prissy moralistic point of view, but from the point of view that the party does end and you have to face yourself in the mirror when it does.  Pink gives one some hope that getting the party started and groundedness are not mutually exclusive.  Since this seems, so far as I can tell, to match the actual needs of actual listeners to pop radio like myself (not to mention actual people with jobs, actual people on earth, and actual people most generally), I have been among the group who think that she has made some of the most meaningful pop hits of the decade.  “Let’s Get This Party Started”, I’m open; “Don’t Let Me Get Me,” I’m with you; “Just Like A Pill,” absolutely, I know just what you mean.  I found “So What” was a little disheartening.

And then comes “Sober,” an answer song to “Rehab” though she would never think of it that way, and Pink’s greatest accomplishment.  Correct that:  her greatest accomplishment is to produce an excruciatingly long second plus of silence on KHOP every hour, the break that occurs at the beginning of the second verse when she sings, as I would want my daughter to, “I don’t want to be the girl who has to fill the silence,” and then everything stops.  Just stops.  Until, wouldn’t you know, she has to fill the silence, acknowledging that “the quiet scares me ’cause it screams the truth.”  By the time she sums up the main narrative, about the confusion that occurs when you get high and then the party ends, with “how do I feel this good and sober?” you figure, sobriety is not a given, but actually an achievement.  As it is for graduates of AA.  Unfortunately the graduate of AA believes s/he has a “disease” and will, essentially inevitably relapse.  Pink is the person who really used to abuse alcohol (or pills or whatever) and stopped because it was the right thing to do, not right because their minister or their society said it was but for their own improved mental health and ability to engage with those they love and work with.  And because they did it on their own terms they still feel fine about going out and getting blitzed sometimes.  And, no, getting blitzed doesn’t cause them to fall back into the old pattern.   

Of course this last describes me and roughly half my friends.  Who said maturity has no place on pop radio?



(David writing)

Months after a beloved flopped major-label release, the question about why it flopped is rarely as interesting as why you liked it in the first place. And of course Glasvegas is neither an unequivocal flop nor necessarily a flop at all. Maybe it will be one of those slow-burners, if Columbia decides they’re worth another round of promo. Which they likely will, because of course their flop status only exists outside the British Isles (OK, and Sweden).  Trying to explain why bands hit (and register artistically) in the UK and flop in the US is beyond my grasp and a bigger topic than I’d take on here anyway, but I’m interested in why I love Glasvegas and why they seem to confound a good number of critics as well as the pop/alt public, and it seems to be the same answer, because in some ways it confounds me that I love it.

      If you haven’t heard them, say their sound is triangulated by U2, Jesus & Mary Chain, and, um, Journey?  Ringing-echoey guitars swathed in feedback murk, grounded by utterly funkless drums and riffs, and wide-open-mouthed vocals with hearts hanging off of both sleeves. And if the description is both a turnoff yet somehow intriguing, they don’t sound like anything that distinctive on first hearing, which figures — like it or hate it, they’re fairly complex (or muddled), not the kind of band that makes a great first impression.

       Unless you know what to listen for, which I didn’t. I heard arena-ready U2 derivative, and expected to leave at that, until I read a review that made me realize I had to hear the one about the social worker (especially given the bad rep guidance counselors have been getting in song in recent years, specifically former daycare worker Kimya Dawson’s “Hold My Hand,” and Buffalo’s mom-led Wide Right’s “Royanne”).  And indeed, the one where former footballer James Allan triumphiantly  sings  “My name is Geraldine I’m your social worker,” without a hint of irony — really,  he’s crediting the social worker with saving lives, maybe his — is almost irresistible if “impassioned” is an adjective you value.  But of course it’s generally more complicated than that — Glasvegas’s songs and sound, and people’s tastes. The alt-czars at complain that Glasvegas have no “restraint.” Which is precisely what I love about them, and the only thing that could make their music work.

    If there’s one thing I could complain about U2 is that they’ve always been too damn restrained — too rarely willing to let loose even when they make a show of it, too committed to their idea of positivity to allow much ugliness in their music, and usually too tasteful to find all the beauty at their disposal either. 

   If there’s one thing I could complain about Jesus & Mary Chain is that they’re too restrained too. Even their celebrated feedback always seemed more calculated than anarchic, their muted vocals and dark outlook generally suggest not a genuine animus against the world as it exists, but a level of discomfort within their own bodies.

    Holding it in was never Journey’s problem, except that in fact they hold everything in. There must be real people in there somewhere, but beneath the grandeur, the apparent heartfelt generosity, there’s almost nothing there — “Don’t Stop Believin'” aside, what very few specifics their lyrics reveal sound deliberately false, and the music does its damndest to avoid leaving traces of where it’s been either. Which of course is how millions of fans of pop and what was once called AOR like it, and you don’t need Journey to prove that either.

       But unlike all of the above, Glasvegas are utterly shameless. It helps that they choose meaty topics — the social worker savior, death of peers and parents, street fights avoided and street fights sought. But they don’t need them:   “It’s My Own Cheating Heart That Makes Me Cry” is hardly a novel pop song concept, not the subject matter, not the sentiment, not the admission. But who the hell dares to put it that way? They’re begging for a slap in the face, but they’re so daunting that instead you just gawk so long you forget to blink. Which connects you to Glasvegas, because they’re unblinking — another forlorn number is called “Lonesome Swan,” and before I was even sold on them, the completely desperate “Stabbed,” entirely spoken, over Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” registered not as appalling mawk but as a garishly risky Work of Art.  I mean, what the hell do you do with a terror-stricken “I’m gonna get stabbed” shifting into a last-ditch steel-yourself-up “You don’t wanna stab me. You don’t wanna stab me.” 

   Along with “Stabbed” and “Geraldine,” the other song that hit me the first time was “Daddy’s Gone.” Several plays in, I hear how Allan’s thought about what the loss of his father means to him now, what it might mean later, and how he lost before he lost him. But what struck me the first time was the way these born-in-the-’80s Scots take the bridge into doo-wop/”Little Darlin'” territory without intending or achieving parody or even distance — at times they do actually project that combination of angst and naivete that’s fueled much of the best teen-oriented rock & roll. And also the angst and naivete of a band whose naivete was often overlooked, if only because unlike all the other groups mentioned here, their music was so knowing: Nirvana. Because both band and vocalist were utterly fluid and enraged, a perfect fusion of punk and classic rock, with words that were hip and eloquent, it was easy to miss that part of the pain in Kurt Cobain’s yowls and murmurs were about an innocence he wished he hadn’t lost. It helps if you read the partly earned self-righteousness of the liner notes of Incesticide, or listen to that odds & sods album’s best song, “Sliver,” about how he was bored and ignored and loved by his family. “Gramma take me home, gramma take me home, gramma take me home, gramma take me home”…”I woke up in my mother’s arms.” How sappy, right?

   U2-Jesus & Mary Chain-Journey-Nirvana. That’s a little bit more intriguing, no? Glasgow, meet Aberdeen.

(David writing)

Some combination of bicycling and playing tennis in the wrong shoes and kneeling in my attic (mostly searching for stored CD’s) wound me up with a doctor suggesting I get an MRI for my left leg. So I did – as a recent convert to House, I confess to some curiousity about the procedure. And this one pretty minor — only in to my waist, 15 minutes, no big deal. But if I ever get another, I’ll bring a CD (could they have hooked up my ipod to the sound system? Seemed like a fussy request for 15 minutes) or not listen to music at all.  But the perfectly courteous technician asked me what kind of music I wanted, and after two seconds of figuring that “jazz” would mean that insufferable  lite crap I always think of as CD101 after the station in NYC that’s been playing it for 20 years (“the world’s first all-CD station” they boasted at the time), and that “alternative” might either confuse the guy or mean who-knows-what, I went with “rock”. Yeah, make it familiar and predictable. But I would have expected a better, if not more contemporary, sequence than Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock & Roll,” (started abruptly and somewhat jarringly in the middle),  Madonna’s “Cherish” (followed by some patter from what turns out to be a Sirius-XM host, the inspidity of which is why it doesn’t bother me much that some stations, like the whole “Jack” format and its imitators, do without live talk entirely), Mike + the Mechanics’ “The Living Years” (OK, can’t get any worse than this, I’m pretty sure), something I think might be by Dave Matthews though if wrong I’ll never care, and Glenn Frey’s “You Belong to the City”  (cut off abruptly — hey, guys, ever heard of an automatic fade-in fade-out feature?).

    Thing is, the MRI really does make music of its own. To the right additional musical accompaniment — anybody still use the term “trip-hop”? — the machine’s whizzes and blams, at at least three different synth-like tones and two different tempos, might actually be something to relieve boredom on their own. As it was, they occasionally came close to drowning out the music, sort of like when someone uses a jackhammer or lawn mower outside your window. But more welcome.

(David writing)

It was fairly audacious in 1987 for Marianne Faithfull and producer Hal Willner to put together blues and rock old and new with items from the Great American Songbook (at least one of which, thanks to Billie Holiday, also counted as an old blues) on Strange Weather. As a 20-year-old grungy slacker (before either term was used to define a generation — by the time they were I’d cut my hair (for the moment) and was pulling a salary by being surrounded by middle-aged women and 8 -year-olds) , I was pretty startled to find myself totally cowed by a 1931 copyright  called “Penthouse Serenade” that was totally and unapologetically bathing in luxury with the world going on somewhere down below.)  

Warning: The next graf is a parent(hetic)al statement of limited interest to non-parents.

(And after hearing me play it once, my daughter, at 3, requested it so many times it was on the first CDR I made her, along with Ramones’ “I Wanted Everything” and some others I’ve forgotten. I’m sure she identified with the Ramones’ title concept, assume she didn’t make the connection between both songs’ materialism, and hoped at the time that both would distract her sufficiently from the Moldy Peaches’ “Who’s Got the Crack,” which I did not want her pre-school teacher begging us to stop teaching to her classmates.)

       As many years after that as that one was after “As Tears Go By,” their new Easy Come Easy Go can’t possibly have that effect even if the arrangements and song choices are arguably even more audacious. Both the rock and cabaret worlds they both straddle are a lot more elastic (read: anything goes) now. And OK, I’m not 20 anymore and I’ve delightedly swallowed-whole at least three boxed set pop/whatever compilations that date back to the 1920s, 1900’s, 1890s.  So on paper, it’s no big deal (at the behest of a NYTimes review, I recently tried a Dylan covers album by one Barb Jungr, a self-described cabaret singer who understands Dylan (fuck it, music) less than I’m Not Here director Todd Haynes, and don’t ask me for details because I couldn’t finish it and know I’m not the only one) .  But before I even get to what works great on Easy Come Easy Go, let me talk about the sound. Not so much the work of the four arrangers/conductors (best: Steven Bernstein) and how distinctive nearly every track is while allowing for flow in the Great Album Tradition, but the sound of the singer. Thirty years ago (I’ve read — I was 12 and likely would have recoiled from, or mocked, Broken English if I’d heard it then, of which there was no chance) Faithfull made a big impact, not just with the harsh songs she dug deep into but with her throat. Not just that she’d started making pretty (if stately and chilly) pop and was now making ugly (if professionally played) synth-punk, but that her ravaged voice and what it implied said something about aging and the combined vulnerability and persistence of women that rock had never tried to before. And has little since.  Leaving pre-rock like Billie Holiday and, I don’t know, Marlene Dietrich, for someone who knows what they’re talking about (not just what they like) , I can think of Patti Smith and Kim Gordon (who started out ragged anyway as my wife notes, and have never played the straightforward sufferer (or straightforward anything?)).  At her age-45 comeback Tina Turner sounded even more ravaged than she did at 25 or 30 and one hell of a profound straightforward-sufferer backstory, but mostly glossed it on record with what-don’t-kill-ya (and get-that-behind-me) because she still wanted to be queen. At her age-40 breakthrough Bonnie Raitt, with a more typical addiction and semi-success backstory,  projected a still-got-it because she still did and somehow didn’t sound much wearier than she did at 21.  But Faithfull was all of 32 when she made Broken English and no one has truly inhabited that voice since. Few would have the justification — Faithfull’s backstory was pretty impressive itself. But fewer would have the talent to bring it off or the guts/skewed take on vanity to try. So thirty years after 32 (in 1979, no one would have believed she was a year younger than Debbie Harry if Harry had ever let it slip), she doesn’t sound too much more ravaged or weary, and sounds virtually identical to how she sounded on Strange Weather at 40.  She’s finally starting to act her age, and if you think that means I think 62 is impossibly ancient, this album makes me think that at 85 she could sound like Alberta Hunter did on the stunning and vital Amtrak Blues in 1980 — something that never occured to me when I enjoyed Willie Nelson’s Spirit (1996, age 63), John Prine’s Fair & Square (‘05, 59), or for that matter Bob Dylan’s Modern Times (’06, 65, and watch this space and thousands of others for how his new one shakes out), not to mention Neil Young’s just-out Fork in the Road, (’09, 63, which on one listen makes me wonder if he’ll ever make another really good one). Granted, when Lou Reed made the sorely underrated Ecstasy  (’00, 58), I had hopes he could keep doing that at 75, but in 9 years his one studio album has been an Edgar Allen Poe tribute  whose sole highlight is sung by (no really) Steve Buscemi. I should say something, I guess, about long-gone Faithfull paramour L. Cohen, and maybe  longtime Reed paramour L. Anderson, but I can’t think of what exactly.

      So take these aged triumphs where they come, and this is one. Four recent altrock songs by youngish songwriters (the Neko Case song disappears gracefully under Faithfull’s vocal and Willner’s anomalously uptempo arrangement, and if I’d never heard of Espers before I still don’t have any sense of them after several listenings to an 8-minute recording that Faithfull –with a surprising lot of help from Rufus Wainwright –just barely saves, but “The Crane Wife 3” convinces me that the Decembrists’ Colin Meloy can write some and that Nick Cave can sing some) plus  this-decade work by two old-timers that’s well-picked enough for me not to suspect they’re just generational tokens (Eno’s kinda uplifting and awestruck, Morrissey’s desperate and moving) and bookended by two late ’60s country songs of varying quality, “Sing Me Back Home,” which she earns partly because she knows she can’t take it from Merle Haggard even with Keith Richards’ help, and “Down from Dover,” its helpless fatalism enough to get it on Best of Dolly Parton in 1970 even though its single-mom miscarriage kept it from being released as a single, and to the extent it works. And then, with an inconvenient aside to the two minutes of “The Phoenix” (’70s-vintage songwriter Judee Sill remains but a name to me , but I am convinced Sean Lennon can sing some, which makes me realize I completely forgot Sean’s mom’s Seasons of Glass  — talk about your ravaged voice with backstory, which I guess brings us to Hole’s Live Through This, which…oh well, whatever, nevermind), we get to the four tracks that make me give the benefit of doubt to the rest — convince me that they’ve earned their sometimes too-slow pace and make me forgive if not forget the several shortfalls or gaffes on the lyric sheet I wish were included.  “In Germany Before the War” turns what sounded like a demo when it was on Randy Newman’s weakest album into “September Song,”  which not even Randy suspected it of being at the time (though I’d love to hear him try to write a whole album for Faithfull right now).  She does with Holiday’s (and Ellington’s) “Solitude” more or less what you’d hope — more or less what she did with Holiday’s (and Kern’s) “Yesterdays” on Strange Weather, and great to hear again. The 8-minute take on a Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ oldie (see post title) takes ridiculous risks, starting with the duration, and getting to tempo shifts long after Antony’s raised his garish head (I’d say he had a voice only an opera fan could love except that my wife, who wouldn’t want to do without either stripped-down rock & roll or opera, cringed and grimaced — while driving — when she first heard him), all in the service of a pledge of adoration that may never seem so simple again. And the Bessie-Smith-originated title track, matches the sex and humor of the lyric and Faithfull’s vocal with one of the funkiest (suggesting pheremones, I mean, not James Brown) horn parts I’ve ever heard, and what the hell is a sarrusophone anyway?

Inspirational credit in booklet which is admittedly funnier before you remember that it can’t be aimed at anyone reading said booklet: “This cd, album, legal or illegal download was produced by….”. And it’s worth noting that despite being under the UMG (UghMyGod?) banner, the FBI logo is missing from the back cover).

(Kenny writing)

Wussy, the self-titled new album by what is my favorite currently active band in the world, is certainly their third best of three albums.   The worst album by a great band in its prime is a fine thing, and there are enough good songs and unique sounds on this one that it remains highly recommended to folks who came up on 1980s Amerindie, or wish they did.  But if (like most of the world) you haven’t heard the band previously, start with one of the first two.

The band’s debut, Funeral Dress, focuses on songwriting and the establishment of a fuzzy undertow.  It’s virtues are those of its best song, “Soak It Up,” which takes a perfectly lovely and straightforward melody and sets it to a fuzzy bottom which threatens to overwhelm it until the melody and the fuzz reach a truce (though not a resolution) at the end.  So far so Velvet Underground.  What makes the bigger and better then 1000 others is the genuinely surprising lyric hooked around the sweet-voiced woman’s “I never thought I’d drive this far without a gun.”  The song is either about taking the blame for a break up or choosing, finally (and probably for good reasons), to let down your guard a little; either way the mixed emotions are perfectly matched to the mixed soundscape.  Even if this isn’t the first time you’ve encountered the musical idea, it’s still a top notch expression of it.  Connoseurs of fuzz pop should start here.

Left For Dead is something more dramatic and a serious candidate for my album of the decade.  The only of Wussy’s three albums that focuses on one songwriter — the other two split time equally between Lisa Walker and Chuck Cleaver (formerly of the Ass Ponys) — it introduces a major new perspective within the fuzz pop genre.  I’ve already written about the themes in Left For Dead here.  For the moment what I want to add about the album is that on it Lisa Walker emerges as one of the great bad singers of rock and roll history, a sweet-voice full of pops, cracks, off notes, and struggle to be heard above the sonic tide.  There are decades of tradition for male voices without technical prowess to do this, and some noteworthy female shriekers, but this is Stevie Nicks or Joni Mitchell with an inconsistent relation to tone, and Walker’s personality is so specific, so forceful and intelligent, that you root for her every single note.  This album is recommended to people for whom personal concept, rather then hook quality, is what brings you to repeat listening of your favorite music.

So while it would have been hard for the band to impress me as much the third time out, I’m pleased to describe the very real virtues of another fine pop album.  The main innovation, bandwise, is that Lisa and Chuck seem to be singing together and in complement to each other more; certainly this is album where the vocalists combine on choruses and bridges time and again, so that actual happy relationship songs like “Happiness Bleeds” (oh yes it is — although ambivalent, that title is not ironic) and “Maglite” are actually coming from both voices in concert.  (The most striking vocal collaborations on the two previous albums are actually bickering songs:  “Airborne” on Funeral Dress and “Whatshisname” on Left For Dead.

And the band’s virtues as phrasemakers are strong as ever:

You’re off in outer space, I’m here on earth
On any given day the order is reverse.
(from “Magic Words”)

Mother-daughter banquet at the Bethel Baptist Church
You forgot her.  That was bad, but I did something worse.
(from a song brilliantly titled “This Will Not End Well,” and as any honest person who grew up in a New York synagogue can tell you, not requiring any knowledge of Appalachian mountain Baptists)

 The note you left me on the door said “go away, I am sleeping”
And so I leave, but I believe that you’ve been entertaining someone else
So I do what I think I’m supposed to and I entertain myself.
(from “Death By Misadventure”)

There were never devils living under the stairs,
There were never angels in your grandmother’s hair
There has never been another that I could compare.
(From “Happiness Bleeds”)

(and, in conclusion)
A story we could live to tell
(the conclusion of “Las Vegas” and the end of the album)

For a band whose albums have been called Funeral Dress and Left for Dead, living to tell is no small accomplishment.  In the end the appeal of lyrics like these is going to be to middle-aged marrieds like me — in fact, like their immediate predecessor, Amy Rigby (now also collaborating with a lover), but with a more well-defined and unusual soundscape, Wussy are alt country songwriters with indie rock sonics and ambitions.  Wussy can’t change the world because the young don’t understand why middle-aged marrieds settle (we wouldn’t have when we were young either) and because there isn’t much of an outside — a depression or a war — to their social landscape, at least not as of now.  But if enough of us middle-aged marrieds will admit how much our emotional landscapes sound like Wussy, maybe they’ll get popular enough to quit their day jobs.



(Kenny writing)

The cliche goes that since artists have five or ten years to develop the songs on their debut, but only a year or two, mostly spent on the road, to develop their follow-up, the debut is generally the better album.  Of course, we can all come up with any number of counterexamples.  But even for those of us who loved K’naan’s debut The Dusty Foot Philosopher, this seemed like a plausible case.  After all, the repetition of the I’m from the world’s most dangerous ‘hood (Mogadischu) theme does get wearying — I believe you!  I believe you!  That album gets over by the freshness of the music, which comes not from being at the cutting edge of beats (the man notes sardonically on the rerecorded “If Rap Gets Jealous” that he can’t afford to hire Kanye ‘cos if he did he wouldn’t be able to send any money home) but the unusual choice of samples (unusual if you’re not from East Africa, that is) and the old school variety 1970s rock guitar.  And also by the fact that, well, being from Mogadischu does matter.  It’s something we all need to hear about.

For the first 10 tracks Troubadour is indeed not as good as the debut, but for all that it’s much better then I feared going in.  The first half of the album does repeat the same themes, with the only twist being the commitment to let us know that he isn’t complaining, he partying, this is what it means to party in the war zone.  (Did someone accuse Dusty Foot of being no fun?  Well, fuck ’em.)  But then the last four tracks come, and I’ll be surprised if they are topped by any four songs in a row in 2009.  All are slow to mid-tempo, in the Wyclef Jean/John Forte style where a soul inflected Caribbean/African track underlies a sometimes rapped, sometimes sung story-song.  “Fire In Freetown” is built around the metaphor “like Fire In Freetown/I’m fueled by your gold mine” — and some stuff in an African language I can’t identify, let alone understand.  “Take A Minute,” my favorite, is built over a slow piano hook (full orchestra in the background) with the theme “And any man who knows a thing knows, he knows not a damn, damn thing at all,” not to mention “the worst is over”.  I mean, this is rap music, the music that was invented for the purpose of stylized bragging.  “15 Minutes Away,” is “dedicated to anyone who’s ever waited for a money transfer,” and ends with K’naan saying mildly “Generosity is the key” twice as the track begins to fade out.  And “People Like Me,” who turn out to be soldiers stationed in Iraq and suburban divorced housewives:  that is, people who have lost love ones but don’t have anyone to sing about their loss.  “People like me they speak politely/they don’t start no beef or piece of white meat.”

The generosity involved in finding commonality in these mainstream Americans is breathtaking.  Find me someone else in hip hop, or any other current music, reaching out like that, and I’ll let them tell me about their hard lives as often as they want.

(Kenny writing)

Because I like Magic pretty much better then anyone else (except perhaps David, who likes it plenty too), I thought I would lay out my mixed feelings about the new Springsteen album in terms of what I value in Bruce’s late work.  Song for song, theme for theme, studio sound for studio sound, there is a great deal of coherence in the four studio releases since The Rising, and all have at least a few good songs, yet Magic seems to me the only one that works as an album.  This seems like the moment to explain this.

To start with, David has already praised the new “Queen of the Supermarket” on this site, and I note that Robert Christgau also labels it a choice cut in this months MSN Consumer Guide.  I also note that Rob Tannenbaum in Blender hates it, and I’m on Blender‘s side of the issue.  While everyone else was singing the praises of “Girls In Their Summer Clothes” on Magic, the first convincer for me was “I’ll Work for Your Love,” a direct and elegiac account of hard love decades later, a song that I predicted would introduce one of the great themes of Springsteen’s old age:  lust among people who don’t look so damned great in their summer clothes.  So why love “Work” and not “Queen” (especially when, had I reverse it and said “Love” instead of “Supermarket” I could have changed the valences between the titles)?  Because “Work” is hooked by Roy Bittan’s lovely piano, while “Queen” wastes crucial minutes on a weird synth orchestral arrangement.  Lest this sound like the rather stupid claim that pianos are better then synths — if that’s true, why listen to recent Bruce at all? — let me hasten to assure you that the issue is that the piano which presents Teresa directly invokes Rosalita, Wendy, and every other lust object of Bruce’s youth, grounding the song in a past, while the abstracted synth sound of “Queen” is an ungrounded dream.  “Working on a Dream”, rather then “your Love”, indeed.

Magic sounds like the end of the Bush days, like something in the political world that Bruce, or I, might want has finally happened.  Rather then invoking “Magic,” or “Last To Die,” I think about the much maligned “Gypsy Biker” — Rob Tannenbaum specifically compares “Queen” to “Gypsy” — to demonstrate this.  Because if it is true that “Gyspy Biker” is hardly Bruce’s first song taking place in the social landscape of broken down factory towns, and “gypsy” hardly the currently most interesting metaphor for someone passing through, it is also true that — for the first time in our political lifetimes (the Clinton years are not counterexamples) the biker can “pass through” with equanimity about “the speculators [who] made money on the blood you shed” and “come home.”

Magic works because it does actually capture that emotional moment.  The Rising is a mixed bag, not the essential post-911 record.  (That title goes to One Beat, although many an older Springsteen fan won’t know that because they never listened to Sleater-Kinney.)  But Magic is the essential album about the fall of the Bush regime.  My favorite album of ’07 was by Wussy, but no one would accuse Lisa Walker and Chuck Cleaver of having Bush on their minds. 

If all you knew about Working On A Dream was what you saw at the inauguration and on the Super Bowl halftime show, you would assume from the title song that it will thematize the ascendency of Barack Obama in a choral/inspirational manner.  Whether you like that idea, or it makes you throw up, will depend on whether you think Obama is a savior or you think that no politician is a savior so get over it.  Since I’m in the latter category I’m relieved to report that Working On A Dream is not that album.  Instead, it’s a true mixed bag with no identity, including enough tracks to interest you or bore you to tears.  More then anything, it’s a weird album.  Starting with an eight minute faux-Western that is obviously ironic, except that no one has ever claimed that irony is one of Bruce’s strengths and I’d appreciate someone helping me to understand where the irony is directed.  After all, it does actually matter who “we cannot undo these things we’ve done” — stated by Bounty Hunter Dan to Pete — is directed at. 

Of course, whoever it’s directed at, the statement is also true, so as a Springsteen fan I’ll take both it an the cries of “I’m Outlaw Pete, can you hear me” that make up the song’s second half at (ironic) face value.  Pete can’t undo his past, nor can Bounty Hunter Dan, nor can the United States:  the election of Barack Obama does not suddenly change everything.  But if the election is an opportunity, Bruce doesn’t fulfill that opportunity with this record.  Instead, the record is all over the place:  happy in a long loving relationship in “Surprise, Surprise” (third to last song), humble in “The Wrestler” (last song), and repetitive for most of the ten songs between “Pete” and “Surprise,”  songs that repeat all the essential Springsteen themes without giving them context, the kind of context that allowed Magic to work.

(David writing)

With a second superb album, It’s Not Me, It’s You Lily Allen immediately vaults from an out-of-the-box concept artist with a bunch of great song to a full-fledged flat-out great songwriter.  And one who seems to have something to offer nearly anybody who seeks great songs.  No, she doesn’t give up the poetry like Bob Dylan — she’s hardly beyond clever and you could say she enjoys using language, but it’s strictly a conduit for getting her points across. And these particular points are her own. Who even to compare her to? Mapping the web of a 20-something woman’s self-definition as it relates to her sexuality and her determination to not get fucked over, including by herself, only a few come to mind — Joni Mitchell, Liz Phair, PJ Harvey, Courtney Love, Sleater-Kinney, Missy Elliott, who else ya got? And I’ll start right off saying that of those, Allen’s easily got the easiest and richest sense of humor, which goes along with her standing her ground without needing rage, bravado or even much irony. She couldn’t reminisce about some stud she fucked on a Greek island with a straight face, and in general seems to find the jet-setting privileges of popdom disorienting and largely unnecessary (though word is she does love the clothing part of it).  And especially on her second album, which does without ska ventures or extra-sharp Professor Longhair quotes, she’s aiming her music at the most unadventurous pop fans this side of Celine Dion, people who enjoy a good tune and some life in the rhythms, but who don’t want to be challenged by noise, sensory overload, or anything else they not already used to. In this, she also separates herself from just about any male singer-songwriter of anywhere close to her level of specificity abnd liveliness. One way or another, they tend to be aesthetes. The only one I can think of is Billy Joel, whom nobody born outside , say, 1950-1975 northeast U.S. understands, and at least half of those don’t even admit that we do. Because one major quality that Allen has over Joel is self-awareness. Not self-consciousness, with its nervous insecurity leading to overly cautious positioning (Joel lacks that, too, very much  to his credit), but a sense of how you come off, of where you fit in compared to the characters in your songs, of what it means to write and care about them, to what extent they’re you. Joel, on other hand, well, one reason there’ll never be a biopic on him is that Will Ferrell would be too cruel in his portrayal — his best  20 or so songs deserve better, but Ferrell would get the tone close enough, that fat-headed obliviousness and entitlement.

   Last time, when she was 20, Lily Allen was a barhopping bedhopping  wiseacre who knew her limits but who also wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to diss jerks who nixed her mortgage application, kept her out of the hot nightclub or who were no good either at sex or those parts relationships that happens with clothes on.

   This time, she’s more grounded, more responsible, but never allows that either will mean she’s less spirited or fun-loving. She can start with a song about the hypocrisy and naivete of people who privilege perscription drugs over the street kind and make it sound like another cock-diss, which is also how the anti-Bush one sounds, which is why it works — she imagines him as the jerk in the next booth, and if I’ve had to wait since I was about 12 for a fully commercial-sounding pop song called “Fuck You,” well, Allen makes sure noivelty aspect doesn’t go to waste. Sure, the happy relationship song that welcomes coupling as a respite from the mundane ends with takeout in front of the TV, sure she complains “I spent ages giving head” while lying in the wet spot, this we expect from Allen already, and she still performs well. But the one about stardom’s loss of self is so closely felt I was afraid for a moment that it had actually happened, that she was just singing about loving money and doing anything for fame. “I’ll take my clothes off and it will be shameless,” sure, I could see that happening. “It doesn’t matter ’cause I’m packing plastic,” oh, not another one.  But no, whew, “I don’t care about clever I don’t care about funny,” not our Lily, not anytime soon and probably not ever, and that she puts failure of sense of humor into a song called “The Fear” is just one thing I love about her. 

   Last time she closed with an oompah-beat laugh-a-line well-intentioned mocking of her slacker brother, while this time she breaks her own mold with a completely conciliatory plea which turns out to be for her sister. And makes you realize that she’s not breaking any mold, just delving deep and telling it as she feels and sees it, just like always. If she’s just a lot more perceptive and is brave enough to delve deeper than the norm, she doesn’t see why that makes her any less normal, or at least less understandable by normal people. Which is what I meant by the post title, by the way. Kept meaning to get to it.

 Also: ,

Vivian Girls


(Kenny writing)

Fuzzy sound and lack of rhythmic imagination are generally signs of amateurism and youth, and while they can be infectuous live in the right setting, they are generally dead ends for recording artists.  There are exceptions.  Scrawl counts as my favorite band that managed to maintain such an apparently amateur sound over a decade and seven records.  They did so by relentlessly pursuing the musical implications of a particular, depressive proto-feminist subjectivity, their conviction driven by complicated (but out of tune) harmonies, direct melodies, lyrics driven by smart, meaningful hooks (I think I’m turning into a slut, there is nothing to walk away from, go ahead — take a swing) and a mostly slow, pounding rhythm.  Their great punk cover of Paula Abdul’s “Cold Hearted Snake” is the place to start getting it if you’ve never tried.  Without Scrawl, the sound of Sealter-Kinney — an infinitely more varied and virtuosic band — couldn’t have emerged.

Vivian Girls is an arty decendent of this approach.  As repetitive to the rock and roll ear as the Saharan music I’ve heard on Festival In the Desert and Group Inerane’s album, but with an up-top harmonic approach straight out of 1966 (think Moby Grape, or early Jefferson Airplane), these are post-Riot Grrrls who sound like they can’t play their instruments as a concept rather then because, well, they can’t play their instruments.  (I have no idea whether in fact they can or not.)  They also sound like they recorded these songs on 1966 recording equipment.  In doing this they come up with a strangely compelling concept, a soundscape that draws you into their world whether or not you “believe in nothing,” as they hook their last track.

I don’t love the record.  This is the kind of debut that could go somewhere, or not.  Unless you’re 20 and haven’t worked through lots of low fi debut albums before, this one won’t change your life.  But it is distinct and original enough to make this fan of Scrawl and Sleater-Kinney think they could have better in them, that something really interesting could come of it.

(Kenny writing)

One tension that crops up periodically between David and me is that David listens to music as an aesthete, whereas I listen to music as a fan.  We have discussed this off-blog, but it’s time to take it on line.  The main comment David has made about this on this site — in different terms — is at the beginning of his “David’s lists” post in the “About” section.

Broadly speaking, what this means is that David approaches each album, and indeed each song, more or less individually, starting from the question of what this particular aesthetic object sounds like.  This allows him to say, song by song, I like this one, this one’s boring.  From some points of view this makes him a better, more serious listener then me.  He is more celebratory of small accomplishments and details, and less forgiving of mediocre music in styles we like or writer-performers who actually only had a few distinct songs in them this time out.

I approach a new Bruce Springsteen album (as a not so random example) as a fan of Bruce Springsteen.  I see the record as part of the ongoing story of an individual I have had a pretty intense relationship with over a long period of time.  This obviously doesn’t mean that I like everything the man has ever recorded, but it does mean that I listen through stuff I might, in another context, consider boring, and I make extra effort to figure out what the guy is saying at the moment.  I stop only when I determine that this extra effort hasn’t paid off.

Bruce is an important example because of how we are likely to address the earliest records, prior to Born In the USA (which is pretty much where we both tuned in — I bought The River, probably in ’81 or ’82 (not when it came out) but at age 14 I didn’t really get it).  We both agree that the early records are full of overextended songs and overwrought melodrama that doesn’t fit our punkier aeshetic mode; we both agree that the man is capable of clunkers; we both agree that overall, he’s pretty amazing.  The difference in evaluation will come from the fact that when I want to hear Darkness At the Edge of Town, I want to hear all of it, because I actively enjoy and learn from the songs I’m supposed to find melodramatic and overwrought:  I’ve given Springsteen the space to draw me in, the way a fan does, and consciously chosen to inhabit his aesthetics for the length of the record.  I’m happy to let him push me around, rather then to stand my ground and say “I don’t like this song.”

What I am seeking to do, all too much perhaps (because it may be all too “imaginary”), is create an imaginary community with other human beings, a community in which my interest in a set of sounds, concepts, and ideas, expands and become a matter of social importance. “Fanhood” permits me to do this in two ways — by imagining a personal relationship to an artist, and by imagining a field of social commonality (a common “structure of feeling”) with others who are also fans.

(Note that fanhood is entirely distinct from idolatry, which is an unfortunate outgrowth of fanhood in some contexts.  If you imagine yourself as a flawed and imperfect human being, you will imagine the artist you are a fan of that way as well, rather then as an idol.)

The implications of this difference turn out, over decades of listening to music together, to be huge, and can be seen in a variety of places on this blog.  The most fundamental place, I think, is going to be on the question of pleasure, which David and I have had numerous exchanges about over the years.  David really wants to know what gives him pleasure, an absolutely valid question.  I figured out a long time ago that huge numbers of things (musical and nonmusical) can give me pleasure, and I was going to have to have some kind of way of determining which ones were worth following up.