Saturday, July 10, 2010

Too Much For Twitter...

I read a 2008 quote by Parker Posey this morning which basically explained how while she was working on both a TV project and a play at the same time, she enjoyed seeing how the mechanics that made up each medium differed. "I like going into different worlds and seeing what's backstage, ya know?"

I agree. While I absolutely adore being lost in the fantasy of good TV or film or theatre, it's seeing how each works differently, the organs that must hum and pulse and process each differently that fascinates me.

The irony, of course, is that I'm writing this on camera, but "behind the scenes" in a television studio. Realizing that I agreed with Posey while actually in the process of enjoying a backstage world was pretty funny.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

When It Rains, It Rocks... Top Albums of 2010 (So Far)

Talk about a drought.

2009 was one of the most overwhelmingly good years in recent memory for a music fan of my rather peculiar taste. Old favorites, new discoveries, a mixing of styles and even some genre surprises. There was nearly enough to make a list of the twenty best, rather than ten, and while 15-20 might've been a little stretched, it wouldn't have been filler for the sake of filler.

So what the hell happened?

I don't want to sound like I'm denigrating the artists who you'll read about below -they've all done great work, and would deserve a place in contention even if this year were flooded with other good releases. It's just that they've stood remarkably alone. There have been a few "good, solid" albums that I've really enjoyed and will continue to listen to that just aren't what I'm looking for in a "best of" wrap-up (Ted Leo... I'm looking at you!), but those listed below are certainly ready to slog it out when December hits, in the supreme year-end roundup.

5. The Dead Weather - Sea Of Cowards
I have this theory about Jack White. He knows that rock stardom is fleeting, and immortality comes only as a martyr or a legend (or both). He's no fool, and he's no con man either, no matter what his Tesla-spouting snake-oil salesman persona might indicate. He's as real-world shrewd as he is eccentric, and ever since he got his foot in the door, he's throwing out everything good he can do... the man just wants a legacy before Boethius's wheel throws him back down to the dirt once again. But none of that's important, really. This is, just like last year's album, a greasy slab of voodoo blues. It's the Exile to the White Stripes' Aftermath. There's really no better or worse, it's just that one's about overall vibe and the other is about songs. Lead singer Alison Mosshart is less enamoured of aping White's vocal style this time around, but the band grinds like The Birthday Party if they were mainlining crude oil. No highlights to pick, because this bastard's one big oozing grease smear.

4. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings - I Learned The Hard Way
Like The Dirtbombs, the Dap-Kings are almost guaranteed a place on my list anytime they grace us with a record. It's not that I'm enough of a fan that I'll accept anything. It's just that they only really do one thing, but they do it better than anyone else. A 60's soul album cut in Brooklyn by a bunch'a youngsters and a force-of-nature soul singer. The songs and production are tight as a drum on this one, but if you liked their previous work, you won't have any surprises. Except maybe for how much you like it despite having heard their book of tricks before. Of course, I still love to watch breakdancers at work, so there are just some performance arts that seem to thrill every time. This is one of them.

3. John & Exene - Singing And Playing
OK, so this one isn't fair, really. I had the good fortune of being woken up to go see John Doe and Exene Cervenka play an acoustic, Storytellers-esque performance to a seated crowd. Apparently, before the tour, they went to a friend's place and recorded this EP of low-key new tunes, covers, and material from their time fronting punk legends X. Not only was the show an absolute thrill, but the CD-R EP that played in the car ride home was the perfect extension of the night. Recorded about two weeks before I purchased it, it's the sound of two people, who love to make music, doing it very well. Get your eBay finger working.

2. Sade - Soldier Of Love
Even if this wasn't a great record, the title track would have at least put it up for consideration. Sade, it should be noted, was music for my mother to listen to up until I heard this track. The soundtrack to hot summer days en route to a mall in Virginia, sandwiched between Phil Collins and The Police. Someone convinced me to give it the single whirl... it was only a click away to stream... so I gave it a shot. Every so often, R&B music seems to capture the times better than rock (which is a uniquely navel-gazing form, for all the alleged social change it's capable of). In the late-90s, it seemed like the robo-funk-hop of Timbaland and the Neptunes perfectly summed up the future-looking, crest-riding, hedonistic party that we were all headed to, intoxicated with our own self-assuredness. It's clearly a different time, and "Soldier Of Love" embraces our own (circa 2010) twisted solipsistic tendencies in an increasingly bleak world. For all the hope that's been bandied about the past couple of years, things have been pretty grim lately... for lack of a better term, it's been a fucked-up decade to become an adult. Wars that can't be won against enemies we can't understand... political unrest and division, society tearing itself apart at at the grey concrete seams. The vocalist's metaphor for emotional war plays out over a jittery, paranoid groove torn from Massive Attack and filtered through recent Prince. Far and away the best thing on a record full of grey, conflicted moods, it's an excellent starter for a day of wrapping yourself up in paranoid bad vibes, because they're the only armor you have.

1. Gorillaz - Plastic Beach
Speaking of bad vibes... these simians aren't usually dancing the night away. I'll admit, that while the first Gorillaz album was good, I saw it as the Britpop version of Prozzak... a successful but restless pop star has a fun dalliance into assumed cartoon character personae and multimedia experiments, plays some good songs, and then a "let's get back to reality, shall we?". I was wrong. Their second album, Demon Days, was, to my mind, the finest example of "post-millennial, culturally relevant musical cross-pollination" in the last decade. Which is to say it managed to summarize those darkest of days by throwing everything in the mix and sounding contemporary without dating itself. The key to the whole thing is that, well... it still cares. We might be completely fucked, but there's still a chance for redemption. It doesn't offer it, but it lets you know that some of us might make it out of this alive. If Sade was a bad night alone, this is the album for the day after. Guest stars float in and out of the mix over sounds that aren't easily pigeonholed... once again tossing hip-hop, dub, rock, world music, et al, into a musical Cuisinart. Lofty concepts would be interesting enough in print alone, but this is a great album... and doesn't everyone need something to listen to after the end of the world?

Friday, July 2, 2010

Brighton Rock

Perhaps, Richard...

But vitriol was the order of the day. In hindsight that last post could be seen as a meta-example of the very argument itself: transcendent writing must bring an understanding of humanity to the table. A sudden rush of emotion filterted through a creative outlet. I'm not saying it WAS transcendent Pulitzer material, but it's far more interesting to my sensibility as a READER than a rational recounting of emotional reactions days after the fact. Isn't it that same drive that inspires a poem to be authored, or a song to be written? That mad rush to grab an instrument of any kind and trap the animal, to contain it so that it can be shared with others, and exorcised from your mind? After all, what is art if not life simply filtered through the artist's perception? It's a shame that all that was taken from it seems to be the desire to write about "sore ankles" and "smelly markets", because to a certain sensibility, it's the aggregation of that type of detail that make up the human condition, and makes whatever flights of fantasy an author creates ring true.

Few people care about the nuts and bolts of a disagreement if they don't understand the context and weight that each side brings to the table. Perhaps that's an oversimplification, but it's not inaccurate. Many (but I'll concede that certainly not all) audiences prefer to ask why the clock has a bird in it, and what that means, rather than request a schematic for the mechanism. I respect that, but personally find schematics crushingly boring. I'd rather be reading Hemingway. And I hate Hemingway. I'm almost done with his works, but can't find the time these days.

Shoehorning one type of creativity into another shape simply because that's what the audience says they want does everyone a disservice... it gives the audience a weak approximation of the original spark, and usually only presents them with something they already know and like. That's fine and dandy to *ahem* "give the people what they want", but that impulse to be populist often stifles what might have been a truly inspired creative moment otherwise. That's the impulse that creates "cover bands" in local bars... picking up a guitar and playing someone else's songs over and over. Sure it's fun, and there's a place for interpretation, but there's no soul to grinding out recreations of someone else's actual creativity. It's an artistic dead end. Write your own! Even if it's malformed or ham-fisted, it's undeniably authentically artistic, and represents some aspect of the creator at that moment. Not all interpretations are bad, but interpreters, no matter their technical gifts, are rarely artists in their own right. There is a place for "confined" creativity (in this case, writing), but rarely does that transcend the forced template of its medium into a place that makes it truly artistic. In case our antagonist has ever been to Goodwill or, perhaps, St. Vincent de Paul, he might've seen thousands of books that meet any given set of criteria, but are lost to (or under) the dust of time because they had no soul, all they were was a set of writing rules that could have been passed out by any college writing instructor.

While this antagonist, who we can call "Duke", made a very valid point for the practical benefits of understading the technical qualities of the medium (i.e. brevity and a less self-aware persepctive), and is certainly well-informed and well-read enough that his opinion shouldn't be considered wrong, his taste is limited by the value system that he has defined over the years, learing what he likes and dislikes. He's entitled to filter out things that don't interest him, after all, why waste time when you know what you like? If what an audience likes is pre-determined, and an artist doesn't fit that finite scope, why should that artist try to "move the mountain". It's easier at that point in life to not waste time with that which doesn't interest them.

Which is a perfectly reasonable course of action. But one that precludes a truly objective sense of critical analysis.

But this is a music blog. While many find Ornette Coleman's untethered sonic experimentalism inspiring, others find it too "free" (in the jazz sense). I'm a fan of Coleman's work but know that "Duke" doesn't like jazz. Why attempt to play him Rashaan Roland Kirk or Miles Davis' On The Corner? To break it down to the rock metaphor that my readers tend to think in (and expect, becuase there's nothing here but consistiency): some people find Dylan's "With God On Our Side" inspiring. I find it didactic and tedious, no matter how it succinctly sums up the racial and political discord that was happening at that moment. I want more than reporting on the facts. Plenty of people turned their noses up at "Maggie's Farm" and "Phantom Engineer" at the Newport Folk Festival in '65. Pete Seeger was on the other side, looking at something that wasn't his, and since it wasn't something that was a part of him (an important contrast to "him being a part of IT"), he may have understood it, but it wasn't something that he could viscerally, emotionally connect to in any positive way. So he chose to wave around an axe and look for the power lines. It would be churlish to compare "Duke" to Seeger, because to do so would unfairly imply ignorance that isn't there.

I'd rather be a Bob Dylan than a Pete Seeger any day.

Have fun on the "Ariadne". Hopefully your German comes in handy. Of course, if "Duke" was right... I shouldn't even know what any of that means. The irony, of course, is that he made the mistake of giving me that in the first place. Hope this one wasn't too long like the last one...