“Singing religious songs and getting the words wrong”: Withered Hand

The other record I’ve been crazy about lately is Good News by Withered Hand, a.k.a. a father of two from Edinburgh with a Moldy Peaches poster on his wall named Dan Willson.  It’s pretty easy to describe the album: it sounds a whole lot like early If You’re Feeling Sinister-period Belle & Sebastian; his voice can sound like Dean Wareham’s, and on some of the songs the slightly hanging-back drumming style makes me think of Galaxie 500’s Damon Krukowski.* [* just noticed that Good News was produced by Kramer, the guy who did the early Galaxie 500 records!  So maybe that drum thing is his signature.]

The Belle & Sebastian analogy isn’t just a matter of sound, either — if Willson’s not actually a former choirboy, he’s definitely hung up on a guilty Catholic Edinburgh childhood.

Anyway: amazing, beautiful, hilarious songs!  Maybe the best lyrics are on the hymnal “Religious Songs,” an acoustic version of which you can see Willson performing on his own Edinburgh rooftop in the video below.

Really, this is a seriously incredible song.  It starts out with a lapsed-Catholic’s confusion over the ritual of the sacrament and turns into pained memories of something short of a relationship: “Remember you thought I was gay?/ I beat myself off when I sleep on your futon/ Walk in the rain with my second-hand suit on.” He still feels guilty for not singing religious songs anymore and is half-ripping off Dylan in any case (“Knocking on Heaven’s Door” counts as a religious song, I guess?).

I don’t really know what I should do
Like should I be passing this bread along to you
And I don’t really know what the wine was for
Like if this was Jesus’ blood wouldn’t there be more?
I’m knocking on Kevin’s front door
I’m singing religious songs and getting the words wrong
My hair’s getting too long, this congregation
And they’re saying, how does he really expect to be happy
when he listens to death metal bands?
La, la la la, la la la, la la la la la

If there’s manna from heaven then you’re disinclined to share
You stole my heart and I stole your underwear
You said “religion is bullshit it’s all about metaphor”
Well if I need a fence to sit on
I’ll sit on yours dreaming of Babylon’s whores

I knew you so long I ran out of cool things to say
I still bump into friends that we both had yesterday
When they ask me how I am I I lie, say I’m doing fine
Still manage to tell me you’re on an easy lake holiday well that’s OK [?]
Remember you thought I was gay?
I beat myself off when I sleep on your futon
Walk in the rain with my second-hand suit on
I walk in the rain and I’m thinking, if I happen to die tonight in my sleep
I’ll have come and not blood on my hands
La, la la la, la la la, la la la la la

“New Dawn” is peppier, sounds more like… what was that Scottish band, I can’t remember now, the Lighthouse Keepers?  Who am I thinking of?*  “I saw you at the Embassy/ We were both crippled socially/…We wrote ‘Pavement’ on our shoes…. We paid our respects, we wrote ‘Confusion is Sex,’ and on your shoulder-bag I wrote ‘the Silver Jews.'”  “I Am Nothing” is another fave: “I tried to see the world in your eyes/ I’m insignificant, that’s my size/ In the greater scheme of things I am nothing.”  [*I was trying to think of the Wedding Present who are actually from Leeds.]

Love this record.  Get this guy in a studio with Frank Ocean and see what happens!

Dana Spiotta’s *Stone Arabia*: a musical tree falling in the woods

The one other novel I read in the midst of my Classic Doorstops was Dana Spiotta’s new Stone Arabia (link to Amazon where it’s for sale for less than $14).  This was also my first Kindle book purchase of over $1.99 or so.  I have to say that the whole Kindle (on iPad) experience was pretty great.  There I was up in Maine — the libraries did not even have the novel in yet, and in one minute I had it downloaded for $12.99.  Sarah keeps telling people that I “clutched the iPad to my breast like an infant” the entire time in Maine which I think is a gross overstatement, but it’s true that I do love my enchanted/ing tablet.  Reading in bed can be mesmerizing… no book light… the words hang in space, luminous and abstract.  Flip, flip, flip with your finger like Merlin or the Wicked Witch navigating a magic crystal.

I enjoyed this novel but don’t think it’s as strong as her great previous one, Eat the Document, which was based loosely on the life of Cathy Wilkerson, I believe, the former Weather Underground radical who changed her identity and lived ‘underground’ for a decade after playing a role in the accidental explosion of her father’s Manhattan townhouse.  Eat the Document is one of my favorite novels of recent years… Stone Arabia is well worth reading, especially if you’re a pop music fan, but felt to me slightly schematic or high-concept (movie-ready) by comparison.  The narrator is a woman, Nicole, whose older brother Nik almost made it as a rock and roll star, but (kind of along the lines of the Ben Stiller character in Greenberg?) missed out on success due to some combination of intransigence, eccentricity, and refusal to compromise.   Nicole narrates the novel, but big chunks of it constitute Nik’s “self-curation,” in the form of an obsessive project of semi-fantastic memoir, telling in great detail the counterfactual story of his major success and decline as an internationally famous pop star, including elaborately fabulated documents such as record reviews, fan mail, etc.  He also records cd after cd of his increasingly strange music, which he distributes in tiny, fully-packaged editions to a small circle of family members.  [btw, Great Jones Street (1973) by Spiotta’s mentor Don DiLillo, about reclusive, Dylan-esque rock legend Bucky Wunderlick and the theft of his unreleased recordings, hangs over this one.  The title of Spiotta’s last, Eat the Document, is appropriated from a Dylan tour documentary, fwiw.]

In this sense Stone Arabia reminded me a little bit of Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude, with the similar structure of a narrator describing a close family member’s eccentric, non-circulating project of self-memorialization or curation.  Or I suppose it’s a bit different in that in Lethem’s novel the father is simply working on a never-ending private artwork (an avant-garde film)… but there’s a similar feel in the relationship and the way the novel contains and represents a displaced self-memorialization.  Towards the end the self-curation takes a final turn of the screw when Denise’s daughter, Nik’s niece, begins a documentary film about Nik and his projects.  The novel is thinking through very of-the-moment questions about the meanings of our self-documentation, the degree to which celebrity has become normalized as a life path for ordinary people (Youtube stars, etc), and the psychological/social effects of viewing one’s own life as a “project” or a mediated story.  When self-documentation ends, can life or identity continue?  The threat of suicide-via-data-erasure (or cessation) hangs over the narrative (with almost P.K. Dick overtones at times).

Spiotta obviously knows and understands pop music, underground celebrity, the contemporary mythologies of semi-popular culture, from the inside, and so the portrayal of Nik is really compelling.  He’s a fictional cousin to real-life “lost” figures of underground music along the lines of, I don’t know, R. Stevie Moore, Skip Spence, Scott Walker?  Especially since the 1980s, we’ve been drawn to the narrative of unknown post-punk/rock legends who emerge and reveal a fully-realized body of work that was recorded but kept secret or totally ignored. It took a few decades of rock and roll history to allow sufficient sedimentation of the historical record such that giants could be “discovered,” preserved in amber from some previous strata.  Rehabilitation projects, reclaiming the marginalized, almost a World-Music-ization of Western pop, finding the primitive genius out in in the wilds.  With bands like Pavement and Guided by Voices, this became an increasingly conventional means, even, of launching oneself as a band or musician “out of nowhere” — generating the effect of “who are these guys?  Who made these strange artifacts?  Who plucked then from obscurity?”  Nik intentionally withdraws and chooses to perform as a pop music star in a private world of non-circulation, yet with a fully-articulated story of public significance, turning himself into a musical tree falling in the woods.

Stone Arabia has received rapturous reviews — “Evocative, mysterious, incongruously poetic…gritty, intelligent, mordant, and deeply sad,” NYTBR — and I think they’re are at least partly deserved… But in the end I agree more with the review in New York Magazine that praises the novel highly but complains that Denise can feel somewhat “generic…  a packhorse for all the familiar baggage of modern life;” we’re always looking through her to get to her mysterious brother’s more interesting, and only partly accessible, consciousness.

Still, if you like rock and roll/pop music fiction, this is a good one; not as great as A Visit from the Goon Squad, IMO, but in some ways a worthy pair to Egan’s novel from last year.

Vampire Weekend, Lil Jon, the Dalai Lama, & the Oxford Comma: a fuller consideration

You have probably by now heard all about this week’s dust-up, kerfuffle, brouhaha, call it what you will, about the Oxford Comma:

By Associated Press, Published: June 30

LONDON — A report that Oxford University had changed its comma rule left some punctuation obsessives alarmed, annoyed, and distraught. Passions subsided as the university said the news was imprecise, incomplete and misleading.Catch the difference between the two previous sentences? An “Oxford comma” was used before “and” in the first sentence, but is absent in the second, in accordance with the style used by The Associated Press.
Guides to correct style differ and the issue became heated on Twitter after reports of the Oxford comma’s demise.
But have no fear, comma-philes: the Oxford comma lives.
Oxford University Press, birthplace of the Oxford comma, said Thursday that there has been no change in its century-old style, and jumped into the Twittersphere to confirm that it still follows the standard set out in “New Hart’s Rules.”…
The kerfuffle at least answered the musical question posed by indie band Vampire Weekend: “Who gives a —- about an Oxford comma?”

This must have been one of those occasions where a million people at once (myself among them) thought it would be at least mildly clever and apt to reference the Vampire Weekend song (“Oxford Comma”).  I wonder if it shot to the top of the iTunes download charts this week.

I had never paid close attention to the lyrics to the song.  First of all, although by some standards I could probably count as a “punctuation obsessive,” as this A.P. piece rudely puts it (I prefer “comma-phile”), I’ll admit didn’t precisely know the definition of an Oxford comma.  But I took the concept to stand for snobby/fussy/elite punctiliousness among the educated/preppy classes… a perfect objective correlative for Vampire Weekend, as they style themselves as auto-ethnographers of that world.

Here are the full lyrics:

Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?/ I’ve seen those English dramas too/ They’re cruel/ So if there’s any other way/ To spell the word/ It’s fine with me, with me

Why would you speak to me that way/ Especially when I always said that I/ Haven’t got the words for you/ All your diction dripping with disdain/ Through the pain/ I always tell the truth

Who gives a fuck about an Oxford climber?/ I climbed to Dharamsala too/ I met the highest lama/ His accent sounded fine/ To me, to me

Check your handbook/It’s no trick/ Take the chapstick/ Put it on your lips/ Crack a smile/ Adjust my tie/ Know your boyfriend, unlike other guys

Why would you lie about how much coal you have?/ Why would you lie about something dumb like that?/ Why would you lie about anything at all?/ First the window, then it’s to the wall/ Lil’ Jon, he always tells the truth

First the window, then it’s through the wall/ Why would you tape my conversations?/ Show your paintings/ At the United Nations/ Lil’ Jon, he always tells the truth

“Oxford comma” turns into “Oxford climber;” punctiliousness about obscure grammar rules associated with social climbing and Anglophile snobbishness.

Wiki tells us that:

on January 28, 2008, Michael Hogan of Vanity Fair interviewed Ezra Koenig regarding the title of the song and its relevance to the song’s meaning. Koenig said he first encountered the Oxford comma (an optional comma before conjunctions at the end of a list) after learning of a Columbia University Facebook group called Students for the Preservation of the Oxford Comma. The idea for the song came several months later while Koenig was sitting at a piano in his parents’ house. He began “writing the song and the first thing that came out was ‘Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?'” He stated that the song “is more about not giving a fuck than about Oxford commas.”

Someone here explicates the line “Why would you lie about how much coal you have?:

Lying about how much coal you have can easily be done through the omission of an oxford comma.

An oxford comma is the comma right before the and in a series.

I have 100 pounds of iron, 50 pounds of steel, and coal.
I have 100 pounds of iron, 50 pounds of steel and coal.

In the first example, the amount of coal is not specified, while in the second example there are clearly 50 pounds of coal. By omitting the oxford comma, you can let people think that you have 50 pounds of coal, even if you do not, as the oxford comma is often viewed as optional.

But why would you lie about how much coal you have? why would you lie about something dumb like that?

What worries me a bit about this analysis, however, is that when I Googled “Oxford comma, steel, coal” in a few variants, I kept getting references to Vampire Weekend and none to the steel/coal sentence as a classic one used to explain the grammar rule in Britain.  Perhaps I needed to go further down the Google pages, though.

Reading through old comments on the song’s entry on songmeanings.net, one oft-debated crux relates to the references to “Lil Jon” (the rapper) — or is it the former Australian Prime Minister?

The Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, was know as both Honest John and Little John. He very vocally supported Bush’s War On Terror, even going so far as to make a speech at the United Nations.

Possibly there could be an allusion there, but probably not, because “First the window, then it’s to the wall/ Lil Jon, he always tells the truth” is a citation of these Lil Jon lyrics from his huge (but crude, NSFW, sorry) hit, “Get Low:”

Get low, Get low, Get Low, Get Low
To the window, to the wall,
To the sweat drip down my balls

To all skeet skeet skeet skeet goddamn
To all skeet skeet skeet skeet goddamn [? or something]

So as someone commented (sorry I’ve lost this reference already), the line “To the window, to the wall, to the sweat drip down my balls” does not need an Oxford comma because “Lil’ Jon, he always tells the truth,” that is, unpretentious, crude American speech conveys its meaning very effectively.  It doesn’t really matter whether or not there is a comma after “to the walls” (although I actually am not sure what “meaning” that line conveys, but perhaps that’s the point, that meaning per se often matters less than rhythm, rhyme, and feeling).

Another crux relates to “I climbed to Dharamsala too/I met the highest lama/ His accent sounded fine/ To me, to me.”  Liddiloop explains that “Dharamsala is a village in Northern India which has been, since the early 1960s, the capital-in-exile for Tibetan refugees fleeing persecution in Chinese-occupied Tibet, and yes, the Dalai Lama lives there, and is the ‘highest Lama’ referred to in the song. He is known for his idiosyncratic english which is far from fluent, but loved by many – so i reckon the singer is pointing out that you don’t need to be word perfect in order to get meaning across…”

So the speaker links Dalai Lama and Lil Jon as speakers of improper, non-standard “weird English” that is preferable to the fussily grammar-obsessed language of the snotty interlocutor, presumably the singer’s English (or maybe Anglophile, just back from a year abroad?) girlfriend whose “diction drip[s] with disdain.”

Other cruxes: the “coal” — is this simply a reference to the sentence about steel and coal commonly used to illustrate the Oxford comma, or (also) a figure for wealth, possibly diamonds?  The chapstick: suggesting that the girlfriend is almost OCD in her fussy obsessiveness and concern with appearances?

Thinking about this has given me a fuller appreciation for the wit, density, and allusiveness of Vampire Weekend’s lyrics, and of the complexity and cleverness of their self-positioning in reference to prestige codes.  Also codes and implications of nationality and foreign travel, e.g. Oxbridge vs. Nepal vs the United Nations, different kinds of cosmopolitanism and the knowledge or wisdom it can but will not necessarily bring.  (One subtext: Vampire Weekend are often criticized or mocked for being too Ivy League, too “white,” pretentiously cosmopolitan in the way they draw on Afropop, etc.  So you can see why they might want to ally themselves with Lil Jon here — but as ever, they are smart and self-aware about that desire to achieve authenticity, too.)

Skeet skeet skeet goddamn! (Or is that skeet, skeet, skeet goddamn?)

“My mind is like a switchboard:” Poly Styrene R.I.P.

I was sad to hear of the death from breast cancer yesterday of Marianne Joan Elliot-Said, a.k.a. Poly Styrene, at the age of 53. Nitsuh Abebe has a nice piece about Styrene (and her death) on the New York Magazine blog.

Styrene was the singer for X-Ray Spex, whose 1978 album Germ-Free Adolescents I discovered at age 14 or so (so, 1985ish 1983ish) from Robert Christgau’s Rock Albums of the 1970s book.  It was and has always been one of my favorite punk-era albums and, really, favorite albums.

Poly Styrene was one of the truly great punk singers/ personalities.  I have to steal this fabulous photo from the Abebe piece I link to above:

She was British-Somali.  She wore braces.  She shaved her head.  She freaked out Johnny Rotten by talking about hallucinations.  She wrote lyrics like this:

My mind is like a plastic bag/ That corresponds to all those ads/ It sucks up all the rubbish/ That is fed in through by ear/I eat Kleenex for breakfast/ And use soft hygienic Weetabix/ To dry my tears/My mind is like a switchboard/ With crossed and tangled lines/ Contented with confusion… My dreams I daren’t remember…/ I’ve dreamt that I was the ruler of the sea/ The ruler of the universe/ The ruler of the supermarket/ And even fatalistic me.

Or like this: “Oh bondage up yours/ Oh bondage no more/ Oh bondage up yours/ Oh bondage no more.”

Germ-Free Adolescents, like some of the greatest other punk albums, was obviously heavily influenced by reggae’s Biblical apocalyptic fatalism and vision of a world in end days.
She wore clothing made out of what looked to be shower curtains, left-over army salvage, and anything in very bright plastics.  And cardigans and colorful gloves and strange hats.  She gave punk rock color (fashion & race), wit, a female perspective.
She was a poseur.  She liked to make people stare.  She was a feminist.  (And later, a Hare Krishna!) She made female stereotypes seem absurd.

You could say she was the female Johnny Rotten but perhaps the female David Johanson of the New York Dolls in 1975 or so is more accurate.

Her voice was an ungodly caterwaul that influenced a thousand riot grrls.
Here is Poly Styene and X-Ray Spex performing their first single, “Oh Bondage Up Yours!”  And “Identity“.  And “The Day the World Turned Day-Glo.”  And here’s a 1978 interview.  And another one in which she discusses how she chose her name while brushing her teeth: “I chose the name Poly Styrene ‘cuz it’s a lightweight disposable product.  Plastic, disposable…”
X-Ray Spex was one of the first emphatically post-modern bands, creating their music and image out of consumer society, plastic, identity crisis, credit cards, apocalypse, hygeine, suicide, television, in a spirit of outrage and critique as well as hilarity, creative appropriation, and fun.  “I was playing with words and ideas. Having a laugh about everything, sending it up.
I really feel sad about her death.

Budos Band & Charles Bradley rectify the situation

Some of the Daptone Records gang came to town on Friday.

I had not heard of Charley Bradley, and so was happy to learn when we arrived that he was another Daptone recording artist who’d be singing with members of the Budos Band.

He was great!  A very affecting performance.  Bradley was born in Brooklyn in 1948 and saw James Brown at the Apollo in 1962.  “Brown’s energy formed a lasting impression on Charles. He went home and immediately began practicing microphone tricks with a broom attached to a string, imitating the Godfather’s every move.”  He first put together a band in Bar Harbor, Maine (!)– but all his bandmates were drafted for Vietnam, and he ending up finding “work as a chef in Wassaic, New York at a hospital for the mentally ill” and working as a cook for years while playing music on the side.

“Charles finally found an audience when he began making appearances in local Brooklyn clubs performing his James Brown routines under the alter ego “Black Velvet”” and he was discovered by Daptones Records at a Black Velvet performance at Bushwick.

It makes sense that Bradley is/was a professional JB imitator, as his voice is a dead ringer for the King of Soul’s, minus a lot of the vocal/melodic range; it’s a blunt instrument, but on stage he combines it to entertaining effect with JBesque moves, mostly performed fairly slowly and deliberately; he still does some of those “microphone tricks.”  Bradley’s a stocky guy, not too tall, in his early 60s and not unusually spry for someone of that age, dressed last night in very shiny and loose suit pants.  The crowd gave him a lot of love and he kept saying “I love you too!” and touching his heart and gesturing out to us all.

Here he is (at SXSW this year) performing “Heartaches and Pain,” about the murder of his brother.  Bradley starts singing about 2 minutes in.  The guy can really wail, and he exudes emotion. There’s something potentially awkward in this 60-something year-old African-American soul singer who’s been somewhat battered by life, “discovered” and brought on tour for a 95% white hipster college-town audience, but in practice it all felt very sincere and authentic.  The soul was real!

The Budos Band are an interesting group — an all-instrumental band with 10 or so people on stage, lots of horns and percussion, playing music that sounds straight out of 1972 or so, a heavy Afro-Cuban groove with a particular debt to Fela Kuti and other Afrobeat music of the 1970s.  It’s great dance music, and in person was a bit harder-hitting and decadent-feeling than I’d expected.  The music is so retro (& in eminently good/hip taste) that I thought they might have a slightly music-nerd/curatorial vibe, but they were sloshing down the Jameson’s (one of the percussionists kept sharing his bottle with two drunk girls w/ pigtails in front) and the front man (well, the guy who spoke to the audience) was prone to make comments like “so if you don’t have a copy of the Cobra [meaning Budos Band III] in your fuckin’ hands, now’s your chance to rectify that motherfuckin’ situation.”

In appearance, every member of the band could be placed on a Venn diagram chart somewhere between these poles: Al Pacino as Serpico; Zack Galifianakis; Hasidic student.  Scraggly beards up the wazoo.  The guy in the middle of this photo dropping dirt from his hands roamed the stage wielding his bass to charismatic and somewhat intimidating effect.  Here’s a video from 2010 (although they looked less hairy then).

It was fun to be at a rock show with so much dancing.  A maybe 50-ish woman next to us was rocking out in a major way.  We had to leave early for the sitter, but I bet they played for quite a while.  They’d be great for the Lotus Festival.

Heathens: Belief & Believing in the Drive-by Truckers

I finally saw the Drive-by Truckers live at the Bluebird a couple nights ago.   Great show! In a usefully thorough recent overview piece, Robert Christgau dubs them “the most productive good band on the planet” since 1998.  It’s not as catchy as “the only band that matters” or something like that, but there is something about the DBT’s that calls for that kind of measured exuberance.  I think it may be partly a matter of genre.  I’m tempted to call them the best/ most consistently good “rock” band of the past decade or so (all of their albums are good and there are really no crappy songs; Xgau considers Brighter Than Creation’s Dark clearly their best, but they tend to blend together for me on my ipod), but what is “rock” these days?  For my own archival purposes on iTunes, “rock” basically is only older pre-punk music.  I have the DBT’s under “Americana,” an admittedly stupid genre category that serves an organizational purpose in capturing a particular slice of a Venn diagram between country and “alternative” w/ people like Gillian Welch, Frazey Ford, etc.  They live in the contemporary world, musically — they’re not throwbacks or classicists, and in a way, their Southern Rock Opera is to Lynyrd Skynyrd what the Dirty Projectors’ Rise Above is to the Black Flag original — a rethinking and appropriation that recognizes the musical past as a set of codes to play with and re-deploy. But they also stick to a country/soul/ rock approach to pre-punk structured song-craft, and work within pre-existing forms in a mode of acceptance that is technically “conservative,” that makes “rock” seem like the best catch-all category for them.  (That is, they lack that attitude, pretty basic to all post-punk or “alternative” rock, of needing to defy tradition and signal emphatically that they are something very much other than what you might hear on a classic rock station.)

They went on around 10:20.  I had just come back from a conference so was beat and left early, and heard the next day that they ended up playing until 1:00.   For a while I felt slightly confused by the crowd at the Bluebird.  It wasn’t a hipster crowd at all, but also didn’t quite seem like the roots/country/Americana Bloomington audience.  It finally hit me that there seemed to be a bunch of jam-band fans in the room — white guys with dreads, a number of Widespread Panic t-shirts.  I don’t fully understand the jam-band world, but the DBT are a great live band and they get a bit loosely stretched-out on the guitar solos — they really shred — so I guess I can see why a Dead and Phish fan might get into it.

A few of my favorite DBT songs–

“Dead, Drunk and Naked” (Southern Rock Opera). When I was a young boy I sniffed a lot of glue/Mom sent me to rehab, they told me what to do/ We didn’t have much money; the lord picked up the tab/ They made me write him love songs, sitting in my room./ Now I just drink whiskey and drive around my friends./ Get a haircut, get a job, maybe born again/ And if you’re living badly, we’ll tell you how to live/ Dead, drunk, and naked.”  This probably has their single catchiest/ most irresistible guitar riff. (“The Day John Henry Died” too, maybe.)

“Heathens” (Decoration Day).  A gently strumming one w/ pedal steel and plangent fiddle. The lyrics to this one absolutely kill me: “Something about the wrinkle in your forehead tells me there’s a fit about to get thrown / If we get the van out of the ditch before morning ain’t nobody got to know what I done/ And I never hear a single word you say when you tell me not to have my fun / It’s the same old shit that I ain’t gonna take off anyone./ And I don’t need to be forgiven by them people in the neighborhood/ When we first hooked up, you looked me in the eye/ And said Pa, we just ain’t no good/ We were heathens in their eyes at the time, I guess I am just a heathen still/ And I never have repented from the wrongs that they say I have done/ I done what I feel.” Patterson Hood describes this as one of a “divorce trilogy” of songs on the album, also including the very sad “Something’s Gotta Give:” “Something’s got to give, got to give pretty soon/ Or else we’re gonna hate each other/ And that would be the saddest thing I ever seen.”

So many of their songs are about religion, ministers, churches, god (the new album’s title track, “Go-Go Boots,” is about a minister who has his wife murdered: “He was a pillar and his alibi was sturdy/ It only took a little bit of cash and the deed was done”).   Whether or not there’s actual “belief,” even if they are “heathens,” they live in a world saturated with religion.  Even their early album title, Pizza Deliverance — they can’t stop making jokes about it; I guess growing up in Alabama does that to you.  “Heathens” is (like most of their songs) about class as well as religion: “Pa, we just ain’t no good” — growing up feeling like you’re not worth that much or don’t matter. (The deep South as a geographical ghetto of the U.S.; the DBT’s first album was called Gangstabilly.)  Patterson Hood has at least a touch of ministerial charisma at the mike, too, testifying with outstretched arms.

“I Do Believe” on the new one is interesting to consider in relation to belief.  It’s a super-catchy, poppy one, and one of those devastating lyrics, really moving, about Hood’s memories from childhood of his mother: “I do believe I do believe, I know that you would never leave me/ And when you slipped the earthly binds you still live in my mind/ And when I’m gone, again I’ll find/ My way back into your kitchen/ And see you standing there in the window’s shine.” So it’s not about belief as “faith” exactly, but belief that he can still picture or imagine his mother: “I do believe I saw you standing there/ Sunlight in your hair/ Reflecting in your eyes/ I was only five years old.”  So, maybe it’s belief in something supernatural or spiritually transcendent, or maybe it’s just an expression, i.e. “I do believe I can still picture you.”  But as often happens in their songs, some sense of “faith” or “belief” accompanies the song in a way that’s hard to pin down precisely.  Maybe it’s that see yourself as a “heathen” is to accept a religious worldview in a way that few non-country (or gospel) bands/singers today do.  They’re not exactly still writing the Lord love songs in their bedrooms — well, or maybe they are, the songs just got a lot more complicated and ambivalent. [Reader AS reminded me of another line that captures this dynamic well, from Hood’s “The Righteous Path:” “I don’t know God, but I fear his wrath/I’m trying to keep focused on the righteous path.”]

They played “Box of Spiders” on Sunday, that’s a great and weird one: “My great-grandmother’s about ninety-seven/ And she is sure when she gets to heaven,/ Old St. Peter’s gonna throw his arms around her and say/ ‘I’ve waited so long for us to meet’.”  Gran Gran seems to be losing it, and the song ends:”Too mean to die. Too mean to die. Too mean.”  It’s dedicated to Gran Gran.

[p.s.  I realize I’ve only written about Hood’s songs, but Mike Cooley has tons of great ones as well…]

They are so good!  As I’m writing this I’m poking around and remembering absolutely amazing songs I had forgotten (e.g. “One of These Days” from Pizza Deliverance). Go see them!

“You Can Never Quarantine the Past:” Pavement Redux

Reports from the Pavement reunion tour have been sending me down memory lane.   I must obnoxiously boast that I think I saw one of Pavement’s first few shows ever.  Or at least outside of Stockton?   This must have been the summer of 1989 when I was back in Cambridge after my junior year of college.

[OMG, this was 21 years ago!!!!  How can that be??  21 years prior to 1989 was 1968!!  Does that mean I’m like an oldster talking about seeing Moby Grape at the Fillmore?? And if Malkmus is in his 40s like me how come he has that full head of hair?  Can an artist entering middle age really effectively communicate the melancholy nuances of adult life without having experienced male pattern baldness?]

Sorry.  Pavement’s first e.p., Slay Tracks (1933-1969), had just come out and it was being played to death at WHRB, Harvard’s radio station where I did a summer fill-in show (not sure if it was that summer) and had various friends who DJ’d. I loved that record (and the other ones that soon followed).  To me they felt like this perfect, out-of-nowhere combination of Sonic Youth noise, Swell Maps/the Fall grime/static, and New Zealand/Flying Nun pop tuneage.   They played in the smaller back room of the Middle East in Central Square.  I remember being amazed that they were, minus the hippie freak drummer Gary Young, these wholesome, good-looking college boys.  Slay Tracks was all mystification and unexplained references — the title reminded me of the Swell Maps in its inexplicable 20th-century history timeline — and I certainly didn’t expect guys who looked like they could’ve been on the U VA soccer team or something.  (Well, fencing maybe.)

They were definitely the Vampire Weekend of their day in that respect.  College-boy sex appeal.

I saw them again around when Slanted and Enchanted came out in 1992 — I was living in NYC and saw them somewhere downtown.  Malkmus was outside and I kind of screwed up my courage and went up to say hi and that I loved the album or some such.  I awkwardly introduced myself by asking “S.M.?” and he seemed embarrassed and corrected me kindly, “Stephen.”  At that point they still identified themselves by their aliases S.M., Spiral Stairs, et al — part of the veils and obscurings of identity and meaning that were at that point beginning to lift as they became really big.

I wrote a while ago about Big Star as an example of “mystery and the mysterious” in pop music in the pre-internet age.  Before Google & Pitchfork, etc, this was such a major part of what it meant to learn about bands: information scarcity.  I actually remember getting hold of some kind of xeroxed Velvet Underground fanzine when I first got into them in 1983 or so.  With an obscure band like Big Star, there were only a few places to go for information, and a lot remained unexplained.  A band like Pavement played with this and turned it into a strip-tease.  The early records were red-herring-filled and explained almost nothing.  Maybe you’d start to get third-hand stories and reports via fanzines or elsewhere, but the particular brand of celebrity was all about a paucity of information and the imaginative investments and projections that would foster.

By the time I introduced myself to “S.M.,” Pavement was starting to give up on that whole project.  Crooked Rain really inaugurated Pavement 2.0, the college-radio favorites with the handsome, patrician lead singer whom Courtney Love dubbed the Grace Kelly of indie rock.  Pavement 2.0 had funny, witty songs that communicated well on the radio and they functioned very well in the post-grunge alterna-media environment.  Even their gestures of negation — “Smashing Pumpkins, they ain’t got no function” — were also effective moves in that game.

I know this is boringly anti-populist, but I never loved Pavement 2.0 the way I did the Pavement of 1989-1994.  Of course I do love Crooked Rain and a lot of the later stuff, but the “Range Life” Pavement, the Pavement exploring the possibilities of becoming a California pop band, bathed in sunlight, to me always lacked some of the noir shadows and epistemological sinkholes and ambiguities of the early art-punk version.   I’d take Slanted and Enchanted over Crooked Rain any day, “Loretta’s Scars” and “Perfume-V” over “Cut Your Hair” and “Range Life” in a second.

The early releases reminded me of Flying Nun records in the way they functioned as talismans, fetishes, sacral objects with a numinousness created by a dearth of reference.  “Pastor’s flock, no church” (“Perfume-V”): “Song is sacred” as Malkmus put it in “Shoot in the Singer.”  The project was to generate sacral value out of limited networks of small-circulation records, intensely original aesthetics, passionately minor fan communities, and shrouded identities. I don’t blame them in the least for becoming Pavement 2.0 — the “early” approach was no longer available; it was a smart and effective move to go the direction they did, I personally just didn’t connect quite as strongly any more, though I still always liked the music a lot and thought Malkmus was a damn fine indie Grace Kelly.*

*I realize I am not accounting for the late psychedelic turn, e.g. Terror Twilight, which was perhaps an effort to restore some version of the old mystery/distancing tactics in a new form, although I’d have to go back to that album again.

Anyone have an extra ticket to the reunion tour?

It’s So Obvious: No Age

I went out to mingle w/ the kiddies again at the No Age show at the all-ages teenage club that is, coincidentally, immediately next door to my kids’ school.

I really like No Age.  There’s a purity and directness to them, and also a kind of opacity.  The music seems simple and the influences fairly obvious — e.g. the Ramones & 1980s hardcore — but there’s something in it that remains unexplained or surprising.  I suppose it’s partly the way the sheerly assaultive noise combines with the underlying pretty melodies — it almost reminds me of My Bloody Valentine.  There’s also something intriguing in the sense of political commitment, the veganism and the veneration for the Black Flag/ SST era communitarian approach to punk (they’re named after a 1987 SST instrumental compilation featuring Black Flag and others), and yet the politics don’t translate in any direct way to the lyrics.  They seem to draw on skater culture too which comes out partly in a sense of headlong physical abandon in the performance (which you don’t get in a lot of arch/withholding contemporary indie rock).

The chorus of “Boy Void” is lifted straight from Wire, I think: “it’s so obvious, so obvious, so obvious.”  I have no idea what the song is about or what is “obvious,” unless it’s actually a song about abstraction and about the perception of abstractions (like noise, color, forms): “Why don’t you try these fields across my eye…”

All of No Age’s music is pretty “obvious” in certain ways (a few chords, a wall of noise, tunes you can hum to) but there’s a conceptual heft to the aesthetics (all the way down to the simple and memorable t-shirts: I almost broke my longstanding taboo on rock t’s, but they didn’t have the one I wanted in the right size)  (and no, it’s not that I’m too fat for the teenage/kiddie shirts, as Sarah assumed when I mentioned this; they only had extra large and I wanted large).

They know how to deploy “minimalist” effects in resonant ways; they’re involved in the L.A. art scene so my guess is that they have a well-informed historical sense for how minimalist aesthetics work.

Ed and I got there and found out they might not go on until 10:45, so we wandered up the street to get a beer at the Bishop where a band called the California Guitar Trio were playing.  Tickets were $20 but someone offered us a pair for free so we caught the last 10 minutes — kind of a virtuoso classical-guitar/jazz thing.  They ended with the William Tell Overture.  Then back to the club where No Age went on by 10:30.  They did not play any t.v. theme songs.  We left early — it was a school night and we were both tired, but they were really great.  Good vegans that they are, they gave a shout-out to Bloominfoods: praised the balsamic-vinegar brussels sprouts in the cold bar.

Also need to mention: singing drummer.  Unusual.

I guess they’re opening for Pavement at the Hollywood Bowl on September 30th — funny to play at Rhino’s to about 125 people, and the Hollywood Bowl to 17,000 (?) in the same two weeks.  New album is out — just heard a somewhat disappointed report about it, so we’ll see.

Wait, they were nominated for a Grammy?  I missed that…

The Middle-Aged Man Confronts the Bright-Eyed Kiddies

This is my second post on Greenberg and my first on Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which I just finished.

Even if you haven’t seen Greenberg, you probably saw the ads/previews [this part starts at 2:09] including the scene where the 40 y.o. Greenberg sits uncomfortably, surrounded at a party by young 20-somethings, expressing his sense of generational alienation: “your parents were too perfect at parenting.  All the Baby Mozart and Dan Zanes songs?  You’re all ADD and carpal tunnel… Hope I die before I meet one of you in a job interview.”  Part of what’s funny about the scene is Greenberg’s fight with some of the party-goers about what music to play.  He’s just done cocaine and thinks Duran Duran would be the perfect soundtrack; interestingly, the kids don’t want to play anything current, but AC/DC (I think).  Suggesting that part of the generational divide has to do with the lack of generational divide.  Greenberg actually shares many of the same cultural references and touchstones with these kids, there isn’t the easy and maybe comfortingly blatant taste gap, which renders more ambiguous and unsettling the sharp differences that do exist.  That he wants to listen to Duran Duran definitely marks him off from them, but not for completely obvious reasons.

There’s a similar scene in Freedom when two of the 40ish protagonists, Walter the environmental lawyer and his college roommate Richard Katz (once the leader of the punk band the Traumatics, now achieving new success with an alt-Americana outfit called Walnut Surprise) go to a club in Washington D.C. to see “the suddenly hot band Bright Eyes, fronted by a gifted youngster named Conor Oberst.”  Walter, who is (at this point) idealistic and enthusiastic, loves the show, but it freaks Richard out:

Katz hadn’t gone to a show as an actual audience member in several years, he hadn’t gone to hear a kiddie idol since he’d been a kiddie himself, and he’d become so accustomed to the older crowd at Traumatics and Walnut Surprise events that he’d forgotten how very different a kiddie scene could be.  How almost religious in its collective seriousness…. He and Walter were at least twice the age of everyone else at the club, the flat-haired boys and fashionably unskinny babes….

Kiddies were streaming onto the floor from every portal, Bright-Eyed (what a fucking youth-congratulating name for a band, Katz thought) and bushless-tailed.  His feeling of having crashed did not consist of envy, exactly, or even entirely of having outlived himself.  It was more like despair at the world’s splinteredness.  The nation was fighting two ugly ground wars in two countries, the planet was heating up like a toaster over, and here at the 9:30, all around him, were hundreds of kids… with their sweet yearning, their innocent entitlement — to what?  To emotion.  To unadulterated worship of a superspecial band.  To being left to themselves to ritually repudiate, for an hour or so on a Saturday night, the cynicism and anger of their elders…. They gathered not in anger but in celebration of their having found, as a generation, a gentler and more respectful way of being.  A way, not incidentally, more in harmony with consuming.  And so said to him: die.

Completely brilliant and spot-on!  Further evidence of some kind of new generation gap emerging.  I came across this hostile review of the Gary Shteyngart novel that reads it as an “attack on the young,” a mocking salvo in the war between the bitter, uglifying 39-year-olds and the hopeful, pretty 24 year-olds.

It is so on!  As an aging hipster who tries to “keep up,” I’ve definitely been there.  Last year we went to see Richard Thompson and Joanna Newsom (different shows) in close succession, and it was weird how we seemed to be among the youngest in the whole place for Richard T. and among the oldest for Newsom.  It almost felt a little creepy in the latter show.  The Buskirk-Chumley keeps the lights on pretty high and so it all feels very blatant and unavoidable: “yes, I could almost be your dad, is my non-youthful presence a downer for you?”

By the way, for the record, I am a big Conor Oberst fan.  He is now 30 years old, though, so may not be entirely on the side of the kiddies anymore (or quite as bright-eyed — actually my favorite of his albums is his most recent solo record on which he is definitely more jaded than he used to be).  Wonder if Franzen or anyone let him know about the reference or if it came out of the blue; kind of a cool tribute, really.  (There’s also a funny passing reference to Ian McEwan — the character Joey got Atonement from his sister for Christmas and he “struggles to interest himself in its descriptions of rooms and plantings;” since Joey is a young Republican, this is not necessarily a diss on Franzen’s part, though a little tricky to interpret.)

Also for the record, Freedom is, as advertised, brilliant and memorable.  I couldn’t stop reading it and got through a big chunk in one long insomniac session.  It feels almost eerily of the moment, the Way We Live Now, unsettlingly consonant with the bad vibes of the summer of 2010 with its gushing oil spill, environmental despair, and calcifying angry politics.  Probably the single most memorable moment of the novel involves the speech that takes a wrong turn and ends with the speaker screaming “WE ARE A CANCER ON THE PLANET!  WE ARE A CANCER ON THE PLANET!” until he’s pulled from the mike and violently beaten up (the video of the speech becomes a Youtube internet meme).

Scott Pilgrim vs. Junior Brown

Damn it, I just wasted too much time trying to create a Venn diagram for this post.  Easy to make one but I couldn’t embed it; I give up.  The failed diagram was my attempt at a graphic representation of my unusually active Friday night, when Sarah and I and our friend Leah went to see Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and then I peeled off from the tired ladies to see Junior Brown performing downtown.

The Venn diagram represented the small overlap between the youthful “Emerging Adults” at Scott Pilgrim (one circle) and the mostly 50/60-ish Hoosier country music fans of Junior Brown (second circle).  The little sliver of overlap between the two circles may only have been only me on this particularly evening: 40ish aging hipsters/ incipient geezers.

If you don’t know, Scott Pilgrim is the film version of a graphic novel series depicting the adventures of young Toronto indie-rock 20-somethings in pseudo-Manga (e.g. Japanese comic) style.  I got the first book or two several years ago and didn’t keep buying it the series, but it’s very witty and fun.  The charm is partly in the casual way the inbred, gossipy, wise-cracking, media-saturated world of these arty hipsters blends into video-game and sci-fi tropes and events (Scott for some reason must battle to the death the seven evil exes of his new girlfriend Ramona).   Probably inevitably, the movie somewhat pumps up the Mortal Combat-esque battle scenes which end up taking over the movie a bit too much.  But it’s all very funny and well done.  One highlight was Scott’s battle with Romana’s ex who possesses the unstoppable force of Vegan power: “we’re just better than non-vegans,” he observes (or some such).  He cannot be defeated, it would seem, until Scott tricks him into accidentally drinking some coffee with half-and-half in it, at which the Vegan Police show up and haul him away.  Michael Cera was not exactly how I imagined Scott, but he was good in his own wimpy way.

From a head-spinningly different universe is Western Swing legend Junior Brown, is actually an Indiana native (which I’d never known) who’s been an Austin fixture for years.  When we visited George in Austin in 1996 or something he took us to see Brown at his then-weekly (I think) show at some cool outdoor restaurant venue.  On Friday night he came out a bit late — someone I ran into there told me this is generally the case b/c Brown is busy smoking his famously excellent pre-show weed backstage.  He is perhaps best known for having invented what he calls his guit-steel, a two-necked guitar.  He’s a virtuoso and many of the songs — mostly country/ Western Swing, with some surf and Hawaiian steel excursions — are designed to allow him to show off his impressive skills.

Although it was a challenge to find any common ground between the world of Scott Pilgrim and Junior Brown, my ever-busy relations-seeking mind led me to imagine JB battling the Katayanagi Brothers (a Japanese synth rock duo) in one of the battles-of-the-bands from the movie.  He’s definitely stand a decent chance, especially with the power of the guit-steel’s double neck, one available to vie with each evil brother.