Recent music: Surfer Blood, Titus Andronicus, A. B. Crentsil & The Osookoo Stars

Some recent music I’ve been listening to.

Spoon Transference.  I’ve never entirely fallen for Spoon, one of those bands whose albums always struck me as at least pretty good but none of which wowed me.  The singer always seemed slightly charisma-challenged.  Or maybe for me they started to seem like a band you were supposed to be rooting for.  They were nice guys, good guys, and/thus (perhaps?) a little dull?  Anyway, I like this newest one more.  It feels very unspontaneous, a studio construction, altogether controlled and worked-over, with several really stand-out tracks.  My favorite is “Out Go the Lights,” their “All My Friends” maybe, a gorgeous, drawn-out ballad filled with spooky/beautiful studio effects.  “I Saw the Light” also very good, and “Who Makes Your Money,” a piece of thin, stuttering Chic white funk.   Somehow made me think of Steely Dan (the song title is a Steely Dan kind of question to ask).

Surfer Blood Astro Coast.  I ignored this for a while — missed them when they played in town — maybe because their name seemed so rote.  But the album’s actually excellent, a great summer album.  They do feel like a bit of a pieced-together Frankenstein apparatus of influences and resemblances.  A rougher Weezer, definitely, in the super-catchy surfy tunes; some Vampire Weekend (the vague afropop feeling in the lightness and lilt of the guitars); the Shins; the Pixies in the background.  But less obviously, I sense parallels with another young band I like a lot, No Age; in “Floating Vibes” or “Fast Jabroni” or “Anchorage,” for example, the way they ride a simple riff in a way that makes me think of 1980s SST (like early-mid Sonic Youth): punk forms (the Ramones) filtered through a more knowing, art-informed perspective (although they’re not really conceptualists like No Age or the Dirty Projectors, as far as I can tell).  Pretty much every song is really good with instantly memorable hooks you could pound your dashboard to.  Wish I’d seen them.

Finally came around to the National. I’m not sure if the new one High Violet is as good as Boxer or not but I like it despite the vague concern that it’s all getting too close to U2 or Coldplay.  My favorites are “Lemonworld”, “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” “Bloodbuzz Ohio” [I like that they’re from Cincinnati, btw] and “Conversation 16,” the latter which goes a bit over the top with the climactic zombie-movie confession, “I was afraid… I’d eat your brains — ’cause I’m evil….”  My reading of “Lemonworld:” it’s about being a poorly-paid over-educated wage slave in NYC spending the weekend in your girlfriend’s parents’ swank Hamptons or Long Island weekend home.   “So happy I was invited/ Gave me an excuse to get out of the city.” Mixed feelings and depressive affect ensue.  Part of what works about this song is the ironic relation between the song’s form and content: it’s a song about ambivalence about wealth and luxury that is itself luxuriously lush (and likely a bit guilty about it).

I’ve probably listened to those four songs at least a dozen times each.  You can sink into this album’s lush textures– a good headphones album.

Titus Andronicus A More Perfect Union. This album sounds so silly.  A New Jersey punk rocker obsessed with Springsteen, who named his band after a violent Shakespeare play, makes a concept album about the Civil War inspired by the Ken Burns documentary, featuring readings of Lincoln speeches???  But surprise, it’s great.  By the time he’s ripped off/payed homage to the Boss and Billy Bragg in the same line a couple minutes in (“I never wanted to change the world, I’m looking for a new New Jersey/ ’cause tramps like us, we were born to die”), I was sold.  It’s in another universe from the cool studio perfectionism of the National and Spoon — makes you think of various famously drunken bands (early Replacements, the Pogues), obviously very much a live band spilling over with Celtic reels, bagpipe, saxophone, singalongs.  I suspect a big Pogues influence, and likely the Civil War thing is an attempt for this New Jersey punk band to find their own comparable folkloric/ historical frame — adding gravitas and depth to what might otherwise just be hungover pissing and moaning.  E.g. when he sings “I’m worthless and I’m weak, I’m sick and and I’m scared,” it sounds like a 22 year old kid on a Sunday morning scared he may be becoming an alcoholic, but the next line, “the enemy is everywhere” lifts what could be a merely personal drama into a national-historical register.

Ultimately I think its reach exceeds its grasp a little bit — it’s not quite Rum Sodomy and the Lash, but this guy Patrick Stickles (who does sound uncannily like Conor Oberst, btw) is seriously talented.  “Gimme a Guinness, gimme a Keystone Light, gimme a kegger on a Friday night, gimme anything but another year in exile.”

This one’s a bit older, but another fave has been Tegan and Sara’s Sainthood.  Of course I love the Canadian twin-sister angle.  A few songs here I’ve listened to over and over.  “Arrow” is a great elaborated Cupid’s arrow metaphor: “I feel the breeze, feathers of an arrow; I take my aim, you feel me coming close.”   “Sentimental Song” is really smart on what it means to reject sentimentality, or sentimental art.  “You hate the tenderhearted torch song,” she sings to her lover.  “Hard-hearted — don’t worry, I’m ready for a fight;” that is, I may like corny love songs but it doesn’t mean I’m not tough.  And “Someday” is fantastic, super-catchy, needs to run over the credits of an inspiring teen movie: “I might write something I might want to say to you someday,/ Might do something I’d be proud of someday/ Mark my words, I might be something someday.” I think it’s a coming-out song.  “The Cure” another favorite: “I know the world’s not fair to you, I’ve got a cure for its crimes.”  Surely this could’ve been a big hit on MTV in 1990.  Very new wave (minus the frills), taut/tense songs that stick in your head.

Love the thought of Celie and Iris as a band — in theory if not probably in practice.  “Hi dad, yeah we just finished the show in Pensacola, we’re driving to Texas tonight.”  Never mind, not a good idea at all!!!

OK, one token non-indie rock album, A. B. Crentsil & The Osookoo Stars. I presume I downloaded this from Awesome Tapes from Africa (“Free mp3s of obscure African music”).  Really great notwithstanding the scratchy audio.   “When I was going to the cinema I saw a girl who resembled my sister…She turned in a soft voice and said ‘I am Juliana.'”  I learn from Wikipedia that A. B. Crentsil “is one of the big three of contempoary Ghanaian vocalists….Crentsil’s music has always been considered controversial but always makes the highest sales once it hits the market. Crentsil resorts to various themes and antics to convey his message with appropriate proverbs where necessary and that always strikes a listener to appreciate his music.”  Sounds right to me.

Big Star Revisited

Big Star was one of the handful of bands who most shaped my musical tastes at the crucial age of 14-18 or so.  Radio City and Sister Lovers/ Big Star Third are icons of my personal aesthetics (I never loved #1 Record as much), but ironically I haven’t had either of them on MP3, other than some tracks included on an Alex Chilton cd collection.  So Keep Your Eye on the Sky, the Big Star box set, which is full of demos, alternate tracks and some early live recordings, was a really cool birthday gift (thanks Jake).  Getting it also inspired me to pick up the Continuum 33 1/3 book on Radio City.

Carrie Brownstein has a nice little blog post in that Best Music Writing of 2009 book about the diminishment of “mystery and the mysterious” in pop music today.  Big Star is a perfect example of this.  As everyone comments, being a fan of the band in the 1970s usually involved stumbling upon one of their albums — maybe Radio City, with its William Eggleston photo of a bare light bulb on the cover — in a dollar bin or something, being blown away by how amazing the music was, and having no idea who these people were.  Peter Buck of R.E.M. is quoted in the box set liner notes:

No one I knew had ever seen them play.  I think I’d read that one of the guys had been in the Box Tops — which made no sense either.  Information was scarce.  So these records they’d put out, they were simply artifacts.  It was like seeing the heads of Easter Island or the Great Pyramids or something.  You didn’t know what they were or how they’d gotten there.

By the time I got into Big Star in 1984 or so they were a lot better known, but even so, you couldn’t Google them, there was so Wikipedia page, so you ended up relying a lot on the little Robert Christgau capsule reviews or the Rolling Stone Record Guide entry and the like.  Going through the box set and this book now offers a surplus of information and photographs that once and for all eliminates that numinous haze, born of a paucity of information, that used to surround the band — but at this point, that’s perfectly OK with me, as they deserve all-time-great historical status, with all the archival trappings.

Bruce Eaton’s 33 1/3 book is quite good.  It’s austere in its formalist focus on “the music itself” — Eaton starts out explaining that because of all the gossip, rumor and falsehoods surrounding the Big Star and Alex Chilton stories, he’s going to focus pretty exclusively on the actual process by which the band formed and made Radio City.  This involves a fair amount of to me, somewhat boring technical chitchat about production choices, recording and mixing, etc., but on the other hand, I did feel I got a better understanding of what was musically/technically special about the band and the importance of the producer John Fry.  I also suspect there may have been a strategic element here, as Eaton makes clear that Chilton has expressed zero interest, in recent years, in talking with any journalists, and it sounds as if Chilton agreed to participate on the condition that the interviews would be almost exclusively about the music and recording.

A few tidbits/insights I gleaned from the book:

  • Chilton grew up with a sometimes jazz musician father and was heavily immersed in Memphis/Stax R&B (Wilson Pickett, the Staple Singers, etc).  The Anglophiliac, British Invasion sound of Big Star was almost entirely a product of Chris Bell’s obsessions, and Chilton seems always to have viewed the band as a vehicle for this particular, very “white” approach to music which he saw as only a small part of what he himself was about.  Actually it’s kind of hilarious in Eaton’s book how much Chilton repudiates Big Star and Radio City, their masterpiece, in particular; he says he thinks “Back of a Car” (which he did not write) is the album’s “only good song” and that he thinks his lyrics on the album as a whole are terrible.  (Although this struck me as heresy, if you actually look up the lyrics to “O My Soul” or something you realize that they are pretty flimsy; it’s a great example of how little lyrics matter except in their musical context.)
  • Big Star opened for Badfinger in Boston in March 1974, one of their few performances ever outside Memphis; their instruments were stolen and they had to play with gear borrowed from Billy Squier (! — yes, of later “The Stroke” fame!) of local band Sidewinder.
  • Notwithstanding the point about Chilton’s partial disaffection from the “whiteness” of Big Star’s approach, Chilton himself says that he copped certain musical structures and ideas on Radio City from Bach and other Baroque music… which actually kind of makes sense.
  • During and after Big Star, Chilton was in a semi-/unofficial pickup studio band called the Dolby Fuckers.  Surprised no one’s ever borrowed that name.
  • Of course everyone knows that Big Star was a “critics’ band.”  But the book makes clear that Radio City never would’ve been recorded (after Chris Bell’s departure from the band) if it hadn’t been for the somewhat bizarre event called the Rock Writers Convention in Memphis in May 1973.  All surviving members of the band attest that the good response they got to their performance at the convention convinced them that they actually could have an audience.  Considering that the very idea of a rock critic was a fairly recent invention at the time, Big Star may have been in some respects the first band who recorded specifically for rock critics and with their tastes in mind.  (I was also surprised to learn that Chilton knew Richard Meltzer and other rock writers from his sojourn in NYC in 1970.)
  • Eaton makes some good points about the difference between Big Star and other “power pop” bands of the era sometimes associated with them (like the Raspberries or Badfinger).  While the latter were classicists trying to work entirely within pre-established musical structures, Big Star (after #1 Record especially) was always about taking and reproducing those kinds of pop structures but messing with them, disintegrating them, removing the ground beneath them.  This then builds to an extreme on Big Star Third which is still unparalleled as a woozy, druggy, depressive, achingly gorgeous collection of songs.

One more thought: I was fascinated to hear the Flying Burrito Brothers cover (“Hot Burrito #2”) in the live set on the box set.  Chilton seems to have more than a few things in common with Gram Parsons as a musically omnivorous, addictive, louche son of privilege (well, relative privilege in Chilton’s case) with an ambivalent relationship to pop music in what was becoming the New South.

I saw Alex Chilton in 1985 at the Rat in Boston.  I was 16 and had the most ridiculous fake I.D.  I was desperate to get in and was thrilled that I did.  If I recall correctly he played stuff from Feudalist Tarts and various R&B covers and then a few Big Star songs like “September Gurls” which made me very happy.  I think I ended up walking all the way back home to Cambridge from Kenmore Square at 2 a.m. or whatever.

The box set contains an amazing collection of photos.  My favorite is one of Chilton at age 20 in the Chelsea Hotel in NYC with long hair, tie-dyed tank top (!) and scruffy facial hair holding a copy of the Byrds’ Untitled.

This photo above is from the back of Radio City: Jody Stephens, Andy Hummel and Chilton — in the original T.G.I. Friday’s in Memphis!

Hüsker Dü


Emusic recently got the rights to the Husker Du catalogue which I’m pretty sure was also previously not available on iTunes.  Who do they think they are, the Beatles?  Anyway, good news even if you have to DL entire albums, can’t cherrypick songs, which disappointed me because I always saw Zen Arcade as a bit of a mess with a lot of somewhat-interesting stuff I didn’t actually want to listen to (“Hare Krishna”) along with a big handful of fantastic songs.

This may seem obnoxiously obscurantist in the “I prefer their early stuff” vein, but in some ways my favorite Husker Du record has always been Metal Circus from 1983, their first record with SST and I think their second more or less studio album, although it’s really a 19-minute 7-song e.p.  It’s all great, unrelenting, and has a kind of scrappy lightness of touch, with guitar leads that sometimes sound almost rockabilly, like X maybe, that reminds me a little of some of the early Replacements (their exact contemporaries) records like Stink from 1982.  I have this memory of trying to explain to my sophisticated NYC aunt in 1983 or 1984 that in fact, the most exciting new punk music was coming out of not NYC or San Francisco but Minneapolis of all places — not sure if she bought it.

Anyway, I loved everything about Metal Circus definitely including the black and white cover that looks like, what, the view out the window from inside a generic, depressing office room?  An employment agency for the down at the heels?

One of my favorite rock show experiences ever was seeing Husker Du in some community center or something in a suburb of Boston in maybe 1984; definitely before Zen Arcade came out.  I remember cramming into someone’s parents’ station wagon and ending up in this basement-y space not really knowing where we were.  (All the future Lemonheads were there, I think.)  I think the sound was atrocious so it was not exactly a “good show” properly but I loved them and it was a total thrill.  Actually now that I think about it, this was the second time I’d seen them because I also saw them opening for R.E.M. in a gymnasium at Harvard (!); I didn’t really know who they were at that point (must’ve been 1983?) and I didn’t really get it.

Metal Circus feels very 1983, very Ronald Reagan, Cold War, nuclear anxiety.  It’s conceptually coherent with lyrics defining an ambiguous political outlook, or maybe “political feeling,” angry, scared, apolitical as a variety of politics.  I love the lyrics to “Real World,” the fantastic first song:

People talk about anarchy And taking up a fight/ Well I’m afraid of things like that/ I lock my doors at night/ I don’t rape, and I don’t pillage Other peoples’ lives/ I don’t practice what you preach/ And I won’t see through your eyes/ You want to change the world By breaking rules and laws/ People don’t do things like that In the real world at all/ You’re not a cop, or a politician/ You’re a person too You can sing any song you want/ But you’re still the same

It’s about hardcore punk politics, a response/rebuttal to “anarchy” punk manifestos.  (I always heard it in relation to Minor Threat’s “In My Eyes.”)  I probably identified at the time with Bob Mould, a very normal homely/uncharismatic guy who was both a punk and a thoughtful, tormented liberal.  I guess the lyrics could be read as expressing pure political quietism, but I’ve always found them to be honest and brave, less a considered expression of a developed political philosophy than a kind of feeling — take it or leave it.  (In the equally great “It’s Not Funny Anymore” Mould signs sarcastically, “you can do what you want to do, say what you want to say… don’t worry about the result or the effect it has on your career” — wow, quite the college counselor!). “I’d like to protest but I’m not sure what it’s for/ I’ve heard it does some good if the television people are there… I know I’ve got no control over the threat of a nuclear war.”

One of my favorite songs from this era was Husker Du’s buddies the Minutemen’s “Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs.”  They were all trying to figure out: how can you write a punk protest song without falling into pompous liberal folk cliches, or predictable punk cliches?  How can a punk protest song express ambiguity and doubt along with anger?

The other really great track is Grant Hart’s ominous, anguished rape-murder dramatic monologue “Diane,” which has a lot in common with Robert Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover:” “We could lay in the weeds for a little while/ I’ll put your clothes in a nice, neat little pile/ You’re the cutest girl I’ve ever seen in my life/ It’s all over now, and with my knife.”  “Diane”‘s bassline reminds me of Joy Division and of course, now that I think of it, the visual aesthetic and even title of Metal Circus may have been influenced by the Factory Records look/feel/sound.

When the definitive book is written on queer punk and post-punk, I hope Husker Du gets their due.  The indie/postpunk scene in the 80s was very homophobic; Mould finally came out of the closet in the early 1990s.  (I think everyone always figured Hart was gay.)  I love that Mould worked for World Championship Wrestling as a scriptwriter for a while.

Music Roundup: Franco, Jay Reatard, Pains of Being Pure at Heart…


A few things I’ve been listening to…

Modest Mouse, “3rd Planet.”  This is from Modest Mouse’s major-label debut The Moon and Antarctica (2000), their third album, which didn’t really make too big of a splash at the time — their commercial breakthrough came with the next album and the big Pixies-ish hit “Float On.”  One thing I like about Modest Mouse and this album is the sense of largeness, ambition, attempt to evoke the oceanic/cosmic.  Indie rock by definition tends towards the minor, petty, internal — and yes, the modest… But notwithstanding their iconically indie name, on this album anyway they go for something kind of immodestly huge; it’s their Dark Side of the Moon or Ok Computer.  “3rd Planet” is one of my many favorite Modest Mouse songs — kind of about, maybe, what it feels like to lie with someone else on a blanket, naked, staring up at the stars: “The universe is shaped exactly like the earth/  If you go straight long enough you’ll end up where you were/ Your heart felt good, it was dripping pitch and made of wood/ And your hands and knees felt cold and wet on the grass to me.”

Franco, Francophonic – Vol. 1: 1953-1980. Franco, “the Duke Ellington of Congolese music.”  Some of it sounds like calypso, some of it like American soul or R&B, like Jamaican reggae, Cuban son.  Beautiful, funky, catchy, sinuous… Probably the album I’ve gotten most pleasure out of in the last year or so.

Dirty Projectors, Bitte Orca.  I missed the chance to see him/them when they played here after they released Rise Above, the retelling of Black’s Flag’s punk classic Damaged.  That seemed too arch and contrived, along the lines of Pussy Galore’s version of Exile on Main Street.  But they/he turns out to have some serious musical/conceptual chops — when Bjork invites you to collaborate with her, you probably do have something going on.  Anyway this album is really interesting and very listenable/engaging — part of that whole choirboy/orchestral-Afropop tendency in contemp. indie rock.  I’ve never heard an American indie album before that seemed clearly influenced by Zap Mama (polyphonic Belgian female a cappella group).  My favorite Dirty Projectors song isn’t on the album, though: “Knotty Pine” with David Byrne on the excellent Dark is the Night soundtrack.

K’naan The Dusty Foot Philosopher. This guy has a really great gimmick — it’s gangsta rap by a guy from a part of the world where little kids actually wander around with machine guns.  Yes, a gangsta rapper from Mogidishu, Somalia — take that, 50 Cent!    Who seems to be heavily influenced by Eminem of all people!   Although I haven’t checked out his second album yet, I expect K’naan to get really big eventually: he really does seem like some kind of weird Afro-Canadian combination of Bob Marley (or to be less grandiose, maybe Wyclef Jean) and Eminem with some super-catchy tunes (e.g. “In the Beginning,” “If Rap gets Jealous”).

Cocorosie, “Rainbowwarriors,” “Werewolf,” “K-Hole,” “Terrible Angels,” from La maison de mon rêve, Noah’s Ark, The Adventures of Ghosthorse and Stillborn.  I came to Cocorosie (twin sisters Sierra and Bianca Casady) a bit late, and the hip kids have probably moved on since Cocorosie have placed songs in perfume commercials and the like.  I noticed that Pitchfork condemns them as globe-trotting trust-fund poseurs, but hey, so was Henry James… What do they sound like?  Kind of mumbly-warbly experimental home recording pseudo-hip-hop poetry?  Sung by squeaky-voiced twin sisters performing on children’s instruments.   It’s sometimes a bit much, but often I find it enchanting and magical, e.g. the Rilke-inspired “Terrible Angels:” “If every angel’s terrible/ Then why do you welcome them/ You provide the bird bath/ I provide the skin/ And bathing in the moonlight/ I’m to tremble like a kitten.”

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart.  The Pains of Being Pure at Heart.  On my first quick listen this struck me as a tad generic, but I ended up loving it.  The NYC band is apparently named after (get this) an unpublished children’s book written by the singer Kip Berman, and heavily rips off a range of British indie pop — Belle and Sebastian, Jesus and Mary Chain, and the Wedding Present — so it doesn’t come much more twee than this.  On the other hand it also can get pretty guitar-squally (“Hey Paul”).   If you liked early Belle & Sebastian, here’s more songs about libraries and crushes: “between the stacks in the library/ not like anyone stopped to see/ we came they went, our bodies spent/ among the dust and the microfiche.”

Jay Reatard, Watch Me Fall.  I just got this one and haven’t really absorbed it, but I wanted to mention Mr. Reatard.  Not that he hasn’t gotten quite a lot of press, but I do think that he’d be a lot bigger in the crucial expendable-income young-adult yuppie market if he had a less tasteless moniker.  Nee Jimmy Lee Lindsey Jr., he became “Jay Reatard” as a 16 year old highschool drop-out with a chip on his shoulder in Memphis doing his best Iggy Pop imitation, and since then has released about 20 (!) home-recorded albums.  I also have the last couple of singles collections (Singles 06-07 and Matador Singles ’08). Robert Pollard (Guided by Voices) would be a good analogy: JR is a kind of human jukebox apparently able to produce irresistibly catchy singles at will.   They sound alternately like the Buzzcocks, Go-Betweens (he’s recorded a Go-Bes cover), Stiff Little Fingers, etc., all sung in a retro fake British accent with occasional amusing Britishisms (“Is this real or is this future?”), and filled with eruptions of aggressive/sarcastic put-downs.  (I.e. he kind of sounds like he was invented in the basement of WHRB’s Record Hospital circa 1988).  To my ears he’s recorded at least a handful of songs that I’d include in my list of the top ten Guided By Voices tracks ever.  The new one is a little poppier and layered than the earlier stuff — try “Before I Was Caught” or “Wounded” for ex.  The line is that he’s been influenced lately by New Zealand Flying Nun indie pop, but I’m not sure I hear that especially, I think that may just be a way to explain the frequency of Farfisa-style organ which imparts more of a 60s garage vibe.

Orchestra Baobab, Made in Dakar.  I listen to jazz and “world music” (primarily African pop) more than anything else these days, partly because it works as background music when I’m working, in the living room when we’re making dinner, etc. a lot better than, say, Jay Reatard.  I’m not very good at analyzing/discussing this music; I guess part of what I love about some of it is the way I fall into it as an unknown, somewhat disorienting sonic world.  Orchestra Baobab were founded in Dakar, Senegal in 1970, broke up in the late 1980s, and reformed in 2001.  The group “played an Afro-Cuban-Caribbean music fused with distinctly West African traditions. Unlike other Senegalese bands, they added Casamance harmonies and drumming (from southern Senegal), melodies from Togo and Morocco to the more common Wolof (from northern Senegal) influences” (wiki).  Since reuniting they’ve become well-known in the U.S. partly due, I regret to report, to a documentary filmed by/with Dave Matthews and the guy from Phish. (It’s a bit of a Buena Vista Social Club kind of phenomenon — Afro-Latin world-music classic revived for the NPR market.) Anyway, everything I’ve heard by them is fantastic with a special mellow, funky elegance.  Christgau puts it well: “Jazz, r&b, soul, disco, reggae–no African band has ever emulated a New World music as gracefully as this Cuban-style unit.”

Juliana Hatfield memoir


I got around to reading the Juliana Hatfield memoir When I Grow Up.  I read the Dean Wareham one recently (Black Postcards) too. The two books feel like they constitute a minor wave of memoirs of 1990s semi/almost rock stardom.  Wareham (of Galaxie 500 and Luna) and Hatfield both had comparable experiences as indie stars of the late 1980s plucked out for mainstream success which never quite came, leaving them struggling for diminishing returns throughout the 1990s and beyond.

I know/used to know Juliana a bit, from back in the late 1980s in Cambridge.  I played tennis with her a couple times under circumstances I can’t entirely recall (when I was home on college vacations).  She always seemed like a somewhat painfully shy, and sweet, person.  I found the memoir to be a good read, smart and sometimes moving in the recounting of her ongoing depression, struggles with anorexia, and feelings of hopelessness.

I liked this description of her realization that she is not suited to the rock and roll life (one focus of the book concerns her wrestling with the question of whether she should give up music altogether and try to find some other line of work):

At heart, I am not a rock and roller.  At heart I am a librarian, a bird-watcher, a transcendentalist, a gardener, a spinster, a monk…. I don’t want loud noise and fame and scandal and drugs and late nights and flashing lights; I want peace and quiet and order; solitude, privacy, and space for contemplation  I want to awake at dawn and listen to the birds, and drink a cup of tea.  I need to face facts.

The book, like  Wareham’s, wrestles with a formal/stylistic dilemma having to do with the attempt to narrate and describe the tedium and monotony of life on the road in a touring rock band.  Life on tour, playing over and over at the same kinds of dingy/crummy clubs, is mind-numbingly repetitive, marked by bad food, the ordeal of driving and lugging equipment, & depressing cheap hotels (and also occasional bursts of inspiration and the pleasure of performance).  So, how can you turn this mostly-tedious material into a story someone would want to read?  Juliana takes a somewhat literalist approach by narrating one entire long tour (around 2004 I think?) from start to finish: this constitutes one strand of the memoir which is also interspersed with a more chronological tale of her career from the early Blake Babies days through her solo career, getting a $400,000 advance from Atlantic in the 1990s, later getting dropped from the label and continuing to struggle on.   I’ll confess that I thought parts of the tour diary, with all its detailed accounts of the travails of a rock and roll vegan stuck in on the fast food highway, could have been compressed or edited out, but then, it does really give you a sometimes-excruciatingly vivid sense of what that experience is like.  (Part of the point seems to be demystification, for the sake of anyone who imagines that it’s a glamorous life to be in a band.)

The memoir ends with her climbing her way out of her depression and seeming to make peace with her status as a former/has-been pop star — deciding to stop punishing herself for failing to become the kind of pop success she was never destined to be. Juliana really suffered, it seems, from the weight of the burden of being a kind of token female alt-rocker, which wasn’t a very good identity match with her propensities towards shyness, depression, and anorexia.  It’s good to see that she seems relatively happy and together these days.

Reading the memoir also inspired me to download (legally! through emusic) her latest album, How to Walk Away, which works well as a companion piece to the book.  Some of the songs function both as relationship breakup songs and also as meditations on the possibility of “breakup” or walking away from the vocation of singer/artist.  In my view (this would probably piss her off) her solo records have sometimes suffered from an overvaluation of “rawness,” and I like the comparatively polished, careful pop production on this one.

She’s been doing some painting lately, sometimes with a Red Sox/baseball theme.  Here’s one:


Mountain Goats in Bloomington


Went to see the Mountain Goats.  If you don’t know them, the Mountain Goats is John Darnielle, a literate Pitzer College grad, former emergency room nurse, who used to record very primitive songs on boom boxes but since 2002 or so has been producing more polished, “produced” (even orchestral) music.  He tends towards the ambitious and high-concept in his recordings.  For example, there are various “series” of songs, across different albums, that constitute coherent or at least linked narratives of one sort or another; e.g. (from Wikipedia) the “Alpha Series”:

Songs in this category concern the same fictional couple, described as a heterosexual lower-middle-class man and woman who originally loved each other genuinely, and held generally ordinary concerns for one another’s well-being, but whose relationship has degraded for a variety of reasons, most often a series of fights or drug and/or alcohol abuse, possibly both. Whatever the causes for their current situation, their love has not so much died as warped into the sincere, all-consuming desire of each of them to see the other drink themselves to death; thus, to facilitate this “walk down to the bottom”, as described in the liner notes, the couple keep whatever liquor they can afford on hand for each other and stay together….The album Tallahassee, being entirely about the Alpha couple, begins with the pair buying a run-down house in the eponymous capital of Florida, follows their degradation, and ends with a vision of the house and both of them being consumed in flames.

Darnielle has something in common with the Decembrists’ Colin Meloy (whose sister is a novelist, Maile Meloy) in the way he thinks about lyrics in an almost novelistic or at least literary kind of way.  Anyway, I saw the Mountain Goats/ Darnielle in Boston with Jane a year ago at the Museum of Fine Arts and didn’t entirely love it.  The crowd was devoted and rapt in a slightly precious indie-rock mode, and Darnielle seemed deeply awkward to me, almost so much as to suggest the possibility of a touch of Asberger’s.   I enjoyed the show this week more — he was still awkward and nerdy, but he seemed comfortable and upbeat and was actually amusing & charming in his extended between-song patter (about such topics as his childhood love for pro wrestling, his own depression, meth addiction).

Darnielle was born in Bloomington, I haven’t completely figured out why; I think he said something on stage about his step-father’s father having been an English professor here?  Or was his step-father a grad student?  They moved to California when he was a toddler.  He chatted a lot about this connection; he said something about Bloomington having always had magical associations for him, and claimed that the lyrics to “Love Love Love” were inspired by/based on these associations with the town, I’m not sure how or why:

King Saul fell on his sword when it all went wrong,
and Joseph’s brothers sold him down the river for a song,
and Sonny Liston rubbed some tiger balm into his glove.
some things you do for money and some you do for love love love.

Raskolnikov felt sick but he couldn’t say why
when he saw his face reflected in his victim’s twinkling eye.
some things you’ll do for money and some you’ll do for fun,
but the things you do for love are going to come back to you one by one.

Love love is going to lead you by the hand
into a white and soundless place.
now we see things as in a mirror dimly.
then we shall see each other face to face.

Is Bloomington the “white and soundless place” for Darnielle, maybe?  Darnielle also has an entertaining blog, Last Train to Jakarta, largely devoted to his scholarly love for heavy metal music, and he has also published a book about Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality that takes the form of a diary written by a teenager in a Southern California mental hospital.

So in other words, just another flash in the pan rock star, seen one, seen ’em all…

Anyway — really good show; he has a million great songs so there are a lot to choose from.

Ian Curtis/ Kurt Cobain

Watched the Anton Corbijn biopic of Ian Curtis (Joy Division’s singer who committed suicide in 1980 at age 23), Control.  Enjoyed it a lot.  The musical performances, all recorded by the actors, are pretty uncannily good and Sam Riley is a dead ringer for Curtis.  If they toured as the Unknown Pleasures, a Joy Division cover band, I’d definitely go.

I had one thought about the parallel between Curtis and Kurt Cobain, probably a comparison drawn a million times before.  There are various links (beyond the fame and suicide), i.e. they both suffered from medical problems: Curtis’s epilepsy, the treatment of which was pretty hit or miss at that point, and Cobain’s chronic stomach problems, both of which contributed to abuse/misuse of prescription drugs.  But the movie left me with the sense that for Curtis as for Cobain, sudden fame led to a psychological crisis having to do with communication and self-expression.

I get the sense that for both men music was tied up in a fantasy of total transparency and connection with a listener/interlocutor.  They both had trouble communicating with real people, lovers and friends, but had an amazing power to speak to people through music.  It seems likely that for both men the desperation that preceded the suicide was tied up in part with a feeling that they now had a huge audience hanging on their every word that did not in fact understand them in the least.

Many of Joy Division and Nirvana’s signature songs are about the desire to be understood and the failure to communicate.  “When the people listen to you, don’t you know it means a lot?” (“Novelty”); “Walk in silence, Don’t turn away, in silence…. Don’t walk away” (“Atmosphere”); “He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs/ And he likes to sing along…/ But he knows not what it means/ Knows not what it means” (Nirvana, “In Bloom”).

Watching both men sing, you feel that part of their genius lay in a special talent for taking the basic technology of the microphone and recording technology and infusing it with a sense of complete intimacy.  They are whispering or screaming in your ear.  Control begins with a 17 year old Curtis lying on his bed listening to a David Bowie album; for kids like Cobain or Curtis, there is no voice they listen to more intently than the pop singer’s.

So my thought is that for Curtis and Cobain, this kind of mediated intimacy meant so much that when they became the star, Bowie (important for both of them), the voice that is in your ear as you fall asleep, it was hard to handle the crushing realization that this could feel false, not in fact linked to any true communication or insight, just showbiz.

Of course they both suffered from serious depression as well, so maybe this is all just unwarranted pop (literally) psychology.

Lux Interior R.I.P.

Lux Interior (born Erick Lee Purkhiser), who formed the “psychobilly” combo the Cramps with his wife Poison Ivy in 1973, is dead at age 62.

I didn’t know that he grew up on Akron, OH. Were the Cramps at all part of the whole 70s Akron scene (with Devo, the Bizarros, Rubber City Rebels), or did they split for California and NYC too soon to participate?

I stole this clip from the 33 1/3 books blog: mesmerizing footage of the Cramps performing “The Way I Walk” at the Napa State Mental Hospital in 1978.

“Somebody told me you people are crazy, but I’m not so sure about that.  You seem to be all right to me.”

The lyrics seem appropriate to the audience (and their approach to dancing to a rock song): “The way I walk is just the way I walk/ The way I talk is just the way i talk/ The way I smile is just the way I smile.”  Lots of great moments; I love the guy with the tie pretending to sing into an imaginary mike.

Neko Case “People Got a Lotta Nerve”

Neko Case is offering a free download of the first single, “People Got a Lotta Nerve,” from her new album (Middle Cyclone, due out March 3), and her record label is donating $5 to Best Friends Animal Society for every blog that re-posts it.  So, I am doing so: you can download the song here.  Here’s the explanation of the deal.  I love Neko Case, can’t get enough of her spooky, haunting voice.
The song features an elephant in a zoo, an Orca in a tank, and maybe a man-eating tiger? It’s about carnivorous animals and the way human beings try to control them and contain their instinctive violence.  “I’m a man-eater, but still you’re surprised when I eat you…. It will end again in bullets fired.”  Makes me think of Rilke’s “The Panther” and John Berger’s “Why Look at Animals.”  Also of the tiger that an archaeologist friend of ours had in her lab for her students to dissect; it had escaped from its owner at a highway rest stop in Illinois, and was shot to death by state troopers (and then made its way to the lab).
I like the song a lot, but hope Neko can live with the inevitable Hall & Oates references.

My Father, My Attack Dog


David Berman of the Silver Jews (Pavement-associated indie rock group, basically just Berman) has announced his retirement from music and followed the announcement up with this remarkable anguished confession:

My Father, My Attack Dog
Now that the Joos are over I can tell you my gravest secret. Worse than suicide, worse than crack addiction:

My father.

You might be surprised to know he is famous, for terrible reasons.

My father is a despicable man. My father is a sort of human molestor.

An exploiter. A scoundrel. A world historical motherfucking son of a bitch. (sorry grandma)

You can read about him here.

My life is so wierd. It’s allegorical to the nth. …

A couple of years ago I demanded he stop his work. Close down his company or I would sever our relationship.

He refused. He has just gotten worse. More evil. More powerful. We’ve been “estranged” for over three years.

Even as a child I disliked him. We were opposites. I wanted to read. He wanted to play games.

He is a union buster.

When I got out of college I joined the Teamsters (the guards were union organized at the Whitney).

I went off to hide in art and academia.

I fled through this art portal for twenty years. In the mean time my Dad started a very very bad company called Berman and Company.

He props up fast food/soda/factory farming/childhood obesity and diabetes/drunk driving/secondhand smoke.

He attacks animal lovers, ecologists, civil action attorneys, scientists, dieticians, doctors, teachers.

His clients include everyone from the makers of Agent Orange to the Tanning Salon Owners of America.

He helped ensure the minimum wage did not move a penny from 1997-2007!

The worst part for me as a writer is what he does with the english language.

Though vicious he is a doltish thinker

It goes on in this vein.  Pretty heavy stuff.  I find this whole family saga to be sociologically fascinating.  It’s basic Pierre Bourdieu that the offspring of the very wealthy often “trade in” the accumulated economic capital for cultural capital in the form of art/culture/education.  (A classic instance of the paradigm: I attended a private progressive high school founded by one of the sons of the founder of Merrill Lynch, whose other son was the poet James Merrill.).  The transaction whereby money is turned into culture, one kind of capital exchanged for another, often seems to serve an implicitly expiatory function as worked through generationally.  The accumulation of extreme wealth is frequently “not a pretty thing when you look into it too much,” and so one purpose of “culture” is to serve as in effect a money-laundering operation. (Not to say that’s all it is.)

So, you have David Berman, son of the union-busting lobbyist Richard Berman, working as a museum guard after college, and then going on to “hide in art” by creating eccentric, underground music, wracked with guilt about the sins of his father and perhaps about the money that made it easier for him to pursue such a life (? I don’t know, for all I know he refused to take any money from his dad, but at the least he probably didn’t have any student loans!).

I don’t intend this as criticism of Berman in the least, I’m just struck by the vividness of the way this story captures that basic logic in its most Oedipally tormented form.  I hope he’s not giving up on the Silver Jews because he feels that his art is inevitably tainted; something to work out with the therapist…

Here’s the Silver Jews’ wikipedia page.