Tuesday, February 28, 2006

My Favorite Records

"Your favorite music
Well it just makes you sad
But you like it
'Cause you feel special that way."
--Clem Snide

I've been swamped, and so neglecting longer posts. Apologies. But nothing serves as filler like lists, and tonight while at a bar with two friends, the three of us promised to swap our top-20-album opinions by the end of the week. Going through my collection, I had to give myself a break, so I settled on 25. Even that was painful. I can divide those I left off into five categories:

1. Some of my favorites (and all-time greats) who have a body of work I love more than any single effort: The Beatles, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Lyle Lovett, Everything But the Girl, Low, Prince, Morrissey/The Smiths.

2. Great one-off albums by those who are otherwise uneven or forgettable, like Something to Write Home About by The Get Up Kids, 100 Broken Windows by Idlewild, Music for the Morning After by Pete Yorn, or New Miserable Experience by the Gin Blossoms.

3. Relative newcomers who I've listened to a ton over the last year or two, but who need a bit more time to be considered, like Mindy Smith, The Postal Service and Ray Lamontagne (the most likely to eventually make the list). Conversely, oldies-but-goodies from my high school and college years who have been considered for a bit too long to be judged accurately, like the self-titled debut by School of Fish, Are You Driving Me Crazy? by Seam, or Bandwagonesque by Teenage Fanclub.

4. Classics that deserve mention, like Blood on the Tracks by Dylan, OK Computer by Radiohead, or anything else by REM before 1993 (it took a lot of willpower to limit myself to four by them).

5. Then there are the records that could easily have made the list if I made it on a different day (or after one less -- or more -- drink) -- meaning, the most arbitrary of those left off, like When the Pawn by Fiona Apple, The Sunset Tree by The Mountain Goats, The Moon My Saddle by Chamberlain, Since by Richard Buckner, Redo the Stacks by Centro-matic, Rumours by Fleetwod Mac, or The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion by The Black Crowes, a great record by a band that otherwise occupies a lukewarm place in my heart (at best).

On to the list, after two more caveats: First, yes, there are only four works on display here that were released before 1991. Unlike many of my friends, who had older siblings (sometimes significantly older) who were schooling them in the classics of rock, I had (and have) a very lovely older sister whose taste ran more towards classical music from the day she was born. (In short, she's smarter than I am.) Her idea of cutting-edge modern music, even in college, was the Indigo Girls, Tracy Chapman, and Billy Joel. Listen, I still own (and unashamedly enjoy) music by all three of those named, but I think you see my point. I was deep into my junior year of high school before I started to form what would become my own distinct taste. ("Distinct" here defined as "shared by millions of other teenagers who watched 120 Minutes every Sunday night.") And while I've come to love The Beatles and the Stones, and respect a lot of other fogeys, they just didn't reach me when they needed to. Bands are like girls (or boys, if you prefer) -- the ones that get to you first change you the most. Or, to quote a great line from Life of Pi by Yann Martel, "first wonder goes deepest; wonder after that fits in the impression made by the first."

Secondly, I stress the obvious fact that subjectivity has been embraced. There was a discussion about #3 at the bar tonight, for instance, during which I admitted it's a flawed choice under a microscope. But it's also the initial domino that fell 15 years ago and led, pretty directly, to the 5,000 or so songs I'm choosing between as a soundtrack while I write this. So, as ever in these pursuits, objectivity be damned!

OK, sorry, but thirdly, a bonus (of what, I'm not sure) to whoever comes closest to accurately predicting "Dezmond's" eventual total word count in his replies to this post. My guess is 5,820.

25. It’s a Shame About Ray -- The Lemonheads
24. Fables of the Reconstruction -- REM
23. Into the Music -- Van Morrison
22. Siamese Dream -- Smashing Pumpkins
21. Original Pirate Material -- The Streets
20. Strangers Almanac -- Whiskeytown
19. Cake -- Trash Can Sinatras
18. Ben Folds Five -- Ben Folds Five
17. The Joshua Tree -- U2
16. Big Red Letter Day -- Buffalo Tom
15. Girlfriend -- Matthew Sweet
14. Where It Goes -- Lori Carson
13. Still Feel Gone -- Uncle Tupelo
12. August & Everything After -- Counting Crows
11. Murmur -- REM
10. A Century Ends -- David Gray
9. Bloomed -- Richard Buckner
8. Glow -- The Innocence Mission
7. Achtung Baby -- U2
6. Perfect From Now On -- Built to Spill
5. Our Time in Eden -- 10,000 Maniacs
4. Trace -- Son Volt
3. Out of Time -- REM
2. The Bends -- Radiohead
1. Automatic for the People -- REM

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Monday, February 27, 2006

Birthday Tandems

I also found out from The Lancelet that Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born on the same date -- February 12, 1809. That seems like an unbeatable duo for a single day. Any birthday experts out there who can top it (or even challenge it)?

Fear the Octopus

Here's a stunning video that provides a humbling lesson: If you ever get to thinking you're the baddest ass in the tank, think again. Watch it with the sound up. (You may have to scroll up a bit from where the link takes you. The video's at the top of the page.)

(Extraordinary, no? It comes to me and you via The Lancelet, via Afarensis.)

Three Things to Look Forward to in March

1. March 10: The exhibition Klee and America opens at the Neue Galerie in New York. Here's a description of the show from the Menil Collection in Houston (a beautiful museum), which has it later in the year but is currently doing a better web-based job of promoting it. Paul Klee is my favorite painter, and here are two examples of his work:

2. March 21: Josh Rouse releases Subtitulo. Rouse is an underrated singer-songwriter. His album Under Cold Blue Stars from a few years ago is one of the best of its kind. This is his latest, and my sister swears by a couple of tracks she heard previewed on NPR the other day. I can't access those because my computer is the spawn of the devil. (If you're an iTunes freak like me and want to check out Rouse, I recommend the songs "Feeling No Pain," "Directions," "Women and Men," and "Dressed Up Like Nebraska.")

3. March 30:
My fantasy baseball draft in Dallas (I'll be participating by telephone). I start preparing in earnest in a couple of days, if I know what's good for me. OK, this isn't something for the rest of you to look forward to, but it is my blog, after all.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Closing Olympic Thoughts

The opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics are always a reliable combination of breathtaking and utterly spastic.

On the breathtaking side, there was Bjork's gown at the 2004 opening ceremonies in Athens. I was trying to explain this to my friend Patty tonight, but pictures do a better job. She came out wearing a tightly coiled mass of a dress, something that would look uniquely bizarre by any standard but her own:

As she sang, the dress somehow unfurled itself and billowed out over the crowd, covering most of the stadium:

It looked incredible. (It was even better when I realized that, for Bjork, this was the equivalent of blue jeans. For all I know, she still wears this out on the town, suffocating innocent bystanders whose last mortal thought is: "Cool dress.")

It's undeniably impressive to be an Olympic athlete, and they deserve a spectacle like this every time out. But tonight at the closing ceremonies in Italy, they were serenaded by Ricky Martin. This would have been inconsiderate in 2002. In 2006, it's a slap in the face. (Why couldn't Smash Mouth make it -- a prior commitment?)

Earlier in the night, hundreds of performers dressed as arty Euro-clowns and young female paratroopers (ah, the Olympics) took the stage, and danced to "YMCA" by the Village People. Am I the only one who thinks this disqualifies Europe from any anti-American sentiment for the next 50 years or so? I can completely understand complaints and wise cracks about our crass culture, but not when you choose to use your time on the brightest world stage to clumsily spell out the title of this song with your arms like every group of drunken baseball fans across the U.S.

I watched more of these games than I thought I would, which still meant only a few hours combined. I always poke fun at the whole endeavor when it starts, and then end up wishing I had followed it more closely. My lasting memory will be Shizuka Arakawa's gold medal performance in women's figure skating. I normally don't enjoy that competition, because as often as not, falling or another mishap is the only way to stand out from the crowd, and all clean performances seem too subjective to judge fairly. But Arakawa was so graceful and flawless that, for the first time I can remember, I had a strong opinion: She would've been robbed with silver or worse.


Saturday, February 25, 2006

A Pale, Pale Copy

I never went through the obsessive Led Zeppelin phase that probably 95% of guys do, but I like them enough, and I love the song "Tangerine." So I looked for it on iTunes just now, and they only have a cover version of it done by...Great White. On a Disappointment Scale of 1 to 10, even for a lukewarm Zeppelin follower like myself, that's got to be a 47.

Everyone knows Great White because of the tragic fire at one of their shows a few years back, but did you know they also once started a bizarre desert-based militia that hoarded traffic signs? Seriously. Check it out:

A Post the Vast Majority of You (If Not All of You) Can Skip

I can't believe I'm just learning about this (Dad, keep me up to speed, please), but last year's top 2-year-old horse, Stevie Wonderboy, has an injury that will keep him out of the Kentucky Derby in May. Too bad. Given recent history with top 2-year-olds, he probably wouldn't have won it anyway. And now he can come back in time for the Belmont, to keep some other horse from winning the Triple Crown.

OK, none of you care.


Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Licorice Clouds

I went to lunch the other day with Nick and a woman who was just back from a trip to Iceland. She shared her stories, and then, as those conversing about Iceland tend to do, we turned our attention to Bjork. And I remembered this piece from a while back on McSweeney's, which is very funny because the writer gives Bjork hysterical things to say, but also because it implies that a relationship with her makes even Matthew Barney "the practical one."

The Rest, Vol. 3

I think this is volume 3. Anyway, I (very) infrequently like to check in on what other random bloggers are writing about. Here are three peeks:
I have just spent the past 7 hours highlighting. It was quite a blow to my self-esteem because, despite an education at a top tier school, I am not very good at highlighting.
I have a loathing fascination of ants. I think it stems from my childhood where I had a number of negative experiences with ants' nests.
And finally, from a blog called Follow the Moon:

hmm...lets see...i am not sure what to write here. I had some free time, and decided to write somethings about what is happening in my life and also love of my life and my personal life. As for the title "Follow The Moon", if you ever , ever get lost somewhere in the world do not... i repeat do not ever Follow The Moon.

This person might think about adding a "Don't" to the front of their blog title, don't you think?

A Special Way of Being Ignored

Terry Teachout manages to write a post that prominently features Larkin's "Aubade" (and the very line from it that graces the top of this page) without once mentioning my blog. My plan for world domination isn't going as I'd hoped.


From the AP:

Anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan and REM frontman Michael Stipe will headline a New York concert to urge the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

I hope Sheehan opens her set with "World Leader Pretend."

Suggestion: Hudson Bell

It's always risky to recommend music after only a couple of listens, because you never know if repeated exposure will squash your enthusiasm. But what the hell. Based on this review on Pitchfork, I bought Hudson Bell's When the Sun is the Moon.

There's quite a bit of Built to Spill influence here, partly in the meandering guitar lines (three of the seven songs pass the seven-minute mark). Bell's voice can also sound remarkably like that band's singer, Doug Martsch, especially on the high end and when he lingers on a word -- holding his warble on "there" or "long," for instance. On the lower end, there's also some J. Mascis in his vocals, and I don't normally mean that as a compliment.

But for as popular as Built to Spill is among musicians, I can't think of many artists who successfully (and obviously) borrow from their sound. Bell does.

There's also a shoegazing quality in the fuzzy guitar that recalls Ride, and very occasional clearer squalls that sound like early Smashing Pumpkins. (I love that there's a lengthy Wikipedia entry for shoegazing.) Um, I'll shut up now. If any of this sounds appealing, check him out.


Tuesday, February 21, 2006

"Let's be sure we haven't hurt the vandals' feelings."

Christopher Hitchens is sharp on Slate, per usual, this time about our lack of support for Denmark during the recent uproar about cartoons. His final paragraph suggests a course of action:
And there remains the question of Denmark: a small democracy, which resisted Hitler bravely and protected its Jews as well as itself. Denmark is a fellow member of NATO and a country that sends its soldiers to help in the defense and reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan. And what is its reward from Washington? Not a word of solidarity, but instead some creepy words of apology to those who have attacked its freedom, its trade, its citizens, and its embassies. For shame. Surely here is a case that can be taken up by those who worry that America is too casual and arrogant with its allies. I feel terrible that I have taken so long to get around to this, but I wonder if anyone might feel like joining me in gathering outside the Danish Embassy in Washington, in a quiet and composed manner, to affirm some elementary friendship. Those who like the idea might contact me at christopher.hitchens@yahoo.com, and those who live in other cities with Danish consulates might wish to initiate a stand for decency on their own account.
In Seattle, The Stranger's Dan Savage, who's been great about the cartoon controversy, wonders if there's an embassy in his city. I suppose New York has one, but I like D.C., and haven't been there in a while. Maybe I'll drop Hitchens a line.

Five Songs, Chapter Two

The latest in a series where I recommend a handful of songs I've been listening to lately, because I'm a huge geek and you have nothing better to do. Don't deny it.

That's How I Got to Memphis -- Kelly Willis

From a tribute album to songwriter Tom T. Hall that came out seven years ago, which features several above-average covers by people like Richard Buckner, Iris Dement, Ron Sexsmith and Johnny Cash. This is probably my favorite.
If you love somebody enough
You'll follow wherever they go
That's how I got to Memphis
Baby It's Cold Outside -- Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Jordan

This is like listing five books and including The Bible, so pardon the obviousness. But while it's still cold outside, give this a listen. Very nearly perfect.

Don't Need a Reason -- Beth Orton

I haven't gotten her latest yet, but I've been playing this, from her first, quite often lately. I preferred the follow-up album as a whole, but this one song might be her best.

One Great City! -- The Weakerthans

An ode to a city that you simultaneously belong to and despise (in this case, Winnipeg).

The Only Living Boy in New York -- Simon & Garfunkel

Garden State was one disappointing movie; funny at times, but cloying and juvenile overall. It gives sentiment a bad name, which is something I resent, as someone who considers himself sentimental. That said, it introduced me (miraculously) to this song, so I can't be too bitter.


Archive of the Day

Tom Wolfe on New York City and Houston, respectively, from The Right Stuff:
Despite the tide of cheers and tears that had already started in Washington, none of them knew what to expect in New York. Like most military people, including those in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, they didn't really consider New York part of the United States. It was like a free port, a stateless city, an international protectorate, Danzig in the Polish corridor, Beirut the crossroads of the Middle East, Trieste, Zurich, Macao, Hong Kong. Whatever ideals the military stood for, New York City did not. It was a foreign city full of a strange race of curiously tiny malformed gray people.

July 4 was not the time of year for anyone to be introduced to Houston, Texas, although just what the right time would be was hard to say. For eight months Houston was an unbelievably torrid effluvial swamp with a mass of mushy asphalt, known as Downtown, set in the middle. Then for two months, starting in November, the most amazing winds came sweeping down from Canada, as if down a pipe, and the humid torpor turned into a wet chill. The remaining two months were the moderate ones, although not exactly what you would call spring. The clouds closed in like a lid, and the oil refineries over by Galveston Bay saturated the air, the nose, the lungs, the heart, and the soul with the gassy smell of oil funk. There were bays, canals, lakes, lagoons, bayous everywhere, all of them so greasy and toxic that if you trailed your hand in the water off the back of your rowboat you would lose a knuckle.

Help With Navigating The New Yorker

I bought the complete New Yorker on DVD as a gift for my sister last November, but I've yet to spring for it myself. That should change soon enough, and here's another reason why -- a blog devoted to pointing out must-read pieces from over the many years. The site's owner hopes to make it a more collective effort, so do your part to contribute to this great idea.

AP Health Watch Headline of the Day

Rolling Stones Fever Mounts in Argentina

Thoughts on Doyle

Jon, an esteemed friend and baseball-tour driving companion of ASWOBA, has a great piece on normblog this week about Arthur Conan Doyle. Read it here. And wait, with bated breath, for the next baseball trip. (It's coming sooner than later. Just relax.)

Monday, February 20, 2006

Naturalist Superstition vs. Supernaturalist Superstition

A friend of mine recently attended a discussion between art critic Jed Perl and literary lion Leon Wieseltier at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan. According to this friend, a member of the audience rose to ask the two if they had any advice for beginning art critics. Wieseltier immediately and adamantly belted, "Don't blog!" He went on to call blogging an exercise "somewhere between writing and typing." Well, it's clearly a bit of both, I'd say, but I'll grant him the bite of his muddled insult.

I'm a longtime fan of Wieseltier's, so despite his attack on how I pass 30 minutes or so of each precious day, I'll be the bigger man and use this opportunity to point you in the direction of his work.

His review of Daniel Dennett's book in yesterday's NYT Book Review borders on devastating, and says everything I would want to say about my own increasing disillusionment with the most stubborn priests of rationalism, but in much smarter ways. Read it here. And forgive him his stance on blogging. (And also try, while reading the review -- which you really should -- to not get distracted by just how much Dennett resembles Wilford Brimley.)

Dennett, top; Brimley, bottom:

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My Favorite Novel

If any of you plan on linking to my questionnaire on normblog, or already did and are trying to block out the experience in therapy, I just have one small addendum:

Norm asked for favorite song and movie, but best novel. Fair enough. And being a stickler for semantics (ed. note: changed from "linguistics" thanks to a sharp-minded friend), I listed Atonement as the best novel I've read. And I stand by that, structurally, sentence for sentence, etc. But my favorite novel is The Brothers K by David James Duncan, and I thought it deserved a mention. It's bigger and sloppier than Atonement (in ways good and bad, but for the best overall), but by dealing with sibling and parental relationships, baseball, and religion, and in doing so in a Big Earnest American tone, it's tailor-made for me. Plus, Everett, one of the brothers, is my favorite fictional character.


Archive of the Day

From Letters to a Young Poet by Rilke:
Whoever looks seriously at it finds that neither for death, which is difficult, nor for difficult love has any explanation, any solution, any hint or way yet been discerned; and for these two problems that we carry wrapped up and hand on without opening, it will not be possible to discover any general rule resting in agreement. But in the same measure in which we begin as individuals to put life to the test, we shall, being individuals, meet these great things at closer range. The demands which the difficult work of love makes upon our development are more than life-size, and as beginners we are not up to them. But if we nevertheless hold out and take this love upon us as burden and apprenticeship, instead of losing ourselves in all the light and frivolous play, behind which people have hidden from the most earnest earnestness of their existence -- then a little progress and an alleviation will perhaps be perceptible to those who come long after us; that would be much.

David Brent Into the Sunset

I finally watched The Office special that was released after the series proper ended. Despite everyone recommending it, I was worried it would feel too tacked on. That was really stupid of me. It's brilliant, like the rest of the series. Hysterical, moving, and even ingenious in its use of cheesy pop music, which inspired me to download a couple of truly shameful songs after the credits rolled...

The blog could use more pictures, no? Here you go:

A Play About Something, Performed Somewhere

I spent the first two days of this holiday weekend further west in New York state, attending a play that featured my quite talented sister and brother-in-law. It's a bit delicate describing it here, as I've had conflicting demands from said sister and brother-in-law, one of them eager to see a posting about it and the other threatening bodily harm if there's a posting about it.

Given the current subtitle of this blog, I'll let you guess which demand was which based on my obfuscation here.

Suffice to say, it was a farce set in London in the 1960's, with lots of physical comedy and mistaken identities, and both parties were terrific in it. The brother-in-law heads to Iowa City in a couple of weeks, where he'll be performing I Am My Own Wife, a very demanding and well-decorated one-man play.

"A Reporter" and Daniel Johnston

Fascinating article in the Times over the weekend about Daniel Johnston. When I started my music geekdom in Texas, I remember hearing a lot about Johnston (who lives in the state) on the periphery of my explorations, but I never listened to his work. As the article makes clear, he's a deeply troubled guy (I had no idea how deeply when I first heard of him), and now in addition to his bizarre folk music, he's on the verge of becoming famous (and somewhat wealthy) for his drawings and paintings.

It's a long, good article that raises questions about family loyalty and the courtship of an "outsider" artist (and whether Johnston even qualifies as that), and it makes me more eager to see The Devil and Daniel Johnston, a feature documentary that's being released late next month.

But before I leave you alone to read the article, one quibble:

At certain points, the Times writer is clearly taking for granted his own presence as the reporter. As here:
So as (Johnston) does with almost anyone who comes to see him, he suggested a trip into town. Over tacos and several glasses of compulsively sugared iced tea, he was by turns friendly, excited, petulant and distracted, sometimes all within a few minutes, as his friends warned he could be.
The implied reading being, of course, "as his friends warned me he could be." But then there's this parenthetical aside a bit later on:
(At the dollar store in Waller, where Mr. Johnston asked to be taken, a reporter offered to help him pay for several bottles of diet cola, and Mr. Johnston suddenly yelled out: "Don't penny-ante me, man. I'm a rock star!" He laughed. The cashiers laughed, too, nervously.)
"A reporter"? Was this another reporter among a gaggle following Johnston around on this day?

And finally, this:
(Johnston) announced that he was tired of being interviewed and started to usher a reporter to the door. But before he left, he said, he wanted to give him a folder full of recent drawings to take with him. The reporter declined.
Is this tic incredibly annoying, or is it just me? Would it violate journalistic ethics to write "I offered to help him pay" or "he started to usher me to the door" or "I declined"? Any journalism students out there who care to defend this practice?

Friday, February 17, 2006

Q's by Norm; A's by Me

Norman Geras over at normblog was kind enough to include me in his series of blogger profiles. If my blog is more than you need to know, then here is more-more than you need to know. Thanks, Norm.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

"Ma'am, I'm going to have to ask you to step out of the foam costume."

You might remember my post from a few weeks ago about the greatness of sports mascots. Well, I left out a key category: Drunk mascots.

(Via Deadspin)

AP Headline Misplacement of the Day

Clot-Busting Drug Helps Stroke Recovery

This headline accompanies a straightforward science story about a medical breakthrough, but I found it in the Entertainment section of the AP wire. Some poor intern sorting copy must have thought a member of the Strokes was being helped with a clot.

Wanting to Wonder

I'm about 90 pages into Will Blythe's new book about the Duke-North Carolina basketball rivalry, which my company is publishing (it's available to you mere mortals at the end of the month). When I was about nine years old, living in southern Long Island, I became, for reasons that are lost to time, an obsessive UNC basketball fan. (At the very least, I know that Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is still the most mellifluous place name I've come across. I suppose this alone made loyalty to it seem righteous.) From 12 to about 24, my devotion to the Tar Heels approached the level of Reason for Concern, and it remains slightly radioactive to this day.

Blythe can write, and he's a nut about the rivalry (an objective take on things wouldn't be half as entertaining; the author's on my side, the side of the angels). But I bring the book up now mostly because of a paragraph very early on, when Blythe, whose father had recently passed away, is suffering through the final moments of a Duke-UNC tilt and considering whether his father's spirit is watching it along with him. The last two sentences go a good way towards summing up my world view:
Duke had one last chance. Chris Duhon hoisted a shot from near midcourt, and as time expired, the ball bounded off the back rim. Too close for comfort, but off just enough for jubilation. North Carolina triumphed, 85 to 83. I'm not the type of guy to point up to the sky at a dead relative the way many athletes do these days. But I wondered. Or, anyway, I wanted to wonder.

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The Mountain Goats: An Appreciation

(This will be a long post, but forgive me; it’s my 200th, so I’m celebrating with a clearance sale on logorrhea.)

My friend Brad and I once considered the following barroom question: If you were a musician who had to perform for one night drawing on the songbook of only one artist, who would it be? My answer -- and if memory serves, his, as well -- was Paul Simon. I still don’t see a way around him. Between his solo material and his work with Monsieur Garfunkel (if French is the most beautiful language, is there a less French word than Garfunkel?), you’ve got a treasure trove. Consistent yet diverse both melodically and lyrically, a palette of those songs could make anyone look good.

I bring it up because, despite my unchanging answer, I’ve spent the past four or five days unable to stop listening to the Mountain Goats, a band essentially composed of one guy named John Darnielle. (I've had several albums of his for several years, but this recent addiction is a new phenomenon.) And while a more old-fashioned music listener -- either one of my parents, for instance -- could appreciate much of Simon’s work but would run screaming after a couple of songs by Darnielle, he’s probably one of two or three songwriters (with the emphasis on writer) who I would put in Simon’s class.

He can’t sing particularly well, but it’s misleading to stop there. His vocals are raw, without argument, and would be judged immediately -- on several songs in particular -- as unlistenable by anyone with a bias against adenoidal voices. I’ll come back to that, though.

Darnielle’s lyrics are front and center, in many cases barely less so than if he was working as a poet. Since most of his songs -- especially those that came before his last couple of albums, and there were literally hundreds of them -- feature a very simply strummed guitar and the previously described voice-a-mother-and-maybe-a-few-others-could-love, and even those elements are amateurishly captured with antiquated recording equipment, it’s a good thing the lyrics are mostly brilliant.

When he was interviewed by Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket) in The Believer last year, Darnielle said:
I feel like there are some people who should be working more baroque forms and there are some people, like me, who are better suited to do something really simplistic. I did have classical training on the piano, and I’d like to think that if I devoted myself to it I could do what Franklin Bruno does. I guess it depends on where your heart is. For me, a three-chord song that comes in, does what it needs to do, throws in some little fill at the end and gets out of Dodge is always going to be what I love best.
Songs like “Family Happiness” -- and yes, he references Tolstoy in the first verse -- are mostly built with the ballast of several writerly styles; the occasional imagistic jab of a poem, the pleasingly detailed miniature of a good short story, and the more casual style of rock lyrics. The second verse of that one:
Long winding Canadian highways,
innumerable evergreens.
Weather forecast on the AM radio
says we'll be expecting highs in the low teens.
When I mouth my silent curses at you,
you can see my breath.
I hope the stars don't even come out tonight.
I hope we both freeze to death.
Look at the person I've turned into, tell me,
how do you like him now?
No standards of any kind, no creeds to disavow
I am right here where you want me
do what you brought me out here for.
You can arm me to the teeth.
You can't make me go to war.
OK, I should’ve mentioned this is one depressing dude. A friend was recently reading Philip Larkin and said it wasn’t helping his mood, which is understandable, and like Larkin, it's possible that Darnielle will only help your mood if: a) you’re so happy that even dour art won’t dent your armor, and might even make you feel that much better by contrast, or b) you’re so dour that dour art is the only kind that's currently consoling. (If I admit that it’s been b. for me the past couple of weeks, can we just move on? I promised myself this blog wouldn’t turn into a full-fledged diary. Thanks.)

Whereas Simon is often expansive in his sentiment, even when dealing with the thwarted hopes of specific people...
So I looked at the scenery, she read her magazine
And the moon rose over an open field.
"Kathy, I'm lost," I said, though I knew she was sleeping.
"I'm empty and aching and I don't know why."
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike:
They've all come to look for America
...Darnielle shows us human relationships that are absolutely claustrophobic:
We may throw the windows open later
But we are not as far west as you suppose we are
Hot wind coming off the water
The sky gone crazy with stars
While we stay here we imagine we're alive
Or this:
I am not going to lose you
We are going to stay married
In this house like a Louisiana graveyard
Where nothing stays buried
On Southwood Plantation Road
Where the dead will walk again
Put on their Sunday best
And go with unsuspecting Christian men
La la la la la
Or this (thanks for indulging me), more outward-looking in its initial observations but no less despairing:
Window facing an ill-kept front yard
Plums on the tree heavy with nectar
Prayers to summon the destroying angel
Moon stuttering in the sky like film stuck in a projector
And you
Those lines are the opening verse to “Tallahassee,” the title track of a concept album about a couple that moves to Florida and essentially drink themselves (or at least their union) to death.

And I suppose this is where I go back to his singing, because all of this sounds so grim, but it’s not. Or not quite. There’s something boyish about Darnielle’s tone, and like most effective singers, regardless of their natural gifts or lack thereof, he knows how to deliver his songs. And amid the long sentences and listed observations, he occasionally nails a minimal, elemental moment, as when he repeats “I’m coming home, I’m coming home” in “Elijah,” or sings “I am losing control of the language again” in “Masher.”

It should be clear at this point that anyone looking for musical tapestry is in the wrong aisle. In that same interview with Handler, Darnielle said of his younger years:
My prog friends thought Lou Reed was a joke. ... They would say “Do you like this because it’s funny that he can’t sing?” and I’d say, “No, that’s not it,” and they’d say, “Well it has to be, there’s no good guitar,” and I said, “It’s different from that.”
Darnielle is different from that, too, and different from Reed while we’re at it. Reed is all cool detachment (even if it’s ironic) in a lot of his best songs, whereas Darnielle is so invested that even his cheekiest material can be moving. That’s clearest in “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton,” which has a jokey title, and even many jokey lyrics (very casually crafted on the page, but again, delivered well), but somehow you empathize with its characters when you’re done laughing (or, even more impressively, while you’re laughing). I reprint the whole thing here because I think it’s instructive, and because I like taxing your patience in order to test your loyalty:
The best ever death metal band out of Denton
were a couple of guys
who'd been friends since grade school
One was named Cyrus
the other was Jeff
and they practiced twice a week in Jeff's bedroom
The best ever death metal band out of Denton
never settled on a name
but the top three contenders
after weeks of debate
were Satan's Fingers and the Killers and the Hospital Bombers
Jeff and Cyrus believed in their hearts
they were headed for stage lights and lear jets
and fortune and fame
So in script that made prominent use of a pentagram
they stenciled their drumheads and guitars with their names
This is how Cyrus got sent to the school
where they told him he'd never be famous
And this was why Jeff
in the letters he'd write to his friend
helped develop a plan to get even
When you punish a person for dreaming his dream
don't expect him to thank or forgive you
The best ever death metal band out of Denton
will in time both outpace and outlive you
Hail satan
Hail satan
Hail, hail
Allegedly, Darnielle actually has a thing for death metal, claiming that he can’t listen too much to people who traffic in his brand of quieter, more literary rock. From the same interview, and it’s the last time I reference it:
HANDLER: You are revered as a sort of cuddly troubadour.
DARNIELLE: I was always hoping people were afraid of me.
HANDLER: I’m not aware of anyone who’s afraid of you.
DARNIELLE: Then I’m not doing my job.
I can’t imagine people are afraid of Cyrus and Jeff either, despite their Columbine-like potential energy, because Darnielle makes them too three-dimensional for that. In The New Yorker last May, Sasha Frere-Jones wrote:
Cyrus and Jeff are familiar Mountain Goats characters, long on bad luck and short on problem-solving skills, and Darnielle, through his poetry, grants them the dignity that eludes them in their lives.
I disagree with this notion in general, and so here as well. Darnielle’s poetry doesn’t grant dignity to his characters, it simply illuminates the dignity already there. (It’s unfair to raise this distinction here, because it deserves further exploration, but I need some sleep and most of you aren’t still reading at this point, anyway.)

In the same piece, Frere-Jones calls Darnielle “America's best non-hip-hop lyricist.”

With all due respect to the great hip-hop lyricists, I really don’t think the qualifier is necessary.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Losers, Glorious Losers

I just found, via Deadspin, a noble and entertaining enterprise -- DFL, a blog devoted to the last-place finishers in every Olympic event.

A quick scan makes it seem pretty earnest about honoring these lesser lights for getting there in the first place.

To wit, from the host:
My default position should come as no surprise: given the stringent qualification rules imposed by the IOC, the various sport governing bodies, and national Olympic committees, I don't think that anyone who manages to get to the Olympics has anything to apologize or atone for. ... If you're so myopic to conclude that if someone else wins, it's because it's your guy's fault, not because somebody else was better or stronger or just plain luckier that day, then you need to pull your head out of your ass and look around at the rest of the field a bit.
Of course, between the blog's title (an acronym I'm pretty sure I can parse) and its reason for being, there's plenty of room in the cheek leftover for tongue. (Ew. Sorry. I was trying to play on a common phrase, but it just ended up sounding gross.)

((But really -- wanna make out?))

Also, while I apologize for that last remark, let's remember baseball, which is blooming again in Florida and Arizona, even as New York continues to dig out: Get your game face on here and here and here.

P.S. About the Snow

My rhapsodizing about the snow last weekend was a bit premature. Don't get me wrong, it was beautiful while falling, but I forgot about the post-blizzard experience in New York. Stage One occurs in Brooklyn, and entails having to crawl over bluffs to get around the neighborhood. Stage Two moves the action to midtown, where traffic (of the footed and wheeled variety) quickly reduces the sterling white blanket to yet another toxic byproduct of this city -- in this case, a green-brown slurry that looks like the ungodly creation of a one-night stand between a snow cone machine and the men's room at the Subway Inn on 60th and Lexington.

The third and final stage brings us back here to the neighborhood tonight, where, while on the phone with a friend, I heard some ominous noises outside. I opened the shutter of my third-floor window to a tableau that looked lifted straight from an alien-conspiracy video. The street had been closed off and several large vehicles were conducting a slow, complicated dance -- two or three were loading trucks, and the others were orange snow plows with bright lights on extended stalks, as if the arrival of giant mechanical lobsters was the unforeseen final stage of Park Slope's gentrification.

These monstrosities were performing a task I had seen once before, downtown following another large storm a couple of years ago. They were picking up bucketfuls of snow from the curb, as if two feet of trash bags had fallen from the sky on Sunday, and then depositing it in the other trucks. Presumably, the receiving trucks then drive the snow to Florida, where it melts.

I appreciate that whatever quantity is removed will not be around for its transformation into the aforementioned slurry, but there's something decidedly unsettling about watching the machine-orchestrated removal of still-intact snow under cover of night. (It reminds me of a comment made by Andy, a friend and roommate in college, who, describing a zoo in his home state of Arizona, said, "A polar bear eating fish in Arizona in July. That's not nature.") In short, if there's going to be two feet of snow on the ground, I'd prefer to live in a place where it's left largely unmolested. I suppose you can't have it all.

(Ed. note: ASWOBA highly and unironically recommends the Subway Inn for both the recreational and professional drinker. Just try to hold it in until you leave.)

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

AP Magnetic Poetry Headline of the Day

Pamela Anderson Criticizes Kentucky Derby


An Addition to My Esteemed Blogroll

Came across this great blog today by a screenwriter named Josh Friedman. According to my cursory web research, he co-wrote the script for last year's War of the Worlds (one of the better big-budget movies I've seen in a while; I'll let you decide the exact degree to which that's damning with faint praise, but I enjoyed it).

He writes about his life in L.A., being a writer ("monkey") there and dealing with movie executives ("zookeepers"). There's even a post both moving and very funny about his recent bout with cancer. Also, rewarding metaphorical treatments of dog poop.

Unlike whatever gossip hacks you're currently toggling between while avoiding your in box, Friedman seems to write at decent length, which means you may have to adjust your attention span. It's worth it.

(Via TMF,TML.)

Obscurity Knocks

I finally got around to reading this week's cover story about blogging in New York magazine.

The not-so-stunning upshot: "Most bloggers toil in total obscurity."

Like I need to read a magazine to grasp my obscurity.

Then again, I'm hardly toiling. The article makes clear that most bloggers who aggressively seek the kind of readership that attracts ad money have to post all day and all night, trawling the outer reaches of the web and the most vapid triple-digit Time Warner channels for celebrity gossip and the like. In other words, for everything you can already get from Gawker and a select number of its offspring.

No, thanks. I vastly prefer my method of ignoring celebrities and posting intermittently. Take that, Lindsay Lohan and punctuality!

I remain hopeful, though, partly because of this analysis from New York:
Plus, blogs offer tightly focused niches, which advertisers love. “You wanna reach New York, you buy on Gothamist. You want to reach mommies, you buy on Busy Mom. How does traditional media match that?” asks Brian Clark, an ad buyer who orchestrated Audi’s blogvertising last year.
Well, you can't get a more tightly focused niche than the one I've got. Advertisers -- pardon me; blogvertisers -- if you want to reach my sister Leigh, or my friends Ray and Nick, you must work with me!

AP Headline of the Day

Cheney Apparently Breaks Key Hunting Rule

Well, if that rule is "Don't shoot your friends in the face," then yes, apparently he did.

In fact, it might have been more accurate of the headline writer to go a step further: "Cheney Apparently Breaks Key Friendship Rule."


Sunday, February 12, 2006

Five Questions About the Olympics

1. Will someone be kind enough to wake me when they’re over?

2. Was there a time when they were legitimately exciting, or did I just feel that way up to 1988 or so because I was young and even more gullible than I am now, if that's possible?

3. Is there a single person who thinks the addition of professional players improved the enterprise?

4. Was Mary Lou Retton cute? I remember having posters of her on my wall in 1984, right next to those of Kristy McNichol, but the other day a friend pulled up a picture of her from that time, and lord, not so good.

5. Really, anyone else think she was cute at the time? You're among friends.

AP Revelatory Headline of the Day

Report: Government-Wide Katrina Failings

Weather-as-Home Report

Southbound, you can taste the weather
it feels like home.

--Son Volt

I always thought he was saying "I've found when you can taste the weather, it feels like home," and I've listened to that song a lot. I'm talking in the hundreds, if not thousands, of times. I liked it more as a universal thought, but oh well, the basic sentiment's the same. I would just reverse the direction.

As interesting as cultural distinctions can be, I'm frequently reminded that weather trumps almost everything else for me. This weekend's record snowstorm came just in time. With temperatures in the 50s recently, before Cupid has even made the scene, I was beginning to fear we had lost winter much too young.

I spoke to a good friend in Houston today, and told him I was essentially snowed in. He responded that it was just cool enough there to require long sleeves, and that he was idling in his car outside a record store with the air conditioner on. A quick check of the weather report for his city shows expected temps in the 70s later this week. Sure, if our entire winter had been like this weekend, when everything -- the sky above, the air in front of your face, the ground beneath your feet -- was white, temps in the 70s would sound inviting. Thing is, when it's 70 in mid-February, it's -- you guessed it -- in the low 200's in July and August.

The autumn air in Texas was frequently beautiful. (In Dallas, anyway. Most places further south than that, they call autumn Summer 2: The Revenge. In fact, I learned to love that Son Volt lyric because whenever I drove the 300 miles due north from my San Antonio college to Dallas in October or November, at some point there was a distinct, incredibly comforting change in the taste of the air coming in the car window. It kind of made Dallas feel like a second home for the first time.) But in early September, no matter where in the state, when the accumulated drag of unabated hundred-degree days had me pining desperately for a breeze that had recently visited water, that's when I knew for certain that I'd take a tough winter over a tough summer eight days a week.

Tough weekend, this one, and I loved it.

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Saturday, February 11, 2006

If You Get California or Texas Wrong, Seek Counseling (and/or Sue Your Elementary School)

OK, I should go to bed, but I saw Cache tonight, and I’m waiting for the creepiness to wear off. (It’s definitely worth seeing, but the expertly maintained psychological eeriness throughout isn’t really paid off at the very end. It’s Hitchcockian up to a point, but Alfred would have tied a ribbon around it. As it stands, a solid B+ for the first 112 minutes, but a C- for the last five.)

Anyway, nothing cures lingering creepiness like geography nerdiness. I came across this quiz on Living the Scientific Life, and despite never being particularly adept at knowing which states go where, I took a shot. And surprised myself -- I placed 31 out of 50 states exactly for a 62% rate of perfection (including Missouri, which was probably as much blind luck as anything I’ve ever accomplished in my life, and that’s saying something; when Missouri came up, I thought, "I have a better chance of placing Guinea-Bissau"). My average distance off base for all 50 states was 59 miles.

Let me reiterate that I’m not good at geography, and like most things I’m not good at (meaning most things), it doesn’t usually hold my interest, but this was pretty entertaining. (I might only be saying that because I’m a bit sleepy and, really, making macaroni sculptures of every U.S. president would be equally fine right now if it meant outrunning the creepy.)

If you’re man or woman enough, take a stab at the map and record your results in the comments section.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

See Them If You Can

Some concerts are so disappointing that you have to see a band once more to give them another chance, and some are so good that you can never see that band again. I’ve had both experiences with Built to Spill, so I can’t attend their tour this spring (they'll be promoting You in Reverse, which is due in April). For those of you who can go, good news: They’re traveling all over the damn place.

In March 2000, I had tickets to see them at the Gypsy Tea Room in Dallas. There were two wrinkles: It was a Sunday night performance, and I hadn’t found anyone to go with me; and I was flying back to Dallas early that night from a few days in Las Vegas. Still, I dragged my lonely self to the club, because Perfect From Now On, the band’s most recent record at that time, was and remains one of a handful of my all-time favorites. Obviously, the deck was stacked against my having a good time – I didn’t mind the solitude so much (it beats bringing someone who’s reluctant and then monitoring their mood while trying to enjoy the show), but I was pretty exhausted, and the din of slot machines hadn’t quite left my ears (not that I play slots, but they’re the soundtrack in Vegas). It was an OK show, but I was hoping for transcendent, and it fell pretty far short of that.

I got my wish in September 2001, though. They played Irving Plaza in New York about 10 days after the attacks, and yes, the somber circumstances made witnessing a great show feel, even more than usual, like church. (And yes, the somber circumstances are what elevated it from one of the best shows I've seen to I-better-never-taint-this-by-seeing-them-again status.) But they also just sounded terrific, and tore through a few priceless covers, including George Harrison’s “What is Life” (complete with a horn section) and a spirited “Free Bird” during the encore (Built to Spill is the only band I can think of that could turn that choice from an initial tongue-in-cheek moment into an authentically great performance).

The point is this: I can't see them. If you can, do. It might be only decent, but it might be so good you'll never do it again.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Lyrics by James Frey?

Lines from the song "Masher" by The Mountain Goats:

Most of June I spent in jail again
I don't mean jail exactly

Important Breakthrough in Health Studies

Depression in Chapel Hill. Baseball on the Horizon.

Enough of this talk about a mysterious God we can never know; let's turn our attention to the much more easily identified Satan: J.J. Redick. Yes, the Duke sharpshooter (they are the Blue Devils, you understand) did the majority of the work in a crushing loss for the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill last night. I caught the second half at a bar, Joe O's, after attending the Knicks-Clippers game at MSG with three friends. When we entered said bar, not only was a terribly irritating, 50-something guitar player inflicting Billy Joel's "Piano Man" on the patrons, but North Carolina was down 17 just a few minutes into the second half. (I love Billy Joel, so the choice of "inflicting" only has to do with the true awfulness of the one paying the tribute. He was accompanied by a pre-recorded backing track for each song. At one point, after he had tortured us with "Brown Eyed Girl" and a grotesquely sped-up version of "The Boxer," I came up with a name for the evening: "Joe O's presents The Ritualistic Murder of the American Songbook." When we left many, many songs later, my friend suggested we leave him a fifty dollar bill, duct taped to a particularly sensitive region of the body.)

Carolina stormed back to take the lead, but Duke...I can't talk about this. It's too soon. But if you share my love of this rivalry, or if you're just a sports fan, or a fan of great writing (this should cover most of you), I highly recommend this book. I haven't read the entire thing yet, and it's not officially released for another couple of weeks, but it's terrific.

Lastly, while we're on sports, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that pitchers and catchers start reporting to camp in seven days. Starting now, I will be paying frequent visits to Yankees Chick, a blogger in California who brings a love for the Bronx (and a damn fine knowledge of baseball) to the west coast.

Twain on Humanity

One last entry in the recent outbreak of science-faith posts, which I'll move away from for at least the next couple of days. This is from Mark Twain, cited as "autobiographical dictation, June 25, 1906," and printed in Hudson Review in 1963:
As to the human race. There are many pretty and winning things about the human race. It is perhaps the poorest of all the inventions of all the gods but it has never suspected it once. There is nothing prettier than its naive and complacent appreciation of itself. It comes out frankly and proclaims without bashfulness or any sign of a blush that it is the noblest work of God. It has had a billion opportunities to know better, but all signs fail with this ass. I could say harsh things about it but I cannot bring myself to do it--it is like hitting a child.

Fouad and Andrew

Fouad Ajami and Andrew Sullivan are both very sharp tacks. Both live up to that reputation here. Follow the link to Ajami's full piece, impressive as usual.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Clergy for Darwin

While I'm on the subject, here's an interesting piece by way of Dispatches From the Culture Wars, which looks like my kind of site.

This post links to a letter signed by clergy at several Christian churches around the country, defending evolution on the anniversary of Charles Darwin's birthday. Is it sad this is necessary? Of course. Is it a gesture worth noticing? I think so. Would it be nice if some faithful scientists got together and said the same -- basically: "Um, people, we're talking about different things"? Sure. (Maybe they already have.)

Mostly, though, this open letter is pretty eloquent (brief, too, which doesn't hurt). Here's an excerpt:
We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as “one theory among others” is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children. We believe that among God’s good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought and that the failure to fully employ this gift is a rejection of the will of our Creator. To argue that God’s loving plan of salvation for humanity precludes the full employment of the God-given faculty of reason is to attempt to limit God, an act of hubris.

We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth.
OK, OK, if pressed (or gently nudged, or even just awake), I think the "faculty of reason" is not the best news for God as he/she/it is posited by most people, but I still find that final thought, about different forms of truth, to be far more useful than the usual attempts by each side to negate the other.

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Brits vs. Darwin; Dennett vs. God

Perhaps this study from Britain will put a dent in the notion that doubts in the Western world about evolution's ultimate explanatory power are uniquely American.

Also, we should all try to find time to read Daniel Dennett's new book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Dennett's fairly brilliant, and this promises to be thought-provoking, if incredibly one-sided against the gods.

A Bad, Bad, Bad Game

Yesterday's Super Bowl was quite a sloppily played bore. When I got to work this morning, there was a phone message from Dad, which included this take on the game:
A terrible game, terrible officiating, just bad, bad, bad. If that game had been on October 20th, everyone would have turned it off and gone home. That game was really horrendous, marked by horrendous performances by a lot of people.
A more accurate review, I can't imagine.

AP It's About Time Headline of the Day

Bryan Adams Picking New Songs Carefully


Sunday, February 05, 2006


My buddy Jason over at Bad Movie Club blogged the Super Bowl (actually, he blogged the entire day) as it was happening. It replicated the experience of watching the game with him more than I could have hoped. We're both going to give the Oscars the same treatment this year. Here are some of my favorite observations of his from the big Sunday. These are individual posts as he had composed them, which should give you an idea for how his demented mind hops around. I'm leaving out strictly football-related comments because they're already outdated, but they were fun to see during the game:
Stevie Wonder has turned into Bleeding Gums Murphy from the Simpsons -- so much so that it is uncanny. Nice Motown tribute though, aside from showing the ridiculous "dancing" "fans" on the field and the inability to get anyone's microphone working. Joss Stone is annoyingly sexy.

Well those commercials sucked but it is nice that Al Michaels pronounced Mos Def correctly.

The Overstock.com commercials always make me uncomfortable. "It's all about the O" is a little too sexual for me to want to shop there. In order to buy from you, I have to sexually pleasure that woman -- too much pressure for me.

Seriously Ben, you do not have to win this thing by yourself. His throws have been terrible all game. By the way, that Hummer commercial where the monster and the robot have sex and birth a H3 is the creepiest thing I have seen -- ever. Seattle needs a TD here.

I Wish I Had More Hands, So I Could Give This Show Four Thumbs Down

The few times I've mistakenly wandered across Grey's Anatomy, I've watched for a minute or two, thought "boy, this sucks," and moved on. For some reason tonight -- well, presumably for Pavlovian reasons, since ABC ran 9,342 ads for it during the Super Bowl -- I gave it a shot for the first 15 minutes.

Awful. Indescribably awful.

On second thought, I'll try to describe: It's like they put the worst elements of Ally McBeal (a show I actually enjoyed, but had its share of terrible elements), Desperate Housewives, and ER (another show I used to like) into a blender, and then chugged the resulting concoction while listening to the soundtrack from The OC. Yeesh.

(Ed. Note: This post's title is a reference to a Dave Chappelle sketch. I know that, and figured many of you would know that. I'm not trying to steal.)

This Week's Reason to Hate The Voice

Like a grandfather who has his car keys taken away after one too many close calls, Robert Christgau should have all writing implements and mp3 files forcibly removed from his home. I don't know Christgau's age. I would guess 172, but I really don't think that would leave him with the energy he must need to complete the majority of his tortured sentences. The latest issue of The Village Voice features the paper's annual "Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll" (no, that's not a typo; it's what passes for cleverness at the Voice), and I always have a good time picking out the worst/most confounding sentences in Christgau's lead essay. (That's not entirely accurate: first I get a severe headache from trying to figure out what he's talking about; then I get enraged at him and myself, respectively, for creating and seeking out this muddle; then I have a good time coming to terms with my rage and laughing at the most impressive examples of his nonsensical pyrotechnics.)

Actually, this year's model struck me as fairly light on mind-numbing examples of poser-dom, but without further ado, here are three that kept me guessing/angered/entertained. The first serves as the essay's subtitle.
-Eclectic Neoclassicism versus childhood-oriented avant-primitivism as global warming swamps our history.

-In a year when the fashion in hip-hop realness was a grotesque crack nostalgia -- powered, in the case of Young Jeezy and Three 6 Mafia, by Anglo-ethnic victory-fanfare and scary-strings beats whose wholly 'hood authenticity was indistinguishable from their Hollywood schlockitude -- moralistic sellouts have got it going on.

-James Murphy seems like a nice guy in interviews, but as an artist he's a scenester, and the poker-faced ennui of LCD Soundsystem taught me once and for all that it wasn't just arthritic knees and parenting hours that kept me away from techno -- it was the disco way of escapism.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Five Songs

Staying inside and blogging (and writing a bit for myself, you insatiable overlords) on the dreariest Saturday in recent memory probably hasn't done wonders for my mood. Listening to Bruce Springsteen's bleak, bleak Nebraska was just piling on. But it inspired me to start an occasional series of posts in which I recommend five songs I've listened to lately. You'll recognize many of them, but hopefully not all. It'll be fun. Trust me.

Highway Patrolman -- Bruce Springsteen

This is probably my favorite song on Nebraska (its only competition is "My Father's House," as if you care), an album that must have inspired hundreds of musicians to record really bad, highly detailed short stories against a backdrop of boring music. Somehow, though, the Boss pulled it off. And I love the delivery of the chorus on this song:

Me and Frankie laughin' and drinkin'
nothing feels better than blood on blood
takin' turns dancing with Maria
as the band played "Night of the Johnstown Flood"

Displaced -- Azure Ray

I guess one of the two women in Azure Ray is Conor Oberst's girlfriend. Maybe she's not anymore. Either way, this song is better than anything I've ever heard by ol' Bright Eyes.

I Started a Joke -- Low

This is a cover of a Bee Gees song, and if you know Low, you’ll wonder how that works out. It works out really, really well. It seems to only be available on their box set of b-sides and rarities, which retails for around 50 bucks. If you’ve got the cash and you're a fan, this song alone almost justifies the price. Otherwise, if you know me, I’ll burn it for you. (If you’re my sister, and your name rhymes with Tree, then it’s already being handled, so no need to put in a request.)

Here Comes the Sun -- The Beatles

I love the Beatles, and own a collection of music built largely on the foundation of their influence, and this is my favorite song of theirs. It's something I'm unapologetic about, but other Beatles fans almost never understand. If you want to support me, visit the comments section. If you want to disparage me, well, same place.

Carolina In My Mind -- James Taylor

I know the feeling, James. I'm right there with you.


Still More on Cartoons

No surprise, but Andrew Sullivan has had strong posts about this, too.

In this one, he tries to link to some blatantly anti-Semitic cartoons in the Muslim press, but this link (which Anonymous Smart Dude below also sent along) hasn't been working for the past day or two. I imagine the site's been overwhelmed with traffic.

In any case, Sullivan says strongly what I tried to say strongly the other day before I stepped back a bit, mainly because I didn't want to let my more general philosophical issues with religious fervor cloud this specific case and its core issue of free speech vs. respect.

But it's impossible not to conflate the issues when you see something like the photos linked to in this post. OK, maybe it's a tiny minority (though that seems increasingly doubtful and pig-headedly optimistic to me), and OK, maybe it's not right to publish inflammatory cartoons about people's deeply held faith. But really -- the tone of the reaction is insane, plain and simple. To try to approach it differently out of some misguided political sensitivity seems increasingly dangerous to me.

Anonymous Smart Dude (which I may have to start calling him in everyday life, just for fun) also pointed me to this Onion piece, which ran nearly nine years ago. It's as funny as it was then, and even more sadly appropriate.

More on Cartoons

I've made a habit throughout my life of hanging out with people smarter than I am, because it makes things a lot more interesting. (Also, when befriending these people, I may have subconsciously known they would one day help provide material for my blog.) One such person sent me a thought-provoking reaction to my post yesterday about the Danish cartoons, and I asked if I could run it in some form. He agreed, but didn't want his name attached (whether out of true humility or the shame of being linked to this blog, we'll never know). So, here you go, from Anonymous Smart Dude:
...the Muslim world has posted cartoons, plenty of them, at least as offensive to Jews as the current series is to Muslims.

I think the central problems are a) when to voice support for respecting religions vs free speech. The Muslims shouting loudest now were silent when the above cartoons {ed. note: he had linked to anti-Jewish cartoons above, but the link doesn’t seem to be working anymore, so I didn’t post it} were published, and when Syria aired a TV series based on "Protocols of the Elders of Zion"; similarly, for what possible earthly reason have Jewish organizations not weighed in, at least tepidly, on the subject of the cartoons' offensiveness? Were the ADL, for instance, to say that while we recognize the right to offend, we object to the stereotypes in these cartoons as loudly as we'd object to cartoons that stereotype us, it would offer a rare instance of real Muslim-Jewish solidarity. More fundamentally, should non-Muslims have to live by the rules of Islam when it comes to depicting Mohammed? As someone pointed out somewhere yesterday (one of the problems of blog-clicking), the Old Testament forbids graven images of God, but I haven't seen anyone protesting the Sistine Chapel. Third, as you point out, the response is quite simply, clinically, insane. Indonesians held up signs advocating the slaughter of the Danish ambassador; Palestinians have shut down the EU office in Gaza; tens of thousands of Pakistanis are marching and setting Norwegian flags on fire. This is just bonkers.

I also think on the European side, a lot of this deliberate provocation has to do with the way media and government have effectively shut down any sort of broad immigration debate. Europe traditionally was composed of independent countries where citizenship was largely a matter of blood: you were French because your parents were, grandparents, all the way back for centuries. Now it's an increasingly confederated, amorphous entity dependent on immigration, and its citizens, understandably, are a little uneasy, confused, nostalgic, etc. Between this uneasiness and the overt bigotry of far-right parties lies a wide gulf, but when governments admit immigrants for moral reasons (i.e. the duty of the rich, post-colonial guilt, etc) and any uneasiness among its citizenry is instantly flagged as racism, understandably people will bottle their feelings up and they'll come out in strange, less predictable ways. This {the cartoons} seems to be one of the more benign of those ways; strong showings by far-right parties in France, Belgium, and Switzerland are the more worrying flipside of this coin.

AP Unrelated Headlines That Still Have an Inexplicably Appealing Consonance of the Day

Time Is Right for New Supermodel to Emerge

The French Are Getting Taller and Fatter


Archive of the Day

Home is so Sad by Philip Larkin

Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft

And turn again to what it started as,
A joyous shot at how things ought to be,
Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.

Banville on Larkin

Terrific piece in the latest New York Review of Books by John Banville about Philip Larkin, the unwitting creator of this blog's name. Read it here.

I wanted to note two excerpts for those of you who don't read the whole thing. (But really, you should. What else do you have to do? You're already reading my blog, which means you have some serious free time on your hands.)

First, this paragraph by Clive James, which Banville cites after discussing how many people dismiss Larkin's poetry because of his less appealing private views:
Philip Larkin really was the greatest poet of his time, and he really did say noxious things. But he didn't say them in his poems, which he thought of as a realm of responsibility in which he would have to answer for what he said, and answer forever. He also thought there was a temporary and less responsible realm called privacy. Alas, he was wrong about that. Always averse to the requirements of celebrity, he didn't find out enough about them, and never realized that beyond a certain point of fame you not only don't have a private life any more, you never had one.
This made me think I should be reading everything Clive James has written as soon as possible.

Then, buried in Banville's footnotes, is this quote from Larkin about travel, which expresses a sentiment I share almost entirely: “I wouldn't mind seeing China if I could come back the same day."


Friday, February 03, 2006

Had a Long Week? It's Tranq Dart Time

I was flipping through The Onion on the subway two nights ago, and had to close it, because I started laughing so hysterically at this piece that I was going to humiliate myself in front of a car full of strangers. The piece itself is pretty good, but it's not even that funny by Onion standards. There was just something about that headline and that mug shot that killed me, and after that I was going to increasingly crack up at whatever followed.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Cartoons as Politics; Politics as Cartoons

(I've edited this post from its original form, because I want to clarify some things, lest my views get distorted.)

This blog hasn’t focused much on political events thus far, but I’ll slowly phase in some material in that vein, starting now.

In case you haven’t been paying attention to the latest chapter in the Clash of Civilizations, Muslim fundamentalists are pretty angry, this time about a series of cartoons depicting Muhammad that ran in a Danish newspaper and has now been reproduced by several European publications in a show of free-speech solidarity.

Thumbnail background from the New York Times:
The trouble began in September in Denmark, when the daily Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons lampooning intolerance among Muslims and links to terrorism. A Norwegian magazine published the cartoons again last month, and the issue erupted this week after diplomatic efforts failed to resolve demands by several angry Arab countries that the publications be punished.

The cartoons include one depicting Muhammad with a bomb in place of a turban on his head and another showing him on a cloud in heaven telling an approaching line of smoking suicide bombers, "Stop, stop, we ran out of virgins!"

They have since been reprinted in France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Spain and Hungary. The BBC broadcast them on Thursday.
More specifically, to quote another account: “Muslim fundamentalists have threatened to bomb the paper’s offices and kill the cartoonists.”

That seems like an eminently reasonable reaction to a few drawings, doesn’t it?

Oh, it doesn’t? Right.

(You can see the cartoons here if you scroll down.)

I'm not condoning whatever blatant insensitivity might have been present in those cartoons (some of the cartoons seem pretty nonsensical to me, actually), nor am I labeling as lunatics the five billion or so people who are deeply religious on this planet. I'm just condemning a response to published material that includes armed gunmen. It doesn't seem like that will get either side very far in negotiating the cultural and political divides that currently exist around the world. My friend Nick made the point that you couldn't get away with similar cartoons about priests or rabbis. (Personally, I can imagine sharp cartoons about priests being published in the Village Voice and other alternative papers pretty easily, but the point is taken.)

No one I've heard is defending the extremists’ response, and one continues to hope said extremists can be classified as a fringe movement. The Times, optimistically, writes: "Many Muslims say the Danish cartoons reinforce a dangerous confusion between Islam and the Islamist terrorism that nearly all Muslims abhor."

We’re in the midst of a global epidemic of people taking themselves too seriously. It’s also happening in this country, of course, but with fewer guns. Witness the recent furor over the TV show “The Book of Daniel,” which portrayed an Episcopalian priest and his dysfunctional family, and also featured Jesus himself in a supporting role. NBC pulled the plug on the show, presumably because it stunk, but Christian activist groups didn’t wait long enough to allow the show to die based on its own merits (or lack thereof).

Just today, Nick was telling me about World War II memorabilia that decorates a diner near his hometown in upstate New York. One recruiting poster depicts a burly American soldier getting looked over by a French woman who's peering at him around her boyfriend, a scrawny French soldier. (Stealing the girl of an ally! An ally portrayed as a cowardly weakling!) Another piece, a framed newspaper article from VJ Day, refers to the enemy, several times and with a straight face, as "the Japs."

I suppose the point, in a roundabout way, is that the Western world, for all its continued arrogance and stubborn policies, seems to have gotten exponentially more cautious about offending people. And that's a good thing. But maybe it's keeping us from dealing rationally with offense when it does occur.

At his blog, Norman Geras, as ever, has written something ten times smarter about this very subject.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Super Bowl Prediction: Industrial Workers to Beat Birds

I caught up on The Stranger's blog recently, and found lots of good stuff (like the composite-blob artist I posted about yesterday), but I'm trying not to lean on them too heavily for material this week. I imagine at some point I would have to start paying them a fee. Or start agreeing with all of their politics.

One more for now, though, because it involves sports mascots, and there are a few of you out there who can attest to my insane love of all things mascot: I love when they fake fight, when they gather for group photos, and especially when they're knocked out cold by careless baseball players swinging bats at them. (Best of all is when they fight for real, but I couldn't find any images of that. I know that a few years ago, a hockey coach scurried over the plexiglass boards to get at a mascot who was irritating him.)

The Stranger's analysis of the forthcoming Super Bowl centers on the fact that no team named for a bird has ever won the event. Bad news for the Seahawks, of course. (Give the page a few seconds to load; it's been taking a while to skip to the right archived post, but it eventually gets there.) The Ravens did win it a few years back, and the piece lamely dismisses that, but it's still a thought-provoking take -- if you're provoked to think, like I am, by underpaid men and women in foam costumes and their effect on athletic contests.

(Since I posted this, my reliable friend Jason -- or "Mandrake" -- has peppered the comments board with material that's far more useful, entertaining, and interactive than anything I wrote above. Go there now and feast.)

Great Indie Rock Album Title Just Waiting to be Used

Promise Me That Loving You Won’t Make Me Dumb

(You're welcome, indie band smart enough to scoop that up.)

Archive of the Day

From “A Letter That Never Reached Russia” by Vladimir Nabokov:
Listen: I am ideally happy. My happiness is a kind of challenge. As I wander along the streets and the squares and the paths by the canal, absently sensing the lips of dampness through my worn soles, I carry proudly my ineffable happiness. The centuries will roll by, and school boys will yawn over the history of our upheavals; everything will pass, but my happiness, dear, my happiness will remain, in the moist reflection of a streetlamp, in the cautious bend of stone steps that descend into the canal’s black waters, in the smiles of a dancing couple, in everything with which God so generously surrounds human loneliness.

Wait, I Think I See Her... Is That Her...? Dammit!

You can file this under Cool Art or Cool Mind-F*&@ing, or both, but Jason Salavon is creating strange images from our cultural detritus.

He takes, for instance, 100 shots of newlyweds or kids posing with Santa, and using some techno-jimmer-jammer, transforms them into a composite image.

In one instance, he takes the top 10 all-time videos on MTV and, well, I'll let him explain:
Each of the videos in the top 10 of this list were digitized in their entirety and the individual frames were simplified to their mean average color, eliminating overt content. These solid-colored squares were then arranged in their original sequence and are read left-to-right, top-to-bottom.
Now, like you (I assume), I don't know what the hell that means. But check out "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Even in digitized, overt-content-less form, Nirvana rocks!

Most disturbingly, one might even say unpatriotically, Salavon has turned a decade's worth of Playboy centerfolds into a smudgy blob. For shame.

I recommend cruising around the site. It contains more sexual material, in blurred, asexual form, and even an image that represents the "overall luminosity" of every frame in Star Wars. I'm not advocating drug use, but I imagine being high wouldn't hurt right about now.

(I found Salavon's site through the pretty great blog run by Seattle's The Stranger.)

The Real King of the World, That's Me

I've often joked, flatly, that instead of naming me John Michael Williams, my parents should have just stamped a bar code on my birth certificate, or named me Baby Human. Not that the generic handle has been a detriment; in fact, I've come to like it by learning to think of it as the name equivalent of Shaker furniture: simple but durable, even elegant in a way. (If by elegant, you mean dull; which you often do, don't lie.)

I just came across a list I had saved a while back. It was the result of visiting a web site, now frustratingly forgotten to me, where you could enter your name and find all web references that take the form of "Your Name is..." It wouldn't take you to a series of links, it would just list the individual sentences beginning that way, out of context. (So it wasn't Google. If you know what it is, please remind me in the convenient "Comments" section located below.)

Obviously, this was one instance when having a common name made for better entertainment. The following is a (very) partial list of the things being said about me out there:
John Williams is steeped in traditional music
John Williams is truly a "master maestro" when it comes to uplifting that awe within us all
John Williams is the first
John Williams is a button accordion and concertina player of rare ability
John Williams is not involved with the production or maintenance of this site in any way
John Williams is aware of this site's existence and I hope to have input from him at some stage
John Williams is better than first tier; almost anyone else is neither here nor there
John Williams is a cousin to Princess Diana through his ancestral couple Robert and Martha
John Williams is director of the Sir Norman Chester Centre for football research
John Williams is 100% right is in his assertion that only a federally united and democratically controlled Europe will be able to provide a self
John Williams is a senior lecturer in law at the University of Adelaide
John Williams is America's
John Williams is a member of the Indian liberation movement
John Williams is CTO at Tellein, where he focuses on enterprise architecture
John Williams is a 1985 graduate of the university of Akron school of law and is employed as an assistant prosecuting attorney in Wayne county
John Williams is without doubt extremely versatile
John Williams is bombastic when it's appropriate
John Williams is a consultant with Frank Russell Company's New Zealand office
John Williams is international trade director for trade partners UK in the north eastern region
John Williams is sometimes accused of "borrowing" from classical music pieces too much
John Williams is the greatest single benefactor in the history of the library
John Williams is a genius
John Williams is well
John Williams is really referring to 071607
John Williams is busy at the moment
John Williams is a flight instructor and commercial pilot for new horizon aviation
John Williams is going to get to you emotionally
John Williams is good
John Williams is widely regarded as a foremost ambassador of the guitar
John Williams is interesting
John Williams is the author of the waste report
John Williams is a contributing photographer for Ski magazine
John Williams is the real king of the world
John Williams is a very good science fiction writer
John Williams is also a deputy lieutenant of the county of Durham
John Williams is the exception to the rule
John Williams is unparalleled
I know what you're thinking, because I'm thinking it myself: Where do I find the time to blog?