Friday, May 27, 2005

Legacies Grasped and (in one case) Lost

Experience, by Martin Amis

I recently scanned over an interview with David Bowie. The interviewer thought the new album was a tad cheerier than Bowie's usual fare, and questioned Bowie on it. Bowie said it had occurred to him that his kids were eventually going to listen to his stuff, then wonder why he'd brought them into the world if he thought it was such a bloody awful place. "Thanks a lot, dad!" (guffaw, guffaw).

"Thanks a lot, dad!" seems to run through every page of Martin Amis's memoir, Experience. Anyone with a passing familiarity of his father Kingsley’s work has to wonder just what sort of parent the old man made. The protagonists in his early novels are lecherous drunks; in his later novels, they’re just plain drunk. They also give voice to the gamut of British impatience with everything from babies to excitable readers. No surprise, then, to find that Kingsley’s behavior and character tested the bonds of familial love to the day he died.

The real surprise is the depth of love Martin discovers – in himself, his brother, other family members – as he recounts his father’s final days. Experience is all about mortality and helplessness. Martin’s marriage dies, while his love for his two sons grows deeper and more desperate - and more gracious. He loses a friend in a literary feud (Julian Barnes); he loses his father to years of heavy drinking. His cousin’s murder seems to cast a terrible shadow on everything he surveys. Even his mouth crumbles, and has to be rebuilt. These are the specifics of a particular midlife crisis, and they generate the usual variations of renewal: a generous reappraisal of his father, a second marriage, another child, and the late discovery of a daughter he didn’t know he had. Not an easy narrative to read (especially if you’re in the throes of a bad cold, like I was), but not nearly so grueling an experience as any of his novels. I get the sense that Martin wrote this as a note to his kids, saying, in effect, “All those gruesome novels I write? Well, this is what I really believe, through experience, and that’s why you’re here.” (Right. Thanks a lot, dad.)

The Kings of Leon - Aha, Shake, Heartbreak

Well, I can certainly vouch for the “heartbreak.” I don’t think I’ve ever been so quickly and completely disappointed by a sophomore album. If the critics are any indication, I’m in the minority, which gets me wondering who is further removed from the zeitgeist: them or me? I may not know what I like, but I know art – and this is too arty by half.

I should have been tipped off earlier. The British reviewers were especially pleased with this effort – almost always a dismal sign for a band. The BritCrits approved of the Kings’ conscientious departure from the first album, Youth & Young Manhood. Well, what the hell was wrong with Youth & Young Manhood?! These four preacher’s kids were off to a very promising start, I thought. They sold themselves as raucous backsliders, and merged a gospel-tent sensibility to New York City punk – Jimmy Swaggart comes to grips with his carnal nature, and fronts The Velvet Underground. “I don’t know what they’re talking about,” said John Hiatt of Y&YM, “but they sound like they believe it, and they make me want to believe it, too.”

From the evidence here, the Kings have lost the faith. Their songs struggle to break the two-minute mark and trip over each other in the race to reach the album’s end (36 minutes, worth less than 12). Stylistically, they’ve shrugged off anything remotely “southern” and submerged themselves further into the current “Noo Wave”. They sound like a Talking Heads cover band that can’t be bothered with anything past the first chorus. Feh. Kids these days.

On the other hand…

The Drive-By Truckers - The Dirty South

A couple of years ago, a friend asked me to grab some DBT discs on my forthcoming California visit. This was shortly after they’d released Southern Rock Opera, and despite the unanimous critical raves, there was not a single copy to be found in the city of Toronto. I went out and bought the discs, then gave them a quick spin before I handed them off.

I didn’t quite “get” The Drive-By Truckers. Their lyrics were unabashedly blue-collar, but they glinted with a discomfiting insight that probably didn’t sit well with any audience. Combine that with music that was raucous and loud, but also fond of the sort of minor-seventh-chords the West Coast grunge bands favored, and you had a package that seemed too “college” to truly rock out, and too plain-spoken to be “college”. The best of their offerings was the live Alabama Ass-Whuppin’, which demonstrated exactly why people were taking note of this band. On stage, in front of a small crowd, these guys could clearly tear it up.

Last summer they released The Dirty South, and expanded their already gruelling tour schedule to include Toronto. I’m happy to say you don’t have to see the DBTs to “get” The Dirty South, because they have honed their sound and lyrics into an irresistible force. Singer song-writer Patterson Hood still supplies a nerve-shredding edge to the album’s contents, but Mike Cooley’s presence has slowly increased and given the band depth and soul. Between the two of them, they cook up an impressive creative ouevre that Springsteen is struggling to reclaim. Of course, where the Boss has to sit down and consult his muse, these guys just have to offer their neighbors a beer and take note.

There are a number of powerful stand-alone songs on this disc, but the one that stands as a centerpiece for me is Daddy’s Cup. It’s one of those Memphis tell-you-a-story songs, where the singer slurs into the last note of every line – an art detractors love to ape, but can’t possibly master. That slur communicates a casual, menacing swagger that, when done well, pulls a song taut like a bowstring. In this case, Cooley draws out the masculine appeal behind NASCAR, and subtly peels back the mixed emotions that come with any and every father-son legacy. When the song’s final note dies, there’s an off-mic exchange between Cooley and Hood. Hood points out he missed a cue. “I’m sorry,” drawls Cooley. “I wasn’t lookin’ atcha.” Hood protests it’s no big deal: “I was just listening to the story, man!” That gets a raucous laugh out of Cooley.

He knows he’s delivered the goods, and so do we. Buy this disc here, and welcome to the rock show.


DarkoV said...

Must be me, or is that, wish it wasn't I? Tried listening to the much critically acclaimed "Southern Rock Opera" and "The Dirty South". Even went back and listened to 2002's "Alabama Ass Whuppin'" and 2000's "Pizza Deliverance". Hunh? It's not that I have anything against Southern rock. I love Southern Culture on the Skids and Widespread Panic. And I still pull out, on occassion, Allman Bros. or even Grinderswitch.
Is an even CLOSER listen the answer? I'm hoping to stay away from playing the cd in reverse; my soldering skills are not up to snuff.

Whisky Prajer said...

Oof - no, I don't believe there is a "closer" listen to be had. Rock is about instant gratification; it's clearly time to remove the DBTs from your player, and replace them with Marah. Life's too short to figure out the critics.