Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Dark Side Of The Moon by The Flaming Lips

I paid a visit to iTunes this morning to see if there were any bar-goons to be had in the Bach Oratorio department (I know, I know). When I glanced to my right at the daily charts I was surprised to see the number 10 spot taken up with Dark Side Of The Moon, by The Flaming Lips.

Ex-squeeze me?

It is what it says. At first glance it looked like too slight a project for me to drop a ten-spot on. But after reading all the hate-mail in the customer reviews I reached for my wallet. If an album by the Lips is this loathed, they must be doing something right. But what?

Most of the angry reviews stem from the fact that anyone would have the nerve to cover the entire classic Floyd album. After that we have comments from people who seem to think the covers should sound exactly like the originals. Then there are the moderately happy, in whose camp I reside.

The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. First of all, for $10 (Cdn: I understand Yankees only have to pay $8) it's a sweet deal. Wayne Coyne and Co. take the project seriously and produce a 40 minute set that entertains from beginning to end. And the music mostly works, often impressively. I was caught pleasantly off-guard by Coyne's version of “Time.” When the original, with a grumpy stridency, pronounces: “The sun is the same in a relative way but you're older / Shorter of breath and one day closer to death” — the final exclamation mark is so obvious it usually gets me giggling. Coyne's approach is softer-footed, and delightfully compassionate — a revelation, in fact.

In a project as Quixotic as this, there are the inevitable other moments. A completely digital makeover of "Money" is thematically appropriate but won't get me hitting "replay" too often. While listening to "Us And Them" I simply could not shake the image of a sweetly emotional Kermit The Frog in “It's Not Easy Being Green” mode. And Henry Rollins(!) sits in for Floyd's collection of barking nutters, acquitting himself quite well at times, but occasionally sounding a little too jolly in his Nietzschean pronouncements to be convincing as an ac-tor.

There are the usual fans crying out for a plasticized copy of this project, but that strikes me as overkill. I expect to play the album a half-dozen times or so, before moving on to other, more lasting fare. But for now the Lips' Dark Side Of The Moon is a welcome and appropriate addition/interruption to the holiday playlist.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Of Church Ruins And Abandoned Malls

Our county has lost another of its historic churches — Whitby's All Saints' Anglican — likely to arson. Speaking from experience it is quite dispiriting to watch a gorgeous old church go up in flames. Equally dispiriting, I find, is the sort of pulpit-pounding that occurs in its wake: “If only people stopped/started believing in God, the world would be a better place.” The usual comments can be read here.

Turning, for the moment, from disputing the merits and evils of religion, here is a gallery of abandoned shopping malls and outlet stores. The photos were taken by Brian Ulrich.

Paul Bowman
linked to the pictures, without comment; Boing-Boing linked as well, but saw fit to include this snippet from TMN's interview with Ulrich: “How can an economy sustain a lifestyle based on exponential growth and the leisure and wealth to support it? It’s not rocket science to expect these kind of illusions to fail.”

Perhaps my gaze hasn't turned so far after all.

What surprises me about the photos is their inability to provoke emotion in me. Much of my adolescence and adult life has been spent inside malls; I dream quite regularly of dimly lit corridors and forgotten cul-de-sacs, where I find all the weird stores. Then there is the business of being a close witness to the closing of an old established bookstore — another frequent dream motif. Yet for all the potential power within these photos, I find them little more compelling than I would shots of trash in the ditch.

I believe that the current strain of North American church architecture has more in common with the shopping mall than it does with previously established religious aesthetics. A photo like the above gives us a very good idea of what the local mega-church will probably look like within 30 years or so. If nothing else, you have to hand it to the religious architects of old for giving us buildings that looked beautiful, even in ruination.

Now, when I give the mega-church buildings a life expectancy of 30 years, I'm being generous. I say this not because I think Christianity is in danger of dying out, but because I believe the last fifty years of public architecture will shortly be untenable, financially. Consider the cost of heating these structures. Now consider the fact that Saudi Arabia is investing in offshore drilling. Now reconsider what the monthly energy bill is likely to come to when OPEC finally slows its exports out of necessity.

But even if I and all my peak-oil nut-job buddies are wrong wrong DEAD wrong, I'd still argue the reasonable approach to building a church ought to be, “This building is good for 25 years. And then it's coming down.” If you are a church goer wondering at my folly, I urge you to pick up your yellow pages. Now find the church segment and run your finger down the list. How many of those congregations have been vibrant for as long as 40 years? If yours is one of them, ask yourself how you're going to beat the odds of a schism for another 40?

Take another look at that picture, if you like.

Another ruin that looms in my dreams is the St. Boniface Cathedral of Winnipeg. When my mother toured the grounds in the '70s, she struck up a conversation with a nun, and said what a shame the fire had been. The nun nodded silently. After a bit of a pause, the sister said, “But that was really a very expensive building to maintain.”

I've thought a lot about that exchange, especially as I've revisited the ruins. St. Boniface is a go-to destination for tourists and residents alike. It hosts weddings, memorials, concerts and performances of Shakespeare. I would argue that people interact with the ruins more frequently and with greater vibrancy than they would with the structure, were it still standing.

If that is the best fate of our most cherished buildings, perhaps it is time for another sea-change in North American church architecture. Perhaps now is the time for forward-thinking congregations and their architects to ask (1) what would a church with a small footprint and the capacity for easy dismantlement look like? And (2) how can we make our building as publicly inviting as a ruin — right now, before the fire?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Additions To Prajer's Aught-Nine Christmas Playlist

This year I have acquired only one Christmas CD I care to play from beginning to end, but several others that add zip to the season's musical broth, so long as the iPod is set on “shuffle.” Here, then, is my list of suggested new(ish) ingredients for a tasty Christmas playlist.

Eban Schletter's A Cosmic Christmas (e, A): I recently heard William Shatner defend his early performance of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” as an intentional joke. When the interviewer suggested that Shatner's performance sounded a little too earnest for this explanation to be convincing, Shatner protested. “It's one of the first rules of acting: if an actor plays it like he knows it's funny, the joke falls flat — it's not funny to anyone.”

I think Shatner is bluffing late in the game, but his larger point is absolutely right. And man oh man, did it ever haunt me through my first few spins of A Cosmic Christmas by Eban Schletter. Even now I can't declare whether the man who scores Spongebob Squarepants is playing it straight or if he's really buying the entire Universal Santa Package. No matter: whether the final effect is intentional or not, what you'll hear is by turns eccentric, weird and/or hilarious. There is an undercurrent of bizarre charm to the orchestration, but nothing that's likely to elevate your mood as you search in vain for a parking spot. Please trust me on this: I am convinced Schletter's manipulation of the Theremin during “Christmastime Is Here” hones in on the exact note that sent Brian Wilson spiraling into his 19th Nervous Breakdown. You'll probably want to weed out the spoken word tracks that tie together the album's theme, but otherwise this electronic noodling is just the thing for those of us whose friends no longer arch their eyebrows whenever Esquivel comes on.

The Good Lovelies' Under The Mistletoe (h): my mother-in-law loves these gals. “That's real old-time music,” she said when she first heard them. Indeed it is: these ladies have the tight harmonies — and skirts — that brought the boys home from Europe in '46. Their sassy approach to a once-musty tradition has made me a fan, too. Although I'm not always up for a straight hour of their recorded material, their addition to the Christmas playlist generates endless goodwill, and I hope to see them perform soon.

Sam Phillips' Cold Dark Night (e, A) — I can't imagine what an entire album's worth of Christmas material might sound like as rendered by Sam Phillips, but this year's single is a very welcome anchor to a playlist that frequently threatens to spin into the ether. But you knew that already.

Finally, my wife can't get enough of Over The Rhine's Snow Angels (e, A), a 2007 recording that finds the duo in a slightly more rambunctious mood than 1996's The Darkest Night Of The Year (which I really dug last year). When she isn't playing her seasonal standards, she alternates between this disc and the Verve Remixed Christmas (wp), both of which rest pleasantly on my ears as well.

So that's what's spicing up the Christmas Musical Broth in our house this year. If I'm missing anything, alert me now for next year.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Withering, Take 2

Kirkus Reviews is shutting down. I can recall tuning in to quoted reviews on the inside of paperbacks when I was about 15 or so. After a little unscientific tabulating (in my efforts to read Books That Mattered) it seemed to me that NYTBR was significant, but Kirkus was King. According to this link (via ALD) Ron Charles says, "For me, they were the last reliable source of negative reviews." Yes: and positive, too.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Whither The Withering Book Review?

As I ponder the growing pile of books fated to remain half-read by yours truly, I sometimes consider enumerating a few "reader's rules," say, or a list of tropes that, when encountered, will immediately move me to abandon a writer's work. I'd rather avoid such self-indulgence, and here is just one reason why: writers who encounter these rippers actually suffer, sometimes terribly. And where's the good in that?

I am also noticing that I'm growing less interested in the opinions of critics on a broadsheet payroll, even one that's as auspicious as the NYTBR. There is a sweaty, begrudging whiff of "I'm doing the trenchwork, here" that applies especially to fiction reviewing (witness the review in question), and makes the entire enterprise suspect.

It's been a few years since a newspaper persuaded me to buy a book, but magazines* are another story. One example: Sam Anderson's praise for The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz sent me straight to Amazon, for a book I would otherwise have given a pass.

If disinterest takes over said Brief Wondrous Life, I won't admit it here -- but I will over at goodreads. There is something about being a solo voice among the mob that frees up a little of my critical phlegm. Goodreads is also where I give my raves their first draft. If you're curious, look me up (I'm "whiskyprajer" -- natch) or drop me an e-mail.

*Although Paste's list is enough to induce the hangover of the decade.

Post-Script: oops! Forgot the link to Anderson's intriguing survey of Lit-Fic in the Aughts.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Dancing About Architecture

"Bob Dylan has been making records for 48 years, and deeply disappointing people for the last 44 of them" -- Chris Willman. Prajer's is the place to confess: did you buy Bob Dylan's Christmas album? I have not -- yet. What did you think? I have to admit, Willman is the first pundit to pique my curiosity. Stay tuned.

Am I listing yet? Ye cats! It's the end of the decade that began the third millennium. Surely I have a top ten list of . . . something, if only of moments that persuaded me the zeitgeist was blowing in a direction alien to my comprehension -- no? We shall see. In the meantime, everyone else has a top ten list of movies and albums, including, especially, the beleaguered Paste magazine. Pick it up at the newsstand, then hurry home and pour yourself a healthy dram. Take a sip every time you utter an expletive. If you refill your glass after reading the table of contents, alternate with water.

Could we designate 2010 as the year we stopped using Tom Waits as the final comparison? 2009 was the year the bastard sons of Greil Marcus universally abandoned "Dylanesque" as an adjective. (See what happens when you cut a Christmas album?) Now Tom Waits is the be-all and end-all. Here is just one peeving example, courtesy of Nate Chinen via the NYT: "Mr. [Joe] Henry wants to suggest a less phlegmatic Tom Waits." And who does Mr. Waits want to suggest? Speaking as a listener who enjoys Waits as much as he enjoys Dylan (and neither so much as he enjoys Henry) let me be the first to say, "Knock it off." Lift your head a little higher, and see if you can't find a few additional stars to steer by, why don't you?

Thursday, December 03, 2009

La Cocina de Mama, St. Catharines

Last year when our family attended a ringette tournament in St. Catherines, we resolved to try what we thought might be an independent Mexican restaurant: La Cocina de Mama. It turned out to be Colombian -- different, but still very delicious, cuisine.

More than that, however, we were made to feel like welcome guests. The owner asked us our preferences, and explained the nature of the Colombian kitchen. We sampled all sorts of food before settling on our chosen menu. And the conversation was as nourishing as the meal.

I don't know what percentage of St. Catharine's population comes from Colombia, but they all seem to frequent La Cocina. As we sat there on a Saturday morning, the door never stayed closed for long. "Everyone who walks in here has a smile on their face," I said to my wife.

She agreed. "They come in with open faces," she said.

One year later my daughters still talk about La Cocina de Mama. Strangers in a strange town couldn't do any better than spending an hour or two in "Mama's Kitchen."