Thursday, September 30, 2010

Stuck In The Middle With Franzen

'Tis the silly season for lovers of the printed (virtually or otherwise) word. It all began with the industry that's built itself up around Jonathan Franzen, of course. Time Magazine and a whole heap of others think he's Jesus with a Mac Book; others are sure he's the anti-Christ. This guy (linked via ALD) equates Franzen et al with "our bankers" -- to which I can only say, "Dude: time for a reality check." If there's a family sleeping in their car because Franzen spent five years writing Freedom, let me know at once.

It's either love or hate Franzen, isn't it? I haven't yet read the new book, but I kind of like his earlier stuff. I have very distinct visual memories from The Corrections, particularly of a younger Alfred in a white shirt, standing on a railroad trestle with a ball-peen hammer in hand. Franzen is, were I to resort to a reviewer-cliche, certainly an evocative writer.

Until it comes to sex: suddenly everything feels staged, and his characters have a distant, critical, authorial point of view I simply can't buy. Perhaps I should be the last to cast a stone, but I thought Enid's discussion of family financial strategy while fellating Alfred (complete with the Crumb-y onomatopoeia "glub") was a particularly vexatious low point in The Corrections -- and it occurs just pages after the scene on the trestle.

In the main, however, I do look forward to reading the new book -- as soon as it's available at the local library.

Elsewhere: I can't write in cafes -- especially not in my former place of employment, where everybody really does know my name. But malls? Give me a Bic and scribbler, and I'm off to the races.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Of Cars, And Such

I occasionally muse over what, if I had the discretionary income, my ideal car might be. Something comfortable and snazzy, that doesn't read as, "Mid-life crisis" or "Trying too hard." The Bullitt-tribute Mustang still appeals, chiefly because it separates itself in an understated way from the tricked-out 'Stangs that overpopulate our roads. My wife likes the Cooper, thinking of it as a fun, tool-around vehicle, while my tool-around choice would actually be the Smart Car.

But I might as well admit that, for a moment, I wondered if I wouldn't part with a mere $150,000 for the privilege of parking this in our garage:

Holy industrial respirator masks, Batman -- these fellas sure do have their Bat-swag down! Unfortunately, the trouble with driving something like this is that once you get behind the wheel there is simply no way you can avoid looking like these guys do:

Thursday, September 23, 2010

My Money's Worth Of Music

This month's "On The Platter" and "On The Floor" selections might as well be filed under "The Usual Suspects" 'cos there aren't any surprises to be had. So far as the books are concerned, there is an element in my seasonal moodiness that keeps me from getting completely engaged in any of them, even the Pelecanos and Burke titles. If I were to analyze what's going on, I'd probably proffer a variation on Woody Allen's feeble mea culpa, "The heart wants what it wants." Right now my heart wants something other than what my favorite authors are prone to deliver.

As for the music, I can say this time that I am pleased by the lack of surprises. Los Lobos' Tin Can Trust has already been spun more frequently in our house than The Town & The City was. TCT sits closer in tradition to Good Morning, Aztlan, which to my ears is a good thing.

returned to the studio after two or three decades of different members' side projects, generally to good effect. As I and their ouevre grew older, I typically found myself gravitating to their earliest incarnation as a guitar-centered band. Even so, this latest synthesizer-oriented outing has its infectious moments ("Human Rocket" and "What We Do" stand out), very much benefiting from the latest techno production trends which bring out that, "What was in that drink?" feeling. And it's more than a little comforting to see that the band can re-tailor their industrial rubber jumpsuits in a way that doesn't just accommodate late-in-life girth, but actually re-emphasizes the pertinence of de-evolutionary theory.

And I'm enjoying the new Robert Plant disc, as well, as much for its attitude as for its polish. It's gratifying that he eschewed the expected (and, I'm sure, vigorously encouraged) Raising Even More Sand project. It's also gratifying to hear him pick up from the "less is more" approach that he had to take with Ms. Krause. Band Of Joy doesn't have quite the oomph that Raising Sand had from beginning to end, but it certainly has moments of astonishing flash. But for whatever reason, Plant has, after several decades of solo projects that I couldn't be bothered with, completely recaptured my attention.

Finally, I apologize for the brevity-bordering-on-terseness, but I'm packing for a weekend in Montreal. Notes to follow upon my return.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Short Responses

I'm liking the Goodreads platform -- perhaps a little too much: the format encourages an Entertainment Weekly sort of brevity. Perhaps the medium imposed the predilection, or maybe age has just made me impatient. In either case I'm increasingly disinclined to give lengthy consideration to perfectly good books.

If you're already a GR member, do feel free to "fwiend" me (I use my real name). If you're just curious, here are a few responses to stuff I've recently read:

Rock & Roll Will Save Your Life by Steve Almond, here.

Pompeii by Robert Harris, here.

Killing Rommel by Stephen Pressfield, here.

What Disturbs Our Blood by James Fitzgerald, here.

I try not to get snarky on this blog, but at GR I occasionally lapse: here are my thoughts on Ellis's Less Than Zero.

And finally, a book my wife (and many others) devoured, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, here.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

1980: The Summer of Egress

In the summer of 1979 our family moved from the Mennonite village of my childhood to a suburb of Winnipeg. I had just turned 14.

The new house was the former property of the neighborhood pot dealer. I helped tear out the shag rug that covered the place, including the kitchen and bathrooms. The activity left a sickly, cloying smell to my clothes. The next day I mopped out the concrete basement, in which two large dogs had been penned and ignored. That night I got sick.

It took me two days to get back on my feet. Then I was assigned the task of carving the mouldy grout from between the tiny porcelain tiles in the bathroom. As with the previous jobs, I was granted the kitchen radio, which I tuned to the AM station of the day.

This struck me as a very large concession on my parents' part. Two years earlier I had shocked them when I came home from the library with an album by the Village People. What really cooked their collective kneidl wasn't the band's overt gayness — cloistered as we were, that possibility never crossed our minds. No, they were freaked out by the final song, “Ups & Downs.” Judging from the lyrics alone, the singer may have been lamenting his increasing reliance on pharmaceuticals, but there was no denying the infectious and ultimately subversive dance beat.

Anguished discussions had ensued that night. But now here I was, shoving an old screwdriver blade into blackened grout, while the kitchen radio broadcast the hits of the day through a house that was empty of all but my toiling family. It didn't just feel like progress: it felt like an accommodating portal into the city that sprawled outside our door — a city I was only too happy to avoid via grout-removal and fecal mopping.

This (scroll down) is the CHUM 100 of 1979. There isn't a song on it that I don't still love (although Styx's “Babe” sometimes strains). After Ms. Patty asserted that quality of music took a nosedive in 1974, while Yahmdallah pinned the Year Of International Musical Decline to 1988, I thought I'd just post the CHUM 100 for '79 and let the music speak for itself. But of course it doesn't, because it can't.
CHUM 100, 1976 - not quite as good as '79, natch.
The personal point of egress for me was the summer of 1980. The CHUM 100 from that year isn't remarkably different from the previous year, but two events conspired to change my reaction to it.

During the past year I had developed two circles of friends: my school mates, and my church mates. The group from school was very small. One guy convinced the rest of us that Rush's Permanent Waves was The Album Of The Year. Another guy (not me) bought it. After school we'd retreat to his carpeted basement rec room, turn up the tinny hi-fi stereo and listen to the whole thing from side to side and back again. When it absolutely could not be avoided, a bit of air-banding took place. But mostly our sessions boiled down to the sort of critical parsing that 15-year-old boys excel at: “Wait, did you hear that? That was cool!

The second event involved my church friends, whose taste in music was markedly different (if still very secular). One Saturday we pedaled our ten-speeds to the record store in the local mall, where my buddy purchased a single 45: “Lonesome Loser” by Little River Band. He paid three dollars, then carefully slid the package between his T-shirt and jeans. Then we mounted our bicycles again, and returned to his place, where we listened to the song a half-dozen times in a row. After the sixth spin, he turned off the stereo and sadly announced, “Well, I think I got my money's worth.”

I thought he'd been gypped. And I thought Disco Sucked, even though I'd loved it the previous summer. I also thought “My Sharona” was punk, prompting me to fly into a pogo-hop whenever it got played at parties. I thought Kenny Rogers was cool. I thought Larry Norman and Resurrection Band kicked ass. But more than anything else I thought Rush was the only rock 'n' roll band alive, even if (or, most likely, not a little because) The Starman threw me into a mild Satanic Panic.

There was simply no arguing with music like that, while the argument with everyone else had just begun — in the summer of 1980.

Link Love: in the But You Already Knew That category, this item would be the perfect gift for the Rush fan in your family. Too bad he already owns it, and has committed its contents to memory. There's a lot to love in these DVDs, which play like a reciprocal valentine between band and fans. But my favorite moment occurs when Pete from Cleveland gives the camera a satisfied nod of acknowledgment as the band begins playing “Freewill.” That's a 100% undiluted Rush Fan Moment.

Hold on a sec: is that a girl?!

She must've got photoshopped in. Here:

That's more like it!

Thursday, September 09, 2010

The "Album Of The Year" (And Some Further Thoughts On The Death Of Indie)

During our family’s most recent visit to the bookstore, I noticed Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs behind the cashier’s counter. Even though I was underwhelmed by their last critically lauded album, seeing the new disc in an unexpected venue seemed enough like a sign to nudge me. I hoisted the books over to the cashier, nodded toward the CD and said, “You might as well throw that in, too.”

A young woman’s voice cooed, “Oh, good choice!”

I turned around. She and her guy were understated non-hipsters in their early 20s: children of the suburbs, most likely. “You liked it?”

Loved it! Album of the year!”

She uttered a few more assurances, and I told her I was looking forward to giving it a spin. I had to wonder, though. She was more than 20 years younger than I, and roughly 10 years older than my 13-year-old daughter, who is thoroughly ensconced in pop. It was reasonable to assume the indie appetite had taken hold of my conversationalist, as it seems to have taken hold of so many listeners and artists — the final effects of which are a decidedly mixed bag.

Take, for example, the latest album by John Mellencamp. It’s the final product of a strictly observed exercise, that’s not a little “indie” in its austerity. The drill went something like this: You’re on tour with Dylan/Petty. On off-days, you assemble the band, keep the equipment vintage, get T Bone Burnett to set up shop in historic rooms where the original Americana songbook was recorded and see what happens when you stick to a single take.

What happens depends not just on the ability of those gathered, but on the listener’s willingness to indulge the conceit. The musical chops are there, and some of the rough edges are entertaining in themselves. Mellencamp’s songwriting has always been disciplined, and he’s an emotionally committed performer. But if, like me, you originally worried that the line, “Never wanted to be no pop singer” was more sincere than ironic, this album will achieve a limited penetration of your consciousness.

Penetration of the consciousness is what we’re after, of course. Acuity and sincerity of expression are usually the most direct means to that end. Mellencamp’s ability on this score is unquestionable. So what changes when an artist like Mellencamp reaches rock star status? Is it strictly a matter of listener prejudice? Is it all and only me?

Sure, probably. And yet I’m still given cause to wonder — by this nifty collection of The Boss’s first seven albums, up to and including Born In The USA, the record that changed everything not just for Bruce Springsteen, but for more than a few of his listeners as well. When I first contemplated the package I realized I hadn’t purchased any of these records in CD format. The store was offering it for $30 — an outrageous deal — so I bit.

What strikes me as I listen to these albums, many of them for the first time in over a quarter-century, is the unabashed ambition that drives them. Some of the album covers have a pointed Everyman quality (particularly Darkness On The Edge Of Town, with our acne-scarred hero standing lean and mean in Candy’s shabby room). But every single line is sung in a very pointed attempt to first conquer, then get the hell out of, Dodge. These albums were hailed as celebrations of the common man, but they were so much more than that. They were inspections, introspections, dissections, eviscerations and fillet-‘n’-fry ‘em ups, too. By the time Born In The USA hits the platter, the game plan isn’t just crystal clear, it is done. No part of the carcass has been left to rot.

All of which goes some distance in explaining why most fans of the Boss are more quickly inclined to reach yet again for Nebraska than they are for The Ghost Of Tom Joad, even though the latter is more lyrically accomplished. The first, most desperate ambition of the early years has been completely fulfilled. Can what follows ever feel like anything other than a footnote at best, self-indulgence at worst?

Here is where Johnny Cash’s final projects with Rick Rubin come to mind. I mean, good grief: those weren’t just footnotes, they were endnotes. Their phenomenal success could be blamed for some of the industry's current “How indie can we go with this?” mentality. Self-indulgent? Like you wouldn’t believe. Compelling listening? Um . . . yes, actually. They are compelling listening, because you get an unmistakable sense of the man. A guy with deep feeling who was probably more than a little unhinged, who loved an audience and didn’t shy away from the odd tantalizing confession to keep ‘em hooked. A guy who partnered up with a producer who was a brilliant listener and Svengali.

So where do Arcade Fire fit in this crazy circus?

I played The Suburbs on the ride home. It is tightly produced and performed, with no rough edges to speak of — no basements, hotel rooms or vintage tape recorders. For the first few songs I sat at a cool remove and thought, Yeah, I can see why younger folks get excited by this. Or: I can see how this song fits perfectly with the given theme, but I can’t say I’m crazy for it myself. Or: I could see this playing better in the concert hall than it does in my car, etc. Then I heard:

Now the cities we live in could be distant stars
And I search for you in every passing car

“Distant stars” seemed right to me. The metaphor is used only once in The Suburbs, but it is an extension of the “sprawl” that is remarked upon and explored with some variety throughout. It got me thinking about the trips I take to visit friends. They can be quite the undertaking, but there’s nothing for it. Really, with the exception of my wife, my dearest friends — my “closest” friends — all live many miles away from me. The nearest of them requires a 90 minute drive. I started wondering what this was all about, and then it struck me that this album was all about exactly what this was all about.

The key turned. The door opened. The music reached me.

I’ve listened to the album another half-dozen times in the half-week since. With The Suburbs I am now on the other side of the Arcade Fire equation — I can definitely see how this album will not have universal appeal, but it has clearly appealed to me. Personally, I might keep playing it daily. Or I might never play it again. Like Nebraska or The Ghost Of Tom Joad, if you’re not in the mood for it, it is the last thing you want to hear.

Sometimes that’s just the way it goes when you’re dealing with the album of the year.

Link love: Arcade Fire. And, for those who need reminding, Indie Is Dead.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Everyone's A Comedian: Coming To Terms With The "New New Criticism"

When Jerry Seinfeld announced, shortly after the close of his monumental sitcom, that he was honing material for a new stand-up routine, few people were surprised. He was still a young guy with a lot of drive; clearly a Johnny Carson fade-away was not in the cards. But it had been nearly a decade since Seinfeld had pulled together new stand-up material, and he had some work to do.

Comedian, the documentary that follows his progress back to the concert hall, captures an early foray into the beer circuit. It’s a not-bad set, but Seinfeld is clearly still finding his legs. Following the set, he joins a table of stand-up veterans, and solicits their thoughts.

It’s like throwing a raw steak into a room full of pit-bulls. These guys are only too happy to tell him exactly why his material isn’t funny. In fact, not only is his material not funny, he’s not funny — not anymore. They take him apart, piece by piece, while Seinfeld sips his drink and gives the occasional physical indicator suggesting he might actually be listening.

Given a scene like that, it’s not surprising when a veteran comic downshifts and starts driving below the speed limit. They just naturally reach that point in life when they actually want to join The Sammy Maudlin Show: a couch with a rotating but limited cast of glad-handers and chortling sycophants.

Just how far removed is the world of the published writer to that of the stand-up comic? If this country’s self-designated national newspapers are any indication, not so far. As a comic in all seriousness, allow me to suggest, if I may, the National Post embodies the round table at the back of the bar, while the Globe more closely resembles Maudlin’s klieg-lit comfy couch. Exceptions allowed for, of course, but that’s basically the book review biz north of 49.

We can parse over the benefits and drawbacks of each model — the author pretty much loses either way, by my reckoning — but somewhere in this mess is the audience. Writers write to be read, and God help ‘em if they want to be read by reviewers and critics, ‘cos those jokers want to be read, too, often quite desperately. The best thing for any writer is to stand up and read directly to their public — their intended community. Most audiences are willing to meet a writer halfway; if, under those conditions, the prose falls flat, the writer has a pretty sharp idea what needs to be attended to. Everybody wins.

As for Mr. Alexis’ contention, my sense is his central worry is over a particular community that was probably never there to begin with — a great cloud of witnesses; intelligent interlocutors eager to greet the new golden child of letters: Salman Maudlin, perhaps. Sorry, bub, but if that's the "community" you're after, you're destined for either the couch or the table.

Everybody gets to riff off the written word these days: Marchand, Metcalfe, even me. Blame it on television. Blame it on the po-mo novel gazing that has hog-tied academia. Blame it on teh interwebz. Sure, it’s a bit of a rabble sometimes. But what are you going to do?

These days everyone’s a comedian.

Link love: Here, here and here is the National Post, doing what it does best. For further contrast here are my thoughts on a book I recently enjoyed; here is the Globe's suspiciously enthusiastic take, and here is the Post's enthusiastic take-down. Here ("John Who?") and here ("Alexis is being disingenuous") are two considerate responses to AndrĂ© Alexis. Now go watch Comedian, even if — especially if — you thought you were done with Jerry Seinfeld.