Thursday, December 31, 2009

Year's End

I apologize for the biliousness of the previous post, but those dark thoughts are hard to resist as the media over the past few months has been obsessed with looking back on 2009 and, more depressingly, the decade as a whole, an era that is striking in its colossal rankness. Not culturally--this was a fertile time for the formerly despised mediums of television and comics and there were lots of bright spots elsewhere--and not for me personally, I should point out, but I do think there's a very good chance the '00s will be seen by historians as a nadir, a terrible hybrid of swamp and plateau (at least in the U.S.).

I've lost count of the ridiculous number of lists I've read, and I've mentally composed and then discarded several posts responding to them. I almost started a few months ago with Pitchfork's hilariously early top 200 list which struck me as telling in many ways: an easy-to-predict top 10 heavily slanted to the first couple years of the decade and just enough mainstream choices to distill the slightly self-conscious way this decade's "indie" fans embraced certain pop, rap, and r'n'b acts; I wonder if country will be added to that list in the next decade. If you wanted to attempt the should-be-difficult task of arguing that this decade sucked for music, ironically that list would be a great place to start--though I suppose arguing that Pitchfork itself sucks was a major pop cultural meme this decade--reading through it I could feel a great shrug gripping me; if the '70s was the Me Decade, this one might have been the Meh Decade (I'm sure I'm not the first to come up with that phrase).

Even beyond the ennui inspired by that particular list, reading lots of them* has a mind-numbing effect nicely summed up in this piece from Dusted, and I quite like Ben Tausig's conclusion: "There is no reason to abandon year-end lists, but there is every reason to reform them. For the sake of readers, critics shouldn’t get away with writing lazy features, of which the album-of-the-year list has become exemplary."

*I know: no one is making me read them . . . but they're like junk food for geeks and even after reading that first Dusted piece, I read or skimmed almost all the other lists they posted.

His made-up examples struck a chord with me as I've just read the new collection of John Porcellino's King-Cat comics, Map of My Heart. Porcellino is one of my favorite comics creators and deserves a lengthy post of his own, and one of the more minor but affecting elements of his minicomics is his tendency to include top 10 or top 40 lists that are really just lists of things he enjoyed during the time period covered by the comic. So he includes lots of records and books, but also his cat, his wife, places he visited, etc. With cultural critics and writers I respect, this would be much, much more interesting (The Wire's individual writer lists in their annual "Rewind" issue--usually presented as lists of pros and cons--come close) and truer to one's own experience over the course of a year. When I was younger and thought keeping abreast of the zeitgeist was an intellectual responsibility, I probably could have come up with a top 10 list of records for the year, but I doubt I bought ten albums released, rather than reissued, in 2009, whereas I probably did pick up close to ten from 1968. So here is my top 10 list for 2009:

1. The Sixties
For some reason--obviously I was thinking a great deal about nostalgia, but I don't think it's that--this year I became more interested in music from the (late) '60s than I have been since I was a teenager who only listened to classic rock. It began with the Kinks, who I'd been meaning to figure out for years. Listening to their run of amazing albums from Face to Face to Lola* was a major revelation, especially the justly celebrated The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society and the unjustly overlooked Arthur: Or, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire. Then, over the summer, I fell in love with Donovan; I've already mentioned a germinating post on him and that might actually happen if I can resolve a four-month dispute with the lobotomized monkeys at Barnes & who are preventing me from getting my hands on his excellent The Hurdy Gurdy Man album. Much like the Kinks, "discovering" a band as monumental as the Byrds felt a little foolish, but getting past their major hits--the ones guaranteed to be on the soundtrack of any movie about the '60s--their blend of psychedelia, folk, country, and rock is probably America's best claim to their own Beatles, see especially The Notorious Byrd Brothers. Speaking of the Beatles, I got the mono box set for my birthday and it's been a pure pleasure spending time with the music that first made me think about music as music.

*My friend Stephen has been urging me to pick up Muswell Hillbillies for almost a year now and I still haven't, but based on my one listen to it, I'm tempted to add that to the list.

I'm also about halfway through Joe Boyd's excellent memoir White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s. Boyd is most famous for his production work with the leading lights of the British folk scene, including Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, the Incredible String Band, and Vashti Bunyan, but he's also one of those people uniquely gifted with being at the right place at the right time: everything from working for the Newport Folk Festival during Dylan's notorious plugged-in performance to learning how to eat mussels from Freddie Hubbard in Barcelona ("Well, go on, man, suck the motherfucker!"). Boyd's voice is charming, funny, and refreshingly humble; his account is also largely free of the Baby Boomer sentimentality that makes so many younger people reflexively dismiss the '60s as overrated or painfully naive--Boyd avoids that latter charge by being quietly wise on issues of race and class and having very broad ears.

2. Early '80s Dancehall
If I'd done this list last year, late '80s digital dancehall would have been number one--this year I closed the gap between the arrival of that very new, different sound (with Wayne Smith & King Jammy's 1985 sensation "Under Mi Sleng Teng") and the rocksteady/roots/dub stuff from the late '60s and '70s that I've been obsessing over since I was eighteen. Chronologically that was a strange way to get into the era, but ultimately logical as dancehall* is a transitional music easier to define by what it isn't than what it is. It isn't yet the obviously different sound of the digital period with its trademark Casio and DX7 synth sounds. But it also differs from the preceding roots era in harder-to-define ways. Those digital sounds were anticipated by the almost robotic tightness of early '80s rhythms and the gradual shedding of horn sections for economic reasons, and it was during the dancehall era that the DJ (equivalent to the MC in hip-hop) became more popular than the singer. Likewise, lyrical themes shifted from Rastafarian hectoring--which I, godless heathen, love dearly--to more earthly concerns like romance, sex, food, clothes, and the dancehall itself. Along with excellent stuff by Eek-a-Mouse, Sister Nancy, Lone Ranger, Henry "Junjo" Lawes, Jah Batta, Wayne Jarrett, and more, photographer Beth Lesser's excellent book Dancehall really cemented my love for the era.

*"Dancehall" seems to be the consensus term for this period, but after the roots era, reggae taxonomy becomes contested and "dancehall" is still being used to describe contemporary JA music (this is especially confusing as '90s reggae is often called "ragga").

3. Ghost Box
The Ghost Box record label has been getting numerous mentions in The Wire and on British music blogs for years, and everything they said sounded delicious to my ears: a label founded on mutual obsessions with a variety of things musical and not. As their website puts it: "Ghost Box is a recording label for artists that find inspiration in library music, folklore, vintage electronics and haunted television soundtracks." (All four of those ideas come into play in Broadcast's recent collaboration with The Focus Group, which I've already mentioned here.) So I was overjoyed when Other Music finally began distributing their albums in the U.S. this past spring and even happier when the music lived up to the sounds in my head. It's hard to pick just one to recommend, but the BBC Radiophonic Workshop fan in me is particularly fond of the analogue synth-heavy the Advisory Circle's Other Channels.

4. Three Excellent Jazz Albums
Apart from general passive cultural exposure through films, commercials, etc., my earliest, personal interest in jazz was sparked by one of those old Red Hot AIDS benefit compilations, Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool, which brought together members of the jazz old school with young representatives of the boho side of contemporary hip-hop in a Guru's Jazzmatazz kind of style (I was pretty into the Digable Planets album Blowout Comb at the time as well as the Native Tongues stuff). The second disc of that comp had a just fucking awful version of John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" performed by Branford Marsalis (!) followed by a much weirder and seductive version by Alice Coltrane. That one track led me to another Red Hot comp, Red Hot on Impulse!, which was really just a label sampler for the late '60s/ early '70s heyday of Impulse! Records and featured more great stuff from Alice Coltrane, her husband John, and Pharoah Sanders. I became obsessed with this blending of Indian, African, and Middle Eastern music with jazz, but it was difficult to find much more of it and a few missteps into glutinous hippie noodling scared me off for a long time.

This year though, I picked up three fantastic albums all with that same otherworldly but rootsy feeling: Don Cherry's Brown Rice, Alice Coltrane's World Galaxy, and Yusuf Lateef's Eastern Sounds. The Lateef, from 1961, is one of the earliest examples of a jazz musician borrowing from non-Western cultures and therefore doesn't deviate from jazz norms all that much. On the first track, "Plum Blossom", Lateef plays a Chinese globular flute to haunting effect--it's quite beautiful, and then you read in the (actually rather irritating) liner notes that the flute has only a five-note range and it becomes astonishing. World Galaxy and Brown Rice are from 1971 and 1975 respectively and could easily spark tedious arguments about what counts as "jazz." But that's an extremely uninteresting question to raise in the face of this pair of unique, funky, badass albums. Sadly, World Galaxy is only available in mp3 form ("sadly" because apart from the loss in audio quality, I'd also really like to be able to look at the Peter Max-designed cover), but if I start complaining about that this might turn into another rant about the decade. Nonetheless, these three albums have rejuvenated my passion for jazz of all kinds.

5. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
It was early 2008 when I saw my first Powell & Pressburger (aka the Archers) film, but this year--when I got to see A Canterbury Tale on DVD and A Matter of Life and Death and The Red Shoes on the big screen--their oeuvre became quite possibly my favorite in cinema (I almost named our new kitten Pressburger; classic Bollywood singer Rafi took that honor instead). Being both something of an Anglophile and someone who thinks verisimilitude is overrated, it's a natural fit, but even if you don't share those prejudices, I urge you to seek out their films. I'm not sure where I'd suggest starting--and I still haven't seen a few of their classics--but if you can see any of their Technicolor films on the big screen, do it!

Sadly, this was also the year that brilliant cinematographer Jack Cardiff died; Cardiff shot A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes, and Black Narcissus for the Archers and everything smart I might have to say about him would be mostly cribbed from the Self-Styled Siren's blog, so go read her if you're curious.

Since I often have to suppress my strong Luddite tendencies, I'm glad to acknowledge that I've been using free online music-streaming service since this summer and I highly recommend it. It won't lead you to undiscovered music like Pandora, but for checking things out that you know you want to hear, it's pretty amazing. And you can discover new music if you participate in the very low-key social media aspect of "follow"ing and being followed by other users, which allows you to check out what your friends are listening to and easily recommend songs or albums to others (hell, if you let me follow you, I'll probably bug you a lot more than Pandora!). Definitely the best thing that's happened to the internet in a while--sadly I hear Apple's recent purchase of the service means it might not be long for this world.

7. A Good Year for Animation
With Pete Docter's Up, Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo, and Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox all being released in American theaters, this was a good year for animated films. Up was a return to a more classical cartoony approach for Pixar after the more ambitious run of The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Wall-E, but it was both very funny and quite moving. Ponyo was a delight even if, on further reflection, it was Miyazaki's slightest film yet. I found Wes Anderson's two previous films to be dull (The Life Aquatic) and problematic verging on terrible (The Darjeeling Limited), so Fantastic Mr. Fox felt like a major triumph even though it wasn't flawless. No matter, if the fundamental appeal of animated films stems from seeing a new, unique, and personal world entirely created by an artist's hand (well more than one artist, obviously) come to life, then Fox succeeded and gave me hope that Anderson, once one of my favorite filmmakers, hasn't lost his gift. And along with Ponyo's gorgeous watercolors, Fox also made clear that an old-fashioned, analogue approach to animation can still thrive in the face of 3-D hype.

8. Dollhouse
I can't recommend Joss Whedon's ill-fated and now canceled series Dollhouse without a lengthy preamble about the show's slow start and the aggravating tendency for viewers and critics to confuse the premise of the series with the creators' moral beliefs--a preamble that would defeat the celebratory goal of this list. Suffice to say, this is handily Whedon's most intense work to date: I often found myself having to relax my grip at the end of each episode and even the infamously compromised first five episodes succeed on the level of thrilling action. Following that detour into somewhat generic action fare, Dollhouse proved itself willing to go into darker, messier, and more intriguing places than any other show I can think of--I'm totally serious when I say it's as close as we're likely to get to seeing something genuinely Philip K. Dickian on TV. And given many people's reservations about star Eliza Dushku, the show somewhat surprisingly has become an actor's showcase, particularly for Franz Kranz, Olivia Williams, the chameleon-like Enver Gjokaj, and a number of memorable guest stars; and for what it's worth, I think Dushku ranges from adequate to excellent. In a way the cancellation is a blessing as a show this visceral and morally queasy could have turned into a depressing slog if extended for too long (c.f. Battlestar Galactica). Now it will endure as a more or less compact story with twenty-six chapters and I am geekily psyched for the concluding three episodes airing in January.

9. Indian Novels
I began 2009 in Ahmedabad, India, which was a genuinely wonderful experience that reignited an abiding interest in Indian history and culture. Over the course of the year that meant watching a couple of Bollywood movies, listening to the handful of amazing Indian classical music CDs I picked up for ludicrously cheap there, struggling to read a somewhat dry history of the country, and reading three very different, very good novels by Indian writers: Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger, Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games, and Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies.

The White Tiger is a refreshing antidote to the kind of novels that Salman Rushdie's success made ubiquitous: India painted as a candy-colored carnival of spice and sex and gods. Those novels were often overstuffed and florid--even when tragic they celebrated the vibrancy and multiculturalism of the subcontinent above all. The White Tiger is spare, lean, and cutting--I've never read any other novel as pessimistic and condemning of Indian culture and character as this. Adiga has acknowledged that he drew on mid-century African American literature as his model and the debts to Invisible Man and Richard Wright's books are obvious, but Adiga uses them to explore the new context of a totally corrupt "modernized" India where the oppression of the caste system still persists, not least in the relationship between the wealthy and its servant class.

Massive, sprawling, enamored with local dialect, and highly influenced by Bollywood, Sacred Games at first feels a bit like one of those Rushdie clones. And though it is ultimately more life-affirming and celebratory than Adiga's poisoned rant, Chandra's lightly fantastic epic of crime dons, cops, gurus, madams, and spies reveals an India as distant from its post-independence democratic idealism as Adiga's full-frontal assault does, but it's much more fun to read. Ghosh's The Sea of Poppies is even more enamored with language than Chandra is (both books have glossaries, though Ghosh's is quite eccentric), and the book's chief pleasure is the crazily polyglot and musical mixture of more languages than I care to list here. The book is intended to be the first of a trilogy and things are definitely only just beginning at the end of its 500 pages. But there is much to enjoy now, including a large cast of fascinating characters, multilingual puns, and a revelatory look into the history of the East India Company's opium trade (the novel begins in 1838 on the eve of the Opium Wars with China). If the next two books are as excellent as this one, Ghosh may emerge as the most important Indian author alive.

10. Random Reading
David Mazzuchelli's widely praised Asterios Polyp is absolutely beautiful, and after a few years where my intense interest in comics felt like it was waning this was a welcome sign that the medium is still capable of works of stunning genius. I cannot recommend David Mitchell's Black Swan Green more highly; while it hits some of the personal Anglophile, Thatcher-era buttons that I've mentioned before, in all seriousness, if you were ever a thirteen-year-old boy or you know someone who was, you must read this book.

This year I finally started reading some South American literature after trying a couple of Marquez novels and not really getting the hype. I started with Brazilian author Jorge Amado's Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon, one of those big social novels you don't see much after the Victorian era where the town itself functions as the main character; I found it highly witty and an excellent way to broaden my knowledge of Brazil beyond the area of music. I'm also slowly making my way through Jorge Luis Borges's Complete Fictions; I won't pretend I have anything fresh to say about this masterpiece, but I will say that if you've been intimidated by Borges's reputation, don't be, the brevity of many of the pieces makes it perfect for commute reading.

I was going to conclude with a personal list mentioning: more on being in India; the Cloisters and Barcade; my sister's wedding in June and my brother's in August; Weird Baby; the most recent issue of Bailliwik; this here blog thing; lots of great times in Chicago, including my brother-in-law finally getting a visa to visit, drinking Harar with C and H and drinking grappa with S, the surprisingly awesome architectural boat tour, and the Modern Wing; and our new kitten, Rafi. But reading this far means you've already wasted an entire day of your life, so I'll simply say, Happy New Year!


Kellerman: I hate New Year's Eve.
Pembleton: Everybody hates New Year's Eve.
Brodie: Yeah. Another year older and deeper in debt.
Munch: Like having a birthday, only nobody buys you any presents.
--from the episode "The Documentary" of the series Homicide: Life on the Street; teleplay by Eric Overmyer

Most of my internet reading falls roughly under the heading of cultural criticism; earlier in the decade it would have been 90% politics. That younger self would have berated me for the following statement, but nowadays paying attention to and caring about politics is an exercise in soul-crushing futility. Keeping up with the details of Obama's plan to--liberate? democratize? bomb the shit out of? what's the right word for our important mission there?--raise the death toll in Afghanistan, let alone the almost comical uselessness of the oligarchy we call the Senate that the health care bill has made (once again) obvious, I feel fine telling people that I don't really have a political ideology beyond a strong belief that a nation of 300 million people is fundamentally ungovernable in a just manner. The people or organizations tasked with doing so will inevitably decline into a variety of bad ends: ubiquitous corruption, systemic injustice, and a foreign policy of violent imperialism necessary for maintaining one's power, whether political or economic, and, less obviously pernicious but corrosive to the soul: a nauseating culture of moralizing hypocrisy and self-love (The. Greatest. Nation. On Earth!).

I'm sure some people reading this will write it off as cheap cynicism, but clinging to a belief that America is a functioning democracy, guided by any kind of moral force, and worth investing a part of your soul in looks a lot like insanity to me. Please understand that I'm not claiming a different, evil kind of American exceptionalism: that Americans are uniquely or inherently corrupt, unjust, and violent (decades of American hegemony makes it harder to resist these conclusions, but only an idiot or a fraud would pretend there aren't historical precedents or comparisons), but that in this particular moment in history the bad vastly outweighs the good and that two full decades of reading bathetic exhortations such as this has made me realize that not participating in or even following the empty fantasy of empowerment that is national politics is simply good mental health.

Anyway, this isn't at all what I intended to write about--this was meant to be a segue into how culture has become increasingly important to me as both a refuge from the blood-stained realities of the world and as evidence that humanity can create wonders as well as horror. But because the bitter part of my soul couldn't bring itself to just delete this part of the post, I'm isolating it from the happier reflections on the year that will appear soon. Think of this as a misguidedly bitter first course!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Decade in Comics

Tom Spurgeon of the Comics Reporter has hit on an excellent way of running a decade-in-review feature. He's interviewing different comics critics about one work from the past ten years, whether brand new or published in a new edition. All of the interviews are interesting, but I particularly liked Sean T. Collins on Craig Thompson's Blankets, a book that I have mixed feelings about, but Collins makes a compelling argument for it being a big milestone for the medium. I was intrigued to see Jeet Heer characterize Chester Brown's Louis Riel as the Canadian equivalent of Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan--i.e., the graphic novel that legitimized the form for a general audience--since I think Louis Riel is extremely underrated here in the Great Satan. And Osamu Tezuka's MW was one of the best, weirdest things I read this year, so I enjoyed Spurgeon and David Welsh musing on both what is good and completely bonkers about it.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Take Back the Silent Night

Yes! At last I have a really, truly excellent and irrefutable reason to hate Garrison Keillor, who I've always hated anyway, but now I can point to this confused, mean-spirited ("pinch-faced drone"?), illogical, rambling, defensive, and ultimately kind of pitiful column: "Nonbelievers, please leave Christmas alone."

Palin and Hummers*

While driving down the exceedingly narrow street I live on, I've often asked myself, "how do SUV drivers justify their existence?" Apparently quite easily, for according to this article, Hummer drivers see themselves--simply by virtue of their owning a Hummer--as morally righteous defenders of classical American ideals. I suppose you could guess that from the way SUVs are advertised, but it's interesting to see it confirmed in the minds of the consumers rather than the marketers. I wonder if this applies to all Hummer owners, including those who live in large metropolitan areas that couldn't be further from the (already nonexistent) frontier.

I found that article through reading this analysis of the Reason for Sarah Palin, a topic I would have thought exhausted, but Sanchez offers an elegant answer to this non-puzzle.

*Note: I created this title in order to increase page hits from lonely conservatives. Sorry to disappoint, guys.

UPDATED: related.

Monday, December 14, 2009

I See

Here is a haunting, beautiful, and weird video from the haunting, beautiful, and weird mini-album Broadcast and the Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age, a collaboration between the best band on the planet* and Julian House's The Focus Group of beloved record label Ghost Box. They've made one other video for this record, and the project grew out of Broadcast's live improvisations to Julian House's films. So hopefully a full Ghost Box DVD is in the works, though I suppose they'd probably rather put it out as a filmstrip or grainy VHS.

Also of interest: this interview with Broadcast's James Cargill where he discusses the roots of the project in the sonic palette and grainy visuals of obscure horror films and warped '70s and '80s children's television programming (including Children of the Stones which terrified my brother and I when it was shown on Nickelodeon's anthology series The Third Eye).

*That's right.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Mix

Absolutely fantastic mix by King Midas Sound available at FACT magazine here. As an occasional creator of all-over-the-place but obsessive mixes, I'm extremely impressed with the way this manages to show both range and consistency. And there's just some great songs on there, including a few tracks from Bronx-based reggae label/studio Wackie's (along with one on Donovan that I've mentioned to a few people, I've got a long gestating post on Wackie's in the works). I hope to eventually post something more substantial here, but in the meantime enjoy!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Weird Baby Birth

Simon and Sara have embarked on a lovely new webcomic endeavor called Weird Baby. Go check it out! And keep checking it out as they aim for an ambitious every-two-weeks publication schedule. Boy, that's shaming: I haven't posted in two weeks and you'll notice a distinct lack of intricately rendered fabric patterns on this blog.

Also worth keeping an eye on: the Belbury Parish Magazine, Jim Jupp of Belbury Poly's new blog.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Crazy Rhythms

Excellent appraisal of the Feelies album Crazy Rhythms at Zone Styx Travelcard. When this was reissued a little while ago, the expected chorus of glowing reviews appeared: such as these. Not that there's anything grossly objectionable in those reviews (actually the Pitchfork review is pretty good), but I think ZST benefits from being relatively new to the album--or so I assume based on the opening sentence--and not approaching it as a seminal artifact of American indie rock. I also liked his concluding remark about "jangle," which is one of those widely used rock critic terms I've never really understood in practice. It was, I believe, coined to describe the Byrds but I don't even hear it in their music. ZST, in typical Brit fashion, assigns it to the music that every decent British music critic hates, "indie." As an American, "indie" has different meanings (indeed, the Feelies and Pixies might both be considered "indie" by some people here), and I can't really think of any music that sounds like a jingle bell or bells or someone shaking their keys, etc., that isn't avant-garde. The Wikipedia article on "jangle pop" devolves into the kind of minute hair-splitting that makes me more sympathetic to the musical taxonomy haters I've dissed in earlier posts.

Speaking of the Pixies, I have to disagree with this analogy: "Listened to in conjunction with the massively underwhelming follow-up The Good Earth, you realize The Feelies pulled off the same uncommon trick as Pixies, making a first album which is better recorded, more intelligent, more developed, just better all round, than its successor, even down to the crisp, dry, force of the production, almost clinically clear and undistorted, where the second is mushier, messier, duller, more conventional." The Good Earth is disappointing from what I remember of the only time I listened to it, but I always preferred Doolittle to Surfer Rosa, which meanders a little until "Gigantic" (admittedly, that song might be their finest moment), whereas Doolittle holds my attention from "Debaser" onward.

On the other hand, I suspect I might be under the influence of a common musical syndrome that lacks a name as far as I know. Call it the law of album primogeniture: that phenomenon where the first album you heard by a particular band or artist, regardless of the album's chronological position in their oeuvre, is and always will be their "best." Rooted in the unpredictable neurochemical chaos of adolescence, it's an odd phenomenon that is nowhere near universal--for me, there are far more bands where it hasn't happened that way--but is strangely resilient.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Raise Your Hand If You're Invulnerable

Now that I think about it, the third season of Buffy (especially its conclusion) is essentially an anarchist parable about the limits of democratic government and the extremes you have to go to overcome them. Hell, it barely qualifies as supernatural: here in Chicago we've had a mayor named Daley for forty-one of the past fifty-four years, and the current one certainly seems politically impervious.

Quite a Long Way from Cairo

More stuff I like.

I recommend Andy Beta's dispatches from his trip to Finland (1, 2, 3, 4), all of which are accompanied by some splendid Tove Jansson artwork. Speaking of Jansson, I'm only familiar with the (wonderful) Moomin comic strip collections that Drawn and Quarterly have been publishing over the past couple years. But I've recently been lent her novel/memoir The Summer Book and I'm looking forward to it even more after reading this little tidbit from her Wikipedia page: "Jansson said that she had designed the Moomins in her youth: after she lost a philosophical quarrel about Immanuel Kant with one of her brothers, she drew 'the ugliest creature imaginable' on the wall of their WC and wrote under it 'Kant'." Check out this nicely illustrated and presumably comprehensive bibliography of her work.

The ES album Beta raves about is on Lala and it lives up to his Harmonia and Popul Vuh comparisons. I also listened to Paavoharju's Yhä hämärää, which was lovely. As Beta mentions, there was quite a bit of buzz about the Finnish psych-folk scene and the Fonal label in particular a few years ago. Now that I know that Fonal's main inspirations are Terry Riley and Alice Coltrane, I'm going to be doing some more investigating.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


If you look to your right, you'll see that I've expanded the blogroll. People that I actually know in real life are now Fellow Pachyderms. Other Animals has become Other Phyla, a name I chose upon reading Wikipedia's definition of phylum: "Although a phylum is often spoken of as if it were a hard and fast entity, no satisfactory definition of a phylum exists. In fact, a phylum is perhaps best described as a statement of taxonomic ignorance." After briefly trying to sort these blogs into categories and realizing they were a frequently overlapping mix of music, politics, comics, film, and other, a statement of taxonomic ignorance seemed apt. Basically, these are (well, most of) the blogs I read regularly and recommend.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


I should probably get out of the habit of making predictions about the direction of the blog; it’s clear that trying to guide or focus this thing just makes me write less. Oh well, here is one anyway: I’m going to try to take a break from writing about depressing things beyond my control like the death penalty or government corruption on a grand scale. Not that I want to seal myself off from politics (not that that’s possible), but if all goes well, the next few posts will be about things closer to home that roughly fall into the category of “stuff I like.”

I’m quite enjoying Bubblegum Cage’s Post-Rocktoberfest as post-rock made up a huge portion of the soundtrack of my early twenties. While it was never widely popular even in its heyday, over the last decade it seemed to inspire a surprisingly intense revulsion, if it was mentioned at all. Maybe it was the name: post-rock is often the go-to whipping boy for the weirdly hated critical practice of naming genres. Not that I carried much of a torch for the stuff: in reaction to the boredom brought on by the overwrought dynamics or endless droning of second- or third-tier post-rock bands, I dumped the bulk of my collection in the early ’00s as I embraced a much wider spectrum of music and began focusing mainly on music from before I was born. But it’s interesting to note something of a groundswell of appreciation or at least an urge to defend the good stuff cropping up this year. Along with Bubblegum Cage, online magazine FACT did one of their “20 Best…” lists, and Matthew Ingram—who wrote about post-rock several times in his earlier Woebot incarnation—has recently put up a couple of posts at his newish blog Hollow Earth. No consensus emerges—though taken together this is an interesting exercise in canon building on a very small scale—apart from a general preference for British post-rock over American, but there were a few albums I was particularly pleased to see mentioned:

Bowery Electric’s Beat. I can’t remember the last time I listened to this, but in the late ’90s it was a personal favorite. Somewhat like my unfortunate dalliance with the lesser lights of trip-hop—but less embarrassing—Beat was an early sign of where my taste would migrate after souring on indie rock. I still find the prospect of smeary guitar pop on top of breakbeats and prominent basslines attractive, though I suspect that Beat would now suffer from my obsessive over-listening (I used to fall asleep to this every night for a long time). But as Bubblegum Cage says, it’s a pity more post-rock bands didn’t explore this territory instead of aping the masculine bombast of bands like Mogwai.

Insides’ Euphoria. A record that manages to be hauntingly beautiful while making your skin crawl. Maybe it’s because I first heard it when I was sixteen, but Euphoria’s frank lyrics perfectly capture the thin line between sexy and icky that makes sexual intimacy emotionally painful and a little terrifying when you’re young: the way the dark pull of desire felt separate from your conscious mind for reasons impossible to put in words, the way guilt and pleasure could mix so easily. Listening to it now, it’s also clear that the sonic palette is equally unsettling; the way they use woozy, chirping, overlapping, and repeating loops to build many of the songs feels a lot like the way your head feels when it’s spinning from drunkenness. As one half of Insides put it in an interview with Simon Reynolds* from 1993, “I’d like [the listener] to swoon first, and then throw up! Or feel that rising, heady sensation you get when they give you anaesthetic at the dentists, and then the next minute you realise you’re covered in blood.”

*Tried to fit this in earlier: it was Reynolds who coined the term post-rock.

Papa M’s Live from a Shark Cage. This is just gorgeous and it’s a genuine loss that David Pajo’s subsequent output took a more conventional turn. His decision to sing on Whatever, Mortal completely broke from the strange and evocative mood he creates on this (though there are some good songs on Mortal). His trajectory is similar to Do Make Say Think’s, who earn a deserved spot on FACT’s list. Do Make Say Think singlehandedly maintained my interest in post-rock into the
00s with an impressively consistent run which ended when they added insipid, generic indie vocals on You, You’re a History in Rust. Nonetheless, their albums prior to that are all fantastic.

Seefeel’s Quique. Not mentioned in any of the posts I’m linking to, but that’s mostly because this is now recognized as a classic (a bit like MBV’s Loveless, though certainly not nearly as famous on this side of the Atlantic). I’d dismissed Seefeel as sub-Aphex ambient techno back in my original post-rock phase, but hearing it now, it has aged far better than a lot of the bands listed at the bottom of this post on Hollow Earth, quite a few of which I liked at the time. Quique reflects the UK post-rock scene’s openness to dance music and dub, but now it sounds more of a piece with the originators of ambient—Brian Eno, Cluster, Harmonia, etc.—rather than with the garish likes of contemporaries like The Future Sound of London.

I’ve avoided trying to define post-rock, because it’s impossible (though Wikipedia takes a stab at it). But all four of these albums rely on technologies of sampling and looping to a degree that genuinely subverts or bypasses traditional rock songcraft in a way that I think legitimates the label. They're also all quietly moving and hypnotically beautiful.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Usually Cover-Ups Are More Clandestine Than This

It’s not short, but if you haven’t yet read David Grann’s piece in the New Yorker about Cameron Todd Willingham, do so. The article is getting some much-needed attention (not as much as Roman Polanski’s case of course, but I suppose America’s obsession with celebrity isn’t going anywhere anytime soon), and it seems clear that Texas now has the distinction of being the first state to execute a demonstrably innocent human being in decades. Even if you think that’s overselling it, the best spin you could put on this is that, as Scott Lemieux puts it, “they executed a man despite the fact that there was no reliable evidence at all that he was guilty.”

Now we have the spectacle of Governor Rick Perry’s hamfisted and nakedly transparent attempt to make sure the Texas Forensic Science Commission did not review Willingham’s case. While his actions are disturbing (though understandable; if Willingham is ever exonerated, Perry will have been complicit in his murder), surely this won’t work as a long-term plan.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Digital Amnesia

As probably everyone reading this knows I work for a book publisher. Watching the e-book evolve from “I guess this will probably happen eventually” to an economic reality has been interesting, though one thing has bothered me about it. I can’t remember where I first came across this insight, but it’s often been said that the music industry’s decline began as soon as they made the leap to digital: transform music into easily and perfectly reproducible digital information and you’ve made file-sharing and downloading inevitable. In 1982, it was likely impossible to foresee the rise of the internet (though widespread CD burning seems easier to predict), and yet one can still see that initial decision to turn music into data as a self-inflicted, potentially fatal, wound.

Surprisingly, almost no one ever mentions this same line of historical reasoning in discussions of publishers choosing to make e-books. Everyone is so focused on whether or not the Kindle or whatever is inferior, comparable, or superior to the printed book that almost no one I’ve run into bothers to worry about the pitfalls of turning books into data. One of my company’s new ideas is to allow users to rent e-books—50% off list price for 180 days; $5 for thirty—which seems pretty smart, given that the audience for many of our books consists of students and researchers, if you’ve never heard of Napster, famously begun by a college student.

Of course, the economics of book publishing differ significantly from the music business and the existence of libraries might make this argument a tad hysterical. But I was glad to see this post by Zone Styx Travelcard, especially with its hilariously bleak concluding paragraphs, a rhetorical move I plan to steal in all arguments about the future from now on.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Soul Review

I've added a new pachyderm to the list: Soul Review. This is an old friend of mine's new blog where he reviews old soul and reggae music. There are already a few posts up with some excellent songs to listen to. Go listen!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Flickr Fun

I’m eager to push that depressing Blackwater post further down, so here are three great sets from Flickr.

As previously mentioned, I am a big fan of old Penguin/Pelican design. Here’s a set of album covers reimagined as Pelican paperbacks. Here are two sets of different comics artists tackling the same subject matter: David Bowie and Nancy. And Fantagraphics has some exciting news for Nancy fans!

Friday, August 21, 2009


Over the last month there have been some pretty stunning revelations about military contracting company Blackwater—now called Xe . . . obviously they have a failed screenwriter concocting these names for them—and the depth of their involvement with the C.I.A. First, the Nation published this chilling article by Jeremy Scahill (who published a book on the company in 2006), detailing claims “that the company’s owner, Erik Prince, may have murdered or facilitated the murder of individuals who were cooperating with federal authorities investigating the company.” That article also explores Prince’s anti-Muslim (or should that be pro-genocide?) beliefs and how, according to a former employee, “Prince intentionally deployed to Iraq certain men who shared his vision of Christian supremacy, knowing and wanting these men to take every available opportunity to murder Iraqis.” Oh, and there was also some gun smuggling, which almost seems like an innocent lark in light of the first two allegations.

Now the New York Times has published two articles revealing the close dealings the C.I.A. had with these murderous sociopaths. The first looked at Blackwater’s role in an assassination program and the second their involvement in putting bombs on unpiloted drone planes (in other words: the other assassination program). That article also contained the alarming news that Blackwater has a secret division whose
operations are carried out at hidden bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the company’s contractors assemble and load Hellfire missiles and 500-pound laser-guided bombs on remotely piloted Predator aircraft, work previously performed by employees of the Central Intelligence Agency. They also provide security at the covert bases, the officials said.

Scahill has a follow-up article which includes this quote from Illinois Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky: “Erik Prince operated at the highest and most secret level of the government. Clearly Prince was more trusted than the US Congress because Vice President Cheney made the decision not to brief Congress. This shows that there was absolutely no space whatsoever between the Bush administration and Blackwater.”

I’m sure as time goes by more and more crazy lefty conspiracy theories from the Bush era will be proven to be true. For example, Tom Ridge apparently acknowledges in a forthcoming book that the Bush administration manipulated the terror threat level for political reasons. But what’s insane about these Blackwater revelations is that the U.S. government continues to pay the company millions of dollars. The Obama administration argues these payments are simply continuations of Bush-era contracts, but seriously, is there really no legal means to break a contract with a company that has committed war crimes? And how do the various facts in this paragraph from an earlier Scahill article work out exactly?
[On August 1] the Obama administration extended a contract with Blackwater for more than $20 million for “security services” in Iraq, according to federal contract data obtained by The Nation. The State Department contract is scheduled to run through September 3. In May, the State Department announced it was not renewing Blackwater’s Iraq contract, and the Iraqi government has refused to issue the company an operating license.

Friday, August 7, 2009

1960s/80s Postscript

This summer is really bringing that feedback loop between ’60s and ’80s nostalgia into relief. Michael Jackson’s and John Hughes’s deaths’ coinciding with the Summer of ’69 commemorations—the moon landing, Woodstock, the Manson murders—makes the idea so obvious I almost feel absurd commenting on it.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Why Are We So Nostalgic?

In the latest issue of The Wire, David Keenan takes a turn at one of the magazine’s periodic attempts at playing genre taxonomist (see also: post-rock and hauntology). His new genre, “hypnagogic pop,” doesn’t interest me in its particulars all that much, but it does tie into this blog’s unofficial theme: nostalgia. The kids in the bands Keenan writes about were all born in the 1980s, and, according to the article, the pop music of the era seeped into their DNA—even though they’re making weird and noisy music that doesn’t have anywhere near the mainstream appeal of the massively popular MTV hits they’re claiming as influences.

The thing that most caught my attention in the article was the bizarre fact that Don Henley’s 1984 hit “Boys of Summer” is a touchstone for these bands. “Boys” is the kind of incessant radio staple that is less a musical composition and more a grim signifier of the cultural stagnation I was alluding to in this post. If you’d asked me five minutes before reading the article what I thought of the song, without hesitating—or really thinking about it much—I would have told you I hated it. But the incongruity of a bunch of early twenty-something weirdoes taking the song as an important sonic blueprint made me look it up on YouTube.

“Boys” has a cinematic lushness that is emotionally appealing; like a lot of ’80s hits it sounds like it was designed to play over a bittersweet movie’s closing credits. Twenty-five years after the fact, the song’s primitive digital gloss has managed to accrue a patina of strangeness and a naivete it actively avoided at the time of its creation. There’s something about the production that is on the one hand alienating and slickly machine-like and on the other melancholy and haunting.

But what’s most striking to me is that here we have a bunch of young musicians taking a song as a nostalgic key to their youth that is itself about nostalgia for one’s youth. But not just anyone’s youth; Henley’s lyrics are about aging and they’re fairly specific about who is growing older: baby boomers. Henley sings, “out on the road today, I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac / A little voice inside my head said, ‘don’t look back. You can never look back.’”

Anxiety and guilt over ’60s radicals turned ’80s sell-outs was a common cultural trope back then, but more to the point, I wonder if this little feedback loop of nostalgia is symptomatic of why our current moment is so suffused with nostalgia. Anyone who grew up in the ’80s grew up in a climate of constant reminiscence over The Sixties (don’t worry: this isn’t going to be a tiresome rant about boomer cultural dominance, I promise). In other words, anyone born after 1975 or so, grew up in a profoundly nostalgic time, and therefore indulging in nostalgia for your youth can lead to nostalgia for nostalgia, as is the case with “Boys”. Perhaps we’ve also been conditioned for nostalgia—programmed into a preciosity about the past, especially our own, through repeated exposure to things like “Boys of Summer”, A Christmas Story, The Wonder Years, Happy Days, etc.

I think I mentioned in a comment to an earlier post that when I was a kid I didn’t realize Happy Days was made in the ’70s—I thought it was an authentic document of the ’50s much like all the other shows I was watching on Nick at Nite (Donna Reed, et al). I think as we go forward, and as the internet transports almost all cultural production to an eternal now, that kind of temporal blurring will become characteristic of our time.

I don’t think I’ve answered the question posed in the post title, but as I’ve mentioned to a couple of people off-blog, nostalgia is emerging as the guiding concern of Elephant Rock, so this won’t be the last word on it. Whether it can be chalked up to a generational accident of birth, the internet, the cultural decay of late empire, or me entering my curmudgeonly old man phase rather early, how people process, think about, and use the past defines my perspective on the present.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Go Bang

(or: White Riot, continued.)

I was reminded of those officers and their obstinate refusal to feel ashamed of braining protesters with billy clubs by a recent flurry of media attention for the thirtieth anniversary of Disco Demolition Night. Notorious within the mostly non-overlapping worlds of sports fans and disco historians, Disco Demolition Night was a promotional stunt that took place at Comiskey Park, home of the Chicago White Sox, on July 12, 1979. Attendees were allowed in for only 98 cents provided they brought a disco record to add to a large pile of them set to be detonated between the two games of the night’s double-header. As people in the stands flung records at the players on the field, the crowd’s mood turned ugly. After the records were blown up, chaos erupted and eventually riot police on horseback shut the thing down (there are many more details in the linked articles below).

Articles in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and Chicago Reader all retell the event in warmly nostalgic terms, positioning it mostly as a wacky story from sports history or an amusing time capsule from the outrageously unfashionable late ’70s. These articles are all written from a perspective where the idea that “disco sucks” and therefore deserved to die—and indeed, as everyone notes, DDN proved to be a turning point in the genre's fortunes; this public execution actually worked—doesn’t warrant a second thought. Despite DDN’s similarity to Christians burning Beatles records after John Lennon’s infamous “bigger than Jesus” comment—an event I assume most rock fans don’t sit around chuckling over—no one in these articles seems the slightest bit disturbed by the event’s original purpose.

Which is odd, since thinking about the various tensions that made the event so explosive is much more interesting than simply reminiscing over it or engaging in a mild bit of revisionist history—as in the Reader piece’s subheadline “the kids were alright.” That headline attributes this supposedly new take on DDN to Diane Alexander White whose recently displayed photographs from the night serve as the impetus for the article. Her perspective on DDN is much more thoughtful than any of the journalists’:

What her shots end up capturing is a moment in time—the south-side rock ’n’ roll youth culture of 1979 on the verge of pandemonium. “This was a backlash,” she says today, looking over her pictures. “[Disco] was so stylized, with pressed pants, white suits, collars outside of jackets, gold chains. The girls are blow-drying their hair to death. A lot of these kids identified it as very shallow, in the dress, in the repetitive beats in the music, crystallized in Saturday Night Fever.”

“To me, it wasn’t about the disco records being blown up,” White says. “It was everything leading up to it, which is what a lot of these pictures are.” It’s the kids themselves, “blue collar kids, kids whose parents were Sox fans. We were still churning out products in this town. You could still get a job at the steel mill.”

While she’s referring specifically to disco, White’s use of the word “backlash” is telling. The cultural backlash against the increased social freedoms (or moral failings, depending on your perspective) brought about by the revolutions of the late ’60s was about to help elect Ronald Reagan. And throughout the ’80s and ’90s, the Right would master the art of using irrelevant, but charged signifiers—e.g. that blow-dried hair; accusations of shallowness and vanity have been thrown against every Democratic candidate for president in my lifetime—to distract people from the real reasons steel mills were closing. White’s statement hints at that misdirected anger and also points up the sloppiness of backlash logic: whatever you think about Saturday Night Fever, you can’t pretend John Travolta’s character isn’t young, poor, and from Brooklyn—not a world away from Bridgeport, the neighborhood outside of Comiskey.

So what were these kids lashing back at? Class resentment was certainly justifiable; the Studio 54 version of disco culture was glamorous, coked-up, and sexy—totally out of reach for most people in 1979. One also can’t understate the sheer ubiquity of disco at its peak. Peter Shapiro’s history of the music, Turn the Beat Around, catalogs the way disco acted as a virus in American culture in 1979, infecting breakfast cereals, Sesame Street, and a long list of musicians, including Kiss, the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, and even Frank Sinatra. Okay, “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” is vile, granted, but why would disco kids wearing “white suits” or “gold chains” bother your average Van Halen* fan?

*1979 is a fascinating year for music, a genuine watershed, but I'm guessing that the kids at DDN weren’t listening to “Rapper’s Delight” or the Raincoats.

There aren’t a lot of photos accompanying that Reader piece, but in all of the samples, the subjects are overwhelmingly white and male. Disco is the opposite: gay, black, Latino, female. As Shapiro puts it:
Even when it was purveyed by chancers and formulaic followers of fashion, disco was a remarkable moment in American cultural history, a time when female voices (even if they were singing the words of mostly male songwriters and producers) temporarily drowned out the beefy bluster that usually characterizes America’s discourse. Not since Noel Coward’s reinvention of Tin Pan Alley had articulations of gay pleasure and style been so popular.
Disco’s status as supremely lame cultural punching bag hasn’t improved much since 1979. Meanwhile rock maintains its role as the bastion of authenticity in music, despite that notion being thoroughly, repeatedly debunked by music critics. Nonetheless, I take comfort in knowing that while disco was mortally wounded on July 13, 1979, it beat out rock for cultural influence. Rock over the last thirty years isn’t a complete wasteland, but disco’s children (rap and house, especially) took over, giving birth to constantly evolving forms of electronic music and decisively shaping the glossy, digital sound of pop music over three decades. Those forms and sounds made in disco’s wake have defined the new in music, while rock has mostly offered variations on the old.

Monday, July 13, 2009


Following up on the end of that last post, it occurs to me that some of my out-of-state readers may not be familiar with Illinois’s disgraceful history of police brutality, prosecutorial misconduct, and wrongful imprisonment. Here is the relatively happy ending to the sadly typical story of Ronald Kitchen, recently freed from jail after spending twenty-one years there (he is 43), including thirteen on death row. To summarize: Chicago police detectives tortured Kitchen until he confessed, and then Illinois prosecutors used that confession and other, remarkably flimsy evidence to convict him.

Two genuinely heroic groups at Northwestern University work to oppose these kinds of injustices: the Medill Innocence Project and the Center on Wrongful Convictions. From the Center’s website: “Of 314 men and women sentenced to death under the current Illinois death penalty law, which was enacted in 1977, 20 have now been exonerated and released—an error rate of more than six percent.” Former Governor George Ryan (currently in prison for corruption) famously declared a moratorium on the death penalty in 2000 and commuted the sentences of all current death row inmates (including Ronald Kitchen) to life imprisonment on his way out of office in 2003.

That moratorium is still in place—with good reason, obviously—but the death penalty has not been abolished and the state still seeks it in certain cases. I’m at a loss to explain what argument you could make in favor of keeping it or lifting the moratorium in the face of that +6% error rate, much less when you factor in its inevitable rise due to the Capital Litigation Trust Fund, which assists public defenders in mounting a proper defense in death penalty cases, being bankrupt.

Friday, July 10, 2009

White Riot: Prologue

This is going to be another two-parter—hooray!

One of the pleasures of being a Chicago resident is living in the midst of a long* and fascinating history. On my daily commute I walk by a building that used to be Essanay studios; I wait for the bus across the street from the Chicago Theatre; and the building I work in was built on the property that once housed the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s practice space. I haven’t yet seen Public Enemies, but I’d like to—in addition to the history, I’m kind of a sucker for films shot locally (ultimately that was about the only thing I liked about The Dark Knight), and it would be thrilling to see Johnny Depp strolling around the Aragon Ballroom, a venue built in 1926 where I saw my first concert.

*You know, for an American city at least.

Of course not all Chicago history is Charlie Chaplin, gangsters, and free jazz. My friend Stephen sent me this New York Times article about a reunion of police officers who were in the 1968 Democratic convention riots with a simple “really?” The Chicago Police Department has a lengthy history of abuse and an equally lengthy history of getting away with it, so I wasn’t that surprised. In fact, I was almost more dismayed by the protesters—what could they possibly hope to achieve by picketing a bunch of retired police officers eating pizza? Protesting an historical event; it sounds like a sad postmodern performance piece. Besides, at least in terms of the CPD’s behavior during the 1960s, I believe there’s a consensus that they were out of control. Partisans can argue over what happened during the riots, but I can’t see anyone claiming they “feel fine about” murdering Fred Hampton.

More to come.

Thursday, July 2, 2009


“Gomorrah is a nursery rhyme
You won’t find it in a book
It’s written on your city’s face
Just stop and take a look”
—Sixto Diaz Rodriguez

Summer is often a bleak time for me. I tend to blame the decades of conditioning that made summer’s vast free time feel like a right promised by natural law. Whiling away those same lengthy hours in a windowless office with my eyes on a screen all day tends to darken my thinking. Perhaps spending six summers in Georgia added to the effect; the heat of summer there tended to have an undercurrent of madness to it.

Or maybe it’s just my current reading material: Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces. I’m also rereading Calvin and Hobbes again, and both have a lot to say about the pointless drudgery of adult life. This morning I was reading the Marcus on the bus as we took an alternate route to avoid the traffic snarls caused by the annual tourist bacchanal, Taste of Chicago, an event that lives in my memory chiefly for the time my younger sister was burned on the cheek by an asshole smoking a cigarette in a thick crowd of people.

Anyway, the new route took us through the South Loop, once a commercial dead zone and now newly built or rehabbed into a weird sort of Alphaville of a neighborhood (impressively sycophantic piece from the Chicago Tribune here). I lost count of how many high-end dental salons we passed, and I’d conservatively estimate that there are forty million condos for sale there.

Romantically, superpowers/empires/civilizations are thought to end precipitously—they fall with hordes of barbarians at the gates. Or they’re stricken by environmental catastrophes or diseases so swift and lethal they verge on the allegorical. Hubris and moral decadence—orgies literal and figurative—bring down that old divine wrath. The Bush years felt like the middle stage of just such a spectacular flameout. A country with a national death wish, led by the political equivalent of Columbine’s trench coat mafia: armed to the teeth and pissed off at the world for reasons that never really added up but could apparently be solved with mass murder. But the eschatological nightmares of liberals (and their flipside: the end-times fantasies of evangelicals) have more or less faded with Obama’s election, and now a putrefying kind of stagnation—political, economic, and cultural—seems more likely to me.

Allow me to maintain my habit of making sweeping political statements and then sidestepping the issue by talking about music. I’m too lazy to come up with a list of linkable support for this statement, but I believe there’s nearly a critical consensus that this decade has been one of the worst ever for music. And this morning I was struck by the horrifyingly cyclical implications of this passage from Lipstick Traces. Here’s Marcus writing about the mid-70s in 1989:

“Rock ‘n’ roll became an ordinary social fact, like a commute or a highway construction project. It became a habit, a structure, an invisible oppression. . . . There was no need for change; ‘change’ began to seem like an old-fashioned, sixties word. The chaos in society at large called for a music of permanence and reassurance; in the pop world, time stood still. For years that seemed like decades, you could turn on the radio with the assurance that you would hear James Taylor’s ‘Fire and Rain,’ Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ the Who’s ‘Behind Blue Eyes,’ Rod Stewart’s ‘Maggie May.’ It was all right; they were good songs.”

A few pages before that, Marcus quotes a list of slogans from the May 1968 uprisings in Paris, including:

Under the paving stones, the beach!

A good motto for summer.

Thursday, June 4, 2009


In anticipation of the promised nostalgia post, here’s some links to the past from the collective memory machine.

This NY Times collection of readers’ Polaroids is spectacular. Polaroid fans should definitely read the linked article about a group of Dutch men trying to re-start the company’s film production process (which ceased last year), if for no other reason than that it has this quote in it: “‘So we stopped drinking beer—which is a pity because Dutch beer is good—and started talking business,’ Mr. Kaps said.”

And Hard Format, which I just discovered via Gutterbreakz (who has quite a few books I want) and will probably spend the rest of the day looking through. I quite liked this reggae collection, of course, and I’m excited to look through the collections grouped by designer.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Conservatives and Music, Part Two: Preserving the Old Ways

Clearly modern movement conservatism is a kind of bizarre brain fever, a malfunctioning program corrupted by a nasty virus called free market capitalism (well, amongst other nastier things). By being wedded to a messianic belief in the power of the market, conservatives end up with a mindset where something as fundamentally unconservative as global megacorporation Wal Mart is actually a hallowed signifier of the small-town folkways of Real-Americans, rather than one of the more obvious culprits behind their destruction. Attempting to graft libertarian free market dogma* onto conservative reverence for tradition and the past simply doesn’t make any sense: nothing provokes radical change like unfettered capitalism. So I hope it’s abundantly clear that what “conservative” means or could mean to me is completely unrelated to lattes or NASCAR or demonizing gay people—hell, I should probably have just chosen a less loaded word and skipped this screed (sort of; there is a point buried somewhere down there about how a conservative politics could act as a brake on liberals championing war and imperialism).

*Not that right-wingers’ belief in the free market is ever enacted, but that’s a whole other post.

Let’s return to music since I already had to go back and delete an earlier sentence where I said I didn’t “feel like talking about politics.” How could we go about uncovering “a much more stimulating tradition of conservative thought in popular music?” One important strand would be the work of musical archivists and preservationists: Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, field recordings of old folk songs made by people like John Lomax, and ethnomusicological recordings on labels like Nonesuch Explorer or Ocora would all be important and influential examples. With the globalizing forces of capitalism and technology erasing centuries of tradition in local cultures—even while, of course, new technologies like sound recording, record manufacturing, and air travel, as well as the possibility that people might pay for these recordings, made the sounds available to a new audience—the people behind these projects sought to collect and preserve rapidly vanishing ways of life.

Smith and Lomax’s active approach to musical conservation decisively influenced the folk revival of the 1960s: the Greenwich Village scene that Bob Dylan exploded out of—and essentially destroyed in the process—and its longer-lasting and (to my ears) more interesting corollary in the UK. Much has been made of the purism of these revivalists, crystallized in notorious incidents like Dylan’s appearance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival and the infamous “Judas” heckler at his 1966 concert in Manchester. It is just this kind of dogmatic insistence against seemingly inevitable change that makes the folk scene look (ironically of course; their politics being anything but at the time) a whole lot like modern conservatism.

This kind of mini-culture-war within a musical scene ended relatively quickly in folk, but in the jazz world it began in the 1980s and hasn’t ended yet. In the polarizing figure of Wynton Marsalis we can see the ramifications of the purist urge to police, to exclude, to define, and to delineate narratives where they don’t necessarily exist. In his role as artistic director for Jazz at Lincoln Center and as a consultant for Ken Burns' Jazz documentary, Marsalis has written off both the avant-garde and fusion, promoting a frozen-in-amber classicist view of “jazz” that is intellectually arid and has had real financial consequences for artists who fall outside the mainstream.

Nonetheless one could argue that something was lost in Dylan’s pied-piper effect on folk fans—luring them away from their budding interest in gospel, bluegrass, and a kaleidoscope of world music toward the banal prospect of yet another kid picking up an electric guitar—and that jazz in the 1980s was in a sorry state when Marsalis came along to restore its dignity and remind everyone that Charlie Parker didn't make music to perform data entry to. Sometimes resisting change is resisting the corruption of something valuable. You tend to see “nostalgia” characterized as an always-wrong weakness of the mind these days, as if the idea that progress is constant had achieved consensus, but sometimes nostalgia exists because the past was better.

Which is a perfect way to segue into The Kinks, but this topic expanded the more I thought about it, so that will have to be another post or maybe this will just be an ongoing concern. I certainly find the way people conceptualize and talk about nostalgia fascinating.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Conservatives and Music, Part One: Not Actually About Music Yet

The combination of an ongoing and growing obsession with The Kinks and recently reacquainting myself with The Modern Lovers has prompted me to think about (what I am choosing to call) the conservative impulse in music. I first started thinking about this a few years ago when this breathtakingly dumb list of conservative rock songs was being pilloried by lefty bloggers. The level of cognitive dissonance required to create that list really does boggle the mind. It also concisely lays bare the contradictory, confused mess of ideals, kneejerk reactions (taxes are tantamount to slavery and driving 55mph is oppressive, but it’s a good thing when the law “wins”), manipulative overemphasis on the cultural signifiers of class rather than economic reality, skewed perspective on and nostalgia for the Cold War—a war which we all know liberals were unanimously opposed to—and pasty Tolkien fanboyism that makes up the contemporary American conservative. Really, just skip to numbers 24 and 25, weep, and then just forget about it because it’s not even worth dismantling. Or read Jon Swift’s list, especially the comments section wherein anonymous outraged liberals repeatedly demand to know if he is joking (A: yes).

But what’s ultimately so pathetic about that list is that if movement conservatives weren’t so eager to co-opt music made by outspoken liberals like The Clash (for fuck’s sake!) in order to rebrand themselves as sexy rebels—who favor abstinence of course—they could very easily illuminate a much more stimulating tradition of conservative thought in popular music. Of course in order to do that, they’d have to come to grips with the basic incoherence of their worldview.

I have no desire to start writing about day-to-day politics on this thingy—in fact I’m trying to withdraw a bit from obsessing over politics in general—but there are certain conservative impulses that appeal to me. To take one example: if the way American empire has pursued its interests and expanded its power across the globe since World War II (at least; the Cherokee might want to extend that a bit further back) doesn’t make you angry, ashamed, and deeply dubious of the motives of anyone seeking to wield that power, then, frankly, I think you’re disturbingly, possibly willfully, naïve.

So, a conservative perspective that perceives that using the highly trained killers of the United States military for “humanitarian” purposes is a non-starter makes sense to me. The conservative who sees the project of American empire as largely spreading death and misery to other countries, rather than democracy and hope, is more convincing to me than the liberal who thinks the U.S. can still act with some kind of moral authority in the world, that as long as it’s Obama and not Bush dropping the bombs on Afghanistan, things are automatically better. Fictional Liberal interjects, “but Rob, conservatives don’t actually think any of those things. In fact many of them actively advocate spreading death and misery to the Muslim-y and/or oil-having parts of the world.” Okay, that’s true, and I’m hard pressed to think of a prominent conservative who has expressed these views who hasn’t also signed on to some other repellent, racist, or just crazy ass ideas (cf. Ron Paul). Even more damning: many, many conservatives are hell bent on destroying the natural world as swiftly as possible—you’d think it would be easy to convince conservatives to show a modicum of interest in conservation, but that’s because you’re a limp-wristed hippie.

I could chalk the relative nonexistence of a compelling, cohesive conservative viewpoint up to the intellectual impoverishment of our relentlessly binary political system, but it also speaks to the way the word “conservative” has become essentially meaningless today. I’m certainly no expert—I’ve never read any Burke—and many more learned people than I have explained how the right wing ended up in the ideological Chinese finger trap it is currently stuck in—a self-destructive cycle of bilious resentment that currently has them comparing Nancy Pelosi to Pussy Galore and alienating even more women (plus Hispanics! this is the Brewster’s Millions approach to electoral politics) with their lashing out at Sonia Sotomayor.

Ok, this ran a lot longer than I anticipated, so I'm making it a two-parter. In the next post: I get to the point!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A Drowned World

Check out this stunning collection (found via Bookslut) of Penguin science fiction covers from 1935 to 1977: here. I've run into a few different collections of old Penguin paperback covers online before and this is one of the best. As James Pardey, the proprietor of the site (his commentary is worth reading if you're into this sort of thing), somewhat mildly puts it: "Penguin books and their iconic covers have a place in history that merits study and appreciation." These covers, their typography, the colors, the choice of images, are utterly of their time and place, evoking an era in Britain that has increasingly been on my mind for the past year or so; in fact, the chosen period here, '35 to '77, is almost exactly right: I would simply extend it through to Thatcher's reelection in 1983. I couldn't possibly sum up everything personal, political, and cultural that compels me toward that era here, but I hope to return to this with some future posts on a few of my current objects of fascination: the Kinks, Ghost Box, Powell & Pressburger, etc.

UPDATE: Good lord, obviously I need to get this!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Name

Richard wondered if I named Elephant Rock after the state park in Missouri. I did not, though it looks pretty great. As does this rock near Port Reyes, California that I found searching for Elephant Rock images. Apparently there are Elephant Rocks all over the world, from Nevada to Canada to Africa to India to New Zealand (just google image search elephant rock if you're curious).

I've also always liked elephants in general--gigantic matriarchal vegetarians with no real predators--but the name was taken from this Upsetters song, which to me really does sound like something elephants would enjoy.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Hands Across the Internet

In direct contradiction to my semi-serious "computers ruined everything" theory (see here for a rebuttal to this theory from Harry J, but watch out for some wild volume switches on that link), here are a couple of testaments to what's great about the internet.

In response to my starting Elephant Rock, my friend Richard returns to his blog, The Stumpwasher!. There I learned the excellent news that even though he's in China, I can hear some of the beautiful music he's been making there by going to his myspace page.

And despite my having food poisoning just 24 hours ago, Rebecca's always mouth-watering Meals; For Moderns has a particularly tasty looking raspberry smoothie up today that has me very happy to be able to eat again.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


The vaguely pathetic half-urge to start a blog has invaded my daydreams for a few years now. Suddenly wanting to type up Panda Bear’s list of musicians/bands from the liner notes to Person Pitch (see below; and I do hope to do something with that list in future) was the somewhat odd impetus to finally start. But back when I was actively looking for a reason, I entertained numerous project-type ideas thinking I needed some kind of discipline, or, more accurately, thinking I needed some kind of justification for such a narcissistic endeavor.

There were a couple of other internet projects I found inspiring. One was Noel Murray’s Popless column at the A.V. Club (actually there’s a few good ones there, see also the New Cult Canon, which recently featured the awesome Millennium Actress and My Year of Flops, which recently featured The Love Guru). While I find actually reading Murray’s column to be kind of enervating—our taste in music is extremely different—I admired its obsessive quality. Another possible model was the even more entertaining and much more hopeless Criterion Contraption, Matthew Bessem’s doomed attempt to watch the entirety of the Criterion Collection. He started five years ago and he’s on #91 (by the end of 2009, Criterion should be past or near #500). #91 happens to be The Blob, a movie I watched many times as a kid and those shots of that weird little boy are truly haunting.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Panda Bear List

Basic Channel; Luomo; Dettinger; Wolfgang Voigt; Cat Stevens; The Police; Scott Walker; Daft Punk; The Tornadoes; The Zombies; Moodyman; Erik Satie; Madlib; Jonathan Richman; Roy Orbison; King Tubby; Caetano Veloso; Black Dice; Sam Cooke; Pink Floyd; Sparks; The Beach Boys; Everything But the Girl; The Orb; Basement Jaxx; Vashti Bunyan; S.E. Rogie; Jay Dee; Phoenix; Ariel Pink; Robert Hood; Aphex Twin; Arthur Russell; SRC; Air; Tom Jobim; The Beatles; Michael Jackson; Benjamin Diamond; Syd Barrett; Jay-Z; Talk Talk; Black Flag; Hall and Oates; Lee Perry; Bjorn Olsson; Can; Isolee; CNN; Chris Bell; Kylie Minogue; Ricardo Villalobos; Ennio Morricone; Louvin Brothers; Metallica; Wu Tang Clan; Spacemen 3; Cindy Lauper; Nina Simone; The Clientele; Markus Guentner; Pete Rock; The Strokes; Dr. Dre; Carsten Jost; Notorious B.I.G.; Duran Duran; The Chills; Portishead; Nirvana; ODB; Echo and the Bunnymen; ELO; Kraftwerk; Enya; Neu; Everly Brothers; The Free Design; Skip Spence; Erik B and Rakim; Nico; The Kinks; George Michael; Salz; Bob Marley; Ghostface Killah; Grateful Dead; Doce; Horace Andy; Incredible String Band; The Equals; Joni Mitchell; Kaito; Linda Perhacs; Love; Maria Callas; Antonio Variacoes; Harry Mudie; Black Sabbath; Nas; Phil Collins; Queen; Ride; Gang Starr; The Stooges; New Order; Theorem