Monday, December 8, 2008

Thought for the Day:

Sunday was Pearl Harbor Day, so it feels fitting to give a shoutout to the Ace of Aces, a legendary dubya-dubya-eye-eye pilot whose obit shared the front page with news of the Hiroshima bombing. His name? Dick Bong, leading to the (now) hilarious headline:

"Jet plane explosion kills Major Bong, Top U.S. Ace."

In this post-9/11 world of heavy, unironic patriotism, I think we could all stand to remember that there was a time in our history when we revered Major Dick Bong.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Thought for the Day:

Fuck Chuck Klosterman.

Dear Chuck,

About GNR: if you like GNR, when you hear an awesome GNR song, you don't immediately shove three fingers up your butt and use your other hand to write a long-winded review of the album. Acceptable alternatives to the Klosterfuck?

1. Drink Heavily
2. Air Guitar
3. Uh, Drink Heavily?

(If you must meta-appreciate, play Sweet Child of Mine on Guitar Hero or watch Heavy Metal Parking Lot. Work in #1-3 as circumstances permit.)

If Axl Rose is who you say he is, I hope the two of you meet in a dark alley someday and engage in a loving 69 of forward-looking musical/critical insecurity. Maybe have John Woo nearby to release some pigeons at the moment of climax. You know, for gravitas.

Chuck Klosterman: History's Greatest Monster?

"At this juncture in history, rocking is not enough."


Monday, November 17, 2008

Repeal Prop 8!

... so members of the 1985 Rams can get married.

You know, I could write more jokes, but they would just distract you from the homoerotic glory that is THIS:

Monday, November 10, 2008

Fuck Joe Lieberman

Seriously, fuck that guy.

For those of you who haven't been keeping up on the Saga of Lieberman, he endorsed John McCain on December 17th, 2007. If you're keeping score, that was way before McCain even looked like he had a shot at winning, which I guess means that Lieberman had the courage of his convictions. Chief among those convictions is that we shouldn't be backing out of our hideously tragic, financially ruinous war with Iraq. I'm sure Joe has his reasons, but no matter what your premises you should never be able to argue yourself into putting your penis in a blender, much less keeping it there once you've punched the "liquify" button.

So Joe, lover of national-dick-in-blender foreign policy, gave a speech at the GOP convention, hurled a lot of slime at Barack Obama, and skulked around in the background during McCain's concession speech. In other words, he chose poorly.

Now he's trying to mend fences, and hopefully continue to drape his saggy posterior over the chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs committee. Barack Obama has appealed for a less vindictive solution that keeps Lieberman in the Democratic Caucus, and Harry Reid is in talks with Benedict Joe. As Kos points out, there are essentially three outcomes for Joe:

1. No comeuppance--Joe keeps his chair, keeps his seniority, gets to pick Harry Reid's nose.
2. Some comeuppance--Joe loses his chair, keeps his seniority, has a good sulk before the new congress convenes.
3. Maximum comeuppance--Joe loses his chair, loses his seniority, is dragged down 1-95 by a sled team of cannibals.

Joe, with typical prescience, has indicated that everything except option 1 is unacceptable. That's essentially the equivalent of putting all your money on "Harry Reid is a wuss. D'you hear that Harry, you big wuss?!" Unfortunately, Lieberman's bargaining position is highly dubious. With an absolute majority short of 59 seats in the Senate, the Democrats need for a little Joementum has never been less acute. Of course, Joe has the weapon of last resort: he can hitch his wagon to the party that's compared BHO's volunteer corps to Soviet forced labor practices and the Holocaust. Oh, and let's not forget the incoherent GOP ravings about some sort of Obama-sponsored Marxist gestapo.

Yeah, that'll get him re-elected.

There is an alternate possibility. I'm sure Rahm Emanuel is pulling for option 3, possibly in the hopes of rustling up a replacement finger. Barack Obama may be burnishing his huggy bipartisan credentials while encouraging Reid to hang Lieberman out to dry. When Lieberman eventually walks the plank, Obama can be gravely disappointed while acknowledging the legislature's right to police its own. Reid gets a much-needed spinal graft, Obama isn't seen as vindictive, and Joe Lieberman and Ted Stevens can give each other reacharounds in hell.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Strategy and Tactics

One of the recurring notes throughout this campaign has been the invocation of jargon like "strategy" and "tactics" as a way to establish foreign policy chops. John McCain attempted to do this during a presidential debate when he asserted that "Senator Obama doesn't know the difference between a strategy and a tactic." It would've been a real zinger if he hadn't thereby implied that THE SURGE was a strategy.

You can think of any large-scale military endeavor on a couple of levels. First, there are the minutiae of combat: how do I kill those guys 300m away using the capabilities I have at my disposal? You can expand the lens of tactics to larger scale considerations as well, including securing an area so that supplies can move freely, and so on and so forth.

We can conceptualize a strategy as a plan for victory. A solid strategy contains an internal logic that propels it toward the accepted definition of victory for the current conflict. Because of its broad nature, a strategy influences decision making at many levels, from battlefield tactics to logistics.

This is all a little arcane, so let's take a look at these concepts in (hot, napalm-y) action: the Vietnam War. General Westmoreland implemented a strategy of attrition according to which the massive US military machine would be used to drive up costs on the North Vietnamese until they decided "fuck it, this communism shit just isn't worth it" and leave South Vietnam alone. Victory! All of the horrors of the war were to some extent connected by this strategy. Everything from the Rolling Thunder campaigns to free fire zones, from kill counts to My Lai could be seen in the context of a war of attrition. It didn't really matter who you killed, because murdering the fuck out of anyone would make life worse for the North Vietnamese. Anyway, you can see that the strategy was driving the tactics, and the strategy itself was pointing at a condition that we (mistakenly!) believed would cause N. Vietnam to break off hostilities.

As an aside, much like strategic bombing campaigns, these "morale breakers" didn't really work. When you slaughter the fuck out of someone's village, the survivors are A) completely dependent on the government and B) hate you with the fire of a thousand suns because you just destroyed their livelihood and their family. When there's a ready-made national unification movement for them to hitch their wagon to, things tend not to go so well for you.

Anyway, Iraq is a bit atypical because we have no clear idea of what victory looks like. Yes, we'd like it to be fully democratic, pluralist and free, but it's a bit unclear how we use the Marines to do that. The problem is that the internal logic of our occupation was a bit weak. To wit:

1. Topple Saddam.
2. ...
3. Democracy!

There's obviously no purely military solution to our problems in Iraq, but we can understand the Surge (tm) as part of a unified political and military strategy to allow national reconciliation. The problem is, that with the election coming up relatively soon after the Surge was announced and the Iraq War, the President and the GOP deeply unpopular in the United States, the incentive structure for Maliki was, shall we say, skewed. Did pissing on fires all over Iraq give us any increased leverage over Maliki that might lead him to share power with the other factions in Iraq? Probably not. On the other hand it definitely improved the optics of the Iraq War at home in the United States, enabling John McCain to run on the "Surge=Victory" platform and eventually make it to a debate in which he idiotically called out his opponent for not knowing the difference between a strategy and a tactic.

On a larger scale, the problem with the Surge is simple. If I were a betting man in Maliki's shoes, and some unpopular lame duck came to me and said "I'm going to fill your country with soldiers, calm shit down and suchlike and in the meantime I want you to make nice with these other factions." My answer would be "Sure thing, Hoss! How much longer will you be running things over there?" Then, immediately after our conversation I'd set about entrenching myself in power and building alliances with people who share my interests so that once he's quenched the fires with American blood and gone home, I would be in a position to outmaneuver my rivals and run the country as I saw fit.

Obviously, the situation is a good deal more complicated than that, and I'm not sure exactly how it will play out in '09 and '10. I am prepared to offer the following bit of sound tactical advice to the readership: don't turn into a snake. It never helps.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Utley Award

So, Newsweek has had this "Special Election Project" running for some time, where reporters were embedded with the campaigns and their reports embargoed until after election day. They seem to have unearthed some gems, including this one from our 44th President:

So when Brian Williams is asking me about what's a personal thing that you've done [that's green], and I say, you know, "Well, I planted a bunch of trees." And he says, "I'm talking about personal." What I'm thinking in my head is, "Well, the truth is, Brian, we can't solve global warming because I fucking changed light bulbs in my house. It's because of something collective."

Collective, eh? Socialismo o Muerte! Seriously though, I'm very happy this guy is going to the White House. So on behalf of all of use at FTB, I'd like to congratulate Barack Obama for being the first recipient of the Chase Utley Award for Excellence in Dropping the F-Bomb.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Get Outta Here!

Hey you! Yeah, you, Imaginary Reader! What are you doing reading this stupid blog? Turn off your computer and go vote for Obama, unless you want this to be second in line for the Oval Office.

What's that you say? You're only imaginary and, thus, don't have a voter registration card? I DON'T CARE! Go vote your imaginary little heart out, or I'll stop directing you to so much awesome music to put on your imaginary iPod.

O'Death: Broken Hymns, Limbs and Skin

Listen to the frantic, sawing fiddle; the high and wild twang of the vocals; the murderous Southern gothicism of the lyrics; the gut-bucket thunk of the banjo and bass. Listen to how they fuse yowling hillbilly blues with the snarling intensity of punk rock. Close your eyes; can you tell where these guys are from?

If you're an avid follower of indie rock, you've probably guessed that they, like most sub-par salsa and alt-country bands, hail from the genre's great mecca, Noo Yorg Citay.

Who cares, you ask? Uptight music critics, that's who. You can almost hear the eyes rolling as Pitchfork pronounces them "the latest of a long line of New York traditionalists who look to old-time music as a place to hang their contemporary quirks." "I tend to get a bit skeptical when a bunch of dudes get on stage for a good ol’ hootenannie hoe down —- in Brooklyn," deadpans Joe Tacopino of Popmatters. "They seem to embody the jug band farce of suburban kids dressing as 19th Century beet farmers." Elevating context over content, these critics tend to ignore the joyful, apocalyptic fury of O'Death's sound in favor of a liberal arts graduate's hyper-sensitivity to acts of cultural appropriation. Is Amy Winehouse performing in modernized blackface? Did Paul Simon Gershwinize African Isicathamiya music on Graceland? The answer to both of those questions is probably "yes," but the more important question it begs is "so?" There's something condescending about all of these ivory tower critics defending the integrity of provincial forms. There's a whiff, even, of Sarah Palin's notion of "real America," the patronizing idea that rural poverty is the only true bestower of authenticity. O'Death play it like they mean it, and you don't have to spend time in a barn to stir up a good barnburner. Purity is incestuous anyway -- great artists tromp gleefully across boundaries, laughing at the furrow-browed guardians below, forming little fences out of their term papers.

O'Death aren't great artists -- Broken Hymns, Limbs and Skin, their new record, begins to shows the limitations of their shtick. Their press package claims a wide-ranging assortment of influences, from Prince to the Microphones, but such eclecticism is nowhere to be heard. Their music functions according to simple plan: take traditional country/bluegrass and crank the amps to eleven. It's the exact same M.O. that animates the Pogues and Gogol Bordello, applied to a different traditional form. Here on their third album, they're tilling the exact same soil as when they first materialized, fully formed, on the Brooklyn scene that both loves and loves to sneer at its phony rednecks. They're either unable or unwilling to expand their range beyond the furious, snarling murder ballads that tend to kill at their shows.

O'Death is an unmissable live experience -- constantly cracking the whip over the crowd, these five maniacally sweaty guys keep upping the ante: harder, drunker, faster, dirtier. Non-stop catharsis, though, while great for a whiskey-fueled hoe-down, becomes wearying when pressed onto a disc. Embracing the Crazy Horse side but not the Harvest Moon side of his Neil Young-ish yelp, singer Greg Jamie never finds or even reaches for anything like the ragged, heartbreaking balladry of Shane MacGowan, which served to underline and expand the Pogues’ punk aesthetic. Songs like "Home" and "On an Aching Sea" open slowly and thoughtfully, but O'Death can't resist the urge to build every damned track into a wrecking-ball psychobilly freakout, which renders even the good songs unmemorable in their sameness.

Their albums, taken together, provide an excellent soundtrack for the coked-up slaughtering of livestock, but not much else. Some of the individual tracks, though, are monsters, shining a shadowy light on the more sinister places of American folklore, the southern Gothic we all carry around somewhere in the backs of our minds. "Low Tide," the opener, is a vicious shanty, building an eerie plucked banjo line into a howling churn, as brutal and sudden as a swelling electrical storm at sea. It segues into "Fire On Peshtigo," where Jamie makes the most of his pinched, nasal voice, chanting staccatto lines about a wild-fire in Wisconsin with the urgency of a newsreel voiceover. These are the two best and most interesting songs on the album, and once they're over we're left with a lot of stuff we've heard before, some of it terrific, some of it only okay, none of it bad, but none of it surprising. As glad as I am to have a new album from a band that I like a lot, I find myself far less excited for their fourth album than I was for their third. I’m rooting hard for these guys to switch up their sound a make a few unexpected moves, because I want the uptight critics, more interested in biographical authenticity than in dancing their feet down to the bone, proven wrong. Like O’Death, I’m from New York City, and I want the world to know that our salsa can be spicy as a motherfucker.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Ryan Adams: Cardinology

I fell for Ryan Adam's first solo record, Heartbreaker, in 2001. Its fragility, passion and melancholy aestheticism were a perfect match for my post-adolescent depressed narcissism. With no pretense of formal innovation or lyrical brilliance, Adams offered up his sadness and vulnerability unadorned, achieving a kind of haunted fragility that’s profoundly rare outside of Nick Drake albums. Also, there was "To Be Young," which is still the only piece of music I've ever heard which successfully rips off the wild mercury sound of Highway 61, even outdoing it in some ways. Though Adams' voice made me hesitate -- as an obsessive fan of Dylan and Lou Reed, I distrusted its ease and prettiness -- there was something truly despairing and brave about the record, a desperately life-like quality that I still hear when I play it today.

Which is what makes it so difficult to review his new snooze-fest Cardinology; aside from the addition of the Cardinals, the terrific backing band he's worked with on his past several albums, it's not notably different from Heartbreaker. Adams is still plumbing the depths of his melancholy with loose, mid-tempo country that splits the difference between alt- and trad-. It's just that those depths seem a little shallower every time. The Adams pose -- the wounded, beautiful Romeo -- has always seemed a little bit silly, but the old Adams drew strength from it, stubbornly insisting that you believe in his personal drama. Now he just sounds tired, stultifyingly confident, eminently nice. Melodic and pleasant to a fault, the orchestration always rises to a calculated swell at just the right moment. There's none of the undercurrent of real pain and self-loathing that gave Heartbreaker its depth. A perfectly serviceable turn of phrase like "Look what I did to you, look what you did to me," is sung without real emotion – instead there’s a sort of singerly “passion” that's now his rote style. What did he do to her? Because it sounds like he just bored her and wasted her time. The Adams portrayed on this album sure ain't a heartbreaker. If Kevin Barnes wants to fuck you, Ryan Adams seems to want you to soothe his furrowed brow with a damp washcloth. His method of seduction is to appeal to the worried mother in women.

There are sparks of life here and there. “Evergreen” is a haunter built around a lovely guitar figure, slinking into your brain and stubbornly remaining there when the rest of Cardinology has been forgotten (i.e. five minutes after the album stops playing), and “Magick”, the sole tonal shift on the whole damned album, is a cheerful, likeably disposable arena-rocker that would have sounded more at home on the failed-but-fascinating Rock N Roll. (As Adams' career has gone further and further awry, his most critically reviled albums, experiments like the Love is Hell EP and the aforementioned Rock N Roll, have consistently been his most engaged and interesting.) But mostly the thing just lies there, dead in the water. Which wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for the fact that Adams clearly has oceans of talent, a fine melodic ear, and strong craftsmanship. He releases more albums than anyone this side of Robert Pollard, and while his prolificacy is in some ways a compelling display, one that clearly speaks to a love of song writing, it also might explain why he continually makes the most obvious choices, why his style has become easy to the point of soporific. Adams can write songs like this in his sleep -- on this album it sounds as though maybe he did. His fluency with generic styles and tricks, once a strength, has become a crutch.

Pity, pity the poor Cardinals. They're the best backing band a guy could ask for -- tight enough to play loose, Band-like in their versatility, Dead-like in their ability to make long, noodling solos interesting and compelling. And here they are, locked in holy matrimony to this tired hack.

I understand why this music is popular. (Adams' popularity seems to be steadily growing, and I imagine if he didn't flood the market with so much product every year his albums would chart much higher.) It's relentlessly pretty, always well-crafted, and asks nothing of you, not even your attention. It's great music for people who don't want to feel anything, but don't yet want to admit that they've lost the ability to feel. That's why Adams seems to have replaced Jeff Buckley as the singer-of-choice for dramatic TV montages -- music that's truly affecting would distract the viewer from, say, a Zack Braff monologue summing up an episode of Scrubs. The music on Cardinology is perfect for such moments; it's in an emotional mode without possessing any affecting content. It's less a sensual experience than a familiar emotive cue for the listener.

The music is so empty that it attains a kind of apocalyptic mood -- one imagines that in the end times, when pop is gone, rock is gone, punk and rap and jazz are gone, music this mind-numbingly dull, picturesque and automated will linger on, permanent as polystyrene, scoring the slow and endless fall of ash onto the dry, dissipated earth.

"The war is over," Adams sings over and over again in the refrain of "Sink Ships." No, Ryan, it's not. You've just stopped fighting.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Concert Calendar Updated

We've got a whole new batch of great events up on the calendar. These good-to-bad-ass shows should keep your mojo rising up through Thanksgiving. I'll be expanding it as more dates are announced. I do it all for you, my gentle imaginary reader.

The can't-miss dates for me are Of Montreal on Halloween (I hear their stage show includes a live horse), The Hold Steady with Drive-by Truckers at the Electric Factory (schlubby middle-aged populist rock stars unite!), and Dr. Dog's triumphant return to the city of brotherly love on November 28th. I hope to see you there. (Though seeing imaginary readers may be cause for concern.)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Of Montreal: Skeletal Lamping

"It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash."

That's H.L. Mencken elucidating with precision my attitude towards music criticism. Actually, that's my attitude towards GOOD music criticism -- flap and doodle, marked by a grandeur of badness, is the state towards which music criticism aspires. "But," you, gentle imaginary reader, say, "aren't you Dr. Teeth, that guy who writes all the lame music reviews on this site?" Yes, but I m also that guy who smokes cigarettes and masturbates regularly; a compulsion is a compulsion, and like a good nicotine rush or lesbian porn-induced orgasm, a rumbling, bumbling crawl through an abysm of pish can be a very nice, if hollow, pleasure. I'm old enough now that I no longer expect rock albums to save my life -- I'm perfectly comfortable, most of the time, with using them as nothing more than sensual treats, intellectual curiosities, and occasions for extended bloviation.

But sometimes an album refuses to be reviewed. A record feels too big and artful and strange to be crammed into a four hundred word essay. You find yourself unable to assume that unearned voice of authority that makes criticism comfortable. So you write a largely incoherent, rambling introduction riffing on H.L. Mencken in order to delay the inevitable. Then you write a bizarrely self-aware second paragraph discussing your first paragraph to delay it further. All because you don't want to write a review that's less criticism than shrill, hyperbolic hucksterism.

I should really stop here. One shouldn't review an album while still in the puppy days of salad love. It's the music critic's equivalent of going to the supermarket hungry: you come home and realize that your shopping bags are filled with nothing but Oreos and adjectives. (Third paragraph now, and still no mention of the album. I'm starting to think I can make it all the way through this thing without talking about anything but myself.) So, please, don't think of the following as a music review. Think of it as an exhortation, a shill, a terrorist demand.


The odd, pop-minded non-Canadian band Of Montreal tread into odder, funkier territory on their wondrous new record Skeletal Lamping, released today on Polyvinyl. Structured less as a traditional album than a series of mash-ups, frontman and general mastermind Kevin Barnes spits hooks at a breakneck pace, rarely slowing long enough for his jagged little shards of song to sink in or even fully register. The fifteen tracks on the disc seem to be divided somewhat randomly, and perhaps a more accurate track listing would reveal the album as hundreds of tiny songs, united by their thematic elements: sex, psychosis, paranoia, sex, the multiplicity of perception, and sex. Gleefully blowing the doors off of the polite mausoleum that much of indie rock has become, Barnes crafts a vision of human sexuality that's both titillating and frightening in its candor and danger. Prince-like in both his obsessive, live-wire sexuality and his ability to craft impossibly itchy, spine-tingling hooks, he's pulling a Justin Timberlake for the hipster set: he's bringing sexy back.

As with all Of Montreal albums, there's a fair amount of cognitive dissonance between the delectably catchy sound of the music and the tortured, schizoid nature of the lyrics. Unlike their previous records, though, here this stylistic tic works in sync with their conceptual vision. Like sex itself, the album is overwhelmingly pleasurable, but anyone who looks a little deeper can see what's underpinning the ecstasy: a complex cocktail of fear, guilt and desperation, so ugly that it attains a weirdly transcendent beauty. A lyric like "I confess to being quite charmed by your feminine effects; you're the only one with whom I would role-play Oedipus Rex," reads as funny and gross on the page, but coming in the middle of the garden of sensual delights that is "Plastis Wafers," it sounds complex, disturbing and admirable in its honesty. There's an intense sexual narcissism about the album -- rather than navel gazing perhaps we should call it penis gazing -- but it's a necessary narcissism, a narcissism without which this level of dizzying self-examination and -awareness would not be possible.

In my usual reviews, this would be the moment when I attempted to describe the sound of the music, perhaps using phrases like "glissando bass lines" or "cascading piano arpeggios" to create the illusion that I know what the fuck I'm talking about. But on an album as instrumentally rich, multifarious and fractured as Skeletal Lamping, it's almost impossible to do (at least in a few paragraphs). Shifting styles as quickly and easily as he does sexual identities, Barnes will ram a disco earworm head on into an Abbey Road piano singalong, then suddenly deke into a nasty, bass-driven, white-boy funk jam, all in the space of two minutes. There’s no way this should work, and at best I should be describing it as some sort of glorious mess, but somehow there’s nothing remotely messy about this record. There’s a unity and coherence to Skeletal Lamping that belies the modular, restlessly ADD construction. It’s a rich treasure trove of wildly different sounds and moods and melodies, yet somehow it feels all of a piece, a Major Work in the sense that people used to use to discuss new albums by the Beach Boys or Beatles, back when widely accessible pop was taken seriously as art. Lately the bands that are taken seriously have become the ivory tower bands, locked far away from the mindless masses, performing impressive feats of musical esotericism for their enlightened listeners. Bands like Deerhoof and No Age and Grizzly Bear, all of whom have in-born tendencies towards excellent pop, tend to smother those instincts in alienating dissonance by way of apologia, as though they feel guilty for their ability to give pleasure. Kevin Barnes, though, is a showman at heart, and his drive to entertain is at least as strong as his drive to challenge his audience. Based on its construction, Skeletal Lamping should be a frustrating, difficult album -- melodic and rhythmic fragments that would qualify as major discoveries for most bands, around which singles and even entire albums could be built, are thrown away in a few seconds -- but the sheer volume of musical ideas contained on the record is staggering and awesome, as is Barnes’ willingness to treat magical, hypnotic melodies as mere ornamentation, appearing and then immediately vanishing into the flood. There's hardly anything resembling a chorus on the record -- once a section is over, it's generally gone for good, as though with this much ground to cover there's no time to reprise anything. In most songs a line like "I want to make you come two hundred times a day" would sound like a joke or a silly boast, but, coming from the creator of an album this sensually rich and dense, it sounds like a good-faith promise.

I suspect that, due to the incredibly bizarre, explicit lyrical content and unusual construction, Skeletal Lamping will not find the wide, boundary-crossing audience it deserves. We will continue to live in an indie-rock landscape in which Art is for the educated and the masochistic, and pop is not supposed to have experimentation, depth or meaning. I’d like to hear "Plastis Wafers" remixed to blare in hip-hop clubs, "Id Engager" in regular rotation on top forty radio. That’s why this is less a review than a form of advertising – I really want you to go out and buy this album. I want the masses to embrace the unusual in a way that they haven’t since the release of OK Computer. Otherwise, this strange and beautiful album will be relegated to the indie rock fans, who will doubtless be suspicious of its overwhelming melodic appeal and immediacy. (Like everybody’s favorite hipster douchebags, Pitchfork, who just hours ago rated it a mediocre 5.9. Sorry, did I say hipster douchebags? I meant to say “hire me please!”)

So, to reiterate: reviews are dumb, and I’m a shill, but don’t let that stop you from going to the store on and buying a copy of Skeletal Lamping. Buy several copies. Give them to your friends as gifts. Keep two for yourself, so you can listen to it in the bedroom and kitchen at the same time. Normally here I’d try to find some clever or poetic line with which to sum up my review, but I’m not trying to be a writer right now; I’m just a fan, telling you about something he loves. So I’ll sign off, in the manner of obsessive, hectoring fans, by repeating myself: buy this album. Even if it doesn't make you come two hundred times a day, it’ll make you feel alive.

Monday, October 6, 2008

The Division Series

Over at the Atlantic, Ross Douthat has a series of thoughts about the AL/NLDS, and is vaguely in favor of increasing the series to seven games.

I have to agree, and not because I think it's unfair but rather because I find it psychologically boring. There's so little development to the series. A couple of bum starts and suddenly you're in do-or-die territory. Great baseball stories barely have time to take root before they're resolved. Now, I don't have a problem with the way the various DSs played out. The Angels stranded an absurd number of runners against the Sox and gave up a 3 run single (the first ever in postseason history) by failing to call a ball in shallow center. Kendrick (a culprit in that play) also bobbled an easy DP opportunity that brought a run around to score. I'm not saying that John Lackey's whining is justified but I understand where he's coming from. The Cubs flat-out sucked and the White Sox just weren't up to handling the Rays.

Now, I'm hoping for a little Yankees methadone in the WS, with Torre finally completing his first Mandarin hand ("Mandhands") with a Dodgers ring. Although I doubt Torre could've managed the '08 Yankees to the postseason this year, it still hurts a little to see his craggy face in the dugout for another team. I think, however, it'll be Phillies/Rays in the Serious, with the Rays walking away with it all. And quite honestly, I'm fine with that, since the Rays worst-to-first story in the AL East is a narrative I can get behind. I'm sure the novelty will wear off in a few years. The ALCS should be a lot of fun. It'll be interesting to see whether an injured Beckett and a lights-out Lester can handle the depth and strength of the Rays.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Postseason

As every member of this blog has been postseason disenfranchised, I think I can say this after the NLDS LA/CHI game 2: WHAT THE FUCK CUBBIES, GROW A PAIR! Also, as much as the Mets have suffered in the past two years, consider the travail of Yankees fans everywhere. This is the first time we've had to deal with missing the postseason since the early-to-mid 90's. You guys can't possibly understand what that feels like. It's like pulling your head up from a bump of coke, looking around and realizing your life is a shambles. The Mets have been passed out in the gutter since 2000, so they're used to it.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Dr. Dog: Fate

It sometimes feels as though there are, in the world of indie-rock, only two available attitudes towards the past: reverence and scorn. In the former corner you have the retro-punks, the tie-dyed jam bands, the alt-country troubadours lovingly curating the mud cakes on their vintage cowboy boots. In the other corner there are the innovators, self-consciously crafting glockenspiel-driven polkas in quintuple time, steering their industrial-hobo-bop twelve-pieces out in search of the musical hinterlands, a border vanishing so rapidly that by now only the most willfully obscure and sadistically unpleasant tunesmiths are allowed entry. Caught between stultifying nostalgia and forbidding futurism, indie-rock, unlike pop, rarely seems to exist in the here-and-now.

Forgive Philadelphia's Dr. Dog if they seem less than concerned with such music-writerly quandaries -- they're too busy touring behind their wonderful new album Fate, which, rather than carefully recreating the past, opts to drag it kicking and screaming into the present. Unrepentantly derivative and deliriously catchy, the band happily cops moves from the Beach Boys, the Band, the Kinks and the Coasters, brewing them together into a jumbled, overloaded retro-rock stew. It is, admittedly, an album that would sound most at home on seventies FM radio, but it has a gathering urgency that wipes away any trace of nostalgia. While a lesser group might pay homage to their favorite bands, Dr. Dog just swipes their sounds and makes them their own. "I'll take what I want," goes the chorus of "Army of Ancients," and it could be Dr. Dog's manifesto. Or, to paraphrase Mark Twain: lousy bands imitate; great bands steal.

Which isn't to say that Dr. Dog are great band -- not yet, anyway; Fate can be muddled at times, and even some of its better songs are oddly forgettable -- but they sure are pretty damned good. "The Breeze" opens the album, riding a hazy, folky snatch of melody into a voice-drenched Brian Wilson chorus before dissolving into an odd, circular woodwind riff. In "Hang On," the album's best song and the band's greatest accomplishment to date, the staccato verse glides downriver into the passionate yet exhausted refrain: "What you thought was a hurricane was just the rustling of the wind," sings frontman Scott McMicken, splitting the difference between relief and disappointment. That's the big theme of the album: inevitability, and the disillusionment and consolation that it brings. The price, in other words, of fate: "Down down down, moon gonna fall down. Thump thump thump, house gonna fall down. Chop chop chop, tree gonna fall down. Down down down, down to the bottom," McMicken cheers on the ironically titled "Old Days," sounding grimly delighted by the certainty of all this destruction and decay. It's a grand literary theme, and the lyrics don't quite do it justice -- thankfully, though, they treat it with a light touch, invoking heavy questions about mortality and freedom of choice, then dismissing them with a cheerful shrug and an infectious hook.

Dr. Dog has always drawn much of its power from the tension between order and chaos. The woozy, mid-afternoon haze of their sound masks the underlying craft and the density of arrangement. The songs are heavily layered, overstuffed with harmonies and piano riffs, vocal hooks and bridges -- an effect that could easily lead to stultifying bloat if it weren't for the palpable joy and good humor that bubble up through even their most multi-tracked productions. Their Brian Wilson tendencies are undercut by their post-punkish love of a good sonic mess. The whole ramshackle house of cards feels constantly on the verge of collapsing, but each song manages to hang together for long enough to deliver Fate's repeated message: We're all doomed anyway, so let's go out singing, drinking and laughing.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

If I were Brad DeLong, I'd call this a death spiral

I'd like to say I've been following the situation in Zimbabwe with great interest, but I've basically been getting all my information from Chris Blattman's excellent development economics blog. However, it does seem to me that you shouldn't, in the course of a single article, credit a man for "successfully negotiating peace resolutions in Congo, Sudan, and, most recently, Zimbabwe", and then immediately claim that he "earned ignominy ... for refusing to join other world leaders in condemning Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's brutal and ruinous rule", as if these two things existed in entirely separate, unrelated universes.

In this case, though, it might not be the Washington Post's fault exactly, but rather our stupid, stupid world for being a place where Mbeki has to take crap for resolving a crisis Zimbabwe when everyone else was standing around with their thumbs up their asses.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Rah-Rah Rasputin

Over the past couple of weeks, the Russians have been up to their old tricks: helping Cuba build a space program, selling military technology to Iran and Venezuela, test-firing a new long-range missile, sending a fleet into the Carribean and claiming dominion over the North Pole. (That said, once you've planted a flag on the Arctic seabed it's all good.) Oh, right, and the whole "invading another sovereign nation" thing.

Russia's recent shenanigans prompted Secretary of State Condi Rice to scold the Russians at length for their military adventures and assorted ne'er do well tendencies. I particularly enjoyed this part:

Russia’s attack on Georgia merely proved what we had already known – that Russia could use its overwhelming military advantage to punish a small neighbor... Russia’s invasion of Georgia has achieved – and will achieve – no enduring strategic objective... their choices could put Russia on a one-way path to self-imposed isolation and international irrelevance.

In a display of appalling racial insensitivity, the Russians in the audience burst into laughter and began banging pots and kettles together while chanting "black, black, black." Let me put it another way: when people talk about America's diminished standing abroad, they are referring to our inability to use the limp noodles of international norms/law to chastise other nations (or get others to do so on our behalf with a straight face). What I'm getting at is what every IR nerd secretly loves about the Russians: they just don't give a shit. Human rights? Fuck 'em. Democratic norms? Don't care. Rule of law? Go take a flying fuck at the moon. Which we own.

The last Russian leader to actually give a shit was Gorbachev, and that didn't really work out so well for him. Point being, this is not a new line of Russian foreign policy. From Tsarist times through the fall of the USSR, Russia has always played bare-knuckle politics with the rest of the world, and is ideally positioned to do so in the next few years. The interesting question is why they've started up again, and while I'm no commie-ologist, I'll speculate a bit below.

1. Opportunity--For a long time after the fall of the USSR, the balance of forces was so lopsided that the Russians, with virtually no relevant institutional power (not in NATO, etc) was basically unable to successfully oppose US measures in Europe and the Middle East. What coalition did they have? As they would see in the march to Iraq, the UK would bugger itself with a harpoon to avoid pissing off the US, and while France and Germany weren't that extreme, their strategic interest coincided with US interest far more than it did with Russian interests. In short, they couldn't insert themselves into the Cold War old boys network, because that network was built for the express purpose of not including Russia. The US misadventure in Iraq means that our forces are insufficient to either deter or contain Russia's ambitions vis-a-vis third rate countries like Georgia. In the end, while Condi talks a good game, she's basically saying to Europe "we got shit, it's up to you guys."

2. Strategic Interest--The "color revolutions" and NATO expansion have sharply curtailed what was traditionally Russia's sphere of influence. While NATO is no longer explicitly a hostile military alliance, we can forgive Russian strategic thinkers for feeling a little bit hemmed in by nations of questionable friendliness. It turns out, one way of opening a region up is to take it over and build bases/install friendly leaders. Another way is by building friendly relations with other powers opposed to the dominant paradigm.

3. Nationalism--Inasmuch as the end of the Cold War was a victory for the USA, it was a defeat for Russia. Although many sectors of Russian society railed against the oppressive policies of the USSR, there was a profound sense of national humiliation that spread throughout the Russian Federation in the aftermath of the fall. I wouldn't posit nationalism as a cause of Russia's ambitions, I would say that the legacy of that humiliation means that Russia flexing its muscles on the international stage is unlikely to meet a great deal of criticism at home. In short, it functions as an enabler.

The real question is how the international community will respond to these provocations, but my feeling is that it's hard to punch someone while you're busy grabbing your ass with both hands, but we'll see. One of the problems with the current US-led order is that there's no #2 to hold the fort while we're busy fucking up half a world away.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


Tannhauser has stupid dogs and tried to spin it into some larger bullshit point.

Friday, September 12, 2008

James Fallows On My Dick

James Fallows makes similar points, without the use of the Terminator. We are therefore reluctantly forced to regard his post as inferior. But seriously, read it. It's a good post.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Intro to Just War Theory w/the Terminator!

Now, anyone who's taught anything in a formal (in other words, graded) environment is intimately familiar with the expression on Sarah Palin's face when she's asked about the Bush Doctrine. It's the expression every student wears when they're asked a question they have no fucking idea how to answer. It's the facial analogue to the thought "Oh fuck, I'm fucked now. Time to look attentive and talk about something vaguely related to the question and see if I can salvage anything from this mess." We've all worn it, and we've all seen others wear it.

Still, seeing someone who could potentially be President of the United States of America wearing it when confronted with a fairly elementary foreign policy question does not inspire a great deal of confidence.

That aside, Sarah Palin's interview provides the opportunity for me to do one of my favorite things: explain irritatingly complex concepts in a simple fashion using pop-culture iconography. So, when Mrs. Palin is asked about the Bush Doctrine, her response is:

"Charlie, if there is legitimate and enough intelligence that tells us that a strike is imminent against American people, we have every right to defend our country. In fact, the president has the obligation, the duty to defend."

That statement actually makes a terrifying amount of sense, and is a position well-supported by international law and just war theory. It's a sane position to take. The problem is, it's not the Bush Doctrine. The Bush Doctrine is about preventive war, not preemptive war. The crucial difference is the idea of "imminence." Arnold Schwarzenegger will explain, in the thickest Austrian accent he can muster (you might want to read this section aloud for maximum enjoyment):

FTB: So, Arnold, when you were sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor, would that be analogous to preemptive or preventive war?

AS: That would be a lot like preventive war. You see, the goal was to terminate Sarah Connor in order to prevent John Connor from being born, thereby ending the threat he would later pose to Skynet as an adult leader of the resistance. Paradoxically, our attempt to kill Sarah Connor ended up creating exactly the situation we were trying to prevent. [ironic, vaguely threatening laughter]However, the situation was a little more complicated because of time travel--I had certain knowledge that John Connor would be a threat to Skynet because I came from the future.

FTB: And why would that course of action be frowned upon in the international community?

AS: Well, you see, in a world as complex as ours it is hard to accurately project the costs and consequences of our actions over a long period of time. If a nearly omniscient and singleminded artificial intelligence and its time-traveling nearly-indestructible cyborg assassin couldn't prevent one measly human female from conceiving a rebel leader, what hope can there be for a disjointed herd of puny humans striving to accomplish a far more ambitious goal? And, in the meantime, I murdered a lot of innocent people who were only tangentially related to event I was programmed to prevent.

FTB: You the terminator, or you the Governor of California?

AS: Yes.

FTB [Nervously]: So, uh, can you give us an analogy or example of preemptive war?

AS: You will remember that scene in the nightclub when I am advancing on Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese is at the bar, and he shoots me with the sawed-off shotgun right before I shoot her with my gun? That is preemptive war. I am about to kill her, and Kyle has a limited number of options and a sharply limited timeframe in which to consider them. In other words, the threat to his charge is imminent. In this case, his application of force against my robust hyperalloy endoskeleton was his only hope for seizing the element of surprise and perhaps disrupting the otherwise imminent termination of Sarah Connor and thus protected under international and intertemporal law.

The next time you're hitting on a hot chick at an IR conference and she flips her hair and asks you what the difference between prevention and preemption is, you can refer back to his handy explanation and work your best Ahnold impression. And who knows? She might even overlook your flabby midsection, pasty skin and watery, nearsighted eyes and decide to go for it.


The Bullshit Express

Does Sarah Palin have "foreign policy experience?" Honestly, I can't believe this is even a question. Let's take a moment to savor some of the arguments advanced by the GOP and various talking heads.

1. Sarah Palin has FPE because Alaska is next to Russia.

2. Sarah Palin has FPE because Alaska is next to Russia. [Cindy McCain Trance Remix]

I'll address these two "arguments" together. I'm man enough to admit that from time to time I wake up sweating in the night, my sleep disturbed by a vision of Putin's long and sinister shadow obscuring the moonlight from my bedroom window. But let's be clear, that shadow is cast from Moscow and not Kamchatka. Alaska has as much to fear from the USSR Russian Federation as Los Angeles had to fear from the Boer War.

3. Sarah Palin has FPE because she is Commander in Chief of the Alaskan National Guard [Tucker Bounds: America's Strategic Schadenfreude Reserve]

As Campbell Brown so ably points out, overseas deployment of the National Guard is handled by the Pentagon, not Sarah Palin. And, as he was happy to clarify, the commander of the AKNG also has a fairly substantial say in what his men and women do with themselves.

4. Sarah Palin has FPE because she learned it through osmosis.

Learning through osmosis was my undergraduate euphemism for "sleeping through calculus class." To put this absurdity in perspective, a former roommate of mine has a Jindo that was bred in South Korea. Now, if we're going to subscribe to the "clouds of foreign policy expertise clustered around foreign hotspots" theory it would seem like we might reasonably expect there to be great roiling fogs of it throughout Korea. Seems like that dog ought to be up to speed on theories of deterrence, nuclear nonproliferation policy and the balance of power in Northeast Asia. Except, OH WAIT THAT'S NOT HOW SHIT WORKS! DOGS CAN'T TALK!

But seriously, I've spend a lot of time in planes, where the air is positively thick with aeronautical expertise. I still look out the window at the flaps and think "how quaint, the wings are moving." And I'm sure the world is just full of people who spend a significant portion of their days riding around in cars and have accordingly developed vast reserves of mechanical expertise. So let's be clear:


Wednesday, September 3, 2008

A Great Article

Ken Tremendous on Bruce Jenkins and his mediocre defense of complete games. However, in spite of Bruce's deeply retarded arguments, I still really enjoy watching a pitcher finish a game.

Since the general election is underway and Sarah Palin has provided numerous opportunities for me to rant about "foreign policy experience" I promise we'll get back to politics soon.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Well, Fuck.

[Homer and Bart are chasing the rolling rotisserie pig. It rolls through some bushes]
Homer: It's just a little dirty! It's still good, it's still good!
[the cart falls off the edge of a drainage culvert, and the pig floats down the stream]
Homer: It's just a little slimy! It's still good, it's still good!
[the pig reaches a dam at the end of the stream and plugs the drain hole. The water pressure builds up behind it, until it launches out of the hole into the air]
Homer: It's just a little airborne! It's still good, it's still good!
Bart: It's gone.
Homer: I know.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Worry-Filled Week

As we kick off the penultimate Yankees-Sox series, Yankees fans everywhere have to decide whether or not they're true fans. Although recent Yankee history has been filled with first round exits, the idea of missing the playoffs altogether is not one that they've had to face since before I had a single manly hair on my body. This series will separate the bandwagon fans from the bleeding pinstripes crowd.

In honor of this series, the good people at Bronx Banter have collected a number of articles about the history of the Sox/Yanks rivalry. Among those tales of heroes and villains I found this Pedro Martinez quote. As much as I hate to admire an ex-Sock, current Met, this is probably the right way to look at George Steinbrenner:

Martinez replied, "He'll probably buy the whole league. But not my desire and not my heart. He's not going to put any fear in my heart."

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Yankee Doodle Dandy at the Deadline

In a daring midnight raid, we at FTB have obtained secret audio recordings from the inner sanctum of Steinboro, the secluded underground palace of the Steinbrothers. Our team of trained monkeys labored in bananaless conditions for over 12 hours to transcribe them for your reading pleasure:

Hal: After years of feigning weakness, we have lulled our enemies into a false sense of security. First there was our inspired scrub out against the Indians in the ALDS, codenamed Operation: Kenny Lofton's 25 Bitches. Then we dumped Joe Torre overboard, but not before filling the water with chum. Finally, we opted to pass on Johan Santana and stick with The Big Three--if you square them, you get their ERA! Now we make our move! (cackling)

Hank: (smoking) Brian, have you purified yourself in those fuckin' oils yet? Those midwestern types won't jaw with you unless you've nanced yourself up a bit. They like their New Yorkers a bit whiffy, you know. Confirms all their fuckin' prejudices. 

Brian: Yes, my lords. I am prepared to depart for Pittsburgh to do your bidding.

[Unfortunately, we were not able to place an agent at the meeting in western PA, but our sources indicate that Brian Cashman was able to call in some markers. A posse may have been involved, but reports are spotty. We were able to insert a small recording device into Brian Cashman's lapel when he brushed up against us in a familiar manner on the 4 train on his way to Detroit.]

Brian: Now I know what you're thinking. You're thinking "why is he holding a bag of poop?" But watch... Look! It's on fire! And this is no ordinary bag of poop--it will burn for a thousand years and light your diamond from a cheery perch atop the pitcher's mound. Now in return for this fecal miracle we ask for only one thing: that washed up 'roid-rod you keep behind the plate. In return, I give you my word--my word, mind you--that this poop will burn forever, and that you will never be left holding a bag of slightly charred offal at some point in the near future. What do you say to that, gentlemen?

(Loud yelling and whooping, cries of "Long Live the Poo!" and--faintly--the sound of Kyle Farnsworth weeping into his hands.)

Cashman's put together a real contract year, folks. Marte, Nady and iRod for some blocked prospects and a relief pitcher who's name inspires a shiver of hatred throughout the Yankees Universe (TM).

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog

If I may direct your attention away from the stupid, stupid All-Star Game (bite me, AL), there is some major shit going down on the internet. As Serious Newscaster Man intones in the preview for The Happening, "There appears to be an event happening here."

Joss Whedon has released what's sure to be hailed as one of the top supervillain internet musicals of the last five years. Joss Whedon + supervillains + Doogie Howser + singing = ?? I challenge you to fill the right side of that equation with anything that is not largely synonymous with "OMGAWESOME."

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along
Blog stars Neal Patrick Harris as the titular low-rent mad scientist, working out of a shabby apartment/lair with his nefarious-yet-helpful roommate Moist ("You need anything dampened? Or made soggy?"). He's intent on joining something called the Evil League of Evil, but as of yet their leader Bad Horse ("He rules the League with an iron hoof!") hasn't responded to his application. Also, he's in love with and nerdishly stalking a woman at the local laundromat. Adorably/creepily, he's invented a freeze ray which he sings can "stop the world" so he can "find the time to find the words" to win her heart. He's like a sad, evil puppy dog, and it's hard not to root for him. Especially once you meet his nemesis: the preening, macho hero Captain Hammer (played by Whedonite Nathan Fillion), whose costumes seems to consist of nothing but a pair of comically over-sized gloves and a shit-eating grin.

Anyway, it's ridiculously wonderful, and sure to get better from here. Act I is online now, with Acts II and III to premiere over the next several days. Seriously, watch it. If you liked the Buffy musical (which you almost certainly did, as From the Balcony readers are known for their discerning-yet-geeky taste) you will laugh. Then you will say "Awww," when Doogie looks at laundry-chick with those evil puppy eyes. And then you will laugh some more. The show opens with Dr. Horrible practicing his mad scientist cackle, then explaining that it's just a work in progress, and he's been working with a vocal coach. If that doesn't appeal to you, then you just don't have a human soul.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Good points all around about Bonds. As I type this, the All-Star Game has entered the 14th inning and the AL has only one pitcher left: our very own Scott Kazmir! The same light-out lefty who has a 3.04 ERA and 91 strikeouts in 83 innings this season! *sob*

[UPDATE: Kazmir just got out of the top of the 15th inning. AL has no pitchers left, and Barry Bonds will swap caps with Mr. Met before he comes out for another inning.]

Anyway, I would like turn your attention to women's golf. Yes, I am serious. Jemele Hill over yonder at ESPN's Page 2 has written an interesting article on Michelle Wie and the state of women's golf. Michelle Wie is of course the (former?) golf prodigy who took the amateur circuit by storm by winning a major tournament when she was only 13 years old. The last few years have not bee kind to her. She has never won a professional women's tournament since leaving the amateur ranks in 2006. In 2007, Wie withdrew mid-game from a LPGA tournament and was heavily criticized by Annika Sorenstam, who questioned her professionalism and respect for other golfers.

Wie's been struggling to find her swing ever since. She withdrew from Stanford University this year to focus full-time on golf, but hasn't made the cut in any major tournament. On the other hand, she is 19-years old now and pervy men everywhere have the green light to consider her hot.

Meanwhile, as Hill points out, other young female golfers are rising up to take her place as the poster girl of women's golf. Most notably Cheyenne Woods, niece of Tiger Woods, is dominating the junior amateur circuit.

Okay, this is all fine and good, but do I really care about women's golf? No. So why am I bringing all this up and boring you half to death? Because of a question Hill poses at the end of her article. Hill blames Wie's recent failures on her quick rise to the pro ranks. The other young golfers such as Woods built up their resumes one amateur tournament at a time, going pro once they were ready. Wie, by contrast, was so talented that she basically skipped straight to the pros - and has floundered because she did not develop her skills properly.

Why did she go so fast? Hill blames Wie's father, who served as her manager and caddie, for trying to make the quick buck:

"Certainly no one can blame Wie for accepting the millions Nike and others supplied. But if you're Wie, which would you rather have right now, another seven-figure check or the promise of a meaningful career?"

Way to fuck up a great article, Hill. $30 million??? How can you possibly blame Wie for going for the quick bucks? Wie has set up herself and her family for a generation. Wie is not the archetypal basketball prodigy who declares for the draft too early and flounders out, getting drafted in the second round, and disappearing from the game soon after. She already made more than most women pro golfers make in their entire careers. And hell, she's only 19 years old! Even if she never makes another dollar from golf again, Wie can most certainly go ahead and have a 'meaningful career' in whatever she wants.

She's smart too! She went to Stanford! She's already accomplished two things on every Korean parent's wish list: gold championship and Ivy-equivalent school. Maybe floundering in golf is the best thing that could happen to her. She can go forward now and complete the Asian trifecta by becoming a doctor or a lawyer, and create even more parental pressure for Korean kids everywhere. You go, girl!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Update: Who Needs Him?

Eight wins in a row. Who needs Bonds when you have the illustrious Fernando Tatis?

The Mets are like tuna. I love it when they're on a roll.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Ooh, can From the Balcony use its crazy chameleon magic to turn into a Mets blog now?

Much like you did with Young, I must acknowledge your larger point while arguing with your logic. By the numbers, Bonds would be a terrific acquisition for the Mets. Ask yourself this: are you more confident with Alou or Endy in left? Alou looks pretty rickety out there, but plug him into the lineup and it suddenly starts to look a lot like a meat grinder. Alou seems like a less and less of viable option, and if Bonds can replicate his 2007 season (admittedly a big if), he's an even better hitter than Moises. With Beltran zooming around center on his motorcycle we can afford a left fielder without range. Even better, unlike all the other sluggers on the market, he doesn't cost us anything (besides cash, and possibly not THAT much). I love Endy like a brother, but he doesn't offer too much with the bat. Bonds' stellar offense more than offsets his horrid defense. The Mets sign Bonds and instantly become a better team.

So why don't I want them to do it?

Because if they did we'd have to have Barry Bonds on our team.

I see Bonds as a tragic, almost Shakespearean figure, a victim of his own character. I feared and admired him in his Pirate days. He was the best player I'd ever seen play the game. He had blazing speed, hit scorching line drives, and his eight gold gloves have something to say about your claim that he's always been a sub par fielder. He had a great baseball lineage, and there was no reason why his name shouldn't have gone down in history alongside the likes Mantle and Mays and DiMaggio.

Then there was McGuire, and suddenly everyone in America was weeping and rending their garments for the new Home Run King. Bonds had more talent in his pinkie toe than McGuire had in his whole fence swingin', strikeout lovin', grounder-bootin' body. But were people knifing each other in the stands over Bonds' home run balls? McGuire was the golden boy, and Bonds, the any fair measure the greatest player of his generation, was jealous.

So he shot crazy drugs up his ass until he turned into the loathsome, hulking knuckle-dragger we see before us today. He lost the ability to walk without hobbling, his head swelled up too big for his helmet, (also, presumably his balls have fallen off or something by this point) but man did he start pounding the fuck out of the ball. He hit more home runs than any body had ever hit before.


The press misses the point when they talk about the unfair advantage that steroids gave Bonds. The real story here is that steroids DESTROYED Bonds. Because we celebrate flash over substance, the macho, fascist home run over real athleticism, our generation was denied an athlete for ages. Mention Mickey Mantle in a room of older people, and somebody will smile and say, "I saw him play." When we're sitting in our rocking chairs and somebody mentions Bonds we'll shake our heads and say, "I saw him wither." Kids watching the game today don't even know what Bonds used to be. That's how we'll remember him -- the sickly, musclebound freak, smacking dingers, yawning in the outfield and failing to run out pop ups. All because he wanted the applause we gave to McGuire.

And that's why I don't want Bonds on the Mets. Because he's depressing. Even in his diminished state he's probably an upgrade over Endy, but I don't want a left fielder that I can't look at without thinking about the corrosive aspect of the American dream. That's the opposite of why I watch baseball. Also, Bonds is a pretty big douchebag, and I only support douchebags if they are already on the team and have achieved the status of Beloved Douchebag. (See: Paul Lo Duca.)

But seriously... Young thinks we should sign Bonds because the crazy media circus will help us somehow? That is CUH-RAZY. Even for a sportswriter.
It is now July 10th and Barry Bonds is still unemployed.

This is not ot surprising, of course, considering his legal woes. Still, Bonds and his agent are confident that he will play this year. He's been working out at his secret mountain lair and select scouts have been invited to come see what a 44-year old baseball superfreak can do. So who will sign this man?

How about the Mets? That's what Eric Young, former ballplayer and current ESPN analyst, suggests in his Baseball Tonight Clubhouse post. Now now, stop laughing hysterically and put away that syringe and straight-jacket. The man did hit 28 home runs in 126 games last year - with the season halfway done, David Wright leads the Mets with only 17 bombers. So he'd help out with the power numbers. Bonds also posted an outworldly on-base percentage of .480 with 132 walks: mmmm, yummy RBI's!

Okay, so there is an intelligent case to be made for Bonds. Mr. Young's argument, unfortunately, is anything but. A cardinal rule in baseball is that its analysts are dumb and uninformed - the "Joe Morgan Rule", if you will. So let's have at it.

First, who are the Mets?

"This is a team that has the talent to not only win the National League East, but to run away with it. I believe the best way for this team to do that may be by making one more big headline this summer. That would be by signing Barry Bonds."

So far so good. The Mets have been a disappointment this year. Two years ago they came within one game of making to the World Series. Last year the team was visibly hungry for the title and maintained their NL East dominance throughout the season, except they infamously blew a 7-game lead to the Phillies with only 17 games left in the season. Just to give you a sense of how improbable this was, I remember convincing myself that everything was going to be fine because the Mets had 97.5% chance of making the playoffs with only one week to go. That was heartbreaking. This year, the Mets were flat coming out of the gate. They are hovering near .500 and have not been able to pull together a dominating stretch, despite the fact that they added the Best Pitcher on the Planet to the team.

Mr. Young, please continue:

"This is a move that would help this team in several different ways. First, this is a team filled with quiet guys who are having to deal with the circus that comes with playing in New York. The signing of Bonds would put all that pressure on him and allow the rest of this team to just play ball the rest of the season."

Duhrrrrr, what? Forget injuries, lack of clutch hitting, mistakes on the field, and the continuing implosion of the bullpen. The Mets are not playing well because of the New York media circus. This is a common charge. Anytime a New York athlete or team fares poorly, it's always because of the big scary wolves of the New York dailies are ripping on them for every single decision... especially when the bile and hatred is richly deserved.

Mr. Young's solution: bring in Bonds as the patsy! The man is hated so much already by the fans and the media that all the boo-birds of Shea Stadium will target their shit-bombs on Barry's ginormous head. Reporters will flock post-game to Bonds and grill him on his pending criminal charges, giving Wright, Reyes, Beltran and crew the chance to tip-toe their way out of the lockerroom and make a getaway on the team bus.

But how will Bonds contribute, besides as a decoy?

"Second, this gives the Mets not only the most potent offense in the National League, but in all of baseball. The Mets could trot out a lineup that started out like this: Jose Reyes, Luis Castillo/Damion Easley, Carlos Beltran, Bonds, David Wright and then Carlos Delgado. In the later innings, they could pull Bonds for Endy Chavez, a better defensive outfielder who could also help rest Bonds' knees."

That Castilo/Easley platoon sure is fearsome, no? Nah, I won't criticize Mr. Young too much on this point. That line-up sure sounds scary. The good news: Reyes is on track to post his career-best numbers and Wright is one the last stage of his metamorphosis into God. Beltran is Beltran: quitely racking up the number while playing excellent defense at center.

No, the real problem with the line is that old age has taken its toll on the veterans. Alou is out until god-knows-when, and Delgado completely fell off the wagon. The 2008 Mets are exhibit #1 for the theory that when you gamble with veterans, be prepared for the worst. Bonds will turn 45 sometime this season. He's not the kind of player who can take to the field every day.

The real flaw in Mr. Young's analysis, however, is that he completely omits defense. Baseball analysists (or at least TV analysts) bring in defense only when they want to hype up a player - the Derek Jeter Syndrome, if you will - and leave it out entirely when it leads to inconvenient conclusions. Let me say it loud and clear: Bonds is a terrible outfielder. His defense was always sub-par, but at this point he can't run, he can't dive, and he could never throw very hard. Expect flyballs to drop in the outfield like M.I.R.V. warheads falling on Soviet cities.

The Mets cannot afford Bond's defense, of all the teams out there, because our whole strategy for winning depends on outfield defense. We spent hundreds of millions of dollars on flyball pitchers and Gold Glove outfielders to take advantage of Shea's spacious outfield: Johan Santana, Pedro Martinez, and Olivier Perez give up flyballs, and Endy Chavez and Carlos Beltran turn 'em into outs. That's Mets baseball. That's the highest flyball-to-out defense efficiency in the league. That's how we win.

So yeah, we might not want to add a doorstop to the outfield and hope and pray and cringe everytime the ball heads to the leftfield. Bonds will find gainful employment somewhere, to some other team with loads of cash mired in mediocrity (ahem, the Yankees). But he won't be wearing the blue and the orange anytime soon.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Words of Wisdom

"The only choice for the final roster spot on the 2008 American League All-Star Team is Jason Giambi. He not only represents the great Yankees dynasty previously led by the likes of Reggie Jackson -- the father of the mustache in modern-day baseball -- but Giambi represents the hopes and dreams of the previously downtrodden mustached American, a breed that was on the U.S. Endangered Species list as recently as 2005. Clearly, the voting public must take into account Giambi’s powerful lip fur, as it signifies great intellect, good looks, and the ability to stare down the most powerful of martial arts gurus." -- The American Mustache Institute

Monday, June 30, 2008

An Ode to the B-Movie [Part 1]

We'll come out and admit it: having passed the quarter century mark, we here at FTB can't help but feel a twinge of that "they don't make 'em like they used to" feelin'. We feel this most acutely when thinking about the movies and cartoons of our childhood.

The Early Filmography of Arnold Schwarzenegger: In addition to boasting the highest governor to actor ratio of any movie, many of Arnold's early adventures in film possess a schlocky grandeur that you'd be hard pressed to find in the modern cineplex. I'd be a lot happier in life if I could revisit these scenes at least once a day:

-Commando: "Remember when I said I'd kill you last? I lied." An early classic, and an example of what would become a defining feature of Arnold's career.

-Any scene in Total Recall in which someone's face bugs out due to the martian atmosphere. Scared the shit out of me when I was six, and I still get a little bit of a thrill whenever I see it. Honorable Mentions--the prostitute with three boobs (three boobs!) and one of the earlier Arnold one-liners: "see you at the party, Richter" while holding Richter's severed arms. Michael Ironside, our movie-going lives are poorer without you.

-Predator: In many ways, Predator is the perfect storm of 80's B-moviemaking. Rugged manly men in the jungle, plenty of stereotypes, Carl Weathers, minimal character development, just the right amount of primitive special effects, and plenty of blood. Although Arnold is a little light on the one-liners in this movie, the rest of cast carries him along with lines like, "I'll bleed you, real quiet" and "It'll make you a sexual tyrannosaur."

-The Running Man: The dystopian future is a popular topic for filmmakers and Blade Runner, Logan's Run, Death Race 2000 stand as testaments to its powerful attraction. However, there will always be a special place in my heart for Ben Richards, the conscience burdened pilot who refuses to bomb a food riot. After being framed by his government for his recalcitrance, our noble savage is forced to play a hellish gameshow to earn his pardon or die trying. In addition to featuring Jesse Ventura as the cowardly Captain Freedom, The Running Man moves in a structure familiar to all children of the 80's--plot development, problem solving, boss fight--life as understood through Megaman 2.

-The Last Action Hero: Arguably my favorite Arnold flick, it's hard to imagine a movie of his that so effectively combines schlock, self-referential humor, and genuine pathos. It gently pokes at the formulaic nature of Arnold's performances while including just enough heart to keep the audience engaged.

The closest we have come an heir to Arnold is the Rock (or "Dwayne" as he now fancies himself), who strayed from his promising early ventures (The Rundown, The Scorpion King) into family-friendly fare, which was certainly not the Game Plan (a-hyuck!) I had in mind. So take some time to watch or revisit the inimitable Schwarzenegger of the 80's and early 90's.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The world is one fucked-up place.

This is the lesson that I have learned from law school. Place millions of strangers into a region, leave them free to interact with each other, and call it a society. You are bound to find that the most horrifying, tragic, and unlikely events will become the norm.

A "dwarf" woman was arrested last week for pimping out a 15-year old runaway. Clients paid $250 per sex-session and $100 for oral sex services. When interviewed, her neighbors "were not surprised by the arrest": one Reginald Ford told CBS News, "I didn't know she was a pimp, but I'm not surprised." (Ed: Reginald? Bubbles?!?)

Let that soak in for a while.

He wasn't surprised? Why not? Did this woman flash jewelry and wear purple suits? Was she known in her community as a person of unscrupulous morality? If so, how? Did the reporter walk around her neighborhood asking, "Sir, could you kindly tell me what you think about this woman? In your opinion, is she a pimp?" Questions, people, questions!

Cases like this are sadly commonplace. Not the physical deformity part - rather, the runaway turning to tricks. The lady pimp here is in a world of trouble. On top of promoting and soliciting prostitution, she has been charged with child endangerment.

What about aiding and abetting rape?

We all know (or should know) that having sex with a minor is a crime. What many people do not know, however, is that it is a strict liability crime. This means that anyone who has sex with a minor is guilty of a crime, regardless of whether the minor consented, looked old, or even lied about age.

As far as I know, no one has been charged with rape for having sex with a minor prostitute. Of course, it is already a crime to patronize prostitutes, and in New York the severity of the punishment rises when the sex worker is a minor. However, there is a strange wrinkle in the law: while it is a more serious crime to obtain the services of underage prostitutes, it is an affirmative defense that buyer "did not have reasonable grounds to believe that the person was less than the age specified." (See, New York Penal Law
s. 230.07)

Just to be clear, a 45-year old man who has sex with a 15-year girl who lies to him about his age can be convicted of a felony, but the same man can buys a 15-year old runaway might be guilty of only the 'vanilla' prostitution charge (a misdemeanor) if the girl "looked old".

Let's not dwell on this any longer. This is what happens when the governor of the state acts the pimp and ends up resigning in disgrace.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

RIP George Carlin, 1937-2008

Rest in peace, you glorious bastard. Enjoy life in comedy heaven, getting wasted with Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce while making Mitch Hedberg your bitch.

And above all, have a nice day.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Silver Jews: Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea

I saw David Berman headlining at the Pitchfork Music Festival two years ago. He was in the midst of the first tour of his two-decade career, and the adoring throng in Chicago's Union Park may well have been the largest audience he'd ever faced. He took the stage nervously, stumbling a bit and carefully placing a folder of what looked like hand-written lyrics on a music stand in front of him. He mumbled and stuttered his way through “Albermarle Station” and a couple of other forgettable songs, each of which was met by thunderous applause from an extremely supportive, forgiving crowd. He finally found his voice on "Trains Across the Sea," intoning the lyrics hypnotically as the El went rattling by and the sun dropped into the water behind the bandstand. By his last encore, he seemed supremely confident, embellishing his deadpan croon with playful phrasings and ornaments. David Berman, who has gotten more lyrical mileage out of physical and spiritual discomfort than anyone this side of Lou Reed, sounded downright at ease.

Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea
, released today on Drag City, sounds like it was made by this fitter, happier Berman, with all the good and bad that implies. The change is one of tone, more than content. All the Silver Jews ingredients are there -- esoteric, viciously sarcastic lyrics wedded to cracked, off-kilter country rock, the acidic, somewhat tuneless baritone. But Berman's albums have often luxuriated in their own unfinishedness, the ramshackle, messy quality that lent them their immediacy -- this is the first that sounds finished. Polished, even.

Which is not to imply there's anything slick or complacent about the songs -- "Aloysius, Bluegrass Drummer" explodes out of the gate with a drum-roll and a frantic piano riff and refuses to cool as Berman sneers his way through a vengeful, twisted little romantic comedy. And I don't even mean that the songs sound happier -- "Suffering Jukebox", a heartrending lament for a neglected jukebox in a dingy bar, has to be one of the saddest songs ever written about an inanimate object. It floats in on a cloud of pedal-steel smoke that sounds like a cliché until you realize that it perfectly expresses the deadening misery of a life spent repeating the same old lines to distracted drunks. ("They never seem to turn you up loud, there are a lot of chatterboxes in this crowd.") "My Pillow is the Threshold" begins as a romantic lament from a guy who can only be with a girl in his dreams, then turns out to be about suicide ("Now I'm here for good, I won't leave you anymore,") -- a fact that only becomes clear in the last moments, when the mindless drone of the deep bass rises to overwhelm the song, illuminating a frightful foreboding that's been hidden in the music all along, somehow just beyond our notice like the twist that ends the slasher movie. So when I describe Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea as "polished," I'm not referring to the sound or the content -- I mean that it sounds less like a desperate cry from the center of Berman's soul than an artfully conceived, well-crafted record.

The album is filled with idiosyncratic story-songs, which have never before been the Silver Jews' favored mode of expression. “San Francisco B.C.” is a brilliant, cinematic caper involving a jewelry heist, a murdered barber and a mysterious Oriental named Mr. Games. “Party Barge" is the heroic tale of, well, a party barge and the Coast Guard that tries in vain to shut the party down. (That song features a great call-and-response bit between the barge-partiers and the cops.) There are no devastating, laid-bare Berman tracks, no “Dallas” or “Pet Politics” to be found here, and it would be easy to shrug the album off, concluding that Berman does his best work when his life is on fire. Instead, he takes on a more writerly voice, exploring characters and ideas rather than his own personal pain. The razor-wit is there -- even a Silver Jews-by-numbers song like “Strange Victory, Strange Defeat” can contain a wonderfully sharp couplet like "What's with all the handsome grandsons in these rock band magazines? And what have they done with the fat ones, the bald and the goatee'd?" -- the miserablism has just been leavened slightly.

But, to my ears, there's always been something slightly redemptive about Berman's music. Something he glimpsed out beyond the despair -- beauty or light or even death -- that made all the doom and gloom at least halfway worthwhile. Even great downers like "Smith and Jones Forever," about glue-sniffing killers sentenced to the electric chair, have a grandiose quality -- not by way of apologia, but by way of sincere commitment to the story of these born losers who disappear into a self-destructive holocaust entirely of their own making. The story is nihilistic in the extreme, but the portrait is humanizing, even slightly touching. There’s warmth, empathy behind all the misanthropic sarcasm, and it’s clearer on this album than ever before.

Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea
closes with "We Could be Looking for the Same Thing," a heartsick plea for love -- derivative, familiar and entirely unclever, but moving just the same. We're reminded that behind all the wordplay and mystery, behind the prophetic junkie persona, the fundamental reason we connect with Berman's albums might be that we share his exquisite sense of longing and the hope -- the tattered, distant, extremely Jewish form of hope -- that tinges all the despair. Berman is who he is because he's able to affect us even when he comes before us with no tricks and no tools. Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea is the first Silver Jews album that has ever left me feeling bright, even uplifted. Whether we call that breaking new ground or losing his edge says less about Berman than it does about you and me.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Shearwater: Rook

Okkervil River leapt to quasi-fame last year with the release of The Stage Names, an album chronicling the miseries, frustrations and rare pleasures of life on the indie rock's B-list. The Stage Names debuted to rapturous critical praise and sold over 10,000 copies in its opening week. Last month, keyboardist and multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Meiburg announced he was leaving Okkervil River to focus on the Shearwater, a project he co-founded with OR lead singer Will Sheff. (Sheff is no longer with the band.) Just as a rising tide was carrying all ships, Meiburg decided to jump overboard and make haste for the ocean floor. It's an admirable decision, one that officially declares that Shearwater is nobody's side project.

Their new album, Rook, makes it clear why Okkervil River's direction didn't jibe with Meiburg's vision. Instead of the solid, meaty songwriting, the clever lyrics and catchy choruses in which Sheff specializes, we have an album made up of bits and pieces, ebbs and floes of incidental noise and repeating loops -- not a sing-along in sight. It's less than six degrees away from melancholy cocktail party music -- for a moment it's tempting to dismiss the album as lovely sonic wallpaper, the sort of pretty, fragile snoozer that bands like Iron & Wine and Death Cab for Cutie churn out by the dozen. The first track, "On the Death of the Waters," is delicate, haunting, and barely audible -- it would fit comfortably on any number of lesser indie rock records -- until a deafening hi-hat crash, discordant horn blast and manic keyboard arpeggio rip unexpectedly through the quiet. Before long the volume falls out and we're left only with a distant tinkling piano, but notice has been served -- this will not be another album to fall asleep to.

The opener is immediately followed by the title song and single “Rook”, with its resolute percussion, and carefully enunciated vocals, understated yet confident, even commanding. The bridge is provided by a ominous trumpet sounding off in the distance somewhere -- an intruder from another song, come only to issue a few spacious brass notes of foreboding, then beat a hasty retreat back to the set of "For a Few Dollars More." Brimming with unexpected oddball moments like this, Rook is the rare album that that's quiet and mournful without once feeling lazy, predictable or detached.

Of course, all the starry-eyed abstraction can be a little much, and I sometimes miss the cinematic immediacy of Okkervil River. The lyrics are half balderdash, with a lot of psuedo-Keatsian rambling about falconers and leviathans, interrupted by sudden moments of startling, devastating directness. On "Home Life," when Meiburg sings "When you were a child you were a tomboy, and your mother laughed at the serious way you looked at her," the words feel much more lived-in and honest than all of his elliptical meditations on the natural world. (Meiburg is an ornithologist with a masters degree in geography, so his dedication to the land is at least genuine.) Mundane lines like these redeem all the poetry -- "Home Life" is an epic of nearly 8 minutes, and by the end, when the instruments begin to fall away and Meiburg sings "Horse without rider, lungs without breathing, day without light, a song without singing... a song," the words are both darkly frightening and warmly enveloping. The music is slinky and furrow-browed, and the singer sounds utterly lost. The poetry feels natural, not written, and we feel enraptured and alive, glad to be adrift in Meiburg's strange dream.

Ultimately, this effect of lyrical inconsistencies and shredded, patched-up songs feels less like a flaw than a unique vision. Rook is a troubled, difficult album, an album that resists intent listening and yet refuses to fade into the background. The way the soporific butts up against the electrifying in these etched-out, discordant lullabies creates the sense of twisting the radio knob on a dream. And if Meiburg’s radio-dreams are all of seascapes and archipelagoes, of birds plunging down through clouds that cling to salty cliffs -- Freudian clichés, to be sure, but lovely ones just the same -- we're no less lucky to be invited in through all that static, spume and spray.