Friday, September 25, 2009

Drivin 'N' Cryin: Great American Bubble Factory

Pop music vocals are odd things -- no one has any idea what makes them good. I love Craig Finn, Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, and Jello Biafra, none of whom can sing a lick. Why? I don't really know. I'd like to think it's that they sound personal or truthful or alive, but it's probably just that their tones resonate with something inside my skull. Either way, I won't argue about voices -- the ear has reasons that reason cannot know.

In other words, my problems with "Great American Bubble Factory" by veteran southern rock band Drivin 'N' Cryin are entirely my own -- I just don't like the way this dude sings. His name is Kevin Kinney, and he's still rocking the same adenoidal pop-punk-with-a-twang voice he debuted back in the mid-eighties.

In fact, Drivin 'N’ Cryin sound largely like they did in the Reagan era, aside from a little newly acquired and ill-fitting studio sheen. They're still skillfully mixing hard rock, folk, punk and country -- they're still singing about being broke and pissed, about American rust and spiritual rot. It worked a quarter of a century ago and it works now -- rather than frantically chase the moving zeitgeist, Drivin 'N' Cryin sat stubbornly in place, waiting for the clock to come back around to midnight. It did, and "Great American Bubble Factory" sort of serves as a makeshift concept album about the economic collapse, though its songs of struggle and disappointment, of one step forward and two steps back, could have come from any album in the DNC catalogue.

Though their jaundiced view of late-period capitalism is focused and unflinching, their music is very wide and versatile, wrapping its long arms around Skynyrd, Townes Van Zandt, KISS, the Cars, Brian Wilson, Springsteen and ZZ Top. The sounds can be scattershot, even a little incoherent, but the theme brings it all together. If it ultimately works it’s due to the force of Kinney’s vision, the underdog status he’s entirely earned through decades of trying and failing to bust out of the bar-rock C-list.

The album’s best moments are its unexpected touches: the pedal steel in "I See Georgia" tunelessly dragging down the fretboard, less a musical flourish than the howl of a dying animal; the ragged Beach Boys harmonies in "Get Around Kid"; the soulful and cheesy Eddie Van Halen guitar solos that first make you cringe and then, unexpectedly, move you a little. Even Kinney’s voice, which still bugs me, is undoubtedly his own, wholly unapologetic in its nasal flatness. There’s an stubborn insistence, a sort of sneering southern pride, and it somehow renders their anachronisms and unhip characteristics moot.

“Great American Bubble Factory” is a work of enormous personality and sincerity, a rueful opus trying hard to embrace a hopeless future. We need more art like this, and even if I can't say I really love the album I want to stand up in support of guys like Kinney, men with big battered hearts on their sleeves and hands white-knuckled on the wheel. In the face of an indifferent music industry and a starry-eyed Clinton decade, they adhered to their vision and stuck to their guns: by spending two generations standing perfectly still, Drivin 'N' Crying have somehow found themselves ahead of the game.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Willie Porter: How to Rob a Bank

Willie Porter is best known for his acoustic finger picking, and rightly so – his guitar lines are naturalistic, haunting, difficult and complex without ever turning into any of that boastful nonsense that gets labeled “shredding” or “chops.” He’s got a nice voice too, a rich, rueful baritone that’s both pliable and sturdy. He’s got a way with a simple melody, and his lyrics have an understated, restrained poetry. He brings all of these wonderful qualities to bear on his new LP “How to Rob a Bank,” and as I listened I was almost too busy admiring his craftsmanship to notice that I was kind of bored.

It’s hard to identify exactly what the problem is here, but somehow the record sounds less like an aesthetic object with its own internal life than a demonstration of Porter’s enviable talents. There's an unnecessary sheen to the recordings -- the treble is mixed too low, flattening the arrangements; the over-mixed bass lines are needlessly complex, distracting from the vocals, which sound too multi-tracked. Aural richness is the order of the day, and while it works wonderfully for mellow meditations like the rueful "Learning the Language" or the dreamy ditty "The Lemon Tree," most of Porter's lovely songs could stand to be stripped down, a little more rattle and a little less hum. The harmonies are always pretty, but they're overused. This MOR production doesn't do justice to the organic looseness of these songs, the bluesy honesty of Porter's vocals. Porter needs a producer who isn't afraid to get a little mud on his boots

The best songs are the ones that don't sound so goddamned nice. "How to Rob a Bank," the one legit folk song on the record, steals its sound and content shamelessly from Woody Guthrie -- get a seat on the board of directors is the answer to "how" -- and yet it's the most original and unpredictable track on the record. Something about this cute little throwaway homage loosens Porter, relaxes his pretty voice into a charming chuckle, and the production follows suit, stripping away the stodgy, lulling bass, burping open the tupperware, letting things jangle. Porter must have known he was on to something here – he named the album after the song, and the title promises a much more thrilling ride than it delivers.

I'm picking nits here, only because I think that Porter has a considerable talent, and I hate to see it wasted in albums designed as showcases for his pretty singing and virtuosic guitar playing. It's an easy trap for highly gifted yet traditional-minded musicians to fall into -- precision and clarity become the watchwords, instruments are overdubbed half to death, and you end up with a lot of prettiness and not a lot of life. The music is pressed behind glass.

I don't mean to imply that Porter is just another skillful adult-rock sleepwalker, even if elegantly arranged snoozers like the album closer "Barefoot Reel" might sound that way. There's something vital in his melodies and his guitar lines, and here and there some urgency emerges through the mellow haze that obscures what could have been a terrific album. His lyrics are poetic and searching, as in “Too Big to Sell,” his melancholy ode to the European painters who’ve inspired him. “They broke all the rules and they gambled on love,” he sings of Monet, Rosseau, Van Gogh. But all of those artists were reaching for something invisible and uncanny, something somewhere outside of their grasp. There’s always a price for this kind of hungry and restless ambition – poverty or depression or addiction or an ear – but these artists were willing to pay it. Willie Porter, singing and strumming away inside his comfortable wheelhouse, would do well to heed their example.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Final Thoughts on District 9 [Spoilers]

After a consultation with Dr. Teeth, I've decided to post a few more thoughts on District 9. First and foremost, I want to talk about how great it is to see the moribund science fiction genre getting a facelift. I'm tempted to locate the start of this trend around the 2002 Soderbergh remake of Solaris. Solaris, a 4 hour, thoroughly impenetrable Tarkovsky film from the 1970s, was a pretty huge project to take on. The 2002 remake flopped, but the fact that it was made at all may have been indicative of renewed interest in the genre.

Since then we've had a run of decent-to-great scifi movies: 28 Days Later, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Shaun of the Dead, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Serenity, War of the Worlds, Children of Men, Sunshine, Cloverfield, Star Trek IX, Moon, and District 9.

I want to single out Sunshine and District 9 here, because they share a very important similarity: they both fall down on their premise.

The first half of Sunshine is compelling because the crew has so little agency. They're constantly reacting to the latest disaster thrust on them by an uncaring solar system, and that struggle to survive (and concurrent emotional/social accommodations the crew must make) is what keeps the audience involved. Then, inexplicably, they introduce an implausible malefactor into the mix. Not only is it unnecessary, it at odds with the entire tone of the movie up to that point. The change is jarring enough that it takes the audience entirely out of the flow of the movie, resulting in unpleasant metacommentary: why doesn't this dude have any skin and why God why would that make him super-strong?

District 9 also includes some strange shifts in tone. The movie begins as a documentary, and we're introduced to the setting through interviews with experts, witnesses, and of course, Wikus. At some point, however, it becomes impossible to tell the story in documentary form. Wikus goes off the grid and the movie shifts dramatically in tone, becoming an action/adventure flick. That wouldn't be a problem, except that D9 then reverts back to a hybrid format of news/documentary for the final 10-20 minutes. It's an odd choice, as it draws attention to the abrupt shifts in tone without really adding all that much to the movie. The final moments of the movie use documentary interviews to ask really obvious questions (basically, "will there be a sequel?") and tie up a few loose ends. A side effect of this choice is that we lose some of the immediacy of the action (it turns out that a guy tearing shit up in an alien battlesuit is less compelling when seen from a helicopter and framed by a chyron) and the questions posed by the talking heads are glaringly obvious--I'm not sure we needed them asked directly into the camera.

Klosterman Revisited

A long time ago, I wrote something critical about Chuck Klosterman. You can't slag on soccer like this without agitating the blogosphere:

To say you love soccer is to say you believe in enforced equality more than you believe in the value of competition and the capacity of the human spirit. I would sooner have my kid deal crystal meth than play soccer.

Today, while I remain sentimentally attached to the term "Klosterfuck," I'm man enough to admit that I didn't have all the information. I recently finished reading Fargo Rock City, Klosterman's ode to the metal bands of the 1980s.

Fargo Rock City has two things going for it. First, it's sincere. CK is responding to the retrospective condemnation heaped on his childhood heroes by a critical establishment that neither appreciates nor understands the joys of brainless rock and roll. Occasionally that defensive posture leads him into dangerous waters, as it does when he clumsily tries to argue that 80s metal wasn't sexist. The strongest part of the book is the epilogue, where he grapples with the subjectivity of music criticism and the way that same tendency skews his own work.*

That's the second thing that makes the book great. Chuck's voice is so strong that you're always aware that these are his thoughts. To his credit (and in marked contrast to the soccer quote above) he never dresses them up with sham objectivity. In other words, there's room for disagreement without having to defend your position on "enforced equality" or other bullshit terms. It's a fairly simple premise: Chuck Klosterman loves 80s metal and he's going to explain why. What you do with that is up to you.

*He also memorably trashes the idea that your revealed preferences as a 17 year old are indicative of some deeper truth of your being. When you were 17, you were a pain in the ass and that's about it.