Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Comic Review: Acme Novelty #20 (LINT)

The subject of “LINT” is Jordan Wellington Lint, a previously minor character in Chris Ware‘s universe, last seen as a high school bully tormenting Rusty Brown back in Acme Novelty #16. Lint is a person of little consequence -- just a dude muddling his way through the complexities and disappointments and pleasures of the standard-issue human life: big dreams that fizzle and fade, replaced by smaller joys of work and family; lust, love, marriage, divorce; a successful career eventually marred by scandal and greed. Jordan is kind of a prick -- cocky, self-pitying, impulsive, mendacious -- but it’s nothing of great note, and I can discern no real point that Ware is making about Lint’s personality. He’s just telling his story, with great compassion and care but an unflinching and pitiless eye, no rooting interest whatsoever.

There’s a wonderful tension between the towering ambition that Ware brings to this project and the smallness of the story it tells. There’s no high drama, no intrigue -- everything is pitched at the level of the kitchen sink. But Ware gives every ounce of his dizzying talent to Lint’s little life, entirely breaking down the barriers between word and image, scene and sensation, trying his damndest to write the human experience from the inside out. His pages don't read from left to right -- they branch off in multiple directions, wrap back around, contradict themselves. They are obsessively detailed pictograms of the way the mind works: in associations, reflections, digressions, fixations. They aren’t scenes, they’re memories, and in one of the book’s main plot points we realize that they are often wrong.

Frozen moments are the medium here. Between Jordan’s birth on the first page and his death on the last, Ware captures hundreds of snapshots in between. The book’s title, LINT, is almost too apropos -- as time sweeps Jordan along we see the little fuzzy bits that cling to him: recollections, fading sensations, the ridiculous passions and meaningless instants gradually accumulating into a history, an identity held together, like all identities are, by nothing but spittle and memory.

A brand new driver's license; a low-riding muscle car; an incandescent blaze of searing of red light; "Starway to Heaven" blaring from the AM/FM radio. These elements all dance and intermingle on the page, sweeping you inexorably forward with an emotional rather than narrative thrust. Ware treats comics like a hieroglyphic code, a language for unlocking some unspeakable truth. Every memory, every sensation is depicted here as minimally as possible, boiled down into its essence: all the momentum, every thrum of surging teenage fervor captured in one spread as the car barrels down the empty highway and a sixteen-year-old Jordan gets his first taste of feeling like a man.

Chris Ware is regularly criticized for being gloomy and morose, and this book is certainly a dark and a sad one. Ware doesn’t seem particularly fond of his protagonist, and yet he’s the most fully realized character he’s ever created. Jimmy Corrigan was a cipher. Rusty Brown is a parody. Jordan Lint is the genuine article: a frustrating, utterly ordinary human. He’s not a hero with a tragic flaw. We don’t watch his downfall. He’s a guy who acts like a jerk half the time and we watch him win and lose money, lovers and friends, the stakes always relatively small. It’s a credit to Ware’s unremitting genius that such mundane material reads as impossibly vivid, alive and even thrilling. It takes a great insight and imagination to write neither kindness nor judgement, embracing the multitudes that even the most average person contains. The callous man who abandons his first family is the same little boy who hides in a closet and weeps over the death of an ant. In some sense these are formative and important experiences, but it often feels like they’re just the things he’s dragging behind him, barnacles clinging to his hull.

In Ware’s world life is just a bunch of stuff that happens, decisions made, consequences enjoyed or endured. Look for meaning and you’ll wind up frustrated -- Jordan Lint’s life is a bunch of sound and fury, signifying nothing. It meanders around, leading only and inevitably to the grave. But the breadth of humanity between the sensitive child hoping for a pair of stilts for his birthday and the sex-obsessed narcissist who sabotages himself at every turn is stunning and flawlessly imagined. “LINT” may be empty of meaning, but it’s full of truth.

I'm About to Shock the World...

...and post some content on this bloated corpse of what used to be a blog!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Why Can't We Be Friends?

This video speaks to the nature of this blog in a way nothing else does.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Vindication!

WSJ:
Contrary to popular belief, the Yankees are only the fifth-most despised team in the majors, according to an Internet algorithm built by Nielsen Co. that analyzes how people feel about certain things.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Fuck You, Curt Schilling

Seriously:

"I never, ever thought the move to New York the first time was a good one, and I didn't think this (move) was good as well. I don't think he suddenly learned how to pitch when he went back to Atlanta and dealt last year," Schilling said. "It's hard to say this without sounding disrespectful, and I don't mean it that way - the National League is an easier league to pitch in, period, and some guys aren't equipped to get those same outs in the American League. And he's one of those guys."

...

"(Vazquez) thrived in Montreal and he thrived in Atlanta, and those are both second-tier cities from a baseball passion perspective. He's not a guy that I've ever felt was comfortable in the glow," Schilling said. "... You're seeing what you're gonna get from him consistently all year. Having said that, he could turn around next week and throw a one-hitter with his stuff. I just don't see him being a consistent winner in the American League."

That being said, Javy has stunk up the joint. But we will not allow even our shittiest starting pitcher to suffer under the verbal lash of Curt "Ketchup Sox" Schilling.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Updating Fight Songs?

Over at Bats, the NEW YORK TIMES asks if it's time to re-write the fight songs for NYC baseball teams, then posts the lyrics to "Meet the Mets" and "Y.A.N.K.E.E.S." I don't know that they need a rewrite:

Meet the Mets

Oh, the butcher and the baker and the people on the streets,
Where did they go?
To meet the Mets!
Oh, they’re hollerin’ and cheerin’ and they’re jumpin’ in their seats,

Y.A.N.K.E.E.S.

Everyone knows they play to win, ’cause
They’re the New York Yankees.
Show them today why you’re the Yankees.
No other way when you’re the Yankees.
Revision seems unnecessary.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

WUT.

Joni Mitchell on Bob Dylan:
Bob is not authentic at all. He's a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception. We are like night and day, he and I.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Monday, April 5, 2010

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Metropolis: Annual Android Auction



One of the most aesthetically compelling music videos I've seen in a long time. It's less a video than a reflection on profoundly black themes: people as commodities, music as individual expression and collective longing, and dance as liberation. Worth your time.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Bootylicious



An incredible Erykah Badu video, where she takes off her clothes while walking around downtown Dallas. The captivating thing about the video isn't Badu's body, but the interplay between her need to project cool confidence and the evident discomfort and vulnerability on her face.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Meet the Mets?

The New York Mets apparently failed to check this Wikipedia article before doing irreparable, if hilariously ironic, damage to the phrase "written in stone."

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Monday, March 22, 2010

I Wish That I Could See You Soon

Herman Dune is trying SO HARD to be cute... and it's working, I kind of want to snuggle with him.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

She & Him: Volume Two

She is Zooey Deschanel, the indie-film dream-girl of ice-blue eyes and sardonic manner. Him is M. Ward, the singer-songwriter with the sepia-toned voice whose old-timey tunes sound like they ought to be broadcast through a phonograph cylinder. Together they created one the most delightfully unexpected musical treats of 2008, a relic of mellow 70s AM gold, blending rich girl group harmonies with fragile Laurel Canyon folk-pop. What looked like yet another movie star vanity record sounded instead like a lost classic by Carly Simon or Carol King. Deschanel’s untrained voice was pretty and blithe, straightforward and unpretentious yet little distant and mysterious. The songs on Volume One didn’t carry a lot of emotional charge -- they sort of added up to a long, breezy sigh -- but there was so much hazy prettiness in Ward’s Spector-like arrangements and so much warmth in Deschanel’s performance that it didn’t matter. The record was the soft summer wind that always carries traces of nostalgia and regret.

Now they’re releasing Volume Two, and I can’t help but wonder whether we really need another one of these things. It’s certainly not a bad record -- to the contrary, it’s bright and tender and catchy. But Volume Two is the right name -- it plays like the second half of a double album that ought to have been squeezed onto one disc. I'm okay with a little more of the same -- played in sequence on a blurry Sunday morning these albums give you time to make breakfast, do the dishes and half-heartedly fill out a crossword puzzle while you let your hangover fade. But enough already -- once the vintage charm wears off, it starts to feel repetetive and a little bit thin.

Ward has an unmatched ear for abandoned 20th century musical forms, and the ease with which he refurbishes late sixties/early seventies girl-pop is almost eerie. It’s certainly impressive, but after a few listens you start to wonder whether he might not be doing Deschanel’s songs a disservice; She & Him sometimes feels less like a band than an idea for a band, executed with astonishing precision. All the rough edges have been filed away. How about an angry song, or at least a fast one? Or a big weepy ballad? The She & Him aesthetic is a little too tasteful for such messy emotions -- everything has to be so understated and pleasant. It’s a weird thing to say about a record that sounds so organic and warmly textured, but I’ll be damned if there aren’t moments when it starts to feel a little processed and formulaic, particularly when viewed in its context as a second record of the exact same stuff.

Don’t get the wrong idea -- I like the way the record sounds. But two albums of this material is plenty. Deschanel has a voice of rare self-possession and grace and an easy way with a wry lyric -- Ward is one of the most talented producers, songwriters and musicians in the indie rock today. Their vision is charming and lovely and idiosyncratic, but their seemingly slavish devotion to their mission statement is starting to feel like an anchor on their talent. When you get this good at something, when you make it look this easy, that usually means it’s time to try something new.

Miley Cyrus and B.I.G.


There's a doctoral thesis in there somewhere.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Friday, March 5, 2010

Phantogram: Eyelid Movies

Apparently the atmospheric indie duo Phantogram hails from Saratoga Springs and records in a barn. I'll take their word for it, but few albums sound as California as their debut, Eyelid Movies. Stealing equally from Portishead, Massive Attack and Sonic Youth, the record evokes an inviting big-sky sunscape laced with underlying menace, like the state that counts Brian Wilson and Charles Manson as equal icons. The title fits -- these tracks are daydreams that trend uncomfortably towards the nightmarish. They're rich, lovely and alienating.

A lot of Phantogram's power lies in Sarah Barthel's ravishing vocals, which blend equal measures of syrup and cyanide into a wraith-like Beth Gibbons lilt. Despite a certain icy detachment in tone, her vocals can inhabit a wide variety of moods, from paranoid agitation to sensuous rapture. At her best she's siren-like: appealing, vulnerable and dangerous -- Little Red Riding Hood with sharp teeth all her own. She baits her hooks against a loosely trippy atmospheric background, and powers the songs with an almost off-handed melodic momentum.

I'd be tempted to call Eyelid Movies a trip-hop album, if it weren't for the fact that trip-hop is now a decade out of fashion and Phantogram sounds so unassailably hip. Josh Carter's immaculate production strips back the adornments and fuzzes things up. The dryly echoing three-note phrase that underpins “When I'm Small” – which so far has my vote for the greatest guitar riff of 2010 – is downtuned so low the pitch wobbles, ominously thunking out the rough-hewn foundation for their danceably dangerous single.

That guitar line exemplifies Carter's M.O. Instrumentally, Phantogram tends to favor thudding, monotonal drones that jerk themselves repeatedly upwards before being sucked immediately back down to the bass line (think the guitar line in the Velvet's "Waiting For My Man") played over repetetive breakbeat drum machine rhythms that pulse, double, drop in and out of the track. On paper it sounds dull, but in practice it's pretty hypnotic, thanks to the easy precision of the arrangements and Barthel's breathy lost-girl vocals. Eyelid Movies is trapped a constant push-and-pull between indulgence and minimalism, between the lush and the hushed. The record is dreamy and immersive, but Carter resists the urge to allow his arrangements to get too zonky or druggy or baroque and the result is an intriguingly spartan psychedelia.

The album starts to show its seams around the edges. Things slow down when Carter sings on his own -- his voice is nothing special, a sort of generically androgynous indie-rock mumble. "You Are the Ocean" has a haunting melody and a neurotic synth howling through the background like a car alarm -- it could have been a great track if Barthel were singing. At eleven songs, the record starts to blend together (though for an atmospheric album like this that may not be a bad thing). They tend to find a slicky eerie groove and run it into the ground, which is sometimes hypnotic and sometimes a little bit dull.

But all told, Eyelid Movies does what good albums ought to do: it fabricates a little musical universe, complete with its own weather (cold fog, blistering sun), settings (seedy clubs in the San Fernando Valley, the backseats of black cars), and moods (paranoia, sexual ecstacy, hungover ennui). And by the time you reach the final track, the surprisingly traditional piano ballad “10,000 Claps,” you'll be torn between the desire to linger there and the urge to see what new and uncomfortable places Phantogram might be able to take you.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Matt Pond PA: The Dark Leaves

Oh, competence! Sweet, dull, well-meaning competence -- you are Matt Pond's greatest virtue and you are the noose around his neck. Look what you have made of this man with a fine melodic ear and an admirable work ethic: you have rendered him catatonic. His pleasant, well-executed milquetoaste yup-folk can barely summon the energy to penetrate the stereo's speakers. Competence, your flawlessly inoffensive siren song has turned a human into a bran muffin.

Matt Pond PA will drive you to the airport. It will loan you twenty bucks when you're down on your luck. It will let you borrow its books and never bug you about returning them. But when you've got a good bottle pf whiskey and a long Friday night stretching out in front of you, it's not the band you call, unless you're looking for a designated driver.

Which is weird, because his new record The Dark Leaves is clearly supposed to be a cigarettes-and-Jack-Daniels kind of thing. From the eerily distorted pastoral scene on the cover to the darker lyrical content and the high school-level poetry in the press kit (in order to make this album Pond apparently "hacked off a piece of his own fate," whatever that means), it seems this album is supposed to be Pond's harrowing dark-night-of-the-soul Nick Drake moment. Instead, it's pretty much more of the same lush, tour-ready indie rock tunes that MPPA has been trafficking since they actually lived in PA.

That's not bad thing, exactly -- despite the almost toxic level of snark in the preceding paragraphs, I think Pond does what he does fairly well, and his work is just as good as or better than that of more famous analogues like Pete Yorn, Sondre Lerche and Badly Drawn Boy. He can construct a catchy mid-tempo shuffle better than most, and his simple pop melodies have an easy momentum buoying them. At his best he blends melancholy folk-rock with infectious, polished pop, as in the catchy opener “Starting.” "Specks" is a bright and hopeful love song with a melody so warm and sweet and pleasant that you want to take it home to meet your parents. "Sparrows" is driven by a jangling chord progression and shambolic tambourine, a chiming guitar solo, a memorably simple sing-along chorus, and a lot of sha-la-las. It's as unassuming as a song can get, and it's the most appealing thing on the record. There’s good stuff buried here and there among the dross, and more than one of these melodies might get stuck in your head.

But even the songs I’ve just praised feel somehow blank and flat. Pond’s strength is also his weakness. One one hand, he clings stubbornly to his radio-ready songwriting chops, unable to lay down his skills for even a moment, to let things bleed and seethe. On the other, he’s too melancholic and disaffected to embrace the transcendent possibilities of empty pop.

The real problem is that The Dark Leaves is a half-measure. Everything on it is somewhere in between. After all these albums, Pond still can’t decide what he wants to be – hell, he’s still got “PA” is in his name despite moving to Brooklyn. He ought to drop the love-sick poses or lose the studio sheen. Strip naked or cinch up his tie. Weep or exult rather than plod tunefully through mid-tempo expressions of his indecision. Anything else is unworthy of our time.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Literal Eclipse of the Heart

Warning: this level of hilarity is not for those of weak constitution.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Richie Lawrence: Melancholy Waltz

The songwriter and pianist Richie Lawrence is no newcomer to making records. He’s been sporadically employed as a sideman and session player since the late seventies, with mainstreams groups like the Tim Goodman Band and obscure acts like the theatrical polka act Rotondi. Now he strikes out on his own for the first time with Melancholy Waltz, a mellow singer-songwriter record, and the results are mixed.

His vocals make it immediately clear why he’s never tried to make it as a solo artist before. His voice is flat and dull, and the big, open notes he favors always seem slightly off key. He seems to know this, though, and compensates accordingly – nearly half the tracks are instrumentals, and he doesn’t challenge his vocal chords with tricky melodies or large intervals. This is very much an album by a pianist who happens to do a little singing and accordion playing.

It's hard to think of an album with a warmer, richer piano sound -- put on headphones and it begins to feel as though you're curled up inside the belly of that centenarian baby grand. His voice is too flat and dull to carry the singer-songwriter material, but there's a generosity of spirit in these creaky songs, and no lack of love lavished on the instrumental tones, the plaintive wheeze of the accordion, the easy leaning on weathered, sturdy old melodies. To his credit, he doesn't rely too heavily on his weak vocals, letting the Steinway do most of the talking in its fluent, graceful baritone. His playing is loose and wry, virtuosic but never boastful. The production is crisp and clear, but the songs are barrel-aged and smoky.

It's not a great album by any stretch of the imagination -- it's too predictable and pedestrian for that. But there is something here -- a deeply personal statement of melancholy serenity from a figure who's spent three decades lost on the backstreets and byways of the music industry. Now he's taking his turn in the spotlight, and even if he never quite seems like he belongs there, he stands in it bravely, offering up his unadorned voice and sweetly unpoetic lyrics, his elegant playing and his battered yearnings. Melancholy Waltz is not a particularly great album, but it is a particularly truthful one. And, listening to it now as I watch Philadelphia slowly disappear under a heavy blanket of snow, that seems like more than enough.

Monday, February 8, 2010

In Defense of Jennifer's Body

There's a place in cinema for the shameless roar of the crowd. The vengeful animus that motivates the characters in Inglorious Basterds is the rage born of a complicated, contingent existence shattered by unthinking violence. However, the movie self-consciously avoids engaging the interiority of the characters it presents, presenting them as cut-outs enacting the righteous judgment the Nazis so clearly deserve. (They're Jews, they hate Nazis. The end.) In that, it mirrors the process it depicts.

Jennifer's Body attempts a similar stunt. Like the Basterds, Jennifer has a perfunctory history, but remains a blank slate who isn't so much presented to as inflicted on the audience. And like the Basterds, Jennifer represents a revolt: a fantasy in which the powerless wield the very characteristic that makes the powerless against their oppressors.*

The feminine self as subject is more or less taboo in Hollywood. Women tend to be objects: foils or conquests, always occupying a position of dramatic subservience to men. When they are subjects, the roles fall within a safe rom-com definition of womanhood: marriage, fidelity, motherhood. Female characters that stray outside those boundaries are be demonized within the context of the film. Diablo Cody takes that trope to its absurd conclusion, offering us a female character who is hyper-sexual precisely because she's been turned into a demon. (The how and why of that development is the film's one moment of in-your-face self-awareness.) Notably, Jennifer is also a literal maneater--the male characters barely have time to wriggle out of their skinny jeans before she's chewing off their penis.

There's something refreshing in the lack of pretense.

Put another way, Juno--Diablo Cody's first movie--was erected atop an edifice of bullshit far more tortured than the one underlying Jennifer's Body. The main difference between the two is that Juno taps into our retrospective need to see our teenage selves as more aware, witty and hip than history might indicate. With its leaden dialogue, awkward sexuality, and petty drama, Jennifer's Body approaches the reality of adolescence far more accurately, and is arguably a worse movie because of it. If Juno is a paen to who we wanted to be in high school, Jennifer's Body is who we were.

*A point of clarification: this is not an attempt to draw an equivalence between "female roles in movies" and "Jews during the Holocaust." Rather, the point I'm trying to get at is that both movies trade in ill-defined characters whose main draw seems to be that they are powerful in the narrative in a way that is/was at odds with reality.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Rush: Working Men

Rush’s new Working Men is a really odd package – live albums are basically Greatest-Hits-Plus-Crowd-Noise already, and this live album is made of tracks culled from three previous live DVDs and albums, which I guess makes it a Greatest Greatest Hits DVD. Sure, there’s a previously unreleased track (“One Little Victory”), but that’s just another version of a song that’s been on multiple previous live records, and it’s almost indistinguishable from the existing versions. This is back-catalogue flogging and repackaging hoodoo of the highest order.

So who is this album for? Is it a primer for potential Rush fans, listeners who don’t want to leap headfirst into the thick of one of the other live albums, which are all two or three discs long? Is it meant to be a gift from bald-spot-and-ponytail uncles to their metalheaded nephews? That’s certainly the charitable view – the only other demographic I can think of is the small cult so slavishly devoted to Rush that they’ll buy a whole album just because it has a previously unreleased live version of a song they’ve already heard a million times, and marketing to those helpless completists seems almost like taking advantage of the mentally ill. Anyone who likes Rush probably has all these songs already. Anyone who doesn’t like Rush is probably not in the market for Rush products. This DVD could evaporate into thin air and nobody would care but a handful of crazy people.

Should I review the music? I’m tempted not to – it seems like that would be playing right into Atlantic Records’ moneygrubbing hands. Because, yeah, it’s Rush, the most committed power trio since Cream, and they sound pretty damn good, more or less just like they always did. Geddy Lee’s epic howling-chipmunk vocals are entirely undimmed by age, and the many close-ups on Alex Lifeson’s flurrying fingers show that his chops are sharper than ever. Rush are probably the catchiest, most radio-ready prog-rock band there ever was, and working the same style for three decades doesn’t seem to have diminished their joy or enthusiasm at all. There’s a cornily delightful visual appeal to the performance, and the arena-rock trappings – flashing strobe lights, smoke machines, lasers, moving video screens, Neil Peart’s nine-billion-piece drum kit – are at hilarious odds with the three aging music nerds in the middle, cranking up their gloriously precise din. But that’s always been part of Rush’s appeal – watching three nebbishy guys conquer the world with soaring math-rock. Thus, we have the fan-service instrumental close-ups, which are far more worthwhile and impressive than the same shots in concert footage of less virtuosic bands. It’s all in good fun.

There – Atlantic got me. I said a bunch of fairly nice things about this bald-faced cash-grab of a disc. But reader, don’t buy it. Save your money for the stuff Rush puts out on Roadrunner, their new label. If you simply must have it, I might suggest that there are, ahem, cost-free ways of obtaining the contents. If you spend money on this thing, you’re only encouraging the bastards and the bean-counters.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Birds & Batteries: Up to No Good

Birds & Batteries new EP Up to No Good is very seventies – not the familiar hemp-and-Zep era of revivalists like the Black Crowes and Kings of Leon, but the paranoid, coked-out decade of George Romero, Charles Manson and Travis Bickle. They marry jittery Funkadelic guitars to slick drum machine beats and jammy/experimental keyboard flourishes, then blend it all into some kind of ungodly apocalyptic disco. (Their touchstone is clearly Goblin, toward whose cheeseball soundtrack grandeur they aspire.)

The whole thing works better on paper than it does on the record. The EP is filled with some great bits and pieces – the gaspingly manic bass line of “Sneaky Times,” the chiming guitars that spiral down through “The Villain” – which don’t quite fit to form a compelling whole. If the album is a horror movie – which I think is what it wants to be – it’s a great setting, atmospheric cinematography, a few strong performances in search of story with some real scares.

The music is oversaturated and indulgent, though that's not really a criticism – they've clearly built an intentional aesthetic out of oversaturated indulgence. The problem, in fact, is that it’s not indulgent enough – they feel like they're holding back. Cracked-out stuff like this needs to be committed, the teeth need to grind and the pulse needs to jump. There's a slick detachment in the vocals that's probably supposed to be coldly ominous, but it's mostly just boring.

The kiss of death, in other words, and the reason the album doesn’t work for me is this: these guys sound sober.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Susan Boyle: I Dreamed a Dream

It's not so bad, really. Her voice is fairly pretty. The songs are mostly classics. The arrangements don’t drown everything in Splenda. It's not much -- it's a trifle. It is eminently listenable.

None of that can explain the following: Susan Boyle's I Dreamed a Dream was the best-selling album of 2009, and the best-selling debut for a female artist. Ever.

That is, in and of itself, far more interesting than any of the actual music. The album's just a showcase for Ms. Boyle's vocals, which are certainly nice, and surprisingly versatile, if a little dry and fluttery for my tastes. Bur I can't bring myself to believe that this pedestrian voice has sold over three million albums. It seems much more likely -- obvious, even -- that this is more about context than content. Ms. Boyle owes her astonishing success to one legendary viral video. (The album, hilariously, features an "as seen on YOUTUBE!" sticker.)

I hate to be ungentlemanly or crude, but a zeitgeist-defining rush of money and fame like this demands honest evaluation; Susan Boyle has gone multi-platinum thanks to her ugliness. It’s not extraordinary ugliness, just good old-fashioned fifty-something-lady-you-see-at-the-laundromat frump, but by the standards of the music industry that makes her some kind of loathsome, hunchbacked ogre. Like a funhouse-mirror reflection of a traditional pop star, she owes her success not to her talent but to her looks.

Ms. Boyle is the ultimate exemplar of a celebrity culture flipped all topsy-turvy. Long gone are the days of Joe DiMaggio and Elvis and Grace Kelly, great Olympian stars worshipped for their beauty and grace and talent, shrouded in secrecy, far removed from the unwashed rabble below, their feet never touching the base clay. Instead we read articles on TMZ about the size of Tiger Woods’ penis and the chemical contents of Anna Nicole’s corpse. Our stars live in the particle accelerator of the paparazzi panopticon. We watch and cheer as the temple burns. And from the smoldering ash rises Susan Boyle.

In our increasingly narcissistic modern age we have become very sensitive to being out-classed. Boyle is a star with whom we can be comfortable; she won’t make us feel self-conscious about our less-than-flat tummies and unfortunate body hair. And the fact that she’s a good-not-great singer might actually add to her appeal – her singing is strong enough to be pleasing, but not so powerful or skillful that it distracts from the true drama being played out here: the Ugly Duckling story.

It’s an inspirational narrative we’ve so internalized that it almost comes pre-packaged. Watch Ms. Boyle’s YouTube debut carefully. She’s openly mocked by the crowd and the judges, clearly humiliated. But she’s barely two notes into “I Dreamed a Dream” when the palpable disdain turns into rapturous applause. The company line is that she won the audience over with her astonishing talent, but it takes more than a few milliseconds to be moved by a song, or even to know if the singer is any good. Boyle exceeded condescendingly low expectations. Make no mistake, the crowd was applauding the fact that the fat chick managed to start off on-key.

The deification of Susan Boyle has almost nothing to do with Susan Boyle, and everything to do with a culture so childishly eager to believe in miracles that it doesn’t require that they actually be miraculous. We just want to see one of us – the sweaty, schlumpy throng – raised up and covered with garland, and Boyle is half-way talented enough to fill that need. Of course, the irony is that she’s no longer one of us: now she’s a multimillionaire pop star, whose next effort will more than likely be greeted by a great collective yawn.

I Dreamed a Dream finds Ms. Boyle casting about for some kind of musical identity. Is she the husky-voiced, regretful chanteuse of "Cry Me a River?" The fresh-faced, pure-hearted choir girl of "How Great Thou Art?" The operatic Broadway ham of the title track? No, no and no. But that’s okay; we don’t want her to forge an artistic identity. We won’t even let her be Susan Boyle, whoever that actually is. She’s a totem; a patsy; a mirror.

She’s the quintessence of modern celebrity: for better of for worse, Susan Boyle is you and me.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Big Eyes Family Players: Warm Room

Warm Room begins with a loose harmony of strings, violins and cellos, as picturesquely ominous as a deep forest on a winter night. Before long the lovely, fluttering melodies are overwhelmed, almost subsumed by a loud, atonal bass drone. The prettiness is in the background -- the centerpiece of the song is that bass note, a changeless hum that forces you to struggle to make out the fragile prettiness underneath.

That's the tension that makes The Big Eyes Family Players so interesting: the graceful richness of classical composition and the haunted simplicity of folk music rub uncomfortably against their avant-garde tendencies, their resistance to melodic resolution, their urge towards oddness and difficulty. They bury their best melodies deep in the mix, under hypnotic cracked harmonies and restless, knotty discord.

It’s an interesting and unusual technique, and it makes for some spectrally memorable moments, as when anxious drums ascend the chiming, sitar-like guitar scaffold of "A Lick and a Promise," or when frozen triplets from a distant piano ring through the cavernous “Woodenwheel.” Ultimately, though, I’m not quite sure what this music is for – it’s too odd and dissonant to sound good in the background, but it’s too simple and repetitive to reward careful listening. More than anything it sounds like the score for a very strange movie, something fantastical and discomfiting, maybe by Jan Svankmajer, or Guillermo Del Toro in a languorously stoned mood. Maybe, in fact, the best use of the record is as something to fall asleep to, an eerie adult lullaby; despite all of its experimentation the record is quite soothing, and its lush empty spaces seem to invite visions and dreams at once uncanny, grotesque and beautiful.