Murakami’s Abnormal Normalcy

August 19, 2012 § 1 Comment

Finished: South of the Border, West of the Sun, by Haruki Murakami.

Reading now: Shriek: An Afterword, by Jeff VanderMeer.

One of Murakami’s recurring themes is the strangeness ever present near the surface of “normal” everyday life.  This is one of the motifs that has made his work so successful globally: while his blend of the domestic and the bizarre is quintessentially Japanese, it translates beautifully to a range of cultures, and his (for all I can tell) simple, unadorned style also lends itself to translation.

I’ve been thinking about this theme ever since the beginning of South of the Border, which, in typical Murakami fashion, efficiently sets up a perfectly normal environment and immediately shows how the narrator perceives himself as abnormal: he has a “100 percent average birth” and “grew up in… your typical middle-class suburbia.” But Hajime, our narrator, is an only child in a town of families with 2 or more kids, and feels himself isolated and “different” because of this.

The oddness within such a normal-seeming life — of any life on earth, from within the unique mind of the person experiencing it — is encoded even in the title.  Hajime and his only friend, the fellow only child Shimamoto, listen to Shimamoto’s father’s records over and over.  One of their favorites is “South of the Border.”

Off in the distance, Nat King Cole was singing “South of the Border.”  The song was about Mexico, but at the time I had no idea. The words “south of the border” had a strangely appealing ring to them.  I was convinced something utterly wonderful lay south of the border.

In Japan as in the US or hundreds of other countries, this is a banal scene of domestic suburban childhood or adolescence from the 1950s to 1970s: going to a friend’s house, listening to pop standards on his/her parents’ hi-fi, experiencing the first sexual longings of your life.  And the choice of “South of the Border,” a hoary old pop song if there ever was one, by Nat King Cole, a wildly popular, very talented, but incredibly safe singer from the perspective of mainstream society just about anywhere, deepens this banality.  It’s Murakami’s gift to makes this unusual, to reveal mystery inherent within even such banality, such domesticity.

Of course, the lyrics they are listening to are in English, and as such present something of a mystery to any listener for whom English is a second language.  The words themselves, “south of the border,” are appealing and mysterious to young Hajime: he doesn’t know what border it is, or what might be south of it.  He doesn’t know yet what Mexico is, or where, or what it signifies.  The border could be the border between life and death, between human life and the realm of spirits and mythological creatures, between childhood and adulthood.  As it turns out, this utterly normal, banal song carries the story of the strangest happenings that will occur to Hajime in his life, the story of his relationship with Shimamoto.

Beyond that, there is another mystery: Nat King Cole did not sing “South of the Border.” I’ve gone through the discographies online without uncovering any version of the song having been recorded by Cole (though, of course, it’s always possible that a Japanese pressing has escaped my notice).  Even a fan video for the book uses the Sinatra version — probably the closest corollary for the kind of bland smoothness we hear in our heads when Hajime mentions a Cole version of the song):

This is kind of fascinating.  You could speculate that Murakami just gets this wrong, and I suppose it’s possible.  But it’s highly unlikely of an author who embeds specific musical cues in all of his works, and especially in a book about a character that becomes the owner of popular jazz clubs.  I think this is intentional, and could be read in a number of ways:

  • The recording only exists between Shimamoto and Hajime.  Later in the book, Shimamoto gives Hajime a gift of the copy of the Nat King Cole record they’d listened to as children.  They listen to it again, together.  When Shimamoto disappears, so does the record.  There are a number of ways to interpret this, most of them hinging on a reading of Shimamoto as a supernatural being: she creates the record as something special for Hajime.  Or it simply becomes, willed into being by the magic between them.
  • Hajime misremembers, or misidentifies.  This is perhaps the most prosaic reading, but also quite momentous for a reading of the entire work.  In this reading, he forgets details of even this most important song, from these most important memory.  Again, this seems highly unlikely since music is Hajime’s business, but is just plausible: in his first memory of the song, Hajime had just mentioned how an old record by Nat King Cole is among the few records in Shimamoto’s father’s collection, so the memory of that record may have transferred to the memory of listening to “South of the Border.”  The incident could be emblematic of the mystery we all present to ourselves.  Our memories are friable, fragile things; Hajime’s emptiness, his existential struggle, comes from within.  One could even speculate that Shimamoto, as a magical, mythological trickster figure, plants such a false memory as part of her promise to “take all of him,” including his memories.  Such a reading reminds me of the explorations of consciousness that structure Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.
  • In the world of this novel, Nat King Cole did sing “South of the Border.”  Murakami inserts supernatural or surreal elements into many of his works, but such elements are either ambiguous or nonexistent (depending on your reading) in this book.  The intrusion of the magical or romantic that Shimamoto represents to Hajime may be mirrored in the early placement of a nonexistent song into the “real world” of the novel, making a very familiar standard bizarre.
  • This is an issue of cultural translation which I’m not reading correctly. Perhaps Nat King Cole signifies something to Japanese readers that he does not signify for American readers: an element of exoticism or popularity among a particular social strata that the extant singers of the song would not provide.  Since Murakami wanted to use the song’s lyrics as a motif, he gave it to Cole.

The ambiguity in this motif, which seems at first glance like nothing but a signifier of normal suburban life, is quintessential Murakami.  It’s why even his lesser works (and I consider this one of his lesser works) are well worth reading.

More Posts About Lyrics and Tunes #6: Talking Heads, Fear of Music

July 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

Finished long ago: Fear of Music, by Jonathan Lethem (Continuum’s 33 1/3 series no. 86).

I recommend this piece of criticism/memoir/fan’s notes wholeheartedly, if you’re a Talking Heads fan, though there’s plenty of room for disagreement with some of Lethem’s points and his overall interpretive framework (about which more below).  Personally, I hadn’t listened to this album in its entirety very closely before; listening along with reading Lethem’s book was rewarding.  A few tidbits that will stick with me from my reading:

-“Cities” is a great song which I became addicted to as I listened to the album, and Lethem has an excellent reading of it as “‘Life During Wartime”s younger brother, as disco is a younger sibling to funk, more frisky and free…”  I’d never thought of it as a disco song, but really, it’s a great disco song, if you just take it at sonic face value.  And the lyrics do form an interesting, more optimistic — or perhaps more effectively self-medicated — counterpoint to the apocalyptic “Life During Wartime.”  As both Lethem and the late great David Bowman (in his bio of the Heads,This Must Be the Place) point out, a lot of this album is influenced by the band’s punishing touring schedule, and that’s also apparent in the emphasis here and elsewhere on movement, various locales, and vehicles.

-Lethem sometimes seems overextended in his theory that this is a concept album of sorts — especially in his treatment of its first song, “I Zimbra,” which would be the necessary last, not first, song for a supposed concept album about fear, the mysteries of everyday things, urban life, and the perils of consciousness, no matter how much he tries to label it an “end run” or “preemptive workaround” — but he is certainly right when he writes about the album’s evident themes and consistent tone, and that listening to the iconic “Life During Wartime” in its original context of this album is absolutely essential to getting at the heart of the song.  It sounds different, here, than it does on its own, which is how I’ve mostly listened to it on the greatest hits album (in an awesome live version) and countless mixes.

-The chapter on “Heaven” is great: I had honestly never paid conscious attention to the disconnect here between the pounding of the bass and drums and the ethereal balladeering of everything else, but everyone notices that this is a different kind of “slow song,” and that’s obviously why. Lethem is convincing as to why that is — how the bass “is easily the best thing and the worst thing on the track,” because it is so out of step with the cloying, floating quality of the song that it “punctures any sanctimony or bogus mystery here.”

And yet Lethem weirdly refuses to use the names of Chris Frantz (drummer) and Tina Weymouth (bassist) throughout the book, almost always referring to them as “the drummer” and “the bass player.”  What the hell is that?  If Bowman’s book taught me nothing else, it was that the tension between Byrne and Weymouth, who was the media darling of the band in its early days, was the driving force in the band’s chemistry.  I have no idea why he’s elided her name here.

-Lethem’s strategy here of alternating between chapters doing close listening of each track and thematic explorations of the album is  nice, and as a whole works well, but it’s his exploration of his relationship with the album as an enthralled teenager that’s really fascinating.  I love his memory of the radio spot (currently not found online) for the album, and his interesting discussion of why the album meant so much to him at the time, as only albums or songs or bands can mean so much to the young before those things become immensely popular, and why he fell away from the band later.  (I differ from him from my latecomer’s perspective; he was crazy at the time, and remains crazy, to damn the ’80s work with faint praise.)  He explains realizing in the ’80s that Speaking in Tongues “was basically Funkadelic with David Byrne singing.”  Again, I beg to differ — this is insulting both to Talking Heads, and to George Clinton, and in what freaking universe is “This Must Be the Place” anything like a Funkadelic song?  Nevertheless, the exploration of his history with and through this band that meant so much to him makes this worthwhile if you’re interested in Lethem, or hipster music culture, or the 1980s.

More Posts About Lyrics and Tunes #5: “Supernatural Superserious” and My R.E.M. Favorites Playlist

February 19, 2012 § 5 Comments

R.E.M. broke up last year, and I’ve been wanting to write something about them ever since, but I’m just now getting around to it.  This may be ridiculous to say at our particular, continually overhyped and hyperventilating historical/cultural moment, but I do feel like the breakup was a bigger deal, in fact, than it was made out to be.  R.E.M. was one of the world’s greatest bands.  For certain people — mostly (but not all!) white, mostly (but not all!) well educated, mostly (but not all!) creatively inclined — they were paragons.  They made art, not product.  They cared about beauty and integrity.  They cared about not selling out.  They were from Athens, not New York, not L.A.

I’m old enough to have cared deeply about R.E.M. when they were at their peak, but not old enough to have caught onto them when they were still under the radar.  But if you were listening to music when Out of Time, Green, and Automatic for the People came out, you went back and found the earlier stuff, too.  I mean, I went to a small Lutheran boarding high school in Nebraska, and our dorm supervisor had a t-shirt from the Automatic for the People tour.  Everyone loved this band.  They are now retired as a band (although of course there’s always the possibility of a reunion).  They would probably get my vote as the greatest American band, period.

Of course, there was that long trough between New Adventures and Accelerate — those three boring albums after Bill Berry quit the band.  But I feel like their last two albums made up for that: these were really great records, overlooked mostly, I think, because R.E.M. had just been around for so long, and they were always going to sell a certain number of albums.  R.E.M. embraced their status as elder statesmen on these albums; their songs weren’t preachy, but they often contained a message.  The sound seemed to epitomize what people think of when they think of R.E.M.

My favorite song from these two albums is probably “Supernatural Superserious” off of Accelerate, though there are a number of great tracks on Collapse Into Now as well.

This is, to start, just a great song, with that R.E.M mix of chime and jangle with power and hook.  I love basically any R.E.M. song that features Mike Mills chiming in on vocals, and this has some lovely harmony/background vocals by him.  It also features an especially inspired performance by Michael Stipe: he sounds like he cares on this track.  (My least favorite part of the song is probably the somewhat cutesy title.  I learn that the Coldplay dude renamed it from its superior working title, “Disguised.”  That would explain it.)

There’s a lot going on in these lyrics.  It starts with a terrific, epigrammatic first line: “Everybody here comes from somewhere that they would just as soon forget and disguise.”  And then we get this knockout verse:

At the summer camp where you volunteered

No one saw your face, no one saw your fear

If that apparition had just appeared,

Took you up and away from this base and sheer humiliation

Of your teenage station

Nobody cares

No one remembers and nobody cares

So we have a song about adolescence.  A summer camp; a hypothetical, perhaps hopeful “apparition”; teenage humiliation.  And this astonishing bit of advice: Nobody cares.  No one remembers, and nobody cares.  This is like the flip side of “Everybody Hurts”: everyone is disguising something they feel humiliated about.  Everyone is too wrapped up in their own dilemmas to care about yours.  That summer-camp humiliation?  Forgotten.  Not worth all the angst. The chorus (“Yeah you cried and you cried/He’s alive, he’s alive/Yeah you cried and you cried and you cried and you cried”) doesn’t sound uplifting based on the lyrics — at all — but it is, especially with those sweet Mike Mills vocals.  We have another implication of the supernatural in that repeated “he’s alive”: is “he” Christ? The teenager’s “apparition”?

This first verse and chorus remind me of a story by Reynolds Price entitled “Michael Egerton.”  It was written when Price was still a teenager, but Mr. Price seems to have been born something of an elder statesman.  It’s a summer-camp tale in which the title character is bullied for missing a championship baseball game, metaphorically “crucified” for his sensitivity.  (It also references the folk song “Green Grow the Rushes,” which is of course also an R.E.M. song.  Not that I think there was any influence by Price on R.E.M., just a funny coincidence.)

Stipe then builds in references to sexuality, theatricality, and S&M (safe words, chafing “ropes,” “fantasies” dressed up as “travesties”) to complicate these themes of disguise and “humiliation,” leading to a straightforward message: “Enjoy yourself with no regrets.”  And that’s as good an encapsulation of R.E.M.’s message as you’re likely to find.

There follows another great verse:

Now there’s nothing dark and there’s nothing weird

Don’t be afraid I will hold you near

From the seance where you first betrayed

An open heart on a darkened stage

A celebration of your teenage station

A seance that’s also a celebration, which was formerly a humiliation: that’s memory, folks.  That’s R.E.M.’s past, that’s the past for all of us.  You will end up celebrating, reminiscing about, calling up from the dead those events that were once so embarrassing.  Enjoy yourself, with no regrets.

***

In that spirit of celebration, here’s my R.E.M. favorites playlist (not in order of preference, but an order in which I enjoy listening to them — and apologies for whatever annoying ads you may encounter):

  1. Finest Worksong
  2. It Happened Today (this has a great video with extended version of the song, by the way)
  3. Swan Swan H
  4. You Are the Everything (sadly, no “official” version; this is a near-contemporary live version, and it’s beautiful, but I do miss Mike Mills’s background vocals from the album track)
  5. Don’t Go Back to Rockville
  6. Try Not to Breathe
  7. Man On the Moon
  8. Cuyahoga (fairly faithful live version, but no substitute for the original.  There’s also a very nice cover by the Decemberists here)
  9. Near Wild Heaven
  10. Sweetness Follows
  11. Driver 8
  12. What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?
  13. Orange Crush
  14. Turn You Inside-Out
  15. Supernatural Superserious
  16. Undertow (live version, but very close to the album track.  Note: I love the New Adventures in Hi-Fi album. It was tough not to include “E-Bow the Letter,” “Electrolite,” “How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us,” and others.)
  17. Let Me In (there’s also a truly amazing live version from the Monster tour)
  18. Fall On Me
  19. Half a World Away
  20. Nightswimming

The Top Ten Goofs of Inherent Vice

June 26, 2010 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Inherent Vice.

Continuing the tradition I founded in a post on Vineland, to which IV is nearly a prequel — stylistically, thematically, in place and character, they are of a piece — I give you my ten favorite Pynchonian jokes, riffs, and goofs in this book.  Once again, feel free to print out and take to the library to enjoy in air-conditioned splendor.  In paginated order:

-Wouldn’t be a Pynchon book without at least one ridiculous TV-commercial setup: here, it’s Bigfoot Bjornsen, an LAPD cop of ambiguous motivations and allegiances, who “moonlight[s] after a busy day of civil-rights violation” in commercials in an Afro wig and cape with a ” relentless terror squad of small children,” with whom he’s worked up a W.C. Fields routine.  p. 9-10.

-Doc’s conversation with his lawyer, Sauncho Smilax, p. 28: a laugh-out-loud drug-addled discussion of Donald Duck’s whisker-stubble that’s downright Tarantinoesque. (He has a hilarious riff on Charlie the Tuna on p. 119, as well.)

-St. Flip of Lawndale, “for whom Jesus Christ was not only personal savior but surfing consultant as well,” and the conversation at surfer-breakfast joint Wavos about the lost island of Lemuria on p. 99-102.  I especially like “GNASH, the Global Network of Anecdotal Surfer Horseshit.”

-The counterfeit U.S. currency featuring the face of a tripping Richard Nixon, p. 117 and following.

-Doc and Denis’s trip to the house of the surf-rock band the Boards, p. 124-136, chock-full of crazy details and tidbits, including a fun discussion of the difference between American and English zombies.

-“Soul Gidget,” by black surf band Meatball Flag, p. 155.  Enough said.  Some band needs to cover this, already. Pynchon’s really on top of his game with the music in this book.  (The country song “Full Moon in Pisces” on p. 241-42 is also great.)

-Pynchon’s one of the great scene-setters in American literature.  My favorite example here is probably on p. 236, his gorgeous description of the decrepit Kismet casino from bygone Vegas.  Also excellent: the amazing global-warming-inspired paragraph on p. 98.

-The motel for “Toobfreex” on p. 253-54, with its incredible amount of early cable programming thanks to “time-zone issues.”

-Doc’s dialogue is frequently priceless, and it may be mere speculation, but it does seem like Pynchon enjoyed The Big Lebowski — or maybe both works just capture that stoner cadence and vocabulary perfectly.  Innumerable one-liners and PI quips to choose from.  One of my favorites on p. 313: “You know how some people say they have a ‘gut feeling’?  Well, Shasta Fay, what I have is dick feelings, and my dick feeling sez —”

-Doc’s parents getting hooked on dope and getting freaked out by Another World, p. 352-53.

Various Nigerian Narratives, Part Three: Memory, Music, Tradition

March 2, 2010 § 1 Comment

Finished a while ago: GraceLand.

A quick catch-up post before moving on.  GraceLand is a complicated book in a lot of ways, not least in form and audience.  Its author is a Nigerian exile living in the U.S., and as such the book was first published in the U.S.  (though there may be — probably was — a simultaneous U.K. edition).  I’ve already given some examples of how the book acts as a kind of Baedeker to the Nigerian cultural and societal landscape of the author’s formative years.  It does this in well-integrated, well-written ways.  It does not in the least partake in the sort of anthropological objectification that Elvis would surely despise.

One example to add to the print and film cultural practices already described: near the book’s end, when Elvis hits the road with the King of Beggars and his band, we get a glimpse of how Nigerian concerts worked, and their parallels with past Western practices:

The evening’s show always started with a dance during which the band played all the popular tunes of the day.  The play followed, and then there was another dance afterwards.  For a big audience in a big town, the total number of songs played in one night came to about forty, not counting those played as part of the play.  Most evenings began at nine p.m. and finished at four in the morning.

It’s quite like Vaudeville, in other words.  The band members consider themselves primarily musicians, but must also act and canvass the town “displaying their instruments” to drum up interest.  The plays are mostly “didactic,” somewhat like morality plays or after-school specials.

Totally fascinating.  However, all of this is potentially fraught postcolonial ground — especially in a book that was featured as a selection of the “book club” on Today.  Who is Abani writing to/for: himself, a la Proust, as an act of memory?  The interested folk of his adopted country, who also happen to be the cultural and (in ways) economical hegemons of his homeland, and those of his homeland’s former colonizer, Great Britain?  His fellow expatriates, or those he left behind in Nigeria?

The form of the novel is interesting in light of these questions.  GraceLand is a synthetic novel, by which I mean it is made of different sorts of texts.  The vast bulk is the narrative of Elvis, a tale with incident, dialogue, and language deeply informed by Nigeria but with a form out of the Western canon (as mentioned before, it can be read as a Bildungsroman, with an interesting parallel plot with an Igbo twist in the tale of Sunday’s own possible spiritual maturation and transformation at the novel’s end).  I speculate that it is especially influenced by Invisible Man and Things Fall Apart: one American, one Nigerian.

But there are also interstitial bits of text, loosely connected to the narrative.  Between chapters we get recipes, descriptions and definitions of Nigerian herbs and plants, and pieces of different texts like the Bible and the aforementioned Onitsha Market pamphlets.  Many of these are (or at least could be) extracts from Elvis’s mother’s journal, we are led to infer from the description Elvis provides of the journal.  With this narrative connection, we, the Americans-ignorant-of-Nigeria, can read them as the cultural primer they clearly are, but can also read them through Elvis’s eyes, and/or Abani’s.  They can be read as expressions of  Elvis’s longing for and estrangement from the homelands of his mother and his country, added after the events of the novel.  The formal heterodoxy is a powerful tool to convey information to the ignorant, but also to reveal the novel’s meaning — its soul.

In addition, each chapter begins with two brief passages about the Igbo ritual of the kola nut, a powerful ceremony important in divination rites but also in hospitality customs and religion more generally.  The first of each of these passages, in regular type, is from the Igbo point of view and often contains a kind of mystical or oracular language.  The second, in italics, is rather more anthropological, talking about the Igbo rituals as objects of study and anthropological data.  Again, we see the dual consciousness of the expatriate.  But more than that, these passages are epigrammatic, and often indicative of the content of the chapter to follow.   This could suggest to the reader either that Abani wants to convey that the form of the narrative follows a persistent path in Igbo mythology, or that Abani has deliberately structured the events of the novel to do so.  The dual epigrams, perhaps, allow for both interpretations at once.  Joycean.  Ingenious.

Xerox City

February 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: GraceLand, by Chris Abani.

“Name it and Lagos had a copy of it, earning it the nickname “One Copy.”

Our narrator, Elvis, is a copy of sorts himself: named after Elvis Presley, and in love with dancing, he makes the logical choice to become an Elvis impersonator.  He’s growing up in ’70s and ’80s Nigeria, in the slums of Lagos, having moved with his father from a smaller town after his father loses an election.

But there’s no such thing as an exact copy or a perfect impersonation, and therein lies the interest.  Wearing a wig and “white shoes and trousers,” covering his face with talcum powder when he runs out of “sparkle spray” — but still aware that “this was not how white people looked” — he sings “Hound Dog” and dances for tourists at expensive hotels.  Humiliatingly, in the encounter we witness at the beginning of the novel, the tourists try to get him to stop with chocolate, then pay him a pittance to go away.  And when he goes back to the bus after this embarrassment, a woman getting off asks him, laughing, “Who do dis to you?”

If Elvis took it all as a joke, just bilking tourists out of their money with a minstrel show of one of their Western heroes, it would be one thing.  But he grew up listening to Presley, his hero.  His identity is intertwined with the white American’s.  And he takes his act very seriously: it is what he loves to do.  It is an act of art.  Constrained by his inability to use makeup (so as not to be confused with a prostitute or homosexual), confused with a beggar or huckster, he is stuck with his existence like a cheap copy.

Abani weaves these threads of cultural cross-pollination, post-colonialism, and skewed facsimile through the beginning of his narrative quite skillfully: songs on the radio (American, Caribbean, African), the movies Elvis becomes addicted to (the cheapest old silents, the newer Bollywood films), the snacks he eats watching them (American soft drinks), many other subtle asides.  It’s not simple symbol or allusion, though: there’s nothing forced or artificial about these references, just a portrait of lived life in Nigeria at the time.  A cool example that made me laugh in delighted surprise: the girls and women of Elvis’s family plaiting their hair into elaborate patterns and shapes, as Al Green plays on the radio in 1976.  “Aunt Felicia had invented a plait called Concorde, complete with a Concorde-shaped aircraft taxiing down the crown of the head to the nape.”  Even the dialogue of  Elvis’s grandmother Oye, who speaks with a kind of Scottish accent and idiom she picked up from missionaries, is utterly believable in a strange way.

Is Abani playing with one of the great themes of world (especially European) literature in the 20th century, the Double?  Is Lagos a doppelganger of sorts for a western city, a kind of distorted mirror image, with its massive disparity between large numbers of  millionaires in mansions and hotels and a huge impoverished population in swampy shanty-towns built on stilts?  I think there’s more to this than that; I think Abani’s novel is shaping up to be rather distinctively its own thing, just as his Lagos seems like quite its own thing despite its “One Copy” of everything; but I also think he’s keenly aware of and interested in traditions, literary and cultural.  Elvis reads a lot of western literature (which I hope to talk about in the next post), and before most of the chapters there are descriptions of Igbo rituals and recipes.  This novel’s blazing a trail between canon and experiment.

Just for the hell of it, and because it’s pretty great and I’d never heard of it, here’s one of the greatest music hits from Nigeria in the ’70s, mentioned in the novel, “Sweet Mother” by Prince Nico Mbarga:

More Posts About Lyrics and Tunes #2: My Top Five Songs of the Decade

December 8, 2009 § 3 Comments

It’s impossible to distill a decade’s worth of music into five songs; but here are the ones that seem most memorable to me, at the moment.  Ask me in a month and I’m sure the list will have changed.

Here’s my #5 song of the decade: “Rise Up With Fists!” by Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins.  (Sorry about the Hee-Haw laffs in the video, which can throw off the mood a little if you don’t already know the song.  But hey, you’re cool — of course you know this song already.)  The songs on this album (Rabbit Fur Coat) are straight-up incredible.  They nail a particular blend of deadpan humor, irony, and heartfelt emotion that is purely of the decade, for me at least.  Not to mention those perfect opening lines: “What are you changing?  Who do you think you’re changing?  You can’t change things.  We’re all stuck in our ways.”  Yeah, that’s 2006, all right.  But the best is when the Watson Twins chime in with “Not your wife.”  Soul/alt-country: in a lot of ways this was one of the two or three albums in the decade that felt made just for me, hitting that aesthetic sweet spot.

#4 comes from another: The Greatest, by Cat Power, far and away the best album of the decade to me.  I’ve had at least five different favorite songs from this album: right now I’m on “Lived in Bars.”  (Two days ago, I had “The Moon” in this spot.)

God, this song is incredible.  Chan Marshall has always had this unbelievable voice, and I think on The Greatest she finally figured out what to do with it.  There always seemed to be something missing, in her previous work: say, a glimmer of hope, a ray of sunshine, or an inkling of a smile.  Here, she’s working with absolutely flawless Memphis session players (damn, those horns!), and the material, I think, is her best, too.  Frankly, to be against this album is to have given up on beauty in this world.  This song blows me away: it’s somehow epic and gritty and mundane and lyrical and joyful and sad all at once.  There must be a jukebox in a bar somewhere that always plays this at last call.  How could you not shimmy your way out the door to that, with a tear in your eye?

#3 is “Unless It’s Kicks,” by Okkervil River, from The Stage Names.  If you get a chance to see them live, do it: this song is fantastic in person.  Seeing them (at Cat’s Cradle, in Carrboro, NC) was probably my second-best concert-going experience of the decade.  Such an awesome riff.  Such a steady build.  When Will Sheff sings about “the ghost of some rock-and-roll fan,” and they launch into that solo… the roof could’ve come down.

#2 is “Hey Ya!,” by Outkast.

Flawless.  A perfect song about the impossibility of monogamy that is now an integral part of our national fabric — probably got played at the Republican National Convention at some point, it’s so omnipresent and joyful-sounding and universally loved.  The epitome of the decade’s hyperactive reworking of old styles, old genres, old techniques into something fresh.

#1 is “Black Tambourine,” by Beck.

This song grows… and grows… and grows on you.  Pretty soon it becomes the best thing you’ve heard in an entire decade.  I’d more or less forgotten about it until we saw Inland Empire at the Music Box in Chicago; it’s used in, hands-down, the best (and creepiest) musical montage of the decade.  And suddenly, you realize what a strange song it is; how it sounds old and new, digital and analog, folkloric and popular.  Mostly catchy, and eerie, as hell; and timeless, and mysterious.  I don’t even think Beck would think of this as his best work — in this decade, Beck has certainly become the closest thing to Dylan that this generation will stand for — but it’s the song I’ll remember most.

As a special bonus song: my favorite concert-going experience of the decade was Head of Femur at Schuba’s in Chicago, their CD-release party. Their cover of “The True Wheel” just barely missed this list; do yourself a favor, pick up a copy of Ringodom or Proctor, and listen to pure joy. This YouTube clip is from last year, and isn’t quite as awesome as when I saw them way back when, but it’s still pretty rad; they fill up that tiny stage, and it’s incredible when everyone starts jumping around.

More Posts About Lyrics and Tunes #1: “Miracle Drug,” A.C. Newman

November 8, 2009 § Leave a comment

I am not one for pop-music criticism — you can find some wank defending anything with whatever flimsy criteria in whatever prominent forum you choose; let me just come out as a philistine and say that good popular music’s goodness resides in its making you want to listen and, if possible, move to it, repeatedly, and do we really need a theory for that? — but I thought I might introduce an occasional feature to highlight songs that I enjoy both as music and as a kind of literature: not just story-songs (although I’ll surely include some good story-songs), but songs which interest me in the narratives they create with their combinations of words and music.  Not critical appraisals, but notes on songs I like. Because, despite what I just said up there, I do think there are some fine narrative artists working in music.  Therefore, “More Posts About Lyrics and Tunes” (a strained homage to the Talking Heads album More Songs About Buildings and Food).

My current obsession can be heard here, by clicking on “Media,” then “Miracle Drug.”  (Apologies for the reroute; I’d like to embed but am both too cheap and too paranoid about copyright law to make the post easily available here.)

Are you back?  Okay.  I’m late to this, having missed The Slow Wonder for about six years despite the New Pornographers being more or less my favorite band of the past decade, and just got the album a few weeks ago.  (I am old: I buy physical things called “albums,” often on shiny “compact discs.”)  I love how compact this song is: just three verses, as cryptic as pretty much every A.C. Newman and New Pornographers song, but with a much stronger narrative throughline than usual.

There are many mysteries in this song — what’s the miracle drug?  what’s with these weird inscribed trophies? — but here’s the narrative I developed around the song: the first verse is about a somewhat pathetic suicide — or is it a murder? is he tied down to the bed by force, or tied like a heroin addict might be? — that “miracle drug” a poison, or overdose, after the receipt of yet another form rejection of the young man’s “great lost novel.”  Perhaps we then move back in time, with the desperate man deciding to try to “err on this side of divine” despite his “perilous slide into crime,” perhaps the crime of selling drugs, or just abusing them; and perhaps we move back even farther, as the young man finds himself “tied to a job selling miracle drugs” and receiving motivational (or mysterious) trophies for the work he’s doing.  Boredom and quiet desperation at being tied to a (possibly evil — what’s this “miracle drug,” anyway?) job; shift to crime as an attempt to find a way to freedom; last-ditch effort to redeem youthful dreams of the life of the artist shattered.  But of course, could be each verse is about a different “he,” or maybe I’ve overstated the first verse as being about a suicide attempt.  Anyway, I love the noir overtones of the song, how it works as the catchiest hardboiled story you’ve ever heard.

I love the recurring words “interest,” with its three different tones — devastatingly dismissive, hopeful, and menacing — and “tied,” with its different literal meanings but meaningful connection.  But what the hell’s up with “So why all the history now?”  Or is it “So why all the mystery now?”  That would make more sense, but it sure sounds like “history.”  It seems like it might be a line used only for phonetic and tonal purposes, without carrying any narrative weight.  Or perhaps I’m just missing something.

I also love the music, which works against and with the noir narrative in interesting ways.  Every time I listen to the song, I’m fascinated by that awesome beeping rhythm in the breaks: sounds kind of like a stylized alarm clock or phone ringing, and carries a lot of urgency along with sounding rad in Newman’s rich soundscape.  (What is that, anyway?  Melodion?  Synthesizer?  Can someone with a modicum of musical knowledge help me out here?)

Overall, the song keeps reminding me of “Paperback Writer,” mostly because of the content of the frustrated amateur writer but also because the songs are of virtually identical length, and both have that booming guitar hook.

Frames and Panes

August 6, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Vineland.

Reading next: Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, by Richard Farina.

I am surprised. On pages 313 and 314, we get what sure seems to be something like a Central Theme or Mission Statement or My-Point-Is Passage from Pynchon. It’s not a very interesting one, actually, but it has some sneaky sentences worth examining.

Zoyd and a certain old friend from The Crying of Lot 49 reminisce about their glory days in the 60s. Pynchon uses this old character in an interesting way; a visitor from another book, he functions as a kind of oracle. He begins the central passage in question by saying, “I guess it’s over. We’re on into a new world now, it’s the Nixon Years, then it’ll be the Reagan Years —”

Of course, Zoyd doesn’t believe “ol’ Raygun” will ever become president. (That’s an old joke by 1990, but I do like the Reagan/Raygun interplay: remember Star Wars?) But Zoyd’s friend goes on, insisting that soon “they” will want to regulate and legislate “anything that could remotely please any of your senses, because they need to control all that.” They remember a trip on a windowpane of acid; Zoyd recalls how he knew he would never die. “When that was always their last big chip, when they thought they had the power of life and death. But acid gave us the X-ray vision to see through that one…”

Zoyd insists that he’ll always remember what he discovered in that time, and here’s the core paragraph:

“Easy. They just let us forget. Give us too much to process, fill up every minute, keep us distracted, it’s what the Tube is for, and though it kills me to say it, it’s what rock and roll is becoming — just another way to claim our attention, so that beautiful certainty we had starts to fade, and after a while they have us convinced all over again that we really are going to die. And they’ve got us again.” It was the way people used to talk.

Obviously “they” is a loaded term in any Pynchon novel. “They” here seems to be used in its broadest sense, as meaning Authority writ large; those who set themselves up as “Police” of anything that could please the senses.  I do think this is largely right, of course: most entertainment is in the business of superficial distraction, underlying fear-mongering.  It seems a pretty threadbare raison d’etre for a novel, though: I read all this to be told the mass media is in the business of distraction? It’s deeper than that, of course, tapping into the fact that constant reminders of death are a good way to keep people in line, while the 60s Pynchon wants to remember were about trying to overcome a culture of death — but it’s a little obvious, isn’t it? I mean, hasn’t DFW gone light-years beyond this kind of analysis?

What sets the passage apart, for me, are two phrases, one at the beginning, one at the end. Pynchon begins this conversation after a flashback, and reminds us that we are “back in real time” when the present conversation begins. Memory’s another other world, isn’t it? Another “falsely deathless” arcade? “Back in real time…” It’s a self-aware statement on the narrator’s part, it jostles one out of the story in a way more conventional transitions would not, and hey, this “real time” isn’t actually the present of the main action of the book anyway, right? We’re back when Prairie was a baby, here, and Zoyd’s just looking for a place to hide from Brock! “Real time” is a euphemism for mediated time — less-fake time. “Real-time video-conferencing.” No one calls real time real time. It’s just time. (Or Time, occasionally.)

So: a foray into metafictionland, I’m thinking.

Then we get another comment from the narrator at the end of this mini-sermon: “It was the way people used to talk.” I love this sentence. Could be Pynchon’s poking fun at the hippies, at their paranoia and self-aggrandizement — “they,” indeed. (Pynchon poking fun at himself.) But he could also be pointing out the collective lowering of the guard against Authority in 1980s USA, or the cruel disregard for social justice in the same decade, or the lack of much conversation at all in the age of the Tube. It’s the kind of shading and complexity I expect from Pynchon, especially after hearing from someone who thinks he knows it all. (Then again, he’s right about Reagan, so maybe he does.)

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