Sonic Youth, Evol

April 25, 2009

evol 

I don’t have my physical copy of Sonic Youth’s Evol with me anymore, not in one place.  I left my home state of Colorado in a Subaru with my father towards Seattle, and a cd wallet with all my cd’s made it out here – not many liner notes, and no cases.  This is not unusual now, but for quite a while – we’ll say, ages 17-20 – I treasured my physical copy of Evol, and I’d say this was, beyond the music, beyond the great scribbled-over shriek of a cover, for the fascinating liner notes from the 1993 reissue, written by Lisa Crystal Carver (now available online at 

 

 

http://www.sonicyouth.com/mustang/lp/lp4.html.)

Carver recounts a story of moving to LA as a 17-year-old drop out and finding a copy.  She saw herself drawn to Evol’s opening song, “Tom Violence,” by the word violence.  17-year-olds, after all, enjoy violence, right?  She said followed by that, “Shadow of a Doubt,” the second track on the album, did not need the word violence because “it was violence.”  Finally, she wound up discovering this was the album that spoke for her transformation from a New Hampshire teenager to an Los Angelino having a life.

I don’t want to call her becoming an adult, I want to say a “young adult” but hopefully free myself of the middle school library connotation.  Because she hits the nail on the head with Evol – it’s an album of beginnings.  Violent, furious, exciting, romantic, programmatically bold beginnings.  As I mentioned in discussing Bad Moon Rising, Sonic Youth, with that record, entered into a 10 year period of astonishing productivity and the core of their legacy of musicians is contained in that 1985-1995 period.  Evol, from 1986, is the album that speaks to opening that journey.  1995’s Washing Machine – an album of closure and finality – marks that journey’s end in extraordinary bookmark fashion.  I ask any music fan to get to know Evol, then 1987’s Sister, 1988’s Daydream Nation, 1990’s Goo, 1992’s Dirty, 1994’s Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star, and then Washing Machine now and not find a band in extraordinarily sustained creative command.  It’s not for nothing I consider Sonic Youth the greatest band in the world – this ten year period featured one defiant, off-key, time-defining noisy masterpiece after another.

What Evol creates, though, that the others stray further and further away from – perhaps appropriately – is a sense of youth, and a sense of idealism and possibility.  “Tom Violence” seems sludgy and remote, but with its cry of “I left home for experience/ carved ‘suk for honesty’ on my chest” (sic), you begin to glimpse the dream forming out of the mess.  It’s a description of a man setting out to quest for experience.  It’s followed in enticing, sensual off key strumming with “Shadow of a Doubt,” which, yes, is violence.  A tale of strangers on a train colluding in a whisper to kill… well, someone… the song speaks to a desire to alchemize rage and create something.  Even the loud, stalker piece “Star Power” that follows seems to find some raging freedom in off kilter obsession, represented by Kim Gordon’s most on point out-of-wack voice, a punk holdover that, in retrospect, Gordon did better than anyone.

The themes of Evol are simple and repetitive – there’s love and violence, and both are part of the same breath, releasing a sense of possibility, and a sense of life.  Lee Ranaldo, SY’s beat poet guitarist, brought out his first real “Lee” song, “In The Kingdom #19,” a spoken-word tale of a man getting hit by a car and winning, and it still makes violence that is “inching towards truth,” as he describes.  And that thought segues into a very simple love song, “Green Light,” in which Thurston Moore sees “a green light,” and turns the raging off-key number into the heights of sweetness.  This is, of course, followed by “Death To Our Friends,” a loud instrumental track whose guitar riffs even seem violent.

I can’t imagine my love of Sonic Youth over the years without my love of Evol, without feeling it plunge itself right into my own desires for excitement and possibility.  The material, being so insistently violent, coaxes you right into finding the trademark dissonance in the guitar and rhythm of the tracks; it makes you love every antisocial impulse you’ve ever felt.  The album properly ended with “Madonna, Sean, and Me,” more commonly known as “Expressway to Yr Skull,” which is a little of both – a violent promise (“We’re gonna kill the California girls”) and an ode to learning how to be happy (“We’re gonna find the meaning of feeling good”) – trailing off in one descending guitar cord after another.  It’s perfection, but the reissue – which is the only Evol I’ve ever known – ends in another song, the Kim Gordon led “Bubblegum,” a passionately straightforward rock number.  Its chorus screams “Love is so much fun, life has just begun.”  I cannot imagine Evol being as perfect without “Bubblegum” bracketing “Tom Violence.”  These are songs that define, glorify, and exalt the wild rough edges of youth.  Falling in love with this record, you won’t think anything you feel is rough again.

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“Sunday Morning” No Doubt

April 12, 2009

Maybe it was Gwen Stefani’s cute red dress and pumps on the cover, maybeno-doubt it was trite, sarcastic neo feminism (“I’m just a girl, oh little old me”), maybe it was the promise of ska packaged in a pop confection, but certainly something took hold for No Doubt in 1996, the year in which Tragic Kingdom sold 16 million copies worldwide.  With the benefit of hindsight, we can say pretty conclusively that Tragic Kingdom was one of the most successful albums of the decade – not just because it spawned mega-hits “Just A Girl,” “Spiderwebs,” and “Don’t Speak,” but because it launched an empire, brought ska into the mainstream, made Gwen Stefani a superstar, who, both in 1996 and onward, influenced fashion endlessly, and simply, defined that period of the 90’s – angry but still bubbly, wild and defiant… but not that wild.  I remember buying Tragic Kingdom at a Target in 1996, learning all the songs by heart… then just a few months later learning to despise the whole thing as too popular.

One thing that has never changed for me, though, is my love of its clean-up single “Sunday Morning.”  It came late in the album with an ever loudening march of snare drums, and opens onto a bass and organ ska melody.  Since this was a band who’d cut their teeth at ska shows but got popular making unobjectionable rock pop music, “Sunday Morning” remains the single reminding us of No Doubt’s good time roots.  Yet as time has wandered on for me, for the band, for Stefani, “Sunday Morning” also seems to me the song that they really got right, the best of all their worlds.  A breakup song of sorts, it’s a kiss-off to a lover who simply “changed since yesterday, without any warning,” but then dismisses the whole thing with a mighty, sly “Oh well.”  I hear this song and there’s no doubt (hah!) why the band, Stefani, and the type of music all did so well – so much giddy, sublime angst!  A bass and drum heavy party anthem to be pissed off to and dance (er, skank?) your cares away!  Some songs from the mid 90’s now remind me of my middle and high school years with gleeful nostalgia.  “Sunday Morning” is so much better – it makes me want to kick and jump around and experience those emotions all over again.

“Army Of One”

March 18, 2009

sopranos-armySeason 3, Episode 13

Written by David Chase & Lawrence Konner

Directed by John Patterson

 

Analysis:

It never failed that every year a season of The Sopranos aired, someone would write, the day afterwards, that “The Sopranos ended with a whimper this year.”  As I wrote regarding season 2’s go-for-the-jugular “The Knight In White Satin Armor,” The Sopranos liked to put its big deaths and big action in the penultimate episode of each season.  “Army of One” is arguably one of the most emotionally taxing Sopranos episodes, but after the blood spattered, sometimes furiously cynical 3rd season, “Sopranos ends with a whimper” was the headline the day after it aired – even with poor Jackie Jr. (Jason Cerbone) lying dead in a pile of snow in the Jersey projects.

 

I remember thinking, back then in May of 2001, when I finally finished watching the third season of The Sopranos that this was perhaps the most perfect season of television that I’d ever seen.  Some of that came back to my first understanding of The Sopranos command of details – that in their Christmas episode “To Save Us All From Satan’s Power,” a small detail of AJ’s scooter comes up three times and has no relevance anywhere else in the episode; it was only relevant in that it mattered in Tony’s day to day life that we got to be a part of.  Even more than that, The Sopranos third season aired in the Spring of 2001, but began just before Fall semester for Meadow at Columbia, featured a Thanksgiving episode and a Christmas episode, and ended, during “Army of One,” as Sylvio, Christopher, and Patsy Parisi get arrested for Super Bowl bets.

 

It was a clever move, and the focus on times of the year would be elaborated upon in future seasons, but it truly began here, with its great feel for seasons, heat, cold.  Cerbone, for whom I’m shocked didn’t become a big star after this season, looked so lost and small inside of his puffy gray winter coat, despite his large guido physique.  The episode opens with two contrasting scenes of “juniors” – AJ and his friend Egon peeing in a school boiler room before trying to steal the answers to a science test, and then followed with Jackie and his friend at a gun dealer’s apartment (played by The Wire’s Michael K. Williams, rocking Omar’s great facial scar before it was cool).  Jackie is 23 in the episode and AJ 15, but both are still such children.  Both have the names of the mobsters who begat them, but both are juniors through and through.  Jackie had just made a move on a card game – much like Tony and Jackie Sr. had done at his age – but with disastrous results; this kid is still playing dress up.

 

Children, or at least parenting, was the subject of the third season, as was most evident in the great season 3 episode “University,” which I wrote about previously.  In that episode, a 19-year-old stripper named Tracee is beaten to death by scumbag Ralph Cifaretto, and smart editing contrasts her life with Meadow’s privileged life.  Meadow is a great focus of the season, but AJ’s plot contrasted with Jackie’s is a larger arc of the season, and more importantly, the notions of one generation’s standards giving way to the confusion of modern times.  Tony says in The Sopranos’ pilot episode that he feels as if he’s come in “after all the good stuff,” and “Army of One” generalizes that feeling to the entire generation.  This episode asks the question “what happened,” and theorizes that children have lost respect for their elders, that people no longer follow their institutions’ codes, and that everything’s gotten worse.

 

But it also poses a much smarter answer, spoken by a Major at a New Brunswick military school which Carmela and Tony consider sending AJ: “We’ve created too many options for our kids, you can’t blame them for being confused.”  That is true, to an extent, of everyone – now with the whole world as a possibility, the rigid rules are given more scrutiny, and as Tony experiences in “Army of One,” it leads to uncertainty and self loathing.  The Major tries to assuage Tony and Carmela that they don’t inspire mere groupthink by informing them (two years ahead of its actual implementation in print ads) that the Army’s new motto is to be “an army of one.”  “Why be an army at all?” Carmela asks.  Look what it leads to.  Tony, at least, finds an answer in the military – a certainty that breaks the loathing he’d feel leading AJ into a life in the Family he just couldn’t handle.

 

The fact that Tony’s experiencing this is an interesting point in and of itself, because he’s arguably the only person with control on what’s going on.  Early in the episode, Jackie calls Tony crying for support, and asks him to think of his father.  Tony hangs up on him, and obsequiously tells Ralph (Jackie’s “stepfather,” as he’s officially dating Rosalie Aprile, despite having numerous affairs) “You know all this, you’re a captain.  Chain of command is very important in our thing,” tacitly telling him to keep Jackie from calling Tony crying.  Carmela calls Tony crying at the Bing, and we assume it’s because she’s gotten news of Jackie – but it isn’t, it’s news of AJ getting expelled for cheating.

 

As Tony and Carmela fight with AJ at home, we’re drawn back into the everyday morass of parenting a difficult teenager.  Tony slaps AJ for a quick rebuke – he complains that he, like so many fathers before him, “work(s) hard all day to pay for this: 6,000 sq. ft. house, big-screen TVs, food on the table, video games, all sorts of scooters and bicycles… Columbia University. And for what? To come home to this?”  “Sucks to be you,” AJ responds.  It isn’t until the three of them sit down again to eat that Carmela gets the news of Jackie’s death and rushes to be by Rosalie’s side.  “You see?” Tony asks AJ.

 

“You see?”  Those words are simple, but they seem to echo everyone’s desire to keep the kids away from the life they’ve had.  Tony had told Jackie all season that his father had wanted him to “be a doctor,” although, he and Uncle Junior discuss this episode what an idiot Jackie had always been (“Is being stupid a learning disorder?” Tony asks his uncle).  We see Jackie’s pictures at his funeral – a sweet, goodlooking football star for his high school.  Yet here he is in a coffin?  He, like AJ, can’t last in his family’s business, but he’s too spoiled for the actual world.  “In the end, I failed him,” Tony tells Dr. Melfi conclusively.  Maybe his whole generation did, or maybe Jackie failed himself.  Maybe a little of each.

 

In any case, if parenting is the theme of the season, then the real focus of season 3 has been Meadow – we see her lose her virginity, date and be heartbroken from a mobster, and begin to create ambitions that make her parents proud – leaving Jersey.  As Tony puts her desire to be a pediatrician, “The important thing is that she get far away from me.  Well she could live close.”  This, coupled with a later question to Dr. Melfi regarding AJ, “How are we going to save this kid?” are two of the toughest lines Tony’s had to utter as a parent.  That last one is made even worse by a quick cut to Jackie Jr.’s coffin being unloaded from a hearse.

 

In the way that parents sometimes look at their somewhat-grown children and marvel at how they got to the place they’re at, The Sopranos takes growing children to a new level of intimacy in this episode in observing Meadow.  She’s such a fascinating mixture of loyalty, wisdom, immaturity and understanding.  She gets drunk with Jackie’s younger sister, Kelly, who begins to insinuate that Jackie’s death was mob-related in front of a distant cousin.  Now, Meadow had made this same accusation to her mother earlier in the episode (“People have to get X from somewhere,” she says dismissively of Jackie’s alleged drug ties).  This time she takes Kelly to task – “The fact that you would even joke about this, in front of an outsider is amazing to me.  Some loyalty?”  Yet later, in the car with Carmela, Meadow is both respectful and spiteful of her parents’ nature.

 

So much of the struggle of independence and “family” is represented in Meadow, whose very name suggests the dreams and peaceful hopes of her parents.  In the episode’s most famous and argued over sequence, a loose, drunk Junior begins to sing an Italian ballad called “Ungrateful Heart” at Jackie’s memorial, being held at Vesuvio.  While the Family watches reverently, a looser, drunker Meadow begins throwing bread at Junior, and breaks out laughing, singing the title of Britney Spears’s “Oops! I Did It Again.”  Tony chases her outside, before she yells “This is bullshit!” and races across traffic.  When Tony comes back in, he says to Carmela merely, “I guess she went back to Columbia.”

 

There’s a metaphor to be had of Tony chasing Meadow into traffic, and her winding up on the other side, far away, towards safety.  Certainly the clash of generations in the Vesuvio sequence is clear.  Some have argued it’s too clear, but it would also be clear to Meadow, who understands enough of what’s occurring to know she needs to reject the whole culture that raised her.  She’s not done with her conflicts of self yet in the series, but she does know the past is not for her.  This is sad for Tony, but ultimately he knows it’s right – Meadow’s made her way out of danger, and now they have to save the other ungrateful heart they’re responsible for.  That won’t be done with any method his family and he have tried in the past, and AJ will only be getting more confused the older and more entitled he becomes.

 

Some scenes you may have missed:

There are four clever touches in this episode that show the extraordinary depth of character The Sopranos employs – in four ridiculous ways.

 

First, Patterson employs a terrifically off-kilter angle to shoot Paulie’s head as he leaves his mother in Green Grove, the “retirement community” responsible for so much of Livia Soprano’s agita.  Nucci Gaultieri is beloved by Paulie, but she’s a ludicrous figure, and Paulie’s bizarrely excessive defensiveness of her is one of his quirkiest characteristics.  Here, he’s shot from underneath, as if the camera is jutting far out from his stomach, a great vision of his nostrils and hair flairs – what better way to show someone who’s a sinister, sometimes comic vision of mob obligation.

 

Second, Janice at the funeral home throws a CD of “Christian contemporary music” to the pastor in his office.  “I wish I had something like this at my mother’s own funeral,” and claims that Tommy Mottola will probably sign them soon.

 

Third, Ralphie, that master of scumminess, complains during a sit-down that he’s been needing to avoid Ro – “all that crying” makes it too difficult to sleep.  After Jackie’s funeral, too, he goes straight to the chair to watch college football.  What a stepfather.

 

Finally, Tony, complaining of the “putrid fucking rotten” Soprano gene in therapy mentions a great-great grandfather in Avellino who, out of depression, drove his mule cart off the road.  Carmela will mention this in passing during a fight in the final season’s “The Second Coming.”  Tony whines quite a bit, eh?

 

And one final bit of continuity I love.  Tony’s final words in the Season One finale, “I Dream of Jeannie Cusimano,” have come up at various times in the series, and here, Meadow remembers them as important – but incorrectly and attributes them to the wrong person.  “That thing you said once about remembering the times with the people that are important to you,” Meadow recalls.  “Actually, your father said that,” Carmela corrects her.  In the series finale, AJ reminds Tony of saying that, and Tony, as many of us would, says “I said that?”

Aimee Mann, Lost In Space

February 27, 2009

aimee-mann-lost-in-space

Aimee Mann Lost In Space

I’ve fallen in love with Aimee Mann and lost it again. I bought I’m With Stupid when I was 18, and I was a little heartbroken myself, and found a line like “All that stuff/ we knew before/ just turned into/ please love me more” to be the height of wounding precision. Mann was always jaded and dispassionate, but she also was onto something – dismissive without being glib, wallowing in feelings while also mocking them. I’m With Stupid is still the vintage Mann record, representative of who she is. In 2008, when Mann released her weakest record @#%&*! Smilers, Spin pulled a Mann on Mann – unfairly, I think – describing it as “Another nuanced collection of mid-tempo ’70s-pop-referencing tunes that document the lives of folks who manage only fleeting moments of happiness between protracted stretches of frustration.”

That was the Mann project, the stuff Mann would refer to as “my normal stuff.” By the time 2002’s Lost In Space came around, Mann had found some amount of mainstream success after early 2000’s Magnolia soundtrack, and the freedom that gave Mann to purchase back her most successful record, Bachelor No. 2. The truth is the nuance, mid-temp, 70’s-referencing collection is Bachelor, and it doesn’t hold up well. By 2002, critics took it out on Lost In Space. Rolling Stone gave it a two-star review saying her writing was obvious and her hooks were non-existent, citing “The Moth” that was drawn to the flame and “Humpty Dumpty” who had a great fall. But is that really fair? I actually find some bravery in an opening number called “Humpty Dumpty,” especially this “Humpty Dumpty,” with its ferocious chorus: “Better take the kids/ and drive forever/ Staying won’t put these pieces back together/ All the perfect drugs and superheroes/ wouldn’t be enough to bring me up to zero.” The truth is the line is just crankier than anything she’d written before, but also, sung in a lower register, more forbidding.

I had Lost In Space for at least a year before I got the whole thing, and each year I value it a little more – and, in truth, the rest of Mann’s catalogue a little less by comparison. “Humpty Dumpty” is cranky alright, but it also has bridges of soaring vulnerability – “I’m not the girl you once put your faith in,” she sings, “just someone that looks like me” in her highest register, before switching out of it to that vicious chorus. Lost In Space, then, seemed to me to be the first record of Mann’s to really indulge her viewpoint, the true emotional coldness that underlined her cynicism, sarcasm, and nuanced dismissal in her previous records. Its cover features a cartoon drawing of power lines across a spare night sky. You follow its stars and bouncing lines that connect a personality adrift in misery.

As I said, it was a year. During that year, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to “It’s Not,” the album’s final song, but eventually something struck me – this song was perfect. At first, it merely seems like the most resigned song of Mann’s career, the opposite of an affirmation – a disaffirmation, that you think things will get better but they won’t. It just seemed too simple and whiny. But the coldness that echoed through the record eventually caught up in my own life – it was a remarkably cold winter in Colorado, and I, in a phase of my life readjusting from a long study abroad, felt remarkably alone. I first got hooked on the more directly enticing songs of “This Is How It Goes” and “Pavlov’s Bell,” but “It’s Not” kept me coming back. It was a line in its bridge – “People are tricky/ you can’t afford to show/ anything risky/ anything they don’t know.” But sung with such sadness, it went from being an observation by the loneliest girl in school to being wise with hard fought, isolated lessons. That’s because the desperation that Mann’s dispassionate work had covered up comes to bubbling, thrilling fruition on Lost In Space. This is Mann embracing her inner PJ Harvey but retaining her own eloquent style.

From there, every song eventually takes hold, even “High On Sunday ‘51” and “Guys Like Me,” which I skipped on my cd player for months. Each is constructed with just the right malaise and revealing resentment. Like “It’s Not,” the album, rather than being a pick-me-up, is a rather comforting, deeply moving confirmation of your worst fears. Each song seems to reveal a line of deep poetry about the pits of self-loathing, like in “Real Bad News” which sees Mann singing, “I won’t make you feel bad/ when I show you/ this big ball of sad/ isn’t worth even filling with air.” Or in “Invisible Ink,” which finds Mann singing to a lover, “I feel like a ghost whose moving your hands across some Ouija board in the hopes I might spell out my name,” and of herself, “I suppose I should be happy to be misread – better be that than some of the other things I have become.” These are most certainly not lines written by an artist in a slump.

There’s another element that binds the album together like the lost telephone wires on the cover, and this is still to me the album’s strangest elements – drugs. They’re mentioned in at least half of the songs recorded – in “Pavlov’s Bell,” Mann implores a lover to “give her the fix,” in “This is How It Goes,” she muses, “It’s all about drugs, it’s all about shame,” and in “High on Sunday ’51,” the chorus sadly begs a love to “Let me be your heroin.” Was Mann experiencing the world’s most transparent chemical dependency? I doubt it; I think it has more to do with that over half of the “This Is How It Goes” couplet – it’s all about shame. Mann floated around the notions of humiliation and, really, of sadness with her wise, omniscient, perfectly-rhymed eloquence for years. Lost In Space goes so fervently for its own sad underbelly that it turned off the core Mann fans who fell in love with her dejection in the first place. What’s brave about it is that it revealed what was there all along.

Tori Amos, Boys For Pele

February 7, 2009

boys-for-pele 

Let’s be very clear about this – I used to be a much bigger fan of Tori Amos before I figured out how nuts she was.  Perhaps all artists are a little nuts, but Tori is nuts.  On VH1’s Storytellers in 1998, when describing why she wrote Pele’s “Hey Jupiter,” Amos recounted a tale about a dead man that sat on the edge of the bed in her hotel room while on tour.  On that same broadcast, she described the tale behind a song, from 1998’s From The Choirgirl Hotel, called “Iieee,” which being told on television, in her description of a little boy who told her to drive to distant cities and start fires, would be enough proof of hallucinations to get your average citizen hospitalized.

 

Yet even as my embarrassment for Amos’s public appearances cooled my teenage love of her, my admiration of 1996’s Boys For Pele hasn’t subsided – I’m still certain it’s her best work, and the work of a personality we’re lucky to have.  At the time, Rolling Stone gave it a two star review calling it “self-indulgent,” and Entertainment Weekly echoed the sentiment, labeling the record “histrionic.”  The aim was often at Amos’s bewildering lyrics, which I could try and waste everyone’s time in defending as quasi-mystical, or feminist calls to arms.  But really, they are mostly bad.  The amazing thing is that doesn’t matter much.  Even more amazing is that they occasionally are pretty successful anyway.

 

Boys For Pele is, to me, great because it is self-indulgent – it’s the only record of Amos’s catalogue that fully explores her crazy-feminist-pissed-at-men-and-God lunacy and sublimates it.  It combines her best melodious instincts with her fiery consciousness and creates a result that’s as creative, as vital, as it is crazed.  She begins with quiet piano trembles in “Beauty Queen/Horses,” adds a harpsichord in “Blood Roses,” includes a trumpet and a bass in “Father Lucifer,” and by the time track 4, “Professional Widow,” explodes into a cavalcade of industrial synth, you’re willing to believe that Amos has abandoned all of the wise A/C melody she cultivated on Little Earthquakes and tweaked, sorta, on Under The Pink.  Frankly, those records don’t hold up well – they’re sanitized and half-cooked, even when the material is good.  Boys For Pele succeeds because it feels like so frenzied, it might explode at any moment.  For an album titled after a goddess who sits in a volcano waiting to swallow men thrown at her, that frenzy fits.

 

But for a minute, let me say what I mean about how it doesn’t matter that the lyrics don’t work.  I think if you wanted to pull out Amos’s lyrics and read them like a poem, like you could with Joni Mitchell, you would be disappointed.  But what are song lyrics supposed to be?  Amos has a knack for small phrases that evoke winces of emotion, that complement her idiosyncrasies.  In “Professional Widow” – still Amos’s most whacked out track to date – a line like “Everywhere a Judas as far as you can see/ beautiful angels calling” doesn’t exactly mean anything, but it sounds good.  On the big-band backed “Putting The Damage On,” a line like “I’m trying not to move, it’s just your ghost passing through” sounds deeply wounding and lovely.

 

Looking at the initial release information of Boys For Pele, I realize that I’ve been listening to the album in some form or another now for 13 years.  For most, “Professional Widow” and “Hey Jupiter” – if not Amos’s entire career – are flits of distant memory.  For me, I can hear the record and admire its ups and downs.  A song like “Professional Widow” that can turn, with a jump, into a sweet, lovely soft song like “Marianne.”  The beautiful “Doughnut Song” that gets exploded by sitting next to a fiery, wonderful number like “In The Springtime Of His Voodoo.”  I, for one, am happy I have Amos’s lunacy to admire, even if I’m less than overwhelmed with the rest of her catalogue – Boys For Pele is the album that Amos, acting also as producer, dared to put her lunatic head into, and we’re all a little saner for it.

Sonic Youth, Daydream Nation

February 7, 2009

Sonic Youth Daydream Nationdaydream-nation

 

“Everybody’s talkin’ bout the stormy weather/ what’s a man to do but work out whether it’s true?” Thurston Moore asks in the opening track, “Teen Age Riot,” setting off an album that sounds both like stormy weather and “working out whether it’s true.”  That is, seeking the truth past the way we describe it.  Would you describe it as melodious listening to that clanging, off-tune guitar in “Riot”?  It repeats like a melody certainly, but it is dirtier, much noisier, full of static and feedback.  “It’s getting so stormy in my city’s head/ it takes a teen age riot to get me out of bed,” Moore muses, and what the band spews forth over 74 minutes and 14 sprawling songs is not just that riot, it helps start what will become grunge and the rock mainstream in just another few years.

 

Is that an overstatement?  The album, centered with gorgeous cover art featuring Gerhard Richter’s painting Kenze (Candle), is full of bombastic tendencies – symbols for each of the band members to echo Led Zeppelin’s IV, songs that allegedly reference Saul Bellow, Joni Mitchell, ZZ Top, and that featured an art film music video for the song “Providence,” a song of an off-key piano recorded on a walkman, played over an answering machine message left from Providence, RI.  Everything about the album declares its position in the rock pantheon, but amazingly, as the years have gone by, it’s not only evidently influential in the rock records that came in its wake, it still declares and blasts its conceptual daring, its rock virtuosity, and its astonishing beauty and wisdom on succeeding listens. 

 

This is easy for me to say – Sonic Youth has, since I first heard the record ten years ago, consistently been the band I refer to as “my favorite band.”  Is it that I love them that much more than, say, the Velvet Underground, or Sleater-Kinney, or the Rolling Stones?  Maybe, maybe not, but Sonic Youth continue to have a quality that has never been matched in any other artist – perhaps because they’ve stayed together under the same iteration for so long, perhaps because they’re schooled in the background of New York’s art-rock scene and is often more art than rock.  Daydream Nation is so singular a triumph even in their excellent catalogue, though – the collision of their noise with their melodiousness.  Art that never overshadowed the drive of the music.  Feedback that underscored emotion.  “Teenage Riot” goes into the furious “Silver Rocket,” and then into Kim Gordon’s song “The Sprawl,” a song that is pissy (“I wanted to know the exact dimensions of hell/ does this sound simple?/ Fuck you/ Are you for sale?”) as it was rather sweet and wondrous, blanketed by a wall of noise that was propulsive, lovely, and gave way to a meadow of noise on song’s conclusion.

 

For a record often described as “conceptual,” “sprawling,” and “ambitious,” what exactly was its sprawling, conceptual ambition?  I have theories – I hear in songs like “Eric’s Trip” and “Hey Joni” a desire to break free from the common understanding of the things we say in society and find some “truth.”  But that’s far too cerebral.  In 1994, the band would leave as an epigram on the back cover of their (great) Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star record, “Once it leaves your head, it’s already compromised,” a quote from No Wave creator Glenn Branca.  That’s a quote that defined what worked about their music – of getting infinitesimally closer to the confusion, the riot in our heads simply by making the guitars cacophonous instead of melodious.  Over time, the noise turned into melody anyway.  Another quote would be from “Confusion Is Next,” a rather middling song on their first full length record Confusion is Sex: “I maintain that chaos is the future/ Confusion is next/ and next after that is freedom.”  Consider this a little more of columns B and C than column A.

 

This would always be the MO for the band, and, particularly in the records released between 1985 and 1995, I don’t think it’s ever not worked.  The truth is, even on records (like 1998’s A Thousand Leaves, or 2004’s Sonic Nurse) that don’t feel as conceptually full as their best work (Daydream, Dirty, Jet Set, EVOL, Bad Moon Rising), there are still qualities on the record no one else in music can approximate.  Because Sonic Youth was always a band most beloved by music critics, there tends to be a lot of snobbishness and revisionism in describing their music also.  But Daydream Nation is the record that justifies all of that – an album that feels as revolutionary as it sounds, that explodes in your heart as much as your head.  By the time the band reaches its 14-minute, sorta-conclusive “trilogy” that closes the record, blazing “It’s an anthem in a vacuum in a hyperstation/ daydreaming days in a daydream nation,” you’re aware of hearing the sound and the feeling of a generation represented with as much beauty as volume. 

Lucinda Williams, Sweet Old World

January 23, 2009

sweet-old-worldI did write about Sweet Old World some years ago, when I realized what a warm and extraordinary collection of songs it was.  I loved how pure, how simple a song like “Something About What Happens When We Talk” could be – exploring the loneliness that lurks between two people who think so fondly of each other.  I loved that she made tire irons and casseroles sound sexy in the rollicking yodel classic “Hot Blood.”  Now, I hear something else also – it’s 17 years later into Williams’s career, where she first indulged her country muse to great perfection in Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, and then remade our understanding of desire and loneliness in aging from Essence even through her “happy” 2008 release Little HoneySweet Old World is as much of an evocation of her consciousness at the time as any of those records are.

This is where the country songs were more simple and lovely, opening with “Six Blocks Away,” which could have been a jaunty, great country single.  This record, though, is a happy record marked by great grief and disappointment.  She sings of her brother’s death, gorgeously, in “Little Angel, Little Brother,” and a friend’s suicide with tremendous mystery and excitement in “Pineola.”  She tells, with stark, elevating simplicity, the story of a woman compromising her ideals in “Memphis Pearl.”  She even closes the record with a deeply naked, 3 a.m. cover of Nick Drake’s “Which Will,” which sounds, actually, like the themes Williams wants to approach.

I do now think there are themes on Sweet Old World, and I mostly feel that way from the two songs that stand out to me the most, although all are great songs here.  The first is the title track, “Sweet Old World,” in which Williams, presumably to her brother, asks someone to notice all the wonderful elements of the world that were so extraordinary, and lost when that person killed himself.  This could be a song of great sadness, but it isn’t – it’s a song of strength and wonder.  That’s even truer for “Sidewalks of the City,” which is as simple as it sounds – a sweet, quiet walk at 3 a.m. down a city street, bars closing, bums sleeping in doorways.  Yet she sings to a lover, “Hold me, baby, give me some strength… give me good things, tell me that my world is safe.”  Again, this could be a song of loneliness, of sadness, of fear.  Instead, it’s a plea of appreciation, of loving the world around, of begging, as she does, for grace.  I’ve loved the Williams who later in life got lonely and sang so precisely about it.  This is the Williams I love for wanting, so gorgeously, to truly be in the world.

“The Wolf That Lives In Lindsey” Joni Mitchell

January 23, 2009

joni-mitchell-260Even Joni Mitchell had to find the right words to explain her 1979 album Mingus, a jazz collaboration with the great jazz bassist Charles Mingus, and an album whose greatest ambition was to be… well, “sketchy,” was what one Rolling Stone article described it as.  The songs sort of ramble laconically, melodies buried when present at all.  Mitchell later called the record a “work in progress,” proud of its structural looseness.  I think it’s hard not to reach a similar conclusion while listening to the record, but at the same time, all looseness has the ability to turn into form over time.  Lucinda Williams has an unreleased song called “Sundays” at the end of the special edition to Lucinda Williams and swears it’s unfinished – I don’t think the song could be more perfect.

“The Wolf That Lives in Lindsay” is a battle between furious plucks of a bass, playing at a different tune of the acoustic guitar that plays high and low at once, and the hand drums that beat, well, to their own drum, appropriately.  Mitchell, though past the age in which a listener could tell her voice was going, soars to old vocal heights – “Of the darkness in men’s minds/ what can you say/ that wasn’t marked by history,” she ponders and sort of tells a story of the men and their darknesses, wandering the streets, as well as of Lindsey, who finds her own darkness expressed within.  There is one more instrument combining here as well – howles of wolves, used as a composition that actually complements all the desultory elements.  “The Wolf” isn’t the sort of song that you can pull out of a jazz record and turn into a standard, but it is one that takes hold reflecting the uncertainty and mystery of the world and wanders gorgeously with its consciousness into the dark.  The guitar, the howls, the voice, the deep pluck of that bass awaken something – fear and sadness living simultaneously with sensuality.

“The Ant of the Self” by ZZ Packer

January 11, 2009

drinking20coffee20elsewhere“Freedom is attained only when the ant of the self – that small, blind, crumb-seeking part of ourselves – casts off slavery and its legacy, becoming a huge brave ox.”  A small, black teenage narrator named Spurgeon hears this bit of wisdom, as if in passing, at the Million Man March in “The Ant of the Self.”  He notes with boredom and anger that the preacher speaking is repeating a message heard earlier, and reading from a letter read earlier, about ways to keep slaves down – by pitting dark ones against light ones, big plantations vs. small plantations, etc.

We know by this point, about midway through “Ant,” that Spurgeon is completely justified in his anger.  He has taken a road trip with his father – always referred to in the full, ingratiating name of Ray Bivens Jr. – who is a drunk, abusive, self-deluded, avoiding a DUI conviction, owing Spurgeon bail money, and certain that selling a group of exotic birds to the Afro-centric attendees of the March will get him rich.  Spurgeon is smart, he debates for his mostly white high school, and has a loving mother who is as baffled by her ex as her son is, but whose obsessive religion makes her nearly as blind to her son’s potential and good nature as Ray Bivens Jr. is – although, at least his mother would never steal her ex’s car, fill it with smoke, and drive it across the country full of birds.

That speech advising how freedom is attained speaks for the situation of race in America, and also speaks to the freedom Spurgeon needs to find from his father.  Does Spurgeon recognize this?  “At first it sounds like what everyone else has been saying,” Spurgeon says.  That “At first” is telling.  Perhaps the blithe, angry, casually dismissive voice guiding us through this story with much analysis, insight, and sadness, finds something more to take out of this part of the speech.  He doesn’t act on it though – he instead proceeds to get in a fight with the inspired, angry men around him who mistake Spurgeon’s anger at his father for dismissal of the triumph of black rights.

Writing about race is tricky, as is writing about any “important subject.”  In order to do so in a short story context, you have to especially believe the prose discussing it – and a simple discussion will not do.  “The Ant of the Self” is the fourth story in Packer’s 2003 collection Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, and I believe that no other form and no other collection could discuss race as well as this book does.  Its stories range from decade to decade, place to place, male to female, young to old, and chronicle, in each one, someone else facing the enormity of what it is to comprehend race in society.  The book closes with an astonishing story, “Brownies,” in which a group of young black girls accidentally stumbles onto the cruelty that defines minority interactions.  It ends with “Doris Is Coming,” a gripping story that concludes with a black girl sitting at a white ice cream parlor during the civil rights movement.

But “The Ant of the Self” is the story that has stuck with me the most since I read Drinking Coffee Elsewhere years ago.  It is a fascinating, beyond unpredictable narrative – you don’t even realize, for ten pages or so, that it is even about the Million Man March.  And even when it is, it’s not.  The true meat of the story is afterwards, at a bar full of black men who did not attend the march.  Spurgeon, who was indifferent to the march anyway, states it was like a vacation for him to be among black men for once.

A man with a goiter responds to him, “Back in the day, before you were born, couldn’t that type of shit happen… We the ones fought for you to be in school with the white folks.  We sent you to go spy on them.  See how the hell those white folks make all that money!  Now you talking ’bout a vacation!”  Spurgeon’s life is far from great.  Because of his father, Spurgeon’s connect to alcoholism, disillusion, money problems, jail time, and having to figure out how to tell his mother he doesn’t know where in DC her car wound up.  But it’s also something akin to progress.

Not that Packer wants us to get too hopeful.  “The Ant of the Self” soars – and works – because the racial and family dynamics simply follow the trajectory of the narrative.  Something happens between Spurgeon and his father, and it doesn’t end well.  Most of the stories in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere don’t exactly “end well” for their characters.  But the all reach a certain point of progress and understanding.  The final scene of “Ant” involves Spurgeon in an Amtrak station realizing he can’t go east anymore, and seeing a father and his young child, who had attended the march, acting warm and happy with one another.

The racial and family dynamics here tend to symbolize one another, jumping back and forth.  Spurgeon is trying to reconcile the disdain he has for his father while not being willing to reject him entirely – like the ant of the title, he seeks crumbs of affection from a man incapable of giving them.  Much like the black identity in this country, there is much to learn to live with, and much progress has been made.  Similarly, Spurgeon seeks an understanding amongst the throng of black men he cannot find – he is not large, or athletic, and thinks of thing in quiet, introspective ways, quite distinct from the men who will not listen to him.  His family dynamic is mirrored by the racial dynamic, and vice versa.

Short story writers learn to be economical with their writing, giving you just what you need.  Packer has the skill to tell a story about race, and not quite tell a story about race.  People talk about race in it, like people do on occasion, and they do it from their own perspective.  The mass of perspectives – generations of perspectives, from the men in bars with goiters, the jesus-loving women on the phone, the drunks selling birds, and the happy young children in train stations – proves that experience is varied and ongoing, and that anything is possible.  “The Ant of the Self” doesn’t quite end in a hopeful place, but ends where you know hope is very much possible.

“University”

December 16, 2008

the_sopranos_32_university“University”

Season 3, Episode 6

Written by Terrence Winter and Salvatore J. Stabile

Story by David Chase, Terrence Winter, Todd A. Kessler, Mitchell Burgess, and Robin Green

 

Plot: Tracee (Ariel Kiley), a 20-year-old Bada Bing stripper who also is Ralphie’s girlfriend, oversteps her relationship with Tony after he sticks up for her one time too many.  Ralphie’s relationship with Tracee comes to a violent end.  At Columbia, Meadow’s relationship with Noah Tannenbaum (Patrick Tully) deepens just as her tension with roommate Caitlin (Ali Graynor) grows to a climax.

 

Analysis:

The guitar that opens The Kinks’ “Living On A Thin Line” lingers ominously anyway, but try playing it across a shot that lingers on a bright red light bulb, and continues with long, establishing shots of the Bada Bing, its inhabitants, workers, and strippers.  Writer/ Producer Terrence Winter has said that “Living On A Thin Line,” the song that is featured three times in “University,” is the show’s most asked-about song, and perhaps it’s not surprising – not only is it a sly, propulsive song in and of itself, in an episode of deeply disturbing behavior by all involved, the song represents the world it inhabits.  “Living On A Thin Line” has the power to evoke the emotions and lives living on a thin line represented in “University.”

 

What a clever use of a song anyway.  “University” focuses on Tracee, the kindly, young, simple stripper whose teeth are terrible and owes money to Silvio for fixing them and for helping her take care of her young son.  Tracee is also involved with Ralphie, which is perhaps in and of itself indicative that she has terrible taste in men.  Meanwhile, Meadow is having boyfriend troubles of her own as her relationship with Noah Tannenbaum deepens and hits skids.  Noah is the black Jewish RA Tony made offensive comments to in “Proshai, Livushka,” harming his relationship with Meadow – the two share one tense scene in “University” in which Meadow excitedly asks if her “Daddy” is home, only to be deliberately cold to him when he arrives.  Meadow and Noah’s relationship is forged and then tested by Meadow’s unstable roommate at Columbia, Caitlin, who compulsively pulls out her hair and is deeply disturbed by the sight of sad movies, bums, and Meadow’s empty bed.

 

There’s a purpose to put those two stories together, they are linked by “Living On A Thin Line,” and an actual thin line – the brutally, confrontationally clever direction by Allen Coulter who emphasizes editing in perhaps the most disturbing juxtapositions of any Sopranos episode, a show that always used editing for clever effect.  Not only are scenes of Tracee almost always shown next to a scene of Meadow and Caitlin, but it’s often even more disturbing than that – as Tracee, in a backroom deal, is having sex with a cop and with Ralphie, yelling “Are you crying?  I’ll give you something to cry about,” a flip of her hair segues exactly into a flip of Caitlin’s hair.  Caitlin is crying, talking about how awful it is to see a bum on the street.  As we watch Tracee slink to the stage at the Bada Bing and start dancing, her curves are given a match cut with a skateboarder who passes Noah and Meadow on the streets in New York.  Later, Ralphie laughs from a window watching his lover getting beaten by Silvio, and his laughter is cut directly into his laughter at dinner, as he politely laughs at a story told by Carmela.

 

Why link the fates of Tracee and Meadow so closely, particularly in an episode called “University”?  The purpose here is to link the results of opportunity.  Tracee mentions to Tony seeing a therapist for issues of violence towards her son stemming from abuse by a mother, and Tony doesn’t even want to listen.  Meanwhile, at Columbia, Caitlin of Barlesville, Oklahoma, talks to Meadow about missing her ferrets and travelling to New Hampshire for the weekend to go ride horses on a large estate.  Meadow herself has sex with Noah and probably loses her virginity, as evident by the tender, searingly vulnerable look on her face as her clothes are taken off.  Her father is no saint either, clearly, but the worlds they inhabit could have been the same – Meadow, Caitlin, and Tracee are the same age, and Tony uses the discomfort he feels about Tracee to help reform his bond with Meadow later in the season – Tony, although far from clean of conscience in the matter, is aware of the thin line they all live on.

 

Season 3 of The Sopranos busts any complacency remaining in the series, but that had pretty much been destroyed already by this point in the season.  After the second season, David Chase started saying that he felt frustrated by the direction of the series – that sure, Tony is a mobster, but a “cuddly teddy bear” mobster who loves his wife and kids and does what’s right.  Chase started the third season as a rejoinder to people trying to get too comfortable with what the Family of The Sopranos does.  “University” follows “Employee of the Month” and “Another Toothpick” directly in the third season, and the three are probably the most violent episodes in the entire series’ run.  In “Toothpick,” an angry godson of Bobby Baccala, Sr. takes a golf club to the head of an innocent bystander until brains come out, and later gets his own brains splattered against his kitchen wall in a violent brawl.  In the famous “Employee of the Month” (which won the Emmy for Best Writing that season), Dr. Melfi is raped in the stairwell of her garage and the rapist is set free on a technicality.  And in “University,” Tracee is beaten to death for absolutely no reason by Ralphie, the biggest scumbag in The Sopranos cast.

 

“University,” with its scene of an eye being hit by a chain, and with a scene of even Silvio raising his fists to Tracee, is easily the most violent of all of these episodes, and notoriously caused many Sopranos fans to cancel their HBO subscriptions, and even briefly caused James Gandolfini to contemplate leaving the series due to how the violent content was causing him personal distress.  More than that, it also raised criticism that the third season was misogynist, particularly after Melfi’s rape scene in “Employee.”  This controversy perhaps only proved Chase’s point that audiences had grown too complacent – we had welcomed the Sopranos into our living room but forgotten how they’d become who they’d become.  They weren’t pure evil, exactly, but many were violent, misogynists, rapists, and scumbags, and they were perhaps people we shouldn’t be comfortable with.  “University” is then a confrontation of lives living on a thin line – our own, about what constitutes morality, and what doesn’t.

 

I mentioned the cut that juxtaposes Ralphie laughing as Tracee is beaten by Silvio with Ralphie laughing at a joke Carmela tells at a dinner table.  This, I think, is the crucial cut in the episode, and the most disturbing.  Why is Ralphie laughing so hard at the violence towards Tracee?  That’s just who he is, we suppose – someone who thrives on violence, who, Gigi Cestone tells us earlier in the episode, “We’re gonna find this one in a trunk someday.”  The most disgusting part – particularly after seeing him stoned and oblivious in his living room, ignoring Tracee – is that Tony and Carmela welcome him into their home for dinner, and that he does so with the pose of an attentive boyfriend to bereaved widow, Rosalie Aprile.  Other character’s responses to Ralphie were always standoffish at best, but his inclusion in the series is an interesting one, and would eventually nab Joe Pantoliano an Emmy for Best Supporting Actor.  Ralphie will be killed, suddenly, in season 4’s “Whoever Did This,” when Tony snaps and beats him to death in his kitchen; at the end of the episode, he pulls a picture of Tracee off of a Bada Bing mirror, as if it absolves him of his sins, then walks out into a blinding bright morning.  If Season 3 is about breaking our complacency with who the members of this Family are, it’s telling that this is when The Sopranos introduces a character like Ralphie, whom everyone knows is a scumbag, but no one wants to avoid him altogether.  Season 2’s resident scumbag, Richie Aprile, was bad enough, but at least he had the excuse of being “from another era.” 

 

Ralphie is a terrible person, pure and simple, bitter, selfish, simply awful.  Ralphie says himself in an aside, “I had to quit school in 11th grade, to help

my mother.  Supposed to be an architect.”  No one takes this comment very seriously, but certainly Ralphie does.  Like all the great Sopranos characters, there’s more to him than his misanthropy and odiousness – he has a son who he loves but isn’t that involved with (who will fall into a coma, to Ralphie’s heartbreak, in “Whoever Did This”), he has bizarre sexual preoccupations (which we’ll see, most memorably, in “Christopher,” as Janice fucks him with a dildo), and he is, simply, someone the Family seems to have accepted as always having been around, even though no one likes him very much.  Perhaps we all have people in our lives that are questionable, make us squeamish and concerned, but we know that socially, they’ll just be there, so we put up with them.  They are likely not as awful a human being as Ralph Cifaretto, and for that we should be grateful.

 

“University” remains one of the most memorable Sopranos episodes for so many reasons, notably how disturbing and violent it is.  But I think it’s not actually the violence that is the most memorable thing about it – it’s that it makes us complicit in that violence.  By constantly juxtaposing Meadow’s innocent boy troubles with the awful choices Tracee has to make, we’re left deeply uncomfortable and confused.  Early in the episode, Caitlin, disturbed by a horror movie, asks with unctuous seriousness, “Why is other people’s pain a source of amusement?”  Why indeed.  Chase, Winter, and Stabile ask us that question up close in a Brechtian confrontation – why are we honoring this world of mobsters and strip clubs?  Why are we letting scum like Ralphie into our homes at dinner time and kiss our kind, widowed friends?  Chase wants us to especially know that to accept these characters and present them as they are is to accept what is good and bad about them, and this episode makes us deeply, uncomfortably aware about the bad.

 

There is good though, and that perhaps is the part that keeps this episode from being all misery – and that’s all encompassed in Meadow’s miniature tale of heartbreak.  Meadow, who keeps returning home to confer with Carmela over her boy, is a true princess, never having had her hand burned on a stovetop like Tracee’s was.  She lies in bed with Carm and obliquely talks about her sex life.  She waves her orange juice glass at the dinner table to get it refilled without much comment.  If Tony has some guilt for not being able to protect Tracee from her death, it has to do with the “underlying cynicism” Noah falsely calls Meadow on before breaking up with her.  Tony was not capable of saving Tracee, but he did save Meadow – Meadow is happy and loved and has the freedom to yell at people to express her heartbreak. 

 

This is accomplished through great writing and acting – for Kiley’s childish walks and almost violent dances onstage to express what she can’t have, and for Meadow expressing her own tremulous child experiencing love for the first time.  This season is Jamie Lynn-Sigler’s great accomplishment, as she infuses Meadow with so many conflicted emotions, so often the focus of what Tony experiences as a father.  He says, resignedly, in the astonishing finale episode “Army of One,” “Maybe it would be best for her to get away from me for a while.”  Tony actually is the mafia teddy bear who acts terribly but loves his children.  What he doesn’t realize is how important that love has been – it’s given Meadow her life.

 

You may have missed…: Two great moments showing the astonishing depth of detail these characters are given.  In one, Meadow speaks with Carmela about a movie version she’s heard about Eloise, and talks with her about “that one time at the plaza.”  This references a quick mention by Carmela in the Pilot episode that she and Meadow go to the Plaza on her birthday to drink tea wearing white gloves, something we’ll see in season 4’s “Eloise.”  Asides like this that link throughout the season show you the attention the writers pay to the notion that their characters lives continue when we’re not watching.

 

Also, how AJ holds his fork at dinner – his whole hand holding the thing, like a small child.  Despite being 15 years old, AJ is a small child, and will continue to be one throughout his time on the series.  I doubt that Robert Iler holds his fork like this, but AJ does.  What other series – or movie – would spend this much energy on irrelevant details of a character who shows up for less than two minutes this episode?  Only a series that realizes those details aren’t irrelevant.