(I’ll be writing more substantive blog entries again soon–it’s been a busy couple of weeks, and most of my writing time has been dedicated to working on an essay for the Virginia Quarterly Review‘s Young Reviewers Contest, which I’ve now completed and submitted.)
Archive for September, 2008
Tags: book reviews, Books, Joyce Carol Oates, My Love, my reviews, My Sister
Tags: Books, Farah Jasmine Griffin, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, my reviews, PopMatters, reviews, Salim Washington
Tags: Books, Robert Olen Butler, Writing
In a column in the Washington Post, Robert Olen Butler discusses the first and entirely failed decade of his writing life, during which he produced (by his own account) around “a million words of dreck” before finally stumbling upon an approach that made his fiction far more successful. For Butler, it came (oddly enough) in a dream about Richard Nixon, which demonstrated to him the importance of trusting the impulses of the unconscious, while also teaching him a lesson in compassion. Butler writes:
Moreover, the insight itself, as in any work of art, was imbedded not in ideas or abstractions — of which there were far too many in early works — but in the moment-to-moment sensual details: a man dressed in a conservative business suit, sobbing; a pair of socks fallen down at the ankle. Perhaps most important, I understood that an artist has to be compassionate. We create characters — virtual souls — and ask our readers to see them as true reflections of some aspect of the human condition. And we place those characters in situations where they must make choices that inescapably imply a universe of values and standards. In essence, we writers act out the role of God. And if we’re going to do that, then it is incumbent on us to be a loving God.
The God bit is a little grandiose for my taste, but all the same, I think Butler basically right here: writers need to feel compassion for the characters in their stories—even if they’re as unlikable and deeply flawed as Richard Nixon. When a reader feels nothing for a character, there’s little reason to care about the results when that character is put to some kind of ethical or personal test. But when a writer reveals the human in characters who are otherwise repulsive or even evil, those characters’ struggles and choices become meaningful in human terms.
Tags: book business, Books, publishing industry
For several days now, book bloggers have been all over Boris Kachka’s piece in New York magazine about the increasingly dire state of business at the big publishing houses. Some folks have taken issue with the article, noting (reasonably enough) that the doom and ruin of the publishing industry has been predicted on numerous occasions in the past. But Kachka’s article strikes me as extremely perceptive and well-informed, and I think he makes an extremely convincing case against the sustainability of many present-day business practices (such as huge advances and pushing for blockbuster sales in an era of ever-shrinking readership) at the big corporate-owned imprints. Books, Kachka notes, aren’t a mass medium any more (if they ever truly were at all)—but the major houses can’t admit as much, mostly because their business models have become so heavily reliant on pushing many hundreds of thousands of copies of a few blockbuster bestsellers.
Kachka isn’t predicting the end of books here—rather, he’s just pointing out that the current model for mainstream corporate publishing simply isn’t working. But there are other models out there, as Kachka notes near the article’s end:
One indie publisher has been pitching an imprint around town that would go beyond what Miller’s doing—expanding into print-on-demand, online subscriptions, maybe even a “salon” for loyal readers. He envisions a transitional period of print-on-demand, then an era in which most books will be produced electronically for next to nothing, while high-priced, creatively designed hardcovers become “the limited-edition vinyl of the future.” “I think they know it’s right,” the publisher says of the executives he’s wooing, “but they don’t want to disrupt the internal equilibrium. I’m like the guy all the girls want to be friends with but won’t hop into bed with.”
Sounds a lot like what some folks in the music industry have begun trying, doesn’t it? And though it’s not at all clear exactly what will work for either books or music in the long run, it seems to me that aiming rich content at niche audiences is bound to be far more successful than attempting to push a few bestsellers to everyone (and thus also no one in particular) on earth. Why? Because all audiences for books are niche audiences these days—and the same is basically true for music. This doesn’t mean that there’s no money to be made in books or music—but the profits will almost certainly have to come on a smaller scale. And that’s fine by me—I don’t think the quality of books reaching the market is going to be hurt any if they’re actually aimed at the people who read them, instead of at some entirely imaginary general reading public.
Tags: Books, Charlie Jane Anders, fiction, literary fiction, literary fiction as genre, Michael Chabon, science fiction
Science fiction blogger Charlie Jane Anders has literary fiction’s number. In a “rant” on the blog io9 (link via GalleyCat), Anders expresses some doubts as to whether science fiction stands to gain anything significant through its increasing literary respectability. It’s all well and good that literary writers like Michael Chabon have brought positive attention to science fiction of late, and have thereby introduced some literary-minded readers to the pleasures of the genre. But literary respectability, Anders argues, no longer equals mainstream cultural importance, nor offers any kind of guarantee of quality. Though some literary writers do become minor cultural stars, most will never gain the attention of anyone outside of the tiny subculture of little magazines and their dedicated readers. Science fiction writers face similar circumstances, only in a different subculture: for every Neal Stephenson or J.K. Rowling, there are numerous other writers whose works are highly valued only among the small but passionate community of science fiction readers.
Literary fiction, Anders argues, is nothing more (or less) than another genre, just like science fiction. Some literary writers are good at what they do, and others are bad, but none can really claim to be doing anything than writing under the influence of the aesthetic standards and strictures of a genre with its own rules and expectations.
In the post, Anders contrasts literary fiction and science fiction in order to highlight the genre characteristics of each. On prose style, for example:
Most science fiction stories and novels use language as a tool to get the story across. They’re usually written serviceably, but not sparklingly. There are usually way too many adverbs, too many passive sentences, and too much use of the verb “to be.” In literary writing, by contrast, there’s an obsession with prose style. Every sentence must dapple, like sunlight through a baboon’s toes in the jungle.
Some people prefer lapidary literary language; others have a taste for lean and functional prose, even if it does sometimes sacrifice elegance in favor of moving the story along at a rapid clip. Either way, it’s a matter of aesthetics—and what claim could literary fiction possibly have to inherent aesthetic superiority?
I love literary fiction myself, and I fully embrace its aesthetics. But I think Anders is absolutely right here: the subculture of literary fiction is very small (and getting smaller by the day), and definitely isn’t at the center of the world. Like it or not, the true center is probably something more like American Idol and Monday Night Football. This isn’t to say that literary writers (or for that matter, science fiction writers) aren’t producing great work, or that literary work isn’t important. But it isn’t important to everyone, and lots of people have perfectly valid reasons for finding other modes of creative expression more to their liking.
Tags: Ang Lee, Annie Proulx, Books, Brokeback Mountain, fan fiction, fiction, Movies, short stories
Most authors are thrilled for the attention and sales that a major movie adaptation will bring, and Hollywood has been kinder to Annie Proulx than to most. But as it turns out, the film adaptation of her short story “Brokeback Mountain” has recently been bringing her a particular kind of attention that she’d much rather do without. The Guardian is reporting that since the film’s release, Proulx has been bombarded by letters and emails from fans containing pornographic rewrites of her story. Apparently many of the writers have even gone so far as to tell her that they sincerely believe that they’re improving on the original, on the grounds that it had an insufficient amount of explicit gay cowboy sex for their tastes. In the article, Proulx sounds perturbed—though also much more good-humored about her unsolicited (and unwanted) emulators than J.K. Rowling, who recently went after a fan who compiled a Harry Potter encyclopedia without her permission, and succeeded in shutting his project down.
In case you’re curious: Maud Newton links to a related Guardian piece which offers some choice selections from ten “Brokeback”-related fanfic opuses, all of which are available on the web, and no doubt very juicy.
Tags: Books, David Foster Wallace
I tore through the whole of Wallace’s sprawling, inventive, and magnificent novel Infinite Jest in the middle of an academic term in college—it demanded my attention and kept me up very late for many nights running. It’s a wildly ambitious, sometimes exasperating, and absolutely fascinating book, and no doubt one that I’ll return throughout my life.
Of all of Wallace’s fiction, I think my favorite book is probably not Infinite Jest, but rather the story collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, which offers an effective balance of formal experimentation and genuinely moving storytelling. Perhaps Wallace’s greatest strength was his ability to fully put his heart into stories and forms that in the hands of many other writers would feel like mere technical exercises. Wallace’s work was often simultaneously richly philosophical and deeply felt.
I’m surprised and saddened to learn of his death. I’m sure he’ll be sorely missed by many.
Tags: Books, Charlie Parker, Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, September 11 novels
Carolyn Kellogg has a post on the LA Times Jacket Copy blog about novelists who’ve tackled September 11 in their fiction. Kellogg mostly focuses on Paul Auster’s new novel, Man in the Dark, in comparison to Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, but she also provides a handy list of other novelistic treatments of the topic.
I haven’t yet read Auster’s novel (which has been getting mixed reviews), but DeLillo’s book (which I’ve blogged about before) has definitely stayed with me in the year or so since I read it— and particularly the scene in which one of the novel’s central characters participates in a war protest march, and observes that one man in the crowd is shouting out not about the war, but about the fact that it happens to be Charlie Parker’s birthday:
He was almost looking at her but not quite and then moved on to say the same thing to a man wearing a T-shirt inscribed with a peace sign and in his reproachful tone she caught the implication that all these people, these half million in their running shoes and sun hats and symbol-bearing paraphernalia, were shit-faced fools to be gathered here in this heat and humidity for whatever it was that had brought them here when they might more suitably be filling these streets, in exactly these numbers, to show respect for Charlie Parker on his birthday.
The astonishing, powerful, and fundamentally American achievements of Charlie Parker are held up in contrast with the ugly, aggressive, and badly wounded American nation that has become lost in its suffering, grief, and horror in the wake of September 11. It’s a moment that encapsulates what’s wonderful and awful in the hearts and souls of Americans—and which pines for an America that would continue to fulfill the astounding promise of its history, at a time when much of the meaning of that promise seems to have been forgotten.
Tags: book reviews, Books, criticism, James Wood, Marilynne Robinson
In the New Yorker, James Wood uses the occasion of the release of Marilyn Robinson’s new novel Home (a sequel to Gilead) to thoroughly examine Robinson’s religiosity, and the ways in which her largely secular-minded audience might fall short of fully embracing the old-fashioned Calvinist strains in her writing. Robinson’s work, Woods writes, is “theologically tense and verbally lush in a manner that is almost extinct in modern literary discourse,” something closer to akin to what we might expect from Melville than from a contemporary writer. Wood goes on:
But Robinson is illiberal and unfashionably fierce in her devotion to this Protestant tradition; she is voluble in defense of silence. She loathes the complacent idleness whereby contemporary Americans dismiss Puritanism and turn John Calvin, its great proponent, into an obscure, moralizing bigot.
I’ve wondered a bit about the enormous popularity of Gilead myself—the book makes for a very unusual literary bestseller, given that much of its length is given over to serious theological inquiry of a sort that I wouldn’t think would resonate with the secular liberals who make up much of the audience for literary fiction. I fit in that category, and though I admire Robinson’s prose very much, and found myself intermittently fascinated by the father-son conflict in Gilead, I definitely did struggle with connecting to the book’s religious content. So: I’d imagine Wood’s probably right that at least some readers had a similar experience with Gilead—but then again, its sheer popularity would suggest that many other readers did not encounter similar problems. Perhaps Wood is underestimating the curiosity of Robinson’s secular readers—or maybe he’s underestimating the number of religious readers who’ve been drawn to Robinson’s work.
Wood does have many positive things to say about Home—which covers many of the same events as Gilead, but from different perspectives. I’m torn as to whether I’ll pick this one up or not—I do think Robinson’s Housekeeping is a terrific book, but I’m uncertain that Home will have any more to offer me than Gilead. I’ll be curious to watch the reactions of other readers and critics over the coming weeks.
Tags: Charlie Kaufman, directing, Movies, screenwriting
CBC News (link via Bookninja) has an interview with Charlie Kaufman, in which he discusses the relationship between his work as a screenwriter and his new role as a director. Kaufman’s latest project, Synecdoche, New York, was originally intended to be another Kaufman / Spike Jonze collaboration, but Jonze had to step aside due to his commitments to work on Where the Wild Things Are.
In the interview, Kaufman discusses his fears that the experience of directing might re-shape how he approaches his writing, because he now knows more about the practical challenges faced by a director, and thus might choose to discard some ideas in a screenplay-in-progress out of fear they might be too impractical or expensive to actually film. I typically think of writing as being a process limited only by your own imagination and personal discipline—so I can imagine that it would be a little disorienting and frustrating, in creative terms, to suddenly find yourself limited by the constraints of the special effects budget or the number of hours of good light in a day.
In any case: this is definitely a film I’m eager to see.
Tags: Baltimore vs. Philadelphia, Books, Poe
The New York Times has a report on the continuing feud between residents of Philadelphia and Baltimore over the remains of Edgar Allan Poe. At present, Poe is buried in Baltimore, where he died, but its seems some especially dedicated Phildelphian civic boosters would like to see his grave moved to their city instead. They make the argument that Poe spent more of his life in Philadelphia than in Baltimore, and that he wrote more significant works while in the City of Brotherly Love. But the Baltimore camp is having nothing of it, and its members are prepared to defend Poe’s grave site at a moment’s notice if need be.
Of all American literary corpses, I suppose it’s probably most fitting that it’s Poe’s that has become the subject of this kind of morbid, obsessive tug-of-war. And he’d probably be grateful for the attention, given the unappreciated and penniless state in which he died (unloved by the Baltimoreans, as the Philadelphians are quick to point out).
In other Poe-related matters: here’s a link to a YouTube video (of dubious copyright clearance) of a 1953 animated take on “The Tell-Tale Heart,” with the story read by James Mason. (Oddly enough, this came to my attention due to its more-or-less completely random inclusion as a bonus feature on the Hellboy DVD.)
Tags: Bob Dylan, Fleet Foxes, indie rock, Lou Reed, Mark Richardson, singers, The Velvet Underground
Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson has used his Resonant Frequency column this month to reexamine one of indie rock’s core assumptions. He discusses how hearing the technical facility and sheer beauty of the voices of the members of Fleet Foxes (who I also blogged about a couple days ago) caused him to think about the ways in which singers who can’t sing very well have become so common in indie rock that no one ever gives it the slightest bit of consideration. He discusses his mixed feelings on the matter, noting that he certainly does still like the music of many bands that employ singers who lack anything resembling conventionally “good” singing voices, but that it all the same felt refreshing to for once hear a new band who can demonstrate some real vocal abilities.
Richardson (accurately) points to the source of this long-running aesthetic: Lou Reed, whose no-range, half-spoken vocals with the Velvet Underground set the template for generations of independent-minded singer-songwriters to come. Reed, as Richardson points out, was an incredibly gifted songwriter, and also possessed an indelible cool in the 1960s. Combine that with the band’s rather astounding record as stylistic innovators, and it’s no wonder that many sonically adventurous bands in the years since have taken Reed’s so-so vocals as permission to sing in a similar way. Nearly every aspect of indie rock’s aesthetics can be found in those four Velvet Underground records—their influence runs so deeply in all areas (including vocal styles) that it now often goes completely unobserved.
In addition to the historical and aesthetic reasons for this, I think there’s also an important philosophical one. Indie rock tends to value ideas and expression over performance. High levels of technical achievement are respected only when coupled with high-quality songwriting, inventive studio craft and/or involving performances. Underlying all of this is the idea that anyone can make great music. For some in indie rock (like Half Japanese or the Beat Happening), this idea is taken very seriously: amateurism is prized, and it’s considered a virtue to warble off-key or neglect to tune up before playing a song. There’s an alignment with the values of folk music here, and also with the DYI ethos of punk and 1960s garage rock. For most, though, amateurism is valued only so far. Technique is devalued, but deep-running knowledge of popular music styles and history is seen as extremely important. If a band demonstrates the ability to reference and coherently incorporate the ideas of both well-known and obscure musicians from years past in a self-aware and stylish manner, they’ll meet the approval of their peers. Whether the singer can sing or not is seen as being beside the point.
Another thread worth teasing out here is the influence of Bob Dylan—a man with a very weak singing voice, but who (as Richardson points out) is a wonderfully expressive and moving singer. Of course, Dylan also reinvented popular music in his image as a songwriter, and in the process created a space in which his work as a singer could be appreciated. I think understanding Dylan’s success is key to recognizing which indie rock singers with conventionally weak voices are more likely to succeed as singers. Singers who take their cues from Dylan, and actually strive to sing well, tend to do better than those who more closely follow the example of Reed, and sort of shrug off the question and focus on other things entirely. Perhaps why many indie rock singers working right now fail to be compelling is that they’ve assumed that Reed’s example is all the need to know. Their problem isn’t the inherent weakness of their voices so much as the fact that they haven’t thought about their singing enough, and haven’t worked hard enough to develop their vocal style in a way that suits their songwriting and music.
I also think it’s interesting that in recent years indie rock’s suspicion of virtuosity seems to have eroded a little bit. Strong singers like Neko Case and the members of the Fleet Foxes are widely admired, and new performers like Marnie Stern (who it seems could outshred just about anybody on her guitar) are also attracting at least a little bit of positive notice. Even Stephen Malkamus—the king of the mumble-mouthed ironic delivery as the former frontman of Pavement, whose earliest work was famed in large part for its rough-edged, freewheeling, borderline-incompetent imaginativeness—has now drafted a crackerjack band, and his most recent record, Real Emotional Trash, features a number of lengthy guitar solos and elaborate arrangements requiring high degrees of technical proficiency. I welcome this trend—better chops are a good thing for indie rock, just so long as the musicians don’t forget that technical proficiency alone is never sufficient for the creation of great music. But there’s no reason why a band can’t adopt the core aesthetic values of the Velvet Underground—strong songwriting and sonic adventurousness—without also learning how to sing and play their instruments.
Tags: Books, personality types, Scott McCloud, Writing
The Guardian reports that Scott McCloud (author of Understanding Comics) has devised a scheme for classifying writers, comic book authors, and other artistic types into one of four “tribes.” The Guardian writer’s article presents a handy chart, displaying the characteristics of these groups (formalist, animist, classicist, iconoclast) in relationship to one another. It reminds me of the kind of classifications you’ll find in the Myers-Briggs personality test, or the Kolb Learning Style Inventory: useful in that it makes you think somewhat systematically about the way you approach the world (or art), but never really able to fulfill the promise of placing you neatly into a predefined category (as people rarely fit neatly into any kind of predefined category).
Interestingly enough, Scott McCloud himself has left a comment on the Guardian article, in which he points out ways in which the writer failed to accurately reproduce his classification scheme, and then also distances himself from it a little bit. “It’s a fun party game,” he writes, but not much more.
I suppose most of us would always like to believe that it’s possible to be so easily understood—that all it takes is some clever person to describe exactly what we already know about ourselves but haven’t been able to fully communicate to the outside world. But identity is far more complicated than that—we all know this, but we’re all the same disappointed whenever a theory like this once again reveals the gaps in understanding that we have about ourselves and our relationships with others.
Tags: arctic, Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez, Books, Environment, global warming, Karen R. Long
Of all the books I’ve read over the past few years, few have moved me as deeply as Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez’s beautiful, clear-eyed, and quietly passionate account of the wildlife and landscape of the Arctic. Lopez’s book was published in 1986, at which point the complex and delicate interrelationships of Arctic ecosystems were already significantly endangered by irresponsible and unsustainable human development. Now, twenty years later, the effects of global warming have left the Arctic as Lopez knew it teetering on the edge of oblivion. These days Arctic Dreams reads like a catalog of loss, and after reading it, it’s hard not to feel a keen sense of grief.
Today the National Books Critic Circle’s Critical Mass blog is running a brief essay on Arctic Dreams by Cleveland Plain Dealer book critic Karen R. Long, in which she points out one of the key ideas in Lopez’s book:
[Lopez] coaxes us to see these caribous and arctic foxes, polar bears and cod not as objects, but as mysteries, vibrating with behaviors that resemble the uncertainty described in particle physics.
After finishing Arctic Dreams, I found myself with a newfound reverence and awe for the Arctic and its inhabitants as wonders existing entirely apart from any human use or even from human comprehension. Long quotes Lopez: “The physical landscape is baffling in its ability to transcend whatever we would make of it.” However much we might study and ponder the natural world, it will remain irreducibly itself; it doesn’t exist so that we can observe it or make use of it, and thus is of great value purely in and of itself. In Arctic Dreams, Lopez conveys on both an intellectual and emotional level the full depth of the loss involved in environmental change: it’s a death, absolute and final, after which point unique, wondrous, irreducible creatures and places will never again exist on earth.
Tags: banned books, freedom of information, intelligent design, Sarah Palin
For the most part, this blog isn’t intended as a political forum—its primary purpose has been, and will remain, the critical discussion of books, music, and movies. That said: it’s an election year, and I’m married to a public policy grad student, and I just plain feel compelled to comment on one particular tidbit of news that came to my attention this morning via Bookninja, Tame the Web, and Librarian.net. All have spotted something distressing about Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin buried in a recent Time magazine article about her. From the article (as highlighted at Librarian.net):
[Former Wasilla mayor] Stein says that as mayor, Palin continued to inject religious beliefs into her policy at times. “She asked the library how she could go about banning books,” he says, because some voters thought they had inappropriate language in them. “The librarian was aghast.” The librarian, Mary Ellen Baker, couldn’t be reached for comment, but news reports from the time show that Palin had threatened to fire her for not giving “full support” to the mayor.
That’s right: Palin wanted to remove books from the shelves of the local library, and apparently because she didn’t like the fact that some books sometimes use bad words.
Any attempt to ban books or in any way limit people’s freedom to read what they choose runs directly counter to my values as a reader, writer, and librarian. And the idea of a book banner in power the White House sends a shiver down my spine. Supporters of book banning fail to understand some of the fundamental ideas underlying American democracy: they are opponents of free expression, and as such cannot be trusted with power. Also, in the article, Stein alleges that Palin wanted to see the librarian fired for refusing to ban books, which suggests that she might be intolerant of any kind of dissent when wielding executive power. And we all know how well the Bush administration’s secretiveness, resistance to outside ideas, and stubborn insistence on loyalty and consistency in the face of all evidence to the contrary has worked for the country the past seven years.
It’s also come to my attention that Palin is a supporter of “intelligent design” theory, and would like to see it taught in public schools. This is another deeply discouraging sign—it suggests to me that under a McCain/Palin administration, we couldn’t expect to see a reversal of Bush’s manipulation, suppression, abuse, and misuse of scientific information.
Tags: Books, Philip Pullman
Via Bookslut and A Different Stripe: The London Times has published an annotated list of children’s author Philip Pullman’s favorite books. Some of these picks are not particularly surprising, coming from writer whose best-known novels (the His Dark Materials series) offer a sustained indictment of organized Christianity: he lists William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience; Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestors’ Tale; Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels and a couple of other books that examine received religious ideas in one way or another. And as far as his other selections go, you can’t fault his taste: Maus, Elizabeth Bishop’s poems, Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. Though I’m a bit surprised not to see Paradise Lost here, given how important it is to His Dark Materials.
Anyway: it’s fascinating, I think, to see how a writer responds to a request like this. It makes me wonder: did Pullman actually try to come up with a list of his true personal favorite books here? Or did he select the titles carefully in order to try to give a certain kind of impression of himself as a writer or a reader? It seems like there would always be strong temptation for a writer to fudge in this kind of situation, knowing that there will be an audience ready to dissect choices and pass judgment—I’d imagine at least some writers might choose at least a few titles not because they’re absolute favorites, but instead because they’ll reflect well on them in the eyes of readers and critics. Pullman’s list seems believable to me, like it could actually fairly accurately reflect his interests and tastes—but then again, the fact that it so closely matches my largely media-derived idea of who Pullman is makes me wonder about the self-consciousness of the effort. There’s no way to know—and I’m not sure it matters much in any case, as it certainly wouldn’t change my (fairly high) opinion of Pullman’s books.
Tags: Bob Dylan, Fleet Foxes, I Shall Be Released, Wilco
Via Pitchfork, here’s a video of the Fleet Foxes joining Wilco on stage to cover Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.” At one point, Tweedy breaks out his inimitable falsetto (and this time, at least, to great effect), and Fleet Foxes provide gorgeous harmonies on the choruses throughout the performance. Everyone on stage appears to be enjoying themselves a great deal.
Incidentally, I’ve been meaning to write about Fleet Foxes here for quite some time—their self-titled debut has demanded more of my listening attention this year than any other album. During the weeks of packing up our Chicago apartment and moving and unpacking here in St. Paul, Fleet Foxes was the record that my wife and I would put on to listen to in the background nine times out of ten. By now we’ve both heard it dozens and dozens of times, but neither of us have grown tired of it in the least: from the very first time I put it on, Fleet Foxes felt a part of me, as if it were not a new record from a young band, but instead some well-worn classic that I’d been listening to my whole life.
No doubt that feeling of deep familiarity is in part due to Fleet Foxes’ sound—they’re awash in rock of the late 60s and early 70s, and it’s in no way difficult to pick out the influence of CSN&Y, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and so on. That said, their arrangements are far from purely derivative. Instead, the typical Fleet Foxes song takes a rootsy folk-rock core and infuses it with a very modern-sounding spaciness; a warm, comfortable acoustic strum might quickly transform into an adventursome electric passage that takes its cues from Tortoise as much as from the Band.
Fleet Foxes also go a long way on the sheer beauty of singer Robin Pecknold’s voice—though his bandmates often do provide him with rich and complex harmonies, he also sounds breathtakingly lovely all by himself (and most notably on the soaring and gorgeous album closer “Oliver James”). The opening harmonies of standout track “White Winter Hymnal” sound decidedly old-timey, but then they open up into an arrangement that sounds simultaneously fireside-cozy and cavernously grand, and seems to be taking its cues from field recordings, the Beach Boys, Echo & the Bunnymen, and CNS&Y all at once. Many of Pecknold’s songs are similarly remarkable: he seems to be striving to achieve a kind of timelessness in both his lyrics and song structures, and in the process, he reaches back not only to the band’s obvious stylistic touchstones, but also to the older forms and themes at rock’s roots. Pecknold’s tune regularly evoke mountains, woods, streams, young love, spring and the Devil, but none of it comes off as affectation. Instead, Pecknold plumbs the depths of folk forms in order to bring out sounds and ideas that resonate as well today as they might have a couple hundred years ago.
Tags: "Sail Away", Barack Obama, Music, Randy Newman
Pop Feminist has an insightful and fascinating post that uses Randy Newman’s “Sail Away” to help unlock the great political, historical, and emotional significance of Barack Obama’s nomination for president. The post explicates Newman’s song (an immensely powerful satirical ballad told from the perspective of a slave ship owner speaking to slaves about the virtues of America) in the context of Obama’s victory, and helps bring home the event’s deep cultural significance.
Of “Sail Away,” Pop Feminist writes, “The song depicts a faith in the idea of America so strong that even the violence on which it is founded comes to seem beautiful.” The hope that Barack Obama’s nomination inspires is inextricably linked to all the wonder, beauty, and horror of American history, just as the blues and gospel underpinnings of Newman’s song quietly and forcefully evoke both the atrocities of slavery and the strength and power of the African-American cultures that would one day become the lifeblood of American culture as a whole.
The post also brings to mind another Randy Newman song that’s all-too-relevant to today’s America: “Political Science,” also from 1972′s Sail Away. The song’s narrator offers the satirical suggestion that, since everybody hates America anyway, we might as well just nuke them all:
Asia’s crowded and Europe’s too old
Africa is far too hot
And Canada’s too cold
And South America stole our name
Let’s drop the big one
There’ll be no one left to blame us
This strikes me as distressingly close to the logic and depth of thought that apparently went into some major foreign policy decisions over the past seven years or so. Anyway: both the Randy Newman album and the Pop Feminist posts are well worth your attention.
Tags: At Mount Zoomer, indie rock, Music, Wolf Parade
Wolf Parade’s debut record, Apologies to the Queen Mary, is a scrappy, tuneful, passionate affair: despite the band’s obvious Bowie-isms and more-or-less standard indie rock instrumentation and aims, they caught my attention and held it through their strong songcraft and obvious commitment to their material. This year’s follow-up has an embarrassing, wince-inducing title, At Mount Zoomer, and is at every moment an achingly self-conscious attempt to take the band’s music up a notch: this time they’ve clearly set out with old-fashioned rock album greatness in mind. This isn’t necessarily a bad strategy these days, when so many indie rock buzz bands end up fading or flaming out more or less as soon as the blog chatter is over—it might well take a bold move and baldfaced ambition for a band like Wolf Parade to continue to command anyone’s attention.
At Mount Zoomer‘s high ambitions bring decidedly mixed results. Epic closer “Kissing the Beehive” rides its pretension and bombast to nowhere, and gets there very very slowly. “Call It a Ritual” begins with a gloomy, ominous bounce that fails to embody any real emotion; calculated bursts of noise fail to prevent the song from feeling limp and rote. “California Dreamer” employs goofy, mock-spooky organ and basslines that undercut the ambition in song’s spaciousness and sprawl, before the song bizarrely degenerates into a brief Doors-like freak-out. This is no better of an idea here than it was when the Doors did it—though at least Wolf Parade’s noodling doesn’t last for minutes on end.
On the other hand, album opener “Soldier’s Grin” achieves its appealing grandeur by alternating passages of tight and tense rhythmic guitar riffing with with huge, soaring verses. If the whole record had maintained both the big sound and emotive energy that are in full effect here at its start, At Mount Zoomer might have been a great deal more successful. “Language City” brings the pop song power to the fore—the song opens with a vibe that’s no less ominous than that of “Call It a Ritual,” but then smartly locks it in with a memorable vocal hook. Synthesizers snake around the song’s closing bridge and coda, building just the right atmosphere and tension to take the repeated vocals home.
But the song that really keeps me coming back to At Mount Zoomer, and which reaffirms my belief that Wolf Parade remains a band with a bright future, is “The Grey Estates,” the melody of which has been haunting me for weeks. The song tunefully expresses a simple-but-deep longing to abandon the status quo and hit the road for somewhere new—but complicates this idea with sad knowledge of the fact that the new place is likely to leave you feeling just as unsatisfied and restless as the old one. “So let the needle on the compass swing,” the speaker implores, “Let the iron in your heart’s blood ring.” Restlessness and longing are facts of human nature, built into our very hearts—but maybe there’s no time we’re happier than when we’re on the road with the wind in our hair and with our old homes receding behind us into the distance.