Book; Counter-book 1: Man Stuff

The idea here, my own contrivance that may or may not play out with any success, is to discuss two books with opposite (or vastly differing) takes on--or approaches to--a singular topic. Because I'm an impatient person, a person incapable of keeping secrets, or not buying a thoughtful gift for someone I just met (which often works to my detriment) we're going to *pun intended* blow the load right away. This Book; Counter-book is about men, penises and what they can represent. In this corner, wearing the blue and white trunks, with the wild hair and unkempt moustache: Kurt Vonnegut and "Welcome To The Monkey House." And in this corner, wearing wool pants, with thick white beard: Ernest Hemingway and The Sun Also Rises.

Now, we'd like a good, clean Book; Counter-book, gentlemen. And Hemingway, let's not take your frustrations about the Bukowski thing on Kurt here... Okay, gloves up. Let's go!

Vonnegut's short story "Welcome To The Monkey House" tells of a dystopian future, where overcrowding has led to encouraged suicide (where Futurama nods with suicide booths in may episodes) and a population forced by its government to take pills that numb everyone from the waist down, thus removing the pleasure of sex, and preventing additional procreation. The suicide parlors of the story are run by beautiful, young virgin women who painlessly end lives, and implicitly (Vonnegut is amazing at the this satire) sexualize death.

Now, Vonnegut's genius taps into the French: la petite mort... meaning directly "the little death," but meaning by translation "orgasm." Sex is already inherently mortal and demonstrative of the finiteness of the body, Vonnegut simply hits the right notes giving us a society where the death comes but the sex never does... life is about no little deaths, just one final big one.

Onto the scene strolls Billy The Poet, our anti-hero. He's one of the few "nothing heads," people who refuse to take their numbing medication, and he's also notorious for traveling to suicide parlors and devirginizing the hostesses. He is an individual sexual being in a sexless world, and his noble (?) quest to restore a bit of the pleasure of humanity to the world, by convincing women to become "nothing heads" via essentially rape-seduction. I invite discussion in the comments because the morality of the character is the high question of the story, but for this Book; Counter-book I'm addressing his sexuality. Billy The Poet is an outcast due to his sexuality. Sex is his weapon, but also his singular identity. Without sex he would have no function. Billy does not have the luxury (at least in his mind) of love entangled in his encounters. He's a terrorist, and the actions he takes are only to awaken the lost, rather than gain friendships/lovers. Essentially, Vonnegut lauds the power of sexuality as subversive, rather than a societal norm or construct. For this story, sex is the equivalent unregistered hand gun (pun intended again).

The Counter-book, The Sun Also Rises, centers on Jake Barnes. Jake is a WWI veteran whose injuries have left him physically impotent. He holds deep love in the book for Lady Bret Ashley, but despite her requisite feelings they will never be together because he could never have her. Instead, Jake merely shepherds his many friends, and is Bret's crying shoulder when each of her romantic interludes goes awry. This is captured exceptionally during the group's trip to bull fights... where Jake describes the way the steers (bulls who have castrated... yep) calm the bulls as they enter the stadium.

Jake is the steer (for obvious reasons) to Bret's, Robert Cohn's, Michael's and Bill's bulls. Each friend is energetic, sexual, emotional, and evocative. Jake remains a quiet, emotional-centered/reserved foil. He negotiates Bret's love life, dissuades and tries to guide Cohn. He is a silencer of Mike's drunken spouting, and friend to Bill... but Jake is always there, if only on the outside. He's separated due to his sexuality. And for Hemingway, his masculinity, his strength and his value are lessened by his impotence. Jake is alien to society for the opposite reason than Billy The Poet. Jake lacks sexuality. Jake wants to maintain relationships and take lovers, but he is not allowed them because of his physical situation. Sex for Hemingway is still a gun, but it's one every man should carry loaded. Since Jake doesn't have the ability to assert his manhood, he has to observe the one woman he loves most entering relationships with his friends, idols and confidants. For Jake, love terrorizes him, and sex is an impossible key to happiness.

Given the differences in timeline, setting, and style between Vonnegut and Hemingway it is impossible to ignore that they were men with opposing viewpoints. Sex meant different things in 1968 than it did in the 1920s. Masculinity was defined differently. But that's the question these books as mutually... how does sexuality define a human, how does it define a man? Sexuality means power and the ability to assert it for both characters. The power to subvert. The power to control love. The power to dictate to others and determine one's own destiny. Where these characters, and their authors differ is in the status society affords based on sexuality. Is it morally (legally) good or bad? Can we boil it down to that?
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Santa's Sad Song Sack

What if Santa brought a sack of songs down the chimney instead of toys? What if all those songs were of the sad sack variety? What if he brought twelve because he knows about a certain song associated with his time of year and he's into drawing parallels between that and other parts of his life? What if Santa was meta? What if I decided this was a valid concept for today's post?

He 'ho ho ho'd' into my apartment, despite the lack of a chimney. I assumed he'd climbed through the old milk delivery door in my kitchen, but he could have come through the old radiator just as easily. A man of myth, he has the skeletal structure of a mouse. No doorway he can't pass under, no passage he cannot traverse. He combines the elasticity of Mr. Fantastic with the giant form of Kingpin. Santa left a red velvet bag on my hardwood floor. It held the full shape of a pomegranate despite appearing airy. And so, after a moment of consideration, and 3 rumtastic eggnogs, I broke into that yuletide duffel... Inside were 12 excellent indie songs, sad, excellent indie songs with a note that read in elegant script: Santa's Sad Song Sack. (Warning: All of these songs are sad sack, or depressing to some degree... but all of them are also amazing and brilliantly composed)

1. Leslie Anne Levine - The Decemberists from Castaways And Cutouts:
A haunting, beautiful and melancholy song about the ghost of a baby girl wandering the afterlife purposelessly forever.
Best Line: "Fifteen years gone now I still wander this parapet and shake my rattle bone"

2. I Don't Blame You - Cat Power from You Are Free:
Artistic/emotional/personal sacrifice, loss of control, and wispy, sorrowful vocals by Chan Marshall.
Best Line: "Then you would recall the deadly houses you grew up in just because they knew your name"

3. Black Cab - Jens Lekman from Oh You're So Silent Jens:
A song about missing the last train after the party, wanting desperately to get home, and questioning the safety of London's most iconic Hackney carriages. Heavier tonally than lyrically.
Best Line: "They might be psycho killers, but tonight I really don't care. So I say turn up the music, take me home or take me anywhere"

4. New York, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down - LCD Soundsystem from Sounds Of Silver:
Brilliantly captures the feeling of having outgrown the city you live in, wanting to love it, but having fallen out of love.
Best Line: "New York you're safer and you're wasting my time"

5. Val Jester - The National from Alligator:
Possibly about romantic love, but I prefer to think of it as the lament of a father for letting his daughter run away... or losing her. It's a song of parental loss.
Best Line: "All the most important people in New York are nineteen"

6. Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe - Okkervil River from The Stage Names:
Poignantly states that life lacks the happy contrivances in movies.
Best Line: "No fade in, film begins on a kid in the big city"

7. How To Be A Perfect Man - Songs:Ohia from Axxess & Ace:
Jason Molina pins down the feeling of being the placeholder in a relationship, when your lover will leave you for the right person, and you know it.
Best Line: "Be mine till you're reminded of something better"

8. Shoot Doris Day - Super Furry Animals from Rings Around The World:
Mostly the ambiance, tone and minor-chord echoes carry it's sadness, but it's also about loss and change.
Best Line: "People never stay the same, it's a fight between the wild and tame"

9. This Boy Is Exhausted - The Wrens from Meadowlands:
Captures the feeling of not knowing what to do with your life, working hard because you have to and believing that it's far too late to do anything better.
Best Line: "Tied to work, splitting rock, cutting diamonds, 100 days with no pay, not anymore"

10. Maps - Yeah Yeah Yeahs from Fever To Tell:
This song isn't entirely sad, but it's a soft spot on a predominantly post-punk, heavy guitar album, and it's beautiful!
Best Line: "Wait, they don't love you like I love you"

11. Pink Bullets - The Shins from Chutes Too Narrow:
The way an important relationship alters the course of your life and takes the wind out of your sails when it ends.
Best Line: "When our kite lines first crossed we tied them into knots, and to fly apart we had to cut them off"

12. The Death Of Ferdinand DeSaussure - The Magnetic Fields from 69 Love Songs:
Love is something we can't understand with words, with science, with observation. It's a complex organism beyond the bounds of great thinking. Not a sad song, but a great one.
Best Line: "You can't use a bulldozer to study orchids"

Santa compels you to find these songs, hear them, love them, and try not to let them get you down.
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Surprise! Coldplay EP is delicious.

Since hearing of the release of Prospekt's March EP, the companion to Coldplay's recent Viva La Vida et al., I had also heard that the EP was better than the album it meant to accompany. This raised my inner-music-lover's eyebrow because he hasn't been extremely fond of Coldplay's work since A Rush of Blood to the Head. Once, Coldplay gave us Parachutes, a basically recorded, guitar-piano alt-rock album that, despite over-played radio singles, was an extremely solid debut. A Rush of Blood et al. came out and it was solid, but more produced, and more "emotional" [quoted in the sense that we were intended to feel more things because of sweeping, echoing, synth-ed whooshing noises and hollow "sounds of longing" (quoted in that Chris Martin was a competent song writer on Parachutes, but has tried on more recent albums to make art with production rather than writing)]. X&Y was like buying tickets to see The Police in the 1970s only Sting has been kidnapped by the KGB, and Cold War Russia is forcing Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland to play Journey songs. Then Viva La Vida came along and was stronger, still produced heavily, but by Brian Eno this time. It feels more like the soundtrack to a movie where the lackluster acting required non-diagetic music to forward the plot. That's not a burn either because Viva La Vida could direct an indie film from start to finish.

Prospekt's March found its way into my Xmas stocking, so I was obliged to listen to it last night. It includes 4 new tracks, and redesigned versions of "Lost" (Lost+ feat. Jay-Z), "Life in Technicolor" (LiT ii) and "Lovers in Japan" (Osaka Sun Mix). Each of the reworked old songs is better than its original version. Jay-Z's turn in "Lost+" is surprisingly excellent. "LiT ii" includes lyrics added to the original melody that feel as though they belonged all along. The EP is great, truth be told. "Glass of Water," a new track specific to the EP, is the best song written by Coldplay in a long time. It feels like the classic sentiment of Parachutes and has visceral impact that resembles Bloc Party's work on "Like Eating Glass" and "Modern Love." Martin and Co. do not disappoint here. "Glass of Water" has me intent to listen to Coldplay again. Which may or may not be a good thing. The album closes with the likable guitar-piano "Now My Feet Won't Touch the Ground," which reminded me that Chris Martin thrives with thoughtful, non-overwrought mini-ballads.

Prospekt's March reminds me of why I enjoyed Coldplay to begin with, and if it is any indication of their direction creatively, they may have won me back as a fan for a long time.
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One before Xmas

Merry Christmas & Happy Hanukkah
May all your celebrations be Feistive!

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The greatest thing about listening to music, and then blogging about it... other than the money, women and fame... is that I can listen to an album at my leisure with little consideration for my energy level. That said, this morning by way of a Festivus Miracle I was slightly inclined toward sleep. Fortunately, I was also wired with the type of anticipatory energy that generally drives me into aggravated madness, which held me upright and kept any of the initial eye-closings, head-restings from providing me comfort. The warden of sleep granted me a reprieve... I would not miss a perfect opportunity to actually listen to Jenny Lewis' Acid Tongue. I withdrew my i(Raymond)Pod from the bag occupying the seat beside me, dropped the "buds" in my auditories, hit the old play button.

(Tangent 1: If you are not a fan of public transportation, and your reason for hating it begins with a "C" and rhymes "prouded," take a ride this time of year. You can hear a pin drop on a feather... and then you can hear the pin and the feather making out. There were 5 people commuting with me this morning. 'Tis the season to revel in the minor joys.)

(Tangent 2: The most excellent thing about the human ear (besides the hearing things part) is that in the sum of the names of its parts, it's a sprawling Roman Palace. There are canals, vestibules, and labyrinths and you can hear with them too! Happily, no vomitorium has been discovered yet.)

And now: The Review (and yes, I know... it IS about F-ing time.)

Acid Tongue gets 3 Awesomes out of a possible 5. For the most part it is a genuine, excellent album. "Black Sand" is a strong opening song, followed by "Pretty Bird" on which Jenny Lewis lets Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward join in on the fun. This is possibly the best free standing song on the album. And through those first two tracks, it became clear that Acid Tongue is as underproduced, sparse and simple as Lewis' other act Rilo Kiley's Under The Blacklight was overproduced, mix-heavy and genre-bending. Lewis stands on the line between indie folk, alt country and the sort of vaudevillian saloon piano music you'd hear in an old western just before the sheriff came in to clean up the town. This is by no means a bad thing. The medley-style "The Next Messiah" rolls through all three in a nearly 9 minute sprawl that feels neither forced, nor tiresome. The sorrowful "Bad Man's World" and the solid titular track "Acid Tongue" keep the album going along at a steady, relaxed, and damn enjoyable saunter.

Lewis clearly knows how to write in the style we've grown accustomed to, about the lost love, and sadness, typifying the indie feminine mystique. It's her crassness at times, her ability to embody a Pat Benetar-esque tough girl, while simultaneously showing such vulnerability that drew me to Rilo Kiley three years ago, and keeps me checking in despite reviews questioning her focus on being "indie." This affection is what makes tracks like "See Fernando" and "Carbetbaggers" so disappointing. "See Fernando" sounds like a song that came from a contrivance, rather than a genuine emotion. It's a pseudo-party anthem that wants to be like The Beatles' "Dr. Robert," but failed for me because a) a chirpy drug/party song no longer interests me; and b) every track preceding it seeps with honesty and emotion. "Carpetbaggers," despite Elvis Costello's guest appearance, seems born from the same kind of contrivance. It is a song trying to hard to be about women taking men for all they're worth. And Costello's voice seems strained and lacking its usual self-assuredness.

Between those shaky bookends is the plain and beautiful "Godspeed," which prevents anyone from skipping straight through the group. The album finishes strong and solemnly with "Sing A Song For Them" showing Lewis' vocal range and the tangible depth of her sincerity. The only ways in which Acid Tongue fail are those instances when it tries to do what it doesn't know. Sure, an album of sweet, dour, downbeat may not liven things up on the dance floor, but it's some of what Jenny Lewis does best.

My Favorite Track: "Pretty Bird"
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One about redheads

I had originally intended to review Acid Tongue by Jenny Lewis in this space today. I picked up the album on Saturday because I'm completely incapable of buying gifts for friends or family for the holidays without snagging something for myself. I'm a new music whore, there, I said it. Still, given my curiousity, if not great admiration for Rilo Kiley, and Lewis' previous album with The Watson Twins I had long intended to grab a copy. Acid Tongue also features guest appearances from Zooey Deschanel, M. Ward, and the esteemed Elvis Costello, so I was eager to review it. The thing is, I haven't had a chance to listen to the album at length yet. I heard the first two tracks, and I'll confirm that they're solid, but my experience with it is about as deep as the half-urine/half-chlorine mix known as a rec center kiddie pool.

Luckily, I ride the bus for a good (see: bad) 45 minutes Monday through Friday. So I figured I'd listen to the album, take some thoughtful notes and make some overbearing and asinine observations to bring to this very space. With my portable music device in hand (yes it's an iPod) I sat down in the cramped bus seat and flipped (see: turned the "wheel") through the digital album covers. With Acid Tongue mid-screen, and with a boisterous "Engage!" I pushed Play, and prepared to be dazzled.

I was not.

But it wasn't the album. No no. It was the iPod, which immediately locked up and refused to reset via the standard "Menu + Center button method," leaving me feeling like I was the High Fidelity-John Cusack(A tangent: I propose a series of action figures portraying the various iterations of John Cusack's lovelorn loser character. If there are Einstein action figures and Jane Austen action figures, surely the world needs a Lane Meyer) to its Euro-trash, patchouli-stinking Tim Robbins. If only I had an air conditioner to heave aloft and drop down on its smarmy album-stealing face... Alas, I did not.

Instead, in honor of Jenny Lewis, whose album I will (mark my words) review in the next couple of entries, I present an all-star tribute to exceptional redheads (or for those of you who prefer, auburn-heads) of music, pen and screen:

1. Must see: Willie Nelson's guest appearance on the Colbert Report's Christmas Special.
2. C'mon. Emily Dickinson! Don't make me turn the blog around.
3. Sitcoms continually "recycle" her classic bits... without the winning effect. I mean, remember the one where she's stomping the wine? Or when they couldn't stop the candy manufacturing line? Genius.
4. Just see Children of Men... and also acknowledge that she's been in a lot of great films, such as: Boogie Nights, The Big Lebowski, and she watches Ray Liotta's brain being eaten by Anthony Hopkins in Hannibal. (And I have a bit of crush on her, too.)

Thanks for stopping by.

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A beginning and a year-end.

Despite the pervading rumor of its demise the album remained strong in 2008. They stand tall in the face of digitization like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. We loved them once, and now they're knife-wielding and crazy, hiding in the bushes in our front yards. The album will never die, and not because it is impervious to the new digital age, but because there is a love there that transcends individual tracks. Shoot them down with hook-laden pop singles and radio hits, but watch them rise up again, horror movie style to remind us how great it is to hear a set of songs that paints a picture, sets a mood, and makes us think.

To light Gas Lantern for the first time, I'm running down my Top 5 albums of 2008. I've ranked these in order of awesomeness (the most objective property by which to rank music in any list). Put the kids to bed, grab some popcorn, and put on your reading goggles because here they come:

number 5: She & Him; Volume One

Playful and experimentally folksy, the debut by Zooey Deschanel with M. Ward opens with a candy-coated sentimentality and sustains emotional depth covering classic topics of love and loss. The collaboration hits the necessary pop notes, but doesn't drag them out into a series of belligerent hooks. The album sounds like Loretta Lynn and feels like swimming in a pool of cotton candy. You won't throw up a Care Bear from its sweetness as timely covers and ballads sync the album together so that it sums up an almost collective consciousness experience of love. Deschanel and Ward rearrange "You Really Got a Hold On Me" into an ethereal mist that both grabs and blurs the simple chord progression. They succeed by taking the over-driven poppiness away and letting the solemn lyrics show like a spotlight in a dense fog. Closing on a mournful, solidly voiced version of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," She & Him impress without seeming to try.

My Favorite Track: "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?"

number 4: The Magnetic Fields; Distortion

A growling infusion of distortion typifies another excellent themed album by The Magnetic Fields. Breaking away only slightly from the usual classical instrumentation (running guitar, cello, piano and organ, along with Daniel Handler's accordion through the pedals) Stephin Merritt and company hit all the right notes to entertain lyrically and intrigue musically. My love of The Magnetic Fields may have pushed this album into the Top 5 for more than simple virtue, but Distortion remains a cohesive, witty and sparse rock archive. Biting, but funny tracks like "California Girls" and "Too Drunk To Dream" play to the best aspects of Shirley Simms' and Merritt's vox, respectively. "Zombie Boy" plays with love, voodoo and points to the intellectual side of the band.

My favorite Track: "Too Drunk To Dream"

number 3: Fleet Foxes; Fleet Foxes

Fleet Foxes self-titled album (which has topped many year-end lists as the best of 2008) is symphonic and heavy with warm, steely guitar strings, but even has the harmonic sensibility of The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds layered in. It starts with a sunrise, literally, and each carefully selected note calls back to great bands like Crosby, Stills & Nash and Pink Floyd. Nothing on the album, from arrangement, to vocals, to harmony, to individual notes seems accidental. This album is well-planned and built to be heard from top to bottom. Songwriter Robin Pecknold offers 11 songs without contrivance. In that way, each transition feels fleet, not weighted down even when the words or the chord progression grants a song heaviness. Fleet Foxes embrace folk, indie rock, and to a great extent, a renaissance air. "White Winter Hymnal" darkens the tone almost immediately... and carries toward "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song" where Pecknold attaches a haunting refrain (I don't know what I have done/I'm turning myself into a demon). And even for that darkness, "Quiet Houses" provides redemption to the story with lyrics like 'Lay me down, lay me down.../Don't give in, don't give in..." Each song compliments the last. This is a truly great album. If you haven't heard it yet, get up from the computer (or order it online if you must) and give it a listen.

My Favorite Track: "He Doesn't Know Why "

number 2: MGMT; Oracular Spectacular

I'll admit, right here, right now that this album is front-loaded. It's top-heavy like a pornstar, but what it lacks in the final 3 or 4 tracks, it more than makes up for with grittiness, and the kind of brilliance you can only get from the duo of Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden and their realist-sensibility driven synthpop. The opening track, "Time to Pretend," admits and reiterates the sometimes dismal hope of fame through artistic creation in an internet world. The fame of old no longer exists, so your best hope is to live it up while you have the chance. Occasionally, the lyrics are nonsensical, almost seeming encoded in a language for which we've long lost the cypher. The arrangements are emotional, not obvious, but motivating. These songs make you want to listen. A folksy turn in "Weekend Wars," a disco one in "Electric Feel," and a misty design on "Kids" make this one of the most fun, and re-listenable albums of the last year. Technically, it was released digitally at year's end 2007, but it's good enough to mention again this year.

My Favorite Track: "Weekend Wars"

number 1: TV On The Radio; Dear Science

My love for this album, which is young for 2008- just released in late September- has won the hearts of many music reviewers and publications. It has the number 1 nod from Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and Spin among others. The best aspect of Dear Science is how it demonstrates the growth of TVotR as a band. Not only showing expansion of their trademark post-punk, indie, shoegaze sound, but also in their production. Songs remain sparse and unadorned as necessary, and Dear Science shows a confidence that precludes any faults of big label overworking. The lyrics maintain the playfulness of early albums, and don't compromise. My favorite track, "Halfway Home" bounds from giddy anticipation to regret to the hope you can only get when you're finally turning into your neighborhood after a long travel abroad. Dear Science really feels like home from the beginning. TV on the Radio does not seek to alienate, but they don't seek to please either. It's like playing games of imagination as a child. Every word and note feels right, feels almost accidental and definitely unforced. And it's a pleasure to listen to over and over again.

My Favorite Track (as stated above): "Halfway Home"

With the end of the year fast approaching, I invite you to come back in 2009 for more reviews of music, video and written words. Happy holidays.
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