Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Nitsuh Abebe drops science on the P-fork faithful. I wish he'd write more--he's always so lucid, so canny, so overview-heavy without sounding like a lecturer.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Here's a piece by David Greenberg in Slate about how Dylan's post-'60s stuff is undervalued. He moves into larger waters re: academic histories of the '60s, and that's interesting, but in strictly-Dylan terms Greenberg has it exactly backwards. The reason people undervalue post-'60s Dylan is that Infidels and Oh Mercy and Desire simply aren't great records--they're uneven and muddled. (Blood on the Tracks is probably his best album overall, for my money, and "Love and Theft" is one of my half-dozen favorites for sure. But that's a different discussion, really.) And how exactly are those albums "undervalued," anyway? All of them got great reviews (especially from that boomer bastion, Rolling Stone) and placed high in year-end polls, etc. They haven't been the subject of retrospectives and whatnot mostly because those high points come so few and far between they're difficult, maybe impossible, to do the kind of concentrated overview with that No Direction Home is--not to mention that Dylan (a) became a lot more camera- and media-shy after the motorcycle accident and (b) basically commissioned the Scorsese movie. If there's a reason this period is being raked over, it has as much to do with Dylan's own wishes as those of anyone else.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Simon's got an interesting post up about authenticity and lack thereof. (Though I surely won't be the first to point out that the line is hardly Ian Brown's! Rakim, son, Rakim.) What struck me was this:

(Then almost immediately thought of the acrimonious debates earlier this year about a certain mud-hut dwelling young lady whose publicity shots invariably depict her crouching on a jungle tree branch; that bizarre net-spectacle of folks who disdain the concept of authenticity engaged in frantic authentication!) . . .

Don't ask me to say which of the two statements I agree with though; I take things strictly on a case-by-case basis. Both propositions have their merits, their utopian/counter-hegemonic/libertatory potential, depending on context.
Pop-rock-whatever is a tissue of realness and fantasy, of roots 'n' future, of the earthy and the outerspatial. Wood and plastic*. Where you're from and where you're at.

*a micro-critique of Morley's Words and Music, which exalts plastic and demeans the importance/allure of "wood"/woodsy etc in the history of poprocketc. But why do we have to choose between The Band's "Whispering Pines" and Kraftwerk's "Neon Lights"?

What strikes me about this is that, from my admittedly limited participation in this debate (I had enough headaches of my own at the time to bother diving in full-on, at least after the point where things started getting especially bilious on e.g. Dissensus), it was the exact other way around--the argument against M.I.A. seemed to stem (at least from the p.o.v. of e.g. Dave Stelfox) from the fact that she wasn't authentic at all, that she was a carpetbagger who was using "authenticity" as a signifier to get points from people who weren't waist-deep in the scenes whose sounds she was lifting from. And that the pro-M.I.A. argument was that where you're at was as important, maybe more (though not necessarily always), than where you're from. And that for a lot of us in the latter camp, it went without saying that plus/and trumps either/or as a guiding principle--which didn't seem to be the case with the anti faction, at least in this case. edit: At least this was my view of it, though I realize now the whole "But she's a refugee" thing might be what Simon's referring to more than anything.end edit

In fact, you might even say that this is the core difference between U.S. and U.K. pop criticism--that scene-and-fad-driven U.K. writers tend to be quicker to draw lines in the sand, to disdain the nearly-or-just-as-good follow-up because the debut already did it and we need to move on now (or maybe more accurately, things already have moved on and where the hell were you, anyway?), while U.S. writers tend to follow artists until they fall down dead. (In Rip It Up and Start Again, Simon explicitly mentions that Gang of Four's Solid Gold did well with American critics but that English ones found it redundant, presumably in both cases for being so close to Entertainment!) This is a humongous generalization with a plethora of holes and exceptions (Mojo, for starters), and from my limited perspective I get the idea that the pop press matters less than ever, if at all, in England these days as an arbiter of taste. (That's certainly true in America, though the only time it ever was the case was during the early days of Rolling Stone, when the idea of a magazine that took rock and roll seriously was so novel and such a flashpoint the fact of it drew its own line in the sand. Something similar applies to Pitchfork today, minus the lack of precedent.)

This has to do with the press's makeup in both countries. Unlike NME or Melody Maker, whose staff overturned every few years, positions at Rolling Stone and Spin started turning into lifer jobs, and in each case, as the staff's tastes hardened, so did the range and method of coverage. That seems to have changed in England with the more-or-less simultaneous arrival of Britpop and Mojo--both hugely popular and both beholden to rock classicism that appealed to older folks as much as younger. The Web aside, that's where the British music press seems to have frozen, not counting inroads made by pop writers into larger areas, a process that has its American parallels as well. It's also the reason people keep complaining that there's no good music writing out there when there's plenty of it--a lot of it has to be looked for (the Web) rather than arriving on your doorstop (the weeklies).

Back to From vs. At. I just got back from EMP, which screened (Simon will love this) No Direction Home at 10 this morning--unconscionably early for me, good thing I live across the street, heh heh. It's full of unanswered questions (drugs are mentioned precisely once, by Peter Yarrow of all people) and leaves out enormous chunks of pretty important information (Blonde on Blonde isn't mentioned at all), and it's great anyway. Scorsese's use of musical cues hasn't diminished in the slightest (the segue into "Rolling Stone" is as good as Goodfellas' use of "Layla," in both cases breathing life into what might as well be pop-culture corpses), and I salute his nonuse of Robbie Robertson as commentator. One of its achievements is how clearly it shows not just Dylan the magpie but Dylan the literal thief--one of the funniest portions is Paul Nelson talking about Bob stealing 40 of his and his housemates' rare records, and Dylan more or less admitting it, charmingly and almost (almost) convincingly explaining that he was simply doing what had to be done.

Where was Dylan from? Hibbing, MN, a place that as a native Minneasotan I wouldn't live if you paid me a million dollars. (No disrespect; I'm a city guy, that's all.) That wasn't where he was at, though, and his refusal to stop moving appeals not just to the listener and myth-lover in me but to the popist who refuses to choose between plastic and wood. It's not Dylan's fault that he's held up as an exemplar of All That Is Real when everything about him from his name on down was constructed as consciously as any Svengali'd boy band. Well, it's not strictly Dylan's fault, anyway.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Here's an interview Rob Trucks did with me about the Sign book and the 33 1/3 series in general, in two parts.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Spent the weekend in Portland--or more accurately, spent the weekend at a Holiday Inn in Portland. This was mostly strategic: I was supposed to finish the 2007 page-a-day calendar on Friday, and by the end of that day I still had about 85 entries to write. So I took a couple changes of clothes and some reference books to cadge quotes from and grabbed an afternoon train down on Saturday. I arrived at the Holiday Inn at 5:30 and except for a Wendy’s run at 10 p.m., didn’t leave the hotel until four o’clock the next afternoon, by which time I was done with the calendar. I distracted myself plenty, of course, but it was pretty concentrated work, and I’m glad it’s finished. Had lunch with Douglas Wolk at a terrific Middle Eastern place (Douglas ordered for me), and tested my self-restraint by browsing at Powell’s for an hour without buying anything. I did pick up a book of dirty pictures at CounterMedia around the corner, though. The other three people I wanted to see in PDX were either unavailable or out of town, which was fine--I didn’t plan the trip for social reasons anyway.

Right now I’ve just experienced something that felt like it was out of a movie. I tend to spend my train rides in the dining car, reading or writing and listening to my iPod, sometimes loudly; I’m actually typing this on the train. In line for the return trip, I stood behind a pleasant, collegiate-looking dude (shaved head, glasses, skinny, destination Olympia) who recognized me from the Saturday trip. (He noticed that my glasses fit oddly and advised me to have the bow bent. I don’t think I’ll follow his advice, if only because this pair is on its last legs anyway and I haven’t had a checkup in four years--I’ll probably just get a new set.) In the dining car, I had been listening for a few minutes when Olympia Guy asked me to turn the volume down--he could hear it pretty well a few tables away. No problem. I pecked away at the column, and eventually turned the music off altogether. Then the Professional Wrestler made his move.

The Professional Wrestler is a huge Samoan-looking dude wearing a bright yellow Gold’s Gym tank top and an enormous John Cena wrestling belt--which, as it turns out, looks about five times as large in real life as it does on TV. He was sitting in the left back corner table of the dining car when I arrived; Olympia Guy was in the right back corner table, reading. Professional Wrestler was fiddling with a cell phone, then brought it up to his ear and proceeded to conduct a VERY LOUD conversation with his dad. It only lasted a couple minutes but it was enough to the car’s inhabitants--me, Olympia guy, a 50-ish couple, a 60-ish guy reading a manuscript--take notice. Professional Wrestler, his face in a permanent grimace, his hair permanently hockeyed, either didn’t notice or pretended not to, it was hard to tell which. Then, after another couple minutes, he clearly got bored and went for his phone again.

I’ve been hearing about phones that played MP3s and the radio, but I never experienced them until PW went to work. I think he was dial twisting--there were a couple instances of static--but mostly the selections he went through could have come from an Adam Sandler script: “Crazy Train,” Alabama’s “Mountain Music,” random static, AC/DC, Britney. I had no problem with Olympia Guy’s request to turn my music down, but I have to admit it was kind of fun watching him squirm at PW’s seeming obliviousness.

All this took place in a 20-or-so-minute time slot. Since, PW has put in an earpiece, spoken barely above a whisper, and seems like he’s daydreaming. Nobody said a word to the guy, but even if he was having fun with us, he eventually got tired of it. Then he fell asleep for the remainder of the train ride.

No pun intended on the last line of this, right?

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Via Franklin, here's a cool old-time radio MP3 blog.

Monday, September 12, 2005

On deadline for a big assignment that's actually a bunch of little ones--blurbs, yay, but well-paying and rather fun-to-write blurbs, which is something I only remember when (a) I'm asked about it (as I was last week by Mairead) and (b) I'm in the middle of doing it and not feeling like batting myself over the head. That's not even a lot of the time, but enough of it that I dread the doing of it more than I should. Let's be schematic and say it's 70-30 in fun's favor, though a good 50% of the time it's just there, another thing to do that needs to get done so let's get it finished, shall we? Even then, though, it can give me a charge once I get into it. Getting into it, of course, is the trick.

Right now I'm at a coffeehouse in the U District. Unlike a lot of people here in Seattle, I actually like University Avenue, or the Ave as it's known colloquially. If it's overrun with spare-changers and weirdos, it's no more so than Broadway (in the Capitol Hill n-hood), and it feels more authentically funky than that street, which seems to be hanging onto whatever dissipated glory it can at this point. The Ave feels authentically seedy and not, take your pick, seedy-with-pretensions or upscale-gone-to-seed the way Broadway does. I realize talking about them this way might make me seem like a middle-class tourist getting off on grime (the kind that gets on your shoes, not the kind that gets on U.K. pirate radio), but I've lived in much worse places than anything on the Ave, thank you, and not because I wanted the experience. The thing that puzzles me the most, though, about local Ave-disdain is that there's more genuine life here at this point than on Broadway; it's just that the latter is better scrubbed. Not by much, these days, but enough so, I suppose.

I like this coffeehouse because it's darkly-lit enough that you can just sit and work for hours without anyone noticing. That's true of lots of places, but the darkness (not to mention the many wooden tables and the lived-in feel of the place) makes me hunker down a bit more. That, and the fact that having lived in nearby Eastlake last year when I was doing another of these page-a-days calendars, it was easier for me to come here than anywhere else, bus-wise. Not to mention that it's open till midnight on weeknights instead of 8 p.m., like my favorite coffeehouses in my own neighborhood. (There's one open till 11 p.m., but it's not a very fun place to work, I find, plus I have to keep getting a new log-on password. Feh.)

There is one distracting thing about it, though, aside from the occasional drunken wreck who comes in and needs to be forcibly ejected: the music. The counterpeople play it very loud, and it's almost always the same kind of thing, alt-rock from the past couple years, the kind of thing you might hear a male cashier describe earnestly to a young woman as "real music--art," or words to that effect, as I did here once last winter. For instance, for the past 40 minutes I've been reminded why I am not remotely interested in listening to the Arcade Fire of my own accord. What is it about earnest dorks with iffy pitch that makes people think they must be the future of music, so-called? Early in the year, while I was visiting Portland, my friend Mike Oakes played me the fourth track of the album and I was shocked--it sounded so much fiercer and more forthright than the muddled whatever I'd heard the two times I played the CD. The volume helped, of course, and so did the fact that it's the fastest song on the album; the rhythm hurtles, the bells send it along, the whole thing just moves. When "Neighborhood #1" came on, I immediately recoiled; it wasn't until halfway through that I realized who it must be. Yep--them. Oh well, I thought, at least the fourth song is good.

Back when I thought I knew a lot more than I actually did, I was fond of saying "context is everything." It's not, but it's a lot. And in the case of Mike Oakes playing me the song, it was easier to hear it as a forceful, focused piece of rhythm. Hearing it as part of the album, at a coffeehouse trying to get work done and not worrying too much if it doesn't, all I heard in it was Win Butler's bellowing--brave in the way unself-consciousness can be, irritating the way unself-awareness and overstatement almost always are. And they drag the rhythm right down with it, till it sounds as crisp as an hour-old omelete. Now it's over (what do you know, Regina's singing isn't much better) and some sub-Wax Trax! thing has taken its place. Note to self: however much I like it here, never forget to bring headphones again. Back to work.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Finally played the new Black Dice. Thing's startlingly namby-pamby and polite, kind of Byrne/Eno skipping lightly through digital mud; why didn't they just call it My Life in the Bush of Dorks and get it over with? Between that and the deadly dull Delia Gonzalez/Gavin Russom album (think Tangerine Dream only more lame, if only because three decades on you should be able to figure out how to improve on a blueprint that wasn't particularly interesting the first time around), it's as if DFA were trying to make up for Compilation #2 being so good. Or maybe it's simpler than that, meaning that Tim Goldsworthy and James Murphy aren't the label's secret weapons--they're its only weapons.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

This was fun to put together: Bumbershoot Index (with apologies to Harper's).

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

In April, I attended the EMP Pop Conference, where I saw the single most spellbinding presentation of any sort--musical, educational, theatrical--that I've experienced in all of 2005: Ned Sublette talking about New Orleans. He's been on my mind a lot lately for obvious reasons, and Nick Sylvester's Voice blog features him talking about the devastation.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

On the sidebar at the City Pages Culture to Go blog is a link that allows you to make a direct credit-card donation to Red Cross. It's simple and easy, so go do it now.