Thursday, November 25, 2010

Review: Robyn *Body Talk*


[Originally written for Pretty Much Amazing.]

No genre of music, not even pop, is more associated with frivolity than dance music. Dance artists are often seen as anonymous and their output disposable. Their purview, the club, is a hedonistic temple of drinking, drugs, and (ultimately) sex. Yet nothing damns the genre more than the fact that its purpose is first and foremost utilitarian – to move the human body.

Robyn Carlsson’s brand of dance music is not an exception that proves the rule, but a one-woman validation of the genre, of how great it can be (and sometimes is) when treated seriously. Her music demands that you dance, but also think, to feel the beat and your emotions, too. Robyn’s integrity, mastery, and playfulness make her devoid of any need for qualification. She doesn't make great dance music: she makes great music.

Her latest album, Body Talk, is the culmination of an almost year-long project. Eager to get her new material out to her starving fans (it has been five years since her last album, Robyn) she released two short albums, Body Talk Pt 1 and Pt 2, soon after they were recorded. Body Talk Pt 3, which will be released concurrently with the full-length Body Talk in many regions (including North America), completes the series with five new tracks. Body Talk, on the other hand, is a 15-track summation of this flurry of material. It features five songs off each of the three short Body Talk albums, resequenced into a new whole. It’s one-stop shopping for those sorry souls who have not yet gotten on board, as well as the official record of the Body Talk project.

There are two questions a review of Body Talk must answer: how good is the new material, and how well do all these songs fit together? The answer to the first question is – they are as consistently terrific as Pt 1’s first half, the high-point thus far. “Indestructible” get’s the full electro treatment, and while I prefer the acoustic version off of Pt 2, the song remains a gem. Its instrumentation cleverly augments the lyric. Robyn’s vocal melody is swallowed by the mix, while tracks and tracks of synths envelop her like a sonic armor. Indestructible, indeed. The sunny pop of “Call Your Girlfriend” hides a darker lyric. Robyn offers a new lover advice for how to ditch his girlfriend: “You tell her that the only way her heart will mend is when she learns to love again. And it won’t make sense right now but you’re still her friend. And then you let her down easy.” Even when she’s a homewrecker, Robyn has a heart of gold. On the delirious Max Martin produced “Time Machine,” she fires up the flux capacitor and speeds back in time at 88 mph to rectify her bad behavior. The best of the five is “Get Myself Together,” with a melody that rivals the album’s first two singles, “Dancing On My Own” and “Hang With Me.”

So how do these songs fit together? Surprisingly well, considering the somewhat disparate sound of each Body Talk album. Most of these tracks are anthemic, sing-a-long dance pop, with some more beat-oriented tunes thrown in for variety. However, none of the ballads from Pt 1 or 2 have made the cut, which means the album never gives you a breather. Body Talk has one major flaw: where the hell is “Cry When You Get Older?” The song is so far superior to most of the others that its exclusion is baffling. I also have some minor gripes about the sequencing of the album. “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What to Do” sounds odd as anything other than an opening track, as it was on Pt 1. On Body Talk, it comes after the early high of “Fembot,” and ends up slowing the otherwise breathless onward rush of its first eight tracks. Also, the album sags about three-quarters of the way in, with its two weakest songs, “None of Dem” and “We Dance to the Beat,” placed back-to-back.

Still, Body Talk is an embarrassment of riches. I prefer listening to the short albums, especially for “Cry When You Get Older” and the ballads. But no matter how you consume it, Body Talk matches Robyn's brilliance, and further shows that no one puts music to a beat as marvelously as Robyn Carlsson.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Review: Rihanna *LOUD*

[Originally written for Pretty Much Amazing.]

What hath Madonna wrought? Over 25 years after her iconic VMA performance of “Like a Virgin,” we’ve finally reached the climax of the oversexed pop starlet. You can’t swing a bottle of Jack without hitting a female recording artist whose primary goal is to get laid. Even Rihanna, the Barbadian pop dynamo, got in on the act. On her last two albums, Good Girl Gone Bad and Rated R, she transformed from girl next door into an expletive-dropping nympho vixen. The often tuneful Rated R, with its guitar-laden mid-tempo jams, tried too hard to add menace and edge to Rihanna’s sound and persona. It was right there on its cover, Rihanna made up like the fifth member of the Misfits from the Jem cartoon, hand over eye and pissed off beyond belief.

What a difference a year makes. Yeah, Rihanna is still exploding f-bombs and purring about wanting to see you just in your skin, but she’s also relaxed a bit. LOUD, her competent fifth LP, is a halfway return to form. Take the album’s opening track “S&M,” an overt rebound back to the forward thrust of singles like “Don’t Stop the Music” and “SOS.” Even with its silly, shopworn lyrics (“I may be bad, but I’m perfectly good at it”), “S&M” is a fizzy joy. (A note to pop hitmakers: sadomasochism may have been titillating when Lou Reed sang about shiny boots of leather back in 1967, but today it’s about as tame as a stolen kiss.) In fact, “S&M” represents LOUD’s central flaw: moments of greatness are marred by egregious errors, and these songs vacillate between the two depending on your mood and generosity.

LOUD is best when Rihanna takes pop to less-travelled realms, particularly when her island influences show. “Man Down,” a reggae-infused mea culpa, is the album’s highlight. Rihanna pulls out a gun and shoots a man down with a wonderful “rum pap pap pum,” killing us softly with an effortless roll of the tongue. It’s a rare instance of enunciation elevated to art. “Cheers (Drink To That),” a celebration of imbibing complete with a (surprisingly killer) Avril Lavigne sample, wins this year’s award for Song Least Likely to Be Heard at an A.A. Mixer. The sequel to Eminem’s megahit “Love the Way You Lie” focuses on Rihanna’s portion and is all the better for it, giving up the goods straight-up and unadulterated.

If only the rest of LOUD were so assured. “What’s My Name” features a terrific hook in its verse, but is hindered by the inclusion of sad-sack rapper Drake (“the square root of 69 is eight something”). The generic Top 40 R&B tracks “Skin” and “Fading” are adequate filler, but filler nonetheless. “California King Bed” manages to best Liz Phair’s “My Favorite Underwear” with a central metaphor so bizarre that you almost forget its overblown melodic schmaltz. Almost.

It’s only been three years since Rihanna released the incredible pop anthem “Umbrella,” but the artistic distance between then and now seems vast. Though nothing on LOUD approaches that particular triumph, Rihanna still delivers some modest highs. To quote one of the album’s better tracks: I’ll drink to that.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Review: Taylor Swift *Speak Now*


[Originally written for Pretty Much Amazing.]

The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. It was only a few days ago when I first discovered mine. I found myself bewildered, ashamed, and more than a bit unsettled. This kind of thing happens to regular people. Philistines, actually. I, however, am sophisticated, erudite, a Man of Good Taste. But, denial is futile. (As is resistance, it turns out.) So, in the spirit of the truth setting me free, I’ll say it: I love the new Taylor Swift album.

I’m being facetious, of course. Not about my high admiration for Speak Nowthat’s very real – but about the implied notion that there should be at least a dash of shame added to the enjoyment of twangy pop songs about boys whose names end with the letter “Y.” If you need the modifier “indie” slathered over the word “pop” to make it palatable, stop reading now. If layers of irony, distortion, and/or electronic beats are required to swallow a catchy melody, this review, and this album, is not for you. The rest of us will be perfectly happy to feast on Speak Now’s bounty of pleasures without you.

In 2006, while her 16-year-old peers were spending their free time trying to get laid, high, or, at the very least, a perfect GPA, Taylor Swift was busy crafting a brilliant country-pop tune called “Tim McGraw.” Using the eponymous country star as a totem for nostalgia was a masterstoke, a winking, postmodern novelty that instantly distinguished Swift from the chaff regularly spat out by the mechanized Harvester of Pop also known as Nashville. The rest of Swift’s self-titled debut had a few songs that matched “Tim McGraw” – the banjo-driven, middle-finger flip of “Picture to Burn,” the searing “Should’ve Said No,” and the spirited hillbilly anthem “Our Song” – but as a whole, it was more endearing than it was accomplished. On her excellent 2008 follow-up, Fearless, Swift delivered a record-shattering pop behemoth, albeit one with a country accent. It redefined her as a precocious geek, an outsider hero looking in. “You Belong With Me” exemplified Swift’s new persona, and its accompanying video earned her the award that prompted Kanye West’s ridiculously ballyhooed VMA stunt. (Which is nonsensically “addressed” in the otherwise great Speak Now track “Innocent.”)

Too much has been written about Speak Now’s supposed tell-all confessions, particularly the details of Swift’s failed celebrity relationships. Though her record company, Big Machine, is mostly to blame, the music media haven’t exactly turned away from such an obvious marketing ploy. Sensationalism will sell records, but it distracts from the fact that Speak Now is, song for song, Swift’s strongest album. What difference does it make if “Dear John” is about John Mayer or some fictional John Doe? Or that “Back to December” may or may not be about that Teen Wolf who shares a first name with Swift? I know, Speak Now is just a pop album, which means it will get more attention from US Weekly than it will from Pitchfork, but Swift deserves better.

Speak Now is a career-defining album. It not only lacks a dud, but it also reminds you that a radio hit can be held to a higher standard and still exceed expectations. The album’s first single and opening track, “Mine,” firmly plants Swift in the fertile ground between Shania Twain and Kelly Clarkson, though closer to the latter. Swift’s marriage of pop and rock, with just a bit of country, is effortless and thrilling. Lean verses lead to explosive and exuberant choruses, with one impeccably crafted melody following another. “Sparks Fly” may be your absolute favorite song right now, but “Mean” or “Better Than Revenge” will surely replace it in a couple of days.

The album suffers from a couple of flaws common to most pop albums. It’s exactly two tracks too long: “Enchanted” and “Last Kiss,” fine songs both, slow down the pace of the record. The far-superior acoustic versions of “Back to December” and “Haunted,” found on the deluxe edition of the album, underscore the fact that most of these songs are heavy with too many tracks of instrumentation. Still, griping about a pop album’s overproduction is like complaining that rap music is too misogynistic or that experimental music is too weird. Well, duh.

Speak Now was solely written by Taylor Swift, which seems completely insane. The impressive popcraft of these fourteen songs could have been created by a small army of career songwriters. Well done, Ms. Swift. Speak Now is a well-earned tiara atop of Taylor Swift’s blonde tresses, an album that deserves to sell zillions of records. As it no doubt will.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Review: Avey Tare *Down There*


[Originally written for Pretty Much Amazing.]

In a recent interview with Spin, Dave Portner (aka Avey Tare) was asked how Down There was different from his work with Animal Collective. He responded with coyness worthy of Dylan: “It’s easiest to say there’s something about Down There that makes it more like Down There than anything AC has done.” Thanks for clearing things up, Dave. Statements of the obvious aside, the answer is technically accurate. Down There is a dark tangent broken off from the acoustic experimentation of Animal Collective’s early albums. Portner, being the primary artistic force behind the band, can’t escape certain elements of Animal Collective’s singular sound. Yet taken as a whole, Down There is different kind of beast.

The last we heard from Portner was the terrific Animal Collective EP, Fall Be Kind, which was an autumnal response to the Day-Glo summertime exuberance of Merriweather Post Pavilion. The EP was a shift in tone – complete with a spirited pan-flute jig and a Grateful Dead sample – but it kept with the pop continuity that began with Feels. Down There, Portner’s first solo album, is a retreat from Animal Collective’s catchier forays. Whereas bandmate Noah Lennox (aka Panda Bear) explored his (Brian) Wilsonian side on his third and most-recent solo album, Person Pitch, Portner is using Down There as an outlet for his more outré and abrasive tendencies.

Down There’s opening track, “Laughing Hieroglyphics,” begins as spacey jazz and devolves into a sonic collage of corn-popping-in-a-kettle percussion and swirling electronic noise, played backwards, forwards, and sideways. Uncomfy in Nautica? You bet. “Laughing Hieroglyphics” is followed by the equally disorienting “3 Umbrellas,” which features loud, processed guitar strumming over a pretty melody that’s nearly lost in the cacophony. Any hope that Down There would be Avey Tare’s version of Person Pitch is laid to rest here.

But just when you think Down There is going to be the inscrutable ejaculation of an artist eager to fuck with his fans, everything suddenly comes into focus. (Remember that album Portner recorded with his wife, where every song was played backwards? Me neither.) “Oliver Twist” is a riot, and given the right dance floor, an out-and-out stomper. The twin acoustic instrumentals “Glass Bottom Boat” and “Ghost of Books” are gentle and inviting, both reminiscent of Sung Tongs’ “The Softest Voice.” “Cemeteries” sounds like a séance at Wayne Coyne’s house, with a choir of the living and dead singing backup. If it weren’t for Portner’s distorted vocals, the driving mid-tempo “Heads Hammock” could be a radio staple. Well, a satellite radio staple. On the indie channel.

Down There concludes with its two best songs. “Heather in the Hospital,” a mournful and gorgeous dirge, was inspired by Portner’s sister, who battled a rare form of cancer (she survived). It’s profoundly moving, even if you don’t know the story behind the song. The warm extended tones that fill the song’s first half give way to synthesized harp arpeggios, like the transition music for a dream sequence, suggesting the stupefaction that accompanies repeated hospital visits and the potential loss of a loved one. “Lucky 1” is closest to being an Animal Collective song, which is probably why it was selected as the album’s first single. Portner sings, throat open, over a guttural electronic chug: “There have been days you feel so sad/ Glad you could feel better shape/ Today you like the lucky one!” “Lucky 1” is about how good news makes the bad instantly irrelevant. Though “Heather in the Hospital” is named after his sister, “Lucky 1” is dedicated to her.

If you’re still reading this review, it probably means you’re a diehard Animal Collective fan. Which also means you’re going to buy (or, god forbid, illegally download) Down There anyway. So this summation is for you: Down There is a strange, disjointed mess. You’ll love it.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

I Agree, a Thousand Times Over

Greil Marcus, on the greatest album ever:
Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited (1965). No matter how many times you might have heard it, a different song will appear as primary, the star around which everything else revolves—it could be “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”, one day, “Ballad of a Thin Man” the next, the title song for the next year, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” a year later, each different song casting all the others into a different relief. Then “Desolation Row” might make you forget that there’s anything else on the album at all. But if the album were simply “Like a Rolling Stone” and 30 or 40 minutes of silence, I still might pick it.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Review: Kings of Leon *Come Around Sundown*


[Originally written for Pretty Much Amazing.]

Fully admitting that there are a number of worthy candidates, and only if pressed, I would have to deem “Back Down South” the worst moment on Kings of Leon’s Come Around Sundown. Not that it’s the album’s worst song; on the contrary, it’s arguably the most sonorous and pleasant track of the bunch. But “Back Down South” so perfectly represents the phoniness that courses through the album’s 48 minutes that it deserves special attention. You can almost hear the Followill boys carefully plotting their new record’s SOUTHERN SONG during rehearsals: “y’all, there needs to be a fiddle, a slide gee-tar, and just in case folks don’t remember we’re from down yonder in Tennessee, let’s remind them in the song’s title.” Lest you think I’m being too harsh, consider the “impromptu” caught-on-tape hootin’, hollerin’, and high-fivin’ at the song’s end. I can’t help but think Kings of Leon are weirdly aping a song like Wilco’s “Casino Queen,” which has an identical hootenanny coda. But where “Casino Queen” is 2:45 of rollicking joy, “Back Down South” is wistful and downbeat: the self-congratulatory ovation at its end is beyond baffling. Were the boys so thrilled they made it through the take that they simply couldn’t contain themselves?

If a band has to fail, it’s always best when they fail spectacularly. There’s something almost pleasurable in witnessing an overreach so great that it’s not merely a train wreck, but a catastrophe that distracts you from a train wreck. The source of the pleasure isn’t schadenfreude, but a nagging question played on repeat: what the fuck were they thinking? At the very least, the listener is still engaged in the music, and in some perverse sense, that amounts to a minor success. Alas, Kings of Leon don’t even throw us that meager bone. Oh Come Around Sundown is plenty bad, but it’s also really boring. Worst of all, it has moments so cloying that I repeatedly had to stop listening to cleanse my aural palate with the sound of street noise.

How did a band once so wiry and scrappy transform into the worst sort of rock-radio pabulum? King of Leon’s debut, Youth and Young Manhood, by no means a great album, at least had the vigor typical of the garage rock revival of the early-2000s. Kings of Leon presented themselves as a capable, promising, and fun bar band. Instead of exploring their rawness, they polished their sound with each successive album, taking their cues from U2’s bombast rather than the Some Girls-era Stones sound that inspired their best early songs. The result was great commercial and critical success, in the form of the multiple-Grammy-winning “Use Somebody.” And they deserved the plaudits. “Use Somebody” sounds like a hit in every way. However hammy Caleb Followill’s vocal, “Use Somebody” is tuneful and cathartic, a worthy imitation of U2’s best. Unfortunately for Kings of Leon, a truism of the natural world applies to Come Around Sundown – lightning doesn’t strike twice.

That Kings of Leon are still being compared to other bands five albums into their career is not a result of critical laziness, but of the fact that behind every note is a zero, a non-entity. They were never worthy of their “Southern Strokes” moniker, but the U2 comparisons, however belabored, still apply. The Edge’s shimmering guitar delays, so iconic, abound on Come Around Sundown. “The End,” one of the album’s better tracks, begins with an inverse replica of the solo drum opening to “Bullet the Blue Sky,” and then goes on to borrow, via guitar, the low-high-low synth hook of the Killers’ “Smile Like You Mean It.” While most of Come Around Sundown’s residual checks are owed to Bono & Co., a few are also due to Aerosmith’s Nine Lives for “Mary,” Pearl Jam’s self-titled eighth album for “No Money,” and Bruce Springsteen’s Working on a Dream for “The Face” and “The Immortals.” Remarkably, even those sub-par albums are better than most of what’s on Come Around Sundown.

If Kings of Leon have an LVP, it’s lead singer Caleb Followill, whose affected vocals and foolish lyrics provide Come Around Sundown’s best howlers. Caleb’s vocals, in the past tossed-off and charmingly lackadaisical, are now wrought with fake squeaks and painful flourishes. Where another vocalist would sing “fight,” he sings “fay-ah-yah-hayt.” Sure, it’s an acceptable embellishment once or twice, but does every vocal delivery require a bucketful of extra syllables? We get it, Caleb. You’re pained. Really, really pained. The lyrics are even worse. The aforementioned “Back Down South” contains the following hand-me-the-rhyming-dictionary singsong:
Underneath the stars,
Where we parked the cars,
Ain’t showing signs of stopping.
Pretty little girls,
Naked to their curls,
Ready to lay in the coffin.
On “Mi Amigo,” Caleb Followill delivers a lyric that sounds like “she wants my asshole to sing a song.” In other words, a fart. It’s an unfortunate mondegreen – and the most apt description of Come Around Sundown that I can think of.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

That’s So Gay/Lesbian/Straight!

[Originally written for Swish Edition.]

OKTrends, the research arm of the online dating and hookup site OKCupid, recently released a statistical analysis of the “hundreds of millions” of its gay and straight user interactions. The findings were presented in a blog post entitled “Gay Sex vs. Straight Sex,” which is a worthy read for Christian Rudder’s wry observations alone. The results are fascinating, and sometimes counterintuitive. While Rudder presents the study as one about sex, its most interesting findings are about the personality differences (and similarities) between gay and straight men and women. The site analyzed the “essay text” of its users’ profiles for phrases “most correlated to a particular sexual preference.” In other words, the most common phrases OKCupid members used to describe themselves, given their gender and sexual orientation.

I’ve taken the most common user phrases from the site and put them into a simple table* (see below). OKTrends broke out the results into four categories: gay, lesbian, straight male, and straight female. I’ve displayed in bold any response that refers to a specific artist or artistic work (be it a book, movie, play, or TV show), rather than a generic word or phrase (like “my band” or “baking”). Also, I’ve highlighted responses that represent matches between the categories with the following colors: yellow for gay/lesbian, pink for gay/straight female, green for gay/straight male, purple for straight male/straight female, and blue for the one instance of an intra-gay match (thanks to a spelling quirk).

Let’s take a closer look at the results.

The first thing you’ll notice is that gay men are most likely to refer to a specific artist or work in their profiles: a whopping 84% of the responses. Gay men are followed by lesbians (54%), straight males (31%), and straight females (20%). So a gay man is most likely to define himself by his taste in culture, while at the other end of the spectrum, a straight female is most likely to define herself by a more general descriptor (“independent,” “church,” “close with my mom,” “flip flops” [?!]). The top phrases for each category are

Gay: The Devil Wears Prada
Lesbian: The L Word
Straight male: Band of Brothers
Straight female: “My girlfriends”

Remarkably, only straight females have actual human beings as their top phrase. Apparently gay men prefer to mention the fictional bitchiness of Miranda Priestly over the flesh-and-blood bitchiness of their closest friends.

There are a plenty of quirky choices here, and I could spend all day picking them apart. For brevity’s sake, here are some highlights by category

Gay – While the usual suspects are present (Kelly Clarkson, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Project Runway), there are also some genuine surprises. How to explain the handful of straight boy fetishes? X-Men, Final Fantasy, and Kill Bill are all mentioned here, but not on the straight male list. Notably, Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald appear, while the stereotypical standbys Cher and Bette Midler are MIA. (Though M.I.A, herself, is ninth on the list.)

Lesbian – In his post, Rudder notes that “The L Word” is by far the top phrase among gay women. Seems about right. Yet, while gay women so identify with their cable TV show, gay men don’t with their analogue, Queer as Folk (which doesn’t even make the list). The general phrases on the lesbian list add up to a perfectly descriptive whole when read together: piercings, social justice, a girlfriend, writing poetry, my animals, tea, obsession, mom, drama, sex. Sound like anyone you know? By the way, the word “sex” only appears on the lesbian list. Go figure.

Straight male – I thought professional sports would dominate the list, but only one appears unambiguously: UFC. It’s unclear if the other sports are listed as activities the guys enjoy doing (like hunting, fishing, poker, and golf) or as purely spectator sports. Still: no football, basketball, baseball, or hockey. What gives? Perhaps, since this is a dating site, straight males are trying to signal something unique about themselves…and in turn are coming up with the exact same answers. Also, notice “a few beers” makes the list, rather than just “beer.” As far as physical descriptors go, OKCupid must have an inordinate number of “tall, dark, and handsome” gentlemen. Natch.

Straight female – There must be a good reason why “lip gloss” is second on the list, ahead of “wine,” “horseback riding” and Jane Eyre. I mean, lip gloss is great, but wine is so much better. Maybe that explains why I’m a gay man and not a straight woman.

I realize I’m being divisive by accentuating our differences. So let’s take a look at what brings us together. Keep in mind that OKTrends weeded out the non-statistically unique responses. That’s why no phrase appears on all four, or even three, of the lists. But a few responses unite two of the lists:

Gay/Lesbian – No surprise that the highest percentage of the matches are between gay men and gay women (34%). All are artists or works, except for two: “came out” and, adorably, “cuddling.” Somehow, Stephen Chbosky’s novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower appears on both lists. Personally, I’ve never heard the novel mentioned by anyone I know – gay or straight. Is there a subset of homosexuals who adore MTV-published novels from the ‘90s that I don’t know about? This demands more research.

Gay/Straight female – Both are looking for “Mr. Right.” Lesbians and straight males, on the other hand, couldn’t care less about “Ms. Right.” They, perhaps, just want skanks. Who can blame them?

Gay/Straight male – Just kidding. Both gays and straight males mention “the right guy” and “the right woman,” respectively. So only lesbians are looking for skanks. Again, who can blame them?

Straight male/ Straight female – There are a bunch of country boys looking for country girls, and vice versa. I assume the country they’re looking for is the US, but one never knows nowadays.

Gay/Gay – “The theater” and “the theatre” both appear on the gay list. However they choose to spell it, gays love the stage. Someone alert the New York Times!

*Data courtesy of OKTrends: http://blog.okcupid.com/index.php/gay-sex-vs-straight-sex/

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Yes He Can! Can't He?

The case: Log Cabin Republicans v. United States of America. The result: the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Well, at least until the Obama Justice Department inevitably appeals Judge Virginia A. Phillips' injunction, that is. What a topsy-turvy world! A Republican group scoring an important victory for gay rights? The Democratic administration fighting to keep the deeply unpopular status quo?

What the hell is going on here? Admittedly, matters more complex than I'm making them sound. The Log Cabins are generally out-of-step with their party. Yet, arch-bogeyman Dick Cheney favors gay marriage. Meanwhile, the Obama administration is bound by precedent to uphold the current law of the land. Yet, liberal-savior President Obama is against gay marriage.

Again, what the hell is going on here? Politics, of course. Regarding gay marriage, the Log Cabins, who have little sway, are hardly the voice of their party. And Dick Cheney has nothing to lose now. Obama, on the other hand, made what is most likely a politically motivated statement while campaigning, to appeal to the center, and now has to stick to it.

I doubt Obama actually believes gay marriage is a bad thing, and I think most Americans, be they for or against gay marriage, agree with me. Obama has already condemned DADT. He even pledged to end it this year. Yet, if Obama holds to a politically expedient position, what does that say about him? Will Democrats applaud his so-called integrity?

This is Obama's moment. I'm no fan of his, but I hope he lives up to his promise to end DADT. Obama has a choice: politics or principles. Now that he has the chance, let's see if, yes, he can make the right decision.

Update: Andrew Sullivan makes the same points, more eloquently of course.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Review: How to Dress Well *Love Remains*


[Originally written for Pretty Much Amazing.]

I went through three stages of emotion while I listened to Love Remains, in preparation for this review. My first few spins were filled with anger toward Tom Krell, the man whose nom de studio is How to Dress Well. I thought the album’s aural hand grenades – the overly muddy mix, the shrill squawks that appear out of nowhere, Krell’s reverb-heavy vocals, the endless buzzing distortion – were unnecessary, pretentious indie window-dressings. Were I not reviewing the album, I would have given up and thrown it aside then and there.

As I dutifully listened on, my anger turned into disappointment. Krell’s indelible melodies began to sink in. If it weren’t for its insufferable production, this could have been a great album, I started to think. Still, I remained intrigued.

It was “Decisions,” one of Love Remains’ later tracks, that led to my mini-epiphany. Halfway through the song Krell sings a cappella to a girl; he reminds her to check her cell phone for his call, and then, suddenly, with layers of tracks bleeding into each other, a glorious wall of wailing falsetto enters. At that moment, I learned to stop worrying and love Love Remains.

Love Remains sounds like a transmission from another dimension, one permanently frozen in 1992, where ghosts not only exist but also record radio hits. These songs are incredibly familiar yet never-before-heard. Tom Krell has so thoroughly synthesized the sound of late-80s/early-90s R&B that the album seems like plagiarism. In this sense, Love Remains reminds me of Ariel Pink’s Before Today, an album that has yacht rock coded in its DNA. But where Pink appears to have his tongue firmly in cheek, Krell plays it straight. And however lo-fi its production, Before Today sounds like Let’s Talk About Love next to Love Remains.

There are moments of pop immediacy (“You Won’t Need Me Where I’m Goin’” and “My Body”) and a few booty shakers (the terrific and pulsing “Walking This Dumb” and “Mr. By & By”) on Love Remains. But Krell is at his best as a Rhythm-and-Blues Midas, somehow turning ethereal chorales into slow jams. “Ready for the World,” ”Lover’s Start,” and “Endless Rain” are alternate-reality R. Kelly singles par excellence.

When I first heard Love Remains, I was certain Tom Krell was hiding his flaws behind the murk of lo-fi studio trickery, as an unskilled pop singer would hide behind the false gloss of Auto-Tune. The truth is, the album’s production is the co-star on Love Remains. As near-perfect as these songs are, the whole overshadows its parts. Brilliant and beautiful, haunting and singularly original, How to Dress Well’s Love Remains ranks among the year’s best albums.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

I’m Only Gay for You, Bro

[Originally written for Swish Edition.]

Has science finally caught up with the high fantasy of gay male porn? Here’s the scene, in its most fundamental form: two rippled, straight Adonis-types are showering in a locker room, most likely after football (or even better, rugby) practice. Eyes wander, linger uncertainly, and then fix upon the most manly features of the other’s too-perfect body. The next thing you know these two oh-so-very heterosexual men are engaging in acts of near-brutality. (The believability of the scene is inevitably marred by the sudden appearance of an industrial-size bottle of lube. So much for cinéma vérité.)

The source of the scene’s appeal, its fantasy, is that it would never happen in real life between two straight men. Most people -- peering through a Porky’s-style hole in the wall, no doubt -- would conclude that the two guys going at it in a locker room, no matter how adamantly straight-identifying in their normal lives, are really, really gay. After all, college girls hold a monopoly on sexual fluidity and experimentation. Long prison sentences notwithstanding, the following is the dogma of male sexuality: straight is straight, and gay is gay, and never the twain shall meet. Not so fast, says a recent national sex survey published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine.

Slate’s William Saletan summarizes the study’s findings on homosexuality:
Apparently, a lot of people try gay sex, but only about half stick with it. By ages 18-19, 10 percent of men say they've performed fellatio. That number drops among men in their 20s and 30s. But among men in their 40s and 50s, 13 percent say they've done it, and 14 percent to 15 percent say they've received it from another man. Meanwhile, 11 percent of men aged 20-24 say they've received anal sex. For unknown reasons, that number declines in the next higher age bracket but then steadily rises in succeeding brackets, leveling off at 9 percent among men in their 40s and 50s.

Remember, these are "have you ever" questions. When men aged 20-59 are asked whether they've performed fellatio in the past year, the number is more like 6 percent. And only 4 percent say they've received anal sex in that time. But that's a big jump from 1992, when only 2 percent of men admitted to sex with a man in the preceding year.
Saletan doesn’t go the extra step and present the residuals between those who said they’ve engaged in gay sex at least once and those who’ve done it in the last year: the difference is 4% - 9%. Of course, this also includes gay guys who just haven’t scored in the last twelve months (believe it or not, they’re out there). Still, these numbers show there is a sliver of the heterosexual male population who have walked on the wild side and haven’t caught the gay bug and moved to Chelsea with their twink boyfriends.

Two more things to consider. The findings were, necessarily, self-reported. The effects of taboo and sexual-identity preservation means the number of straight-identifying men who have had gay experiences is likely to be higher. It takes a mighty secure straight man to admit to having once performed fellatio. Even so, the study’s findings do not represent a sea change in how we ought to understand male sexuality. We’re still talking small numbers (not even 10%), and it is only one study.

The Onion once published a hilarious satire of overly macho closet cases entitled “Why Do All These Homosexuals Keep Sucking My Cock?”. The “author” of the article, Bruce Heffernan, laments his numerous unwitting encounters with gay men:
Look, I'm not a hateful person or anything–I believe we should all live and let live. But lately, I've been having a real problem with these homosexuals. You see, just about wherever I go these days, one of them approaches me and starts sucking my cock.

Take last Sunday, for instance, when I casually struck up a conversation with this guy in the health-club locker room. Nothing fruity, just a couple of fellas talking about their workout routines while enjoying a nice hot shower. The guy looked like a real man's man, too–big biceps, meaty thighs, thick neck. He didn't seem the least bit gay. At least not until he started sucking my cock, that is.

Where does this queer get the nerve to suck my cock? Did I look gay to him? Was I wearing a pink feather boa without realizing it? I don't recall the phrase, "Suck my cock" entering the conversation, and I don't have a sign around my neck that reads, "Please, You Homosexuals, Suck My Cock."

I've got nothing against homosexuals. Let them be free to do their gay thing in peace, I say. But when they start sucking my cock, then I've got a real problem.
So: closet case, or regular old straight guy? Thanks to science, we may never know for sure.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Review: Four Tet *There Is Love in You*


[Originally written for Pretty Much Amazing.]

The closest approximation of pop construction on Four Tet’s There Is Love in You first appears 4 ½ minutes into “Love Cry” and ends about a minute and a half before the song does. Wave goodbye to the nice Approximation of Pop Construction, kids! Good riddance, I say to my own astonishment.

Though nothing on There Is Love in You will be lighting up the pop charts anytime soon, the album is never formless. In fact, form is everything here: the constant repetition of sonic motifs, the contrast of shifting timbres and sounds, the perpetual thumping of a beat. That said, the album is pretty much hookless, at least in traditional sense. Yet Kieran Hebden, the sole member of Four Tet, does something clever; he compensates with musical elements that do a hook’s job: the bouncing 8-bit beeps in “Sing,” the crystalline harp plucks in “Circling,” and the lyrical guitar line in “She Just Likes to Fight” all act like hooks, when they’re too just repeating motifs.

There Is Love in You is, for the most part, instrumental. In the few instances where a human voice is heard, it’s still usually just another element in the mix, like a hand clap or snare tap. Hebden keeps things to the essentials, adding nothing extraneous to these minimalistic tracks. The album has the elegance of a well-constructed sentence: it conveys its ideas clearly, unencumbered with unnecessary embellishment. Few musical voices speak at once, and when a new one enters, it usually means another has just exited. Yet each track reveals new depth with every listen. It took eight spins before I realized that I heard what I think is a sample of the opening line to the Chiffons classic “Nobody Knows What’s Goin’ On (In My Mind But Me)” playing on the horizon four minutes into “Plastic People.” This ambiguity (is that really what I’m hearing?) is even better than the sample itself.

But enough with all this technical analysis, what makes There Is Love in You a remarkable album is its hypnotic beauty. How does music this digital evoke such real emotion without having to delegate the heavy-lifting to a soulful gospel sample? I’ll leave that question to a neuroscientist. Or perhaps the best answer is another question: who cares? However the means, all that matters is There Is Love in You packs enough emotional wallop to make an emo band blush.

Still, this is not music for the casual fan of the electronic genre. As much as I find There Is Love in You compelling, even brilliant, many will find it boring and repetitive. It’s a demanding album – not to be taken with your Ritalin – which never veers into the day-spa-soundtrack territory of so much instrumental electronic music out there. That’s not to say that Four Tet has assigned the listener homework, either. Meet There Is Love in You halfway, and you’ll find that underneath all those blips and beeps thumps a very human heart.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

****


As far as American culinary plaudits go, a four-star review from the New York Times is like winning the Pulitzer, despite Michelin's attempts at stateside gastro-kingmaking. Sam Sifton, the Times' restaurant critic, who replaced Frank Bruni over a year ago, has not yet placed a quad-asterisk crown atop an NY restaurant -- until today. And the winner is...Del Posto, the first Italian restaurant to have that sacrosanct honor since 1974.

What makes this a story of note for us non-New York food lovers is the review itself. While any hack can write a smarmy take-down, only the best food critics can write eloquent praises that are enjoyed for their own merit. Also, a persuasive four-star review instantly puts a restaurant on the Must-Conquer List of every fervent and far-flung foodie.

Here are the opening paragraphs of Bruni's excellent 2004 review of Per Se, a piece that was the eventual-catalyst of an incredible meal, and a considerable budget re-allocation, of mine earlier this year:
The butter-poached lobster almost did it, but not quite. I had been wooed with succulent lobster before. The Island Creek oysters and Iranian caviar, mingled in a kind of sabayon that I was served during that same dinner and during others, made a seductive case. But I was wary of such ostentation.

In the end, it was a different night and a nine-course vegetable tasting, of all things, that made me drop any reserve, cast aside any doubts and accept the fact that I loved Per Se — and that this preening, peacock-vain newcomer deserved it.

I ordered the meal out of a sense of duty, with a heavy heart. Jicama ribbons? Warm potato salad? How transcendent could those be?

Silly, cynical, carnivorous me. The jicama was sensational, so packed with moisture and so faintly sweet that it could have been a new, undiscovered fruit, and the cilantro and avocado that came with it were like idealized essences of themselves, so flavorful that they seemed to have been cultivated in a more verdant universe. The bite-size marble potatoes in the potato salad popped like grapes in my mouth, and an exquisitely balanced mustard-seed vinaigrette gave them a subtle zing.

Lobster is easy; potato salad is hard. And a restaurant that turns a summer picnic staple into a meal-stopping, sigh-inducing dish — and makes that dish a legitimate course in a $135 tasting menu — cannot be denied. Per Se is wondrous.
Sifton's review seems limp by comparison:
Great restaurants may start out that way. But an extraordinary restaurant generally develops only over time, the product of prolonged artistic risk and managerial attention. An extraordinary restaurant uses the threat of failure first as a spur to improvement, then as a vision of unimaginable calamity. An extraordinary restaurant can transcend the identity of its owners or chef or concept.

And of course an extraordinary restaurant serves food that leads to gasps and laughter, to serious discussion and demands for more of that, please, now. The point of fine dining is intense pleasure. For the customer, at any rate, an extraordinary restaurant should never be work.

Consider Del Posto, which opened in 2005 on a wind-swept corner of that grim Manhattan neighborhood that is neither Chelsea nor the meatpacking district, in the shadows below what is now the High Line park. The restaurant’s owners, Joseph Bastianich, Lidia Bastianich and Mario Batali, and its chef, Mark Ladner, envisioned a temple to Italian cooking to match any ever built to honor a European cuisine in New York, a 24,000-square-foot palazzo of mahogany and marble devoted entirely to the pleasures of Italian food and customer satisfaction.

Five years later Del Posto is that and more, a place to sit in luxury and drink Barolo, while eating food that bewilders and thrills — an abalone carpaccio to start your meal, perhaps, and absolutely a celery sorbetto to end it, as well-played Gershwin and Kern tinkle in the background.

Del Posto’s is a pleasure that lasts, offering memories of flavors that may return later in a dream: a tiny cup of spiced gazpacho, say, rimmed with a salty dust of dried capers; or a plate of the square-cut whole-wheat pasta known as tonarelli, with fiery little chickpeas, fried rosemary and bonito flakes in place of the more-traditional bottarga; perhaps a nectarine cooked into slow and amazing submission, with a savory grilled lemon cake and intense basil gelato. And, oh, that wine!
Here's the full review, not nearly as excellent as the food it describes.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Review: Antony & the Johnsons *Swanlights*



[Originally written for Pretty Much Amazing.]

Swanlights starts with a repeated mantra – sung first with a lilting warble and later with a soaring yowl, accompanied by some gentle piano notes, acoustic guitar plucks, a high-hat metronome click, and finally, after a swollen crescendo, a few grand cymbal rolls – just three words, the song’s title: “Everything Is New.” Well, not exactly. In fact, very little here is new.

Antony Hegarty has perfected a sound. What he lacks in breadth and variety, he makes up for with depth and consistency. Swanlights follows the template laid out by I am a bird Now and The Crying Light; it’s a collection of sparsely instrumented folk nocturnes and chamber lullabies, with a couple of esoteric art songs thrown in for good measure. But where Antony & the Johnsons’ previous releases were impeccably crafted and instantly gripping, Swanlights is looser, at times formless and even abstruse. Which is just a kinder way of saying Swanlights isn’t as good as its predecessors.

At their best, Antony’s songs inhabit a place of such intimacy and yearning that they can be suffocating in their beauty. Fans already know the sublime alchemy that occurs when Antony’s voice meets a devastating melody. Songs like “Hope There’s Someone” from I am a bird Now, “Blind” from Hercules and Love Affair’s debut, and Hegarty’s cover of Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” from the I’m Not There OST show that Antony, while being a great songwriter, is first and foremost an expert vocal stylist.

Nothing on Swanlights rivals his prior greatness, but a few songs come close. “The Great White Ocean” is the simplest of the bunch, just the singer, a stately guitar, and a seemingly timeless melody. It’s vintage Antony, as are its familiar themes of mortality and the bonds of family. Austere and aching, “The Spirit Was Gone” is another song about (surprise!) death, which lifts its hook from Paul McCartney’s “You Never Give Me Your Money” and puts it to great use. Yes, we’ve been here before, but when the familiar is done this well, why complain?

Swanlights shares a flaw with every other Antony & the Johnsons album: its songs have a tendency to blend together, making a collection of strong material seem monotonous and monochromatic. That said, there are a few left turns here, of varying success. “I’m In Love” is the most successful, and the album’s best track. Above a “primitive, offbeat rhythmic drive,” to borrow the words of Philip Glass, Antony sings a repeating eight-tone motif, while a Wurlitzer mimics in kind. The circularity of its structure suggests the perpetuity of finding a new love. It is pessimistic and hopeful at once. Love is lost and found, and lost and found, again and again and again. The album’s lead single, “Thank You For Your Love,” starts out sweet, its bright horn accents a relief to the album’s overall melancholy. Yet for as joyous as it first appears to be, darkness lies underneath. Antony sings thanks to love for saving him from “falling in the seizure of pain,” from being “lost in the dark blackness,” from his mind being “broken into a thousand pieces.” Antony pleads “I thank you!” over and over at the song’s end, and it’s unclear if his pain has been alleviated or exacerbated.

Even Swanlights’ least successful tracks are rescued by a smart twist or an interesting flourish. “Ghost” is closer to “art” than song, but its sixteenth-note ostinati flurries, which suddenly shift to half-time eighth-note pulses, are enough to keep the listener’s attention – a cerebral, if not emotional, payoff.Swanlights’ too-long and soporific title track is aimless for its first half, all drone and reverb, until a drum kit and piano mercifully add some structure to the mess. There’s a gorgeous song somewhere within the meandering “Christina’s Farm,” but you’ll have to wait for it (give It four minutes; it’s worth it). The worst offender is the Björk track ”Flétta,” if only for the great opportunity squandered. Whereas the wonderful Volta track “Dull Flame of Desire” used both vocalists equally, with the bombast they deserved, “Flétta” cedes to Björk’s duller tendencies. The song’s jaunty piano interludes at least inject some life into a largely stillborn track.

If Swanlights had matched the quality of I am a bird Now and The Crying Light, its lack of sonic growth could have been tossed aside as an afterthought, a minor disappointment. Being an inferior album, its similarity only heightens its flaws. Still, it’s almost unjust to nitpick when the overall product is this good. Swanlights is not the departure for Antony & the Johnsons that I’ve been hoping for. Maybe next time. (Might I humbly suggest an album of girl group covers?) For now, I’ll happily settle for a good, rather than great, album.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Exhuming Malthus

Here we go again.

Slate has a good article on the forever-interest in the ideas of 18th century economist Thomas Malthus, particularly in the realm of fiction, specifically with regard to Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. To describe Malthus' central idea on one foot: human population grows exponentially, while natural resources grow arithmetically. The former will eventually outstrip the latter, leading to a population bomb that will detonate and obliterate us all.

No matter how many times Malthus is refuted, his ideas linger. Ultimately, Malthusians of all stripes are defined by their suspicion, if not hatred, for civilization. Malthus was in the news recently, thanks to the Neo-Malthusian nut who took hostages at the Discovery Channel earlier this month. His inspiration? A novel: My Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn.

It almost makes you miss the influence of Karl Marx.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Let's Talk About *Freedom*


I've just started reading Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, a book I planned on hating but am actually kind of enjoying. I've disdained Franzen (yes, my negative opinion of him has been that intense) since the whole Oprah flap back at the beginning of the last decade. I wasn't put off by some great offense against Her Highness of Daytime, but by Franzen's apparent smugness and snobbishness toward the economic gift horse that is the Oprah Book Club, by his attitude that he and his work (The Corrections) were too good for the sudden popularity that followed from Oprah's stamp of approval, that the vulgar "O" printed on the book's cover immediately tarnished its contents by marking it as "female fiction." Didn't he want people to read his goddamn book?

Anyway, it wasn't just spite that motivated me to pick up Freedom. It's too long a book to be read for the sole (and self-indulgent) purpose of further stoking some anger within me. No, I wanted to understand and be part of a conversation about an "important" literary work within the culture. I place quotes around the word important not to be snarky or contrarian, but to underscore the fact that Freedom's import is that it has prompted discussion in the first place, without me having to evaluate how important a literary work it is. It's not often that a work of fiction is discussed so ubiquitously, with angles of debate so multifaceted.

First there's the issue of the book's literary merit. Freedom has been overwhelmingly embraced by critics, with a few poison pens written in gleeful dissent. Then there's the reaction to the book's critical reception, which has become a debate about the nature of literary criticism and what it means to be a Great American Novel. Add to the mix questions of what happened to the popular "middlebrow" novel, why most people no longer read fiction, and whether a woman writer of literary fiction could ever grace the cover of Time, as Franzen did a few weeks ago, and you've got yourself some robust cultural discourse.

The last bit, of the media's attitude toward women literary writers, immediately cuts off any mention of J.K. Rowling, she being the clichéd 800 pound, and multi-billion dollar, gorilla. Of course, the modifier "literary" in front of "fiction" is central to all of this. When in recent memory have people, like real reg'lar people, many of whom are also the erudite consumers of the NYT's Notable Books list, clamored about and discussed a work of fiction? In the last ten years, it's only been in the context of young adult and genre fiction: Harry Potter, Twilight, and Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy exhaust the list.

And so, we talk about Freedom. While that's a very good thing on the surface, what about Franzen has established him as the literary topic of discussion? It's not merit alone. There have been a number of great, and for the most part popular, contemporary works that did not make the same splash, books like The Road, The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Netherland, Tree of Smoke, and Middlesex, among many others. Perhaps it's because few other authors mix Franzen's prodigious ambition and ability with broad social commentary. While I almost completely disagree with Franzen's evaluation of America and Americans, there's no doubt that Freedom is the work of a writer in full control of his powers, one who is emphatically Making a Statement. Freedom's sweeping 23-page first chapter is proof enough of this.

Whatever the answer, the great debate over Freedom shows the reports of the novel's death within American culture are at least slightly exaggerated. And the townsfolk rejoice, however halfheartedly.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Song Break: Late to the Game Edition

I'm just now getting around to listening to Hot Chip's One Life Stand. "I Feel Better," the album's standout, recalls the yearning of Hercules and Love Affair's "Iris" and "Athene." As with those tracks, "I Feel Better" is either uplifting or haunting, depending on the listener's mood. Joe Goddard's heavily Auto-Tuned vocal provides a sonic foil to the purity of Alexis Taylor's chorus (clearly inspired by Everything but the Girl's Tracy Thorn). Both trade off over synthesized strings and a simple kick-drum/ high hat/ snare drum beat. An instant contender for song of the year.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

For Parrot


Outside my window, half a block south, I can see candles flickering in the semi-darkness of the sidewalk. A small crowd stands in vigil. The occasional car honks in passing. There's a news van parked at the end of the block: a local television station has come to cover the event. All of this for Parrot. If you live in DC, you probably already know who that is.

Parrot was a pit bull who was shot and killed by a police officer last Sunday. There are conflicting accounts, but a few facts are agreed upon by the dog's owner, the MPD, and eyewitnesses. First, it happened in full view of a street festival that was in full swing in DC's Adams Morgan neighborhood. Second, Parrot and a poodle got into a sidewalk altercation -- both were leashed; the poodle may or may not have been bitten. Third, an MPD officer stepped in and subdued Parrot, before shooting the animal execution-style.

The crowd currently gathered in front of the Brass Knob, where Parrot was killed five days ago, and the presence of local media are a testament to how much this story has impacted locals, especially dog owners. I was shocked and sickened when I heard the news on Sunday. It didn't help that I own a dog that looks strikingly similar to Parrot, and that I live hundreds of feet from where it all happened.

A friend of mine knows the officer who shot the dog. Apparently, he is a dog lover (and owner) himself. Imagining the officer as a faceless cop, he's a monster who cares little for human rights (like property) and even less for animals. After hearing he may be a dog lover, he sounds like a human being who made a really, really bad snap decision.

To a certain extent I can understand. The officer was faced with a dog, a pit bull no less, who could have very well been dangerous, in the midst of a densely attended street festival. Allegedly, the owner's hand was bleeding. Maybe things looked worse than they were, and the officer did what he thought he had to do. Of course, this doesn't exonerate him. Disregarding the callousness of his public execution, he discharged his weapon in the midst of a densely attended street festival. At least Parrot was on a leash.

One good thing may come of this. The great public outcry, the disgust and anger that swelled with the news of Parrot's death, will, I hope, cause an officer to think twice before shooting a dog in the future, especially when no one is in immediate danger. Still, that's little salve for Parrot's owner.

I walked past the vigil on my way home earlier, before it got started. The crowd was solemn; a few eyes were red from crying. A woman handed me a leaflet with pictures of Parrot on it. Another handed me a dixie cup, to catch candle wax. And there stood Parrot's owner, wearing a white t-shirt, surrounded by strangers who were brought here on a rainy Thursday night to honor the life of a dog. Just somebody's pet. I still don't know if the feeling I had at that moment was profound hope, or sadness.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Adrian Fenty's Spectacular Defeat


Was it Michelle Rhee? Fenty's aloofness toward the black community? His hubris with regard to his reelection campaign? The heavy whiff of nepotism that accompanied his appointments?

Megan McArdle thinks gentrification was largely to blame for Fenty's loss:
When it became clear that Fenty was going to lose, there was a lot of shock going around in the circles I live and work in--which is to say, mostly white professionals who live in DC's gentrified, or gentrifying, precincts. After all, there's little question that things have gotten much better under Fenty, and not just for white people. The truly abysmal schools are being reformed, parks are being built, crime is slowly improving, the city is getting streetcars desired by almost everyone except the folks who live directly on the tracks . . . so why did voters just kick him out?

I don't think you can quite explain it by saying that Fenty's modestly corrupt (too-expensive contracts have gone to friends, though those friends seem to have mostly done the work very well). Marion Barry has remained quite popular here through much more serious violations, and in general, the corruption now pales in comparison to the pervasive corruption that has been uncovered in multiple city agencies, which long predates Fenty's administration.

Most people agree that this is ultimately a proxy battle over gentrification. It's all rather nebulous, because of course Vincent Gray hasn't campaigned on rolling back gentrification. He seems to support all the services Fenty has expanded, with the possible exception of the school reforms. Instead, the theme of his campaign--and the more generalized opposition to Fenty--has centered around respect and process.
She continues:
Gentrification represents a real loss to people who can't afford to stay. They've lived in the city a long time; they have networks of friends and relatives, and institutions like churches, that are built around proximity. Why should they favor a city that provides more services--and then sees real estate prices spike, so that they can't afford to stay around to enjoy them? There are probably a number of voters for whom the status quo is vastly preferable to a situation where Fenty manages to improve the schools enough that middle class voters start a bidding war for homes in the district.

Certainly for the teachers and the taxi drivers--both groups huge opponents of Fenty--this is about real economic loss and changes to their jobs that make them less pleasant.

But no one comes right out and talks about the fact that they are now worse off; instead they talk about how Fenty has run roughshod over council process, or that he hasn't respected some group . . the teachers, the council members, "the community". So our mayoral election has become a debate over which groups in the city are worthy of respect, rather than what concrete improvements can be made in peoples' lives. Because in a city dysfunctional, there are no changes that make everyone better off.

I don't know whether the voters who selected Vincent Gray understand at some level that as long as the quality of life in the city continues to improve, gentrification will continue apace. Vincent Gray didn't force them to consciously make that choice; he made vague promises about things like inclusionary zoning which are supposed to keep more affordable housing in the district. These initiatives will not work, but at least they sound hopeful. And the people who voted for Gray are willing to hope because they think that he, unlike Fenty, respects their concerns.
The implications of her argument, if correct, are provocative. It only follows that a segment of D.C. believed things have been getting better, yet actively voted against progress. In fact, a recent poll showed that most Washingtonians thought the district was heading in the right direction. The same poll showed Fenty trailing behind Gray.

I think McArdle's argument is persuasive, but Fenty's bafflingly inept reelection campaign certainly played a large part in his loss. The Washington Post's surprisingly good analysis, published today, is the best argument for this view.

But I think McArdle nails it with her prediction of what to expect from Mayor Gray:
I don't know how good a mayor Gray will be--he seems like a nice guy, but nice guys often have a hard time getting things done in fractious cities, and his campaign platform is pretty empty of actual proposals. I think this is probably a tragedy for the utterly dysfunctional school system, but I doubt that Gray is going to do much to roll back the other changes, like the change in the taxi fare system, that have made the city a better place.

And for good or ill, I doubt he'll do anything about gentrification. Inclusionary zoning has, as far as I know, proven an excellent way to subsidize home building in poor neighborhoods, and to provide below-market housing for relatively middle class retirees, but it has not, as far as I am aware, ever succeeded in keeping a neighborhood's economic mix from changing. The forces altering DC right now are like a runaway freight train. In 2000, the population of DC was 30% white and 60% black; by 2006-2008, those numbers were 36% and 54%, respectively. Meanwhile, the percentage living below the poverty level dropped from over 20% to under 18%. On a demographic timescale, that is lightning fast. If gentrification keeps up at that pace, the lines are going to cross sometime in the next 10 to 15 years.

Vincent Gray could throw his body in front of the freight train and it wouldn't even slow down. The change in the city may stop on its own; no trend continues forever. But the city is now good enough that many affluent people who used to flee to the suburbs now want to live here--and their presence is attracting non-government services which make it attractive enough to lure still other people to follow them. Unless Gray starts an active campaign to make things worse, the core issue that seems to have animated this campaign is largely out of his hands.
Progress marches onward? Washingtonians can only hope.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Housewives, Totally Losing It

Courtesy of Oprah and the continent of Australia.



(Mirrored on 100MC)

Monday, September 13, 2010

A Lady Gaga Takedown


The Sunday Times (UK) published a devastating piece on Lady Gaga by the always wonderful Camille Paglia. Paglia, an iconoclastic cultural critic, is well known for her analyses of Madonna through the years, and for her controversial views on feminism and sexuality. Here's an excerpt from Paglia's criticism of Gaga:
Gaga has borrowed so heavily from Madonna (as in her latest video-Alejandro) that it must be asked, at what point does homage become theft? However, the main point is that the young Madonna was on fire. She was indeed the imperious Marlene Dietrich’s true heir. For Gaga, sex is mainly decor and surface; she’s like a laminated piece of ersatz rococo furniture. Alarmingly, Generation Gaga can’t tell the difference. Is it the death of sex? Perhaps the symbolic status that sex had for a century has gone kaput; that blazing trajectory is over…

Gaga seems comet-like, a stimulating burst of novelty, even though she is a ruthless recycler of other people’s work. She is the diva of déjà vu. Gaga has glibly appropriated from performers like Cher, Jane Fonda as Barbarella, Gwen Stefani and Pink, as well as from fashion muses like Isabella Blow and Daphne Guinness. Drag queens, whom Gaga professes to admire, are usually far sexier in many of her over-the-top outfits than she is.

Peeping dourly through all that tat is Gaga’s limited range of facial expressions. Her videos repeatedly thrust that blank, lugubrious face at the camera and us; it’s creepy and coercive. Marlene and Madonna gave the impression, true or false, of being pansexual. Gaga, for all her writhing and posturing, is asexual. Going off to the gym in broad daylight, as Gaga recently did, dressed in a black bustier, fishnet stockings and stiletto heels isn’t sexy – it’s sexually dysfunctional.

Compare Gaga’s insipid songs, with their nursery-rhyme nonsense syllables, to the title and hypnotic refrain of the first Madonna song and video to bring her attention on MTV, Burning Up, with its elemental fire imagery and its then-shocking offer of fellatio. In place of Madonna’s valiant life force, what we find in Gaga is a disturbing trend towards mutilation and death…
I wholly agree. In fact I wrote this about Gaga last year:
I've been listening to the deluxe edition of her Grammy-nominated The Fame, and I just can't understand why Lady Gaga has broken out of the club scene to become a genuine pop phenom. Yes, her singles are decent, and she knows how to market herself (and endear herself to the gay community). In that latter sense, she invites comparisons to a young Madonna. But the comparison ends there. Go back and listen to Madonna's first few records. Those songs were some of the best pop of the eighties. Other than the incredible, aforementioned "Bad Romance" (which is as close as she gets to Madge's early brilliance), her material is pretty middling.

So what explains it? Perhaps it's because she's an amalgamation of what people like about other pop stars. She embraces style and fashion (like Gwen Stefani), she's a little outre (like Bjork and Kelis), and she flirts with prurience (like a lite version of Peaches). But is she really greater than the sum of her parts?

I don't think so. I'm reminded of Gertrude Stein's description of Oakland, California: When you listen to Lady Gaga, you find there is no there there.
Apparently many find plenty of there there: she won eight VMAs last night, including the top prize for video of the year. So it goes.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Friday, September 10, 2010

Things Fall Apart

Guess who said this of Obamacare:
[He] told The Associated Press this week that he considered the law “to be the greatest failure, modern failure, of political leadership in my lifetime.”
Newt Gingrich? Wrong. Rush Limbaugh? Nope. Glenn Beck? [Loud negative buzzer sound!] Barack Obama? Maybe in 2012.

It was former Georgia Governor Roy Barne, a Democrat. Here's the entire NYT article.

This sentence is particularly surprising:
Mr. Obama, when asked at his news conference Friday about Democrats who are running against his plan, said only that “people are going to make the best argument they can right now, and they’re going to be taking polls of what their particular constituents are saying and trying to align with that.”
I admit I'm a novice to the art of politicking, but Obama's admission seems too honest. His statement would have sounded cynical coming from a Republican. But when spoken by the head of the Democratic Party, who has every reason to sugarcoat and spin, his words peal with hard truth.

I Think I Need a New Eyeglass Rx...

...because I just read this:
President Obama said Friday that if the midterm elections become a referendum on which political party has the most effective agenda to improve the economy, rather than a decision on its current state, "the Democrats will do very well."
And if the midterm elections become a referendum on which political party has the juiciest sex scandals, it will be a Republican landslide. Unfortunately for the Dems, the midterm elections will be a referendum on three economic issues: the financial and auto bailouts (this being the first election since), the stimulus bill (ditto), and unemployment. Oh, and health care.

Also, this is funny:
Obama highlighted several new economic proposals this week, including business tax breaks for research and investments, that Republicans have said are designed chiefly to appeal to voters this campaign season.
Republicans, please. Targeted tax breaks that purchase discrete and organized blocs of voters? Your lily-white consciences must be scandalized by the very notion.

(Mirrored from 100MC.)

Angry Mob of the Day


News of Old Navy's pant-size inflation finally reaches Afghanistan.

From the NYT.

(Mirrored from 100MC.)

Another Victory

DADT struck down by a Federal Judge:
Judge Virginia A. Phillips of Federal District Court struck down the rule in an opinion issued late in the day. The policy was signed into law in 1993 as a compromise that would allow gay and lesbian soldiers to serve in the military.

The rule limits the military’s ability to ask about the sexual orientation of service members, and allows homosexuals to serve, as long as they do not disclose their orientation and do not engage in homosexual acts.

The plaintiffs challenged the law under the Fifth and First Amendments to the Constitution, and Judge Phillips agreed.

Détente

Kelsey responds to my response:
I, too, am an atheist, and I struggle with the illogical, irrational and illiberal tendencies of all religions and Islam is no exception. I think for me (and probably for a lot of lefties) I often get unduly defensive because I have seen so many attack Islam on the basis of it's inherent violence in an attempt to paint Muslims as somehow subhuman.
Again, eloquent and well put. If only we were all as thoughtful as Ms. Pince. I'm glad Kelsey reminded me that some who seemingly share my criticism of Islam are the real subhumans. No doubt.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

On Denouncing Islam

Kelsey Pince, a friend and fellow blogger, responds to my previous post, eloquently (and patiently), via her iPhone:
The president and others speaking out understand that we're fighting the perception of being at war with Islam. The Quran burning would be seen as proof in many minds that we are, thus putting moderate Muslims in the unfortuate position of trying to defend a country that seems to hate all Muslims. Finally, having legitimate concerns about an occupied peoples reponse to this kind of provocation doesn't negate the idea that Islam is by nature peaceful.
Kelsey brings up a salient point: we are at war in two largely-Muslim countries. In this case, she's right, we have a complicated and fraught relationship with Islam. One that I didn't acknowledge in my short post.

Kelsey raises another, even more salient point: the physical text of the Koran is viewed, by Islam, as the literal Word of God:
Because it is the word of god, the only part of god believed to be sent to man, it's a closer comparison to Jesus himself than the bible. Burning the quran is roughly equal to someone burning Jesus.
According to the Christian holy book, "someone" crucified Jesus, that poor bastard. Some (many?) think that someone is the Jewish people. We rightly condemn these troglodytes for holding a grudge under the auspices of a ridiculous notion. In fact, we, the Urbane and Erudite, lampoon the nutty beliefs of Christians and Jews all the time. Think: anti-evolution (and science), anti-homosexuality, anti-sex, anti-abortion (and woman), transubstantiation, etc, etc, etc. Actually, these are mostly nutty Christian beliefs. All, except for transubstantiation, are shared by Islam.

And that's my point. There's a sensitivity and an over-accommodation by the left (and many on the right) toward the anti-liberal* religion of Islam that (again, rightly) is not offered to the anti-liberal religion of Christianity. Crazy is crazy. The only difference, if I call Islam crazy, I'm worse than those aforementioned troglodytes. I'm a monster.

I know that would-be Koran burner in Florida isn't worked up into a lather over the illiberality of Islam. He's a Christian pastor, for Christ's sake. But if I, an atheist, proposed to burn Korans for the cause of reason, would I receive thunderous applause? Disregarding the crudeness of the act -- I respect books too much to burn them -- is there not a unique acceptance of the wacky principles of this particular religion, even among the secular, that would result in a wave of disgust against me?

As for Kelsey's first point, we are not "at war with Islam," but we ought to be at war, intellectually, against the anti-liberal aspects of Islam (and those of Christianity, and every other anti-liberal philosophy). Any other response is cowardice, pure and simple. Political correctness demands that we treat all beliefs equally in public discourse. If so, why argue over our values in the first place?

*By anti-liberal, I mean in opposition to reason and individual rights.

Islam and Peace

Am I the only one confused by the current narrative coming mostly (though not exclusively) from the left on Islam? Islam is a religion of peace, in fact "[it] is not part of the problem in combating violent extremism – it is an important part of promoting peace." As long as you don't make a Muslim angry: "You could have serious violence in places like Pakistan or Afghanistan. This could increase the recruitment of individuals who would be willing to blow themselves up in American cities or European cities." Both quotes were from President Obama.

A thought experiment: I announce that I'm planning on burning a pile of Tipitakas, to show how intolerant I am of Buddhism. Let's imagine the reaction. How likely would this be seen as the opening act of holy war? How would the worldwide Buddhist community react? Would my stunt garner reactions from General Petraeus and President Obama? Would it even be national news?

What does it mean to be a religion of peace?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Snapshot Review: Big Boi @ 9:30 Club


Tonight Antwan Patton accomplished the impossible: he brought the usually inert DC concertgoer to life. For one sweaty hour at the 9:30 Club, bodies gyrated, hands swung high in the air, and the noses of the shorter among us spoke a silent "thank you" to the recent popularity of Old Spice. The not-quite-sold-out crowd (shame on you, DC) was a mix of frat boys, hipsters, stoners, and even a few hip hop fans. The only words of disappointment I heard at the end of the show were about its short length. Clearly, Big Boi didn't want to disrupt our sleep on a work night -- we were out by 10:40.

During the first third of the set, Big Boi and BlackOwned C-Bone (of Dungeon Family) ran through an extended medley of Outkast's greatest hits: among them "Rosa Parks," "So Fresh, So Clean," "Ms. Jackson," and "B.O.B." It was thrilling to hear some of the most spectacular rap music of the last 15 years performed back to back, yet the show began to sag under the weight of nostalgia. Kudos to Big Boi for shrewdly crafting the setlist. He got all the big hits out of the way before getting to the meat of the show, his solo material.

The evening's most welcome surprise was the crowd's reaction to Patton's new music. The ecstatic response that met the operatic choral hook of "General Patton" signaled we were all here for Big Boi, not Outkast. It spoke to the strength of his new album, or perhaps, more cynically, to André 3000's absence. Still, it's a strange day when "Shutterbugg" is received with more excitement than "Ms. Jackson."

Two highlights of the night. A few ladies from the audience were brought onstage to dance to three songs. At first, they awkwardly swayed in the wings, but as soon as Big Boi unleashed "The Way You Move," his great single from Speakerboxx, the ladies loosened up, and the stage began to resemble the loving misogyny of a good rap video. Later, C-Bone asked the crowd to throw him a bag of weed in honor of the next song, "Fo Yo Sorrows." His request was met halfway through, bringing the song to a hilarious halt.

It was strange to see Big Boi, an exemplar of his genre, and one-half of the one of the most successful rap groups ever, perform to a handful of die-hards. Yes, we showed him the love, and he responded in kind, but it was a scaled-down affair. It's tempting to fault the taste of the masses, those Philistines and fair-weather fans; after all, Lady Gaga sold-out the cavernous Verizon Center the night before. But tonight, a few hundred lucky individuals witnessed a remarkable hour of music in a small venue. So why am I grumbling?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Simple Inequality

I normally wouldn't blog about this, but I've been buzzing about seeing Big Boi live at the 9:30 club tomorrow. Jon Caramanica's NYT review of his performance at the Brooklyn Bowl, to clunkily paraphrase Bowie, only puts out my fire with gasoline.

Incredibly, the 9:30 club show has yet to sell out. People of DC: listen to Big Boi's stellar new album, witness his incredible Letterman appearance below, and buy your tickets now.

An algebra lesson, if you need it: Big Boi > Outkast - André 3000.

Feel free to check my math tomorrow night.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

"Where the Streets Have No Name"

It's not often that I rediscover how much I love a song. Being an obsessive, when I love something, I tend to suck it dry. I return to it so frequently that familiarity doesn't so much breed contempt, but indifference.

Earlier tonight, while I was working out at the gym, U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name" popped up on my iPod's shuffle. It was as if I were hearing the song for the first time. I respect U2, and there was a time, years ago, when I listened to the band regularly. Tonight, the song halted me in my tracks -- literally. It came on while I was running on the treadmill. Two minutes in, I hit the machine's emergency stop button; I listened, out of breath, and sweat-soaked; the song ended, and I played it again and again and again -- three times! -- while awkwardly standing in place. Who cares what the employee behind the counter thought? We were the only ones left in the gym. And I was having a moment, thank you.

Maybe it was it was the increased circulation of blood through my brain, maybe temporal distance, maybe a random instant of aesthetic enlightenment. Whatever the reason, I was able to discern and appreciate the various elements of the song anew, and when I put them back together, I was in awe. So this is why people love U2. Suddenly, it all made sense.

The song begins with the signature cicada hiss of a Daniel Lanois production (a co-production with Brian Eno, in this case). A crescendoing, synthesized church-organ drone emerges, followed by The Edge's iconic delayed sixteenth-note guitar arpeggios, also with a crescendo, in 3/4 time. Both give the the impression that the listener is approaching a song already in progress, implying perpetuity and timelessness. The quarter-note pulse of Adam Clayton's bass and Larry Mullen Jr's kick drum enter the mix, and the meter abruptly shifts to 4/4.

The intro, almost two minutes long, feels like the slow extension of a tight metal coil that wants to fight back. Atop the rhythm section's frenetic stuttering, with a cymbal crash underscoring it, the vocal finally enters: Bono declares: "I want to run! I want to hide!" Release.

The verse brings increasing forward propulsion, and more stuttering. A tighter coil is pulled. Bono's sibilant vocal ("our love turns to russsssst!) soars over a swirling and glorious cacophony. Then, the chorus: the titular lyric ushers in another, greater liberation. Musical voices drop away, yet everything gets louder. The Edge' chiming, descending three-note guitar lick somehow makes the anthem more anthemic. Bono, open throated, sings of burning down love. Beneath him, the music is both lithe and fat. Stutter, stutter, stutter. Repeat verse and chorus.

And it ends as it started, back to 3/4, a drone, and The Edge's arpeggios. Decrescendo. A swift retreat from a song that will seemingly play on forever.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

At Long Last, Pitchfork Announces the Best Songs of the Nineties

All week long, Pitchfork has been counting down its top 200 tracks of the 1990s. Putting the untimeliness of the effort aside (and the snarkiness of my post's title), it's a well- thought out and argued feature, and a good springboard for debate (as any "best of" ought to be). Predictably, it follows the willfully iconoclastic slant the tastemaking site is both respected and reviled for. Here are some points of interest:
  • "Smells Like Teen Spirit" didn't make the top ten. Nirvana's rank (or non-placement) on any 90s "best of" list is an almost ideological signal of taste. Rank the band too high and you're Rolling Stone or Spin, firmly grounded in the alternative mainstream. Ignore the band altogether, and you come off as irrelevant, or admittedly non-rock (like Jazziz or Urb). Pitchfork splits the difference. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" lands at number thirteen on its list: reverent, but not fawning. The site offsets the ranking and recovers its cred by placing songs by Aphex Twin, Neutral Milk Hotel, and My Bloody Valentine ahead of it. All is well in indie-dom.
  • Where's Britney, bitch? While it may seem a given that pop music would get scant attention on a Pitchfork list, in the past the site has heaped loads of praise on pop-that's-so-good-it-transcends-its-lowly-genre. Think, Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone." In fact, Pitchfork included songs by Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake on its list of the best songs of the 2000s. Yet here there are some glaring omissions, the most notable being Britney Spears' "Baby One More Time," a song so damned good it belongs on a greatest songs of all time list. Where's the Backstreet Boys' "I Want it That Way?" Or even Madonna's "Vogue" (or "Ray of Light")? For as much as Pitchfork (sparingly) embraces pop, these omissions show how very too-cool-for-school and out of touch the site can be.
  • "It's the little differences." Throughout Pitchfork's list, an artist's less popular, more buzz-worthy work (to use MTV's parlance of the era) is substituted for the obvious choice. R.E.M. ranks at 72 with "Nightswimming." I love "Nightswimming." It's probably one of my three favorite R.E.M. songs, and I respect Pitchfork for calling it out. But it was chosen over "Losing My Religion." Weezer's "Say It Ain't So" is the site's number ten pick (ahead of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," natch). Weezer clearly belonged on the list, but "Buddy Holly" would have been the predictable choice, for all the right reasons. I think these taste-substitutions make Pitchfork's list interesting, and they reveal a high level of effort and deliberation on the part its writers, but they mar the list's "definitiveness." That said, it's easier to make a definitive list than it is to make an interesting one.
  • A high five to you, Pitchfork. For Mazzy Star's "Fade Into You," Belle and Sebastian's "That State I Am In," Smashing Pumpkin's "1979," and Bjork's "Hyperballad." All confirm why I respect you in the first place.
  • Stray thoughts on the top ten. Unexpected and eclectic, Aaliyah's inclusion being the case in point. "Loser" is higher than I would've imagined, though not undeserving of its spot. Same goes for "Common People" as the runner-up. While there's a paucity of pop (see above), the hip hop pics are pitch perfect. Before the top 20 was revealed, I assumed "Paranoid Android" would top the list. Instead, the honor went to Pavement. So, it's a wash.