Saturday, August 30, 2008

"Did you ever see The Holy Mountain on ice?"

I'm not certain that is the lyric that opens the last track on the new Max Tundra record, Parallax Error Beheads You, but that's how I heard it, as I listened to it for the first time, thinking that if it isn't the best record of the year (which it might very well be) it is definitely the record that Alex Tripp and I would listen to three times a day, as we were working on frenzied animation, if we were still living together. I'm already associating it with hypothetical good times. It's inspiring music.

Maybe the new Marnie Stern record will kick its ass for sheer inspirational force.

It's like glitchy, video-game music, with a lot of live samples, drum machine rhythms, kind of intricate compositions making all the disparate parts flow together, sissy-English-boy vocals on top sometimes. His "Some Best Friend You Turned Out To Be" was all instrumental, and I stole the first track, Cakes, for a video which is probably going to be showing at Tacoma's Tollbooth Gallery for a month starting on the seventeenth of September. I really like that record. His second album, Mastered By The Guy At The Exchange, I did not like as much, but I was really obsessed with trying to hear it after I heard about it, from a really positive Pitchfork review that mentioned there was a song called "Gondry" urging the director to do a video for him- Gondry's letter in response can be found in the booklet accompanying the Works Of Michel Gondry DVD. (This was before Human Nature had even come out, I think- certainly before everyone in the world knew what a genius the dude was. Before those White Stripes videos, even, maybe?) This record kind of integrates both of those records into a whole, and an awesome whole it is.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

In getting ready to move across the country to Baltimore, I've been packing up all of my books, and getting new ones to read from the library.

One, Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine came recommended by a friend, who read it in a burst, feeling that her thoughts had been captured on paper. While I was reading it, I learned another friend of mine felt the same way about it. When I began reading it, it was kind of irritating. If I had stumbled across it blindly, I could imagine throwing it against a wall in frustration. It's all minutiae, with no plot development. It's all digressions based around a vivid engagement with the materials of the world. I can imagine why my friends felt so drawn to it, can hear little bits of it in their voices. But, early on, when there's footnotes talking about the way plastic straws float in cans of soda to supplement a man body of text talking about an affection for straws that bend, I kept thinking "Oh my god, it's just going to go on like this." I think the climax of the book would be a list of reoccuring thoughts, arranged by how many times they are thought per year. It's kind of a cool book, consisting almost entirely of the sort of minute observation that would make someone's attention perk up in another book. It reads like consciousness, and while at first I was just viewing it as an argument against ever trying to write a book while on the influence of cocaine, lest you become as relentlessly focused on nothing in particular as Nicholson Baker is here.

It seems important though, as a sort of time capsule, a footnote to all the books written during the eighties that were too caught up in narrative to actually characterize the nostalgia for childhood that haunts people incidentally. It's really concerned with material things, and how those effect us. I was thinking of it in the same way people take a lot of visual art, in that I was wondering if there was some kind of critique inherent: It's about the way products and advertising surround our thoughts, and the occasional bits of beauty that emerge in a man-made world. I don't know if it feels damaged by it or not, that would sort of be reading in a moral dimension that might not really be intended. I wouldn't mind having it on my shelves at some point in the future.

On the complete opposite side of the spectrum, I read Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away. It had a focus on narrative as well as morality, and I really loved it. I checked it out from the library along with a copy of the Dreyer film Ordet, and got pretty excited by the idea of religious art. It was really compelling for how the central character primarily denied the whole idea of even having a consciousness, and seemed determined to not have anything in the world inflict itself upon him.

I just put on this Akron/Family CD-R, Franny And The Portal, that opens with a song with the refrain "Because I am not my thoughts."
Let me explain the Silver Jews.

Let me first begin by explaining why I feel the need to explain the Silver Jews. It's because of people like Matthew Perpetua, he of the Fluxblog mp3 blog, getting all bent out of shape when David Berman makes fun of Radiohead.

I'm not going to attack Matthew's taste: There are at least three things we are both into way too much (Pavement, The Wu-Tang Clan, Grant Morrison comics) that probably have kind of defined us. If you go much beyond those things, you'll find completely different ideas of what's valuable and what's mediocre, though. Still, I don't think I can make fun of him without making fun of those things I really like, so I'll refrain from doing that, and just explain the Silver Jews.

The section of the interview where David Berman dismisses Radiohead talks about the idea of music, songs, as a thing you can put in your pocket, and carry around with you, rather than this notion of music as this soundtrack to your life, in the background, that frames it in epic terms. These are two different mindsets. The three things I mentioned in that parentheses a paragraph ago kind of all work towards the latter effect. A lot of the music I like that Matthew doesn't- from Animal Collective, to Neutral Milk Hotel, to noise music, to The Shaggs- works to reframe the world in a way that makes the individual smaller in awe of the beauty of the world. A lot of the music Matthew likes that I can't stand is dance music that exists for a context to cast the listener as this superstar at the center of the world/dancefloor. He'd argue that the former, with its obscurity, pursues mediocrity. I would say that what the latter embraces and encourages is at best narcissistic and at worst sociopathic. It's worth noting that Stephen Malkmus and David Berman are close friends, and they probably share some personality traits. I kind of think that without the Berman elements of his personality, Malkmus would probably just be insufferably smug, forever the guy kind of half-ass improvising lyrics; never the Slanted And Enchanted version of "Here," just the Peel Session "I was dressed for Suck!" version.

I think of most of the Silver Jews fans I know as sort of carrying these songs around them, as well as David Berman's book of poetry. You kind of keep a quiet dignity about you, and don't project your voice in public like someone's shooting an indie movie of your life. There are so many similar traits to the people I know who like the Silver Jews that I have actually started to assume that people who I later learn have never actually even listened to them are fans: There's just a set of common traits.

It's almost kin to another type of fan of music/literature, would be someone who's really into Tom Waits and Charles Bukowski. That kind of person would probably be an upper-middle-class person who is kind of into slumming it, especially as it regards to drinking to excess. I like some of those people, too, but I also think it's funny when they're mocked.

But I don't think that Silver Jews people are like that. I think they value idiosyncracy too much to pursue such a narrow set of cliches. David Berman said, in another interview, that a fan told him he was disappointed to learn of his drug abuse because of how much of a cliche it was. But: I think the thing in common is a sort of suspicion of the upper class. Granted, this is absurdly common amongst a wide strata of bohemia. But here in this specific subset, even large cities are avoided. Being put in a position to struggle to survive is kind of an albatross. The Silver Jews didn't tour for upwards of a decade, and Berman just sort of shrugged off the idea of live performance by saying he's not the sort of person to be the center of attention in a large room. (A manifesto of sorts, stated by one who's lived it towards those uninterested, can be found in the song "How To Rent A Room.")

It's the sort of thing that might look like mediocrity but probably stems more from having made a list of simple pleasures and then deciding that those were more interesting than any other kind. (In the interview linked to, Berman talks about talking about records all the time.) And then, alternately, making a long list of things that were distasteful and then trying to avoid them completely. (He then talks about not wanting to write top ten lists fbecause of how easy and unsubstantial they are.)

This isn't to say that all Silver Jews songs are awesome- Actually, Mark Richardson's review of Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea sort of explains how the whole point of the Silver Jews is one that allows for there not to be wall-to-wall peaks; quiet dignity, remember? But even in the sort of dull moments there's a spirit that's there: "I'm going to shine out in the wild kindness and hold the world to its word."

(Tomorrow I am going to write a post about Flannery O'Connor and Nicholson Baker that will maybe serve to better elaborate these ideas I find useful and interesting in a way that's not about the Silver Jews.)

Monday, August 04, 2008

Pretty much every time I watch a Sergio Leone movie these days, my thoughts start off saying "Wow, this movie is awesome, and completely underrated, why don't people talk about this more?" They move on to "I just want to make movies for people's dads." By the end there has been enough things that didn't quite make sense that I just feel like they've gone on too long.

When I say "these days," I'm referring to my having just watched Duck, You Sucker- also known as A Fistful Of Dynamite and maybe also Once Upon A Time In A Revolution, as well as my fairly recent viewing of For A Few Dollars More.

It starts off amazing, maybe for the first thirty minutes, where characters are being introduced. I really like how much more vulgar and trashier it is than Leone's other movies in its opening moments: The opening shot almost mirrors The Wild Bunch, starting up with a shot of insects, but here they're urinated on. It stays pretty much great for another hour, approximately, until eventually the characters start to like each other and the revolution takes center stage. Not to say it's not interesting, or without its minutes during its last movement.

I feel the same way about Morricone's involvement, actually. Early on, there's all these amazing bits of music, with weird dissonances and rhythms. Eventually, though, a single, overly romantic, movie-score piece tends to dominate. It's probably the film's theme, which would seem to speak to a general problem of not knowing where its strengths lie.