I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the gre…

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the greatest modern philosopher, Richard Rorty, passed away a couple of days ago. Slate has collected a few of his colleagues’ eulogies of the man. Please read them and think on how wonderful it is that his friends and admirers could have included not just the noxious Richard Posner and the difficult-but-angelic Stanley Fish, but also the beatific Jurgen Habermas and Brian Eno. Rorty made a better person of me, and hopefully you, too.

Our good friend Scott, proprietor of Moonshine Mou…

Our good friend Scott, proprietor of Moonshine Mountain, has tagged this blog with a meme. Part of the assignment includes the instruction to “get nostalgic” regarding the music from the year I turned 18 (that’s 1990, for the record), so being the great Method actor I am, I must carefully prepare myself for the approximation of nostalgia. Ahem. Ah, the good old days.

So, here’s the list I’m working from. Sweet nostalgia! Sweet days of youth! There, that should get me in the mood. I’m going to pick five, starting at the end of the list.

74. Faith No More – “Epic”.
What a weird song for a hit! Considering the miserable sub-genre of rap/metal that it spawned, the world would have been much better without this little ditty, but ok. Anyway, nostalgia. My most keen remembrance associated with this song was my sophomore dorm room (so this would have been Fall 1991), which I shared with a certain Alan Jolly. Our place was the drop-in/drop-out room, always filled with a mysterious haze and reeking of booze. It’s fair to say we were far more interested in screwing around than classes. I had a shitty stereo, one of those all-in-one boxes that wasn’t a jambox but a faux-component stereo, and, even though it made the whole thing (relatively) more expensive, this semi-stereo also had my first CD player. I can’t remember who owned the Faith No More album, but I do remember that it was a frequent choice. Man, those days. So much drama, but so much fun.

61. Tom Petty – “Free Fallin'”
This one goes back to high school. I remember learning how to play it on guitar because a girl I had the hots for really liked it. I had a neat-but-crappy old Eko guitar, a 12-string that belonged to my uncle, that I strung up with 6 strings. I don’t remember which girl liked it, but I’m guessing it was Melissa Moore, who was a physician in Dallas the last time I spoke to her, almost a decade ago. Melissa was definitely the most interesting girl in high school, gorgeous and arty and super-smart and self-possessed enough to know that she was my unrequited love, but selfish (I mean, she was younger than 18 when we first started hanging out) enough to keep stringing me along year after year. Nostalgia is better when flavored with regret, right?

29. Concrete Blonde – “Joey”
I don’t remember what the deal with Concrete Blonde was, nor that they had a hit before their vampire song “Bloodletting”. I guess I sorta remember this song being in the background during my first semester of college, but I don’t have as many sharp memories of it as I do for “Bloodletting.” So… that’s the comment. Let’s move on.

6. Dee-Lite – “Groove Is In The Heart”
No two ways about this one. It was everywhere my first semester. I got along great with most everyone on my dorm floor, especially Matt Martin (now a chef in Huntsville, AL) and Chris Shaw (who is god-knows-where), and we’d have loud funk (or semi-funk, like this song) blaring in the halls most nights. This was in the U of Alabama’s infamous Mallet Assembly, which was self-governing and free of RAs. A couple of girls from Fitts, the girl’s honor dorm, would come over to partake in the revelry, dance, and accompanying mind-expansion devices. I remember having to explain to everyone who Bootsy Collins was one night. I remember one of the girls, whose name was Audrey, I think, who loved to dance to this song with maximum contact, if you know what I mean and I think you do, with many of the guys, but refused to go any further than that, which got her quite the little reputation in our dorm in the Fall of 1990.

I should pull one more song out, but most of the rest of these meant nothing to me at the time. But these were just the most-requested songs. Scrolling down to the No. 1 songs gives me:

April 21 – May 18: Nothing Compares 2 U – Sinead O’Connor
So this lost the No. 1 position to Madonna on my 18th birthday, May 19, 1990. This song reminds me of the house parties we used to have at Laura Walker’s place. She lived with her grandparents, who went out of town all the time, bless their souls. We drank and swam (skinny-dipped, even!) and stayed up all night and generally acted like kids with raging hormones and all the time in the world. It was heavenly. My first real girlfriend, Vanessa, was part of this scene. Once when this song was on the stereo, I made out with a girl (name lost to history) who was dating a good friend, which was really my first taste of being an asshole to someone I cared about. I didn’t like it much when I thought on it later, but man, I was young and selfish then. I guess I could blame the music, because my emotions were so easily controlled by external stimula then, and any 18-yr-old in 1990 who could resist making out with an attractive partner when this song played had a heart of lead.

OK, that’s memory lane! I’m not sure how many of my compatriots actually read this blog, but should they happen to catch the nod, I’m going to assign:

Phil Nugent takes Sam Brownback out to the woodshe…

Phil Nugent takes Sam Brownback out to the woodshed in one of the best deconstructions of modern political realities I’ve ever read.

Also, Dana Stevens brings up some good points about her knock on Knocked Up. Unfortunately, I still don’t buy the central premise that because Roe vs. Wade is under attack, a filmmaker with a pregnant character has an obligation to address abortion head-on. I think she’s right in saying that too many movies give it short shrift as an option, and probably so because of concerns about turning off a certain segment of their audience. However, there’s a huge leap from the notion that movies in general should be more mindful about what abortion rights mean to women and that this movie in particular should have tried to deal with it. The fact that this character in this movie didn’t seriously mull over aborting this (fictional) fetus doesn’t justify a bizarro inverse theory that any woman who has had an abortion has committed a horrible act. The mopes she mentions over at the National Review and the Atlantic Monthly who are politicizing a fictional young woman’s choice in a fictional comedy of manners that is, as I might have mentioned, a work of fiction: these are the jokers committing an act of regrettable behavior.

We saw a preview of Knocked Up last night. This is…

We saw a preview of Knocked Up last night. This is sure to be a classic.

On Salon, Stephanie Zacharek is explicitly comparing Knocked Up to Preston Sturges comedies.

That uncertainty is what links it to the great American romantic comedies: It’s not as elegant as, say, “Holiday” or “The Lady Eve” or “The Palm Beach Story,” but it’s wise enough to know that the false promise of happily ever after is more depressing than it is uplifting. Better to acknowledge the bumpiness of the road ahead than to fool yourself into believing you can iron out its kinks.

I think she’s dead-on here. Knocked Up is too raunchy to work like The Lady Eve or The Palm Beach Story, both of which were sex comedies of a different sort, but it shares the sex-with-consequences sensibility of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek with the broad pleasures of 80s sex comedies (I’m thinking Porky’s), but also with a grown-up take on parenthood that I can’t recall seeing in any movie before. There’s a very warm embrace of humanity in the movie that reminds me of the greatest humanist director, Renoir, specifically the hijinks of Boudu Saved From Drowning. I think that’s where I am: half Preston Sturges, one quarter Porky’s, and one quarter Renoir.

I don’t want to ruin anything for anyone, but since it’s a comedy about pregnancy, I’m going to assume that y’all know it winds up in a delivery room. That scene was just incredible, somehow combining slapstick with the very real confusion and beautiful grossness (by which I mean everyone is born in blood and struggle) of natural childbirth. It has an unwavering belief in the realness and decency of even the most minor of supporting cast, and the overall effect is profound. I’m a sap these days, I know, because when my family is expecting a baby, any images of childbirth cut straight to my weepy emotional place, and that’s exactly what this incredible scene does.

There’s several other points where the character’s reality are realized in a way that few comedies could handle. My favorite is a moment where Paul Rudd’s character, holding a ridiculous fairy-tale castle-shaped ice-cream cake for his daughter’s birthday, learns what his wife and sister-in-law really think of him, and in, like, three seconds, he registers the incredible hurt of this and moves on. If the movie weren’t so insanely funny and light on its toes, it could easily play like an agonizingly detailed examination of marriage and relationships. That’s a rare and awesome thing.

In Slate, Dana Stevens thinks that Judd Apatow doesn’t write convincing women.

I can only read this moment as Judd Apatow’s tribute to the awe of childbirth and the cult of the eternal feminine. It’s a lovely impulse, but in his next film, maybe he could honor women by striving to create female characters with the depth of humor and humanity he gives to men.

She might have a point, although I don’t think it’s enough of one to justify her spending a good third of her review on this. Almost all of the guys in the movie are slacker wise-asses. At least one minor female character also is a slacker wise-ass. The major female characters rarely are deliberately funny, but it happens a couple of times. But it’s wrong to say they aren’t human. I thought the two female leads were both well-written and well-acted as a little high-strung (or a lot high-strung, but they’re supposed to be sisters, and the one scene with their mother demonstrates exactly why they were so high-strung) with a similar bewilderment about men. Is it inhuman that they weren’t as zingy as the men in the movie?

Stevens’ other major point was:

It’s just not believable that, in Alison and Ben’s upper-middle-class, secular L.A. milieu, abortion would not be matter-of-factly discussed as a possibility in the case of a pregnancy this accidental.

I think this is complete bullshit. Alison talks about abortion with her sister and her mother. Ben explicitly doesn’t want to tell her what to do because it is her choice. And when she makes the choice, she doesn’t spell it out for anyone, which seemed good writing rather than bad: why would a woman ennumerate her reasons out loud to have a child rather than terminate a pregnancy? If she had done so, THAT would have sounded fake.

Finally, for your amusement, here’s Michael Cera and Judd Apatow riffing on the famous Lily Tomlin/David O. Russell blowout.

Almost all that’s on my mind lately is the book. …

Almost all that’s on my mind lately is the book. With that in mind, here’s the first random 10 songs from my iPod when I hit shuffle.

  1. The Mountain Goats – “Pale Green Things” (The Sunset Tree)
    This is the kiss-off final track from The Sunset Tree, a downer of a song cycle (so says the author of the forthcoming 33 1/3 book Shoot Out The Lights) about, presumably, John Darnielle’s abusive step-father. The elegaic feel of this song, both a curse and promise, is unbelievably poignant, a way of making a semi-fond farewell to someone hated more than loved. The lyrics talk of a trip to the racetrack, and end with these lines: “My sister called at 3 a.m./Just last december/She told me how you’d died at last, at last/And that morning at the race track was one thing I remembered/I turned it over in my mind/like a living chinese finger trap/seaweed and Indiana sawgrass.” My poetry professor used to say that most song lyrics are doggerel made more meaningful by the way they are sung, and I think he was mostly correct about this. This is the exception.
  2. The Embarrassment – “Song For Val” (Blister Pop)
    Just over a minute of a poorly recorded little punk anthem. “I don’t care for old people,” goes the lyric.
  3. Dinosaur Jr – “Start Choppin'” (Where You Been)
    Man, this is a surprising collection of songs! This is a post-Lou power-pop song layered with a couple of dozen J. Mascis guitars. I’m not a huge fan of later Dinosaur Jr, but this is one of the keepers.
  4. The Mountain Goats – “Woke Up New” (From a free eMusic Pitchfork Festival sampler)
    This song also appears on Get Lonely, which I also have, so hey, it’s a duplicate and I can delete it to make room for new music. Yay! I must have my random factor set to be more likely to repeat artists, because I can’t believe I’d have enough Mountain Goats out of the 4,178 songs currently stored on my iPod to bring them up twice in the first five songs otherwise. Get Lonely is an ok album, but the lyrics never rise to the poetic heights of the previous few albums and the artiface of the songs actually seems to distance me from Darnielle’s characters, rather than drawing me towards them, also unlike the 2-3 immediately preceeding albums.
  5. Isis – “Backlit” (Panopticon)
    I think Darnielle, a metal fiend currently working on a 33 1/3 book on Master of Reality, would dig this transition. Isis plays trippy, expansive metal. I understand many of their longtime fans dislike this album, but I like it a lot, almost as much as the classic Oceanic. See, I love long post-rock tracks (meaning that the music relies on jazz-like textures and moves through suites rather than verse-chorus-verse structure), and this sounds like the metal version of that. As much as I like Isis, I wish they’d join Mastodon in dropping the cookie monster vocals, although I think that may be the primary way that metal fans identify Isis as a metal band these days. Did I mention that this song is nearly 8 minutes long and features as great stripped-back bridge part? Like it.
  6. Tom Ze – “Dulcineia Popular Brasileira” (Tom Ze)
    From the master of mindbending tropicalia, this is a somewhat unsuccessful early fusion of 60s-era radio pop with Ze’s distinctly odd sensibilities. There’s better examples of what Ze can do when he’s cooking with grease.
  7. Devendra Banhart – “Anchor” (Cripple Crow)
    A short burst of sweetness that may also be called “Canela”. I put this on a bedtime mix I made for my 2-yr-old.
  8. Bill Evans Trio – “Peace Piece” (Everybody Digs Bill Evans)
    I’m taking this as proof that my iPod would rather be laying in a shady hammock in a cool breeze. This track, a slow sort of ur-New Age ivory tinkling, but with, y’know, tons of heart (unlike George Winston, f’rinstance), always sounds like it should score the inevitable final compromise between the protagonists and antagonists in a Miyazaki flick.
  9. The Mekons – “Cocaine Lil” (Mekons Rock ‘N Roll)
    A spacey, sing-song tale of a coke addict. The lyrics read like a Victorian morality tale.
  10. Prince – “New Position” (Parade)
    Wow, I had no idea I had any songs from Parade in my iTunes at all. I’m completely unfamiliar with this song. It ain’t Prince at his maximum brilliance, though.

I downloaded Joanna Newsom’s new EP Joanna Newsom …

I downloaded Joanna Newsom’s new EP Joanna Newsom and the Ys Street Band a couple of days ago from eMusic, and I finally sat down last night to listen to it.

And it’s a freaking revelation. All you Joanna Newsom-haters who want to know why I love her so much must – nay, MUST – hear this version of “Cosmia”. All the songs on the EP are live arrangements, but they’ve brought some serious intensity here.

First of all, she’s obviously taken some sort of voice lessons, because all the little-girl tone is gone, and she’s somehow taken her voice, which I always thought interesting and sweet, and brought a level of passion and power to her singing that just blows me away. I say this as a person who rarely gets excited about the human voice.

Then, there’s the arrangements. Let me say briefly why I liked Ys. so much: where some Joanna-haters just heard self-indulgence, I heard an attempt to recast American folk music as a much older artform. To explain, consider that The Band was a reflection of American folk and country by a mostly Canadian rock band that took elements of this artform and combined them with a sort of art-rock lens to make music that was completely new but sounded centuries old. Now, over in England, the Fairport Convention, inspired by The Band, decided to do the same with British folk music, only they had, y’know, almost a millenium of music tradition to draw upon. Liege and Lief, their answer to The Band, also blended the old and new in a completely original way, recasting the past as a vital component of folk music moving forward. With this in mind, I think Joanna Newsom’s Ys. is a similar work to Susanna Clarke’s book Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Clarke took the literary trappings of Dickens and Trollope, and recast British history as one of fantasy with near-realistic (at least in terms of Victorian literature) terms. Ys. is to American folk music what Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is to British literature and Liege and Lief is to British folk music, an attempt to recast American history as if it had 1,000 years and a folkway of fantasy to draw upon.

Now, Joanna Newsom and the Ys Street Band takes one of the songs from Ys., “Cosmia”, and re-arranges it to play up the Appalachian sound. The result is just flat-out gripping, and I barely breathed through its 13 minutes. It starts similar to the album version, just quiet voice and harp, but the other musicians, at first building on Van Dyke Parks’ album arrangements before abandoning them, slowly add intensity until by the final chorus, Newsom is almost hollering, a drum is pounding, and the musicians sound like they are about to break their instruments. As I lay in bed last night, listening to this, breathless, I felt like I was discovering her music all over again, with all due excitement.

This past weekend, I watched the documentary Danie…

This past weekend, I watched the documentary Danielson: A Family Movie, which is about the band/musician also called The Danielson Famile, Brother Danielson, and Danielsonship. I have been a tepid fan of the band for a little while, liking some of the aspects of their music but finding the overall sound a bit offputting. The documentary made a convert of me, and this is language the band might appreciate, as most of its songs are overtly Christian.

The documentary focuses on the discomfort many of the band’s fans, who are primarily indie music people, have with the band’s explicitly Christian message. Some acknowledge that they have no problem when gospel or country singers sing about their faith, but they find it strange when indie bands do so, especially bands as oddball as Danielson. I should take a minute to describe the band and the sound.

The Danielson Famile is primarily composed of Daniel Smith on vocals and guitar with his siblings singing and playing flute, glockenspiel, or drums. One of his oldest friends plays keyboards, and marriage to any member of the band seems to bring along band membership. His friend’s wife plays violin and sings. Daniel Smith’s wife comes aboard as a singer. One of his sisters’ husband joins the band late in the movie as a bassist. His friend Sufjan Stevens, who is a brilliant artist in his own right and many times more successful in finding an audience than Danielson, passes in and out of the band (and as a fan, I could have lived without learning of Stevens’ nebbishy/needy personality, but what are you going to do?).

There’s a scene in which Daniel Smith’s parents joke about how the indie music press always compares the Danielson Famile with bands they’ve never heard of. With that in mind, the math formula I have for the Famile would be (The Shaggs + Pere Ubu + The Pixies) covering (early Talking Heads + Deerhoof) fronted by (the guy from The Flaming Lips screeching at the top of his lungs + the Partridge Family). Odd, odd, odd music. Did I mention that they all used to dress in modified nurse’s uniforms, that Daniel Smith occasionally performs solo in an elaborate tree outfit, or that they’ve constructed an elaborate mythology around the symbols of the band?

Anyway, the documentary was thought-provoking, tackling not just the band for the band’s fans’ sake, but also the band’s faith and acceptance by pop culture mavens and indie rock fans. There’s a subtle suggestion in the movie – maybe not even a suggestion, but just a hint – that Sufjan Stevens stole ideas from Danielson to achieve his success, but I have to say that I don’t hear a lot of Danielson in Stevens’ music. And Stevens’ support of his friend appears to be heartfelt, so I don’t think the archetypical theme of the hanger-on who steals the real genius’s work and makes it more mainstream really applies in this case.

Oh, and a final note. My friend Michael Sherer of the band Padre Pio appears in the background of a scene in which Daniel Smith’s artwork has a showing at a gallery in Brooklyn. He appears to be representing the way in which Brooklyn hipsters dig Danielson, although he assures me via email that he isn’t really a fan of the band, but was there to check the artwork of Tim Rutili (of Califone). But it’s extra-cool, anyway!