Sunday, December 30, 2007

betajing 4

People have continually asked --with a palpable sense of foreboding-- about the rise of China, as if two weeks spent living in dive bars might cast luminance through the carcinogenic pall. They ask about Anti-Americanism, as if I might be able to parse spoken Chinese as I walked down the back alleys of Shanghai.

Who knows how it is with "the Other." Lord knows that when discussing the matter with Europeans dealing with this wholly alien culture that they were in the midst of, they often opted to use insects as an analogy. Not so much the teeming numbers (though that can no doubt apply) but more the methodology of the Chinese glimpsed on the street: tireless, strong, dilligent.

Beware such metaphors though. Take the perception made by a Japanese soldier, Azuma Shiro, after the fall of the Chinese capital Nanking to Japanese forces in December of 1937, which led to the "Rape of Nanking" that winter. He noted, with palpable disgust in his observation: "They all walked in droves, like ants crawling on the ground. They looked like a bunch of homeless people, with ignorant expressions on their faces." No longer perceiving human beings, men convert into animals.

Misconcpetions abound on either side. Some of it is lost in translation. If you cannot voice the vowel just so, no taxi driver can possibly understand where you want to go or what street name you wish to say. And examples of "Chinglish" abound. Shopping one day for bootleg DVDs leads to a treasure trove of the always-excellent "Griterion Collection" series of foreign films. And who knew that Dolph Lundgren still made films?

Of course, reading the back cover blurbs gives pause. English misspellings are one thing, but certain sentiments get voiced too. Here's one that sums up what I fear is the standard perception of America, from a movie otherwise forgotten: "Oh actually, what am I saying? It'll be a bloody surprise if it ever comes out in North America properly, given the hypocritical, righteous atmosphere of self-delusion that currently permeates this society."


Far from the gaze of Chairman Mao and Kris Kringle, I am now being watched by two other fatherly figures, that of the Buddha and His Majesty the King, Bhumibol Adulyadej. After being force-fed the benevolence of Mao, I was reticent to accept HM. Thai Airways Magazine devoted an entire issue to HM, setting off every cult of personality, anti-monarchy alarm in my head. He gazes up from the currency, and on every street corner stand frames gilded and strewn with banners. Surely it was but a mask of benevolence, no? I tried to keep doubt in my mind. That is, until I bought a double disc of his compositions. At 7-Eleven! Right next to the green jelly grass juice!

The pictorial evidence of his greatness is overwhelming: he held an audience with G.I. Elvis Presley, jammed with the likes of Stan Getz and Louis Armstrong. He's also an amateur photographer. I wish he were my king, in much the same way I wish Buddha were my savior. Reclining Buddha (also on his death bed) is far less gruesome than ol' Iron Nails.

Above is the most inspirational picture of the King I can find, one that will go straight to the desk shrine upon my return: pencil in hand, a bead of sweat running off his nose, wholly lost in thought.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

betajing 3

Stemming from my experience on the Great Wall, extending infinitely both forward and back, yet wholly in the moment, I learn that Chinese language has neither past tense nor future tense. It too is totally in the present.

Another lesson in Chinese language: it behooves one not to use vocab builders like "Chinese government," "Tibet," "Falun Gong," much less names of Chinese officials, in any correspondence, lest suddenly "the Internet" no longer work. Myself, I got kicked out of a Gmail account and Blogger for much of my China connection due to such an indiscretion. And forget looking at BBC News (curiously, one could click on the New York Times, though my paranoia was in the red so that I didn't dare click on the "Choking on Growth" series of articles about China's Industrial Revolution growing pains). An acquaintance tells that during one big political event, access to Hotmail and Facebook countrywide was denied for months on end.

Mao's visage can be seen, resplendent and golden, at the gates of the Forbidden City and in clutches of yuan, yet the main face in China is that of Santa Claus. Clad in red, smugly benevolent and always watching you, he winks at you from every shop window, hinting at the thin veil between communism/capitalism. Or, as The Economist put it recently:

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

betajing 2

When we arrive at the bus depot in Beijing, we no doubt look like pigeons: fat, clueless, cooing. Make that giant piegons, as we tower over all on the sidewalk like the marks that we are. A man begins hassling us with that ever-friendly "Hello! Hello!" and before we know it, we're herded into the party van. It's the only vehicle that can accomodate us six-foot plus pale behemoths, raised on corn and beef. As we make our way out of the lead skies of Beijing and into the Chinese version of the 'burbs, meaning acres of greenhouses for growing strawberries, still intact hutongs, and coming soon gas stations, our driver talks about how slow he must drive with our body weight. Struggle upwards into the hills that soon become mountains, which while immense, turn out to be unnamed. That such mountainous objects can go sans word is but part of the China experience.

Finally, the haze clears and we can perceive vistas, as well as draw deeper breaths. A roadside host offers us perfumed green tea with chrysanthamum pedals that may be the most perfect drink I've tasted, before we get sold tee shirts and bottles of plum wine. Our host asks me if I believe in Jesus Christ, pressing his hands together in feigned prayer. I answer yes and he explains to me that it is how he feels about Mao. Try to remember what currency features JC's benevolent and fatherly gaze upon it. Our ride continues and we soon stumble out of the van, slightly woozy on plum wine as we start up a hill. Already breathless, the dirt turns to stone steps and then we find ourselves atop that motley assemblage of barricades that has cohered in lore into the Great Wall of China.

From such a vantage point, I grasp what infinity might actually be like, to be extending both forward and back beyond the realms of all sensory perceptions. Everything fails from such a precipice: body and breath and language and vision and touch and mortality. My words are like those invaders from the North: attempts to penetrate this barrier, to capture it or accurately describe it are doomed to failure, to total defeat. I can feel every single hand, each ascending with its load, one brick at a time. It is a weight I have never felt before. To say one feels like an ant in such a presence is far too presumptuous.

Much like the human haze that surrounds the imperial city, rendering its skyscrapers, stadiums, temples, and anthill building blocks unreal and disintegrated, so too does this fortress of absolute solitude enter the world of the imaginary and dream-prisoned the moment its walls are back out of sight, enshrouded once more in the distant fog of memory. Could I have really been there?

Friday, December 14, 2007


I cannot frame in words the sensation of being 36,500 feet over the North Pole, the temp hitting -81 degrees outside, nor can I properly convey the dread of waking up from pill-aided airplane slumber only to realize that there are eight more freaking hours to go before arriving in Beijing and there's no way I can watch The Bourne Ultimatum for a fourth time.

Beijing greets us with images of Yao Ming and Jackie Chan on every corridor. Everywhere you look, there hangs an Olympic veil. Kiosk ads namecheck it, the Olympic Stadium looms large off the highway, construction for other related buildings is everywhere, and even the shrubbery is sheared into the mascot's shape. Of course, that's what we're supposed to see. Someone whispers of poorer neighborhoods cordoned off from outsider eyes. Well, they needn't try so hard. So far, the trip has been but a circuit between the hotel and club.

Seeing Chinese punk bands is a curious affair. There's a prevailance of mimicry for the most part. I'm told that one of the bigger bands around has their Gang of Four act perfected to a tee. One band I catch considers themselves "post-rock" and I must admit, they have captured all the plodding stoic stolidity of Explosions in the Sky and Slint perfectly. The best part of them, aside from their matching frowns, is that the main guitarist rocks sweatpants onstage.

It's harder figuring if the air quality is worse inside the clubs, where everyone chains smokes, or outside, where smokestacks puff through the night and a simple walk down for some street food (oh, man) leads to shortness of breath. Equally hard to figure out is which is more awesome, broadcast Rockets games and inscrutable commercials featuring Yao (one has him blocking a bullet with his bare hands, which was meant for some giant elephant on the basketball court) or CCTV 6, which apparently runs nothing but kung-fu flicks 24/7.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

betatitis b

Having just shot $400 worth of crap into my left arm, I'm just about ready for my trip. Tetanus! Diphtheria! Typhoid! Influenza! Hepatitis A! All sorts of dormant and weakened viruses stream through my blood right now. It just caps a week spent thinking about retroviruses, and that New Yorker article about reconstructing ancient viruses. As each needle got jammed into my shoulder, I took solace in the news that "our bodies are littered with the shards of such retroviruses, fragments of the chemical code," and the factoid that 8% of the human genome is made up of such scrap. Of course, I could feel it rise to 10% in me as I have since developed a sore shoulder and the sniffles.

It also makes me think of retroviruses in musical terms, as I've spent a great deal of time lately listening to disco edits, that phenom of finding obscure cuts, disassembling them, then tightening and brightening the track for the 21st century dancefloor (or chatboard, as that's where these seem most popular). Pilooski's dirty disco edits are a notable culprit, chopping up Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons so that it more resembles "The Rockafeller Skank" or else making the lone single from Jackson Jones, who sounds like the Caribbean version of Bryan Ferry, and make it feel extra woozy on "I Feel Good Put Your Pants On." Funny how such strands can float along, dead and dormant for decades, only to take root finally and proceed to blossom once more in a more fertile host. Vashti Bunyan is perhaps an even better example, but I'm not quite sick of either, by any means.

Wholly unrelated, a friend of mine produced this mash-up supreme:

Monday, December 03, 2007

beta on the newsstand

For that cold toilet seat in December, there are reviews of Ricardo Villalobos, White Magic, Sightings, Castanets, and Sunburned Hand of the Man in the new Spin and a slew of stuff for Paste.

Michael Hurley
Ancestral Swamp
Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan summed up America’s kookiest living songster best: “I've never encountered anybody in less of a hurry than Michael Hurley; he always seems a second or two behind, like he's not quite seeing or hearing the same things we are.” Covered by the likes of the Holy Modal Rounders, Violent Femmes, and Cat Power, the perpetually itinerant Hurley no doubt exists on another plane entirely. Over the course of five decades, Hurley’s languorous songs have lounged just outside of blues, country, and folk, and his first for Devendra Banhart’s Gnomonsong imprint is no different. Spacy and sloooow, nudged on by guests like Tara Jane O’Neil, a fiddle snores through “When I Get Back Home,” while the electric piano on “Lonesome Graveyard” is basically somnambulant. Within his rasped lyrics, cowboys, crapshooters, and little green fellows abound (what, no werewolves this time?), making for some of the weirdest nap dreams imaginable.

Fraser & DeBolt (with Ian Guenther)
Earlier this year, a hushed cover of “The Waltze of the Tennis Players” appeared on Philly folk singer Meg Baird’s debut (warranting her a “Four to Watch” slot). Written by the obscure Canadian duo of Ian Fraser & Daisy DeBolt, it brought attention to the neglected act’s self-titled major label debut, which saw release in 1971 and disappeared soon after. Reissued on CD by a dubious imprint (and taken from a vinyl copy), it reveals not just what Canadian country music might sound like, but that the couple is painfully artless as regards their singing voices. Fraser’s is a plank-thick drawl, DeBolt’s prone to yelps. Adding to the mix is the wheezing fiddle work of Ian Guenther, which on numbers like “Armstrong Tourest Rest Home” is teeth-gnashing. The off-kilter combination works well on the woozy “Waltze,” while their cover of “Don’t Let Me Down” is particularly ragged.

*** ½
“In our daily life, there must be music.” So speaks Dominic, a 14-year-old Patongo School student in northern Uganda, about to compete in the National Music Competition. On the surface, War/Dance seems like any other competition movie: students practice, learn about themselves, then perform on the big stage, though it’s doubtful such a trip to the capital city ever involve armed escort. Patongo, situated in a refugee camp, overflows with orphans and others displaced by boogiemen rebel fighters, solace found only in music and dance. The Fines were fortunate to capture the school’s first ever foray to the festival, as well as compelling children. Tears streaming down his face in extreme close-up, Dominic recounts how he too had to kill so as to not be killed by these rebels. While the nightmarish flashbacks need not such a heavy hand (the stories are harrowing enough), the film shows how music alleviates that daily violence.

Despite The Ken Burns Effect on WWII, the story of what occurred in China’s then-capital city of Nanking won’t be familiar to most Westerners, in that it took place during the winter of 1937, two years before the invasion of Poland and four years before Pearl Harbor brought the war home. By the late thirties though, in alliance with Nazi Germany, Japan was already on the megalomaniac march, invading and toppling Shanghai before turning its bloodlust onto Nanking. This documentary (with parts read by Stephen Dorff, Mariel Hemingway, and Woody Harrelson) details how an all-out slaughter of the country’s poor populace was averted by strange bedfellows: both Christian missionaries and Nazi businessmen set up a neutral zone to stem the bloodshed of the innocent. This harrowing documentary captures the ultimate futility of such an effort (200K murdered, some 20K reported rapes in the first month alone) along with rare 16mm footage that won’t soon be forgotten.

Berlin Alexanderplatz
“(Rainer Werner) Fassbinder can only be described in contradictions…gentle and brutal, tender and cynical, self-sacrificing and egocentric.” So spoke Christian Braad Thomsen, longtime friend of the prolific, doomed Fassbinder, the enfant terrible of West German cinema from the late sixties until his death from an overdose in the early eighties. Of course, his untimely death was also one of exhaustion, as Fassbinder’s frenetic work pace --directing some 41 movies in 13 years-- would make the prolific Steven Soderburgh (not to mention most porno directors) seem lazy in comparison. His immense body of work revels in such contradictions some two decades on.

Berlin Alexanderplatz is one of Fassbinder’s final efforts, completed and aired on German television in 1980. It consumed Fassbinder’s creative attentions for the better part of a year, which is saying something, considering he could churn out upwards of five movies in that time span. Much more than that though, the early modernist book by Alfred Döblin about protagonist Franz Biberkopf resounded for a teenaged Fassbinder, who told interviewer Klaus Eder in 1980 that he could perceive himself within Franz, “a person who goes around for much too long trying to believe in goodness in this world…though he actually knows better.” So struck was young Fassbinder by this work that he took “Franz” as the name of his alter ego thereafter.

Set in the Weimar era in Berlin, after the end of World War I and before the rise of the Third Reich, we first meet Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht) as he’s released from prison after serving a four-year bid for beating his prostitute girlfriend to death in a violent rage. It’s an instance that haunts not just him but us as well, the gruesome scene repeated often, each time with a different voiceover narration. Staying true to Döblin’s novel, which in the spirit of contemporary tome Ulysses took snatches of words from other sources, we hear excerpts from the Book of Job, Ecclesiastics, the story of Abraham, livestock reports, sexual education manuals, and Longfellow drift past.

What no doubt interests Fassbinder more than the modernist appropriation though is how a man like Franz, a malevolent pimp turned kindhearted simp, traverses this terrain. Crippled by the unemployment rate, its citizens seem to have few options: the men are either petty thieves or pimps, the women are prostitutes. Struggling to stay honest, ex-con Franz vows: “Even if the world is full of meanness, full of filth, I swore to myself, I’m finished with it.” Through the earliest installments, he keeps his word, but after attempts to peddle neckties, newspapers, and Fascist literature for an honest living fails, soon finds himself drawn back into the underworld by his new best friend, a baleful stuttering pimp named Reinhold (Gottfried John).

Pushed out of a getaway car after a heist, Franz loses an arm, rendering him an invalid, though most citizens chalk him up as being yet another one of the Great War’s casualties. His sole salvation comes in the guise of the doll-like Mieze (Barbara Sukowa), a similarly wide-eyed girl almost goofy in her innocence, even if she takes up with gentlemen callers to pay the bills. Unable to work, Franz cannot help but to become a pimp once more. Things are irretrievably set in motion and it ultimately comes to pass that his fate is not escapable.

Clocking in at thirteen episodes, with an additional two-hour epilogue that verges on the hallucinatory, Berlin Alexanderplatz makes for nearly sixteen hours of Fassbinder. Safe to say that this set is not for initiates; even those familiar with the man’s oeuvre, be it classics of 70s European cinema like Effi Briest, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, or The Marriage of Maria Braun, will still have their work cut out for them here. The pacing is deliberate and slow, the format of the television mini-series giving Fassbinder ample time to let scenes unfurl at an excruciatingly slow pace. While an awkward moment in a Fassbinder film (and believe me, there are plenty in each film) might last for but one scene, in Alexanderplatz, they unfurl at upwards of a half-hour, as imminent and agonizing as a steamroller advancing. Tropes like action and plot advancement were never Fassbinder’s concern so much as the cruelty of mankind to one another, with love itself --to quote an early film-- being “colder than death.” It’s near absolute zero in Berlin Alexanderplatz.

Friday, November 30, 2007

delusion of the beta

At the last minute, I was asked to preview Harry Partch's late piece of "total theatre" Delusion of the Fury. A good friend bought me the LP box set oh so many years ago for Xmas, and it's far and away my favorite Partch piece and an ideal gateway to the man's singular musical vision, outpacing even head-swimming pieces like Eleven Intrusions, Li Po Songs, and "The Dreamer That Remains."

The preview itself mentions something about words serving as mere "proxy" to the music itself, and it could double for my own personal feelings about it, but what could is a preview of that sort? Despite over a decade of familiarity with the music, I could scarcely encapsulate Partch and his music. There's a holistic-ness to his work that defies recordings, pictures, or any sort of documentation. That said, being able to "play" his instruments here is great fun. And I know that when I check out the second-ever production of Delusion of the Fury next week at the Japan Society, I will feel as if I've never heard the man before.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

beta on the newsstand

Like Travistan, Liz Phair, Zaireeka, and NYC Ghosts and Flowers, it's Web 0.0 at Vibe and Paste for me. This month, the former has my review of DJ Rekha's Basement Bhangra mixtape, while the latter has these DVD reviews (posting both October and November here), as well as my first foray to "Unglued," the jokey last page of the mag. Note: These are the unedited drafts I filed, so they may read slightly different than the newsstand.

Days of Heaven
Gorgeous American classic from reclusive director Malick gets Criterion treatment
It’s a shame that with only four titles in his thirty-plus year career, Terrence Malick didn’t use some of that time to make nature documentaries, though it could be argued that American classics like 1973’s Badlands and 1978’s Days of Heaven double as such. In all of his films, humanity is shown as diminished figures moving amid boundless landscapes, the elements, and the immense mechanisms of industry. Lingering shots of bird flocks and animal packs juxtapose with scenes of shadowy men dancing around bonfires or else battling the frenzy of a wildfire. Even the story’s love triangle between Gere, Adams, and Shepard shares celluloid with close-ups of gamecocks and locusts. Cinematographer Néstor Almendros won an Academy for his work here and contributes an essay in this restored edition, expertly capturing in the light of the "magic hour" that mythic flat of Texas (actually Alberta, Canada) and all the creatures that traverse the beatific but unforgiving landscape.

Ace in the Hole
**** 1/2
Acerbic Wilder pic anticipates the feeding frenzy of the media circus
Apropos that as director Billy Wilder’s 1951 scathing media critique (and commercial flop) Ace in the Hole gets its long-neglected release on DVD, so too does that circus stir again for Paris Hilton. Or is that Tom Cruise? Or perhaps that fellow trapped down a mine? Either way, Kirk Douglas’s chiseled (and washed up) newshound Chuck Tatum sniffs out such a personal tragedy, one sure to swell into a Pulitzer. That is, if his subject doesn’t get rescued too quick. While his previous Sunset Boulevard revealed the shadowy pall behind Hollywood glitz, Wilder predicts (and indicts) the stranglehold of the spectacle on public consciousness. What with the crisp camera work of Lang –sharply capturing both the accumulating media madness and the barren desert surrounding-- and Wilder’s straight razor-like slashes of dialogue, no one is absolved. The aggrieved widow awaits her payout, the sheriff angles for re-election, while the audience…well, we too become complicit as witnesses.

Day Watch

*** 1/2
Second entry in this eye-popping but head-scratching Russian trilogy
Even if you’ve caught 2005’s Night Watch, the first entry in this box office-breaking Russian trilogy, Day Watch will confound your senses all over again. It’s kin to its Hollywood counterparts, denoting an eternal struggle between good and evil. Like Lord of the Rings, it’s an ancient battle, like The Matrix, the movie hinges on the thin line between illusion and reality, and like Star Wars, the precious balance hinges on a powerful youth who has turned towards darkness. Shape-shifters, witches, and vampires abound in a struggle now tempered with magic and bureaucratic red tape. Sergei Trofimov’s camera is actively present with vertiginous zooms and CGI scenes that beggar belief. Yet there is still so much left unanswered after two hours: a purgatorial realm called The Gloom, a yo-yo that destroys the world, the Chalk of Fate. Day Watch inhabits that unenviable expository middle chapter, stuck between that initial charge and the looming final battle of mankind.

Deep Roots Music 1: Revival/ Ranking Sounds
MVD Visual
Roots of Jamaican music are dug up in this fascinating document
When it comes to films of Jamaican music, there’s a holy trinity: 1972’s The Harder They Come, 1978’s Rockers, and 1982’s Countryman. While these three tucked the island’s indigenous music into rather cursory stories, this early 80s documentary shot by filmmaker Howard Johnson (in the wake of Bob Marley’s untimely passing) presents an eye-opening account of how this tiny island’s music became a worldwide phenomenon. Much like American blues, Jamaican music was rooted in slavery, and the film details how tribal (and social) dances evolved into calypso and ska, noting how this music took ideas from American soul and jazz in the process. Johnson also investigates how political change spurned musical evolution. It’s the scenes of street musicians and Rastafarian drumming intertwined with footage of Count Ossie, a teenaged Jimmy Cliff, and a Jack Ruby soundclash that exposes these deep roots though.

Wild Style (25th Anniversary Edition)

These are the breaks
PS 1’s recent “Lee” Quiñones’s exhibit was a tribute to how he boosted old funk records, an act that verged on the Promethean, stealing holy fire (in this case, drum breaks) to fuel 70s block parties. But Quiñones remains best known for his turn as graffiti artist Zoro in the epochal early hip-hop document, Wild Style, which spread hip-hop around the world and is now celebrating its 25th anniversary in his two-disc edition. Set amongst the burnt out buildings and rubble piles of the Bronx, beauty and art pushed through the squalor, in the form of b-boy acts like DJing, tagging trains, and trading battle rhymes. The stilted love story between Zoro and Pink is but a blank wall on which to record early masters like Busy Bee, Cold Crush Brothers, and Grandmaster Flash, as well as hint at how hip-hop (unlike most folk art) has always been about the Benjamins.

The iPhone Shuffle

It was with baited breath that Mac obsessives such as myself anticipated last month’s press conference with Steve Jobs as he announced a slew of new Apple products. And while it was a relief to know that I could finally make Al Green’s “Call Me” my new ringtone (for yet another 99 cents), I can’t help but admit that I was a bit crestfallen that I couldn’t make my New Text Message announcement be Ringo shouting “I got blisters on my fingers!”

Okay, so the Beatles still aren’t on iTunes, and while I really don’t care to have Starbucks icon suddenly appear inside my pocket every two blocks (unless they can figure out the wi-fi technology and have my phone spray a Frappucino into my mouth) there were plenty of exciting new microprocessing tchotchkes coming down the pike, like the cheaper iPhones. Not that I would pay $599 --much less $399-- for such a device. I needed something much cheaper than that. And while sites like Gizmodo and the like didn’t include it in their round-up of the new iPod Touch and iPod Nano, the greatest device that Apple had to offer was the “economy” version of their iPhone, the iPhone Shuffle.

Priced to move at only $99, I ordered mine right away, and I have to admit, this little device has changed my life. For one, it has reduced pocket bulk like you wouldn’t believe. Whereas my previous cell phone was one of those lumpy “candy bar” types, the new iPhone Shuffle --much like the previous model-- is about the size of a stick of chewing gum. Granted, so far it’s been sort of difficult to both hear and talk into it at the same time, but I’m getting used to it.

What I haven’t been able to adjust to is the fact that not only are all of my mp3s shuffled (so that I never know just if it’s Sly & the Family Stone or Sunn O))) or Britney Spears coming up next in my earbuds), but I have no idea who is calling me, much less who I’m calling. And let me tell you, that first billing cycle was a doozy.

Looking it over, here were some of the incoming/ outgoing calls made over that first week:

Monday - Stepfather 7:16 pm
Well, I had meant to call my mother to tell her about my new cell phone, but I guess this is close enough. We awkwardly talk about the weather and whether or not the Dallas Cowboys have a shot to win it all this year.

Tuesday - Grandma Beta 6:04 am
It’s a little bit too early in the morning to talk to my grandmother down on the farm, but her dementia dovetails with my hangover nicely. She asks every five minutes if I’m coming to visit her (even though I was there last month) and I mumble incoherently each and every time.

Grandma Beta 6:19 am
Since that previous phone call has already been forgotten, my grandmother now asks me every two minutes when I’m coming down to see her. I try in vain to remind her that I was there last month, then decide to swing the conversation towards talk about the Cowboys.

Nicole 8:53 pm

Thought it was this girl I met the other night at the Bowery Ballroom after we swapped cell numbers and spit, but in fact it’s my ex-girlfriend. Oh man, really not in the mood to talk about her needs and my inability to communicate right now. Pretend I have an incoming call and hang up on her.

Wednesday - Leah 6:37 pm
I had intended to call my ex-girlfriend about going to see King of Kong at the IFC, but instead a call gets routed to my “overly dramatic” friend, who spends the next three hours re-enacting every phone call she and her boyfriend have been making in the midst of their extended six-month break up. Can’t get in a word edge-wise about my own relationship problems. So much for making that movie with Nicole. Apple engineers to figure out how to have music playing in the other earbud during such conversations.

Stepfather 10:57 pm
Meant to call and apologize to Nicole, but I dialed this number again. This time around, my stepfather didn’t sound too thrilled about the Cowboys.

Thursday - Telemarketer 9:39pm
Asks me if I want to refinance my home, which is a 100 sq. ft. railway apartment in Brooklyn. Realize that the iPhone Shuffle is so affordable because they sell the phone numbers to call banks.

Telemarketer 9:43 pm
Asks me about auto insurance. Mention the whole “I live in Brooklyn” thing again.

Telemarketer 9:44 pm
Asks if I want to buy Microsoft Windows Vista for best price on the web. Mention the whole “I live in Brooklyn (which means I own a Mac)” thing once again.

Telemarketer 9:46pm

Asks me if I want to enhance my what? Then quickly blurts out: “I law mist slip butter rule meat open ray minute pytqueb lord be soup under committee horse needle Brooklyn.”

Friday - Paste Offices 12:22pm

My editor calls, sweating the deadline I missed last week. Man, I wish I could screen these sorts of calls. I promise that I’ll turn in that think piece about how Chris Martin is the new Bob Dylan.

Nicole 2:29am
Wow, what a coincidence. My iPhone Shuffle drunk-dialed my ex-girlfriend. Technology sure is funny.

Friday, November 16, 2007

robert wyatt

This summer, I had the extreme honor of talking to Robert Wyatt. While I have never been more cowed by an interview subject, Wyatt proved to be one of the breeziest interview subjects ever, effortlessly talking about everything from bebop to his recent enrollment in AA. While I still hold out hope that this entire interview might appear in print somewhere, I'm posting it here, as two previous pieces on Wyatt (for Paste Magazine and the Village Voice) were so brief so as to barely touch on the myriad of topics that came up over the course of our half-hour chat.

AB: What were you listening to just then?

RW: Oh, it’s this cdr of bebop. Someone at the shop, a record of 40s bebop, Charlie Christian, Charlie Parker. Charlie Christian with Benny Goodman I hadn’t heard. It’s one of the greatest losses. There was something special there, one of the great originals. He should’ve been famous, that poor lad. He changed everything suddenly. I think he’s more influential than any of them. More people play like Charlie Christian than like anyone else.

AB: Playing electric and whatnot.

RW: Yeah, that fluid flowing legato thing, most beboppers weren’t doing that yet.

AB: You’ve been a jazz fan for awhile. Do you draw more from it as you go along, get older?

RW: It’s a funny thing. It means all kinds of things to me as I get older. The actual music I listen is exactly the same really. When I was a teenager, more or less. If anything, I like more of it than I did then. I like the journeyman beboppers. Paul Haines said once, “I’m not an innovator, I’m just a participator.” I used to be really snooty about that when I was young. I wanted innovators. Now I’m quite happy by participators as well. It’s a different thing, it’s nostalgic, you know. Back then it was like, “God, what’s going to happen next?”
It’s funny in a way, I’m a complete retard. Arrested development at eighteen, only the body grew older.

AB: With each album, there’s more of a pronounced jazz feel to it.

RW: It’s partially because the musicians I liked working with on the whole. I was talking with Carla Bley about this. All kinds of people can play music, but on the whole, in the old days, classical musicians couldn’t really swing, and rock musicians couldn’t understand chords, so you were only left with jazz musicians. I got a sort of little gang now I really like working with, they’re so fast and they’re so good. I do keep my edge, I do know a few rock guitarists, who grace us with their presence on a few tracks.

AB: I wanted to ask about your frequent collaborators, conspirators: Eno, Paul Weller, Annie Whitehead. What is the key to having such longevity with these people?

RW: Well, I don’t know. Partially because the pressure of a group isn’t on me. Take a group like that Big Brother television programme where people are just locked together and eventually the differences emerge to a point where the center cannot hold. Whereas with a specific project like a record, you have people on it who wouldn’t normally go on the road with you necessarily or even play together. You can have an imaginary band. It’s just a few days in the studio and they don’t mind doing it. it’s more like I’m really slow and it takes me ages to work out what to do. I’ve spent the whole 60s as a kind of apprentice, thinking “What the fuck?” I’m incredibly slow tune writer. I grow like some tree, or like a glacier, a foot a year or something. I leave it lying around, (wonder) “What would be a good chord to have next?” And then I listen to a Gil Evans record and I think, “Oh, I know!”

AB: Steal one of his chords.

RW: So that’s how it goes. Alfie helps out a bit.

AB: It seems you’re working a bit quicker these days.

RW: Yeah, actually you’re right! I really got straight back into the saddle for this. It’s partly knowing these particular musicians, very encouraging. First of all Phil Manzanerra and his studio. Annie Whitehead is just an angel, she just gives a bit of warmth and critical chords. I haven’t got to invent who does it so much anymore. I just got to invent the actual music. I don’t write it all, I get tunes from other people, put them together.

AB: Speaking of inventing these things, I see credits for Enotron, Karenotron, Monicatron…

RW: I got the idea from mellotrons. I used mellotrons quite a lot in the 60s. I did a lot of keyboard stuff. I never had one. When I found one in the studio, I used it. the first Matching Mole record I plastered it with it with mellotron. I heard that Jack Bruce (don’t know if it’s true), made one with his own voice. and I thought, what a brilliant idea, a choir. The last record, with Karen, I got her to do a scale, singing every note and then stuck it onto the keyboard. I got a Karen keyboard. I tried it on myself and it wasn’t so good. It doesn’t work for everybody. Brian Eno did one for us and Monica Vasconcelos did one. I got those three at the moment.

AB: It seems on Comicopera you drew a lot from other people.

RW: I always thought the thing is to make the best record you possibly can. If you can come up with tunes that you yourself would like to listen to, that’s good, then use them. But the most important thing to me is that it’s tunes that I really like. I used to do standards like Round About Midnight. Sometimes I find musicians write songs and I think why don’t musicians do other musician’s songs. That’s why I did some Karen ones on the last record. I really like Mrs. Garbarek. I once had this idea of getting “The Daughters of the Revolution,” having Mike Mantler’s daughter, Jan Garbarek’s daughter, and Paul Haines’s daughter, Emily Haines. I really like all three of them. I never did that.

AB: You can always switch to A&R.

RW: My favorite bit of the record is putting it together and getting people to do things they otherwise may not do. And I accompany them.

AB: You make connections that otherwise wouldn’t get made.

RW: It sounds like very paternalist you know. I really like that connection. It’s not to do with daughters, I’ve known Carla Bley and Mike Mantler thirty years. It’s a great thrill for me to know their daughter. I'm working with Karen, who was the same age as when I worked with Carla. I always liked Jan Garbarek. I was a bit drunk at some concert he had done in London and said something about covering one of (Anja’s) tunes and he said, “Do it, do it.”

AB: I liked one of her records that Mark Hollis worked on.

RW: That’s how I met her. I loved doing that. In fact, I couldn’t do it any more as I’m on the wagon. I joined AA. I just got sooo drunk. He made me do a hundred takes. He used some of the last ones, the four o’clock in the morning ones. It was a really funny song. I liked it. I thought the whole record was really good.

AB: I think Mark Hollis works slower than you do. Let’s talk about Comicopera. Why that dramatic three-act structure?

RW: First just the aesthetic thing. I find the blank canvas of a CD with the potential to be 80 minutes daunting. You have the choice of making a record of listenable length or using the space up. It’s quite rare to have a CD by a musician that can keep your interest going for that long. Even Mozart operas are about 35 minutes long. There’s got to be a variety. The last record I broke it up into two halves. This one I’m doing three. I really like the old LP of 20 minutes sides, like Rock Bottom and all that.

AB: Rock Bottom has this symmetry for sure.

RW: It helps me when I have a blank canvas, to think like that. Twenty minutes is a good listening length. Really this is three twenty minute things. It was gonna be put out on vinyl and do what Rahsaan Roland Kirk, one blank side. The dramatic structure as well was simply because there were different songs on there. They’re not all singer-songwriter me-me-me things in the sense that there are quite different characters on it. There’s someone who’s idea of happiness is going on a successful bombing run. There’s a nihilist who feels alone cuz he doesn’t have religion. There’s a woman telling a man off. There’s hatred, there’s Italian quasi-mystical. There’s Lorca, his surrealist imagery, and of course there’s the Che Guevara revolutionary type. There’s all bits of me, but not really one person. They’re different characters. When you got different characters in a sort of sequence and there’s music and singing, it’s kinda like an opera. But it’s not a serious opera.

AB: It’s a retroactive move.

RW: Yeah, in the first section I didn’t write any of the words, by Anja and Alfie. They’re all about fractured relationships or bereavement, people not getting along or being panicked, losing touch with somebody you thought you were close to. That’s Lost in Noise. The second lot is more where I come in, popping about England and being bemused by little country towns and boring council meetings. The whole thing is relieved by the carnival and hearing steel pans and music. That’s me sort of musing about England. It ended with the bomber. There’s lots of romantic pictures of accurately painted airplanes flying over beautiful landscapes. It’s quite funny, where it’s flying over is beautiful, but if you look back behind…
After that, it’s that kind of thing, I wish to distance myself from that with the slogan, “Not in my name.” songs didn’t seem to be in English. That’s the end, I’m done here. The rest is all…Something Susan Sontag said quite late on, the question is not just compassion, but to really empathize with the Other. Of course, speaking a foreign language helps you do it. I got Italian songs, some Spanish stuff.

AB: What kind of difficulties do you have singing in those languages?

RW: Italian, a lot. I sang phonetically. The Spanish is …I have sung half a dozen songs in Spanish. There’s so many different accents. I’m sure I got my Cuban, my Chilean all mottled up. With Italian and Japanese names, I can never remember them. It all goes in a blur for me.

AB: Do you still feel alienated from Anglo-American culture?

RW: On the contrary, I think what exasperates me is United States culture is that it could potentially be the most extraordinarily wonderful civilization. All it would have to do is…it’s funny, people call me Anti-America, which is completely mad. I was brought up on…I couldn’t imagine my life without American culture, Duke Ellington to Basquiat and everything in between, Norman Mailer. That’s where the strength of the United States lies. It’s such an overwhelming contribution to human culture, that reconfiguration of people from different worlds, from Africa, Russia, English and so. It’s not necessarily to just go around bombing and killing. These wars are so silly. The trouble is we fought a serious one, or our parents did. And that was justified. But we’re killing all these poor soldiers, sending them out to every place in the world, kill every brown person that they see.

AB: America is so isolated.

RW: It is an enormous country. Spiritually, you don’t feel the rightwing mainstream American culture is internationalist at all. All of that provincial, puritanical streak going through that.

AB: There’s no attempt to identify with the "Other."

RW: Half the population knows that. Once the Roman Empire collapsed, they were just wonderful. They were assholes, but they were great. When they gave up colonialism, there was this wonderful culture. not that American leaders have more confidence in the staggering beauty of what they already got, let that conquer the world.

AB: There’s not enough money in that.

RW: You have people all over the world listening to American records. It’s only like a caricature, not in this superior sense, just this exasperation, really. Brian Eno just came back from SF, he said it was wonderful there. Americans are really thinking and talking about what the fuck they’re doing in relationship to the rest of the world. He doesn’t find it England. It’s still pushed under the carpet, let’s talk about something else. You know what I mean? He’d much prefer…

AB: It’s better to be out in the open.

RW: It’s real animation. Questioning going on there. He really enjoyed very much, felt very stimulated by it. the problem is not the people.

AB: When’s the last time you came over?

RW: 1968. no, we went back in 1971. We did a little jazz tour, shared a bill with Miles Davis. That was something. That was the last time. very good memories of New York, the first all day-all night city I’d be to. I’d never seen gays in full leather gear. It was all so new to me. The only thing that puzzled me was the white people I met weren’t interested in black music as English kids were. A paradox. The American thing was more folk-based. In England, the entire English rock scene is based on black American music. From traditional jazz right up to American GIs bringing over jazz and soul music. It was the main event in England. Every single rock musician I know until the 70s was absolutely rooted in black music. BB King records, Mingus, Jimmy Smith, that was the absolute bedrock. I was surprised that it wasn’t the case in America. I went through a golden era, Ellington and Coltrane, they’ll last centuries. I'm sure so. The United States will be a great golden globe, I’m waiting for it to happen.

AB: Let’s hope we both get to see it. Back to Comicopera, there’s a song about the lovers misunderstanding each other. I was wondering what you saw as the connection as the lovers as well as the bombardier and the bombed.

RW: You got it. this is what I thought the LP did, the trajectory of personal conflicts onto the world stage, that’s exactly right. It starts off with Alfie. She wrote this to get me to stop drinking, as I was drinking behind her back. That’s why I couldn’t sing the first verse. In the end, I used the line “I’m never gonna change a thing, love you just as you are,” a plea. I’m just gonna try and love you.

AB: When did you start AA?

RW: Nearly three months. It’s amazing for me. I’ve had a few lapses. It’s a complete revolution in my lifestyle, since my mid-20s. it’s hard. The next hard one is cigarettes. I can’t do it all at once. I don’t know why people bother with illegal drugs, you can get out of your brain and kill yourself on quite legal ones. (laughs)

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

little red beta



Tuesday, November 06, 2007

la betée

I wrote about film artist (for lack of a more umbrella term) Chris Marker for The Fanzine, joining the esteemed company of my friends Mike and Nick.

And yet, there's so much to excise about Chris Marker.

Like how screening Sans Soleil for a few friends leads them --within the first ten minutes-- to emulate the napping commuters in Japan, everyone fast asleep. It's perhaps the best reaction to hope for though, in much the same way that when learning to meditate, to relax both mind and body, the natural inclination is to slip into slumber. The profundity of the thoughts pouring in all at once, the true nature of reality revealed is overwhelming and shutdown is what most circuit-breakers do anyway.

Or that Marker's true progeny are not film school wannabes (which is where La Jetée remained for so many years, commercially unavailable) at all. Marker documented repressed cultures, be they Korea, Cuba, Chile, even Israel for much of the sixties and seventies, and taught workers and those who didn't have access to mainstream media to use film as a means to an end. His true disciples are in fact "terrorists" who use the Internet and video clips to disseminate their message, to make their minority voices be heard.

Or that his favorite animals are the owl and the pussycat. In some ways it makes sense, in an Athenian and Egyptian sort of way, but when I re-watched John Cassavetes's The Killing of a Chinese Bookie last week, something new struck me. It's a scene where one of the nightclub's dancers stands on stage in a see-through negligee, reciting a few lines about "The Owl and the Pussycat." Her nipples protrude through, wide as owl eyes, her bush similarly dark, and then it all makes sense to me. The Owl, the Pussycat, the female face taken out of the continuum of time and elevated to something eternal, goddess-like. The image of a woman's visage is crucial for Marker. In writing about the close-ups of Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc, he perceived that in "the grain of the skin, the tear, the drool, the hair, the glint of the eye" lay the metaphysical struggle of the soul to attain grace through suffering. That's what my dirty mind realized anyway.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

beta blown

In the midst of intense interview sessions with Black Dice for an upcoming feature article, meaning long talks with both the band as well as folks enamored with them, including Doug Aitken and Richard Phillips. Talking with Aaron Warren one night, he played me their new video, which nearly made me squirt Hollandia out of my nose, it was so hilarious, fucked up, and profound. If their similarly fucked artbook Gore didn't cement the trend, they have evolved into junk culture scavengers of the highest order, rendering the subconsciously saturated and over-familiar (daytime TV, cartoons, and Time-Life infomercials) into something disorienting and new. I cannot recommend Load Blown enough.

Additionally, I talked to 60s-era Blue Note drummer Joe Chambers for a forthcoming interview in Stop Smiling Magazine. Joe drummed and composed for players like Bobby Hutcherson, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Andrew Hill, and Max Roach. He discussed playing with Eric Dolphy around the time he recorded Out to Lunch, how Last Year at Marienbad blew his mind, how community changes in black neighborhoods destroyed jazz music, and dismissed his singular compositions of that era as pretentious.

If that's not enough tape to transcribe, I also just conducted an interview with Ben Chasny of Six Organs of Admittance, whose albums almost always underwhelm me musically, but whose forthcoming Shelter From the Ash is quite solid. We talked about such uplifting subjects as Kris Kristofferson, Paul Virilio, Vietnam vets, and dying in Pompeii-esque dreams.

Friday, October 26, 2007


Finally got around to reviewing this Teshigahara boxset for my "VHS or Beta" column over at Idolator. Tried in vain to seek out the soundtrack for Woman of the Dunes, so as to post it here (it's on Volume 4 of the Film Music of Toru Takemitsu CD set that came out a few years back), but I guess the whole OiNK bust didn't help (not that I use bit torrents, but I often ask friends who do to do my dirty work for me).

Anyhow, since it's not about Britney Spears (though I asked Gawker graphics department to Photoshop Britney's face onto the nekkid woman of said dunes to guarantee five-digit hits), I doubt it'll get many reads. Perhaps to make it easier to digest, I cut out two paragraphs of background on Teshigahara, writer Kobo Abe, as well as the other (fatally-flawed) movies of the set. Putting them here instead:

Teshigahara is an intriguing figure in Japanese cinema. He was the son of Sofu Teshigahara, who founded a flower arrangement school and art discipline, Sogetsu. It’s one thing to rebel against a father who wants you to be a shoe salesman, but quite another to buck against one who invented an entire aesthetic. Still, Teshigahara avoided the family business and began to dabble in surrealistic painting, indebted to the likes of Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dali, and Antonio Gaudi (he would make a documentary about Gaudi in 1984) before moving into film. He worked outside of the studio system (a rarity in those days), setting up his own production company, making documentaries about woodblock artists and heavyweight champions before adapting the books of Abe for the screen.

The pair's first collaboration is the confounding Pitfall (1962). Part ghost story, part murder-mystery, part documentary exposé, part allegory, it’s a morass (it's not everyday that a young boy eyewitnesses four brutal deaths and then gets to eat all the candy he could ever want) held together by Takemitsu’s outbursts of prepared piano, harpsichord, and scrapes that resound as if from the bottom of a cistern. For 1966’s film The Face of Another, Takemitsu juxtaposes a stately Viennese waltz with eerie swells of glass harmonica. It can’t quite make the story of a man who has a face transplant work, though. John Updike once called Abe’s no-exit situations “cheap suspense” and a good source of “readerly exasperation,” and these two films are prime examples of it, feeling more like over-extended episodes from The Twilight Zone, pregnant with an inescapable dread.

Monday, October 22, 2007

beta on the newstand

Going all Web 0.0, I am on the newsstand this month, with my lengthy --and now ancient-- exchange with Vashti Bunyan (which Pitchfork turned down for being too obscure), published in the inaugural stateside issue of Ptolemaic Terrascope. The October issue of Paste has me weighing in on The Darjeeling Limited, Ace in the Hole, Days of Heaven, as well as small features on both Luc Sante and Robert Wyatt.

I also placed a review in Vibe about The Complete On the Corner Sessions boxset. While I'm thrilled to be working with Bad Boy (read: Sean-Jon), edits from higher up were slightly off. "The last of Columbia's vault plundering box sets shows how Miles did away with jazz players and critics altogether with a fillip of his middle finger" turned into "the latest of Columbia's vault-plundering box sets shows how Miles enthusiastically flipped the bird to jazz players and critics altogether" (emphasis added). The closing thought also got switched up: "It's impossible to fathom teen pop, techno, or Timbaland without its innovations: Loop-based, edit-heavy, yet open-eared, even a jazz master like Miles became a slave to the beat." Now it ends: "Davis and his crew are all there, hiding in plain sight." At least buy it for the "77 Best Weezy Songs of 2007."

And while you're at it, the Panda Bear interview in The Believer is a swell-read, as are the small pieces about Eden Ahbez and Aldous Huxley in the new Stop Smiling (Holly-wuud! Issue).

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


Am told that in the more upscale Anglophone parts surrounding the McGill campus, you can spot them, but I don't spy an iPod once during my week in Montreal. The city itself is so bereft of noise pollution (the whumph! of Nerf maces don't count) I have no need to even pull mine out. Instead I can feel my skull de-pressurize, no longer battered on all sides by truck brakes and indie rock deadlines.

Sans earbuds in the populace, it means conversations and interactions beyond the norm, but in a city where girls will do something as crazy as make eye contact with strangers, that is almost a given. Where such a dearth of ayo technology is most noticeable is in the shop soundtracks. Rather than being subjected to employee iPod shuffles that put The Grey Album next to Nirvana next to Madonna next to Sufjan Stevens next to Journey that ruin almost any bar/ coffee shop/ boutique experience in Gotham, instead it seems that full albums still rule Montreal. (Radio rules as well: my first night, I hear not just cuts from the On the Corner box set, but also Alice Coltrane and a noise that could only be Pierre Henry's brainwave-melting Cortical Arts III.)

Not saying it's all great. When you go and get a crepe and "Two Tickets to Paradise" blares out from the kitchen, it means that if you sit to manger, you'll soon be subjected to the rest of Eddie Money's hits, which doesn't include the follow-up "Two Pickets to Tittsburgh." Better to let the cold drizzle fall on that folded-up Nutella goodness. And while sipping coffee to the somnambulent strains of Cat Power's The Greatest offsets the effect of the caffeine, almost every girl seated there rocks that Chan-look, so I give it a pass.

In the course of a single day I hear:
Serge Gainsbourg Comic Strip at an internet café
Ali Farka Touré Red Green at a soup spot
Albert Ayler (one of the weird later vocal albums) at a used bookstore
and Joe Tex at another café, which basically means that I want to move there.

Monday, October 08, 2007

beta week ever

Sunday - Animal Collective
Discussion at the bar about a friend's music project (which apparently sounds like Junior Boys) reveals that Phil Collins has become the most crucial artist of the 80s. It dovetails nicely with my pet theory that the most influential Beach Boys album for the 80s generation is not Pet Sounds but rather whatever one had "Kokomo" on it. That's the one that everyone grew up on, believing the band to be The Suck, until Napster (or maybe watching Forrest Gump) proved otherwise.

Still not proceeding just yet to Webster Hall (so as to avoid $8 beers) we muse that surely there's another artist from the 80s who is secretly crucial. Paul Simon's Graceland? Maybe, but you can't just go on the fact that there are more NYC media-centric thinkpieces on Vampire Weekend than actual VW songs, so Simon is out.

Then it happens. "Bowm-bowm-bowm-doo-doo-doo-doo" comes on over the bar speakers, the opening moments of TVOTR's "Ambulance." And then it all makes perfect sense, as we stagger towards the Animal Collective: Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy" is the skeleton key for all of Brooklyn rock.

Monday - Control press screening

Most of my thoughts are covered here. Forget to mention that the gent who plays Hooky here is also Maxwell in Across the Universe (he's a dead-ringer for the next Kurt Cobain bio pic, too). As the VHS or Beta piece states, I find Closer to be physically affecting and I wonder what other music out there causes a similar reaction in folks. One friend says "The Marble Index." Anyone else?

Tuesday - War/ Dance press screening

Out in December, I believe, so as to angle for Oscar consideration in Best Documentary. A story about three teens in a northern Uganda refugee camp who travel to that country's National Music Competition. Thankfully, the film isn't pedantic in unpacking the struggle. In fact, the depiction of these rebels as inscrutable bogeymen who kill in the night actually works in this context.

Back to Graceland, and a quote from the New Yorker profile on artist Kara Walker, about the inclination towards "the vision of 'tribal art' as a tool to be used by more sophisticated Western artists...the message...was that people of color don't exist unless whites say they do." Seeing the film's subjects (one an orphaned child, one bade to commit atrocities already, another who wails at the overgrown marker of her father's otherwise unmarked grave) as they perform and dance, it's self-deceiving to continually paint African music as this naif ebullience, as if it conjures some longed-for, uncomplicated humanity. To reduce the irreducible innovations of musicians like King Sunny Ade or Fela and make it heel to Ivy League quandaries is infuriating. But then again, so is the film's use of eerie ambient washes and b-rolls of thunder to storytell some of these children's waking-nightmare stories. Just hearing a 14-year-old talk about having to bludgeon some peasants to death with a hoe and then bury the hacked chunks in a shallow grave doesn't need any editing room pizazz.

Wednesday - Damon & Naomi/ Boris
Damon and Naomi's strongest suit is curation, from the Exact Change imprint to International Sad Hits Vol. 1 to slowing down both George Harrison and Caetano Veloso on their last album of sloooooow ballads. Within These Walls is no different, although its curatorial aspect lies in how they match Damon's twelve-string and Naomi's keyboard to their collaborators: Espers' cellist to Bhob Rainey's microtonal horn (he looks as if he just left a Supertramp recording session with Ornette's toy horn) to Michio Kurihara's understated plasma leads. With his big hair and furious strumming, Damon at one point actually achieves the sound of Tim Buckley's Starsailor.

Thursday - Mix Tape reading

See three short stories read aloud centering on pop song appearance in the story: Spinanes, the Human League, and the Ramones. Bummed not so much for not knowing how to participate in future readings (I am) but in missing the reading that involves the main character getting a BJ whilst dressed as Harry from Harry and the Hendersons.

Friday - Wordless Music series
Wordless, my ass. Beirut bleated a week or so back, as does Sandro Perri tonight. Is this what Arthur Russell wrought, a non-singing made into singing via loops and sparse effects?

The church is packed and hell-hot. Are there really that many Columbia students into neo-classical music by one-time Bjork collaborators? Muhly is sneaky, performing a piece entitled "Mother Tongue." His soprano recites strings of numbers and every phone number and address she can think of. Swear that amid "962560773" and 43102458465" I can hear subliminal messages like "104.5 KZEP" and that most baleful string of numbers, "90210," throughout.

WIll Oldham comes out to sing a few songs with Valgeir's arrangements. Is that what all the kids are here for, "Bonnie" Prince Billie? As the overlong schvitz/recital finally wraps, the secret is revealed: Sigur Ros is gonna come out and do an acoustic set. So that's why the church is packed with believers? Okay, so I don't speak Hopelandic, but seriously, does anyone in the crowd realize that they've just been listening to twelve minutes of Adult Contemporary?

Saturday- Arcade Fire/ LCD Soundsystem
Most! Important! Concert! Ever!
It is here that I coin a new word: "Whipster." It's sorta like a "Blipster," except you're white. The island acrawl with them, it proves that this is definitely the Whipster Generation.

Monday, October 01, 2007


I know I wasn't alone in my underwhelming response to the latest Animal Collective, but as the band in the past has proved fully capable of boring me live --even in the throes of true fandom-- surely the inverse seemed possible, too. While their last NY show had the now-trio grappling with a new set (wholly excluding SJ), for their homecoming last night, they had fully come to terms with (gasp) audience expectations.

It was downright anachronistic, as AC actually delivered the hits, those known sounds, and most-startling of all, total satisfaction. I can't think of a time, in the dozen shows I'd ever witnessed, ever recognizing more than a quarter of their set, yet they both drew heavily from the current album and from previous highs, delivering throbbing versions of "Who Could Win a Rabbit?" and "Leaf House." Album cuts that previously left me shrugging (like "#1" and "Fireworks") were both bass-bludgeoning and high-freq tingly all at once, meaning they sounded like big glittery techno tracks.

I may have been alone in these feelings though, especially in light of the Brooklyn Vegan bitch-fest, where the bass was a complaint, as was the setlist, as was the exclusion of certain songs, as was the set length, as was the beer prices, as was the parking, as was the...all of it boiling down to a pissing contest between the seniority of fans who took stemmy bong hits to Person Pitch when it leaked in January versus those who stole Jam in July, between those who graduated this spring versus those who already moved to the Williamsburg campus last September.

Regardless, what came across on disc as sonically-thin and stagnant, revealed innumerable onion layers live. Through the night, I could glean African pygmy chants, Kompakt's Pop Ambient series, Franco-picked Congolese, dub, Tropicalia, and happy house (well, two of the three dudes did work at Other Music) in these songs, yet none of it ever seemed willful or didactic; instead everything gleefully hit at once. Perhaps the night was put best by a text message my friend received mid-concert:


Friday, September 28, 2007


Against my better judgment, I sat through Across the Universe, knowing full well that my personal mythology that these songs soundtrack would withstand whatever was flung onto the silver screen, but I really didn't expect such revulsion at the finished product. How can an already-delusional generation grow any higher on its own fumes?
About the only thing I can be grateful for is that they didn't concoct a Yoko Ono character that lets out a scream and ruins "the dream" for everybody else. To this day, there's no finer way to pick a fight in mixed company (short of admitting that you can't stand Neutral Milk Hotel) than to state that you love Yoko Ono's music or consider what she did 'music' (speaking of, there's an illuminating and slightly daft interview with Ms. Ono in the now-revitalized Arthur Magazine). And yet, for those who take the Beatles myth as gospel, Yoko is crucial. Cast her as Kali or Mary Magdalene or the Wicked Witch, but she is the underlying reality to that Fab Four religion and the vitriol against her remains undiminished. Just read the comments that accompany her devastating "Cut Piece," which anticipates such anonymous (and festering) hatred within the very piece.

Monday, September 24, 2007

beta mix tapes

For whatever reason, over the years peeps have been cowed when it comes to cooking up mixes for me. I love the act of making them, from track flow to wtf? pic to the withholding of info until the mix has been auditioned. Yet rarely if ever do I get them in return. Which I don't understand, as I have considerable gaps in my musical knowledge (which perhaps is otherwise formidable?) and love the handmade intimacy of a mix like anyone else. Thankfully my recent birthday was excuse enough for two to be made in my honor (by music critics, natch) and I've enjoyed them a great deal, both musically and in pondering why each song was selected so as to contribute to the aesthetic whole.

The first one I received has written in purple crayon: "Betasm: Sexy Inna Drink" surrounding a pic of a naked man swimming near a waterfall. Not sure what that's all about, but it features a slew of older stuff: Yellowman, Stetsasonic, Coasters, Comus, Del-Vikings, Lora Logic, Linda Perhacs, as well as new indie rock stuff that --if it dropped through the mail slot-- I might've just trashed on sight: Dirty Projectors, Vampire Weekend, Marnie Stern, Big A little a.

My favorite song here is by High Places, a winning slice of bedroom exotica, if something made in my own neighborhood can be deemed "exotic." There's a tinge of African highlife to the guitar tones throughout (DP, VW, LL, then made explicit on the Franco song), though the languid touch arising from Mother Africa is replaced here by Brooklynites who perhaps down too much espresso (or forget their anti-anxiety meds). Brittle, bumpy, yet strangely assuaging, the adenoidal indie songs here work in small doses, making for a mix of little pleasures.

The second disc has writ across it "Dance to the Beta/ 'Who is Cerrone?'/ Hopeful Rarities," though a better subtitle might be "The Secret Life of Stevie in Disco," in that there number disco versions of Stevie Wonder songs (a stellar cover of "Love Having You Around" by First Choice), a track by his ex-wife, Syreeta ("Can't Shake Your Love"), and innumerable instances of jittery electric keyboard skittering atop the deep funk. The mix deals strictly in disco edits and edicts, the texture of prototype synths slowly giving way to hand percussion textures as the mix progresses. Some of it I knew well, like a Dinosaur L number, as well as The Winners "Get Ready for the Future," from that crucial David Mancuso Presents The Loft comp from '99 (which first introduced me to the world of Arthur Russell).

Much of the mix is revelatory though: Fern Kinney's "Baby Let Me Kiss You"; Two Man Sound's "Que Tal America"; Kirk Franklin's "Looking For You (Track Bandits Edit)." That Franklin cut is so ridiculously potent that it first converted me over to Judaism, then made me go all "Jews for Jesus." I then found myself watching Creflo Dollar last Sunday, but if Kanye can blipster over to Keane, then why not the other way around?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

heep see

As Ratatouille helped me realize, America loves rats. I all but forgot how much I loved them myself as a child, until this clip helped me remember my favorite game, "Who Can Spank Chuck E.?":

Second acts in life are tough. Take my first job out of college, selling cell phones in the mall, before becoming an internationally-renowned music critic (where, in the last days of the Voice, I did indeed play "Who Can Spank Chuck Eddy?"). But even I was shocked to see the renaissance of Pol Pot on Today. Apparently, the Cambodian dictator had been keeping a low profile as a cell phone salesman before the UK's most zealous crate digger Simon Cowell re-discovered the Khmer Rouge superstar (as well as his old partner, Nuon Chea) and brought him onto Britain's Got Talent:

OJ, struggling now with his third act, surely had enough time to watch Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob Le Flambeur and realize that heists at casinos are bad news, even if you employ an electroacoustic composer as safe-cracker:

Friday, September 14, 2007

heep see

Perhaps to flush Chris Crocker's peroxide out of my eyes, I found myself instead watching old Bobbie Gentry appearances on The Smothers Brothers Show and on The Johnny Cash Show, singing "Ode to Billie Joe" and her other hits. On the notes to the recent Jim Ford reissue Sounds of Our Time, he takes credit for co-writing "Ode," which sounds like idle boasting. But as the man can also boast of being that offay hick on the back cover of There's A Riot Goin' On, he may be right. At the very least, Gentry also covers his "Niki Hoeky." While I'm marveling Bobbie's candy-colored polyester pantsuits and 'do throughout, dig her shy alternation between standing and steppin' on "Fancy."

Since YouTube is all about rabbit holes (and office cubicles) I couldn't help posting these Delaney & Bonnie clips, even though one will appear at Idolator later today. Christgau once estimated that D&B "nail such pieties as the joy of music-making and the pleasure of the groove," which you'll see here. And dig Delaney's Mexican tuxedo (though Northerners will call it a Canadian tuxedo)! An appraisal of D&B is part of my new column over there, VHS or Beta?, wherein I talk about movies and their soundtracks. Hopefully, I will soon get to topics like Toru Takemistu & Hiroshi Teshigahara, Scorsese's Taxi Driver, Forbidden Planet, The Andromeda Strain, Performance, Cassavetes's Faces, and Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

heep see

The Naked Kiss dir. Samuel Fuller

Leave it to punch-drunk Fuller to film my favorite opening sequence in forever. Godard deemed it "cinema-fist" and your eyes immediately open to the sight of a call girl wailing on her audience and her john, sending the camera reeling. She kicks the ass-whup up a notch when he yanks off her wig then puts on her face over the opening credits. It's pretty much down hill from there, at least until the doe-eyed crippled children's choir comes in to cut their latest hit. Tearjerker seems too placid an action to apply to Fuller; it's instead kin to taking a pair of needlenose pliers to the tear ducts.

La Jetee/ Sans Soleil dir. Chris Marker

I liked that when I screened 1983's Sans Soleil for some friends, half of them fell asleep within the first half-hour, their slumbering forms mirroring those of the commuters captured early on in the film. Perhaps being asleep is the best way to process the dreamlike logic that Marker follows, or, as his narrator puts it: "Not understanding adds to the pleasure." Between this and the recent picture book of his photography, 2007 has given us the most tenable grasp of the man in a good number of decades. How it makes me long to see his 48 other films of his that are impossible to track down save as bootlegs (Le Joli mai is on the way to me as I type). Already, he wanes just like his beloved Cheshire Cat.

The Lady Vanishes dir. Alfred Hitchcock

Marker's mid-movie meditation on Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo and that Sisyphean search for perfect memory led me back to the man. I've been grappling the past couple days about why I loved Hitchcock so much as a child. At first I thought it had something to do with the Alfred Hitchcock Presents Nick at Nite reruns that I saw as a child, that iconic silhouette and weird lumbering music intro to his show, his droll, black liquorice humor. That didn't seem quite right though, and then I remembered that I had a complete set of Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators juvenile detective novel series. Could he have been responsible for both reading and movie-watching? And is there any director working today to have that sort of ubiquity to where he is a fictional brand-name, much less a recognizable portrait? Scorsese's Dead End Kids? Wes Anderson's Effete Wilting Flowers?

Despite that childhood fascination with Hitchcock, I have barely built on it as an adult. And I had definitely never seen any of Hitchcock's UK work. With its toy-like opening, The Lady Vanishes evoked the miniatures of childhood, but it still almost lost my roommate and me in the first half-hour, displaying his peculiar brand of humor that makes the movie seem like the grandmother to 1955's The Trouble with Harry. By the last third though, it swerves into some crackling espionage.

Lola dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Will I be able to stand the nine hours plus change of the forthcoming DVD set of Berlin Alexanderplatz? As I seem to be drawn to women who work far too much, surely I can get with a man who his friends deem died of overwork, releasing some sixty films in thirty years.

While a staple of my Existential college courses, I hadn't revisited Fassbinder since then. I have Despair (still unavailable on DVD) and am curious to revisit that, but watched Lola first, a part of Fassbinder's BRD Trilogy. His theatre roots and obsessing over Douglas Sirk comes through in his gels, the characters wading through rooms and courtyards drenched in amber and plum, character faces awash in clammy blues and flustered, almost feverish pinks. What startles me in the commentary (yet explains how he worked so fast) is that Fassbinder insisted on first takes and also emphasised not explaining character motivations to his actors. He believed that just as we move through this farce of a life not quite sure what we're doing or why, so should his actors.