Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Review: The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira

The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira by C├ęsar Aira
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

A bit too on the nose by the end for my taste. I like Aira’s explorations but this one felt less fun than THE CONVERSATION or THE LITERARY CONFERENCE. Metafiction can quickly become predictable once you know it’s an option for an author, and maybe this just felt too reliant on the obvious to effect me well. (view spoiler)

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Monday, August 3, 2015

Montage of Heck: the critically acclaimed documentary that’s not a documentary at all.

tl;dr — wrote this when the doc first premiered on HBO, but didn’t post. The portrait of Cobain offered is simplistic and factually questionable; plus the director made it clear he didn’t care about truth, just the art. When Courtney Love takes credit for causing Cobain’s suicide attempt and successful suicide, it’s almost laughable. 
For a more fascinating, nuanced picture of Cobain as a person and as a part of the Seattle music context (both pre- and post-MTV explosion) I HIGHLY HIGHLY HIGHLY recommend Everybody Loves our Town: An Oral History of Grunge by Mark Yarm (on tumblr: grungebook). It covers more than just Nirvana, but obvious they are a crucial part of the history of that city’s rise to music prominence. (See chapters 26 & 32, though even more in that book is essential reading.)


When Brett Morgan’s documentary skipped over Nirvana’s jump from SubPop (for whom they recorded Bleach) to Geffen, I realized I wasn’t going to get what I thought from Montage of Heck. Up until that point I had held out hope that a nuanced picture of Kurt Cobain, the person, would develop. Part of understanding him, in my opinion, involves his experience as a businessman. His relationship to the band members, the managers, the record labels, the club owners, and other musicians all matters. Instead, the focus remains on Cobain’s 2 important romantic relationships, the latter shown through long home video segments. 
Put plainly, Montage of Heck ends up not going off the rails, but revealing that it was not on any rails to begin with
For a documentary intent on showing Cobain as ambitious but tortured by mental and physical illness (stomach issues & eventual heroin use), this film fails to explore the ambition and fails to do more than provide his parents’ vague comments about his childhood hyper activity troublesome behavior, which led to him being shuffled around between family members. 
The band interviews that are shown (from after the band makes it big) offer a relatively tame image of a bored, disaffected singer uninterested in anything except being on stage. But is that an act or real or both? In an article for MTV.com, Brenna Elrich reports that Cobain apparently "talked for hours with journalists even though he said he hated the press”. The documentary shows him quipping a few grumpy one-liners while Novolselic and Grohl handle things with the professional-though-dismissive manner we’d expect from a band that consistently appeased the very media moguls that irked them (i.e., they hate MTV but have multiple MTV performances, videos, interviews and the seemingly timeless UnPlugged performance). While there might not be footage of those chatty interviews, there must be some journalists somewhere willing to talk about them, right? If the documentary not only shows Cobain on camera and grumpy but also provides info about how Cobain might be coaxed into longer conversations, then maybe I’d get a sense of a complex person. One who loves the spotlight or loves talking even if the overwhelming pressure drains him. The doc does stress that Cobain was a hyper kid, so the gloomy adult musician seems like a sad deterioration, but the presentation is very basic “disaffected youth starts band, lucks into fame.” Who was able to get him to perk up? His girlfriend Tracy Marander basically supported him for a year before he moved on and I found that segment compelling (check the link for brief write up of the actual mix tape Montage of Heck, created while Cobain lived with Marander).
I think there are two weaknesses at play: the documentary relies heavily on Cobain’s journals, some of which were already published back in 2002. There are plenty of shots of the pages, some of the pages even get animated by the filmmaker. It’s an interesting aesthetic element but feels like a flimsy Ken Burns-style gimmick. Using them isn’t a problem. Relying heavily on them is. 
The second weakness, and this one is why I think this is not so much a documentary as a montage (get it?!): a striking lack of perspective. 
Most of the things we hear are from his family—a reasonable and necessary and interesting contribution to any portrait of an artist—but where are the other artists? Where are the journalists? What about the music producers who worked with him and had to manage his moods and musical perfectionism? (Perfectionism and slackerism: Cobain reportedly threw together lyrics for some songs last minute, apparently not caring about meaning as much as sound. Meanwhile he labored over lyrics to other songs, apparently caring very much about the meaning.).
The absence of voices is obvious, loud, suggestive, but ultimately unexplained. While Morgan can be heard asking a few questions, a narrator might’ve helped fill in some gaps. 
Let’s consider some of the key absences, as I see them:
Buzz Osborne of The Melvins (aside from his “appearance” via a tape recorded conversation about why high school sucks). He wrote a great review of Montage of Heck which is worth reading even if you LIKE it because it points out why this film should not be used for the factual understanding.  From a Rolling Stone write up, Osborne says:
“Would they feel better if Kurt Cobain did 'fuck a fat retard.' Do they feel better now? Do they feel better if he actually was suicidal? That makes you feel better? None of that's true. I don’t think that's a good legacy for him to have out there. I know it's not true. It's that simple."Read more: h
Plus, Osborne has been critical of the cult of Cobain. Check out this telling, fantastic, and harsh quote from 2013: 
“People have said to me, which I think is crazy, ‘Do you ever get jealous that Kurt Cobain got fame and money?’,” says Osborne. “And I go, ‘Kurt Cobain is f—ing dead. Are you kidding? What are you talking about? You think I would trade places with a dead guy?’ Yeah, I wish I had been more famous, and had more money, and was dead. No, no, no. I win. I win. He doesn’t win. He loses. He’s a major loser. His f—ing loss. He left a baby at the mercy of that woman [Courtney Love]. And, it couldn’t be worse. There’s nothing good about any of that.” 
Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, musician who encouraged Cobain & co. to move to a bigger label.
Pat Smear, who played guitar with Nirvana during the last six months and might have an interesting perspective on Cobain (especially seeing as Smear ends up in Grohl’s band Foo Fighters. Knowing Grohl’s opinions of Love, I suspect Smear would have loads of insight).
Where are the people who run SubPop? Where’s anyone from David Geffen? Where’s their co-manager Danny Goldberg?*
Dave Grohl’s input was apparently not sought until late in the filmmaking, though his perspective can be seen in the Foo Fighter’s documentary (if you can stomach such a thing**). 
When I consider that this documentary might be intended for people who were not aware of Cobain and Nirvana in the early 90s because of disinterest or simply because they were too young, then these missing voices are even more crucial to completing a portrait of Cobain. Watching home movies, looking at journal entries, and listening to Love or Cobain’s parents speak (with no counter-perspective in most cases so who can tell what’s valuable and what’s utter BS), is simply not a complete picture of Cobain as a person. Son and husband, check. Businessman? Musician? Friend? Enemy? 
I know I’m old but I’m also not impressed by a documentary that fails to explore outside perspectives along with Cobain’s own written thoughts. 
Which brings me to something I thought was very odd: 
Cobain’s suicide note. We don’t get to see it. 
I don’t want to hear Love read it. The movie fails to disentangle Love and Cobain for much of the last hour, so ending with her reading it (a recording which exists) would just be one Love-moment too many. But that note, that handwriting, that commentary needs to be included amongst all the scrawled documents that were used because it is his final statement. It is not a conclusion, it’s one of many things he said. Why are his journals more important than his suicide note? His journal are filled with all sorts of silly nonsensical things. I saw the phrase “abort christ” on screen a bunch of times. I saw his love notes. I saw band names, track lists, plans to practice, letters to band members. But I don’t get the suicide note? The last thing he wrote? I don’t get some way to see what he said after seeing all the other stuff? (And yes, I know that the letter can be found online. But if the documentary is meant to literally document Cobain, then the document matters.
Morgan says that there was no way to put a Hollywood ending on the documentary. But what he has done is failed to create any narrative whatsoever. Did he fail to ask the right questions, leading to subpar material? Did he fail to get access to people that might offer more nuance to Cobain the businessman or Cobain the musician who collaborated with a number of people (including Love on Hole’s album)? Did he simply try so hard to avoid repeating what other documentaries and books have covered about the band that he left out aspects of Cobain the person? I don’t know. 


In the end, my response here has more to do with the fact that Montage of Heck been so widely praised even though I see a documentary that fails at its core purpose and fails to add to the scholarship that already exists. If anything, I hope that people are inspired to read more about the Seattle music scene, to understand the context, to understand the way heroin played such a role in a number of musicians’ lives. (If you want a really stark anti-heroin story, it’s not Cobain. It’s Layne Staley, singer from Alice in Chains.) Since it’s meant to be the portrait of Cobain, seeing as Frances Bean gave such access to Cobain’s materials, I’d wished for more than a sketch.
*If I missed any of these people in the documentary, it’s likely because there’s no real attempt to identify places and people clearly. Dates are missing from the shows featured.
**I’m not a big fan of Grohl’s personality and behavior, though his drumming is stellar.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Radiohead Appreciation Post: The Bends

“You can force it but it will not come.” Dear god this album’s sweet perfections. It’s the thing that convinced me Radiohead were making music I’d never heard before but would listen to a million times without feeling drudgery. Listen to the drums and the nearly demonic, menacing synth noise that crashes during the first chorus. “Everyone is...broken.” Yes. Yes. Add on the original title Planet Xerox and you feel how this album begins without any sense of positivity. There’s no chance of “Anyone Can Play Guitar”s Romantic view of Rock. This album was spawned by “Blow Out” and the cynicism of “Inside My Head” (as I said in my post on Pablo Honey: track it down, dammnit!) 

image
Yorke’s lyrics take a huge leap in complexity, avoiding rock cliches and reminding we feeble Americans that there’s a fine line between opaque lyricism and outright gibberish (see: 90s grunge and post-grunge nonsense lyrics). Do I wish some of the lyrics made a bit more sense? Not on The Bends. (Ok, maybe “Sulk” could be a bit less obtuse -- it’s about a serial killer, according to Yorke.) 
The Bends really captures a sense of paranoia and a shifting earth. Does Yorke trust anyone? Even his bandmates? Well, dig through the countless interviews and figure it out. Regardless of the personal demonology, the album does its best to capture the rush towards the age of over-sharing and under-trusting via the still nascent online world (this is the age of CompuServe and Prodigy and AOL). 
“We don’t have any real friends!” Yorke declares on the title track, the band’s first draft of a “Paranoid Android” kind of epic. Hear the imagery, absorb the shifts in rhythm and energy. “I wanna live, / breathe, / I wanna be a part of the human race!” Have you ever played the riff that follows that line? It’s neat, like the perfect leap of a little spider. The whole song crashes down.
But the idea of leaping reappears in the silly little pop song “High and Dry.” Here’s song that often leaves the daredevil suspended, despite the threats of injury that Yorke’s obsessed with in this period (see: “Bones” & “High and Dry” b-sides: “Killer Cars” & “Stupid Car.” Nevermind the imagery of “My Iron Lung”). The simple solo, the verse-chorus-verse setup. It’s not surprising Yorke seemed to despise this song, often introducing it as meaningless and “just a pop song.” In fact, they only played it a total of 81 times between 1994-7. (Perspective: they played “Creep” 129 times and the single “Just” 142 times in that same timeframe. Info from www.58hours.com).

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Anyway, who cares about “High and Dry,” right? This album is all about two tracks: “Fake Plastic Trees” and “Street Spirit [Fade Out].” Right? Well, yes if you’re not old enough to know Radiohead as something other than the publicity shy, MTV-avoiding, press-hating band that they’d become post OK Computer. But this album offers such amazing moments, from “Bones” spiking vocals and gritty guitar along with “I used to fly like Peter Pan! / All the children flew when they touched my hands!”
But still, there’s more and more here. Yes, I extolled the virtues of Pablo Honey, but The Bends is near perfection in terms of pacing both on a song-level and in tracklisting. “Nice Dream” feels like floating on the ocean, watery, soft feeling after the crunch of “Bones.” “Nice Dream” then leads into the upfront guitar mastery of “Just,” one of the band’s most complicated early songs (There’s a thousand chords crammed in there.)
Then, “My Iron Lung,” one of the best songs to hear live. Drink in that metallic, twisty riff that sounds like robot cancer—yes, robot cancer.“The brain / says I’m re-ceiv-ing pain, / a lack of ox-y-gen, / from our li-fe support.” What fresh hell did Yorke experience in his life to obsess about pain and death so much? Oh, just a bunch of hospital visits for his eye when he was a little kid. Just a summer of working at a mental hospital (which would inspire “Climbing Up the Walls.”) Couple of car accidents. I mean, what else do you want from the guy, sunshine? Drinking songs? Leave that shit to Oasis. Radiohead makes the stuff that sounds like art compressed into neat packages. “When the power runs out / we’ll just hum.” Hum what? Pop songs.
But oh, before I hear the wrath of thousands arguing that Radiohead isn’t a pop song writing band, that the albums supersede the beauty of the tracks, before that happens we hear: the soft throb of “Bullet Proof.” What a chilling song featuring Johnny Greenwood’s nearly liquid arpeggios and Yorke’s gentle, haunting prolonged “proooooooof.” And oh the guitar work and the sound of a solemn wind behind it all—it’s perfection. Like a song captured in sap, eventually becoming fossilized. Track down some live versions to hear Johnny Greenwood get all sound-nerdy. (1995 Paris Cafe de la Danse, for one; 1995 Stockholm FM recording for a better sounding one).
We need to fade out, again, though. The pressures and paranoia of the album all get soothed by the tap-tap-tap of the drums and the driving arpeggio of “Street Spirit.” Simple backing keyboards, Yorke’s best vocal performance out of the first two albums, and lyric imagery that still outshines some of their later work. “[tap tap tap] Cracked eggs, / dead birds, / scream as they fight for life; I can feel death, can see its beady eyes.” I always felt like the video for “Just” should’ve been used for this song as it seems like there’s something secret here that is just past knowable. Then again, the original is fantastic too. 

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Review: MARTians

MARTians MARTians by Blythe Woolston
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I read Blythe Woolston, I never know what the main character is going to ultimately do. in MARTians, Z is booted out into the world not only by her school (recently closed to help balance the budget) but also by her mom, who takes off and lingers like a specter. This is a novel seemingly about a world gone awry where consumers rule the show and the forgotten class of workers—some young, some mentally ill, some fully indoctrinated, some whisked off to parts unknown because they can’t adjust—suffers endlessly.

But, really, this is a book that’s really about transitional anxiety — how little high school prepares people for a non-college bound path, how little our families prepare us for complex social and professional relationships, how little we actually end up needing to survive, but how much we lack when it comes to being emotionally healthy, mentally healthy.

A great book, brisk and funny, dark and weird, set in a world that’s got so much depth it made me think we might not be far from what Woolston’s arranged here.

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Sunday, July 5, 2015

Radiohead appreciation post: Pablo Honey (1993)

[Note that links to the album and individual songs are to the Spotify Web Player, which will require you to login to listen. Was the easiest way to link to audio without legal issues.]

Oh, Pablo Honey. It all starts so delicately with the trilling and the swaying rhythm and then the polished distortion before “You…are…the sun and moon and sky are you….” Already, Radiohead’s career long interest in the moon is in our face, but the crucial thing with “You” is that it showcases one of Pablo Honey’s great strengths—the constant, successful shifts between soft and loud. The energy doesn’t even have to change—the soft sections of “You” and “Stop Whispering”—maintain a bouncing element. Don’t you wonder what “Exit Music” on OK Computer would sound like if given the same treatment (not as a replacement, of course, but as an alternate take)?
Who made this silly cover? Where’s Stanley Donwood?!
 Of course, the infamous, beautiful, career-launching “Creep” is the model for many Radiohead songs offering the soft, loud, soft, loud, louder, loudest build-up, which “Karma Police” and other tracks offer in slightly modified forms. Is “Creep” deserving of twenty-plus years of fan-lust, the kind of song that old fans secretly dream will appear on setlists between more the mature songwriting of “Lotus Flower” or “A Wolf at the Door”? Yes. Yes it does. It’s the perfect song of self-loathing, delivered by Yorke’s authentic misery and aided by the chu-CHUNK of the guitar (the noise of which the band admitted was an attempt to sabotage the song during a performance and essentially became the key element. The most fitting sound for a beautiful song about feeling ugly.)

The album’s not without its weaknesses, though, and “How Do You?” is certainly lacking in many areas, particularly lyrical prowess. Now, fans of 21st century Radiohead might scoff and suggest that Pablo Honey doesn’t have much in the way of compelling songwriting, but I suggest people who believe that are bastards. While I agree that “Thinking About You” offers a vanilla verse-chorus-verse structure only made interesting by its frank talk of masturbation while “Ripcord” and “Prove Yourself” do little to break out of basic rock song presentation, there’s much magic to be found in Johnny Greenwood’s guitar work on “Stop Whispering” and “Vegetable” nevermind the nearly-fit-for-The-Bends closer “Blow Out.” Seriously, listen to the whirlwind of guitar noise at the end of “Stop Whispering” or the near-march pounding of “Anyone Can Play Guitar” which, in addition to its uncharacteristically positive lyrical content seems to let the bass drive the rhythm while the distorted guitar drapes over the bass line like wet sheets. When this song starts it suggests a fast-pace as the noise swirl approaches, then the drums kick in, cutting through to set the pace. Perhaps Yorke seems too earnest when he sings about getting to Heaven or yearning to be like Jim Morrison.

But I’m going to set this song up as evidence that the dancing Yorke of the “Lotus Flower” video has always been inside this enigmatic lead singer; it’s just tough to stay positive, you know? Listen to the solo around 2:30 (it’s buried a bit far in the mix, yes, but who can blame the band for that?). Listen to the song fade out, like the tide receding. You still think the album lacks some kind of uniqueness? Something worth returning to? Then listen to the guitar on “Vegetable”—it’s not dependent on chords at all, just a beautiful little string of notes whose repetition barely stands out. It neatly mimics the vocals, adds trills here and there, then dives into a puddle of tidy distortion that gives the song a late-afternoon-in-the-late-summer feeling. And you can’t deny hearing Yorke sing “I’m not a vegetable! I will not destroy myself!” isn’t thrilling. Especially because he doesn’t give that great moment away until the latter part of the song.

Doesn’t this feel more like a Radiohead cover?
At least it’s more in line with The Bends and OK Computer...

This whole album has moments that are not basic chorus moments. It’s not the solos alone that stand out. It’s all about the construction. Listen to the difference in distortion on the solo in “Vegetable” versus the initial, cleaner sound. Listen to how Johnny and Ed O’Brien swirl the sounds around. “I Can’t” has a falsetto-teasing Yorke sing about the doubt of young love. (Or lust, hard to know the difference.) But something about the opening guitar riff, which the chorus and echo (maybe some flange?) has an amazing quality. The song almost doesn’t fit on the album. Yorke’s voice is restrained; the palm-mute-happy guitar; the repetitive chorus—it sounds like a lesser band’s best song. “Even though I try, I can’t.” Yes, yes. Do I need to even mention that the word ‘lurgee’ is a 50s radio show term for an illness? A slow song that relies on guitar-work similar to “Vegetable” and showcases Yorke’s obsession with health issues but also a sense of humor.

Finally, Yorke’s proclaimed favorite song (at least for a while). “Blow Out” has a minimal chorus that leads into noise, pure noise, the kind of composition of sound that would pave the way for the opening track on The Bends and suggests other songs like “Paranoid Android” and “The National Anthem”. But, staying in the moment, listen to that late night sound—the cymbals, the jazzy chords, and the high-pitched PINNNGGGGGG. Where does this song come from in the band’s short history? I think it’s the song that opened up a path in their mind. I think it’s the last song on Pablo Honey because it points the way forward. Sure there’s the chaos and noise of “Anyone Can Play Guitar” and non-album track “Inside My Head” (worth tracking down as it’s more brilliant than half of Pablo Honey). But “Blow Out” is a layered masterpiece that may not sound as great as later songs, but it showcases each band member distinctly. Selway’s drums drive towards the release of the final metallic-tunnel sound of the closing solo. It comes crashing down and I suggest you go right into The Bends opening track “Planet Telex”, because it’s meant to be that way. How could it not be?

Monday, April 20, 2015

Review: Bone Gap


Bone Gap
Bone Gap by Laura Ruby

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



Hard to describe this book without spoilers aside from the setup (which you can read above). Here’s the thing: this is the kind of book that, as a writer, I love because it takes risks but not at the expense of clarity. There are things that will have you wonder what’s real and what’s not, but never (I’d argue) to the point where you forget what you’re supposed to care about. The tricky nature of love both sexual and not gets a pretty substantial exploration here and the reveals are not shock-value variety rather the kind of “wow” moments that are really smart, fascinating, and satisfying.

A great novel about place and siblings and the power of storytelling.



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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Review: Bluebeard


Bluebeard
Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



An unbelievably sly book that manages to tie things together quite well. The final description of the mystery in the barn (no spoilers!) is fantastic and so satisfying. Like most Vonnegut, this book meanders but it seems much more in control (perhaps because it’s a late-career work?) than, say, BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS.

A wonderful book and one that would fit quite nicely as a follow up read to SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE, if you’re someone who has just discovered KV. MOTHER NIGHT is another great read but I’d rank this one a bit higher in terms of enjoyability. Funny, smart, merges art and WWII and self-pity and all sorts of great stuff.



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