Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Radiohead’s OK Computer

The great leap forward. Some people prefer The Bends; some OK Computer; some Kid A. But why the need to choose? “In an interstellar blaaaast, I am back to save the universe.” Are we meant to take this as a jubilant expression or one of cynicism? In fact, this album’s overall mood shifts between both and is not the gloomy, sour rock album it’s been portrayed as (though Yorke and the documentary Meeting People is Easy certainly didn’t help fight that image.)
From start to finish, OK Computer sounds unique, but let me be clear. It’s not post-rock; it’s not some advancement of music as a whole; it’s not the key to translating alien languages. Yet, it has an amazing cohesiveness, a pressure, a set of images, a perfect collection of sounds to go with the music. Truly, OK Computer is one of the best albums ever recorded. A band truly pushing themsevles be it with the cut-and-paste drums of “Airbag” or the ethereal guitarwork of “Subterranean Homesick Alien” or the crushing sounds of “Climbing up the Walls.” Of course, those aren’t even the first songs people think of when this album comes up in discussion.
“Paranoid Android” shares DNA with Queen and Pink Floyd and Rush and Led Zeppelin and yes every huge rock band that’s managed to crank out an epic mess of sound and angst that somehow sounds like it all fell out of the band in one jam session. Shifting tempos, shifting keys, the drawly vocals that are of “no consequence at allll” leading to the bright, uplifting “what’s thaaaaaat?” How does a song like this come into being? It’s a lot like creating a diamond, I think: pressure, heat, and time. If you meet someone who’s never heard a Radiohead song before, “Paranoid Android” might not be the best place to start. It’s like this: “You’ve never heard Pink Floyd? Let me play you this song called ‘Echoes….’ and then the entirety of Dark Side of the Moon.” You’ll smash their brains to bits!
Of course, where to begin with Radiohead is always a tough question and one that I can’t answer here easily. But this album has it’s collection of beautiful moments. Think about the crystalline beauty of the guitars on “Subterranean Homesick Alien.” It’s the sound stars make. It’s the injection of alienation, as if we haven’t felt gamma blasting from the album already. Makes sense that “Exit Music [for a film]” follows, since the song compresses the angst into a single point of heat, light and mass, only to let it explode “And nowwwww, we are oneeeeee, in everlasting peeacceee.” We don’t even need to care this is a Romeo & Juliet song, but it certainly helps remind us that Yorke & co. Aren’t soulless, love starved monsters hellbent on depressing the shit out of us. Sure they accomplish that, but what better way to capture Shakespeare’s than to have the lovers smashed into a single point by the end of the song?
Well there’s no time to ponder that, friends, because “Let Down,” one of the most miserably beautiful (or beautifully miserable?) songs just sticks its insect mandibles into our flesh and carries us away. Remember those guitar phrases from “Vegetable” and “Anyone Can Play Guitar”? This is the same kind of element, though here it’s more an arpeggio than a phrase that drives the song. (And confirmation that Johnny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien likely have long alien fingers.) This song is both one that takes off and crashes, fitting both the lyrical and musical imagery of the album. Ultimately we’re crushed like a bug on the ground, yes, but has it ever sounded so wonderful? I dare you to listen to this on a warm spring day. Somehow you’ll end up depressed about how elated you feel, mostly because of Selway’s drums which keep jostling you forward, yelling, “Stay upright! Clap your hands! Clap your damn hands!”
But this enforced jubilation (if that’s even what we should call it) dies right in the maw of “Karma Police” one of the classic Radiohead song constructions. Be calm, be calm, be calm -- NOW PANIC! LOSE YOURSELF! LET THE STATIC ELECTRICITY FLOW THROUGH YOU! 
Now listen to Thom Yorke futzing around with a text-to-speech program. I remember when I first heard this song, way way back, I had to laugh because I used the same program to make my computer say curse words. Yorke did something more profound with it, though I’m 100% sure (despite lack of evidence) he started out by typing in “bollocks” and “arsehole.”
Ok, “Electioneering.” If you are old and decrepit like me, you might know that the original version of this song had a slightly different composition (see 1996 La Cigale, Paris show). And if you spend any time in Radiohead forums, you will see “Electioneering” get jeered by fans who believe it’s not the right fit for the album. Well, that’s all fine. I don’t agree, but people need to have their say. Something about “Electioneering” reminds me of “Ignoreland” from R.E.M.’s acoustic masterpiece Automatic for the People. A politically-tinged song (in both cases) on an album of peaks and valleys. Alone they’re both solid tunes. On the album they certainly seem to stand out, but not because they are the best tunes. Still, “When I go forward, you go backward, and somewhere we shall meet” is a brilliant image, especially for Yorke’s sense of success-caused alienation. He’s said the song is less about politics but the nature of politicking the band was asked to do with labels and fans and managers and strangers. 
If you have quality headphones this entire album shines, but none more brilliantly than “Climbing up the Walls,” wherein Yorke gives voice to insane spirits. The ping that pierces on the right speaker, the trembling sounds beneath the ping -- is that a bass string? A wavering piece of wood recorded and put through Pro Tools? Enjoy the rattle and clomp and the guitar mimicking Yorke’s voice (though a line later than his vocal melody). Listen to the synth before the manipulated strings tear at the left speaker. If Yorke ever wants to blow out his voice, he’ll do it with the climax of this song, the moment where he seems to be channeling Kurt Cobain, of all people, with that last ragged, haunting yawp of “Climing up the Waalllllllls yaaaaaaaaaaaa!”
How does an album keep going after that? It can’t go much further and this is where some debates about the length of this album come into play. Sure the clean, bright arpeggio of “No Surprises” might be the only thing to override the grit and doom of “Climbing” but can an album keep forcing us to turn inside out, revealing our frazzled nerves to the world as Yorke moans about numbness and the suburban nightmare of “a quiet life” and a “handshake of carbon monoxide.” It’s a good question. How much more can we take? We have to take more, though, and while “No Surprises” has the same kind of emotional launch that “Let Down” previously offered, there’s the sense that this is less a reprise and more being caught in the same musical ideas. 
Don’t misunderstand me, this album offers me nothing bad. I hate no stitch of it. I lament no decision. I do not question the tracklisting, the length, the interconnected nature of the lyrics and music. But if this album feels too long to even a vocal minorty (and yes, it does feel long to enough people that I’m ranting here) then this is the reason “Electioneering” gets picked on even though “No Surprises,” “Lucky,” and “The Tourist” melt together into the end of the album and perhaps are the true areas to trim.
Seriously, though, doesn’t the album need “Lucky”? This profound inversion of depression and exuberance? Remember how “Airbag” warned everyone Yorke was back to save the universe? Here he’s feeling a tad less plucky, despite refusing to meet with “the head of state” because he “don’t have time for him.” While “it’s gonna be a glorious day” the fact that his “luck could change” reveals that the day is not glorious by default. Someone else needs to put him out of the aircrash and the lake. “I’m your superhero” but who saves a superhero? Where has that invicible feeling gone? 
This thematic issue is the very reason the album needs to end with “The Tourist.” The slowing down of everything (“The Tourist” moves with a limp, especially when compared to these other closing songs the band’s recorded: “Blow Out,” “Street Spirit,” “Life in a Glass House,” and “Wolf at the Door”). “The Tourist” folds the album around, bringing us round to “Airbag” (because, “Hey man, slow down” that car). More importantly though is the urge for us to slow down. The inspiration for the song was, supposedly, the band seeing a tourist family rushing around Paris. They were seeing things but not enjoying things. In the world of OK Computer, time is out of our control. We’re crushed or in bottles (“Let Down”) we’re suffocated (“No Surprises”) no one believes us (“Subterranean…”) we’re in a plane crash, climbing up the walls, and tied to a stick. We’re one in everlasting peace, true, 

The imagery of imprisonment threads throughout. How do you end an album with such oppressive feelings to remind the listener that there’s some glimmer of hope? You tell them to slow down. So: slow down. 

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)

View all my reviews

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.