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July 2006

Music of the Week—July 9, 2006

American Analog Set: Set Free

I keep getting this band’s name mixed up with that of The Monochrome Set, whom I’ve never heard but whose name seems a good fit for this music. American Analog Set’s approach is in some ways the opposite of Calexico’s (reviewed last week): instead of variety and eclecticism they have chosen to take a very limited set of tools and perfect them: softly strummed low guitar strings, bass, light drums, keyboard or vibes unobtrusively filling out the sound, and whispery (but still precise) vocals, all beautifully produced with great space and clarity. The result is a very warm, full, simple sound, and an emotional tone somewhere between subdued and depressed, maybe hearkening back to the Velvet Underground’s self-titled mostly acoustic album. There are almost no “lead” instrumental passages. I suppose you could call it minimalist. The textures and volume are so consistent throughout that the album can almost become ambient music that you can either listen closely to or leave in the background.

The very appealing but very limited palette puts a pretty heavy burden on the songs, and for the most part they carry it well musically—but not lyrically. If every song were as irresistible as the opener, “Born on the Cusp,” the lyrics wouldn’t matter that much. But most of them aren’t quite that engaging, and they need lyrics that are as sharp and focused as the music: a haiku-like simplicity, or something like those famous imagistic poems of William Carlos Williams like “The Red Wheelbarrow.” Too many of these lyrics are merely vague without suggesting profundity, dull, or even annoying, like those of the disappointing “Cool Kids Keep,” which has one of the catchier tunes on the album but whose lyrics are uninteresting variations on an uninteresting theme. Only a few of the songs, like the nearly perfect “Jr,” have lyrics that rise to the level of the music. Occasional crudities don’t help. I’ve taken to skipping the last song, “F*** This, I’m Leaving,” which is pretty but has a lyric which, taken with the title, seem to be an obnoxious sexual ultimatum.

In spite of the weak lyrics, though, it remains enjoyable after repeated hearings, and so deserves:



Me Neither, Mr. Johnson

The New Criterion's blog passes on these remarks from historian Paul Johnson which serve very well for my views on the state of contemporary fiction:
The other week I found myself sitting at supper next to someone called Zadie Smith. I thought her rather snooty, to be honest, but gave a novel of hers a try. Alas! I do not want to dwell in the world of multicultural, multisexual squatters, speaking a difficult argot, thinking alien and (to me) nasty thoughts.
More accurately, I should say my expectations of contemporary fiction. I know there must be good work being done, but time spent searching for it doesn't seem to me a good investment. The Atlantic has quit publishing fiction, which is okay with me since I had quit reading theirs. I think the last one I read was a first-person narrative from a girl with a Helen Keller-type disability. It was, naturally, embittered in tone, and I remember thinking, a page or so in: Before this is over I'm going to have to hear all about her masturbating. Sure enough...

Sunday Night Journal—July 9, 2006

The Round-Earth Conspiracy

I had an unexpectedly hectic weekend that left little time for reflection, but I did manage to write the following letter to the local archdiocesan weekly in response to a rather peculiar letter that recently appeared there:

To the Editor:

I have not read The DaVinci Code or seen the movie, but I've followed the controversy with great interest. And I'm struck by a pattern which I've seen again and again on the part of the book's defenders. They begin by insisting that "it's only fiction," and that the book's critics are being stupid and unreasonable in objecting to its portrayal of the Catholic Church as a murderous conspiracy.

But in the next breath they talk about it as if it were true: they like it because of what it teaches them about history--because it reveals the real Jesus (meaning one who was not the Son of God), because it exposes the Church's suppression of the sacred feminine, and so on.

The letter from Anthony Stojak in your June 30 issue seems to exhibit this pattern, although I admit I'm not entirely sure I understand Mr. Stojak, and I hope I'm not doing him an injustice.

He begins by saying that the book is fiction and that it did nothing to shake his faith in Jesus as the Second Person of the Trinity. But a couple of paragraphs later he is denouncing the Church for slandering Mary Magdalene, notwithstanding that it considers her a great saint, and seeing some sort of unspecified malign intent in the Church's treatment of the non-canonical gospels, ending with the suggestively unanswered question "What were they trying to hide?" He then goes on to suggest that Opus Dei conspired with the Vatican to "lower the ratings" (I'm not sure what that means) of the movie.

So which is it? Are the book and the movie harmless fun, or do they advance plausible accusations of a sinister cover-up perpetrated for nearly two thousand years by the Church? And if you think the Church is hiding something important, why would you trust it to tell you the truth about something as esoteric as the doctrine of the Trinity and as important as your salvation?

If someone made a movie which involved the "fact" that the world is flat and that a sinister conspiracy of round-earthers is responsible for suppressing the truth, it could be a lot of fun. But I would be concerned if I heard people leaving the theater asking each other "What are those round-earthers trying to hide, anyway?"


Music of the Week—July 2, 2006

Calexico: Feast of Wire

I have a serious fascination for the Southwest, partly as a result of a sojourn in Tucson when I was about four: certain images fixed themselves permanently not just in my memory but in my emotions. And maybe the fascination is also partly a result of the Western movies that were popular when I was growing up. At any rate there's a romance that clings to all that imagery, and predisposes me to like Tucson-based Calexico. I first heard them, and of them, when I found mp3s of a couple of their songs somewhere a few years ago (probably at I liked those and filed the name away for future reference. I've actually had this copy of Feast of Wire sitting around unheard for a year or two. Listening to Neko Case's Blacklisted spurred me to bring it to the top of my list.

It's always nice not to be disappointed. This is a wonderful album, constantly interesting in its eclectic variety. A huge array of instruments is involved, many of them played by Joey Burns, who is a major contributor to Blacklisted. I don't know how much sense it really makes to say that the music has a Southwestern atmosphere, but it is certainly very American, with a strong Mexican flavor. There are elements of country (pedal steel), desert-movie atmospheres (deeply reverb-ed guitars), mariachi, electronica, jazz, and even a little dub. The song titles suggest the variety: "Dub Latina," "Attack el Robot! Attack!" "Sunken Waltz." And I don't mean to imply that these are just stunts, or that the album is only a set of effects--it has real emotional power. The only relatively weak spot is the songs, and in particular the lyrics: the songs are certainly not bad, and are better than average for indie rock, but still not quite as good as their settings and performances. With the right set of songs these guys could give us one for the ages (well, okay, the decades): an Astral Weeks or a Revolver. But I'll settle for extremely good.


More info and audio samples can be found at the eMusic page for Feast of Wire.


Sunday Night Journal—July 2, 2006

If I Could Just Touch the Hem of His Garment

That’s a line from an old country hymn, alluding to an incident in Matthew 9, which was part of today’s Gospel reading, and which of course I heard in the New American translation, but include here in the King James, partly because I love this old-fashioned use of the word “virtue”:

And much people followed him, and thronged him.

And a certain woman, which had an issue of blood twelve years, and had suffered many things of many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was nothing bettered, but rather grew worse, when she had heard of Jesus, came in the press behind, and touched his garment.

For she said, If I may touch but his clothes, I shall be whole. And straightway the fountain of her blood was dried up; and she felt in her body that she was healed of that plague.

And Jesus, immediately knowing in himself that virtue had gone out of him, turned him about in the press, and said, Who touched my clothes?

And his disciples said unto him, Thou seest the multitude thronging thee, and sayest thou, Who touched me?

And he looked round about to see her that had done this thing.

But the woman fearing and trembling, knowing what was done in her, came and fell down before him, and told him all the truth.

And he said unto her, Daughter, thy faith hath made thee whole; go in peace, and be whole of thy plague.

Presumably others in the crowd also touched Jesus. That seems to be the disciples’ assumption. Presumably these others also had ills, physical or spiritual, which could have been healed just as the woman’s hemorrhage was. But they weren’t. And why did the woman need to touch him at all? Why wasn’t her faith alone sufficient?

There are two errors which come naturally to the human race regarding our relation to the spiritual, and both are rejected here: the magical-mechanical and the gnostic-psychological. In the first, we suppose that procuring favor from the spirit or spirits that rule the cosmos is a matter of performing certain actions and/or saying certain words. If we make the right sacrifice in the right way, or inscribe the right symbols and pictures in the right medium, or speak the right spell, the powers will do as we ask. The merits of the petitioner are almost, perhaps altogether, irrelevant. Although skill and strength and knowledge may be required, it is not so much a question of goodness as of ritual correctness and purity. At its purest, this approach is simple superstition: it doesn’t matter who you are or what you think as long as you do what’s prescribed, as when I try to cause rain by leaving my umbrella in the car. (I’ll leave aside the question of actual efficacious commerce with evil spirits, who are probably more obliging than God in responding to human requests—in their own way, of course.)

In the second error, the gnostic-psychological, the petitioner or devotee’s state of mind is paramount. Actions may be important for attaining the correct state of mind, but in themselves they are of lesser or perhaps no importance. I suppose a very pure form of Buddhism would be the ultimate form of this: the state of mind itself is what is sought, and its attainment allows one to abandon the physical altogether and forever.

Christians are by nature as susceptible to both errors as anyone else. Catholic and Orthodox theology reject them explicitly, and Bible-based Protestantism certainly ought, on thebasis of this Gospel passage, to see the problem. I suppose most Catholics have seen sacraments or sacramentals approached in a superstitious way. Protestantism, mostly rejecting the mixture of material and spiritual in the concept of sacramentality, can easily take the gnostic direction, most obviously in the tendency to eliminate all physical gestures and materials in worship, but also in a tendency I’ve seen among some fundamentalists to think of faith as a condition of mental certainty, in which they try to make something happen by attaining a perfectly pure conviction that it will happen. The mental traps into which this can lead one are obvious (or ought to be).

This Gospel story implies that neither the physical nor the mental act alone is sufficient. If others touched the Lord, no “virtue [went] out of him,” and presumably nothing happened to or for them. But neither was the woman healed, though she obviously had both the wish and the faith that she could be, until she actually touched the hem of his garment.

The story obviously reinforces the point often made in Catholic theology about the inseparability of body and spirit in the human world, and the need for both to play a part in worship and prayer. There is for us no commerce between souls except through some physical medium, and physical contact is significant only to the soul, whatever its physical effect might be. But I think it's also meant to teach us something a little more subtle, too: that interaction between man and God is an interaction between persons.


Music of the Week — June 25, 2006

Joni Mitchell: Blue

This is a great album. So why don't I like it better?

Let's get that question out of the way first. The fundamental problem is that the personality that emerges from Joni Mitchell's recordings is somewhat off-putting to me. She comes across as the sort of sensitive romantic who's very conscious of her own sensitivity and romanticism and wants you to be as taken with it as she is. And then, on the immediate sensory level, there's her voice, which is very versatile and sensitive but just isn't to my taste--it doesn't touch me emotionally, and there's nothing I can do about that.

Nevertheless, setting those personal quirks of taste to one side as far as possible, I very much see why critics use terms like "landmark" and "watershed" to describe Blue. It's just plain brilliant. The flow of inventive melody never stops, and Mitchell's perfectly controlled voice negotiates their range and complexity effortlessly. And while the lyrics are of a confessional nature that's not to my taste (and they lapse into occasional hippie-isms that now sound dated), they're coherent, articulate, and elegantly and seamlessly wedded to the tunes. The spare acoustic arrangements are beautiful, the touches of backup singing always perfectly placed. To reverse Dorothy Parker's famous remark, for those who don't like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they will like anyway. I have to call it a classic in spite of myself, some kind of Platonic ideal of the female singer-songwriter genre.

Even though it's not on my best-loved list, objectively I have to give it A-

Comments, the spice of blog life

I think I finally have comments configured the way I want them. No more confusion between Blogger and HaloScan comments. I moved all the Blogger comments to HaloScan and turned off Blogger comments, so this should be consistent and stable now--no need to worry if your comments are actually going to make it or not, so bring 'em on. (Actually I have no good idea how many people are visiting this blog--the minimal stats I get from my hosting service leave it pretty obscure.) I also just discovered that Blogger does support post titles, via a check box that had escaped my notice. That had been bugging me because the "Previous Posts" list was just snagging a certain number of characters from the beginning of the post. Now it's nice and neat.