Lenin – An Appraisal of Tolstoy

Link to an article by V.I. Lenin:

“An Appraisal of Tolstoy”

It seems like one thing Lenin fails to mention about Leo Tolstoy is his remarkable ability to craft psychologically consistent characters.  There are few writers capable of such deeply realistic characters as Tolstoy.  And yet, Lenin’s point is essentially that the steadfast commitment to realism is what dooms Tolstoy in a political sense, in that his failure to step outside descriptive portrayals through realism means that he never really explores potentialities and never really challenges the status quo.

But in another article Lenin made his most basic criticism of Tolstoy, which seems apt:

“Tolstoy reflected the pent-up hatred, the ripened striving for a better lot, the desire to get rid of the past—and also the immature dreaming, the political inexperience, the revolutionary flabbiness. Historical and economic conditions explain both the inevitable beginning of the revolutionary struggle of the masses and their unpreparedness for the struggle, their Tolstoyan non-resistance to evil, which was a most serious cause of the defeat of the first revolutionary campaign.”

“Leo Tolstoy as the Mirror of the Russian Revolution”

“Weird Al” Yankovic – The Essential “Weird Al” Yankovic

The Essential "Weird Al" Yankovic

“Weird Al” YankovicThe Essential “Weird Al” Yankovic Legacy 88697-58543-2 (2009)

Weird Al has forged a career much longer than anyone would have guessed when he first started making parody songs in conjunction with the Dr. Demento radio show.  The essential character of his music has been to appeal to individuals, mostly young men, whose aspirations and expectations extend beyond their realistic chances for social advancement in life.  He appeals to people with more time and (pop) cultural interests than money, whose lives tend to be dominated by people and forces outside their control — his career tracks pretty closely a time when a gap expanded between worker productivity and real compensation and his popularity came when the gap proved to be a real long-term trend (plus his biggest commercial successes were after the 2007-08 financial crash around the time this collection was released).  His humor tends to play on an awareness of the base and trifling nature of consumer pop culture.  It kind of stops there though.  He winks with his audience in making fun of trashy mass media artifacts, all the while resigning himself to the dictates of that mass media and all its whims.  Al’s music kind of resigns itself to the pop culture ghetto, and in many respects breeds dependency on it.

He performed parody songs but also wrote original comedy songs.  Those who like Weird Al best always express a fondness for his originals.  Some of this songs are more medleys of popular songs, done in a novelty manner.  Take “Polka on 45”  (from his second album In 3D).  He does a medley of mostly pop/rock songs played as polkas with his accordion.  This sort of mashup of the “hip”, contemporary pop with passé and all-to-ethnic polka might be compared to some of Robert Mapplethorpe‘s photography, or other such “high” art, but no one does.  Al gets a laugh from the incongruity of throwing the different styles together that normally appeal to mutually exclusive audiences who listen to certain genres of music to separate themselves from the other genres, obliterating those attempts at social distinction.  “One More Minute” (from his third, and maybe best album Dare to Be Stupid) is a retro rock/doo-wop romantic put-down tune in the style of The Mothers of Invention (like “Go Cry on Somebody Else’s Shoulder” from Freak Out!), but pushed to absurdist extremes in its lyrical exaggerations.

Over time, Al kind of got formulaic.  That isn’t to say his music ever got bad.  But the early material was something a little new.  There were no guarantees that it would be popular, any more than a passing fad.  Al’s kind of self-aware musical irony was a way to normalize and humanize the vacuousness of pop culture.  Over time, that seemed less daring and more of a favor to the institutions of the music industry.  There are many stories of celebrity musicians being proud that Weird Al parodied one of their songs.  That sort of confirms Al’s insider status.  This was the same problem the pop/punk band DEVO faced.

Weird Al is kind of a great musician for kids to listen to, because his self-awareness provides good lessons for young people.  Yet adults should, in theory, kind of move on to deeper, more informed critiques of pop culture.  That isn’t to say this music can’t be enjoyed by grown-ups.  It can.  This collection, which was selected by Al himself, if nothing else proves how good Al’s band was, how astute his awareness of the nuances of pop culture was (including which songs were worth parodying), and how his broad humor managed to avoid quickly dated jokes based on easily-forgotten current events.  This particular collection isn’t exhaustive, and it omits multiple albums.  But it still makes a decent introduction to his career.

The Incredible String Band – The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter

The HAngman's Beautiful Daughter

The Incredible String BandThe Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter Elektra EKS 74021 (1968)

Imagine a hippie commune in the late 1960s.  What music is being played? Maybe something like The Incredible String Band (ISB)?

There are a few things that mark basic political differences.  One of the most fundamental is respect for traditions of inequality versus change in the direction of egalitarianism.  This is the best way to look at ISB.  There should be no doubt that they fall on the side of change.  But they argue for change by playing all sorts of traditional music.

The vocals tend to sound completely improvised — with Robin Williamson especially, but with Mike Heron too.  It is like they just read the words off a page and came up with whatever melody they could, on the spot.  That impression gives way to carefully harmonized choruses.  That of course gives lie to the idea that this is all haphazard.  The instrumentation is eclectic, to the extreme.  One minute there are references to Indian classical music, another to christian hymns.  The epic “A Very Cellular Song” epitomizes the jumps between styles — one prominent segment is a rendition of the Bahamian hymn “I Bid You Goodnight (The Christian’s Good-Night).”  It is obvious how the jumps place all the pieces on an equal footing, subverting the sort of rigid hierarchies that go with any one sort of musical tradition.  So a strange thing emerges.  This is music simultaneously drawing from tradition and subverting it.  There is no hint of irony in the use of the traditional elements.  Yet there is no doubt that ISB repurpose those traditional forms for entirely different ends.

The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter is one of the band’s most well-regarded albums.  But this also came along in 1968, just as it seemed like the counterculture was going to transform the world.  ISB played Woodstock the following year — in an off performance.  Of all the hippie-dippy music made in that era, this album is one that really pulls it all together wonderfully.

Of course, this is kind of a middle class rebellion.  It escapes oppression by turning to simple folk musics, an approach summarized as “people wanting to scale back in order to live more balanced lives[.]”  This sort of presupposes the means to break away and create a separate space for this kind of rebellion and escapism.  One reason that the music has an experimental feel that suits the music so well is that the experiments provide “useful models for things that could then be generalized in altered conditions.”

In some ways the follow-up Wee Tam & The Big Huge is a more likable album — perhaps more epic too.  But this is still a great one, from a time when it seemed like a real possibility that the world would really, really change and the good guys might lead that charge.  It may be anachronistic today.  Forty years later that hippie commune — more likely an entirely new one, because that one from the 1960s didn’t survive — would probably be playing the more dystopian psychedelic folk of an outfit like Sunburned Hand of the Man.  Yet ISB is still a shining example of how positive and hopeful music can be that reflects a totally alternative outlook on the world.  Maybe that has lost favor but it is still a compelling vision on its own terms.

“Weird Al” Yankovic – Mandatory Fun

Mandatory Fun

“Weird Al” YankovicMandatory Fun RCA 88843-09375-2 (2014)

“Weird Al” Yankovic is kind of a cheerleader for capitalism.  The cover and liner notes of Mandatory Fun utilize communist kitsch imagery, but that is only to underscore that Al puts himself on the side of the capitalists.  In a way, the title “Mandatory Fun” implies authoritarianism — long associated with communist regimes during the cold war (when Al grew up) — though (perhaps unintentionally) it now connotes both the command to “enjoy” at the heart of modern times in the capitalist world and the competitive imperative to have a faculty with pop culture to seem aware and cultured.  Al himself even noted that the title refers to “an oxymoron that I’ve always been amused by. It’s used a lot in corporate retreats and, I’m told, in the military.”  References to business, corporate and marketing jargon reach a pinnacle in “Mission Statement” (recalling the frankly superior satire on the 1998 episode “Joshua” of the defunct TV show “Space Ghost Coast to Coast,” with a tune reminiscent of Crosby, Stills & Nash folk-rock).  But you might notice the absence of any parodies of socialist realist music on the album — Al doesn’t seem familiar with that music or the cultural forces behind it.

This music tries to use rapport building to win over its audience.  Take Al’s use of the accordion.  He plays the instrument precisely because it is considered passé in dominant culture.  So he plays it anyway, ironically.  This way the audience gets to be in on the joke, so-to-speak.  They are privileged to know that it is not the accepted instrumentation in an era of guitars (still) and electronics.  They can enjoy transgressing the silent injunction regarding the “proper” instrumentation for pop music.

Yankovic’s early work is fantastic, at its best.  It still holds up decades later.  And through the years he has continually proven to be an astute and dedicated observer of popular culture, translating those observations into ironically witty musical comedy songs.  Many of his songs are parodies, but some are originals.  Sometimes the originals are the best ones, like “Sports Song” here, which skewers the vapid, substanceless “us vs. them” hoopla around the big business of sports.  His vocals are set against the sorts of marching band “fight song” music today reserved for collegiate football (and sometimes basketball) games.  Al’s take on sports seems implicitly centered around (American) football, though the way he approaches the mainstream sports culture it hardly seems different from pro wrestling “sports entertainment” with aggressively flamboyant announcers and good guys vs. heels in the ring.

In an episode of the cable TV show “The Big Interview” featuring Yankovic, host Dan Rather commented that Al’s music (and associated comedy) is very good-natured.  This is an easy position to adopt because Al is not really opposed to the status quo.  He jests about the nature of present society, but he never challenges it.  The way he goes about that appeals to the least successful participants in the rat race.  It’s a bid for knowing moral superiority for people who probably aren’t succeeding on other — especially economic and political — terms.  He caters to an underclass that doesn’t want to admit it is an underclass.  With the decline of the power of working people in an age of austerity politics it kind of makes sense that Al’s career has only grown through the years.  Mandatory Fun was the best-selling album of his long career, earning critical praise and awards as well.

Frankly, this isn’t Al’s best.  Much of its commercial success comes from timing.  Yet it’s not a bad album either.  It has always helped that his longtime backing band is pretty great.  Plus when Al parodies songs that are pretty good to start with (like the “Tacky” parody of Pharrell‘s “Happy”) you get most of the benefits of the original song.  But Al has not expanded his palette much in decades.

Ben Terrall – Raw Deals: Challenging the Sharing Economy

Link to reviews by Ben Terrall of the books What’s Yours is Mine: Against the Sharing Economy (2016) by Tom Slee and Raw Deal: How the “Uber Economy” and Runaway Capitalism Are Screwing American Workers (2015) by Steven Hill:

“Raw Deals: Challenging the Sharing Economy”

Bonus link: “Spam & What’s Yours Is Mine, Book Reviews: The Loss of Internet Innocence”

Herbie Hancock – Mwandishi


Herbie HancockMwandishi Warner Bros. WS 1898 (1971)

Herbie Hancock dove into the fusion movement with his Mwandishi sextet on the albums Mwandishi, Crossings and Sextant.  In a way, the group was under the influence of Miles Davis, always operating in sight of Davis’ classic Bitches Brew.  That should come as no surprise given the Davis alumni represented in Hancock’s group.  The sound of Mwandishi is reminiscent of early Weather Report, another Davis-related group.  But if one thing distinguishes the approach of Hancock’s sextet, it’s the way they adapt the equal shares improvisational techniques of The Modern Jazz Quartet to the fusion era.  There is a balance and equality in the performances of all the players, without orderly rounds of solos that divide the group into soloists and accompaniment.  Players comment, add coloring, and drift away almost as they please.  There are hints of the popular funk Hancock’s Head Hunters group would pursue a few years down the road, but those appear just in snippets that arise only to subside amidst the modulating soundscapes.  More so than in the Modern Jazz Quartet’s era though, there is a looseness in the song structures.  The freedoms of the new thing of the 1960s had been internalized to the point where Mwandishi sounds comfortable without linear song progression.  One complaint some may have is the almost troubling closeness of some of this to new age music — a complaint also frequently leveled at Weather Report.  That is probably unfair, given that the similarities are mostly superficial.  In all, this may not quite be a landmark of the fusion era, but it is another good example of how the early fusion era seemed endlessly creative in ways the later fusion era often did not.

Coleman Hawkins – The Hawk Flies High

The Hawk Flies High

Coleman HawkinsThe Hawk Flies High Riverside RLP 12-233 (1957)

Compares favorably with a lot of other well-known hard bop albums of the day: Walkin’, Thelonious Monk / Sonny Rollins, etc.  Coleman Hawkins (whose nicknames included “Hawk” and “Bean”) was the guy credited with establishing the saxophone as a primary instrument in jazz.  Over the years he updated his style, or, as the Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings would have it, kept pace with changing styles without really updating.  In hard bop mode, his music has a distinctly slower tempo than some younger players who first came up in the bop era.  The Hawk Flies High is a good album for someone new to jazz.  It has enough of those qualities that fit the stereotype of a smoke-filled 1950s nightclub to satisfy preconceived notions of a novice latter-day jazz listener.

Calum Marsh – A. O. Scott, Last of the Power Critics

Link to a review by Calum Marsh of the book Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth (2016) by A.O. Scott:

“A. O. Scott, Last of the Power Critics”

Bonus links: High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood (this book details the rise of direct marketing of films since 1975, rendering film critics obsolete for marketing purposes; this is the theory that Marsh implicitly relies upon to say that a critic can’t make or break a work), and Distinction: a Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (much of what Marsh says about the prestige of the “paper of record” follows Bourdieu’s theory)