Sun Kil Moon – Benji


Sun Kil MoonBenji Caldo Verde Records CVCD029 (2014)

Take the most self-absorbed, navel-gazing singer/songwriter you can think of, combine with an “outsider” folk musician who revels in tuneless warbling, then add a hint of alt-country twang (“alt” because it appeals to the middle class more than the working class).  Result: *meh*.  On Benji, Mark Kozelek basically offers nearly stream-of consciousness nostalgic monologues set to repetitive guitar strumming.  Has this guy not heard of “social media” web sites?  Perhaps you have heard the saying, “like singing the phone book”?  Well, this album is pretty much like singing a bunch of obnoxious personal commentaries off a glorified internet message board.  Guess what?  Everybody comes from somewhere.  Everybody has a personal history.  What is missing here is any sort of indication as to why an audience should want to listen to this person’s drivel.  Well, this isn’t that terrible.  There is at least some sort of attempt to be open and honest, in a slightly cheeky way.

PJ Harvey – To Bring You My Love

To Bring You My Love

PJ HarveyTo Bring You My Love Island 314-524 085-2 (1995)

Music of the 1960s had this liberating aspect that promptly died out through the 1970s as the naïve dreams of the previous era withered and self-indulgent excess took over.  The punks came and went, but not everybody paid attention.  The vapid, albeit catchy, pop of the 1980s just coasted by.  Then by the 1990s, the stage had been set for “alternative rock” (whatever that means).  If the moment accomplished anything, it was to reawaken the simmering undercurrents that could be traced back to the 60s–a desire to tear down and cast off the old, and, maybe, reinvent it all–but cast with a deep cynicism and palpable sense of raw anger and frustration.  These things are all over early 90’s alterna-rock, grunge, etc.

PJ Harvey landed in the middle of all this.  She was right there, in the perfect place and time.  Rid of Me was the right kind of rock for its day.  With To Bring You My Love, she transforms her style into something less directly “rock” oriented and more widely informed as rock/blues influenced pop music with a mature sensibility.  It certainly recalls Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds (1994’s Let Love In being a particularly good reference point).

This music rumbles, roars and slinks.  It’s confident.  It just sounds ferocious most of the time.  The opening salvo of “To Bring You My Love,” “Meet Ze Monsta,” and “Working for the Man” are tough to beat with any other album of the decade.

What is great about PJ Harvey was that she introduced this sort of feminist aspect to modern rock.  Her music could bang as hard as anything from the boys, and her lyrical subject matter didn’t pull any punches.  The window for her to seize a major-label contract (and associated distribution) was disappointingly small.  She may have opened doors, but they were slammed shut right behind her.  A few years out, about all mainstream music had time for from women were bimbos singing dance song pap, and variations on that theme.  Yet all the proof anyone should need that it could be done properly is right here.

Air – Air Lore

Air Lore

AirAir Lore Novus AN 3014 (1979)

This has definitely grown on me since my first listen.  It’s now one of my most favorite jazz albums of the late 1970s, with “The Ragtime Dance” and “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” possibly being my favorite songs on the album (though it is hard to choose because all are great).  The only new composition here is “Paille Street”; the others are old tunes by Jelly Roll Morton and Scott Joplin.  The performances make rather unusual choices in melding bits of more traditional styling with more modern improvisation.  But what is most unusual is which bits they update and which bits they leave alone.  The group changes up dynamics, timbres, rhythms, in ways I haven’t ever quite encountered before. One minute you can recognize this as music composed for piano, but the next you can’t.  Curiouser and curiouser.

Bob Dylan – Empire Burlesque

Empire Burlesque

Bob DylanEmpire Burlesque Columbia FC 40110 (1985)

Empire Burlesque first came to my attention when Richard Hell wrote something on his web site about liking it.  While the focus isn’t always on the lyrics — something almost guaranteed to turn off most Dylan fans — the musical backdrop is far richer than on most of his albums.  It does sound a little dated.  But the use of (synth) horns and backing singers works better here than on Street-Legal.  There is a ragged decadence to the music that fits.  It captures well the superficiality and banality of the Thatcher/Reagan era.  The songs evidence contentment, but with questioning, lingering doubt just below the surface.  Something about it all sounds mature.  Plus, for the skeptics, try going straight to the solo acoustic closer “Dark Eyes.”  Can you maybe admit that the young Dylan of the 1960s was still alive and well?  If you can answer “yes” in the context of an overtly “folk” song, then go back to the opener “Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love?)” and “Emotionally Yours” and ask if there isn’t some of the same spark there in a whole different setting.  This album may be reviled by many fans, but it is probably my favorite of the post-Desire albums, edging out Shot of Love and Good As I Been to You.  This might be his best of the 80s — yes even better than Oh Mercy.

13th Floor Elevators – Easter Everywhere

Easter Everywhere

13th Floor Elevators – Easter Everywhere International Artists IA LP 5 (1967)

Strangely enough, Easter Everywhere manages to be a psych-rock classic.  The epic opener “Slip Inside This House” is about as good as they come.  After that, things may seem a little more uneven than the debut The Psychedelic Sounds of The 13th Floor Elevators, but given a little more time this album reveals itself as something just as finely crafted, if even weirder and darker.  Conventional judgment might call this a poor recording, given the tuneless vocals and guitar–and it’s fair to call them tuneless in the sense that they make pervasive forays into atonality–but it’s precisely those elements that make this so very psychedelic.  A cover of Dylan‘s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” (shortened to just “Baby Blue”) winds up being almost as compelling as “Slip Inside the House.”  This feels like all the unexpected and unpredictable energy of the 1960s coming to a head.

13th Floor Elevators – Live


13th Floor ElevatorsLive International Artists IA LP 8 (1968)

A fake live album of studio outtakes with crowd noise overdubs.  The material does actually align with the band’s actual live set lists though.  The thing is, as posthumous releases have demonstrated, they could have released a high quality album of real live recordings.  Not bad for fans, in spite of the pointless canned applause, but casual listeners can safely pass this by.

Alain Badiou – In Praise of Love

In Praise of Love

Alain Badiou with Nicolas Truong (Peter Bush, transl.) – In Praise of Love [Elogie de l’amour] (New Press 2012, Flammarion 2009)

Alain Badiou is among the more vital philosophers alive today.  Not that many care.  He appears in Godard‘s Film Socialisme delivering a lecture to an empty hall on board a cruise ship (Godard insists he listed Badiou’s presentation on the ship’s social itinerary).  It is worth mentioning this because Badiou references the film project in this book, In Praise of Love, but also because the book draws its title from another Godard film of the same name.

Badiou begins the slender — and highly readable — volume critiquing the role philosophers have or have not played in investigating love.  He finds the sexless, lonely philosophers who make up a basic course in the field somewhat poor in experience.

For Badiou, love is about “see[ing] the world from the point of view of two rather than one.”

“[W]hat kind of world does one see when one experiences it from the point of view of two and not one?  What is the world like when it is experienced, developed and lived from the point of view of difference and not identity?  This is what I believe love to be.” p. 22

He calls this a “Two scene.”  It is “the idea that you can experience the world from the perspective of difference.”  It is something more than the concerns of a single individual.

“[Love] is an existential project: to construct a world from a decentered point of view other than that of my mere impulse to survive or re-affirm my own identity.” p. 25

This is a proposition that requires, most fundamentally, a risk.  In his own philosophical jargon, mentioned in the book but also explained in plain terms, this initial encounter is an “event” (a concept he laid out in Being and Event [L’ être et l’événement] (1988)).  An “event” is something that is only authentically possible when it seems to exceed its causes, a rupture in what seems possible under prevailing norms giving rise to a fleeting subjective decision point about how to experience the world.  There is just something likeably good about this thesis.  But even if there might be widespread agreement on this point, for Badiou, it is only a starting point.

Drawing from Arthur Rimbaud‘s line in A Season in Hell [Une saison en enfer] that “love needs to be reinvented” he stresses the need to continually choose to construct the “Two scene”.  This, in Badiou’s jargon, is a “truth procedure.”  In the face of changing events he sees a need to reinvent the “Two scene” in the context of each circumstance, which is to say moving from point to point, to replay the initial declaration and “find the terms for a new declaration.”

“Real love is one that triumphs lastingly, sometimes painfully, over the hurdles erected by time, space and the world.” p. 32

Badiou denigrates the view of love in a typical theatrical play being about and culminating with marriage, the sorts of stories in which the wedding takes place at the end and we are to assume that therefore “love” has been achieved, and is over, complete.  He instead, somewhat provocatively, points to Samuel Beckett as “a writer of the obstinancy of love.”  Perhaps another example beyond those given by Badiou, within the limited range of Hollywood movies, is the film The Five-Year Engagement (2012), in which the main characters initially try to sort out their lives before getting married only to repeatedly choose to view their lives in terms of a being a couple.

Badiou even applies his ideas of love to politics.  He sees it as a way to limit identity politics, and “integrate the most extensive divergences” in a kind of internationalism that permits real equality.  He contrasts that project of “love” with the “reactionary project” that “is always the defense of ‘our values’, . . . as the only possible identity.”  This is his perspective on multiculturalism, and continues his support for secular states in which people of different religions, cultures and ethnicity can live together.

Some of the specific examples illustrating the concepts tackled in the book may be highbrow, or at least very French.  But Badiou frames his discussion of love in terms that are freed from the contexts of his examples.  Badiou’s thoughts on love are at once immediately understandable and uniquely his own.  He is most concerned with what sustains a way of subjectively experiencing the world.  He sees “love” as an important process for doing so that is more than just a one-time declaration, or a finish line.  It is an unstable thing.  This is what makes it so vital.  Philosophy is all about asking better questions.  Badiou is asking questions that confront everyone.  He’s put the question forward in a way that has a curious blend of practicality and theoretical weight.  Curious readers should give his ideas a chance.

Neil Young – A Letter Home

A Letter Home

Neil YoungA Letter Home Third Man TMR-245 (2014)

Neil Young has continued to zig and zag in his later career.  That is the best thing about him.  The obvious gimmick of A Letter Home is that it was recorded with an antique amusement park recording booth more than 60 years old, one never intended in the first instance to produce “professional” quality recordings.  With it, Young records an introduction to his deceased mother and then plays songs of famous songwriters he admires–all ones from eras after that of the recording booth.  The equipment provides a way to focus attention on the performances.  The lack of fidelity, the gaps and clicks and pops, they all impress upon the listener that not everything is captured.  The recording is a partial document.  But the vintage equipment doesn’t allow a conscious selection and control of the final product to the degree assumed by contemporary standards.  The creates the possibility for the audience to wonder what it is really about.  At that point, with the audience properly oriented, Young delivers some rather wonderful performances.  Gordon Lightfoot‘s “If You Could Read My Mind” is the least predictable, and best, of them.  Some Willie Nelson songs, particularly “On the Road Again,” fail to impress to the same degree.  At its finest, A Letter Home has Neil Young not on a pedestal, but somebody hacking away with the sort of materials and technological residues available to anyone else, making a mark only so much and so far as his talents alone permit.  IT would seem they can take him quite a way indeed.

On Criticism (1)

I think I’ll start a periodic series of comments on the nature of criticism.  This is the first installment.

There is a necessity of a multiplicity of meanings.  That is to say, criticism cannot exist from a single perspective.  The point of consulting criticism should be to include a range of possible perspectives.  Meaning, in the sense that criticism engenders, can only be partial.