Jim O’Rourke – Simple Songs

Simple Songs

Jim O’RourkeSimple Songs Drag City dc620cd (2015)


Jim O’Rourke has defied expectations his entire career.  His pop albums (Eureka, Halfway to a Threeway, Insignificance, and The Visitor), efforts as a producer, and stint in Sonic Youth garnered him the most attention.  But he stepped away from the limelight and moved to Japan — get the entire back story in the excellent article “Eureka” in Uncut (July 2015)Simple Songs is another pop album, steeped in 1970s prog rock but done up the O’Rourke way.  The music is incredibly intricate.  Hardly a second goes by without some sort of shift in meter, instrumentation, lyrical focus…something.  Yet O’Rourke never makes the music self-consciously weird.  He always keeps the music immediate and catchy.  In a way, this album is a kind of tribute to the music of his formative years.  Though rather than fawning reenactments, he treat the project with unwavering determination, as if he has to earn the right to indulge his favorite pop-rock idioms by putting extra effort into the production.  Lyrically, he is back again with  veiled and not-so-veiled misanthropic rants.  But these are not really mean spirited so much as they are a device to draw in the audience and build a rapport.  Much like trading insults to forge a friendship, O’Rourke alludes to the baseness of humanity, throwing himself in with that ignoble lot too.  While I never formally met O’Rourke, many years ago I was at a concert festival where he played bass in a band and then he stood next to me during Borbetomagus‘ set.  Unlike one of his band members, who played the role of arrogant star, O’Rourke seemed like a perfectly normal guy.  That same normal but talented guy comes through on this record.

Maybe Simple Songs won’t be for everyone.  It is pop/rock music, but of a kind of introverted kind.  But chances are anyone inclined to like this at all will love it.

On Criticism (3)

There is an old saying the newspaper business.  Although it has been formulated different ways through the years, the most concise may be, “News is what somebody does not want you to print. All the rest is advertising.”

When it comes to criticism, there is a real question as to whether it is mere advertising and boosterism, or something else.  In that category of “something else” falls a few things.  One is the insertion of the personality of the critic.  In other words, the critic inserts or attaches himself or herself into the work.  The critique becomes, in part, about the critic.  Another aspect is the reproduction of social relations.  This arises most often through editorial decisions, as published criticism is as much about what is excluded and included within the attentions (or “gaze”) of the critic.  But it also arises through a frame of reference, enforcing certain points of view (or “habitus”).

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Rogue one: A Star Wars Story

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Walt Disney Pictures

Director: Gareth Edwards

Main Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Jiang Wen, Alan Tudyk


This movie is complete garbage.  The main characters are, for the most part, completely unsympathetic and the film hardly ever bothers to explain their motivations.  This (long) film mostly fills in the back story for some minor plot points in the original Star Wars films, with maximum emphasis on melodrama.  Just some examples of the absurdities that abound.  The characters need to get some saved electronic data.  In an era of hyperspace transport, this data is saved on magnetic cassette tapes.  Desperately escaping a villain, the protagonists flee to the roof of the storage facility.  Luckily for them there is a cassette player there that is hooked up to a satellite broadcasting antenna.  (It is funnier/campier when in National Treasure Nicholas Cage‘s character needs lemon juice to read “invisible ink” writings, and he opens a refrigerator to find only a large bowl of lemons).  And there is no meaningful explanation of why Forrest Whitaker‘s character is in the film, or does anything that he does.  Is he just around to draw comparisons to Battlefield Earth?  I have read reviews of this film praising the story and such.  Were those critics watching the same film?  Of course, the special effects are expertly crafted.  Big deal.

Aside from how terrible this film is, it might be worth reexamining it from the standpoint of “socialist realism”.  Obviously, this sci-fi epic is not socialist realism.  As science fiction it does not aim for “realism” as such.  And for that matter, the film engages in the well-known Hollywood trope of showing acts of labor only in conjunction with evil (the evil Galactic Empire that is building a space weapon, using some slave labor no less).  So it isn’t socialist either.  But the genre of socialist realism was at bottom about the critique of bureaucracy.  Isn’t that what the larger story arc here is about (if the melodrama is peeled away)?  It is simply really, really bad socialist realism.  Anthropologist David Graeber wrote The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy and said there are no critiques of bureaucracy anymore.  He’s wrong in that respect, as this film shows.  But like actual 20th Century socialist realism, Rogue One approaches the question from the standpoint of the political center-right (and Stalinism), trying to put a happy human face on a bureaucracy that remains exploitative.  After all, looking at the entire Star Wars franchise, isn’t the vaunted Galactic Senate that ruled the Old Republic just a bourgeois center-right representative parliamentary system based on aristocratic privilege?  What good is that?  In other words, wouldn’t the entire Star Wars franchise be more interesting if there was some third group fighting alongside (and against) both the Rebels and the Empire, but fighting to make the fictional universe different/better than anything the Rebels or Empire put forward — like a secular state (not ruled by the Force and the attendant pagan religious cults) stripped of aristocracy, crime syndicates and such, and instead based on egalitarian principles.  Just take the high technology but advance the social structures through Enlightenment principles.  (Even the TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation did this, in its own way, by introducing the authoritarian Q Continuum and the hive-mind villains the Borg on opposite political flanks of the liberal Starfleet Federation).  So, the problem with this film is ultimately that it takes itself far too seriously.  Its pretensions spoil what would have been a lot more fun as camp.  Popular fare usually works best when it is campy — the essence of which is naive unpretentiousness.  By bracketing the political background of the story as a struggle between the far-right Empire and the center-right Rebels (plus a few tangential warlords and crime bosses who are just small scale versions of either the Rebels or Empire), it fails to have a serious political grounding — lying by omission, in a way, by ignoring a substantial facet of the political field.  But if the film naively presented the political struggle that way, then it could work, with the naivety suggesting/implying the possibility of the missing political coordinates.

Anatoly Shtyrbul – The Autonomous Industrial Colony “Kuzbass”

Link to an article by Anatoly Shtyrbul:

“The Autonomous Industrial Colony ‘Kuzbass'”

Bonus links: Project Kuzbas: American Workers in Siberia, “Descendants of Dutch Colonists Visit OAO Koks,” “From Stalingrad to Kuzbas: Sketches of the Socialist Construction in the USSR,” “The American Industrial Colony in Kuzbass in the Years of 1922–1927”

Tuca – Drácula I Love You

Drácula I Love You

TucaDrácula I Love You Som Livre 403.6046 (1974)


The Brazilian musician Tuca (born Valeniza Zagni da Silva) was an enigmatic figure, these days relatively unknown.  If at all, she is recognized for her collaborative work writing songs for and playing guitar on Françoise Hardy‘s La question and playing guitar on Nara Leão‘s Dez anos depois (both from 1971). There is little biographical information about her readily available in English.  However, Françoise Hardy’s memoir Le désespoir des singes et autres bagatelles recalls how Tuca lived in France in the early 1970s, then, after returning to Brazil, died at age 34 due to complications from an aggressive weight-loss program.  Hardy also noted that Tuca (a lesbian) was infatuated with the Italian actress Lea Massari, who was heterosexual and not interested.  Tuca also had some type of physical ailment that caused body odor (trimethylaminuria? fistula? diabetes? an overactive thyroid?), leading to self-consciousness.  These currents of personal ambition, hope, self-doubt and disappointment contextualize what Tuca’s music was about on Drácula I Love You, her third and final full-length album.

The album was recorded outside Paris at the iconic Château d’Hérouville studio, where a host of well-known Western pop/rock artists made recordings in the early 1970s.  The music is pop, in a way.  Yet it does not fit neatly into any genre categories though.  It draws from the mainstream to more skewed avante-garde rock, melding aspects of Brazilian music — Erasmo CarlosCarlos, Erasmo… and Rita Lee‘s Build Up make somewhat decent reference points — to French chanson and prog rock.  The album’s personnel included co-producer Mario de Castro, plus François Cahen (of Magma) on horn arrangements and Christian Chevallier on string arrangements.  It oddly relies on a lot of acoustic guitar, with sequencing that shifts between spare acoustic passages and elaborately orchestrated ones.  There are occasional electronic effects.  Tuca’s vocals are very androgynous.  She often sings in a lower register than most female singers.

The tone of the album is often despairing and melancholic — recalling La question and Dez anos depois.  But, equally, this has glitzy horns like much Brazilian pop music of the the time.  This is also weird personal stuff, the sort of thing found on lo-fi “bedroom” recordings.  And there are some strange parallels to The Rocky Horror Show (which was on stage in London the prior year) too, especially the way the album cover shows Tuca in what one review described as “Hammer horror-movie glam[.]”  Dracula was apparently “in” for 1974.  Even Harry Nilsson and Ringo Starr were exploring that theme in music and film that year too.

The strange, incongruous juxtapositions of elements and styles hint at what this album really captures so well — the struggle to balance the public and the private, the introverted and the extroverted.  The album’s personality emerges in the way it can’t find any direct expression to capture what it wants to say.  So, instead, there is an oscillation between coordinates that kind of surround its center, its core.  Also, much like Jim O’Rourke‘s “pop” albums from decades later (Simple Songs, The Visitor, etc.), there is a kind of catharsis in the way the music comes together in spite of a conflicted, ambivalent attitude toward conventional commercial success.  Tuca sings and plays guitar with a kind of punky edge, never completely at ease with the grand orchestrations that rise up again and again, persistently returning to raw, truncated guitar strumming and warbled, dispirited vocals.  There are up-tempo songs with celebratory rhythms.  Tuca seems unable to enjoy them.  So she creates her own twisted, downer take on them.  Not speaking Portuguese, the lyrics are a mystery, but the music alone conveys a lot.

A strange album that still sounds ahead of its time.

CAN – Landed

Landed

CANLanded Virgin V 2041 (1975)


The first CAN album to be recorded with high-fidelity 16-track studio equipment, Landed is mostly a glossier take on the same basic format as its predecessor Soon Over Babaluma.  There is a professional slickness in place of the usual relentless ingenuity.  Not a bad record at all, but still a sign that the band’s best days were mostly behind them.

David Broder – Being Anti-Trump Isn’t Enough

Link to an article by David Broder comparing Silvio Berlusconi to Donald Trump:

“Being Anti-Trump Isn’t Enough”

Bonus Quote:

“all the Leftists’ and liberal democrats’ worry about the danger of neo-Fascism lurking beneath Berlusconi’s victory is misplaced and, in a way, much too optimistic: Fascism is still a determinate political project, while in the case of Berlusconi, there is ultimately nothing lurking beneath, no secret ideological project, just the sheer assurance that things will function, that he will do better.  In short, Berlusconi is post-politics at its purest.  The ultimate sign of ‘post-politics’ in all Western countries is the growth of a managerial approach to government: government is reconceived as a managerial function, deprived of its properly political dimension.”  Slavoj Žižek, Revolution at the Gates, p. 303.

Bonus link: “Donald Trump’s Travel Expenses in 10 Weeks Cost US Taxpayers as Much as Barack Obama Spent in Two Years”

The Sonics – !!!Here Are The Sonics!!!

!!!Here Are The Sonics!!!

The Sonics!!!Here Are The Sonics!!! Etiquette ET-LP-024 (1965)


!!!Here Are the Sonics!!! is the quintessential garage rock album. The Sonics’ songs touch on such divine subjects as fast cars, dance steps, and cruel women. The lyrics are wonderfully forgettable and !!!Here Are the Sonics!!! gets by through sheer force of will. It’s actually best that the songs just give way to the frenzied power of the band.  Nuance wasn’t even remotely the point of The Sonics.

The band blasts you away with pure rock ‘n’ roll power. There are no slow ballads here!  Their fuzzy-sounding guitars put a twist on that high energy Little Richard R&B, the big beat rock of Bo Diddley, and the noisy guitar distortion of Link Wray. “The Witch” was the hit single that initially catapulted The Sonics into garage rock lore. It has an eerie organ riff that bubbles under the the driving beat and raucous vocals.  Raw energy and visceral drive are more important to this music than finesse.  This became sort of a template for punk rock a decade later.

Gerry Roslie is a big part of what made The Sonics so special. He did pound out some nice keyboards, but those vocals were something else. The album took some time to record because Roslie could only do so many songs before his voice gave out from screaming. The results far surpassed his abilities on paper.

Though the group only wrote a few of the album’s songs, the covers are certainly not filler. “Do You Love Me” is one of the hardest rockers on the disc. “Have Love Will Travel” takes on hometown hero Richard Berry’s song with extreme passion. The thundering bass highlights the sound that became so important for bands referred to as “post-punk”. Rave-ups of tunes The Wailers’ “Dirty Robber” also help the album cook. Letting these hooligans into the studio to destroy these songs was part of some greater miracle.

This album is one of the most important releases in defining the rowdy Seattle rock sound. The Sonics made music that makes you want to turn the stereo to full power, not because you have to but because you crave more of that sound. Anyone afraid their ears may bleed need but step aside. The Sonics went against the grain and liked it; perhaps so will you.