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the music is boring me to death

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Okay, so the “write a blurb about every new movie” thing fell by the wayside.  And now that class has resumed—film class, at that—it’s probably not coming back.  Onwards and upwards.

I have class in seven hours and really shouldn’t be all awake and philosophical right now, but I got stuff to talk about.  Stuff that was prompted, initially, by this, a typically excellent Robert Christgau review of an ancient, awesome Suede album that I’ve been playing a lot over the past month.  Particularly that last sentence: “If you think their victories over depression have nothing to do with you, be grateful you can make do with a report from the front.”

As with almost any mention of depression and music, I was reminded of Cat Power and looked her up in the Consumer Guide to see what Bob had to say.  His review of 1998’s Moon Pix gave me pause.  “Slow sadness.  Slow sadness about one’s inability to relate.  And not to audiences.  Hell is other people.”

As an objective description of the content of Moon Pix, Christgau’s words are dead-on.  Which begs the question: is the ability to capture, really capture, what depression feels like artistically worthwhile?  How about laudable?

I don’t know if I have an answer.  But the question matters to me.  For the record, I listened to Moon Pix every day, several times a day, for most of fall and winter 2007.  I was also deeply, tangibly depressed.  The circumstances are unimportant.  What matters is, for the better part of a year, Moon Pix hit me more directly than almost any other work of art has before or since.

Also important is that I can barely stand to listen to it anymore.

Moon Pix is not a tragic album.  The elegant technique of a good tragedy requires a certain amount of psychic energy precluded by true depression.  Instead, Moon Pix meanders.  It gets lost.  It stumbles upon moments of extraordinary beauty and then hurriedly buries them in its ugly sonic landscape.  Cat Power (aka Chan Marshall) is empirically talented, and it’s not as if there isn’t the rare song with hooks to goad listeners along (I like “Metal Heart” a lot.).  But on the whole, it’s not an album I would stick my neck out for, aesthetically.

But where does truth enter into the equation?  Does it enter into the equation?  Because as easily as I can dismiss the willfully difficult production and rationalize away the infrequent moments of pop excitement, I cannot deny how true it felt to listen to Moon Pix from start to finish two years ago.  How “American Flag”‘s opening whine of distortion came to feel like an old friend welcoming me back into the bleak fray.  How the nihilistic closing lines of “Moonshiner” (“I wish we could go to hell.”) seemed less melodramatic than bluntly observant.  How much “Colors and the Kids” could hurt, and how good it could feel.

“Colors and the Kids” is in many ways the focal point of what I’m trying to get at here.  When I was depressed, when everything seemed to move at an unbearably slow clip and the notion that better days lay ahead was laughable, at best, it stirred something in me.  And that something wasn’t unambiguously positive.  One of the myths about depression is that it somehow helps to know that it’s possible to feel better, that other people are out there feeling much, much better than you, leading much, much happier lives than you.  And the same applies to art.  It’s a Wonderful Life is a great movie, but watching it when you’re depressed is like adding salt to the wound.

Listening to “Colors and the Kids” now—which, according to iTunes, I haven’t done since June of 2008—I find much to admire, but at the same time the song practically begs you to turn it off.  Marshall’s voice is so beautiful, so fragile, so hard to listen to that it inspires retreat.  It’s a beautiful day outside, I don’t want to deal with this right now.  The song has nowhere near enough layers to justify its six-and-a-half minute length.  But none of this occurred to me, much less bothered me, when I was sad, sad, sad.  For better or for worse, “Colors and the Kids” and Moon Pix sound like depression, real depression, in all its self-absorbed, mind-numbingly slow glory.

So I do, ultimately, take issue with Robert Christgau’s dismissal of Moon Pix, and his Suede review provides me the ideal framework to express it: If you think Chan Marshall’s failure to overcome depression has nothing to do with you, be grateful you can make do with a report from the front.

For the time being, I’m going to continue not listening to Moon Pix.  But it will be there if I need it again, and that’s no small comfort.


Written by Tim

September 10, 2009 at 1:49 am

Posted in Music

beauteous eurasian hippie

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From Robert Christgau’s review of Bat for Lashes’ Two Suns:

“The opening ‘Glass’ does indeed deploy what a Pitchfork raver designates a ‘strange mix of elements (chamber pop, prog metal, new age—what?) magically coalesced into some entirely new genre that I wish existed and yet still can’t quite wrap my brain around.’  If you suspect, correctly, that this so-called genre is unworthy of your brainlength, Natasha Khan will make you cringe… Grounded or ethereal, Khan has the kind of pretty, proper British accent that young men find fetching when linked to ill-informed mentions of goodbye beds and licking her clean.  She has hitched her modest talent to an art-rock wagon she won’t outpace anytime soon.”

When I first read Christgau’s review the other day, it stung in the way that all good, nasty criticism should: it made me feel like a cliché.  Yes, I’ve been listening to Two Suns pretty regularly since reading about it on Pitchfork last month.  Yes, I think Natasha Khan is kind of hot.  And damn you for calling me on it, Bob.

But, hurt pride and all, I haven’t stopped listening to Two Suns, even though I more or less agree with everything Christgau wrote.  His central complaint, that Khan is “an etherhead, as ill-informed about astronomy as she is about love,” is spot-on, something I’ve been trying to articulate without success since first YouTube-ing lead single “Daniel” back in April.  Her lyrics are almost uniformly awful, vague meditations on the moon and wickedness and heaven that could have been ripped straight from the pages of your average middle school lit mag.  Sometimes, when the surrounding music is weak, the half-baked words crash and burn, taking tracks like “Moon and Moon” and “Peace of Mind” with them as collateral damage.  But more often, and Christgau shortchanges this in his review, the words cease to matter, fading in the imposing shadow of Khan’s frequently brilliant aural instincts.  The lyric booklet makes Two Suns sound like a train wreck.  With music, it’s still a bumpy ride, but one worth taking for the sake of its few fleeting holy-fuck-that’s-good moments.

“Sleep Alone,” the album’s second track, is a good example of this.  Opening with a lonely syncopated twang, Khan methodically adds layer upon layer of unexpected instrumentation (Synths?  Hand-claps?  Backing choir?  Seriously?) and builds her song into a textbook case of art-rock awesomeness: it’s so profoundly un-groovy that it flies straight through grim indie rock no-man’s-land and ends up pretty close to funky.  You want to dance because you have no idea what the fuck else to do.

So I’m not ready to concede this one to Christgau, although I will admit that the album is fading.  When I first heard it, it seemed like a solid 9.  Now, on a good day, it’s a 7.5.  But a 7.5 with moments of 10.0 is a 7.5 worth paying attention to.  Plus, she’s hot.

P.S. Christgau’s review name-drops Joanna Newsom, which led me to this thing of beauty.  An excerpt: “Original is one thing, worth doing another—and if only indie ideologues knew the difference.”  Word.  You’re officially my favorite cranky old man.

Written by Tim

May 14, 2009 at 2:37 pm

Posted in Music

ain’t that close to love?

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It’s funny what paying attention to the lyrics can do for you.  I had a religious experience on the 6 train today just from finally noticing that David Bowie isn’t singing, “I was the young American,” but, “I want the young American.”  This changes everything.

So there I am, eyes glazed over like a drunken hobo, realizing that a song I have listened to several dozen times over the past few weeks isn’t an aggressively catchy piece of American nostalgia but an aggressively catchy work of pointed cultural criticism.  And sweet Jesus, the lyrics: “He kissed her then and there/She took his ring, took his babies/It took him minutes, took her nowhere/Heaven knows she’d have taken anything,” “We live for just these twenty years/Do we have to die for the fifty more?”  “Well, well, well, would you carry a razor/In case, just in case of depression?”

And the last verse, which absolutely destroys:

“I got a suite and you got defeat
Ain’t there a man who can say no more?
And ain’t there a woman I can sock on the jaw?
And ain’t there a child I can hold without judging?
Ain’t there a pen that will write before they die?
Ain’t you proud that you’ve still got faces?
Ain’t there one damn song that can make me break down and cry?

To answer Bowie’s question: probably not, but this one comes damn close.

Written by Tim

May 5, 2009 at 2:52 am

Posted in Music