December 27, 2002

I don't usually measure a review's success according to whether it makes me want to investigate the work being critiqued; I figure that if I'm not convinced, it's my problem, not the reviewer's. But there goes Glenn McDonald again, piquing my interest in something regarding which I'd hitherto only had the scantest amount of curiosity.

December 24, 2002

Here, friends, is Southside Callbox Issue Eleven, the 2002 year-end wrap-up. Knock yourself out.

Last night one of our fine Boeing aircrafts dropped me rather violently into the asphalt fields of LaGuardia Airport. Thank heavens, I'm back in NYC.

Flying wears me out. Not just being in a plane, but the whole tedious thing: lugging bags around, standing in long lines, eating awful fast food, waiting for one thing or another, waiting for the fuckos in front of me to grab their carry-ons and coats from the overhead so I can leave (or board), the crying babies, the tiny seats and lack of elbow/leg room, the flight attendants who come around with the sodas and measly bags of pretzels that will keep passengers busy long enough to divert their attention from the "World's Deadliest Plane Crashes" show they saw on cable the night before.

Two days of my trip were lost to Delta Airlines. The rest of the time I was visiting a relative in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was okay blah silver and turquoise jewelry blah blah mountains and high desert blah blah green chiles on everything, even bagels. Impressive and freaky the first day, monotonous by the third.

We drove around a lot; we got out to Santa Fe twice and had terrific (New) Mexican food at the Shed (we went there on both visits -- spicy carne adovada and green chile stew the first time, posole stew and and mixed green salad the second). I was promised that New Mexican food would beat the pants off of anything passing itself off as Mex cuisine in New York, and although what I had at the Shed and Albuquerque's Los Cuates (where I was introduced to the wondrous sopapilla, a sweet fried bread similar to the East Indian poori) was first-rate, I thought it was as good as the best authentic Mexican food I've tasted in Manhattan.

On the ride back from our second visit to Santa Fe, I was feeling a little tired of the endless sprawl of dust and rocks. I only brought a dozen or so CDs with me, not too much that would qualify as "mood music," but the one album I'd played so far that brought out the middle-of-nowhere time-stops-dead nature of the high desert was, surprisingly, Big Star's Third/Sister Lovers. Surely it's a long way from early-'70s Memphis to noughties Albuquerque, but both environments can be equally disorienting, throwing a stranger out of her known continuum and on to an expansive monochromatic plateau -- this one with petroglyphs, Spanish signs, and fast food chains she's never heard of. But so anyway, on the ride back from Santa Fe I pulled out the Clash's live album From Here to Eternity from the CD case in my bag. And I was jolted out of the exhausting dream-plateau -- I see the Clash as the badass outlaw victors of a nineteenth century cowboys 'n' Indians showdown, and that's exactly where From Here to Eternity took me. If a private musical revelation can be the highlight of a trip, that was it.

I believe in fate and all that. It's interesting how I can look back at certain events in my life, and with present affairs in mind the past makes sense. It's more than hindsight; it's piecing a puzzle together. Earlier this year, I was visited in NYC by a North Carolina friend who really loved the Clash (his band had done a Clash tribute show, in fact, with my friend in the Joe Strummer role). I had found out that Strummer and his new band the Mescaleros were doing a five-night stand at St. Ann's in Brooklyn the same week Will was in town. But for whatever reason, I held off on buying tickets. That weekend, the night before the Saturday show (the last show of the Brooklyn engagement), we went to Irving Plaza to get our tickets. We needed three: two for us, one for another friend. We were told that there were only two tickets left. Well, okay, I bought mine, and Will stepped aside so we could discuss the ethical considerations and potential repercussions of going to see Strummer without his friend. We finally decided to get the one remaining ticket and figure it out from there. But when he got over to the box office, that last ticket had just been sold. Of the three of us, I was the only one who got to see the concert. I felt terrible (I offered to sell him my ticket, but he refused), but I went and had a great time. I'd never seen Strummer before; I felt lucky that I'd been able to catch that final Brooklyn show, since I was pretty sure he wouldn't be back this way for a long time.

Yesterday morning, around 6:30, I woke up and turned on the hotel TV. I was bleary-eyed and not paying much attention to the nonstop MSNBC news crawl at the bottom of the screen, but my eyes were there long enough to see the slow procession of letters that spelled out "JOE STRUMMER, FRONTMAN OF PUNK ROCK BAND THE CLASH..." (at which point I gulped and said "Oh no, please tell me he's not dead") "...DEAD AT 50." I shrieked so loud I woke up my mom, who was sleeping in the adjacent bed. She was afraid terrorists had blown up New York while we were away; when she learned that it was just another headline about a dead rock star, she went back to sleep. I was shaken, though, and the lack of information about his death freaked me out even more. I thought about my friend, who'd lost two of his other punk heroes, Joey and Dee Dee Ramone, within the past two years. And I felt yet another pang of guilt that the St. Ann's ticket went to me instead of him -- but I still believe that there was significance in my procurance of the next-to-very-last ticket for the very last time I'd ever get to see Joe Strummer on stage.

But the New Mexico trip had some good parts.

-We got to cross the border into Arizona. (Classic because I have a running tab of the U.S. states I still need to visit, and setting foot into Arizona, no matter how briefly, means I can strike a line through that list entry. Dud because all I really saw was a store called "Indian City," a roadside megamart of Native American tchotchkes -- replicas, actually, like cheap slingshots made for kids, and Indian headdress with hot pink synthetic feathers, and ceremonial kachina dolls, mass-produced for tourists. There were dozens of these stores along the way. The hand-painted, rustic-looking signs on the road every few feet reminded me of the signage in New York's Catskills region, where you can still see advertisements for farmstands, ghost resorts, family-owned businesses, and summer camps.)

-We got to see the Tesuque, NM mountaintop estate belonging to my mother's boss and his wife -- she's an art collector, and every cranny of their house is filled with Southwestern art, some of it ancient and quite authentic. Their caretaker showed us around; the tour ended with a brief trip through the backyard "sculpture walk" out to the estate's piece de resistance, a gazebo perched on the edge of a steep cliff with a knockout view of the mountains and valleys.

-On New Mexico's Turquoise Trail, there's a remote mountain town called Madrid. It was a ghost town until intrepid hippies took it over in the early '70s, and most of those hippies are still there today. It's a tiny village with a population of some 300 residents; word has it there's no running water. But there's a bed & breakfast, a bookstore (where I picked up a used copy of Nick Tosches' excellent Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock 'n' Roll), and a coffee shop where tourists can buy the usual t-shirts and hot sauces with cute names. I liked Madrid much more than the self-conscious Santa Fe (the Georgia O'Keeffe museum was the straw that broke the back of my boredom threshold).

-Gallup, NM is almost entirely Navajo. On our drive through, we listened to the radio station of the Navajo reservation, which played Native American music (some rock and country, some native-language folk/religious music) and advertised local businesses (the DJ kept reminding a contest winner to "come pick up [his] space heater within the next five minutes"). We stopped for lunch at Furr's, a cafeteria chain similar to the Morrison's restaurants of the South. The first thing we noticed at Furr's was that we were the only white people in the restaurant; everyone else was American Indian or Mexican. That particular intersection was pretty much it for a hundred miles in terms of places to eat and shop, so the weekend pilgrimage (coupled with the last-minute holiday rush) caused a massive traffic jam. It took us 45 minutes to get off the highway and into the nearby Furr's parking lot.

We saw two movies in Albuquerque: Gangs of New York and Far From Heaven, both of which we liked a lot. I overheard something funny in the theater for Far From Heaven. A middle-age white woman was sitting behind my dad and me. A few scenes into the movie, she turned to her friend and asked a question in reference to the film's supporting character -- a thirtysomething, educated black man that many foot-in-mouth liberals would stoop to call "articulate" (a/k/a "Sidney Poitier syndrome"). I've had conversations with people about this phenomenon -- the case of the one or two nonthreatening black entertainers it's okay for suburban white housewives to coo over. There's one man, one Oscar-winning black actor from recent years, that always gets brought up when my friends and I joke about these matters.

The actor in Far From Heaven wasn't anyone famous; no one I'd seen before and certainly no one a non-moviebuff would be able to place. But the woman behind me tapped her friend on the shoulder and whispered audibly into his ear, uttering that very same textbook example:

"Is that Denzel Washington?"

Later that night, when my dad and I saw distinguished (and, it must be noted, black) correspondent Ed Bradley on CBS' 60 Minutes, I asked, "Is that Denzel Washington?" We erupted into side-splitting laughter for the next ten minutes.

December 16, 2002

Heading out of town for a bit; when I return next week I'll have new Freezing to Death posts for you, and a fabulous Southside Callbox End-of-Year issue (hey Nate and Matt, get cracking on those lists). My Best Albums list is already online; I'm also working on a Best Singles list and some kind of written wrap-up of the year in music. Since everyone's caught up in listmania, here's a preview of my Top 50 Albums of 2002, complete with commentary on the top ten. I doubt I'll regret too many of these choices, but I'm already remembering things I left off. Enjoy, and happy holidays.

December 13, 2002

I've mentioned it elsewhere, but it's on my mind again: this word called angst. It seems like the chicken-scratch of a humorless 19th century Viennese psychiatrist, a term denoting a grave spiritual malaise, a suicidalist's soulsickness. Its usage became especially popular in 1990s rock criticism, following a timeline from Kurt Cobain to Tori Amos to Billie Joe Armstrong to Alanis Morissette to Korn to the Dismemberment Plan -- suddenly, "angst" was a catch-all for pop-punk poutiness, jaded cynicism, and any sort of earnest emotionalism or apparent unhappiness. Female singers were particularly "angsty" -- but the emerging nu-metal and emo contingents, both male-dominated, were also described as such.

I've come to loathe the term. It's terribly patronizing, this glib one-fell-swoop dismissal of everything that isn't placid and cheerful. Even when it's used as a compliment, it really isn't; it's so reductive that it takes people's serious concerns and cheapens them to the level of a histrionic teenage melodrama.

Detractors of the pop singer Pink have faulted her for her angst (once again, their word). I wasn't exactly a fan of Pink MkII, but I knew where she was coming from -- a tough, sarcastic, sexually ambiguous misfit whose inability to be anything other than herself often made her wish she was capable of being someone who fit in. I understood that, even identified a little; I just found her lyrics clunky and her music softrocky and too freaking average to accompany someone so individualistic. I thought her angst was the best thing about her, but I wasn't prepared to go all the way with her simply because she had a nice voice and a few good one-liners.

Well, "Don't Let Me Get Me" finally got me. I still find it problematic for the same reasons as before ("irrita-ting" is irritating, so is "damn Britney Spears," so is the production and session-man blandness), but there's that one line, that one crucial line she repeats throughout, "I'm a hazard to myself." And it occurred to me: This was a huge hit. Six-year-old girls are singing this, girls who are still a half-dozen years away from junior high school, puberty, identity issues. Whether it's a good song or not, it's probably making a lot of parents nervous. Britney's "Baby One More Time" left its masochistic "hit me" double-entendre open to interpretation, but Pink's song doesn't pussyfoot: It shows its subject after years of ritual psychological trauma (self-inflicted or otherwise), at the point where she doesn't wanna be hit baby one more time, she wants to sublimate her way out of being the punk ass bitch made fool, "to be somebody else" (literally) instead of relishing the pain. Britney's pain is titillating and exotic -- tourism in the neurotic underworld -- Pink's is like a mean, nagging mother who haunts her dreams and constantly chips away at her self-esteem. So a mother would have a right to be nervous, I reckon.

The more I think about "Don't Let Me Get Me," the more complex and troubling it gets -- and the more insulting "angst"'s contemporary flippancy becomes.

December 12, 2002

My two picks for Bootleg of the Year: Go Home Productions' "I Dream of Pussy," in which Khia's "My Neck, My Back" is mashed up quite skillfully with the I Dream of Jeannie theme music, and "Work It Out With a Foxy Lady," where Beyonce throws down with Jimi Hendrix. (Thanks to Oh, Manchester for the tip.)

December 11, 2002's Scott Woods reviews the latest installment of Da Capo's Best Music Writing series (and alludes to the future of rock criticism with a short list of web sites and "invaluable" music blogs, including mine).

December 10, 2002

Meet Erik Visser.

This past Sunday I performed with a choral society I've been singing with for a few months. The show went really well, much much more successfully than I'd anticipated. This is one of the better groups I've sung with -- there's certainly more of a love for the art/craft of choral music, and the director is very capable of describing the sounds he hears and the ones he'd like to hear. But I was concerned that we weren't ready. John's directorial technique clashes with my own concepts of how to teach a piece of music to a group -- he goes through things bit by bit, neglecting whole sections and focusing on single lines until he gets the exact result he wants, while I'd like to make sure the chorus feels the mood of the entire piece and understands how A and everything in between connect to Z. I love details, but I also love feeling familiar and confident with the material, enough so to put my apprehension behind me so I can concentrate on what my voice needs to do. Even towards the end of rehearsals, there were sections we'd only gone over once or twice, where we were trying to focus on diction and phrasing while straining to sight-read the passage. It was a little humiliating being berated for our incompetence in front of the orchestra and world-class soloists during the eleventh hour of the second dress rehearsal.

We're a decent group, but any group is bound to have its strengths and flaws. If I were a choral director, I'd do my best to be aware of those quirks and lead the group accordingly. If a particular criticism, repeated ad nauseam, is not improving our performance, maybe we're not going to improve in that area. But what are we good at that we can be great at?

American singers tend to value prettiness over phrasing. We're brought up to think that classical singing (opera especially) is hammy and gay, and many of us just want to be like the pleasant, high-alto, dynamically monotonous pop stars we've heard on Top 40 radio all our lives. Also, Americans have a habit of Americanizing everything -- I learned this when I studied foreign languages in school, that the kids who rolled their Rs and put lilts in their vowel sounds were ridiculed for caring too much, so eventually all the students went back to mumbling the oral assignment in their native dialects. I see this happening with my choral society now; whenever John says "There is no 'ihn' in the Latin language, it's pronounced 'een'!" the singers retain it the first time and inevitably revert back to the Anglicized pronunciation. I wish vocalists would let go of this weird fear they have of what they perceive as pretense. Still, I don't see this changing; it's too ingrained in our subconscious.

We have another concert this Sunday, at a different church. The acoustics at Old First were fabulous -- high, arched ceilings, perfect for voices to bounce off of. The Grace is nice, but it may not save us from our imperfections; the sanctuary is small and rather boxy, and I'm not sure how well our sound will travel. I hope we don't get drowned out by the orchestra (seated right in front of us). I'm terrified, of course. I was terrified last week, too. I've forgotten how nerve-wracking live performance can be.

December 06, 2002

Analog Roam's Kenan Hebert has a nice piece up at Glorious Noise, speculating on the magic of Motown and criticizing the new Standing in the Shadows of Motown for paying tribute to the Funk Brothers and Berry Gordy and Holland-Dozier-Holland in an insultingly flaccid, antiseptic way. Haven't seen the movie yet, but I suspect my reaction would be the same. The only thing I take issue with here is Hebert calling out Joan Osborne for being "far too white" -- this statement is loaded with stereotypes about the social codes and characteristics that make someone culturally "white" or "black," and he's wrong for assuming/decreeing that Motown is (not merely historically, but by definition) an exclusively black institution.

December 05, 2002

Surely it's becoming increasingly passe to discuss '80s metal's infiltration of noughties chartpop, but it's fascinating to watch older erstwhile celebrities slouch towards "relevance" using a music that means virtually nothing to the crucial kiddiepop demographic. It makes me wonder -- are artists like Celine Dion (who recently covered AC/DC's "You Shook Me" on VH1's Divas Las Vegas with Anastacia and soft-rocker Meredith Brooks) aiming for the same market as those admen who've figured out how to use cred-rock to trigger impulses in deep-pocketed newly-forty kollektors? Because those consumers aren't the ones who listened to Celine Dion in the '90s, and why would they start now? Have has-beens and their publicists become canny enough to know that if you dangle these kinds of carrot sticks in front of rockscribes and students of the pop sociology, WE WILL EAGERLY ACCEPT THE BAIT, even if it's not good (especially if it's not good)?

I bring all this up because Charmbracelet, Mariah's new one, has a cover of Def Leppard's "Bringin' on the Heartbreak." The fact of the cover is hardly a shock; it's part of its moment; whatever. And it's not as if Carey isn't a bit of a music geek herself -- her records have paid tribute, in varying degrees, to Keith Jarrett, the Emotions, and the Tom Tom Club.

But something interesting's going on here. "Bringin' on the Heartbreak" was a hit for Def Leppard in 1981, but it's certainly not their most famous song. As a piece of nostalgia, it seems to refer more to the era (the point at which the tame extreme of the NWOBHM converged with prom-chintz peddlers like Air Supply) than the band (populist summer-of-'87 glam-metal for Anglophiles and Archies fans). Still and all, it's a schmaltz ballad. And Mariah Carey is a schmaltz balladeer. For me, this is the great turnaround from the days of Vanilla Fudge, whose hamfisted emo-sludgenik takes on the quieter-but-no-less-hamfisted "You Keep Me Hangin' On" and "Some Velvet Morning" (songs that were, arguably, hard-rock/psychedelic BEFORE those wiseasses covered 'em) were either considered very novel or very mediocre.

Her cover is not "metal" really if you wanna get semantic -- it fits in well with the rest of the conservative elevator-soul on Charmbracelet -- but the original isn't particularly metal either. If you want (and I do), extend the definition of "metal" to include things like "November Rain" (this isn't entirely dissimilar), metal's farthest outpost and the place where the genre finally puts down its devil fist and admits that heavy rock and AM Gold and country and emo and chartpop and gospel are all just the same type of bad, gushy music.

December 04, 2002

I'm still enjoying my Mixerman fixes over at ProSoundWeb, and I'm glad the diary is giving me a reason to keep coming back to PSW every few days. Elsewhere on the site, as I learned today, is TapeOp's interview with Roger Moutenot, who produced a particular favorite of mine, Yo La Tengo's I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One.