Saturday, January 31, 2009

Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion

The process of reviewing albums is a sordid musical meta-analysis. I know this description is somewhat of a mouthful—and somewhat pretentious—but then again, so are most record reviews. To that point, the introductory paragraphs often say very little about the actual content and sound of the album in question. Instead, the critic usually spawns a bombastic preamble that parades his knowledge of the musical frou-frou, like back-stories, geographies, hype, shticks, stage names, gimmicks, concept art and perhaps musical forefathers. If the critic gets around to mentioning musical influences, and the band is of an indie rock persuasion, he will of course mention whether or not the album is the Pet Sounds of the Aughts. And for all of this, Merriweather Post Pavilion, the ninth effort from Brooklyn-based Animal Collective, is the critics’ darling. They’re pontificating about the album, yes. But strangely, they actually seem to be enjoying the album—and enjoying it with abandon. With charming rashness, they’re already saying it’s the album of 2009. And I agree.

It’s true. MPP lends itself perfectly to the over-intellectualizing that inflates and aggrandizes music critics’ professions. Perhaps it’s Animal Collective’s elusion of current musical genres that allows critics to show off their knowledge of categories and subsequent sub-categories. Sure, the vocal harmonies of Noah Lennox (aka Panda Bear) and Dave Portner (aka Avey Tare) on MPP sound hauntingly similar to Brian Wilson’s and the rest of the Beach Boys on their pop opus, Pet Sounds; but it’s inadequate when classifying the strange beast that is Animal Collective into its appropriate genus and species. And they adore that. So, they might mention how Animal Collective’s style flits about freak folk, electronica, drone, ambient, jamband, tribal, soul, avant-garde, surf, gospel, dance, minimalism and pop all at once. Yet Animal Collective is not the sum of these parts, reviewers have noted; they are gestaltists. They are, in fact, creating a new sound.

Strangely, this showy wordsmithery that usually is tainted with pompousness is instead teeming with wonder, amazement and glee. At times the critics just seem plain giddy. It’s as if they were teenagers again and their older sisters just handed them Sgt. Pepper’s or Tommy for the first time. It seems like they’ve returned to listening to the music just for the love of it. I mean, it certainly says something that these professional musical elitists are declaring MPP to be the album of 2009 in the middle of its first month. Even though some of the critics are aware of their over-excitement, they still proceed with their praise. In his review of MPP, Tom Whalen of No Ripcord almost acts if he is betraying his musical rep by giving it glowing accolades along with everybody else:
MPP will surely hold steady as one of 2009's touchstones, one whose exclusion from lists of year-end-bests would represent a more profound gesture than its inclusion. Yet here I am, haplessly enveloped into the nebulous realm of "universal acclaim," kicking my pebble of praise at the foot of the imminent mountain…
And at this point, eleven days after its official release, Animal Collective does not need to go the mountain of “universal acclaim,” for reviewers are building one at its feet, pebble by pebble. I have counted and skimmed hundred of reviews: most of them are saying that the album is currently unparalleled. Naturally, however, there are dissenters who do not share the same unabashed adoration. These skeptics seem to fall into two camps: those who plainly do not like the album for its sometimes cacophonous excesses and those who to not like the album because they pine for the dissonant, unique band that Animal Collective once was. Now, I can't really address the former group: if a person doesn't like an album, she simply doesn't like an album. However, I can speak to the latter group. So here it goes: Come on. It's ridiculous to dislike an album simply because it is somewhat poppy and more accessible to a larger audience. Buck up.

For me—and this is where I conclude my drawn-out introduction about the critics' response and get on with it—pop is the necessary component to this album's brilliance. It is the newest element to their sonic palate. Yet, I wouldn't call their new sound "pop," per se, just like I wouldn't unambiguously dub their past efforts freak-folk or dance. Instead, pop is the specter that haunts MPP. Some might say that the structure of the two-minute pop song limits the potential of the whirs, drones and yawps of their avant-garde foundation. But no. I believe their sound comes to fruition with its defined structure. Granted, the album is markedly different from their back catalogue, such as the unbridled, guitar-driven experiment, Feels. And, it is certainly a departure from Brian Weitz's (aka Geologist) amelodic, textured ambience that drove Sung Tongs. They will never again create another Strawberry Jam or Here Comes the Indian or any of the other albums because frankly, they themselves have changed and matured. They have wives. They have families. And they sing about it. Just listen to the lyrics of the stand alone single, if there were to be one, "My Girls":

Is it much to admit I need
A solid soul and the blood I bleed
With a little girl, and by my spouse
I only want a proper house

I don't care for fancy things
Or to take part in a precious race
And children cry for the one who has
A real big heart and a father's grace

I don't mean to seem like I care about material things like a social status
I just want four walls and adobe slabs for my girls

You can hear Noah Lennox's filial pride when he sings those fun, simple hooks in a song that about settling down. But, just because he uses melodic pop hooks, does not mean the music isn't expansive, or authentic. Similarly, just because he wants a home for his wife and child, doesn't mean he's past his creative prime. Is it so wrong to want a house? Is it so bad to make popular, accessible music? I would hope not.

Settling down and family, then, are the noble themes that ring throughout the entire album. And although "My Girls" will probably be the track that people shout out at shows, there are multiple songs that others might call their favorite that share its sentiment. On "Brother Sport," Noah lends some advice to his depressed sibling: "Open up your, open up your/Open up your throat/And let the all of that time/All of that time, all of that time go". He might be saying," sing, dammit. Don't let your mind get muddled by your circular thoughts and what dad said. Live your life." On the opener, "In the Flowers," Dave sings of his wishes to be home with his wife instead of touring in some European countryside, watching some kid euphorically dance about. On "Summertime Clothes," they sing of the simple, cathartic desire to "walk around with you." Taken without context, these lyrics and sentiments might seem somewhat boring and naive. But the marriage between these emotions and the explosive sound environment of their talent instead conveys wisdom and a sense that they've weathered a lot. It's is if they're saying, it's OK to want to go home; it's OK to rely on your family.

Perhaps I'm just projecting all of my current emotions onto the music critics' reviews. Perhaps I'm just identifying with a small sliver of the MPP's intended theme, as well. Perhaps not. Regardless, I enjoyed reading the responses to the album for the unbridled praise and excitement. It's a good feeling to like music without reservation, addendum, or caveat. It's good that I haven't followed Animal Collective since the beginning. It gives me freedom to enjoy their music. It's as if this album boxed me in the ears and shouted: "You love listening to music. That doesn't make you more unique or better than other people. Remember when you didn't care how popular a band was? Remember when you didn't care if other people from your town knew about a band first? This is an awesome album... and that's it. Go ahead, dance in your car to it. Go ahead, tell your friends how much you like the album. Go ahead, tell your acquaintances to go out and buy it. It's just music. It's brilliant, but it's just music." So, based on the fact that Merriweather Post Pavilion reminded me of my love of music upon the first listen and that it seems to have affected many other music elitists the same way, I would say that it is the best album of 2009. And without legitimate proof or backing, I would say it's the best album of the decade.


I'm writing this blog because I don't want to write my graduate school application essays. They're due in a matter of hours and....well, let's say they could use some work. It's not that I haven't been working on them. I have been hacking away at them, at a rate of roughly twenty words per hour, for the last week. My coup de grâce is that finished or not, I will have to submit them by tomorrow.

I was lamenting my procrastination on Twitter when a friend sent me an article by Stanford Philosophy Professor John Perry entitled "Structured Procrastination." Perry's main argument is that procrastinators can get a hell of a lot done. It's just a matter of ordered self-deception:

The key idea is that procrastinating does not mean doing absolutely nothing. Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things, like gardening or sharpening pencils or making a diagram of how they will reorganize their files when they get around to it. Why does the procrastinator do these things? Because they are a way of not doing something more important. If all the procrastinator had left to do was to sharpen some pencils, no force on earth could get him do it. However, the procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important.


The trick is to pick the right sorts of projects for the top of the list. The ideal sorts of things have two characteristics, First, they seem to have clear deadlines (but really don't). Second, they seem awfully important (but really aren't). Luckily, life abounds with such tasks. In universities the vast majority of tasks fall into this category, and I'm sure the same is true for most other large institutions. Take for example the item right at the top of my list right now. This is finishing an essay for a volume in the philosophy of language. It was supposed to be done eleven months ago. I have accomplished an enormous number of important things as a way of not working on it. A couple of months ago, bothered by guilt, I wrote a letter to the editor saying how sorry I was to be so late and expressing my good intentions to get to work. Writing the letter was, of course, a way of not working on the article. It turned out that I really wasn't much further behind schedule than anyone else. And how important is this article anyway? Not so important that at some point something that seems more important won't come along. Then I'll get to work on it.


The observant reader may feel at this point that structured procrastination requires a certain amount of self-deception, since one is in effect constantly perpetrating a pyramid scheme on oneself. Exactly. One needs to be able to recognize and commit oneself to tasks with inflated importance and unreal deadlines, while making oneself feel that they are important and urgent. This is not a problem, because virtually all procrastinators have excellent self-deceptive skills also. And what could be more noble than using one character flaw to offset the bad effects of another?

The problem with applying Structured Procrastination to my life is that I have a Twitter and Tumblr account, black holes that can suck up hours of time, especially when there is a task that is more important. Which is every task.

Cory Doctorow might have the antidote in his essay, "Writing in the Age of Distraction."

The jury's still out.

Obama Gives Keynes His First Real-World Test

Article here.

A short NPR article on what you should know about the stimulus package -- essentially the masterwork of the radical, arrogant, sex-fiend Keynes -- and why it could save us here in America.


Thursday, January 29, 2009

More on Updike....

Updike and the Affirmation of the Ordinary Life

Brook Allen's obituary in the Wall Street Journal provides an interesting account of Updike and Christianity as well as what we might call Updike's affirmation of the (American) ordinary life, shedding light on why many despise the writer.

Way back in 1997, the novelist David Foster Wallace publicly gloated over the senescence and impending demise of John Updike, Norman Mailer and Philip Roth -- "the Great Male Narcissists who've dominated postwar fiction," pre-eminent chroniclers of "probably the single most self-absorbed generation since Louis XIV." Panning Updike's latest novel, "Toward the End of Time," Wallace castigated the grand old man as a "Champion Literary Phallocrat" and asked whether this could finally be the end for the magnificent narcissists.


Yet while always awake to his species' shortcomings, Mr. Updike evinced a spiritual tranquility that has been distinctly unfashionable in intellectual circles over the past century or so: he was probably the most untortured of all our major writers. A church-going Protestant, he had a world picture that featured not only the looming presences of sex and death, which are undoubtedly his major subjects, but the indispensable activities he once summarized as "the pleasures of parenting, the comforts of communal belonging, the exercise of daily curiosity, and the widely met moral responsibility to make the best of each stage of life, including the last." He deplored "today's easy knowingness and self-protective irony" while gently mocking "religious aristocrats, for whom God was a vulgar poor relation with the additional social disadvantage of not existing." His most explicitly theological novel, "In the Beauty of the Lilies" (1996), came as a surprise to those who thought of Mr. Updike solely as the prophet of suburban adultery.

His easy acceptance of Christianity has irked critics who seek a more strenuous, antagonistic religious stance from their great writers. The formidable James Wood has taken issue with his "strange theological serenity": "Surely John Updike is the least tragic of major writers, and of all theological writers, one of the most complacent. . . . For him the world does indeed seem to exist as a divine visual gift, and as a consolation or reassurance, rather than a proof."

True words perhaps, but how much of an artistic limitation does this constitute? It may put him below the level of a Melville or a Milton, but it is what makes him so uniquely Updike, and the ability to communicate the world's "divine visual gift" is not to be sneezed at. Mr. Updike's precise, elastic prose, its joy, its unexpectedly baroque adjectives yoked with the most banal objects and images, turn the ordinary into the extravagantly artful. Only Nabokov, with "Lolita," mined mid-American trashiness for gold with as much success as Mr. Updike did.

The "Rabbit" novels -- "Rabbit, Run" (1960), "Rabbit Redux" (1971), "Rabbit Is Rich" (1981) and "Rabbit at Rest" (1990), followed by the novella "Rabbit Remembered" (2001) -- constitute a consummate literary transfiguration of the commonplace: "The tetralogy to me," Mr. Updike commented, "is the tale of a life, a life led by an American citizen who shares the national passion for youth, freedom, and sex, the national openness and willingness to learn, the national habit of improvisation. He is furthermore a Protestant, haunted by a God whose manifestations are elusive, yet all-important." The car-dealership, the Florida condo, the basketball court, the unseemly heaps of junk food that make up Rabbit's banal world are described not with contempt, in the manner of today's hip ironists, but lovingly: They are beautiful because they are part of this infinitely beautiful life.

Updike Reflects on His Death

Today, the New York Times printed the following poem by John Updike, from his forthcoming collection, “Endpoint and Other Poems."


It came to me the other day:

Were I to die, no one would say,

“Oh, what a shame! So young, so full

Of promise — depths unplumbable!”

Instead, a shrug and tearless eyes

Will greet my overdue demise;

The wide response will be, I know,

“I thought he died a while ago.”

For life’s a shabby subterfuge,

And death is real, and dark, and huge.

The shock of it will register

Nowhere but where it will occur.

On Tradition

David Brooks's most recent editorial is a piece called, "What A Life Asks of Us." It's a pretty nice summary of my qualms with much of the avante garde and the current intelligentsia and states more succinctly and neatly what I would say in response to Jason, in our never-ending argument. (Brooks also appeals to Ryne Sandberg, which never hurts.) Here's the editorial in its entirety:

A few years ago, a faculty committee at Harvard produced a report on the purpose of education. “The aim of a liberal education” the report declared, “is to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances, to disorient young people and to help them to find ways to reorient themselves.”

The report implied an entire way of living. Individuals should learn to think for themselves. They should be skeptical of pre-existing arrangements. They should break free from the way they were raised, examine life from the outside and discover their own values.

This approach is deeply consistent with the individualism of modern culture, with its emphasis on personal inquiry, personal self-discovery and personal happiness. But there is another, older way of living, and it was discussed in a neglected book that came out last summer called “On Thinking Institutionally” by the political scientist Hugh Heclo.

In this way of living, to borrow an old phrase, we are not defined by what we ask of life. We are defined by what life asks of us. As we go through life, we travel through institutions — first family and school, then the institutions of a profession or a craft.

Each of these institutions comes with certain rules and obligations that tell us how to do what we’re supposed to do. Journalism imposes habits that help reporters keep a mental distance from those they cover. Scientists have obligations to the community of researchers. In the process of absorbing the rules of the institutions we inhabit, we become who we are.

New generations don’t invent institutional practices. These practices are passed down and evolve. So the institutionalist has a deep reverence for those who came before and built up the rules that he has temporarily taken delivery of. “In taking delivery,” Heclo writes, “institutionalists see themselves as debtors who owe something, not creditors to whom something is owed.”

The rules of a profession or an institution are not like traffic regulations. They are deeply woven into the identity of the people who practice them. A teacher’s relationship to the craft of teaching, an athlete’s relationship to her sport, a farmer’s relation to her land is not an individual choice that can be easily reversed when psychic losses exceed psychic profits. Her social function defines who she is. The connection is more like a covenant. There will be many long periods when you put more into your institutions than you get out.

In 2005, Ryne Sandberg was inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame. Heclo cites his speech as an example of how people talk when they are defined by their devotion to an institution:

“I was in awe every time I walked onto the field. That’s respect. I was taught you never, ever disrespect your opponents or your teammates or your organization or your manager and never, ever your uniform. You make a great play, act like you’ve done it before; get a big hit, look for the third base coach and get ready to run the bases.”

Sandberg motioned to those inducted before him, “These guys sitting up here did not pave the way for the rest of us so that players could swing for the fences every time up and forget how to move a runner over to third. It’s disrespectful to them, to you and to the game of baseball that we all played growing up.

“Respect. A lot of people say this honor validates my career, but I didn’t work hard for validation. I didn’t play the game right because I saw a reward at the end of the tunnel. I played it right because that’s what you’re supposed to do, play it right and with respect ... . If this validates anything, it’s that guys who taught me the game ... did what they were supposed to do, and I did what I was supposed to do.”

I thought it worth devoting a column to institutional thinking because I try to keep a list of the people in public life I admire most. Invariably, the people who make that list have subjugated themselves to their profession, social function or institution.

Second, institutional thinking is eroding. Faith in all institutions, including charities, has declined precipitously over the past generation, not only in the U.S. but around the world. Lack of institutional awareness has bred cynicism and undermined habits of behavior. Bankers, for example, used to have a code that made them a bit stodgy and which held them up for ridicule in movies like “Mary Poppins.” But the banker’s code has eroded, and the result was not liberation but self-destruction.

Institutions do all the things that are supposed to be bad. They impede personal exploration. They enforce conformity.

But they often save us from our weaknesses and give meaning to life.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Painting with Words

I knew John Updike as an author.  I remember him as a force of art.

John Updike once described an elderly Edward Hopper as painting as an “old conjurer… calling up images with hardly a glance out the window.”  I’d like to use that notion to recall Updike.  With nary a glance to his work, I can feel the caress of his words upon the page. 

There are critics who are to be quoted stating, in jealousy, that Updike was not a good steward of his profound poetic gifts.  Though at times it may ring true, that the message of his stories rarely matched the strength of his prose, time after time Updike captured the soul of what he was describing, showing us, in ways unthinkable without his tremendous gift, how we might imbue our brushes were we artists painting the world.

Updike ends his commentary on Hopper, an artist he critiqued late in life, by wishing he could rush back and examine one last time all of his works and find a “final word torn from the depth of what Henry James may have termed “the so beautifully unsaid”.”  As Updike yearned to snatch at something vital felt, or just unsaid, in a lifetime of another’s work, so we, the immediately bereaved, are initially compelled to turn back and rediscover his writing, we settle for casting our thoughts inward and reflecting on the impression he has left on us.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Selling Advertising

Lovely Package seems to have taken over FFFFOUND! recently (which I suppose is better than the occasional smattering of stuff that looks like it's been pilfered from Deviant Art.) In looking at the non-descript, but well-designed packaging, I was reminded of a passage from DeLillo's White Noise, which I'm currently reading, in which the main character runs into Murray Siskind, a former sports writer turned professor of cultural studies, at the supermarket:

We ran into Murray Jay Siskind at the supermarket. His basket held generic food and drink, nonbrand items in plain white packages with simple labeling. There was a white can labeled CANNED PEACHES. There was a white package of bacon without a plastic window for viewing a representative slice. A jar of roasted nuts had a white wrapper bearing the words IRREGULAR PEANUTS. Murray kept nodding to Babette as I introduced them.

"This is the new austerity," he said. "Flavorless packaging. It appeals to me. I feel I'm not only saving money but contributing to some kind of spiritual consensus. It's like World War III. Everything is white. They'll take our bright colors away and use them in the war effort."

Who's the better bar band?

Andrew W.K. or The Hold Steady? I suppose it depends on the sort of bar you're at....but I might go with the Hold Steady. I mean, just listen to "Stay Positive."

[It has since been pointed out to me that NPR's Sound Opinions makes a similar claim. I've been beaten, again.]

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Innauguration Poetry, or I will now read my poem in the style of a filibuster

This past Tuesday, I found myself where I find myself every weekday: manning the phone at the front desk on the industrial side of a staffing agency (I will write more on the joys of this soon). No one had come in to apply, which I attributed to people staying home to watch inauguration, but I had given up hope on seeing it. The streaming video coverage was lagging terribly, probably a by-product of everyone else trying to watch the event while at work. Then one of my co-workers turned on the TV that we normally use to screen videos instructing applicants not to stick their hands into machines, let hazardous chemicals touch their skin, grope co-workers, or make quid pro quo remarks ("This is a Latin phrase meaning 'This for that'.") I'd get to see the inauguration, after all.

Then, just after Biden was sworn in, people being confronted with the horror of life by Biden's hair-plugs decided they needed to get a job. The lobby was suddenly full, and I found myself scuttling back and forth to the copy machine, copying IDS and handing out applications. I was only able to hear a minute or two of Obama's speech, and then I had to go back to work. By the time the crowd dissipated and I could return to watching the innauguration, Elizabeth Alexander was reading her poem, "Praise Song for the Day." I hadn't read her poetry, but I recognized her from the inside cover of The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks, which she edited for the Library of America. (I smugly noted this fact to a co-worker, who obviously didn't care.) Here's the video of Alexander reading the poem:

My excitement at seeing poetry read to millions of people and broadcast to hundreds of millions more soon dissipated. I noticed a few things:
1) The poem is pretty mediocre, at best.
2) The reading of the poem is poor...even unpleasant.
3) CNN, probably in an effort to lend Alexander credibility, has labeled her as "Yale Professor" instead of "Poet."

Over at the New Republic, Adam Kirsch has a very insightful analysis of why Alexander's poem was bad, and more so, why, unlike the Romans, modern poets can't write official poetry. Some excerpts:

In our democratic age, however, poets have always had scruples about exalting leaders in verse. Since the French Revolution, there have been great public poems in English, but almost no great official poems. For modern lyric poets, whose first obligation is to the truth of their own experience, it has only been possible to write well on public themes when the public intersects, or interferes, with that experience--when history usurps privacy.


The contemporary poet who set out to write an official occasional up the privacy in which modern poetry is born, without gaining the authority and currency that used to be the advantages of the poet laureate in Rome or England. Her verse is not public but bureaucratic--that is to say, spoken by no one and addressed to no one.

"Praise Song for the Day," the poem Elizabeth Alexander read this afternoon, was a perfect specimen of this kind of bureaucratic verse. There was an extraordinary burden of expectation attached to Alexander's poem; I don't recall Maya Angelou or Miller Williams, the poets who read at Bill Clinton's inaugurations, getting the kind of attention that Alexander received in the last few weeks. The reason, I think, is that Obama's inauguration was just the kind of event that might inspire genuine poetry: it was that rare moment when the public intersected with the private for good instead of evil. And of course, Obama himself has often been cast as a "poetic" figure, thanks to his eloquence and the appeal of his image. Last January, E.J. Dionne wrote that Obama represented poetry to Hillary Clinton's prose, a contrast that became a standard trope of the campaign.


[P]oetry is a matter of having your own words, not of having words for others; and the weakness of Alexander's work is precisely its consciousness of obligation. Her poetic superego leads her to affirm piously, rather than question or challenge. This weakness is precisely what made her a perfect, an all too perfect, choice for inaugural poet. Indeed, in "Ars Poetica #1,002: Rally," published in 2005 when Barack Obama was still just a first-year Senator from Illinois, she already imagines herself lecturing a crowd with inspirational banalities:

I dreamed a pronouncement

about poetry and peace.

"People are violent,"

I said through the megaphone

on the quintessentially

frigid Saturday

to the rabble stretching

all the way up First.

"People do violence

unto each other

and unto the earth

and unto its creatures.

Poetry," I shouted, "Poetry,"

I screamed, "Poetry

changes none of that

by what it says

or how it says, none.

But a poem is a living thing

made by living creatures...

and as life

it is all that can stand

up to violence."

This poem, written for a book and not for an inauguration, is already public in the worst sense--inauthentic, bureaucratic, rhetorical. So it was no surprise to hear Alexander begin her poem today with a cliché ("Each day we go about our business"), before going on to tell the nation "I know there's something better down the road"; and pose the knotty question, "What if the mightiest word is ‘love'?"; and conclude with a classic instance of elegant variation: "on the brink, on the brim, on the cusp." The poem's argument was as hard to remember as its language; it dissolved at once into the circumambient solemnity. Alexander has reminded us of what Angelou's, Williams's, and even Robert Frost's inauguration poems already proved: that the poet's place is not on the platform but in the crowd, that she should speak not for the people but to them.

But perhaps we shouldn't be too hard on Alexander. If Robert Frost couldn't do it...well, good luck.

update: Apparently you can already order the poem from Amazon. They sent me an email about it today: "As someone who has purchased or rated books by Gwendolyn Brooks, you might like to know that Praise Song for the Day: A Poem for Barack Obama's Presidential Inauguration will be released on February 6, 2009." No thank you.