As I’ve been reading Behan plays, I started to think about the challenge that actors must have learning dialog, especially if they are playing a large part in something. The way that my mind works I have trouble remember song lyrics, especially to cover songs, so I can’t imagine the work that must go into learning the dialog for an entire play. I also was thinking of the TV show Deadwood, where they often would get pages of dialog the day of a shoot, due to creator David Milch writing dialog often up until the very last minute. (Deadwood is one of my favorite shows ever. The dialog is really complex. At times it is like Shakespeare with swearing. Actor Ian McShane, in particular, would have to give whole speeches, soliloquies sometimes, that he had only gotten the morning of the shoot.) So I decided to google what actors do, in hopes of learning tricks to make learning song lyrics easier for myself. Out of the articles I read, I found the one that follows the most interesting, not only because it interviewed stage actors in Chicago, but also by total coincidence it talked about Deadwood and how those actors dealt with Milch’s writing style. Here is the article:
Contains a small spoiler for the latest episode of Mad Men.
It’s been raining the last few days in Austin. My writing production has been slow. Ideas can only be dispersed if you are busy collecting them. Prepare to be inspired as David Milch says. Last night I had one of those rare nights where you watch TV all night and everything is inspiring. I watched The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Werner Herzog’s batshit insane My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, and the latest episode of Mad Men. I have been slowly picking my way through the book version of Under the Skin and James Joyce’s Dubliners. Musically I have surprised even myself by becoming obsessed with Kanye West, especially his new album Yeezus.
Although I’m not far along enough in Dubliners to comment upon it, many of these works deal with the idea that the modern world creates the wrong kind of dreams in one way or another. We are searching for a connection all while being told by the dominant society to crave material things that bring us no lasting happiness. The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology dealt directly with these themes. Mad Men and the work of Kanye West both explicitly deal, in different ways, with the world of the material, but also both show its shortcomings. The Herzog movie dealt with a character who searches constantly for something to cling to only to finally be driven to complete insanity.
If you are a fan of Mad Men than this review of this week’s episode over at Salon is really good: http://www.salon.com/2014/05/26/mad_men_finale_recap_the_moon_belongs_to_everyone/
I’ll leave you with lyrics from Mad Men’s Bert Cooper’s strangely delivered farewell song. On one hand they can be seen as too sentimental. However, in the overreaching story of the show they seemed powerful to me:
“The moon belongs to everyone.
The best things in life are free.
The stars belong to everyone.
They gleam there for you and me.
The flowers in spring, the robins that sing.
The sunbeams that shine, they’re yours they’re mine.
And love can come to everyone. The best things in life are free.”
I’m bereft of ideas today. That is why I put up the Chuck D quote and the George Carlin transcript. Since August of last year I have put up over 500 posts. Maybe there is nothing less interesting than the topic of lack of inspiration. However, I will try my best. One of my favorite quotes of all time is George Orwell’s, “A man that gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.” I have used that before and probably will again. From the outside one may view putting up 500 posts on a blog as a serious work ethic. Perception is everything though. I’m sure there are people who have put up more. And I know the truth: I can only post when I feel inspired. Without feeling some kind of energized inspiration I simply cannot write anything. It comes and goes like the wind. If I do occasionally write something without that inspiration it is muddled and I would kindly call it dogshit.
Wouldn’t the person with the serious work ethic push on without that light bulb going off over their head? Sometimes it strikes me as laziness when I sit around waiting for that idea to formulate. Where does inspiration come from? Is some form of inner chemical stimulus? Is the long hard grind of gathering information and waiting till your mind can tie the disparate ideas together? Is it some kind of divine gift that is given to you at the whims of the muse?
The writer of Deadwood, David Milch, talks about how one has to be, “prepared to be inspired.” He means that you have to do all the homework, but that when you sit down to write you need to let the inspiration take over. Although we can do all the work in the world, reading books, listening to records, taking long walks, listening to albums, going to an art museum, in some ways, no matter what actually causes it, we are at the mercy of the muse.
I’m not knocking hard work, but to some degree we should be humble for inspiration is a gift. Two people could do the exact same amount of work and only one of them would end up with the inspiration to create something of value. Those that think they are great for creating something are either deluded or lying. They got lucky. Inspiration touches some people on the shoulder in the same way that a sword touches someone that is being knighted. Sure they might have done some things to get there, but they were also shaped by outside forces. They were born with the right mind or face, at the right time or place.
The above link is to the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930. This was also known as the Hays Code and I mentioned it in the previous blog. The first two things it says are: “If motion pictures present stories that will affect lives for the better, they can become the most powerful force for the improvement of mankind
A Code to Govern the Making of Talking, Synchronized and Silent Motion Pictures. Formulated and formally adopted by The Association of Motion Picture Producers, Inc. and The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Inc. in March 1930.”
I think it is funny that the code talks about how, “White slavery should not be treated,” and that, “The use of the flag shall be continuously respectful.” So I’m guessing that you could show black slavery, but you dare not show any disrespect towards the nation’s flag while that slavery is underway.
There are all kinds of absurdities in this document. Again, this was 1930 so the times have of course changed. Most of the things that were discouraged in motion pictures back then are now pumped into peoples’ homes on a daily basis.
David Milch, which I alluded to in the last blog, talked once about how the idea of the western hero, the man of few words, was created because of this code. I’m going to paraphrase a good bit here. Basically what he talks about is how the heroes in westerns were prevented from talking like they often would in lawless towns of the 1800’s. In the movies they couldn’t swear or say many other things that are and were part of regular everyday dialogue. So in order to have them not speaking in clean and unmanly terms, the filmmakers of that era just decided to not have them speak much at all. That is how a sort of mythic American hero came to be. He didn’t come out of history, but out of a set of rules governing pictures during a time when a lot of the templates for films were being created. Again, this is largely me paraphrasing, but you get the idea.
I’m against censorship of any kind. Just like with this code, often you will get absurdities in what gets censored and what does not. We often see this now on TV where swearing is censored on mainstream television (less and less all the time of course), but someone can kill a hundred people in an action film and no one will bat an eye. Often what is censored depends on who is in power.
That being said it is perfectly legitimate to have a conversation about what is worthwhile viewing and what damages the culture at large. I see a great deal of reality TV as promoting casual cruelty and meaningless consumerism. Basically things that make the world go round. I would never want to see any of this stuff censored, but I feel that it is ok to talk about how this kind of programming debases the humanity of the people participating in a lot of these shows and also desensitizes the viewer to absurd behavior.
It’s easy to get angry at the participants of these shows. But most of the people in these shows are just trying to survive by making a quick buck and aren’t very smart to begin with. It’s really the TV executives and people that prosper far greater than the participants that make sure that even when one of these shows fail that there is another one to replace it. They are cheaper to produce than a lot of other programming and make too much money when they are successful. They also function much like the modern day versions of the Roman Coliseum. Give the people bread and circuses and they will be entertained enough so that they can escape the drudgery of their daily lives. There is less likely to be rioting in the streets this way.
I’d be lying if I said that some of these shows aren’t entertaining on a base level and that I never watch them. It’s all too easy to occasionally get pulled downstream by a fast current. However, I do try to keep that thing to a minimum. I don’t do this because I have any kind of intellectual or moral superiority over anyone, it’s just that I know that I’m as susceptible to giving thumbs up or down in the entertainment coliseum as anyone, so I try to keep my distance. I’d probably get addicted to cocaine if I ever tried it, so I just don’t.
Meanwhile a show like Deadwood, which features a great amount of swearing,nudity, and violence, can only be shown on pay cable. However, I would argue a show like this could teach someone more about American history than many of the shows on the History Channel. It deals with how a society structures itself. It also deals with the powerful forces that shaped American culture. This show was cancled after three seasons, but American Idol goes on.
Although many people on the right and left disagree about what is causing it, most agree that there is some kind of decline in our culture that is going on. Although there are some things that can’t be shown in mainstream TV, or said on the radio because of decency standards, there isn’t much anymore. This is because the only thing that seems to really matter anymore is what makes money and what doesn’t. The right wing religious people and the PC left can rage all they want, but if something makes a buck it will eventually make its way onto the airwaves in one way or another. Until we decide as a country that money isn’t the thing that matters most, the floodgates will remain open. The only vote that counts anymore is one that is made with the almighty dollar.
I just got the book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee for Christmas from my girlfriend. In the past I’ve read Hampton Sides’s amazing Blood and Thunder and S.C. Gwynne’s extraordinary Empire of the Summer Moon. I also just finished two books on Custer and his Last Stand, of which I talked about in previous blogs. I was a history major for several years in college and graduated with an American Studies degree from Penn State. I’m looking forward to reading Dee Brown’s book, even though I am already aware of its gloomy conclusion. I think it is important, if you want to understand the myths that shape American culture to this day, to understand what really went on in the West. Often the things that exist in popular culture have as much to do with Hollywood as they do with reality. There is a brilliant clip on the Deadwood DVD extras of creator David Milch talking about how the Hays Production Code created the idea of the mythic silent western hero, the man of few words.
That’s not to say that anything is black and white. Many Indian tribes were also capable of extremely violent and brutal behavior. However, I think this is an important chapter in our history that can not only help us better understand ourselves, but also help us as we go forward. America still often exhibits many tendencies of being an empire, even though we often try to deny this to ourselves.
Spoiler Alert: I discuss the ending of the show Deadwood in this post.
One of the hardest things in art, as in life, is knowing when to let go of something. If you worked on something a little harder could it have been better? Can you work something over until that original spark and passion has been extinguished? I’ve made mistakes on both sides of that equation at times. One has to have enough of an ego to see a project through, but one also has to not let the ego get in the way of letting things happen naturally. Things are going to turn out like they do. At some point control is only an illusion.
If you are making a record for instance, unless you record every single instrument yourself and do all the engineering yourself, assuming you even know what you are even doing at every step of the way, things are not going to turn out exactly as you planned. As soon as other’s hands get on something it is going to change no matter how carefully planned your original intentions were. Although it is true that this can occasionally be your downfall, if you are open to new ideas you might just end up in some magical place that you hadn’t planned. Even if you are controlling as many factors as possible, you still run up against the limitations of personal talent and technology.
One of the reasons I find most session players so dreadful is that they are not confined by as many limitations as most people. They can almost play or do anything musically that one can ask of them. The problem is this usually leads to something that is imitative. It’s usually technical ability over passion. Passion most often comes out of struggle. Soul and originality is most often created in art and music in that struggle between real world limitations and the endless potential of the imagination. In that space is where something new is most often forged.
There are outliers and freaks whom can seemingly do anything with ease, and can still do it with soul, but those people come at the rate of only a few in a lifetime. If we relied on people like that our record collections and art museums would be very small indeed.
Sometimes things end seemingly prematurely, but in hindsight seem to almost end as if touched by perfection. It’s at times like these that the universe almost seems to be speaking to us. As much as I wish Lou Reed had made ten more records, if you listen to Junior Dad, his final song on his final album, it’s almost impossible to imagine a more perfect end to his career.
The Smiths’ ended their last album with the song I Won’t Share You. “I won’t share you / With the drive and the dream inside / This is my time.” It’s like their unconsciousness knew they were going their separate ways even before their conscious minds did, even though everyone claims that the recording sessions for that album were amicable. Plus, as always, Morrissey has razor sharp wit.
I was thinking about the show Deadwood today. Deadwood is a show that not only tells the story of that town, a real historic town fictionally imagined, but also tells the story of how society comes to order itself. This show that was canceled before the shows creator, David Milch, could finish the story that he wanted to tell. Unlike most westerns the “bad guy”, if you could call him that in a show filled often with moral ambiguity, rides out of town unharmed. His character represents the large corporate interests in American life that come in and destroy the natural balance of things in a community. To many fans, myself included, this ending was originally completely unsatisfactory. Not only did it not fulfill what we had come to expect in a traditional story arc, as nothing had really been tied up, but those of us that followed the show knew that this was not the way the creator had intended it to end.
However, the more I thought about it, the more I thought it was a perfect ending for that show. The show’s ending is truthful to the very real outcome that we tragically see too often in America. Too often we see corporations come in and destroy the balance of our communities, only to get off with little if any harm done to them. Also in a strange example of life imitating art, or vice versa, the corporate suits killed off the show in the same way that George Hearst had destroyed the balance of the town. Every time I watch the ending of that show I have knots in my stomach, but as with the rest of the show, it rings true.
One should work as hard as possible to make something the best that they can and stay as true to their vision as possible. However, one should also remember that control over the outcome is often an illusion. Don’t let that scare you. It could very often be the thing that infuses it with magic in the end.
Disclosure first: Even though I knew from the very start of this blog that I would be talking a great deal about music that I either love or hate, I questioned if I should do any real album reviews. I am a working musician and I feel that this puts me on dangerous ground. In the early days of Hollywood most of the major studios were led by Jews. Because there was still a stigma about Jews in America, they did not produce many movies that had Jewish themes. As David Milch once said, who is also Jewish, they didn’t want to, “queer their own hustle.” So I wade in lightly. In fact I probably wouldn’t wade in at all, but I’m pretty convinced that most music reviews these days are written by bonobo apes, though even apes probably couldn’t butcher the English language with such regularity.
I already broke one of my fundamental rules when it comes to music reviews. A writer should never take up space he could be educating you on what he or she is reviewing by talking about themselves. The only exception is if talking about oneself leads to further understanding about the piece under review. Anyway, I digress:
Arcade Fire – Reflektor
Arcade Fire is one of the most “important” rock n roll bands out right now. I say important without being sarcastic. They are one of the few bands that have large enough budgets to live out their Technicolor dreams, wherever that leads them. On record and live they also play rock n roll with immediacy. They are unafraid to tackle large themes That being said, important does not necessarily translate into good. It just means that their work should be taken seriously.
This is a long record, 75 minutes, and an incredibly dense one. I have listened to the thing about five times since its release Tuesday, that’s over five hours if you are counting, and still don’t feel that I have a great grasp of the thing. Because of the complexity and density of the recording and the themes it seems to tackle, this is a record that probably will take months if not years to bear all of its fruits.
I champion any band that is willing to take sonic risks. On this album they employ Haitian percussionists, bring dance beats to the forefront at times, and layer the album heavily in effects like tape delay. That’s not to say those things haven’t been done before, even by Arcade Fire. If you listen to Neighborhoods #1 (Tunnels) on their first album Funeral, the drummer is playing a beat that has a dance element to it. However, the way in which these techniques are employed on this record are new for Arcade Fire. Sometimes this record feels like Funeral if it were mixed completely opposite. The bass and drums are loud in the mix, with the wall of noise that the band is so good at being pushed further to the background, at least by their standards. I am making an overall generalization, and this approach does change from track to track.
The record is a double album if bought in the physical form and there does seem to be a difference in the two halves. (Again, I can’t state enough that this album has yet to fully reveal itself to me, and I wish more music journalists would be as honest.) The first half seems more rhythmic while the second half seems more melodic. There are moments on the first half that remind me of Sandinista by the Clash. The second half of the record seems to go into more typical Arcade Fire territory.
If I have one general critique of Arcade Fire it is that I don’t feel like anyone plays with a distinctive personality. Some would argue that it is because they are a large band, but so is the E Street Band, which has several players with instantly recognizable sounds. You would almost never mistake Roy Bittan or Clarence Clemmons for anyone else for instance. The E Street band can rise and fall together like a wave, but you can always pick out each of their individual contributions if you pay attention. On record at least, the musicians in Arcade Fire seem to meld into each other. Some might prefer this approach, but I think it makes them overall less distinctive than many of their influences. I will say that they do have an instantly recognizable vocalist in Win Butler, which goes some distance in carving out an identity.
That being said Arcade Fire, even despite stretching their wings on this record, do have an overall sound. They are stronger than the sum of their parts. Their sound is somewhere between the American rock n roll of the E Street Band and post punk bands from England, like The Cure and those artists on Factory Records. It is an expansive emotional sound. There is often a sense of yearning on their records somewhere between the emotions of melancholia and joy. That being said, it never comes across as forced as many other bands in their genre do. You can like or dislike what they do, but they are good at it and it seems authentic.
There is also an organic quality to their records. Even when playing music that is influenced by dance grooves, and I always view dance as having an urban element to it, there is part of their sound that is full of flesh and blood. Their first album had moments that were very pastoral, and although again these elements have been pushed to the back, they are still there percolating occasionally along the edges. Twinkling pianos and acoustic guitars do appear. However even these pastoral moments are more in the spirit of Brian Eno’s Another Green World than any kind of Americana record.
Lyrically this album is still revealing itself to me. I know from reading about it that it is partially influenced by the myth of Orpheus, but how this exactly relates to what is going on around it, I can’t quite grasp yet. If I can be blunt, as lyricists I find them to be good, but not great. There is nothing embarrassing. They do have moments of poetry. However, when listening to Cohen, or Morrissey, or Reed, there are often couplets that you can pull out of the whole, that are extremely memorable and quotable on their own. Morrissey’s, “I was looking for a job and then I found a job, and heaven knows I’m miserable now”, says so much with so little. Win Butler does not write lyrics with such economy. This might seem as faint praise, but I don’t necessarily mean it that way. The lyrics on this record are just more abstracted and impressionistic it seems to me. They do enhance the music, which should be a lyrics first job, but they are not writerly. I do believe there is a difference there. At the end of the day I believe an Arcade Fire record fails or succeeds on the sound of it. The lyrics come secondary to ones enjoyment of it.
Now comes the central question of a review. Is this record any good and is it worth your time? Despite any criticism I wrote above, I do believe that it is. Again, because of the complex nature of this record, the final verdict appears sometime off. However, in the movie Alexander there is the quote that, “All men reach and fall, reach and fall.” The Arcade Fire are definitely reaching here, when so many artists seem content to retread past glories or make art based on what they believe will sell. I cannot tell if they will fall yet. This record is an artistic statement; there can be no doubt about that. They’re not fucking about. There are definitely moments of sonic greatness here, but is the record as a whole great? I do know that this record will do what good art should make you do, which is to feel and think. It is still too early in the game to claim if this is a grand success or a noble failure, but it is something to experience. This record makes me think of another Greek myth. That would be the myth of Icarus. The Arcade Fire are definitely aiming to shake off their earthly bounds and do something great. Have they flown too high? Will their wings melt in the process, sending them earthbound once again? Only time will tell.
I wanted to make an addition to this review. One of the mandates I have set for this site is that I will not change, unless it is with the purpose of fixing mistakes or making clearer, a particular blog. I can always change my opinion and write a new blog, but the original blog must stand as is. However, because this review is ultimately supposed to help you decide if you want to spend your hard earned money on something or not, I feel I should make one additional distinction:
This is not an album that is full of super accessible pop songs. That is not to say there aren’t some great melodies and songs buried within the record. That is also not to say that as I experience repeated listens there won’t be even more strong melodies over time. However, that is not it’s intitial stength. I am enjoying it at this point more based on the sound of it and the emotions that it creates. If you are looking for something to sing along to in your car, this probably isn’t the album for you. If you are looking for an interesting and rewarding musical experience, then you will enjoy this record. It’s kind of like you are hearing this really sonically interesting music, and then all of a sudden a strong melody will emerge, only to have it melt back into the music a few minutes later. I think that is important to point out as you decide if this record is for you or not. I always think you should challenge yourself musically, try things new things out and see how they grow on you. However, depending on how much money you have in the bank, you and only you can decide when you can afford such risks.