This album counts as one of the best things I have stumbled on in a while. Check out more at http://teramelos.bandcamp.com/album/xed-out
On a family vacation, driving across country, a husband and wife get into a heated argument. The husband seizes the wheel from the wife, preventing her from turning away from oncoming traffic, and refuses to let go until he gets his way. The kids in the back are confused and scared, the husband and wife are screaming at one another, and meanwhile another car is barreling towards them. How do we feel about this man?
Let’s flesh out the story. The man and his wife have a longstanding, deep-seated ideological difference over how they should raise their children. The husband, with some reason, thinks the wife is too soft, and that her mollycoddling is destroying the character of their children. The wife feels the husband’s favored approach is too severe and uncaring. Now how do we feel?
It seems clear that even if the husband is correct about the issue at hand, his actions are unforgivable. They are, in fact, even worse because he has decided to risk the very tangible, immediate well being of the family for what he knows is a deep ideological divide. If this sort of thing is going to be resolved, it can’t be under the gun.
How should the media report about this story? Perhaps there should be intense reflection about the ethics of child-rearing, and it would be understandable if we spent some time debating that divided issue. But surely this is appropriate only after roundly condemning the actions of the father. The disagreements among Americans about the correct way to parent shouldn’t cloud the fact that the father’s handling of this situation was morally outrageous.
In the debates about the debt ceiling, something has gotten lost. Americans appear to think that both sides of the debate are being childish and unyielding, because the debate has become about fiscal responsibility. The Republicans have surely got a point: we are not being fiscally responsible, and something must be done. And they might be right that if the Democrats have their way we are in for some real problems in the long run. But the oncoming threat of voluntary default, which most agree would be devastatingly harmful to everyone involved, is only tied to that issue because the Republicans have seized the wheel, preventing us from avoiding harm until the Democrats cave. We must, they say, resolve these deep ideological disputes now, before Tuesday.
Whatever we think about the ideology involved, about the size of government or the fairness of taxing the wealthy, we should recognize the unreasonable behavior that has put us in danger. On this issue, there is only one party to blame. Blame aside, our path should be clear. We must assure our creditors that our political disagreements will not prevent us from paying our debts. This can only be done by raising the debt ceiling. After that, we can engage in the much needed debate about the way we balance our books.
At his best, Cass McCombs is one of the best songwriters alive, and he is at his best on Wit’s End. Leonard Cohen is perhaps his nearest relative now, though without the religion and with a little more diversity in song structure. They have in common the darkness, the patient unravelling of the song, and the willingness to let sadness and longing stew in their own juices until there’s something akin to redemption.
County Line is the album’s first track and its standout. It stands out not so much in quality—all the songs are of very high quality—but in style and mood. There’s almost a slowed down BeeGees feel to it that generates at least a little something uplifting. Don’t get used to it, though. A scan of the coming titles tells a lot: The Lonely Doll; Buried Alive; Memory’s Stain; Hermit’s cave… One is reminded of Eliott Smith—both Smith and McCombs have a penchant for the sad waltz—but Smith’s reaching voice could always fool you into hope. No such tricks with McCombs.
In the singer/songwriter tradition, there seem to be guitarists and pianists. McCombs is proficient at both, but this is a piano album. It’s composed with the sort of musical awareness that one sees in (later) Elvis Costello or others who dabble in musicology, but it doesn’t come off pretentious. Instead, the forms very much serve the functions and the result is beautiful.
Don’t look for many better albums this year. Buy this and Low’s new album, and be happy with your misery.
You can stream the whole album at The Guardian.
What is it about the end of the world? Even shoddy attempts to depict the cataclysmic or apocalyptic draw me in. Add zombies or some other form of distorted human to the mix and I’m sold. It’s tempting to spin a story about how it gives the reader a metaphor for the existential struggle of his life, besieged as it is by the corruptions and disappointments of modern society. But that, I think, would be largely bullshit. Closer, perhaps, is the perverse frisson generated by the recognition that the world is much more fragile than we think it is. There’s also the fact that a coherent vision of a world wiped clear of technology—which no one knows how to recreate—makes us recognize all we take for granted and trivializes our complaints about car-rattles and imperfect internet connections. Whatever the explanation, Justin Cronin’s The Passage provides a surfeit of this satisfaction. Though it takes a distant second behind Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, The Passage is one of the best post-apocalyptic reads in recent years.
Military scheme gone awry? Check. South American virus carried by bats? Check? Escaped convicts with unholy powers? Check. Messianic wild child of nature? Check. Zombie-like humans with vampyric characteristics? Check. Teetering and abortive attempts to restart civilization? Check. Yup, it’s all there. Cronin, it must be admitted, is a proud owner of “End of Days for Dummies,” but don’t mistake him for a dummy. The Passage operates on a grand scale, with every step motivated so that one never feels like one is reading a parody or a uncontrolled pastiche of tropes. The damn thing is 800 pages long, and is only the first book in a trilogy. It’s closest relative is probably Stephen King’s The Stand. But I think it’s better. It’s certainly better written. Cronin, an Iowa Writer’s Workshop graduate, avoids most of the overwriting that plagues genre fiction. No one will confuse him for Michael Chabon or Jennifer Egan, but it’s a relief to be able to indulge in this somewhat guilty pleasure without being reminded of it by clunky and unnecessary prose.
The book’s main failure, in my view, is that the love interests and the interpersonal relationships feel stipulative. It’s too bad, because clearly Cronin wants our sympathies to give power to the various deaths and births and narrow escapes. He has them to some extent, but not because anyone is in love, but rather because we want the good guys to win.
I’ll refrain from giving anything further away about the plot. This is one of those books where feeling events unfold and anticipating the unknown is an integral part of the pleasure. I do want to correct at least one misconception which could be generated by the other reviews out there. This is not really a vampire book. The baddies here have sharp fangs, are nocturnal and share a few other characteristics with the Nosferatu, but they’re a different beast. There are certainly no cloaks or coffins, and you can forget about garlic and crosses. Though Cronin appropriates many motifs, he winds up making them his own.
In short, well worth a read if you’re a fan of the genre. A movie is coming, but it is done by the Gladiator team. Ridley Scott did direct Blade Runner, so maybe it’ll be good. But I’ll place my money on the book.
Periodically I think I might stop listening to Low. I mean, they have had a sound arc over these two decades, but it’s pretty subtle. But my rule is that if I loved the previous album of a band, I buy the next album unheard—trust is part of what is required of us as listeners. And time and again, I love Low’s albums, and time and again on the first listen of their new album I wonder if this is just another product of a well worn mold, but then on the second listen I am in love. It could be I love the mold. But I don’t think so. I think this is a band that evolves at the rate of evolution. A band that takes some risks, but that does so only if they’re feeling risky. A band that creates a sound that forms a sonic halo that reflects what is going on inside. Radiohead is like this, and Sigur Ros is often like this. Low is on that level, and C’mon is no less essential a step for this band than recent albums have been for those near flawless acts.
C’mon is their most produced album, and a lot has been made of the fact. But the album is no less raw for that. It reminds me, in ways, of Blur’s 13—a heavily produced but emotionally wrought opus. There are no choirs here, it’s still just guitar, snare, high hat and bass—oh, and a beautifully placed banjo. But the production maximizes the minimal, not unlike Steve Albini did for the band some years back, and the results are compelling. For example: “Nothing but Heart” initially struck me as a bit silly, too repetitive, but by the end I felt tears. (Don’t underestimate the power of being genuine, young musicians!)
This is not an album without flaws. As of now, some songs still strike me as Low fillers. But the high points make those just necessary dimples in the seam. “Try to Sleep,” the first track, is classic Low, with a basic beat, a guitar intro (but with xylophone) which blossoms into an Alan and Mimi harmony which is as usual both seductive and reassuring. The second track, “you see everything” features Mimi, who takes us to a hazy adolescent summer when we are unsure but uncynical. The third track, “Witches,” is very Alan—besieged and minor—and reminds one of a Modest Mouse song on half speed, but it is a contribution to the Low “best of” vaults. (Listen for the Dark Side of the Moon production on this one!) Then at the ending, “Nothing but Heart” which is just that, and the final “something’s turning over” which reassures the children while conveying the immanent darkness…
I gush. But somehow Low continues to write lullaby’s for adults who hope for the best but know that the worst is just around the corner, and with that I can lay me down to sleep.
In some ways it’s unfortunate that Peter, Bjorn and John’s “Young Folks” was so huge. I’m happy they pocketed the cash from it, and it was a damn catchy song, but it threatens to make PB&J into “that band with the whistling song” and as that song become overplayed, which it most certainly has, interest in the band faded. I suffered so much from this that I didn’t realize that the tuneful Swedes have released several albums since then. I just couldn’t be bothered. For some reason, though, I was drawn to their new release, Gimme Some, and I’m glad I was. This is a fun and solid band that is about much more than a single song.
Gimme Some feels somewhat like a lost Elvis Costello album circa This Year’s Model. And that’s a very good thing. This doesn’t make these guys a rip off or anything of the sort. EC himself was plying a traditional pop/rock formula with a few distinctive additions, and PB&J add a few moves of their own. The album standouts, for me, include the islandy “Dig a Little Deeper” (with the almost too clever chorus “All art has been contemporary”), “Eyes” (with the best recent use of a Bo-Diddly beat), and “May Seem Macabre” (which builds up from a Pixies-ish base line). This is the sort of album that makes you want to make a mixtape. The only problem is that you’ll want to include too many of the songs.
Now I have to go back and buy those albums which slipped by during the incessant whistling.
It’s frustrating when a band is as almost good as Papercuts. About two songs an album really realize their potential, and the others stir around in the muddy stew of what if. It makes for a mixtape band rather than a band whose albums demand a listen. Fading Parade, the fifth release by Papercuts and their first on Sub Pop, doesn’t break the band out of that rut. The first two songs, Do You Really Want to Know and Do What You Will, are serious keepers, but most of the rest of the album feels like noodling around with the same old formula. The recipe for a Papercuts song isn’t difficult to discern. Start with a Velvet Underground sort of guitar background—sometimes with a Stephanie Says melodic solo lead-in—add a verse of palatable hushed vocals, and then intensify just a bit by sending the vocals up a fifth. Rinse and repeat.
Pop rock is built largely on formula, so that alone isn’t a reason to trash a band. But for me this one becomes a little tiresome, with even Jason Quever’s vocal cadences becoming predictable after a few songs. There’s always potential there, and Quever can really score when his shots connect, but the rest of the time I’m left waiting for a change.
Cleveland’s Cloud Nothings have been getting a lot of press recently for their hook laden guitar pop, and deservedly so. Although they’re probably not going to change anyone’s idea of what music should be, they offer energetic little jewels that stay in your head long after they’ve left the speakers. The band is led by Cleveland’s Dylan Baldi, who at twenty (or just under) has internalized the key to the three minute pop song. His nasal voice and distorted guitar might invite some surface comparisons to pre-suck Green Day, but Baldi knows more than just three chords. The simple song structures allow for some pretty spastic and innovative jangles, and more than one genre gets layered into the mix. At moments it reminds one of Descendents if they were lead by John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants. (That looks odd to me too, but see if you can’t hear it.)
Thought Baldi is precocious, his age seems to show at times in the lyrics. They doesn’t really seem to be something he has much patience for and too often the songs end up in the repetition—sometimes ad nauseum—of a central line. It makes the band feel slightly unripe, but fair enough. Baldi will be around for a while with plenty of time to polish that stuff up. As it is, we have a record that makes for an excellent part of the spring soundtrack.
Understand It All by Cloud Nothings
New York’s Pains of Being Pure at Heart return after one of the most winning albums of 2009, and though Belong doesn’t amount to a sophomore slump, the freshness that accompanied their earlier album isn’t quite there. That’s inevitable, I suppose. First albums succeed in part because of the new, and PBPH’s self-titled album radiated the kind of youthful charm that depends in large part on timing and sincerity. But Belong lacks freshness mostly because the influences, or antecedents, are just a tad too obvious. There was never any doubt, I think, that these guys were influenced by British bands of the 80s-90s, but there was enough synthesis to make it work. The best song on the first album, Young Adult Friction, sounded like it could have been sung by Morrisey with The Strokes as a backing band. Belong, though, almost sounds like an homage. Some of this has to be intentional—the first fifteen seconds of track one, Belong, have to be a tribute to My Bloody Valentine. As we move into the middle tracks, it’s harder for me to pin down specific bands, but it’s difficult not to imagine Molly Ringwald biting her lower lip to a John Hughes soundtrack. When we reach “My Terrible Friend,” however, the jig is up. The song is a dead ringer for “Friday I’m in Love” by the Cure, with the same dancing basslines and synth overlays, and the following two tracks are pure Jesus and Mary Chain circa Automatic.
Despite all this, I can’t help but enjoy this album. Partly, I’m just a sucker for these bands that shaped my youth. But partly because The Pains do add enough of their own stuff—mostly through Kip Berman’s still sweet singing and the more American style guitar work—to keep Belong from sounding like another Fakebook. It’ll stick around in my player for a while.
The whole album can be sampled on their site.
It feels appropriate to revive The Daily Sabbatical with a review of a book no one reads. The Man Who Loved Children dropped to a critical and commercial death soon after leaving the womb of its creator, Christina Stead, over seventy years ago. It was pushed back into print in 1965 by the intelligent and eloquent endorsement of critic Randall Jarrell, and has recently been championed by Jonathan Franzen. Still, few know of the book and fewer still actually turn all five hundred of its pages to see if the critical acclaim is justified. It is. But if Franzen and Jarrell can’t bring the book back from obscurity, my recommendation is likely to have less effect than that of a country librarian to an aging spinster destined to leave nothing behind but closets. But so be it. The prose ranks with the best of the language and the depiction of its theme is unmatched. Every additional reader of a book like this is a victory for serious writing.
Although to contemporary ears its title suggests a story about a man with unsavory predilections, The Man Who Loved Children is about the life of an American family. It deserves, in fact, that famous opening sentence more than Tolstoy’s dubious classic: “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The Pollits are, despite—or perhaps because of—their patriarch’s conviction to the contrary, a very unhappy family. And they are unique, as are all families. (The reader should feel free to supplement Tolstoy’s quote with this premise to draw the pessimistic conclusion.) Despite their uniqueness, I doubt any reader will fail to find some of the minerals of her own family life in the Pollit soil.
The Pollit household is a sprawling carnival of kids, seven in all, revolving around Sam and Hennie, a deeply problematic pair of parents. On the face of it, Hennie is simply poisonous. She’s sour at the world and bilious to the core, but the rest of the family, lead by the unflappably optimistic bandleader Sam, has learned to take her unhappiness in affectionate stride. The outlook of the two parents couldn’t be more different. While Sam delights in taking “Shank’s ponies…’into the world of marvels which lies around us, into the highways and byways, into the homes of rich and poor alike, seeking the doorstep of him who loves his fellow man,” Hennie would tell “how, in the streetcar, was ‘a dirty shrimp of a man with a fishy expression who purposefully leaned over me and pressed my bust, and a common vulgar woman beside him, an ogress, big as a hippopotamus, with her bottom sticking out, who grinned like a shark and tried to give him the eye,’ and how this wonderful adventure went on for hours, always with new characters of new horror.” Hennie’s worst foe, though, is Sam himself whom she hates so thoroughly that she will not speak to him directly and almost flinches from her children, the constant reminders of her marital mistake.
Meanwhile, the little children seem not to notice the misery of dear “Mothering” as they run around the lawns with neighboring kids, catching snakes, feeding racoons and chasing around the legs of their dear “Pad,” or “Tad,” or “Dad,” Sam. Old Tad illuminates everything with his humanitarian exuberance, his love of nature, and his nonsense songs and nicknames which send the children into giggles. Everything in Pollitry has at least one nickname, from the home—Tahoga House—to the kids (Louisa: Louie, Looloo-dirl, Loo; Evie: Little-Womey; the twins: Gemini; the infant: Megalops) to the yard’s animals (Procyon). “Sunday’s a funday!” for Sam, and if his dreams of a world of “monoman” or “manunity” seem disturbingly utopian, so much can be forgiven in the name of sanguinity.
Not all the kids are equally engaged in “Pad’s” antics. Louisa, his child from a more romantic—or at least romanticised—first marriage, is on the cusp of adolescence and shows the expected detachment. She bears the load of the housework, neglected by Hennie, and in her idle moments turns to books, from Darwin to Shelley. Unquestionably precocious, she expects one day to be great and waits for the moment she will transcend the mess she perceives at Tahoga house.
It is finally through Louisa’s eyes that we begin to see through the surface of the family. Sam is, in fact, a man who loves children, but not really because they are lovable. He loves them insofar as they love him, insofar as they are his followers, adoring worshipers whose enthusiasm is directed and shaped by his design. As soon as they become old enough to break ranks or to insist upon their own path—as Louisa has—Sam’s gibes turn cruel, and he musters all his cleverness and the earned loyalty of the children to express disdain for the dissident. Though it is never said so clearly, it is clear that Sam is merely a black hole of self-love who is all the more frustrating for thinking himself the sun.
As the book progresses, Sam travels to Singapore for a time—where his love of humanity begins to show its fascistic tinge—and returns to find his fortunes crumbling. With the death of his wealthy stepfather, his lontime benefactor, he must uproot Pollitry from Tahoga house and move it into the disappointing shanty “Spa House.” Lacking a wealthy champion, he loses his job and the respect of his co-workers, and becomes the ever present Father of the House. “Meanwhile, Sam, whistling and singing operas and popular hits, would be leaving his trail of sawdust and brickdust, cement pellets and putty crumbs, and never an experiment in chemistry or physics did he perform, nor ever work with them over a book, but only talked with tender abstraction of ‘great lives’ and ‘great chemists’ and of his own beautiful soul and sympathetic life story.” Nothing, of course, could be worse for Henny who, penniless, no longer has the escape of shopping. The two of them try to avoid each other, but trapped in the futility of their poverty they collide, and the fights worsen, and the rotten core of the family begins to spread. As the book reaches its tragic climax, Henny—the previously inscrutable harridan—gains our sympathy and though she is still a wreck, it is really she who keeps us from dismissing the adults of the family astoo self-involved to stand.
Among this great novel’s many feats is the way it shifts the readers feelings and sympathies so dramatically, but without manipulation. One does wind up loving Louisa and the children, and one does loathe their disastrous parents, but that loathing is not due to any particular bad deeds or mistreatment. Henny does occasionally raise her hand in anger, but that violence is nothing compared to the damage wrought by the oppressiveness of Sam’s personality or the mutually destructive nature of the parental dynamics. And that, in the end, is what the book does better than any book I have read. It conveys the most terrible fact about childhood: that as children, we are totally hostage to the world our parents create. Even at moments when that world seems perfect, it is still not ours, and it is frequently far short of perfect. These Pollit parents, bad as they are, are like most parents: they are flawed, but excusably so. Their personalities and domestic dreams are not really chosen, but they are theirs nonetheless. We can feel sympathy for them. But the world they create for their children is often filled with apparently arbitrary rules, gifts and punishments, unpredictably violent emotional weather, and inexplicable battles that send everyone scurrying to their foxholes. It is a world that resembles nothing so much as a world ruled by jealous and egocentric Greek Gods, a world without haven, where the only option is to hope for the best and occasionally bow in obeisance.