September 25, 2009

Keir's Summer Yuppie Concert Series 2009

Nothing special for this one; just felt like posting other people's photos from the shows I saw this summer—Neko Case (Greek L.A., 6/12), Wilco (Greek Berkeley, 6/27), Jenny Lewis (Hollywood Bowl, 7/12), Elbow (Wiltern L.A., 7/22), and Built to Spill (Velvet Jones S.B., 8/22). Em went to the first four with me, Mom and Bill came to Wilco with us, and Bryn and I endured sloppy drunks for Built to Spill. Photos are in that order:

Being the good creative-class NPR yuppie that I am, naturally I dug every show. We were due to see Placebo rock out last weekend too, in L.A., but their singer decided he was too exhausted to tour the U.S. Maybe they'll be back. I hope so, for Emily's sake (she was not amused).

Photo credits: Neko Case by Andrew Youssef for Stereogum. Wilco's Jeff Tweedy by Hippies Are Dead. Jenny Lewis by Irfan Khan for the L.A. Times. Guy Garvey of Elbow by Youssef again, for Stereogum. Built to Spill by Paul Wellman (who actually photographed me once, too) for the S.B. Independent.

September 13, 2009

The Horrible Burden of Being Right All the Time

Some people have no idea how goddamn fragile the universe is, you know? How temporary and tenuous and genuinely frightening it is. How all things are supposed to have a purpose and a reason and a proper place and time to exist. It's an awful shame, and apparently a staggeringly difficult concept to understand in crunch time, but it's true. No, seriously—anything worth doing is worth doing right. Life requires meticulous planning, and I'm sick and tired of being mocked for my steadfast adherence to things done by the book and inside the box and according to the forever-changing rules that I myself made up.

Honest, I swear. I mean, I've thought about this stuff a lot, okay? I fucking hate it when people up and decide to be the change they wish to see, because that wasn't part of The Plan. My plan—because I'm a Serious Person, and I believe in inartful, easily-malleable shit like Facts and Reason and Logic and other soulless, sexless, reality-based stuff. Except when it it's not convenient—but hey, we can't have all that messy passion coloring everything we do, can we? We're dealing with a delicate operation here, and no one's allowed to touch the sides. That buzzer's just so fucking loud. But yeah, the quest sits perpetually upon the edge of a knife, and no one will believe how serious it is if silly damn fools keep running around shoving petitions in peoples' faces. Everything simply must be in its right place, or else we'll all be sorry.

And, really—the last thing I want to do is drive a wedge between people I like and people I don't, but man, these overzealous activists and hotshot circular firing squads are totally harshing my buzz. Seriously, you guys, let's not bicker and argue about who killed who. The President spoke! He rocked! This is supposed to be a happy occasion! I wanted to Rah Rah and Fuck Yeah and kick the party of Dumb Brutes and Rich People while they're down, and now...well, now these fucking petitions are everywhere, and I can't do that! So totally not fair, man. Not cool at all. We can't possible impose upon our erstwhile allies. That would be ever so rude. It would ruin everything.

And their insecurities are contagious, after all. Overzealous enthusiasm would frighten anyone, though, right? If we're not careful, it'll topple our little jenga-pile of painstakingly-crafted talking points and frames and alliances and deft, subtle maneuvers. So, sadly, some people need to be put in their place. Forcefully. It brings us no joy, but it must, yes must be done. Why? Because foisting our horrible burdens of rightness upon those dumb, melodramatic philistines is what we do best. They have no idea how we feel. Mocked and teased and snickered at and ignored for having the temerity to be unremittingly professional. Jesus! What's the world coming to?

So yeah, this is how it's gonna have to be, because we said so, and lots of important people agree with us. That's right, son—don't you forget it. Don't you realize we've already considered and dismissed your childish concerns? Can't you see us tearing our hair? Can't you feel us wring our own necks in righteous rage? Can't you sense the humor and absurdity being sucked right out of our normal little souls by those clumsy, grasping amateurs? Cause if you can't, well…then you deserve every sociopathic sneer that will hit you. It'll be withering. You'll feel so dumb and worthless that you won't want to do anything at all! Eat that bowl of condescension, dude. Eat it raw, or no pudding for you. How can you have any ponies if you don't eat your shit?

Because your parents slaved over this shit, son. We're so totally more the legit activists than those other posturing wankers. Oh sure, yesterday it was activism, but then it became embarrassingly popular, and so today we've decided that they're doing it all wrong and deemed them a circular firing squad. We know what's best for you, and you better appreciate it. Hell, we're gonna MAKE you appreciate it, because no one's appreciated us. No one's even acknowledged the days and weeks and months and years we've spent mucking around the unknowing, unfeeling void. Other people gave up and fucked off, but did we ever falter? NO. We FOLLOWED THE RULES, and continued to, long long long after the Great Eye had looked beyond to focus on other, worthier things. It was our perogative, baby. Our right.

So don't give me that bong-shattering bollocks about "nuh-uh" and "whatevs" and "nyah nyah WE TOLD YOU SO" and "everything sucks worse than it's ever sucked before." We are HIGH on GLORY and TRANSCENDENCE right now, and shiny objects are for losers. Losers, I say. Now pass me that mojo and let's go bitch-slap some Naderites. Hell yes! Go! Fight! Stomp the buggers! Twist some progressive titties! Kick Sirota in the balls! The White House Chief of Staff didn't order it, but we know he totally would have, and you know what that means.

And another thing—for the love of Humphrey, please don't get paid to blog. That's making us look bad. That will just curdle our envious little souls, and we'll have to stomp your reputation into the slimy gutter. Hell hath no fucking fury like a scorned, under-appreciated Earnest Liberal with the temerity to work for free. Anyone who doesn't is just a paid shill or "failed movie producer" trying to build their fake reputation. Oh sure, they say they care about the issue, but their methods are, like, absolutely uncool, and all the suckers who are falling for their act are just the dumb unwashed ignorant masses anyway. I mean, was Nirvana cool when they single-handedly killed hair metal?

No. Hell no. We own every county fair stage and Sunset dive bar, so fuck them. We're taking them out. Yeah, time to give 'em a bath. Wash behind the ears. Git 'em soap flakes in the cracks. Lather-rinse-repeat. Humiliate the uppity little punks. Don't make me come down there. I'm going to scrub my snide sense of professional arrogance into you until your skin runs red with the rashes of the cynical, until it wrinkles raw with the ruthless scabs of compromise. And you'll learn to like it. Trust me, I speak from eminent experience. Hold still, little shill. This won't hurt a bit, but you will learn to live with it.

Cross-posted: dkos

September 07, 2009

Requiem for a Music Geek: All of This Has Happened Before

The ongoing cycle of death and rebirth may be one of life's only truths, but that doesn't make it any more fun to write about. See, usually Truth can be a shockingly powerful weapon—even a deadly one, in the hands of the righteous and insane—albeit one so final that it obliterates all the pissy little details that writers love to obsess over, and sucking the truth out of anything usually demands huge swaths of time, with often little reward for such massive emotional-temporal investment. That's a massively pompous thing to barf up on this Labor Day weekend, but remember that we're now looking down the barrel of Fall, the season when things begin to die, and contemplative rumination becomes all the rage as we each hoard our little harvests of sanity.

Good things take time, after all, so maybe it's understandable that it took me this long—six months or so—to squeeze out any semi-coherent thoughts about droll things like rock & roll albums by bands I used to really, really like. Specifically, U2's twelfth platter No Line on the Horizon, belatedly released this past March amid a carpet-bombing of promotional appearances by the Rich Irish Dorks in question. Obviously, U2's pretty popular on our little planet, so everyone and their dog felt compelled to weigh in on the merits—or lack thereof—attached to this thing, deluging us all in the depressing idiocy of both good and bad reviews.

Flaccid yawns erupted from planet Pitchfork, and over-the-top fellatio dribbled in from Rolling Stone, Q, and other points mainstream. The haters took yet another opportunity to lob their pathetically harmless envy-bombs, and the insecure fanatics once again leapt to defend their heroes at the slightest criticism. The band themselves swaggered into places like the Ed Sullivan Theater and the BBC studios, calmly and professionally dispatching the new tunes with the skills of (nearly) fifty-year-old road warriors, and there was much to pontificate about.

So I figured it would be a far, far better thing to just sit on this thing until the craziness blew over and U2 were set to hit these American shores with their monstrous "360" tour before strapping on that rusty old rock-critic juvenilia yet again and blathering on about the creativity of people I'll never meet. Yeah, let the thing ferment a while and kill off my initial hateful impulses, or see if they would simply wither on their own. However, all the baggage that goes into a U2 album these days is damn near unavoidable—for them as well as the rest of us—so now's as good a time as any to tackle No Line with the requisite revisionistic re-appraisal I love to foist on other people's creations.

The quick verdict—for those of you already rolling your eyes and clicking away—is that I actually do like the thing, and much more so than its immediate predecessors (2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind and 2004's How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb), two stumbling, neo-classical behemoths that rival the Ptolemies in backward-grasping bombast. Yes, I like No Line, but I've found that I like it but mostly because it reminds me of other—better—music they've already made. That's a wretched thing to say, but unfortunately it's the truth. How can it not be, with the Eno/Lanois/Lillywhite Axis of Pomp back on board? Does U2 genuinely not know how to work well with anyone else? Do they even need to know that?

Ah, who cares. The new album is in that regrettable decade-ending position of U2's other supposed gaffes, 1988's Rattle and Hum and 1997's Pop; like those, it's received a lazy, schizoid reception of ecstatic adulation, shrugging sneers, and slavering hatred. It deserves none of those things, but U2's post-1998 history of abject banality had already heavily weighted my own personal scales, so everything you read in this column is already hopelessly biased. I've had lots of time to listen to it, but other than the usual silly subjective bullshit, the most I can say is that this album merely confirms how much U2 borrows from themselves with every new recording. They do not, contrary to wisdom, "reinvent" themselves every time. They merely offer up a different spin on the same old things they've always been good at: huge, vaguely-meaningful anthems on love and faith.

Take the opening title track, for example: a song I immediately enjoyed precisely because it's the incestuous spawn of two older songs I already love ("The Fly" and "Ultraviolet," both from Achtung Baby). Does it matter that I was effortlessly manipulated by the song's flagrant inbreeding—which was so strong that "No Line" was left without a chorus? Not really—Bono's gloriously wordless hollering in the verse more than makes up for that. The similarities to previous works don't stop there, though—they only intensify. Adam Clayton saunters to the front on "Magnificent," a matronly and graceful update of "Mysterious Ways," as if the female belly-dancing deity in the lyric has aged 18 years, had three kids, and put on about 40 pounds, but can still shake it on the weekend.

And that, folks, is where the album peaks for me—those two songs. Well, there is one other high point, but we'll get to that later. After "Magnificent," No Line lurches between sluggish ballads (which nevertheless contain good Edge guitar work) and overcompensatory rockers for most of its remaining length. "Moment of Surrender" is ruined right away by Bono's singing—he crashes through the window at full volume, when he should have eased into, and built up to, the kind of climax this seven-minute monster demands. The colossal stupidity of everything about "Get On Your Boots" (the execrable first single) helps obscure the mere dumbness of "Stand Up Comedy" and "I'll Go Crazy if I Don't Go Crazy Tonight," but this shit sandwich in the album's mushy middle very nearly croaks the whole thing. It's a terrible, terrible sequence—no matter how much your toes tap—and no amount of dissembling from Bono ("we were trying to do an Eagles of Death Metal song!" or "people bitched about 'The Fly' like this too!") can save it. But except for those tinkly bells in the weak chorus, "Boots" is irredeemably bad. I once called it "a monstrously half-assed jalopy of suck," and "worse than 'Beautiful Day' or even the depths of 'Vertigo'," and I stand by that insult. It absolutely deserves it—the music sucks and the lyric is stupid. I can't believe Larry Mullen let this one out of the barn.

Speaking of lyrics, well, that's another near-fatal flaw on this album. Much has been made of Bono's supposed writing in character for No Line. The problem is he never even got halfway there. These things aren't alternate points of view; they're clumsy, amateur stabs at skills he's never had. Bono is great at first-person narrative metaphors, but by explicitly claiming these are stories he injects an aura of craftsmanship into them that as a lyricist he frankly has not possessed for over a decade (and then only fleetingly so). The one glorious exception, full of (relatively) energetic wonder, is a stone cold killer line from Track 10, "Breathe" ("I'm running down the road like loose electricity/while the band in my head plays a strip-tease"), but that single blast of genius is quickly smothered by the weight of all the surrounding half-assed lyrical effort, and is a nasty reminder of how long it's been since Bono was writing from a genuine place of inspiration and the metaphors came with every Biblical turn of the page.

That's another thing: for all the vaunted out-front religiosity of this disc, its sentiments are much more plastic than the genuinely subversive faith U2 displayed on the supposedly piss-poor Pop album. God seems less real on some of these songs than on any other U2 disc (the watered-down matriarchal worship in "Magnificent," the sluggish, boring exorcism that is "Moment of Surrender," the flat-out failed sci-fi surrealism of "Unknown Caller"). There is indeed a palpable aura of holy-fool seeking in the music, which seems to be an equal-parts distillation of October-era sonic babbling and Unforgettable Fire-like ambient atmosphere topped off by some disjointed Pop-isms—but it's consistently sabotaged by the same laughably awkward mistakes we've come to expect from this band. Now, they obviously don't care, so why should I? It's pretty cool that the same four jokers are still together making music after all this time, even if it's a relatively transparent echo of past glory.

So yeah, I spun it a lot when it was released, and probably will continue to as the tour crosses the continent, but six months later, the only songs I still really want to play from this album are "No Line on the Horizon," "Magnificent," the amplified sketchbook of "Fez/Being Born," and "Breathe." Those are the four keepers for me—the same amount as that from both previous albums ("Walk On," "Kite," "City of Blinding Lights," and "Fast Cars"). For this bitchy little fanboy, U2 has finally arrived at its own Big Crunch. Their sonic universe has collapsed in upon itself in a frantic re-arranging of matter and energy not seen since the Rolling Stones dropped Steel Wheels twenty years ago. Sure, U2 has been doing this for their whole career, but in the last decade of neo-classical revisionism their volatile recycling act has seemed its most ham-fisted and blatant, and I'm sure other people will love it much more than I do. Which is perfectly fine, as long as they recognize—and remember—that all of this has happened before and, thanks to dumb, castrated plagiarists like Coldplay, all of it will surely happen again.

September 06, 2009

One of These Things is Not Like the Others

Okay, just some harmless, non-partisan stuff for the remainder of this gloriously socialistic holiday weekend. As a politics junkie with a particular interest in American presidential politics, these photos have always been interesting to me: the "Five Presidents" shots from (I think) 1991 and 2008. The first one I saw constantly, over the course of my professional career, and the second one was just fun in that post-election haze of December '08, before Obama became human again. Anyway, I've always had fun doing the whole Sesame Street "one of these things is not like the others" with the dubious members of that most exclusive club.

So, the first photo (Ford, Nixon, Bush, Reagan, Carter): each one of these men had a unique aspect of their presidency that none of the others shared. Only one resigned in a violent frenzy of shame (Nixon). Only one was never actually elected—appointed to the vice-presidency, assumed the presidency upon his predecessor's resignation, and defeated in a re-election bid (Ford). Only one was a Democrat (Carter). Only one was elected to, and served, two full terms in office (Reagan). Only one was an elected vice-president who succeeded his predecessor in his own right (Bush).

There are lots of things in common too, though—three of these men were vice-presidents (Nixon, Ford, and Bush). Four were Republicans (Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bush). Two were governors (Carter and Reagan). Two are still living (Carter and Bush).

Okay, second photo (Bush I, Obama, Bush II, Clinton, Carter), from when Bush II was still in office, but after Obama was elected.

Only one is a father of the other (and conversely, only one is a son): the Bushes. Only one was impeached by the House of Representatives (Clinton, who was of course acquitted by the Senate and served two full terms). Only one had to fend off a primary challenge from his own party during a re-election bid (Carter, who had to beat Ted Kennedy in 1980 before losing to Reagan). Only one was a senator before becoming president (Obama). And sadly, only one is black (Obama).

These guys have things in common too: three were governors (Carter, Clinton, Bush II). Two were re-elected and served two full terms (Clinton and Bush II). Two were defeated in re-election bids (Carter and Bush I).

I'm sure there are other similarities and/or unique aspects of these eight jokers, but I can't remember them right now, so these little trivia tidbits will have to do. Happy Labor Day weekend, comrades.

September 05, 2009

It's Not a Blue World After All, Max

"No one should die because they cannot afford health care, and no one should go broke because they get sick. If you agree, please post this as your status for the rest of the day."
Well…shucks, that'll show 'em. Awesome viral activism, gang. Maybe somewhere, in another parallel Pepperland, Max Baucus and Kent Conrad immediately updated their Facebook status in sweet, serene solidarity. I can see it now, splattered in big, 16-point Verdana Bold atop the "MAX 2008" senatorial profile, right next to the photo of Baucus with azaleas sprouting from his nose and ears. In this universe, of course, our own Blue Meanies sold us all out long, long ago (if Matt Taibbi said so, then it must be true!), and have been stumbling their way to a new round of Snatching Fail From The Jaws Of Win.

The sight of Democratic politicians tripping over their own staffers and frantically pissing themselves in fear of the hydra-headed health insurance lobby is, alas, depressingly familiar. I myself was due to get an ugly, up-close look at a local specimen, Congresswoman Lois Capps (D, CA-23), but in true Democratic spirit, I chickened out at the last minute in order to do something infinitely more fun: have a nice dinner with a beautiful brunette woman. However, the intrepid chair of our local Young Democrats did manage to shove his way into the Oxnard church where Capps was all set to face down the screamers, and thanks to the magic of Twitter I discovered that my initial instincts proved correct. Lois crumpled under the onslaught of neo-Bircher taxophobic insanity, and Dave tweeted the whole thing. It went a little like this:
"At Lois Capps' health care town hall. Banner above reads "pray until something happens." The ignorance is stunning. Lois began by swatting away myths (none for illegals/abortion/death panels, blah blah) but then said HCR would be "deficit neutral" and the cons laughed out loud. Lois flustered & nervous at slightest confrontation.

She then claimed constitution says "health liberty and pursuit of happiness." Horrible gaffe, crowd erupted. Weak sauce, congresswoman. Followed that with another facepalm answer to irrelevant question about tort reform. Followed that with cringeworthy assertion that "Medicare is not a socialized program." And she used to do this for a living! [Capps was a nurse…or something like that—Ed.]

Dems let themselves get shouted down by a raving minority—only questions were from wingnuts! Bullshit moderation. In a bad mood. I was the only unruly Dem shouting and clapping for public option. Not once was 77% support for it mentioned. A bunch of weak-kneed crap."
Sorry man, but I could have spared you the frustration. I was there, as a UCSB Young Dem, when Lois succeeded her late husband Walter in 1998, and had she not faced a succession of slobbering dolts from Paso Robles and other points Republican (and not to mention scored some major contributions from local corporate ghouls Baxter and WellPoint), Lois would have never made it this far. She's a liberal, you see, in the classic 20th-century mold—nice, polite, non-confrontational. No outward sense of humor, or of the absurd. Now, these are not sins—the overwhelming majority of liberal Democrats are just like this, including myself—but they are not the best things to carry into a mud-fight with drooling conservatives.

For some reason, the Democratic Party has never learned this. Well, the Democratic politicians have—but they're happy to be spineless eunuchs if the price is right. For the rest of us hopeless suckers, the symptoms run a little deeper than that, and they've turned us all into a party of insecure literalists and earnest bores. We freak out at the slightest provocation, like thirteen-year-old boys changing in public middle school locker rooms, terrified that someone will call us "faggots." Then the whole school will know—and dear me, we can't have that. Even when we win, we can't believe it; we're convinced that the slightest threat of conflict will topple our pathetic Jenga-pile of a platform and leave us back in the ditch with the Whigs. Those pesky Code Pink purists! Why can't they just disagree in a civilized way? All that blood! Jeepers!

I know, I know—I can't pin the insecurity thing on we Democrats alone; every American is susceptible to different virulent variations of it (even American Jews, stereotypically our best humorists, get jumpy if someone gives Israel dirty looks—hang on, did I say that right?). The ultimate contemporary example of this, though, is that frothing dingbat preacher from Arizona—the one so deep in the closet that the semen is pushing up against his lizard brain—and his gun-toting Uncle Tom of an acolyte who showed up with a shoulder-bazooka at the President's town hall in Phoenix. Those two jokers have so many compounded insecurities that they can't even see straight anymore—but they are not alone. There was that one guy who bit off a finger…

…and Jesus, let's get control of this awful tripe. That last graf had more ugly generalizations than a good liberal boy like myself ought to be spouting. But hey, at least I didn't mock the sun-eating Japanese first lady. Or the hagiographic memorials to Ted Kennedy (which definitely seemed the mirror image of 2004's mawkish Reagan elegies). Anyway, what I think I was getting at, before that useless digression into name-calling, was this: if the Democratic Party is going to make it out of the 2012 election intact—or even 2010, come to think of it—then we need some king-hell media surrealists in our camp to combat the jabbering dupes on the other side. Not to get too rah-rah here, but the current crop can't cut it. Maher's an asshole, Lewis Black is a walking bomb, Maddow's too intelligent to truly let loose, and Olbermann's become such a weird cartoon that I don't recognize him anymore. It's not a total loss—Ana Marie Cox is still flashing her chest on TV—but when you have to go that deep in the bench for talent, you're getting shaky.

Hell yes—let's get some true monsters out there, and ditch the costumed clowns. Some speakers with real fire in their belly who spew righteous napalm over the hyperventilating paranoid masses. And don't give me that silliness about the President's skillz. Mr. Obama has shown again and again that he lacks the Killer Instinct everybody needs to Truly Succeed in this country. Indeed, he will be viewed as a failure if he can't get his shit together and save this health care mess from the collective stupidity that envelops all who take it on. Yes, in spite of all his personal talent and genius, and all he's overcome, Number 44 seems to truly hate cynics and mistrusts all ironic impulses, which will send him into serious 39 territory before this year is over. Hell, he can't even speak to schoolchildren without pouring gasoline on the Station Fire of melodrama that passes for political dialogue these days.

So what the fuck have I been wasting my time with this crap for, over the past hour? Why not just enjoy this long weekend—the only U.S. holiday honoring the gloriously aberrant socialist impulse—and get ready for all the Beatles reissues next week? Righto, now that's change I can believe in. Maybe it's not a blue world after all, Max. Where can we go?

[Baucus, offstage]: "Argentina?"

Nah, Mark Sanford ruined that one for the rest of us, dude. It will be a very long time before Earnest and Good Men such as we can once again jump on a plane to Buenos Aires and, that very same day, suck champagne off the sensual spines of our Argentine escort-girls. Mother of gyrating Elvis, those were the days, eh? None of that sissy bowing down to the twin demons of Framing and Marketing for us. No sir, we would take the blue gloves off, swallow strong drink and stronger women, and barely live to tell the tale. We would swim naked in the Río de la Plata and support the entire economies of Peru and Bolivia with our ravenous narices.

Yes, yes—better keep that South American beef locked away in the memory banks for the present, Max. Conrad would only get jealous and Snowe would blush right down to her underwear. Just put that innocuous quote in your Facebook status, wait for Reconciliation, and Stand Behind the President when he tells the kids to stay in school. All together now…

Cross-posted: dkos, dd, fsz, mlw

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