Monday, June 25, 2007

Archives Project: STL #34

Title: Greek To Me
Description: Ancient Greek lyric, anyone?
Publication Date: 25 February 2004

An enduring and esoteric interest. I would like to take up an earnest analysis of the tongue in cheek one word poem I end with sometime. But apparently I'm not writing original stuff these days.

Ancient Greek lyric anyone?
Ancient Greek and Roman literature (and philosophy and history) was, as we all know, once the stuff of education. Now, not so much, though a lot of schools still route freshmen through a classics-based foundation of humanities curriculum. I love the classics, but one of my particular interests, the earliest lyric poetry, is overlooked these days and quite frankly never carried the weight of epic or drama or philosophical dialogues. Most of Sappho, Archilochos, Anakreon, and Alkman are lost: devoured by moths or flame. What we have is mostly so fragmentary it takes a great deal of conjecture to even find a poem among the fragments. A significant portion of it is phrases or even single words quoted by approving grammarians or discovered on unwrapped mummy cloths. (The so-called Greek Anthology, by later Alexandrians, fared much better.) What we have is so evocative, so suggestive even in its gaps, that it's well-worth reading. I recommend Guy Davenport's Seven Greeks or Anne Carson's Sappho (If Not, Winter) as works that balance due scholarship (both trained in classics, Carson currently a professor of same) with a poet's ear.
As always, I'm rushed, so I'm just going to compare a few versions of Sappho's most famous poem, which actually is thought to be misattributed. Though I don't know Greek, I feel that we can get a sense of this poem by comparing translations. Kenneth Rexroth's book Poems from the Greek Anthology is mistitled; it pulls from other Greek and even Latin verse as well. Rexroth knew Greek, but is lax in his scholarship, admitting that some of the poems are translated from memory. His version of the poem in question
The moon has set,
And the Pleiades. It is
Midnight. Time passes.
I sleep alone.

is nice, but not really distinguishable in style from his translations from the Chinese or even his own work. The structure and logic of the poem are significantly different from other translations. For example, Sam Hamill, in his fine Infinite Moment: Poems from Ancient Greek, renders the poem
The Pleiades disappear,
the pale moon goes down.

After midnight, time blurs:
sleepless, I lie alone.

The reversal of the stars and moon doesn't trouble me, but the difference between sleeping alone and lying awake alone is huge. Hamill also outdoes his mentor with the sonic interweaving of his version, the /p/ of the first two lines morphs to a /b/, then returns with that crucial "sleepless." The plosive is accompanied by the liquid /l/ all the way through; the blend suggests the troubled tension between the self and the cosmos that this poetry invented.
Mary Barnard is a well-known translator of Sappho, but her book has completed poems where others show fragmented ones, so I don't trust her. Her translation is stretched out longer than others

Tonight I've watched

The moon and then
the Pleiades
go down

The night is now
half-gone; youth
goes; I am

in bed alone

The stretching is in part due to lineation, which I cannot comment on because I don't know what sorts of authoritative texts we have (wait, I do, and I'll go look it up when I'm done), but to what seems to be interpretive comments: putting the lyric "I" at the beginning, the rumination on youth. I find this version troubling. And those stanza breaks are annoying.
Of the books I've looked at, I like Davenport's Seven Greeks the best, if only because he's included three voices I've never heard before: the mercenary/poet Archilochos, the philosopher Diogenes, and the what, comedian?, Herondas. (The rest of the seven are Alkman, Anakreon, Sappho, and Herakleitos.) He notes the gaps in text, incorporating it into the poetry at times, such as parenthetically commenting "Here teething moths/have passed." His version of Saphho's poem is the most compact:
The moon has set, and the Pleiades.
It is the middle of the night,
Hour follows hour. I lie alone.

As in every translation but Barnard's, the final sentence acts as a quick punch, introducing personality and conflict. I also recommend Davenport's introduction that describes the context of the poetry: "The seventh century's perilous interchange of chaos for order, order for chaos, reminds us of our own... Statues were unfreezing from their Egyptiac stiffness; drawing became graceful, calligraphic, paced like the geometric patterns of weaving and ceramics."
Finally, Anne Carson, who is both a classics professor and an accomplished poet. If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho is richly annotated and celebrates fragmentation. (In fact, the book has inspired me to undertake an unwriting of John Keats, deleting and reconstructing his poems in a way similar to Ronald Johnson's deformation of Paradise Lost, RADI OS.) Her version reads
Moon has set
and Pleiades: middle
night, the hour goes by,
alone I lie.

The absence of articles at the beginning reminds us of the blurring between gods and the things of the world. The enjambment between the second and third lines surprises me, but Carson's volume supplies the original Greek. As I said I can't read it, but you can recognize the word Pleiades and see that the next unit is indeed broken. Carson's note explains what I alluded to earlier: the poem was included without attribution in an ancient metrical handbook, then judged to be Sappho in the 15th century. Modern editors don't include it with Sappho, though obviously modern translators follow tradition and do.
Well, my allotted time is up and I don't think I got at what appeals to me about ancient Greek lyric. I'll save that for later, and end with an example of how reading it has shaped my own poetic practice. As I said, some of the poems are actually fragments of only a single word. Here and know I begin a series of my own word poems, inspired by Sappho's "Soda": Coke
Let the analysis begin.

Archives Project: STL #33

Title: HOO HAH!
Description: A look at 5 artists of MAD, before the magazine.
Publication Date: 21 February 2004

Promising start to this, but the artist entries are too hurried. The links will no doubt continue to rot, but I'll leave them in.

Everybody knows Mad Magazine for its cartoon parodies of pop culture. Fewer know that it started as a comic book in 1952, as an extension of (and ultimate successor of) the best comics publisher of the 1950's, the embattled EC comics. EC's grisly horror, crime, and war comics attracted the attention of a Congressional Subcommitte on Juvenile Deliquency, and were a major concern of the crackpot work, Seduction of the Innocents. Comics aren't nearly popular enough to attract all this hullaballoo now, but compare it to diatribes against computer games: under this analogy, EC was the Grand Theft Auto of its time.

Yet it success was not only based on sensationalism, but on a stable of extraordinary artists. EC publisher William Gaines was able to attract topnotch talent by not only paying high rates, but by granting a refreshing amount of creative license. EC might be seen as a rare blending of art and commerce, though admittedly in a heavily commercial venue. You can read more about EC comics elsewhere*, but today I want to say a few words about the five artists who appeared in the first six issues of Mad, collected in DC Comics's handsome Mad Archives.

I haven't really figured out how to talk about comics, or any kind of pictorial art for that matter, so I'll try to find lots of links. I'll dispense right away with discussing the verbal content of the stories, which are occasionally amusing but for the most part have satiric targets that have been hit to often or have faded into obscurity. Unlike the surviving magazines of this type, including the current Mad, the comics parodies are actually parodies of comics stories, including SuperDuper Man vs. Captain Marbles and a whole host of EC's 'straight' titles. There are some funny verbal motifs (like the moxy of calling virtually everyone "Melvin" for a stretch--a funny name, yes, but no Alfred E. Newman) but the real delight of Mad has always been the visual overcrowding--tiny lampoons on display in the background.

The five artists I'll look at are Jack Davis, Bill Elder, Wally Wood, John Severin, and Harvey Kurtzman, who didn't draw any of the stories but wrote them and did the covers. As I said, I'll be brief: maybe say a few words on the style of each, a short assessment, and one or more links.

Wallace Wood has a large cult, but is my least favorite of these five. In comparison to the others, his drawing is underdone. You can see this especially in his facial expressions. For some reason, the colors in his stories tend to be garish, though that's not his responsibility (labor division in comics tends to be strict, pencilling, inking, and coloring are usually done by different people. Colors in this volume are attributed to Marie Severin, and in most stories and vibrant and sometimes evocative). Here's a later story.

John Severin is the straight man of this bunch, relying on conventional figurative techniques. Quite unlike Wood, color is used to great effect in his stories, especially the blue shading in his cowboy story. I guess it helps if your sister is the colorist. Can you even tell if this one is from Mad or Two-Fisted Tales?

As I mentioned, Harvey Kurtzman only drew covers for these issues. He was busy enough running the company, writing stories and drawing his acclaimed, painstakingly research "Hey Look" gags. Kurtzman, like Will Eisner, was one of the artistic giants of the commercial days of comics. Eisner is all over Cavalier and Clay, but Kurtzman is his equal in stature.

Jack Davis uses a really tense, knotted line, always heavily inked (I'm guessing that these guys inked themselves). The suggest some psychic anxiety, a touch of the darker side of "madness." Here's a tribute to Davis.

Finally, my favorite Mad artist, Bill Elder,whose early speciality was crime parodies. His work is probably the most heavily loaded, and his small, gnarled figures clearly foreshadow R. Crumb's. If anything's worth seeking out in the book, it's Elder's "Ganeffs!" and "Mole!".

*As a final note, I'll add that the "facts" in this piece are all out of my head, recalled from perhaps questionable sources. Despite the veneration of EC, there hasn't been a good academic study. (There are hardly any good academic studies of comics at all, but that's a gripe for another time). You could find Roger Sabin's Comics, Comix, and Graphic Novels, which is one of the good ones and must cover EC.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Archives Project: STL #32

Title: The Shame, The Shame
Description: It was bound to happen. I missed a week.
Publication Date: 12 February 2004

Ah, the first gap, and of one week. That's nothin'. I'll have to research the longest break in blogging, which is likely a year or more. Anyway, there will be a statistical tally at the end.

I managed to get through all last semester without missing a week, though I came close a couple of times. Now, I hang my head in shame. Yes, I had deadlines for proposals and such, but that doesn't excuse my failing you. I'll try to make it up to you, my loyal readers, by finishing off my agonizing countdown today. We left off, I believe, at number 14:

14. "I Walk the Line," Johnny Cash (1957). A debut of sorts, but only because I'd somehow overlooked it before. I thought a lot about Cash this last year because of his passing. Read my September 12 post
13. "Little Honey," Dave Alvin (1994). Alvin had been around for a while, with the Blasters and X, but his album "King of California" exceeds anything he'd done before, or did later. It is mostly stripped-down versions of full-band songs, along with a few new songs and some old blues, but in these performances, in which his voice sounds like a topographical map of Bakersfield County, they seem more like elliptical short stories. "4th of July" is the album centerpiece, and the song I picked easier to overlook, but I'm always taken by its portrayal of the moment of calm measure preceding a breakdown.
12. "Barrett’s Privateers," Stan Rogers (1979). If you come over with a bottle of whiskey, I guarantee I'll eventually put on "Between the Breaks...Live!" (The comparatively staid studio version won't do). I'll either stare at you intently like I am teaching you an important lesson, or I'll gaze off rapturously. Smart money says I'll hit every "whoop!" Check out this line-by-line annotation.
11. "Black Eyed Dog," Nick Drake (1974). Drake's reputation has built slowly over the years since his suicide for the simple reason that his records have always been in print. (Some stipulation of his contract.) Thinking about a world in which Drake was forgotten and unavailable is even worse than thinking about a world where his music sells Volkswagens. This song is his barest, built around a single image, and most chilling.

10. "Paranoid," Black Sabbath (1971). How I forgot this song, which gripped me with an iron fist the first time I heard it, is beyond me. Its compact, relentless, perfect. I've seen the promo clip on a music video station credited to Ozzy, which is total crap. Tis Tony Iommi that is the true Baron of Heavy, Osbourne's lucky to have known him. If was I still listing alternates, I'd mention Sabbath's later "Mob Rules" featuring a far superior singer Ronnie James Dio (imagine Tom doing devil hands here.)
9. "Train Song," Tom Waits (1987). I picked this over other great Waits songs, like Gun Street Girl, Falling Down (which I mistakenly wrote in the original list), or Tango til They're Sore, or I Hope I Don't Fall In Love With You or Martha from the first album mostly on the strength of its beginning rasp: "Well I broke down in East St Louis/On the Kansas City line/I drunk up all my money/That I borrowed every dime"--with its teetering grace that Waits mastered long ago.
8. "Breakfast in Bed," Dusty Springfield (1969). I think the appropriate rock-crit move here would be to compare Springfield's sexy voice to some kind of fabric or a blend of tobacco. I found out about Springfield after her Son of a Preacher Man on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack, and this song, from the classic Dusty in Memphis is way better.
7. "Have You Been Making Out Okay," Al Green (1973). Hey, speak of the preacher man. Green's performance on songs like this or the later Belle are astounding: graceful, subtle, and sensual. With Springfield and (less predictably) Dylan, his is the masterful vocal on this week's list.
6. "Kiss," Prince (1986). The best frickin' guitar solo ever recorded. (Go Wendy!) Here's Jonathan Lethem riffing on the song, in the voice of the Tourette's stricken narrator of Motherless Brooklyn: "here was a song that lived entirely in that territory, guitar and voice twitching and throbbing within obsessively delineated bounds, alternately silent and plosive."
5. "Tonight’s the Night," Neil Young and Crazy Horse (1975). Again, the rhetoric fails: "harrowing elegy" you could say, or "raging confrontation with themysteryofdeath." Young just goes on instinct, so I think it's impossible to explain. It does have the all-time enjambment: "Bruce Berry was a working man/He used to load an Econoline/van"
4. "Divorce Song," Liz Phair (1993). The short story comparison I used with Alvin might apply here (though, God, I don't want either of one of them to start thinking they're writers!) Luminous moments, from the beginning: "And when I asked for separate rooms, it was late at night and we'd been driving since noon" and, later "and it's true that I stole your lighter and it's also true that I lost the map but when you told me I wasn't worth talking to I'd have to take your word on that."
3. "Idiot Wind," Bob Dylan (1974). The huge leap from number 34 is because I picked it to represent "Blood on the Tracks," instead of "Tangled Up in Blue." This is the song I'd cite to counter those misguided claims that Dylan can't sing. No, he doesn't have the pipes of Whitney Houston, but then again Houston is an idiot. He sings to his limitations, a moving trait in any artist.
2. "Tracks of My Tears," Smokey Robinson & The Miracles (1965). Haven't I already proposed a song as my personal anthem, in humorous counterpoint to Nazareth's "Hair of the Dog"? Because sometimes you feel like an SOB and sometimes you feel like a sad clown.
1. "Brompton Oratory," Nick Cave (1997). I've said I admire musicians when they confront limitations; this confronts the limitations of music itself: a breath-takingly lovely melody played on what might be a Casio synthisizer. Cave, prophet he is, forces us the unwashed and unsaved to admit we've glimpsed the divine: "a beauty impossible to believe."

Well, remind me never to do that again. Sometime I'll have to come back and examine the evidence to build that aesthetic I've been talking about, but I think that will have to wait. /Other/wise,

reading: When We Were Orphans by Ishiguro, short stories by Alice Munro, Rexroth's Greek Anthology, Hamill's Infinite Moment
listening: The Fiery Furnaces, Decembrists, Weakerthans
watching: The Company, The Man on the Train, West Wing, The Dancer Upstairs, Raising Victor Vargas

Final stats:

1920's 2
1950's 1
1960's 10
1970's 14
1980's 7
1990's 4
2000's 4

"The Rock" 25
"Rhythm and Blues" 9
"Rappin'" 3
"Country/Folk" 5
"Blues/Country Blues of Days of Yore" 3
"The Great American Songbook" 1

These numbers don't add up, but I won't be doing an audit. Regardless, 24 songs from the 60's and 70's compared to 8 from the last two decades is pathetic for sumbuddy in his mid thirties.

Archives Project: STL #31

Title: What, Still?
Description: You've got to admire his temerity, don't you?
Publication Date: 30 January 2004

24. "Gravity of the Situation," Vic Chesnutt (1995). The song begins "Well we blew past the army motorcade, and its abnormal load haulage/The gravity of the situation/came on us like a bit of new knowledge." You never get much closer to the epiphany; the means are illustrated, but not the nature. His distinct diction (he hits the /k/ in motorcade hard, and occasional migrates north in the midst of a vowel) is another means of detailing mystery. Although there are another half-dozen VC songs I like almost as much, like "Bug" or "Soggy Tongues," I'm discontinuing the "alternate" feature cause it was stressing me out (comma, man).
23. "More than This," Roxy Music (1982). Jumping 41 spots on the strength (funny word) of Bill Murray's karoke version in Lost in Translation. The movie gets part of the Romantic yearning of the song, which is a yearning which could never be made flesh but once glimpsed, never forgotten.
22. "Back in Black," AC/DC (1980). Holy Writ of a generation of pot smoking, head banging, shiftless white boys. I might know a little about this sociological group.
21. "Tumblin’ Dice," Rolling Stones (1972). This is what Plato was talking about when he invented Rock and Roll. (Lame joke on ideal forms-- it's ragged, brash on the side of tender; therefore, I'd argue, the perfect rock song and, following from its perfection, above comment.)
20. "Tonight I Think I’m Going to Go Downtown," Flatlanders (1972). My flimsy justification for this ordeal is that I'm building notes toward an aesthetic. I've noticed a penchant for understatement and melancholy. Words like mournful, yearning, and plaintive seem to crop up, along with restrained and measured. This song's a good example of both--following some presumed heartbreak, the singer goes downtown with small hope of something new.
19. "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos," Public Enemy (1988). But on the other hand, I also admire power and bluster. This song doesn't have the braggadicio of later rap or earlier hard rock, but they should put a wav file of Chuck D in the multimedia dictionary under gravitas. (With his cameo on "Kool Thing," Carleton Ridenhour is one of the few artistes to make a second appearance on the list, or maybe the only. A great honor for him, I'm sure.) This prison-break narrative is also one of the great story songs I know, attaining the state of political parable.
18. "Louisiana 1927," Randy Newman (1974). The South. The arrangement of this song creates a broad, cinematic feel. The lyrics reflect a Southern stoic fortitude which isn't clearly admirable: "they're trying to wash us away/they're trying to was us away."
17. "Try a Little Tenderness," Otis Redding (1966). It's that explosion halfway through. If you know the song I doubt if you need any more justification.
16. "In the Midnight Hour," Wilson Pickett (1966). I think that sixties soul music has become the official 'music that everyone likes.' As such, this pick seems kind of obvious to me, but the first line is one of the great vocal entrees I know.
15. "Best is Yet to Come," Sinatra (1961 or 1964, conflicting info). Another sentimental favorite, though certainly a good song by any standard. There's something silly and sad in wishing you liked a particular kind of music, but sometimes I wish I had a better appreciation of the classic American songbook-- Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, those guys. I'm not sure how this song even fits in to that tradition, coming a little later, but it's cool as gin and the version with Count Basie sure does swing. Kitty-cat.

Thirty-six down, fourteen to go. With a rush and a push I might finish next week and move on to other things.

read: The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor, Bardic Ethos in the American Epic Poem
listening: Outkast, The Kills, and above, particularly Randy Newman's Good Old Boys
watched: Spellbound, The West Wing first season

More stats

1920's 2

1960's 8
1970's 8
1980's 5
1990's 1
2000's 4

"The Rock" 19
"Rhythm and Blues" 5
"Rappin'" 3
"Country/Folk" 1
"Blues/Country Blues of Days of Yore" 3
"The Great American Songbook" 1

Archives Project: STL #30

Title: STL 30
Description: It goes on
Publication Date: 24 January 2004

35. "Pale Blue Eyes," Velvet Underground (1969): The best record of the "summer of love," The Velvet Underground and Nico (which doesn't include this song) was its opposite: NYC not SF, cynical not optimistic, Warhol not Shankar. Two years later VU recorded probably the tenderest love song of the decade. Alternate: the amazing version "Heroin" by Lou Reed's band featuring Don Cherry.
34. "Ace of Spades," Motorhead (1980). Oh yeah. I've noticed (and whole-heartedly embrace) hard rock trickling into the canon of rock snobbery lately. Lemmy and co. certainly have the punk cred to back it up. Alternate? No. There is no alternative.
33. "Walking to You," Everything but the Girl (1994). Seems too sophisticated for me, I know, though I did have some pointy-toed shoes at the time.
32. "Enjoy the Silence," Tori Amos (2001). The question of representation. Is it appropriate to use a cover song to represent a favorite singer with a formidable body of work? I'm saying yes at this time, because this song invokes Amos's complexities of gender dynamics and features a great vocal and piano sound (I tested my last CD player with it), and Also, Martin Gore knew better than to ever start a song with "Father I killed my monkey." Why have I not written at length on Tori Amos yet? Hmm. Check back after I kill the present monkey. Alternate: "Raspberry Swirl."
31. "I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times," Beach Boys (1966). Sometimes, when I'm feeling like a precious adolescent, I adopt this as my personal theme song. Other times, it's "Hair of the Dog." Alternate: "Brian Wilson" by Barenaked Ladies.
30. "It’s Tricky," Run DMC (1986). "Run DMC first said a DJ could be a band." Somewhere I read about Jam Master Jay hiding the labels of his rock records so other DJ's wouldn't "bite his shit" (I really don't know if I'm using that term correctly). Rock and rap were more decisively united on "Walk this Way," but I like this song more. Alternate: "Sweet Emotion." (Aerosmith was funky).

29. "Suspicious Minds," Elvis Presley (1966). The corniest song on the list (excepting "Patches" of course). Listen to the version on the 60s box, which doesn't stupidly fade out in the middle like the single version. Alternate: "Blue Moon."
28. "By the Marks," Gillian Welch (1996). See my Gillian Welch commentary
27. "Born for Me," Paul Westerberg (2002). Jack Kerouac used to run around calling every beautiful drunk he met a saint or a buddha. I'd nominate Westerberg, citing this song as one of many attendant miracles. Alternate: "The Swinging Party Down the Line" from the Replacements days.
26. "If I had Possession over Judgment Day," Robert Johnson (1928). Read Albert Murray on the blues, not me. Alternate: "Come on in my kitchen."
25. "I Can’t Stand the Rain, Ann Peebles (197x). Rain's something I know about: it's beautiful in a sad kind of way, overwhelms your senses and mood. Just like this song. Knowing that Ann Peebles is from St Louis makes me want to live there. Alternate: "Hunger Strike" by Temple of the Dog has an obscure relationship in my mind.


read: Oedipus Rex, Something Said (G Sorrentino),The Effect of Living Backwards (Julavits), McSweeney's 12, Huet's Combray, David Boring
watched: Buffy 5, The Cooler, All the Real Girls, Etre et Avoir

1920's 2
1960's 5
1970's 5
1980's 2
1990's 8
2000's 4

"The Rock" 14
"Rhythm and Blues" 3
"Rappin'" 2
"Country/Folk" 4
"Blues/Country Blues of Days of Yore" 3

Archives Project: STL #29

Title: Lint
Description: Continuing the obsessive, and I mean to a frighteningly adolescent degree, examination of 50 songs
Publication Date: 14 January 2004

I feel like a lint-miner, taking the pre-dawn elevator down to the depths of my navel. I'm still not sure what I will find there, but let's go to the specimens first.

45. "Far Away," Sleater-Kinney (2002). The last of a string of "new" (to the list) songs, this is probably the most recently recorded song on the list, though it's about 2 years old. I commented briefly on this song on the album its on here.
44. "Pissed off 2 a.m.," Alejandro Escovedo (1996): Plaint about the spiritual death of an aging rocker; said death happens every time the world around him goes to sleep, every night when the bars close. Alternate: "Here Comes a Regular" by the Replacements.
43. "Sugar Baby," Dock Boggs (1927) The Question of Authenticity crops up here and there on the list. Is it a legitimate quality to use in assessing music, or a nostalgic trap? Is the Authentic even real? The "old-time" music we have from the twenties, like that collective on the superlative Smithsonian Anthology of Folk Music was recorded by companies advertising for "old time musicians." Anyway, this is a chilling, beautiful song. Here's a long article placing Boggs for a contemporary audience. Alternate: "Peg and Awl" by the Carolina Tar Heels
42. "Kool Thing," Sonic Youth (1990). From an album that once looked a little like a sellout, but this is actually a call to revolution based on the union of grrl power (Kim Gordon) and black power (repped by a stentorian Chuck D adlib). Thing is, Chuck doesn't even seem to hear Kim. Altenate: "Sister," SY
41. "Flyby," Ice T (1991). In the grand "pass the mic" tradition of old school rap, like Ice's "Syndicate" from 1988's Power. The earlier song also featured Donald D's rough and tumble style, but this one has a snappy sample from JB's "Superbad." I reckon we call that intertextuality. Alternate: Um, "Superbad"
40. "CCKMP," Steve Earle (1996). This is an anecdote originating from Steve Earle, but about Townes VanZandt. So I should have used it last week. Said Earle (broadly paraphrased): "I'll stand on anybody's coffee table in my cowboy boots and tell them Townes was a better songwriter than Bob Dylan." Or maybe it was Dylan's coffee table he was going to stand on. Anyway, the reconstructed rebel's no slouch himself: "Cocaine cannot kill my pain/Heroin, that's the thing." (Note: Earle allegedly uses the Smithsonian Anthology as a text for his songwriting class)Alternate: "Copperhead Road"
39. "Gin & Juice," The Gourds (1998). The Gourd's stopped playing this great cross-over uniting rap and trad county when frat-boys, who ruin everything, started showing up at their shows. Is this a Novelty Song opposed to the Authentic (Boggs, above), or is an Authorizing Gesture upon which we might predicate the Authentic? Discuss. Alternate: Oh, why not admit it: "Big Pimpin'"
38. "Losing Your Affection," Future Bible Heroes (2002). Stephin Merrit has been called the post-punk Cole Porter for witty verbal facility like this: "I'd rather be a frog speaking Tagalog/As they start the vivisection" Alternate: many choices on 69 Love Songs by Magnetic Fields. How about: "I Don't Believe in the Sun"?
37. "Blue," Jayhawks (1995). I woke up to some NPR commentator going on about how the 3-minute pop song doesn't reward sustained attention like a Chopin Polinaise, (pronounced to rhyme not with mayonaise, but mayo-NEZ). Maybe not, but I commented on the pure pop pleasures of this song in this entry. Alternate: "Wouldn't It Be Nice."
36. "Death Letter," Son House (1965). Recorded late in life by one of the great Delta bluesmen. The Mississippi Delta has ten feet of topsoil. This song is from where the topsoil approaches the bedrock. (oh fuck, it's as I feared-- I've started to sound like Greil Marcus). Alternate: "61 Highway" by Fred McDowell, my other favorite bluesman.


read: Paradise Lost (finally), The Erasers (Robbe-Grillet)
heard: Speakerboxxx/Love Below by Outkast, Fever to Tell by The Yeah Yeah Yeahs
saw: One From the Heart, In America, Bad Santa, Stuck on You, Intolerable Cruelty, House of Sand and Fog, Winged Migration

Stats, yo:

1920's 1
1990's 1
1970's 4
1990's 6
1960's 1
2000's 2

"The Rock" 7
"Rhythm and Blues" 2
"Rappin'" 1
"Country/Folk" 3
"Blues/Country Blues of Days of Yore" 2

Archives Project: STL #28

Title: Accounting for Taste
Description: Revisiting the "top" 50, part 1
Publication Date: 5 January 2004

Here begins a series of posts on the individual entries of STL #26. I don't know why I said "'top' 50" in the description, but I think the title is cute. Commentary at the end.

If asked to provide a justification for what I'm about to do, which is elaborate my top 50 songs with commentary, my answer would be twofold: 1) this blog-o-mine is beyond justification; it's for my own reflection and amusement; you don't have to read it anyway (and if my hit-counter is accurate, you don't) and 2.) despite the prevailing discourse, I'm in (or trying to get into) the taste business, so I want to explore my own in a field somewhat separated from critical tradition (there is as I've mentioned there is a canon of rock snobs, though a lot easier to resist). What exactly is about to happen, I don't know. Let's take it from the top.

50. "Patches" Clarence Carter (1973). Up from #96 last year, and one of the reasons I expanded the list was simply to accommodate this sentimental song about a poor farm boy who carries on in face of adversity to honor his father. See, Patches is a silly, melodramatic song, but unlike most songs of this sort, it touches me. (Which is code for 'it makes me cry.') Being a creature of disinterested critical discernment, Patches must touch some Deep Emotional Truth, and therefore must be on my list of 'best' songs, somewhere toward the bottom. As an alternate choice, one might consider "The Girl Stands Up to Me Now," by Jonathan Richman, as a song that makes me laugh.
49. Good Lovin' Gone Bad, Bad Company (1975). OK, pathos has been dealt with. Most Rock Snobs would sooner admit getting weepy over Patches than been seduced by the braggartly posturing of 70's stadium rock, but apparently I have no shame. This is a totally generic song, with insipid lyrics and a unimaginative arrangement, but a transcendent vocal performance by Paul Rodgers. For an alternate, you could pick any number of songs by a similarly-reviled but amazingly accomplished singer Bob Seger, like "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man."
48. Strychnine, The Sonics (1965). Although I hadn't listed it before, this proto-grunge rave-up has been in my interior soundtrack for year. Alternate: "Dirty Water" by the Standells, another song from the great Nuggets box, the great document of the original "punk rock."
47. Living for the City, Stevie Wonder (1973). Again, a song I've liked for a long time that I've just added this year. Although creating a canon of pop music is totally anti-pop, I see that different songs attract my attention as time goes by. Why listen to music written for the moment when that moment may be 30 years ago? I dunno. Alternate: "Thank You (for Talkin To Me Africa)" which only lost its place because my recording of it sounds like it was cut in a refrigerator. Probably not Sly Stone's fault, but I can't say at the moment.
46. Loretta, Townes Van Zandt (1973). What's up with 1973? R&B, hard rock, and folk all seemed to be booming, at least in my personal version of the universe. This song is sad in a much subtler way than Patches. It's an uptempo song about a woman who hides her sadness from the man telling us about it, which is a neat trick. Alternate: "Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms" by Ramblin' Jack Elliot.

Well, that was fun. I'll be back next week for 5 more.


books: Banquet Years, Corpse Dream of Nikolai Petkov (T. McGonigle), Paradise Lost, Believer

movies: Cold Mountain, Big Fish, 21 Grams, Private Life of Sherlock Holmes

music: The Kills, Alasdair Roberts, Randy Newman Songbook

Running stats, in lieu of insight:
1970's 4
1960's 1

"The Rock" 2
"Rhythm and Blues" 2
"Country/Folk" 1

Archives Project: STL #27

Title: Playing Catchup
Description: Records of the Year(s)
Publication Date: 29 December 2003

And so ends the republication of my most prolific year of blogging. I'll have a few comments on the list at the bottom.

That list I offered last week will provide the matter for several entries in the coming weeks. However, I want to take a brief pause to talk not about my stable favorites, but new ones. Last week, I mentioned the factors which slowed my orderly progress through my CDs: new albums and temporary obsessions. The end of the year provides an occasion for compiling a list of those which compound the second and first of these factors. However, having neither the time nor the money to compile anything like an authoritative list, I have to rely on other critics' year end recommendations to budget my X-mas money. I won't have much of an idea of the year in music until next year is underway. But this is nothing new; I'm forever finding out about the new and cool belatedly. Therefore, I offer a list of "new" music from the past two years that I listened to last year.

  1. Beth Gibbons and Rustin Man: Out of Season. Go buy this beautiful record now. The singer from Portishead and the mastermind of Talk Talk team up to make a great record mixing sources of cabaret, melodrama soundtracks, and the tragic jazz chanteuses.

  2. Sleater-Kinney: One Beat. I don't suppose they want me calling them 'my home-grrls,' but I have driven past the Sleater-Kinney exit from I-5 lots of times.That's not relevant, but "Far Away," the only sincere response to 9/11 I've heard, certainly is.

  3. White Stripes: Elephant. It repeats the formula, but what a formula: stadium rock swagger, a similarly allusive guitar vocabulary, and a DIY sensibility. (Oh, why did I have to say "DIY sensibility"?)

  4. Songs:Ohia: Magnolia Electric Company. The mysterious band finally coalesced with this album. Similar sources to the Whites, but moody and more elusive goals. "Farewell Transmission" is my nomination for rock epic of the year.

  5. Tori Amos: Scarlett's Walk. I came to Tori late in the game. The confessional lyrics of the early massively popular records didn't draw me in, but the musical complexity of the middle albums (including her baroque vocal style) did. The first six songs of this album are great, and most of it very good. The music is less progressive but just as accomplished, and the singing as good as ever.

  6. Stratford 4: Love and Distortion. British invasion via Marin county. Check out the "Telephone"/"Tonight Would Be All Right" one-two punch of diffident communication, the first an honest, friendly talk with Mom. That's so punk rock.

  7. Cast Recording: Once More With Feeling. If you have to ask "what cast," I couldn't convince you anyway. Not as great as the episode of course, but these are some finally crafted and moving songs.

  8. Papa M: Songs of Mac, Papa M Sings, Whatever Mortal Wifey tracked down this group via their Will Oldham connection. The first thing of theirs she found is a two song ep: dark, moody, long. "So Warped" for moody post folk-rock epic of 2002!

  9. Missy Elliott: Under Construction. There are a half-dozen kick-ass songs ("exclusives") here, but the last half just drops off the table. Still, the hooks and beats of the first half still work.

  10. Bonnie Prince Billy: Master and Everyone. Most-used words describing the former Palace mastermind: Appalachia, ghosts, loss.

  11. Camper Van Beethoven: Tusk.Actually recorded in the mid-eighties. It's a song-for-song cover of the Fleetwood Mac album. (How could I not?)

  12. Beck: Sea Change. Beck. What is there to say about Beck that hasn't already been said? He's our Prince, Neil Young, and Leonard Cohen rolled up in one.

  13. Marianne Faithful: Kissin' Time. This is a pretty high ranking when you consider the album makes me a little nauseated every time I play it. Nobody sings with Marianne Faithful's authority.

  14. Future Bible Heroes: Eternal Youth. One of Stephin Merritt's side projects. Not the Magnetic Fields, but witty and enjoyable just the same. The "I'd rather" structure of "Losing Your Affection" is wonderful.

  15. Bill Ricchini: Ordinary Time. I have a friend who likes a particular kind of music: introspective lyrics over lush, pop-orchestral arrangements. He gave me this.

  16. Solomon Burke: Don't Give Up On Me. Comeback for the forgotten soul master.

  17. Low: Things We Lost In the Fire. Slow and sparkling, like a glacier.

  18. Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. I'm starting to think they're a little overrated, but I loved this album for a while. Being There is better though.

  19. The Streets: Original Pirate Material. Raps some skinny British kid made in his bedroom. A brilliant, parallel-universe version of gangsta rap.

  20. Richard Thompson: 1000 Years of Popular Music. Conceived as a lark, it's nevertheless illuminating to hear the songs Thompson values, along with a medieval version of "Oops I did it again."

Anyway, that's how I sees it now. I'll be back next week, explaining myself as usual.


Books: Great Expectations, Oracle Night (Paul Auster), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Banquet Years (Shattuck), Fray (Wheedon)

Flickeries: One, Two, Three (Billy Wilder), Buffy 5

Music: Listen Up 1 and 2 (homemade mixes-- see Ricchini above), "Milkshake," "Crazy in Love" (iTunes purchases--about 100 times each!)

okay, so I think the ranking is still about right. Around #10 begins records I don't and/or don't want to listen to anymore (though "Losing Your Affection" is still the most played song on my computer.) A quick look at the ol' metadata suggest some candidates I came to later: The Yeah Yeah Yeah's (maybe top 20), Sufijan's Michigan album (maybe top 10), Outkast (top 10), The Kills (top 10 if not 5), Fiery Furnaces (10), Decemberists (10), Alasdair Roberts (10), Spoon's Kill the Moonlight (20), and Iron & Wine (20). A revised top 10, sans gnomic thumbnails might be something like

  1. Beth Gibbons and Rustin Man: Out of Season.
  2. Sleater-Kinney: One Beat.
  3. Outkast: Speakerboxx/The Love Below.
  4. The Kills: Keep on Your Mean Side
  5. Fiery Furnaces: Gallowsbird Bark
  6. Tori Amos: Scarlett's Walk.
  7. White Stripes: Elephant.
  8. Songs:Ohia: Magnolia Electric Company. Plus the previous year's Didn't It Rain
  9. Papa M: Songs of Mac, Papa M Sings, Whatever Mortal
  10. Missy Elliott: Under Construction.

Archives Project: STL #26

Title: 50
Description: A few of my favorite songs (being a December tradition)
Publication Date: 22 December 2003

It's funny that when I was doing this I had many responsibilities to attend to, but the last several months I've had little to do yet can hardly seem to find the time to repost what I've already written. A couple of things to note: I'm currently in the middle of a listening project similar to the obsessive alphabetical working through I mention below. In this case I'm listening to a playlist of songs in my iTunes with a play count of zero. This actually comprises a lot of my old favorites that I would listen to a lot on CD, yet for one reason or another hadn't listened to via iTunes or the iPod, or in many cases hadn't even uploaded. This project might help me make a top 50 again this winter, which I don't think I've done since the following.

Just before sitting down to post this abbreviated entry, I put on Tom Ze's Hips of Tradition. Listening to this CD represents the completion of a year-and-a-half listening project.* That's right, it took me 18 months to listen to all my CDs, played in alphabetical order. That long span tells me one of two things: either I have too much music, or too little time. There are mitigating factors to consider; new CDs which I'd listen to several times, or CDs that I played in order but wanted to hear again. But either way, this vantage point provides a good excuse to resort to one of my favorite and most useless pastimes: list-making.

It's been a tradition of mine (well, this makes the third year) to compile a list of my favorite songs. The first year it was a top 50, the next year it expanded into a top 100, but this year it's back to 50, with a couple of arbitrary rules in place: first, that no 'artist' be allowed more than one entry. My other rule is that "songs" by defined as music with words, so no "Ruby My Dear." My informal guideline is to avoid snobbery-- to include songs that I like, and not ones I think I should like. Sometime in the future, I'll provide commentary on the various selections, but I've still got to pack for my trip home. In the nearer future, like next week, look for a year's best sort of list. This will be a list of those CDs that interrupted my mechanical progress by demanding to be played, and now. But now, my top 50 songs, countdown style:

50. Patches, Clarence Carter (1973) (up from #96 last year)
49. Good lovin gone bad, Bad Company (#67)
48. Strychnine, The Sonics (new!)
47. Living for the City, Stevie Wonder (new!)
46. Loretta, Townes Van Zandt (new!)

45. Far Away, Sleater-Kinney (new!)
44. Pissed off 2 a.m., Alejandro Escovedo (#91)
43. Sugar Baby, Dock Boggs (#69)
42. Kool thing, Sonic Youth (#56)
41. Flyby, Ice T (1991) (#57)
40. CCKMP, Steve Earle (1988) (--, #42 in 2001)

39. Gin & Juice, The Gourds (1998) (down from #23)
38. Losing Your Affection, FBH (#88)
37. Blue, Jayhawks (--, #39 in 2001)
36. Death Letter, Son House (#71)

35. Pale Blue Eyes, Velvet Underground (#53 )
34. Ace of Spades, Motorhead (#51)
33. Walking to You, ETBTG (--)
32. Enjoy the Silence, Tori Amos (#42)
31. I Just Wasn’t Made for these times, Beach Boys (#40)
30. It’s Tricky, Run DMC (--)

29. Suspicious Minds, Elvis Presley (#36)
28. By the Marks, Gillian Welch (1996) (--)
27. Born for Me, Paul Westerberg (--)
26. If I had Possession over Judgment Day, Robert Johnson (#49)
25. I Can’t Stand the Rain, Ann Peebles (#29)

24. Gravity of the Situation, Vic Chesnutt (#28)
23. More than This, Roxy Music (#64)
22. Back in Black, AC/DC (1980) Holy Writ (#26)

21. Tumblin’ Dice, Rolling Stones (1972) (#24)
20. Tonight I Think I’m Going to Go Downtown, Flatlanders (1972) (#22)
19. Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos, Public Enemy (1988) (#21)
18. Louisiana 1927, Randy Newman (1974) (#20)
17. Try a Little Tenderness, Otis Redding (1966) (#19)
16. In the Midnight Hour, Wilson Pickett (1966) (#15)
15. Best is Yet to Come, Sinatra (#46)

14. I Walk the Line, Johnny Cash (--)
13. Little Honey, Dave Alvin (1994) (#13)
12. Barrett’s Privateers, Stan Rogers (#14)
11. Black Eyed Dog, Nick Drake (1974) (#11)

10. Paranoid, Black Sabbath (--)
9. Train Song, Tom Waits (1987) (#5)
8. Breakfast in Bed, Duffy Springfield (1969) (#10)
7. Have You Been Making Out Okay, Al Green (1973) (#6)
6. Kiss, Prince (1986) (#7)
5. Tonight’s the Night, Neil Young and Crazy Horse (1975) (#3)
4. Divorce Song, Liz Phair (1993) (#8)
3. Idiot Wind, Bob Dylan (1974) (#34)
2. Tracks of My Tears, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles (1965) (#2)
1. Brompton Oratory, Nick Cave (1997) (#1)

Well, I see I have a lot of explaining to do. I'll start soon enough.

*I say "represents" because the assorted soundtracks and comps that are stored following the Z's make an anti-climactic finale, and I choose not to mention the ZZtop album. Although the trio's orthography makes a more definitive conclusion, they so lack Ze's hipster cache. But, as I am able to actually drive to LaGrange, you couldn't expect me not to do so, listening to the "how-how-how-how" as I rolled into town?


books: Watt (Beckett) Wittgenstein's Ladder (Perloff), Poetry in the Museums of Modernism (C. Paul) McSweeney's 12, The Believer

Movies: Two Towers, Return of the King, Band of Outsiders

Music: Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Randy Newman Songbook, Soul of Black Peru