Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The case for making sense against the the professional sense makers

A buddy had just finished a book I'd lent him, The Death of the Critic by Ronan McDonald, and was convinced that the theorists needed a severe pounding. His language was such that I had to put the phone down and answer the door for the pizza delivery man. When I got back and picked the phone up again, he was still ranting, unaware, it seems, that I was gone for a couple of minutes. He's a high school pal, someone who like no matter the contrasts in cultural preference, and he likes a critic to perform the service of being a consumer guide.

 He likes mysteries, Clive Cussler and true crime books, and all he wants is a synopsis and brief evaluations on whether he'll get his money's worth. I have no idea why he wanted to read the book, but he was fired up enough to be convinced that the Usual Suspects McDonald lays out for literary criticism's demise--French theorists, multiculturalism , feminism, variations on the postmodernist riff--had conspired to irritate him .One might understand the response, as in any of those times one volunteers a statement, heartfelt but visceral, not cerebral, about a book they read and enjoyed that might have happened to be the subject of conversation. Once you make your remarks, add your few pennies worth, some smart ass chimes in with caterpillar-length words and odd ideas from two or three different disciplines and leaves you there, lost and humiliated.

That happened to me when I was younger , much younger, mouthing off my platitudes about arts and politics, but rather than getting angry and nurturing a resentment, I was determined to become one of those smart asses, or at least sound as though I belonged to the club. My friend, though, craved his resentments and continued variations of his anti-intellectual beef over the last forty-some years. I assume most of us have friends like that. It was an exasperating conversation. Finally I got him off the phone and made a mental note to not lend him any more books having to do with literary theory or the history of ideas. Rather, I'll offer him some Elmore Leonard. There is a writer we can probably talk about.

On the topic of the book ,it's not that the literary critics are dying as much as people have pretty much ignoring them, preferring the pseudo science of theory, which prefers to wallow in a choking , jargon-clogged solipsism to writing that actually engages a book and it's style, the author's intentions, and the successes or failures contained therein. At some point a generation of young academics hitched their fortunes on the diffusing forces of continental philosophy because they found a method through which they could abnegate their charge to aid readers to sharpen their skills.Literature, by whatever definition we use, is a body of writing intended to deal with more complex story telling in order to produce a response that can be articulated in a way that's as nuanced as the primary work, the factors that make for the "literary" we expect cannot be reducible to a single , intangible supposition.

Use is a valuable defining factor, but the use of literature varies wildly reader-to-reader, group-to-group, culture-to-culture, and what it is within the work that is resonates loudly as the extraordinary center that furnishes ultimate worth, varies wildly too; there are things that instigate this use, and they aren't one determinant, but several, I suspect. The goal of literary criticism, ultimately, is not to create the terms that define greatness, but to examine and understand what's already there, and to devise a useful, flexible framework for discussion. Ultimately, the interest in useful criticism is in how and why a body of work succeed or fail in their operation, not establishing conditions that would exist before a book is written

Some of us who toyed with deconstruction and the like , when we found that language in general and literary writing in particular couldn't address the world as is,remember the sweetly slippery issue of inter-textuality. Promoted by Derrida and deMan, if memory serves me (and it often doesn't), this was the fancy footwork that while books fail to address the nature things and make them fixed, unchanging situations, texts (meaning books) referred only to other texts, and the coherent systems writers seemed to uncover or create about how things are were in practice drawn from a limitless archive of each text that came before the one you might have in your hand and considering it's fidelity to your experience.

A futile concern, we find, since everything has already been written, everything has already been said. If this were true, we asked, how can it be that some theorists are using language to precisely describe what language cannot do, i.e., precisely describe things? I never read a response that made sense, as the the answers seemed even more steaming heaps of gobbledygook that made the unanchored theory before even more impassable.Interestingly enough, the entrenched theoreticians, reticent to use the metaphorical techniques they had interrogated and attempted to render inert, weren't able to have their ideas stand outside the limits of their terminology and secure a comprehending response from the interested nonspecialist.

A pity, since science writers and even literary researchers themselves were able to explain in easier parlance the purpose, technique and consequence of the minute and verifiable data science was accruing. But no matter, because at the time one had discovered a nice hedge against having to read a book; I am being grossly unfair to the good critics taking their cues from Continental thought, but deconstruction and intertextuality were choice methods of not dealing with what a writer was saying, instead giving a jargonated accord of how all writing and discourse cannot get beyond itself and actually touch something that terms signify.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Mistress of mystery travels through time

Emily Dickinson was cryptic for reasons known only to herself, I’m afraid, but I'm of the mind that she intended her compact lyrics to be interpreted any number of ways. Irony, contradiction, revelation; her poems move along general the general theme that one’s thinking, Dickinson’s, evolves with time, gently or brutally, and that the time to be a witness is finite. 

Nuances and whispered implications abound in her work and, beyond a loosely gathered bit of conventional wisdom about ED’s general themes and concerns; there is plenty in her work to warrant continued, fascinating and inconclusive opinions about where the center of the poem, it's motivating core and precise details lie. But what is also fascinating and important to speculate is what’s not included in the poem; what is outside the text is a worthy subject of investigation/speculation. I've heard it remarked more than once over a few decades that Dickinson appears to be talking to the air around here, oblivious to whether there are others around her who might hear her address intangible thing about equations that can't be quantified with locked-down certainty. 

 It is an element that makes ED contemporary to this day, as a body of work that still resonates with a modern readership discovering a wit, an insight, a corresponding feeling in her splendidly fragmented manner. My information is nothing else but my own reading gauged against my own experience, both as citizen and poet. What I’ve said I have found in the text, really. Literary commentary is not science, and it is pointless to insist on anything like “back to the data”. Historical context for poems is fine for perspective, but language is a living thing, not stagnate, as you know, and ED’s word choices. I am convinced that there are meanings in great poems that those most great poets were entirely unaware; poetry is an intuitive process however much a crafted discipline comes into play. 

There is the superficial element, the glitter, the dazzle, the alluring set of phrases that seem to say one thing, and then there are things that combined suggest and point toward matters perhaps the author might not have known of, let alone the reader. That is the joy of criticism, a rage of interpretative opinions based on the text. I fairly much reject definitive, “authoritative” interpretations of works of art. I do, though, welcome contrary views and insights. 

That's a major reason why I finally surrendered to the singular genius of this poet as a poet of ideas; where the descriptions of manufactured melancholy and text book irony wore out with the idioms they rode in in, Dickinson , like Shakespeare , to a large  degree, remains contemporary with a language that is unique, in a form that eschews what formal instruction demands and which services a poetry that remains relevant to the modern age, what ever decade a reader is sitting in, reading a poem off the page or device; the mystery of existence is intact and vital. Dickinson still provides the reason to say aha, she still creates the chill of recognition.

Society for me my misery
Since Gift of Thee—

Dickinson, as I understand her, was not a fan of humanity, and preferred her thoughts and her privately considered things to the clamor and debate of the many that would battle over the right to name the world and its contents as they think it should be. She kept her own consul and had no patience for what others thought or thought of her. 

Being public was a burden beyond what her personality desired; in this couplet, which I suspect is a couplet, she considers the state of being noted, notable, famous for any reason a misery that she ought not to suffer. Being known beyond Amherst was an undeserved gift to the world, as a reputation that accompanies fame presents the world with a readymade narrative of someone’s life and presented her with the problem of having to live up to a plot line that she felt had nothing to do with her. Being comprehended or understood by the masses was a useless option for her. 

While Dickinson wanted to everyone to mind their own set of affairs while she tended her own piece of the earth, Pound, again, wanted to have language be capable of getting an image exactly, as would a photograph; the thinking is that he wanted to get beyond the metaphysical conceits that an older poetics contained. 

On the face of it this seems admirable, but what he wanted to do was to have the world see the world as he saw it, precisely, without romantic resonance and the nuanced variations that come with the habit (and the political tumult as well). He wanted to settle matters quickly and have folks move into a new, dynamic direction. Essentially, I believe his basic goal with his project of boiling down the language was an effort to turn whole populations into cattle.

Blues philosophy with Tomas Doncker

THE MESS WE MADE -Tomas Doncker 
The music called the blues isn’t dead because people still get the blues, a condition that comes from various states of being that are not conducive to broad smiles and sprite pop songs. Racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, love problems, crime, economic oppression, organic states of mental instability, life seems a punishment to millions, a punishment mostly of our own making, the sad fact of human history that we create our own woes. The truth is about speaking the truth to these matters, testifying from one’s own experience and critiquing the cases and causes of the accumulated woe in terms blunt, specific, unhindered by apologies or finessed blather. Bluesman Tomas Doncker, a veteran guitarist/singer, and songwriter who’s been developed a diversified resume with collaborations with Yoko Ono, Ivan Neville, Bonnie Raitt, Bill Laswell and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa, brings us The Mess We Made , a pungent and thrilling diagnosing of the current situation that reminds us, to paraphrase Ezra Pound, that blues is news that stays news.

The Mess We Made is a contemporary blues album, far beyond the expected twelve and sixteen bar idiom of more traditional form that has become sadly parodied, if unintentionally, but a generation of younger musicians. Doncker has an expansive palate the draws from, generous portions of New Orleans stride, electric-Motown funk ala the Temptations (“Cloud Nine”), the ethereal rhythm and blues musings and murmurings of Curtis Mayfield (“Freddie’s Dead”).
“Church Burning Down”, a hyper funky testimony that features the superb rhythm section cooking on a red-hot foundation for Doncker’s ire, an angry lament that in the face of turmoil, strife, oppression, the cold murder of members of the community, the Church he worships at and the churches of other faiths nominally sharing the same spiritual beliefs and tenets, cannot come together and move their communities toward a common goal of making daily life better, decent.
I am a sinner, just like you
 Abandoned by a state of Grace
 Just like you-just like you
 So damn sick and tired
 Of being sick and tired and abused…
There is conspicuous common cause for religious leaders to live up their professed beliefs and work hard for a better community where neighbors aren’t preying on one another, but human vanity resists the commitment and what results is institutionalized indifference to the problems, an indifference that will result in the church being consumed by the troubles they ignore.
The title song, “The Mess We Made”, reflects on the irony of humans acting increasingly in corrosive bad faith through the kinds of digital aids that have promised consumers the means to connect with hundreds of others, acquire scores of information in an instant and achieve a glimpse of the real world only to find themselves isolated, fearful, angry, paranoid, depressed as a long-term result. Verse three is a sad admission of powerlessness to anyone who harbors aching regrets over ignoring relationships and opportunities in life as it’s actually lived, preferring the illusion of being the center of the universe while in the prison social makes possible.
Should’ve known better
 Should’ve left well enough alone
 Could’ve shook a hand and made a friend
 Should’ve put down my smart phone
 Should’ve known better
 But I was so afraid
 ’Cause I drank the poison sweet Kool-Aid
 And now I’m drowning
 In the mess we made
Get your mind right
 Gotta get your mind right
 Get your mind right now…
The Mess We Made is a confident testimony from one musician and citizen who wants himself to rise above the routine mendacity that depreciates both oppressed and oppressor, but also that insists that we need to free ourselves from our devices, to look up from the monitors and to walk outside to see the world that unveils itself. This not, though, an album of lectures, rants or scorn heaped on you at length. It’s a musically rich field of styles here, extending the blues into the contemporary vernacular but never losing the grit, the grease, the percolating counterpoints and variously rocking counters that make this testament alluring, fascinating, and, yes, danceable. Bear in mind the instrumental chops of the musicians, with Doncker’s guitar work reflecting both the slash and sonic wherewithal of Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn. He has chops, yes, but they are in service to his fine songwriting.

Thursday, April 21, 2016


A problem of being a self-appointed culture critic is that the longer you hang around the planet breathing the air, the faster it seems your heroes seem to die.  That's a generational thing, your elders and your peers start to pass on, and your tribe is just a little smaller every few weeks. The cure for that sort of minor depression is, of course, get new heroes, read new artists, listen to music by younger musicians, and, most obviously, make more friends.

Iggy turned 63 April 21st, 2016 and it's an irony upon an irony that he enters the last year of his 6th decade of life on the same day we find out that Prince has passed away at the age of 57. Iggy survived the morbid predictions that insisted that he would be the next major edgy rock star to go, joining Morrison, Joplin, Hendrix, Jones, and others as having a bad end to an edgy life lived in the spotlight. Nihilism was at the core of his act, both as Stooges frontman and as solo artist, and it seemed that the fabled mixtures of teenage impulse and fantastic amounts of methamphetamines and heroin were willful tools he was using to describe life not just at the edge of existence but also, if he were lucky, a will to narrate the passage through the thick shroud of unbeing . It's a classic conceit in modern arts, that an artist's demise is confirmation of their greatness/genius/cutie-pie factor, what have you. It's a species of pornographic thinking and shame on us for egging it onward in the culture. 

 Something intervened in that cliche, however, and Pop has been one of the more interesting elder statesmen for some time, always worth a listen. We benefit by his persistence to remain creative; not to be too terribly sentimental about it, but Pop's longevity improves the quality of my life by his example that you can continue to respond creatively, with imagination to the short existence we're allowed to have. Prince was one of those people, like Bowie, you assumed would be around for the final mile of the long haul, a genuinely gifted polymath who would make music into his dimmest twilight. What hurts the most, from this fan's view, is that we won't get to hear the grander, more experimental adventures Prince would have had as a musician. A straight-ahead jazz album. A record of guitar blitzing? Serious classical endeavors? Movie soundtracks? Big Band Music? A blues thing? Reggae? A stage turn as Othello?  

His androgyny/sex fiend persona aside, I marveled at the chameleon nature of his music, the jumping around from style to style. Unlike Bowie, equally eclectic in taste and output, there was a substantial musical virtuosity to Prince's switching up and mashing up and fusing the elements of rock, fusion, Philly/Motown/Memphis/ soul, jazz and the occasional bits of classical allusion. Though he never spoke much of his training, self-taught or schooled, he had as solid a grasp of the mechanics of music and controlled his virtuosity like it were a tool to be used judiciously, in service to the music. There was little that was excessive in his music, and I rather liked his singing, which was far from your traditional rock or soul voice; thin, reedy, nasal, limited in range and color, he still molded it convincingly over his melodies and lyrics, sounding wise, insinuating, dangerous, alluring, nearly any persona he wanted to get across. Anything seemed possible for him because he was spectacularly good at the varied projects he'd already finished and released.

  Alas, but no. This makes you want to pause a few moments and consider the breath your taking at that instant and recognize that life is a gift we are given but that which we don't own. Embrace the days we have and do something with the hours while we have them.

Monday, April 18, 2016


So much vitriol has been unleashed from critics following the release of Zack Snyder's "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" that it's not unnatural for those sympathetic to the director's zeal to give us a vision of superheroes in the Age of Anxiety to suspect that the reviews were a result of herd-think. The image of a bunch of high school thugs cracking their knuckles waiting for their selected victim to emerge from the protection of the school halls comes to mind. What they had to say, the critics, sounded more like they wanted to hear themselves in the hating, the collective will to condemn without attempting to dig into what Snyder was doing artistically or in the overlapping storylines. No, I am not one of those who thinks Marvel, DC's rival, bribed critics to give BvS: DOJ  negative reviews. Instead, I think three years of anticipation and bickering and speculation while the film was being made has poisoned the critical well. Herd thinks. That's my view.

 That is to say that I don't think the movie reviewers were on a rival company's payroll in to order to undermine the DC Comics sophomore entry in creating a cinematic version of its comic book line. In the time since this project was announced at the San Diego ComicCon in 2013, naysayers, professional critics and compulsive internet nags alike, appear to have been chomping at the bit to get their negatives in order for that day when BvS: DoJ finally had a public debut. The vitriol, much of it clever in the art of invective, seems too polished, over-rehearsed, like a "gotcha" line from a Presidential debate that makes for a good sound byte but misses the point all the same. That's what I think of the negative reviews, they miss the point. The zeal of containing this film in the buzz-kill fog of horrible word of mouth has made for sharp writing and bad thinking.

Of course, I loved the film quite a bit, flaws and occasional gaps in plot logic altogether. The film, though, is beautifully mounted and is not incoherent at all. Anyone halfway familiar with the essential DC comics this film comes from will have no trouble going along with the vivid visuals and photo-caption philosophizing that move through this, yes, "grim-dark" saga of how the world's two most famous superheroes come to do battle in their first encounters. Without going into an excess of chat-happy detail and equally overheated defense of the film and the director's choices, it just needs to be said that Zack Snyder makes a different kind of comic book movie than what Marvel's glib, chatty, joke-infested action vehicles have; Marvel's is not a bad style, of course, and it has been extremely profitable for them, but it amounts to a House Style, which is to say that it seems as though each film is directed by the same person, each is written by the same team. 

Snyder goes a different direction and, though one needs to admit that his storylines are often muddied film to film, his visual style, from his dark, steely color schemes, his sense of alternating slow motion and rapid motion during action scenes, his ability to fluidly provide with a sweeping series of panorama camera moves that gives us a vision of a world where humankind is challenged by both heroes and defenders who's existence in the midst is terrifying on the face of it, effectively resonates with the dread caused by dark headlines from a world that is anything but serene . The fight sequences are splendid indeed, Ben Affleck may well be the definitive Batman for years to come, and Henry Cavil as Superman creates a subtly complex portrayal of superhero bedeviled by the negative results his attempts to help the mortal world result in.

There are a number of well-argued defenses of Batman v Superman one can Google that defend Snyder's style as applied to these icons, and which argue that BvS is quite a bit of a triumph and a breakthrough in the genre. I would recommend Mark Hughes' calm, thoughtful defense in the online edition of Forbes. The short and the long this set of paragraphs is to make mention that even with flaws, there is verve and flair, grit and brilliance in this movie and that anyone with a love of comic books, in general, owes themselves the gift of seeing a film that will be a game changer for how comic book movies are made; I have confidence that the DC Cinematic Universe is here, a vital and vibrant style of superhero movie that will be an important counterpoint to what Marvel offers.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Eric Anders: the trudge toward the sunlight

BIG WORLD ABIDE: The Best of Eric Anders
Eric Anders - (Baggage Room Music)
Eric Anders is a contemplative, moody, inward directed singer-songwriter who, in the great pop tradition of songsters, mulls over, muses and meditates intensely over matters in their life that haven’t unfolded anywhere near their liking. It’s not an easy job, if you think to consider that this sort of scribe is required to condense a slew of contradictory reactions and response to a few basic chords and (preferably) terse, rhyming couplets embracing a rush of emotions and coming up a tune that has a hook, is lyrically provocative, is hummable, and is not “talked to death” as a meditation on one’s misreading of how the universe around actually works.
Anders avoids the chatty, overcompensating rationalization of lyrics that are fewer words to glide on the melody than they are probes into intangible topics. Anders, who vocally reminds of Cold Play singer and guitarist Chris Martin with his appealing, fragile falsetto delicately crooning the fragmented lyrics, understands the value of brevity, of creating the effect, the mood, and then moving on to the next investigation of inchoate pondering. BigWord:The Best of Eric Anders, a collection of songs from his previous four releases, shows us a singer who has solid, if limited, sense of how to put a tune together, how to create the arrangement and instrumentation that gives the simple structure an evocative embrace, and lyrics that are segmented impressions, depths of private consideration and yet are still aware of the politics, the injustice, the hard facts of history and lessons a larger culture hasn’t learned.
There is something in this collection that makes me think of a personal journal, notebook jottings, brief and pungent images, allusions and references set to an effectively arranged music backdrop. It’s not a matter the lyrics make literal sense, that they are genuinely “poetic” that the fussier rock and pop critics require ; although cryptic, non-contiguous with regard to formal argument, there is a streaming, plain-spoken private language here that creates the feeling that you’ve walked into a room you assumed was empty only to discover the lone likes of Anders alone, standing at the window, talking to himself as speaks to a grove of leafless trees (or a garden in full bloom, for that matter). There’s the sneaking suspicion that you’re intruding, but the words you make out, the tangible phrases you make out are fascinating in their isolated resonance. You lean closer to hear more, you make the connections you’re able to, and you leave, understanding only a little, intrigued all the same.
To that end, Anders reminds me of the later work of the late singer-songwriter Phil Ochs, a contemporary of Bob Dylan from the folk music protest music of the sixties. Late in his career Ochs turned away from being a polemicist for the New Left and authored a series of albums like  Tape from California and Rehearsals for Retirement in which is poetic gifts as a wordsmith explored his disillusionment with the counterculture and its promise of creating an America based on the ideal of peace, freedom, and justice. The work was oftentimes brilliant, the grand sounds of someone caught in a spiral of clarity remindful of Lear, someone being buffered by an onslaught of truth under the appearance of things and the errant reasoning that makes them appear substantial. Ochs took it hard and didn’t survive the spiral he was caught in.
Anders gives me the feeling that he will walk through the contradictions. He hasn’t Ochs’ genius for poetic lyrics, but it may well be that’s a benefit to both his personal resilience to life’s hardscrabble and to his music. Even though the songs on Big World Abide would have been better if there were a broader spread of tempos and styles — by the end of the disc one feels like they’ve been on a very long car ride on the turnpike between Detroit and Cleveland at a constant, deliberate speed, the bump and hiss of the tires lulling you into an unpleasant stupor — what makes this record remarkable is the sense that Anders is weighing his options as to how he wants to live his life. He seems a man willing to examine his mistakes and his disillusions and disappointments and to learn, demonstrating an ability to change based on new evidence. That is appealing indeed.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The long black shadow follows you

My Depression is Always Trying to Kill MeVince Grant --(Vince Grant Music)   

The title of Vince Grant’s recent EP pretty much gives the game away as to what the album contains, the story of an earnest singer-songwriter trying not merely to make his self-admitted malady the basis of a transcendent art, but also, more crucially, critically, desperately, to actually deal with a condition that continues to bedevil him. The depression-as-subject matter is a slippery slope in any event, an easily romanticized condition that the less awareness among readers, listeners, and lovers of theater and film consider a prerequisite to being an artist worth considering.This is an idiotic presumption to start with, but it’s one that’s filtered through our culture for centuries, even in the critical discussions that are ostensibly intended to uncover, though, close readings, how a poem, a novel, a play works as art; the thinking, however, has largely focused on what issues the poet has, on the depth of his or her depression, and how the perennial melancholy inspired reams of beautiful downcast poems and lyrics. It was for the longest while that one couldn’t read a biography or critical essay on the works of confessional poets along the lines of Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, or Robert Lowell without the obsession with their depression outweighing the merits of the works as writing: while one couldn’t rightly exclude a mental disorder in regards to discussing what informed a writer’s tone and worldview, the consensus seemed to be that such an artist, confessing details of a life that is slipping increasingly into grey areas that are harder to emerge from as time goes by, achieves success only if they perish, commit suicide, due to the increasing isolation depression places them in. This is morbid thinking and a form of self-fulfilling the prophecy that sees the artist less as someone creating art than as a victim vainly thrashing about with words and motion as a means to cure themselves of that which curses them daily.Vince Grant, a seasoned singer-songwriter who has long contended with depression, doesn’t entertain the notion that he will eventually conquer, transcend or “cure” himself of his depression with his music. In his publicity materials for My Depression is Always Trying to Kill Me, he’s quoted as saying “…I write songs to cope. I’d like to say I write songs to heal, but that may be asking too much.” Any alcoholic and addict who’s down a “fearless and thorough inventory” of themselves with the aim of finding a means to deal with a damning condition they’re powerless over, Grant, in his music, understands not just the bedrock permanence of depression the emotionally crushing, seldom relenting feeling of feeling that an invisible but none the less impenetrable wall surrounds him, separating him from the world, but that dealing with it is something the sufferer does one day at a time.The album is a story of sensations, the cold gloom at the bottom of the dark hole he finds himself, the recalling of dreams, lovers, friends, opportunities taken from him from him by his depression and his attempts at self-medicating with booze and drugs, the attempt to rise from the mire and move toward the sunlight, to re-enter the world of sound and motion, to become part of the great parade of in the life he has, to be a citizen, just for today. It’s one step forward, another step, forward, a step back, a stumble, arising after the fall, a step forward, another step, one day at a time.One can be cynical about the simplicity of a philosophy that is likely culled from twelve-step programs, but what we have with Grant’s songs is a pervasive honesty that doesn’t add the element of “the Hollywood Ending” that assures the listener that hope wins overall; that would be dishonest to Grant’s truth. He does not deny the pain his condition creates for him, he remembers vividly that what he copes with is still present and can take him out if he grows lax in his efforts to keep himself about the waves that threaten to overcome him.The paradox of this review is that Grant’s honesty and unpretentious testimonial about his struggles and small victories is an effort that impresses and inspires me to a great degree; I cannot say, though, that I enjoyed the songs as much I wanted to. Coached in the anthemic style of U2, REM, and Manic Street Preachers and Counting Crows, Grant’s material, musically, is more a collection of borrowed gestures, lacking a distinguishing sound of his. For songcraft, he repeats the worst habit of early U2, which was to dispense with ingenious hooks and the niceties of beginnings, middles, and ends and instead rely on layering three or four chord guitar strums with little discernible movement ; acoustic guitar, a persistent bass figure, the addition of a brash electric guitar, additional percussion, the music in volume, diminishing in volume, the volume rising again, a chorus repeated until the whole arrangement, such as it is, fades. Grant’s earnestness comes through, his ragged vocals convey the humanity of his struggle against the darkness that follows him, but that is not enough to make up for the feeling of things borrowed without that crucial spark of reinventing the riffs that have influenced him.

Friday, April 8, 2016


Mac Gollehon and the Hispanic Mechanics
(True Groove Records)
Miles Davis has referred to trumpeter Mack Gollehon as “Mister Chops”, a fitting sobriquet for the versatile trumpeter who’s lent his skills to the work of David Bowie, Duran Duran and Blondie and a broad range of others, a man in command of his instrument, an agile, fleet improviser who finds the groove, expands it, makes it memorable.The ever searching Gollehon has commenced into the rich and rhythmically propulsive music of Latin EDM and House Music on is new release Mac Gollehon and the Hispanic Mechanics.

 Bright, blaring, buoyant, emotionally cathartic, ensemble establishes a stellar set of cross currents in what seems as astonishingly rapid conversations , calls and responses, points and counter points of percussion, piano, horns and a steadfast chorus of singers chiming through the dancing propulsive.Gollehon is a master of tone alternating between sounds reminiscent of the muted grace of Miles, the fat and scalar runs of Freddie Hubbard, to the twisting high notes of Maynard Ferguson, his riffs jabbing playfully at the intersecting grooves, short bursts of notes riding the swells and washes of drum and bass foundations and the kinetic activity of the trumpet and trombone (also played by Gollehon) to provide bursts, blasts, melodic outlines and searing ostinato pointillism. Gollehon alternates between staccato, where each sharp note is distinct from the other, and legato, a smoother, more flowing approach to the scales.

 The band, especially in the crazy activity of bassist Mike Griot and percussionists Miguel Valdez, Baba Don, Ronnie Roc establish a tight, pulsating weave of beats and vibes, accelerated and toned down as mood requires, a superb canvas of commotion for Gollehon to work his magic upon. My one complaint, if you could call it that, is the lack of any extended solos from the trumpeter. An artist who’s been widely praised for his skill to ad lib compelling solos that precisely fits the musical frame work he’s working in, a hot-footed sortie, an lyrical chorus or three of sublimely timed notes, riding the crest of these rich waves of sound, would have been the icing on the cake.Though jazzy in a large measure, this isn’t a jazz record but rather one intended to get the listener to arise and dance in the middle of whatever room they happened to be sitting, to sing along even though they might not speak Spanish, this is music meant to put the listener in the center of his or her being, in the present tense, past and future banished for the time being, so the syncopated joy can commence and rule the hour. This is Mac Gollehon and the Hispanic Mechanic’s gift to you.

Iggy and things French

iggy popIggy Pop is the man to go against expectations, especially in the sense that he hasn't yet died. For decades he was on the list as The Next Rock Star to Die, in the wake of Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and the lesser known musicians who've died young. Iggy's tale is as horrendous as it got for pop musicians, all sorts of bad habits and tough breaks visited him like spirits to a hard knocks convention, the culmination of such things usually being fatal, as in dead, as dead as a beef jerky, if not as tasty. Pop pulled out of the tailspin, though, cleaned up and, thanks in large part to the recently belated David Bowie, became, even more, the artist than he was before. An icon and proof that one can survive from the Edge and have the severe experience lend authenticity to the angry three chord bashing you perform in front of. His legacy is such that he could just about sing anything he chooses and have critics slobber over with foamy superlatives. Apres, his album of covers of French songs, is that bridge collapsing.It's an album worth skipping. It is his version of The Great American Songbook fad, where fade rock belters like Rod Stewart, Linda Ronstadt, and Cyndi Lauper attempted to become "real singers" but offering piecemeal versions of very old tunes. The results varied wildly artist to artist; there were not enough interesting interpretations of old ballads and standards for it to be anything more than a fad, like the notion that Rock and Roll is an art form on a par with, say, professional wrestling. Iggy tackling French tunes just seems pretentious; Mr. Pop has an expressive range midway between a car alarm and a beluga impaled on a bendy straw. It is a voice best saved for the personal bits of self-defining rage that continue to be his genius. Everything else he might try is baloney by definition.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Gideon King &: City Blog: When fine musicians meet indifferent material

City Blog
Gideon King and City Blog

City Blog, the debut album from Gideon King and City Blog, is an admirable attempt to revive the fusion-jazz verve, funky-melodic improvisations and ethereal lyrics of the Steely Dan/Stanley Clarke/ Blow by Blow and Wired period, Jeff Beck. Great news for those listeners who lean toward instrumental chops guided by solidly arranged tunes, the kind of jamming that didn't forget the register jumping lessons of Coltrane of having each phase of a solo remain a fast but contiguous with the phrase before it and the one that would follow, and Ellington, you bet, who was the master of composing songs for select soloists (especially for his saxophonist Johnny Hodges) that highlighted a musician's instrumental personality. Effortless, layered, compositional nuance and transcendent and inspired ad lib from the soloists elaborating on the foundations. City Blog, though, is a mixed bag, a situation where technically and at times riveting demonstrations of technique gets snared by the tepid go of substandard songs. 

The problem isn't the skill of the musicians , who have a collective resumes that includes stints with Herbie Hancock, Steely Dan, John Scofield and many other notables. City Blog's pedigree is impressive and solo with seamless fury end to end, especially in the guitar work of Gideon King. What he offers here is work that seems to announce the next Guitar Hero; maintaining this acknowledged debt to Steely Dan as an influence, his tone is snaking and sleek, slow to build over the suspended chords with unexpected twists and inversions, consistently constructing solos from brief initial statements to middle sections that provide exhilarating crescendos, fast, precise, stinging, and skillfully tapering off artfully, returning to the main themes. Same for keyboardist Kevin Hays, a versatile member who cross-references funk, bebop, the angular logic of Monk and the sweetly insinuating  vibe of Stevie Wonder; he's adroit, imaginative, full of surprise, a musician who thinks fast on his feet, in a manner of speaking.

The material, though, isn't as impressive as it should be. Where the kind of fusion jazz this band seems to be trying to revive would, generally throw off the tasteful ballads and tone poems and kick an album or a live gig up a few notches and allow the soloists to rage at accelerated tempos over tricky changes, City Blog's material remains long in the middle area where pace is groovy and casual at first, but after several iterations becomes repetitive singsong. You get the feeling of being the last bit of cola being swished side to side in the can, at a mechanical , mind-numbing consistency.  Also , the material lacks graspable hooks, those musical figures that catch your ear and lure through a great song's melodic invention and the musician's contribution to the whole. This is a matter of having the band member skills framed , a context challenging already skilled players to do even better work. The music here too often becomes a meandering fog , with tones, textures, and hints of other styles failing to achieve cohesion. This is less a collection of original songs than it is a style sampler with the incidental benefit of skilled extemporizing. I appreciate the idea, as well, of bringing a day when it seemed that music could change the world for the better with a collective consensus that good vibes, peace, and love can be achieved through songs that carry a message of dreamy utopianism. This is for old hippies , though, and the music of Steely Dan, however seductive and serene in its exotic otherness, had a poetic cynicism , an Imagist take on the world that dealt with the dilemma of human expectations, whether material or spiritual, coming into conflict with a reality that always harshed any dreamer's billowing mellowness.  City Blog takes a different lyrical tact , which is understandable, but its unfortunate well-worn tropes were the alternative to Dan's crafted poetics.

For those looking for solid solos, chops, fleet and frantic improvisations that generate a good amount of heat, there is more than enough to satisfy here. For the rest, it's a drag, exceptional talent gets weighted by songs that don't leave a lasting impression. I am singing riffs from the instrumental bridges, not the hooks from the songs, and that is only half the pleasure I would have preferred received. 

Monday, April 4, 2016

The depressed genius of The Lost Poets

Insubordia Pt  ll
The Lost Poets

Depression is a art form, gloom is a high stakes gamble on a dour vision of the future, personal and collective, sadness and despair are the nerves of the human body on fire with every extreme expression of each otherwise contained emotion streaming like an electric current , from the base of the brain stem to the very most reaches of the gut. It is less a matter of being in a bad mood or being merely somewhat blue until the sun arises again in the morning; it is a statement of being in the odd, cold and emotionless real world that is as constant and proceeding ahead in its vaguely guided direction. It is that state of being when each of understands at last that our philosophies and certainty about the nature of Things are of no use when you're without friends or employment or a lover to make the world makes sense and that the existence we thought we could conquer with wit and good looks will not give us a reprieve to its ongoing purpose of just proceeding ahead and forcing circumstances on all of us.

Teenage angst, Nordic despair, existential crisis , call it what you will, but underbelly of the soul, that part of the self where it's always a sleepless 3AM, is an alluring quality, particularly in rock and  roll. Whether the speed freak  zen of the Velvet Underground, the post-apocalyptic ejaculations of Doors visionary Jim Morrison, or the more recent moody, mumbled and lumbering guitar gloom of Tool, it's a powerful stance for musicians and poetry -included lyricists. Distorted guitars, drumming and bass playing underpinning a bellowed and lower registers that struggles to climb to the top of the noise and , metaphorically, rise above the dark  for rays of an unobscured sun, this is the sound of the struggle to realize the pointlessness of trying to dream the world into perfection with abstraction and to change, to aspire for a life that is real, creative, authentic and vital to the attempt to change personal despair into passion. It is not a pretty picture, but when the self-pitying falls to the way side and the sound and words have impact as real, not mannered, it can be a beautifully thing . Damaged, loud, dented, demented, slightly insane, slightly broken,but real , human, beautiful all the same.
Damaged, grinding and tense are what the Lost Poets are, an anonymous duo from Sweden who bring us the mega-grunge behemoth Insubordia ll , an album of hard-scrabble guitar bashing, stalwart drums and tranced bass lines filtered and seasoned with ground glass. Not quite as anonymous as the legend they put forth, , the pair haven;t allowed their faces to be shown in publicity shots and names seem to be absent from the packaging, But atmospherics this grandly downbeat cannot go unacknowled, and we'll reveal the names as David Rosengren: (vocals, guitar),Petter Ossian Strömberg( drums, bass), production by Alex Holmberg, whose sound mix seems the audio equivalent of a Zack Snyder film, inspiring images on a massive steel-grey scale, nearly black and white.The interest in remaining unknown is intriguing and effective,as it enhances the grueling evocation of anomie  which is, to quote the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, "...  personal unrest, alienation, and uncertainty that comes from a lack of purpose or ideals." The album escalates the resonating chambers of rage and despair and conveys the soul wrestling with its demons night after sleepless night. 

"Danny Electro" is the lumbering example of someone thrashing during a bad case of night terrors, beginning with a down-tuned acoustic guitar and pushed, nudged and badgered forward by unadorned drumwork, exploding suddenly with a visceral, invigorating crash of low slung electric guitar, a primal, metallic , blues-tinged caterwaul . This is similar to the abject despair of Cobain and Nirvana's anthem "Smells Like Teen Spirit", as the persistently coarse vocal harmonies and constant  strum and drone of acoustic guitars is what music has evolved at this point in the 21st century, rock, not roll, the rock suggesting weight, not mobility. The only motion this sound suggests is being pushed into the earth,the crush of empty history. 

The effect is liberating despite the shoe-gazing and bedroom isolation atmospherics Insubordia ll offers up. I've listened to several times quite despite the gut feeling that music this depressed is contrived more a product of marketing decisions instead of the need to rid oneself of demons. This music is slow and deliberate, full of muted build up, choruses that are re-mindful of an off key church chorus intoning aprocraphyl Latin liturgies, lead singing alternately mumbled, as if emerging from self-medicated slumber and raging, howling, exposing the moment when the pain reaches its full expression and forces mind and nervous to demand relief from the grind. The wash of of distorted guitars, the sharp transitions between soft  to loud, was convincing, a corrosive evocation of the human condition where isolation seems the unchanging norm and the spiral descent seems an endless endurance.

This is the sound track of an industrial age when the machinery falls apart. This is the world where the unheeded youth of The Who's "My Generation"  realize that they need to rage harder, longer, bash the drum harder and grind the guitar sharper against the darkness that surrounds them. Insubordia ll isn't uplifting in the sense that it offers the greeting card salutations of hope and serenity, but it is compelling and exhilarating in an odd way as The Lost Poets wail, bray and scream against the  background of primal percussion and washes of marching chords and tell the audience that , yes,we hurt and we must make noise and get others to make noise as well and that perhaps if the sound is loud and mighty enough, the rock will roll over away from the caves we've sealed ourselves in and sunshine and fresher air and the noise of the world getting out of bed can greet us again. Not for the faint of personality, to be sure, but definitely for those who feel deeply and long, Insubordia ll is recommended.