Friday, April 28, 2023


Honestly, I love critics who are smart and love the sound of their prose so much that they soak their subject in overripe, purplish grandiloquence, which makes getting to their usually inane insights a fun adventure in well-managed if excessively mannered evaluations of popular culture. The present example is the photograph accompanying his piece, a review of an Elvis Presley album by a G.C. Burke, no relation, in the May 1957 issue of High-Fidelity magazine. (My thanks to music writer Mark Miller, who posted this intriguing specimen in a Facebook group dedicated to music journalism.)

Perhaps not so oddly, I feel some kinship with Mr. Burke and wonder if he’s a distant and likely belated relation. I read John Simon for years in New York Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, and The National Review, and often marveled at how a man of such obvious erudition and flawless prose ability could be so magnificently elegant in expressing amazingly pedestrian opinions of books, plays, films, and movies. His vitriol couldn’t elevate his sour takes on the arts from the routinely knee-jerk reaction. I wager that Simon’s vocabulary and acerbic virtuosity buffaloed his readers and editors with the flashy pyrotechnics of his word-slinging; what I thought of as Simon’s conspicuous ineptitude as a critic of cultural expression was summarily overlooked.

Burke obviously wants to consider himself a public intellectual, a mission much greater than being a mere record reviewer, and here attempts to pigeonhole the ill-making cultural habits of the times that are spoiling the rest of us. Sophistry itself, this amateur sociology and such, but what fun it is to read a smart person use every weapon in his arsenal to swat a fly. But again, honestly, quite honestly, quite vainly, G.C. Burke’s makes me think that those of us sharing the last Irish-borne surname share a genetic fascination for padded hyperbole. (Forgive me my indulgence if I’ve elevated myself to the likes of Edmund and Kenneth Burke, genius scribblers both.) Obviously, it would seem, that I’m inspired to indulge my verbal excesses after reading G.C. Burke’s energized dalliance with the philosophical broadside. Perhaps I can find a collection of his further thrashings of pop musicians of his time and become insufferable myself.

Nina Simone Deserved Better


Watched the controversial film Nina , a 2016 production written and directed by Cynthia Mort and starring Zoe Saldaña as the brilliant and troubled pianist/vocalist/songwriter and civil rights activist Nina Simone. The main bit of controversy was the casting for the title role, emphasizing that Saldana is "too pretty" and too light skinned to portray the iconic Simone, a nearly forgotten artist who has had interest in her career revived due to a fine recent documentary, Nina Simone:What Happened? .The charges seem trivial, but the game Saldana underwent the indignity of having to appear, literally, in black face to have her resemble the dark-skinned Simone more closely. She looks ridiculous, as if she were showing up for a minstrel show audition. The film itself is an impressionist mess, going back and forth in time, rummaging distractedly through events in Simone's whirlwind life, never really finding a set of experiences a tangible, sympathetic character might emerge. No one really seems to believe in what they're doing, which is a shame. Simone deserved a much better telling of her story.

Monday, April 10, 2023

Birthdays are fatal

Last February, comedian Lauren Vinopal proposed in Slate that we lower the critical mass of stress and anxiety of our time by abolishing birthdays. You know the drill, I gather, that the ritualized marking of another year of life is a "trigger" for many, too many because it serves as a brutal reminder of how little we've accomplished in our time so far on the planet. And getting older and closer to your last birthday instead of your first one adds another burden to one's sense of the failure they think they've been in the time they've been allotted so far. Ah, triggers, nasty things to be avoided, lest our feelings get hurt, and psychic wounds drive us to further paranoid isolation. Avoiding stressful ideas, words, issues in daily affairs seems a dubious cure, though. Any one of a million things can be "triggers" for increased depression, anxiety and, yes, suicide. 

Obsessed avoidance of triggers just appears to create more triggers, an odd self-fulfilling prophecy. Existence can be said as one sustained trigger, a never-ending stimulant on the nerves that alerts you to the need that there are matters in the world around you that need to be contended with. However, banning birthdays to alleviate these wretched conditions won't help anyone who truly suffers; life is one massive trigger, as such, for creating situations the emotionally fragile will react poorly to. Holidays, movies, comic books, 24 hour news channels, porn, drugs, alcohol, New Age sophistry, white supremacists, featherbedding politicians, fashion models, tall buildings, improperly set tableware, smooth jazz, raging bebop, classical music, anything on Nickelodeon… 

Where do we start on this project to rid society of properties that make living inside our skins and inside our heads a riot of emotions, with all kinds of metaphorical chairs being thrown across the brain pan? Or better, when do we stop demanding that problematic elements within the consumer culture be banned, canceled or more severely chastised and repudiated and instead summon the political will to provide Americans with a substantially improved and easily accessible health care system that includes a range of mental health provisions that can help the psychologically troubled to live fuller lives?  You would assume that the obvious answer is an easy one, though a difficult one and ongoing, to help fellow citizens live in society, not shield them from it.

Thursday, April 6, 2023

Mike Keneally's New Prog Rock

 Legend has it that Mike Keneally was hired by Frank Zappa in 1988 as a “stunt guitarist,” because the eccentric composer realized he couldn’t do justice to the increasingly dense music he was writing at the time. He toured with Zappa that year as both guitarist and keyboardist to deserved acclaim. Keneally worked with Dweezil Zappa, Steve Vai, Henry Kaiser, and Andy West. A multi-instrumentalist of the highest fashion, his music has been far more than the Cuisinart virtuosity that makes so many rock pick-wielder studio efforts a test of one’s tolerance for relentless displays of technique. Keneally has broad musical literacy and has revealed his acumen as an electric and resourceful composer for his elevated guitar skills.

Context is everything when one labors to bring an outsized instrumental technique to effective musical application, but we find that Keneally is fluid and fluent in styles and genres he constructs for his superhuman skill set. His qualities as composer and arranger are on full and ample display on his recent release, The Things that Knowledge Can’t Eat. As with his previous boundary-straddling records, these nine new songs are a consummate fusion of off-kilter eclecticism, highlighting evident traces of prog-rock and excursions in tone-poem expressionism that would be difficult for mortals to bend to their creative will. Keneally has the needed moxie to make all the parts of a piece. No matter how odd the meter, how propulsive the rhythm, how abrupt the shifts from suggestion of free jazz to a gracefully amorphous melody that swells with a painterly sense of color and contrast, this album displays a grand mastery of the idioms he employs. Trust me, the excitement is witnessing a rare artist handily reinvigorating and reinventing the old ways of mere mastery of all the moving parts. Rather, he’s made something new and vibrant.

To be precise, Keneally’s music is art rock of a new kind. The Things that Knowledge Can’t Eat is an enticing and stitchless merging of different means of provocation. It constantly surprises and slips into an unexpected rhythm, oozes seductively from glorious folkish balladry to outré extravaganzas. The open track, Logos, is a Zappaesque bit of vocalese, a slightly strident chorus with a chirpy vocal line expounding on the wonders of a friend’s company logo—or personal logo—an inane sentiment undermined by the percolating, whack-a-mole near-dissonance of the music. Keneally, we note here, is not merely an instrumental wunderkind but also a literate and oddball lyricist as well, able to mimic voices or create personas who free associate about their place in the world. He has a particular skill for using non sequiturs, which adds to the absurd tragedy he writes about, how material things meant to make us happy only deepen our melancholy.

“Cell,” an instrumental assemblage that seems vast and nearly oceanic in its flow through a robust array of moods, is a wordless contemplation that has us navigating the sweep and sway of sonic waves. It’s a masterful construction that features two adeptly situated improvisations by guest guitarist Steve Vai, another veteran of Zappa’s touring band. Vai is nearly without peer in the top tier of innovative fret-maestros, and demonstrates this in both solos, combining the expected variety of tone and fluidly from alternative blues intonations to hard-shred attacks to jazz-like note excursions.

I should say again is that Mike Keneally is an intriguing lyricist, a rare quality in musicians who’re best known to the general music audience for their guitar chops. Obviously inspired by the cutting satire and acerbic commentary of mentor Zappa, he’s forged his book of lyrics that reveal an author’s awareness of what’s happening in the world around him. As often as not, his lyrics make one think of a person ruminating over an insoluble problem or undefinable emotion; there’s an elliptical juxtaposition of specific detail, bewildering elisions, and purposeful gaps in the narrative. Very often you come away not understanding of what Keneally is talking about but remain confident that you “get” what he’s getting: that elusive feeling, the shining insight, the rush of intense joy or sadness that vanishes before you can come up with the words to define what you felt. Good lyricists inclined to write in the crisply diffuse cadences of modern American poetry can do that. Keneally does this very well, and I’d recommend close and repeated listens to the songs. The lyrics are set in artfully eclectic settings, private thoughts, and half-heard musings, synchronized with flawless craft with the array of odd time signatures and passages that reflect the edges of metal and math rock. Anger, rage, joy, ambivalence, sympathy, despair—the word sheet touches on all these.

I have to come back to this overview of Keneally’s spectacular disc, with appropriate raving for the instrumental called “Ack.” Keneally is a multi-instrumentalist, as has already been mentioned, playing the majority of instruments on most of the nine tracks. But with “Ack” he receives bravura support from an exceptional troupe of musicians. It explodes as a jacked-up swing song, rapid tempo and horn choruses adroitly burn down the ballroom. But it soon morphs into some attractively splintered bars of dissonance that bring us near the outer-space experiments of prime Sun Ra. It then shifts rapidly into a breathless bebop chase, finally segueing into a scorching shred solo by Keneally and easing into an orgy of high contrast tonal color. This is what art rock should be doing, subverting expectations, switching up old styles, and creating new dimensions from them. Michael Keneally has the capacity to surprise the musical curious. This musician is a category unto himself.