Monday, February 22, 2010


I have several exciting projects I am currently engaged in active procrastination regarding, which I hope to expose to the light of day in the near future. Until then, allow me to hep yez to some of the odd bits of myself that have achieved exposure in recent months.

The latest in Patrick McGilligan's series of interviews with screenwriters, Backstory 5, includes my 1999 interview with a certain recently-deceased teen-angst auteur, which, if you were truly interested, you could find elsewhere on the Internet and save yourself twenty bucks. But you should buy the book anyway, containing as it does some very interesting chats on the craft of celluloid scrivening with the likes of Albert Brooks, Tom Stoppard, and Rudy Wurlitzer. That last interview may be worth the price of admission by itself, if only to discover just what Philip Glass (an old friend of Wurlitzer's) did for a living before becoming the big-shot composer cat he is today.

And speaking of things I wrote circa a decade ago bobbing back to the surface, consider the high flattery of having the two-part exegesis of Lou Reed's perma-infamous Metal Machine Music I wrote in 2001 mined for a quote in the Wall Street Journal - the first time the term "pack-raped" has appeared in that esteemed broadsheet, I'm sure, unless Charles Krauthammer's been lacing his op-eds with threads of autobiography that I'm unaware of.

While I'm at it, I may as well toss in the reviews I've had published so far on the Dagger magazine site, here, for easy access. Some are better than others. In reverse chronological order:

Rarely has a musical project been as aptly named or titled as Aarktica’s sixth full-length release – the sounds that emerge from In Sea (and yes, the Terry Riley pun is entirely intentional) are long, spacious things extending as far as the stereo field of vision will go, windswept ice floe or endless ocean, with a single figure in the middle distance the only man in view. John De Rosa is that man, responsible for every drawn-out note on display, and Aarktica is his vehicle for broadcasting his isolation to the world. Ten years ago, he suffered near-total hearing loss in his right ear, and since then, he’s been translating the attendant effects to tape, moments of clarity interwoven with sounds both muffled and muzzled, aural ghosts drifting through the blurred soundscape, the air full of circumambient tones for the painfully alone. But an album of depressive drones, fortunately, this is not – while the longest tracks, “A Plague of Frost (In the Guise of Diamonds)” and “Corpse Reviver No. 2,” are nearly unbearable in their quiet, sustained intensity, De Rosa has learned to let select slivers of sunlight in when the mood strikes. In fact, large chunks of In Sea, lacking in forward motion as they are, could even be considered pretty as they rise and fall and bob up and down on waves of phase. There’s even a couple of honest-to-godlessness songs here, which brightens things up considerably. That one of them is a cover of Danzig’s “Am I Demon?,” and De Rosa manages to imbue that rather silly piece of mock-metallic morbidity with a certain non-parodic gravitas, means the whole enterprise ends on a curiously hopeful note, a sense of renewed direction that makes it worth catching his drift.

Sonic Youth

Mission Of Burma

also “Innermost” b/w “Here It Comes” (single)
Rock is a medium based on planned obsolescence – if it has a creed, it would be play fast, split young and leave a good-sounding corpus. Make your noise, make a splash, but for god’s sake don’t stick around too long, or worse, slink back and let everybody see how badly those leather pants fit these days. And nowhere would that seem to hold more true than with punk and its various offshoots – the whole point of it was to tear down the old strictures, rebuild ‘em in your own zit-speckled images, and get the hell out of the way once the next generation readied their own wrecking balls, right? You do realize how hard it would be to pull off a Mohawk/combover combo, don’t you?

Ah, but rules, like guitar strings and mic stands, are made to be broken, and here we have two of the most sonically adventurous combos to gush forth from the backwash of punk’s first wave, all roughly twice the age they were when they started, obstinately refusing to go gently into that good night and thanks for coming to this all-ages show and by the way does anybody have a floor we can sleep on? Sonic Youth’s new album, The Eternal, their umpteenth release (if I have my calculations right), even brings them, if not full circle, at least a fair distance back around the perimeter – after a couple of decades as Geffen’s favorite loss leader, they’re back on an indie label (albeit one of the biggest around), calling Gerard Cosloy “boss” for the first time since 1985. And their reverence for things past doesn’t stop there; the album includes songs dedicated to a dead Beat poet and a dead punk bawler, the cover painting is by dead acoustic genius John Fahey, there’s a photo of dead Doll Johnny Thunders in the CD booklet and a dedication to dead Stooge Ron Asheton on the back - even the title is kiped from renowned Mancunian dead guy Ian Curtis. Heck, these cats have more dead friends than Patti Smith! Oddly, whether intended or not, this roll-call of the deceased only brings into sharp relief the fact that Sonic Youth are, after three decades in the trenches, almost shockingly vigorous. If anything, they’re as tight as they’ve ever been – most of The Eternal is a master course in concision, full of songs that chug along with focus and a clear-eyed purpose, still driven to wrench as many sounds out of their guitars (three of ‘em these days, now that Kim Gordon has been upgraded from four strings to six and ex-Pavementalist Mark Ibold is left holding up the low end) as possible but largely content to put the skreek in the service of the songs rather than cyclonically rip them apart somewhere around the middle. Which turns out to be a bit of a mixed blessing – there’s little self-indulgence to gum up the works, but constant forward motion robs them of the passages of vertical ascension that provided some of their most exciting moments. Occasionally, you want them to knock a few more holes in the walls or at least deface them a little; every once in a while, you start to wonder if Steve Shelley’s always-solid drumming is grounding or anchoring them. But is that their problem, or ours? After almost thirty years of non-stop work, it’s remarkable how much they still do right. The personalities of the rotating frontpersons have been honed to as fine an edge as their guitars – Gordon sexier than any post-menopausal woman has a right to be (see “Sacred Trickster” and “Malibu Gas Station”), Thurston Moore the trash historian and punk-brat emeritus (“Poison Arrow,” “Thunderclap for Bobby Pyn”), and Lee Ranaldo the poet/seeker/philosopher – that is to say, the acidhead (“What We Know,” “Walkin Blue”). And it’s always an encouraging sign when a record’s strongest tracks are its longest, from the vaguely political (which is about as political as we ever need them to be) “Anti-Orgasm” to the nine-minute closer “Massage the History,” a fine showcase of their ability to meld whispery menace and cracked-crystal beauty like it was second nature. So, no, they may never pull off a Daydream Nation again, but a band capable of wrestling its legacy to a draw every time they step on the mat remains a rare and admirable thing.

The tyranny of raised expectations similarly dogs the third post-reunion release from Boston post-punk titans Mission of Burma. In many ways the 80s equivalent of the Velvet Underground (brief, underheralded existence followed by years of hip music-fan namechecks and younger bands copping every move they ever made), MoB already defied one of rock’s ironclad truisms by coming back after a long dormancy and not thoroughly embarrassing themselves. 2004’s ONoffON picked up precisely where 1982’s vs. left off and 2006’s The Obliterati was, if anything, even more muscular, so if The Sound, The Speed, The Light comes off a mite underwhelming, could it be that they just don’t have anything to prove anymore? Does the fact that the tempos on their raveups aren’t quite as breakneck as before denote an irretrievable loss of potency? Or is it simply too much to ask of any band, much less one whose members are all pushing sixty, to serve up a palate-strafing plate o’ blare every single time? At first, it would seem so – beyond the hysterical Clint Conley opener, “1, 2, 3, Partyy!” (words to live by: “Drink only when drunken to”), there’s little immediacy here, no “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver” or “Ballad of Johnny Burma” to offset their denser passages. And even the denser passages don’t seem nearly as dense as before. But patience, even for this most jangled and jittery of bands, eventually pays off – three or four spins and buried hooks begin coming to the fore, the lack of fist-shaking anthems is made up for with a seemingly paradoxical blend of power and subtlety, and the strength of the unit comes clear even as the movements of its individual parts are thrown into relief. Peter Prescott still smacks his drums like they stole his girlfriend, Roger Miller seems to have every phase of art-rock (psych/prog/proto- and post-punk) coursing through his guitar at all times, Bob Weston saturates every inch of tape (they still use tape, right?) with behind-the-boards manipulations that keep turning up sonic surprises with every listen, and Conley anchors the madness as fluidly as ever – no matter how Burma bends and twists, their spine is his bassline. So the pulse-pounding ambition of its youth may have faded and even their aggression may have assumed a comforting familiarity (if you can’t tell ahead of time exactly when Prescott will emit his first howl from behind the kit, you don’t know Burma), but is that so wrong? The Sound, The Speed, The Light has repeatedly been tarred with the epithet “workmanlike” by numerous reviewers; that may be so, but when these mugs punch the clock, they punch it hard. (And as a sop to the more drooling elements of their fanbase, which should be pretty much all of them at this point, they’ve also whipped out a 7-inch single featuring two outtakes from these sessions. “Innermost,” essentially a showcase for Prescott and Weston, is a tad unfocused; the flipside, “Here It Comes,” Miller’s punful evisceration of inter-religious intolerance, delivers the goods quickly and cleanly.)

The Minus 5

Some mellow with age. Others ripen. Scott McCaughey, on the other hand, is all about the rot. Eleven-plus albums and 16 years into his Minus 5 project, continues to find new sloughs of despond to plumb in the name of pop, trucking in subject matter so bleak in the name of cheerful misanthropy it’d give his pal Robyn Hitchcock pause. And as always, he is able to corral a veritable Murder Victim’s Row of alt-luminaries to help illuminate the blackness, from constant compatriots Peter Buck and Ken Stringfellow to chick harmonists the Shee Bee Gees and pretty much the whole of the Decemberists (McCaughey relinquishes the mic to Colin Meloy on “Scott Walker’s Fault” – and call a paean to the dark enigma responsible for The Drift the most life-affirming moment on the album should tell you something). Uptempo numbers like “It Won’t Do You Any Good” dot the landscape like freshly-dripped hemoglobin, but otherwise, it’s country death songs all the way – lotsa pedal steel, banjo pickings and accordion trills, arranged prettily enough to lull you into head-bobbing to songs with lyrics like “your wedding day was so well-planned, like a German occupation” and titles like “The Disembowelers.” This is high-water music with a sinister undertow, sure to slap a happy rictus on your face.

Kurt Vile

It’s hard to believe, but, apart from some possible regional variants I’ve never heard, no one’s really captured the true sound of young America – the noise of maladjusted, hormone-poisoned males bashing out their lonely, inarticulate frustrations from the solitude of their empty bedrooms – to my liking since the Stooges nailed it on their first album four freaking decades ago. I’m not talking subject matter, understand – that’s been one of the wellsprings from which rock/punk/power-pop/Morrissey has drawn its water from day one – but the actual sonic evocation of same. There are a few artists that come close, of course – I’m thinking of Gary Wilson’s infamous 1978 release You Think You Really Know Me – but even there, it’s sublimated under bizarrely bleached-out jazz-funk and vocally/lyrically tipping over into psychosis a little too ripe for even some weirdness enthusiasts. To make the grade here, you need to be capable of a ruckus without catharsis, make the listener feel your boredom, horniness and rage, and do it – and here’s the tall order few can fill at this late date – without a speck of irony. I don’t know how Kurt Vile pulls it off (and before you disqualify him off the bat, he insists that’s his real name), but damned if Childish Prodigy doesn’t do the job. First thing is the sound itself – if it wasn’t recorded in obsessive solo overdubbing sessions on a rec-room four-track, it sure seems like it; cheap-sounding delay effects on the vocals, heavily-saturated guitars, and either cardboardish drums or chintzy rhythm machines predominate. Then come the songs themselves, all seemingly structured in a circular fashion that winds itself ever tighter with every rotation until the tape mangles itself in its own gears or he just fades the thing out arbitrarily. (The best example of this, “Freak Train,” gets steadily crazier and tenser over the course of seven minutes until it sounds like one of Suicide’s more uptempo roundelays rearranged for “real” instruments with a little pseudo-No Wave sax thrown in, crossed with what the Strokes could manage if they weren’t such overprivileged wussy-boys.) In the midst of all this, Vile comes off like the acne-scarred misfit of your worst repressed recollections play-acting at being a scowling street punk. Oh, there’s sensitivity here, too – finger-picked acousticidal reveries like “Blackberry Song” and “Heart Attack,” and even the occasional ethereal female backing voice reminiscent of Liz Fraser’s guest appearances on old Felt albums, which can’t possibly have been intentional. Though the reality is surely quite different (an indie-rock star is a rock star all the same), Vile’s loverman side falls right in line with his snotty, sneering persona elsewhere. Which is to say, I don’t buy a word of it. And good for him.


The short, sad saga of Jobriath deserves retelling, if only as a cautionary tale to the impressionable youth of our nation about the dangers of unprotected hype. Born Bruce Campbell (and no, not that one), he spent several years as a mere scallop on the fringes of late-60s/early-70s hip culture, a player in the New York and Los Angeles companies of Hair and a member of Pidgeon, one of the many short-lived pop-psych combos seduced and abandoned by the recording industry of the time. And so might he have stayed had Svengali/opportunist Jerry Brandt not been in Columbia Records prez Clive Davis’ office when Brucie’s solo demo tape sailed over the transom. Undeterred by big Clive’s insistence that the artist was “mad, unstructured and destructive to melody,” an enthralled Brandt tucked Jobriath under his wing and began cawing, loudly, to anyone who would listen. Here was the future of rock and roll incarnate, the Fat Man and Little Boy of the transatlantic glam wars, the one who would outlast that poseur David Bowie because, um, he could pirouette and Bowie couldn’t. His biggest hook? At a time when even Elton John was a few years away from coming halfway out of the closet, Jobriath would be the first openly gay rock star; while coy ambisexuality reigned supreme and maybe-gay was the rule of the day, America’s youth were crying out for someone to take them to that next level of depravity, and now, (to quote J.’s own, ceaselessly reiterated words) “a true fairy” shall lead them. Big plans were hatched, Elektra convinced to drop an unheard-of sum (literally so, as no one seems to know just how much) for international recording rights, and a grandiose scheme for world domination mapped out, to culminate in a massive coming-out (oh, brother) event in Paris, climaxing (I know, I know) in a recreation of the final scene of King Kong¸ wherein the Empire State Building would morph into a giant, spurting pee-pee and Jobriath would turn, as would logically follow, into Marlene Dietrich.


As you may have guessed, especially given the fact that very of few of you even heard of the cat before his name showed up at the top of this review, the whole scheme was a massive flop. Astute observers may have noticed something was amiss when the Paris concert was cancelled and his debut scaled down to an appearance on NBC’s The Midnight Special, where an obviously distracted Gladys Knight introduced the future of rock ‘n’ roll as “JO-BRATH” and the biggest expense appeared to be the construction of an stage costume comprised mostly of dryer vent hose. And the eventual album, promoted incessantly via billboards and breathless rock-press profiles? It didn’t even chart. Could it be that the record-buying public wasn’t ready for an unabashedly queer rock star? Perhaps. Could they have been turned off by the thick, rank clouds churned out by Jerry Brandt’s hype machine? Quite possibly. Or did they finally get an earful of his music and decide that it kinda blew? Ah, now there’s the rub.

The ultimate result? Jobriath was dropped from Elektra in the middle of his sole American tour, his two albums went out of print with depressing speed, and all concerned performed a thorough disavowal of responsibility and even knowledge of his existence worthy of the most brutally efficient totalitarian government. Elektra’s Jac Holzman confessed his embarrassment at the whole enterprise and quit the label he co-founded soon afterwards, presumably in shame. The mortified music press wrote him off. And even Brandt himself, the guy who proclaimed “it’s Crosby, Sinatra, Presley, the Beatles and Jobriath … no doubt about that,” wound up muttering that the kid was nothing but a worthless alcoholic, and apparently looked to atone for his misdoings by holding the lad to a draconian ten-year contract, effectively keeping him from recording anything for the rest of his life. And Jobriath himself? He retreated to his sanctum in the Chelsea Hotel, emerging only to perform in East Village clubs as lounge singer Cole Berlin, and eventually died a sadly appropriate death by AIDS in 1983. As for a legacy, he basically had none. His albums held no sway even among collectors (the only copy of either I was ever able to track down turned up, not in a used record store, but in a frighteningly skeezy consignment shop) and, with the exception of a bemused writeup in the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and a first-place ranking on’s list of the Ten Worst Rock Stars in History, he warranted scarcely a footnote in music history’s little red book.

And so might it have stayed were it not the shelf-haired hero to the downtrodden, the counselor of camp, the Mancunian candidate (for anti-depression meds) himself – that’s right, friends, Stephen Patrick Morrissey loped forward to rescue Jobriath from oblivion. It started awkwardly – he sought the singer out to open for him on his Your Arsenal tour, unaware that he hadn’t been up to the rigors of touring for the better part of a decade – but Moz was not to be deterred. He curated a 2006 compilation, Lonely Planet Boy (kind of telling that he needed to christen it with a New York Dolls quote, eh?), talked him up in interviews, and inspired a set of Japanese reissues. With the cult heroes’ cult hero in Jobriath’s corner, it was only a matter of time before the resurrection-happy domestic CD market saw fit to follow suit, and thanks to the efforts of Collector’s Choice Records, Jobriath has risen again to “camp” out under the stars.

So, after all this, what do you get when you crack the shrinkwrap on the collected works of the world’s forgotten spaceboy? It’d be immensely gratifying to report that beneath the hype and the record-buying public’s resistance to same lay a lost treasure trove of irresistible glam anthems, but I’m afraid that the record-buying public had pretty much the right idea. Too much of this material sounds forced, imitative and plodding, which is murderous to glam – if you’re gonna be light in the loafers, you’d best be light on your feet. The hooks evidently stopped at the marketing level, and the only groove to be found is the one the makeup people put on his forehead. He does a little better by the ballads – his overwrought vocalizing turns out to be a much better fit with string sections and pianos (the latter played, not badly at all, by Jobriath himself) than with the mock-Ronsonisms of most of the louder material. (As for the lyrics, the less said the better – just know that one of the songs is entitled “Space Clown” and extrapolate from there.) It’s not unlistenable, especially once you stop thinking of it as “real” rock ‘n’ roll and as the soundtrack to an imaginary off-Broadway glamsploitation musical (which makes Jobriath a Hedwig of his time, perhaps), and, oddly, the second album (cobbled together quickly using leftovers from the first) turns out to be the stronger of the two, with more emphasis on ballads and a truly oddball country-and-western-inflected (!) number with the radio-friendly title “Scumbag.” Still and all, it’s hard to imagine who to recommend these discs to. If I were in charge of such things, I’d’ve put it out as a book with a suitable-for-framing “Certificate of Inauthenticity” and relegated the discs to a free-with-purchase bonus (and given the job of writing it to veteran rock archivist Richie Unterberger, whose liner notes tell the tale of Jobriath’s rise and demise economically, while deftly sidestepping the question of whether the damn things are actually worth hearing). In its present form, though, most of you can quite blissfully walk past and not miss a thing. But if you’re a glam completist, a gay-rock historian or a collector of curiosities (and there are precious few pop artifacts that manage to be both historically significant and utterly inconsequential), by all means make way for the homo inferior.

Yo La Tengo

Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley are the Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward of indie-rock (actually, the title should probably go to Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon, but I already wrote that review). As such, a new YLT album tends to feel as comfortable as a successful long-term relationship, and Popular Songs is no exception. Not boring, mind you – they’re too skilled at pop pastiche for that – but whether they’re doing the string-driven thing (as on opening track “Here to Fall”), dipping into Farfisafied fuzz-pop (“Nothing To Hide”), Booker T.-ing themselves off with a Monks-ish breakdown (“Periodically Double Or Triple”), whitefacing Motown (“If It’s True”) or stretching out in acoustic languor with dreamy washes of guitar atmospherics (“The Fireside”) , there’s a ease and even a calmness at play (particularly in the vocals, almost always sleepily agreeable even when their instruments are kicking up a little dust) that comes across as reassuring, opting for the nice, straight line of contentment over the impassioned needle-jumps of younger, more hormonal combos. That is, until they finally raise the pulse rate over the fifteen minute span of “And The Glitter Is Gone” (the last of the three extended workouts that conclude the album), where Kaplan wrings some rather impressive, sustained feedback ‘n’ yowling from his axe while Hubley eggs him on from behind her kit. I dunno, maybe they had an argument that day.

(More to come, eventually...)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Malcolm Gladwell would be proud! See: Act 4 You've probably already heard the Moth bit, but it's so great it's worth another listen...