“I Doubt That Kurt Cobain Ever Did Enough Work to Wear a Hole in His Pants”

An older woman from St. Paul named Barbara sat next to me while I was reading by the lake this evening. She is currently receiving a month of free HBO from Comcast and had some pretty unflattering things to say about Kurt Cobain.

I brought that on myself by telling her I was a music critic. I made sure to tell her that I’m also an immigration attorney, because I like to watch Midwesterners try to use “Mexican” and “welfare” in the same sentence without seeming racist.

Link Roundup ‘Cause Why Not

Two weeks without a post? In olden times, you’d be obligated to follow that sort of hiatus with an apologetic promise to blog more frequently in the future, but that seems a little silly in this content-clogged era. Regardless, to tide you over till my brain chemistry simmers down and my schedule clears up, here are few links to some recent paid work: A listicle written in collaboration with Chuck Eddy and two concert reviews.

Meet the Beatle: A Guide to Ringo Starr’s Solo Career in 20 Songs Rolling Stone, March 25

Stevie Wonder Gives You More Than You Ever Knew You Wanted City Pages, March 30

Father John Misty Preaches to the Converted at First Avenue City Pages, April 6

And here’s a teaser: An abstract of what I’m currently working on for the EMP Pop Conference next week:

“The Mall Gaze: Tiffany’s ‘I Saw Him Standing There’ Looks Back at the Beatles”

I may have some PopCon updates while it’s ongoing, and I definitely will afterward.

Asleep at the Wheel: Down with the King

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Loyal subjects rarely offer compelling arguments for why their beloved ruler was so wise and just. So the fact that Asleep at the Wheel’s Still the King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys succeeds about two-thirds of the time and soars a good half of that is a testament to good-natured dedication of Roy Benson, who’s been at this since the first Nixon administration. He’s a hell of a bandleader with a hell of a band, and he’s lined up a roster of smart guest vocalists this time out.

Still, the first half of this 22-track collection is often merely solid, burdened with too many young people who like old things: mild folkies like the Avetts, mild cornballs like Pokey LeFarge, Tin Pandering AlleyKat Edmonson. Nor do the grampas quite carry the day. Merle isn’t just being chivalrous when he lets Emily Gimble swipe “Keeper of My Heart” — he finally sounds his full 77 years, and not in the wily way Willie sounds his full 81 on “Navajo Trail.”

Midway through, though, the course is righted by George Strait of all people. Strait hasn’t recorded a song I needed to hear twice in a quarter century, but on “South of the Border (Down Mexico Way)” his warmly unassertive masculinity demonstrates (as he often has) just how uncrazy a good time can be (or vice versa). Next come three performances that live inside the songs rather than paying tribute to them: Elizabeth Cook digs into “I Had Someone Else Before I Met You” like she really is two-stepping away from a broken heart, Brad Paisley shreds his giddy way through “My Window Faces the South,” and Buddy Miller deliver “Time Changes Everything” with an imperturbable cool satisfaction.

Bob Wills was a pioneer who greedily assimilated popular tastes into a singular yet elastic style. Benson is merely an accomplished revivalist-turned-preservationist. But if there’s something a bit ritualistic about this music’s frisky elegance — it’s the good suit you wear into town on a weekend night — its repeated demonstration that a danceable, straightforward beat needn’t limit a witty virtuoso’s range of invention suggests that rituals are more flexible than they appear. So let them have the obligatory closer, “Bob Wills Is Still the King,” which is sharp enough conceptually, if a little flat rhythmically. Not their fault Waylon couldn’t (and Shooter can’t) swing.

Drake: A Setup for a Punchline about a Setup for a Punchline

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Drake is currently (and usually) everywhere, his ubiquity making him feel less like a superstar and more like that dude who showed up at every club meeting on yearbook photo day. There’s no point in denying his gifts. Over the course of If You’re Reading This It’s Already Too Late, he continually wrings remarkable nuance from his unremarkable bleat, extracts limitless microtones from a severely limited palette, displays an innate sense for adapting flow to beat until voice and track are melodically and rhythmically inextricable.

But there’s no point in celebrating his gifts either. He completes his tasks with the dull self-satisfaction of a project manager who’s made it to inbox zero. His sole achievement is that he achieves. I get why young up-and-comers see themselves in Drake’s elastic self-assertion if not why they’re flattered by the reflection. If the compulsively productive digital class of 21st century America needs a motto, “I ain’t gotta do it, but fuck it somebody gotta do it / Hate if someone else did it, fuck, I may as well do it” is less pithy but far more fitting than YOLO. It’s an existential leap into action as a brand-conscious blurt of egotism, Samuel Beckett as Nike swoosh.

Chart for Charts’ Sake: Hot Rock Songs

“Pop” is now, more or less, a genre unto itself  — radio-friendly big-budget non-R&B (pseudo-)Swedish electronic dance music. (More or less.) But there’s still all this regular old popular music that middle-aged white folks with moderate pulse rates consume, and we need to call it something. Fortunately, we’ve got a familiar if unfashionable genre tag not doing too much regular work these days, and Hozier fans will be nothing but flattered to learn they are listening to “rock.”

Though few of the singles in the top ten of Billboard’s Hot Rock Songs chart do, in fact, rock, they’re surprisingly “rhythmic,” if you’ll indulge the euphemism. Even ukuleunuch Vance Joy’s “Riptide” shuffles along capably. (Oh, where is that elusive third Michelle Pfeiffer-referencing lyric that will launch a thousand trend pieces?) And if somebody told me Milky Chance’s “Stolen Dance,” to which I respond with a sensation that is possibly not unpleasure, was a forgotten b-side from some second-tier ‘70s soft rock combo — well, I wouldn’t believe them, but I’d believe they maybe read that somewhere online.

Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance” sounds like a talented Gleek playing the piano intro to Springsteen’s “Growin’ Up” on guitar using the Edge’s delay pedal. Apparently those guys went to my alma mater, a school where a capella warblers were BMOCs, and all I can say is ofgoddamcourse. George Ezra’s “Budapest” sounds like how it must feel to lose your virginity in a Prius. As for “Cigarette Daydreams,” well like Dylan said, when Cage the Elephant gets here, everybody’s gonna wanna doze. (Yeah, nobody laughed when I made that joke on Twitter either.)

Imagine Dragons made their name as the Stone Temple Pilots to AwolNation’s Pearl Jam with “Radioactive,” but on “I Bet My Life” (a title that just begs for a dismissive J.D. Considine quip), it’s like a jockish fourth Lumineer has gathered his 5,000 closest friends together to collectively drain all irony from the chorus to “We Are Young.” The lack of principle that allows this band to flourish without a stable musical identity might be a godsend to greater talents.  Instead a nuisance evolves into a menace before our very ears.

And yet, ID (somebody must call ‘em that, right?) are not the current biggest rock band, or at least not the only current biggest rock band. Fall Out Boy’s American Beauty/ American Psycho spat a trio of hits into the rock top ten, each stuffed with multi-pronged hooks and bludgeoning electrofrills that’s overstimulating and enervating in a very 2015 way. It’s as though they deliberately set out to recreate that experience we all dread of having two different songs and a car insurance commercial playing simultaneously from different unseen tabs on your laptop.

With its sour ironies and Suzanne Vega fistpump, “Centuries” isn’t rousing enough for even Dave Marsh to mistake it for fascism, while “Immortals” mildly restates the same teenage dream of eternal persistence. “Uma Thurman” at least raises important questions. Do 16-year-olds really still watch Pulp Fiction and/or Kill Bill? Has any 16-year-old ever seen The Munsters? With all the online porn and first-person shooters out there, haven’t 16-year-olds found more thrilling ways to sublimate their hormonal froth than contemporary “rock” music?

Some, at least, have not. Fallout Boy were the only rock band to play the last Jingle Ball I attended. Round the turn of the millennium, when I was reviewing those pop-radio promo-bashes on the regular, Smash Mouth filled that slot. Make of that what you will.

Charles Baxter: A Minneapolis Writer of Minneapolis Things In Minneapolis

When I was little, my parents bought me a book about myself. Some publisher had cooked up a sweet gimmick: It would insert personalized details — the name of your kid, your kid’s friends, your street, your hometown — into a Christmas adventure-story template. I know I met Santa and I think I was accompanied by a friendly alligator and I read this flimsy little illustrated pamphlet uninterruptedly for months. Some enterprising huckster must be sucking money away from parents with a similar concept these days.

Charles Baxter’s There’s Something I Want You to Do reminds me of that book, and I wish what I meant is that there are talking alligators in it. These collected stories don’t so much take place in Minneapolis as take place in a city that is relentlessly referred to as “Minneapolis.” The Mississippi River is never just “the river.” Lake Calhoun is never just “the lake.” And the Stone Arch Bridge is most certainly never just “the bridge.” But Baxter, though born here and for years a fixture in the University of Minnesota, rarely captures the feel of the city or its residents — these tales could be taking place in any mid-sized metro with rivers, lakes and bridges if not for the author determinedly reminding us otherwise.

In each of these ten stories — half named for virtues, half for vices — lives are upended by events great and small, and characters attempt to regain their balance with varying degrees of surefootedness. I preferred the first two stories here (a husband’s monumental decency subtly wears at his wife’s sense of herself; an estranged wife returns to entrance her former husband with her disheveled helplessness) which makes me wonder if I’d have preferred whichever two stories I read first, if I was gradually disengaged from the others by how persistently Baxter’s men and women are stuck between stations, neither naturalistic enough to suggest the complexity of an actual human life nor quite stylized enough to seem at home in his fable-like narratives. As with Baxter’s insistent place-naming, the actions he describes come to feel like a kind of shorthand, a demand for recognition and identification that’s unearned by the storytelling.

The “Blurred Lines” Decision: Juke Box Jury

Thanks to yesterday’s “Blurred Lines” verdict, I spent today in the unfamiliar role of Most Optimistic Person on the Internet:

And yet, in a strictly legal sense, yesterday’s verdict set no precedent. US copyright law is fundamentally unchanged; the jury’s decision is an interpretation of existing law.* If Thicke and Williams challenge the verdict, a court of appeals ruling could possibly refine aspects of that law. Still, there seems no cause to fear we’re on the verge of anything as drastic and destructive to creative possibility as the landmark infringement rulings against rappers Biz Markie and NWA in the early 90s, which effectively banned all unlicensed sampling and forever limited how hip-hop could develop.

Well, maybe Least Pessimistic is more accurate. Everything that might be wrong today with the 9th Circuit’s standard for establishing copyright infringement was wrong last week, and one reason I don’t fear an onslaught of new copyright suits, as many of my friends do, is because I suspect that such an onslaught began years ago, and settling such suits is already a routine, if spendy, business practice. (Which, of course, makes it only more puzzling that Thicke and Pharrell risked a jury decision here.)

If infringement claims do spike, most will settle quietly out of court. The good thing about “Blurred Lines” case is that it dragged the knotty question of what it means to infringe a music copyright into the open. The bad thing is that if this decision does change how the music industry functions, we may never even know.

* This sentence has been bugging me all day. Judges interpret the law; juries determine facts. Oof. But I’m proud that I wrote a whole news story about copyright infringement without once mentioning “plagiarism.”

Chart for Charts’ Sake: Hot Country Songs

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Don’t tell the wuddnadunnitthattaways who clutch their Stetsons whenever some cute hunk drawls three-year-old slang over a five-year-old drum sound, but the real problem with mainstream country music today isn’t that it’s too “pop,” but that it’s too traditional. Country’s always been a songwriter’s game, but now it’s a bored one, and even a pun as lazily tossed off as that would freshen up most of a current top ten, where the hits feel like writer’s exercises, with slight formal variations on recycled tropes illustrated and weighted down by mundanities.

Brett Eldredge sings with the attentive humidity of a young Darius Rucker and the first verse of “Mean to Me” ain’t bad as comparative corn goes:

If I could be the reason your hair’s a mess,

The bass drum beatin’ way down deep in your chest,

If I could be the voice on your radio,

Then I could be your long ride home.

Then again, the coyote could chase the roadrunner pretty far across the canyon just on sheer momentum; by my calculation, gravity kicks in here around the time Eldredge gets to “If mine could be the name that changes yours.” What follows is a brainstorming session rather than a completed set of lyrics, as Eldredge and his co-writer scrambling for examples of what one lover could mean to another with maybe a 33 percent accuracy rating.

Cole Swindell’s “Ain’t Worth the Whiskey” is another $25,000 Pyramid  category (“things he’s drinking about besides you”) disguised as a song, listicling items neither funny nor especially moving, including a “Yeah I’m raisin’ my glass/ To those savin’ our ass/ Overseas” so cheap I’m surprised it’s not followed by canned cheers. A better singer would either wring some ambiguity from the set-up or amplify the spite, but Swindell just sounds like all’s he wants is to watch the game and you keep asking him dumb questions.

Randy Houser’s “Like a Cowboy” slaps its metaphor front and center then shades vaguely enough around the edges for one-size-fits-all pop use. I can imagine its don’t-fence-me-in nostalgia offering consolation to overseas service members or Dakotan oil riggers or other free-range laborers whose families have been interrupted by the whims of global finance. But I can also hear it as chesty self-justification for a puffed up jerk who’s found a woman who’ll put up with and/or is relieved by his disappearing act. And if the “damned ol’ rodeo” Houser’s cowboy claims to chase isn’t also metaphorical, the singer should be possessed by a skintillionth of the addict’s competitive delirium or the rider’s ass-worn wearniness that Garth once brought to his songs about the sport.

Despite a sexy little arena-riff, Jason Aldean’s “Just Gettin’ Started” isn’t exactly my kind of heavy breathing. Fair enough — it’s not my fire Jason’s trying to light. But though I’m not the object of Sam Hunt’s seduction either, I do feel entitled to lodge a complaint with the chart-topping patter of “Take Your Time.” Hunt’s awkwardly stylized delivery — he speaks stagily, then breaks weirdly into song — may indeed prove innovative in Nashville, though I don’t hear too much of its advertised affinity with R&B, unless that’s now the universal term for slick dudes lying tunefully. But the song is a four-minute conversation about how he wants to have a conversation, and that’s taking the term “sweet nothings” all too literally.

The conceit starts out OK: A guy walks up to a woman at a bar and proceeds to flaunt how few expectations he has from the encounter. But by the time he claims he doesn’t even want to take her home, Hunt has chomped around the donut so thoroughly that only the hole is left. “I just want to take your time,” Hunt insists, sounding like one of those downtown clipboard and t-shirt kids who ask if you have a minute to save starving children. But isn’t that the last thing you want to surrender when you’re out for the night? I’ve heard that club life is obnoxiously skeevy for women nowadays, but I never suspected it was so bad that they’d come to fantasize about meeting a foxy college QB who can’t stop bragging about how he doesn’t want to sleep with them.

Manny Farber: Not Quite Termite

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I’ve read a good amount of Manny Farber over the years, but never till now in bulk, and I have to say the effects of a review here and there and of Negative Space cover to cover aren’t even comparable. It’s more than quantitative, more even than cumulative. It’s the difference between “No!” and “No! No! No! No! No! No! NO!,” each negative inflected in subtle, thoughtful and hilarious microtones of repudiation.

There’s even a narrative of sorts to this collection, for you storybook fans. Farber settles into the critic’s role after the frenzied anarchy of b-movies has lost out to stately pictorial delivery systems of meaning, and he makes writing well his revenge. He perversely isolates some minor facet to prize within some major chore to endure — often a film now cherished by you, I, or some other non-stupid person. When Farber pulls through purgatory to his ultimate reward — the emergence of the underground film movement of the late ‘60s — you feel like the guy’s earned it, even if Wavelength isn’t exactly your idea of happily-ever-after.

Farber didn’t evaluate art “on its own terms,” but good criticism never does. As a critic, you can suspend your judgment while letting art have its way with you, but if the art knocks you out (which is what you’re hoping) it has broadened your own terms, expanded your own tastes, made you a bigger and more appreciative human being — not prevailed in its own distinct sphere. Anything less than that is careerism or condescension, a disservice to readers and artist alike, or some respectable practice apart from criticism — sociology, maybe, or publicity.

Farber seems to have skipped that first step more often than not. (It’s hard to tell — even great critics sometimes do the preliminary work off the page, which can make their verdict feel abrupt and closed-minded.) You don’t read him for empathy or flexibility, though his struggle with Godard, which results in harder-won insights that usual (including the realization that the director had chosen the one dull scene in Breathless — the Parvulesco interview — as the template for his future films) might make you wish that more of his opponents (as filmmakers come across here) made the critic doubt his instincts.

Not only did Farber’s idiosyncratic formalism blinded him to how movies operate as culture, but he indulged in some of the worst pun-as-putdown name-mangles I’ve encountered in print (“Catherine Deadnerve”?) — and I grew up on Cracked. And yet, Farber watches these movies so relentlessly, looking so much more closely at what’s happening onscreen than a film’s admirers often do. His dissections of an actor’s flawed performance are almost clinically revelatory, and his skepticism allows him to locate a director’s strengths better than most fans could, (No Bergman celebrant would be as sharp about the tension between the Swede’s bracing naturalism and glib symbolism as Farber is in his review of Shame.) Fans, after all, often have even less insight into what’s worthwhile about art than artists themselves do. If nothing else, Farber reminds us that our enjoyment of art often requires a willed enchantment — alter your perspective by a few degrees and that bewitchment dissipates.

Rereading “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art” for the first time in years, I realized how loosely I’ve adapted those categories in my own thinking. They’re such necessary concepts, helping me (for instance) understand how meaningful middlebrow complacency can feel like a haven from pop’s untrustworthy thrills, that brilliant and wide-ranging as elucidation of them is, they’ve taken on a life of their own. In general, though I frequently disagree with Farber I rarely argue with him — I just follow his contentions forward like jazz solos. But though he shares the termite’s disrespectful appetites, Farber’s argumentative energy couldn’t sustain itself as contrarian sophistry. It’s the aesthetic conviction behind his own “squandering-beaverish endeavor” that makes his prose still worth reading, even if the judgments they resulted in aren’t always the point.

Estelle: She Swoops to Conquer

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“American Boy” was almost seven years ago, and Estelle Swaray may never again work with Kanye, will.i.am or John Legend, let alone get all three fussing over the same hit. On the up side, she may never score another Rick Ross verse or duet again with Chris Brown. The British singer’s fourth album has no big-name guests at all, and that’s kind of a relief.

The music on True Romance is stylish and cosmopolitan and retro, combining the cool deliberation of the upstart aesthete and the fretful opulence of new money in the manner that’s practically become a British R&B tradition. There’s a glistening house track and a chintzy reggae patch and plenty of ‘70s throwback, from a melodic scrap of the Good Times theme to a sprinkling of Gamble & Huff strings, though it’s not the showy pastiche of Mark Ronson, who may not be returning Estelle’s calls anymore either.

Estelle doesn’t sound like she’s written off stardom — why else collaborate with five other songwriters on “Conqueror,” one of those ballads about self-esteem pulverizing heartbreak that much more famous women often sing? But while such choruses call for our heroines to become ego-fueled mecha-valkyries girded for fiery oblivion, Estelle wafts upward less martially. There’s a homely, worrying piano hook here that Ryan Tedder would never settle for, which is why we should never settle for Ryan Tedder.

There’s a sexy interlude — rough on “Make Her Say (Beat It Up),” illicit on “Time Share (Suite 509),” both scenarios observed from without yet experienced from within. But only when I heard Estelle sing “I’ve never been the one to cry” on “Fight For It” did it occur to be that while “never” might be overstating it, “rarely” isn’t. For an R&B singer, Estelle has little interest in demonstrating her ability to overcome, endure, or otherwise confront adversity.

Throughout True Romance, Estelle repeatedly chooses warmth over intensity, flexibility over power, and that decision adds nuance rather than sacrificing depth. The pleasure she takes in how her voice interacts with even the dimmest romantic cliche suggests something rare in Pop 2015: A human being exploring her potential for happiness.

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