Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A Hunt for Hearth and Home: The Ten Best Albums of 2015

2015 was an excellent year in music. Whether you were looking for pop, jazz, classical, or some weird hybrids of some or all of the above, the year had something you were looking for. Looking at my iTunes, it looks like I picked up 52 albums that came out over the past 356 days, which means that there's going to be a lot of wonderful stuff that I don't get to in this top 10. You can find other works of art by Torche, Sufjan Stevens, Slim Twig, Destruction Unit, Parquet Courts, and lots, lots more. But there are 10 records that, to this listener, stand above all of the wonderful work that has come out this year, and this is them.

Father John Misty - I Love You, Honeybear 

Father John Misty's Josh Tillman has one of those one in a million voices. Dusty, worn, and haunted,  Tillman's voice seems almost suffocated by the opulence of swirling beauty in his music. It's a dichotomy of style that works perfectly; the trail-worn drifter couching his craft in syrupy orchestration, like Pet Sounds if it was sung by the Dennis Wilson of the '70s, gravelly voiced and jaded. And Tillman is nothing if not jaded; the tracks on Honeybear are miserable meditations on love and death. If you like richly produced, viscous '70s AOR production, give Honeybear a try...Tillman does make an occasional misstep into obnoxious 2015 indie electronica, which is why this album isn't rated higher, but most of the album is aching, heartbreaking, and beautiful.

Hey Colossus - Radio Static High 

I was shocked when I discovered that  Hey Colossus put out two albums this year: In Black & Gold, released in February, and Radio Static High, which just came out in October. Both albums are fantastic, both pushed Hey Colossus deeper and further than they had ever been before, but in the end I had to give the nod to Radio Static High. This album has Hey Colossus at its most laser-focused, no 10 minute songs like on their previous albums, just massive, thick, grimy beasts that coil and uncoil and cover you like musical smog, shoegaze gone evil. It will be interesting to see where Hey Colossus go from here, if they continue their trek into a more traditional 'rock' band (such as it is) or if they use their next album to blast off into the psychedelic stratosphere. Radio Static High reminds me of the self titled album by Comet Control (I wonder if they've put out anything since...): not a wasted moment on the whole record. Fantastic.

Carter Tutti Void - f (x)
The addition of Nik Void to the tandem of Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti is revealing itself to be serendipity with every passing release by Carter Tutti Void. Their live EP Transverse in 2012 was a work of hypnotic beauty, with Void's guitar work splattering metal shards all over Chris and Cosey's minimal electronics. f (x) is a more integrated work that shows how different the trio operates between live and studio settings, with Void's guitar drifting and wrapping among the burbling electronic menace underneath. And make no question about it, 'menace' is the word of the year for Carter Tutti Void; f (x) is club music for a bad ecstasy trip, it's the rave becoming self-aware and crushing the pathetic humans in its midst. This is the perfect record to play for the candy kid in your life that needs to be disturbed a little.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor - Asunder, Sweet and Other Distresses
Godspeed You! Black Emperor is one of those groups that I really run hot and cold on. In general, I find their stuff to be way too fay and precious and way, way, WAY to overlong. They're too beholden to their samples, of ranting preachers and revolutionary fighters, that the music itself gets shunted to the background and half forgotten. None of this is an issue with Asunder, Sweet and Other Distresses, which is to this listener the best record in their catalogue without a doubt. Asunder takes it's concept from the Godspeed side-band A Silver Mt. Zion, which is stripped down and influenced by sludgy doom metal and experimental noise, both of which are on incredible display here. Produced by an alumni of Steve Albini's Electrical Audio, Asunder is tight and huge; the first moment where the guitars kick in will blow your hair back. And yet, there's still a melody under the waves of muscle...the end of "Peasantry" is achingly beautiful, and it's the blend of power, beauty, and experimentality that makes this album such a rush. If you've never been able to get a handle on Godspeed, there's no better place to start than here.

The Necks - Vertigo

The Necks remind me of Nurse With Wound: amazingly prolific and always variable. You never know what you're going to get with the jazz trio, whether it be standard, traditional piano/bass/drums, something a little more out there and unusual, studio manipulated wizardry, cool improv, etc. Vertigo is definitely of the studio-constructed variety, it's less Kind of Blue and more Bitches Brew, with everything having been chopped and mixed and reassembled into a behemoth that straddles the line between jazz and modern classical strangeness. It's also a little shorter than the average Necks album, if the usual 70 minute song length is enough to turn you away, perhaps 45 minutes will be a little more palatable. Vertigo shows that, in addition to being incredible musicians, The Necks understand the studio as an instrument like few others.

Sunn O))) - Kannon
Next to Swans, Sunn O))) may be the band that most encapsulates the performance as a religious experience motif. It's hard to have your band dress like monks and it to not come across as ridiculous, but Sunn pulls it off, coming across as acolytes who worship the holy amplifier above all else. Kannon is their first non-collaborative album in years, and it picks up right where they left off: doom metal taken to its enormous, nearly infinite, conclusion. The sound washes over you almost like a solid entity, thick black oil dripping from your speakers and swallowing you whole. This is post-metal, post-drone, post-everything, the singularity of all musical existence that is endless in its density. Kannon is the musical equivalent of a black hole.

Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a Butterfly
My album of the year last year was Flying Lotus' incredible You're Dead!,  a modern retelling of Miles Davis' electric period updated with funk, rap, and electronica. Chief on that album was Lotus' collaboration with Kendrick Lamar, "Never Catch Me," a kaleidoscope of brass and bass and drum machines and some of the most impressive MC skills I've heard in years. Well, Mr. Lamar has pulled pretty much the entire Flying Lotus crew back with him for this solo album, a meditation on the state of the black man in 2015 that is part Dr. Dre, part George Clinton, part Sly Stone, part Miles, and all Kendrick. To Pimp a Butterfly isn't a rehash of You're Dead!, it's much darker, much more political, much more full of rage and anger at what the world has become for the disenfranchised; in a way, Pimp is Lamar's own version of D'Angelo's Black Messiah, another fantastic political record from last year that I missed adding to my list, or even Sly Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On, another record that is heavy on the righteous indignation and produced into a dense morass. To Pimp a Butterfly is the opposite of a feel-good Summer rap album, but it may be the album we most need in these trying times.

Shit & Shine - 54 Synth-brass, 38 Metal Guitar, 65 Cathedral
Warning! Some serious seizure warnings on this one.
Shit & Shine is another band that managed to put out two albums (at least) this year: there was the acid jazz Chakin' and this monstrosity. Shit & Shine may be the inheritors of the Butthole Surfers' maniac smartassery; 54 Synth-brass has that same tongue-in-cheek bastardness that Brown Reason to Live had, only instead of being rooted in Texas punk, it's rooted in purposely-annoying, satirical club music. It does the Motorik thing, it does the vocoder thing, and it's clearly doing everything to piss off club kids as much as possible, like Carter Tutti Void if they were a stand-up comedy act. This is another one of those great albums you can use to clear a room when you just want to end the party and go to bed.

John Grant - Grey Tickles, Black Pressure 

John Grant is an interesting specimen within this list; he's Father John Misty inverted. While Josh Tillman comes across as uncomfortable trying to pepper electronica into his AOR pop, Grant feels right at home with the sleazy analogue squelching of '80s gay club synths backing up his laconic muttering. Grey Tickles is Grant's paean to growing old, as he sings about wanting to go see Joan Baez, hemorrhoid commercials, and obnoxious racist friends. Grant slips perfectly between ugly club anthems and his own take on the well-produced '70s pop, and he feels right at home for both. This was one of those albums I had to go and buy almost as soon as I heard it, it's almost perfect and I had a lot of trouble deciding which record would be my #1 album of the year. If you need proof that modern pop music still has a lot to offer us, the answer lies not in the countless starlets on the radio, but in this mean, cranky old man.

Gnod - Infinity Machines
Never has an album had a more perfect title than Gnod's Infinity Machines. Throughout the 3LP's running time, you feel trapped within the decaying circuitry of an endless, malevolent supercomputer, like Harlan Ellison's AM going through its death throes for all eternity. Infinity Machines is glacial, massive, and pure evil, with vocal samples flitting ghostlike throughout the dying mainframe, so covered with echo to be unintelligible. Within the center of the album is its cold black heart: 45 minutes of black ice spreading over tracks 4, 5, and 6. Infinity Machines is an album that needs to be experienced, it is nothing and everything all at once. If Sunn O))) are acolytes, than Infinity Machines is the pagan God itself, the musical equivalent of H.P. Lovecraft's Azathoth. Listen to Infinity Machines' 2 hours in a single sitting, and you'll never be the same again. I haven't felt this way for an album since Swans' The Seer.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Summer of Hate

Summer of Hate: The Death of the Hippie Dream in Vineland and Inherent Vice

At the height of the Hippie movement in 1967, it seemed like the counterculture was pure energy, an unstoppable force of youth and idealism destined to rock the system to the core. By 1970 at the latest, the movement was all but finished, already looking quaint and naïve to those looking from the outside, idealism spoiled by the shadow-government policies started by the presidential reign of Richard Nixon starting in 1969. It is this darkness behind the pastel rainbow of happiness one usually associates with the hippie movement that Thomas Pynchon works his magic, and the failure of the '60s counterculture is the backdrop that informs every moment in his novels Inherent Vice and Vineland.

The specters of both Nixon and Charles Manson loom large throughout Inherent Vice, reminders of the failure of the hippie ideal simply in their mere existence. Vice's Doc Sportello is the last of dying breed, a shaggy dog hippie in 1970 who has yet to realize that the rest of the world has already gone on without him. Doc lives a life that would make Jimmy Buffet envious, an apartment on the euphoniously-named 'Beachwood Drive', where the town is “ahoot with funseekers, drinkers and surfers screaming in the alleys” (Pynchon 4). His beautiful, ethereal ex is known for wearing “sandals, bottom half of a flower-print bikini, faded Country Joe & the Fish T-shirt” (Pynchon 1) and his group of friends are a bunch of drug-addled nogoodniks who spend their days scarfing down pizzas with, like, totally far-out toppings. And yet, for all that Gordita Beach seems to be a kind of hippie paradise, there is a darkness at its edges that is slowly encroaching, with the ultimate aim not just to bleach everything to a square shade of beige, but to enslave it, to reduce it to a cog in the infinite machine of power and sacrifice. 
Stephen Maher states that “Inherent Vice is perhaps the most brilliant depiction of...the harsh end of the dreams of the 1960s generation” (Maher) and his statement rings more true the further the reader gets from Gordita Beach itself; at Coy Harlingen's bungalow up on Topanga, Doc and his pal Denis are assaulted by zombies, not merely addled by drug intake but straight-up crazed, a cult on a perpetual bad trip that Pynchon relates to the Manson Family, not the first or last time he does, as one of “them darker type activities” (Pynchon 135) that have begun to overtake Southern California. Gordita Beach may seem like a hippie haven, but once the story moves on, it becomes clear that it's an illusion, a sort of suspended animation where the residents don't realize they're already anachronisms.

As the book goes on, Doc travels out of California entirely, to a dry, dusty Las Vegas ruled by the almighty dollar, and back to Los Angeles to be nearly killed by the sociopath in a suit Adrian Prussia, a perfect amalgamation of Nixon and Manson if there ever was one: a blood-hungry violence fetishist who works for the physical embodiment of The Man. Coy Harlingen himself is more indicative of Nixon than Manson, a junkie-turned-COINTELPRO lackey who by trade sells out his compatriots to the all-devouring Nixon government, a man who is rewarded by his good work by being prevented from seeing his family again, a thousand deaths to someone who only wishes, in his age and wisdom, to be a family man. In the context of the novel, Coy “embodies the confused morality of the late 60s as he tries to find ways to provide for his family by not being with them” (Duyfhuizen) and in attempting to provide for his family, he allows himself to be manipulated by the vast, villainous corporate and government entity the Golden Fang.

Nowhere in Vice is it more obvious that the hippie dream has been crushed into absolution than it is under the wheels of the Golden Fang, the closest Pynchon has ever got to recreating one of H.P. Lovecraft's Elder Gods; an ineffable, inscrutable being that exists to enslave and destroy mankind. But Pynchon's Golden Fang is no alien being slumbering under the waves; it is a demonic being for our time, a vast, powerful, multinational corporation that has its tentacles in every aspect of the character's lives. The Golden Fang exists on every level of society, from the Mafia bums in Vegas to the informants like Coy to the all-too-human monsters in Adrian Prussia and Puck Beaverton, an organization which “on one level appears to be a consortium of dentists with a diversified portfolio of investments (including cocaine distribution), but on another appears to be a cartel of highly connected criminals with a diversified crime portfolio that includes all stages of the heroin trade, including the rehab centers for those trying to kick the habit” (Duyfhuizen). In the Fang, we can see the world of Nixon and Reagan, the world of corporations and clandestine alliances, the world of a people so without empathy or scruples that they get you addicted to heroin only to sell you a clinic to get you clean. This rot exists deep within Inherent Vice, a cancer that actively eats the world Doc and the other lovable hippies inhabit. There is no room for free love in Nixon's America, where developer Mickey Wolfmann initially starts the novel as a changed man, looking to give away his new communities for free, by the end the Golden Fang has reprogrammed him back into a pitiless Capitalist once again, his brief flirtation with altruism dead and forgotten. By the 1970 of Doc and Wolfmann and the Golden Fang, there is no place for unselfishness; Kennedy is long gone, Vietnam has been raging for over a decade, and Nixon has interred youthful idealism beneath 6 feet of dirt.

If Inherent Vice is a funeral for the noble hippie, then Vineland is the hippie thrown in a ditch. If Vice's Golden Fang was an all-consuming beast that rose from the depths to squash free love, Vineland by its in and of itself a machine that exists to end the idealism of the time that came before it. Skip Willam states that Vineland “virtually foreshadow[s] the dangerous reemergence of the countersubversive tradition” (Willman 1), and the book itself bears this out; while Vice examines the corpse of the revolution after the fact, Vineland is a book about a revolution actively being co-opted, and while Coy Harlingen's COINTELPRO ties are just one facet of the Golden Fang's power, Vineland's Frenesi Gates and Brock Vond are creatures that exist almost wholly of the countersubversibe cloth, and we can see Frenesi go from proud activist to informant for the monomaniacal Vond throughout the body of the text. The centerpiece of Vineland, and the scene which best dashes the hopes and dreams of the counterculture, is an extended flashback where Frenesi falls fully under Vond's spell, selling out her ideals, in the form of her lover and hippie leader Weed Atman, to the crushing machinations of the State. Atman, leader of the so-called People's Republic of Rock'n'Roll, is a hippie free spirit in the mold of Doc Sportello and Frenesi's ex-husband Zoyd Wheeler, but in Vineland's cynical paranoia, he's doomed, a face being stomped on by a boot forever, killed by a fellow radical after Frenesi spreads rumors that Weed is an informant. As countersubversive groups take over the Republic, the optimistic ideas that founded it are left by the wayside; Frenesi tells Brock that “It's totally coming apart...total paranoia” (Pynchon 239). So begins Frenesi's total inversion of the hippie dream; in her use of her body as a tool to get left-leaning men to betray their ideals turns the concept of free love on its head, and in her ignoring her own beliefs, as well as the beliefs of two generations of family that came before her, Pynchon seems to be indicating that radical activism is doomed to fail, that it is simply “paving the way for the triumph of the cynical, rich, and sun-tanned retro-fascists of San Clemente and Santa Barbara” (Glover). 
As in the Republic of Rock'n'Roll, as in the shadow-government '80s in which Vineland was written, paranoia permeates every aspect of the crumbling hopes of the hippie world; Zoyd lives in fear of Brock up to modern day (or at least Vineland's modern day of 1984) and even Frenesi is tossed out into the cold after the neuvo-fascist government of Ronald Reagan decides to do a little house cleaning vis-à-vis the retro-fascist government of Richard Nixon, with the woman scrambling to escape Vond and his squadron of black helicopters. Even Pynchon's own structure of the novel, a light, airy beginning with Zoyd leading to dark, confusing, manic flashbacks nestled in flashbacks like a matryoshka doll, invites the reader to feel uncomfortable, the initially easygoing nature of Vineland (the town) betraying the dark core of Vineland (the book). Douglas Glover states that “Pynchon puts the blame for the steamrolling of Hippiedom squarely on the Tube, the Man...and certain dark forces” (Glover) and there is no doubt that there is no place in Pynchon's world for the cohabitance between the iron fist of the government and the happy-go-lucky communes of peaceful radicals. Pynchon is cynical to the very end: though the story ends on a happy note, even that is given to us by the government; Brock has to end his hunt for Zoyd and Frenesi simply because his funding runs out, not because he is defeated by, or learns to accept, the power of peace, love, and happiness. Even Pynchon's happy endings are bittersweet, but at least this one doesn't end with a missile falling on everybody.

Thomas Pynchon, born in 1937, became a young adult in the late '50s and early '60s, and had a front-row seat to the rise and fall of the radical left during that time. It's clear that the movement has the author's sympathies; in both novels, the left comes across as fun-loving and heroic, even at their most inept, while the right comes across as dominating, villainous, and evil. However, Pynchon is not a straight-up idealist like his protagonists, he is a realist who saw how corruption ate the movement from the inside out, and it is with this realism that Inherent Vice and Vineland were birthed. At least, as much realism as can be allowed novels featuring radical biker ninjettes and evil dentists.
Works Cited
Duyfhuizen, Bernard. "God Knows, Few of Us Are Strangers to Moral Ambiguity." Postmodern Culture. University of Virginia, n.d. Web. 22 Mar. 2015.
Glover, Douglas. "Mytho-Delirium: Thomas Pynchon's Vineland --- Douglas Glover." Numro Cinq. N.p., Apr. 1990. Web. 20 Mar. 2015.
Maher, Stephen. "The Lost Counterculture." Jacobin. N.p., 10 Feb. 2015. Web. 20 Mar. 2015.
Pynchon, Thomas. Inherent Vice. New York: Penguin, 2009. Print.
Pynchon, Thomas. Vineland. New York, NY, U.S.A.: Penguin, 1997. Print.
Willman, Skip. "Spectres of Marx in Thomas Pynchon's Vineland." Review. Critique n.d.: 198-222. Routledge Taylor & Francis Group. Web. 22 Mar. 2015.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

NPM 2015: Joyce Peseroff

Lilacs on my Birthday
The flowerets look edible before they open,
like columns of sugar dots on tiny strips
I bought as a child. Hard to bite the candy without

some paper adhering, as adding machine tape will
to large, red numbers. Lilacs are like that: another year
unspools without major accomplishment,

while I question "major" and "accomplishment."
And when I find in Costco those clusters
of pointillist pastel, I hope they will become

someone else's nostalgia—honorable emotion
propelling Ulysses toward Ithaca, and a woman
to set lilacs in her dooryard as her mother did.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

National Poetry Month 2015: Walt Whitman

How terrible I've been this year. The most magical of months is nearly over, and I haven't posted a single poem. Even now, as I write this, I should be writing a paper on Israel and Palestine, and yet I need to make sure at least a single poem graces this blog before the month is out. And as always, that's the trouble: which one?

I've always had a soft spot for Whitman, one that just got stronger as I got older. I admire his command of the language, certainly, melodic and haunting. I admire his politics, close to my own, or at least an ideal of my own. His early optimism is refreshing to me, even as it seems unfounded; reading "Song of Myself" it's amazing how Whitman (and Emerson, for what it's worth) could be so damned upbeat about things, considering that as Leaves of Grass was being published, the Civil War was raging on mercilessly. And after the Civil War come the World Wars, where it must have seemed like the world was going insane, certainly that was the view that T.S. Eliot took after World War I was through. Whitman, even in his later, more troubled works, just makes me feel renewed, and it's probably the type of thing I should read more often, lest I become a miserable bastard like Eliot. Something sweet for a month of magic. I'll try to have a couple more before the month is through.

"Out of the Rolling Ocean, The Crowd"

Out of the rolling ocean the crowd came a drop gently to me,
Whispering, I love you, before long I die,
I have travell’d a long way merely to look on you to touch you,
For I could not die till I once look’d on you,
For I fear’d I might afterward lose you.

Now we have met, we have look’d, we are safe,
Return in peace to the ocean my love,
I too am part of that ocean, my love, we are not so much separated,
Behold the great rondure, the cohesion of all, how perfect!
But as for me, for you, the irresistible sea is to separate us,
As for an hour carrying us diverse, yet cannot carry us diverse forever;
Be not impatient – a little space – know you I salute the air, the ocean and the land,
Every day at sundown for your dear sake, my love.

Friday, January 23, 2015

On English Neck a Norman Yoke: The Norman Conquest of the English Language

To the outside observer, the English language must appear impossibly complex. Unlike the strict morphology and syntax of Spanish, Italian, or Japanese, English is a labyrinthine trip into strange etymological dead-ends, seemingly random rules of pronunciation, and enough homonyms to leave even the most accomplished ESL student scratching their head. The reason for English's everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach is tied inexorably to its history, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the Norman Conquest of 1066 AD, an event that rewrote the English book from top to bottom.

Even before William of Normandy set his sights on the English throne, the isles which we now know as Britain were in a constant state of identity crisis. Centuries of invasions from the Celts, the Welsh, the Angles, the Saxons, and finally the Danes had left the isles culturally and linguistically schizophrenic, and yet William the Bastard's invasion still represents a total shift from what came before it; a lingual modernism at the edge of a sword. This is immediately evident in comparing the opening lines of the two most famous English works of the time, Beowulf, written around the 8th century AD, and The Canterbury Tales, from the 14th. Beowulf's opening lines are incomprehensible to the modern layperson, in a language that looks more German or Scandinavian than English, which betrays the Saxons and Danes Germanic presence: “Hwæt, we gardena in geardagum/þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon/hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!” (Anonymous 1) Despite this, in just a few hundred years Chaucer's Canterbury Tales offers us a piece that is recognizably English to the modern eye, if old-fashioned: “Whan that aprill with his shoures soote/The droghte of march hath perced to the roote/And bathed every veyne in swich licour/Of which vertu engendred is the flour” (Chaucer 1). 700 years is a long time, to be sure, but it's almost too quick for a language to completely change, as English did, and the proof is in the change of the ruling class when William gave positions to all his French-Norman followers and ousted the Anglo-Saxon elite the deposed House of Wessex supported. English became inundated with French language conventions, from the previously-unused sibilant C, to the new distinction between the Anglo-Saxon-derived words 'cow' and 'pig' (since the Saxon lower-class were the farmhands) and the French-derived words 'beef' and 'pork' (since the French nobility were the ones doing the eating). The Norman conquest also put the wheels in motion for another significant linguistic shift some time later; English tongues attempted to make sense of foreign French accents and pronunciations, which led to the eventual effect of the so-called Great Vowel Shift, where vowels were moved up further in the mouth, playing more off of the lips and blade of the tongue than the soft palate in Saxon and early post-Conquest language. The effect was startling; Chaucer's 'hu' (pronounced 'hoo') became Shakespeare's 'how' and words began to become more expressive with the whole of the mouth opened to their pronunciation.

So here we are, a thousand years removed from William of Normandy striking down the last Saxon king on the fields of Hastings and 700 years removed from The Canterbury Tales, and modern English is still rooted in what Chaucer spoke and wrote, whereas the Old English of the Anglo-Saxons is all but dead and gone. Of course imperialism will alter a language and a culture, but much like the way the Normans Norse lineage differentiated them from the French, so did the Normans blend with the Anglo-Saxons and create an uniquely English people with a identity removed from their conquerors. Whether it initially seemed good or ill, the conquest of England by the cosmopolitan French thrust the island's inhabitants out of the Dark Ages, and its appropriation of French and Latin linguistic practices was but one part of its modernization that allowed Britain to become truly Great.
Works cited
Al Shamari, A. (n.d.). The Influence of the Norman Conquest on English. Iraqi Academic Science Journals.
Chaucer, G., & Coghill, N. (2003). The General Prologue. In The Canterbury Tales (p. 1). London: Penguin Books.
Heaney, S. (2001). Beowulf: A new verse translation (p. 1). New York: W.W. Norton &.
Loyn, H. (1980, April). The Norman Conquest of the English Language. History Today.