Inspiring Reviews

I do not create anything suitable to be reviewed.

But if I did, I would hope to inspire reviews like Leonard Cohen:

Come to think of it, it’s the kind of story you might hear in a Leonard Cohen song: the aging entertainer forced into the spotlight one last time just to make they money he’s already earned, a cog in the same machine that once made him a star.

 

Like all of Cohen’s albums, Popular Problems sounds slick but slightly off-kilter, like someone trying to imitate music they’ve read about but never actually heard. Where an artist like Bob Dylan seemed to use music primarily as an excuse for words and Van Morrison seemed distinctly to be the leader of a band, Cohen occupies a stranger space… The reminder here is that no matter how close Cohen seems to the truth, what he does is just another cheap show to keep the crowd entertained.

Full review here

… I don’t even agree with most of this assessment. But that’s not the point.

Kris Kristofferson’s Feeling Mortal: An appreciation

I would like to invite you to listen to Kris Kristofferson’s album Feeling Mortal. I struggle to write anything useful about it, but it means a lot to me.

I hear it as a concept album, not about death, but about seeking.

Kris Kristofferson is a country music legend in his 70s. By honoring and embracing this specificity so honestly, the album reveals more universe themes.

I want to describe the music, the voice, and the words as having all been condensed to their bare essentials. The album combines the relaxed feel of musicians with nothing to prove with the delicate flourishes, the subtle harmonies, and the precise inflections that are only possible in the studio.

I invite you to notice the words that open the album.

Wide awake and feeling mortal
At this moment in the dream
That old man there in the mirror
And my shaky self-esteem

Feeling Mortal, embraces death, but as a backdrop to highlight much more.

I invite you to notice how quickly and economically the tone is set, within a song that stands alone.

…a sense of life as dream, but also being wide awake and embracing it, whatever it is. looking into the mirror, and examining a shaky self esteem.

Pretty speeches still unspoken
Perfect circles in the sand
Rules and promises I’ve broken
That I still don’t understand

I invite you to recall this theme of openness as we explore the rest of the album.

Mamma Steward moves us into a personal story. One which expands this theme of vision and acceptance.

And the things she said reminded me
Of things I’d grown too blind to see
And feelings that I’d hidden deep inside
And when she said goodbye and kissed me
I was thankful she couldn’t see
The sudden tears I couldn’t hide

And also lauds a character who is at once at peace with life as it is, but also and grateful for miracles.

But the miracle of medicine
And good old time religion
Removed the veil of darkness from her eyes
They said she praised the Lord
And thanked the doctor
And didn’t even seem at all surprised

At this point I want to acknowledge that I am veering dangerously close to just printing the lyrics and wishing I could put the music in as well. The album rewards listening, but defy’s my ability to comment usefully on it.

Yet I feel drawn to try.

Because life is a song for the dying to sing
And it’s got to have feeling to mean anything

I love this line, from Bread for the Body. It does not say something new, but nobody ever does. The best most can hope for is to say something old in a new way. This does something even better, it says something true, extremely well.

Notice the inflection on… fear my eyes. Notice how well the band swings.

If the narrator in Bread for the Body is looking back on life with a new sense of perceptive and new life lessons, the narrator of You Don’t Tell Me What To Do, inhabits a these lessons.

So the highway is where I believe I belong
Losing myself in the soul of a song
And the fight for the right to be righteously wrong
It’s a story that’s sad but it’s true

Notice the tone here. It is assertive, and may have faults, but it is not aggressive.

With Stairway to The Bottom, the album pivots slightly. This is an old song, from one of Kris Kristofferson other great underrated albums (Spooky Lady’s Sideshow). Indeed many of the themes in the album are extensions of a careers worth of artistry.

The narrator in You Don’t Tell Me What to Do was honest but unrepentant about his faults and bad behavior in the previous track. Now we see the other side of that equation, as the narrator follows a number of country tropes, but is forced to face their consequences in the mirror.

But each lie that you’ve spoken
And each vow that you’ve broken
Was a new nail in the coffin of your soul
If you think someone’s cryin’
For the love that is dyin’
With the trust that you betray each time you fall
Look around you on that stairway to the bottom
No one’s watchin’ but that mirror on the wall

It shares with Just Suppose the tradition of great county songs: a chorus refrain that reflects something new on each turn as the song progresses.

And I expect you to expect me to feel guilty
For not giving back the love you threw away
But just suppose you really love her now like I do
What do you suppose you’d do if you were me

It could be singing directly at the narrator of the previous track. It has sympathy (Yes I guess you feel ashamed and I can’t really say I blame you/ I suppose I’d feel the same if I were you) but ultimately remains unwilling to back down.

We are now also in the realm of love songs, a new theme to which the album returns after a detour into Castaway.

One day as I was sailing on the Caribbean Sea
I spied a little fishing vessel drifting aimlessly
Her sails were torn and tattered
And her wheel was spinning free
I told myself that little boat sure looks a lot like me

On many days my favorite track on the album. I relate to it deeply. To quote myself: “The best most can hope for is to say something old in a new way. This does something even better, it says somthing true, extremely well.”

For my eyes grew accustomed to looking at you
And my arms found a body they hungered to hold
And the rest of my senses surrendered to you
But my heart was the last one to know

And in My Heart Was the Last One to Know, these themes come together, a realization too late that in matters of the heart, the eyes are sometimes not enough.

Because of the difficulty of writing about music, I have avoided it. But sounds matter. They make or break an album. Notice in The One You Choose, that not only does our narrative culminate in a confession of love…

Maybe what you see is what you got and what you wanted
Take me at my word that it’s the best that I can be
I will go down trying hard to teach you how to trust me
And I’ll love you ‘til it happens darling or eternity

… it incorporates some simple but masterful licks and honest vocals.

And to pay it all off, we pull back from personal songs to a look at how to live in the context of all that the album has taken us through:

And I know he ain’t afraid of where he’s going
And I’m sure he ain’t ashamed of where he’s been
He has paid a little piece of his soul
For every seed that he’s been sowing
And he made his own mistakes, and love, and friends
Ain’t that what matters in the end

 

See also: Pilgrims Progress
Let the Walls Come Down

Leonard Cohen, albums -The Dove Is Never Free

Leonard Cohen’s work is so good it tends to lift up those who write about him.

For instance this line:  “… given that “Hallelujah” was as much about triumphing over waning potency as it was about anything religious… ”

Today it has generated the following thoughts from me.

His newest album, Old Ideas, is perfect example of what I fear I am losing as I indulge myself with more singles and move away from the concept of albums.

The first time I heard the album, the only song I liked, or even understood for that matter, was Different Sides.

The second time I listened to it, I also came to have a deep and profound experience with Banjo.

If you could hear what I hear when I listen to Banjo…

That would be something… that really would be something.

I would love to know what you hear as well.

 

Then I put the album away for a while. But I came back now and again, and now I count Going Home and parts of Amen among the songs I feel like I understand.

Going Home alone is worth the price of the album for me.

But more importantly I look forward to coming back to the album over the next few years to see what other surprises it has in store for me.

I tend to be dense when it comes to art so my particular experience is likely tinged by this. That is part of the attraction for me. But I suspect the thrill of coming back to a large complicated piece and finding new nuances is a more universal experience.

I don’t begrudge the evolution of how we consume music (although I worry about mp3 sound quality). The form has always been dominated by its limitations, and our current distribution model has many advantages.

But the experience I am having with Old Ideas is one that I have to work harder to find.

More quotes:

“For a Zen monk who started his career as a poet, Leonard Cohen has used a lot of synth horns.”

http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/16228-leonard-cohen-old-ideas/

Possibly apocryphal:

I’ve come to the conclusion, reluctantly, that I am going to die. So naturally those questions arise and are addressed. But, you know, I like to do it with a beat.

Leonard Cohen, when asked at a recent press conference whether he had “come to terms with death”.

Has there ever been a musician with as consistently good album titles? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonard_Cohen_discography …

And because it cannot be avoided:

Three thoughts about the Rolling Stones – Gloom and Doom

The emotional heart of my recent science-fiction/corporate espionage short story was inspired by Rolling Stones imagery.

I am not entirely comfortable with my proclivity to treat real people as mythological figures in my internal cosmology.

Nonetheless I recently returned to thinking about music through autobiography and started reading Ronnie*. This has inspired the following thoughts in no particular order:

1). Keith Richards autobiography Life might have been a better biography if he had demonstrated a greater degree of self-awareness, but as a literary work, that awareness could have been fatal.

Adherence to reality aside, Life conjures up a portrait of a man overflowing with raw talent and passion for which he is rewarded with enormous success.

It also reveals a man trapped by the limitations of narrowly defined masculinity and his own image. He seeks redemption in friendship and art, even as he fails to acknowledge his own role in undermining the efficacy of these elements in his own life.

None of this would have the same layered depth, the same nuance, if you had a fully self-aware author. The phrase “show, don’t tell” is overused writing advice, but it applies here. As a novel, it leaves the reader wondering if the narrator is even a good person. What does it mean to leave to leave that kind of trail of destruction and not have any real sense of responsibility for it?

As it stands, Life is a beautiful portrait of undeniable talent mixed with obliviousness.

2) The commonly cited theory that the Rolling Stones recent albums are mere retreads of past glory’s holds up if you narrow your focus to their greatest hits. But their critical success rests primarily on the their streak from Beggars Banquet – Exile on Main Street.

Listen to those albums with fresh ears and you’ll notice that the Rolling Stones (for good or ill) have not even attempted to replicate the same heady mix of blues and folk that that they exemplified during that period.

If nothing else, their recent production relishes in clarity, while these albums are confident attempts to to bury their dynamic riffs and simplistic lyrics** behind layers of atmosphere.

At their worst the last three albums (Voodoo Lounge onward), are cynical retreads of Start Me Up, but they have not attempted to ape triumphs such as Jigsaw Puzzle, Loving Cup, or Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.

The trash on their recent albums are clearly throwaway Rock and Roll McSingles, but for my tastes I can cobble together a pretty good album with selective editing. But even that mix-tape of an album has few of the sonic influences that they were playing around with at their peak.

3). It is surreal is it that they have released a Greatest Hits Album (containing up to 80 tracks) entitled GRRR!

Seriously…. GRRR!

It is even stranger that barely anyone comments on the absurdity of this.

On the other hand, GRRR! contains one of their better McSingles titled: Gloom and Doom. The music is serviceable, gritty and on the right track, but lacks dynamism.  It’s lyrically great and it grew on my after repeated listenings.

It’s the kind of song that in a different context would make me think “this band is really onto something – I can’t wait to hear what they do when they get an album together.”

Who knows what they could do if they cared to really try.

*Random non-music autobiography book recommendations:  The Swerve (which demonstrates how old modernity is) and End This Depression Now! (which functions as nice economic’s primer for mainstream liberal thought and shows that money does strange things in large groups).

**My internal struggle with the content of most of their lyrics merits its own post.

Playing favorites: Cameron Crowe, redeeming Elizabehtown and trying my hand at film criticism

Q: What is your favorite film?

A: An unhelpful question. “Favorite” is vague enough to be meaningless and my answer is likely to change based on a variety of social contexts – none of which come into play when questioning myself.

Q: What’s a film that reveals something about you that you value?

A: Slightly better. Although my answer will still be random, at least we’ve eliminated Braveheart.

Q: Fine. What’s the movie you’ve had the most radical change of heart about?

A: Well now see Bravehearts back in the mix…

In this way we eventually approach Elizabethtown.  The linked trailer does justice to my first viewing. I almost walked out of the theater, casually dismissing the film as an unremarkable pat romance with some uninteresting family drama and a too long scavenger hunt at the end.

History has not been kind, and the general consensus seems agree with that interpretation.

Then I read Roger Ebert’s 3-star review, and I found an extra detail that caused me to reconsider. You see, at the start of the film, the protagonist is fired from the shoe company. This is the great professional failure that sets everything into motion (oh yeah- spoilers ahead for Elizabethtown & Almost Famous). Ebert writes:

“In the first cut of the film, there was a great deal more of the journey, followed by a pointless epilogue in which the Spasmodica shoe turns out to be a hit after all, because with every step you take, it whistles.” (emphasis mine).

It was this absurd detail – the idea that his great failure had been turned into success through some Jiminy Cricket like insane optimism.

Upon reading that I was suddenly able to see the movie not just as a long dirge with some manic pixie girl thrown in, but as a metaphor. Once I stepped back an inch everything else fell into place.

The scenes worked on there own just fine, but their power came from wielding larger concepts around with them.

Concepts about death. About love. About the meaning of life and parenthood and optimism and truly knowing someone else.

This highlights a few things:

1) I’m not so bright.

2) Context is everything. I could have gotten this context from knowing Crowe’s work.

Or from the opening of the film which signals it like a bat signal if you’re looking for it. Or maybe if I’d had a better breakfast that morning – who knows.

I do not mean to imply that detail about the whistling shoes should have been left in. Rather that viewing the film requires that we bring something of ourselves to the experience and what I bring can be unpredictable and may say more about me than the film.

3) Really good art can inspire interesting commentary even if the commentary isn’t particularly approving. Try searching for reviews of L. Cohen’s Old Ideas.

Once I saw the film with these larger themes in mind – it became a masterpiece.

The love plot became a layered balancing act of meaningful dialogue that commented both on the history of “meet cutes” as well as counter-balancing the foreboding sense of death, failure, suicide and regret.

Her manic pixie girl status wasn’t just a cheat or lazy writing, it was a conceit that opened doors.

Once I wasn’t watching just another romantic comedy, but engaging it as a something of substance it opened up and rewarded me for it.

Allow me to use an example from a better regarded Cameron Crowe film (since it has a youtube clip available – and because I’m slightly intimidated by Elizabethtown).

Sample Scene: Here

Here the “talent” of the band is getting back on the tour bus after a night of ill-advised partying. When they last left, it was unclear if he would return, or if the band was done for.

More importantly, the lead singer of the band, has made it clear that the rest of the band simply does not like him. The core of the tension is unresolved. This theme is hammered home throughout the movie. Time and time again when crisis hits – when you’d expect them to pull together and find a deep love for each other – they come up dry. They come up with selfishness and bitterness.

So why does the band stay together? Is it money/fame (partially yes). But then why do we care about them?

This scene argues compellingly that the answer is: music.

Sure they are all failures as human beings and friends.

But then there is the music. A theme (one of many) echoed throughout the film, from the rock critic to the too-wise band-aid. It is the heart of the film. It’s where the film begins, and ends.

Or maybe the movie is about a rock critic trying to maintain his distance so he can write about the music. Or maybe it’s about his love of the girl who puts her head on his shoulder, but is not with him.

It’s all there. The whole film is in that scene.

It also gets him out of the party, back on the bus and keeps things moving along pretty quick.

Or maybe it’s all in that song choice. It has the right kind of fame and feel to be sung on a bus. Not a bus I might be on, but a bus full of rock stars reaching for a way to show some appropriate manly sensitivity.

Not just a song that was famous around this time, but like the film, a song of this time. All enchanced if you bring certain cultural knowledge to bear on the moment, but works well on it’s own.

And of course it says a lot about the band-aid as well.

What I’m saying is, if you think Almost Famous has layers, give Elizabethtown a second viewing.

Or maybe it’s that I’m usually a lazy viewer and I woke up this one time.

More on this when I get the courage to break down Elizabethtown in detail. And if you beg, I’ll talk your ear off about Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

Life – Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Media Images and so on

Eventually this post will resolve into a minor point of media criticism. But it starts with…

I just finished “reading” the Keith Richards “autobiography” Life.

Whew, that was a lot of hyperlinks.  The word reading is in quotations because I listened to the audiobook rather than using a print copy (and the link goes to Stephan King’s thoughts on the practice).

Autobiography is in quotes because the book’s creation process strains the word “autobiography” without quite breaking it.

Overall the book was well-written enough to offer some insight into Keith Richards, the human being, despite the fact that it never quite escapes being based on interviews with someone who has spent years cultivating a very limiting media image (and potentially a limiting self-image).

For instance, the book manages to capture the contradictions and insanity of the junkie logic Keith still uses to defend his past addictions even as it also includes his protestations that heron is bad.

How much you will enjoy these ramblings may depend on your tolerance for an insightful portrait of a rock and roll star who defines a certain kind of “cool”.

Or more to the point of this post, the book conveys some of the depth and breadth of the complicated relationship Keith has with Mick Jagger (his co-song writer in the band the Rolling Stones), without actually spending that much time on it. It captures the sense of two men who have the capacity to create something greater than themselves even as they are weighed down by years of history and very petty infighting.

Certainly Keith comes out looking better than Mick in his telling, but again, the book is good enough that a careful reader will notice the broad outline of why Mick may not be the only villain in their story.

This doesn’t answer the question of why you should care about their petty infighting. But it does offer some insight into to how small it must be to have to be Keith Richards all the time.

The most limiting factor of the book is that it’s written by someone who knows in his media-savy bones that of all the nuanced, spiteful, loving, and childish things he says about about his relationship with Mick, the headlines will boil it down to a particularly juvenile penis joke.

If not that, then something like that was always going to be the cage. And it was one he played into. Maybe he did that to himself, and maybe it’s not a problem for him, but the willingness of the world around him to reduce and celebrate that kind of nonsense probably didn’t help to broaden anyone’s horizons.

I wrote the rest of this to give me an excuse to actively avoiding perpetuating the myth that the worst thing he says about Mick is that joke. Because the media seems to think it is, and this does a disservice to everyone involved. The book portrays the man as something much worse, and more nuanced, even within its severe limitations.

The book is a glimpse into the mind of someone who knows they live in in a cage made of gold and beauty and myth. But can also make music like this.