Flowers from Exile (2009) by Rome

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Wikipedia defines Rome, the duo of Luxembourg natives Jerome Reuter and Patrick Damiani, as “apocalyptic martial folk.”  Three good words to describe the maddening but ultimately worthwhile Flowers from Exile, a record unlike any you have listened to and may choose to listen to for the rest of your life.

To understand what “apocalyptic martial folk” sounds like, imagine if Jonathan Edwards or Father Mapple from Moby-Dick had been transported to this century and given a contract to record a pop album.  Or if a medieval bard with some of those cool guitar-like thingies you hear on Incredible String Band and Pentangle records attempted to make his incredibly unsuitable voice mix with mid-to-uptempo traditional melodies.  That’s Rome.  While some tuneful acoustic guitar which suggests much happier songs plays over gently percussive beats, Mr. Reuter sings songs of loss, weight, and tragic overtones in a tremulous baritone reminiscent of Nick Cave.  The songs have titles like “To a Generation of Destroyers” and “To Die Among Strangers,” and the lyrics match up.

While Flowers from Exile is not something I’d rush to throw back into my CD player or my iTunes rotation, it’s a good album.  The guitar work is catchy and hummable, the elctronica usually adds a nice touch of atmosphere, and Mr. Reuter’s voice grabs the attention, whether it be in singing (“To Die Among Strangers” with its exhortation to “brave my fire” and “We Who Fell In Love With the Sea”) or speaking (the closing “Flight in Formation,” some nice poetry over an electronic string background).  What kept this from being an enjoyable, more-than-once curiosity is their desire to put lots of samples of people singing or speaking foreign languages and occasional snippets of atmospheric noise in place of actual songs throughout much of the album.  The only track where these work is the tangoish “Swords to Rust–Hearts to Dust,” on which a sampled soprano mixes with Mr. Reuter and a tango-styled guitar to make the album’s best song.


Cold Roses (2006) by Ryan Adams and the Cardinals

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In my previous writing on Thelonious Monk, I maintained that one way to make a great piece of art is not necessarily to create something groundbreaking and innovative but to know what you are doing aesthetically and do it with sheer perfection, honed by training and practice.  Ryan Adams and the Cardinals’ 2006 double album Cold Roses is in these terms nothing less than perfect.  Indeed, after I’d heard all nineteen songs, I wanted to hear all of them again, and have been doing so for the last four days.  This NEVER happens.

Cold Roses is an album full of classic 1970s pop and country-rock…echoes of Warner Bros., Asylum, Elektra, and Atlantic recordings permeate a near-encyclopedia of the decade’s music.  It is similar to what Rilo Kiley did on Under the Blacklight, but while Jenny Lewis never took her tongue out of her cheek, Mr. Adams tries a different approach.  He has identified the melodies which should have been written back then and never were, the arrangements which fit them and would fit them in any decade, and the lyrical subjects and imagery to accompany them.  When I heard “Magnolia Mountain” and “How Do You Keep Love Alive?” for the first time, I was stunned that I’d never come across them on classic rock radio before: they are some of the most natural and effortless songs ever written.

Mr. Adams’s biography is unknown to me, apart from his now two-year marriage* and a few typically rock-star struggles with substances.  I can’t say where the content of Cold Roses came from, but themes and conceits keep recurring so often that guesses can emerge.  These are songs of nostalgia, reminsicence, and accepting maturity, with a continuing metaphor of roses, flowers, and other things growing in the fertile South–a part of America which clings to tradition if ever there is any.  Mr. Adams sings these songs in a tenor which will quaver and stir in moments of emotion, and the Cardinals support his guitar and piano stylings harmoniously, with Cindy Cashdollar’s pedal steel and resonator guitar standing out.

Though Mr. Adams unleashes roaring near-metal on a few cuts, “Beautiful Sorta” and the closing, Bowie-and-the-Spiders-recalling “Tonight” most memorably, the album’s focus is not-TOO-loud countryish rock, and the pleasures are manifold: the angelic vocals of “Sweet Illusions,” the haunting “I can never get close enough to you” coda of the mood-shifting “Cherry Lane,” the crescendo of “Meadowlake Street,” the stomping and impassioned “If I am a Stranger,” and the one-two near-medley of “Blossom,” a  lovely inspirational ballad, and the celebratory “Life is Beautiful.”  Though the song I have listened to most is the quiet, heartbreaking “How Do You Keep Love Alive?” mainly for a couplet which made me nearly stop what I was doing to hear the whole thing several times in a row, and with which I close this review as one minor example of Mr. Adams’s genius:

“I would have held your mama’s hand on the day you was born

She runs through my veins like a long black river and rattles my cage like a thunderstorm.”

*And as this YouTube clip proves in my mind, Mr. and Mrs. Adams are capable of recording a Double Fantasy or I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight for this century.

Underground (1967) and Other Thoughts About Thelonious Monk

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Underground was Thelonious Sphere Monk’s last studio album to be dominated by new material (it was followed by a lousy big-band record, and that was that), and it is a testament to Mr. Monk’s genius that it is memorable not just for the incredible cover but for the music within.

I realized something about great records today while I was listening to an extraordinary piece of music which I’ll talk about next week.  Sometimes you can be perfect by creating something new and innovative and doing it flawlessly.  But sometimes you can be perfect by following in some footsteps, but knowing what you’re doing so well and playing it without mistakes and with virtuosity and grace and emotion.

Thelonious Monk was not like Miles Davis and John Coltrane and Duke Ellington, able to adapt his music to different themes as time and change shifted around him.  He defined his style in the 1940s in the original Blue Note recordings and never really changed his love of doing everything unconventional you can do in 4/4 time.  But if Mr. Monk had gone from the highest vanguard to a man almost living off formulae, he never lost his abilities to come up with a clever theme or reinvent a really old-fashioned standard, or to play the blues like few other jazzmen ever could or ever dared to.

Underground is not as memorable and excellent as the previous year’s Straight, No Chaser, which felt more like a valedictory statement with its epic explorations of the back catalog and Japanese pop tunes and the lovely “This is My Story, This is My Song” closer…oh, wait, most of all that came out on the remastered unedited CD, but still.  Underground, if not great, is a solid repeatable album full of classic Monk blues (“Raise Four,” almost as catchy as “Blue Monk”), experimentalism (“Green Chimneys”), and the surprise out of left field: Jon Hendricks in this case, vocalesing “In Walked Bud.”  It’s a damn good jazz record which has a picture of Mr. Monk about to bang out a barrelhouse melody before screwing a French Resistance cheri on the cover.  What’s not to love?

The Union (2010) by Elton John and Leon Russell

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In the 1970s, session musician and songwriter extraordinaire* Leon Russell reinvented himself as the twang-voiced leader of a Southern rock-and-boogie circus, either with Joe Cocker (Mad Dogs and Englishmen, one of the greatest live albums ever) or himself on lead vocals.  Mr. Russell’s songs greatly inspired the young Elton John: Tumbleweed Connection and Honky Chateau, two of the best rock records ever PERIOD, find Sir Elton borrowing piano stylings, phrasings, and arrangements from Mr. Russell, whose fall into obscurity is comparable to Sir Elton’s rise to icon status.

No longer. At the impetus of Sir Elton himself, the duo recorded The Union with Bernie Taupin writing lyrics to their music and T-Bone Burnett in the producer’s chair, and the result is a glorious piece of music you want to listen to again and again.

Both men stick to grand piano, moving back and forth between echoing ballads and barrelhouse duets, and while Sir Elton’s voice has continued to grow in richness and expression with age, Mr. Russell’s remains, charmingly, the same Southern drawl, making for a nice blend–like two old storytellers in the 1920s, a U.S.A. and a C.S.A. man, chewing tobacco, drinking whiskey, and sharing old memories.  Mr. Burnett’s production is unmistakably the msot technically sound guys-playing-in-a-barn possible (a la his soundtrack work), with drums, guitars, horns, and gospel choirs mixed in at fine equalization.

Sir Elton and Mr. Russell write fourteen melodies with mostly Mr. Taupin’s lyrics, which mark a return to the heights of Tumbleweed and Songs From the West Coast.  My earlier Civil War comparison was no accident, nor was it fully influenced by the semi-title track “Gone to Shiloh” (with Neil Young joining to make a haunting trio).  The Union is an album about unity, about needing people and connection and a place in time and space and how that need remains, probably grows more potent, with age. 

How well is this expressed by Sir Elton, Mr. Taupin, and Mr. Russell?  I played the album’s standout song (for me because it speaks to my life more than any other), “The Best Part of the Day,” for some friends on New Year’s Eve.  It’s a lovely, somewhat silly, always heartfelt tune about being lucky enough to be in love with your best friend.  A girl who IS in love with her best friend listened and told me, “I don’t like hearing Elton John sing, but I do like his songs.”  For those who do like hearing Elton John sing, and Leon Russell too, there could be no better treat than hearing them get raucous (“Jimmie Rodgers’s Dream,” “Monkey Suit,” “A Dream Come True”) and sentimental (“Never Too Old to Hold Somebody”) and smoking like blues kingpins (“I Should Have Sent Roses,” a fantastic number recalling Mr. Russell’s seventies hits better than any other).  The Union is a reminder of rock’n’roll at its best, and should be acquired immediately.

*–Forget “This Masquerade” and “A Song For You” and “Superstar.”  My favorite song co-penned by Mr. Russell is “She’s Just My Style” by Gary Lewis and the Playboys.  1965.  Hear it TODAY before you get this CD.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010) by Kanye West

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Two questions: How can you love yourself and by extension the world when you know you do so many imperfect things?  And how do you balance self-respect and self-criticism without tipping the balance either way?  Some people write philosophical texts about these questions.  Kanye West writes 70 minutes of lyrics and music based around classic rock and soul tunes and releases it with a picture of himself having sex with a mythical creature on the cover.  And it’s great.  Plastic Ono Band or Blood on the Tracks-level great.  I’ve listened to it twice in its entirety and can’t get enough of it. 

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy begins with Roald Dahl, ends with Gil Scott-Heron, and crams wit, insight, and just the right amount of posturing in between.  Mr. West, who in the last few years lost his mother, split with his fiancee, and did a whole lot of things on television which people usually don’t do, has a healthy dose of personal esteem and it shows: tracks like the leadoff “Dark Fantasy” and “Gorgeous” (sampling Mike Oldfield and the Byrds!) are triumphant in glorification.  But the album grows progressively darker the more beats, strings, pianos, and obscenity-drenched flights of fancy Mr. West embarks on, all in a half-speaking, half-singing cadence which somehow invites you in…I think part of why Mr. West excels in disturbing people is the very persuasive nature of his voice, and he DOES persuade in the end that he’s a conflicted man.  “Monster” (with the amazing Nicki Minaj break to close), for its aggressiveness and the dark music video, sees Mr. West unsure of his position, touching on regret in the opening and closing sections.  “Runaway” and “Hell of a Life” also mix statements of sexual/otherwise excellence with admittance of nerves and failure (the former is beautifully sad, based around a mocking chorus and repeated piano chord), but the final “Lost in the World” (one of several collaborations with Bon Iver, of all people) ends the album on an up, note with Mr. West breaking into song, unresolved but moving forward in anticipation of discovery.

MBDTF demands repeated listenings, especially to the album’s best cut, “So Appalled,” with Mr. West and Jay-Z taking the obscure Manfred Mann’s Earth Band track “You Are–I Am” and spending seven minutes expressing rage and disbelief at the excesses of others…and of themselves.  Every rhyme hits, every word registers.  Rihanna, Elton John, John Legend (top-notch), Alicia Keys, Fergie, La Roux, even Chris Rock all pop up to join in with some well-played vocalizing (Mr. Rock has a surprising, very funny monologue.).  And finally, mixed in the seriousness are some high comic lines. “Got too many Urkels on your team, that’s why your wins low.”  “Have you ever had sex with a pharaoh?  Come and put your p***y in my sarcophagus.”  And of course, “I’m gonna shoot a bootlegger!”

If the Modern Had a Birth, There Must Have Been a Family

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Modern Family winning the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy for its debut 2009-2010 season is one of the many great pages in recent television history, and probably a fitting way to cap off the decade. It is not just that the show is unfailingly uproarious for reasons I shall soon delve into, but also that Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan have taken transatlantic television a step further.

The 2000s are arguably the greatest decade for American TV, a decade which mixed the experimentalism of its early 1950s days with confidence in commerciality—a combination distinctly lacking from the 1960s to the 1990s. After the so-called “golden age,” the American networks adopted a business model based on how blocks of commercial advertising, not sponsorship of individual programs, made them the most money…which made sense since you were being paid by more people to reach a potentially mass audience, the same theory behind the Super Bowl. However, to attract the mass audience, formulaic, inoffensive programming was created: I can’t remember the number of Westerns running in 1960, but it was a LOT, and then came the procedural, the family-friendly sitcom, the primetime soap in the 80s, shows designed to continue for 20-25 episodes a year and draw viewers back no matter how repetitive they became. Even shows like Hill Street Blues became trapped in convention despite efforts at constructing a new formula.

Meanwhile, in England, the BBC was creating innovative shows with very short seasons and a willingness to offend and play with convention—partly through the freedom which comes with a state TV tax to be sure, but partly through not underestimating intelligence and tastes, because deep down, every human being is attracted to the new. This whole process took a while…but ITV and other commercial networks in the UK copied the BBC because that was what people wanted to see…and when HBO got rich enough to produce original programs, they could get away with copying the BBC model because they didn’t have commercials either…and as THESE shows skyrocketed in accolades and popularity, the other American networks began to catch on. Hence the decade of The Wire, Mad Men, Lost, Deadwood, The Shield, Weeds, Arrested Development, and things like John From Cincinnati which people suddenly wanted to take a chance on.

As usually happens on this blog, I haven’t said much about Modern Family yet, but I’m getting there right now. For all of the greatness of the new television, domination of this formula would be like having nothing but Bergman, Fellini, and Godard playing at multiplexes forever. They’re beautiful and everybody should definitely see them, but we also need to have some fun! The best of both worlds would be a hybrid which respected the conventions of American pop television but incorporated the strides of the last fifteen years. Arrested Development, one of the greatest shows of my lifetime, came so very, very close…but it was still too scale-tipping away from the mass audience. America has gotten used to sitcom families whose behavior, even when annoying, is endearing, whose quarrels are either comically resolved or provide fodder for “very special episodes,” who were all good-hearted at the end of the day. The Bluths were an assortment of very despicable people whose conflicts were outrageous, who broke laws, who contemplated incest, and whose only all-out decent member called up weapon after weapon but could never bring them in line. Arrested Development was about the triumph of moral anarchy in a direct assault on family values. It tried to destroy the sitcom paradigm in one titanic swoop.

Modern Family, on the other hand, subverts the paradigm while respecting it. Just as in everything from Father Knows Best to The Cosby Show to the innumerable sitcoms about blended families, the Pritchett-Dunphy clan live an upper-middle-class (accent on upper) life, and the three couples with children are very happy together, and still further the issues which would make “very special episodes” are far removed. But that’s where the similarities end. As someone who grew up in a large but close and loving family, I can attest to the pleasure and sometimes necessity of really not liking your parents or your children, of snarkily needling them on their flaws and irritable traits, of clashing with others because of fundamental differences in character which emerge only when you live in the same house, and not in broadly drawn Neil Simon fashion but in things like how important it is to have a state-of-the-art TV and whether or not to go to the lavender plantation and similar locales day after day. Modern Family celebrates the incompatibilities and miniature culture clashes and sarcasms which go part and parcel with loving your spouse and children and parents and such in a way no other sitcom has really dared to do before…we can show the kids, especially the teenagers, at war, but never everybody finding points of disagreement in just about any situation. And what makes Modern Family work is the realization that on the small scale of everyday life, this is drama enough! No wonder a Dutch TV crew has gotten it (for the mockumentary conceit). Everybody should get this! Couple it with intelligent jokes definitely not written for the LCD and a liberal dose of physical comedy, and we’ve got a gold mine.

I don’t want to break down the first season episode by episode, because there are no real off shows even when a plot strand falls flat. But what I realized in watching the entire season was how Jay (Ed O’Neill) and Gloria (Sofia Vergara) are really the straight man and woman to the jokers of Jay’s offspring…and this also lends credibility to their marriage. Jay and Gloria each have a rock-solid core set of values, a willingness to change when confronted with the necessity to do so, and common sense they frequently share with the analytical, fussy Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), free-wheeling but overly protective Cameron (Eric Stonestreet), perfectionist Claire (Julie Bowen), and sublimely idiotic Phil (Ty Burrell, who deserves something for being so incredibly out of it week after week).

Three last things. I love the portrayal of Mitchell and Cameron’s relationship, which is never made a big deal of and actually is recognizably parallel to the long marriage of Phil and Claire. While Jay and Gloria are so similar, the other two couples have noticeable strengths and weaknesses which their partners complement fully.

The children on the show are, as common to other such shows, funny but overshadowed by their parents…although Nolan Gould, who is actually in MENSA, is great as the youngest Dunphy, Luke, who runs through glass doors, locks himself in dog transporters, and cannot throw a baseball.

And I wasn’t going to name individual episodes, but the pilot is a fantastic introduction, “Great Expectations” features two really good guest stars in Elizabeth Banks (as Mitchell and Cameron’s longtime wild-child friend) and Edward Norton (as the bassist from Spandau Ballet…yes, really), and “The Incident,” “Airport 2010,” and “Hawaii” are note-perfect episodes which bring out the show’s genius: long stretches of realistic, sharp-tongued conflict culminating in moments where the family’s essential love for each other shines through…and then we laugh some more.

New friendships with TWO different people who have lived in Shanghai and the page-turning highs of Man’s Fate led me to pick up a few more books about the west-east relationship. For one, I revisited Sir Hugh Trevor-Roper’s biography Hermit of Peking, a story no screenwriter or dramatist could ever have devised. When given a copy of the unpublished, just-discovered memoirs of Sir Edmund Backhouse, the legendary scholar and historian who gave Oxford a magnificent library of Chinese texts, Sir Hugh’s amazement at the obscenity present in the memoirs led him on an epic search to find the truth about Sir Edmund’s life. The result is not so much a full biography as a piece of fascinating detective work which historians dream of. Presenting the story both chronologically and thematically, including an annoying habit of dropping hints of revelations to come which smacks too much of pulp fiction once in a while, Sir Hugh makes a startling argument on the factuality of both the memoirs and all of Sir Edmund’s work in history and academics. Hermit of Peking is entertaining, but it also carries a sharp warning of how easy it is to create something unreal and pass it off as the genuine article…and how easy anyone can be taken in.

And after almost a decade of hearing people talk now and then about the great Cuban-Italian writer Italo Calvino, I finally got my feet wet with his short 1974 novel Invisible Cities. This is a GEM. But be warned: the plot of the novel is the conscientious evolution of mankind, the meanings and beliefs and desires which bind us together, the way we deal with our mortality, and how we communally look at the world…and it is told through a series of one or two page snippets where Marco Polo describes the cities of the empire to Kublai Khan. No, they don’t sound like they go together when I put it that way. But start flipping through the book, be seduced by Signor Calvino’s descriptions of cities suspended over mountain passes, cities perched on the edge of desert and ocean, cities with exact copies built underground in which the dead are able to perform the functions they dreamed of when they were living, of cities where every action is reflected in the stars. Sooner or later, you will find yourself moved by how these dry factual statements sneak up on you and tear at the core of what makes you a feeling creature, of why you love and why you hate and why you remember and why you persevere. When it’s over, you’ll be sad, wishing there could have been more. You’ll also want to go to Venice, but that’s understandable in any case.

“The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno…

Then make them endure…

Give them space.”

A lesson for not only those who build cities, but those who seek to build institutions, dreams, lives with those they love.

Finally, I revisited the two albums Bob Dylan recorded with Daniel Lanois: Oh Mercy (1989) and the Album of the Year-winning Time Out of Mind (1997). On both records, Mr. Lanois surrounds Mr. Dylan with ringing guitars, echoing organs and keyboards, drumming kept in the background but firm, and recording which brings out the ravaged, prophetic, elder statesman qualities of Mr. Dylan’s voice while keeping his grip on melody—or what’s left of it. But on listening to them back to back, a clear divide emerges. The chapter on Oh Mercy was my favorite part of Mr. Dylan’s autobiography Chronicles, an unflinching confession of confusion and self-disgust turning to acceptance and rebirth, midwifed by the difficult Mr. Lanois. And as befit someone who’d gotten sloppy as a poet and composer, the songs, though very good, are all short and simplistic, Mr. Dylan choosing only a set number of usually repetitive words to convey an unambiguous idea, the two exceptions being “Man in the Long Black Coat” and “Most of the Time.” But by Time Out of Mind, having survived serious illness and gotten back out in touring and reimmersion in folk and blues, Mr. Dylan produces what is basically Blood on the Tracks Part II, but two decades on, the desperation and anguish have only increased with awareness of mortality…and yet the desire for love and belief in love remains undiminished, with “To Make You Feel My Love” being his most sincere love song ever with the possible exception of “Sara.” There are songs on Time Out of Mind I’d like to hear forever: the break-up ballads “Standing in the Doorway” and “Trying to Get to Heaven,” the cool, twisting rocker “Cold Irons Bound,” and “Not Dark Yet,” one of those rare bits of musical perfection we come across now and again. Mr. Dylan’s confidence, however, also produced the 16-minute why-doesn’t-this-stupid-song-end “Highlands,” which has none of the positive qualities of the earlier epics (“Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts”) and should have been replaced by the great, valedictory outtake “Red River Shore.” Why Mr. Lanois couldn’t put his foot down there is a mystery.

Blood, Devastation, Death, War, and Horror…and a Man Who Actually DOES Gardening

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I really hate that this was a week overdue…but I launched a new “organizing my life” plan last week, and my time to create the blog was taken up by a need to meet another urgent creative deadline and a close-to-home medical emergency.  Happily, all has worked out much for the best…and it happened during a week where my cultural intake was practically nonexistent.  But considering I finished one of the best novels published during my lifetime, things had to be written…

Yeah...people like this can't write folk music.

First, we’re going to keep this short.  Jethro Tull’s Heavy Horses (1978) is NOT as good as Songs From the Wood.  The melodies go nowhere, the lyrics are cutesy, and “No Lullaby” and the title track are in the same class as “Pibroch” and every other really annoying long Jethro Tull song.  Worse, Ian Anderson’s voice changes to a growl where even his lighthearted moments sound like he’s going to kill you.  BUT…”Acres Wild,” “Moths,” and “Weathercock” (especially this latter) are epitomes of the Tull sound of guitars, flutes, piano, solid rhythm, and Mr. Anderson as Romantic, darkly witty philosopher, and if these three tracks were mixed with everything from Songs From the Wood which ISN’T “Pibroch,” you’d have a record as PERFECT as Thick as a Brick.

A VERY Excitable Boy...Just Keep Him Away from Martinis and Graveyards

I have had a familiarity with three songs by the late, great Warren Zevon.  “Werewolves of London,” of course, has never lost its charm and ability to make a listener smile, while “Keep Me in Your Heart” from his Irish wake of an album The Wind is a song as plaintive and lovely as any great folk tune or hymn.  The third, “Lawyers, Guns, and Money,” which I got to hear Meat Loaf sing live on stage in 1999 with obscene energy, has none of “Keep Me in Your Heart’s” emotion and transforms the wit of “Werewolves of London” into a black comic view of mankind as an obscene, selfish race…but it still sounds as commercial a pop-rock tune as “Werewolves.”  A listen to the 1986 compilation A Quiet Normal Life: The Best of Warren Zevon makes one realize that the latter song is most representative of Mr. Zevon’s career.  All of the tracks sound like mainstream California 70s-early 80s pop-rock with echoy guitars, piano, the occasional saxophone and string section…but they are not, well, enjoyable listening.  In fact, A Quiet Normal Life is one of the least enjoyable albums I’ve ever heard.  Take the track “Excitable Boy” for instance, which comes second after “Werewolves.”  It SOUNDS like a potential pop single with a danceable beat, strong melody, female back-up vocals, good but uncomplicated arrangement…but the lyrics are about a teenage boy who kills a girl, gets out of prison a decade later, and has sex with her corpse.  Most of the other songs also leave one feeling unsettled or as if they were being bludgeoned with a torturous instrument: “Mohammed’s Radio,” “The Envoy,” “Ain’t That Pretty at All,” and “Play It All Night Long,” a perfect song for drunken, morose nights.  And yet…”Desperados Under the Eaves” and the closing “Looking For the Next Best Thing” are terrific numbers (the first being a perfect statement of what’s it like to live alone and unsure of yourself in L.A.), “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” is a load of fun, and there are no good words to describe “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” a song at once hilarious, hard-hitting, and irresistibly catchy…catchy as “Werewolves of London,” which I’ve mentioned way too much because every time I hear it, I still sing along with every word…impossible not to.

Here's the Bolero...


And here's one of many naked women.

In 1976, acclaimed Italian animator Bruno Bozzetto used his distinctive style of curvy lines, bright colors, and imaginative concepts for short cartoons to make Allegro non troppo, his own variation of Fantasia.  The six fusions of image and music are never boring and a joy to watch, although they are not for children: only “Valse Triste” , a sentimental depiction of a cat looking for a home in the rain, is family friendly.  The magisterial interpretation of “Bolero,” depicting the evolution of Earth from a tiny bacteria to domineering man, is very intense for kids, Dvorak’s “Slavian Dance” mixes genocide and mooning in a bizarre way, and the other three cartoons…well, Signor Bozzetto likes naked women.  A lot.  And he draws naked women really well.  So we get “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” in which a forest spirit chases down an uninterested nymph, “The Firebird” (which would also be included in a VERY DIFFERENT style in Fantasia 2000) as a 20th-century retelling of Adam and Eve from the very reluctant Serpent’s point of view, and my personal favorite, Vivaldi’s C Major Violin Concerto set to a matronly female winged insect keeping the forest tidy until a young couple show up in their car…for a picnic…which turns into sex.  The music’s great and the animation hilarious.  But Allegro non troppo is not a full-fledged recommendation.  Signor Bozzetto either couldn’t come up with enough ideas or just got lazy, and to pad the film out to feature-length he included live-action black-and-white sequences of an imprisoned animator drawing the cartoons while a live orchestra full of old women plays all the music and a bland presented makes introductory comments.  There’s gorillas and snow and a sexy cleaning girl and none of it’s funny and you wish he could have pulled out something like “The Pines of Rome” or “Les Preludes” and had a ball instead.

The heroic thing is that he doesn't CARE he's kissing her...

Apparently Jean-Paul Sartre had a strong love-hate relationship with Albert Camus, and The Stranger, M. Camus’s 1943 novel, may explain why: I’ve read M. Sartre’s philosophy, and this is an even sharper and finely tuned depiction of existentialism as a humanism than thousands of pages of mental process could come up with.  Meursault, the protagonist and dare I say it hero, is emotionally detached, noncommittal about everything from what he eats to wondering if he should get married, and reveals no admirable qualities whatsoever.  He can’t even pick his friends well.  But M. Camus, using a direct, plain style reminiscent of Hemingway but with a conspicuous vulnerability in Meursault’s uncertainty, his constant striving to think or feel something true to himself, turns Meursault into every man.  We, the readers, following his interactions and situations, realize just how may times we cannot feel passionate or strongly about our lives and how impulses can cross us with no motivation or thought of consequences.  Meursault by the novel’s end has done something unforgivable, but we still want to forgive him because the other characters blow the action far out of proportion as a grand statement when really it is the simple product of Meursault’s everyday approach to life as something where you act in the moment…and the closing pages where he speaks to the chaplain of the equality of the species make you nearly weep.  The Stranger is short, not a line wasted, and every page is about what it means to just exist.  Not to LIVE with a big heart or open mind  necessarily but to exist as a human, and as such its reputation is understandable, commendable.

The Most Awesome Literary Hero of the Last Five Years

And Hilary Mantel’s 2009 Wolf Hall, despite a really lousy title whose lousiness I really can’t explain because it has to do with the ending, is a Great Book.  It puts so much of what gets labeled “historical fiction” to shame by offering not just biography with invented dialogue, not sentimental romance imposed over real people and events, but a flowing story full of actual personages making money and having sex and praying and agonizing and going about day-to-day routines.  She transforms an already overdone period of history, Henry VIII’s England, into an approximation of real life.  And instead of focusing on Henry or one of his six wives, her hero and focal point of her third-person present narration is Thomas Cromwell in the years of Anne Boleyn winning Henry and becoming queen.  Cromwell has often been depicted as a sinister, Machiavellian figure, but in Wolf Hall he turns into an odd blend of warrior, psychologist, family man, and dedicated problem solver to both the low and the mighty, motivated by a childhood where he had to fight to be successful.  In contrast, it is Anne Boleyn for Ms. Mantel who is the true schemer, while the so often saintly Thomas More becomes an unrealistic prig who despises people to the point of torture when they do not align with his strict principles.  It is no surprise that Cromwell emerges triumphant, for his strength is accepting the world as it is and adjusting his life and plans accordingly…even when it is shattering him.  The chapter with the death of Cromwell’s wife Liz is a nearly unbearable expression of grief not in histrionic terms but in realistic ones of sudden memory and confused blundering.  And realism is the key: Wolf Hall is not pageantry but flowing dialogue and quiet scenes in which momentous events occur, and Ms. Mantel should be fierecely applauded for her skill in sewing this tapestry.

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