19 Assorted Diversions
There is nothing so soothing and comforting as the steady, reliable monotony of routine. Whether that routine consists of reciting the rosary nightly with a set of well worn prayer beads or attempting the daily commute to work, the pulse and hum of a daily rhythm should not be discounted. Of course, with the events of September 11th still fresh in our mind, there is little doubt that many of us look back wistfully at those days leading up to the attack. Our routines and peace of mind, still tender and fractured after the attack, long for diversions and distractions in which to immerse ourselves. It is as if our rosaries have had a bead replaced with the carcass of some Brazilian spider or that our daily commute is now filled with terrible beasties fresh from the imagination of Hieronymous Bosch. One can no longer take for granted the normalcy of everyday life because, normalcy, as such, is a rare commodity. Instead, every action and event, no matter how pedestrian, becomes an event invested with meaning, each choice is a moral choice and each deed becomes another sum to be included in a terrible and severe ethical calculus. In light of this, I offer up a list of 19 assorted diversions that hopefully will relieve the burden of clarity and offer a gentle escape into something, if indulged in enough, of routine.
1. The Red Telephone: Cellar Songs (Raise Giant Frogs Records)
The past year of writing album reviews began with the latest from The Red Telephone. Not even ten months after listening to it has the album lost any of its charms. Bridging the finest elements of indie rock and Brit-pop with a sense of urgency that is tempered by experience and resignation, this four piece from Massachusetts crafts memorable songs. Like other great pop bands, The Red Telephone crafts songs that are catchy yet retain a sense of fragility. The songs are the aural equivalent of the last day of summer. That is to say, steeped in emotion and experience as they are, they are as much a celebration of youth and the power of music as they are a reflection of the transitory and ultimately evanescent nature of youth. If a young Neal Cassidy and Jack Kerouac grew up in the eighties listening to early albums by The Church and sixties psychedelia, this is the album they would have recorded. http://redtelephone.com/
2. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: And No More Shall We Part (Reprise Records)
Largely without peers unless one wishes to compare him to such luminaries as Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen (a comparison that would be completely accurate), Cave continues to display a powerful intelligence and musical imagination that remains largely ignored. Perhaps this commercial indifference on the part of the public allows him to maintain his artistic vision with a certain amount of artistic credibility? It certainly does not detract from his searing vision of human life and the frailties that accompany it. Dissecting sin and weakness as well as passion, faith and love, Cave is unafraid to tackle the larger themes of life, and in doing so, displays a poet’s flair, a priest’s conviction, and musician’s sensibility. http://www.nickcave.net/
Bearing as much resemblance to the dessert served at the Olive Garden as, say, exists between the compositions of Beethoven and their execution by a group of eight year olds relying on toy instruments, tin drums, and kazoos, the real execution of this dessert is a remarkable close approximation of gustatory heaven. With possibly more fat content in one serving than is recommended daily, this combination of Marscapone cheese, espresso, and cocoa is a rich and delightful indulgence in the joy of living. The contrasting flavor and textures of the cheese and espresso soaked ladyfingers (savoiardi) is like the fine interplay between a crack rhythm section and a lead guitarist. The delight reaches its crescendo in the last taste: the powdered cocoa that supplies a wilting bitterness and counterpoint to the sweetness that came before. http://italianfood.about.com/library/weekly/bltira.htm
4. Observatory Mansions by Edward Carey (Crown Publishing)
A strange and intriguing story that relates the tale of Francis Orme, a man who still lives in his ancestral home, Observatory Mansions, and supports his family by standing motionless all day in the park and waiting for donations. A man so afraid of human contact that he wears a pair of white cotton gloves from morning to night. He occupies his spare time by stealing precious objects from others and collecting discarded items. The object of his affection is not based on their intrinsic worth but rather because they were once loved. This is a novel that is almost flawless and merges the ludicrous with the profound, the mawkish with the sublime. A novel far more complex and entertaining than can be sketched out in a few sentences and easily one of the best novels of the year. http://www.goodreports.net/carey.htm
In an era of microbreweries and specialty lagers, an era of light beers and Zima, it is refreshing to know that the backbone of blue-collar beer still exists. Sporting a design on the can that has not changed in fifty years, Schlitz eschews trends and politics and remains a man’s beer. A beer that perfectly complements a day spent underneath a car, with bloodied knuckles and oil stains, or a night playing pool with the boys. Grab a six-pack, crank up Bachman Turner Overdrive, and take off that shirt. It’s time to unwind.
6. Geggy Tah: Into The Oh (Luaka Bop/Virgin Records)
An album that has continued to grow on me since I first reviewed it. Sonically innovative and showcasing some funky tunes as well as cogent lyrics, this release is everything and more someone could hope for in an alt rock band. Romantic, funny, hopeful and incredibly catchy, on this release, Geggy Tah offers a viable alternative to the expanding roster of rap-metal hybrids. It is always incredibly harder to offer a positive alternative instead of wallowing in misguided cynicism and intellectual stupor. Into The Oh rises to this challenge and offers an album that is as danceable as it is smart. http://www.luakabop.com/geggy_tah/index.html
7. Blood-Dark Track by Joseph O’Neill (Granta Books)
If our age were to be summed up, a fitting epithet would be “The Age of Confession.” It seems that every publisher has at least two dozen memoirs in which their authors revisit a host of personal troubles that, in an earlier age, would have been gracefully left unspoken. Yet, every so often an author with a genuine flair for writing with a true story to tell appears. This is certainly the case with O’Neill’s biography of and investigation into the lives of his two grandfathers. One an Irishman imprisoned during World War II by the British for undisclosed reasons and another, a Turk, imprisoned by the British in Lebanon for similarly murky reasons. As a professional attorney, his investigation is relentless and gradually leads to an inexorable conclusion. Yet, his talent as a writer with his attentiveness to detail and captivating narrative captures the reader from the start and provides a searching and entertaining piece of reportage. It is at once a thriller, a moving travelogue, and a bittersweet elegy for two relatives he barely knew but who are, thankfully, brought to our attention as much as they are brought to his. http://www.granta.com/shop/product?product_id=255
8. Stephen Malkmus: Stephen Malkmus (Matador Records)
Being the lead singer and cult of a critically acclaimed college rock band is no small feat to beat when you set out on your own. Just ask Paul Westerberg or Frank Black, whose bands have been the albatross around their collective necks and whose respective solo outputs have been found sorely lacking when compared against the grandeur of their former bands. On this release, Malkmus has abandoned much of his cryptic lyrics and musical chicanery and chooses to rely on straight-ahead songs about Alaska, Yul Brynner, and intergenerational romances. If there was any doubt about Malkmus’ promise as a solo artist, for this album at least, these fears are laid to rest. http://www.matadorrecords.com/stephen_malkmus/
9. Alpha: The Impossible Thrill (Astralwerks)
Imagine if Portishead’s songs were written by Stephen Sondheim or some other theater luminary, and you will begin to understand the dramatic flair that underlies most of the songs on this album. Although Alpha fits in the category of trip hop very loosely, the songs maintain an ambience and creativity that is largely absent from other bands. The use of three distinct singers adds a power and polish to the songs that evoke the cloistered drawing rooms and the rain swept streets at the turn of this century. The incorporation of live instruments including strings further enhances the sounds of this disc and raising it to the sublime levels of pop heaven. http://melankolic.astralwerks.com/alpha/
Okay, so this site has been around quite awhile. But if you haven’t had the chance of playing with it, this is an excellent diversion for those days before or after a national holiday when you just don’t feel like working. The conflation of Star Wars characters with the plot of Pulp Fiction reminds me of the old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup commercials. These are two things that shouldn’t work but for some reason do. Just make sure the boss isn’t around when you watch it.
11. Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald (Random House)
The Holocaust is the decisive event of the last century and the gray pall it casts continues to dominate the politics, art, and religion of our lives. It remains a fissure that divides history into everything that came before or after. In this, the fourth novel by W.G.Sebald, a German who has relocated to Norwich, England, the Holocaust continues to be the dominating force that defines the characters lives and fates. A lyrical writer whose prose is crystal clear yet retaining a dreamlike quality, Sebald explores the way in which our memories continue to haunt our lives and the various strategies we use to preserve our fragile identities from their onslaught. Throughout this work, like his other works, Sebald incorporates black and white photographs, captionless, that reinforce the narrative and serve as silent testimonials to the past. A past that is always in danger of being forgotten yet, just as likely of crashing down through the gates our fragile consciousness has erected. Haunting with a quiet lyricism, Austerlitz once again demonstrates why Sebald is one of the finest authors alive. http://www.randomhouse.com/atrandom/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=0375504834
12. The Velvet Underground: Bootleg Series, Vol. 1: The Quine Tapes (Polydor Records)
Long rumored to have existed, the year 2001 brought to light a wealth of previously unheard recordings by the band that was, arguably, more important than The Beatles. Originally recorded to tape by future Television guitarist, Robert Quine, these three discs document the band that was performing a one-month stand on the West Coast. While the sound is murky, the recordings reveal an altogether previously unheard side of the band. The band extends itself into lengthy jams not only on the already epic “Sister Ray” but a previously unheard track, “Follow The Leader,” as well as such chestnuts like “I’m Waiting For the Man,” “New Age,” and “Ride Into the Sun.” Although all these tracks are performed without early members such as Nico and John Cale, they document the band at a crucial stage between their experimental side best exemplified by “White Light/White Heat” and their growing pop sensibility that would reach full fruition on their last album, Loaded.
13. Witness UK: Under A Sun (MCA Records)
Often characterized with such words as “sweeping,” “majestic,” and “literate,” this second release by this Wigan, England-based band serves to remind listeners why those descriptions are so relevant. From the opening track, “Here’s One for You,” and onwards, Witness UK demonstrate that their early praise for the debut was not a onetime affair. Replacing the introspective lyricism and subdued music of their debut with an openness and warmth, the band crafts passionately soaring anthems that remain as heartfelt as they are melodic. Even when the band veers towards moments of quietude and introspection on tracks such as “Closing Up,” there is little of the maudlin self-pity that animates so much of their contemporaries work. Unmistakably unique, this is a recording to seek out if you are a fan of bands like Travis, Coldplay, or The Smiths. http://www.witness.uk.com/
14. Pawn Shops
I was stunned on several occasions when, in conversation, I mentioned that I was searching for an engagement ring and was told to “go to the pawn shop.” This advice, offered forthright and without any solicitation, cut across racial and cultural barriers like no advice I have received before or likely will receive in the future. Black or white, rich or poor, young or old, nearly all held their local pawn shop in esteem usually reserved for nobility or clergy. Although I gracefully acknowledged such advice, I usually shifted the topic of conversation to avoid such areas in the future. Yet, one is forced to admit that the pawn shop is the sorting lot of all our latent hopes and dreams. The exotic rubs shoulders with the commonplace while treasure and trash sit neatly side by side. I imagine a thousand nascent rock bands have found their equipment here and another thousand have seen theirs disappear onto the shelves of their local pawn shop. The perfect antidote for an idle afternoon and a great place to find those bargain CDs. Still, I wouldn’t recommend purchasing your engagement ring here. http://www.uspawnshopdirectory.com/
15. Cherry Valence: Cherry Valence / Federation X: American Folk Horror (Estrus Records)
With these two releases, Estrus has fired a potent double-barreled, garage rock shotgun. The Cherry Valence (named after the preppie character in The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton) rocks with a lock-steady groove. They are an amphetamine-fueled freight train of James Brown soul, classic rock with a duel set of drummers to blow you away. While the Federation X mixes garage punk and Nick Cave-inspired tales of horror to craft a dark, murky album of blood spilling and hatchet wielding madmen. This is the sound of Exile on Main Street being played on blown speakers that are propped up with some well-thumbed copies of Helter Skelter. http://www.estrus.com
16. Mix tapes
Characterized elsewhere as an “indie-rock dating ritual,” the art of the mix tape (and now, CD-R) has reached epic proportions with the advent of such clever software as iTunes and Toast, as well as the widespread availability of such tools as mixers. Immortalized in print and film by way of Nick Hornsby’s High Fidelity, I find it unacceptable those who profess a love of music and yet refrain from engaging in this, the most sublime of all activities. The mix tape remains the highest form of adoration and love and speaks volumes (no pun intended) regarding one’s ultimate faithfulness. Or, at least, serves as a potential strategy to get that special someone in bed.
17. Simon Joyner: Hotel Lives (Truckstop Records)
At times sounding like a seventies era Leonard Cohen, from the gentle guitar playing to the cadence and enunciation of his lyrics, on Hotel Lives, Joyner reveals a world of tangled relationships and bitter sweet romance. Thoroughly infused with poet’s sensibility and choice for words, Joyner understands that to say less is to say more, oftentimes, much more. Full of symbolism and tangled meanings, the songs on this disc are powerful epics that transcend the narrow confines of the pop structure. The songs document a nether region where country, folk and rock music still coexist comfortably and at times, overlapping in structure. http://www.truckstoprecords.com
18. Glottal Stop: 101 Poems by Paul Celan (University Press of New England)
Hermetic and at times frustratingly obscure, Paul Celan remains THE poet of the twentieth century. A Jew who lost his entire family to the Holocaust, Celan retained an ambivalent relationship to the language that was used by the Nazis. Heavily indebted to the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, Celan understood that the language used by the fascists was itself implicated in the terror that they brought. Thus, his poems can be seen as a concealing/revealing exercise where words are broken apart, bent, torn and sundered to recover the meaning that they once had. The poet’s task is to remember and recover and only through the careful employment of terms and deft skill with language may the words of the persecutors serve as a testimony to the persecuted. This translation by Nikolai Popov and Heather McHugh serves as a brilliant resource for those of us who do not speak German but would like access, albeit in translation, to the world that Celan portrayed. http://www.upne.com/0-8195-6448-6.html
19. Los Mocosos: Shades Of Brown (Six Degrees Records)
A fun and energetic rock album that incorporates many of the better elements of music currently ignored today. Featuring elements of rock, Latin rhythms, funk, and salsa with a killer group of horns and a singer who can belt out the songs. However, this isn’t folk music and the emphasis is not on the words but on the groove. Los Mocosos has come to party and they are ready to throw down some tight ass grooves and bust loose with one of the best party albums of the year. http://www.sixdegreesrecords.com/artists/losmocosos/