About 2019: Miscellaneous Stuff

The year’s best music video: Tierra Whack vs. the potatoes in “Unemployed”.

You Didn’t Think You Were Getting Away Without A Topical Essay, Did You?

America is twenty-two trillion dollars in debt. That this is a fiscal crisis should be obvious to everyone. It’s also a moral crisis. Regardless, the current administration continues to boast about the rude health of the national economy. The value of the stock market is up. Companies continue to post profits, and people still launch new businesses successfully. GDP keeps rising. The gears of enterprise keep turning. 

But the part of the economy that’s actually under the control of the government is a royal mess. Last year, the treasury reported a deficit of 900 billion dollars. By 2022, the shortfall will break a trillion. This government isn’t merely spending a little more than it’s taking in and hoping to fudge the numbers a bit the way a stealthy embezzler might.  They’re not just brazenly unbalancing the scales.  They’ve taken the scale and thrown it out the window, and they’re whistling and looking as innocent as possible in the hope that you won’t notice the heist.

When they do talk about it, it’s mostly to justify their actions, or to announce another tax cut, or a government expansion guaranteed to shovel more I.O.U.s on the mountain of debt. Because why not?, things are already completely out of control.  No one will notice, and even if somebody does, the malfeasance is so huge and the numbers so large that all the sprockets in the investigator’s mind are liable to blow.

Economists in the pay of the government will appear on cable shows and say with a straight face that deficit spending is healthy, carrying trillions of dollars of debt is wise fiscal policy, and failure to pay bills is acceptable.  It is dispiriting to me to see so many grown-ups fail to grasp what every five-year-old knows: it’s far better to have money than it is to owe money, and owing 22 trillion dollars is exactly 22 trillion times worse than owing a buck to the lemonade stand.

I’m not going to argue macroeconomic minutia with professional obfuscators.  I don’t want to hear it, and neither should you.  Instead, I’ll begin with the premise that you have enough common sense to recognize a government snow job when you see one. Even deficit hawks tend to underplay the staggering moral hazard that’s been engendered by the irresponsible economic policy that the country has pursued for the past forty years.  Spending and tax-cutting the country into insolvency was celebrated, as drunken sprees tend to be. That policy also has robbed young people, who had no vote and hence no say in how the budget would be apportioned, of their future.  Each newborn owes $400,000 to our national creditors.  This should fill all of us with shame.  It should spur us into action.

Eating the young is a common characteristic of decadent empires.  In American fashion, we’ve taken it to a crazed extreme. Nobody ever apologizes for the profound selfishness of American fiscal policy; our treasurers, executives, and lawmakers are too busy patting each other on the backs and taking credit for the success of businesspeople who’d probably be happiest if the government would just leave them alone.  Policymakers, worried about their jobs, do like to stimulate the economy whenever there’s a sign of a slowdown, which usually means a big spending package or a tax cut or both. Whether any of these slash-and-burn tactics has any effect on the GDP or productivity is for others to debate. 

Regardless, we grown-ups simply have no right to heap onerous debt on the shoulders of young people, who, in a representative republic, deserve an opportunity to guide the country according to their own wishes.  What we’ve done isn’t simply unfair.  It’s theft, plain and simple, and our willingness to countenance that theft, for decades, has stained all of our institutions.  Taxation without representation split America from the British Empire, and if we don’t straighten out our act, the same damn thing is going to sink the country that bravely, and justly, stood against it. 

And Furthermore

Citizenship implies responsibility. A republic as complex and powerful as ours can’t stand unless its members take that responsibility seriously. Lately, we’re not doing too well. 

The President of the United States was lifted from bankruptcy and ruin by outside parties who decided that his public rehabilitation represented a worthy investment. Because the President has blocked any inquiry into his finances and refuses to release his tax returns, we don’t know who those creditors are. That’s a huge problem.

It is in the public interest to determine to whom our leaders owe favors and to deny executive authority to those who may be compromised. We can and must refuse to aid the ascent of politicians with tainted motivations who seek elected office for opaque reasons.  If there is even a hint of impropriety around a potential officeholder, it’s our ethical duty as citizens to shut that politician down. The health of the republic we love depends on our vigilance. 

In 2016, we didn’t do that. We didn’t vet a mendacious politician properly. Whether our failure to live up to our responsibility as citizens happened because of omission or complicity is immaterial now; what’s imperative is that we don’t repeat the mistake. The consequences of our laxity haunt us daily. We don’t know why the President makes the decisions he does. We don’t know if he’s acting on behalf of American interests, or the interests of his creditors, who may not be American at all. 

A citizen is expected to behave morally: she’s a person with a sense of the polis, and she doesn’t put her own needs over those of her neighbors. Just as importantly, a citizen must have the wisdom to differentiate between statesmen and charlatans. A citizen is not credulous; she doesn’t act to reinforce the position, and the party line, of leaders whose ascendancy benefits her and those like her. When she’s confronted with a scam that an elementary school student could see through, she puts her partisanship aside and calls it what it is.

The American republic is strong. It can take a great deal of abuse before it topples. Nevertheless, we’re really pushing it.   

Okay, back to the fun stuff.

Most Caustic Polemical Material

Agenda by The Pet Shop Boys.  Uh oh, the angry Neil is back.  Thought we’d left him on Elysium.  The Agenda EP is four straight-up protest songs, heavier on bitter sarcasm than the playful irony that you probably associate with the Pet Shop Boys.  There’s even a song called “Social Media”, which is definitely not not an old man complaining about social media.  Yes, your very favorite genre.  It’s funny, of course, but uncharacteristically flatfooted.  See, also, this representative verse from “Give Stupidity A Chance”: “Instead of governing/with thoughtful sensitivity/let’s shock and awe the world/with idiotic bigotry”.  Applies well transatlantically, does it not?  In their defense, Tennant and Lowe are exactly the sort of gentle London cosmopolitans that Brexit was designed to enrage. So it speaks well of their courage and their pattern recognition, if not their artistry, that they’re kicking back in the only way they know how.  Remember that the reason why the Civil War dragged on for four years is that the North was caught with their pants down: they didn’t realize how badly the South wanted to fight, and by the time they’d figured it out, Virginia and Tennessee were covered in blood.  Neil is ready.  Are you?

Also Surprisingly Pointed

Charly Bliss’s excellent Young Enough.  Do you reckon “Chatroom” is about the Kavanaugh hearings?  Or is it just that Professor Blasey-Ford’s experience is depressingly common?  Regardless, it fits so snugly that it’s done the song a disservice: I can’t hear the second verse without visualizing Lindsey Graham. Yes, much has changed in Charlyland: in place of the stories of poolside parties and peeing on the trampoline are references to fights in the family planning aisle, cult leaders, and heavy allusions to sexual coercion and pain. Right in the middle of it all is Eva Hendricks, cracking wise in that apple-scented fine line marker of a voice of hers; holding on to her sense of humor, and sense of self, in spite of it all. It’s going to break her heart to see it blown to bits, she tells us, with absolute sincerity, right off the bat, and if you think the antecedent is unclear in the slightest, well, buddy, you haven’t been paying attention. The band backs her up with music that makes the connections between Weezer, Rilo Kiley, and Fountains of Wayne crystal-clear – music sturdy enough to stand up to the insane compositional demands of a lifelong Elvis Costello fan. Putting the power in power-pop: not (just) a matter of pre-amp distortion.

Maybe Not As Provocative As The Artist Thinks It Is

Marika Hackman’s  Any Human Friend.  The synth pads are new, but the songwriting structures aren’t: this is the same compositional architecture we got on the first two albums. Maybe it’s a bit more streamlined, and maybe not. No new tricks for us, but at least she isn’t giving anything back. As for the words, hm: it’s a little early for Marika to be making her Masseduction, don’t you think?  Annie Clark had to do a whole season of preemptive penance with David Byrne before she laid that one on us.  The queer component of her storytelling lends it some sociopolitical heft, I guess, although given the bumper crop of sapphic pop we’ve gotten over the past three years, positionality ain’t what it used to be. I understand the frustration with the straight-ish girl on “Conventional Ride, even if that’s the sort of thing that Sara Quin has been writing about for years. But the rest of this album feels oddly familiar, and not in a refreshing way. Marika’s kissing/fucking/eating/moaning isn’t all that much different from what you’d get out of Trippie Redd, or David Lee Roth.  Much as i dig a good she bop, “Hand Solo” suggests that her orgasm addiction is getting out of control: I mean, she’s so horny that she can’t think up a better Star Wars joke than that? I mean, I get it, if anybody does. But marika’s distinguishing characteristic continues to be emotional remoteness that makes Laura Marling look like Marianne Williamson by comparison. Coupled with her sex drive, that pushes this album into find em/feel em/fuck em/and forget em territory mainly suitable for members of Alpha Beta Theta Gamma.  She keeps this up, and she’s liable to get appointed to the cabinet.

Exactly As Provocative As The Artist Thinks It Is

Slowthai’s Nothing Great About Britain.  Just what you asked for: rap songs about Brexit.  To be fair to this goon, he’s also plenty interested in tawdry sex and booze and other football chav nonsense.  But he’s also bugged by the way in which his country is committed to misrepresenting itself on the world stage, and as a confirmed reprobate with legit love for merry England as it is, he wants to set the record straight.  For Slowthai, the great crime of Brexit is that it’s full of shit — its proponents, in his view, are nostalgic for a version of the country that nobody interesting or worthwhile would want to inhabit in the first place.  He asks you to embrace instead the England he knows: abrasively multicultural, physically grotesque, filled with too-clever louts and acid-tongued chicks, scandal-ridden and fight-prone, heavy on mockery, unique on the globe but tied to the world by necessity.  You might say that the current government in Westminster is, ironically, the best example of what he’s talking about.  Their endless bickering seems a hell of a lot closer to Slowthai’s vision of essential Englishness than all the fascist hooey about hedgerows and the sceptered isle.  As is generally the case with records like this, it’s at its best when it’s closest to punk rock.  Which furthers a peculiar understanding of the British national character that i’ve arrived at myself: these limeys still can’t rap worth a damn.  Slowthai tries his best.  But when a real emcee like Skepta – a guy I don’t even like very much, mind you — comes by to drop a verse, he throws into relief Slowthai’s corner-pub croak, which, over eighteen tracks, will fry your eardrums like fish and chips. That said, it’s probably a decent reflection of the abrasive state of discourse in the UK, and Brexit dragged on forever, too. May Boris Johnson and Michael Gove be trapped in a room with this album on infinite repeat.  Spare Theresa May, though.  That woman has suffered enough.   

A Somewhat Commendable Barricade-Stormer

Ezra Furman’s  Twelve Nudes.  I guess Ezra thought that the problem with Transangelic Exodus was that it didn’t hit hard enough. This is the most screaming Ezra has done since… I was going to say Day Of The Dog, but that had more than a few oases of melody amidst the clangor. Twelve Nudes doesn’t. It’s just banging pots and pans and Ezra behaving like he’s stubbed all his toes at once. He howls because it’s a punk rock thing to do, and because he believes it is the only rational response to the parlous state of the world, and he howls because it is an expression of the gender dysphoria that has overtaken him and threatens to subsume his other concerns. As this is an Ezra Furman project, it is thoughtfully written and designed to prompt dialogue. And because it is thoughtfully written and designed to prompt dialogue, it is incumbent upon we, the fans and admirers of this excellent artist, to take these decisions seriously and respond to them. So here we go.

1., it’s not particularly punk to yell.  Many great punk rock records don’t have any yelling on them at all. 2., as a Salinger fan, I get his desire to change his name to Esme. As an Ezra Furman fan, I worry that literalism has begun to flatten his sexual imagination. Like any sane possessor of a Y chromosome, Ezra often wishes he wasn’t male. This is highly understandable, because girls are cute and smell nice, and boys are icky and smell like Doritos and gym socks. But he’s never going to write about gender instability any more persuasively than he did on “Wobbly” and “Body Was Made”, and repeat trips to the well are hauling up muddy water. 

3., about the racket, Ezra may be right: screaming an alarm might indeed be the best way to call fellow dissidents to action.  It is, however, not always the best way to make a musical album. I thought that Ezra was on to something special with the arrangements on Perpetual Motion People – that highly personal hybrid of doo-wop, new wave, Blobby Dylan, and Violent Femmes-style punk felt like it could be a carrying tool for him for a few album cycles.  If he dispensed with it because he felt it was insufficiently urgent, it’s hard not to sympathize.  He might have decided that an era of asylum seekers in cages and non-scientific thinking and white nationalist revanchism requires some abrasion. But Ezra’s music was already astringent. He didn’t need to blow the cones in the amplifiers to make his political points. He was making them fine.

Bravest Record

On Girl, Maren Morris has inverted Billy Ocean: she’s gotten out of her car and into her dreams.  No longer is she rolling in her Eighties Mercedes and holding services to the dashboard radio. Instead, she’s floating in that great, specifics-free M.O.R. zone, inhabited by those to whom mass appeal is more important than the rock and roll verities. She’s doing this, no doubt, because she’d like a big fat crossover hit – and if you had pipes like hers, you’d chase one too.  But Maren has another reason for swinging for the, er, middle: this is a not-so-subtly political album, from a broad-minded Texan who’s had enough of the bullshit. So we get a nice big bite from “Nine To Five, plus a full-throated rejection of showbiz chauvinism worthy of Angaleena Presley, plus a big fat nod to Beyoncé, right in the face of the dudes who’d like to run her out of the genre for her R&B overtures. Then there’s the plea for social tolerance, sung with Brandi Carlile, that turns on the line “if I’m being honest, I don’t know what God is” – the gutsiest thing I’ve heard in awhile from an artist who is still marketed, primarily, to hicks. Shut up and sing?, hell no, she won’t, she tells us on “Flavor”. As always, she makes up for the flatfooted lyrics by performing the heck out of everything. Oh, I notice some critics find the chorus to “Make Out With Me” insufficiently racy — as if a smooching session was a less legit subject for a pop song than, say, Lil Wayne’s testicles. I feel bad for their girlfriends.

Promising Reunion That, All Things Considered, Isn’t Going So Well

Somewhere along the line, somebody told Ride that they weren’t songwriters — that their contribution to the story of music was not “Twisterella” or “Walk On Water” or “I Don’t Know Where It Comes From”, but a sound-over-substance approach to pop-rock presentation heavy on numbing guitar effects. The sad part is that they seem to believe it.  Much like the modern Feelies, they’re back together as living legends/reputation coasters/genre granddads rather than as artists with anything new to say. I can understand why Gardener and Bell want back in in 2019: they may indeed have something to teach the shoegaze movement, oversaturated with mediocrity as it is. They might even have a track or two to contribute to a chill playlist.  But This Is Not A Safe Place, like all Ride records (and, to be honest, all shoegaze records), succeeds to the extent that the writing is good.  And it is good, now and then, when you can access the body through all the gauze.  Angels still come from time to time.  But not nearly often enough.   

Comeback Story

There’s no small satisfaction in witnessing an artist you’ve followed for a decade grasp that elusive thing he’s been groping for, even if he’s mainly been groping around in his pants in a, you know, masturbatory way. Hmm, that makes it seem like I want to watch Bryce from the Rocket Summer jerking the gherkin, and I so so do not. What I mean to say is that Sweet Shivers realizes the hybrid sound he’s been after for years: a bright sunny day amalgam of hi-sheen disney pop, mallpunk, arena prog, electrobullshit, and the sort of smiley face Christian hooey I associate with Adam Young. He swung for these oddly angled fences on Zoetic, and whiffed like Mighty Casey; instead of grabbing some pine, he’s hacked again and hit a… well, at least a ground-rule double, I’d say. He’s still not letting anybody else into the studio, which means he’s quadruple- and quintuple-tracking everything again, achieving that weird airless quality that all latter-day Rocket Summer projects have.  Nevertheless, some of these productions are undeniable, particularly “Blankets”, the spazzy album closer “M&M”, and “Gardens”, which might be my favorite Radiohead fake ever. Seriously, “Gardens” sounds like what would happen if you gave a precocious choirboy the task of adapting OK Computer for use at sunday service.  Heck, no “sounds like” about it; that’s exactly what it is.  Bryce is that precocious choirboy and always will be. He remains a hypertalented Jesus freak whose idea of sociopolitical intervention is throwing peace signs/at these dark times, and you know what?, that’s a hell of a lot healthier than issuing subpoenas and ranting on chat shows. I think I’m going to take his advice. Can’t hurt.  Might win me some points in heaven. 

Religious Conversion That Was No Publicity Stunt

Jesus Is King. Noted Prefab Sprout fan Michael Grace called this all robe and no ghost. I know what he’s getting at: standard gospel platitudes do sound funny coming from an artist who has always traded, and traded hard, on revelation and surprise. But let’s not overstate. Jesus Is King is a distillation of ideas that have always been present in Kanye’s music, and as he always does, the auteur has crafted a distinctive and particular sound that reinforces the storytelling. Furthermore I see no reason to assume that this turn towards goody-two-shoes-ism is in any way insincere, just as I believed him when he said he was lost in the world of molly and ass. Artists take journeys, and the Christian in Christian Dior has, for better and for worse, always been a searcher. If this latest leg of the trip scores Kanye a bunch of white fans in the Bible Belt, that won’t be by cynical calculation or boardroom design.

But…. c’mon, that’s not going to happen. Interest in Kanye among the MAGA crowd has always been patronizing at best.  At 40+, the artist is stuck with the same fanatics who’ve always flown his flag, so any preaching he does is going to have to be to the converted.  And this time out, I fear he has really wrongfooted his supporters. We Kanye true believers are always ready to wave away all manner of dumb and offensive shit in the name of inspiration, but we’re not equipped to forgive dullness. Kanye has written loads of stoopid lyrics in the past, and somehow we’re okay with it all – but he’s never before been boring, and with that, we simply cannot hang.

So when noted Kanye West (and Bible) fan Tris McCall says that this is the least Christian album in the Kanye discography, understand that I’m not challenging the realness of anybody’s faith. I mean that effective Christian art – art that spreads the word and advances Christian concepts, from Titian to Narnia to Mahalia to Brooke Fraser to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and “Jesus Walks” – is always risky and electrifying and alive, full of the sort of invention that encounters with the leading edge of Christian theology and Christian iconography provide. That’s why the most helpful comparison is with Slow Train Coming and Saved — the albums that Dylan made when he chose to signify his devotion via indulgence in cliché. That didn’t work for Dylan, and it’s not really working for Kanye, either. All that aside, the guy I really feel for is Pusha T. Everybody in his immediate vicinity has joined the God Squad. Who is left to kick sadistic verses about Sesame Street characters with him? You know: “Ernie and Bert/those bullet holes burnin and hurt”, etc. Don’t let your pal down, Kanye. God wouldn’t appreciate that.

Most Regrettable Genre Shift

Let it be known that I still cherish my copy of Poppy.Computer.  I won’t be selling that back to Tunes.  And insofar as I pay attention to YouTube culture, if you even call that a culture, which I really, really, really, really do not, I still consider the Poppy satirical project the very best use of the medium. Especially the one where she sits there in the throne while the telephone rings. But there is a big difference between a YouTube satirist and a real musical artist, and the Poppy story mainly just throws a spotlight on the immense gulf between the very best comedienne and the very worst musician.  Poppy and Titanic Sinclair were always stretched when they were making real-ish songs: they did the best they could do, which often wasn’t very good, but which worked when it seemed to be an expression of the same ideas from the YouTube spots.  Which makes me wonder if Poppy has gone straight off the reservation by doing these death metal/digital distortion numbers, or if they’re just meant to further the interweb mind games.  Regardless, Poppy doesn’t have the vocal skills to pull any of it off, and even the accompanying videos and costumes feel flat.  I do believe Poppy, or Moriah Periera, when she says that she likes Limp Bizkit; I’ll admit that I like Limp Bizkit, too.  I commend her for chasing her peculiar star. Don’t mind me, though, if I decide that I’ve gone as far down the rabbit hole as I’m going to go.  Jenny Lewis told me not to. 

Best Career Move That’s Still Paying Dividends

Everybody knocks Deadheads, but what fanbase would you rather have?  Reckon the Ariana Grande audience would sit through “Drums > Space”? The beautiful thing about the Dead crowd is that they don’t demand innovation, or discern compositional development through their monocles while reclining in luxury boxes at Lincoln Center. No, these are people who are actively entertained by experimentation. They will hoot and holler when Bob Weir tries something goofy and breaks a string. Bruce Hornsby’s decision to hitch his wagon to this traveling circus was probably the shrewdest decision any rock star made in the 1980s. It guaranteed there would always be an audience for his departures from AAA radio convention. It also meant that young artists who always kindasorta appreciated Hornsby – Bon Iver, yes, but there are others – can have a little cover/cred while thumbing their noses at the tastemakers. Bruce is a willful guy and was always going to do exactly what he wanted to do, no more and no less, even if it meant subsisting on gruel and boiled basketballs. But there is no way he’d be in a position to make and release an album as ambitious as Absolute Zero, at the age of sixty-four(!), without a big assist from Jerry’s ghost.  

Best Technical Skills On The Mic

It’s been three albums and several mixtapes now, and it’s safe to conclude that Little Simz has no imagination whatsoever. Her idea of a departure from hip-hop verities is a song rapped from the psychiatrist’s couch; it has “realism”, and by that I mean it’s about as predictable as you’d expect it would be if you were unfortunate enough to overhear a stranger’s grousy therapy session. A stranger she continues to be, despite the Jay-Z co-sign, despite her consensus elevation to the front ranks of British hip-hop, and despite her congenial disposition. She makes up for her lack of specifics by rapping circles around the competition, varying her flows and tempos, and maintaining her rhythmic balance with Swiss-watch perfection. See her hug those curves. She’s a high performance Porsche on a twisty, scenic road in the Alps, and never for a minute will you think she’s going over the cliff.  It’s enough to excite any fan of hard rhyme, which has been in short supply in the drugged-out era of Lil Xan, Lil Peep, Lil Pump, et. al. Lord knows I’m the first to say that rap is not a skills contest. It’s still nice to hear an artist whose verbal dexterity is backed up by a commitment to clarity.  I’ve got to think KRS would approve; Ms. Lauryn Hill, too.

Most Convincing Historical Recreation

I confess to a dereliction of prog duty: I never listened to Squackett, which was the project that Steve Hackett did with Chris Squire in 2012.  Guess I was still feeling the burn from GTR, all these years later.  Steve has been the keeper of the flame for a long time now – while the the rest of the Genesis guys just wanted to get with the times and score hits, he continues turning out multi-part tracks named after various Tarot cards. It’s Steve who dragged Anthony Phillips out of mothballs and cut album sides with Jonathan Mover, and sailed on the Prog Cruise and the rest of it.  His relationship with Squire went back years. So I admit I got a little misty when I heard “Under The Eye Of The Sun”, which is one hundred per cent tribute to the big oak that used to stand right in the middle of the prog rock garden.  Steve’s Jon Anderson impression is… enthusiastic, and that makes up for a lot.  But the real hero of this story is bassist Jonas Reingold, who plays an extremely Squire-like part with the same sort of how-the-fuck-is-he-doing-this velocity that Squire used to achieve.  A member of Genesis leading a letter-perfect Yes homage is like one of those Marvel adventures where Thor comes to rescue Superman from a radioactive Richard Nixon: larger-than-life grandeur packed into a comically small space.  As a tip of the cap from one of the greats to one of the greats, it almost feels too personal to share: a parting note written in a language that many of us understand, but only a handful of people have the capacity to speak.

Best Intersection Of The Academic And Aesthetic

Jamila Woods’s Legacy! Legacy!  Less loose, more rock, more modern, more pro, some nice production flourishes, some sweet choral moments, and generally improved performances by Jamila, who you still wouldn’t mistake for a competent R&B singer.  It’s probably for the best that drifting pitch and a certain mealy-mouthedness are her vocal hallmarks, because if she ever acquired skills, she’d probably decide she was Billie Holliday, and that, my friends, would be that. She’s still a social studies teacher on the mic, and probably always will be, but if you don’t have any problem with that (I sure don’t), crack that book and stick your big nose in it.  The lesson plan this semest… –er, album cycle is Great Blacks On Wax, as a certain Baltimore museum might put it. Each of these songs is named after/inspired by a visionary artist of color, and yeah, this is the most Jamila project imaginable. HEAVN got over on a twee and highly educated version of black power that was wide enough for alienated non-blacks to inhabit; this time around, she’s playing things a little tighter and a little more proprietary. There’s even a whiff of the elitism that her critics never quite had the heart to accuse her of, but was always lurking in the grooves: she implies that she’s got a particular susceptibility to the ghosts of these past greats that Jane on the street does not and could never. But I’m not gonna say she’s wrong. Not when she finds the swagger in epistemological uncertainty. Not when she comes with “collard greens and silver spoon/my weaponry is my energy/I tenderly/fill my enemies with white light”. If any part of her poetry curriculum helped her write statements of purpose as succinct and rich as that one, that was Brown University tuition well spent.  

Album I Respect, But Don’t Like

Men I Trust’s Oncle Jazz.  So it has come to this: eighty minutes of laid back, detuned lounge guitar, instruments running out of phase, girl singer cooing incomprehensibly in a manner suggestive of an animate pillow, misty vomitocious synthesizer patches, mom’s all-purpose powdery bullshit, Quebecois chillness, radiation sickness.  This, people, this is what your lousy Spotify has wrought. Oncle Jazz might be the queasiest long-player ever made, and I emphasize the word “long”: this is an oceanic experience, one that can be likened to a voyage across a humid tropical basin choked with sargassum. This is the sort of album that feels like a lifetime to experience, and you look up, and you realize you still have fifty minutes to go. But much as I would like to call this the Seven Mary Three of the dream-pop era, I really can’t: the evil masterminds behind Men I Trust are too good at their instruments and too secure in their execution of groove for me to pretend that they’re simply running a formula on the verge of wearing out. I believe they’re achieving exactly the effects they want to achieve, and that makes this remarkable, interminable, strangely intemperate album a soap-slimy monument of sorts.  As such, it belonged somewhere on the listening schedule, but in a year as good as 2019 was, I refused to bump anything of quality to fit it on.  That feels dead wrong to do.  I couldn’t put any of you people through this.  Maybe drop the digital needle on YouTube at some point.  You’ll catch the drift pretty quick.  

And While We’re On The Subject Of Reveries

Funny, isn’t it, to think back to the era when there was a big bad electric rhythm guitar run through the buzzsaw settings on the “Big Muff Pi” distortion pedal on every single pop song.  And I hated that, and complained about it bitterly, and celebrated those few records (Cardinal? Gideon Gaye?) where the principals were brave enough to scoop all of the fuzz and abrasion out of their mixes. How the worm has turned.  In 2019, it was permissible – nay, critically encouraged, even – to make schlocky throwback A.M. gold, glistening with Christopher Cross reverb and spitball-slick filters for the vocals and guitars, the sort of Englebert Humperdinck stuff your elderly aunt would listen to on the Victrola.  That’s what’s hot.  It strikes me that we may have overcompensated a wee bit.  Weyes Blood aspires to sound like the Carpenters; “Rainy Days and Mondays” is what she’s shooting for.  At least Karen Carpenter hit the drums with conviction and desperation; Weyes Blood is music with no motor whatsoever.  I do appreciate that Natalie Mering bothers to develop her melodies, since that’s something in short supply these days. But without the rock beat, and the grit of hard experience – blues, brother, and gospel too — none of these plaintive songs to the heavens achieve the spiritual traction she’s going for.

Jessica Pratt, too, seems like she’s got a pretty good idea about how to structure a pop song, even if half the songs on Quiet Signs are munchkinland versions of “The Lights Are Always Bright On Broadway”. Her melodies do interesting things, and the notes scatter like spring seeds into rich harmonic soil that’s so thoroughly wetted out by reverb that everything ends up slurry in the gutter. Seriously, I cannot make out a word this fucking elf is singing, and while I suspect this is by design, it still strikes me as a bizarre choice to make in a folk medium. I mean, why write words at all? Why not just have a sheep bleating over echoed chords?  Is it because we’re nostalgic for a time when words were carriers of meaning, and we generate a misty emotional impression of those days by suggesting the presence of language rather than creating language of our own?  Or is it that dream-logic again, where you know you’re encountering some kind of meaning in your reverie, but you can’t quite piece it together, and if you get too specific you’ll wake up, and you’ll have to make some toast, shave, and go out and face your homicidal blackpilled neighbors? If so, I get it, sort of – but for me, pop music has always been the one tool that allows me to function in a hostile environment. In order for it to do the trick, I requires some straight talk, hard rhyme, occasional discomfort. Those are things Jessica won’t give you.  She prefers a nice cushion.  Not just her, I notice.  Only trouble is, gee whiz, we’re dreaming our whole lives away.

…And In Conclusion

It is not Jessica’s fault that the dream-pop truck parked on my street this year, tilted the flatbed, tooted the horn, and sluiced ten shitloads of dream pop into my life. Seriously, I am drowning in this stuff, and the release schedule tells me that there are infinite variations to come. It does not speak too highly of the subgenre that it’s this easy to mimic, but it could be a hell of a lot worse: it could be fascist black metal, or grunge revival, or jazzy belles, or any number of styles that aren’t pop at all.  I just can’t pretend that it’s interesting that one of these bands uses flanger on their guitar parts lifted from Jesus and Mary Chain while the other uses flanger plus phaser and the other uses the phaser with the middle knob set to five o’ clock.  Maybe it is testament to the collective unconscious that all these dreams are the same: we’ve all had the one with the flying, and the one about the flood, and the one where we’re late to class and have to pull down our pants and get paddled by Ms. Crabtree.  Those are universal, I tell you. I have taken refuge from the dream-pop mudslide behind a bulwark of high-quality awake-pop — Weezer Green, which is ultra-alert and sharp-cornered, Cake, who present their stories with remarkable alacrity, Motion City Soundtrack, whose music is the equivalent of mainlining coffee and skittles, and Fountains Of Wayne, who may have never slept in their lives. The common denominator here: nerds. Perhaps nerds do not dream. Or perhaps our dreams have been crushed by asshole tastemakers. That sounds more like it.        

Album And Artist I Misjudged In 2018

I  totally whiffed on Sweetener last year. My bad. Ariana Grande #4 is state-of-the-art pop from a booze-infused cupcake whose early resemblance to Mariah Carey is far away in the rearview mirror. There are Max Martin numbers, and they do the nifty things that we’ve come to expect Max Martin numbers to do: arrive at the hook with ruthless efficiency and hard-sell it like Billy Mays with a bucket of Oxyclean. I’m not complaining, even if I’ve heard it before.

The six Pharrell tracks, though, are total revelations. The title tune recalls Scritti Politti, at least for me; “Successful” is like a Donald Fagen slink over a Clipse beat; “R.E.M.”, with its weird-ass chord changes, is like a power pop joker shuffled into a deck of Beyoncé face cards.  Then there’s “The Light Is Coming”, which, in spite of its lascivious intentions, is pure prayer.  These are some of the best and most illuminated productions Pharrell has ever done – an appropriate application of a megatalent that has not always been wisely directed – and they make up for some of the ghastly shit he’s hung on us ever since “Get Lucky convinced him that he was some sort of dancefloor maven.

So imagine my disappointment when I discovered that Pharrell’s services had not been retained for Thank U, Next.  Instead Ariana has snapped back to prior producers, who make this all sound “forward-looking”, which Pharrell, even at his worst, has never bothered worrying about. More problematically, Ariana is now writing lyrics, which ought only to interest you if you’re the sort of person who thumbs through Us magazine with passing interest while on an exercise bicycle. I’d also like to un-thank Ariana, and 2 Chainz, too!, for bringing “My Favorite Things” back into heavy rotation; always un-happy to see Richard Rodgers’s most annoying composition getting even more airtime than it’s already had. There are some neat numbers here, particulary “Nasa”, which is, um, not about the space program.  But the critic who tells you that this one is better than Sweetener is, essentially, the guy who Lizzo called out.  You know; the one who, before he writes that paragraph about music, really ought to learn how to play a chord. 

Most Inappropriately Titled Album

Sarah Bareilles’s Amidst The Chaos is not quite the most middle manager-ish music out there — not as long as Ingrid Michaelson has a record deal. It’s still over-structured to the point of asphyxiation. Bareilles starts her songwriting sessions with a flowchart and ends them with a PowerPoint presentation, or at least it sounds that way. If there’s one thing she can’t stand, it’s chaos. That’s the diagnosis of the national predicament: we’re amidst the chaos, and if adult authorities were just to regain control and smooth out some of the perturbations, we could all return to the spa-like serenity that is, for bores, the ideal state of being.  I kinda hate to break this to Sarah and co., but there’s not a heck of a lot of chaos in American public life at the moment.  Chaos is not really the problem.  Everything this government is doing is actually quite systematic.  They’re just blunderers: they make unforced errors and muck their own plans up, and as people who don’t want to see them achieve their ghoulish objectives, we should receive every shoelace-trip as a blessing.  Chaos implies randomness, and… yeah, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an administration or congressional leadership quite as predictable as this one.  They always do exactly what you think they’re going to do.  I’d welcome some chaos from these people, because that would open the possibility that they’d accidentally stumble into something productive.  And it’d be nice to think we’re able to stop or reorient them, but in order for that to happen, we’ll have to show them that there are some electoral consequences to their actions.  So far we haven’t done that. Imposition of order from some sort of extragovernmental big daddy – some independent or (gulp) international police force – is a fascist fantasy.  In order to rid ourselves of this disease, the body politic, which is messy and sneezy on its best day, will have to get up and reince its priebus.  We’re going to need a representative republic.  That’s going to be pretty chaotic. To say the least. 

And Finally

2019 was mainly phoney war, as they said in 1940.  2020 will be a different story altogether. I don’t think the networks are going to have to try so hard to drum up interest.  For the first time in our adult lives, an incumbent president is going to be vulnerable, and voters may be able to do what the impeachment managers couldn’t. Most of the time, those in positions of authority assume that the chief is there for eight years; everybody in Washington was ready for the Obama takeover in 2007 and they planned and acted accordingly.  Only the very gullible or the extraordinarily partisan believed that Mitt had any chance in 2012. Eight years and two elections later, it’s about to get dicy in the marbled halls of authority. Could a Democrat upend the apple cart?  

I don’t think it’s likely, but it’s possible: 25%-35% possible, depending on who they nominate. Bets are going to have to be hedged.  People in power are going to get nervous.  And when the people in power get nervous, the people who aren’t in power tend to get hurt.  

Now you may be one of those who believe that the fix is in, and some combination of oligarchs, global gangsters and wicked computer programmers have already guaranteed a victory for Republicans.  You may be one of those who feel that machines in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania were monkeyed with.  And you may be right.  But, hmm, I bet you aren’t.  If the Republicans had any confidence that their dirty tricks would be effective (or even work any better than the compensatory dirty tricks of the Democrats) they wouldn’t be working as hard as they are to disenfranchise people. Republican legislators in dicey districts wouldn’t be throwing in the towel at a noteworthy clip. No, they’re more than a little spooked, these guys, because they realize that voters hold the hammer, and they hate that.

What this means, practically, is that we can all expect a propaganda campaign like nothing we’ve ever seen before.  We’re going to be awash in a river of bullshit, and all manner of awful things are going to be justified as the in-party fights with claws out in an attempt to retain control. Collusion and foreign interference won’t be the half of it.  My prediction is that you will barf, repeatedly.  But as you are barfing, remember that the turbulence you encounter on flight 2020 is there because of the insecurity of the Republicans.  Compare, always, to GWB’s smooth cruise to reelection — one that was never in doubt.  Take a look, again, at the margins by which Trump won the states that he absolutely had to win in order to become president.  Everything had to break his way.  This time, he’ll have the power of incumbency and familiarity working for him, and yeah, that generally carries the day.   But he’ll be entering the campaign with historically high negatives, and he’s not going to have Hillary Clinton as an opponent.  His weakness is sometimes overblown by fantasists who imagine he’ll soon wake up in jail.  But it’s real.  

Consider also that Trump has never, ever had the consumer-cultural support that American strongmen generally do: under Bush, there was a cultural embargo that shut down all non-red-white-and-blue music for about four years. Trump doesn’t even have Nashville behind him.  Instead they rush to praise Sturgill Simpson and the like for broadening the scope of music city sentiment and parodying masculinist imperatives, and, in general, acting like damn Democrats.  They welcome weirdos into the sorority and make sages out of Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires for tweeting opprobrium in a Republican direction.  With one exception that, as I see it, absolutely proves the rule, not a single artist of any significance has been willing to put on the red hat.  That tells you nothing about Trump’s chances for re-election, but it does say plenty about the penetration of his ideas, such as they are, among younger people, some of whom may actually vote. We’ll see. In the meantime, don’t think I’m encouraging you to actually listen to the Sturgill Simpson album.  Oh no, no, don’t… um, don’t do that.

Okay, as usual, I’ve got a last word for you. I’ll finish it as soon as I can. Thanks for rocking with me.