Music

Just Kids, Patti Smith

Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids is touching and well-written. The account of her life with the visual artist Robert Mapplethorpe is a glimpse into a very isolated and very culturally important moment. Their artistic and aesthetic nascence is recounted well and authentically, communicated a kind of existential striving that put them at odds with much of what was around them. While certain aspects of the book felt a bit performative or pretentious, the vast majority of Smith’s writing seems much more concerned with depicting a reality than with depicting the author in the best possible light.

Different modes of writing are separate enough that I’m usually cautious about narrative books written by good songwriters or good standup comics. While the emotional realities are always there, the translation and communication of those realities often requires a skillset that may not be present. Patti Smith clearly has the narrative chops to pull this kind of thing off, and does it well. There is a lot of intention and reflection being distilled into the narrative, less a reliance on anecdotes or filler storytelling.

While my overall impression of the book remains positive, there is a bit of pretension and preciousness in here that isn’t my favorite, as well as a bit more name-dropping than I care for (although most of the name-drop-heavy antecdotes are pretty essential to the narrative, so handling that well seems like a rather titanic task). It’s a hard bit of criticism to sustain, but it’s enough to keep me from recommending this book completely free of any “well, but” riders.

Mishka Shubaly’s “Beat the Devil” and Amazon Singles

Mishka Shubaly seems to do a bunch of diverse shit. I’d heard him on a podcast a few times before hearing about his whole relationship with Amazon.com as a popular purveyor of their “Kindle singles,” a novellete-length product usually available for around 1.99 and published exclusively as a digital product. I’ve been leery of those kinds of things -with the sometimes-exception of self-published informational ebooks- because as much as people like to talk shit about “the gatekeepers” the traditional publishing model does hold back the flood of self-aggrandizing “personal brand” vanity publishing, badly edited how-tos, and, oh my god, so much fucking supernatural erotica.

While “Beat the Devil” is certainly a cut above that sort of thing, I can’t really say that I’ve changed my mind. It’s fine, but not great. There’s enough to make it worth the two bucks, enough to keep me reading through to the end, there is some pretty bad writing on display. Shubaly can write damn good introspective prose, but his dialog is badly artificial and his need for an external narrative morality skews things to the cliche. I love his oral history, the telling of insane stories that feel real and drive forward with undeniable emotional honesty, but there’s a lot of shit to wade through, and it’s sometimes distractingly bad.

All of this culminates in the mediocre recommendation of “try the sample?” for this particular artifact and a pretty solid “fuck this noise” on the whole “Kindle Singles” thing. I feeling like Shubaly’s work is some of the better writing in this particular medium, and it’s only OK. I’d love to see more small presses and lit mags really push things on the ebook front, but with Amazon’s history of fucking over presses and booksellers, I completely understand the reluctance.

Recommendation: “try the sample?”

Best New Music Releases of 2015 (So Far)

Music of 2015 (so far):

I’ve been listening to a lot more new albums lately. I’m a bit tired of the driving focus placed on singles in our iTunes era, and everything I’ve loved this year has been part of a strong album that functions well as an album, not just a collection of songs. NPR’s First Listen has been an amazing resource in this regard (http://www.npr.org/series/98679384/first-listen). There is no better argument for limited sharing of digital audio -I’m going to be purchasing most of these albums as physical media in the next month or so.

In no particular order:

Matthew E. White, ‘Fresh Blood’: I saw the band open for The Mountain Goats in 2012, and my brother thought they were better than the main act -if I didn’t love John’s band so much, I might have, too. Amazing musicians, amazing arrangements, monster presence. The new album has all of that -and better songs. ‘Holy Moly’ kills.

Lightning Bolt, ‘Fantasy Empire’: Great music to play loud. Noise-rock, proto-metal high-clarity lo-fi… it’s hard to classify. It’s damn good, somewhat intoxicating, and exhausting. Not for the faint of heart. Listen to it all the way through.

Inventions, ‘Maze of Woods’: Explosions in the Sky guitarist Mark Smith teams up solo laptop guy Matthew Cooper and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The guitar arrangements and piano parts sound like they’ve been lifted out of ‘The Earth is not a Cold, Dead Place’. Great minimalistic post-rock with an extravagant electronic twist. Like ‘Fantasy Empire’, listen to it all in one go.

‘Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith’: The title is rather self-explanatory. heart wrenching, black songs covered with beautiful precision, full of dead-on harmonies and understated acoustic instrumentation. I’m not as familiar as I’d like to be with Elliott Smith’s music, but this album has put my feet upon the path. Don’t listen to this if you’re having a bad day.

Liturgy, “The Art Work’: Another very loud and aggressive album that refuses to fall to our rock-nerd Linnaean taxonomies. On first listen, it seems to be more squarely metal than something like ‘Fantasy Empire’, but that’s just where the train is coming from and Liturgy are going somewhere else entirely. Horns and spoken-word vocal delivery sit right next to driving tremolo-picking and black metal thunder and it all belongs together.

Reading Log: John Darnielle’s Master of Reality (A 33⅓ Book)

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I received three books from Bloomsbury’s 33⅓  series for Christmas, and since Master of Reality is the only other published book written by extraordinary human being John Darnielle, it was the first one I sunk my brain teeth into. Each book in this series is a prolonged look at a particular album, but the particulars beyond that point are left to the individual authors taking part in the project. Nonfiction is generally the rule of thumb (whether via the oral history of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea or the series of interviews that make up Piper at the Gates of Dawn) but Darnielle chose to go the route of fiction. A young boy in 1980s Southern California is committed in a teen psychiatric ward and is made to keep a journal, which he uses to explain Black Sabbath’s album Master of Reality to the head of the unit in hopes of convincing him to give back his Walkman and tapes (or at least Master of Reality).

It’s an unconventional choice in a series composed mostly of rock-geek music journalism, but it works remarkably well. I listened to the album twice before reading and once again after, but the book would stand up fine without, although I’d strongly recommend a listen at some point; ,t does add something to the reading experience. Listening to each track as it’s mentioned would be really interesting… someone should do that and get back to me).

The voice of Roger (the boy in the psych ward and our narrator) is fully realized; it’s a nuanced perspective at an intelligent young person who is unmistakably a young person, not just a 34-year-old YA author living out their teenage fantasies from the blunted hindsight of adulthood. Roger is young and undeveloped (and dark) in those critical ways that make him believable and that set off his intelligence and his perception. Longtime readers of the blog know that Darnielle can write a troubled young male like no one else, (go read Wolf in White Van) and since he also spent some time working as a nurse in places like the one where Roger is being held he’s developed a special understanding of how they worked, as well as a deep rapport with and understanding of the kids who were sent there (go listen to The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton). When the story shifts forward ten years as Roger revives his correspondence with the head of the psych unit the narrative voice changes. Roger is still intelligent, still damaged and still unmistakable Roger, but he’s lost that frenetic chaos that typifies a certain kind of youth. He’s just as perceptive, but calmer; he can step back and see things better. His perspective on Black Sabbath has changed in an important way, as well.

The book gets across a good idea of the nature of the music in question, but those considerations take a back seat to the examination of who needs an album like Master of Reality and why. It’s amazing to read as Roger looks back ten years down the line and sees why he needed Black Sabbath so badly, why Master of Reality specifically had such a magnetic draw. This book isn’t going to tell you anything about the kind of amps Tony Iommi was using or get you inside the producer’s head, but it does examine why music that might not be the best music objectively is the best and most important music to some people and why that’s so goddamn important to understand.

NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts: Watch them!

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NPR Music just published the end-of-year recap of their wonderful Tiny Desk Concert series.

http://www.npr.org/2014/12/16/371184887/2014-the-year-in-tiny-desk-concerts

If you aren’t already watching these, check out the concerts from this year, then go back through their archives and dig for gold. There’s a lot of it in their YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL1B627337ED6F55F0

My personal favorite: