Saturday, April 24, 2004

John Adams in the 21st Century

I can’t recommend David McCullough’s John Adams enough. Really a wonderful vindication of popular sentiment what with 1.6 millions copies of it being sold in hardback. (This according to an article I recently read in The Wall Street Journal.) This bodes well, even if such exemplary reading on such a wide scale is an aberration. It’s a rare merging of fiercely intelligent writing that combines an understanding of its subjects particular place in the giddy history of the United States along with ample illustrations of the subjects particularities (of all the founding fathers, Adams seems the most human), familiar attachments (Abigail Adams, it should be noted, is the subtitle to any biography on John Adams, and McCullough brings her vividly to life) and friendships.

McCullough is near pitch-perfect throughout, but he really soars in the last 100 or so pages, where he details Adams’s long life after his Presidency, when he lived into his 90’s, dying on the same day as one of his closest friends, Thomas Jefferson- July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years after the founding of the country they both played such central roles in.

Friday, April 16, 2004

Thump the Box

Unless somebody else has been flying way under my radar, the best and most interesting producer of house music over the last 5 or so years has been Matthew Herbert, whose been releasing a steady stream of some of most sensually constructed house music I’ve ever heard. He’s a master of texture, with an understanding of house music drama that rivals any of the so-called giants of house. I can’t think of anybody working today who uses samples with more creativity and success. He builds most of his rhythms out of borrowed or personally made field recordings. A bass drum might be the thumping of a large delivery box or the hood of his father’s old MG Midget, while the whirr of assorted kitchen cutlery acts in place of cymbals.

His partner Dani Siciliano has sung on every release since 1998’s Around the House. I find her voice tremendously appealing, relaxed and smoky as any torch singer. Herbert often deftly rearranges snippets of her vocals, taking everything from Siciliano inhaling to the popping and wooshing sounds of a melodic fragment she’s previously sung. Atop all that delivery box thumping and kitchen cutlery whirring there’s usually a lovely weave of Siciliano’s voice accompanying it. She also plays a mean clarinet.
Swamp the Glurp: Villalobos’s Boggy Sound

The Villalobos sound is swampy. His rhythms are wet with detritus- they glurp and build and constantly shift. There are always surprises, too. Grooves appear out of the mist and quiver with intensity- but it’s always surprisingly loose and smooth like David Byrne in that oversized suit. Rhythms are continuously being submerged into something murky. Bubbles of swamp gas constantly ooze up and pop into the mix.

It’s also crisp. The snare in Easy Lee is all snap and treble riding over a gently smudged bass drum. Beats that begin without edges suddenly come into spiky focus. At the 2:15 mark some watery percussion arrives and firmly establishes a groove. There are
always those surprises- splashes of rhythm, smudges of groove that seem to teeter between the randomized and the deliberate. Seemingly random sounds sputter, spit up and unobtrusively clang and twang. At times it sounds as though Villalobos actually sampled or carefully cut and pasted fragments of percussive elements created by using some brand of randomizing software and deliberately scattered them throughout the master mix.

There are subtle moments of dub.

His debut, Alcachofa, is by no means instantaneously gratifying. It reminds me of the first time I heard LFO’s Frequencies and was, at first, hugely disappointed that the remainder of the album wasn’t as immediately catchy as its title song, a huge club hit jacked up on the king of all bleep grooves and a devastating sub-bass. It’s what known as “a grower.” Despite those initial negative reactions you keep finding yourself drawn back to the album for another listen, another assessment. Eventually it becomes a classic.
Lo-Fi Wistfullness

One of my favorite batches of music this year is Jon Brion’s score for Michel Gondry’s lovely Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Like suspended fragments of ache- and best of all is a reoccurring theme of plucked acoustic guitars swathed in lo-fi vinyl hiss and pop (capitalizing on the seemingly inherent nostalgia and authenticity of vinyl culture and outdated media) and a soulful piano fragment that wistfully surges up into an anthem for the film’s lovers. (I’m thinking in particular of one of the films last scenes, where Joel and Clem briefly walk down the beach, just prior to entering the beach house- one of the most romantic, touching and triumphant to hit the mainstream screens in some time.) Brion’s score is the powerful undercurrent to Gondry’s gracefully phantasmal montage. The whole thing packs quite a wallop.
Wait, Where Was I Again?

When GPS implants become available I’d like to be first in line. I say this after making a series of disastrous directional miscalculations the other evening when I walked to the Music Box for a showing of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrella’s of Cherbourg. Cathy and I had made plans to meet in front of the Music Box on Southport at 6:15, but due to my highly erratic path I didn’t arrive until about 6:50.

Here is what’s great about Umbrellas:

The colors
The soundtrack
Its sly moments of humor
Catherine Deneuve's lovely embodiment of the swooning histrionics of first love
Every line is sung!
Sugar and Spice, Boy Meets Girl mixed with The Algerian war, premarital sex and ensuing child out of wedlock, an ambiguous marriage to a wealthy jeweler, a dying aunt and an ending that crushes the absolutes of the aforementioned first love in the gentlest snow to ever fall on an Esso station in France.
Here Comes A Tenor

Cathy and I stood around a piano a few weeks ago and sang Down to the River and Pray, the old spiritual made famous from the Oh, Brother Where Art Thou? Soundtrack. They’re called The Singing Bullfrogs and their a nice group of mostly 40 and 50 and 60-somethings who get together a couple times a month and sing songs. For the fun of it! There are sopranos, altos and a highly unified posse of basses. They lacked only tenors, those brave and often male adventurers undeterred by the oftentimes fearfully feminized heights they’re so frequently asked to scale.

“I guess I can sing tenor,” I replied to the woman who was taking us through our parts and had asked, “Are there any tenors in the room?” I was the only one.

Nobody likes to be the single tenor in a room of strangers. Cathy, my heroic wife, bravely stepped forward and announced, “I can sing tenor!” So did her former boss. And then so did the dude playing the piano! We clustered together, a swelling of tenors, suddenly 4 strong and ready to play our role in the song’s harmony.

At the end of the night Cathy’s former boss said, “Let’s sing something we’ve already learned so those who here for the first time can hear.” It was a song that seemed vaguely, naggingly familiar, 3 or 4 overlapping parts singing, “Yes we do marvelous….marvelous….we do marvelous things.” Something along those lines. It began in a ramshackle sort of way, with folks casually sipping from their drinks or grabbing some cheese and crackers from the table as they nonchalantly sung their parts before it suddenly began to congeal and soar. For a couple minutes it all came brilliantly and irresistibly together. Everything felt briefly and giddily transformed.

“Oh,” I thought, “that was really great.”
Oh, But I Could Never Live Somewhere That Didn’t Have A Change
of Seasons

Never really gave much thought to the weather when we were living in Berkeley other then the intermittent outburst occasioned by its magnificence. Friends of our living in Los Angeles wryly described the weather down there as being “relentlessly pleasant,” a description that could just as easily be applied to Berkeley and the Bay Area in general. There was a heartening consistency to the weather there, a contenting guarantee of wind, rain, sun, fog, warmth and cold in near perfect degrees of moderation.

Just the other night Cathy and I were having dinner with some old friends, one of whom remarked that she didn’t care for such meteorological consistency, that she rather enjoyed the change of the seasons, especially now, as the long Midwestern winter slowly gave itself up to the hard fought blooms of crocus’s and daffodils. And I’ve gotta admit, I share those sentiments as well, but not unequivocally. After living in Berkeley and enjoying its winters for 3 years, I came to view the much-heralded “But I love the change of the seasons” mantra as bunk. Because while the sight of those first crocus’s popping their psychedelically purple little heads up from wooly gardens on the cusp of bursting back onto the scene is always worthy of my attention and applause, it’s also not worth wading through nearly 6 months of winter just to magnify the intensity of their beauty.

I like the romance of the “I love the change of seasons,” camp. I don’t begrudge the sentiment either- it’s a hard fought one, made up of tolerance, grit and tough love. For 6 months of every year Chicago is a near tundra. Most of the Midwest is like this. A settlement of grey, the boney brittle of trees, windy malice and the continual irony of freshly fallen snow inevitably debased into the sleaziest of gingerbread slush’s. And the cold! The tripartite comedic attack of January through March topped off with the punch-line of April. Cold hands, the sting in the cheeks, the unrelenting pierce of the wind. I’ll muster whatever it takes to tolerate it, but I don’t know that I’m ever going to appreciate it with the same kind of ardor and skill that others manage.

Tom Skilling commands and disperses daily regiments of Chicago based meteorological gossip from the back page of the Chicago Tribune’s Metro section. Over the last month he’s been reminding readers that what we’re really seeing is a great battle for supremacy. Skilling is my daily porthole into the great and enduring mythological drama of the weather. With the entire back page of the Metro section as his canvas, Skilling has, with great assurance and zest, demonstrated the tactics of those sworn enemies, the Canadian Arctic and Gulf Stream winds. It’s a fight the Arctic can’t win (for now), but the fierceness of its resistance makes a mockery out of a seemingly disproportionate percentage of our Aprils.

April in the Midwest is a risk. Sometimes it’s the perfect balm, while in others it acts as winter’s cruel addendum. It’s here in April that you’ll sometimes find winter lingering in Skilling’s statistical announcements of “15 to 20 degrees below the average for this time of year!” and “unseasonably cold!” Each morning I lean forward over a spoonful of my current favorite cereal, Barbara’s Peanut Butter Puffins, and brace myself for what might be revealed, what stratagems uncovered.

The other day, walking through the Loop around 2:00 p.m., a bank thermometer read 34 degrees Fahrenheit and I felt winter’s stubbornness for the first time in 3 years and thought, “Oh, this is an unfortunate familiar!” It was, as I heard a woman remark to her husband on the Metra platform out in Naperville earlier in the day, “more like early March weather then early April weather.” But my 29 years of Midwestern winters are now factored into 3 years of Berkeley’s, and while I find that the condidtions we’re currently experiencing in Chicago to be ultimately tolerable (and offset by the many truly wonderful things this city has to offer) I don’t know if I can fully adhere to the claim of it all being worth it due solely to the idea that somehow it offers more by way of variety via its particular changes of season then another place might. There are, for example, just as many things “happening” in Berkeley by way of seasonal change then there are in Chicago. I mean, isn’t the argument that more diversity between the seasons offers more by way of natural beauty (and that’s what we’re really getting down to, isn’t it- how our environments effect our sense of well-being?) really just one of extremes? If you find more by way of natural splendor through having weathered the extremes of highs over a hundred and lows in the negatives, more power to you. If you’re afraid that you’ll grow to take relentlessly pleasant days for granted, or not fully appreciate the majesty of Spring and Summer and Fall without the knowledge that their sweet-spots will be fleeting, then go for it! I don’t buy it anymore. I didn’t need those extremes or fleeting beauty to feel fully compelled and overjoyed when I experience Magnolias blooming in January, the teeming green glow of rolling hills in March, plucking tomatoes from the garden until December or hiking Mt. Tam in a t-shirt on a February afternoon. What’s not to appreciate about that? What’s to be taken for granted? I’d argue that there’s just as much variety and splendor in the change of seasons in Berkeley, coupled with the benefit that it and the surrounding area are far more geographically diverse. All that consistency in the weather is necessary to fully appreciate it. Cathy and I managed to take a great many hikes, year-round, through some of the most idyllic landscapes (and what constitutes an “idyllic landscape” is quite an interesting can of worms) we’d ever experienced.

There are no nagging regrets about returning here to Chicago except for having left Berkeley’s weather behind.