Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Audio meme

Via Fangrrrl [best wishes for the move to US] a song-meme:

"List seven songs you are into right now. No matter what the genre, whether they have words, or even if they’re not any good, but they must be songs you’re really enjoying now, shaping your spring. Post these instructions in your blog along with your 7 songs. Then tag 7 other people to see what they’re listening to."

It's moving into Winter here at present, which might be influencing some of the songs resonating below.

1 Laughing Clowns: Theme from Mad flies, Mad Flies

Laughing Clowns arose from the ashes of The Saints who were always, it's reported, pissed off that their antipodean providence had punters mistaking them for followers rather than timely co-creators in the punk take-off of 1976. While Chris Bailey, in the words of Simon Reynolds from blissblog, had one of the best fucked-up and fucked-off rock voices, guitarist Ed Keupper had a way with direct riffs and sonic snarls that suited the band in its early incarnation. The instrumental trajectory of the Saints sets up the direction that Kuepper's post- saints outfit, The Laughing Clowns, moved into: a sort of jazz-punk fusion that Iggy Pop might have dreamt of.

The loss of Bailey's voice and persona is noticable in this recording, but, I think, more than compensated for by the stunning drumming of Jeffrey Wegener.

Who cares what Kuepper is singing-slurring here - it's the other instruments that carry a sense of being on the edge of something driving and, dare I say it for post-punk like this, fun. The sharp horn riffs catch, and the driving double-bass figure that introduces the piece still sounds crisp, woody and dynamic. Kuepper's guitar opens rather than clouds passages here, moving from single-note rhythms to expansive slashes. But it's Wegener's drums that made the Clowns: here his brushes seem to be tap-dancing on the snare.

This tune's got songcraft with a coda snapping the conclusion to attention. A song, for me at the time, about the possibilities of rock's dialogues with the dirtier side of jazz-based rhythms.

[Link here - audio only]

2 Portishead: Strangers

I was a fairly late-comer to Portishead and to the sort of chemical epiphanies that might have made their appeal more immediately apparent. Beth Gibbons does the job, but it's the reverbating spaces in the arrangement and the way that the breezy cocktail bar guitar-vocal duet gets almost seamlessly pummelled by heavy drums and digital squawk, that I'm fond of at the moment. Great dynamics.

Live version from 1998 @ NYC with orchestra- Youtube

3 Low and Dirty Three: Down by the River (2001)

An old Neil Young song that Low of Duluth (Dylan's hometown) teamed up with Melbourne trio Dirty Three to cover. We 'eternally loaned' the CD this is from to a friend before moving interstate, but the pace and pathos of this version came to me while at the local hall's piano the other day. A fairly simple song to play that has a seductive lift out of the verse into the chorus.
I find the lyric contradictory - it seems to be a song about romantic loyalty and murder: directed at the same lover.

While Young's version is a stomped and bludgeoning guitar workout the Low/Dirty 3 version is melancholic and shimmering. Warren Ellis' violin hovers over the slow introduction like a fine rain-shower. Jim White's drums, like Jeff Wegener's from the Clowns, shuffle-dance and Mick Turner dobs and brush-strokes his guitar. Mimi Parker's singing is suitably mournful with a hint of something keening at the edge of her voice.

Youtube here - a truncated version, unfortunately.

4 Curve -Fait Accompli

Great pop song! Hooks, melody, driving-phased bass and guitars that screech. Gothic-britpop. "Hear me now - Fate!" I find it spine-tingling this tune.

Youtube here

5 Lou Reed: Satellite of Love

Another fun song that uses voices really well - almost a doo-wop tune. It took me a long time to recognise Reed's gift with melody but here's a perfect example of melodic movement, married to his lyrical talents. Great finish, with Bowie chiming in on high.

U-tubing original

6 Elvis Costello: Sleepness Nights

A lament that was often on my lips when I picked up the guitar during the last year, and after, for our dog Jessie.

It has an exquisite chord-melody-lyric structure written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant and was brought to prominence by Gram Parsons. I first heard Elvis' version on the Parsons tribute LP 'Return of the Greivous Angel' and have never been able to decipher the chord progression well enough to play the whole song. Even the introduction theme is haunting and the middle-eight is gorgeous.

Can't find Elvis C's version but here's Gram with EmmyLou Harris on U-tube

Lastly and the closest to Spring-feeling:

7 Lullaby in Birdland (George Shearing)

My partner was singing this tune while drying her hair the other day. Swingin' she was! Couldn't stop humming it.

Here's Ella Fitzgerald on Youtube.

The meme is offered on to Flopeared Mule, Decomposing Trees, s0metim3s, Homecooked Theory, Darkness at noon, blah-feme, and a reminder.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A couple of long Necks

ABC's website is taking off in a number of directions.

One of them is in streaming music videos from Radio National shows like Music Deli. There are 2 long-pieces by the instrumental trio The Necks up here. [Audio only is also accessible.]

The Necks are three improvising musicians who work traditional instruments - piano, double bass and drums/percussion - into polytemporal dialogues where a fragment of difference in the eternal return of the same can insinuate itself into the conversation, lodge itself there and slowly turn a motiff or pattern inside out. Necks pieces unfold slowly. Instensifying around tensions that arise, organically.

If music is prophecy, as Jacques Attali asserts, then this is a future that sounds like neoliberal globalisation has alternatives that are heterotemporal, yet not arrhythmic or isorhythmic, but able to be harmonised: eurhythmic.

Necks sequences are long forms - often a minimum of 45 minutes - that work against the timespace compressions of instantaneous digital finance capitalism and its hit and run raids on the future.

Listening to the Necks might be a way into hearing what our polytemporal conjuncture sounds like. A musical Generative mise en abyme where framing and embedded elements and figures are turned inside-out; where paradigms shift; and time is experienced as constellation.

They groove too.
I recommend finding a comfy chair, relaxing and opening a long neck, or two.

ps Dan Hill from City of Sound on recent Necks experience at Sydney Opera House:

They seem to me to be pursuing a form of music with real structure, inverting that hoary old epithet of Goethe ['architecture is frozen music'] and playing defrosted architecture.
That's my own peculiar interpretation of course, and perhaps influenced by the weight of the Opera House around us, but it's something about the way they 'show their workings' in their improvisations, building dense blocks from discrete motifs and with such a pronounced sense of dynamics.

Defrosted architecture!

Monday, June 9, 2008

Independent's Day - Australian music's all time best indy Lps

Via Decomposing Trees - an insider-industry shortlist of fifty LPs of Australian Independent releases has been collated here at the AIR website and you are asked to select your top 5 Australian Independent LPS of all time.

My picks - all postpunk m'fraid.

The Birthday Party - Prayers on Fire [Favourite tunes from each Lp]: ('Figure of Fun')
Died Pretty - Doughboy Hollow ('DC' - youtube link)
The Go-Betweens - Before Hollywood ('Cattle & Cane')
Laughing Clowns - Mr. Uddich Smuddich Goes to Town ('Theme from Mad Flies' listen here)
The Triffids - Born Sandy Devotional ("Seabirds")

Close seconds to:
Necks – Sex (Hanging Gardens is my fav., but this is less 'speedy'. What tantric sex must feel like.)
Go-Bees – Liberty Belle & the Black Diamond Express (I like the songcraft better on this later LP, but 'Before' never stops giving and surprising - and it contains 'Cattle and Cane'!)

Notable Omissions

Crow - My Kind of Pain
Underground Lovers - Dream it Down
Tactics - My Houdini
Clouds – Penny Century
Reels - Quasimodo's Dream
Hunters & Collectors - eponymous debut long player
Triffids - Treeless Plain

Obscurities, Eps, compilations, fantasies

Lobsterman - Sexy Milky (North Sydney Bears tragic and Don van Vliet of Sydney Inner West Christopher W. Lobb and kameraids. inc. yours truly - see sidebar)

Do Re Mi – 1st ep (Contains "Standing on wires" - best Oz agit-prop funk song. Evah)

Various - Where Joy Kills Sorrow (Aus artistes do alt. country - Renee Geyer, Rob Snarski, Tex Perkins, Joel Silbersher, Paul Kelly and others in top form. Evil Graeme Lee at the helm)

Pel Mel - Greatest Hits and rare live recordings (in my dreams)

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Kate Jennings on Slow Tv: the grace of accuracy

Another Slow TV video - from a recent 'In conversation' event at Readings book store in Carlton, Victoria. Elliot Perlman with Kate Jennings.

When Jennings reads from her elegy 'Without preamble: Martin Johnston 1947-1990' she begins with a epigram from a Robert Lowell poem that could well do to describe her writing voice:

Yet why not say what happened/ pray for the grace of accuracy

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Opposition Whip- ping it up

Via Crikey today, Tasmanian Federal Senate Opposition Whip Stephen Parry compares nude children to 100 ecstasy tablets, AK47 Assault rifle, and forest of Cannabis Plants. Argues that artists defending Bill Henson are out of touch with reality.

What is worrying is what I should do with all the books, records, and videos that depict illegal acts and items. Even the New Oxford Dictionary of English - that postmodern stew of relativism - fails to point out which acts and things are illegal. Onto the bonfire it goes.

Oh well, we like to burn shit, down here on the south island. More to add to the local burn-offs.


Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Christos Tsiolkas on inspiration and postpunk

The Monthly magazine has a series of 'Slow TV' videos at its site. Christos Tsiolkas is here, filmed at the recent Sydney Writers Festival, talking about and reflecting on his inspirations and influences. While he begins with the profound, literally visceral, effect that cinema had on him as a 'Melbourne Suburban Wog' adolescent, and ends with a homage to the tough, genre-busting voices of American post-War writers like Norman Mailer and Philip Roth, I found this passage resonated with me:
Being an adolescent at the moment of punk and postpunk music, succumbing to the aggressiveness, revolt and atonality of the music, influence the rhythms and tones and expression of what I wanted to write.

This is all Tsiolkas says here about that strand of cultural influence, but it is interesting to note how the 'grunge' in Grunge literature was and still is rarely articulated to post-punk musical culture. Some previous writing that attempts such articulations here, there and here.

Also, for anyone interested in reading further about post-punk history, Simon Reynolds's cultural history of American and British postpunk (some mention made of The Birthday Party), Rip It Up and Start Again has an accompanying blog here.

Reviewing the reviewer: Delia Falconer on James Wood

Novelist, essayist and reviewer Delia Falconer has a generous, incisive and, er, critical review of US uber-critic James Wood's How Fiction Works in last month's Australian Literary Review here.

In light of the recent !!death of literary criticism!! meme circulating through the internets Falconer's review questions the work that 'the real' does for Wood and the seemingly static and heavyhanded grasp this ground has in mapping modernities that are experienced as fragmented, discontinuous, or as proliferating mises en abyme (the period formerly known as post-modern):

While another critic might see the impulse towards jam-packed, baroquely hyperreal novels as a legitimate and thoughtful, albeit varyingly skilful, response to our postmodern world (a mimetic reflection of the different status of information in an age of instant and indiscriminate communication, say, or an attempt to "wake up" a form whose traditional gestures are now the cliched staples of Hollywood cinema), Wood could only read this new "genre" as a kind of perversity or, worse, a showing off. (He has chastised DeLillo elsewhere for turning the novelist into "a kind of Frankfurt School entertainer, fighting the culture with dialectical devilry".)

This episode exposed a fundamental weakness of Wood's criticism: the fetish status it accords to the "real". It is clear, reading Wood's wider oeuvre, that he has a deep-rooted impatience with books that go outside a certain psychological verisimilitude; nor does he care for writing that usurps the critic's job by incorporating elements of commentary into a more self-conscious narration. Instead Wood places the naturalistic realist writing of Anton Chekhov and Gustave Flaubert at the centre of his pantheon; writing in which the authorial presence never breaks the tranquil surface of the book.

Falconer's seems to be a Walter Benjamin rather than Georg Lukacs based reading of the dialetic between cultural (literary in this case) form and historical change. Lukacs mourned the victory of modernist form over 'life' in his writings on the historical novel, and was antipathetic to Brecht's estrangement techniques. Benjamin sought to align historical experience with cultural forms that were responsive to changes in technology and modernity. Wood would appear more on the side of Lukacs than Benjamin in Falconer's estimation.

One question arising out of this death of literary criticism meme is whether or not literary criticism should seek to model its evaluative criteria on the affectiveness of the reading experience in promoting a moral-emotional thinking that rings with truth, or seek to model these criteria more on how effectively the form mediates such content whereby both form and content are affectively and sociologically alive to the milieux of the novel's circulation. Falconer and indeed James Ley, I would suggest, tend toward the second method.

Pavlov's Cat has praised Ley as one of the best practitioners of the art of fiction reviewing at the moment. Falconer's often more meta-critical reviews operate in a different space to Ley's although both inflect their criticism and reviews through a Benjamin-esque knowledge of the historical instantiations of forms of novelistic realism. As Peter Osborne in The Politics of Time argues,

In Benjamin . . . we have the beginnings of an account of the temporalization of history as cultural form. This enables us to concretize our previous depiction of historical time (the temporalization of history by the anticipation of a timeless end, a historical death), in terms of a series of culturally specific representations of ends constituting history in a variety of different ways - as ethics (Levinas), tradition (Gadamer), chronology (historicism) or modernity(Heidegger and Benjamin), respectively. Furthermore, insofar as these forms are themselves the products of historically specific practices, they are possible objects of transformative practice. We are thus able to begin to give a more concrete meaning to the idea of a politics of time. A politics of time is a politics which takes the temporal structures of social practices as the specific objects of its transformative (or preservative) intent.

Ley's ABR essay on the politics of guilt in Andrew McGahan's fiction uses Leavisite and New Critical close-reading techniques to turn the finely grained registering of the emotional imprint of McGahan's novels on the reader toward a consideration of how this affective-moral level of the novels is re-figured by the narrative forms in which it is presented:

The essence of McGahan’s art is narrative. His recent novels have turned towards genre in part because of his skill at shaping them at a macro level; they seem familiar because they are so solidly and traditionally constructed. Significantly, the move toward genre is also a move toward self-consciousness: the moment of recognition when a narrative is exposed as a purposeful, self-contained structure with its own internal logic that works to shut out conflicting viewpoints. The Irish writer Colm Tóibín once remarked upon the similarity between his nation’s history and a work of sentimental fiction, ‘full of love stories with ill-fated lovers dying with a smile’. There are times, he argued, when ‘the crucial moments in Irish history seem more like a nineteenth-century novel in which the individual, tragic hero is broken by the society he lives in’. The point of his observation is that once this generic quality has been recognised, it opens up the possibility of transcendence: it becomes possible to understand history in other, more realistic and nuanced ways; it becomes possible to see how history is not like a sentimental fiction. This is part of the motivation behind The White Earth’s attempt to incorporate some of the prominent themes in recent Australian history within the overarching framework of a gothic narrative. The novel wants to make us aware of these ideas’ generic qualities, the manner in which certain ways of perceiving are perpetuated, and how this influences the shape of contemporary public debate.

This is an insightful and elegantly expressed argument about the politics of literary form. Ley manoeuvres his close-reading of the emotional tenor of McGahan's oeuvre into an argument about the politics of narrative genre. This is less self-consciously theoretically informed than Falconer's reviews, and the argument here insinuates itself more because of a voice that moves at a slower pace over less texts (one effect of close-reading)which buttresses the assuredness of any judgements. I like both reviewers for different reasons. Ley for the intimacy of the voice, Falconer for the movement between a theoretical and close-reading focus.

Anyone who witnessed Peter Fitzsimmon's contribution to the ABC First Tuesday Book Club last night and was reminded of the debates about the historical-ness of historical fiction that Kate Grenville's The Secret River roused would find essays by both Ley and Falconer on this subject instructive. [Falconer's essay 'Historical novels' is in Eureka Street 13.2 (March 2003) and reprinted in the Black Ink. Best Australian Essays 2003 anthology. Ley's is here: "When the Past isn't Past: a Role for Fiction in Australia's History Wars" .]

However, Ley's voice doesn't always persuade by insinuation. Sometimes the snark must be let loose. Here's a choice cut - harsh but fair - from early in the same piece on McGahan's fiction:
Writing politicised literature can be a treacherous business. It is not the first task of a work of prose fiction to act as a vehicle for a narrow political message. Novels that attempt this are regularly disfigured by their sense of moral self-importance. Elliot Perlman’s Three Dollars (1998), for example, is so distorted by its politics that it develops, absurdly, into a kind of anti-Bildungsroman, in which a naïve young man discovers that he is right about everything. There is a strong tendency in a work that takes sides in some specific political controversy for it to leach the humanity from those characters who represent the unfavoured viewpoint, and to paint them as fools and knaves. Even the best-intentioned narrative inevitably warps reality to conform to its agenda to some extent, but when this is crudely done it stifles the dissonance that is the lifeblood of fiction. The novel shrinks into itself, starts to believe in the imperviousness of its own rhetoric, and ends up being effective only if it tells you exactly what you want to hear. This renders its fictional qualities redundant: Perlman wrote a novel, but everything he had to say might have been adequately expressed in a terse letter to the editor of The Age.


But the point, though sharp, is well made: Perlman's novel (love the personification of the text here by Ley) is disabled by the politics of its form. My critical readings of Three Dollars run along a similar track to Ley's although I spend a lot more time unpacking the anti-Bildungsroman structure of the text.

My main criticism of Perlman's debut novel is that its adoption of a social liberal and Liberal-Leavisite moral-aesthetic position on the ascendance of neoliberal governmentalities is a nostalgic, and thereby reactionary, response to what it mis-diagnoses as classical liberalism. While there are some wonderful moments in the novel, not least the parody of bureaucratic managerialism and the infiltration of the lanaguage of finance capital - all ordinaries - into everyday life, it is its politics of form, and thereby of time, that blunt any claim it has to critical force. And this formal failure is also one of cultural-historical form: the neoliberal reality that we live with, and that Perlman's novel responds to, can't simply be fought back from the ramparts of civilised heroism, as this monstrous ideology is not purely out there, perpetrated by fascist corporations, immoral merchants and their philistine lackeys.
The new liberalism is how we conduct ourselves; it is part of our freedom - it is formative and forming. It is the dominant mode of Bildungs. Novelists who grapple, formally, with this 'reality' are therefore closer to the truth than those that abject our own complicities in this formation.

Falconer and Ley, I think, help us to better see this changing reality and truth. And even Perlman too through the effort and courage to attempt a literary fictional critique of economic rationalism.