Monday, October 25, 2010

1877: America's Year of Living Violently: by Michael Bellesiles

1877: America's Year of Living Violently
by Michael Bellesiles
Rating: 2.0/5.0
The New Press

When Michael Bellesiles' Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture was published in 2000, it hit with all the force of a knee to the crotch. That crotch was the cuddly-as-a-teddy-bear National Rifle Association, which got rather rankled by the book's assertion that gun ownership in colonial America was rare and that firearms ownership in the United States became prevalent only during the Civil War era as manufacturing techniques improved and gun prices dropped. While that organization fumed and roared, the accolades poured in for the then-Emory University professor from critics, journalists and fellow historians, with the book ultimately scoring Bellesiles the Bancroft Prize.

Then the bottom fell out. The NRA's reactionary ranting gave way to reasoned examinations from serious historians who no doubt have forgotten more about history than most of us ever bothered to learn; the author would soon be accused of everything from taking quotes out of context to deliberately misquoting his sources and including statements that were historically inaccurate. After a lengthy academic review of the text, Bellesiles would eventually be stripped of his Bancroft and fired from Emory University.

1877: America's Year of Living Violently should prove far less controversial for Bellesiles. The book is a passable, if largely unremarkable, account of all the violent, shitty and otherwise awful events that transpired in that year. The author captures the obvious topics - the continuation of an economic depression that started in 1873, the contested 1876 presidential election that wasn't resolved until January of 1877, Reconstruction's ultimate failure as blacks' rights were eliminated throughout the South as "Redeemer" governments reclaimed power, the labor unrest that would culminate in a series of strikes that summer, westward expansion and the terrible toll it exacted on Native Americans - while giving the reader a marginal sense of the country's political and cultural climate. It rarely offers anything new in terms of historical scholarship, but it's readable and avoids becoming too academically dry.

But a disgraced reputation is difficult to repair, and I found myself nagged by certain doubts as I read 1877. Are Bellesiles' references legitimate and are the quotes accurate? Does he have his facts straight? Is he able to approach American history from an unbiased perspective? It's possible that other readers will have similar doubts, and though Arming America's legacy is more complicated than the extremists who either loathe or worship it admit, a historian's past writings can inform a reader's opinion of that historian's most recent work.

The book is flawed in other ways. Too often Bellesiles' view of history is incredibly simplistic: heroes are heroes, villains are villains, and there is rarely any middle ground. He rightly rakes a few well-deserving individuals over the coals, most noticeably those who used violent methods to restore white power in the South and leaders who used federal troops against striking laborers, but in general the author shows little appreciation for or interest in history's complexities. Bellesiles is prone to the type of generalized statements historians should avoid - "Everyone hated Jimmy Kerrigan, including his wife..." "The Rangers had no more respect for the border with Mexico than they did for human life" "While the rest of the country threw aside the promises of the Constitution when it came to black people, Kansas welcomed them..." The author's transgression here is obvious: he makes sweeping generalizations that can't be proven and assumes that in 1877 all members of a particular group held identical views on these topics and acted in the same way. It's a sloppy and careless approach to history.

Bellesiles also fails to acknowledge developments that don't fit his depiction of 1877 as an orgy of violence and social turmoil that stunted the nation's social progress, including Henry Flipper becoming the first African-American to graduate from West Point, the founding of the American Humane Association or even something as innocuous as the first cantilever bridge being built in Kentucky. It's just another shortcoming in a book whose reductionist account of history is impossible to ignore. Readers who aren't familiar with post-Civil War 19th century America should be warned that there are far more objective studies to be found, while readers who have even the smallest working knowledge of this period are also likely to be unimpressed.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Royal Baths: Litanies

Royal Baths
Rating: 2.5/5.0
Label: Woodsist

For anyone in the mood for an album filled with crushing and absolutely all-fucking-encompassing dread, boredom, cynicism, sickness and death, Litanies comes highly recommended. The song titles - "After Death," "Drudgery," "I Detest," "Bad Heart," "Sinister Sunrise" - leave little room for misinterpretation and, with the exception of closing track "Pleasant Feeling," likely aren't meant to be taken ironically. The debut release from San Francisco quartet Royal Baths - Jeremy Cox, Jigmae Baer, Eden Birch and Eva Hannan - it is about as far removed from the psychedelia most frequently associated with the city by the Bay as possible. There is of course nothing wrong with a band that exists in perpetual darkness, but the music that accompanies such brooding must be original enough to offset such a narrow and redundant scope. Litanies is not that album, and all too often the band fails to frame its inner turmoil in anything but recycled sounds.

Unless it's some sort of cosmically-sized coincidence, the band owes a large debt to both the Velvet Underground and Spacemen 3. The vocals and especially the arrangements - coated in layers of fuzz and distortion - are reminiscent of those two groups, most noticeably on "Needle and Thread," "Sitting In My Room" and "Pleasant Feeling." For some listeners it might be difficult to get past these similarities - and make those listeners cut their losses and just go straight to the source material - but there are a few promising inclusions here. The album works best in its moments of tension that exist in the vocal interplay of singers Cox and Baer; "After Death," "Nikki Don't," "Drudgery" and "I Detest" contrast leading vocals evoking pure misery with bright and bouncy background harmonies. The effect is unsettling and is easily the most memorable aspect of Litanies. The lyrics fit the tone set by the band's sound; the album is a well of gothic misery with seemingly no bottom, with references to insomnia brought on by being too high and too hot, the "desolate country" and the "malnourished sick" scattered among warnings not to fall in love and cheerless sentiments like "coldness cannot hide the spirit that flutters in fear." Oh happy day indeed.

But the album wallows in such thoughts so much that after a while they lose their impact, and coupled with the songs' heavily derivative sound, it makes for some pretty ponderous listening. Rare is the record that can last for very long in such abject despair; even a renowned master of melancholy like Will Oldham ended I See a Darkness with the hopeful "Raining in Darling," while artists as morose as Bill Callahan and the National at least sometimes couch their songs in sardonic humor.

Royal Baths could learn something from those artists about such nuances and shades of gray throughout Litanies. The band unarguably has impeccable influences and usually makes the most of them, but absent a truly genre-breaking style, clubbing the listener over the head with a barrage of gloom only gets a band so far.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Tired Pony: The Place We Ran From

Tired Pony
The Place We Ran From
Rating: 2.0/5.0
Label: Mom + Pop

There is an undeniable whiff of novelty to an Irish musician recording a country and Americana-influenced album; of course, among others from across the pond, an Englishman called Costello has previously done a similar thing and pretty competently at that. Gary Lightbody, best known as the frontman for Snow Patrol, is far less adept at convincingly invoking the spirit of these genres throughout Tired Pony's debut album, The Place We Ran From, a record that plays out like a sopping wet, watered down imitation of the music it claims as its inspiration. There's plenty of sincerity here - not to mention no small amount of admiration for country and Americana - but there's also very little to suggest that Place is anything more than a middling, and dully predictable, foray into America's musical past.

On paper, the album should be barn-stormin' and shit-hot; in addition to Lightbody, Tired Pony includes Snow Patrol collaborators Troy Stewart, Iain Archer and Garret "Jacknife" Lee, Richard Colburn (Belle and Sebastian), Scott McCaughey (of Minus 5 and R.E.M. 2.0) and Peter Buck. The album also boasts contributions from M. Ward, Zooey Deschanel and Editors' Tom Smith. But like so many other supergroup efforts, the whole isn't very good and the parts aren't much better. To be fair there are a few standout moments: Buck's guitar work is masterful; Deschanel's vocals on "Get on the Road" are so good that they sound as if Lightbody wrote the tune with her in mind; Ward provides an appropriately hazy guitar line to "Held in the Arms of Your Words," a soft ballad with a ridiculously nonsensical title; Smith's singing lends an obvious sense of gravity and guilt to "The Good Book," a song of closed-down bars, lonely nights and half-empty glasses of booze. But that's also as close as Lightbody gets to writing a memorable Americana song, though occasionally his lyrics are almost evocative enough to offset the excessively banal arrangements, particularly on "Northwestern Skies," "Dead American Writers" and "The Deepest Ocean There Is."

Though there is no questioning the participants' sincerity in this project and it's clearly not a lark, this same earnestness makes these songs feel painfully straight-laced and stilted. It's collaborative, sure, but the amount of teamwork involved is largely irrelevant when the results are so meager, as in Archer's "I Am a Landslide," which is both exceedingly delicate and more than just a wee bit saccharine. Despite Lightbody's self-stated goal of writing a "twisted love-letter to the States," there is very little here that suggests the result is anything other than another example of formulaic country-infused music.The Place We Ran From ends with several minutes of feedback squall via "Pieces," a much-too-late attempt to apply some sharpness to the album's mostly blunted edges. Lightbody deserves credit for moving away from the personal narratives he churns out with Snow Patrol, but that's of little use here, and Place simply skims along the surface of Americana without really channeling any of its dark, mysterious landscape.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Sufjan Stevens: The Age of Adz

Sufjan Stevens
The Age of Adz
Rating: 2.3/5.0
Label: Asthmatic Kitty

For many artists there eventually comes an album that, by sheer virtue of how different it is from that musician's most "representative" work, splits fans into two opposing camps: those who love it and those who loathe it. For Sufjan Stevens, The Age of Adz is likely to be that album. Listeners still pawing their copies of Michigan and Illinois and clinging to that image of Stevens the Banjo Folkie in Angel Wings are gonna be in for a shock, as the record trades in his acoustic eclecticism for an electronic one heavy on beats, reverb, drum machines, assorted artificial sounds and compressed, echoed or otherwise treated vocals. In short, it's tailor-made for howls of indignation from at least one segment of the musician's fans.

What then of the actual content of Adz, putting aside whatever credit - or indie fandom dissension - Stevens will receive in so drastically breaking from Illinois' template? Anyone paying attention to Stevens' previous work shouldn't be entirely surprised by the record, as debut LP A Sun Came as well as parts of the All Delighted People EP hinted at the type of sounds that Adz fully embraces. Ultimately the album is inconsistent: at times ambitious and inventive, but more frequently self-indulgent, overlong and coldly technical. Stevens' electro-tinkering occasionally succeeds, especially in the sparseness of opening track "Futile Devices," the aural explorations of "Too Much," the title track and "I Walked" and the vocal belligerence of "I Want To Be Well," which finds the singer doing his best Thom Yorke impression and spitting out obscenity-laced lines.

At the same time self-editing is apparently not in Stevens' vernacular, and many songs stretch out far longer (and with far too much dicking around) than plenty of sober minds will be able to endure. Indeed Stevens apparently never met a five-minute running time he didn't like on Adz; over half the album eclipses that mark, while the sonic meanderings of songs like "Get Real Get Right," "Vesuvius" and closing track "Impossible Soul," itself 25 minutes long, become increasingly cluttered with repeated listens. The sense of breathing space that Stevens' songs had in the past is missing here, but what's perhaps more frustrating is that nearly every song has brilliant components - a lilting melody or poetic lyric about faith or death, among other topics - that eventually are overpowered by the song's glitch-laden exteriors.

Electronic dabbling frequently has a way of making songs feel distant and hollow, and The Age of Adz is no exception, its thick layers of gadgetry preventing some of its songs from making any type of lyrical connection with the listener. There will of course be a tendency to dismiss all criticism of the album as curmudgeonly reactionary or as a sign of someone stuck in the Illinois-Michigan past, but this is nothing more than an easy out for anyone wishing to downplay its flaws. Certainly there's no questioning the musician's willingness to defy stylistic boundaries - plenty of veteran indie bands could learn a thing or two from Stevens - but Adz all too often fails to reign in its electronic excesses. The result is an album that is too heavy on the artificial and too light on anything precise to compliment the artist's musical wanderlust.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Revisit: Richard Thompson: Rumor and Sigh

Richard Thompson
Rumor and Sigh

Revisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that now deserve a second look.

Any discussion of Rumor and Sigh invariably starts with "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," generally considered by fans and critics alike to be Richard Thompson's defining song. Set to a traditional English melody and built around a simple folk structure, it tells the story of James Adie - young career criminal, wildly romantic, surprisingly poetic - and Red Molly - the archetypal idealized female, this time with red hair and clad in black leather. As is so often the way in folk music, their relationship seems fated to end tragically, and of course it does. In quick succession Adie gives her a ring, probably stolen, gets himself mortally shotgunned in the chest during a robbery attempt and from his deathbed hallucinates that he sees "angels on Ariels in leather and chrome/ Swooping down from heaven to carry me home" - Heaven's admission requirements are rather lenient in this case. He then gives Molly his motorcycle keys - folk motif/symbol alert! - as his final, dying gesture. It's as close to perfect as a song can get.

But there is much more to Rumor and Sigh than just "1952 Vincent Black Lightning." It is possibly Thompson's most consistent album since 1982's Shoot Out the Lights. Throughout the album its characters externalize a sense of fatalism and foreboding as they find both their relationships and lives in general going to absolute shit. The first order of business for the freshly paroled ex-con in "I Feel So Good" is to "break somebody's heart tonight," as Thompson sneeringly sings. The situation is reversed in both "Why Must I Plead" and "I Misunderstood; in the latter song the female wears the guise of the flirtatious temptress as she mind fucks the living hell of some schmuck: "I thought she was saying good luck/ She was saying goodbye" he mutters in confusion. Similarly, "Keep Your Distance" imagines the principal actors in some failed love story meeting again by chance. Any thoughts of reconciliation are dashed immediately by the male with a sour remark that stands as one of Thompson's most incisive: "Don't grasp my hand and say 'fate has brought you here today'/ Oh fate is only fooling with us, friend."

Several of Thompson's most effectively humorous songs at least temporarily take this edge off and serve as a nice respite from all the doomed and otherwise dysfunctional relationships that litter the record. Rumor and Sigh actually opens with such a song: "Read About Love" takes sexual incompetence as its subject, adding in just a bit of misogyny. The poor fool narrator doesn't get any sex ed proper; instead, he reads about "love" in smut magazines and a book "written by a doctor with a German name." When he can't perform he knows who to blame, and it's not himself: "So why don't you moan and sigh?/ And why do you sit there and cry?/ I do everything I'm supposed to do/ If something's wrong, then it must be you." A somewhat slight song in Thompson's catalog, "Don't Sit on My Jimmy Shands" pays homage to Scottish accordion player Jimmy Shand as well as vinyl records as the musician alternates between pieces of nostalgia ("This one's the Beltona brand/ Finest label in the land/ They don't make them like that anymore") and some lighthearted - by Rumor and Sigh's standards at least - barbs about someone's girth and propensity for inebriation. The perverse or bloody events that transpire in the absurdist drama "Psycho Street" - a man beating off on a train, a wife murdered and dissolved in acid - are so over the top and its actors so stupid that it's impossible not to find the song darkly humorous.

Though Mitchell Froom tends to be treated like a human punching back for his production work on Thompson's albums - most infamously on Daring Adventures - the production here is clean and provides just the right amount of polish to Thompson's mostly dour material. Songs like "You Dream Too Much" and "Mother Knows Best" haven't held up over time, but the majority of the album has, and it's probably Thompson's best effort of the 1990s. It might be heresy to argue that it trumps Shoot Out the Lights, but like that masterpiece, it's an album built around crumbling relationships that sounds as relevant in this century as it did in the last one. "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" rightly casts a large shadow over both Rumor and Sigh and Thompson's entire career; still, that shouldn't be at the expense of the other remarkable songs included on this album.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Concert Review: The National - The Pageant, St. Louis, 9/30/10

In June of 2007 the National played the Duck Room here in St. Louis, a drafty, windowless, duck-themed basement at this city's beloved Blueberry Hill burger joint. With its austerely gray atmosphere, it could easily be used to stage a performance of Endgame and generally caters to four types of artists: current indie bands on the rise; current indie bands treading water at best; once-mighty bands on a slow, pitiable decline; and Chuck Berry. There was no doubt at the time that the National belonged in that first category. Boxer had recently been released and was beginning to generate Album of the Year buzz, and plenty of people were quickly discovering that Alligator actually wasn't the group's debut LP.

A few years and another remarkable album later, this time High Violet, the National are unarguably one of indie's leading bands, feted in The New York Times, blessed with the Michael Stipe seal of approval and commonly described as being on the cusp of "mainstream" success, whatever that term means in today's mostly radio-less world. Though there was some pre-show pissing and moaning from at least one guy - few things in life compare to being cornered in a bathroom by someone ranting about the band playing a mid-sized club like the Pageant instead of a smaller, more personal venue - such griping is by now expected; every indie band whose listenership increases significantly will always have some myopic fans nostalgic for poorer days long gone.

The venues may have gotten larger, but the band's live show has still managed to retain its intimate, visceral quality even as it has become more polished. Such was the case with the group's most recent St. Louis performance, as the band drew from every LP except the oft-overlooked self-titled debut in their nearly 100-minute set. After a stately opening to "Runaway," most of the songs that followed were louder and longer than their album versions. The two-man horn section of Kyle Resnick and Ben Lanz and multi-instrumentalist Padma Newsome boosted the sound considerably and complemented the Dessner/Devendorf brothers' playing, with "Mistaken for Strangers" (dedicated to some dude named Ron), "Baby, We'll Be Fine," "Slow Show," "The Geese of Beverly Road" and "Fake Empire" all closing with full-bodied instrumental sections. "Available" was given a harsh treatment appropriate for its subject matter, with Berninger of course screaming the closing lyrics over squalls of guitar noise, before the band segued into the closing verse of fellow Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers track "Cardinal Song;" Berninger also punctuated "Bloodbuzz Ohio," "Squalor Victoria" and "Abel" with more yelling, precariously swinging the microphone stand in the air on that Alligator track. Elsewhere there was humorous stage banter about the singer's newest nickname - Dick Jagger - and his wife being/not being a cannibal, a bit of palatable guitar-rock-god preening as one or both of the Dessners stepped out for a short guitar solo, Berninger wandering around the stage and a few classically gloomy National moments via "Sorrow" and "London."

The band's encore was brief - three songs - but thrillingly wild. After a faithful version of "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks" that featured Newsome on violin, the band played the expected "Mr. November" - with Berninger roaming far from the stage, climbing on the railing, probably kicking a few drinks over, ending up in the pit and generally covering all corners of the Pageant except its parking lot - and ended with a blistering version of "Terrible Love," the singer standing on the railing nearest to the pit and screaming as anonymous hands either pawed at him or, more civilly, made sure he didn't fall off. Sure such antics are at least partly orchestrated and similar acts of showmanship will probably happen in the next city the band plays, but it was still cool as hell.

This ability to connect with an audience is what makes the National's live show so captivating; like their albums, in concert the band is able to sincerely express the types of everyday highs and lows to which anyone can relate. No surprise then that the night's atmosphere, sometimes something of a wild card given the Pageant's cookie-cutter aesthetics, was subdued but not catatonic, with most of the crowd intent on listening to the songs and not talking through them, the occasional catcalls about what Berninger was drinking notwithstanding. It was as flawless of a performance as I've seen; there were no lulls, deadweight songs or mailed-in efforts, and the guys all played like they were a young band fighting damn hard for an audience and not a marquee act who had the crowd in its pocket from the onset. There's no telling how many folks from that 2007 Duck Room show were in attendance, but if any of them skipped the National's latest stop here with the conviction that a band isn't worth following once its members aren't setting up their own gear, it's their loss. Certainly it's a difficult task to exceed beyond-lofty expectations, but that's exactly what the National did at the Pageant on this night.

by Eric Dennis