Friday, August 27, 2010


Rocky's notes: The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour is playing on the crappy portable turntable. She's holding a copy of David Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust. Judging by the black RCA label and the barcode on the back cover, it's an 80s pressing of the album. Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde is on the floor. There's an Impulse! jazz album on the shelf. Oh, and she's sitting in a beautiful Eero Saarinen Womb chair.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The State That We Are In, Pt. 2: The Suburbs

Some albums make you think. Some albums make you feel. Some albums make you think about how you feel. If you're like Win Butler and his band Arcade Fire, you feel something and you sense it's important but you're not quite sure what it is. The chorus of the song "Modern Man" from the excellent new album The Suburbs is "Makes me feel like. . . /Makes me feel like. . . /Makes me feel like. . ." Those ellipses go to the heart of the problem. What this album isn't is a facile critique of the banality of the suburbs. The album isn't really about the suburbs despite the title and the number of songs in which the word pops up. It really has to do with finding one's self in an uncentered world, for which the suburbs is the perfect geographical metaphor. If the metaphysical world, like the physical world, has no sense of place, how does one navigate through it?

As Regine Chassagne sings in "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)": "These days my life I feel it has no purpose, but late at night the feelings swim towards the surface" and then later, "I sometimes wonder if the world's so small, that we can never get away from the sprawl." The latter line suggests the dilemma of our age: There is no escaping the all-enveloping presence of the modern world; it even pours into our internal world, crowding out all else.

Throughout the album the songs intimate the potential of breaking through the meaningless chaff that surrounds us. It offers no answers, although it gets close when Win Butler sings in "Deep Blue": "Hey, put the cellphone down for a while./In the night there is something wild./Can you hear it breathing?/And hey, put that laptop down for a while./In the night there is something wild./I feel it's leaving me." (In case you're wondering "Deep Blue" is a reference to the IBM computer that played Gary Kasparov in chess. Kasparov won in 1996 and Deep Blue won the rematch in 1997.) The answer seems to be found at night, in darkness, with the world shut out, reinforced in the line from "Half Light I": "Night tears us loose and in the half-light we're free."

Having just read John Updike's novel Rabbit, Run, this album reminded me of the start of the novel in which Rabbit Angstrom goes to pick up his son at his parent's house and ends up driving across several states through the night only to end up near where he began. Except he doesn't return to his family. Instead, he ends up leading a different life in a town on the other side of the mountain from his own. He can't quite escape his small-town existence even though there is a life force in him that the small-town life can't contain. Driving also is a recurring act in The Suburbs, appropriately enough. It's more a metaphor for a search rather than an escape. Just like Rabbit Angstrom, who has the feeling, but doesn't know where it will take him, Arcade Fire feels there is a life to be found amidst the lifeless sprawl surrounding us. From "Empty Room": "When I'm by myself, I can be myself/And my life is coming but I don't know when."

The State That We Are In, Pt. 1: An Age of Folly

In the 18th century architectural follies were a popular component of European park design. These structures served no purpose except to delight the eye. They were often fanciful in design, replete with exotic ornamentation, but essentially ignored the primary purpose of architecture. One couldn't inhabit them or use them as shelters for a picnic or any other activity.

The idea of architectural follies came to mind when I was reading about an internet application that could form a playlist of songs about various points on a map based on a route selected by the user. It struck me as kind of neat and clever, but what does it have to do with anything? Sure, one could form a playlist for a road trip using the application and listen to songs that mention places along the way as you pass through them. So what? It's ultimately an impersonal exercise while you serve as a vector in the exercise. I'd rather choose my own songs for the journey.

We seem to be consumed by such follies these days, from the inane, such as video games, to the nefarious, such as the Ground Zero mosque controversy, that divert us from more substantial matters. Folly also dominates popular art forms. I can't stand to go to movies now, because film-makers aren't even trying to create something substantial; they're trying to create a successful folly. The same can be said about popular music. What are these artists trying to communicate? Nothing, really. Is there a recent film you watched that made you re-think your life or aspects of this world? Is there a recent album that stirred your soul?

Of course, I'm generalizing and ignoring the exceptions. There are substantial, worthwhile things being produced today. The problem is they're getting harder to find as more junk and clever inconsequential creations are made available to us. Sturgeon's Law should be updated to state 98% of anything is crap. And I'm not condemning follies. They can provide amusement. Let's just not begin to think we can live in them.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Back From Vacation

Well, I didn't come across any record stores on my trip abroad. It wasn't that kind of vacation. There were a couple of incidental vinyl moments though. The first was at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. In the design room, amidst the vintage Eames and Mackintosh furniture, I came across album covers of the Beatles, David Bowie, and the Sex Pistols. I haven't quite figured what it means to have album covers in a legitimate art museum. Usually it's a death knell that a movement is over.

In the beach town of Salou, Spain, I happened across a sign for Bluesman Records on the main street along the coast. It seemed like a sign pulled off a bad-ass street in New Orleans and randomly placed along a sunny strip of souvenir shops, outdoor cafes, and gelaterias. Of course, there was no record store there. Why would anyone buy records here, when one could frolic on a Mediterranean beach? Even rocky would concede that one.