Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Cormac McCarthy | Blood Meridian

It took me about four days to read past the following sentence: “Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves.” The sentence is located in the first paragraph of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. There is so much packed into that statement: the image of the darkest darkness, the threat of danger or violence, the dichotomy between outside and inside, all with McCarthy’s precise and impeccable diction. After I continued past the first paragraph, I found myself consumed by the novel’s carnage-obsessed journey through nightmare landscapes.

The story, based on accounts of the Glanton Gang, follows The Kid, a young man who joins a group of scalphunters in the West of the late 1800s. Judge Holden is Glanton’s right-hand beast: an albino, almost seven foot man, with not a hair on his body, who says all life on Earth exists without his permission until his classification. Much has been written about Holden’s spiritual kinship with Captain Ahab and Iago. Unlike those characters, Holden is indestructible. He appears to exist beyond human limitations in intellect and physical power. His ruthless, violent behavior doesn’t cause his demise. Instead, he flourishes at others’ expense and thrives with every casualty committed.

Holden sets the example for the rest of Glanton’s Gang. They roam the West like a band of ghosts, satiated only by blood. The novel is supremely violent and graphic, but it doesn’t cause revulsion because it is artfully written; terse, unapologetic, and lucid. The descriptions of events and locations, notably the Comanche warrior attack near the beginning of the novel, are visceral assaults on the senses. In Blood Meridian, McCarthy has created a classic of American literature, which chronicles the myths that propelled the nation forward while demystifying its history.

(Photo credit: James W. Minette)

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Radiohead | In Rainbows

It’s hard being the greatest band in the land. Haters of rock journalism enjoy indicating the critics’ penchant to pour praise on Radiohead for anything they do. But if anybody salivates at the idea of a new Radiohead record more than the critics, it’s the fans. But are the universal excitement, hype, and praise deserved? Are they really that good? Well, yes.

In a move that sent all major record companies to primal scream therapy, Radiohead originally released their seventh studio album
In Rainbows on a pay-what-you-will basis on their website. The reason why Radiohead can get away with something like this is because of the unanimous critical and fan fervor. Plus, the record doesn’t suck. For a band obsessed with dehumanized tech sounds that symbolize in ambience and mood the usurpation of the soul by HAL 9000, they made In Rainbows remarkably warm. Its warmth is typical of R&B: melodic rhythmic constructions, lyrical meditations on love, and all possible configurations of groove.

“All I Need” rides a simple bass and drum pattern that if sped up could be a Kanye West sample. For all of Thom Yorke’s directness (“I am an animal trapped in your hot car”), the yearning chorus ends with unease: “You are all I need/Lying in the reeds.” When drummer Phil Selway moves to the crash cymbal, the drifting keys and guitars boil the glockenspiel to harmonize with the bassline, and Yorke sings “S’all wrong/s’alright” interchangeably. The tension the band created for the duration of the song exploded in an escalation to despair.

Where other tunes, such as “House of Cards” (“I don’t want to be your friend/I just want to be your lover” take that,
Prince!) also have R&B leanings, lyrically, the album delves into postmillenium dread – something Radiohead know a lot about. Most of this sentiment is communicated through Yorke’s repetition of short phrases or words, such as “Off again, on again,” “I seen it coming,” “I’m a lie,” “Denial,” and many others. Yorke also does this in previous albums, notably Hail to the Thief. It reminds me of John Coltrane practicing scales over and over, searching for new meaning in the same sounds.

The album ends dourly with “Videotape,” whose narrator is content with dying as long as his YouTube suicide note is captured for posterity. Just like Radiohead to be downers. Just like Radiohead to be the best.
(Photo credit: Lee Jenkins)

Friday, January 18, 2008

Spin Magazine | Meshell Ndegeocello - The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams

For the December 2007 issue of Spin Magazine, I wrote a review of Meshell Ndegeocello’s seventh studio album, “The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams.” The review appeared online in January 2008.
(Photo credit: Michel Vonlanthen)

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Bill Evans | The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961

I was in high school, borrowed Kind of Blue from Carlos, sat on the bed, put some ear goggles on, and gave it a spin. I recall tears peeking out the corners of my eyes and a Gordian Knot in my gut during “Blue in Green.” It wasn’t Miles’s muted horn or Trane’s melodicism that got me. It was the piano and Bill Evans. “Blue in Green,” an Evans number, is a ten-bar, circularly structured tune, ripe with emotional devastation. But it wasn’t the notes. After all, everybody has access to the same notes. It’s what’s behind them, the unquantifiable quality that colors the music, that makes a note or chord we’ve heard hundreds of times sound as if no one in the history of music has ever played it before. That’s the power of Bill Evans. Once harnessed and armed with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian, Evans was ready to take on jazz history and conventional jazz theory.

The idea was simultaneous improvisation. LaFaro was not going to walk while Evans soloed and Motian rode the cymbals. He was going to craft answers in response to ideas in Evans playing, in effect creating a variegated, dynamic improvisation with no one just blowing.

The trio’s apex was
captured in one day, June 25, 1961, during five sets at the Village Vanguard. Many of these tunes were in Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby, two of the most beloved live jazz records. This three CD box set collects all of the tunes performed that day and organizes them by sets. In the evening’s first set “Gloria’s Step,” Evans and LaFaro’s playing is so inextricable it’s as if both beings shared a brain but had two separate bodies. As far as swinging goes, the tired cliché “Bill Evans only plays ballads, he can’t swing” is absolutely discredited. For proof, check out “Milestones” in the evening’s second set. His melodic lines and phrases are layered with LaFaro’s interpretations of the same chords in swift moments of harmony. Ten days after the trio’s luminous day the Vanguard, LaFaro died in a car accident, leaving behind a legacy that had yet to be fulfilled. Though distraught by his friend’s death, Evans career moved forward, often working in piano trios, searching for the spirit of ’61Vanguard date until his untimely death to drugs and a failing body in 1980.
(Photo credit: Henry Kahanek)