Country Comrades

A long time ago, when I was still updating this blog, I wrote about Dwight Yoakam and country music’s Southern California heritage. It was somewhat personal for me, because, like Yoakam, I’m an Appalachian transplant to Los Angeles. That post was more about culture and aesthetics, but lately I’ve been thinking about the effect that country music (which colors some of my earliest memories) has had on my political commitments. I don’t have a theory of ideological causation or anything systematic like that, nor do I mean that great country songs are just topical screeds about politics, but I thought it would be fun to draw up an impressionistic, arbitrary playlist of songs that pushed me, in some small way, to the political left. For all its endemic conservatism, the South has more left-populist seams than a lot of Americans realize.

merle-haggard-workin-man-blues-capitol

No more than one song by any artist. Otherwise this would have twenty Merle Haggard joints. Also, I’m defining “country” somewhat broadly and arranging my choices at random. Suggest more songs in the comments if you want.

picture-balladirahayes_cash

My-Tennessee-Mntn-Home

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Weekend Beats: Down on the Norfside

Several times I’ve written here about A$AP Rocky’s 2011 mixtape Live. Love. A$AP, a late-capitalist gem. The entire text is eminently bumpable, but my favorite tracks remain those produced by Clams Casino, who recently did work on my favorite album of 2015, Vince Staples’s double-disc Summertime ’06.

cover of Vince Staples - Summertime 06

Double EPs are risky. There are vast masterpieces like Exile on Main St., but often such albums are at least a little bloated and could be slimmed (e.g., Wilco’s Being There). Staples pulls it off, though. Summertime ’06 doesn’t have any obvious radio-ready singles–no bangers, no anthems, no easy hooks. This isn’t Drake. A fundamentally grimmer album than what usually runs up the Billboard charts, it’s more like Enter the Wu-Tang or Hell Hath No Fury.

That does not mean the songs won’t snag in your cortex. Staples’s writing is a memorably lyrical blend of braggadocio and fear; meditation and narrative; pride in Long Beach, California, and the urge toward other worlds. One of the tracks Clams Casino produced is “Norf Norf,” which sounds like Aphex Twin spliced with the mid-2000s Neptunes aesthetic (and Bjork and Viktor Vaughn), then drenched in THC and cough syrup.

The track is not traditionally catchy. It makes the listener do some work first. Staples’s tense bluster is gorgeous but taxing, because his subject matter is so grim, while the production is groggy and nightmarish. And yet there is, I bet, a decent chance you will keep thinking about “Norf Norf” after you hear it once. Sit alone with it for a few minutes.

Weekday Beats: Regret Nothing and Everything

The experimental electronic duo Ford and Lopatin (1) released the head-bending Channel Pressure in 2011. Reminiscent of synth-intensive Eighties compositions, the album is gorgeous: architecturally lyrical, densely textured, limbic, swirling, poignant (even at times melancholy) but with a playful edge. “World of Regret,” the lead single from the album (to the extent that such extended, unified compositions produce “singles”), is especially catchy: swifter than most other tracks, goofily exuberant, almost celebratory. Take heart. You might even smile.

And then they upped the ante with a music video that complements the song perfectly. Composed of intentionally clumsy CGI animation–like someone put iPhone emoji in front of a rented green screen–the video invites us to a gluttonous dinner with Ford and Lopatin, during which they greedily, then compulsively, then at last wearily tuck into cartoon pizzas, lacquered burgers, shiny pigs, lurid tropical fruit, and other slick victuals. You might call the aesthetic Gameboy Luxe.

We hope this fun, free blog content improves the workweek, y’all. Don’t eat too fast. Listen as much as you need to.

1. Daniel Lopatin, by the way, is far more prolific under the pseudonym Oneohtrix Point Never. His work as OPN is likewise astonishingly beautiful and freely streamable online, don’t ya know.

Weekend Beats: Wassup

Ezra Pound famously said that poetry is news that stays news. A rejoinder would be, “Well, at least some does.” But the remark has a ring to it.

Anyway, a few years ago, urbane Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky, who subsequently blew the fuck up, released the space-news classic LIVE LOVE A$AP, and the tasteful person’s iTunes roster was never the same again. The mixtape has a deep bench of songs, unlike most mixtapes, and it holds up well.

A favorite of ours is the fourth track, “Wassup.” Its magnificently cocky, couplet-based patter swaggers across a narcotic, purple, tidal beat by the brilliant but unfortunately named producer Clams Casino, and the YouTube video should have 2.3 billion views, not just 2.3 million (as of this publication). Beyond its formal elegance and existential cool–its aesthetic attitude, in place of a moral or philosophical orientation–the song has no depth, which is something Vladimir Nabokov, who believed that art should have as little as possible to do with morals or intellectualizing, would smile at. “Wassup” slithers lazily but somehow yanks.

We ain’t talking ’bout no money, we ain’t talkin’ bout no cars. We are just a humble arts and culture blog, y’all. Enjoy the weekend, enjoy all the weekends.

Weekend Beats: Run the Jewels, “Sea Legs” (2014)

El-P has been around for what seems like forever. The man is 39. He’s been making great music for two decades. He’s still shiny. Listen up now, cuz right now he and the Atlanta rapper Killer Mike constitute Run the Jewels, a deranged and brilliant duo presently enjoying some legit commercial success.

If you are in your thirties and collected Def Jux label stuff in your college years, this will make you especially happy. In the late 1990s, he was part of Company Flow, which dropped the stone classic Funcrusher Plus (1997), and in 2002 hereleased Fantastic Damage, an album that will appeal to you if you run or pursue any other sort of repetitive, meditative athletic activity. A cold sliver of bass-whacked brilliance, people with souls have been jumping to it for over a decade.

Listen to that taut, belligerent, compelling sludge!

The coolest track on the Run the Jewels album is its title track, the instrumental version of which was used for one of the past few years’ coolest sports commercials. But we are a cool blog with compelling knowledge, not like the other blogs, so we’ll offer up one of the other choice cuts. It is called “Sea Legs.”

That term–sea legs–has been around for centuries now. There is yet continuity in the world. Happy weekends. Enjoy yourselves.

General Ephemera: Post-Christmas Scraps, Tidbits, Recos, Trinkets, Footnotes, Scattershots, and Noble Rags

Somewhere deep in his Letters, Wallace Stevens admits that he never liked Christmas much because the holiday never lives up to advance billing. Being of a similar mind, I’m glad the man is not alive to see that Samsung commercial where this minor actor named Dax Shepard (yes, sentient human parents named him Dax) and his pregnant wife decorate their awful Silver Lake hill cube. (Google it if you want to rot inside a little.) And for a variety of boring reasons I’m not drinking this go-round, which makes the season even more tedious, so to stave off boredom-induced madness, I’ve scrawled some things on the digital wall . Get out your knife and fork and dig in.

  • Eliza Griswold is a wonderful young American poet. Like most poets, her readership is appallingly limited. This is her page at the Poetry (magazine) Foundation. You can buy her debut volume, Wideawake Field, here.
  • Turns out Twitter isn’t just for beefing about sports and harassing female journalists. Some writers have started experimenting with it as a platform for bursts that are worth reading closely, and right now the best Twitter scrivener going is Jeet Heer (@HeerJeet). Here is a link to his aptly titled “A Twitter Essay about Twitter Essays.” Writes Heer: “These are essays in the classical French sense of the word: essaying a topic: an attempt, a provisional thought, a notebook entry.” Imagine if Montaigne had an iPhone!
  • Denis Johnson has a new book out. Set in post-9/11 Africa, it is called The Laughing Monsters. Just ordered my copy. It will be very good. Do you know how I know that? Because Denis Johnson wrote it.
  • Sickened by all the Christmas saccharinalia on the radio? Here is TGR favorite Dwight Yoakam covering a Tom Jones song:

  • Paul Thomas Anderson has turned Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice into what looks like a pretty good movie. But you should still read the book. It’s not Gravity’s Rainbow–it won’t kill you, unlike GR, which is much duller than its fame suggests. Want to read a huge Pynchon? Pick up Mason & Dixon.
  • Oh hey, David Lynch is rebooting Twin Peaks. Guess who has two thumbs and doesn’t care? *raises and tilts both thumbs* This guy! The show was leaden and lethargic the first time, but I had to pretend to like it during college and grad school, because all my friends said they adored it. Spoiler alert: Audrey died of meta-boredom.
  • After putting off Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory (1940) for years, I’m finally thigh-deep in its cold currents. Theory as to at least part of Greene’s genius: no novelist is better–though a few are just as good–at subtly using his characters’ psychological states to form the epistemological tenor of the narrative universe, without employing first-person narration or hammy metaphors. For stretches of his best books, a mind shades a world that is still far more than that single mind. This is not Ruskin’s pathetic fallacy: the encompassing world remains ontologically other, it is just that we access it through such masterful filtrations. In other words, Greene takes free indirect style to the VIP level.
  • Before Tinder and OK Cupid and the less libidinous social-media platforms arose to try and distract us from our natural state of crawling loneliness, some mad souls kept the lights on by writing stuff like Notes from Underground (Dostoevsky’s idealist jilted and horrified by the impossibility of perfecting mankind) and In Memoriam A.H.H., Lord Tennyson’s at-times-unbearable cry of anguish over the early death of his best friend. While some associate professors might disagree regarding the latter, neither text is sexual or romantic; both speak to and from within the marrow-grade loneliness one feels when sitting in front of a Mark Rothko painting or listening to Astral Weeks. If you can get through In Memoriam without weeping a couple times, get thee to a doctor.
  • You’ll weep for the sins–the ongoing sins–of America if you read “The Case for Reparations,” the 2014 essay that announced Ta-Nehisi Coates as one of the language’s great young essayists. Erudite, methodical, heart-stopping.
  • Check out my former colleague Robert Samuels’s eminently readable Why Public Higher Education Should Be Free (2013). Samuels’s core thesis is that instead of funneling billions into colleges and universities via federal loans, grants, and byzantine tax breaks which individual students then use to pay tuition, the money could be given directly to schools, who would in turn offer tuition-free education. Sounds bracingly simple, right? But then creditors, including the federal government, would lose that deep, swift stream of interest payments on all those loans, loans that, unlike every other form of consumer debt, cannot be refinanced or discharged in bankruptcy. (My own from graduate school are locked in at 6.8 percent, more than double the prime rate as reported by the Wall Street Journal.) If you die, your next of kin are on the hook for the balance. And that’s why Samuels’s book, smart and humane as it is, will never affect education policy in the current American political economy.
  • The Washington Post’s Radley Balko has the best journalist name, and his book Rise of the Warrior Cop will scare the bejesus out of you. It is a chilling chronicle of the United States’ ongoing decline into a threadbare security state where carbines, tear gas, and razor wire protect the ruling ten percent from the rest of us when we aren’t busy fighting over Black Friday sales.
  • Finally, here is a thing that is funny, one of the best sight/editing gags from The Simpsons

May the new year leave you in peace, dear general readers.

Everybody’s Readin’ for the Weekend: Some General Links

The weekend—the weekend, first of the NFL season—is approaching like an ecstatic freight train, way better than the phallic ice-locomotive in those Coors Light commercials. We at the Reader have gathered some edifying texts, jams, and sundries to share. None of them are football-related, so don’t worry if you aren’t into wonderful things like sports. (You philistine.)

  • Because I’m a bearded person who teaches college in America in 2014, most people assume that my beliefs are smugly left-wing (COEXIST sticker on my Prius and all that), which I suppose in some sense they are. Heads might explode or spin around cartoon-style when I say that I’m a conservative. Conservative how? Basically—here is my elevator talk—conservatism is a general philosophical orientation that sees change as something that ideally occurs within durable sociocultural traditions and institutions; or, failing that, something that unfolds carefully and gradually in opposition to (or as a replacement for) such traditions and institutions. It is a broad attitude toward the historical world, not a collection of particular ideas, and so one could potentially hold views that code as USA LIBERAL but still be a conservative. I’m with Edmund Burke: conservatism is not inherently anti-change. It is just hesitant to approve of change simply because it is change. For example, to support nationwide marriage equality, a.k.a. Gay Marriage, is to take a fundamentally conservative position, because (and I’m repeating Andrew Sullivan here)  it boils down to inviting new cohorts of Americans into a socioeconomically valuable tradition wherein people commit to each other, buy homes, raise kids, and join local communities. Or: even lefty humanities professors are conservative, to the extent that they have bought into the idea that it is worth shielding universities from contemporary market whims. But most of the time, no one buys my shit about this, so it was comforting to see that four years ago Jonny Thakkar, a philosopher who teaches at Princeton, explained the position much more eloquently, organizing his essay “Why Conservatives Should Read Marx” around the tension between free-market ideology (with its emphasis on disruption, global hyper-networking, the flattening of local difference, and the fluid distribution of abstract capital) and conservatism (with its supposed devotion to history, prudence, care, continuity, and stability). As Thakkar points out, it is strange to hear American Republicans proclaiming themselves “free-market conservatives.” Left conservatism, as he puts it, is possible.
  • Here is a YouTube link to the British-born, Nashville-dwelling composer/soul-singer Jamie Lidell’s best song, the title single from his 2005 album Multiply. Play it loud on your iPhone, maybe on the bus, like a dickhead teenager. Trust me, it’s still hot nine years later. I have read that the TV show Grey’s Anatomy, which I don’t watch, used it in some way a few years ago, which is fucking gross. Welcome to capitalism. This nuke-hot track isn’t quite the Dusty Springfield Experience (that moment of first hearing a white singer whose voice would immediately suggest that s/he is African American), but you get a hint of that when Lidell starts hitting those drawn-out vowels around 1:40.

  • Last week Sinclair McKay (what a name!) wrote a deft trifle for the London Telegraph, reviewing Olivia Williams’s Gin, Glorious Gin: How Mother’s Ruin Became the Spirit of London (Headline, 2014). A lovely little book, sounds like. McKay’s review is sharp, too. But allow me to remind everyone that, in terms of pure carnival force, the gold standard of gin-depictions remains William Hogarth’s Beer Street vs. Gin Lane paintings (1751), those exuberant reactions to eighteenth-century London which transcend their immediate historical circumstances and embody larger Anglo-American fears about drugs, as well as our often-misplaced faith in the possibility of prudent self-restraint.

BeerStreet - William Hogarth

Intoxicated people are enjoying (and exploiting) other bodies, and Industry is the standard of one’s social value (or absence of it), and modern urban buildings are beginning to exist! Welcome to capitalism. Hogarth’s middle-class voluptuousness will appeal to visually oriented contemporary audiences. In conclusion, gin is so great. In moderation. Or not in moderation. Whatever.

GinLane -William Hogarth

  • Adam Gopnik remains a crowd-pleaser, his essays erudite and affable. His punningly titled recent article in The New Yorker, “Heaven’s Gaits” (hi-yo!), starts with biomechanical science but shifts to the para-biological realm of cultural history: the lure of walking in big cities, taking in the enormous buffet of faces that Walt Whitman loved. Worth your time, reader. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell that you that there are also some captivating academic studies of walking out there. No, really. They are smooth reads. Accessible. Stop laughing like that! Anyway, here are three favorites: Ian Marshall, Peak Experiences: Walking Meditations on Literature, Nature, and Need (University of Virginia Press, 2003); Roger Gilbert Walks in the World (Northeastern UP, 1991), which is, fair warning, all about poetry; Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (Penguin, 2001).
  • The Canadian critic Jeet Heer consistently drops intellectual fire on Twitter. If the idea of breaking an already short essay into tweets strikes you as superficial and dumb, you might be surprised by how much liberal intelligence Heer wrings from the Twitter-essay genre. Check out his recent series on why Sideshow Bob is a fascinating Simpsons character. What does it mean to be a “cultural elitist” like Bob? Can you even actually be one in contemporary mass America? Well, can you? Heer pokes that beast. Fantastic.

Have a lovely weekend, y’all. Wear sunscreen and don’t take the brown acid.

Los Angeles Country: Dwight Yoakam’s “Guitars, Cadillacs”

Country music has a split heritage: rural Protestantism on the one hand, hillbilly hedonism on the other. All those mean little nondenominational churches in the South can’t change the fact that music is great, partying is fun, and getting drunk is restorative and beneficial until it becomes terrible. Sin and forbearance and all that—it’s how you get George Jones’s music and George Jones’s life. And in its purest form, the genre is workers’ music, poor man’s music, jams out of coal hollers and county highways, every song shadowed by poverty and boring, ordinary disappointment.

Like many cultural phenomena, country flourished when it spread beyond its geographical roots, like how the Brits invented the Anglophone novel but Americans perfected it (1). When the Dust Bowl and then World War II drew poor whites (primarily Appalachians and the Okies) out west, country music got California all over it. Despite its financial capital and production heft, Nashville doesn’t have shit on Bakersfield. In turn, Bakersfield needed Los Angeles, the urban hub just over the mountains through which country’s best tendencies were distributed. When the genius who is the subject of today’s post went to Nashville at the dawn of the Reagan era, saw a bunch of New South rhinestone schlock, said “Fuck it,” and moved out west, he was copying dudes like Merle Haggard and Gram Parsons, pursuing his own version of the n’er-do-well proto-punk aesthetic that Johnny Cash and Hank Williams (two artists who never really fit in the South even though they were Southern boys, as JC emphasized by stomping out the floor lights at the Grand Ole Opry in 1965) had articulated.

Dwight Yoakam settled in LA in the 1980s, developing his style in shitty punk clubs and similar dives, and dropping his first album, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., toward the dismal end of the Reagan years (1986). One of the best country debuts ever? Survey says YES. It’s the creation of an Appalachian transplant who liked tight jeans as much as he dug Neil Young, Gram Parsons, Creedence, AOR pop singles, and the Carter Family. Country music? Grimy at heart. (See above.) Los Angeles? Grimy at heart and in all the other ways.

But he wasn’t some subaltern master that America didn’t ever appreciate: Yoakam was huge in the late 1980s and 1990s, selling out stadiums and hogging the airwaves. Indeed, he was a Boyd family staple in our blue Ford Ranger. His videos dominated the limited space MTV gave to country artists, and while I wouldn’t call them cool (some of them are downright terrible), compared to what Garth Brooks and his headset were subjecting America to, Yoakam’s grunge-hunk look is tight enough to redeem all but the worst media rollouts (2). In general, these pleasant visual adjuncts underscore his ability to write fantastic pop songs (3), much like his physical doppelganger and stylistic cousin Tom Petty.

His first five albums did serious Billboard-chart damage, and they are all great, but the one I keep bumpin’ in my jalopy is Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. My own dear favorite track is “South of Cincinnati,” but the title-ish song “Guitars, Cadillacs” offers a better idea of what makes Yoakam’s best work so fascinating and inventive. The song is fun with a sad edge. In other words, it is like the better parties you’ve been to lately. Have a weekend, LA and beyond.

NOTES
1) Unfortunately it also works the other way around, as when white people grow dreadlocks.
2) For a demonstration of how standards of taste and style are historically contingent, watch the video for Yoakam’s enormous (and still awesome) hit “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere.” Most of it is perfectly adequate cable-TV fare, but there’s a shot around 1:40 that is titanically, hilariously awful; I need someone to make me a GIF of it. The lady’s hair-toss!
3) The most beautiful musicians can make accessible music, even pop music, if they want to. Examples: Beethoven’s 9th symphony, Chopin’s piano bits, Tom Petty, the Beatles, the Pretenders, Brian Wilson, Jay Z. Something is missing if an artist’s work is always difficult, just like if it were constantly enjoyable only on an unreflective, immediate level. High art isn’t continually highbrow. Jane Eyre exemplifies this, as do the deft, sad lyrics below, which arrive near the end of “Turn It On, Turn It Up, Turn Me Loose,” one of DY’s singles from If There Was a Way [sic]:

If a tear should fall,
If I should whisper her name
To some stranger I’m holding
While we’re dancin to an old Buck Owens song,
I know she won’t mind
She won’t even know–
She’ll be dancing with a memory, crying teardrops of her own.