Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Dumb and dumber // Recently: Hill/Hamilton + Joni Mitchell + The Bad Plus + The Ultimate Warrior
Another week goes by, and I'm playing catch-up on here as usual. Let's see how we can move through all this. In a way, it's starting to seem sillier and sillier to me--or maybe it's just that I'm feeling more and more self-conscious about it--not to comment on current events on this site. Maybe I'll dip my toe in here or there, but I just don't feel qualified. I can't imagine it comes as much of a surprise to anyone that I'll be voting for Obama, and I'm certainly not going to offer any insight you won't get in a more informed and coherent tone elsewhere.
I can't help, though, watching a lot of the campaign coverage with a devil's advocate eye. For example, when I see Katie Couric grilling Sarah Palin (here and elsewhere)--and the latter did admittedly look ridiculous--I wonder if she's not playing right into the hands of those who favor the "smartypants liberal media" stereotype. I can't remember where it was that I read this, but a recent column discussed the frustratingly foolproof nature of the "They're not dumb; they're just like us" argument re: "folksy" or "unsophisticated" Republican politicians, wherein appearing unworldly will always be better than appearing pretentious.
For example, in one of the Couric interviews (viewable here), she asks Palin the by-now infamous question about why she didn't have a passport until recently. And Palin gives what I feel is a pretty politically brilliant answer: that she's not one of those (I'm paraphrasing) "rich people whose parents sent her to Europe with a backpack after college; I've had to work my whole life." How better to deflect that scrutiny than by--again--appealing to this notion that worldliness is at odds with the honorable provinciality she wants to project. I always try to keep in mind that to those people who are inclined to support Palin and politicians like her, she appears noble for precisely the reasons that she appears stupid to left-wingers.
I guess all this is my way of reflecting on my experience of digesting this campaign. I worry mainly about what's constructive, about what's actually going to sway undecided voters. Is practicing--to use Palin and McCain's phrase--"gotcha journalism" really going to convince anyone who's already inclined to support Palin that she's unqualified? It may only make them root for her more. Now I'm not advocating that she shouldn't be asked tough questions, but maybe that she shouldn't be asked them in such a strident and even nasty way. Couric is practically gritting her teeth--and I'm sure most of us wouldn't do much better if faced with Palin--and that seems like it will only play right into the hands of the enemy.
Same goes for the recent New Yorker profile of Cindy McCain, a smear job if I've ever seen one and one that's likely to leave you nauseated no matter what side you're on. And again, who are we trying to convince here? Do New Yorker readers really need another reason to think ill of the McCains? It can all just seem so petty and smug and even if it's all true, how is this going to help Obama win? How is the media going to reach across party lines and actually sway people who already have their mind made up? And more importantly, who in god's name *doesn't* already have their mind made up? That's my real question. It's hard for me to stay interested on a day-to-day basis, because *nothing* I hear is going to change the fact that I'm voting for Obama. And I'm sure that goes for nearly everyone who happens to be reading this post. Really, tell me this, do any of you know a single undecided voter? (Or even a single Republican voter?) I truthfully want to know who these people are. Living in New York and moving in arty-ish circles, they can be hard to find. I'd love to talk to one and have a constructive dialogue. Maybe all this preaching to the choir is getting us somewhere, but I don't see how. Is anyone's mind *really* being changed or even swayed by any of this? How could it be with issues as polarizing as the Iraq war and abortion rights? We're all waiting for Palin to make an ass of herself on Thursday, but it's worth remembering that to some, she'll look the most endearing when she's at her dumbest. Unfortunately there's no antidote for that; it's a frustratingly insoluble argument. It just can seem futile to tirelessly pick over nuances when you know the other side will constantly receive the exact opposite message from the exact same set of data.
And re: what I (ahem) actually intended to post about, here are a few things I've been enjoying of late:
1) The new duo record by Andrew Hill and Chico Hamilton. Yes, you read that right. This release--a heretofore unreleased session from 1993--seems to be totally slipping under the radar, but it's easily one of the best records I've heard this year. Here's how I argued that very point in Time Out New York (you can sample a track at that link there as well).
2) Joni Mitchell's 1975 full-length The Hissing of Summer Lawns, which I picked up on LP this past weekend. I'd long been fascinated with the *idea* of this one--not to mention its mindblowing title--and upon a first--admittedly superficial--listen, I'm not disappointed in the least. It appears to be one of her most sophisticated statements--a meditation on sociosexual relationships, privilege, posturing, authenticity, commerce, crime, etc.--though not at all overly intellectualized despite being explicitly literary throughout. It's just another reminder of how much incredibly intense and thoughtful artmaking was going on in plain sight in the '70s. Check out this fascinating track called "The Jungle Line"--the link takes you to one of those static-image YouTube videos--in which Mitchell sings over a field recording of African drummming (if you're anything like me, you'll hear foreshadowings of Paul Simon's "The Obvious Child"). (An interesting tidbit about this record is that in a 1985 Rolling Stone interview, Prince dubbed it "the last album I loved all the way through.")
3) Last Thursday's late set by the Bad Plus at the Village Vanguard. Joe and I were seated in the upper tier, right next to drummer Dave King and it was pretty phenomenal to watch him work. But what I was most impressed with is the unabashed dedication to groove and melody that this band has. The audience really connected with the set--they were whooping and cheering throughout--and I think it was because the music was very straightforwardly enjoyable. And though some pieces had an ostentatiously clever slant, for the most part it was a deeply emotive set. I loved the slow, steady and lovely cover of "Heart of Gold," for example, which featured a nice a capella vocal section to which all the members contributed. Along similar lines, a Reid Anderson ballad that I think was titled "People Like You" floored me with its poignancy. The more brainy and kinetic pieces provided nice variety and energy, but it was the slower, prettier stuff that hit me hardest. As far as the covers went--they did "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in addition to the Young tune--it's true what the anti-backlashers say: They were only a very small part of the set. That practice of covering recent (or simply non- or post-American Songbook) pop hits has obviously been a double-edged sword for the band--it earned them a ton of press but also the label of "gimmick"--but after hearing them live, I'd have to say that these pieces really didn't have that much bearing on the set overall. It was a jazz group--albeit a very fresh and contemporary one, for whom traditional or even progressive types of "swing" are only a very small part of their rhythmic vocabulary, most of which is dominated by backbeat-oriented grooves--that chose to season its original tunes with pieces more likely to be familiar to the audience. In other words, "standards" in the truest sense, popular tunes that functioned as palate cleansers and that created a bridge with the listeners. Along that line, what I admired most about this band was their ability to entertain in a very classy way; as Joe pointed out, hearing them was not unlike hearing a thoughtful and stimulating rock band or singer-songwriter. There's no sense of taxing experimentalism, just sophisticated--and remarkably passionate--entertainment. It was a lot of fun to hear something that enjoyable and enriching at a jazz club, and without a hint that you were experiencing a bygone mode of performance. With or without the covers, the Bad Plus are the best kind of modern pop group. Not that they're not a proper jazz group, but seeing them in the company of an enthusiastic crowd at the Vanguard really helped me tap into the sensation of what it was to hear jazz live at a club in the days when it *was* actually popular and not a rarefied art music. (I'm sure you don't need me to tell you this, but the band's pianist, Ethan Iverson--a subtly dreamy and extremely thoughtful melodicist--maintains an excellent blog here.)
4) This video of--and attendant blog post on--the Ultimate Warrior's astoundingly seething and hypernonsensical prematch hype proclamations. Dig the part at the end where he's vowing to literally bring down Hulk Hogan's airplane as he flies to Wrestlemania, and lines like "The family that I live for only breathes the air that smells of combat," and "All the fuses in the exit signs are burnt out." Eternal thanks to John A. for the tip on this one. (I haven't yet explored this blog further, but am very intrigued by post headings such as "Paul Bearer a.k.a. Faulknerization of the WWF" and "The Huck Finn-ing of Hacksaw Jim Duggan." It's just this kind of pseudointellectual flippancy--not to mention thematic consistency--that makes some blogs take off and others (uh, like the one you're reading) remain an acquired taste at best.)