March 28, 2010
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Most of the books I read are carefully vetted, plotted, and planned. After all: so many books, so little time! One can't be too careful; I look at reviews and get recommendations; I troll book-blogs and listen for buzz; I stalk friends' reading lists; in short, I do my homework. This homework has led to an overabundance of purchased books -- I find a book I know I want to read and 6 times out of 10 I can't keep myself from buying it. Many many books are moldering on my overstocked shelf at home, patiently waiting their turn.
By comparison, How I Became a Famous Novelist rocketed out of nowhere into my hands, solely on the strength of a mock New York Times bestseller list printed (in part) on the back cover of the book. So simple, yet funny and well-executed enough to force my hand and make me plunk down the cold hard cash. On top of that, I only found the thing after spotting its bright yellow cover on the table at an airport bookstore. I laughed aloud at that bestseller list and it was Game Over.
Could I have found any book more prosaically (pun? intended?)? After all my careful research-time, this stupid book sold me on its color and backcover joke. To that end, I tip my cap to the marketing geniuses at Black Cat publishing -- nicely done, folks.
The book itself? Funny! Comic novels must be the toughest thing to pull off, especially for comedy-snob-readers, and/or people inundated with sitcoms, late night talkshows, and the Jon Stewart/Steven Colbert juggernaut. "Famous Novelist" succeeded in being very funny, well-observed, and sharply written. Whether or not it holds up as an actual novel may be more debatable. The dramatic climax of the book felt flimsy, and the whole affair was more observational than dramatic or plotty. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing.
Nitpicking aside, I got 322 very funny pages out of it. Even better, I so closely understood and associated with the young, callow, would-be novelist that I was (am) more than a little worried for myself. I found myself sympathizing so much with this struggling, smartass anti-hero that by the time he is "taught his lesson" (I think?), I almost didn't really buy it. The satire of bookselling and publishing, which I know absolutely nothing about, felt just as a layman like myself would imagine it -- ridiculous and real in perfectly equal measure. The satire of contemporary bestsellers carried the whole book -- the Tom Clancys and Patricia Cornwells of the world take a mighty, and well-deserved skewering, as do the overall trends of bestselling books: clubs and murders and food. It's catnip to ironic, smartass, slackers like myself -- who couldn't write a novel in a million years but are absolutely certain that 90% of the books on the bestseller list are manipulative trash (without having read any of them, it goes without saying).
If there is a moral core to this book -- and I'm not really sure there is much of one, so convincing is the cynicism and so feeble is the comeuppance -- it would be to "decynicise" (a new hybrid word I invented and love) people like me toward the general book buying populace and allow for some genuineness, some open-hearted emotion, some guileless candor. Not everything is intended as manipulation, the book may (or may not) argue, to which I both do and don't agree. But this book's not ultimately meant to teach lessons, despite it's "morality tale" trappings. It's meant to be a rollicking send-up of books today, popular culture, and today's cynical youth...I guess. Whatever. It's mostly just funny.
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March 24, 2010
Some New (Upbeat!) Music Mini Reviews: Rogue Wave, Broken Bells, Vampire Weekend, Local Natives, Spoon
Rogue Wave - Permalight
Rogue Wave has been a Culturephiles favorite for a long time now, and if Asleep At Heaven's Gate was a step not back but sideways, then Permalight is a big jump forward. Although not usually (self-)pegged as an upbeat, rock & roll fan, I love this album. Most of the album is, and I'm quoting myself here, "like regular Rogue Wave but catchier and better" while the single, "Good Morning (The Future)," is "insanely catchy" and "a healthy amount poppier than their typical moody-guitar schtick." (Those quotes are, of course, me quoting me.) The rest of the album serves up a winning mix of moodier songs with more toe-tapping, sunshiney, slickly-produced tracks than longstanding fans of the band might expect. So whether you are a long-time fan or not, this one is a big-time winner. Even folk-loving sadsacks like me can get into this one.
Broken Bells - Broken Bells
James Mercer, the guy from the Shins, teamed up with super-producer/hipness-manufacturer, Danger Mouse, to form this new "band" (that's obviously just a one-off side project for everybody concerned). Basically this sounds like a Shins album with better, cooler production -- Shins songs with Gorillaz sounds. Mostly this album made me wonder who the hell else is in the Shins, since it seems like James Mercer alone brings pretty much everything to the table that one expects from that particular indie-rock outfit. I might be a little nervous-in-the-service if I'm the drummer or bassist or whoever for the Shins right now. At any rate, this is another moody-but-catchy record for that in-betweeny time of year -- not quite spring but no longer winter. It's upbeat and filled with hooks, while still retaining a dollop of that Shins-style melancholy. I actually think this was a great team-up; Danger Mouse brings some cool sounds and a totally different feel to mix up Mercer's (virtually patented) singing/songwriting style. I realize what a total side-project this is, but I'd be a fan of a follow-up volume from these guys for certain. Unless I was the keyboardist for the Shins.
Vampire Weekend - Contra
I liked, but never loved, Vampire Weekend's self-titled debut, which Greg championed and everybody seemed to like. By contrast, just in time to swim once again against the critical tide, now that the backlash against VW has set in, I really like their sophomore album, Contra. The songs are better-produced and more fun, slightly less self-important, which I know was a knock on the band that both kind of makes sense and kind of doesn't. Ultimately, if it makes me tap my toes and hum along, that's a victory for me and a success for any band making music I listen to. Will this album still be in my iPod in three years? Meh, probably not. But even a musical mope like me can still enjoy a fun afro-pop romp. You can too; try it with an open mind.
Local Natives - Gorilla Manor
These Local Natives guys seem like they are riding an unassailable (somewhat surprising) wave of critical praise. For whatever reason I don't see it. I suppose I hear a lot of influences I like, or should like, but the thing itself leaves me cold. Perhaps hearing so much Fleet Foxes and Modest Mouse and Arcade Fire make me wonder who the Local Natives are. More than just a re-hash, granted, but only barely. The whole album feels stuck in third-gear, never creeping along, but never really letting fly, either -- the words "restrained" and "passionless" come to mind. (Self-quotes.) It's not a bad record; parts I like fine; there's just nothing that stands out to me. I find it, in a word, boring.
Spoon - Transference
And lastly, a disappointment. We Culturephiles love Spoon. (I'm pretty sure...right guys?) But this latest release doesn't continue that great, exciting momentum upward to new and cooler places from their last couple albums. Unlike Rogue Wave, Transference sounds like previous Spoon albums, but not quite as good as before. No songs hook me like "The Beast and Dragon, Adored" or "The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine" or "The Ghost of You Lingers" or "You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb." Spoon has never written traditional sing-alongs or anything, but their best tracks (e.g. the above) still slither into your brain and take up semi-permanent residence. Nothing on Transference does that. It feels like "Spoon-lite." Or maybe "Spoonlet." Or perhaps even "Spork." Where previous albums snap, this one meanders. And while, once again, it's not necessarily a bad album, it's pretty disappointing. I put it a smidgeon above dull, barely shy of droning, and unable to generate enough momentum to keep from being a slog. We've just come to expect so much from Spoon, maybe expectations were too high, unfairly high. Regardless, I prefer their previous albums by a wide margin. This one rates a: zzzzzzzzzzz.
March 19, 2010
It is every few months now that I find out about some movie actor who has a band. Typically, I run the other way, or quickly close whatever four sentence Huffington Post article is touting it. It is because of punchline bands like Dog Star (Keanu Reeves) and the Ordinary Fear of God (barf, Russell Crow, among others) that I have been ruined forever in my first impressions of movie stars gone rock star. To me, the Bacon Brothers will always sound like a better restaurant than music act.
For some inscrutable reason, I have the utmost tolerance for musicians who take a shot at acting. Steve Earle in The Wire? Loudon Wainwright in the Aviator? Yes please! More! What a great casting choice! I can't wait to see what Tom Waits brings to The Book of Eli. When my music heroes put themselves on to celluloid, I'll watch them eat an apple and be captivated. But when Scarlett Johansson teams up with Pete Yorn, or covers Tom Waits, my hackles raise prematurely. Scarlett Johansson? Don't you have something better to do? Like making millions of dollars in the movies? Stay away from Tom Waits! Now 3 million views later on Youtube, some horny high school boys think you wrote those songs!
Lately though, karmically, and inevitably, I am put in my place by these actors gone singers. We have talked enough about She & Him (Zooey Deschanel & M. Ward). They make great records. And even Scarlett, though not in the same league in my opinion, sounds pretty good. It was just yesterday that I listened to Dead Man's Bones, and was really liking it. How have I heard of this band, I wondered? Oh, right. That's Ryan Gosling singing. Ryan Gosling. Of the Notebook, Ryan Gosling.
Perhaps I should just let this prejudice go. Am I missing out on great music that Hollywood is producing? When will Sandy Bullock team up with Kanye to drop a hot joint? Or Rachel McAdams with Ry Cooder for the next great Americana record? I have resigned myself to being pleasantly suprised when the music is good. But even more, loving when Dwight Yoakum can lose his sh*t in Sling Blade, and still rip up a guitar in his spare time.
March 11, 2010
The Long Tail, Which Has a Long Tail and Elongates the Tails of Longer Tails Which are Long. Also, Tails.
Some theories on this:
a) The Captains (not to mention the Lieutenants & Corporals & Privates) of Industry who read these books want to have the main points drilled and re-drilled through their brains for anything to stick well enough to be integrated into their “elevator speeches.”
b) These business-lite books all begin as tiny magazine essays, little newspaper columns, or short speeches that are then fleshed out into books, but never really have enough meat on their bones to fill out an entire book-skeleton. (Gross?)
c) The writers are bad.
d) The readers are stupid.
e) All of the above?
Actually, I think it’s sort of e), except that the writers aren’t really that bad and the readers probably aren’t that stupid (maybe a little on both scores but just a little). Mostly I think there’s simply not enough substance in any of these books to fill an entire BOOK. Essay, definitely. Pamphlet, sure. Book, nope.
This is not to say that these books are not interesting. Far from it. The Long Tail was actually very interesting and helpful in putting a lot of ideas into a cohesive and compelling theory. The central thesis is that in a world of easy digital distribution, choices are so abundant that the so-called "niches" are a source of incredible growth. (I can write this from memory, so maybe having the thesis drilled into my brain over and over was, in fact, useful.) With Amazon and iTunes and Netflix (Anderson LOVES those guys!), scarcity of shelf space is no longer an issue, so the online stores can stock everything, and be able to sell a wider array of products to fewer people and still make money. Anyway, I was fascinated by the combination of not just the economic and technological, but also the cultural, analysis. Or at least the economic and technological analyses opened lots of doors to further cultural analyses.
Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded worked sort of the same way – it felt particularly cobbled together from bits and pieces of pre-existing columns, but still had some thought-provoking moments. Those thought-provoking moments, however, were buried beneath a mountain of simplistic analysis and insanely repetitive writing. After the first 100 pages you can read one out of every four paragraphs and more than follow the arguments. If you think Anderson’s writing is repetitive, Friedman’s has the quadruple whammy of being doubly repetitive AND doubly simplistic. The Long Tail : Goodnight Moon :: Hot, Flat, and Crowded : Where's Spot?
And if Hot, Flat, and Crowded is like Where's Spot?, then Larry Weber’s Marketing to the Social Web is like a finger-painting on the fridge. It almost has those huge cardboard pages that tiny, chubby fingers can turn. As with the others, the ideas it contains are not bad, it’s just a book that should have been a 10-page paper. It probably WAS at some point. Why it needed to be torturously extended over 272 pages no one will ever know. Oh wait, I might’ve just figured it out: maybe it has something to do with selling a 272-page hardback book on Amazon for $16.47 and making a whole lot more moolah from it than a 10-page paper that you can maybe post on your blog or hand out to your friends at dinner parties or something.
So I get it, Larry Weber; I understand, Thomas Friedman; I see you, Chris Anderson. But it's almost enough to make a reader feel crazy. Every page is like, “didn’t I just read this?” and then sometimes you’re like “I AM READING A SENTENCE COPIED VERBATIM FROM THREE PARAGRAPHS AGO!!!”
In conclusion, The Long Tail is by far the least annoying of the three, and it is absolutely worth reading. Hot, Flat, and Crowded – if you ever read Friedman’s columns in the Times, skip it; if you don’t ever read those columns, then maybe skim the book. Marketing to the Social Web...I think you could probably get the salient stuff from just about any blog. Including this one, if you care to ask me.
"Marketing, Spot, marketing!"
March 3, 2010
March 2, 2010
From the Vaults: A Tribute to Michael Feinstein, Further Moving the Culturephiles Towards the Absolute Weirdest, Nichiest Niches of the Internet
Today's exciting subject, straight from the late 80's, early 90's vaults: Michael Feinstein. Why do I have this strange affinity for Feinstein? Who can say, really, but he's great. In particular I like two early-ish Feinstein albums, Live at the Algonquin and his tribute album Remember: Michael Feinstein Sings Irving Berlin -- although many others of his are also awesome. (Side note: as a younger person, I was unsettled to learn that Live at the Algonquin was pronounced "live" as in a live recording not "live" as in live and let live. I believed it was an album, which, for some reason explicable only to a 10-year-old, promoted this place called the Algonquin, which, judging from the art inside the liner notes of the CD, was an apartment building.) At any rate, I have these two albums pretty much memorized, to this day. Remember is probably the stronger album, top to bottom, but both feature great songs – maybe that's the key to their longevity -- great songs, sung simply and well.
There's wit and wordplay, heart-on-the-sleeve emotion, up-tempo rags, and lots of sad ballads. (Mostly sad ballads -- just the way I like.) The anachronism of performing Tin Pan Alley songs in a cabaret setting has only increased (naturally) in the 20+ years since these albums' release, but it's a cheerful kind of anachronism - a bit of nostalgia alloyed with homage. Yet at the same time, while these songs glorify somewhat a "simpler time" – a reflexive shorthand I don't buy, thankyouverymuch – they also are timeless, talking (singing) about love and loss and loneliness. The Depression-era songs like "Let's Have Another Cup of Coffee" -- which include the line "Mr. Herbert Hoover says that now's the time to buy" -- adapt particularly well to the present day in a funny, strange, but mostly sad, way.
At the same time, there's no doubt that it is all pretty quaint and parodyable. Live at the Algonquin, features a wordplay-ditty (basically a cabaret novelty song) called "Shall We Join the Ladies?" which is also the first line of the song. The second line is: "yes, do, let's join the ladies/ and make one great big lady!" Feinstein hits the "joke" pretty hard, banging the piano chord as a classy rim-shot and then holds...and holds...and holds for laughs. When those laughs do finally come, you can hear it as clear as day: the posh oldsters in the audience start to get it, designer pantsuits ruffle and cufflinks clink as they put down their gimlets and Brandy Alexanders and jingle their diamond-and-pearl encrusted bangles at this terrific scream of a joke, darling. You can absolutely hear them, stuffy, regal, fading high society types. One voice can be heard exclaiming, probably to a nearly deaf, long since retired captain of a long since defunct industry, "funny!" Hearing the aging luxury set's reaction ripple through the cabaret is far funnier than the cornpone joke itself could ever hope to be.
Regardless, at the heart of it all, I am also simply drawn to the power of one man (person) getting up in front of a crowd and entertaining them solely with musical talent -- a solo singer/songwriter with a guitar, a virtuoso with nothing but a cello, or a Great American Songbook interpreter alone with their piano. I think the fantasy of being musically capable enough to get up in front of anyone and sing and/or play any song I want all alone, without relying on anyone or anything else, really appeals to the control freak in me. Further, I am not ashamed to confess that I spent lots of youthful time singing along to Feinstein, imitating his phrasing exactly, and really gearing myself up to hit the high note in “When the Midnight Choo Choo Leaves for Alabam'” (yes, that is the real title of a real song). I remain satisfied with myself to this day when I can mimic these songs entirely, and hit that high note. Is this too personal and embarrassing to post? Ah well, too late.
Ultimately, I recognize that there’s something quaint about slavishly promoting the “Great American Songbook” as if music peaked and ought to be frozen in amber after 1949, but I like this stuff in spite of the quaintness, not because of it. I have always loved these albums because, hopelessly antiquated or not, they are timeless and timelessly well crafted. Part of me feels ridiculous extolling the virtues of such a moderately famous, unhip throwback, but in my world you can stack Feinstein up against Spoon or Ryan Adams or Rogue Wave or whoever you want and enjoy them equally, in totally different ways. If you can sit through a Josh Groban or Michael Buble album (maybe those are bad examples...uh, how about Sinatra or Nat King Cole or Judy Garland or Diana Krall instead...), I really think you ought to explore the richer, more authentic world of Michael Feinstein. Hell, the guy worked for Ira Gershwin himself for years.
Anyway, thanks for reading, and tune in next time, when I will open myself up once again to the continuing ridicule of others over the esoteric, embarrassing things I happen to like. Potential candidates include: John Mayer, men & boys choirs, bluegrass. And many, many more.