Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Adam Lambert wuz robbed

Okay, I don't follow American Idol as a rule, but loving music as I do, when I stumble across it, I tend to get sucked in. Mainly because it's like a master class in how to sing badly, but once in a while you get a contestant who really knows what they're doing.

Adam Lambert. This kid can sing. I mean, not only does he have that Voice, that Freddie Mercury-Rob Halford-Axl Rose siren of a voice, but he knows how to pace a performance, to deliver lyrics, to caress rather than bruise a melody. All you have to do is hear his take on
Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" - he knows how to soar like Aretha or Robert Plant, but more importantly he knows when to tighten it up, how to growl when necessary, like Otis. He knows how to own a song: that is, to find himself within it so he can deliver it like he wrote it, or like it was written for him. He's a singer.

Whereas Kris Allen, nice guy though he may be, is a typical lost '00s pop singer, all melisma and vocal tricks and absolutely no soul. No clue as to how lyrics work together with melody and how either work together with delivery. I mean, I guess he'll be better for the lame-o stuff he'll be forced to record as an Idol winner. But clearly, the best singer didn't win.

Which may - hopefully - be better for Adam in the long run. He doesn't need to be run through the prefab pop machine. He needs to find himself a flashy guitarist, come up with a bunch of wild songs, and cut a real damn record. Was that going to happen if he won Idol?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Blue Öyster Cult (1972)

Blue Öyster Cult's first album is like a dusty ruby you find clutched in the skeletal hand of a dead pirate in some forgotten Barbary Coast cave. Clean it off and it's a ruby. But so much more besides.

So this is what BÖC were: back in the formative years of metal, when the first molten riffs to have been spewed from the earth were cooling and the clichés written in them were setting in stone - when Spinal Tap were still singing about flowers, for Jimi's sake - these five guys from Long Island (not forgetting their three outside lyricists) had already begun to poke fun at the genre's excesses, even as they helped invent them.

Viz. two key songs from their debut album.

"Before The Kiss, A Redcap." Early metal was pretty much equal parts marauding biker gangs and wannabe warlocks. Here Stony Brook's finest conjure up the meanest, scariest biker bar a college boy was ever scared to set foot in. Musically it's convincing enough: a groove as tightly in-the-pocket as any Zippo nudging up against a tin-foiled cucumber, with what sounds like three raunchy guitars all gabbling away. Biker music (think Steppenwolf), like bikers themselves (think Hunter Thompson's Hells Angels book), was always less scary than it seemed like it should be (until they turn on you and stomp your face in).

Then we get the lyrics. Dig this first verse:

"So grab your rose and ringside seat / We're back home at Conry's Baar / The blond girl with her tattoo / Reds and wine, cokes of course / Oh my Susie, my Susie / Why did we ever start / It's morning now, you'd never know / The gin, the gin / Glows in the dark."

We're into it now. Who's Susie? More to the point, why is it always Susie? Susie, the epitome of innocence and innocence lost? Susie, the All-American Girl? But even more to the point: the gin glows in the dark. All reviewerly affectation aside, this is great writing: dancing along just past the edge of sense, but with a mighty power of suggestion. All ill-defined menace.

They shuffle along like this for a while, and it all builds toward an orgaazzzmik instrumental break, but when it comes: slip, trip, it's not a head-banger but an even nimbler little boogie. They get quiet. It's like Snoopy dancing on Linus's piano or something.

And we get this kind of verse:

"One Threat and mundane here at last / Expect to cross once more / Lecherous, invisible/ Beware the limping cat / Whose black teeth grip between loose jaws / Still ripe and fully bloomed / A rose and not from anywhere / That you would know or I would care."

Of course it all ends in some tricky drum turnarounds and guitar fills, and then we skid into the main boogie again. Where the gin still glows in the dark.

This is funny, folks. This is the biker bar of the Id, the biker bar of scared parental imaginations, so exaggerated that you can't help but laugh. But...but on another level, it's pretty arresting imagery, and that boogie is pretty deft. It works as send-up of biker metal, but it also works as the apotheosis of biker metal. It's a joke. But it could still slap you around.

"Workshop Of The Telescopes." Haunted castle music: the conviction that if the druids had music, surely they must have played it through Marshall amps. But as with the biker boogie, even while they know it's an absurd assumption, they play it skilfully enough and lovingly enough to convince you of it. You believe as much as the Cult wants you to believe.

How could you not believe in a song that starts off with a verse like this? "By Silverfish Imperatrix whose incorrupted eye / Sees through the charms of doctors and their wives / By Salamander Drake and the power that was Undine / Rise to claim Saturn, ring and sky / By those who see with their eyes closed / You'll know me by my black telescope."

BÖC's best lyrics, half of them at any rate, and all the ones I've quoted here, are by early Crawdaddy writer Sandy Pearlman, and are part of a sheaf of notes and lines Pearlman had put together toward a song cycle called Imaginos, a kind of occult alternate history of the 19th and 20th centuries. Eventually the greater part of the story would be set to music, but really it's best viewed in the glimpses and fragments you get in the first couple-three albums. No concept, just the suggestion of one. Again, it's the tantalizing promise of meaning that's so fun: not the meaning itself. And yes, I like horror movies that keep the baddie off screen as long as possible: Alien over Aliens.

So that verse may actually mean something if you unpack all the references (somebody on-line has connected it to Francis Drake and Queen Elizabeth, or was it a New York rock club), but if you do that you risk coming up with the 18-inch Stonehenge. But just savor "Silverfish Imperatrix whose incorrupted eye" for its own sake, as a deliciously cryptic and musical phrase, or the authentic spookiness of those last two lines. There's your 18-foot Stonehenge, right there.

And it glows in the dark.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Mô speed de haha wa

Nagashima Yû 長嶋有. Mô speed de haha wa 猛スピードで母は. 2002.

Title story was the winner of the 126th A-Prize, for late 2001.

The first story, unusually, is the o-make: “Saidokâ ni inu サイドカーに犬,” “Dog in a Sidecar.” Narrated by a woman named Kaoru of unspecified age; in the present she’s enjoying a rare reunion with her younger brother. Most of the story consists of Kaoru’s reminiscences of her fourth-grade summer.

Her mother leaves at the beginning of the summer, and we follow Kaoru, her brother, their father, and their father’s new lover Yôko through the summer. There are several emotional arcs going on in these scenes, as well as one unexpected plot development.

Kaoru doesn’t really miss her mother. This is due to a couple of factors, the story seems to suggest. First, her parents’ marriage was so messed up, and more specifically her mother was such a difficult, repressed, and controlling person to live with that all Kaoru felt when she was gone was relief. Yôko sort of half moves in to help take care of the kids, and the way Yôko does things is liberating, even to a fourth-grader who can’t quite process things. Second, and not unconnected, Kaoru is an emotional recluse. Normal kids, she reminds us, ask for stuff from adults: candy, toys, attention. Her brother does this, and Kaoru, even in fourth grade, is aware that she can never bring herself to ask for stuff. She means, she can’t ask for candy or toys, but we know she means she can’t ask for attention; maybe doesn’t even know she wants it. But it’s clear that when her mother leaves, Kaoru doesn’t even realize she can want her back; and when her mother comes back and kicks Yôko out, Kaoru can’t bring herself to ask Yôko not to leave her life, even though by this point she realizes that’s what she wants.

Her growing relationship with Yôko is another arc. Yôko is nothing like the neurotic, gloomy woman Kaoru’s mother is; she’s got her own life, her own way of doing things, she reads. She treats Kaoru like an equal, like a friend. We only see Yôko through Kaoru’s young eyes, so we don’t really know her as a person, but we know how much her affection comes to mean to Kaoru, and it’s heartbreaking when Kaoru’s mother kicks Yôko out.

Then there’s the plot. We’re like Kaoru: it never occurs to us that her mother could come back. She does, disrupting this idyllic summer, this temporary parole from rules, and when she does, Kaoru’s father takes off. Then, rather abruptly, he’s arrested—before the summer began he had stolen from his former employer. We’ve known all along that he’s kind of a slacker, semi-employed in shady trades, but we never suspected anything like this. He goes to jail, his wife divorces him, and Kaoru, her brother, and their mother live gloomily ever after.

The title combines Kaoru’s weird metaphor for the affection she feels toward Yôko for paying attention to her. She feels like a dog being kept. She means this as a good thing, although of course we can find it a bit pathetic. In one scene, she gets to ride in a motorcycle sidecar, like a happy dog.

Striking story. For what it’s worth, Nagashima, who’s a man, creates a convincing (to me) female narrator; more than that he creates a vivid individual as a narrator, believable in her childhood hesitation and adult gloom. A deft portrayal of child, adult, and family.

The title story. A young boy named Makoto and his single mother in a small town on the south coast of Hokkaidô. Her parents live in the next town over; Makoto’s mother got married and lived in Tokyo for a time, but she and her husband split up and she moved back into her parents’ house, with Makoto. After a while she gets on her feet and moves with Makoto into public housing in the neighboring town in which the story is set.

The marriage and break-up and time with the parents are all flashbacks. The story itself, the present narrated, is rather sparsely populated by incident. Basically we follow Makoto through a period of a few months while, sort of in the background, his mother gets engaged to a guy, and then he leaves her. Sometime after he leaves her, her mother dies and Makoto and his mother move in with her father, Makoto’s grandfather, for a while, commuting back to their town for work and school.

The story is told in the third person, but the focus never wavers from Makoto: his perceptions and feelings. He’s a quiet, sensitive, somewhat insecure boy; we’re meant, I think, to see him as a character study of a child of a single mother. Uprooted, dependent; bullied at school, but slowly learning not to let it bother him.

His character is sketched out against the backdrop of his mother. She’s not an irresponsible person, but the responsibilities of single motherhood (she has to work full-time) mean that in the eyes of, for example, Makoto’s teacher she’s a subpar mother. We know, Makoto knows, that she’s doing her best, but society expects a mother to be nothing but a mother, and judges her when she’s not. At the same time Makoto’s grandparents ride her somewhat mercilessly for what they perceive as the mistakes she’s made. These are never spelled out for us – we don’t know quite why she’s single, why she moved back in with her parents – but again, we see that she’s giving life her all, and therefore sympathize with her, as Makoto does, even as we (like Makoto, presumably) wish we understood more.

The engagement passes by similarly on the edge of our understanding. There are several nicely rendered scenes of Makoto and the fiancé, Shin’ichi, trying to bond, and a key sequence in which Makoto’s mother and Shin’ichi go away on a day trip and end up not coming back. Makoto thinks they’ve abandoned him, but it turns out they just got into an accident. When they come back, largely unharmed, Makoto is relieved, nonplussed that they weren’t more worried about him, and most of all inarticulately puzzled by the whole situation.

The title (“Mom, at Breakneck Speed”) promises either more humor or more danger than is delivered. There are several instances of the mother bombing along one of those Hokkaido highways, but no tragedy, as the accident with Shin’ichi turns about to be nothing. It’s a vivid title: I want it to mean more.

Which is how I feel about the story as a whole. It does a good job of capturing the particular emptiness of small Hokkaidô coastal towns: the foggy sea just across the highway from a forlorn public housing tower, the spiked tires (this and other details seem to set the story in the ‘80s) and ubiquitous cars, the piddly little municipal aquarium. And the relationships and personalities of Makoto and his mother, and the way the other characters interact with them, are sharply drawn. But the story kind of peters out without really resolving anything. Does Makoto grow? A little bit, maybe, but it’s not conclusively demonstrated.

A let-down after the first story.