In 1972 a bombing meant as a protest against the Vietnam War goes wrong; a young woman and a young man go underground. Twenty-six years later they turn up under new names in the same town; inevitably they will meet. But in the meantime the most interesting character in this pitch-perfect novel–with references to Shulamith Firestone and Dock Boggs tossed off so lightly that even if the names mean nothing, they help create the frame of fictional reference and make their own sense– -is the woman’s teenage son. It’s 1998; he’s obsessed with Smile bootlegs composed entirely of “10, 15, 20 takes that are nearly identical to each other.” This is a portrait of how smart a 15-year-old can be: “You are in the recording studio when they made this album. You are there with all the failures, the intense perfectionism, the frustration of trying to realize in the world the sounds you hear in your head.” The lines don’t come off the page as a metaphor for the story the novel tells; the boy’s voice is too intense for it not to claim his own story.
2. The Fever, In the City of Sleep (Kemado)
Geremy Jasper’s pretentiousness is his strength; he’ll try anything. What makes the music move is the strangeness filtered into familiar landscapes. In “Eyes on the Road,” it’s 4 A.M. somewhere in New Jersey. The police-radio voice-over is funny, and so present, you feel yourself looking over your shoulder to see if you hit someone back there. Keep your eyes on this road and soon enough you’ll be seeing eyes on the road as well.
3. Rosanne Cash, Black Cadillac (Capitol)
One after the other she lost a stepmother, a father, and a mother. She sings as if she never got a chance to settle anything with any of them, so instead of crying at the funerals on this album, she says inappropriate things. On “The World Unseen,” she moves slowly, as if from room to room in an empty house, all the action in her hesitation. “I will look for you between the grooves of songs we sing,” she says, and finally the other mourners begin to relax. Then, with a deepening of her voice so unmistakable the people around her can see her shut the door, she walks away, rewriting Leadbelly’s “Goodnight, Irene” in her head. She’ll look for them, all right: “in morphine and in dreams.”
4. Honda, “This Is What a Honda Feels Like” commercial
In a parking garage, a conductor assembles a chorus to outdo the Human Beatbox and the Human Orchestra. With nothing but their mouths they start the car, drive through a tunnel, around turns, over cobblestones. They close the sunroof with the newest new-car sound you’ve ever heard. But the sexiest moment comes when they turn on the windshield wipers. 5-8. The 48th Annual Grammy Awards (CBS, February 8)
Best Smarm: John Legend, who will be a Grammy hero for decades. Best Legend: Sly Stone, who in a gold lame topcoat and a blond Mohawk looked like a cross between Wesley Snipes in Blade and a sea monster. Best Monstrosity: As a concrete sign of emotion, post-Mariah Carey melisma is a sign of insincerity; what is meant to appear as a loss of control is its imposition; a woman projecting autonomy is practicing a pimp aesthetic. There was Kelly Clarkson, Mary J. Blige, Christina Aguilera—but what the hell, let’s give the prize to Joss Stone. Best Dressed: Keith Urban, head-to-toe in Nicole Kidman.
9. The Raveonettes, “Twilight” and “Somewhere in Texas” from Pretty in Black (Columbia)
Western ballads that would have been perfect for the soundtrack to Kill Bill: Vol. 2—a queer combination of serenity and menace.
10. The Fiery Furnaces, Bitter Tea (Fat Possum)
For their fourth album, the most interesting and perplexing of all the two-person male-female bands offers a funny-noises album. There are squeaks and scratches, Beach Boys effects, and between-the-wars cabaret. When Eleanor Friedberger’s vocals are run backward, she sounds Russian, when brother Matthew’s are, he sounds Hungarian. And nothing is lost: When the singing goes back in the right direction, the feeling of not caring how you got where you are is so musical, you may not even notice the change. But most of the time the feeling is that of a smart kid with a chemistry set—or a three-CD Smile bootleg—experimenting on his sister. who knows more than he does. Best song: “Benton Harbor Blues,” a rewrite of “96 Tears.”
Interview, May 2006