Real Life Rock Top 10 (04/14/03)

1. The New Pornographers, “The Laws Have Changed,” from Electric Version (Matador)
Neko Case pipes in the background like an organ. Then, as a multiple exposure, she’s high above the music, singing down to a single image of herself. Male voices take over the blips in the background as Case goes back to the sky. “So all hail—What will be revealed today,” she trills, but, as on the New Pornographers’ “Mass Romantic,” she’s the revelation, and coming out of this band there’s no sound richer than hers abroad in the land today.

2. The White Stripes, Warfield Theatre (San Francisco, April 28)
The unbelievable brazenness of the Betty Boop cartoons that preceded the band fit right in with the drama that followed: Every tune seemed to have its familiar, and not in the restagings of Lead Belly’s “Boll Weevil” or Son House’s 1965 “Death Letter.” How can they seem to get Herman’s Hermits’ “I’m Henry VIII, I Am” and Pussy Galore’s “Cunt Tease” into—or maybe out of—the same song? Where did Vicki Lawrence’s “Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” come from? Or more to the point, where did it go?

3. Christopher Logue, All Day Permanent Red: The First Battle Scenes of Homer’s ‘Iliad’: Rewritten (Farrar Straus Giroux)
Logue’s Iliad project is not to retranslate it, but to rewrite other translations. The innovation is the rampant use of modernisms (“The Uzi shuddering warm against your hip”) or neologisms (“Greekoid scum!”). It can seem gimmicky. And then you are right there, in the action, less reading than listening: “Think of raked sky-wide Venetian blind./Add the receding traction of its slats/Of its slats of its slats a hand draws it up./Hear the Greek army getting to its feet.”4. The Folksmen, “Never Did No Wanderin’,” from A Mighty Wind: The Album (DMZ/Columbia)
Christopher Guest’s movie lives up to its title; comparisons of this set of overmilked gags with Guest’s loving neurot-o-rama of Best in Show are as self-congratulatory as its worst songs. Are reviewers really that pleased they get the joke? But on the radio, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer’s frighteningly accurate parody of a Kingston Trio “whalin’ song” comes off as very nearly the real thing: catchy, faintly embarrassing, stirring.
5. The Be Good Tanyas, Chinatown (Nettwerk America)
Speaking of faintly embarrassing, there is that name—but by the second track on their second album, this Vancouver trio is long gone, setting up house in the late Townes Van Zandt’s “Waiting Around to Die.” With the foreboding melody, they call up “Streets of Laredo” (hear it on Johnny Cash’s American IV) or “Hills of Mexico” (hear Roscoe Holcomb on Mountain Music of Kentucky). Frazey Ford and Samantha Parton sing as if they’re already dead; Trish Klein’s high, slow harmonica solo, drifting across the years from Country Joe and the Fish’s “Bass Strings,” seals the coffin. And then there is a version of Kid Bailey’s 1929 “Rowdy Blues,” as light, sweet, and unhurried as Canned Heat’s “On the Road Again”—which, suicidal as it is, takes you right back to “Waiting Around to Die.” And then it’s hard to listen to anything else for the rest of the day.6. Scott Amendola and Carla Bozulich, “Masters of War” (
Bob Dylan’s hardest antiwar song: Over nine minutes, it gets bigger, and noisier. There are moments when the storm in the music makes it difficult to remember what you’re listening to. Bozulich’s voice, never so convincing with the Geraldine Fibbers—never convincing you so much is at stake—is thick, considered, like Anna Domino’s in Snakefarm. In moments it can be arty in its strangled effects—and then Amendola’s drumstick comes down in a manner so artless it’s scary. But it’s Eric Crystal’s shredding saxophone solo that nails the song to the ground, that takes it somewhere it hasn’t been before, not on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in 1963, not when Dylan smeared it into the 1991 Grammy show, during the first Iraq war. The hectoring self-satisfaction of speakers at antiwar rallies begins to creep into Bozulich’s voice after that (the tone that lets you know the last thing such people want is for the powerful to do good; if that happened, how could they feel superior?)—but then, for the final verse (“And I’ll stand over your grave till I’m sure that you’re dead”), the instrumentation drops to almost nothing, bare taps and silences, and you hear someone speaking for herself.

7. Patricia Tallman in Night of the Living Dead, directed by Tom Savini (STZ, May 2)
The lone woman to escape the plague of cannibal zombies—mute with shock in the beginning, by the end she’s ready to shoot anything that moves—wakes up to find the sun shining and the spell broken. She watches as a crowd of yahoos torment a zombie in a corral while others use lynched corpses for target practice; she flinches as the bodies jerk in the air. “They are us and we are them,” she says. “Say what?” says a hunter. “Nothin’,” she says, afraid again. I suppose this shot-for-shot 1990 remake isn’t as good as George Romero’s 1968 original, but it was still too much to take: too close to home, which is to say to the picture the country has been offering itself on the nightly news.

8. James Mathus Knockdown Society, “Stop and Let the Devil Ride” (Fast Horse)
If the appropriation of old country blues by the White Stripes or the Be Good Tanyas bothers you, here’s what it sounds like when it’s done without wit, imagination, or a decent beat. The devil wouldn’t be caught dead riding with these guys.

9. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Fever to Tell (Interscope)
The feeling of people pushing through a crowd, when there’s no crowd.DixieChicks

10. Charles Taylor, “Chicks Against the Machine,” Salon (April 29)
A steely, cant-destroying account of how and why, after their Primetime interview with designated patriot Diane Sawyer and their naked Entertainment Weekly cover, the Dixie Chicks can now open their shows with “I Won’t Back Down”—and close them with Natalie Maines announcing “Our final encore tonight is gonna be ‘Dixie.'” “After all,” Emily Robison or Martie Maguire can say, “it was Abraham Lincoln’s favorite song.”

City Pages, May 14, 2003

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