After years living off the novelty that singer Beth Ditto is bigger than female singers are supposed to be, this trio has produced an album as cool and impassioned as anything since the heyday of Book of Love. Everything that might get in the way of put-you-on-the-spot vocals and slap-back rhythm has been pared away; the songs breathe and snap. That you might hear Roxy Music’s “Love Is the Drug” or Fine Young Cannibals’ “She Drives Me Crazy” in “Heavy Cross” doesn’t mean the band is recycling someone else’s hits; the musicians have a jukebox in their collective head, just like anybody else. That turns up an “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” quote in “Love Long Distance” so graceful it can almost make you doubt you’ve heard it before—and even if you know you have, the Bronski Beat beat, thin, clean, and swirling, will make you forget. With “Spare Me from the Mold,” as strong an image as you can ask from a song title, they head out into a rave-up so hot they can turn it into a breakdown with the twist of a neck. Sometimes craft gives as much pleasure as vision; sometimes vision sneaks right out of craft.
2. Dion, “Daddy Rollin’ (In Your Arms),” in Big Fan written and directed by Robert D. Siegel (Big Fan Productions)
Near the end of a film that in the pitch meeting you can see Siegel trying to sell as a cross between Buffalo ’66 and The King of Comedy (“What about The Fan?” “It’s ‘Big Fan,’ and who remembers The Fan anyway?” “Me?”), there’s a no-ambient-sound slow-motion bar scene where the hero, the schlub “get a life” was invented for, walks through the place like Robert De Niro in his Mohawk, all sorts of conflicting and repressed desires flooding him like a bad cold; the only sound you hear is the flipside of Dion’s 1968 “Abraham, Martin & John,” the most threatening record he ever made. Somebody knows their stuff.
3. Bill Pullman in Oleanna (John Golden Theatre, New York, October 20, 2009)
Immediately after the final, violent “cunt” scene, Pullman, the professor, and Julia Stiles, the student, the only characters in this revival of David Mamet’s 1992 play about sexual harassment and feminist conspiracy, return to the stage with copious distance between them—“The curtain call is as directed as anything else,” said a friend—and he looks haggard, confused, shaken, as if he truly has been somewhere else and isn’t back.
4. Catherine Corman, Daylight Noir: Raymond Chandler’s Imagined City (Charta)
It seems like an unassailable idea: matching original dialogue or descriptions to new photographs, stalk Los Angeles as if scouting locations for remakes of all the Philip Marlowe movies, for every building he ever walked into or out of—the exits, so often leaving a body behind, usually being more memorable than the entrances. But as the pages turn, it becomes clear Chandler’s writing never needed illustrations—or that a picture of a city hall is not going to stand up to “He had my wrists now, instead of me having his. He twisted them behind me fast and a knee like a corner store went into my back. I can be bent. I’m not City Hall,” never mind that a picture of an expensive Moorish tower sucks the irony out of the last line. But there’s one plain and ghostly exception, a version of the house where, in The Little Sister, Orrin Quest found a room. In Corman’s hands it’s a rickety wooden staircase leading to a door topped by a crude English sunrise motif, with two palm trees hovering over the building like giant undertakers: an image that carries so much suspense the quote facing it dies on its page.
5. David Lang, original music in (Untitled), directed by Jonathan Parker (Goldwyn)
Lang won the 2008 Pulitzer music prize; I can’t imagine it would work on the soundtrack album, but on screen his avant-garde conceptual noise music parodies, which include a musician popping bubble wrap but usually focus on a bucket, have a glamour that deepens scene by scene—especially when, to pay the rent, Adam Goldberg’s fearless composer takes jobs playing piano at a supper club or a wedding and still can’t help dumping the likes of “Night and Day” or “Wonderful World” for atonal minor chords that shout “Death, death, death!” at the fleeing crowds. It makes sense that Marley Shelton’s ice-queen New York gallery owner falls for Goldberg the first time she hears him, and that he’s so self-consumed he doesn’t notice that her own clothes, apparently all made out of metal-based fabrics, generate sounds as alluring as his (cellophane packages being opened in movie theaters, wood being sanded, wrenches unscrewing bolts)—whenever she walks, turns, or tries to take them off.6/7. Raincoats and Viv Albertine, Knitting Factory (Brooklyn, October 16, 2009)
I hadn’t seen the Raincoats, one of the UK’s original all-female punk bands, for just short of thirty years. Original members Gina Birch (bass, guitar) and Ana da Silva (guitar, bass) looked precisely as they did when they started out, merely older. Anne Wood (violin, kalimba, bass), who joined the band in 1994, replacing original violinist Vicky Aspinall, looked like Molly Shannon and carried herself like the lead in Abel Gance’s Napoleon. The young drummer, Vice Cooler, from San Francisco, who records as Hawnay Troof, added a drum sound so big, and so light on its feet, that each song seemed to start a few inches off the ground and stay there. Viv Albertine, founding guitarist of the Slits, the original all-female UK punk band, opened the show solo; she joined the Raincoats for their version of the Kinks’ “Lola,” a signature crowd-pleaser, but the second-to-last song, “In Love,” from the band’s first single, from 1979, was, in the words of Th’ Faith Healers, “every thing, all at once, forever.” I was waiting for that one song, and when it began I realized I’d altogether forgotten it, remembering only the impact it had when I first heard it: remembering the shock. It blew up the jammed little room, half filled with people half as old as the other half: shouts and cries and curses and pleas, all coming as if from a single throat, a wild, unsatisfied, unsatisfiable celebration of the discovery that, in someone else’s eyes, you exist, you cannot be erased, even if in the next moment you’re hit by a car and all you leave is a stain on the street.
Albertine played only new songs; they’re better with a band, as on her MySpace page, but they still seem contrived. Her stage talk, which took up at least half of her time, was if anything more practiced, and moved with all of the passion, humor, and daring her music lacked. Her ruminations took her through the breakup of her fifteen-year marriage over her wish to go back to music after not touching a guitar for a quarter of a century; her terrible sex life then and now; the beginnings of punk and the Stalinist tinge among the small, insular group that made up the first wave, a few friends who really did mean to change the world by embodying a new way of life. She told tales of being shouted down on the street for holding hands with her punk boyfriend, Mick Jones of the Clash, and of being forced to get rid of all her T-shirts (“from Biba, the best store in the world”), because they had scoop necks. Then, as if relating a fairy tale, putting down Mother Goose and picking up the Brothers Grimm, she told the story of the arrival in London, just as the scene had found itself, of the Heartbreakers, from New York: “They brought Nancy Spungeon, but what they really brought was heroin.” Within weeks, she said, the same Stalinism that made her get rid of her favorite clothes meant that if you weren’t using heroin you weren’t cool enough to speak to: “Really rigorous people, questioning everything, and now all they cared about was finding the next fix.” “I succumbed,” she said. “I let Johnny Thunders shoot me up. My arm turned black for three weeks. I was living with my Mum and had to hide it. Luckily I didn’t go down that road. I never did it again. I wouldn’t want my daughter to know about it.” A smile never left her face; at fifty-four she looked thirty at most. “The curse of the Slits,” she said, leaving everyone to wonder what she meant.
8. Coen Brothers, A Serious Man (Focus Features)
The scene where the ancient rabbi quotes from the Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” as if the lyrics came straight from the Talmud is its own double take. But why does the song sound so terrible on the soundtrack?
9. Kay West, People.com (September 21, 2009)
“Before a packed house of 1,500 fans and a balcony filled with invited guests, Grammy-winning rock-folk singer Lucinda Williams, said, ‘I do,’ to her boyfriend and manager Tom Overby on Friday. The couple, who have been together for three years, tied the knot onstage at First Avenue, a music club in Minneapolis. The audience was in the dark about the pending nuptials until Williams, at the end of her performance, told the crowd that like country legend Hank Williams, she was going to share her happiness and her wedding with fans. Hank Williams married his second wife onstage in New Orleans.” Ken Tucker comments: “Williams also announced that she’d recently decided she wants to be referred to hereafter as ‘the daughter Hank never knew he had,’ rather than as ‘the daughter of poet Miller Williams,’ because ‘the whole poetry angle really isn’t working out for me anymore now that folks have actually examined my lyrics.’”
10. Josh Lieb, I am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President (Razorbill)
This first novel, featuring twelve-year-old Oliver Watson, a fat Captain Beefheart fan who rules the world but not his Omaha middle school, seems powered by the same malignant spirits that fester in Fletcher Hanks’s completely unhinged comic strips of the late ’30s and early ’40s, lately collected by Fantagraphics as You Shall Die by Your Own Evil Creation! and I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets! This is funnier, because you can usually forget that the story would actually be worse if it you took it as Oliver’s fantasy instead of his real life.
The Believer, January 2010