Real Life Rock Top 10 (05/15/00)

1. The Holy Childhood, Up With What I’m Down With (Gern Blandsten,
P.O. Box 356, River Edge, NJ 07661)

There’s a cracked vision in this sprawling music—some drunk in his 20s conducting the Band with a few female friends to loosen the choruses, maybe—that reaches a pitch of experience and desire so expansive the whole thing seems to have been recorded outdoors.2. Richard Belzer as detective John Munch, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (May 5)
For once, no joke, no conspiracy mongering, just a case that sucks him in and breaks over his head, leaving his nihilism boiled down to the coldest professionalism, rewriting his ruined skin, wire glasses and dark beady eyes into the most complete deadpan imaginable, so that the suspect has two choices: fall into the black hole of this man’s face, or confess, fast.

3. Wire at Great American Music Hall, San Francisco (May 2)
Formed in 1976, they were from the start the most severely arty of all British punk bands, and it was their severity that saved them: their pursuit, it always seemed—as over the decades Colin Newman, Robert Gotobed, B.C. Gilbert and Graham Lewis went their own ways and reformed, dumping an all-but-unsolvable confusion of LPs and CDs off the charts—of form before and after anything else. Despite Newman’s cutting accent (“London suburban art-school sarcastic,” according to critic Jon Savage), or the fact that in 1991, lacking Gotobed, the group recorded as Wir, their humor was all in their melodies, playing against the sense of espionage in their lyrics, against the harsh, absolutely self-contained bass drums guitars rhythms of their ridiculously brief songs. In a word, they were perfect.

For the sold-out first show of an eight-date American tour they were instantly up to speed: terrifically loud but precise, with Newman’s staccato delivery for “Pink Flag” letting every word stand out clearly. They were pure punk in shape and attack—punk as wish, as what it could be, as an ideal—but without any baggage as to clothes, attitude, history. Never big stars, they carried nothing more than their old or young-looking selves and their sound onto the stage. Nothing was mythicized; nothing happening in the music referred to anything that wasn’t present, except to the degree that the music referred to, or in its way reformed, the world at large. Expressions were dour. Movement was minimal. The four played as if they had invented punk—or had stumbled upon it the day before, as if their project was so conceptual it was completed before it was begun. Doubt and nervousness underlay every tune. The cryptic invitations of the words suggested code. That made the momentary release of the melodies in the likes of “Dot Dash” or “French Film (Blurred)” unbearably pleasurable, because even as you felt the Pleasure, you felt it being taken away.

4. Wire, Third Day
Five indistinct rehearsal cuts recorded last fall. Forget the “first edition: 1 of 1,000″ printed, not stamped, on the sleeve (as I read it, that means there can be 1,000 first editions of limitless pressings each) and look for On Returning (1977-1979) (Retro/EMI, 1989), Behind the Curtain: Early Versions 1977 & 1978 (EMI, 1995), Chairs Missing (Harvest/EMI, 1978, their best) and Document & Eyewitness (Rough Trade, 1981), in whatever configurations you might find, plus Ian Penman’s fine “Flies in the Ointment” in the March issue of the Wire.

5. Richard Shindell, Somewhere Near Patterson (Signature)
I bought this glossy folk recording because of a fulsome New York Times review (“What does it mean to say a singer-songwriter is the best?”) trumpeting “the vocal equivalent of Shaker furniture.” Bet you didn’t know “Shaker” was a synonym for “florid.”

6. Ben Shahn, Farm Security Administration photo Oct. 1935
From the FSA home page, go from Subject Index to United States-West Virginia-Welch, from there to United States-West Virginia-Scotts Run, from there to No. 30, and you’ll
find Shahn’s picture of a businessman or government man—dressed in fedora and three-piece suit—sitting in a clearing next to a very handsome guitarist: “Love oh, love, oh keerless love,” someone wrote down, attempting to capture the player’s mountain dialect. His expression is at once wistful and impassioned, and his face is delicate, almost effete—there’s nothing of the weathering of Appalachia in his features—which only makes the caption more odd: “Doped singer relief investigator reported a number of dope cases at Scotts Run.” No audio, but listen to Lead Belly’s 1935 recording of “Careless Love” (on “Midnight Special,” Rounder) if you want to hear the morphine—in the song, if not the singer.

7. North Mississippi Allstars, “Shake Hands With Shorty” (Tone-Cool)
In this juke joint, the old—sometimes very old—blues are part of the atmosphere. With the guitars, even a mandolin and a washboard, buzzing off the walls, you don’t have to notice that the vocals are stuck in neutral, or if you do you can tune them out.

8. U. S. Postal Service, “1990s Celebrate the Century”
Sure, if you really want your letters celebrating cellphones and SUVs, virtual reality, computer art, Titanic (“A James Cameron Film”—did they, which is to say we, have to pay extra to say that?) and a visual and conceptual vagueness that beggars the imagination: Take “New Baseball Records,” which neither on the front of the stamp nor the explanatory back bothers to say what the records are or who set them. As for the Seinfeld number: no Elaine crawling out of somebody’s bed, just—a doorway.

9. Belle and Sebastian, Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant (Matador)
Myself, I’d prefer they walked like an Egyptian—at least they couldn’t maintain their coy folk melodies, their arch pre-Raphaelite narratives, if they had to do it at right angles.

10. Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Interscape, with music by John Cage (“One 8″) and décor and costumes by Robert Rauschenberg (Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, Calif., May 3)
After his molecules-in-motion pointillist backdrop for a dance set to Morton Feldman’s 1958 “Summerscape,” for the new “Interscape” Rauschenberg offered a typically bullshit collage—disassociated images that connected to nothing, generated no tension, merely sat on their screen mute and still. In place of his “Summerscape” leotards, which in their lightness left the illusion of nakedness, he came up with outfits decorated with more meaningless images. It didn’t matter. The music was rendered on what one might call a distressed cello (all scratching and dying chords, like John Cale’s viola at the end of the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin”) and broken—or, somehow, extended—by long periods of silence, in which the dancers continued to move without hesitation, in the same stutter-step they used with the cello. The effect was no sense of mime, but an unnatural suspension of one element of life, which made life itself feel like a construct, invention or accident. At the end, Cunningham came out for a bow, appearing as the complete happy bohemian: Carl Sandburg mop of white hair, dark coat, dark shirt and striped baggy pants he might have bought off a village fool somewhere in central Europe in 1547.


Salon, May 15, 2000

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