What Cait Said

White middle-class progressive folks are prone to feel a sense of individual burden or despair in facing an unjust world. Used to having our individuality and agency flattered, we face evil, destruction, unfairness, and oppression and think, “How could it be so unfair? What can I, with my sense of how to make things more just, ever do to make the system more just?” And with that, we often either sink into complacency (“nothing to be done”), or we begin holding forth to those around us about how much better we’d do things if only the powers that be would listen.

But activism is not mainly about explaining your smart idea to the powers that be. Institutional power seeks only to maintain itself. Power has no in-built drive toward rationality or fairness; few institutions have any free space in which a new idea is given a “hearing.” Instead, activism is mainly about building the strength– and amplifying the voice– of the people whom power ignores, diminishes, scatters, silences, or crushes. Want a fairer world? Fight to make room for those most excluded.

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New Publication: a Review of Norman Dubie’s “The Quotations of Bone”

My review of Norman Dubie’s zillionth book of poems, The Quotations of Bone, is up now over at Poetry Northwest.

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#tbt: review of Samuel Amadon, Daniel Groves, Elizabeth Willis

Here’s a 2011-or-so piece I published online with Poetry Northwest that seems to have since dematerialized from their webspace. Enjoy.

Amadon, Samuel. Like a Sea. USA: University of Iowa Press, 2010.

Groves, Daniel. The Lost Boys. USA: University of Georgia Press, 2010.

Willis, Elizabeth. Address. USA: Wesleyan University Press, 2011.

 

HEADLANDS AND HEADSTONES: NEW BOOKS BY SAMUEL AMADON, DANIEL GROVES, AND ELIZABETH WILLIS

amadon-seaRobert Frost once asserted that the poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom—“the figure is the same as for love.” Samuel Amadon’s Like a Sea and Daniel Groves’s The Lost Boys, both debut collections, express delight through very different temperaments, and conclude (if that’s the right word) in wildly divergent sorts of intelligence. In her fifth book, Address, Elizabeth Willis delights in juxtaposition and slippage, seeming wiser through an adamant refusal of book-smarts.

A first look at Samuel Amadon’s poetry suggests the academic, ambiguous, “well-wrought” American poetry of the 1940s and 50s. You can hear Wallace Stevens in his inquisitive, investigative language:

 

Were I to ask where you were staying

would that be what moves our conversation

beyond whether repetition

has more to offer than repetition

will be enough when I say

it has been enough is not enough… (20)

 

But, as this quotation suggests, his syntax is oddly-wrought and tricky; his poems hazard more than they assert. What is enoughness, in speech, understanding, acquaintance? The tercets Amadon is fond of (also Stevens-y at first look) wobble beneath the reader like three-legged stools, preventing her from feeling entirely stable or balanced within the poems. This imbalance is most pleasurable when it matches the poems’ logical upsets, the back-and-forth of Amadon’s continuous present:

 

I could not sound like anyone to anyone,

but often meant to almost (as

rocking is from weaving) sound

 

local, as there should be more

local, I started staying here, how-

ever I sounded saying

 

I can be here again, saying it over

in a way so it piled, in a way

piling, as we cannot see it

 

ending, where it is from, the reason for

it is in fact frightening

to hear so much anywhere in anyone (39).

 

This passage, a page from the book’s long braided-in sequence “Each H,” suggests Amadon’s debt to two other modernists, Samuel Beckett and Gertrude Stein. It also brings up a question central to his (as well as Stein’s) work: that of the personality of the author’s expression. Stein’s method, in Tender Buttons and elsewhere, suggested that “writing what the writing is writing” would allow the author access to a primary language, one free of preference, memory, and comparison, given purely over to seeing. In this timeless observing state, as Amadon puts it, “It was always different after there were no moments / it was always different after” (4). Amadon tries at times for a Steinian sight-through-words, denotative daily speech given up in favor of a dense present perceptual instant whose shape he makes palpable through the folds and wrinkles of his syntax. In “North of Providence,” Amadon writes:

 

Put

bells to walls. Then don’t listen. Go out

 

into isn’t that just a brighter not

thinking things through? Yes, or it’s what forgives

our not knowing how a lawn exists

 

after snow’s been packed across our eyes (42).

 

The claims of Amadon’s speaker are elusive, but despite his trolleying syntax, his themes of blindness, timelessness, and diverted attention, Like a Sea is a serene, reflective book. There are no big finishes. The book’s centerpiece, “Each H,” ends in muted puzzlement (“A day more like others than itself is over” [65]), and, over the collection, the reader is invited to lie down in a certainty that feels something like simple possibility:

 

To know what to say as what to say

Was significant as significance

Becomes not what but that you (59)

 

groves-lost boysDaniel Groves’s The Lost Boys is a debut of exuberance and teeter-totter balance, detailing and formal distance. Studious in his eclecticism (few other first books, I bet, acknowledge prior publications in both Action Yes and the Yale Review), Groves departs from daily subjects into pun-dazzled lyric performances. You couldn’t exactly call them meditations, and they’re certainly not essays. But lines like these—

 

[C]oherence comes unhinged, the numbers numb,

even as letters let on, ad museum,

that reason sponsors all, its tired and true

calling will set right the label libel,

inferred infrastructure, diatriabal

initiation, folio a deux… (9)

 

—suggest the hypertrophic development of Groves’ Byronic (Nash-ish?) formal wit, and a worked-at music that’s extremely rare in contemporary poetry. (And this isn’t even getting to Groves’s “this coital moral” pun on page 37.) But beneath this dazzle, Groves shapes his poems with a nimble, forward-moving pentameter and the pleasurable setup-and-kicker rhythm of his rhyme. These are old-fashioned, unquaint pleasures: it’s hard to resist when Groves’s speaker describes himself “remote from any motive / except the unacceptably emotive” (37).

Groves’s punning can be illuminating—one poem calls New York “the apple of all our idleness, the idol / of all our appetite” (42)—but, as is the case for most poets of this sort of formal vigor and wit, Groves joins opposites to emphasize what still separates them. The distance between the mundane, slightly trashy culture he writes of and the exactness of his forms is itself a sort of pun. It takes an acidic, arch sort of humor to hear in the idle of a motorcycle “a certain choked-up fin-de-siecle / refrain augmented by a reverb Om” (18), or to place “soft-core spree” to chime oddly in the same line with “esprit de corps” (53). The Lost Boys’s seventeen-part title poem is about many things—a lost love, a return to New York City, the child placing himself in every character that catches his imagination—but its capaciousness is mainly about this very energy, these ironic unions and breezy passages in between.

The surfaces of the poems in The Lost Boys can point the reader away, on first pass, from lovely subtler moments: rhymes like “mind wills” / “windmills” (38); the counterpointed iambic of “mosquito buzz, rhythmic cicadian cry” (30); the suggestive short-phrase music of descriptions like “a morbid bid for more” (5) or a city’s “incensed, disinfectant / miasma” (18). The reader must be ready to follow Groves into his punchlines while still keeping an ear out for his melodies. She may also be tasked to tread back carefully through such mouth-and-mind-fuls as:

 

…we stage

collector’s items, the catalog’s invented

inventory, filially file

cartfuls, in post-Cartesian denial,

of nihil enisled (6).

 

In moments like these, Groves’s composition (like that of James Merrill’s early “word-painting” poems) is meticulous, but his outline is elusive. This passage is, get it?, about librarians.

Against these feats, Groves sets a few sweeter, melancholy pieces. The monologue “Psyche” is possessed of a loneliness and poise makes me think of Auden. In it, the goddess of Keats’s ode speaks wearily of inspiration:

 

Yet, while I breathe,

all is self-flattery, long-winded drafts, and underneath

is overblown,

well-worn, through layers of hollowed figures, from headland to headstone…

 

The doubt and reticence of the poem make a nice complement to Groves’s technical agility; the reader, persuaded, sighs along with Psyche. And the grief-struck funeral poem “So Long” mourns movingly the loss of one kept, in life, at “arm’s length”:

 

Underfoot, you may be understood,

as one assumes a silence, among the dead,

reciprocal of what remains unsaid. (60)

 

In such moments the book feels least in the thrall of the poet’s gifts. Just as Groves’s speaker at one point projects upon “historic structures (fallen, nearly gone) / the will to restoration” (61-62), his poems work hard at their reworkings, foreground their flourishes, lean hard from old virtues to modern subjects. I wonder if Groves’s later collections will sing with more art and less craft, will impress readers less and move them more.

 

*

willis-addressWhat impresses in Address is subtler. Elizabeth Willis’s slippages, hints, and verbal knots seem resistant to close attention; the reader becomes aware of, in place of shine and music, a vast mapless interior space. “An astrolabe isn’t thinking / of a concrete lane / or unconquerable interior” (6), Willis puts it early in the book: there’s very little practical, or grand, in Address, and no forcible ordering of an inner life through epistemology. Willis’s speaker announces herself only (to reference Fanny Howe’s prose) as Unlocatable, as Hidden. The first of Address’s two poems entitled “Sonnet” opens:

 

To never say “I am solved

by this shadow”

 

I panic the way

evening petals

against the wooded cheek

 

I am not bored

 

On this hidden fence

I erase everything (31)

 

What is the reader to make of this speaking self? It feels not like the writer, but more like the voice of the poem itself, or of the aloof perceiving self far back in the head. This voice is enchanting company, whether as implicitly political as in “Vernacular Architecture” (“love’s office is devotion / to the ungoverned” [26]) or as personal as in “Ruskin” (“Dear Rose, I think / that I would like to be / a weapon like a pillow” [27]). As another poem puts it:

 

This is the I

I’ve learned to speak to

 

way, way out there

in the luggage and cabbage (50-51)

 

This is also to say that a lot has been left out of Address’s poems. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that seems to have begun from so deep in the poet’s mind. Willis has a knack (apparent in her 2003 book, Turneresque) for irregular, subdued couplets, an ideal form for her way of setting chatty speech against gnomic, spell-weaving expressions that seem to have crossed to the reader over a great territory of silence:

 

Coffee won’t make you clairvoyant

just a little shaky

 

You step into doubt

like the baking of biscuits

 

It’s something to do

with your mourning (54)

 

The book is old-fashioned in a manner different from Groves’s Lost Boys. Willis calls back to an English poetry not of nimbleness and satiric wit but of curse, enchantment, and incantation. The witch is a central image in Address: she who “speak[s] the fury” (52) of her private, immemorial magic against a sick society. “The happiness of an entire house may be ruined by witch hair touching a metal cross…. A witch may cry out sharply at the sight of a known criminal dying of thirst” (21), warns one poem in prose. This “fury” brings Willis’s speakers closest to our daily life, in poems like “Year-End Review” or the lengthy “This Is Not a Poem about Katherine Harris”:

 

…I am a firm

advocate of low-carb monosyllabic

government and have committed adultery

with unemployment figures and have enjoyed

a pun or two of my own (34).

 

In these poems, Willis’s wit and obliquity sit uneasily alongside a barely-suppressed quiver of outrage, a desire to speak absolutely firmly (there’s even punctuation!) about what is ephemeral, appetitive, and insane in contemporary America. The hopes of Address are modest—“a bridge can be a figure / of a flood” (44)—but durable. The triumph is that Willis’s poems, in wishing for reservoirs of silence, flashes of sanity, and flickers of heat, create a space where these things seem to come into permanence. I closed the book wishing I never had to leave.

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(2014 and) 2015: songs

Twenty-five songs for twelve (twenty-four) months, heartache and ecstasy and death and ordinary days wiping noses, catching buses, patching flats, cleaning the kitchen after everyone’s gone to bed. Here’s the Spotify playlist for this one, again missing songs with the (*). Please note the random peppering of artist photos that has nothing to do with the artists they happened to be wedged next to.

Songs: “cuddle buddies on the low”

alabama shakesAlabama Shakes, “Shoegaze.” On Sound & Color, these guys absorbed some of the chilly timbres and sharp dynamics of post-punk, much to the delight of my hometown’s indie station; but my favorites on the album are still the warm, punchy, soul-derived tunes, this one and “Future People.”

Mary J. Blige, “Long Hard Look.” An impossibly brave and robust singer whose guest spots I’ve often liked better than her albums, Blige here completely puts over a song that I could scarcely imagine a younger singer having the courage to touch.

Buena Vista Social Club, “Lagrimas Negras” (feat. Omara Portuondo). My favorite from their odds-and-ends collection this year.

The Chemical Brothers, “Wide Open” (feat. Beck). Consoled me on a rainy drive, helped me think of the future during a sad hard conversation.

incDisclosure, “Good Intentions” (feat. Miguel). Finally feel like I get the hang of house vocalists, why they sound so far off. In R&B, the singer’s drama and storytelling is the song’s emotional center; in house, the singer’s another instrument, an underlining of (or counterpoint to) the song’s energy and emotion. The distance of Miguel’s regret here isn’t a sign of an aloof performance: it’s his response to house’s history of anonymous, coolly-lonely divas, the same way Miguel’s own “Kaleidoscope Dream” responded to Shuggie Otis, “Adorn” to Gregory Abbott. And, of course, distant regret has been one of my winter’s dominant feelings, so this song couldn’t be more appropriate.

Drake, “0 to 100/The Catch Up.” Surprising no one, I find I love love love this song: a statement on the state of the art.

Ty Dolla $ign, “Saved” (feat. E-40). The better the speakers I’ve listened to this one on, the more I’ve found in it: the chorus’s bass drop, the shifting filter on the synthesizer arpeggio that brings it closer and farther, wrapping around you then drawing back. Yeah, Ty seems like a cad, but at least he’s repeatedly honest about it, and in E-40 he welcomes an elder who’s spent years expressing the same sentiments. “I ain’t gonna save her,” he says, but the music itself is a restorative joy.

whitesunsinc., “A Teardrop from Below.” My song of the year. As obsessed as I am with No World, inc.’s record from a few years ago, this song improves on it in every way— the whispered vocals, the nimble guitar, the skittery soothing drums. This band certainly deserves to be huge; if they follow up the collaboration they’ve begun with FKA twigs, maybe they will be.

Nick Jonas, “Jealous.” Look, not every great pop song can be “Call Your Girlfriend”— it can feel new without enlarging Top 40’s emotional vocabulary, or even in doubling down on gendered sentiments I don’t much like when an actual human being expresses them.

Kelela, “Rewind.” Kelela couldn’t be emotionally farther from it as a singer, but her taste in beats still reminds me of Yeezus— abrupt, dark-toned, almost skeletally simple.

Natalie La Rose, “Somebody” (feat. Jeremih). Back before our Corolla went to heaven, this song leaped out from our local hip-hop/Top 40 station’s endless cycling and kicked me right in the ears. A knockoff-DJ Mustard beat I like better than most DJ Mustard beats.

(*) Led to Sea, “Mossy Stone.” My favorite from Alex Guy’s new record is this stinging and swirling download-only B-side…

joanshelleyThe Milk Carton Kids, “Getaway.” Like the Everly Brothers, these guys’ harmonies are almost too perfect; the live warmth of their Monterey record is what saves it from an unbearable buttoned-up neatness. This is my favorite from the album.

M.O, “For a Minute.” My mom got me a subscription to Rolling Stone as a present for my 14th birthday, just as the last echo of male entitlement-bellowing was fading from mainstream radio and Puff Daddy and the Spice Girls one-two’d my middle school and shared a Rolling Stone cover. At the time, my teenage allegiance to punk rock and nerd-boy anti-sentimentalist sclerosis— why didn’t more bands sound like the Clash?— led me to hate Bad Boy and Euro-pop. But, almost two decades later, I love “I Need a Girl” when it comes up on our local all-throwbacks radio station, and I turn up any female-led R&B tune calling back to those euphoric late-90s groups (All Saints, En Vogue). Like this one!

Modus-Operandi-Girl-BandNicki Minaj, “Truffle Butter” (feat. Drake & Lil Wayne). Alex and Sayer, remember the drive to the healing stone scar of the Elwha and back where we listened to nothing but this? And: Is that a Burial sample?

Joan Shelley, “Stay on My Shore” (feat. Will Oldham). I wish I’d loved this whole album of poetic Americana— it even has guitar from Nathan Salsburg!— but only this song shone out through Shelley’s melancholy, musical referentiality, and lyrical reserve. Still looking for new music alive to (mostly) New England folk forms that admits all the originals’ hellfire, longing, jubilant lust and savagery, rather than playing like a reverent reflection of a narrowed past. (Should I just remain content with Palace and Cordelia’s Dad?) But still, all this to say: this song is unspeakably beautiful.

kelelaJazmine Sullivan, “Let It Burn.” I have this fantasy where the dozen visionary women currently destroying and enlarging my conception of R&B— from old-school-not-conservative Sullivan to Dawn Richard who’s growing on me to love-drugged android-cool Kelela– are all on a private plane together and spend the flight taking stock of what geniuses they all are.

Tame Impala, “The Less I Know the Better.” My uncle, a music fanatic who used to choose his Seattle apartments based on their ability to pick up KCMU and who loves X so much he got politely kicked out of their last Seattle show, first turned me on to Tame Impala, sending me a link to “Half Full Glass of Wine” and calling them “the future of psych.” But five years later, on Currents, their dry close-mic’d sound and Kevin Parker’s Lennon-on-Revolver vocal timbre move away from psychedelic and closer to big-screen 80’s synthesizer pop.

Vessel, “Drowned in Water and Light.” I wanted to love Punish, Honey like I loved Drop the Vowels– noisemakers sculpting heavy, bleakly-sexy body music– but this is the only tune that stood out amid the album’s diminishing returns of rattle, squall, and squonk.

omaraportuondoFetty Wap, “Trap Queen.” Didn’t really get this one until I danced to it with a hundred buzzed beautiful revolutionaries, queers, and future-bodies a half hour after we staggered out from seeing Braids down the street.

The Weeknd, “Can’t Feel My Face.” A whole album of Abel Tesfaye’s moping, coldness, and sexual ego wears me (and others) out, but on single songs this good the combination of his persona, his hurt-but-agile tenor, and his great taste in beats is bracing. Five years out, this no longer sounds new, but it does sound good.

White Suns, “Priest in the Laboratory.” A certain species of musician, for whom the spiritual possibilities within music are immediate and vital, can scream, sail, or whirl themselves into an ecstasy that makes those transcendent possibilities into immediate felt realities that have little do with “spiritual music” as the idea is commonly received. Look at America: it makes perfect sense that many of us experience sublimity only in music of pre-rational regression, nauseating dynamics, and horrified clarity. Maybe it makes me a pervert, too, but I still dearly love this shit, even though I find plenty of less-violent music transcendent too, and even though the spiritual possibilities I find outside music are the opposite of absurd and are inescapably relevant. Put one song on here rather than the album because that’s all I can take at once.

jazminesullivanWussy, “Halloween.” The worst thing about the two-camp model of music criticism— seeing the “mainstream,” and then an everything-else, defined generally in the negative and pegged to concepts of coolness and of speaking intentionally to a select group— is that its elitism keeps it from developing a language for musicians whose cultural signifiers, legacy, and influences come from both. Wussy, after ten-plus years and five albums, only now get cred from the hipster tastemakers they’re too big-hearted for anyway. Attica! mixes up Sweetheart of the Rodeo and “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “Ramblin’ Man,” and even though the ponderousness of the rhythm section sometimes wears me out (I don’t really like the Drive-By Truckers either), the tunes Lisa Walker leads are all splendid, with this cinematic and sweet and yearning song being my absolute fave.

Jamie xx (ft. Romy), “Loud Places.” When’s Romy gonna have a solo album? As Jamie xx’s productions turn into party music, big-screen and bright-colored, I get bored and miss that first album they did together. Maybe Jamie misses it too? Because this song’s dope: there’s regret and openness both in Romy’s voice and the song’s big movie-journey moves me because of it.

Young Money (ft. Tyga, Nicki Minaj & Lil Wayne), “Senile.” Piers put me on to this one. Thanks Piers!

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(2014 and) 2015: albums

How willing am I to try to practice my own sort of anti-consumerist consumption of culture? That I’m willing to publicly give a shit about the recent past!

In my year-end posts on music, I’ve tried to resist the temptation to be aspirational– raving about stuff I hope I get around to liking– but this means that, each year, there’s lots of stuff I intend to listen to and don’t, or stuff that I only get to loving once the year’s gone. So, in 2015, I decided to stick with those records: I didn’t listen to any new music at all until April, and have stayed with 2014 songs and albums that were just beginning to grow on me when the year ended.

My second-round 2014 keepers– maybe like cake from last week’s birthday party, but I think more like a pair of comfortable shoes– are mixed in with my 2015 favorites, both in this post and the next one (on favorite songs, which’ll be coming in a few days). Albums with a (*) next to them aren’t, thank goodness, on Spotify, so they aren’t part of this playlist; instead, I’ve added links to Bandcamp, Youtube, or artist download sites.

(2014 AND) 2015 ALBUMS

allodarlinAllo Darlin’, We Come from the Same Place. I can’t believe what a douche I was as I tried to dismiss this record. My first line was like, “eh, it’s Belle & Sebastian but less melodically nimble and sexually ambiguous.” Then I was all, “it’s Camera Obscura but less poised.” But I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about: Elizabeth Morris projects hope, nostalgia, and real un-winsome longing in a way that just destroys other indie pop frontpeople. The music is simple, the album is paced like a good film, I’m done trying to resist.

braidsBraids, Deep in the Iris. Partying in the winter means partying even though you are either wondering if you’re getting sick, or getting over being sick. In October, I had the joyful experience of taking an ibruprofen, packing Kleenex, and being D.D. to four healthier friends for the chance to see this fierce and weird band play their hearts out for a little crowd at a Seattle gallery. Braids’s show and album share a physical intensity and joy that I rarely feel in bands who use so many synths; and, more than their (thanks Alex for this description) Feels-y first two records, Iris is about the lyrics– and what fucking lyrics!

(*) Katie Dey, asdfasdf. Like the first half of Pure Guava, I listen to this to be reminded just how little you can give a shit as you still labor over every detail…

exhexEx Hex, Rips. One night, in a foul and preoccupied mood, the only thing that made me happy was Rips‘s chugging and irresistible put-down, “How You Got That Girl.” Feeling much better, I cleaned the kitchen and let the record spin out, thinking: Mary Timony is a lot sharper and tougher than the clingy, narcissistic goofballs she sings to on her latest band’s latest record. Rips‘s musical resources aren’t as abundant as other hooky loud old-school guitar-pop albums I love (Majesty Shredding comes to mind): Timony’s voice is narrow and gruff, the performances are unflashy. But it’s the toughness (Timony’s and her band’s) and the melodies that make it stick.

freemanFREEMAN, FREEMAN. After years of worsening addiction, Aaron Freeman had his life saved by his wife and his beloved soft rock; so, on his latest post-Ween album, there’s a lot of both. Without Deaner along, the musical imagination is diminished, but I still love Freeman’s goofy and uncompartmentalizeable temperament: check out the run from the confessional “(For a While) I Couldn’t Play My Guitar like a Man,” the wheeling fake-Arabian “El Shaddai,” and the dippy pubes-inclusive kid’s song (love song?) “Black Bush.” And with less emphasis on timbre, the music is more about Freeman’s temperament, how he loves things— Loggins and Messina, stallions, chipmunks— by pretending to love them. Don’t we all?

hurrayfortheriffraffHurray for the Riff Raff, Small Town HeroesIn a fairer world, Alynda Lee Segarra would be big-time famous, and her hard-luck, queer-love, murder-back, life-on-the-road record would be everywhere.

imarhantImarhan Timbuktu, Akal Warled. An unbelievably good record of contemporary Saharan dance-band music: complex, funky, engrossing in its flow and its tunefulness both. Leader Mohamed Issa Ag Oumar is front and center— that’s his stinging snaking guitar, his nimble voice, his songwriting— and the personality he projects is not as somber as that of, say, Tinariwen. Instead, he floats and leaps joyfully, and his band (who’ve kept nightly live gigs for years) follows him upward.

kendricklamarKendrick Lamar, To Pimp a ButterflyStill struggling with how to write about this album, in all its freewheeling grandiosity and rage and love. Lamar is celebrated as a rap “spokesperson” by institutional powers that would be happy to defang his politics and undermine his assertion of the right of Black people to liberation, dignity, or majesty. “Hood Politics” explodes, “Alright” is a heartbeat-hit of a political moment, but this album doesn’t otherwise slice up well: it’s a single 79-minute experience. Give yourself the time and listen to it straight through.

low_bandLow, Ones and Sixes. In their twenty-plus years, Low have sounded a lot of different ways, but Ones and Sixes is the first of their electronics-based (as opposed to rock trio-based) albums I’ve liked: the first time the airy guitars, rumbling un-pianoish synths and drum programming have gotten to my heart. In fact, it’s my favorite album of theirs since the all-analog Things We Lost in the Fire. It sounds like Midwest winter, but what else is new? It’s nice, too, when two people have been harmonizing as long as Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker have, to hear them learning brand-new maneuvers with their voices, as they do on “Kid in the Corner” and “Gentle.”

lowerdensLower Dens, Escape from Evil. Veering toward an indie idea of accessibility, some bands– I think of the Mynabirds, High Places, or the Eternal Summers– sacrifice what was wonderful about themselves in the first place. But as Dens frontwoman Jana Hunter (who I’ve loved ever since this weird song fell on my head from the internet) brings synthesizers and straight grooves to her band’s third album, her songs get better and the band seems to find more of itself. I’ve had four different people catch twenty seconds of this record from my laptop and ask, “–hey, wait, what was that?”

ronmorelliRon Morelli, A Gathering Together. Only a snob would say this album– a noise-artist sensibility grinding, stretching, pounding down and warping techno sounds— is a devolution of techno. You don’t have to buy composer (and head of the similarly-musically-fucked and harsh L.I.E.S. label) Ron Morelli’s pessimism, any more than you do old-school black metal’s satanic spew, to let his music shake your soul or chill your bones.

neelNeel, Phobos. From the co-creator of Voices from the Lakeone of my all-time favorite techno records, a record that is Voices‘s anti-type: rather than wading with you into a midnight river, this one lands you a dusty gray moon, one with a surprise in store (since this is not just an ambient album, but, in its own way, a narrative ambient album).

oughtOught, Sun Coming Down. Blaring and circular, nihilistic and gleeful, working itself into a rapture that then crumbles into chaos, Ought’s music possesses what Robert Christgau once called “the rock and roll virtue of sounding like you mean”: there’s nothing in Tim Darcy’s lyrics that the music won’t tell you already, but Darcy’s own sneering, yelping voice– stretched on this record until it sounds like Tom Verlaine’s or Jimmy Stewart’s– is its own sick pleasure. Play loud.

JessicaPratt(*) Jessica Pratt, On Your Own Love Again. I loved this record from first listen– it’s a physical pleasure to listen to it. But I took it as nostalgia– for English folk or English psychedelia or something. Then, the more closely I listened, the less I could place the details: Pratt’s keening mumbly voice; those close-mic’d, double-tracked nylon guitars; the dabs of clavinet or droney organ; the painterly abstraction of the words. Who did I think she was imitating or following exactly?

sleafordmodsSleaford Mods, Chubbed Up: the Singles Collection. England’s musical tradition of white working-class lefty rage runs a lot deeper than America’s. These Nottingham mates are dropping albums and singles all over the place— here’s where I started, but Chubbed Up is where I’ve stayed longest— and I hope Jason Williamson’s poetry and bile don’t eat a hole in his liver before they succeed in burning Downing Street to the ground.

Sunstrom Sound, AutumnalThe autumn entry of a season-keyed series of digital-only ambient albums: warm drones and percolating synthesizers that hiss occasionally into icy dissolves and crackles.

tinashe(*) Tinashe, AmethystAn EP-sized tape from my favorite new R&B singer, a hitmaker who’s also a bedroom daydreamer. Get it here.

vtflVoices from the Lake, Live at MAXXI. I’ve listened to music more and more on vinyl since my son was born: it works to spend forty-odd minutes in one place, drawing pictures or reading books or building trains, with a break in the middle and a big beautiful not-too-destructible sleeve to handle for his entertainment. I love the warm and slightly squashed sound of vinyl; I love that I’ve inherited half my mom’s beautiful collection; I took Helen’s tip on a player with an exceptionally good stylus and cheap everything-else— but I don’t think I’m a vinyl fetishist. Not, at least, a fetishist like Editions Mego, Spectrum Spools, Modern Love, or any of the other labels who release my favorite techno. Their records are big, handsome coffeetable-book things, often broken, I suppose for extreme-audiophile reasons, into double-LPs. The result is pretty to look at but runs completely counter to my immersive, environmental aesthetic experience of actually listening to this music. Like Live at MAXXI: a liquid, suspended-hours composition Donato Dozzy and Neel created for a museum exhibition in Rome. Broken into fours, the music means less. Taken together, it runs like a midnight river.

yolatengoYo La Tengo, Stuff like That There. My album of the year. I can’t think of another active band as complete as Yo La Tengo. They’re crate-diggers and consummate musical craftspeople, but their music is never remotely impersonal or “professional”; Ira and Georgia are a going-on-thirty-years couple, but the sentiments of their lyrics are never cozy or facile; their range of timbres have been established at least since 1994’s Painful but “Ohm,” say, or “Rickety” still sound utterly fresh. This album– like the show Helen and I saw caught promoting it– is joyful and omnivorous, wise and never less than loving.

 

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Interview with Maggie Nelson at The Conversant

My interview with the author of The Argonauts, The Art of Cruelty and Bluets is in great company: the entire new issue of The Conversant is full of interviewers (Caryl Pagel, Andy Fitch) I admire and interviewees (Kiki Petrosino) I adore. Thanks to the editors for accepting the piece.

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