So Beautiful or So What

Look at the assortment of instruments that Paul Simon brings on stage with him. It’s like the contents of a small music store or antique shop. And how many of them come out for one low-key ballad? That’s just Paul Simon’s way. He incorporates exotic things from all over the world and makes is sound natural. But, of course, you could stuff all wind chimes and flutes and talking drums in the world onto your record and it wouldn’t mean anything if you don’t have songs that are touching. Simon wrote all the songs alone with an acoustic guitar, and anything else added on in the studio is just sprinkles on what’s really hearts-and-bones songwriting. We come to Paul Simon for his thoughts about life, and if there’s a little flute on the side, that’s nice.

So American

Portugal. The Man are from Alaska, which means that they can see Russia from their house (Lord, I never get tired of that joke!) which should give them a unique perspective of what it means to be American. Seriously, though, Alaska is not a proper state; it has a different history, demographic makeup and culture than the proper United States, not to mention a radically different environment. I would imagine that being Alaskan actually would give one a nice remove from which to watch the American culture wars. Just don’t expect to hear about it from this band. Portugal. The Man is not here to write polemics or make comments about the unfolding world. Their songs are not about anything you can put your finger on – they’re just poetic and melodic. And that’s really a relief. I don’t actually want to hear another song about what it means to be ‘so American’ – I already know it’s not gonna be anything good. I just want to hear a catch song.

Smile (Pictures or It Didn’t Happen)

Amanda Palmer named an album Theatre Is Evil, and she’s got a point. She knows, probably better than most, the incredible power of just getting up on a box with your piano or your ukulele or whatever, and speaking your mind. Palmer started her career literally standing on a box, as a street busker, and she’s built her fanbase through the unconventional means of interfacing with fans directly via social media. She’s earned her share of controversy, mainly from critics (and peers) who cannot wrap their heads around how crowdsourcing and direct patronage even works, and insist that those things have got to be in some way wrong because they cannot understand such a novel model of artist/fan relations. The no-middleman business model isn’t for everyone, but it’s worked out pretty dang well for Amanda Fucking Palmer, and besides all that, it’s given her a unique platform for her activism. She has her very own grassroots network of dedicated supporters, people who may have come for the music but who’ve stayed for the political engagement and consciousness raising. Palmer has always been outspoken in her feminism and keenly aware of her power, as an artist, to be heard and the responsibility to share stories and amplify other voices. Right now, in suddenly turbulent times, she’s tapping and amplifying a deeper rage, as the stakes in activism become increasingly life or death. Amanda Palmer is very serious about being the a spokesvoice for women who are livid with rage and fear, and using her network to blur the lines between entertainment and political action. The personal is the political is the entertainment is the culture is the agent of change.

Small Town Moon

Regina Spektor is hardly a small town girl; she was born in Moscow and grew up in the Bronx. Anyhow, you won’t hear her trying to pander to the kind of people who think that having one stop light is somehow a virtue. For her, the image of that moon is just a jumping-off point to flex her weirdness. The small town, for one thing, is all in your head, it’s a state of mind. A neurosis, if you will. It’s never about the moon, baby, it’s about your existential crisis. Leave it to a Russian to explain to you that the flourishes of Romanticism are just a fluttering lace curtain masking a landscape of nihilistic despair. Or something. Regina Spektor has a sunnier disposition than that, I suppose, and her message is more about getting some living done while you’re still as young as you’re ever going to be.

Smack Jack

Nina Hagen was the soundtrack of my entire 9th grade year. Her weirdness did a lot to transport me out of the petty misery of high school. It’s probably for the best that I didn’t have access to the visuals – it might have ruined me for real life even more than it did. Nina looks damn good as a man though, and her face shows the same flexible range as her voice. This kind of aesthetic excess belies Nina’s D.A.R.E.- approved message. “Smack ist Dreck” indeed, but clearly people don’t become like this by prudishly saying no to things. Apparently the song was written by Nina Hagen’s babydaddy, who was himself a heroin addict and eventually died of AIDS, so there’s an element of tragic irony at play. The real message impressionable little minds are likely to absorb is that being a wildly weird and interesting person requires the rejection of conventional mores of behavior aka doing dumb shit that might put you in the ground but at least you died interesting.

Slide

I love the plaintiveness of Jake Bugg’s voice. The kid sounds like a sad little angel. In, like, a sexy way. Or course, pretty boys who have the sads for no reason is basically its own genre, and it’s rather a weak basis to build a career on, not that there’s any shortage of people who’ve built careers on just that. Jake Bugg, fortunately, isn’t trying to build his brand on having just one mood. This guy does have some range, although he’s proved that it doesn’t include rapping. And, yes, being all feelsy and sensitive is a strong suit. I like a moderate amount of well-delivered feelsiness, myself. I think this is just the right amount.

Sleeping Beauty

“This song is about reincarnation, but most people think it’s about cosmetic surgery” says Lena Lovich. That’s a big leap in meaning and philosophy, but I can see how most people take words at face value. It’s nice to see Lovitch still up there doing it, shaking her crazy old lady bones. She doesn’t seem like one to espouse cosmetic correction of any kind. She seems like more the kind to tell everyone to let their freak flag fly. Weirdo types like Lena Lovich really blossom with age, don’t they? Especially women, who delight in outliving expectations of prettiness and acceptable behavior. It’s admirable to see the creativity of old ladies who’ve embraced the role of the crazy spinster aunt or witch in the hut in the woods. It’s so much less of a battle after you’re through being young and attractive.