Jimi Hendrix really needs no commentary. Everyone knows this song, and everyone knows his story. To the point of over-familiarity, some would say. Hendrix continues to compel the imagination as much for being such a tantalizing ‘what-if’ as for his actual legacy. Obviously, we all know that it’s more fun to lionize the gifted and dead than the equally-gifted-but-still-plugging-along. We enjoy the narrative more than we enjoy the work. Would we listen to Purple Haze with the same delight if Jimi Hendrix was now an elderly man composing music for films, releasing the occasional space-jazz album, and making out-of-touch comments about today’s social issues? Probably not. We like it because it’s a preview of attractions that never came.
Father John Misty has reappeared, and if you thought he was acerbic before, buckle up. The honeymoon is over, and the singer takes aim at the world outside his boudoir. The last Misty album was, of course, the wedding album, and although it had some biting moments, it was essentially an ode to living happily ever after. That was two years ago, and perhaps the world hasn’t actually changed all that much, but the American landscape has been recast, to put it kindly, in a less flattering light. Josh Tillman casts his pen towards the way we live today, and the culture we’ve come to inhabit, and he finds very little to like. In the first minutes of the new album, he correctly identifies the root of all our problems in the biology of birth itself. Birth happens at great, possibly deadly, expense to the mother, and that’s just the beginning. The effort and compromise and sacrifice and danger of keeping alive a human infant – an unviable, helpless creature – are the basis of every structure of civilization, for good or for evil. The society that we’ve built, out of biological necessity, essentially to ease the burden of staying alive, is grotesque and absurd, barely redeemed by what we view as the highlights of human achievement. We’ve evolved and learned enough to mitigate most of the problems that plagued our ancestors; we can reasonably expect that our children will live to adulthood now, and we very rarely die of leprosy anymore. Yet the we refuse to let go of prejudices and superstitions formed centuries ago, we cling to traditions and social mores that no longer serve any purpose, we resist the march of progress every step of the way, all much to our own detriment. What do we even have to redeem us, as a species, except possibly our unique capacity to create shared experiences through art? Art gives us a collective experience of empathy and learning, of sharing our beliefs and feelings, the freedom to enjoy a crude music video prominently featuring Donald Trump and Pepe the Frog. In the end, we can admit, with a bitter spit, that each other’s all we’ve got.
“We don’t belong here, we were just born here”
This kind of angst is exactly what we go to Modest Mouse for. Feeling slightly displaced in the world has been their grand theme from the beginning. It doesn’t seem to be getting any better with age, either. Lots of people who start out full of angst and fire mellow out over the years. Most do, in fact. Either because they genuinely become happier people, or because they realize that you can’t sell yourself as an angry young ‘un when you’re over 35. However, Isaac Brock appears to have a very real case of misanthropy that isn’t a posture and isn’t about to go away. Maybe there’s a middle-age slump on the way, some ill-advised attempts to stay relevant, a bad new haircut. Maybe he just needs to have a baby to make him see how life is a beautiful miracle and every moment is precious. Maybe ten years from now Modest Mouse will be a pastiche of themselves playing ‘The 2000’s Revue” in Las Vegas.
Despite my admiration for Patti Smith, I have to admit that I’m not much of an expert on her. I mostly listen to the Land collection aka the hits. Smith is a difficult artist, though. Her highs are fierce, without doubt, but her more boundary pushing material can be more unpleasant than interesting, and she’s overly fond of sad dirges. I can’t remember the last time I’ve sat and listened to her divisive Radio Ethiopia. Heck, maybe I never really have. It’s a not-fun album to listen to, at least according to a lot of critics. Or it’s uniquely challenging and rewarding, according to others. Either way, this song is a highlight. It’s got that feral energy that Smith became famed for, the combination of hidden soul and aggressive loudness.
I wager you’re well familiar with ubiquitous hit, and I bet that sometime after the ten thousandth time you heard it, what it’s about may have finally dawned on you. You may have even felt a tiny little bit bad for whistling along. But then you whistled along anyway. It is, to refresh you, an inescapably catchy ode to that peculiarly modern social evil of our time, the school shooting. Making delightful art out of the shittiest things in life isn’t by any means a new phenomenon; people have been making whistle tunes in the face carnage for as long as people have known how to whistle. It’s an interesting thing to think about. We’re reached a point in our society where we just numbly accept the very real likelihood of getting shot by a disgruntled acquaintance or blown up by a terrorist as just a residual risk of living. While the specifics of the threats we face are uniquely ours, the mindset is nothing new. We wearily accept our timely dangers, just as people before us wearily accepted that most of their children would never live to adulthood or that a certain number of people in their communities would inevitably be eaten by lions. It’s not callous, it’s just how we’ve always survived.
This is something I quite relate to. You see, I am exactly the kind of nerd who thinks that paying attention to what’s playing is of such supreme importance it outshines even sex. I try to not be weird and awkward about it. Apparently most people don’t want to talk about music when they could be getting naked. Most people don’t want to talk about music instead of getting naked. They don’t want to talk about music while they’re getting naked. They don’t appreciate you getting out of bed because there’s DJ-ing to be done. But sometimes you just have to drop everything and turn up a pop song!
I listened to Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat a lot when I was a kid; it was one of my favorite albums and I listened to it with a straight face. That’s because I had never seen a Sparks performance. Until the invention of YouTube, I was not familiar with their live dynamic. Now, of course, there’s not a straight face in the house. Not that I didn’t grasp or appreciate their sense of humor – if you don’t get the jokes, you’re not going to become a Sparks fan. But it took a long time to dawn on me just how much they were really roasting the pop culture around them. If you thought, just by listening to the song, that Russ sounds quite convincingly the sexy New Romantic, wait until you see his interpretation of the popular ‘big suit’ trend. You can’t unsee it, that’s for sure. Also, be sure to stick around for the interview portion of the video, in which the comical dynamic continues, at the expense of Dick Clark. You may be surprised to find that the brothers are American after all. I knew that they were, but when Ronald opened his mouth I still half expected an English accent to come out. Because you don’t really expect an American to be that clever and funny. But there you go – Sparks may be from California, but their humor is English through and through.