Real Life Rock Top Ten – January 2009
(1) Fiery Furnaces, Remember (Thrill Jockey). Present-day New Yorkers by way of Oak Park, Illinois, Eleanor Friedberger, who does almost all of the singing, and brother Matthew Friedberger, the guitarist-organist-pianist who writes most of the songs and composes the train-wreck arrangements, plus whoever is playing bass and drums with them at any given time, are the most unpredictable band in the country. Or rather their songs are the most unpredictable. They start in one place and moments later they’re looking back at themselves from the other side of the street without giving you a hint of which side you’re on. This is a double live album, and their best—or, anyway, the album that takes their music further than any before it: Gallowsbird’s Bark, Blueberry Boat, Bitter Tea, the notorious Rehearsing My Choir, about the Friedbergers’ grandmother. The song structures might be jazz, in the same way that Steely Dan made rock and roll out of jazz, except that Steely Dan songs actually have structures, and Fiery Furnace songs often seem to have trapdoors and banana peels; the themes (“Single Again”) might come from the Carter Family.
The package carries an unusual warning: “Please do not attempt to listen to all at once.” No kidding: after only the first disc—twenty-four cuts, with twenty-five on the second—I was exhilarated, spinning, and would have played it again immediately if I hadn’t been completely exhausted. I have no idea how the band keeps up with itself. There’s Hendrix all over the guitar, but calliope in the organ. Sometimes the vocals drop so far back they seem to be offstage. Arrangements are too complicated to be made up on the spot, but you can hardly credit people patient enough to craft them before the fact. Eleanor Friedberger’s style is conversational but frantic, racing through domestic horror stories and Hong Kong crime films, the music pulling her like a marionette, an arm flailing here, a leg buckling there, her head whipping around in circles. She’s exasperated, she’s got to get it out, she has to tell you the story, but the phone is ringing and she has to take this call but there’s another call coming in OMG someone just cut her off and oh, right, where were we? “And then they drove me to an Albertsons outside of Boise,” she relates in the hubbub of “Oh Sweet Woods,” deliberately, to make sure you can follow this, “and took me into a back room. And they said they wanted to balance my checkbook,” a sexual reference you might not have heard before, but the innuendo is unmistakable, Hey, baby, how’d you like me to balance your checkbook? except that doesn’t seem to be it at all, “and they said they wanted to organize my receipts,” which doesn’t exactly have the same ring to it, “and itemize my expenses and that I had the key to a safety deposit box with treasury bonds and the key to another safety deposit box where I’d stashed away the only pewter pocket watch that ever belonged to Joseph Smith’s great-great uncle’s brother-in-law—and I said, You’ve got the wrong Eleanor Friedberger.”
“Half the record is from actual shows and half is the hourlong set from our Bitter Tea tour recorded totally live in my apartment,” Eleanor wrote when I asked how the album was made. “As Matt says, it’s a live album about live albums.” “Did you have people over to make an audience?” I asked. “There wasn’t enough room to have people over!”
(2) Doors, Live at the Matrix (Rhino). It’s March 1967 and you’ve wandered into this supposed folk club on Fillmore in the Marina in San Francisco and there’s a four-piece band on stage with a tall lead singer who flops all over the place. They have an album out, The Doors, and maybe you’ve heard a few tracks on KMPX, the FM station that’s still alternating music you never imagined hearing on the radio with shows in Chinese and Tagalog. Now they’re six or seven minutes into, not exactly anything that fits the word song, but some Freudian psychodrama that somehow never loses its musical moorings, and—and, listening to this double CD, as opposed to the countless Doors live albums dumped on the market over the last few years (Philadelphia! Boston! Even Boot Yer Butt! the cavernous, almost mystically fuzzy set of bootleg recordings compiled by Rhino in 2003), you can feel yourself as you might have been then, born or not, looking at the stage, at the few people at the tables in the room, trying to take in even a fraction of the sound, and wondering, What the hell is going on?
(3) Frozen River, Shattuck Theater, Berkeley (March 6). An oddly noisy audience for an art film about a destitute woman in upstate New York who turns to smuggling illegal immigrants over the border: a man boos the preview for Girl Cut in Two, presumably to let everybody else know he disapproves of girls being cut in two. What’s shocking is the way people snigger at the heroine’s poverty when the cheap cord she tries to use to tow a car snaps, or when there’s nothing in the house—her trailer—for her kids to eat but popcorn and Tang.
(4) KT Tunstall, “Little Favours” (Virgin, 2007). Tunstall hits high notes by letting her voice break; as it does, you hear someone questioning herself, her motives, what she wants. The spectral presence that hovers somewhere in the sound—part Sarah McLachlan, part Dion, a presence made of will and doubt—has been generated by the radio itself. When it comes on, it seems to have drifted in from another country, another time, more likely the future than the past, as in the day after tomorrow.
(5) Brenda Lee, “Break It to Me Gently,” in Mad Men, “The Gold Violin,” (September 7, AMC). Close-out music after the episode ends with January Jones throwing up the car on her way home from the party where she finds out her husband is sleeping with the comedian’s wife. It’s 1962, when the song would have been on the radio, but it never sounded so threatening when it was.
(6) Shawn Colvin, “Viva Las Vegas,” on Till the Night Is Gone: A Tribute to Doc Pomus (Forward, 1995). If you make a movie where nobody is anything but stupid, does that make you smart? Feeling unclean after the Coen Brothers’ Burn after Reading, The Big Lebowski was like discovering an enclave of democratic spirit in, say, the Department of the Interior: Jeff Bridges thinks he deserves respect, so he treats everybody else with respect. But this slow, twilight version of the old Elvis song, running under the closing credits, picking up a motif carried in the film itself in predictable fashion by T-Bone Burnett and Carter Burwell, contains a landscape the L.A. of the picture never touches: a whole city of dead ends.
(7) Classic Blues Artwork from the 1920’s—2009 Calendar (Blues Images). Ads made for the Negro press by the old Paramount label—Kokomo Arnold’s 1934 “Milk Cow Blues” gets a light boost as “The Greatest Record Ever Made”—and taking off into the ether with a tableau for Blind Lemon Jefferson’s 1928 “Worried Blues.” In a room with cracking plaster and a pot-bellied stove, a man in a suit, suspenders, and glasses is asleep on a bed; even passed out, he looks like a lawyer. A barefoot woman in a shift sits by a potbellied stove, smiling at the door, where a well-dressed man carrying a box labeled “SHOES” stands grinning—and you get the feeling what she really wants from her outside man is . . . shoes.
(8) Scott Simon, “Ole Miss: Presidential Debate Host, Cultural Treasure,” on Weekend Edition (NPR, September 27). The day after the first McCain-Obama debate, reflections on how Oxford, Mississippi, has changed from the time when James Meredith arrived on campus in 1962 as the first black student in the school’s history: the student body rioted, members of the mob killed two people, and every student stood up and walked out when Meredith entered his first class. “I’m glad that in these times it may be hard for us to imagine the courage of James Meredith,” Simon said, in his typically flat, soothing way, which is usually a set-up for something blunt: “He walked across campus, went to class, and put his head down to sleep in a place where he knew that there were people nearby who wanted to kill him.” Forty-six years later, there’s a statue of Meredith on campus and Oxford is a sophisticated town with “visible integration”; it was only two years ago that the old-time music band Crooked Still, which can dive very deeply, felt a need to redo Bob Dylan’s 1963 “Oxford Town,” but they’re from Boston. “For years,” Simon said, “Mississippi was considered a state that was only barely part of the United States”; now “it played a role in electing the next president.” Simon paid tribute to the sacrifices of those who had lived and died to make it so, and then cued Robert Johnson’s 1936 “Cross Road Blues.” In Johnson’s Mississippi, to be caught on the road after dark could mean death for a black man; Simon’s implication was that Mississippi had crossed over. Johnson’s recordings have been remastered so the sound is full and complete, but this began tinnily, from a distance. Then Johnson hit a loud, quivering note on his guitar and you were in a barn, the note was a shot, and the story wasn’t about James Meredith at all, it was about Emmett Till.
(9) The Exiles, directed by Kent Mackenzie (Milestone) and Revels, Intoxica! (Sundazed). 2008 saw the first-time commercial release of this 1961 film about American Indians wandering through life in the Chavez Ravine sector of Los Angeles—a Los Angeles that was wiped away for Dodger Stadium. As people gather in apartments, go out to bars, pile into cars, there’s a constant, real-time soundtrack by the Revels of San Luis Obispo (“Six Pak” and “Church Key” were California hits in 1960): wherever there’s a jukebox or a radio in the movie, the Revels are on it, a pseudo-surf band distinguished by the unrelieved crumminess of its sound, which turns every echo of something distinct, unique, contingent, unlikely—moments in the music that might remind you of the Everly Brothers, Jack Scott, Don and Dewey, the Champs, Santo and Johnny—into the same cheap, grimy insult the film itself follows in every frame, as if to say, as the film won’t quite allow itself to do, I don’t care, I don’t care if you care, so why should you? Give up!
(10) Paul Beatty, Slumberland (Bloomsbury). A novel in the voice of DJ Darky, aka Ferguson Sowell, an African-American from Los Angeles who hangs out at the Slumberland bar in Berlin in the years before and after the Wall came down. Searching-for-the-perfect beat plot aside, what makes this book sing on every page is the fact that you’re in the presence of someone who’s so smart you don’t want to miss a word he says. I don’t mean Beatty. Our DJ with his phonographic memory—he never forgets a sound—has opinions on everything, and everyone of them, tossed out as punch lines and wisecracks and put-downs and tears in his beer, seems the result of hours of thinking it over: the rebuke, the pose, the atrocity, the psychopathology of everyday life in the form of what’s on the jukebox. We meet Lars Papenfuss, a “master spy who used his cover as a pop-culture critic to prop up dictatorial movements like ‘trip-hop,’ ‘jungle,’ ‘Dogme 95,,’ and ‘graffiti art’ instead of puppet third-world dictatorships.”  “I hate Wynton Marsalis in the same manner Rommel hated Hitler,” DJ Darky says, pushing his German-historical hangover for lack of anything better to do. “Whenever I hear Marsalis’s trumpet playing I feel like the Desert Fox forced to come to grips with the consequences of totalitarianism after the war has been all but lost.”