Irreal Life Top 10, May Day 2023.
May 2, fine, you know what I mean.
- Crowded House, WOODFACE. Brothers Neil and Tim Finn collaborate naturally, effortlessly, on an album of warm welcoming quietly masterful pop tunes: Neil at the height of his considerable formalist powers here, the brothers’ sweet harmony vocals lightly seasoned, the band building up each song from formally sly miniature to unabashed mezzoforte singalong bliss. How many lads-with-guitars LPs contain this many perfectly realized songs — strewn across this wide a stylistic range — of grateful darkening and maturation? Take out the seven best songs and the remainder would be the best day of a better-than-average songwriter’s life.
- Jung on meaning. ‘The decisive question for man is: Is he related to something infinite or not? That is the telling question of his life.’ Jung’s reputation as one of the 20th century’s most influential psychologists may fall away; hopefully then we can acknowledge him as one of the 20th century’s most influential mystics.
- Frasier and Lilith. The French farce Frasier (1993-2004), a tonally distant three-camera sequel to Cheers, gave its hugely talented stars meaty scripts to work with and let them go in front of a live studio audience. The virtuosic Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde Pierce as the Crane brothers were the show’s most purely pleasurable double act, but the production hit a new expressive range whenever fellow master Bebe Neuwirth showed up as Frasier’s ex-wife Lilith; their duets and trios might represent the last gasp of an old-fashioned strain of theatrical performance on American TV. The writers — several of whom were old, old hands — clearly relished the task of scoring those ensemble pieces, in their fondly remembered highbrow-screwball register. (Lilith introduces her date: ‘Brian is a seismologist at MIT.’ Frasier, twinkling: ‘Oh, that’s perfect! Brian being a seismologist and you having so many faults.’) An evolutionary dead end, irresponsible to the Discourse, weekly delivering a measure of flawlessly executed classical comedy. Revisiting the Grammer-Neuwirth duets on Youtube has been a recent joy.
- Jim and Pam and Michael and Dwight. Because its influence is everywhere, easy to forget, now, that The Office dramatically altered TV comedy overnight — the Gervais/Merchant original and then Greg Daniels’s USA adaptation mixed single- and multi-camera style and the documentary get-the-shot-framing-be-damned ethos to initially startling effect. The pilot of the USA show adapted the first UK script, and it just doesn’t quite work; I remember hating it when it first aired, and on recent rewatch it stayed disappointing. By the second episode, the comparatively well regarded ‘Diversity Day,’ it had already started to find its own perspective on its setting, and the brief first season closes out strongly with uncomfortable episodes ‘Basketball’ and ‘Hot Girl’ (w/guest star Amy Adams). The unlikable Season One version of Michael Scott is much closer to Gervais’s David Brent, which might be why the show was bombing in the ratings. But in Season Two the show compromises on tone, becoming much more ‘viewer friendly’ by moving the romance plot quickly forward and making Carell’s character an idiot savant rather than a clueless self-dealer. It works, at cost. Seasons 2 and 3 are perfect on their own terms, and the show should’ve ended on Jenna Fischer’s impossibly radiant smile. Seasons 4, 5, and 6 are way above the network-TV average, particularly the strongly serial, Paul Lieberstein-run fifth, but with the end of the overripe Jim/Pam story the show’s basic formula has been fundamentally altered: Michael is now the sympathetic victim of Corporate, the office is a family united (except for increasingly tiresome chaos agent Dwight), and the postwar USA workplace-story message of grotesquely grateful recidivism has been (well) told for the thousandth time. Carell’s lead performance is one of the greatest comic turns in the history of television, and the decision to keep going for two seasons after his departure is an embarrassment.
- Cassandra Wilson, ‘Last Train to Clarksville.’ Maybe there’s another layer of meaning in the extra beat the band gives this lightweight Monkees hit between verses, transforming common time into a private nine that signifies not just ‘jazz’ (funny that odd meters have come to do so for what was once dance music) but the darkening distance between 21-year-old Mickey Dolenz — on sublimated ‘departing soldier seeks quickie’ vocal duty — and 41-year-old Wilson, a middle-aged black woman singing about ‘coffee-coloured kisses and a bit of conversation’ like she knows exactly how rare such nights are and how few might remain. Parts of New Moon Daughter are too carefully managed, neither a new nor a solved problem for Wilson; in that regard she prefigures the more talented but less hip Janelle Monáe, whose winning strangeness can’t hide her flop sweat or obvious desire to be doing musical theater. But Wilson sings ‘Clarksville’ like she’s been there, with a wry unforced smile, and her odd-meter scatting brings across the feeling of a good time that hasn’t been easy. Which maybe it actually has, for her — this isn’t biography — but you don’t sing the cynical McCartney-imitating ‘Oh no no no’ with all those slow evening colours unless you’ve felt them. A quietly beautiful song.
- Academia. Publication history of a recent humanities paper chosen at a random: submitted 26 May 2019, accepted 29 April 202, published (online) 22 March 2022.
- Doomers. Everyone who attended college knows That Asshole who read The Fountainhead at a tender age, didn’t have friends to treat the poison, and went on to disappoint several undeserving women while being a minor political menace. AI doomers are like that, but swap in ‘Ender’s Game’ and ‘sexbots.’
- Phish at the Greek, 17 April 2023. Tweezer (43:39) > flawless improvised segue > Simple (19:10), every minute of both jams genuinely compelling. For a band in its autumn, Phish sure do play like the best value-for-dollar in popular music — like the secret of the universe might actually be as simple as loving what you do and who you do it with. Woo.
- The indignity of the boiled frog. ‘Choose a delivery option: (1) 4/17-4/19, $10.50 (2) 4/16-4/19, $24.99.’ (Amazon)
- Raving. Mackenzie Wark in The Nation: ‘Raves aren’t all that hard to find, but there’s a bit of a learning curve, and an establishing of trust, to find the good ones. … You can read [Wark’s Raving] as a book about the art of constructing situations more generally where we can reduce surveillance, consumption, the hustle, find forms of collective joy, or if not joy, ways to endure the pain of this dying world.’