wax banks

second-best since Cantor

The problem is stupidity.

There are evil people in the White House, sure, but they’re outnumbered by the deeply stupid ones — dilettantes and pseudointellectuals like Bannon (who seems to be both), empty suits like Priebus, and of course the president himself, who by all accounts is too dumb to sit through briefings or comprehend ideas beyond grade-school level.

‘Ohhh you elitist jerk! Intelligence and goodness are orthogonal!’

Too-easy response: would you want a stupid doctor examining your daughter, or a stupid contractor building your house? These people need to be smart in order to do complicated things well — ‘goodly,’ as they say (I hope).

Let’s go further, though.

Intelligent people can be betrayed by their feelings, their ‘cognitive biases,’ same as anyone else. Obviously! And equally obviously, ‘smart’ folks can’t claim moral superiority — you can start with little more than the Golden Rule and live a good life, and the road’s littered with corpses left behind by ‘intellectuals.’ But intelligent folks, folks who can read critically and argue, who can handle irony and work through complex lines of reasoning and think dialectically, are much less susceptible (on average) to bad ideas.

Racism, for instance, is stupid — but you can learn that racism is stupid, and more importantly make yourself robust against it. Not through tribal-identitarian rituals (which just teach a kneejerk response to unfashionable forms of bigotry while blinding you to fashionable ones) but by introspecting about your racist beliefs and thinking through their consequences.

Censorship’s stupid too: morality aside, it doesn’t work (censored ideas grow more potent), and since the power to censor changes hands regularly, it’s short sighted to boot — next time around it’ll the other side silencing you. Those who advocate for censorship do so because they can’t think beyond the satisfactions of the moment, and can’t reason their way out of distaste. Empathy at a distance is a learned skill, and by developing that skill you begin to make yourself robust against your terror at unwelcome thoughts and expressions.

Why do intellectuals fall for bad ideas? Because they’re scared to make use of their faculties — they crave status, fear exposure, succumb to parochialism, or are just lazy.

The stupidity of the Trump White House bothers me because, even if Trump’s people are exactly as (im/a)moral as Obama’s, high-level thought can’t survive in that environment. Their organization is dysfunctional because so many people in it are too stupid to work together, for the future, at short-term cost to themselves. The best opportunity for the Republican/conservative agenda in more than a decade has been pissed away because the White House can’t play smart.

Which is merely quite bad right now, but will be a disaster when an actual external crisis hits. That’s the risk: the White House, the federal government, is not robust against calamity. You look at it the wrong way and it wobbles and falls.

Ignorance is our natural state, but willful ignorance is a sin. The president trusts Fox News and the Breitbart mis/disinformation machine for his daily news, even though he’s got the entire intelligence community ready to do that work for him. Why?

Because actually doing his job is too hard. Because he’s too stupid and too scared to keep up with the work.

So was GW Bush, of course — but Bush had principles, a compass (however faulty), and a deeply held sense of noblesse oblige. He was a cretin but he knew what the job was, more or less, and seemed to know his limitations. And like Obama, Bush was a voracious reader — you don’t suppose that’s a coincidence, do you?

Stupidity makes you cruel because it keeps you afraid. It makes you violent because it blinds you to better solutions. Stupidity makes you weak, because it keeps you from seeking out the interesting challenges that make you strong. It makes you boring because it shuts out all but the most obvious desires.

Lionel Trilling spoke of a ‘moral obligation to be intelligent.’ I look at Trump and his gang of second-raters and for a second I know just what he means.

Fallow feels.

Haven’t written much here lately — the news is so dark, and talking about media consumption seems not just inadequate but exactly wrong — but I’ll be back to it in early 2017. ‘The world must be peopled!’ and all that.

THE WIRE and THE SOPRANOS, dirt cheap. Buy?

The Wire and The Sopranos were on sale on Blu-Ray for $60ish apiece yesterday only. If you haven’t seen them, you should consider buying them next time this happens.

It’s been a while since I wrote one of these posts, forgive me if I’m a little rusty.

The turn-of-the-millennium ‘Golden Age’ of primetime drama kicked off with damaged/compromised classics like Twin Peaks, NYPD Blue, and The X-Files, which incorporated soap-opera seriality (via shows like Hill Street Blues) into the hourlong network drama format. Canonical shows like Buffy and My So-Called Life reveled in that new freedom, clearing way for achievements like the first two years of Veronica Mars, but it wasn’t until HBO got into the game that the primetime drama reached full maturity.

Oz was their first step, but The Sopranos was the breakthrough: a domestic ‘dramedy’ playing on familiar tropes (the henpecked Kramden/Bunker figure, the dysfunctional ethnic clan) with a theretofore unimaginable intensity, viscerality, subtlety, and — this is the key — honesty about sacred institutions like marriage. The Sopranos, by no means the subtlest of HBO’s great dramas, demonstrated that a primetime series could leave important matters of plot and character unexplained from week to week, trusting viewers to follow not only the in-world action but the various social-critical and symbolic levels of the show as well. Though this may seem silly to young viewers today, it was an extraordinarily demanding show in its time.

It was an actors’ showcase. James Gandolfini and Edie Falco not only gave two of the great individual performances in the history of the medium, they collaborated on one of the essential onscreen depictions of a marriage. The cast wasn’t uniformly excellent, and there were only a handful of sizable female roles, but the high pitch of the action meant that everyone on the show had great material to work with, and a handful of performances were career bests. (The rise and fall of Johnny Sack, for instance, is a masterpiece of writing, acting, and direction.)

It was a writers’ showcase. David Chase and his staff took huge risks: showing the main character committing horrific violence with his bare hands, say, or doing a Rosencrantz & Guildenstern episode in the Pine Barrens. Carmela and Tony’s showdown in the Season Four finale (‘Whitecaps’) includes two bravura scenes which belong in the American dramatic pantheon. ‘The Test Dream’ is pure Freudian nightwork. And of course the finale is an extraordinary achievement — perfectly emotionally correct but, at the level of plot, a bit of a tease.

It was laugh-out-loud funny — indeed, it was in many ways a domestic/workplace sitcom in the All in the Family mode — yet its often broad comedy only deepened its horror, denying viewers easy acclimation to a single tone (unlike Game of Thrones, say, a fine successor show which has traded wit for (self-)importance). Of the Golden Age dramas, The Sopranos was the jokiest one, and the most disturbing.

It was, in the final analysis, the Peak Era show that most harshly defied viewer expectations. Deadwood‘s anticlimaxes, The Wire‘s ‘inner’ climaxes, the unintentional hilarity of Galactica and Lost‘s endings…none of these assaulted the basic art/artist/audience contract the way the final season(s) of The Sopranos did. David Chase’s deep cycnicism is the primary colour of those last 20ish episodes, making the show less immediately satisfying but ultimately more haunting. Like the Seinfeld finale, Chase’s closing episode ‘Made in America’ reveals the pitch-black heart of the work; of course viewers hated it, didn’t get it, asked the wrong questions. But it works and it’s beautiful.

The Sopranos is one of the great American dramatic achievements.

(And yet Mad Men, helmed by Sopranos alum Matt Weiner, surpassed it in most respects. Weiner’s achievement is secondary, late: he applied the dramatic model of The Sopranos to a meticulously reimagined 1960s Manhattan, foregrounded female characters (and writers) (neither of which Chase took to), and sacrificed none of the comedy or dramatic intensity while doing without the lurid violence. I’d say Weiner’s series is ‘the better show’ overall, for what that’s worth. But as with the imperfect Buffy and X-Files, at its peak, nothing could touch The Sopranos.)


The Wire, meanwhile, is harder to talk on without parenthesizing. It’s the most tightly constructed Peak Era show, and the one with the biggest immediate social impact. It’s hard to celebrate individual scenes, sequences, and episodes, because the show was conceived in purely serial terms, each episode existing solely as a portion of the whole. No standalones, no gimmicks, just pure longform drama of a kind never before seen on primetime TV. (Even Babylon 5 couldn’t work on its level, though Breaking Bad fans claim that show did.) The well wrought multiyear narratives of The Wire make the X-Files ‘mytharc’ and Lost‘s endless backstory tap-dancing seem even more childish than they actually were.

Yet the satisfactions of the series are very different from those of the other ‘Peak Era’ dramas. By creator David Simon’s own account, The Wire‘s characters were conceived in a more limited way than Chase’s (or David Milch’s) — a ‘Greek’ vs ‘Shakespearean’ dramatic model, with the little guy crushed over and over by ‘postmodern institutions’ — so the only completely imagined character on the show is its dearest subject, Baltimore itself. The private lives of the individual characters barely register, except as (usually ironic) counterpoint to the ongoing polemic. This is risky business, but Simon managed to put together one of the best writing staffs ever assembled for a show of this kind. They pulled it off.

The Wire, then, is the ultimate treatment of a single city in American TV or film, each season focusing on a different community (cops and drug dealers, dockworkers, City Hall, city schools, the Baltimore Sun) to make an inescapable point about the disaster of the ‘drug war’ and the suffocation of the urban underclass under late capitalism. Its chief virtue is ‘authenticity’: driven by a collective reportorial instinct (and Simon’s own experience as a journalistic ’embed’ with Baltimore PD’s Homicide unit) Simon and his writers attended to details which might never have occurred to writers on an ordinary cops’n’robbers show. The series’s pragmatic attitude toward the drug trade (‘the only profitable industry left in West Baltimore’) and the creators’ realism about the limitations of police work (the cops and corner boys are soldiers in a war none of them actually want to fight) keep the drama even-keeled, in a sense, making room for small victories and drawing extraordinary power from small defeats — there are heroes and villains aplenty, but The Wire‘s world is one in which the Struggle, the Dream, is simply to be able to slow down, to survive, to be ordinary. Even moreso than The Sopranos, which focuses on the long second act of a man’s life, The Wire dramatizes continuation, settling, even boredom.

Plenty of gunfights, of course, and highly technical discussion of investigative techniques (infodumped so skillfully at times you’ll never know what hit you), some superb comedy, and each year, a penultimate episode so crushingly sad and intense that you’ll swear it was the best thing ever aired on American TV.

Which, honestly, it might’ve been. I know which shows I prefer from hour to hour, but taken as a whole, there’s nothing like The Wire. It’s one of the classic works of American agitprop — but it’s also a great crime drama. The Sopranos is no longer one of a kind, but The Wire is, and will (I suspect) remain so.

Hold up!

Note that Obama’s impatience with the chanting (they’re yelling ‘Hillary!’ and ‘U-S-A!’) is immediately apparent — it seems to me this isn’t an insincere reaction to the crowd, it’s a sincere reaction to the protester himself. And you can tell, you could tell even if it didn’t echo what he’d been saying all throughout his political career, that his ‘Don’t boo, vote‘ line isn’t just a line. We should consider ourselves lucky to’ve had a president, a law professor, who yells at his party’s supporters (or seethes at his Supreme Court) that democratic principle trumps tribalism and partisanship.

‘Design philosophy’ is a smokescreen: initial point.

A habitual point-misser at rpg.net — a guy who was banned for threadshitting about a game he doesn’t seem to play, returned weeks later, and still can’t resist the urge to insert himself into every thread on that subject — said this in a thread about D&D 5th edition:

I just feel like there is a really deep, philosophical difference between what 4e does, within its niche, and what 5e does, within that same niche, and that it’s unusual for someone to like such significantly different takes within such a narrow space.

Maybe my issue is more that I see “I like 4e” as saying more than simply “when I play 4e, I have fun.” I see it as affirming support for a thing behind the game–hence my repeated references to design philosophy, and my comparison to a philosophical difference in literature. Because, by the latter definition, I literally like all TTRPGs I’ve ever played, because I’ve had fun while playing them. Even games I would never actually say I like.

He talked about Disney’s Sleeping Beauty and Game of Thrones, and about C.S. Lewis and Ayn Rand, and how he doesn’t understand how someone could claim to like both paired terms, for ‘philosophical’ reasons.

And I think this in response:

4e and 5e don’t do the same thing. They don’t really try. This is one source of your confusion. One is an anime-superpowers ‘cinematic’ fighty minis game, one is a streamlined modernish take on 80s D&D.

But even if they aimed at the same genre, there’s this: almost no one cares about ‘design philosophy,’ and talking about it (even on nerd fora) is often a smokescreen. The stable sensible adults I know don’t find it unusual at all to like very different takes on the same material. When I read Game of Thrones, I dig its vastness, its human-scale history, its grim postapocalyptic antiwar outlook, its conspiratorial complications. when I watch Disney’s Sleeping Beauty with my son, I dig its grand primary-coloured good’n’evil story, its desperation, the courage and terror and childlike wonder of it. I like The Wasp Factory and Catcher in the Rye (‘sourly funny adolescent works through emotional issues’ stories), I like Tolkien and Moorcock (and both understand and disagree with Moorcock’s ‘kill mommy’ bashing of Tolkien), I like Pynchon and the faintly embarrassing sub-Pynchon pretentious sex-comedy of Illuminatus!, I learn something from Tony Judt’s Euro-cosmopolitanism and John Gaddis’s unabashed USA-triumphalism, and none of the philosophical ‘contradictions’ between these works are as important as what I (you) take from them in the moment.

Justifying your affection for some popcult thing by talking about the ‘principles’ it embodies is the same lazy identitarian bullshit that

POLITICAL/ACADEMIC/CULTURAL RANT REDACTED

and if you can’t stretch yourself a tiny bit to see and enjoy things on their own terms, and to empathize with others doing the same even with texts you ‘don’t get,’ then don’t be surprised when sane sensible adults politely show you the door.


The deeper point here is that consumers who talk about ‘design philosophy’ are for the most part just borrowing hip terminology to mark themselves as above the material they don’t like. You get the same from the dilettantes and status-seekers in ‘Apple punditry’ and the gadget press, acting as if they’ve intuited the deeply admirable design principles behind a gadget which (coincidence!) happens to fill a need for them.

Fear of pleasure, lack of empathy, and ignorance about process: these are, you will hopefully be unsurprised to hear, problems. We will talk.

Quick hits, October 2016.

Phish, BIG BOAT (2016)

Better than I initially thought (my initial review in its entirety: ‘Go see a Phish show’), but still an unevenly written, overproduced affair. I say all this with love, which has only deepened as they’ve aged into their nigh-miraculous midlife renaissance: Phish’s studio albums are a dicey proposition. Big Boat has the highest ‘dad rock’ ratio of the bunch — after the opening comic-rock number ‘Friends,’ you get four straight tracks suitable for shaking your cellulite on the grass while drinking thin American beer, and there’s two or three more waiting on the backstretch — but as always there’s a handful of interesting tunes mixed in: Mike Gordon’s ‘Waking Up Dead’ is less conventionally satisfying than ‘555’ off Fuego, but the perversity of building a song around the triumphant four-syllable wail ‘Vac-u-um-ing!’ appeals to me; Page McConnell’s ‘I Always Wanted It This Way’ goes to an enveloping indie-electropop place; and Trey Anastasio’s 13-minute closer ‘Petrichor’ is more smoothly integrated and richly textured than ‘Time Turns Elastic,’ which fans deride as jamless but which seems to me one of the best things Trey’s ever written. And honestly, a couple of Trey’s dad-rock tunes are pretty good: though ‘No Men in No Man’s Land’ is as disappointing as its unfunny titular joke (it’s a little better live), ‘Tide Turns,’ ‘Blaze On,’ and ‘Breath and Burning’ capture the unaffected sweetness and generosity of spirit which have characterized post-reunion Phish. Still, while Big Boat may well be a personal achievement for the band (though recent interviews have suggested some tension with producer Bob Ezrin), it’s just not a terribly compelling album.

Still, you can’t be disappointed. This thing they do onstage, no one’s ever done it better; we shouldn’t hold it against them that their albums aren’t their best work.

Steve Kuhn, TRANCE (1974)

If you’re a jazz fan, you probably have feelings about the use of the Rhodes keyboard: either you dig its mellow electro vibe and potential for signal processing, or you think it’s too diffuse and sonically inflexible for the job. In my experience, few listeners are truly neutral about the device — not least because its arrival correlated with the onset of jazz/rock ‘fusion,’ still a source of controversy in this maddeningly conservative discursive community. I love the Rhodes sound, but there’s a limit to its expressive capacity, and I recognize that the emotions it triggers in me have a lot to do with its cultural moment. And lately I’m starting to notice its…thinness.

Steve Kuhn’s Trance is very, very, very much a mid-70s electric/acoustic piano trio+percussion record. Ambient texture and largely static groove are the key objectives; New Agey drones and extended modal vamps never quite build a real head of steam (or more positively: they never interfere with the slow-moving sonic cloudwork). That said, it’s dreamy — not sleepy. Kuhn’s keyboard solos are fleet, the acoustic piano gets some heavy reverb, Jack DeJohnette’s drumming is Jack DeJohnette’s drumming, and the proceedings never get too wild or indeed too ‘interesting.’ As a progenitor electronic work, it’s very much bound to the norms of jaaaazzzzzzz; as a post-fusion jazz album, it’s spaced out in an appealing but not quite distinctive way. Its value, then, is in the subtlety and continuity of the playing: the way its pensive-meditations-amongst-the-fjords coolness and hypnagogic mood find expression through both the drifts of Rhodes and the percussive workouts (not to mention the brief Free breakdown on ‘Squirt’).

I found out only when I sat down to write this that Trance is a beloved ‘lost classic,’ a ‘hidden gem’ which didn’t make waves upon initial release. I don’t quite share this feeling — it feels to me like one more enjoyable Rhodes-touched album of the (ugh) ‘kozmigroov’ era of spiritual/psych/soul/funk/jazz fusion, that golden age from roughly A Love Supreme through disco. But I don’t begrudge anyone thinking this is uniquely or unusually fine music. The mid-70s were a killer time for jazz. Everyone has to learn sometime.

Radiohead, HAIL TO THE THIEF (2003)

Because they’ve been around for 20 years, and their last few albums have been ‘retrenchments’ and reflected their ‘maturation’ and so forth, the scale of Radiohead’s achievement is now easy to overlook — you can forget, or petulantly ignore, the fact that for several years around the turn of the millennium, Radiohead were one of the most interesting bands in and around ‘rock & roll.’ From The Bends through Amnesiac they were both unimpeachable pop songwriters and sonic experimenters and creators of increasingly dense avant abstractions, and when Hail to the Thief arrived in 2003, everyone I knew wanted to know what they’d come up with. Had they rediscovered guitars? Would it be pure electronic noise? Was George Bush the thief? It mattered, somehow.

And when the album was neither as dark/creepy/maniacal/foreboding as Kid A nor as majestically guitar-drenched as OK Computer nor as hermetically intimate as Amnesiac — when Thief was ‘merely’ an hour of effortlessly integrated proggish guitar-rock and electronic immersions and almost-not-quite dance beats and emotionally concrete but emphatically un-literal lyrics, merely a Radiohead album instead of the Radiohead album, it was marked down by the tastemakers as a bit of a disappointment, and that was it for Radiohead’s cultural moment. Four years later In Rainbows was a thinkpiece-ready media sensation for its pay-what-you-want delivery, but no one talked much about its music; nothing since then has made much of a dent outside of the music blogs.

But Hail to the Thief is about as fine a mid-second-act rock album as you could hope for. The Lovely Guitar Tunes (‘Go to Sleep,’ ‘Scatterbrain,’ ‘I Will,’ ‘Sail to the Moon,’ ‘Wolf at the Door’) are among Yorke’s loveliest, the opening two uptempo headbangers(?!) are pure adrenaline, and the group’s experiments in computerized pop theatricality (‘The Gloaming,’ ‘Backdrifts,’ ‘Myxomatosis’) argue for the continuity of the band’s pre- and post-millennium styles. Ignore the morons who think of Radiohead as ‘pretentious’: they’re just serious, and you should be too. While you’re at it, ignore anyone who dismisses Thief as a disappointment simply because it’s a distillation and consolidation rather than a year-in-the-lab-at-night experiment like Kid A. The whiggish rock/pop historical outlook that hypocritically insists both on the guilt-free pleasure principle (good!) yet clings to the idea that a great should do something new — getting bizarrely angry at artists content to do something(s) well — is the most poisonous result of early rockcrits’ desperate status-seeking. If pleasure is enough, it’s enough.

Hail to the Thief turns a few new tricks, but in retrospect they don’t really matter, nor does the album’s ‘incoherence’ when compared to Radiohead’s brilliant run from The Bends through Amnesiac. What matters is: the work gets you someplace it alone knows about.

(Sidebar proposal: The last four tracks of The Bends would be the peak of any lesser band’s career, never mind the rest of the album, and the key change and final chorus of ‘Sulk’ are — for me, of course ‘for me’ — one of the most rapturously sad moments on record. Only the cheapness of the contrast effect in ‘My Iron Lung’ mars what is, to my mind, an otherwise perfect rock album. Still, not their ‘greatest’ work, right? It’s ‘only a near-perfect collection of songs,’ unlike OK Computer and Kid A, which ‘add up.’ Man, I used to spend hours talking this kind of shit.)

From the annals of brilliant marketing…

My 6-year-old son and I were at Pandemonium Books & Games today, poking around the X-Wing/Pokémon TCG stuff. While my son cavorted and browsed, I complained to the guy at the counter: ‘Pokémon isn’t a very good game.’

‘Nope.’ He looked kinda bummed out by the game’s popularity. I don’t blame him. Pokémon is fine for little kids, but it’s not very rewarding for grownups.

Me, wistfully: ‘But I feel like Magic is a little over our heads.’

‘It’s not.’ He said this without the tiresome, clueless, aggressive insistence that tends to characterize nerd-store employees. This endeared him to me.

He rummaged around the shelf behind the counter and brought out two ‘Welcome Deck’ boxes. Each contained two playable 30-card mini-decks. He handed them to me.

I was touched, not realizing that these are in fact the cleverest imaginable promotional items. The first taste, as they say, is free…

He said to come on back after we’d tried them out, and he’d rustle up the others (there are five such Welcome Decks, one for each of the game’s Land types).

As it happened, my son and I ended up visiting my wife — she’d spent the day working alone in her office, because she’s both (1) extraordinarily devoted and attentive toward her clients, genuinely desiring to help them out of a jam, and yet also (2) a terrifying obsessive — and didn’t go home to get the Pokémon decks we’d planned to bust out this afternoon.

So we gave Magic a spin, using these little 30-card single-color (or -colour) decks.

It was his first game, my third, though I’ve read a lot about it over the years.

It’s weird to think that the two greatest tabletop games of the 20th century — Magic and Dungeons & Dragons — are published by the same company.

(Yeah yeah, Cosmic Encounter and Advanced Squad Leader and Third Reich and Dominion and Bridge and blah blah blah. We can argue about this some other time.)


NOTE: The rules insert in the Welcome Deck is totally inadequate if you’ve never actually played or watched the game before. The 16-page basic ruleset PDF, eminently googleable, will suffice for beginners. The comprehensive ruleset runs to more than 100 unnecessary-for-normal-people pages.

Revisits: The Slip, Dave Matthews, Grimes, Radiohead.

Listening again to some discs I’d put aside, trying to hear something new in somethings old.

Grimes, Visions (2012)

An immersive piece of intoxicated tinkerer’s psychedelia which I dismissed too quickly in favour of the immediately accessible Art Angels. It still feels a bit like student work, which is to say there are moments of obvious Technique and an abashed quality throughout — if you’re willing to write the words, why not take the next step and sing so’s we can actually make them out? — and this is very obviously a Somewhat Muddled but Affecting Drug Album where Art Angels (the (minor) breakout pop hit) is an enthusiastic celebration of clarity, and perhaps sobriety. Yet the best songs (visions?), like ‘Genesis’ (my favourite and my wife’s), bring gal-pop narrativity to spacey electronica in a lushly trippy style, engaging the senses instead of making sense or settling for sensation. A strong argument for making the dancefloor and the chillout room all one big space, or maybe one very small one. And though the bespoke knob-twiddling of EDM still strikes me as the midpoint of a slippery slope down to shared-isolation consumerist hell, there’d be a place for Grimes in a world that still valued accident and the unfamiliar. For her sake I’m glad she’s off speed, though it’s a very small but real letdown that her next album won’t be a trip like this one.

The Slip at High Sierra Music Festival, 9/6/98

In their early incaranation, one of the small handful of worthwhile ‘jam bands’ — they combined schmind-schmexpanding hippie wandering with proper jazz language, and in the late 90s their considered engagement with electronic tools opened up new vistas. (Afterward they took a turn to electronica-touched indie pop, which brought them more attention; by that point I’d fallen off the radar somewhat.) They were astonishing live, passionate and spiritually intense but with actual existing chops. All three members are superb players, and Boston was their adopted hometown, so catching them at an all-night MIT basement show or burning up the Paradise was always a special experience. In those days drummer Andrew Barr took off for a few months of apprentice drumming in Mali, and came back with new old knowledge, playing with devotional fervor. I don’t know whether that was before or after this feelgood festival set, which is bound to be more affecting if you’re already up on the band. Excellent ‘Yellow Medicine’ here after a bunch of festival jams, but the career highlight is ‘Honey Melon,’ a gorgeous tune off From the Gecko that’s lifted by fiddle and didgeridoo into unself-conscious exultation. The set overall is less essential than I used to think, but the final two tunes, more than a half-hour in total, are the truth. I miss this band so much.

Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool (2016)

  1. These are the best strings I’ve heard on a rock album. I don’t love all of Jonny Greenwood’s film work, which at times has seemed to me to be more ‘interesting’ than beautiful, but there’s no denying his ambition — or, at this point, his mastery. Remember how folks gave Beck props for hiring his dad to do (gorgeous) string arrangements on Sea Change? This isn’t an additive process like that: Greenwood’s textures, acoustic and electronic, are essential to the structure of each piece. The second verse of ‘Burn the Witch’ — a statement of intent and show of force — features string backing of extraordinary subtlety and beauty, even while the rest of the arrangement cruelly weaponizes the string section. Subtlety isn’t exactly a rock’n’roll virtue, but listen closely to the way heavily processed samples of Thom Yorke’s moaning/humming turn out to be models for — or fore-echoes of? — the avant string part that poisons the back half of the song.
  2. Yorke has always done a brisk side business in haunting solo acoustic ballads: ‘Desert Island Disk’ continues a line running back through ‘Give Up the Ghost,’ ‘Faust Arp,’ ‘Go to Sleep,’ ‘Exit Music (for a film),’ and ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ — songs which have sometimes grown in performance to include full-band accompaniment, but which at heart are guy-with-guitar songs. Indeed, Yorke & Greenwood’s two-guys-with-two-guitars shows are perfect showcases for the songs they’ve crafted together, just as Dave Matthews’s duo shows with Tim Reynolds are an ideal showcase for his own underpraised songwriting work. ‘Desert Island Disk’ features spare synth backing and hushed work from the whole band in its final minute, but it’s a reminder that Yorke, all by himself, is a major talent. So’s the next track, which sees Yorke singing in unplaceable character as supplement to an extended uptempo not-exactly-dance tune. You can’t say Yorke’s never been better — go listen again to ‘Sulk,’ a song he refused to sing after its release partly because of The Big Feelings, though I suspect the demands it placed on his tenor were too great anyway — but he’s never gone further in, lyrically or vocally.
  3. Some American rock critics hate it when a British band puts out a masterpiece. Not just Christgau; his resentments are just easy to see. (Go read the Dartmouth grad’s U2 and Radiohead reviews if you don’t believe me — the best of our record reviewers is more chip than shoulder, there.) Americans are often suspicious of subsequent British invasions. And Radiohead, especially on this album, are very British (English, duh) indeed, trafficking in a pastoral unease that a nation needs 2,000 years of continuous local anxiety to work up to. As I tried to get at in a review I wrote of Adam Roberts’s superb SF novel Bête, I think the essential thing about American imaginary landscape is that our monumental geography predates Euro colonization — America was ancient before whites arrived, and it stretches so far in both time and space that its chief function is to make people feel small and/or (falsely) humble. But Britain itself is ancient — older than Christianity — and British fantastika seems to me to treat the mysteries of the land as understandable in terms of permanent residence rather than latecomer settlement — America has mountains and rivers and resentful natives, Britain has stone circles and fairy rings and ley lines and resentful Britons. The video for ‘Burn the Witch’ drives home this difference: when Americans go on about witch trials, they do so in tiresome moralizing tones, to tell a just-so story about {$intolerance_du_jour}. But the Wicker Man? Guy Fawkes? Spring-Heeled Jack? Now we’re into something else, free now of childish didacticism. The nightmarish somber-cheeriness of the ‘Burn the Witch’ video has no precise analogue in American culture. Or so it seems to me.
  4. Moon Shaped Pool came out two weeks after Beyoncé’s Lemonade, but without Lemonade‘s built-in pressure to have the correct opinion about it (Beyoncé is now the Significant musician, about whom Opinions must be had and shared; Radiohead’s just a band). Of the two albums Lemonade certainly goes further beyond everyone’s previous sense of the artist’s capabilities, or at any rate her interests — we all knew Beyoncé was a tremendously talented singer, and it’s not as if she wrote the music or (underwhelming except to autobiographically interested fans) lyrics. Moon Shaped Pool sounds like Radiohead moving further down a path they’d opened several albums ago, making more-than-ever complex and subtle use of familiar elements like aforementioned strings, disquieting electronics, Yorke’s alien voice, etc.; it’s the most emotionally mature thing they’ve ever put out. ‘Band gets better at the things they’re uniquely good at’ is a nice story, but younger cultural critics don’t have time for it. There’s no hook, no novelty. Radiohead are old news. Well, if we’re only giving credit for achievement and not potential or indeed Significance, then the old news is still news: Radiohead are the more musically and indeed lyrically ambitious than Beyoncé (and just about everyone else in pop or rock), and while Yorke’s vocals occupy a much narrower emotional envelope, he relies less on cliché and formula.
  5. Not for the first time, I find myself privileged to grow old/young alongside artists who were once said (dismissively, sensationally) to speak for their time, but who were always and only (it turns out) speaking for themselves.
  6. It’s beautiful.

Dave Matthews Band, Before These Crowded Streets (1998)

DMB’s best album, so f’ing what, but also a good album on its own terms — so good that even the terrible early Matthews tune ‘Halloween’ can’t ruin the vibe. It helps that ‘Halloween’ is sandwiched between ‘Stay,’ a perfect gospel-tinged bit of danceable pillowtalk pop, and ‘The Stone,’ an extraordinarily tense rhythmic experiment which makes the case for Carter Beauford’s hi-hat as pop music’s 1998 MVP. The antic/rustic/pastoral interludes help the album cohere, as do the beyond-the-call Kronos Quartet and producer Steve Lillywhite. The inclusion of pianist Butch Taylor (who joined the band full-time around this time) seems inevitable — rounding off the percussive guitar/bass/drum texures and varying the sax/fiddle atmospherics. Matthews writes great little songs without strong melodic identities, which suits his improvisatory dude-with-guitar style but means his Band needs to deliver a lot more than background. Thankfully they do: Crowded Streets is both a topologically varied and a sonically unified album, democratic in spirit but with a coherent shared sensibility.

You’re under no obligation to take Matthews and his Band seriously; despite their early popularity and surprising staying power they’re not exactly essential artists, and Matthews’s songwriting tends toward diffuseness. In my 33-1/3 book on Phish I called him an ‘intuitive savant,’ and I stand by that — his stripped-down acoustic duo shows with soulmate Tim Reynolds showcase his oddball folk-pop experiments, and he’s written a handful of unassailable tunes in that mode (‘So Damn Lucky,’ ‘Bartender,’ ‘Jimi Thing,’ and ‘Warehouse’ come to mind, and I have a soft spot for ‘Christmas Song’). But his batting average isn’t high enough for the canon, c’mon. I take issue with Robert Christgau’s tired ‘bland as a tofu sandwich’ snobbery, not least because some well-made tofu sandwiches have kicked this carnivore’s ass all over the place (and I find DMB’s integrated-in-every-sense funk/folk/jazzgrassish pop sound pretty interesting), but there’s no denying that Matthews has never made ‘dangerous’ music, whatever you take that to mean.

And his lyrics are, worryingly often, just terrible.

Still, Crowded Streets shows how much room there is for experimentation within DMB’s radio-friendly mid-90s hedonism template. The songs move, the singer digs deep, the band passes the energy ball with casual expertise, and the sound belongs to them alone. Overlook them if you like, no one cares. Dismiss them if you like — but listen first. Listen, if you have a minute, for what so many of us heard back then.

Campaign inspiration.

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Nightmares of mine.

Heros quest dangerousplace1

Lately, insomnia.

Of a peculiar sort: I fall asleep reading with the light on around 9:30pm and wake up ‘refreshed’ at 2:30am. Most nights I’m in and out of sleep, or at least half-awake hallucination, for a couple of hours after a prolonged period of tossing/turning — and then up for good by 6am.

Three nights ago I slept seven or eight straight hours and was so happy when I woke that I cried.

Two nights ago, back to the usual.

Last night — last night the almost-usual. No return to sleep after the 2:30 awakening.

On the plus side, I’m getting some reading done in the middle of the night. I’m nearly finished with Charles Mann’s expertly assembled (if slightly repetitive) 1491 and have gotten into the more than slightly repetitive middle section of Graves’s Greek Myths.

On the minus side, insomnia.

Here’s how I ruined any chance of getting back to sleep tonight: I thought about the alleged string of recent clown hoaxes. Do you know? You know: idiots dressed as clowns hiding in the woods in order to mess with people.

You almost want to blame it on Trump or global warming.

In the dark in bed I imagined myself riding my bike and coming across an idiot dressed as a clown. I imagined myself jumping off the bike and beating the clown to death. I imagined myself on a bike path, and riding up to some jogger asking them for help because a clown was walking slowly imperturbably after me. I imagined that person, my last hope, turning into a clown, and then everyone else on the bike path transforming too.

Then I decided I wasn’t likely to sleep, and it was time to go downstairs and talk to you.

hungry wolves are not to blame

I opened the good ol’ reliable ~/Downloads folder to find a subfolder called ‘dragon wars,’ which contains a copy of a computer game I used to play as a kid. It came out in 1989. This is what the world once was: the credits page at the front of the manual lists one programmer, two designers, one visual artist, two producers, a design consultant, a music designer, Boris Vallejo on cover art duties, and two people writing the manual.

More people worked on the user manual than programmed the actual game.

How is this possible? I’ll tell you: the manual contains 19 pages of instructions and a map, followed by 23 pages of ‘Dragon Wars Paragraphs’ — read-aloud text which constitutes the bulk of the description offered by the game. You couldn’t play, in other words, without several thousand words of this sort of thing:

137) Bound in chains upon this lonely Isle of Woe you find the dark queen Irkalla, Mistress of Magan. The chains are made of enchanted silver, and she is unable to move. “Topsiders!” she snarls when she sees you. “It’s always the same. The water level rises, your toilets back up, and everyone rushes to the Underworld for help! Well, I have problems of my own, as you can see. That filthy halfbreed Namtar chained me here, and gave the key to the one creature who owes me no favors.”

Irkalla regards you. “Perhaps you could be of some use,” she says, her tone suddenly becoming incredibly seductive. “Find the Silver Key and” (etc. etc. etc.)

The programmer’s Afterword, which follows the warranty at the end of the manual, begins: ‘Imagine my surprise when my boss told me I had to create a top-notch fantasy role-playing game in four months and four disk sides…’

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I didn’t make it very far in Dragon Wars as a kid. Looking at this image I remember the Jail Keepers, and I remember the game having a certain austere quality which — historical note — characterized so many early fantasy/SF computer games for primarily technical reasons. (The magnificent desolation and loneliness of the hugely influential Zork games, say, isn’t just an aesthetic choice; in a text adventure, crowds of NPCs don’t play quite right.) I didn’t know the word ‘austere’ then, but I knew Zork, which was a lot better than Dragon Wars. Though maybe if I’d finished…?

Now it’s 5:52am. Yesterday I wrote a long forum post but didn’t share it — as I finished up I realized that I was in danger of becoming a person who shares long forum posts. After closing and saving the file I realized that’d happened ages ago; spirit crushed, I retreated to bed, where…well, you know how the story begins.