Monthly Archives: January 2011

Little Boxes #31

(from Nancy, by Ernie Bushmiller, 1970s)

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Tea With Chris: All That Matters Today

We had a bundle of links this week, but only one is connected to a nascent revolution: Watch what’s happening on the streets of Egypt.

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Friday Pictures – Thomas Ruff











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“Alas It Is So, But Thus It Must Be” (Charlie Louvin, 1927-2011)

by Chris Randle

Cancer took Charlie Louvin on Wednesday morning, and this is going to be an awkward eulogy, because my first exposure to his music came later that day. I’d only known the Louvin Brothers as an internet meme: the 1959 LP above is a staple of weirdest/silliest/kitschiest album-cover lists online. Growing up with middle-class comforts and no vestige of religion in downtown Toronto, one of those kids who says they like every genre “except rap and country,” the very notion of Satan’s realness was more absurd than his plywood caricature.

Here’s something the listmakers usually don’t tell you: Ira Louvin designed that cover himself. He and Charlie burnt kerosene-soaked tires in an old rock quarry to set the scene, nearly incinerating themselves in the process. Between the high forehead, cavernous brows and sinister grins, it’s hard not to read perverse excitement in his expression. Ira (on the left, born Loudermilk) was the older brother, the most gifted, the primary songwriter. He had been drawn to the Pentecostal ministry once, and every seedy bar where he and his sibling played country songs must have felt like spiritual torture.

Ira became a violent alcoholic. He smashed numerous mandolins (!) during shows, cheated on all four of his wives and received several bullets in his back from the third after trying to strangle her with a telephone cord. (“If the son of a bitch don’t die, I’ll shoot him again.”) As the brothers’ hot young opener for one ’50s tour sang hymns in admiration backstage, his soused hero called him a “white nigger” playing suspiciously danceable “trash.” Then Ira tried to strangle Elvis Presley. I remember my friend Maggie, a big fan, telling me about the Louvin Brothers in a bar once; describing the eldest’s death via drunk driver while evading his own DUI warrant, she sounded both awed and appalled.

That was in 1965. Charlie Louvin, the relatively mild-mannered half of the group, had already gotten fed up and ended their partnership two years earlier. He led a respectable solo career for a while, but the tunes became less memorable without his demon brother. I don’t mean that in the fatuous sense of romanticized torment – they needed each other for technical reasons. Chained together through so many of their wounded yet pious gospel songs, the Louvins’ trademark tenor harmonies keen past Biblical doctrine to the pain and sorrow it tries to explain. When they sang “that word ‘broadminded’ is spelled S-I-N,” holding the last letter just until it hurts, they were referring to illicit dancing. You would think it was the fall from Eden.

You might also think it’s a little strange for a lifelong nonbeliever to suddenly find this music so affecting (and I’m far from the only one). If an atheist or agnostic listens to two righteous hellions outlining what a miserable sinner he is and hits “repeat,” is it theological masochism? Well, I don’t fuck with Christian fundamentalism,  but it does seem to give certain acolytes a deep understanding of tragedy. Browsing through Louvin joints over the past couple of days, I became particularly obsessed with one of their secular compositions. “When I Stop Dreaming” ends on these lines: “You can teach the flowers to bloom in the snow / You may take a pebble and teach it to grow / You can teach all the raindrops to return to the clouds / But you can’t teach my heart to forget.”

The heartbreak is magnified until it scrapes the edge of irony, like some Appalachian inversion of Stephin Merrit. I wouldn’t be surprised if the siblings intended that effect. Charlie Louvin apparently had a healthy sense of humour himself, leaning towards the macabre, as country often does. In later years he presided over a ramshackle Louvin Brothers Museum, right next to gory photos from Ira’s death scene. He didn’t release any music for 25 years at one point, but the 2003 tribute album Livin’, Lovin’, Losin’ renewed interest in the duo and presaged a series of new recording sessions. I ran out to buy 2008’s Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs LP yesterday. It features his rendition of “Wreck on the Highway,” and the cover is his smiling, avuncular face.

Curious juxtapositions aside, I don’t think Charlie was making light of Ira Louvin’s death. There are recent interviews where a gentle question about his brother reduces him to sobs. His New York Times obituary closes with this quote: “When it comes time for the harmonies to come in, I will move to my left because my brother and I always used to use one microphone. Even today, I will move over to the left to give the harmony room, knowing in my mind that there’s no harmony standing on my right.” Of all my privileges, the most precious one is that I’ve never had to watch a dear soul destroy themselves, before yearning: Get beside me, Satan.

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The Kids Are All Right (2010) – directed by Lisa Cholodenko, written by Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg


by Margaux Williamson

(I saw this in the middle of a very long train trip headed north. My boyfriend picked it out. We watched it on his laptop with separate headphones. The little boy next to us was watching Spider Man without headphones.  I didn’t realize till just before we started watching it that the director was Lisa Cholodenko. I had seen two of her other movies High Art and Laurel Canyon and never would have guessed this was hers. We both laughed a lot. The movie was what you hope a Hollywood/ independent/ intelligent drama could be, but rarely is – incredibly good and not dumb. )

The Kids Are All Right is about a sort-of-happy family with two moms, one teenage son and one teenage daughter. The son becomes curious about his and his sister’s sperm donor (each of the moms gave birth but the same donor was used in both cases). Together, the kids contact the sperm donor. This is done secretly so that they don’t hurt their moms’ feelings. The Sperm donor (Paul played by Mark Ruffalo) is handsome and charming and is a soft-spoken ladies’ man. He owns a fancy restaurant, rides a motorcycle and dates young earthy women with tank tops. The kids aren’t sure if they like him or not but he starts coming to family dinner.

His presence slightly alters the dynamic of the family, in some ways really positively, empowering some family members, but also threatens the position for the more controlling mom (Nic played by Annette Bening). The more laid-back mom (Jules played by Julianne Moore) abruptly kisses Paul one day after he hires her to do some landscaping in his backyard. He kisses her back. As the days go on, there is much sex, and much understated bemusement and also troubled bemusement. After one sex incident Jules exclaims – “What is WRONG with me?!?”

It is more mundane subject matter than the mysteries-of-making-art and woman-rock-stars of Lisa Cholodenko’s other movies, High Art and Laurel Canyon (where there is much seductive yearning for things just-out-of-reach – like sex & mentoring from complicated women, or professional success in the arts), but all three movies are pretty straightforward narratives.

What makes The Kids Are All Right weirder and weightier is that it has something unusual to say. The movie builds and communicates the idea that marriage is a strong institution – like a pyramid.

After the affair is revealed to the whole family in a tumultuous instant, Paul and Jules have a private conversation on their cell phones. They are both outside because they live in California. He takes a breath and then takes a big leap (maybe the biggest of his life) – “Let’s do this. Let’s make a go of this.. now that it’s out in the open”.

Jules’ face moves in a spasm between incredulity and exasperation. I don’t remember what she said first – “I’m married!!!” or – “I’m a lesbian!!!”, but she hung up the phone after one of them.  He had had no idea what he was up against. Neither did we really. We are used to marriages in movies being more like straw houses, and the people who blow them down – more like wolves.

With Jules’ declarations to Paul of commitments and sexual orientation (and everything that came before them in the movie), marriage suddenly looked like a heavy, intricate object – a thing complicated and structurally sound, with an agreed upon contract that allows construction and maintenance to take place over good and bad times, something difficult but that can ideally change shape, something that can’t be so easily be knocked down.

Paul got locked out of the house and it was hard not to feel for him – especially here in this movie where all the characters were complicated. The people inside the house were miserable, but they were warm and they would recover.

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Little Boxes #30

(from Dororo vol. 1, by Osamu Tezuka, 1967/2008)


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Tea With Chris: Metaphors, Butchered Ruthlessly

Tea With Chris is a roundup of recommended links, posted every Friday. Here are a few of our favourite things from the Internet this week:

Carl: Thanks to my Slate Music Club chat-partner Ann Powers, this week I was introduced to the impressive Lana Turner Journal and Lana Turner Blog, where the essays about Kesha and Katy Perry (really, it’s great) or Machete sit contentedly cheek by jowl with those about Godard and Afghanistan. Like n+1 but with a better sense of humour, it just got on my “essentials” list.

Speaking of the Music Club, after I’d finally finished up my best-of-2010 lists there, I discovered the 50 best albums and, especially, the 50 best hip-hop songs lists on Passion of the Weiss, and feel a little like I missed three-quarters of the year. Download the hip-hop mix now.

I’m sure this must do the Internet rounds with some regularity, but I got my first look this week at photos of the Wat Rong Khun Buddhist temple under construction in Thailand, a structure that looks like it’s spun from confectioners’ sugar and hypnagogic fever dreams. The superhero and science-fiction illustrations in the interior kind of make me doubt its earnestness of purpose outside of luring tourists into its sweet-petalled maw and devouring them, though maybe there’s a sound Buddhist-theological explanation?

One person who might know is the spiritually inclined Hamid Drake, one of the best living percussionists in jazz-improv, and I’d feel remiss if I didn’t tell Toronto readers that he’s playing two nights here this weekend, in an Interface with local musicians from AIMToronto. Here’s the Facebook event page and here’s the regular-type web page.

Chris: Back when I was cranking out regular CD reviews for a Toronto alt-weekly, I particularly enjoyed writing a one-star capsule on Katy Perry’s debut album, which lurched between gay-playing and gay-baiting with no more grace than her bellow of a voice. Perry’s 2010 single “Firework” topped the U.S. charts in December. It’s a putative “gay anthem,” with one of those music videos that show two young men kissing for half a second before the cut back to Katy, having just missed her clenched-fist salute. Rich Juzwiak’s year-end essay for the annual Pazz & Jop survey critiques this and other examples of post-“It Gets Better” pandering: “To court us so visibly, explicitly, and successfully…is to take the connoisseurship out of gay taste, to sap the queer from queerness.” If that makes you angry rather than sad, you might prefer the kicking meted out by the good people at the Singles Jukebox. Katherine St Asaph: “Do you ever feel like a metaphor, butchered ruthlessly? A sentient plastic bag?”

This doesn’t feel like that. Bonus K-pop content!

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Like a G20: K-Pop and Far East Movements

by Chris Randle

A creaking racial barrier was breached last November. It mostly went unnoticed – this was not an Obama-sized milestone – but as omens go, it’s a convincing one. When the L.A. rap crew Far East Movement sent their single “Like a G6” to #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100, they became the first Asian-American group to top the U.S. charts. And they happened to do so just as record companies are making an unprecedented promotional effort on behalf of pop acts from East Asia itself, hoping that Korean and Japanese stars will find an Atlantic audience.

“The first Asian-American…” is a problematic distinction, or at least a fussy one. Ne-Yo has Chinese ancestry; Nicki Minaj’s background is partly Indo-Trinidadian; Amerie was an army brat who spent several early years in her mother’s native Korea. They’ve all recorded Top 10 hits. But their public identities tend to be coded as black and nothing else, by design or otherwise. (Amerie collaborated with the Korean R&B singer Se7en and apparently speaks the language with relatives.) Not to mention Jay Sean, whose Britishness is probably more exotic than his brownness in parts of the U.S. now. Far East Movement just register as “Asian” without any such ambiguity – I mean, look at that name. Like California Swag District, it reminds me of factions from a video game, possibly because I spent way too much time playing Fallout over the holidays.

Though FEM sometimes work with an African/Asian/Caucasian-American production team called the Stereotypes, “Like a G6” is free of dubious chinoiserie. The most cringeworthy thing about this single is its faint resemblance  to Black Eyed Peas. I like the cold bass – between that and affectless chorus girl Dev, the track almost sounds like electroclash. I like her own party-party-party anthem better, if only for “wanna get your mitts in my oven.”

It’s unremarkable that a bunch of guys from Los Angeles’ Koreatown grew up surrounded by pop-rap and thought yeah, me too! What did surprise me is how much certain East Asian groups have enthusiastically adopted American musical idioms. When Tom Ewing assigned me to South Korea for last year’s Pop World Cup, I fell in love with K-pop. (Ended up losing by a single vote in the quarterfinals, perhaps due to my unhealthy fixation on propulsive beats + blatant Autotune.) And K-pop idols – a very technoccult term for these carefully managed stars, as if Genesis P-Orridge had gone into A&R – are rapping a lot. There are successful Korean MCs, such as G-Dragon, but the ascendant girl groups often have designated verse-spitting members of their own, from Rainbow to Miss A. Plus, club bangers:

None of the aforementioned foreign acts have actually broken through in the U.S. yet (Wonder Girls’ “Nobody” did reach the outer environs of Billboard’s chart in 2009, the first Korean song to do so). I suspect that’s because the artists in question have been induced to imitate passing American trends before each marketing push. The Korean-Japanese singer BoA, for example, recorded an entire album of sub-Gaga Eurobosh for her stateside debut, sounding understandably awkward in the process. Why not foist the ultramodern, ecstatically artificial bubblegum of a Girls’ Generation on unsuspecting Americans and see what happens?

That easy choice is ultimately a false one. What I really want to see 2011’s slate of crossover wannabes do is continue the tangled polycultural moves they’re already feeling out. Anyone living in a major North American city has probably been pulled into that dance already, if not born on the floor. My friend Maddie, whose critical K-pop blog My First Love Story guides, incites and inspires, recently argued that “hybridizing one’s identity is better than endlessly floundering between one or the other.” Nicki Minaj couldn’t forge a katana for you, but she knows how to swing one.

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Friday Pictures – Mary Cassatt


Mary Cassatt / 1899


Mary Cassatt / 1891


Mary Cassatt / 1892


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Temporarily decamped (to the Slate Music Club)

by Carl Wilson

I won’t be posting an original piece here on B2TW this week because I’m busy beating the dead horse of 2010 music with Ann Powers, Jody Rosen and Jonah Weiner over at the Slate Music Club. I posted my list of 50 picks – 25 albums, 25 singles, however you define those terms – this afternoon. (I’ll put the raw-data long list up on my own site Zoilus later in the week.) But rest assured that with that step out of the way, the talk from here will get more wide-ranging, disputatious and refreshing – it’s mainly a What Did It All Mean discussion, not the What’s On Your List And Why Isn’t Your List More Like Mine kind. (Though you bet it snaps right back to that kind in the comments.)

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