(1) Gareth Liddiard, Strange Tourist (ATP). The film critic Mick LaSalle, in the San Francisco Chronicle, recently answered a reader’s query as to why the superb film Never Let Me Go—the movie about an English boarding school attended exclusively by boys and girls destined to be harvested for their organs—failed to receive an Oscar nomination as one of the ten best films of the year. “…a movie’s chances go down if viewers feel like killing themselves after an hour,” LaSalle replied. Strange Tourist is like that: a man sitting in a room, hitting notes on an acoustic guitar, meandering through tales of one defeat after another, with alcohol leaving tracks on the songs like a snail. But Liddiard leads the Drones, who with far more drama, dynamism, and fury can also make you feel like killing yourself, or anyway wishing the world would end, or wondering if, in one symbolically complete event at a time—a school shooting here, a successful Republican filibuster there, a new Lucinda Williams album on the horizon—it hasn’t already. Here, in a quiet, artless, shamed, constricted way, a person emerges: a fictional construction, someone without a flicker of belief or, for that matter, interest in redemption, cure, or another life. Against all odds, especially across the more than sixteen minutes of “The Radicalisation of D,” the final track, he makes you want to know what happens next.
(2) Jay-Z, Decoded (Spiegel & Grau, 2010). An old-fashioned artist’s book—thick, gorgeous, a collage of memoir, rhymes, photos, newspaper front-pages, drawings, paintings, and so dense in mass and swift on the eye that you have no idea what might appear each time you turn a page. For me the book lit up when I stumbled on the page with an old picture of Ronald Reagan—from the ’40s or ’50s, looking ingratiating and slick—with the shadow of Osama bin Laden peering over his shoulder. The little superimposition swirled: Jay-Z’s point was that Reagan was happy to see New York turn into Crack City, that we’ve forgotten the “historical amnesia and the myth of America’s innocence that led us into the war in Iraq.” But to me, Reagan came right out of the book, smiling over Jay-Z’s shoulder, handing him a Medal of Freedom, telling him that he, like all of the other people on the stage, was an American hero for proving that in this great country anyone can make himself so rich democracy is beside the point.
(3 & 4) Mildred Pierce, directed by Todd Haynes, written by Haynes and Jon Raymond (HBO) and Michal Grover-Friedlander, Operatic Afterlives (Zone Books). At the end of the fourth episode, Kate Winslet’s Mildred, Brian F. O’Byrne’s Bert (Mildred’s ex-husband), and a few others gather excitedly at one of Mildred’s restaurants; someone brings out a 1930s box radio and places it on a table. They’re going to hear the radio debut of Mildred and Bert’s daughter Veda: a “coloratura soprano,” though they’re not sure what that is. Mildred and her daughter, played by Morgan Turner as a child, and by Evan Rachel Wood as a near adult, are more than estranged; her daughter considers her mother, a successful businesswoman, little more than a peasant. There’s nervousness all over Winslet’s face.
The radio show is vulgar, all noisy ads and smarm: Veda banters icily with the idiot announcer. There’s a fanfare-commercial, and then Veda begins to sing. On the sound track, it’s the Chinese coloratura Dilber, performing “Bell Song” from Léo Delibes’s 1881–82 opera Lakmé— but we’ve already seen Evan Rachel Wood, a woman with a screen presence so fierce and delicate that we picture her face on the face of the radio as the sound comes out, and the tension on Winslet’s face is replaced by terror.
In Operatic Afterlives, the Israeli musicologist Michal Grover-Friedlander argues that, at its most extreme, opera, “founded as it is on the myth of Orpheus,” is “an attempt to revive the dead with the power granted to singing.” This is what we are hearing, if not something more. Opera may be about the production of sounds of such purity, transcendence, and force that they deny the fact that they could be made by mere human beings—and thus the audience and the singer herself can be absorbed into the notion that the singer is not human, but other than human, or inhuman. As one cannot imagine a mere mortal making such sounds, she ceases to be mortal. It’s not that she becomes immortal; she was never born, and therefore she cannot die. It’s the emergence of a monster of grace; as Mildred and Bert look on, they realize they have created this monster. Haynes shows the faces of the people listening, and then there’s a slow pan across the radio, with sound coming out of the deco mouth of the speaker, as if the monster could turn into an inanimate object, or bring it to life—as if the radio is itself alive, or as if a deadly homunculus lives inside it.
(5) Attachments, Go Away (attachments.bandcamp.com). Jonathan Richman is back! In the shape of an Oakland quartet having too much fun to be embarrassed by anything, just like the man himself.
(6) Secret DJ, Philadelphia International Airport (March 13). Playing as you got off the plane, as you walked down the terminal, into the baggage-claim area, music to— soothe your nerves? Wake you up? Torture your brain? What is that? And it was Bob Dylan’s 1966 “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” Bill Deal & the Rhondels’ obscure 1969 “What Kind of Fool Do You Think I Am?”, the Beach Boys’ glorious 1963 “Be True to Your School,” and, with a crack, a surge, the kind of urgency that was not in music before rock ’n’ roll, the Animals’ 1964 “I’m Crying.” I don’t think I’ve heard a set that good on an actual radio station in twenty years.
(7) Gil Scott-Heron, “Me and the Devil,” from I’m New Here (XL). The song communicated resignation when Robert Johnson sang it in 1937, and it communicates resignation now. The difference is that Johnson’s devil was specific; here it seems to be life itself.
(8) Dana Spiotta, Stone Arabia (Scribner). From the author of Eat the Document, a new novel about a musician and his sister, both of them in their late forties. The book maps a post-punk milieu where the sense of completeness punk offered, in this case in Los Angeles, never goes away. Spiotta can capture whole lives in the most ordinary transaction, and make it cut like X’s “Los Angeles” or the Avengers’ “Car Crash,” as when the brother comes to his sister for money, for gas, for food: “I pulled open a drawer. I riffled through the papers until I found a credit card offer that included some low-interest-rate checks attached to a piece of paper upon which many caveats, warnings, catches, and asterisks (which I supposed meant risks of a sidereal nature) were printed in the classic credit-card tiny faint print. The first time you actually read the words printed on these things was to feel the last connection to your childhood die. I filled one out for a thousand dollars.”
(9) Randy Newman, The Randy Newman Songbook Vol. 2 (Nonesuch). The second of his solo piano recordings of old songs reaches its height with the first of them, “Dixie Flyer,” about Newman’s mother leaving L.A. for her native New Orleans during World War II, when Newman’s father was overseas. The regret in the opening notes as he looks back is awful: as he sings now, his father is dead, his mother is dead, this is his attempt to feel for himself the dilemma the world dropped on them like a bomb, and they will never hear him, never understand how fully he understands. The train crosses the country, Newman isn’t even born, but he feels the journey, hears what it means to be Jewish in the South. He flinches, he pushes harder, takes a stand, draws a line in the sand, and he leaves who he is behind that line, because he knows he would have made the same choice his mother did. It all happened in 1988 on Land of Dreams, but not with this depth of compassion, this hate: “Trying to do like the gentiles do / Christ, they wanted to be gentiles too / Who wouldn’t down there, wouldn’t you? / An American Christian / God damn!”
(10) RaveUps, “You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover” (Eagles Hall, El Cerrito, California, April 9). As a Yardbirds tribute band, they hit their stride with a cover of the Yardbirds’ cover of Bo Diddley. “I look like a farmer, but I’m a lover / Can’t judge a book by looking at the cover,” Dave Seabury sang—wiry, balding, coat and tie, a used-car dealer’s mustache, thirty years ago the drummer in the East Bay punk band Psychotic Pineapple. Until the last chorus, when you couldn’t read his face or his tone: “I look like an insurance salesman, but I’m a male prostitute!”