What’s the deal with the retro-animation of Star War: Clone Wars? I mean, did they go to some ageing, near-bankrupt animation agency in Japan to knock together some Transformers-era hand animations over painted backgrounds? With the CGI arsenal available at the Lucas ranch, why revert back to the late 80s? It boggles and scrabbles the mind. And of course the dead dialogue and minimum plot/maximum action scenario and squinting, trembling faces make it all seem incredibly trite and mundane. It doesn’t matter how many post-it notes they fluttered on the fight choreography, this shit couldn’t draw a bored teenager away from his Wheatos or Playstation. Unless, of course, it’s meant to offset the cartoonish simplicity of the real show and its attendant universe, which it does in spades. I kept thinking this was a commercial tie-in with some cereal box action figurines; completely tossed-off in quality and marketed to the shortest attention spans, a cheap give-away.
When you find your formula, stick to it. Make only minor variations and occasionally hire new musicians. The thing about Ben Folds’ Songs for Silverman is that it repeats to a tee the band-sound he made with the BF Five: fuzzed bass, backing harmonies, banana-chords and a songwriting voice located somewhere between youth-power-piano-pop and suspiciously-SNAG maturity. The only real variation here is the flavour of the backing harmonies and the inclusion of steel guitar and or strings on some of the tracks. Ben is beginning to sound very 70s AOR/MOR in his 38th year, touching some Eagles/America-style backing here and there. Having said that, there’s about four songs on the album (Jesusland being the highpoint, a track not unlike Ween's Chocolate Town) that illustrate just how strong and dynamic the Folds Formula really is. And he is incredibly subtle and tight with his changes, throwing in an unexpected jazz chording or a horn-like backing chorus. Bitches Ain’t Shit would’ve made a welcome but slightly dissonant extra track on the album – he gives that song a whole extra tint and feeling that makes you empathise with the gangsta line about just coming out of six months county jail and finding you cousin balls deep in yo ho. And not just because Ben likes to swear in his songs.
And on a slightly embarrassingly nostalgic note, I had a quick look at U2: Rattle and Hum again, to see how it stands up now my fandays are long gone. The surprising thing was how well I remembered it. The thing that galls is the whole sincerity of it, especially the BonEgo thing rubbing up to big A(ss) American Music. I was watching primarily to tune into Adam’s live playing (great authentic Fenderbass sound), and there’s a few lucky breaks in the otherwise patchy editing/filming, but Joanou didn’t fail completely (but as documentary: totally zero). Have good cinematographers, will have film. If you’ve never heard of music, you might think these guys are pretty good live performers, and there’s a peculiar energy to the concerts which comes through very emotionally in Sunday Bloody Sunday (which makes a lot more sense if you live in Ireland). And there’s almost a feeling, that despite the whole Irish love of all things American, that they sense the inherent, profound contradiction at the heart of it all. A feeling that cast a certain look in their eyes in the music videos, a bemused obligingness (as opposed to wide-eyed excitement) that knows it’s all money-suckering and commercialisation, yet knowingly riding the wave. If you’re still out there, Jason Brayshaw, we can take up this discussion where we left off.
Also, gee I’m annoyed with myself cos Sly and Robbie are coming to town and I’m gonna be in Cyprus. The greatest rhythm section! My number two bass player! Me not there!
At last on PM: my EuroTrash v. Brit Election column.
Achingly kitsch and bordering on absurd, the Eurovision festival gives new meaning to television endurance both in the sense of an event whose format has changed little since the '70s, and as an extraordinarily drawn-out viewing affair that inspires spontaneous invention of drinking games. Its tawdry hosts swap tepid gags from the autocue; it has song and dance routines more revealing than maniacal interpretations of '80s music and aerobics; it always has a bunch of guys banging drums in a pointlessly dramatic spectacle; there's more sweeping camera angles and fancy lighting than your average awards ceremony or Lionel Ritchie video.
Meanwhile, following the campaign of Blair's opponent, Michael Howard, would be another group of flunkies, seemingly spontaneously-appearing to protest his policies while bearing suspiciously on-message posters. They'd make their presence felt for the television cameras, then disperse and regroup wherever Howard went, as long as he was made to look consistently unpopular. All of these troublemakers were Labour operatives — some even parodied the vampiric demeanour of Howard by dressing up as grim reapers. But the net purpose of all their dishonest tactics was not to be a political disruption or provide a sarcastic side-show to the dull familiarity of electioneering, but rather to control the tele-visual environment (and perceived reality) of the whole election; as one of the commentators in the documentary said, the election became an exercise in "organised deception".
The problem with a venue with at least three bars is that everyone’s either getting up to get more pints are shuffling off to the can to unload them again. Which means that me, with my big legs and open aisle seat, gets trod on. Repeatedly. By the time a gaggle of girls (all wearing same clothing) had gone off to the bar/can for the second time in 30 minutes, I was getting pissed, as in annoyed. My thinking is: when I pay to see an artist I like, I give him/her my fullest attention. I wanna capture the whole performance. I expect other to pay similar attention, and if I was up onstage I’d demand nothing less (of course, magnetic performance a prerequisite). Actually, up on stage is the only place where the hell-is-others aspect of the audience doesn’t get to one. Problem is: most international acts either play Vicar Street or The Point or the RDS, the latter two just sound-dead halls, so I gotta put up with the shit and mild to poor acoustics and wear steelcaps. And get real pissed like everyone else. Because nothing is enjoyable unless you are pissed.
Anyhoo, the Benster. He’s built himself one of the best trios I’ve ever seen live. The original (massively delayed) gig had him billed solo with piano, but thankfully he brought a band. And obviously drilled them to tight perfection. And made sure they could sing harmonies. Jared Reynolds is a great bassist (and a Nashville session man) and he’s got one of the best bass distortion tones I’ve heard in a while (that’s some Big Muff) – much nicer and rounder than the original BF Five dude with the Gibson basses. Although he played mostly pick when he’s a fingers man – not sure if playing against a piano calls for that all the time: that hard pluck as opposed to the soft attack. I’m sure that a bit of tone fiddling could have provided a similar sound. Anyhoo, he’s the kind of bassplayer I aspire to: song-oriented, excellent backing, solid without any pretentious horseshit. Like Adam Clayton, who I’ve been rediscovering lately; it’s a bass style I enjoy immensely precisely because it is song foundation, groove and interplay with the drums. It’s a particular kind of bass personality, a particularly bass personality, easygoing and brotherly in a musical sense, listening yet lyrical.
An aspect of Ben’s songwriting that comes out strongly in the live/performance context: his great dynamics. Call it contour or song balance, but it came out even clearer in the trio format: every song has its own variety of pace. Never just verse/chorus/verse or soft/loud soft/loud, his voicings are always interesting in range and contour. A trio with guitar instead of piano as main harmonic driver would obviously sound far more limited. The solid two-hour set didn’t flag for a second (even the lame-ass music teacher standing on the piano and conducting the crowd singalong (with horn parts) had some musical value). The 4 solo songs were good; the cover of Dr Dre’s Bitches Ain’t Shit (media player link) was hilarious and gentle (‘that’s some real conversation for your ass’). The new songs didn’t sound as strong as the material off Rockin the Suburbs – 'Jesusland' being one exception. Certainly the audience responded strongest to the old songs (the familiar old ShithouseNewStuff theorem). Add to the fact songs about people and stories, and a piano style that is in turn rhythmic, melodic and vicious, and a good drummer who doesn’t need to play 24/7 to enjoy the groove (Lindsay Jamieson) and you’ve got an excellent pop performance. And of course he threw his stool at the piano (again). Great gig.
I liked Andrew’s piece on truth and politics, considering how much lucid mileage he gets out of a political truism. The problem with the subject is to my eye largely nominal: truth as a concept (of facts, realities, things that are) simply has no place in politics, and never has. To my eye, politics is a form of relativism of power masquerading as perspective: politics as a power of representation married to interpretations without reference to absolute or distinct ideals of truthfulness. Truth is an idea too austere, too removed from the malleable, dirty little half-truths of politics. Truth is out. It is slightly obscene to talk about truth in politics because truth is and always has been at odds with power. The spectrum of politics is governed by Macchiavellianism on one side and genuine representative lobbying power on the other, with various shades of party in-fighting in between (mostly to do with leadership and jockeying for votes on bills). Truth is meaningless without interpretative spin and power. And further, politics is the garb and dress of seemingly necessary decisions whose sources are often totally at odds with public wellbeing or opinion. We had to go to war because... we had to lift embargoes and tariffs because... we had to free up media ownership because... And ultimately, well, because decisions had to be made and y’all need leadership, so it ain’t gonna be pretty. You, the people, after all, gave us the mandate to do so.
And lies, well, the politicians’ daily fair ain’t so much purely dishonest lying (in relation to truths, facts or special interest intepretations) as a discrete and banal form of dissembling, or disingenousness. The polite dressing up and presentation of half truths to disguise the source of the interpretation or interest, whether it’s industrial lobbying or the party line or any of a hundred forms of corruption. The off chance a politician is being genuinely honest and direct about a difficult decision is meaningless in the face of the sheer amount of perspectivising and spin the pull off every other time (unless, of course, they are the underdog in opposition). It makes politicians great untrusted relativisers and jargon-jockeys (just like lawyers, corporate directors etc. Ever noticed how many big politicians are or were lawyers?) and hence actors working in a fictive (because dishonestly representing facts etc) realm where the media, importantly, plays a strongly supportive role. Any ethics or statesman-like qualities or aristocratic mien a politician might have had up until the early 60s has been totally shafted by the new doctrine of image management and information control. These are the twin axes upon which the spun veracity and the hypocritical dissembling of politics runs today. Elections aren’t won on promises but strong images of leadership and controlled campaigning. Politicians play mercy to their hacks when they conveniently need a fall guy. Politicians now don’t explicitly “misinform” the public, they were misinformed themselves. (I know, how much more obvious a charade can there be? How can they continually mine the gullibility of the public? It’s all down to savvy media presentation. It’s a politico-media system, our system of governance and values) The only real danger to a politician is bad legal advice, which could lead to unexpected or irrational media representation and tainting. Even then Blair got away with a hokey legal case for war. Most wars are illegal anyway. The moral cases for war are allmost all constructed and deeply irrational shambles of thought and self-interested ideology (the word ‘poontang’ springs to mind).
Now more than ever, we live in fictive times. For the public this is largely a glossed-over issue since the media excels at covering its mediation; and what seems like an honest statement is more likely a deliberately conceived act, or a play at truthfulness. But it registers in the broad distrust and cynicism that’s out there, in the powerlessness most people feel even though there’s still great capacity for change and empowerment. (On a tangent, I can’t wait for the popular artist who’s going to mine the seething distrust of American politics and the war and represent the subjective force of the Second Superpower as an expression of artistic conscience.)
So in a way I’m amazed there’s still so much to be said for the case of politicians and truth. These are downright Nietzschean times. There’s so many other perspectives and precedents to draw here: Nixon (probably the most modern of politicians in terms of his naked greed, corruption and irrationality); Churchill downplaying the real carnage of war to prevent public outcry; the way the ‘fragile network’ idea of modern telecommunications, connectivity and globalism fosters not only greater threat from minority interests but actively encourages politicians to seek out greater secrecy and non-disclosure, and hence a broader package of themes and excuses to cover it (the War of Terror being a prime example). Or the fact that to a politician, an untruth does not equal an error (and the great lost idea of accountability, or statesmanship, or dialogue etc). Or the continuing fascination of Spin. Or the prevalence of the Bad Egg argument when the problem is really systemic (Rumsfeld and Abu Graib, Rumsfeld and Guantanamo).
The first thing I jotted down on a stickie when I read Andrew’s piece was this: in terms of honour and accountability, do lying or disingenuous politicians matter in a world that’s bent and crooked? The more perspectives I open up, the more I’m starting to unify and join the dots on them all (and I got a few coming), the more disgusted I am at the state of this world, and the passive participation in the broad dissembling and mediation which holds it all together.