Monthly Archives: August 2012

Review of the David Foster Wallace biography: EVERY LOVE STORY IS A GHOST STORY

Before you ask, yes, this book does contain endnotes.  🙂

At the time of his death, David Foster Wallace had two novels under his belt, a trio of short-story collections, and a hefty amount of essays/nonfiction.  D.T. Max’s biography, EVERY LOVE STORY IS A GHOST STORY (a reference from Wallace’s posthumous novel THE PALE KING), is the first of the author, and I’m sure it won’t be the last; Wallace’s insights and personality are too big and interesting to be left to one book.  With that said however, Max’s treatment of Wallace’s life is superb: it’s clear, understated, and well-written.

This isn’t the first piece of writing that Max has published on Wallace.  In fact, this book feels like a fleshed out version of the New Yorker article that Max published a few years back (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/03/09/090309fa_fact_max).  For anyone who read and enjoyed the article, EVERY LOVE STORY IS A GHOST STORY feels very much like an extended take, complete with more anecdotes and more information (particularly involving his childhood).  Max stores all of his sources (and there are hundreds) next to a pretty comprehensive index.  There’s not much speculation here — it’s a very well constructed and research account of the author’s life.

D.T. Max’s account of Wallace’s life sticks close to the facts; because the biography sticks pretty closely to notes, letters, and interviews, the narrative Max weaves often feels like a timeline.  DFW’s time spent in Illinois seems to rely heavily on his family’s account of the events; his time in Amherst relies on dormmates; and as DFW moves into the literary world, the bulk of the narrative is constructed through letters with Mark Costello (former roommate), Michael Pietsch (editor), Bonnie Nadell (agent), Don DeLillo, and Jonathan Franzen.  DFW’s wife, Karen Green, seemed to cooperate a great deal in the making of EVERY LOVE STORY IS A GHOST STORY — the final years of DFW’s life are pretty vivid as he struggled to find inspiration to finish THE PALE KING.

David Foster Wallace wrote a staggering amount of letters, both to friends, family, and fellow authors (who eventually would fall into the “friend category”).  Max’s use of these letters turns out to be a great way to let DFW’s story unfold; it lets readers peek around in the DFW’s personal thoughts without the use of speculation on behalf of D.T. Max.  The friendship/rivalry of Wallace and Johnathan Franzen is documented well here, and their letters contain (what I feel to be) the most revealing information about Wallace’s own insecurities and struggles with writing after THE INFINITE JEST.  It appears that many of these letters of personal correspondence were borrowed, and I can’t help but hope that some of these are later collected and published.  Their involvement in the biography, while substantial, often don’t amount to more than just slivers or short paragraphs before being slapped with a “…”

What I enjoyed most about EVERY LOVE STORY IS A GHOST STORY is the light that it casts on Wallace’s prose — because Wallace famously pronounced that “fiction’s about what it is to be a f***ing human being,” the extent to which Wallace’s fiction was autobiographical should be no surprise.  INFINITE JEST’s Hal Incandenza, for example, is a remarkably bright tennis player (with a militantly grammarian mother) who uses drugs to cope with his own anxiety.  THE PALE KING’s highly anxious David Cusk who has “ruminative obsession, hyperhydrosis, and parasympathetic nervous system arousal loop.”

Additionally, I would like to give praise to D.T. Max for the tone of the book.  While there are a few jarring transitions, it’s largely well-written and enjoyable to read.  Max’s tone towards the subject isn’t overly reverent either — Max allows the narrative to slip into some of the most unpleasant things about DFW’s personality.  This biography doesn’t shy away from letting Wallace appear sometimes arrogant, sometimes jaded, and sometimes just plain mean.

There are a few knit-picks that I have with the biography though:  I really wish more time was spent with the Wallace family before college.  Jim Wallace and Susan Foster are both really interesting characters, and traces of them show up often in DFW’s work, however after the first chapter or two, father Jim and sister Amy disappear from the book almost completely.

One of interesting choices for this biography is the fact that this is quite literally, “A LIFE OF DAVID FOSTER WALLACE:”  the final sentences of the book deal with Wallace’s too-soon death.  The final passages of the book feel like a punch to the gut.  The decision to stick so closely to the sources is primarily a fantastic move by D.T. Max — there’s no speculation about DFW’s death, no conjecture about intent, and there’s no overwrought purple-prose either.  This style won’t suit all readers — I think many fans will have liked to see a more personal telling of DFW’s story, complete with perhaps another chapter on the state of things in the wake of DFW’s death.  EVERY LOVE STORY IS A GHOST STORY does not cover what happened to the manuscript of THE PALE KING, nor does it follow the reactions of the friends, family, or the public.  In previous interviews, Karen Green has stated that she did not want people to think of her departed husband as a “tormented genius” who died for his craft.  This biography makes well on that wish.

I would recommend EVERY LOVE STORY IS A GHOST STORY primarily to fans of the author’s work.  I do believe that other readers, unfamiliar with DFW’s prose would still gain some enjoyment with the biography though: his life was so interesting and moving that parts of the narrative should be universally appealing.  However, many of the autobiographical allusions that are referenced in his fiction will be lost.  For those that are on the fence about buying this book, I would recommend checking out the link provided above — readers who enjoy the article will be sure to love this book.  EVERY LOVE STORY IS A GHOST STORY won’t do anything to demystify the prominent figure of modern literature that David Foster Wallace has become, but it will make you want to re-read and re-think his work.

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Everything and All the Kitchen Sinks: Animal Collective’s CENTIPEDE HZ

 

MERRIWEATHER POST PAVILION is a masterpiece of an album.  It’s an album that feels like an anomaly — like the stars had aligned just right for the band to make it.  There was a sense upon listening to MERRIWEATHER that Animal Collective would never make another album like it, and in subsequent years, this has been true.  The FALL BE KIND EP was a darker affair that moved away from the concise pop of their previous full-length album; ODDSAC was a visual album (created in collaboration with Danny Perez) that ranks among some of the most psychedelic output of the band.  So now, three years later, Animal Collective releases their full-length followup to MERRIWEATHER: CENTIPEDE HZ.

Compared to past albums, CENTIPEDE HZ feels a bit more song-centric than previous albums have.  These songs don’t hold the same atmospheric/ambient qualities that past output of Animal Collective use, especially in comparison to FALL BE KIND.  Instead, this album feels like the band is throwing every sound they can into a blender — at times, it feels messy, but it never feels disorganized.  There’s a method to the band’s madness that allows songwriters Panda Bear and Avey Tare to craft great pop songs covered in psychedelic and noisy trappings.  Shifting between electronic synthesizers, percussion, and samples/loops, it definitely feels like an Animal Collective record: highly rhythmic and at times primitive, it’s the psychedelic pop that listeners have come to expect from the band.  CENTIPEDE HZ is the longest album the group has recorded since their debut, but it never feels drawn out or long

CENTIPEDE HZ announces itself with opening track “Moonjock.”  With the opening seconds of this track, it’s apparent that this is going to be different than MERRIWEATHER — it’s stomping beat launches a bouncey and infectious melody.  The lead single, “Today’s Supernatural” continues the band’s manic progress.  Avey Tare’s motif “Let let let let let go!” is impossible to ignore, and it gives off the impression that the band is reinvigorated and revitalized.  Another standout is “Father Time;” the song’s funky rhythm leads into some incredible melodic moments.  Using a perfect blend of sample/loops and organic instrumentation, it hits a satisfying sweet spot.  “New Town Burnout” stumbles a bit in trying to find its footing – it’s notably slower than other tracks here, and the melody never quite reaches that of its neighbors.  CENTIPEDE HZ doesn’t venture much into the darkness, except perhaps with “Mercury Man,” a song that feels both haunted and paranoid.  The closing “Amanita” shines in a few spots with an interesting last-half, but for the most part, it’s affectless in its delivery.  It’s a somewhat disappointing ending to the album (as compared to MERRIWEATHER’s “Brother Sport” or FALL BE KIND’s “I Think I Can

After listening to CENTIPEDE HZ, I was left exhausted.  It’s just shy of an hour long, but there’s not a wasted moment of the album: nearly every second is packed with something interesting.  Mixed with songs of every volume and speed, Animal Collective have left no sound uncovered in making this record.  It’s not as consistent as some past releases, but it’s a strong album that warrants multiple listens.

I’m not the biggest Animal Collective fan, and I loved this album – chances are, if you like the band, there will be plenty moments-of-interest here.  If you’re unfamiliar with the band, I would recommend starting with the ultra-accessible MERRIWEATHER POST PAVILION before making the leap to other releases.  If you’re among the ranks of listeners who didn’t see what all the fuss has been about – this isn’t the album to win you to Animal Collective’s side.  Essential tracks to download/sample: “Moonjock,” “Father Time,” and “Today’s Supernatural.”

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“Blade Runner Across 110th Street”: Yeasayer’s FRAGRANT WORLD

From TheMuseInMusic.Com

Yeasayer already have two fantastic albums under their belt.  The band has been praised for its eccentric-pop sensibilities, at once marrying arrestingly strange studio manipulation with melodies that are impossible to ignore.  Their third album, FRAGRANT WORLD, now focuses less on the eccentric and more on the pop.  FRAGRANT WORLD finds the band forward-thinking, but it might not be forward toward a direction fans have been hoping.  Band member Chris Keating would describe  the new album as “Blade Runner Across 110th Street,” at once referencing Ridley Scott’s dystopian film from the 80’s and R&B legend  Bobby Womack’s 1972 hit, and it’s a surprisingly apt description.

FRAGRANT WORLD is less dense than either ALL HOUR CYMBALS or ODDBLOOD — the trio have scaled down their sound and shaved away much of the instrumentation.  What’s left is mainly percussion and a synthesizer or two: it sounds like futuristic R&B.  Sometimes the sound works extraordinarily well, but sometimes it falls a bit flat.  “Blue Paper,” for example relies heavily on hi-hats, falsetto, and icey synths — it’s one of the album’s best tracks. “Longevity” finds the band sounds sleek and mechanical — while it’s production makes it one of the glossiest of the songs here, there’s not much melody to really endure.  Lead single “Henrietta” is a decent track, but ending seemingly goes on for forever without much of a payoff.  I never thought I would hear a pop song about unearthing the corpse of Ronald Reagan, but listeners will get this chance with “Reagan’s Skeleton,” a song that pulses with a great dance beat.  “Folk Hero Shtick” wobbles between arrangements, but its marriage of bizarre implementation (is that a recorder?) and fuzzy dance beats is a winner.

Unfortunately, this album never reaches the heights of previous releases like “2080,” “Madder Red,” “Tightrope,” or “ONE.”  In an effort to reign in their once chaotic sound, the band has stripped themselves of their quirky melody in most tracks.  They are able to strike a few peaks with FRAGRANT WORLD, and it’s an interesting and slick detour for Yeasayer; it’s just not quite the album we’ve come to expect.

For those listeners that are unfamiliar with Yeasayer, I would recommend either of their prior two releases as better places to start listening to the band.  This album might be a bit more accessible than those past releases however.  I would recommend the band (though not necessarily this album in particular) to fans of Neon Indian, MGMT, and Animal Collective.  Essential tracks to sample/download: “Blue Paper,” “Reagan’s Skeleton,” and “Folk Hero Shtick.”

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The Sum of Its Parts: Divine Fits’ mostly self-titled debut

From CultureAddicts.Com

“Supergroups” rarely live up to their pedigree; it’s almost assumed that when members from other bands come together, the sum will always be less than the parts.  In fact, while the marriage of two or more great bands come together, the expectation isn’t that the product will be a creative masterpiece — it’s expected that the results will be fair to middling.  Velvet Revolver (Guns N Roses + Stone Temple Pilots), Audioslave (Soundgarden + Rage Against the Machine), “Van Hagar” (Van Halen + Sammy Sagar), etc… But every now and then, a collaboration will come up that’s just as good as the work that the other band members have created: Broken Social Scene, Crosby Stills & Nash, and Cream.

The word “supergroup” has been thrown around a lot in regards to Divine Fits line up: Britt Daniel on guitar/vocals (Spoon), Dan Boeckner guitar/vocals (Wolf Parade), Sam Brown on drums/percussion (New Bomb Turks), and Alex Fischel on keyboards/synthesizers.  To be sure, Divine Fits have the pedigree to be a good band, and luckily, easily they are able to meet their reputation and expectations.  Because most “supergroups” do come with low expectations, it’s all the more surprising that this group succeeds in such a big way.  With Boeckner and Daniel sharing vocal duties pretty evenly, the band’s music sounds like a collaboration of sensibilities rather than a competition (like the Raconteurs would sometimes sound).  The band’s debut album, A THING CALLED DIVINE FITS is 11 tracks, 42+ minutes of fantastic indie-rock.

While there are surely elements of each band present in Divine Fits’ debut, the band creates its own sounds with its own sensibilities thanks to the dripping synthesizers of Fischel.  The album introduces itself as a more electronic version of anything the band’s members have done: “My Love is Real” uses electric bass and synthesizers to give it an 80’s new-wave vibe.  A THING CALLED DIVINE FITS isn’t done there though — the next track, “Flaggin A Ride” is a stomping, grooving rocker that relies on bare-bones instrumentation.  True to form, some of the Britt Daniel-led tracks are minimal in design, only relying on drums, bass, and sparse guitar.  Fans of Spoon who were let down by the recent TRANSFERENCE ought find this as a welcome return.  One of the album highlights, “Would That Not Be Nice,” sounds like a GaGaGaGaGa-era Spoon.  The groovy “Baby Get Worse” finds Boeckner on singing duty with a track that would feel at home in a Wolf Parade album.

The rest of the songs here though, sound like an amalgamation of these bands.  “The Salton Sea,” is laden with synthesizers — it’s experimentation trapped in a pop song’s shell.   “Shivers” finds Daniel at his most sincere, and the downtempo rock song serves as one of the album’s best.  “Neopolitans” leaves listeners guessing as it moves beyond form or convention.  The final track, “Like Ice Cream,” is a bouncing, shaking song that ends the album with a salute to summer.  It’s a great ending: concise, sharp, and pulsing.

Fans of Spoon, Wolf Parade, or the New Bomb Turks will likely find material here to love.  Spoon fans put off by the band’s recent TRANSFERENCE will be pleased with Britt Daniel’s contributions here.  Essential tracks to sample/download: “My Love is Real,” “For Your Heart,” “Would That Not Be Nice” and “Shivers.”  It’s not always an immediate or accessible album, but it’s one that pays off in big ways.

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Jeff Buckley’s GRACE

Jeff Buckley’s life was a freak occurrence. Artists and songwriters like him come around only a few times in a generation, and unfortunately, Buckley was only able to release one proper studio album before his accidental death. Buckley’s debut, GRACE, is a masterwork. The album sounds effortless, delicate, powerful, and emotionally raw — it’s characterized primarily by Buckley’s angelic voice. GRACE’s impact and influence on alternative music can’t be understated — Thom Yorke of Radiohead once stated that the song “Fake Plastic Trees” (a significant creative milestone for the band at the time) was written directly after seeing Buckley live in concert. At times it’s comforting; at times it’s haunting; it’s always, however, beautiful. Originally released to mixed reviews and poor sales, GRACE only saw success (commercial and critical) after the death of Buckley some years later. Composed of 10 tracks (with 3 of them covers), Jeff Buckley’s first and only studio album is essential listening for fans of alternative music.

GRACE begins with “Mojo Pin,” a song that does well to surmise almost everything that the album has to offer; the song has soaring vocals (and high reaching falsettos), pastoral guitar work, laid-bare lyrics, crunching distortion, and a seemingly effortless shifting between tones and styles. I remember, years ago, hearing the song for the first time and scratching my head and wondering “who is this?” It’s an unforgettable sound that Buckley has, and the remaining 9 tracks only offer more. While “Hallelujah” is surely the most recognized of Buckley’s work, it was never released as a single; the selftitled track was the lead single initially released to promote the album. It’s one of Buckley’s more aggressive songs, and it’s middle interlude finds Buckley screaming — with it’s lyrics considering death and beyond (notably “It’s my time coming, I’m not afraid, afraid to die”), it’s a haunting listen in retrospect. “Last Goodbye,” the album’s next track, found the most success during Buckley’s short life. The song never quite worked for me, as it always felt like the most conventional track on all of GRACE — live versions would find the song using more Buckley-esque hallmarks, but as it remains on his debut, it’s conventional by his standards.

Much like opening track “Mojo Pin,” “So Real” combines most of Jeff Buckley’s songwriting techniques into one song. It’s perhaps the most haunting of all the songs here: a song that sounds eerily paranoid. It’s ending refrain is sure to send shivers up listener’s spines. Perhaps one of my favorites is the seventh track: “Lover, You Should Have Come Over.” This bluesy track is a beautiful serenade to a lost love, and while Buckley’s lyrics are quite beautiful, nothing compares to the emotions that his music evokes. At over 6 minutes long, every note in the song sounds essential — it’s a perfect recording. Every time the song plays, I have to stop what I’m doing only to become lost in it. “Eternal Life” is surely the most straightforward of all the songs on GRACE: it’s a stomping, crunching, distorted rocker. While it may be rougher around the edges than other songs, it doesn’t suffer from a lack of nuance though. The final track, “Dream Brother” is a more psychedelic departure than anything else on Buckley’s debut. It’s a dreamy, atmospheric song that uses nearly-tribal rhythms to give it an otherworldly vibe. It’s a haunting ending to one of the 90’s best albums.

The three covers recorded here are “Lilac Wine,” “Corpus Christi Carol,” and “Hallelujah.” The most well-known of all of Buckley’s work manifests itself in a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” While Cohen’s original preceded this rendition by nearly a decade, Buckley’s cover is the definitive take on the song. The song features only Buckley’s vocals and his guitar, and it’s one of the most beautifully captivating songs put to tape. The rest of Buckley’s covers suffer in comparison: not because they are bad songs, but because besting “Hallelujah” is quite the tall order. “Lilac Wine,” originally written by James Shelton in the 1950’s, is a mesmerizing ballad. The lyrics recount a lilac tree, the wine made from said tree, and his lover — it’s sincere and sexy. “Corpus Christi Carol” is a pastoral hymn that dates back to the 1500’s (yes, you read that right). Buckley doesn’t attempt to make the traditional hymn an alternative rock hit — instead, he recreate a rather faithful rendition of the song which lets his vocal soar for ridiculously high falsettos.

Jeff Buckley’s one and only studio album is a must-listen. I originally bought it on the advice of others, and years later, I still have it on normal rotation. It’s an album that is everything at once: it’s eerie, it’s beautiful, it’s happy, it’s mournful, it’s romantic, it’s pragmatic. With lyrics that often focus on life and mortality, GRACE is all the more tragic in the wake of Buckley’s untimely death. Essential tracks to sample/download: “Hallelujah,” “Grace,” and “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over.”

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