Monthly Archives: April 2013

The Flaming Lips: Indianapolis, 4/29/13

The Flaming Lips bring 'The Terror' to the Hoosier State.

The Flaming Lips bring ‘The Terror’ to the Hoosier State.

When I was back in college, a buddy of mine and I came to my hometown to watch my brother’s band play a show. It was a big deal at the time, the first time the under-21 dance club in the area was having live bands. For the bands, it was an opportunity to have professional lights, fog, video and all sorts of neat stuff your average garage bands don’t usually have access to when they’re playing basements and veterans’ halls. It was a helluva show. The bands were hyped, the crowd was into it, everyone into the local scene was there.

The next day, my buddy and I were required to attend church (my parents’ house rules). Midway through the sermon, my friend, eyes glazed over as he fought the desire to sleep, leans over to me and says, “Why do I feel like I had the religious experience last night?”

I thought of that as I watched the Flaming Lips at the Egyptian Room in downtown Indy on Monday. This wonderful, beautiful, intense group experience. People of like minds and spirits focusing all their energy for a few hours on the moment, the power of music and art to unite, the comfort and ecstasy of being part of a like-minded community.

After the Lips finished covering David Bowie’s Heroes, lead singer Wayne Coyne spoke to the crowd, the “heroes” he was singing about. He made the point that we should celebrate living life the way we chose, and not fight or engage those who would impose their will, their doctrines, their dogmas on our lives. Rise above the small minded, the emotionally crippled, the self righteously enraged. We’re just a bunch of animals spinning around on a rock, the clock is ticking, so now is what we have, and we should do everything we can to honor that.

So sayeth the word of Wayne, straight from the trippy-lighted pulpit.

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Worshiping at the altar of Atwood

As fans of any artist – musicians, writers, composers and so on – know, when you are a fan of a particular artist, that artist is going to consistently revisit certain themes, motifs, settings, etc. It’s part of the artistic territory. The creative class are inspired by events, conversations and art that pertain to topics that in some way engage them. Maya Angelou is always going to have something to say about race. Public Enemy consistently attacks systemic injustice inherent in American society. The Wachowskis, particularly in their original works (Bound, The Matrix franchise), dig into the nature of reality and perception.

The most interesting artists are the one to explore that same ground in different and exciting ways. The best example I know of an artist who succeeds at simultaneously revisiting similar touchstones while generating original work is Margaret Atwood.

In Atwood, you know you’re going to be presented something about the systemic oppression of women. Whether it’s The Blind Assassin, Oryx & Crake or The Handmaid’s Tale, the ritual, cultural denigration of females is important to what is happening.

In The Blind Assassin, this comes through in the fall of the Chase sisters. Iris is essentially married off to a wealthy industrialist without much choice on her part, a move her father hopes will save his own manufacturing empire and hopefully provide for his daughters’ future. The industrialist is a sadist who is sexually abusive to his wife, a predator who forces himself on Iris’s younger sister, Laura, when Iris is pregnant with their daughter. While the events in the lives of Iris and Laura are the focus, Atwood continues to spin the tales of downtrodden women in the secondary characters. Winifred Griffin, the sister of Iris’ husband Robert, longs to climb to the top of the Canadian social and political landscape. But she isn’t “old money” enough to marry into such power, so she feels she must support the aspirations of her brother, defend his sick predelictions and ride his coattails as high as he will take her. Reenie and her daughter, Myra, are the caretakers of the Chase family. Reenie is trapped in the servant class, by birth, gender and lack of education. Myra manages to rise to the merchant class, but still can’t separate herself from her familial duty to the Chases. Even Iris’ and Laura’s mother, mentioned briefly in flashbacks, is doomed to death by her gender. Her and her husband’s attempts to produce a male heir end up being what breaks Mrs. Chase physically, leading to her untimely death.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, the fall of the democratic United States is staged to establish a totalitarian Christian theocracy that’s first priority is to turn women and racial and ethnic minorities into second class citizens. The U.S. – now the Republic of Gilead – becomes a Christian version of oppressive theocracies such as Saudi Arabia. Women’s rights are limited, as most are not even allowed to learn to read. Something has caused a decline in the birth rate, so the handmaid class – essentially fertile concubines – is created. Wives become merely a woman on an arm at social functions, while men use their sex slaves for reproduction and as escorts in underground gatherings out of the public eye.

In Oryx & Crake, the future is all genetic manipulation and advertising. Small, prosperous compounds house corporations, scientists and their families, keeping the general public in their ghettos and at a distance. Crake is the greatest of the scientific geniuses, even creating his own race of humans designed to stay simple and peaceful forever, without prejudice or superstition. His in-between with the neo-humans is Oryx, a one-time child sex slave that teen-aged Crake and the narrator, Snowman, watched perform online. Oryx represents desire in its best forms – Snowman’s obsession and desire to save the innocent, even after she no longer needs saving – and worst – Crake uses Oryx to manipulate Snowman and eventually hasten Crake’s man-made apocalypse, as well as Oryx’s life in child porn and as the live-in sex slave for an American businessman. Crake’s final act before his own death is to kill Oryx, a show of victory in a tug-of-war for her affections with Snowman and the ultimate tantrum of a child who is taking his toy and going home. So even in death, Oryx is dehumanized by a man.

The themes of oppression and abuse of women are prominent throughout these works. Yet the tales themselves have little in common. The Blind Assassin is epic historical fiction, running from just before the first World War until near the end of the 20th century. The Handmaid’s Tale is the dystopian future of blind religious fanaticism. Oryx & Crake is the ultimate post-apocalyptic tale, the story of man’s desire for knowledge run amok, destroying the world and taking us back to the not-so-paradise-like Garden of Eden, a book that would comfortable sitting on the bookshelf between copies of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and The Stand.

Is it possible to ask more of an artist than this, consistent inventiveness in story telling while simultaneously finding new ways to expose and attack cultural and societal bias?

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Yes, apparently, I am that stupid

I’m a huge fan of the work of Tom Robbins. Another Roadside Attraction is my favorite, although I’d probably argue Even Cowgirls Get the Blues is his best. Recently, I started re-reading – for the third or fourth time – Jitterbug Perfume.

A brief synopsis: Jitterbug Perfume is an epic tale that connects the desire of an ancient, pagan king to thumb his nose at death to the activities of a group of modern perfumers making an effort to create the ultimate natural scent. Scent is the center around which the rest of this novel works, whether’s it’s the incense of Kudra, the earthy odor of Pan or the jasmine that permeates the modern scenes. It’s all about odor.

So I get about 75 pages in, enjoying the read, catching those little things you sometimes miss on earlier reads because you’re caught up in the tale or because you were a less mature reader last time around. Then it hits me: My developing novel doesn’t stink. Which is a bad thing.

I realized that, through all the work I’ve done setting scenes, drawing the reader in, giving them that vital mental picture, I’ve pretty much completely ignored one of the five senses: smell. There’s a church scene where smell comes up, and there’s a specific scene where the change of odor in the room is a hint that someone’s broken in. But that’s it. I’ve set a novel in rural Indiana, in the middle of a bunch of cornfields, yet never mentioned the smell of fertilizer, cow shit, tractor grease, outdoor cookouts, that fresh, breezy smell of the early rural morning. I’ve got a Grandma getting down in the kitchen, but I never mention the odor of butter, baked bread, cooked corn, greasy ham, nothing. I even have a character who smokes weed, yet never mention that distinctive, skunky smell.

I don’t know why, is the thing that’s driving me nuts. I understand the power of smell, the power it has for me, particularly when it comes to nostalgia or a sense of place. How did I pretty much completely ignore that?

Perhaps I should focus on the positive, that I caught it now, while still in the developmental/writing stages.  I’ll just call it a win, and move on.

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Hungry like the ‘Wolf’

It’s hard not love an album that hits the popular consciousness with a big, old haymaker that the mainstream never saw coming.

I feel like Wolf‘s going to be one of those albums, by the time all is said and done. Yes, lyrically, this stays true to all of Tyler, The Creator’s work to this point: A chuckling, stoned, dead-eyed agent of chaos in a world that doesn’t understand that it truly loves the resulting madness. Too many drugs, too many “faggot” callouts, too much intelligence gone out of control. Tyler is that nasty, uncontrolled Id lurking under the surface that no one wants to admit is there.

It isn’t that this is approach new. Eminem managed the balancing act on both The Slim Shady LP and The Marshall Mathers LP, and Old Dirty Bastard took the madness to a previously unheard of level on Return to the 36 Chambers. But unlike Eminem or ODB, Tyler has created an album with limited single potential. There’s no Real Slim Shady or Shimmy Shimmy Ya on Wolf. Yes, true hip-hop heads will be down, but it’ll be interesting to see if Tyler can mimic the sales, chart success or awards of the previously mentioned predecessors.

What really helps elevate Wolf is not Tyler, The Rapper but Tyler, the Producer. He’s the man behind the knobs for the most part, and he manages to create a full, dark, off-kilter background for his hip-hop diorama. Whether it’s the minimal, bass-heavy, slurred feel of Jamba, the otherworldy “da da da da DA da” melody on Domo23, the manic Latin energy that backs the juvenile Tamale or the slow jam synth of IFHY, Tyler finds the right sounds to back whatever approach he’s trying to take lyrically. More importantly, nothing has an assembly line, jam-of-the-moment feel. Wolf isn’t about ring tones; it’s about legacy.

The final product is an album … a full album, not three or four front-loaded singles with what Sean Combs once called “album tracks” aka half-assed filler. I can imagine a time a decade or so from now Wolf being mentioned in the same breath as We Can’t Be Stopped, Ready to Die or Midnight Marauders. History is being made, so, as a wise man once said, ya betta recognize.

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Top tunes from early 2013

Wow. What a first quarter. And with the new Tyler, The Creator album, Wolf, dropping today (more on that another time) and the Flaming Lips’ latest dropping in a couple of weeks, it doesn’t look like it’s slowing down in the second quarter. The gems so far …

SONGS

Je Me Perds, Blood Red Shoes – Straightforward, aggressive, grimy punk rock.

The John Wayne, Little Green Cars – I’m reasonably certain this crew owns some CSNY albums. That’s not a bad thing. Not bad at all.

Know ‘Til Now, Jim James – My only real beef with My Morning Jacket is that on albums, their music tends to end up sounding a bit too … stoned. Know ‘Til Now keeps that low-key, ethereal, wake-and-bake vibe, but rides a sweet, loping groove that gives the track a solid base from which to work until beautiful disintegration is achieved.

Loubs, Pissed Jeans – I feel like going all Beavis on this one. “Yes … Yes … YES! YES! YES! FIRE! FIRE!” This track lands somewhere between off-kilter blues rock of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Monster Magnet’s sludgier tunes. Play loudly. As loudly as possible.

Quill, The Last Bison – Newgrass, emograss, whatever. When it’s done well, it’s just plain ol’, damn fine bluegrass, like The Last Bison have done here.

Sail to the Sun, Wavves – I thought of Weezer when I heard this track. Blue album/Pinkerton Weezer, not “Now we’re hanging with the Muppets and trying way too hard” Weezer.

Whoa, Earl Sweatshirt – I love it when I hear a hip-hop single that just doesn’t sound like anything else out in the popular consciousness. Earl creates a track that’s part Wu-Tang, part Dr. Octagon and totally dazed and confused.

ALBUMS

Honeys, Pissed Jeans – I frequently think of the Melvins and Nirvana when I listen to this band. King of Jeans from 2008 was good, and PJ stepped it up on Honeys.

Pedestrian Verse, Frightened Rabbit – I’ve been following these guys since 2008’s Midnight Organ Fight. If you’re into Mumford & Sons, you should test drive these Scots.

Sound City, Reel To Reel, Dave Grohl & company – Loved Nirvana from the start, but since Kurt Cobain’s death, I’ve always cared more for Grohl on other’s projects (Queens of the Stone Age, to name one) than I’ve cared for his own (Foo Fighters). But Grohl’s on to something here, just a bunch of guys (and one woman, Stevie Nicks) rocking, pure and simple.

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