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Five of Ten

My current writer’s block is a bit confounding, since I don’t think there’s a particular reason why I should open up Microsoft Word, type a few lines, and then shrug my shoulders and close the application, but it certainly happens often enough. Instead of trying to come up with some tremendous conceit to get my blood flowing again, I’ll just expand my usual sidebar feature by writing about ten things I’ve enjoyed recently and hopefully working out some of my nagging concerns in the process. Here are the first five items—as you can see expanding those entries takes up a good amount of time.

1. Colin Newman’s “& Jury”: While my Last.fm account tracks a larger period of time, I typically pay more attention to the play count in iTunes nowadays, having switched over to the software back in September in order to expedite transfers to my iPod. Currently the most played track is “& Jury” from Colin Newman’s 1980 solo debut A–Z with a whopping 40 plays since February 10, 2008. Given my obsession with early Wire, I’m rather astonished that it took me this long to delve into Newman’s solo discography, but such reticence wasn’t entirely undeserved. As the review on Wireviews mentions, A–Z is decidedly hit or miss, with the misses being rather annoying, although I can appreciate the anti-single appeal of “B.” But “& Jury” is easily on par with my favorite late Wire tracks, particularly since its urgent chorus (“We are the judges too”) peels back some of Wire’s trademark detachment. “But for a moment I felt a need to be closer to the reasons / And what I saw I can’t describe, I understand / That we are the judges too” furthers that reading, but what’s exposed isn’t necessarily genuine emotion but the recognition that pure detachment has its faults and its limitations.

I’ve tracked down most of Newman’s pre-1990 catalog and here’s the lowdown: A–Z is scattered, but frequently great; Provisionally Entitled the Singing Fish is an occasionally compelling entry into short Eno-esque instrumentals (think Another Green World); Not To has the closest connection to Wire’s 154, in part because some of its songs were originally meant for Wire’s fourth LP, but it’s also more consistent than A–Z, if slightly less sonically compelling; Commercial Suicide issues more synths, less percussion, and a more measured approach to songwriting, but its languid pace makes it difficult for me to make it through the entire album; CN1 is an odds-and-ends EP with a great vocal version of “Fish One” from Provisionally Entitled… called “No Doubt” (with vocal hooked based around the lyric “We all got awfully good at dying”); and It Seems completes Newman’s voyage into sequenced new wave with its great synth-heavy opener “Quite Unrehearsed,” but sounds far more dated than any of Newman’s other efforts.

2. Dexter: At the urging of my friend Jackie, I started watching the Showtime/CBS series Dexter last week. It didn’t take me more than five days to make it through the twenty-four available episodes, which is about par for my other speedy television catch-ups (Lost, Friday Night Lights, The Office). The first season was nearly flawless, as the writers balanced Dexter’s serial killer exploits, personal life (sister, girlfriend), professional duties as a blood splatter analyst for Miami PD forensics, and growing recognition of his past with aplomb. The second season had a less grounded plotline, reminding me of some of the lesser moments of recent Friday Night Lights and 24 seasons, but thankfully the resolution didn’t threaten the show’s future appeal. Michael C. Hall’s performance in the title role carries the series, but Julie Benz and Jennifer Carpenter’s respective portrayals of Dexter’s girlfriend and sister give the show depth. Some of the other characters seem more stock than they should, but there is a fairly large ensemble to introduce so perhaps that’s understandable. My biggest question is how much CBS has to edit out of the series in order to re-air the episodes—there is a great deal of blood and a good amount of nudity in the series—and whether fans of CBS’s flagship CSI franchises will appreciate Dexter’s connection to the forensics field despite its deeper bloodlines. In an ironic twist, I missed some of the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament watching the only reasonably good show on CBS on my computer. The third season starts September 30th, giving me something to look forward to a day after my birthday.

3. Wipers - Youth of America: The biggest problem with my current iteration of iPod Chicanery is that I included too many records that simply haven’t connected with me. The Pop Group, Suicide, Pere Ubu, This Heat, and other forays into post-punk haven’t provided the same level of interest as my previous favorites from the era. From the other end of the spectrum, my attempt at finally appreciating Black Flag hasn’t come to fruition, either. While I’m hesitant to say that I enjoy a limited spectrum of post-punk and punk/hardcore, since my tastes may very well evolve to appreciate more of the post- aspects of the genre, hearing the guitar-centric songs of the Wipers was exhilarating. Part of the excitement came from finally understanding where Zoom’s antsy guitar sound came from—I’d seen the Wipers used as a point of comparison in every Zoom review I’d come across, but never bothered to track down the originators until last week. Yet Youth of America has far more value than its guitar sound, since “No Fair,” “When It’s Over,” and the title track provide an epic counterpart to the other three songs’ comparatively lesser scope and place the Wipers (in my mind, at least) firmly in the post-punk canon. Youth of America has a nearly apocalyptic feel in those longer tracks, in part due to Greg Sage’s fondness for spoken-word narratives. I’ve listened to Is This Real? and Over the Edge as well and enjoy both of them, but Youth of America seems closer to the artistic statement records I relish so much (see: first three Wire albums). It’s great that Jackpot has reissued Youth of America and Is This Real? on LP, so hopefully Over the Edge is also forthcoming.

4. M83 – “Kim & Jessie and “Couleurs”: I’ve hesitated from slagging on pre-release albums in the idea that I’m far more concerned with helping people buy records than dissuading them from doing so, but M83’s upcoming Saturdays = Youth is enough of high-profile release that I don’t think my darts will puncture it too badly. I’ll start with the two tracks mentioned, since they’d make an excellent double a-side single if M83 had the stones for it. “Kim & Jessie” is kin to the last record’s twin singles, “Teen Angst” and “Don’t Save Us from the Flames,” but relates even more to 1980s synth-pop, particularly Tears for Fears’ “Head Over Heels.” It’s no slight to say that “Kim & Jessie” could slip into Donnie Darko’s soundtrack if Richard Kelly’s nostalgia was less of a deciding factor. I’ve already read at least one site mention that “Couleurs” sounds more like a remix of an M83 song than the song itself, but I appreciate the sentiment. If I had to name the remixer, I’d guess Port-Royal, since “Couleurs” sounds enough like Afraid to Dance with less emphasis on crescendos and elongated fade-outs. “Needs more digital cowbell” would be a fine heckle if anyone sees them on their upcoming tour and bonus points if you can do it in French.

Now for the rest of the record. Whereas Dead Cities, etc. worked as an album because the non-singles blended into a greater aesthetic (My Bloody Valentine shoegaze as performed by analog synths), Before the Dawn Heals Us’s increased emphasis on vocals authored several wretched mistakes that crippled the album’s flow. Now Saturdays = Youth attempts to complete the move into a electro-indie band with a new female vocalist and a greater emphasis on rousing anthems like “Teen Angst.” Second single “Graveyard Girl” seems like it’s pandering with a spoken word discussion of what it’s like to be fifteen. “Up!” has the single funniest opening couplet in recent memory, as the female vocalist intones with utmost sincerity that “If I clean my rocket / We’ll go flying today.” The rest of the record tries with varying success to incorporate these female vocals into their synth-pop framework. If I gave the record more time, I’d probably enjoy “We Own the Sky” and “Dark Moves of Love,” but I don’t think I can put that much effort into another ill-fated attempt to revive new wave.

5. Kevin S. Eden - Wire: Everybody Loves a History: I’d argue that I enjoy a history more than most, since I tracked down this rather out-of-print biography of Wire that tracks their careers until 1990’s Manscape. The most surprising aspect of the book is how much of it (55 of 188 pages) covers Graham Lewis and Bruce Gilbert’s various exploits during Wire’s hiatus between 154 and Snakedrill. It shouldn’t be a surprise that I prefer Colin Newman’s more song-based output during that era, so I was a bit disappointed that nearly a third of my bathroom reading for the next while would be about Dome and modern art installations. It’s interesting to read about the divisions between the Lewis/Gilbert and Newman/Thorne camps that developed during 154, since that record is so clearly a product of internal tensions. Yet I would have preferred more emphasis on the first three records, since they’re Wire’s classics. Perhaps it’s merely the weight of the timeline that is the source of this frustration, since those records were produced in a three-year span and the book covers the decade that follows them. Everybody Loves a History, like many of the 33 1/3 books that have been released recently, is flawed, but worth checking out. If nothing else, it could be a great source of inspiration for a 33 1/3 entry for Chairs Missing or 154.