Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Bruce Springsteen, "Working On A Dream"

Sometimes I hate record critics.

Seriously: go out and google the reviews of Bruce Springsteen's latest, Working on a Dream. Almost to a one*, the reviews lead with mention of Obama's election, saddling Bruce with the impossible-to-live-up-to title of BAROMETER OF OUR TIMES. And almost to a one, they decide that since the nation's mood is optimistic (Is it? Was it when he recorded the thing? Shit, everybody I know just got laid off!), Bruce has made a happy and therefore "slight" album, since he apparently can only reflect the mood of the nation. And then they dismiss it based entirely upon the expectation that Bruce should only make ominous, elegiac albums.

That's such goddamn lazy, half-assed criticism. First off -- why does Springsteen have to reflect the political tenor of the times? Why is he so damn special/unspecial that he's not allowed to just make a record about what he wants to make a record about, i.e. who he's in love with or what happened to him yesterday or what he had for breakfast, a luxury we afford every other musician ever? Second: why wouldn't you listen to this record on it's own merits rather than stack it up to whatever came before, or whatever you think it's supposed to sound like? And third -- has Springsteen ever been about living up to your expectations? Hasn't he always charted a difficult and rather fuck-you course through rock music, and hasn't that been what's interesting about him to begin with?

RIght now, Springsteen doesn't always wanna be the political John The Baptist, crying in the wilderness. Right now, Springsteen's in love with melodies and harmonies. Right now, Springsteen's enraptured with the great pop albums of the 60s like the Byrds' "5D" and the Beach Boys' "Smile." RIght now, Springsteen's enamored of the sweep and scope of Jimmy Webb's work with Glenn Campbell or the over-the-top pomp and circumstance of Scott Walker's records. And that is the kind of record he's interested in making, and a magnificent job he's doing of it, too. Viewed as a pair with late-2007's astonishing Magic, Working on a Dream is no less than the Revolver to that album's Rubber Soul -- a multi-layered tapestry of sound that works more often than it doesn't and always shocks and surprises.

The album leads off with a gigantic, almost incomprehensibly strange middle-finger -- "Outlaw Pete," an EIGHT-MINUTE try at a western mini-opera a la "Heroes and Villains" off the Beach Boys' Smile. And like that song, "Pete" is bolstered an amazing, spiky string section that evokes the old west while still remaining forcefully modern. I'm not at all sure the song works in toto (the lyrics are funny, which is an odd but kind of wonderful vibe for Springsteen to tackle, and I'm still on the fence about 'em) but as an album kick-off it's kind of wonderfully mystifying.

From there, just like on Revolver it goes every-which-way-but-loose, from Byrdsian pop ("My Lucky Day," the sweetly psychedelic "Life Itself," the very pretty "Surprise, Surprise") to sweeping Beach Boys/ Jim Webb majesty (the frankly amazing "This Life," the tear-jerkingly-gorgeous "Kingdom Of Days") to weirdly-electric blues ("Good Eye") to the kind of Tom Joad folk that people want him to do, over and over again ("The Last Carnival," which ends with a gorgeous, surprising harmony turn, or "The Wrestler," tacked on as a bonus track and not really fitting). It only stumbles a couple times -- I love the melody of "Queen of the Supermarket" and I'm okay with the gentle gibe of it's lyric, but I'm not sure it works as a whole. And the country shuffle of "Tomorrow Never Knows," as pretty as it is, feels a little out of place amongst such staggering works that surround it.

The key, I think, to enjoying this album is to manage expectations by ditching them entirely -- which, to be fair, is how you should listen to every album ever but I know that's not always possible. Listen, though: unlike most of Springsteen's work, this isn't about the grand importance of the lyrics, although he manages some magnificent and poetic turns as always, especially on the rather darkly gorgeous "Life Itself." Instead, it's about something entirely other -- phenomenally pretty melodies, harmonies and arrangements. Like -- do we batter Gene Clark for sounding "too slight" on the first two Byrds records 'cause he's singing sweet songs about love? Do we dog Brian Wilson for being "facile" on "Pet Sounds" for the same reason? We do not, but that's because those writers are about melodies and arrangements more than lyrical depth, and Bruce isn't supposed to be. But, see, now he is about melody, suddenly, and he's doing it better than pretty much anybody else in rock these days. You have to be willing to accept the notion that a songwriter simply cannot do the same thing over and over -- that sometimes they want to do something very, very different, and how cool is that, really, especially if they're doing it well? That's the sign of someone great rather than someone merely good, and the sign of someone really great is that he doesn't seem to give a fuck what you think about him doing something different. He's just gonna do it.

Taken at that level, Working On A Dream is a glorious pop album. It's richly layered; filled with production twists and turns courtesy Brendan O'Brien, who seems to have turned Springsteen into the kind of glorious studio craftsman he's always wanted to be (see: his Spector love on "Born To Run"). Its filled top-to-bottom with the kind of magnificently-written songs that don't even really exist these days. And it rewards repeated listens, each song stacked with hidden details (a harmony part here, an organ line there) that only reveal themselves after you've already digested the stunning melodies. It isn't perfect, but it's highs hit extremely high, and it's lows are merely confusing, overly-ambitious missteps, which are always the best kind of failures, really.

I think, even if I'm the only armchair critic who thinks it, that Working On A Dream represents the second (maybe the third?) in a rather stunning late-career renaissance for a man who's never really made an altogether bad record, and whose career is really a series of highs of various heights. Give the album time to worm its way into you. It will reward your repeated listening, and you will find something to love.

*Including, of course, Chicago's Tweedle Dee of rockcrit, Greg Kot -- honestly, seeing both him and Tweedle Dum (Jim DeRogatis) give the album a negative review filled me with hope, since I almost always have exact opposite taste to these clueless bozos.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Facebook is weird.

So: we're all on Facebook. Isn't it strange? When I say "we all," I mean literally we all -- everybody, except a few of your odd curmudgeon friends, are on there. MySpace was never like this. Did people you've wished you could talk to for twenty years from high school come out of the woodwork to reunite with you on MySpace? Maybe a few of them, sure, but all of them, like is happening on Facebook? Did MySpace allow you to post odd, semi-coherent statements and have people comment on your brilliant wit? It did not, and how cool is that? And Facebook doesn't look like the dashboard of a shitty low-rider car -- it's one size fits all, and its readable and makes sense, and you can keep track of friends you'd lost track of since you were, like, nine years old. It's cool. It really is, I must admit, despite my earlier reservations.

Okay, but Facebook also has created situations that have never, ever existed before. There's no Hints from Heloise to advise you how to navigate 'em, either -- you're out in weird cyber social-freakout-land, and you're on your own, and if you mess up your Facebook etiquette (or whatever!) you feel just as stupid as that time you got really drunk on wine cooler at that high school party and vomited on that girl you had a huge crush on. It really feels that awkward, and since half the people you're interacting with are from High School, it feels even more odd.


- You get friended by someone who, in high school, you had no interaction with other than them occasionally elbowing you in the hallway, calling you "fag" or threatening to beat the shit out of your best friend. What do you do? I mean, you're old now. That was a long, long time ago. Do you forgive and forget? Do you let it go? Do you ignore? What's the right thing to do, there?

- You run across your ex's sisters. You have since (mostly!) made amends for whatever horrors you inflicted upon your ex (in my case, being an immature moron the entire time we were together, and then breaking up with her for no reason at all -- seriously, I could not have sucked more) and you figure "ah, my ex and I are friends, now, and that was ten-plus years ago, so maybe her sisters will want to friend me." And so you try. But then they don't. And now you feel stupid!

- You friend someone you thought you were good friends with, and they don't respond. Or worse yet -- they reject your friendship! Your entire feeling of well-being is suddenly thrown into question.

I'm sure you've run across a few yourself, in your effort to build a friend-list and reunite with people in your life that you've missed. Right? I mean, there needs to be a guidebook.

And what's more -- what is Facebook doing to BLOGGING? It used to be whenever I had a whim to discuss something or pontificate about something, I'd come over to the blog and post a line or two. I'd maybe get three, four, five comments, and think "wow, my post made a difference in people's lives." But now? I can go over to Facebook, post my clever little comment or my YouTube video or my thought about this band or that, and get FORTY comments. But those are all just my friends -- and my gigantic ego wants random strangers to be able to read my "deep thoughts." What will happen? Will blogging get folded into the Facebook Experience? Or what?

I dunno. I'm interested in everybody's thoughts on this. Part of me thinks I should just post this on Facebook but I'm trying to be a gap-bridger, here. DISCUSS.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

"It's too bad she won't live! But then again -- who does??"

I think I've said it before, but it is absolutely awesome being engaged to Trixi, the ultimate Hot Chick Geek. Because not only does she like some uber-geeky stuff that I like too that nobody else likes (80s Yes albums (!!!), Doctor Who, Twin Peaks -- stuff you'd be surprised if your S.O. liked one of, let alone the whole batch), she also totally loves my all-time favorite movie, Blade Runner. When we were a-courtin' back a year-some ago, I got a text from Trix apropos of nothing quoting Rutger Hauer's "tears in the rain" quote from the end of the film. My response? "Oh, we have to get married." And then, y'know, I proposed to her. 'Cause come on.

So this weekend, when we found ourselves downtown for no particular reason, it struck me: we're right near the Bradbury Building, which is where genetic scientist J.F. Sebastian lived in the movie. I didn't even have to ask twice -- Trixi was as excited as I was. It's an astonishing building, more astonishing considering it was designed by someone who'd never designed anything before in his life, at the behest of the ghost of his dead brother. I'm not even kidding. It's been lovingly restored, recently, and there's even a plaque up in the lobby talking about its use in Blade Runner, which is cool.

Check it out -- isn't it amazing and complicated and cool??

Last bonus shot: me and Trix at the mod night this weekend, dressed in our mod finery:

I'd tell you all what we did on Sunday night, but then I'd have to shoot you.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Belated New Years Blog!

Okay, so -- I promised, and here 'tis. On New Year's Eve, we kind of *inherited* a party -- that is to say, a couple friends of ours found that they had to beg out of hosting a party, so we figured, heck, we're in a borrowed house and the kiddo's off with Grandma for an evening, I think we can maybe host the thing. Problem was: it was *supposed* to be a costume party, with the theme of "rock and roll history." Our friends had this awesome rock-history playlist planned, and everyone was gonna be dressed like their favorite rockstars. Well, when the plans shifted, apparently everybody decided to toss the costumes aside, because we were the only ones dressed like *anything*!

S'alright, though, 'cause our costumes were RAD. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you: Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks!

Note attention to detail: the baby powder doubling as cocaine dusting Trixi's nostrils! My gold Pegasus necklace!

Pretty close, eh??

If I could grow a white-man's afro, I WOULD. I swear.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

RIP Brookdale Mall

(Yeah, I promise to blog about the holidays SOON -- some great pics and such, but this is IMPORTANT.)

It was with much trepidation that I received the news of the closing of the Brookdale Center Macy's store in Brooklyn Park, MN. Brookdale has always been the kind of red-headed stepchild of the "Dales" chain (Ridgedale being the tony preppy girl, Southdale the snotty Radcliffe sorority girl, Rosedale the slightly trashy teen looking at a pregnancy test) but man, it is headed for Apache Plaza territory. Stores are dropping off like flies, with only Barnes and Noble, now, still alive and active. That whole area, formerly at least KIND of awesome (you know, a Ground Round, some toy stores, a couple interesting malls) is basically dead as a doornail.

This depresses me, and I don't know why. Sure, I spent a lot of time at Brookdale mall as a kid -- my first job was at the Record Shop on the Sears end of the mall, and my friend Adam and I used to "scope chicks" there a lot. Oh, and I went there with my mom a ton when I was *really* young, and ate at the Brothers Deli that used to sit on the far end of the mall that doesn't exist anymore, or the snack shoppe that was in the central courtyard near Dayton's.

But I dunno, it isn't just that -- its something specific about edifices and buildings and areas and reasons why a place like a mall can go from hot to cold to Dead Alice, and that has to do with the Passage of Time, and thinking about the Passage of Time *always* kind of depresses me, y'know? When Apache Plaza (the "holy crap, if everybody lamenting it had actually *gone* there it wouldn't be gone" dead mall) died, and the area around it with it, I was sad, even though I didn't ever *go* to Apache Plaza. It was like -- it isn't the 70s and 80s anymore, and Things We Used To Need In the 70s -- cheese boxes, toys, interesting clothes, vinyl records -- we don't need anymore. Because We As A People have changed so much past that.

And so malls die, and leave these barren husks behind filled with memories and ghosts and pasts and time, and it makes me sad. I know malls are just MALLS, just these ugly retail boxes, but for those of us in Minnesota, where winter lasts half the year and Indoor Shopping Malls were the weird Logan's Run future that wasn't, they were our Village Square, such as it was, 1970s style, and so I mourn them more than folks would in, say, California, where, y'know, why would you go to a mall when you can BE OUTSIDE?

I found these photos on Dumpy Strip Malls, a new blog I'll be visiting on a regular basis. The author of the site grew up near Brookdale, and I can tell she feels the loss of that mall -- and that area, and that past -- pretty keenly, which is nifty. She's documenting dead and dying malls (well, and some living ones too!) and trying to get complete pictures of who was there and what they looked like, which is a damn neat project.

The courtyard near Dayton's. To the left was a restaurant of some kind. I have a hard time remembering which stores even LIVED at that end -- the memory's been replaced, now, with the shoddy Dollar Store-type establishment that now occupies this section of the mall. I *do* remember that if you turned around, headed left before you got to JC Penneys, and walked to the end of a dark hallway, you'd come to a hobby store. That was my mall tour circa-late-70s-and-80s -- I can tell you where each hobby store lives.

And here's the Dayton's front entrance. I remember sitting on this fountain with my friend Adam, our shopping bags filled with, like, parachute pants from JC Penneys, dressed in our members only jackets (his was light blue, I think mine was probably the less-fashionable tan, or possibly even -- gahhh! -- maroon!) watching blonde girls with feathered hair and short-shorts walking by, and being very very happy.

I have my fingers crossed for Brookdale like I would for a dying relative -- its hooked up to the machine, someone's ready to flip the switch and turn her off forever. Do malls go across the rainbow bridge to Pet Heaven? Maybe someone can finally save this mall -- can we throw a Best Buy in there?? Is there any salvation for it? Can we pray?