VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Heat of the Day (1948) by Elizabeth Bowen

Book Review
The Heat of the Day (1948)
 by Elizabeth Bowen

  Elizabeth Bowen is a 1001 Books evergreen.  She's got a book from the 1920s (The Last September), which is about the plight of the Anglo-Irish landholder class during the Irish Revolution.   She made into the 1930s with To The North.  All of her books feature female characters with modern sensibilities, and Stella Rodney, the heroine of The Heat of the Day, is no exception.  The Heat of the Day is somewhere between a spy novel and a "modernist" book of relationships a la Virginia Woolf (the back jacket calls The Heat of the Day "Graham Greene meets Virginia Woolf."

  The main difference between The Heat of the Day and the nascent spy novel genre is the utter lack of action in The Heat of the Day.  Stella is in love with Robert, who is maybe a spy for the Germans.  Harrison is a counter-intelligence agent infatuated with Stella, he seeks to blackmail her by threatening Robert.   Events spool out in not entirely predictable fashion.  Bowen also includes a b-story about Stella's son from a brief first marriage which ended in divorce and the war-time death of her husband (in World War I.)  The two plots link together in a way that ultimately places the spy story in the narrative background, as a means for Stella to explore her feelings about men, sons and everything.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Revenge For Love (1937) by Wyndham Lewis


Book Review
The Revenge For Love (1937)
by Wyndham Lewis
(AMAZON)

     Ultimately, Wyndham Lewis' most memorable excursions into fiction are his satires.  This book and The Apes of God (1930) are the two titles that best exemplify his dark explorations of the modes and mores of 1930s English "bright young things."  Like many thoughtful writers of the 1930s, Lewis explored Communism, Fascism and the similarities between the two in the context of the times.  This "context" were the tumultuous events between the Great Depression and World War II, with a heavy emphasis on the Spanish Civil War and fashionable London.

  Whether a reader is interested in the bright young things of London in the 1930s is very much a matter of personal taste.  Personally, I take interest in all 20th century avant gardes, but the English are at the top of the list in terms of just the level of documentation via the number of authors who were writing about the same smallish group of people.  Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Wyndham Lewis all traversed a social set that couldn't have been more than a thousand or so individuals.

 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Show Review: Baio @ School Night (Bardot Hollywood)

Chris Baio: From Vampire Weekend bassist to electronic/disco singer songwriter


Show Review:
Baio @ School Night (Bardot Hollywood)

  Baio is the artist name for the solo project of Vampire Weekend bassist Chris Baio.  He has his first LP coming out on Glassnote later this year, and last night he made his first live appearance ever at School Night (at Bardot Hollywood.)  This was not a DJ set- he sang and played keyboards in addition to running the electronic-y backing music tracks.  The question I'm sure many Vampire Weekend fans will be asking themselves is, "Should I fuck with this?"  My answer to those fans, as well as fans of the larger world of electronic pop is a clear, "Yes, you should fuck with it."  You should give the LP a listen, you should go see him live given a reasonable opportunity, telling like-minded friends and acquaintances about the existence of this project is likely to provide an immediate social benefit.

  One thing that should be clear is that Baio is not simply a knob twiddling DJ (although he can be a DJ if he feels like it.)  Rather, he is a fully functional "one man band" of the type that is increasingly tolerated and even appreciated in the various precincts of the rock, pop and indie musical worlds.  Baio as an act (vs. the Artist or the DJ performer) has a strong grasp of songwriting principles and an engagingly awkward and endearing stage presence that very much seems like that of someone who has observed Ezra and Rostam up close and has given a good deal of thought about how it will be for him when he performs.

  The "one man band" aspect of his performance limits his movement- mostly swaying side to side, or moving back and forth,  but expectations for electronically derived pop musicians in this department are so low that any kind of performance charisma is welcome.   Significantly, he sings, and well.   It's hard, I think, to really seriously consider Baio as an Act without thinking about Father John Misty.  The two couldn't be more different stylistically: John Misty is a sparse, guitar and drums singer-songwriter who writes about fucked up men and women living in a drug induced haze.  Baio is an electronic DJ/producer who has grafted a studied Indie/Brit Pop sensibility onto his largely uptempo "beats."  Still, when you consider that Misty started as the drummer for Fleet Foxes, and Baio bassist Vampire Weekend.

   The question, I suppose which must be asked is "Should Baio leave Vampire Weekend to pursue this act full time?"  I think my answer would be a straightforward, "Go for it, because if you've gone this far with it already it means that being the bassist of Vampire Weekend does not exhaust what you have to say to the world artistically.  I mean financially, it would be suicide, unless Vampire Weekend itself ceases to exist.

  From the perspective of just looking out for oneself, history would teach that members of big time rock bands need to have a back-up plan handy, because inter-personal conflict almost always manifests itself once the initial breakthrough has been made and success is no longer a life or death issue.  Having a back up plan is not something only handy in the entertainment world, it's a good idea just in life.

  Will Vampire Weekend continue to exist? It doesn't have to.  What has been accomplished already in terms of art and income is sufficient to allow the principals of the band the ability to coast for years. I remember reading an interview where one of the band members was talking about how when "it" happens you are basically gone for three straight years.  In that time you go from playing small rclubs in the US to headlining major festivals.  You play the UK and Europe multiple times and go to Australia and Asia at least once.  You write, record and release 2 LPs.  It is a process of becoming and it's only at the end that someone experiences that has time to reflect and ask themselves, "Is this what I want."

  My sense is that for most people who owe "the man" money, the answer is, "No, but I have to."  For those who have been successfully enough financially to be "free" the answer is invariably, "No."   It is the rare, rare, rare individual who wants to be on the writing/recording/performing treadmill for any period of time, even people who are at the highest level.  The need to continue at that pace either represents a personal kind of ambition or a failure to secure the ability to NOT do that for a year or more.

  What I'm saying is only that Vampire Weekend is in that second category, and if they don't want to do another Vampire Weekend record, they don't have to.  Baio is easily of capable of existing in a world where Vampire Weekend doesn't exist, but it's unclear that he wants that.  Surely, being the bassist of Vampire Weekend is worth hanging onto.   Just as a...job.   And my sense is that he does contribute to the writing process, and that his drumming in that band is inventive and technically savvy.
This is the cover art for Baio's LP,  The Names, out this fall on Glassnote records.

  In conclusion, Baio live- was 1) different than a Baio DJ set 2) good.   His upcoming LP The Names in September on Glassnote is worth checking out if you read this far in the review.  The fact that it's on Glassnote is worth considering.  Glassnote is a reputable, successful label with a great recent track record.

  

Museum Review: Massachusets Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams


Museum Review:
Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art
 in North Adams, Massachusetts

 The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, Massachusetts is a large (100,000 + square feet) museum that was formed out of an abandoned factory site.  The factory was first a cloth manufacturing facility and then an electronics manufacturing plant, and then abandoned.   In late 1980s, the process of conversion to a museum space began, and the museum opened in 1999.  Independent of any specific exhibits, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass Moca) is a must visit for the museum itself.  The two obvious comparisons from my experience are the Tate Modern in London, housed in an abandoned power plant, and the Guggenheim Bilbao, which is also set in a Genry designed "deconstructed" building in the former port district of Bilbao.  

  The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams is different from the two comparisons made above in that it fully inhabits the geographic SPACE of a former manufacturing town.    The Tate Modern, for all its authenticity as a South Bank Power Plant, is located in the anodyne London city center of the 21st century, and the Bilbao Guggenheim is a honest to god Frank Gehry designed structure in a port area that has been entirely given over to white collar business and the tourist trade.

   North Adams is at the northern edge of the region in Massachusetts known as the "Berkshires."  Geographically speaking, the Berkshires are the portion of the Northern Appalachian mountain chain called "the Berkshires" in Massachusetts and "the White Mountains" in Vermont.  They are, in fact, the same set of mountains.   North Adams is set in a river valley formed by Hoosic river, which flows through western New York, southern Vermont and northern Massachusetts.  The Hoosic river was an important source of hydroelectric power for mills operating in the region.

  Any trip to Mass MOCA almost requires a stroll into North Adams, since the town functions as an appendage of the Factory/Museum.  The juxtaposition of town and factory/museum forces the visitor to think about larger issues of the area: employment options, socio-economic status, changes wrought by the broad economic currents of 20th century history.    Which is not to say that the museum exhibits themselves do not intrigue.  The growth in popularity of installation art in large, open plan museums is one that spans the globe. You can find such museums, inevitably featuring the word "Modern" in their name, throughout the world.

  The defining feature of many such museums is their lack of anything approaching a first rate permanent collection. Some of this lies in the difficulty in acquiring canonical pieces in the ever changing flow of what constitutes modern art.  Some of it lies in ideological opposition to the idea of the permanent collection and the role it plays in indoctrinating visitors to the museum in the ideology of the collector/institution art industrial complex.
The Sol Lewitt permanent exhibit at Mass Moca North Adams


 The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams neatly sidesteps the dilemma by making its permanent exhibit a single site specific multi floor exhibit of Sol Lewitt patterned wall paintings.  It is more Sol Lewitt in one place than you are likely to see in a lifetime of visits to other museums.
Jim Shaw, Whistle While You Work, 2014- an example of his work blending Disney and Superhero motifs with a critique of materialism in society.

  The temporary exhibits held their own against the formidable amount of space.  There are no paintings on the wall at Mass Moca, or if there are they are likely to be a wry comment on some aspect of the contemporary art world.  The stand out exhibit in my mind was Jim Shaw's ....Entertaining Doubts, which combined super hero motifs with religion in a non-didactic way.  One room featured banners hung from the ceiling with a Superman type figure in various states of physical distress- Superman defeated.  Other aspects of the exhibit referenced Walt Disney and the American West in an effortlessly entertaining and though provoking manner.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Cause for Alarm (1938) by Eric Ambler


Book Review
Cause for Alarm (1938)
 by Eric Ambler

  The modern "spy thriller" is forever linked to the politics of the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union, but its genre roots predate that conflict.   The first novel to be widely acknowledged as a spy novel is the The Riddle of the Sands (1903) by Erksine Childers.  That book took place in the North sea, and the plot revolves around a couple of English gentleman seafarers who unwittingly stumble upon nefarious German activity.  Conrad's The Secret Agent, published in 1906, is widely known, though its literary quality sets it above the common genre work of most later spy novels.   The clear inspiration for The Riddle of the Sands is the "adventure novel," popular in the 19th century.   In Riddle, the spy/espionage element seems almost happenstance, merely an additional element dreamed up by an author looking for novel incident for his sailing  adventure story.

  The spy novel as we know it incorporated the crime/hard boiled fiction of the 1920s and 30s with the political upheaval of the 20th century.  In this sense, Cause for Alarm, written almost a decade before the outbreak of the Cold War, is the first "true" spy novel in the 1001 Books list.  The story concerns an English engineer who is suddenly put out of work in his native land and, out of desperation, accepts an assignment as the representative of an English machine tools company in Fascist Italy, stationed in Milan.

  He becomes embroiled in the kind of international geopolitical machinations familiar to any reader of later spy novels.  So unformed in the genre at this point that one of the main characters is an American working FOR the Soviets against the interest of the German/Italian Axis.  Cause For Alarm is a fast paced thriller, and will appeal to any fan of the genre.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Caught (1943) by Henry Green


Book Review
Caught (1943)
by Henry Green

  This is the fifth Henry Green novel in the 1001 Books project- he is obviously a favorite of the (mostly English) people who made the book.  I think you could very much argue that an "American" version of the 1001 Books project would feature maybe one or two of Green's quiet, well observed novels.  Caught, for example, isn't even in print in the United States.  I had to get my copy from the Cal State San Marcos library via the Circuit library request process at the San Diego Public Library.

  Caught is about the London Fire Brigade during World War II. It certainly sounds like an exciting time to be in the Fire Brigade, what with the constant bombing and so forth.  The plot, such as it is (thin plots in Henry Green novels) revolves around the friendship between an upper class guy and a lower class guy.  The lower class guy has a sister in a mental institution, and much of the incident involves either his attempts to abscond to see her (and subsequent consequences) or various social escapades during their off days (2 days on/one day off schedule.)

  I can safely say that, so far as I'm concerned, Caught by Henry Green is NOT actually a book you need to read prior to death.

Doctor Faustus (1947) by Thomas Mann


Video description of 12 tone music


Example of 12 tone music

Book Review
Doctor Faustus (1947)
 by Thomas Mann

  Doctor Faustus is the fictional "biography" of a syphilitic German composer, based loosely on Arthur Schonenberg, who may or may not have sold his soul to the devil. (alternatively, he may have hallucinated the entire transaction in a syphilitic fit.)  The narrative jumps backward and forwards in time, and also deals with the attractions and ultimate moral bankruptcy of National Socialism/Nazism.  Mann wrote Faustus while he was waiting out World War II in Los Angeles, and the scope of erudition as it pertains to the development of modern music is frankly astonishing.  I'm talking about in depth, theoretical discussions about the evolution of "classical" to "modern" music in the 20th century, and as a layman, I could barely keep track of what the characters were talking about.

  The Faustus is Adrien Leverkuhn.  He starts out as a divinity student in early 20th century Germany, but becomes obsessed with the aesthetic qualities of music.  Somewhere along the line he contracts syphilis, then maybe he sells his soul to the devil, then he spends the rest of his life writing a gran Apocalyptic work of music that is both transcendent and misunderstood.

  Sound familiar?  Any working musician or interested party would find Doctor Faustus of interest.  It's the most musically sophisticated novel of any that I have read in my entire life, and it's worth reading simply for the discussion of the development of "modern" "12 tone music" in a fictionalized format.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Book Review: The Middle Ages (2015) by Johannes Fried


Book Review:
The Middle Ages
 by Johannes Fried
Published January 2015 by Belknap Press at Harvard University
Translation from the German by Peter Lewis
(AMAZON)

 The academic movement to revisit the so-called "Dark Ages" of post-Roman, pre-Renaissance European Century is well over a half century old at this point.  This project is just as "revisionist" as revisionist history can be, but since this period evokes few strong emotions among teachers and students, learned Professors have done their work largely unopposed.  Much of the work in this area has been done by Authors writing and French and German, so translation is very much a part of keeping current in recent developments and more long term trends in the scholarship.

 It's easy to see that The Middle Ages by retired professor of Medieval History at Frankfurt Univerity Johannes Fried is important merely by looking at the book.  The Middle Ages is a broad narrative synthesis, meaning that it is written as much (if not more) for a lay audience, but with a depth and attention to detail that is sufficient to evoke interest from specialists in the field.  It's like, the main narrative is for the general readers, and then the notes and bibliography are for the specialists.  In this case, many of the cited sources are in German, which means that The Middle Ages is likely as close as English readers are likely to get to those books.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Last Lizard is the new Dirty Beaches



  I wasn't exactly surprised when Alex Zhang Hungtai told me that he was done with Dirty Beaches.  I'd like to think at least part of his decision was based on conversations he had with me (which I was basing on my experiences watching bands like Crocodiles, Dum Dum Girls, Cults,  Best Coast and Wavves "come up" with varying degrees of success and/or failure) about whether he really wanted to be touring 300 capacity rock clubs in the mid west and south for the next decade plus of his life.

 If you don't have some kind of engineered instant success (often paid for with someone else's money) a career in indie music means steady touring, shitty gigs and no certainty of anything approaching financial stability.  Personally, I couldn't live that way, and I thought it was a fair question to ask Alex since it was clear that tuesday night shows in Nashville playing for 60 people didn't fill him with utter joy.

 I also knew that Alex was frustrated by the very fans that his Dirty Beaches persona attracted.  He very, very, very much did not want to be the guy who got yelled at to play "True Blue" by frat brothers.  I take a more nuanced view of that situation, but as I tell my criminal clients, "I don't do the time."  The decision to abandon the Dirty Beaches act essentially meant the end of Zoo Music so far as I was concerned, the actual end came afterwards, but when you have that flash of lightning and then the lightning decides it doesn't want to be lighting, you don't sit around waiting for another burst.  The play is to move on with your life, and if something else happens, so be it.

 So that is what I did. And while I've had talks with Alex about possibly running a label with him in a similar fashion to the role I played with Zoo Music, he is very much a free agent, with multiple high level indies having various levels of "interest" in him, so I have no idea how that will end up.  Alex Zhang Hungtai is going to continue to make music, as Last Lizard and not as Dirty Beaches.  

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Donkey Skin (1970) d. Jacques Demy

Catherine Denueve wearing her Donkey Skin.

Movie Review
Donkey Skin (1970)
d. Jacques Demy
Criterion Collection #718
Part of The Essential Jacques Demy

   Donkey Skin, Demy's take on the classic Charles Perrault (the French "Grimm Brothers") fairy tale, is a mouth-watering concoction, and it is one of those movies where the restoration of the film to its original technicolor glory is particularly important.  The story is a dark version of the lost princess fairy tale.  The King of the realm loses his wife, promising her that he will only marry a woman more beautiful than her.  That turns out to be his daughter, played by Denueve, who is torn between her desire to please her doting father and well, the obvious fact that a marriage between a father and his birth daughter is monstrous.  The voice of reason is her fairy godmother, winningly played by Delphine Seyrig, who tells her to obtain a donkey skin and wear it as a disguise.  Denueve does, and she ends up working as the maid for a family of farmers.  There, she is discovered by her prince, and singing ensues.

  The sets are the star here- Demy's production is richly colored almost beyond comprehension, and you will be left gasping, even thought this fifty year old film wasn't shot in HD.  Donkey Skin is a real tribute to the possibilities of color in film, and that is why you should give it a watch.

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