Sunday, February 26, 2023

R.E.M.'s Murmur gets a mix of academic and popular dissection in the 33 1/3 series

Even after all these years, I have yet to decide whether Murmur or Reckoning is my favorite R.E.M. record. But here are my favorite tidbits learned about Murmur by reading J. Niimi’s entry into the 33 1/3 book series:

  • Michael Stipe saw the word “murmur” on a list of the seven easiest words to pronounce.
  • It was produced by Mitch Easter in Charlotte, N.C. Easter also produced Reckoning, Pavement’s Brighten the Corners, and many others.
  • The studio where it was recorded was named Reflection and was mostly home to Southern gospel and soul recording projects. It had a certain church-like quality.
  • Guitars “were kind of out at the time” but the band wanted to have very clean sounding guitars, not fuzzy. Each band member recorded in different rooms and Stipe set up under the stairs because he didn’t want anyone to see him singing.
  • The second part of the book is the slog part for me, as Niimi mostly settles into a techie talk of what was happening with the gear and intricacies of each cut’s creation, with not nearly enough information about where these songs were originating from in the band member’s brains, which would have been more interesting to me.
  • Next, the author ruminates about the times of Murmur. Precisely, 1983. He bought the cassette at a suburban John Hughes-like Chicago mall and later bought it on CD.
  • The compelling and mysterious album cover art seemed perfect for R.E.M. Kudzu, a Japanese plant, had been placed throughout the South in the 1930s as part of the New Deal to get people working. The thought was that the plant would improve the soil throughout the region, but by the time of the album’s release, it had basically eaten the South.
  • Niimi then takes a sidetrack to explore if Murmur truly fits the alleged categorization of “Southern Gothic,” and he makes a good case that the album artwork certainly fits that genre. But I’m less convinced that it's an adequate description of the music itself. Stipe’s obscure lyrical style does feel at times in the tradition of Edgar Allen Poe and post-Civil War. However, the music, for me, has always hit more accurately as jangle pop - nothing much gothic at all. R.E.M. also became a major foundation of “college rock,” which I'm defining as the kind of music one listens to while investigating one’s self much more independently for the first time as an early adult more removed from the influence of parents (and their old Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young albums).
  • A fairly long examination of Stipe’s “bad grammar” lyrics concludes that the words of the band’s songs helps the listener create their own narratives for what is happening. In that sense, I agree that abstract lyrics by bands like R.E.M., Pavement, and Wilco may very much be a plus towards the levels of how much i appreciate them.
  • While he may have earlier been influenced by the likes of the New York Dolls, by the time of Murmur, the singer was moving away from their “brand of punk nihilism.”
Murmur only topped out at #36 on the U.S. album charts but was tops or among the tops for 1983 on most critic lists. While this is far from a definitive work on Murmur, it is a worthy read for R.E.M. fans.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Chuck Klosterman takes us back to what the 1990s means, Part 1

Chuck Klosterman has become one of the icons of contemporary pop-culture commentary. His latest, The Nineties, is an essential and fairly massive tome to a decade worth remembering through his eyes. Here are some of my favorite takes from the first half of the book. To be continued here after I read the rest ...
  • It was perhaps the last decade in history “when personal and political engagement was still viewed as optional.”
  • The worst thing you could be was a sellout and you needed to be some kind of your own brand of cool.
  • Richard Linklater’s Slacker, Douglas Coupland’s Generation X, and Nirvana's Nevermind came together to form the general representation of young people in the 90s.
  • “It was a confusing time to care about things.” In Reality Bites, Gen Xers mostly wanted Winona Ryder to pick toxically masculine Ethan Hawke over beta male Ben Stiller, a choice that would have been reversed just about any other time in history. This was again a product of this time-specific fear of selling out.
  • Every generation is assigned a character. A difference for young people of the 90s is that it bothered them less than other generations.
  • Writers of their decade David Foster Wallace of Infinite Jest, Elizabeth Wirtzel of Prozac Nation, and Jon Leyner have mixed bodies of work, “as is the memory of why it mattered.”
  • Grunge was the most morbid genre in pop history, with too-early deaths by Kurt Cobain, Andrew Wood of Mother Love Bone, Mia Zapatista of the Gits, Layne Staley of Alice In Chains, Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots, Chris Cornell, and now Mark Lanegan and Van Conner of Screaming Trees.
  • While the movie Kids introduced a way of looking at teens as they possibly actually are and In the Company of Men looked at toxic males as they possibly are, Pulp Fiction kicked Natural Born Killers’ butt in helping define where the movies were at (the result of video store nerd and movie expert Quentin Tarantino) in the decade.
  • In the lengthy section (fittingly) on the rise of the Internet and the dawn of portable phones, it's interesting to note that area codes originated in a way so the densest areas had the lowest numerical area codes so all those people situated in the region wouldn't get such sore fingers from dialing high numbers on the rotary phone dial.
  • People were always findable before the internet. In fact, phone customers were charged a monthly fee if they didn’t want their home numbers listed in the phone book.
  • The X Files in the ‘90s truly mainstreamed conspiracy theories, with many viewers identifying with Mulder’s want and need to believe. Conspiracy theorists began to think of themselves as curious, open-minded, and normal.
  • Michael Jordan’s habit of sticking his tongue out was because his father’s tongue used to stick out when he was at work fixing car engines.
  • In the 90s, there were some who thought dumbness was smart, like the creators of Zima and Pepsi Crystal.
  • The 90s ushered in “new country” music when Billy Ray Cyrus hit big with the awful “Achy Breaky Heart.” Then Garth Brooks ruled the decade and had completely inoffensive stadium tunes that championed working class and gay people and never talked down to anyone or irritated anyone. Think of how far Top 40 has come since then, when it’s ruled by divisive racists like Morgan Wallen.
  • The reason Seinfeld’s characters could pitch a show (within their own show, very meta) about nothing was very insightful. Think of all the shows, like Room for Two and Major Dad, that pulled in millions of viewers but have completely and rightfully been forgotten. George Costanza was correct, people would watch their show because it was “on TV.” By the 90s, TV was an appliance designed to waste peoples’ time and distract. Much of pop culture, like Garth Brooks from music, was working the same. The popular stuff doesn’t even merit an historical footnote. The same can almost be said about Friends. The characters weren’t particularly cool, and maybe not even that memorable, but the show was obviously monumentally popular.
  • Part of the country’s obsession with the O.J. Simpson trial was that he was obviously guilty but we wanted to see if his Dream Team of lawyers could get him off the hook.
  • MSNBC and FOX News launched a mere 12 months after the Simpson debacle. Nobody much took FOX seriously because it was clearly partisan from the start. MSNBC, on the other hand, was taken seriously, as a new kind of news that merged Microsoft’s grasp of the internet with NBC’s expertise in broadcast news. It was only later that MSNBC became the polar opposite of FOX, as the home of Democrat talking points. We were slowly learning that viewers of these channels watched purely for entertainment and emotional reassurance and didn’t want to hear things that were different from their own beliefs.

Friday, February 10, 2023

TV Snide: January 2023

TV Series of the Month (Tie): The White Lotus - Season 2 (HBO Max)
: Creator Mike White pulls out all the stops for a second season of perfect TV. The seven episodes again bring together the lives of hotel guests and resort employees, as a body washes up on the beach in Italy. We have to guess which starring character it is for the length of the season. 5 out of 5 stars

TV Series of the Month (Tie) Succession - Season 2 (HBO Max): This is a can't-keep-your-eyes-off, old-fashioned shitshow that is fascinating to view. The whole Roy family (patterned perhaps off the Murdoch media empire) is worth throwing to the sharks. The non-family inner circle too. The drama lies in who will fall and how. 5 out of 5 stars

Short Story of the Month: “The Thirteenth Day” by T.C. Boyle: One of my favorite authors appeared with this story in the April/May 2022 edition of Esquire. Enough time has passed since the start of COVID-19 that it is enjoyable to read the tale of a couple stuck on a cruise ship for a month. The conditions are unappealing even in their 5-star balconied cabin. It’s hard to believe anyone would ever want to take a cruise again after reading this. A couple of Boyle’s best novels include Outside Looking In and Drop City. I really need to read The Road to Wellville too. 5 out of 5 stars

Documentary of the Month: McEnroe (Showtime): Favorite athlete ever. Check! Favorite sport ever. Check! I admit I'm biased on this one, but I really like the way the filmmakers blended their own creative vision with great chronological footage of the tenns great's career. 5 out of 5 stars

Belushi (Showtime): A worthy documentary of one of comedy’s legends. I think John Belushi falls in right after Chevy Chase, Steve Martin, Bill Murray, Gene Wilder, and Richard Pryor in my ranking of funniest 1970s comedic actors. The producers of this probably rank him higher, and this mixes footage with cool graphic treatments to tell his life story. 4.5 out of 5 stats

Novel of the Month: The House Across the Lake by Riley Sager: I really enjoyed this suspense/horror author's The Final Girls. This one is not as good but still worth a quick read. It centers around out-of-work, Upper West Side actor Casey, who is spiralling into alcoholism at her Vermont lakehouse after her husband Len's drowning death. She begins a Rear Window-like relationship with the tech leader/supermodel couple across the lake, and other neighbors in their midst eventually come along for the ride. I'm not sure the supernatural elements of the book work, but if you can get past those, the rest provides for a gripping page turner. 4 out of 5 stars

“Roy Spivey,” by Miranda July (The New Yorker): This short story ran in the magazine in 2007. July is relatively famous for her screenplays along with her fiction. The protagonist is flying first class and sitting next to a famous actor named Roy Spivey. They have a fun time together and he gives her his phone number. But much like with many other things in her life, she procrastinates, waiting to call him many years later while she is watching her husband out the window clean their car. The number is out of service, and probably has been for many years. This makes me want to read more from July, possibly her debut novel The First Bad Man. 4 out of 5 stars

Never Have I Ever - Season 3 (Netflix): This seems like more of a teen-girl watch than one for me, but ever since the debut of this series, having my tennis hero John McEnroe serve as the narrator was all the hook I needed. From there, the cast and storylines of navigating high-school love and relationships has gripped me. It’s based on Mindy Kaling’s own oft-awkward arrival from India to the U.S. and I highly recommend you give it a try. 4 out of 5 stars

Invisible Things by Mat Johnson: The author of this 2022 novel skillfully brings out most of the best elements of sci fi. The only thing missing are aliens, which is odd since the story is about a group headed to Jupiter to study a society of people kidnapped from Earth. The most alien element of these people, living under a dome, is that they and their society are just like those back where they came from. The first half is a rollicking read that bogs down a bit as it wraps up with the crews’s struggles to bring some of the inhabitants back to Earth. The “invisible things” keep the society from being able to progress in ways that classicism, racism, social media, demagogues, and other factors do in our own world. 3.5 out of 5 stars

Confess, Fletch (Showtime)
: The Chevy Chase Fletch movies are comedy classics, so this new entry had a lot to live up to. If anyone can handle it, it’s Mad Man Jon Hamm. And he is a truly great comedic actor. He holds the whole slightly messy whodunnit art-theft plot together as best he can, and he’s almost entirely the reason (along with somewhat bumbling police investigators) the movie succeeds. 3.5 out of 5 stars

Who Killed Santa? (Netflix): I will forever love Jason Bateman and Will Arnett for Arrested Development and their Smartless podcast, but this is lazy stuff. Oh, it’s still pretty hilarious in several spots, but it’s borderline experimental and Netflix would probably never air something like this if it didn’t have the two stars’ star power. Like an SNL skit, but not one worthy of drawing out for an hour. 3 out of 5 stars