Archive for the ‘John Barth’ Category

dfwSOUNDTRACK: BUILT TO SPILL-Ultimate Alternative Wavers (1993).

Bts I am going to see Built to Spill this Friday.  I was supposed to see them back in 2001, but then some bad things happened in New York City and their show was cancelled (or I opted not to go–I see on Setlist that they did play that night).  Since then, I have enjoyed each new album more than the previous one, so I am really excited to see them.

I thought it would be interesting to revisit their earlier records.  In reading about the band I learned that Doug Martsch was in Treepeople (which I didn’t know and who I don’t really know at all).  I also learned that his plan for BtS was to have just him with a different line up for each album.  That didn’t quite work out, but there has been a bit of change over the years.

Their debut album is surprisingly cohesive and right in line with their newer material.  It’s not to say that they haven’t changed or grown, but there’s a few songs on here that with a little better production could easily appear on a newer album.  Martsch’s voice sounds more or less the same, and the catchiness is already present (even if it sometimes buried under all kinds of things).  And of course, Marstch’s guitar skill is apparent throughout.  The album (released on the tiny C/Z label) also plays around a lot with experimental sounds and multitracking.  When listening closely, it gives the album a kind of lurching quality, with backing vocals and guitars at different levels of volume throughout the disc.

But “The First Song” sounds like a fully formed BtS song–the voice and guitar and catchy chorus are all there..  The only real difference is the presence of the organ in the background.  “Three Years Ago Today” feels a bit more slackery–it sounds very 90s (like the irony of the cover), which isn’t a bad thing.  The song switches between slow and fast and a completely new section later in the song.  “Revolution” opens with acoustic guitars and then an occasional really heavy electric guitar riff that seems to come from nowhere.  The end of the song is experimental with weird sounds and doubled voices and even a cough used as a kind of percussion.

“Shameful Dread” is an 8 minute song.   There’s a slow section, a fast section, a big noisy section and a coda that features the guys singing “la la la la la”.  Of course the most fun is that the song ends and then Nelson from The Simpsons says “ha ha” and a distorted kind of acoustic outro completes the last two minutes.

“Nowhere Nuthin’ Fuckup” is one of my favorite songs on the record.  There’s a sound in the background that is probably guitar but sounds like harbor seals barking.  I recently learned that the lyrics are an interpretation of the Velvet Underground’s “Oh! Sweet Nuthin.”  They aren’t exactly the same but are very close for some verses.  The rest of the music is not VU at all.  In fact the chorus gets really loud and angular.  I love the way the guitars build and then stop dramatically.

“Get a Life” opens with a wild riff that reminds me of Modest Mouse (who cite BtS as an influence), but the song quickly settles down (with more multitracked voices).  I love how at around 4 minutes a big swath of noise takes over and it is resolved with a really catchy noisy end section.  “Built to Spill” starts out slow and quiet, and grows louder with a catchy chorus.  In the background there’s all kinds of noisy guitars and superfuzzed bass.

“Lie for a Lie” is pretty much a simple song with s constant riff running throughout.  The verses are catchy, but the middle section is just crazy–with snippets of guitars, out of tune piano, a cowbell and random guitar squawking and even shouts and screams throughout the “solo” section.  “Hazy” is a slow song with many a lot of soloing.  The disc ends with the nine minute “Built Too Long, Pts 1,2 and 3”  Part 1 is a slow rumbling take on a riff (with slide guitar and piano).  It last about 90 seconds before Part 2 comes in.  It has a big fuzzy bass (with a similar if not identical riff) and wailing guitar solos.  Over the course of its five or so minutes it get twisted and morphed in various bizarre ways.  With about 30 seconds left, Chuck D shouts “Bring that beat back” and the song returns, sort of, to the opening acoustic section.

While the album definitely has a lot of “immature” moments (and why shouldn’t the band have fun?) there’s a lot of really great stuff here.


[READ: September 26, 2015] Critical Insights: David Foster Wallace

It’s unlikely that a non-academic would read a book of critical insights about an author.  Of course, if you really like an author you might be persuaded to read some dry academic prose about that author’s work.  But as it turns out, this book is not dry at all.  In fact, I found it really enjoyable (well, all but one or two articles).

One of the things that makes a book like this enjoyable (and perhaps questionable in terms of honest scholarship) is that everyone who writes essays for this collection is basically a fan of DFW’s work.  (Who wants to spend years thoroughly researching an author only to say means things about him or her anyway?).  So while there are certainly criticisms, it’s not going to be a book that bashes the author.  This is of course good for the fan of DFW and brings a pleasant tone to the book overall.

For the most part the authors of this collection were good writers who avoided a lot of jargon and made compelling arguments about either the book in question or about how it connected to something else.  I didn’t realize until after I looked at the biographies of the authors that nearly everyone writing in this book was from England or Ireland.  I don’t think that makes any difference to anything but it was unexpected to have such an Anglocentric collection about such an American writer (although one of the essays in this book is about how DFW writes globally).

Philip Coleman is the editor and he write three more or less introductory pieces.  Then there are two primary sections: Critical Insights and Critical Essays. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: THERAPY?: Music Through a Cheap Transistor: The BBC Sessions (2007).

I enjoy the title of this disc quite a bit.  Fortunately, I also enjoy the music quite a bit.  This is a collection of BBC recordings from Therapy?

It’s a strange collection in that they recorded songs on five separate occasions and yet there is a lot of duplication of tracks (the liner notes deal with this issue).

John Peel Sessions (and there’s much made in the liner notes about the fact that they thought they’d be meeting Peel himself when they went in, when in fact it was just a random engineer) are essentially live recordings done in the studio.  They tend to be slightly more experimental (done after a band has toured and messed around with the songs some) and for some bands (like Therapy?) they tend to be more raucous.

This collection was recorded from 1991-1995 with a final show in 1998.  Obviously the band isn’t thinking about the future CD release of the sessions when they recorded these sessions, so it probably didn’t seem strange to record “Totally Random Man” 3 times.  But it does seem strange to listen to it like that.

The songs are definitely rawer than the studio versions.  Even their more poppy tracks from 1998 are a bit harsher.  However, their first EPs were really raw, so these songs sound much better (much cleaner).  They also include a lot of fun/weird unreleased tracks and covers.

My only complaint is that neither version of  “Teethgrinder” features that awesome drum sound that is my favorite part of the track.  Otherwise, it’s a great collection.

[READ: June 1, 2010] Lost in the Funhouse

I checked out this book so I could read the title story.  I enjoyed that one quite a bit so I decided to read the whole collection.  The Author’s Note says, “while some of these pieces were composed expressly for print, others were not. For instance: “‘Glossolalia” will make no sense unless heard in live or recorded voices, male and female, or read as if so heard.”  Um, yeah.

The first story: “Frame-Tale” consists entirely of this: “Cut on dotted line, twist end once and fasten AB to ab, CD to cd.” The cut part is a strip of paper that reads: “Once Upon a Time There/Was a Story That Began.”  It’s cute.

The next story, “Night-Sea Journey” is a proper story of a night sea journey. The secret to the story is gradually revealed, and is rather amusing. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: BBC Sessions (various).

Many many bands that I like have recorded tracks for the BBC.  And after several sessions, they tend to get released as BBC Live or BBC Sessions discs.  In the last few years, I’ve gotten discs from the Cocteau Twins, Tindersticks, The Beautiful South, Belle and Sebastian and Therapy?  One of the first ones I’d every gotten was The Smiths’ Hatful of Hollow.

I’ve always loved these releases.  The recordings are “live,” even though they’re not in front of an audience.  For the most part they don’t vary greatly from the originals (that’s not always the case, mind you, but most of the time it’s true.)

What makes these releases so great is that by the time the bands do these recordings for the BBC, the original album has been out a while and the band has toured a bit.  So, they know the song backwards at this point, and they usually record a version that’s faithful to the original but a little more playful.  I always thought that the Hatful of Hollow versions of songs were better than the originals.  It was many years before I understood why there were two “official” releases of the same songs.

There are so many BBC recordings out there (this is an incomplete list).  If you like a British band, chances are they recorded some sessions.  And I don’t know if the BBC is hard pressed for money or what, but they seem to be releasing them by the handful lately.  The biggest problem of course is that most of them are not available in the States (at least for a reasonable price).  And that’s a drag.  So find them used and enjoy!

[READ: May 19, 2010] Girl with Curious Hair

This is DFW’s first collection of short stories.  I clearly bought this copy soon after finishing Infinite Jest.  I was delighted to find as a bookmark an old stub from a sub shop that I used to go to all the time when I worked in Cambridge, Ma.  I wonder if that sub shop is still open.  It was in Brighton, was more or less on my way to work, had a predominance of Irish products and had delicious subs that were almost cheaper than buying the stuff yourself.  I had checked off a few stories in the table of contents (most of the shorter ones) but that stub brought back more memories than the stories did.  I didn’t even recognize the ones that I had apparently read.

And the stories are pretty memorable.  So I wonder if I didn’t read them at all.

The first story is “Little Expressionless Animals” (or, the Jeopardy! story).  In fact, if I may back up, the whole collection is really rife with pop culture, especially television references.  In David Lipsky’s book, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself , DFW states matter-of-factly that he has an obsession with TV and pop culture, so this shouldn’t be surprising.  But for me it was disconcerting to have the pop culture not incidental or as a set dressing, but absolutely central to the stories. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: THE BEATLES-Beatles for Sale (1964).

After the riotous fun of A Hard Day’s Night, I expected that this disc would not only continue the fun, but also be full of songs that I’d heard all the time on the radio.

But wow, this disc is kind of a downer.  “I’m a Loser.”  Really? It’s catchy as all get out but what happened to these guys in this last year?  “Baby’s in Black.”  Wow, these guys are serious now.  The opener, “No Reply” is all about getting rejected.  And “I’ll Follow the Sun” is about leaving and losing a friend.

But there are some good times as well. The cover of “Rock n Roll Music” is a little too stiff for such a rollicking song (kind of like how “Roll Over Beethoven was a little too stiff previously).  But “Eight Days a Week” is a rocking good time.  Fun for all and the first sign that the fun Beatles haven’t grown up completely.

The second half of the disc I barely recognized at all.  One or two songs were kind of familiar, but I wasn’t singing along with abandon.

Yet despite my unfamiliarity, the disc shows remarkable progression in songwriting, in structure (and even recording techniques–again, the liner notes were really informative about the technology they used).  I doubt many people consider this their favorite Beatles disc, but I think it’s a fine transition into what’s to come.

It’s also quite surprising to see how much their hair has grown in a year.

[READ: May 16, 2010] “Lost in the Funhouse”

I read this short story because it is something of the foundation of David Foster Wallace’s story “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way.”  This story is part of Barth’s larger collection also called Lost in the Funhouse.  And, based on this story, I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the collection.  But this story works in an of itself and, since it forms the backbone of the other story I’m going to mention it by itself.

This story is written in a thoroughly postmodern way.  As the story opens, with the enigmatic line, “For whom is the funhouse fun?,” we are introduced to Ambrose.  Ambrose has come with his family to the shore for “the holiday, the occasion of their visit is Independence Day, the most important secular holiday of the United States of America.”

Shortly after this italicized part, the story interrupts itself with this:

Italics are also employed, in fiction stories especially, for “outside,” intrusive, or artificial voices, such as radio announcements, the texts of telegrams and newspaper articles, et cetera. They should be used sparingly.

And so it goes with the rest of the story.  The author (one assumes) interrupts the flow of the narrative, letting the reader know that there is far more at foot here than just the story of Ambrose at the beach.

The story eventually gets back to the matter at hand: Ambrose, his brother Peter and Peter’s girlfriend Magda are driving with Ambrose’ parents to Ocean City.  This trip is made three times a year but this is the first time that Magda has come with them.  They play car games (spot the towers), and generally act like a family on a long car trip.

At this point the author interrupts again to note that:

So far there’s been no real dialogue, very little sensory detail, and nothing in the way of a theme. And a long time has gone by already without anything happening; it makes a person wonder.

Oh, and all along it is quite apparent that Ambrose is, as the title suggests, lost in the funhouse at the beach.

When they finally arrive at the beach, there has been an oil spill and no one wants to swim, so they stay on the boardwalk (not under the boardwalk).  Then the family decides to go for a swim in the pool.  At which point the author jumps in again and stops the meandering:

There’s no point in going farther; this isn’t getting anybody anywhere; they haven’t even come to the funhouse yet. Ambrose is off the track, in some new or old part of the place that’s not supposed to be used; he strayed into it by some one-in-a-million chance….

When the funhouse is finally mentioned as an activity, there is general hilarity and nudging and winking about what happens in funhouses (which Ambrose is too young to understand).  At this point, it’s worth noting that Ambrose has a pretty big crush on Magda.  He has spent many an afternoon with her while the three of them were playing (although she clearly thinks nothing of it).  When he suggests that he and Magda go in the funhouse together, everyone wonders what he’s thinking, but no one says anything (again, he’s too young).

Ultimately, the three kids make it to the funhouse, the entrance of which blows girls’ skirts up (and then Ambrose realizes the point of the funhouse!).  And he realizes that the funhouse is not meant for him.  And then he gets lost.

From there the story turns into fantasy, imagination and future possibilities.

It’s a fascinating piece of work.  I certainly wouldn’t want all of my stories to be constructed in this way, but I really appreciate this point of view and the, in my opinion, funny intrusions that break the fourth wall.

For reasons I’m not entirely clear about, the whole story is available here as a Word doc.

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