February 23, 2011

New Music: PJ Harvey, Radiohead

It appears to the be the year for English pop artists to engage in political critique -- well, sort of. Who knew musicians could still find their arsenal by tarrying with the pastoral tradition?

PJ Harvey's Let England Shake isn't terribly complex ("How is our glorious country sown? Not with wheat and corn" -- "Our land is plowed by tanks!" Harvey sings on "The Glorious Land"), but musically there's a lot going on. Harvey's familiar songwriting style is stronger than ever (best heard in songs like "Bitter Branches" and "In the Dark Places"), but it seems she's taken the lessons of failed albums like White Chalk and her recent collaboration with John Parish (A Woman a Man Walked By) to heart: here, murky production, disparate soundscapes, and a Victorian-gothic aesthetic merge with reflections on post-colonial England: a nation constantly in dialogue with its own legacy (as she demonstrates on the haunting centerpiece, "England"). Harvey's approach is to play with, juxtapose, subvert cultural resting places with a downright bloody history: into this mix she throws lines from English protest songs, reggae samples, and tons of autoharp. In other words, Harvey's task with Let England Shake is to re-energize the English tradition of political critique. It could have been a heavy-handed train-wreck, but in Harvey's hands (and thanks incredible team she's assembled: Rob Ellis, Mick Harvey, John Parish, Flood, etc.), Let England Shake reminds PJ Harvey fans why we came to love her in the first place: not for her brilliant insights, but for the raw emotion that can only come by looking the devil in the face.

Radiohead's music always gestures toward some kind of late capitalist malaise, and The King of Limbs is no different. Indeed, this time around there seems to be a strong resonance between the natural imagery transparently there (both in the cover art and in Yorke's lyrics) and a recently resurfaced debate over forest enclosures throughout much of Britain. But regardless of its political timeliness, The King of Limbs is a strange animal. As is often the case with Radiohead's albums, early reviews have been typically vague. It's not their best album -- I think we're all agreed on that -- but neither should it be written off as a misstep. The King of Limbs is a good album, but it's also their most idiosyncratic -- only Amnesiac comes close. There's a strong dubstep influence and the more organic elements that characterized In Rainbows have retreated into the shadows only to reemerge in two oddly situated tracks: the lovely, effortless, out-of-place piano ballad, "Codex," and its partner, the echo-chamber folk song, "Give up the Ghost." The rest of the album is comprised of rhythmically complex songs that seem to fold in on themselves; at times, one wonders what the rest of the band was up to during recording sessions. As for immediate highlights, there's the devious lead single (below) "Lotus Flower" (in my opinion, this is one best tracks of the year so far), the very catchy, occasionally clumsy "Little by Little" (which picks up nicely from Amnesiac's "I Might be Wrong") and an album closer ("Separator") that actually does something -- to put it a bit differently, "Separator" is more expansive than what we get on the rest of The King of Limbs: it incorporates a fantastic lead guitar line, releases some (dearly missed) ambient steam, and gets as close to an anthem ("Wake me up") as Radiohead can currently get. We Radiohead fans need not despair. The King of Limbs is full of fine moments. More than anything else, we're victims of our own anticipation.

February 14, 2011

New Radiohead: The King of Limbs

RADIOHEAD! Aw, shucks. You guys totally had me. I never expected you to announce a your new album, The King of Limbs, on Valentine's Day; no less, the week before it's available for download from your website. Those of us who still like holding a physical album in our hands have to wait until May 9. Last time you guys pulled a stunt like this, I bought your album twice. I imagine that's going to happen again.

Apparently The King Of Limbs is a reference to an oak tree in Wiltshire, England's Savernake Forest. Thought to be more than 1,000 years old, the ancient tree and Savernake Forest are located close to Tottenham House, where Radiohead recorded part of In Rainbows. So here's something related (but totally different) that I've recently been enjoying:


On a day dedicated to last-minute gifts and forced romance, Siamese Dream, the 1994 album by my beloved Smashing Pumpkins, does the martyred saint (Valentine) a small degree of justice. Not only does it capture the band (well, its cheif songwriter, anyway) at their best; it's features all the best parts of the early nineties grunge aesthetic (musically, visually, etc.). Siamese Dream surges with antagonism and resentment (after all this is the early nineties), but, like Gish before it and Melancholy and the Infinite Sadness after it, Siamese Dream ends with a schmaltzy doozy of lovesong: "Luna," comes after almost sixty minutes of emotional turmoil, existential uncertainty, and full-on rage.

Immediately following the abrasive, irritating taunt of "Sweet Sweet," (which is, of course, anything but), "Luna" is the opposite: sincere, but certainly not innocent. I'll be the first to admit that Billy Corgan has produced a massive amount unlistenable mush, but "Luna" isn't as naive or deluded as it first comes across. The popular myth surrounding the songwriting and production of Siamese Dream emphasizes Corgan's depression, which is noticeably channelled here. On any other album, a song like this might be considered overly sentimental, but on Siamese Dream it arrives quite unexpectedly--it's appearance is almost graceful--what begins like a tragedy ends as a comedy.

February 10, 2011

February 8, 2011

presentation time!

For most introverted English majors, class presentations spell disaster. For grad students it's a reality that one can't avoid. Right now, I'm in the thick of a dense presentation schedule and there's no end in sight.

Released last year, Lower Dens' excellent Twin Hand Movement takes its cue from Yo La Tengo and puts the introvert on display. The reason I picked this particular performance has to do with singer/songwriter Jana Hunter's bangs, which, like the expressionless restraint of the band, foreground the (seeming) absurdity of this exhibition: no eye contact! In this way, "I Get Nervous" is the musical equivalent of my presentation approach, only more laid back and without all the false starts.

February 4, 2011

Brian Massumi on the Super Bowl

The Superbowl airs this Sunday and I probably won't be watching it. But I make mention of it because I've been waiting to share this excerpt from a reading I did last semester from Brian Massumi's Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Affect theory is a relatively new/current stream of Deleuzian thought that attempts to explain social phenomena (power relationships, and so on) not relying on theory of subjective agency, but focusing instead on the interactions which occur between bodies as they are played out along a plane of immanence. Here, he distinguishes between the stadium crowd and the audience watching at home on their televisions; and the way in which the affective response of the domestic (predominantly male) audience spills out in unexpected ways and/or is recontained:
The way in which the audience's perspective is included in the game is not through the regulatory application but by affective means. The excitement of disappointment of the stadium audience adds auditory elements to the mix that directly contribute to modulating the intensity of the field of potential. The audience feedback is itself modulated by the spectators' accumulated individualizations of the game--their already-constituted knowledge of and attachment to the histories of the players and teams.

The point of view of the television audience is quite different. Its individuations do not fold directly back on the field of play. Quite the contrary, through the TV audience the play folds out of its own event space and into another. The televised game enters the home as a domestic player. Take for example American football. Superbowl Sunday, the peak event of the football season, is said to correspond to an increase in domestic violence. The home entry of the game, at its crest of intensity, upsets the fragile equilibrium of the household. The pattern of relations between household bodies is reproblematized. The game even momentarily interrupts the pattern of extrinsic relations generally obtaining between domestic bodies, as typed by gender. A struggle ensues: a gender struggle over clashing codes of socieality, rights of access to portions of the home and its contents, and rituals of servitude. The sociohistorical home place coverts to an event-space. The television suddenly stands out from the background of the furnishings, imposing itself as a catalytic part-subject, arraying domestic bodies around itself according to the differential potentials generally attaching to their gender type. For a moment, everything is up in the air--and around the TV set, and between the living room and the kitchen. In proximity to the TV, words and gestures take on unaccustomed intensity. The home space is repotentialized. Anything could happen. The male body, sensing the potential, transduces the heterogeneity of the elements of the situation  into a reflex of readiness to violence. The "game" is rigged by the male's already-constituted propensity to strike. The typical pattern of relations is reimposed in the unity of movement of hand against face. The strike expresses the empirical reality of the situation: recontainment by the male-dominated power formation of the domestic. The event short-circuits. The event is recapture. The home event-space is back to the place it was: a container of asymmetric relations between terms already constituted according to gender. Folding back onto domestication. Coded belonging, not becoming. 

Massumi, Brian. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002.