Jesse Jarnow

Archive for January, 2005

a very long engagement

A Very Long Engagement is grotesque, sweet, and darkly hilarious — and sustains these three traits, in nearly perfect balance, for its entirety. There is hardly a moment that isn’t all at once. It’s also (easily) the most Decemberists-y movie ever made: a distinctly French romance set in the trenches and hospitals of World War I.

People often speak of maturation, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more clear-cut example than this. In City of Lost Children, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and collaborator Marc Caro created an authoritatively immersive reality. With cloned half-wits, a circus strongman, a cult of cyclops (and that’s not to mention the talking brain) the film was a bit surreal. Amelie, on the other hand, applied the same weird logic to the task of a Rube Goldberg-like romance that genuinely was romantic (if simultaneously a wee too cute).

Turned out, the best way to resolve these two over-excited directions was by introducing a hard-line “realism” into the picture. A Very Long Engagement doesn’t flinch from brutality. There are decapitations, maimings, mutilations, and about a half-dozen other varieties of death. Whether or not it’s accurate to classify these devices as “realism” is another question, but they certainly achieve that effect — people in the theater where I saw the film often turned their heads from the screen during particularly graphic sequences.

In a way, the humor and romance help the violent stuff go down, or at least give us a way to rationalize watching it. Mostly, though, the characters are such unique and vulnerable specimens that it’s nearly impossible not to get drawn in, and soon stirred by the two dozen simple twists of fate strung along an elegantly knotted plot dotted with nooses. Highly recommended.

“1, 2 step” – ciera featuring missy elliot

week of January 29, 2005

#2 this week, #2 last week, 14 weeks on chart

Listening to the leaked Guero last week, I got to thinking about the still-yawning divide between the music that I sincerely, unabashedly enjoy and, well, songs like Ciara’s “1, 2 Step,” currently hovering at #2. As a piece of music, “One Two Step” is beautiful. I admire it immensely. The arrangement is fantastic and adventurous. There are a million things going on: strings, kettle drums (or maybe very deep bass drums), a half-dozen synth patterns and countermelodies, bells, near-ambient filter beats, backwards masking, echoes, voices talking back, and probably a good handful of tricks that I’m missing owing to the lo-fi mp3.

It’s really cool. And, if it were on Guero with Beck doing his thang on top, I’d probably not only like it a lot, but also think it one of the best songs on the album. That said, I can’t realistically see myself getting excited about “1, 2 Step” coming on in shuffle. My first inclination is to say that it’s probably because of the lyrics. But that’s sorta dumb, ’cause there are tons of songs that I love (like most of Automatic For the People and Astral Weeks) that I couldn’t quote more than a phrase or two from, and enjoy them simply because I am enamored with the way they sound.

Of course, I feel confident that “1, 2 Step” isn’t meant to be listened to sitting at a desk, under headphones, repeatedly (12 times now), while consciously dissecting. It’s meant to be listened to… well, lots of places – the car, at a party/club, in passing – but certainly not here, like this. From a distance, like an impressionist painting, the details might blur into something mysterious, something not meant to hold up over time at all, but simply to hold up in your imagination until next time, and – when that time comes – over again before you could entirely remember to remember it. So, with that, I’ll leave Ciara on my harddrive. Perhaps, some day, we’ll meet again…


My review of the leaked version of Guero is up on

I s’ppose I’m probably going to hell (or the non-union Scientologist equivalent) for reviewing a leaked album. Consider it a news report on a work-in-progress. Please?

swing s. chrysler

I don’t have Dr. Tuttledge’s classification scheme handy, but I just got a pretty interesting piece of spam, in what (to me) is a new category: the diatribe.

The Dylan lyric caught my eye first, and I thought for a second that it might be a letter from an angry leader. But then I looked closer, and saw that the spambot was just pulling from a topical database, in this case stocked with stern aphorisms. There’s actually some remarkably sage stuff in thar.

(For best effect, read first paragraph or two, then skip to bottom.)

From: Swing S. Chrysler
Date: Friday, January 21, 2005 2:28 PM
Subject: (SPAM?) Ave! 🙂

Well! He who is not busy being born is busy dying. I didn’t find my friends the good Lord gave them to me. Other people’s opinion of you does not have to become your reality. One does a whole painting for one peach and people think just the opposite — that particular peach is but a detail.

A great fortune depends on luck, a small one on diligence.

He is useless on top of the ground he ought to be under it, inspiring the cabbages. Remember you are just an extra in everyone else’s play. Man may be defined as the animal that can say ”I,” that can be aware of himself as a separate entity. Know-how will surpass guess-how. Laughter is the cipher key wherewith we decipher the whole man

Great people talk about ideas. Small people talk about other people. Old age is not a matter for sorrow. It is matter for thanks if we have left our work done behind us.

Friendship is composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies.

An aim in life is the only fortune worth finding.

Pure truth cannot be assimilated by the crowd it must be communicated by contagion. Thou art all ice. Thy kindness freezes. Calamity is virtue’s opportunity. Where the heart lies, let the brain lie also. The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.A short absence is the safest. It’s fun being a kid. Refuse the evil, and choose the good. [Isaiah 7:15] A man’s feet must be planted in his country, but his eyes should survey the world.

To look at the cross-section of any plan of a big city is to look at something like the section of a fibrous tumor. Since when do you have to agree with people to defend them from injustice?

[THEN: graphic of sultry female face with caption, “pussies and ass filled with cum”]



Mike points me towards this project:

1. Open up the music player on your computer.

2. Set it to play your entire music collection.

3. Hit the “shuffle” command.

4. Tell us the title of the next ten songs that show up (with their musicians), no matter how embarrassing. That’s right, no skipping that Carpenters tune that will totally destroy your hip credibility. It’s time for total musical honesty. Write it up in your blog or journal and link back to at least a couple of the other sites where you saw this.

5. If you get the same artist twice, you may skip the second (or third, or etc.) occurances. You don’t have to, but since randomness could mean you end up with a list of ten song with five artists, you can if you’d like.
Here’s what came up (pretty accurate, except for the lack of unfamiliar tunes dumped into my iTunes via various friends’ mp3 mixes):

1. “Little Fishes” – Brian Eno
2. “Alberta #2” – Bob Dylan
3. “Pont of View Point” – Cornelius
4. “Night in Buenos Aires” – Les Baxter
5. “To Spacefuzz With Dub” – Funny Cry Happy
6. “Surfer Girl” – The Beach Boys
7. “Oney” – Johnny Cash
(8a. “Tal Coat” – Brian Eno)
8b. “Everyday People” – Medeski, Martin and Wood
9. “Up To You” – Yo La Tengo
10. “Sugar-Free Jazz” – Soul Coughing

“let me love you” – mario

week of January 22, 2005
#1 this week, #1 last week, 14 weeks on chart

What’s amazing to me about the “Let Me Love You” isn’t the tune’s particular catchiness (I mean, it’s alright), but the way it places itself in that very specific slow-dance space. More, it conjures the same vibe as (say) “Wonderful Tonight” by Eric Clapton, even though it literally sounds nothing like it, and draws from an entirely different palette of synthesizers and sonic gimcracks. In some ways, it’s like discovering that we can keep finding new and exciting ways to mix different elements with (basically) the same results. (In other ways, it’s like remembering that one can mix any number of radically vivid colors together and still get brown.)

But let’s go with the former for the duration of this post.

The base of Scott Storch’s production is an alternating groove of subtle bass drum (with subtler melodic properties) and handclaps. Then there’s swelling synth string section that sounds on the verge of shorting out (though it could be the mp3). There’s also another keyboard that surfaces occasionally that sounds a bit like a pedal steel swoop, but it disappears quickly. This all makes the vibe, Mario’s voice merely reinforcing it, and adding a few more hooks to the top.

I particularly like the not-really-call-and-response that feeds into the chorus, where no questions are posed (and no answers are given), and Mario sorta sounds like he’s reacting to obviously rhetorical inquiries even though it’s just obvious boasting. Lots of voices: “You’re the type of woman.” Mario: “deserve good things.” Lots of voices: “Fistful of diamonds.” Mario: “Handful of rings.”

Maybe that’s what good pop is: answering questions that weren’t asked with answers that aren’t answers. How’s that for a Greil Marcus-y conclusion?

Cue Warner Brothers outro theme, Porky Pig, and “That’s All Folks!”

mancala fever

A few days ago, my neighbor’s new loftmate introduced me to mancala — an ancient (?!) game involving strategy and the counting of rocks.

“I call it ‘Ug!'” my friend grunted happily, upon the realization that people of any age from any culture in any period of history could (and likely did) play and understand the utterly elegant principles of the game.

The rules are simple: pick up a pile of shiny pebbles and move them around the board, counting them off as you go. If your last piece lands in your mancala (your bank at the end of your side), you go again. If it lands in an empty bowl on your side, you collect whatever pebbles are in your opponent’s adjacent space.

And from those two rules flower all manners of possibilities, and various strategies by which to parse them. Over the past several days, several friends have dropped by, each with their own minute variations. Each has shifted the game in new ways. On the cyberweb, we’ve found other variations — Egyptian rules, Nigerian rules, Ethiopian rules.

Especially if one has been playing for an hour or so, allowing himself to get fully inside the logic, the introduction of a new rule is a mathematically awesome experience, his brain automatically spinning out equations, unfolding inwards into hypothetical spaces of endless pebbles.

There, I encounter eternally finite riddles, and the vague ghosts of fellow puzzlers past. I envision myself in the midst of some desert city, playing mancala in a cool alleyway between wind-beaten sandstone structures. I am winning.

funny cry happy at kenny’s castaways, 1/12

It’s been a while since I’ve done this, but I’m gonna be playing at Kenny’s Castaways with my old friend Danny Gale’s band, GOBA, this Wednesday (the 12th).

I’m gonna be on around 9:30-10ish, supposedly. My set will likely include some (if not all) of the following: ukulele, yodeling, maritime themes, musical nails, and a couple of songs backed by Danny & GOBA.

I’d love to see ya.

Kenny’s Castaways
157 Bleecker Street
(’cause I know how much you love goin’ to Bleecker Street)

one final smile…? (part II)

More observations about Tim Smolen’s Smile:

– The various sources enter at different points in the stereo image, popping in and out of the mix, and giving the recording an almost literal depth.

– Going with Brian’s original ending to “Good Vibrations” is probably okay, after all — though I still can’t stand the 2004 version in that regard. But, ultimately, it does no harm to the canonical civilian classic, and even suits the album well — not because the lyrics fit with Smile’s “concept” better (or worse), except that it’s Brian’s version. Given what Smile is, I can see how that would be meaningful, beyond any petty anti-Mike Love sentiments that might be lingering in our favorite vegetable.

That and hearing the 20something Brian croon the lyrics as opposed to the 50something Brian really underscores the song’s context as a dopey-love sequel to Pet Sounds (and everything else in the Beach Boys’ catalogue, for that matter).

– There are still a few things I’d edit. Some of those new lyrics sections could really use a snip — especially the out-of-character maritime jig affixed to the delightfully pastoral Americana backing track of “On a Holiday” (one of the most alluring bits of the initial Smile bootleg I got a few years ago). So that leaves the question: who’s gonna keep fucking with Smile? Are people gonna start making aesthetic choices about it? How far can you refine it?

‘kay, promise I’m done for now.

one final smile…?

Well, it happened.

Somebody – specifically Tim Smolen – re-edited the ’60s tapes of Brian Wilson’s Smile into the order suggested by the version completed last year by Wilson, Van Dyke Parks, and company. Smolen’s attention to detail is wonderful. The original recordings are used wherever possible, often to the last possible second before vocal parts from the Nonesuch edition make their entrances (such as on “Wonderful”).

Listening on headphones, everything has a slightly digitalized quality, the result of a ProTools mixdown, or perhaps even a layer of mp3, which is a little off-putting at first, but also provides a surprisingly level playing field for the sources. The pristine digital fidelity of the new Smile thus blends more easily with the high-generation fuzziness of the oft-bootlegged studio leaks.
I’m still a little miffed about the treatment of “Good Vibrations” on Smile 2004. I think the “original” lyrics that Wilson reverted to (presumably so he wouldn’t have to sing words penned by estranged cousin Mike Love?) are pretty lame. More, I think it makes for a horrific closer, and will be dead in my cold, cold grave before I recognize anything other than “Surf’s Up” as the proper ending to the suite. But, Smolen does some good work here.

For starters, he fuses the famous single recording with the earlier takes of the original lyrics and omits the clunker about “working on my brain.” The words are still kinda dumb, but – y’know what? – so is most of Pet Sounds and that’s still heartbreaking. At least on the original “Good Vibrations” recordings, Wilson sings the lyrics with such wide-eyed eyed California beauty that you can take ’em seriously. Sort of.

Smolen also fuses on the retarded false ending that Smile 2004 has (instead of the more graceful theramin fade-out), though makes up for it with the left-field inclusion of the near-a capella “You’re Welcome” – from 1968’s Wild Honey, and previously unconnected to the Smile sessions – as an “Our Prayer”-like coda to the album. “Of course! How obvious!” I thought, when I heard “You’re Welcome” fading in, that same amazed glee I experienced when I heard “Gee” fade out of “Our Prayer” for the first time.

As strange as it is to say this, I think Smile is really finished.


see also:
Wouldn’t It Have Been NIce?, my February 2004 Smile feature for
Their Hearts Were Full of Spring, in the Winter 2005 edition of Signal To Noise, on newsstands now (not online).

Props to Tim Smolen for making the recording, and David Jay Brown for sending me the disc.

some recent stories

BRAIN TUBA: Whatever Happened to the Band of Tomorrow?
moe. at Roseland, 26 November 2004
The Duo with Andrew Barr and Marc Friedman at the Knitting Factory Tap Bar, 27 November 2004
Lake Trout at Tribeca, 1 December 2004
Medeski/Ribot/Warner/Wood at Tonic, 15 December 2004
Unsilent Night, 18 December 2004
Just Another Diamond Day by Vashti Bunyan

weird al

Weird Al’s brilliant polka medleys were my first exposure to oodles of popular songs, including a good portion of the Stones’ repertoire (“Hot Rocks Polka,” from UHF), early ’90s power pop (“Polka Your Eyes Out,” from Off The Deep End), and – since my hippie parents (Jah bless ’em) never got cable – even MTV standards (“Polka Party” from, um, Polka Party).
Tonight, I downloaded everything that I’d been missing — mostly from the albums Al has released since my 1997 high school graduation. And, having since become that most impolite breed of listener known as a “rockist,” this is some of my first exposure to many of the relatively contemporary numbers included. Once again, Al is serving as my Cliff’s Notes.
The polkas are incredible: succinct indexes of melody that create a surprisingly level playing field for the quality of the songs. Somebody could write a wonderful musicological essay about the timeless (?) themes revealed by these juxtapositions. (I’ll just add that to the list of things to do…)
In consulting the ever-helpful All Music Guide, I discovered several refreshingly thoughtful reviews of Al albums by the likes of AMG founder Stephen Thomas Erlewine and avant-garde banjoist Dr. Eugene Chadbourne (when the hell did he write for All Music?).
Erlewine’s critique of the recent Poodle Hat is genuinely impassioned — though his charges against “Angry White Boy Polka” seem overblown. While the title certainly doesn’t describe The White Stripes or The Strokes too well (at least compared to, say, Eminem), the juxtaposition of the latter and the former is preceisely what’s important. The Strokes’ “Last Nite” as doo-wop ragtime is a Zappa-like twist of genius
(And, at the risk of turning into the guy from The Onion‘s “I Must Take Issue with the Wikipedia Entry For ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic” piece, I’d also like to correct a repeated gaff in Chadbourne’s insightful reviews of Al’s first three albums — specifically that “no children of any age have expressed much interest in the original material [on In 3-D].” As literally one of the mythical 11-year olds Dr. Chad refers to elsewhere, I loved his original tunes just as much as his parodies, so much so I don’t remember even differentiating between ’em.)
Well, now that that’s outta my system…
(PS. Anybody know when The Onion’s archives became subscriber only? Weak.)

new year’s resolution #1: post more often

Watching the Flaming Lips’ New Year’s show at Madison Square Garden last night, opening for Wilco, wasn’t so much about being surprised but about seeing the culmination (one hopes) of Yoshimi, knowing exactly what was coming, and enjoying every second of it. It was beautiful to see the Lips’ stage show transplanted into such a large room. Part of the drama was wondering whether or not it would work.
I was in the upper 300s, straight back and across the room. As their set opened, the Lips looked very small and distant, the sound muddy and gross, the houselights still dim above our heads. But the balloons kept coming, growing like a lush psychedelic flower from the stage as fast the Lips’ Okie buddy roadies could fill ’em, It was like the climax of Akira in slow motion.
By the end of “Race For the Prize,” the room was filled with color, and the Lips were in charge. Wayne Coyne does a very good job of making it look and sound like he’s giving the audience exactly what they want. And certainly the sing-alongs, the images of Dick Cheney and company flashing on the screen during a cover of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” the goading from Coyne, etc., can all be used as evidence that the Lips are pandering.
But then what do you make off all the truly gruesome images flashing on the screen in the Lips’ videos? The blood and the guts and the people getting shot, cut open, collapsing, dying? Is that what people want? Is it Coyne’s party trick to make people think that they do?
I think it’s high time for the Lips to take the money and run, to go finish Christmas on Mars before it turns into Coyne’s personal SMiLE.