The Most Delicate Balance of Weird — Dammit, Bon Iver

BBC Radio first let the Bon Iver/James Blake collaboration “Fall Creek Boys’ Choir” out of its furry, shapeless cage last weekend so, admittedly, commentary on it now is a bit belated. But in a case like this, it’s probably good practice to wait a solid minute before slamming a gavel and deciding between good or bad. Acquainting oneself with a new song, and especially such an experimental one, is a lot like tasting an oddly-colored or spiky or otherwise dubious new food for the first time. There’s a lot to go through: figuring out how to cut it up and place it in; the first contact between tongue and morsel; chewing, swallowing, absorbing the psychological effects of the aftertaste. Maybe you’ll need two, three or six bites before opining. Maybe you’ll know it’s love as soon as taste buds first hit stimulus. Maybe food isn’t this intense to you and this entire metaphor is weird, but that’s the very subject of this post: weirdness.

Minneapolis's "Gimme News" blog's pre-release projection of what the Bon Blake collaboration might look like. Unfortunately, this picture is a lot more engaging than the song turned out to be.

Justin Vernon of Bon Iver wasn’t always strange — at least, not publicly. In 2005, after breaking up with the band that, without him, went on to become freak folk centerfold group Megafaun, Vernon recorded Self-Release, a raw, though mostly subdued preview of his solo songwriting talents.

“Pier 39″ from Self-Release:

His voice was full and low and his compositions were sparse and pretty. But for the most part, his songs were predictable and in that way, things made sense. He fit a flanneled, bearded indie mold and if things had gone on this way, he’d have likely become another Dallas Green (or any other of the hordes of similar someones) with a small, but reasonably dedicated fanbase.

But then something either broke, clicked or exploded and Bon Iver was formed. Vernon’s odd image as a Wisconsin-grown mountain man who sings in not the manliest of sweet falsettos took form, endearing him to the indie community and beyond. Kanye practically jumped on him, remember? And now that Bon Iver’s eponymous sophomore masterpiece has showcased everything from the multi-layered lushness of Vernon’s arrangements, to his ability to shine up and reinvigorate the slow-jam electric piano sounds of the ’80s, Vernon has become an established critic darling.

And then this thing happened.

Frankly, I wasn’t very familiar with James Blake before “Fall Creek Boys’ Choir.” I knew he was electronic, British, and, most dangerously, had been called dubstep. Knowing only this vague, amorphous term, though, was as good as saying I pretty much knew nothing and so I quite reasonably bore this in mind as I pressed “play.” Bon Iver is Bon Iver and since they were to be mixed with electronics, I knew to allow for a certain degree of oddity.

James Blake on the February/March cover of Fader. He has more swoosh in his hair than the other James Blake has in his forehand.

The first time I listened to the track all the way through, however, it was over before I realized that I’d stopped paying attention halfway through. I chalked this up as my own fault, restarted it and concentrated on concentrating. Brows furrowed. Veins pulsed. I realized that a second listen was proving only slightly more productive than the first. I could make out abrupt, popping drum noises and owl hoots flashing in then out again before I was really sure I’d heard anything. Vernon’s beautiful, distorted falsetto rose and fell in maddeningly indistinguishable utterances that sounded kind of like, “Dewinn on the peep, turnin’ on the teeth, I’m a talkin’ lockin’ ohhh, I’m a talkin’ lockin’ ohhh! Fuckin’ tappeh loppy ohhh!” The only words I could think to describe it were “brown” and “sort of bumpy.” And there I had it: the song reminded me of a toad.

Concerned, I consulted the blogs. I should like this track. I’ve loved Bon Iver since For Emma, Forever Ago, I was even pro-Beth/Rest. HuffPost Culture and Stereogum loved it, Hipster Runoff (predictably) hated it, and everyone else from NPR to Pitchfork either deftly avoided direct comment or openly expressed confusion. I set up camp in the latter party. What the heck, Bon Iver? It was simply too weird. It had no real chorus, no immediately decipherable words. It had no climax; rather, it was meandering and sort of indulgent. This song was clearly more for the two artists’ enjoyment than the fans.

As always in cases such as these, there were plenty of comments section douchebags who (claimed they) loved it. How spectacularly brilliant, they seemed to tout in British accents.  One Stereogum commenter even went so far as to claim that “listening to something this beautiful and intricately crafted can be exhausting, [it] emotionally drains your body and leaves you as a shell of your once former (read:prior to listening to the song) self, without energy, tired and beaten.” The horrid song had actually induced PTSD in this man but tricked him into believing it was the mark of something fabulous. I threw my hands up, counted myself among a minority and moved on. There was no helping these people.

And then came the MTV rant.

Nothing I say here can really encapsulate the general emotion of the thing, so you’ll just have to read it:

“there are great moments in awards shows. bruno mars sounded really good doing ‘valerie’ for amy winehouse. i don’t think anyone is bummed that adele is killing everything. her voice was real and focused when i went thru and watched highlights from tonight. kanye and jay z are always murdering. beyonce is pregnant. yes this is awesome as shit, culturally speaking. but can i just ask, the reader, us, we … as non-rhetorically as possible: don’t we seem dumb? didn’t MTV lose the fight against themselves? Didn’t Rock’n’Roll STOP? Why are the lights so bright? isn’t our talent as artists enough? Why do we try SO hard? Does a moonman mean what it did back then? Should we feel pumped when we get one? Should our mom’s cry? I am not even thinking about it that hard. I will close my eyes in 90 seconds and have total peace… But, seriously. Why are we waving around so much? Why do we NEED this shit so bad? Why don’t we just have MUSIC? DO music? soul? I don’t know. I don’t mean to criticize. Anyone. Actually. Except for MTV. You might have had a very large opportunity to be stabilize your self as a global presence of culture and art about 15 years ago and you fucked the dog. Sorry. Im with my girls on this one. Its becoming increasingly clear as I think about it more and more, that the dollars, if they ARE apart of why you are doing something… they are apart of why you are doing something. that’s fucked to me. that’s the absence of spirit, glue, fabric of what makes us a person. it distracts us from what we could be doing: WORK. on EARTH. Better say this: Forget what I say. If you even read this, you’ll probably say to yourself, who is this ass saying shit? It doesn’t matter what i say. it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter. But this one last thought: What would Bill Hicks say?”

(via: BonIver.org)

Aside from being generally heartbroken at finding that Vernon has only a rudimentary grasp of grammar and punctuation, I hung my head yet again. This poor, great man had officially lost sight of that Tom Cruise fine line where “against the grain” and “cool” became simply “scary, a little.” Didn’t MTV-hating become passé after the ninth grade? I get it, he’s turned off by the spectacle of certain artists being rewarded for exposure and money-making. But I mean, I’m turned off by pro wrestling so I don’t watch that. Too much weird, dammit. What is he, like, trying to get famous or something?

As if my heart couldn’t take enough from him in a matter of nine days, then I caught wind of a solo piano version of Beth/Rest, performed by Vernon on NPR’s World Cafe.

Needless to say, I was frightened. I thought of Lady Gaga’s solo piano version of “Poker Face”:

Which was great for her in a Lady Gaga sort of way. I loved it. But imagining Justin Vernon screeching and screaming and nearly toppling people’s brains over was, well, slightly less appealing. All the weirdness bubbling up inside him was going to burst, I just knew it, drenching us all in green Nickelodeon-style goo as cameras closed in on our collective, open-mouthed “Oh my god” and the dudes behind the cameras laughed their jelly-filled bums off.

See? Frightened.

But, to my surprise, the song was like nothing I had imagined. It was clean, it was conventional.

It was boring.

Whereas the original Beth/Rest had piled on layer after layer of cheesy ’80s Bruce Hornsby-style balladry, taking it so beyond modern music’s comfort zone that it actually ended up being brilliant, this piano version surgically removed everything that was interesting about the song. I liked all the schmaltz! Why take out the schmaltz, Bon Iver? WHY.

So, all in all, Justin Vernon’s tally for the past two weeks has been first, boring-weird, then outstandingly scary-weird, and then by indulging in his habit of extremity, slicing off too much weird and ending up with just boring. Weird can be good, but in the proper amount. Hopefully Bon Iver catches on soon before someone shaves their head or starts tossing babies around or something.

Fighting Eyes Make Pretty Pictures

One of the more beautiful images I could have seen before I fell asleep tonight.

Ukrainian feminists protest in front of the Saudi embassy in Kiev against a law banning women from driving cars in Saudi Arabia.

To read the full article (or at least, the first article I ran into which covered the event), mosey on over to The Daily Beast.

Kate Moss’s Gypsy Dreams, I Try to Care About Weddings

I was never the little girl who dreamed about her future wedding. It was only through a lifelong fascination with shiny objects that I couldn’t resist flipping through the ads we’d get in the mail from jewelrers, especially their big wedding rings. I knew I liked best the ones that looked like extravagant crowns for a tiny queen, adorned with dozens of little diamonds in delicate, weaving patterns. But considerations like whether I’d want an indoor or outdoor wedding, an elaborate affair or an intimate gathering, or even what style of dress I could wear — those are just things I never thought about.

I do know however, that I tend to disapprove of most brides’ choice of dress. So often they are strapless. Plain. With some barely perceptible cunning in the hem that the wife-to-be coos over in the store and which then barely even shows up in pictures. Her veil is often lace, flowing in the standard waves down to her waist. They are the same in every movie and every magazine.

A standard example of the yawn-inducing wedding dress. Also, of exactly what NOT to do with your face while modeling.

I understand that perhaps it can get difficult to be creative with just a single color, but really. The most special dress you’ll wear in your life should never be such a simple bore.

So while reading Vogue.com’s feature on Kate Moss, who is soon-to-be-married to The Kills guitarist Jamie Hince, I was intrigued when she mentioned a “gypsy wedding dress.” As she describes it, the dresses are “like blinging butterflies times ten” and “genius.” Without even waiting to finish the article, I hopped off the tab to image search “gypsy wedding dress.” As I found, they are certainly, well, elaborate.

A gypsy-style wedding dress, as seen in "My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding."

Not what I’m after, necessarily. With “gypsy wedding dress” I had actually envisioned a loose and colorful quilt of texture, patterns and possibly some Esmeralda-esque strings of coins but this was still interesting.

What caught my eye, however, was one dress that was likely misplaced on Google’s first page of relevant items.

If still slightly overwrought, a more tasteful version of the gypsy wedding dress.

Sure, there’s just a few dozen pearls and beads too many. But it is striking and it is unique. The elegance and nostalgia of this veil evoke both the English Renaissance and the Jazz Age, somehow. The front of the dress looks corset-like which I don’t exactly like but the sleeves are different and beautiful. Why don’t wedding dresses like sleeves anymore? They obviously add so much.

Anyway, a simplified version of something like this would look like something I could love. I don’t even know whether this still qualifies as a modern “gypsy wedding dress,” as it was found on a website that looks home-brewed and mostly in the business of quincenera dresses, but beauty is beauty, no matter where it is found.

Kids and Poetry, Cheap Airtime Gets Watery-Eyed Again

I’m probably the only person I know who gets emotional at the sight of urban teenagers speaking names like Walt Whitman, Alfred Lord Tennyson and Langston Hughes. Especially when they’re wearing tags bearing high school names like “Hoover” or “Watts.” I grew up across the street from Belmont High School, a place as beleaguered by the problems of inner-city Los Angeles as any other. I got lucky though and went off to middle and high school, then college in places far away from L.A. Serendipitously enough though, I still managed to end up back in the same division of Los Angeles I grew up in, working with kids to, I guess, try and show them that they could make it too. The issue’s really close to my heart.

Seeing an organization like this bring poetry to these kids is enough to make my English major eyes well up with shiny, happy tears. I’m so glad there are such good-hearted people out in the world, trying for the same stuff I do.

My Dad Watches Harry Potter and I Ponder the Franchise

My dad’s an avid fan of bootlegged DVDs. “Backups,” he likes to call them. Another Sunday afternoon in my live-at-home-even-though-I-graduated-from-Yale-last-year existence found me on the couch, watching my Dad watch Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1.

My dad’s seen only one or two of the previous Harry Potter movies and has never touched any of the books. Thus, he began the experiment with a sort of guileless expression on. Upright on the recliner, he sat and waited for pop culture to ooze out of the screen, inducting him into the part of American society that, when it comes to these things, gives a fuck.

The Warner Brothers logo appeared onscreen and then the accents began. An alarmingly short amount of time later, zapping and bright lights consumed the frame. Words like “horcrux” and “Accio” started whizzing about and Harry and Hermione commenced their indefatigable stream of bewildering alone-moments. I could see the questions reflected in my dad’s eyes. Are they related? Are they a thing? Why are they so okay with touching each other all the time?

My dad. Irrationality blurs.

I’ve seen all the movies and read the books so I was alright with leaving for an hour to shower and trim my bangs, wondering what it’d be like to arrive at a Harry Potter premiere dressed as Frodo. I got sad, lamenting missed opportunities. When I strolled back into the living room, Dobby was finally dying in Harry’s arms.

For a second I thought my dad had thought better of the whole affair and left too. The recliner was now empty and the room was utterly still. Then I looked down at the floor and saw my dad cringing on his side, in a position not unlike Dobby’s.

“Dad?” I peered into his now-bloodshot eyes. Voldemort uttered something maniacal and shot more lightning into the air.

“I go’ los’,” my dad murmured feebly. He resembled a fumigated bug.

“You can’t just watch the seventh one without knowing anything, Dad. There’s… too much to…” At a loss, I fell quiet and simply followed his gaze to the un-frightening villain’s wacky figure. I either heard him cackle or mentally superimposed the sound of a cackle, figuring it would help.

The screen went dark and the credits started rolling. Gradually, my dad seemed to reabsorb the stuff of real life like shoe, Phil Collins (who was playing in the other room, inexplicably) and misaligned do-it-yourself tile floor. By the time the credits were over, he was able to speak again.

“I don’t know what that was about,” he stated. “Hmph.”

I don’t know anyone else alive who still makes “hmph” noises when displeased. He had recovered.

“I know what happens in the next movie,” he then informed me.

“Mm?”

“Yeah. That — that Volberdurr guy — what’s his name? He comes back to life.”

“…V-Voldemort?”

“The strongest wizard.”

“Come back to life? Oh, you mean Dumbledore?”

“Yes.”

“He doesn’t. He’s dead.”

“Oh. What are these movies? Don’t even know what’s happening.”

“Well it’s part of a seven-long thing, you can’t really just jump into the last one and expect–”

“No. If I were to watch just the last Lord of the Rings movie, I would understand. Each of those movies makes its own story. That’s how movies are supposed to be, hmph.”

Dad.

I thought about this. Both what he’d said and how LOTR had made its way into my brain twice within the hour. Of course, the differences stemmed from the books which both series of films were based on. Is it a question of time? Though it featured a circus of future MMORPG characters, LOTR had essentially one very simple story that remained constant from the outset: The ring must get to Mount Doom and be destroyed. On the other hand, I found Harry Potter a little more difficult to boil down. From the start, the main point was to… does anyone even remember that far back? What the hell was “Sorcerer’s Stone” about? Or, now that we’re on the subject, the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean movies? Iron Man 2? Apart from comedy franchises like The Hangover, are any plots out there as simple and true as Lord of the Rings anymore — enough to be contained in each film?

I thought about whether this difference in essential story complexity might be a sign of the times — of the temptation to resort to bullshit when brilliance is too hard. Inception pulled it off marvelously. Stan, ever-pithy, said it best durng the “Insheeption” episode of South Park: “Just because an idea is over convoluted and complex doesn’t make it cool.”

Undoubtedly, there are a million counter-examples to this idea. I’m sure someone out there knows of a modern film franchise with a plot simple enough to be unforgettable. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel that there are just a million and one examples of films too involved to remember guys like my dad, who just aren’t in it for an eight movie-long commitment.

Either way, we ended up popping in I Love You, Philip Morris then promptly popping it back out ten minutes and (already?!) two very vigorous sex scenes later. My dad still maintains that I am too impressionable for raw sex and in the case of Philip Morris, I might admit that I am.

Time or no, I guess, certain things never change.