Thursday, February 26, 2009

Sam Roberts at the Rock n Roll Hotel

After the tight, new wavy sounds of Mother Mother settled and the equipment for Sam Roberts' band was being setup, a strange smell wafted through the crowd, an aroma I haven't been subjected to at a show for quite some time. A fog curled its way through the room and some of the people near me looked at each other quizzically. "Dry ice?" someone said. Yep, good old-fashioned dry ice. And a light show thrown in for good measure.

Sam Roberts had the showman thing down pretty well, with the hook-drenched songs to back him up, but there's a part of that "C'mon let's all put our hands together!" business that feels disingenuous to me. Maybe I'm just old. Roberts certainly knows how to bring a band to a blazing crescendo, but those assaults were moderated by so many breakdowns that they drained the energy from the room. Roberts' Canadian stardom worked against him in the small club setting, though a good chunk of the crowd bought the package entirely. But they seemed pretty young.

Monday, February 23, 2009

M. Ward Goes to Temple

M. Ward's saturday night show at the Sixth and I Synagogue started out well enough. The acoustic set that he started the evening with worked well in the cavernous sounding room--Ward's velvety croon resonated up into the balcony. 'Fuel for Fire,' 'Let's Dance,' and the instrumental 'Duet for Guitars, No. 3' were great examples of how one guy and one guitar can be mesmerizing. When the full band came out, the acoustics of the Sixth and I took over. It's probably great to carry the voice of a cantor to the cheap seats, or for one guy and one guitar, but for a full, amplified band it was too much. Some tracks, particularly ones where Ward's voice is on prominent display, pushed through the muck, but many, like 'Magic Trick' and 'Chinese Translation,' suffered. We couldn't help but wonder how this show would have been in a sweaty, beer-smelling, sticky-floored club.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

I've been hearing for years what a great novel Housekeeping is and after reading Gilead recently, I had to check out Robinson's first novel.

Marilynne Robinson is a master. I think she may be the finest writer working in America today (I'll be reading Home, her latest, soon enough and that may clinch it). Every description, every metaphor she wields feels absolutely fresh in this story of two sisters being raised by an aunt who is slightly off-kilter.

Here's a passage from the girls skipping school and wandering near the glacial lake that their town of Fingerbone rests against:
The woods themselves disturbed us. We liked the little clearings, the burned-off places where wild strawberries grew. Buttercups are the materialization of the humid yellow light one finds in such places. (Buttercups in those mountains are rare and delicate, bright, lacquered, and big on short stems. People delve them up, earth and all, and bring them home like trophies. Newspapers give prizes for the earliest ones. In gardens they perish.) But the deep woods are as dark and stiff and as full of their own odors as the parlor of an old house. We would walk among those great legs, hearing the enthralled and incessant murmurings far above our heads, like children at a funeral.

It's the kind of book that you find something worth quoting on nearly every page. The story moves toward heartbreak when one sister decides she's had enough of the quirky household and grows more independent, more attuned to society, while the other sister, the narrator, slips into the reclusive, transient lifestyle of her aunt.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

M. Ward in the NYT

Nice article in Sunday's New York Times about M. Ward: A Four-Track Guy in a Digital World. I'm listening to the new album right now and it feels like vintage, tuneful, endearing-as-usual M. Ward.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Netherland by Joseph O'Neill

Joseph O'Neill writes a damn good sentence. His novel of post-9/11 New York has been lauded in all of the right places, most notably the cover the New York Times Book Review, and by all of the right people (James Wood, Michiko Kakutani) for good reason.

The narrator, Hans, has been displaced, along with his wife and son, from his Tribeca apartment to the Hotel Chelsea by the attack on the World Trade Center and later abandoned by the wife and son, who return to London unable to come to grips with a post-9/11 Gotham. Suffering through the loneliness of not seeing his son except for bimonthly trips across the Atlantic and his ever more distant (both literally and figuratively) wife, Hans eventually discovers a network of cricketers who play almost unnoticed at various parks around the city. He is befriended by Trinidadian Chuck Ramsikoon (Hans is usually the only white player among the cricketers) whose dream is to build a cricket stadium in Brooklyn and restore the sport to the prominence it once enjoyed in America.

Throughout Netherland, O'Neill explores the meanings of loneliness in the midst of a teaming city, relationships involving friends, race and spouses and the effects of familial memories on all of these things. And he does so with exquisitely wrought sentences that manage to never sound convoluted or pretentious.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Joyce Misremembered

Not long ago, something I read prompted me to pull my old copy of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man off the shelf and read through a bit. After reading a dozen or so pages, I was thinking that none of it sounded very familiar and once I came to the excellent dinner scene with the political argument, I was sure that I had never read that far into the book before. It's one of those books that I'd always figured I'd read and then promptly forgotten everything about when, in fact, I hadn't read it at all. At least not past the first ten or twelve pages.

I was surprised to find so much discussion of Irish nationalism and politics from a writer I had always counted as apolitical. The aforementioned dinner scene and the frequent mentions of Parnell and his downfall are part of what makes up Stephen Daedalus and his journey to becoming an artist. Stephen has to cast off this troublesome Irish nationalism as well as the Catholicism that insinuates itself throughout everything in the country in order to complete his transformation.

I think anyone who was raised in the Catholic church can appreciate the desperate panic Stephen experiences when he fears dying before he can make it to confession and be absolved of his sins. Of course, Stephen adds to the tension by feeling the need to go to a church outside of his parish because the sins he must confess are so humiliating, he doesn't want his parish priest to hear them. Amen.