Archive for April 2010
This video, directed by the Glasgow-based artist David Shrigley with the design team Shynola, is so dark that I almost can’t watch it, except that so many things about it make me happy—the explosion of nuts when the squirrel and the winged fairy-creature meet, the look on the flower’s face as it is plucked (and after), the face-stroking scene. The animation gives me so much pleasure that when the love story takes a wrong turn, my heart just sinks.
Not too long ago I went through a period when I thought I might try to be a travel writer, and I wrote a story about Glasgow’s art scene, which can be found here. I’m not the most rigorous follower of contemporary art, and at first I imagined the piece might be about the cultural flowering that occurred in this industrial city during the late 19th century—about the work of the Arts and Crafts architect and interior designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and of a group of realist painters known as the Glasgow Boys who are little known in the United States. I’m glad I didn’t end up writing that story, because it would have been something of a snooze—Mackintosh’s buildings still look revolutionary, but they have a touristy vibe, as I discovered; the Glasgow Boys’ paintings are very pretty, but don’t have much relevance outside of museum walls. It turned out instead that my boyfriend’s sister, who is a dancer, knew an American artist living in Glasgow, who introduced me via e-mail to a gallerist, who put me in touch with some of her artist clients and friends. Pretty soon my schedule for four days in Glasgow was booked with meetings with young working artists and commercial gallery owners and musicians—a cross-section of the city’s creative class.
The story appeared a few months after my trip, and I was happy with the way it turned out. I had worked with a thoughtful editor, and it looked great on the page. The piece was easily one of a few high points of the three years I spent as a freelance writer (just ended). And the trip itself has taken on a lovely glow in my memory. Glasgow is not a traditionally beautiful city, and yet I saw beauty everywhere—in the rows of Victorian houses, many now gone to seed, along Great Western Road; in the aging industrial streets, deserted on a weekend afternoon, running down to the River Clyde; in the small but pleasantly hilly Kelvingrove Park. The sky was always gray over Glasgow, and a faint mist hung in the air, which somehow brought the city into sharper focus. I ate terrific meals, which no one at home was able to believe—a smoked haddock and potato chowder called “cullen skink,” wild Scottish salmon colored the palest shade of rose (it’s not supposed to be that bright pink, the waiter told me), sticky toffee pudding with clotted cream. The art world people I met were unfailingly friendly and open, welcoming me into their studios, showing me their work, inviting me to their parties and events, telling me stories about their upbringings and educations, sharing their opinions about Glasgow and explaining why they chose to live and work there. I recorded hours of interview material, which I then turned into countless pages of transcription. And so when I think of this story, I’m also deeply regretful, for how could I compress all of this into 2000 words of magazine writing? (The piece was cut further during editing.)
My friend Peter introduced me to David Shrigley’s drawings not too many months before my Glasgow trip, in another context entirely. I had seen David’s books on bookstore display tables, and taken in the squiggly drawings on the covers and wondered what they were all about. Once I spent time with his work, I quickly came to love it, and also find it profoundly touching.
I contacted David before I left for Glasgow. He agreed to let me interview him for my story, and we ended up spending the good part of a Sunday afternoon together. We met for lunch and talked for a few hours. He gave me a thorough and frank history of the Glasgow arts scene, and touched upon the ways the city had influenced his work, which in turn allowed me to understand what he described as the Glagsow’s “slightly gallows humor.” I wondered before I met him if he might have the same mischievous dry wit found in his work—there were flashes of it, which were delightful. He was also soft-spoken and modest and generous with his time. I liked him enormously. After lunch he drove me to his workshop in a building where he and a number of Glasgow artists make sculpture, and showed me new projects, including some ceramic castings of large molars (like the one on his website, here). The next evening I went with David and his equally nice girlfriend, Kim, to see the Crystal Stilts—a Brooklyn band, funnily enough—playing an in-store at Monorail Records.
This fall, David has a monograph coming out from Canongate Books, titled What The Hell Are You Doing?, that covers his entire career. He recently designed t-shirts for Scotland’s Pringle Sweaters, and created an animation ostensibly about the history of the company, which I like so much I’m making it the first non-musical video to be posted on Earworms.
The travel writing thing didn’t work out in the end—I never was able to come up with the right story pitch after Glasgow, and then I got a job.
I’m visiting my dad this weekend, and while rummaging through a box of old letters and memorabilia that I’ve unearthed from the closet of my childhood bedroom, I found a ticket stub for a Lloyd Cole concert I saw in 1991. I had been a fan of Lloyd Cole and the Commotions through college. I was an English major, and so I was very pleased to catch all of the literary and cultural references on his first album, Rattlesnakes. Well, some of them—the song about a girl “looking like a friend of Truman Capote” was easy, but it was years before I realized that “Speedboat” took its title from Renata Adler’s novel. And then, of course, the line “She looks like Eva Marie Saint in On the Waterfront” … Name-dropping aside, the Commotions’ songs were pretty special—catchy and romantic and kind of hangdog.
The band broke up and Lloyd went solo, and suddenly he went from being neat and clean-cut and English-major-y, as he was in this video, to being kind of louche. He had had the best floppy British person’s hair, the kind of hair that I wanted but couldn’t exactly pull off, and then he grew his hair to shoulder-length and wore medium-length facial stubble, the kind popularized by George Michael. I had seen a post-Commotions Lloyd Cole concert the previous year, or had tried to—he was drunk off his rocker, annoyingly so, and I walked out of the club after only four or five songs. The 1991 show was at the Berklee College of Music auditorium, and when Lloyd came on stage, he said, “Now, this is a nice place, so don’t mess it up,” as though we were going to start ripping the seats out of the floor in our excitement. I thought, you’re Lloyd Cole. (Even so, there were two young girls seated in front of me and my friend Patrick, and they got up at the beginning of the first song, which was “Perfect Skin,” and started doing a frenzied dance; we couldn’t see anything for a few minutes, until the usher told them to sit back in their seats.)
I stopped following Lloyd Cole not long after. I’ve heard that he’s put out some very good albums in the two decades since, and I know that now he’s a family man living in Northampton or thereabouts. The louche days didn’t last long, and now he’s clean-cut once again. I just started following him on Twitter—a friend re-Tweeted one of his Tweets, and it was funny—so perhaps I’ll try to catch myself up with his music. While poking around on YouTube I found this wonderful song, which I had totally forgotten about, and which brought back to mind what made him so great, and what made a whole era of music-making so great.
Back in 2007, Tracey Thorn recorded two lovely covers of Magnetic Fields songs—”The Book of Love” and “Smoke and Mirrors”—as b-sides for singles off her last album, Out of the Woods. Then last year she covered another Magnetic Fields song, “Yeah! Oh Yeah!,” as a duet with Jens Lekman for a compilation album of non-Merge Records artists covering Merge artists. “Oh, The Divorces!” is the first single from her new album, Love and Its Opposite, which comes out in May—she’s now a Merge artist too, a recent signing—and it’s the best Magnetic Fields song that the Magnetic Fields never wrote. It’s witty, a little arch, and deeply felt. It even has an “Oh” in the title. It also has the added advantage of being sung by Tracey Thorn.
This isn’t a disco song, but it calls up another disco-era memory. When I was ten years old, my parents and I spent a month in central California visiting extended family in Fresno and in towns nearby, Sanger and Madera—the trip, my first across country, was so exciting that these place names took on a kind of music in my mind. One evening, my Uncle Lee and Aunt Anna, who weren’t really my aunt and uncle but some kind of cousins of my father’s—when I was that age, I was told to call most adults who weren’t my parents “aunt” and “uncle”—held a backyard barbecue to celebrate our arrival. After dinner—grilled hot dogs, or “tube steak,” as Lee kept calling it—the kids sat in front of the TV watching a disco-themed special. Samantha Sang sang “Emotion.” We all laughed at her name. Samantha did what? She sang. Later that night, Lee drove my father and I to a nearby airstrip where he kept a small plane, and he took us up for a ride above the town. Someone I knew owning a plane—I never imagined such a thing was possible. Up in the air, Uncle Lee pointed down through the night sky at his house, where we had just been, and where the rest of the family was watching us and waiting, my mother surely with her heart in the throat.
My review of Hot Stuff, Alice Echols’s terrific study of disco music and culture, appears in today’s Los Angeles Times, here. My childhood was concurrent with disco’s heyday, so it was a struggle not to stuff the piece with my own vivid memories of the music, which I loved, and which, since I lived in the suburbs, I experienced primarily through car radios, television variety shows, and dated 45s that my older cousin passed along to me. I heard Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” for the second or third time while riding in the back of my aunt’s car—my dad and I were on some kind of shopping outing with his sister and my cousin, and I remember moving along an industrial stretch of Broadway in Albany, past Montgomery Ward and Two Guys, when the song came on the radio. I recognized it instantly. This is that special song that makes me feel so good, I thought. “Can you turn this up?” I asked, and my aunt did. (Everyone in my family liked disco, bearing out the criticism that it was music even parents could love.) “I Will Survive” has disco’s build-and-release structure, and that was part of the pleasure. But the lyrics truly stirred me. There was already so much to overcome, even (especially?) at the age of 11.
One more Laura Marling song, my favorite, with Marcus Mumford of Mumford and Sons.
As I mentioned yesterday, my interview with Laura Marling has been posted on T: The New York Times Style Magazine’s blog, here. When I pitched the story to T, I figured that my editor might not know who Laura Marling was—Laura’s hugely popular in the U.K., but has what you might call a cult following here—so I drew a favorable comparison to Joni Mitchell, another female singer-songwriter who plays a guitar. A young Joni Mitchell, anyway—Laura just turned 20. I interviewed Laura a couple of years ago, by telephone, as part of a broader story about the new London folk scene, and in that piece I used the same point of reference. In the T interview, as you’ll see if you read it, I made the parallel indirectly, by saying that Laura’s new album “has been greeted by a sweep of five-star reviews in British newspapers, earning comparisons to Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark.” And, embarrassingly enough, when I sat down backstage at the Le Poisson Rouge to talk to Laura, who was lovely and gracious, sure enough, I stammered out that there were songs on her new album that brought to my mind some of Joni Mitchell’s early work—the song above, for example, reminds me of “Cactus Tree,” for some structural reason that I can’t explain.
Why do I keep pushing this Joni Mitchell comparison on everyone, including Laura? I’ve always hated it when, say, I play a song for someone, and as they hear it for the first time they feel the need to “place” it (and, in my eyes, diminish it) by saying “Oh, this is just like such-and-such” or “It’s like this crossed with that.” No, I want to say, it’s not like such-and-such, or this or that either; it’s its own thing. I want everyone I know to hear Laura Marling and to love her music as much as I do, which is a whole lot. So I keep trotting out Joni, whose records many people know and admire greatly, in the hopes that I can entice them to listen to Laura. I’m sure I’m doing Laura a disservice. She doesn’t really sound anything like Joni vocally. Her playing is different. And yet if it takes this comparison to sell you, I’ll make it again. I think that if you like Joni Mitchell, you might also like Laura Marling.
If the plot of this video seems a little confusing, it’s because it’s connected to an interactive album preview on Laura’s website, which can be found here.