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March 23, 2006

Note Books - Franklin Bruno

Ever since the first time I heard Nothing Painted Blue, I have been a fan of Franklin Bruno's intelligent songwriting and unique vocal delivery. His solo album, A Bedroom Community, is a personal favorite, as is his album (as the Extra Glenns) with John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, Martial Arts Weekend.

Franklin could easily have written a "book notes" feature instead, having penned the excellent 33 1/3 volume on Elvis Costello's Armed Forces, he is truly a man of many talents.

In his own words, here is Franklin Bruno's "note books" submission:

Here are five books I’ve been looking at recently that some of your readers might also enjoy. They’re not the soundtrack (wordtrack?) to any particular musical project I’m working on now – and anyway, contrary to what some may believe, I don’t actually go out of my way to draw my lyrics from arcane academic and literary sources.

Richard Hell and David Shapiro

This is a letterpress chapbook of collaborative writing by two veterans of New York poetry world. (They’re both ex-musicians, come to think of it: Hell, as most punks will know, has spent much more energy on his novels and poetry than his music over the last two decades, while Shapiro was a violin prodigy even before he was a literary one, publishing his first book at 18.) A few pieces depend on leaps in tone –– the book’s opening couplet is “I want to find the Venice in your body/and make it rhyme with penis” -- and I suppose some of the fun is in guessing who wrote what. (Even if you’re probably wrong half the time, which is the point of the title, taken from Joseph Jastrow’s reversible figure, reproduced on the cover.) But the cutting contests are less satisfying than the duets – I especially like this passage from a half-sweet, half-nasty love poem:

but why did you tell me you went
both ways at the moment you were coming
well nevermind
I suppose I know: it did heighten things
but that’s old hat
and you’re looking
good rather
in the altogether
it’s cloudy or bright
or weather altogether

Record Palace
Susan Wheeler

Finally, a record store novel to wipe away the memory of High Fidelity. Cindy is a skinny Orange County girl toiling diffidently in the art history grad program at the University of Chicago; her life gradually becomes entangled with those of Acie, the sixty-something proprietor of a South Side jazz emporium and his critic/hipster/f*ck-up son Bowtie. (The book resonates with me a bit personally: I’m another So. Cal. native temporarily living in Chicago – well, ok, Evanston. And I know I’m not the only reader who’s gone through a period when stacks of vinyl and the people who sell them are your main companions.) The first-person narrative hockets among the three main characters, and the plot (which involves a rather large coincidence involving the drawings of Max Beckmann, Evie’s academic specialty) is less important than the friction of their voices, which is also the friction of race and class. I love Wheeler’s poetry – track down her 2001 collection Source Codes -- so the vividness of the writing isn’t surprising, but I had no idea her knowledge of jazz ran so deep; ranging from Dexter Gordon to the AACM, Record Palace contains some of the most musically informed and precisely lyrical descriptions of performances and recordings this side of Nathaniel Mackey’s Bedouin Hornbook.

Nashville Radio
Jon Langford
Verse Chorus Press

Anyone who’s followed Jon Langford’s various musical endeavors (The Mekons, The Three Johns, The Pine Valley Cosmonauts, The Waco Brothers) probably knows by now that he started out as a painter, and that he turned back to the easel at least a decade ago – first producing distressed re-representations of country stars’ publicity photos, and gradually broadening his compass to take in all manner of musical and political iconography, from Tom Jones to Sputnik. Nashville Radio is indispensable for any fan; it’s a generous compendium of his visual work, interspersed with lyrics and autobiographical prose that traces his path from art student to punk to insurgent honky-tonker to anti-death penalty activist. To be honest, I don’t entirely agree with Langford’s position on “the death of country music” – the genre’s always been a deal with the devil between folk expression and commerce, the very conflict that keeps popular music lively, and asking Nashville not to use slick contemporary production techniques is a little like asking history to stop. That argument doesn’t make his homages to fallen heroes, from Johnny Cash and Hank Williams to Chicago bar-band The Sundowners, any less moving. It also doesn’t keep me from loving his own music: Langford’s latest solo album, the excellent Gold Brick (ROIR) actually backs off on the twang a bit in favor of a wider range of rock styles, and the present book comes with a 18-track CD of alternate versions of thematically relevant Mekons/Waco/solo songs, ending with “The Country Is Young,” a sharp critique of American exceptionalism – and a damn good singalong.

Between Montmartre and The Mudd Club: Popular Music and the Avant-Garde
Bernard Gerndron
(University of Chicago Press)

I’m only half-way into this, so I can’t assess (or even state concisely) the author’s overarching thesis about patterns of exchange of cultural capital between “high art” and the “low” or “mass” variety over the last 130 years ago. (I’m heartened to note that his institutional affiliation is with the philosophy department at the University of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as you can count the people in the discipline who publish on pop music on two hands – maybe one.) The later parts of the book cover the changing forms of critical attention given to bebop, The Beatles, and New York no wave, but I’m including it here for the first chapter, which treats the rise and fall of the Chat Noir, the Moulin Rouge, and other Parisian artist’s cafes and cabarets from the 1840s to the 1980s. It’s an informative overview of the interplay between popular music, ideas about intellectual property, and political censorship through the period, with a good deal of contemporary resonance. Try not to think of current debates over sampling when reading this:

“By fully supporting and enforcing the royalty rights of the newly formed (1851) Society of Composers, Lyricists, and Muisc Pulishers, the government of Louis-Napoleon added a further legal obstacle to the survival of the goguettes [worker’s singing clubs] while giving itself an apparently benign excuse to further intensify its surveillance over the production and dissemination of popular song. The musically illiterate lyricist-composers of the goguettes, for example, could no longer affix new words to well-known melodies without paying what were for them exorbitant royalties.”

Hmm, Piracy Funds Terrorism, anybody?

Imagine No Possessions: The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism
Christina Kiaer
(MIT Press)

The title’s Lennon allusion notwithstanding, this book has nothing much to do with music; it’s a scholarly (but readable, by art-history standards) exploration of forays into commercial product design, and even advertising, by Soviet vanguard artists in the first half of the 1920s. The period itself is fascinating: From 1921-5, Lenin’s government introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP), which made room for a limited amount of relatively autonomous market activity within the new nation, as a temporary measure meant to build its industrial base. The painters, sculptors, and writers involved found themselves juggling their revolutionary principles and artistic integrity, along with consumer desires. Kiaer’s interpretations mix Freudian and Marxist analysis (with a healthy dose of Walter Benjamin), but you don’t necessarily have to agree with her specific readings to be fascinated by the material: The “Constructivist Flapper Dress” designed by Varvara Stepanova (and featured in The Cigarette Girl from Mossel’prom, a hit comedy of the time), or the posters and packages for Our Industry Caramels and Red October Cookies, with graphics and slogans by no less than Alexander Rodchenko and Vladmir Mayakovsky.