Showing posts from April, 2007

The Passenger #3


Every once in a while, I put on Regina Spektor’s Begin To Hope, the way, I suppose, some people read inspirational literature or the Bible. When I discovered it last year, I put it on near-permanent spin at my restaurant, to the surprise and chagrin of some of my coworkers. Spektor’s pop is too clean, her voice too clear and immediate, her songs are too sincere to be hip.

It works on me, and then some. I am enthralled. More satisfying than Tori Amos, more accessible than Fiona Apple, Spektor’s piano pop (complemented with pizzicato strings and rock guitars) approaches perfection. She is the best at what she does, combining a sweet, distinctive voice (capable of surprising strength, coming, perhaps, from Russian being her mother tongue) with smart and personal lyrics in songs that whisper and soar and push.

Regina Spektor’s pop sincerity is sublime. It can heal broken hearts and repair destroyed nations. There will come a day when this kind of music will play on the pop and und…

Persistence Of Vision #1

After Dark, My Sweet (1990)

Kevin Collins is an open book. Wild-haired, hunched over; a flinching, shuffling mess of nerves and uncontrolled responses, he’s easy to read: worn-down drifter, cowering dog. He’s good-looking and amiable, but he’s off, slow on the uptake. His attempts at camaraderie are met with fierce rejection, even violence.

Kevin Collins, played by Jason Patric in another fine underrated performance, is easy prey for exploitation, and friends come quickly in the brokedown desolation of the inhabited southern California desert. In After Dark, My Sweet, James Foley’s film of Jim Thompson’s hardboiled pulp novel, the desert is felt in every scene.

This is film noir invaded by an oppressive sun. Nothing happens in the dark: cantina rendezvous, lovemaking, and crimes all occur in the blistering light of day. Even when it is night, the characters are lit by harsh fluorescent lamps.

The effects of this pervasive sun are felt in the characters. Slow, idle, inert, they find themse…

Tuesday's Album #1

Mermaid Avenue
Billy Bragg & Wilco

In 1998, English folk-punk Billy Bragg teamed up with alt-country darlings Wilco to record an album of songs set to unused Woody Guthrie lyrics. The result, Mermaid Avenue, is at times jubilant, playful, rousing, and sweet. Its blend of Wilco’s radio-ready country-rock, Bragg’s energizing rabble-rousing and balladeering, and Guthrie’s diverse and oft-times touching poetry make for a spirited and cohesive piece of Americana and humanism.

Bragg and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy share songwriting duty and the album is a showcase for their different styles, each contributing seven songs (plus one written by Bragg and sung by Natalie Merchant). Tweedy’s approach is sweet and slow, his voice immersed in his band’s sound, while Bragg employs a more boisterous technique in which his voice is the center of attention.

On first listen—and for the first few years I listened to the record—it was Tweedy’s songs I responded to. The band plays well together, hitting all the o…

Paris, je t'aime

I am filled up. Life comes in torrents and I am nearly overwhelmed. Last week was melancholy—I cannot remember why. And I cannot remember when this new assault began, though it was probably the early morning we left for Paris. Traveling has moved me.

Things have been dry lately. I have endeavored to form routines so that I may not lose these easy days to idleness. It has been a losing battle. I have misplaced entire seasons, and rather than making an advance upon my tall dreams, I have only succeeded in cutting down those dreams to make them more reachable.

I came to France to sequester myself from the whirligig of my old life. Instead I have severed myself from my friends, family, and countrymen and replaced the city’s loud energy with this town’s eternally ringing bells (and there are many in this former holiest place on earth). I know whom they toll for.

As I say, I am assaulted now, and overflowed, brimming with heady life, and I am a poor carriage for all these charged pinball thoug…

This Space For Rent

We're off to Paris for a few days, so now's your best opportunity to shut down your computer, put on some clothes, step outside, and tell that cute barista/account manager/seamstress that, "It's spring, you know, and I'm a so-and-so and you're a, well, you know, so if it doesn't sound too crazy—and it might—I'd like to get the chance to, well, you know—and I don't mean... you know—and if it would be okay with you, maybe we could do it sometime before Saturday, because I'll probably have to get back by then."

Just go for it. I’ll return on Saturday.

The Passenger #2


I have Andrew Bird’s Armchair Apocrypha on all the time these days. It’s his tenth album in as many years, but the first one I’ve heard, and it’s a revelation. Bird’s classical training, wide-ranging tastes, and remarkable pop sensibility combine to make a sound that is recognizable and wholly new. It’s pop grounded in rock guitar and steeped in the modern indie softness of singer/songwriters like Sufjan Stevens and Damien Rice.

The music is vigorous, never suffocated by its sweetness. Songs seem to evolve as you hear them, melodies branching from melodies and back again, and Bird is never above interrupting the whole show for a witty aside. He’s often funny on the record, and the lyrics are consistently smart.

Bird creates beautiful sounds on the album, adding violin, glockenspiel, and his whistle to supplement the guitar-and-drums at the center. It’s actually amazing what he does with so little, testament to the strength of the songs.


I’m almost reluctant to say it, becau…


The Idler #3

Before I became an idler, I was a restaurant manager, and one of the skills required of me was an ability to improvise. When the dinner rush was on, all bets were off, and there were no rules except to keep a roomful of people happy.

No matter that people come from everywhere and are raised in all sorts of ways (for when you are raising a child, all bets are off) and all have different definitions of happiness. Some merely want hot food fast—how hard is that?

Some want their server all the time, to answer questions, pour wine, take dishes away, recommend a dessert, close that door, stop that child from crying, stop my child from crying, be a dear feed the meter, I can’t believe I spilt that twice, may I sample the cake, tell us your life story or at the very least a funny anecdote, no I won’t pay for my entrée but we can still be friends, tell the manager to stop by I saw him putting out a fire a minute ago, we’re old friends of the owner so you’d better do it—how hard is th…

Spring In A Small Town

The Adventurer #1

Easter marks the start of tourist season in the south of France, though the French don’t know it. Sunday and Monday are holidays, and our town has all but closed its gates. These two days I have watched countless tourists roam the streets, looking for something to do, which I suppose in tourist terms means a place to shop.

The cafés and restaurants are open (for lunch and dinner, anyway, although I see now many cafés are staying open all day long), but we can’t expect everyone to be on a culinary tour of Provençe. Most tourists want a piece of the action, that French something they heard about, whatever that is. In my case, I suppose it was the French lifestyle, which I interpret as placing importance on enjoying life at a slower pace, with good food, close family, and friends, and all lubricated with cheap good wine and plenty of sunshine.

It is these virtues that motivate merchants to close their shops on what may well be their busiest days. After all, everyone deser…

Land Without Bread

The Idler #2

I am at the duck pond again, and a large black dog has just passed me. It wears a strand of baby pacifiers on its collar, the way crocodile hunters wear necklaces made of teeth.

We have no Starbucks here in Avignon, much to Apollonia’s unfailing chagrin. She was one of those who was glad that there were two Starbucks in Astor Place in Manhattan, if only to give the appearance to their employees that she had a handle on her soy mocha addiction, visiting each one alternately throughout the day.

I have a certain appreciation for Starbucks, though I only visited once. On a trip to Seattle when I was fifteen, there was a lot of talk about who had the better coffee: Starbucks or Seattle’s Best Coffee. When I had the opportunity, I tried a frozen coffee at Starbucks. It was good, but more expensive and less satisfying than a banana milkshake at a nearby hamburger shack, which has been my attitude since.

I like Starbucks for its calculated coffeehouse-ness. They do their best to prov…

Duck Amok

The Idler #1

The beautiful spring weather has driven me out of my apartment and, for the first time since coming to France at the start of winter, I am able to stay outside for longer than it takes to shop. I find myself, of course, at the duck pond, a bustling hub of activity, for even if the children are in school and the tourists are ambling around town, wondering what there is to do while the French are at lunch and all the shops are closed, there are the reliable, never-changing mallards, a comfort the world over, surely a model of transplantable domestic solace followed by McDonald’s and Starbucks.

(I say that the tourists amble aimlessly at lunchtime because Brits and Americans cannot get into the French habit of eating for two hours, which demands some improbable behavior. I have seen Frenchmen converse over full plates of food for ten or fifteen minutes without ever showing any sign that they know the food has been delivered to them. I have fidgeted impatiently, waiting for eac…