Saturday, 25 August 2007

Okkervil River Is My New Favorite Band (And A Rant About Studio 60)

The A.V. Club did an interview with Will Sheff, who, despite looking a bit (oh, how do I say this without being offensive? No chance, I’m going for it) special, seemed like an intelligent and interesting person (he used the word “quixotic”! And said he liked movies! That’s generally enough for me). I’d never heard of the band, but we promptly downloaded* their latest album, The Stage Names. It is excellent. Filled with references to pop culture and its effects on people’s lives, it’s incredibly catchy, melodic, mostly deceptively-upbeat-sounding stuff, indie folk/pop/rock done with intelligence and wit and a real ear for hooks that get stuck in your head. Of course, I wouldn’t be a real critic unless I dubbed it a new ridiculous sub-genre – let’s call it “meta-rock.”

That’s a crappy-sounding version of the first single, “Our Life Is Not a Movie Or Maybe” – the sweeping sound references 80s pop songs with a discordant, desperate twist, though the genius of it is the racing heartbeat of the drum (though you can't hear it very well on that version) and the song’s frantic crescendo. The second track, “Unless It’s Kicks”, may be even better – a rollicking, uptempo kick in the gut. The lyrics again deal with the influence of pop culture on the characters’ lives – in this song, the narrator asserts, “What gives this mess some grace unless it’s kicks, man / unless it’s fiction / unless it’s sweat or it’s songs?” And later:

And on a seven-day high, that heavenly song
punches right through my mind
and just hums through my blood.
And I know it's a lie, but I'll still give it my love.

Ouch. But Sheff isn’t simply condemning the fact that we tend to view our lives as if they were movies or songs; he hits on the feeling of hearing a song you love and instantly feeling like the world has expanded into something joyful and glorious (even though it takes a song to [perhaps artificially] create that feeling, and it only lasts for four minutes). It’s incredibly odd to hear a song that talks about that feeling while actually giving you that feeling, and it makes my brain hurt, so I’m going to stop talking about it for the moment.

I suppose unsurprisingly, it turns out Sheff used to be a critic – this page has links to a bunch of his old articles. Looks like he’s got pretty good, if slightly pretentious, taste, though his attack on soft rock is a bit harsh – poor old Peter Cetera. Why pick on such an easy target? Does he have something against bouffants and soft-focus lenses? (And I’m sorry, but some of his songs are great, and I don’t mean that ironically – I get genuine pleasure from them, partly because they remind me of my childhood and how much I loved them then. “I am a knight who will fight for your honor”? How much of a curmudgeon do you have to be not to find that strangely wonderful? [And with that I realize I’ve now become a character in an Okkervil River song.])

I do find it a little disconcerting to read Sheff’s articles, though. When’s the last time you saw a critic rocking out on stage? It’s not right – they’re supposed to be detached and thoughtful, with their pipes and their monocles and their big books full of words, not hot-blooded and full of ketamine (with the exception of Michiko Kakutani, obviously). It’s a little embarrassing – like watching one of your teachers sing Grateful Dead songs on an acoustic guitar. I suppose I’ll have to get over it, though, because they’re playing in London in December and we’ve got tickets. I suppose to be really obnoxious, whenever they finish a song, I could shout out, “B plus! What it lacked in precision it made up for in enthusiasm! WOOOOOO!!”

*While trolling YouTube, I found a clip of Sheff talking about deciding to be a musician and saying that it was worth it even though he doesn’t have health insurance (!) and last year he didn’t have a place to live (!!!). Oh god, the guilt. I’m really tempted to go out and buy the album, though I will probably end up rationalizing the guilt away by convincing myself that buying the tickets gave them more money anyway (okay, 20 pounds, but, um, the exchange rate is really good). Usually, like any music fan, I’m happy for bands I like to stay obscure, but in this case I really hope they start getting more famous. They certainly deserve to.


And Now, A Rant

By now we all know that Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip was poo. Where Aaron Sorkin was once clever and inspiring, writing fiercely intelligent and funny characters, he became hackneyed and insipid, recycling plotlines from his better days (badly, I might add) and writing characters who were either thinly-veiled versions of his crazy-for-Jesus ex-girlfriend (Harriet Hayes), supposedly ridiculously smart while never actually demonstrating this beyond being able to rattle off obscure statistics (um, everyone), or versions of himself (Matt Albie – I would say “slimy, massively arrogant, ridiculously unlikeable versions of himself,” but it appears this would be redundant) or his partner in crime, Tommy Schlamme (the absolutely odious Danny Tripp – and I cannot mention this without giving a shout-out to Television Without Pity, who said they were disappointed he hadn’t named the character Danny Schlanny, which made me laugh for half an hour [btw, Joe R.’s recaps were often the only reason we even bothered to watch, besides horrified fascination]). But I’m going to stop criticizing it now, because if I don’t, I will run out of internet.

Unfortunately for denizens of the UK, it’s time for them to be endlessly patronized about commedia dell’arte and Bush’s bad behavior during 9/11 (yes, the show actually goes back in time to lecture us. Thank god it didn’t get a second season, in which Matt and Danny would time-travel to Nazi Germany learn how evil Hitler was). It just started showing here a few weeks ago, to massive, slavish adoration from the journalists here, who apparently have never gone on the internet, because they are completely perplexed about why such a stunning example of show from infallible genius Aaron Sorkin would get cancelled by those awful money-hungry studios! They just didn’t understand his brilliance! To which I say, You lazy, incompetent little shits – it would take you two seconds of googling to find out exactly why it was cancelled – because it was shit.

It made me angry to read those articles, with their willful ignorance and their slavish devotion to Sorkin (they didn’t even bother to get anyone’s opinion other than his about why it was cancelled – I wonder if maybe he would be, I don’t know, biased?). This leads off into a subject for another day – the UK media’s shoddy reporting on American shows and movies, their simultaneous disdain for American media and the fact that they have to admit that it’s often better than what’s created here (at least in terms of TV shows and movies – though it will usually be with the tag “it’s good…in an American way”), and their love of anything coming out of it perceived to be intelligent (like Sorkin, which is why he is so ridiculously overpraised – he’s not like most Americans, because his show is about how bad American TV is!).

Aaaaanyway, I came downstairs this morning to find that the Admiral had scrawled a furious note in the Guardian Guide – the weekly TV guide from the Guardian, arguably the best paper in England (though notably filled with snobbery about American culture). Andrew Mueller, one of the reviewers, has been reviewing Studio 60 since it began six weeks ago – he praised the pilot, but foolishly we laughed and said that it would be funny to see his assessments get more negative as the show went on. Three episodes in and they were not – instead he was rambling about how mobs with pitchforks should have been storming the studios demanding that the show not be cancelled. Okay, we thought, well, the third episode wasn’t that bad, though alarm bells were starting to go off (notably with Danny’s rant about how cocaine addicts don’t hurt people [he was a former cocaine addict himself – I know, eerie coincidence!! Another eerie coincidence? Aaron Sorkin was a cocaine addict! OMG, this is freaky!] – no, only drunk drivers do that, and of course cocaine addicts are sedentary because we all know cocaine is a depressant).

We decided that the show didn’t become truly awful until the sixth episode – which has plotlines where the cast learns about how awful the blacklist was (really awful!), where we learn that the only black character on the show had a childhood straight out of Boyz N the Hood (this is after he rails against stereotypical “black people versus white people” comedy), and we learn that another character’s Midwestern parents are so ignorant of culture that they don’t even know who Abbott and Costello were (since when has the Midwest not been hooked up to electricity?), but they do know that their son is wasting his life on frivolous comedy while his brother, the war hero, is – get ready for it – STANDING IN THE MIDDLE OF AFGHANISTAN! It’s so incomprehensibly awful I can’t even express it.

But guess what Andrew Mueller’s reaction is?

The more of this we [we?? I sincerely hope he’s using the royal we] see, the more it seems appropriate to disdain from summarising the spectacular virtues of Studio 60 in favour of suggesting imaginative punishments to be visited on its American proprietors, who canned it. This week: feed them to hippopotamuses. [My suggestion: feed Andrew Mueller to Hiphopopotamus from Flight of the Conchords.] Anyway, tonight’s episode, with an Eli Wallach cameo, is another eruption of auteur Aaron Sorkin’s singular genius. In between adroitly perpetuating the internal soap operas, this thrillingly tours Sorkin’s signature obsessions [i.e., the things he writes about in a TV series about a COMEDY SKETCH SHOW]: American political, cultural and military history, and the clash between the country’s liberal and conservative impulses.

RAGE!!! And you thought I was exaggerating about the media’s circle-jerk of praise! I think the Admiral’s reaction sums it up best: he circled the review in pen and then wrote “FUCKING ANDREW MUELLER!!”

That’s about right.


sjwoo said...

Apologies for the obligatory Star Trek comment:

Patterns of Force

Which reminds me of another great link:

Star Trek Inspirational Posters

Both you and Admiral Neck should get a chuckle out of that latter link...

Masticator said...

I am baffled by this eruption of singular wrongheadedness from Andrew Mueller, a writer I normally like. In fact, his praise has become so effusive that it's starting to sound like sarcasm, and I have begun to nurture a faint hope that he has been instructed to heap accolades on the show by TPTB at the Guardian, and that he is revelling in this opportunity to wind people up with arrant bullshit. Or else treating it as some kind of obscure performance art. It's the only possible explanation. Right?

I have vowed to watch the upcoming episode, just to see what depths it can plumb, and then stop. I know it's not good for me.

Canyon said...

Mr. Woo: I've seen those before -- very cute. And I don't have a hard time believing Studio 60 would have strayed into Trek territory had it gone any longer. The coyote-under-the-studio plotline (yes, that was a real plotline!) would have become tribbles in no time.

Mr. Cator: I've also started hoping that Mueller's reviews are intended to be sarcastic, because...well, for obvious reasons. I just don't see how anyone with any sense or taste or eyes could think that episode, or any other, was a stroke of genius. If you do stop watching (we couldn't drag ourselves away), at least tune in for the last four episodes or so -- so stupid you will probably never be able to take Sorkin seriously again (if that hasn't already happened).

Masticator said...

The Guardian is at it again! With a column entitled - and I am not joking - "Call me crazy but... Studio 60: is it the best kept secret on TV?"

This is starting to damage my calm.

Masticator said...

Sorry, I don't know how to tag links. It's on the Guardian's TV & Radio blog, anyway.

Admiral Neck said...

I think html tags have to be written as [a href=insert url here]insert comment here[/a href], with the [] brackets replaced with <>. It's been a learning experience for me as well, my good man.

Anyway, this is the blog you mentioned, and I had a mini-rant at the bottom. It says a lot about me that I'm so exasperated not only by a bad TV show, but by the journalistic response to a bad TV show. I think I'm most angry that the journos at the Guardian are accusing the public of having no taste. No, we just know that if you hand me us a turd and tell us it's chocolate ganache, we're smart enough to figure out it's a big ol' turd.

sjwoo said...

Sorry for the late comment, but I just got around to listening to OR. "If It Kicks" is, without a doubt, my favorite track. It really, well, just kicks. A heck of a pop tune.

Of course, as usual, I didn't even realize there were any meaningful lyrics attached to it. Now I love that much more.

Canyon said...

My plan has worked. I thought you might like them. I heard that you're putting together the mix for this year, so I'll have to think of some other recs...

sjwoo said...

I also like "A Girl in Port" and "You Can't Hold the Hand of a Rock and Roll Man." There's a portion in AGiP that reminds me of Billy Joel for some reason. But "Unless It Kicks" is the undisputed gem.

I have indeed begun the process of listening to albums for the mix. I was sort of dreading it -- I never listen to music anymore, so I have to start listening to all new music for the next two months nonstop to figure out what goes where. Daunting, but now that I'm in the thick of it, I'm glad I'm doing it because there are so many great tunes. Have you listened to the new New Pornographers album Challengers? I almost put "Use It" from Twin Cinema on a previous mix but didn't go for it, but man, "My Rights vs. Yours" is just divine. What sold me was that "extra" high note that the song hits over and over again. At least that's what I call it -- it was just surprising that it went that way, and initially I found it strange, but now I can't stop humming that song.

The other singer I've completely fallen in love with is A Fine Frenzy. Big disappointments were the new Rilo Kiley (didn't like a single song) and Eisley (only one song, and just barely).

So yes, please do recommend away. So far, these are my possibilities: A Fine Frenzy, Avril Lavigne ("I Can Do Better" hits a new high of immaturity, and I love her for it), Aqueduct, Buffalo Tom, Cat Power, Colbie Caillet, Corinne Bailey Rae, Eisley, Erasure, Gogol Bordello (this band is hilarious!), Okkervil River, Rooney, Spoon, St. Vincent, Take That, The Arcade Fire, The New Pornographers, and Tori Amos. I'll need to whittle that down to probably ten songs, because I still have another 25 albums to listen to.

sjwoo said...

"Unless It's Kicks"? That's the name of the song? Man, that's hard to remember...