Thursday, March 5, 2009

Obessisons, Part 1: Neko Case

I'm trying really hard to blog more frequently, even though only about two people ever read this. I figured a good way to motivate myself would be writing a series of posts about people or things I simply can't get enough of, hence the "Obsessions, Part 1" in this here post's title. Credit to Jeremiah for the general concept, clearly, as he's very fond of list making on his blog. My first subject in the series, Neko Case, is an obvious choice as I have listened to her new album, Middle Cyclone, about 85 times since it was released.1On Tuesday. And I'm nowhere near tired of it yet. And that's just this album.

I have four others as well (Blacklisted, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, Furnace Room Lullaby, and The Tigers Have Spoken), and, according to my profile, I've listened to the 67 tracks contained on these albums 597 times, out 0f the 12,396 "plays" it has recorded, in total, since I joined. That means, according to, that about 5 out of every hundred times I'm listening to a song, it's by Neko Case.2 Considering the fact that my library has 630 artists in total, that's a pretty solid testament to how much I like her.

Suffice to say, I love the crap out of her. And here's why:

1. Her voice. Her other-worldly, elemental, lure-your-boat-to-the-deathly-rocks incredible voice. It's not a simple voice, or a clean voice, it's pure, but not like an angel's. It's strong, even harsh at times, but you can feel its beauty right down in your bones. When, at the beginning of Middle Cyclone, she sings a song from the perspective of a tornado in love with a man, you just listen and think to yourself "Yup. That's what a tornado would sound like if it could sing." I can't think of anyone else with a voice so magnetic.3

2. Her songwriting is out of this world. As far as music goes, I'm usually a lyrics girl first and foremost. A song can be a really bare-bones, 3-chord progression number, but if it's got lyrics that are smart I could care less about the rest. But with Neko, it's not simply a case of lyrics, because if I write down the words alone they just don't have the same meaning. Like here are the lyrics from my favorite bit of the title track on Middle Cyclone, which is (basically) about being in love with someone but trying to fight it:
"It was so clear to me/That it was almost invisible./I lie across the path waiting/Just for a chance to be/a spiderweb trapped in your lashes/for that I would trade you my empire/for ashes--/But I choke it back/How much I need love."
The words alone are strange, and smart, and beautiful, no question. But it's the writing of the song itself, and how Neko delivers it, that really sells the meaning. The lines in the song are generally very short, and sung rythmically to a brisk, waltzing beat-- until it gets to the part about a spiderweb. Then the reigning waltz tempo gets abandoned, and things slow down-- like Neko is so absorbed in relishing the intimacy of that spiderweb, that she forgets herself. And then, just when that languid phrase reaches the peak of its longing, she cuts herself off abruptly, returns to the 3/4 structure, and "chokes back" how much she needs love. The very fabric of the song mimics the way the thoughts would happen in your head-- that dreamy interlude where you let yourself feel, really feel, how much you care about this other person, and then that quick interjection of sense that says-- no, don't do this to yourself. Choke it back. It's incredible, and you can find moments like that everywhere in her songs.

3. Her subject matter. I'm a pretty self-centered person, when it comes to art consumption, so it's hard for me to really be obsessed with something if I don't personally identify with it. So Neko could write the best songs with the most perfect lyrics in the world, but if I didn't hear them and think "Hey, that's exactly what I've thought and felt but never figured out how to say!" then she wouldn't be my second most-listened to artist. Neko writes about heartbreak, but roundaboutly and wryly, so I can listen to her when I'm heartbroken without feeling like I'm just moping. She's sings a lot about women who are tough and smart and don't apologize for who they are, and even though I'm not always like that, she makes me feel like I am. Like I won't take any shit. And that can be great to feel.

4. Do you know those songs that are so perfect, that you love so much, that before the song can even end, you've already whipped your iPod out and skipped back to the beginning? I think Neko has more songs like that than anyone else. There are at least three of them on each album. And that's pretty impressive.

5. And did I say that she's awesome, and her music sounds great? Because it does. And that's obviously the biggest reason why you guys should check her out. In fact, you can listen to the entirety of Middle Cyclone for free, including the title track discussed above, at NPR's First Listens series. So give yourself 40 minutes and check it out. I don't know if she's everyone's cup of tea, but she's sure as hell mine.4

1 This is probably a slight exageration, but since I haven't unplugged from my iPod long enough to sync it since uploading the music, I don't have up-to-date playcount information to give you.
2 And that's just her solo albums, by the way. If you add in the amount of time I spend listening to The New Pornographers, it jumps to 6 songs out of 100.
3 I'm not the only one who thinks of her as a siren, either. She was cast to do vocals as one in an episode of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, too.
4 Yeah, that's right bitches! I figured out how to put footnotes in my blogs. SUCK ON THAT!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Previously, on As The Pier Glass Turns....

Loyal reader(s) will remember that, in October of '07, I told you (based on extensive personal research conducted while cataloging the Stephen Feinberg Memorial Holocaust Library at BLS) that:

If your book about the Holocaust is worth the paper it's printed on, then Elie Wiesel's name is on it somewhere. Maybe he wrote the foreword, maybe he wrote the afterword, maybe he did a blurb for the back of the book, or maybe your agent paid someone else to mention his name in their blurb. Either way, if Elie isn't involved, it might as well not be about the Holocaust at all. - "Do YOU Know the Call Number of Evil?", by your own Cassandra.

Well, apparently that goes for Ponzi schemes as well.

In (Belated) Defense of Valentine's Day

I think I can safely say that I am not overly romantic, or at least not romantic in a profoundly cliche way. I mean sure, I like Jane Austen novels and When Harry Met Sally, and I have even been known to read the occasional romance novel-- mostly after being led into temptation by regular blog reader Anna. However, when it comes to love, in general I prefer the rough and wry to the saccharine, the clear-sighted and honest to comforting and vague, and a sharp tongued aphorism to a drippy platitude. I'm not a cynic, not by a long shot, but I can safely say that if someone gave me a dozen long-stemmed roses, I'd be more likely to roll my eyes at their lack of originality than fall into their arms in wondering gratitude. And yet, I am a staunch supporter of Valentine's Day, considered by most to be the pinnacle of syrupy sweet greeting-card romance. And not only do I support it, but I think you, dear readers, should as well.

Yes, I am aware that:

a) The way it's commonly marketed is hideous.
b) The way most people celebrate it is stupid, cliched, and gross-- more about showing off/demonstrating status than actually celebrating love.
c) If you're single and unhappy about it, the lead up to the holiday can feel like a month and a half of being punched in the stomach.
d) If you're in a relationship, happy or unhappy, it can feel like a month and a half of pop quizzes you haven't done the reading for.

BUT I don't think any of the above points are intrinsic parts of the holiday itself, and I don't think any of them are grounds for valid grounds for hating THE DAY.

I know, I know. This doesn't make sense. I can hear you asking: What do you mean, Margaret? How can the DAY be okay if the way it's celebrated is hideous and it makes everyone feel unhappy, regardless of their relationship status?

Well, readers, let me explain by way of a parallel or six. Let's start with Christmas. Is it marketed hideously? Yup. Do many people celebrate it in a shitty or cliched way? Totally. All the people who are out being dicks on Valentine's Day are probably out being dicks EVERY holiday, Christmas is no exception. Is it stressful for the people who celebrate it? Yes, often almost unbearably so. And is it lonelymaking for the people who don't celebrate it? Absolutely. But on December 24th, you don't have billions of people posting on their blogs about how much Christmas blows. Nope. They're decking the halls, being merry, and finding awesome ways to celebrate the day with out a second thought for all the dicks out there who may or may not be missing the point of it.

In Almost Famous, the fact that Frances McDormand's character forces her family to celebrate Christmas on a random day in September, when she can be sure it won't be commercialized, is a sure sign that she's batshit insane. When Ebenezer Scrooge says "Humbug" to his nephew Fred, he gets harassed by ghosts until he mends his ways. And yet, every year, when millions of cool, smart, decent people opt out of Valentine's Day, we think they're not only compltely sane, but morally righteous. People who do celebrate the day appear are thought to be, at best, unoriginal and, at worst, kind of shitty jerks. Both holidays are an equally complicated amalgam of old-school Paganism, Middle Ages Christian co-opting, and modern crass commercialism, so why are they perceived so differently by right-thinking people?

I imagine this rift started because Valentine's Day celebrates something more exclusive than other holidays. Halloween, Thankgiving, Christmas, New Year's, the 4th of July-- they all have their detractors, sure, but the majority of people are not barred from celebrating them. Valentine's Day, on the other hand, is marketed almost exclusively as a holiday for couples, automatically pissing all the non-couples or unhappy couples off, and leaving the nice couples feeling more guilt-ridden than celebratory. BUT, there's no reason Valentine's Day HAS to be celebrated this way-- in fact, by a significant portion of the population, it isn't. That's right folks: I'm talking about elementary school students. Remember, back in the day, when you brought in Valentine's Day cards for everyone, and February 14th was just another excuse for seasonal decorations, themed candies, and general, all-in good fun festivities? WHY shouldn't it be that way still? Why should we let it be the exclusive territory of smug couples whose real goal in celebrating their love is making us feel bad that we don't have any?

The holiday itself is pretty neat and well-intentioned. It either marks the seasonal pairing up of birds for the spring (Paganism) or the good works of the (likely fictional) Saint Valentine, who was exectued for marrying Christian couples in violation of Roman law. Either way, it's just a day to take time and celebrate romantic love so, unless you're anti-love, you really can't complain about the holiday's stated purpose. As for how you choose to celebrate it, well, that's up to you.

If you have someone, then great, take the opportunity to celebrate them in whatever manner works best for your relationship. If that means roses and diamond rings to you, fine, but if it means staying in and watching TV together there's no harm in that either. If you don't have a significant other, there's no need to let the relentless advertisements make you think you can't celebrate, any more than you'd let them think your Christmas will only be successful if you buy their product. You can bake cupcakes for your coworkers, write notes to people who are important to you, send flowers to your mother, enjoy one of the many billions of great works of art dedicated to the subject, or simply scope out the candy aisle of your local CVS for soon-to-be-discounted seasonal candies. A holiday is whatever its participants bring to it. If Valentine's Day sucks, it's at least in part because clever, creative smarties who could celebrate the holiday with verve have instead thrown up their hands in disgust and boycotted.

And that's why I'm pro-Valentine's Day, and think you all should be too. Because it's never going to get any better if all the good people won't celebrate it. So next year, stay home in your sweats or go out in fancy togs, but whatever you do: don't dismiss the day out of hand. The only thing intrinsic to the holiday is the idea that love is important, and that taking a pause to think about it is well worth doing. So take the time and, in the gloom of a deep New England February, do something that makes you, and maybe someone else, feel a little happier and a little more special. It doesn't have to cost you a thing.