Albums as Texts: Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska; Bad Brains, Rock for Light (Hope Goes Punk)

“We got that PMA. Hey, we got that PMA” — H.R. of the Bad Brains

Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
The Bad Brains, Rock for Light
Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska
Prince, 1999


[Punk music: what does it mean?  When and where does this turn to hardcore, punk-rock, intellectual hip-hop, grunge, alternative and indie music?  How do social, economic and political moments effect Youth Culture, and how are these interpreted through Youth Culture?  If punk is about tearing down, what remains when all is torn down?  How low can a punk get?  I argue these questions can be answered through a close reading of the best albums in the punk project and the following punk tradition.  We will listen for a close reading of the album as microcosm and the broader macrocosm of Youth Culture in the ‘70s, ‘80s and more recent decades. This column is about lyrics as text, not a history of music column.]

Thought I’d write about some music that’s pretty to listen to this week, situated as it is between such aggressive and sonically harsh musics like hardcore punk.  Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska is a return to his minimalist folk roots; and the Bad Brains Rock for Light album is interspersed with uplifting reggae jams, and the hardcore tracks have some of the highest production values of the genre– produced by Ric Ocasek from the Cars.
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The Week’s Best Book Reviews: 3/20/14

[In this feature, we highlight a handful of the best book reviews appearing over the weekend in major newspapers. Follow it here.]


broken-roadThe Broken Road, by Patrick Leigh FermorReviewed by Katherine A. Powers at the Barnes & Noble Review.

The recently (posthumously) published travel memoir finishes a trilogy of books that cover a trip taken 80 years ago, when Fermor was a teenager. Fittingly, the ineptitude of memory to do justice to the past is one of the book’s big themes. Otherwise, this is what you’d expect: the final book by a legendary travel writer. The Wall Street Journal also reviewed it, featuring a bit more personal history.


Long Man, by Amy GreeneReviewed by Ron Charles at the Washington Post.

Charles contemplatively reviews this seemingly slow-paced book about a small town in 1936 that becomes doomed to slowly flood when Roosevelt’s Tennessee Valley Authority dams the nearby Long Man River. Against that backdrop, a young girl goes missing and her mother desperately searches for her. Charles calls it “an engrossing blend of raw tension and gorgeous reflection.”


The Wherewithal, by Philip SchultzReviewed by Adam Plunkett at the New York Times.

Plunkett simultaneously disembowels this book, and seems impressed by its power. It’s an illustrated novel in verse about various horrors witnessed by a young Polish man during World War II. Plunkett describes its lyricality as “almost mock-poetry” and says it functions poorly as both a novel and a poem. Yet, the theme of the book is that such art and artifice becomes meaningless or worse in the face of such widespread trauma. I honestly can’t tell if Plunkett winds up recommending The Wherewithal or not.


In brief: Colson Whitehead maintains his membership in excellent standing at the Pretentious Writers Club. … Russell Brand continues to rail against all institutions except those that pay him.The LA Times’s spring books preview. … Tessa Hadley’s Clever Girl sounds like a book full of intense realism, often too much for comfort. … It’s a “silver age” for older writers (beware puns ahead). …

The Week’s Best Book Reviews 3/11/14

[In this feature, we highlight a handful of the best book reviews appearing over the weekend in major newspapers. Follow it here.]


boysnowbirdBoy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi. Reviewed by Heller McAlpin (Barnes and Noble Review).

If you want to entice me to read a book, just make promises about its ability to “entwine elements of fairy tale, folklore, and ghost stories with thorny issues like racial prejudice, cultural dislocations, and maternal ambivalence.” This retelling of Snow White (I’m also a sucker for retellings) is set in 1950s Massachusetts and is centered around a black man called Boy who passes for white, though McAlpin is pretty guarded about the actual plot. I’m sold though. Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching has been on my list for a while now. I guess one more couldn’t hurt.


The Black-Eyed Blonde, by Benjamin Black. Reviewed by Janet Maslin (New York Times).

Black (mystery book pseudonym for author John Banville) has taken over Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe character, and this book’s title is even something bequeathed by the late mystery great. I’d probably like Black/Banville’s Marlowe books if I had the time to read them. Maslin certainly seems enamored with the Irish writer’s sensibility for noir Americanese, and I appreciate that she shares very little of the plot–a rich girl hires a private dick to find somebody who’s mixed up in something he shouldn’t be and is now missing. Mostly, though, I want to know how the hell Candice Bergen warranted mentioning in a review of a mystery novel set in the 40′s written by an Irish author…


Black Moon, by Kenneth Calhoun. Reviewed by Jeff Vandermeer (Los Angeles Times).

Take this book about a worldwide insomnia epidemic or leave it (I’m inclined toward the latter), but make sure to give a glance at this dude’s author picture and tell me it’s not right near the top of the list of douchiest author pics ever. Something about Calhoun’s smarmy, half-sneering expression in that photo makes me want to hate the book and anyone involved in its publication for reasons I can’t even place. (The review is worthwhile though, and I quite like Vandermeer, whose excellent Wonderbook I’ll be talking about on the next podcast.)


Quickly: I quite liked this Atlantic article about how (not) to teach grammar. Bukowski has been dead 20 years this week, so LA is having a party. Mardi Gras is right up there near the top on the list of things that don’t interest me at all, but if it’s your style, here’s a list of related reading. David Ulin actually describes something Denis Johnson wrote as “one of the signal achievements of contemporary American literature, a book so spare and beautiful and knowing that it makes my eyes weep blood.” Woah.

Books Radar: March 2014

[This monthly feature is a brief look at interesting upcoming books. These are not reviews, these are previews; we have not read these books. Follow Book Radar here. Click the title links to find more info about these books.]


brunist-day-of-wrathThe Brunist Day of Wrath, by Robert Coover (out 3/25)

Coover stands out as not only a postmodernist experimenter in the vein of Barth and Barthelme, but also a writer capable of infusing his experiments with the warmth and character of more traditional story-telling. Dave talked about Coover’s crazy book about a fantasy baseball league here. And Coover’s foray into genre territory, Noir, was one of my own favorite books of 2010. This new novel is the long-awaited sequel to Coover’s debut, The Origin of the Brunists. It clocks in at a staggering 1100 pages but promises “a scathing indictment of fundamentalism.” And it sounds like a perfect fit for my “really long audiobooks” reading program.


blazing-worldBlazing World, by Siri Hustvedt (out 3/11)

Hustvedt’s sixth novel follows a no-name female artist who suddenly gets great reviews when she launches a series of shows under a male pseudonym. Then there’s also a murder involved, and the whole thing is told as a series of found texts. Hustvedt herself is getting great reviews for this book, so it sounds like a risky premise that she’s pulled off.

shotgun-lovesongsShotgun Lovesongs, by Nickolas Butler (out 3/4)

The premise sounds like off-the-shelf debut lit novel fare: four friends, having grown up together and moved away, now move back to their hometown and sort through their issues. It’s hard to tell from the flap copy whether there’s a single dark secret they’re uncovering (which wouldn’t be too original, but would be better than the alternative), or just the “strong, American stuff” that usually turns out to be boring. However, I can’t ignore tons of great early reviews, most of which are already crowning Butler as an all-time great novelist. I would settle for a good book.

all-our-namesAll Our Names, by Dinaw Mengetsu (out 3/4)

Speaking of buzzed-about authors, Mengetsu is on just about every “under” list there is: the New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 and the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35. He’s also been the recipient of a MacArthur genius grant and a whole host of other awards. This new novel has gotten a mixed response, which might not be a surprise for a writer working in the controversial political novel tradition of “Naipaul, Greene, and Achebe.” The book’s about a pair of friend who grow up during an African revolution. Worth a try, at the very least.


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reviews in haiku: January/February 2014

Skipped a month, now we’re back.


Fur People

by “Queen of Noir”

violent folks; bleak settings

book stars a hoarder


All The Heat We Could Carry

fresh poetry book

a meditation on war

about gay soldiers


The Way of Kings

new occupation:

long audiobooks for N

good for what it is



not Crace’s best book

wholly enjoyable still

read Being Dead first



part sad, part funny

Baby Boomer poetry

must suck to get old


The Alloway Files

not without its flaws

Roller writes the absurd well

eager for his next


Sharon Tate and the Daughters of Joy

what a great title

obsession-obsessed poems

Rammelkamp rolling



yet another meh

alternate history tale

merits, but it bores


The White Rail

great writing lauded

Hariss saw and sent her own

read her review soon

The Week’s Best Book Reviews: 2/26/14

[In this feature, we highlight a handful of the best book reviews appearing over the weekend in major newspapers. Follow it here.]


burnable-bookA Burnable Book, by Bruce HolsingerReviewed by Ron Charles at the Washington Post.

Evidently this book stars Geoffrey “perced to the roote” Chaucer as the hero of a thriller. The story, rife with murders and prostitutes, revolves around a book that seems to prophesy the deaths of kings. Holsinger is a Guggenheim-winning Chaucer scholar who might just have turned in a legitimately compelling novel. Charles’s review is typically entertaining, though it bogs down a bit through the slightly convoluted plot synopsis—hard to tell if that’s Charles’s fault or Holsinger’s. In any case, if you like Dan Brown’s style of mystery but hate everything about his writing (as I do), this could be the next book for you.


Strange Bodies, by Marcel TherouxReviewed by Alan Cheuse at the Dallas Morning News.

Theroux (the son of famed travel writer Paul Theroux) has written a literary-ish novel about the creation of a “mankurt” or a kind of golem. Twists and turns abound; the short review doesn’t quite detail these, but Cheuse does say that “genre-writing for the literary connoisseur,” a proclamation that I find intriguing, but one that should always be taken with a grain of salt.


One More Thing, by B.J. NovakReviewed by Teddy Wayne at the New York Times.

Wayne fails to sell me on Novak’s book (a collection of 64 vignettes of roughly 4 pages each), but it’s an amusing review. This was my favorite line: “The melancholy sensibility and verbal élan elevate Novak’s book beyond a small-beer exercise in clever monkeyshines and into a stiff literary cocktail.”


In brief: Amtrak now has free “residencies” for writers who like to write on trains. Bizarre but possibly genius marketing. … I’ll bet this guy has already put in his Amtrak residency application. … USA Today is a bit too free with its 3.5 star reviews. … Dan Brown’s Inferno was the best-selling book in 2013. It’s awful. Here’s my podcast review.

Albums as Texts: Legless Bull by Government Issue (D.C. Hardcore)

leglessbull“Anarchy is DEAD” — Government Issue 

The Chomsky-Foucault Debate
Government Issue, Legless Bull
Bad Brains, Black Dots
Void, Faith, Void/Faith
Minor Threat, Salad Days

[This is a column about lyrics as texts, not a history of music column.  Through close readings of album titles, song titles and close readings of lyrics, we will listen toward the microcosm of the album, and the macrocosm of Youth Culture in the ‘70s, ‘80s and more recent decades.]

Are you ready for nine minutes of hardcorest D.C. punk music?  Check out Legless Bull, the first e.p. by Government Issue, released in 1981.  When punk music first arrived on the District of Columbia music scene in 1979, the city was impoverished and regimented into strict racial ghettos, making it difficult to travel from one side of the city to another.  But D.C. had also a steady stream of upper-middle class government workers, educated and intelligent–the children of whom would soon become the lyricists of bands such as the Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Void and Government Issue.

With D.C. Hardcore music, gone is the freakout-for-the-sake-of-freakout of the New York and U.K. scene, as well as the obsession with chemical intoxication of the West Coast.  The Straight-edge movement of Youth Culture has remnants still today, with Youths tattooing black Xs on the back of their hands, indicating they cannot be served alcohol.

The album Legless Bull goes straight to its most direct critique, with the rhetorical voice of condemnation.  First targets for Government Issue’s lyricist, Stabb, are Evangelical Christians.  “Send us money, and you’ll be saved/ pretty soon you’ll be our slave/…Religious rip-off/ Gospel scam/ Ernest Angeley, Billy Graham/ Upside-down cross is what you should wear ”  Track three, “Rock and Roll Bullshit,” advances the satire of drug culture, as well as corporate acts such as Van Halen, Super Tramp and Rock’n’Roll Camp.

Then comes the lyrical highlight of the album, “Anarchy is Dead.”  In the 90’s, the Sex Pistols’ lyric, “Anarchy in the U.K.” became the immediately identifiable cry of the poser, but Government Issue tackles the hard truth of governmental necessity in 1981.  Which leads us to the Chomsky-Foucault debate. 
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The Week’s Best Book Reviews 2/19/14

[In this feature, we highlight a handful of the best book reviews appearing over the weekend in major newspapers. Follow it here.]


A Burnable Book, by Bruce Holsinger. Reviewed by Ron Charles (Washington Post).

Oh man, just read this opener by Charles:

Forget Tom Cruise scaling the Burj Khalifa tower; the hot new super-agent is 14th-century writer Geoffrey Chaucer. Thrill to his daring Middle English rimes! Gasp at his mighty scansion! Here in the pages of Bruce Holsinger’s medieval adventure, that randy old poet finally gets the “Mission Impossible” cameo he deserves.

Sounds dumb, but also kinda awesome. Charles seems to actually have enjoyed the book quite a bit, though it’s hard to tell sometimes whether he is being sincere or derisive. There’s more summary here than we usually get from WaPo, but it’s still worth a read.


barkBark, by Lorrie Moore. Reviewed by Charles McGrath (New York Times).

McGrath doesn’t really say much about the book, which is Moore’s first story collection in 16 years, instead focusing more on the author herself. Whatever, though, Moore is a really good writer, and at least some of the stories in here are sure to be strong.


Afrofuturism, by Ytasha L. Womack. Reviewed by Sofia Samatar (Strange Horizons Reviews).

I like perusing the Strange Horizons site for two things: learning of good sci-fi books I might want to read, and indulging in the occasional teardown. This time, I found something closer to the former in a pretty decent piece of literary criticism about an art aesthetic I’d never even heard of before. I don’t know when I’ll have the time to read Afrofuturism, but I totally want to learn more.


Quickly: Murakami fans can look forward to his latest in English this summer. Describe a book as “a Mexican family’s comic woes vibrantly recall Greek mythology and the young James Joyce” and I’m sold.

The Week’s Best Book Reviews 2/12/14

[In this feature, we highlight a handful of the best book reviews appearing over the weekend in major newspapers. Follow it here.]


parthenonThe Parthenon Enigma, by Joan Bretton Connelly. Reviewed by Nick Curley (Barnes & Noble Review).

This isn’t actually a review, but an excerpt with an editor’s preface–and it’s fascinating. I wish I had the time to invest in this book, which explores the millennia-old mysteries of one of the West’s most recognizable pieces of architecture, but also its monumental (sorry) impact on the Western thought since the Enlightenment. Give the excerpt a shot, because I’m not doing a very good job of expressing Connelly’s premise. 


H R C,  by Amie Parnes and Johnathan Howell. Reviewed by Michiko Kakutani (New York Times).

I love Hillary and can’t wait for her to be our next president. However, I can’t really stomach contemporary political books though–they either serve a masturbatory role for supporters or an antagonistic one for the opposition, neither of which is worth my time–so I’ll be passing on this, but fans of this sort of thing should enjoy what’s on offer here, which is essentially a start to the 2016 hype machine. Really though, my main hope for this book is that somewhere out there there is a conservative leaning book blog that has a jovial editor (or maybe grumpy in this Bizarro fantasy) that’s gonna get drunk on a podcast and review this book with escalating rage.


Alena, by Rachel Pastan. Reviewed by Carolyn Parkhurst (Washington Post).

I’m a sucker for retellings. I don’t know why, since they are far more often bad than good. But it sounds like Pastan’s modern day Cape Cod retelling of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca might actually be worth a read. Of course, I’ve got to read du Maurier’s original first…


Quickly: Here’s some cute, heart-filled children’s books. I’m by no means a religious person, but I love the new pope, whose latest awesome deed (endorsing the new Ms. Marvel, which sports a Muslim, Pakistani-American female protagonist) caught a lot of people’s attention. This gallery of famous authors’ houses is a nice curio. Maybe BJ Novak’s stories are funny, or maybe they’re terrible.

The Week’s Best Book Reviews: 2/5/14

[In this feature, we highlight a handful of the best book reviews appearing over the weekend in major newspapers. Follow it here.]


triple-packageThe Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, by Jed Rubenfeld and Amy ChuaReviewed by Hector Tobar at the L.A. Times.

Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother rose to controversial fame on its simple, racist thesis that “Chinese mothers are superior.” Now Chua has teamed up with her husband to controversially explore racism in another book, this one about why certain “national-origin groups” are more successful than others. Tobar gratifyingly dismantles this drek, which he calls “sloppy” and “shallow.” It’s a fun ride.


For Today I Am a Boy: A Novel, by Kim FuReviewed by Jiayang Fan at the New York Times.

The only precious son in a Chinese-American family of daughters desperately longs to be a girl. That’s a simple but surprisingly compelling premise.


The News: A User’s Manual, by Alain de BottonReviewed by Ian Jack at the Guardian.

De Botton retains credentials both as an approachable modern “philosopher” (by publishing yet another slight volume about a narrow subject) and one of the world’s most condescending assholes (that subtitle, blech). Jack wrangles with him well, taking him to task for Gladwellian simplifications and obfuscations, ultimately finding it propagandish and far from thorough.


All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenting, by Jennifer SeniorReviewed by Andrew Solomon at the New York Times.

I’m not sure exactly how useful parenting books are to childless people—probably about as much use as my set of Perfect Pushups are to me. Still, the review is a bit interesting. It seems Senior’s book takes a semi-historical view of parenting, tracking the time when children went “from being our employees to our bosses” as she writes. I take exception to the notion that parents are happier than people without children, but Senior does caveat that they are also more miserable. Plus, I find the title intriguing. Not enough to, you know, read the book, but intriguing.


In brief: Well, it’s been 5 months since the last Joyce Carol Oates novel, time for a new one. … Marilyn Stasio calls Isabel Allende’s mystery novel “ungainly,” “eccentric,” “thoroughly charming,” and “a lot of fun to read.” … A film institute is publishing Charlie Chaplin’s novel sixty years after he wrote it.David L. Ulin writes about William S. Burroughs on the occasion of his 100th birthday. … That guy from the office wrote a book of stories (not him, the other guy… no the other other guy).