Thursday, December 27, 2007

2007 reviewed

Instead of some "10 Best" list, which I hate, here are a few concluding reviews and arguments. The theme to all of this is, "Christ, I'm a fucking cliche."

Favorite Album: I'm Not There Soundtrack

This is an album of cover songs. The Byrds and Hendrix showed that Dylan was meant to be covered. This album is better than The Byrds and Hendrix. It is the best collection of Dylan covers ever.

It's a testament that you can hear a song for literally the five-hundredth time and the experience is as thrilling as it was sophomore year of high school when Highway 61 played on tapes played in friends' basements. Special highlights include the Sonic Youth cover of the title track, the Richie Havens cover of "Tombstone Blues" and the Cat Power cover of "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again," a Jack Johnson (!) cover of "Mama You've Been On My Mind," The Hold Steady covering "Can You Please Crawl Out My Window" (they take an obscure song, add some "Positively 4th Street," and it still sounds like they cooked it on their own.) Aside from fairly unimaginative tracks from Stephen Malkmus and Calexico (which aren't bad, just easy) the entire album is stunning.

This soundtrack and Dylan's Chronicles memoir make it clearer than ever that Dylan is America's gift to 20th century culture. Someday, Faulkner and Louis Armstrong will be the territory of specialists (they probably are already) but every generation will rediscover Dylan and adopt him.

The Album to Love Most After 10 Listens: The New Pornographers, Challengers

Skim the ebullience from their three preceding albums, and the product is starker and simpler, a kind of musical hug, Simon & Garfunkel's harmonizing without the treacle. It took awhile to sink in. The first few times I felt empty-handed, but once the expectations readjusted, it seemed clear that this is the Pornographers' best, most rewarding album, even if it's not the rowdiest.

The Album that Couldn't Be Loved: Wilco, Sky Blue Sky

It's a glass of room-temperature water that sat on the bedstand all night. It's a plate of scrambled eggs that's too undercooked and too close to room temperature. Tepid, bland, and unmemorable. That's okay, though. Good artists get to fail, and when they do, it reminds you of the parts you like about them so much in the first place.

Elder Statesman Who Hit His Peak: Bruce Springsteen, Magic

I get it, and the enthusiasm hasn't weakened as the weeks pass by. This was a very good album. Maturity has its privileges.

The 2006 Album that I Found in 2007, When it Proceeded to Monopolize my iPod: The Thermals, The Body, the Blood, the Machine

It's the violence and fright of Children of Men set to music, and made angrier. This album fucks you up. It's got the rage of Rage Against the Machine made catchier. So I like it. Technically it shouldn't count because it came out in 2006, but I found it this year and I get to set the rules. The album is something about teenage rebellion against an imagined Christian-fascist state, and a certain numbness that goes away as our protagonists flee.

I also found out that I really like the Cold War Kids, even though their album was 2006 as well. The band name was an initial turn-off, I think.

Second-Favorite Concert of 2007: Wilco, Hammerstein Ballroom

Even Sky Blue Sky sounded good when they played it live. What I wrote then:
[T]here's sometimes this sense of smugness in the band's product, that Jeff Tweedy, while not tweedy, kind of thinks he's the smartest guy in the room. It's almost like he overthinks. He never lets loose with the kind of passion you hear in Neil's "Powderfinger," or in "Like a Rolling Stone" or in "Sway." The blue, you see, is sky blue, never subterranean-homesick or tangled up. Sometimes precision is a shame.

The caution of this band's albums -- as good as they are -- doesn't show when it plays live. They know how to guide a crowd, and the undercurrent of stately adornment fades. So "Heavy Metal Drummer" feels like more of a celebration, and "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" is just a kick-ass song, and the blue tangles up just enough to position passion ahead of perfection.
Favorite Concert of 2007: Arcade Fire, Radio City Music Hall

I'm not into handicapping shit like this, but after seeing Arcade Fire at Radio City and Randall's Island, I think they're going to be as big as U2 in a few years. They can own a massive space. They sing serious songs but remain accessible. I liked Neon Bible (Jeff, we disagree) but never felt much for the band until I saw them live. The Radio City show had moments of anarchy and chaos -- Win Butler openly encouraging people to defy security and rush the stage, projectiles flying through the whole show, pyrotechnics and a screaming crowd, in a spectacular venue that usually doesn't see such antics. It was everything a show is supposed to be. If this sounds gimmicky or stage-managed, it wasn't.

2007 was a year of great live shows. There wasn't a single show where I shuffled my feet, glanced at my watch, and wanted the encore to wrap so that I could head home. Highlights included The New Pornographers at Irving Plaza, Spoon at Bowery Ballroom and Neil Young at United Palace. Only The White Stripes show at the Garden left a little to be desired, but it hardly qualified as a low point.

Favorite Book of 2007: Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson

But then sometimes the hype is right, and this was one of those times. There was a huge, ambitious book, with big themes and plots, and in the final pages a series of payoffs that made the whole exercise worth it. There was no slight of hand or gimmickry. This is the best big novel in the past 10 or 15 years -- more coherent and disciplined than Underworld, and up there with American Pastoral, Atonement and Never Let Me Go as the greatest piece of accessible literary fiction published in my adult lifetime. (How heavily qualified was that?)

I must have re-read the book's strange opening passage about four times before I really dug in. It started back in September, when I bought the book in Ann Arbor and then went to Ashley's to smoke cigarettes, drink beer and read the first sixty pages. I closed the book and put it aside -- great stuff, and I was not prepared. Along the way, I read Johnson's Jesus' Son and pecked at The Name of the World, both of which are fine but not in the same class as Tree of Smoke. When I revisited the book in December, I cut through its 614 pages in about 96 hours, taking notes and drawing lines between names and dates in the book's end pages, holding the book close to my eyes and doing my best to track every character and element in smudged, penciled-in notes.

It's war fiction. It's about mythology -- Buddhism, Catholicism, Confucianism and local practices in the Philippines and Southeast Asia. It is about underground tunnels and obsessions. Like all post-Classical war stories, it is about corruption and our heroes' ruin. It is deeper, bolder, more expansive than Johnson's claustrophobic drug horrors in Jesus' Son.

Denis Johnson is a helluva writer. His sentences are rich and vivid but never intrude. I can't recall a book with better prose. You, the reader, are never turned off by a feeling that he is trying too hard to dazzle. The book is loaded with paragraphs as good as this one:
Through the doorway of a tavern -- a couple of sad-drunk infantrymen dancing in the jukebox glow, each alone, chins down, fingers popping, shoulders working, heads bobbing, trudging like carriage horses toward some solitary destiny. She stopped to watch them. In the songs on jukeboxes or on radios tuned to AFVN she often heard God calling out to her -- "Love me with all your heart" -- "This guy's in love with you" -- "All you need is love" -- but tonight the voice sang only to soldiers, and its message didn't reach the street.
Tree of Smoke, p. 309. If there's another book with such great language, show me the way.

The Two Books that Idiot Critics Underrated: Exit Ghost and Falling Man

It's fun to tear down idols. I get it. Philip Roth got away with Everyman so it was time to pull out the knives. He started the book by talking about prostates and most of you couldn't overcome that. So you shut down, got lazy, and barely bothered to read the rest. Your loss.

The Falling Man response was much shoddier, because somehow you couldn't get it out of your feeble little minds that the guy didn't throw in a bunch of clever know-it-all tricks. He wrote a straightforward story. He nailed it. Eerie, funny, sad, scary, smart and credible -- probably the best thing that he's written since White Noise.

Least satisfying book of 2007: The Brief Wonderful Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz

It was fine, but it's now about Exhibit G of the CrimeNotes Thesis: With the exception of Zadie Smith or Mark Z. Danielewski, overpraising young writers screws both the writers and their readers, leaving you feeling empty when a novel is merely good and not a masterpiece, thus leaving you the reader unnecessarily wary of buying future books because the critics set the stage for a let-down when it didn't need to be that way. See also J.S. Foer, Marisha Pessl, Nell Freudenberger, Benjamin Kunkel.

Unless they've written the new V. (actually written V., not something merely decent that makes the reviewer pine for V.) a rave review for a first novel should be no more enthusiastic than: "This is a strong debut that shows much promise. The young novelist did some things well, and if the book was uneven, it was less uneven than most."

This is fine. F. Scott Fitzgerald's first novel pretty sucked; Junot Diaz's first novel is better than This Side of Paradise. Let him be.

Book that changed my fucking life in 2007: The Shock Doctrine, by Naomi Klein

A very scary book that begins with CIA experiments in brainwashing, then charts the rise of neo-liberal economics at the University of Chicago, following how psychological warfare in Latin America led to radical economic restructuring at the behest of American corporate interests and intellectuals who treated nations as their petri dishes for radical theories.

The Shock Doctrine is a secret history of geopolitics since World War II. Klein's principal leap -- that sensory-deprivation techniques used on an individual level translate into entire nations traumatized by coups and turmoil -- isn't quite persuasive. She just didn't have the social science to back this up her major thesis. But this is a less damning criticism than it should be. Her account of the bonds between radicals in academia, government and corporations is the real revelation, thoroughly persuasive, and more frightening than any conspiracy theory Oliver Stone conjured. Think tanks ad faculties make for unlikely villains, and then she turns to Chile.

Plus, the book has a fucking trailer produced by Alfonso Cuaron:

Best movie of 2007: No Country for Old Men

Actually, this is the only new release I saw in 2007, so it's the only eligible entry. Going to movies in New York sucks. It's like hanging out in an airport -- tons of lines, confusion at ticket kiosks, frustrated patrons, too much advance planning, and passive-aggressive seat jockeying. I hate it. If you spontaneously decide to go to a movie on a Sunday afternoon, God help you, sir.

As to the movie itself -- pretty good. Great work by Javier Bardem and Kelly MacDonald, every other performance is credible, it's engrossing throughout, the photography was good even if the geography made it easy, and then you get to the end and it all felt a little empty. I love the Coen Brothers and Cormac McCarthy and therefore expected one of the greatest things of my life. It asn't as good as Fargo, Blood Simple, Barton Fink or Miller's Crossing, but better than anything they've done in 10 years. (I don't understand the Big Lebowski cult.)

I also saw Knocked Up on-demand and judge it the most overrated movie of 2007. There was one funny scene involving a bouncer. That was it. It was a comedy for pro-life frat boys who support Mike Huckabee and desperate single girls who want babies. I told someone this and got yelled at, and was duly informed that not all Democrats want abortions.

Whatever. If Seth Rogan's character knocked up Giselle, she would've made a quick run to the clinic. Giselle had that baby because she wanted Tom Brady's genes, and now he's trapped. We live in a cynical world -- the Tom Bradys and CrimeNoteses of the world could auction their semen at Sotheby's, but Seth Rogan would be stuck with crackwhores. In real life, the chick in that movie never would have carried the baby of a fat loser Canadian with no viable income, and none of us would have held that against her. 40-Year-Old Virgin: brilliant. Knocked Up: unfunny, right-wing fantasy for losers.


DrunkBrunch said...

Thanks for this. I recently attended a book exchange holiday party, which kickstarted my love of reading. I fell off the reading wagon for quite a while but have now been asking everyone for their favorite book of 2007.

flop said...

Word I never want to see again on this blog in 2008: helluva.

(I will, however, allow "helluvan" if preceding a word beginning with a vowel. But then you run the risk of further infuriating me by using it before the word "historian.")

flop said...

Speaking of pregnancy movies, Juno is kind of sloppy and not actually good, but the title character is.

Ratatouille however, is as good as they say. If the exact same story were done with some human outcast (say, a North African) as Remy, shit would be getting Best Picture.

Jaime said...

CN - I love your misanthropy.

Flop - I thought Ratatouille was eh, but I like the real people North African immigrant angle.

[The little red underline tells me Ratatouille isn't a word. Top correction choice: Bouillabaisse.]

crimenotes said...

"Hell of a."


Know what I never want to hear again? Anything about food.

crimenotes said...

And wait, where was there any misanthropy in this? The problem with the New York moviegoing experience? No. That's like labeling displeasure with the standardized testing process "misanthropy." Going to a movie in this city is like volunteering to grapple all that's wrong with the way people organize themselves (or don't) in 2007/08. Then the movies suck as often as not. Thank balls I didn't see Knocked Up in a theater. It's worse than the MTA, the driver's license renewal process and airport check-in.

Drunk Brunch: Tree of Smoke and The Shock Doctrine were both great. Also admired On Chesil Beach.

Jaime said...

There's just this current of misanthropy that runs under it all. But dude, it's a good thing. It's bite. I like it.

crimenotes said...

I guess. If you define misanthropy as liking Bob Dylan cover songs and Denis Johnson's new book.

cr said...

Great -- I write this and it gets a bizarre criticism about the truncated "helluva" (which, fine, is lazy writing, but probably not even the dumbest word choice in this post) and labeled a misanthropist for praising books and albums. Great. These are the takeaways.

Honestly, why should I even bother? Utterly pointless.

Anyway -- thank you Drunk Brunch.

dmbmeg said...

I thought it was good Crimenotes. I'm adding Tree of Smoke to my reading list.

Surprisingly, I actually respect your opinion when it comes to books, music, and (some) movies.

Consider me "a Crimnotesian".

dmbmeg said...

I did like the New Pornographers album after about 2 listens though.