Monday, September 27, 2010

Laugh, Lenny

I Speak Because I Can
Laura Marling

Outside of Joni Mitchell's Blue, I don't really "do" acoustic solo folk. The lyrics tend to be hyper-poetic, something I've never been a big fan of. For all the praise shoveled on Leonard Cohen, with the exception of "Hallelujah" and "Diamonds in the Mine," I've never gotten it. This is music populated by lines like "There's a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in," which seems deeper than it really is. I feel that way about everything he wrote, even those I enjoy, such as "Dance Me to the End of Love." It's full of the sorts of general, broad, intentionally obscure lines that other writers get belittled for scribing. The idea almost seems to be to make the lyrics so general and so meaningless that everyone will assume them to mean only the deepest things. This is, of course, only one man's opinion.

There's a line in "Made by Maid," the beautiful second track on I Speak Because I Can, where Marling says, "On the hill where I was born, there is a rose without a thorn. They cut it off each year and give it away." I have no idea what it means, but it's lovely, and, unlike when I listen to Joni Mitchell or Laughin' Lenny, I don't feel like Laura Marling is judging me for not knowing what it means. Perhaps it is the canonical pressures attached with listening to Mitchell, Cohen, or Dylan, but I've always felt like I'm a lesser listener for their music not meaning anything to me. It could be that they all take themselves so damned seriously.

I know why I love "Diamonds in the Mine," on Cohen's Songs of Love and Hate; it's the sound of Cohen having fun, something he's really only ever done the once, something Dylan's getting better at as he gets older, and something Joni Mitchell has never been accused of. I bring this up because Marling, whom I realize I have barely mentioned in a review of her own album, sounds as though she's enjoying herself. She is serious, she is astonishingly mature for 20 years old, she has a gorgeous voice and is a formidable guitar player, and her words are clearly invested with more meaning than most, but it doesn't get in the way. I don't feel like she's judging me for not knowing what she means when she talks about the rose on the hill. And for that, I am more willing to try and form my own interpretations.


This review is admittedly premature. I've only listened to this album three times, twice on Saturday and once last night, and I don't believe that's enough time to digest anything. I will likely be driven to reappraise this album in the coming month.

A Change in Policy

As those who've regularly read the blog over the last two years know, I am in constant struggle with the notion of a grading system. I like grades. They're nice, in the arcane sense of the word. But I can no longer be bothered by trying to pick the inane differences between a B+ and an A-, between a C+ and a B-, etc. And, really, what's the point in giving an album an A- instead of an A? Yes, one of them is better than the other, and there are differences, but they are going to be personal. Is High Violet an A-, an A, or an A+? Well, it's not an A+. That's a completely different thing. But you see my point.

I'm making a change today to a different, less-precise system. The new rating system is by no means revolutionary, you've seen it in other places, but here we go, from highest to lowest:

Masterpiece- Perfection. The album transcends the idea of genre. Albums will likely only earn this "grade" in hindsight.

Highly Recommended- An exemplary album, often appealing to those who don't enjoy the genre.

Recommended- If you like this type of music, you will like this album.

Genre-Exercise- If you are enthralled by a type of music, or by the band behind this album, you'll likely still enjoy it. Otherwise, there's not much here.

Slim-Pickins- There may be a song or two worth your time, but as a whole, there is no cohesion, nothing really impressive, nothing to stand out.

Awful- Nothing about it to recommend. At all.

No Line On the Horizon- Only the most execrable albums earn this. The album is not only terrible, but it dares to insult you by clearly considering itself to be a masterpiece. Your life will be worse for having listened to this piece of trollop. You will have lost an hour of time you will want desperately to retrieve, but you never, ever will.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Top 10 T.V. Shows: 1. The Office

I first watched The Office when I was around fifteen. My uncle bought me the Complete Series when we were at a Borders in Connecticut. I had only heard about it, and when I watched it, I wasn't impressed. I was too young, and it was too different from anything I'd ever watched. It was too stayed, and too quiet.

I have a few friends who have loved it since it first aired. It was through their persistence that I kept giving the show further chances. I've watched the whole series a good five or six times over the years, but it wasn't until the last viewing, very recently, that I really felt how brilliant the whole thing is. Considering I'd watched it only two or three months prior to that, what had changed?

I've always watched The Office as a comedy, which is what it's always been sold as. And it is funny. Painfully so, in some cases. But it's a little too natural, I think, for it to really work for me on that level. While the U.S. adaptation of The Office ratchets up the humour, the original doesn't ever set up jokes. They happen as a result of the behaviour of the individuals, but they're never laboured, and they never feel written. It was when, on that last viewing, that I decided to watch the show not as a comedy, but as a story, that everything fell into place. It sounds odd, I know, but it made a huge difference. The show is so well written, and the characters are so perfectly portrayed, that you can't help but feel for them. Even when you wouldn't like them in real life.

David Brent feels there's a rivalry between him and his boss, that they're in competition with one another to be the most popular. It doesn't exist. It's entirely in his head. It's the most realistic rivalry on television, I think, for that reason. Unlike America's Michael Scott, who is a git, but a well-meaning one, David Brent is just plain deluded. There's almost nothing to like about him, and what little there is would be quickly undermined by his attitude and behaviour. He works, though, because we fear we might be him. We'd have no way of knowing if we were, so who's to say?

The heart of the show has to come from elsewhere else, then, if the lead is as emotionally unappealing as he is. The relationship between Tim and Dawn proves to be the most touching aspect of the program, and it's the reason I kept coming back. Their love for one another is so palpable in the performances that you want them to be together, desperately. Fans of the U.S. version will insist that we all felt the same way about Jim and Pam, but those people are watching a stretched out, distilled version of the brilliance that is Tim and Dawn. There's no comparing them. During the Christmas Special which served as the finale for The Office, I was literally on the edge of my seat, waiting to see what would happen between them, and I already knew from having watched it before. When they finally kiss at the Christmas Party, I don't know that any individual event so small as that has ever made me feel as good. I cried out of sheer joy. Because we all want that.

I'm admittedly not always in the mood to watch The Office, largely because it does make me incredibly uncomfortable. Originally, it was placed at #5 on this list, but as I began writing the entry, I realized how strongly I feel for the characters, and as I think that's the highest indicator of great entertainment, I had to readjust the list. As I said yesterday, The Wire is the best show ever made. But The Office is a quiet little masterpiece, and it makes you care in a way that is utterly remarkable.

I once told a friend I thought the U.S. version of The Office was better than the original. He countered that, while The Office (U.S.) may provide more laughs than The Office, it is by no means a better show. And he was right. The characters who populate The Office (U.S.) are just that; they are characters. Genuinely funny (for the first three seasons), and enjoyable, yes, but they are not real people. The denizens of The Office are human, and profoundly so. If you let yourself, you'll love them for it.