Saturday, June 02, 2007

Scenes from suburban lawns

Garden whimsy
Image: Anniebee

Rockaway Twp
- Ben + Vesper

Ben and Vesper start out singing "Rockaway Twp" indolent and familiar, weekend-lazy sprawled across seasoned lawn furniture, plastic tumblers of gin and tonics nestled in the tall grass at their feet, channeling their lethargy at not working. "We're cleaning up this town," they volunteer unconvincingly, like former city liberals long gone to suburban seed, lumping their own half-assed civic ambition with the building of Stonehenge (c'mon! how bad could Rockaway be?). Their accompaniment sounds as undecided -- a languid Motown bassline, loose, clanging piano chords, lots of hopscotching notes plucked, picked and tooted --
like you're catching different radio stations from half-a-dozen backyards. For the first approximately two minutes of the song, you suspect that if animated garden gnomes started playing in the kiddie pool, the (married in real life) couple wouldn't raise a collective eyebrow. Then comes the big sunsplashy pop finish: "I wanna live in the country," they croon, finally energized and finding a sentiment they can really support, an oboe gleefully dancing all over it. It's a gorgeous little moment.

From All This Could Kill You (Amazon, eMusic), Myspace

Box Elder - Pavement

A college friend raised in one of the posh pockets of Marin Country (No Cal) would have anyone who'd listen believe that the great tragedy of his young adult life was his parents up n' moving inland to Stockton. Fucking Stockton, he'd invariably call it, fucking Stockton, as if just having to visit on vacations (from, it should be pointed out, the equally unsophisticated, run-down industrial east coast city where we were attending school) was an imposition. I never heard Stephen Malkmus or Scott Kannberg slag their hometown in interviews, but based on my second-hand knowledge of the place I've always assumed that the town in "Box Elder" is a stand in for Stockton, and the song one of Pavement's rare autobiographical moments.

And yet ... there's something not quite honest about this track. Starting with the fact that while it doesn't directly quote REM, it pretty much paraphrases all of Fables of the Reconstruction -- and rather sarcastically. (In the early years, Pavement was all over The Fall, but you never doubt their sincerity; if anything, the Mark E. Smith idolatry feels embarrassing.) Then there's the way the song is performed: rote-strummed, lazy-drummed, altogether rushed through. It just occurred to me now (sometimes it takes me 15 years) that Pavement plays "Box Elder" like a cover, like a song they want to publicly disclose as an influence but aren't pretending to own. Now this may go back to some ambivalence toward REM (note to the kids: in the early 90s, it wasn't indie credible to be into the major-labeled arena-headliner). But it may also point to some mixed feelings toward Stockton, which, after all, supplied these guys with the means to record (and gloriously muck up) the godhead songs that eventually got collected on
Westing (By Musket and Sextant) (Amazon, eMusic). So I think it's safe to say that the track is at least partly a repudiation of that exhausted rock & roll gotta-get-outta-this-town trope. Especially when you consider that the destination in this song isn't New York or San Francisco, but the unprepossessing-sounding Box Elder.

Round the Web:

Exposing the rest of us for the slackers we are, Locust St. has begun another awesome (in every sense) multi-part series of words & images & music. This time out: "The 7 Means of Movement," beginning with walking (mp3s from Muddy Waters, Velvet Underground, Fats Domino, T. Rex, Patsy Cline, The Fall, lots lots more).

Heart on a Stick's got girl garage noise that goes by the cheeky sobriquet Shitt Hottt. Most of what passes for girl group in the 00s makes me weep (srsly, I think of the Crystals and Ronettes and Shangri-Las and I shed actual tears). But the sweaty, sexy "Boxx Damage" and "Tony Danza Dancetravaganza" are delicious.

A good list of overlooked novels. I've only (shameful to say) read a handful, but unreservedly recommend John Lancaster's Debt To Pleasure and Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage. And I just picked up Ali Smith's The Accidental, which I plan to start as soon as I finish Edward P. Jones' The Known World -- this last not on the list.

Finally, The Outfit justifies eavesdropping.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"...they croon, finally energized and finding a sentiment they can really support, a clarinet dancing all over it."


Anyway, I like your post stuff that I've never listened to before.
Thanks for the music!


1:41 AM  
Blogger Amy said...

I wasn't sure so I took a chance. I'll change it.

9:51 AM  
Blogger sean said...

Eeeenteresting thoughts on "Box Elder". What you say is pretty convincing for me. I wonder also about the idea of invented memories, imagined places, etc. As if they're singing about a place and nervous that their feelings about it might not be True. (Every time I write an ode to/diatribe against a place I've lived, I wonder so much about if (or rather how much) I'm projecting, and how I feel about that. I can imagine acknowledging this concern by making the ode sound a little half-hearted...)

4:25 PM  
Blogger Amy said...

Yeah, there's a lot to it. For one, perception and memory are selective. Most people keep and magnify what's consistent with the self-mythology they've cobbled together and minimize or discard what's not (or they wallow in ambivalence). Also, the process of getting personal experience from your brain to the page is always one of fictionalization; even if you're trying to be honest, you have to organize it in a way that'll be comprehensible to someone who isn't in your head and that involves invention. And related are conceptional and aesthetic demands. Some ideas/ways of saying things work better artistically, even if they aren't reflective of your actual feelings (this is where participating in a genre comes in, I think). Then there's my personal favorite, fudging the expression of feelings a bit to protect yourself. Who wants to give everything away to a bunch of strangers?

9:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Amy,

Thanks for the thoughts on Pavement. I feel like you have a longer piece in you on Malkmus and company; every time you write about them, I really like your insights and I learn alot... it's interesting especially because I was never really much of a fan, but you make me want to appreciate them more.


10:31 PM  
Blogger Amy said...

Have I written about Pavement before? Can't remember. I actually kinda hate resorting to "nostalgia" posts, but I've had a terrible time finding new music lately. Everything that interests me seems to have already been exhaustively covered well before the release date (when I get a chance to buy the music) by the blogs that receive coveted promos. It's getting harder and harder to be a little guy. Time to seriously think about doing that cooking blog instead!

9:18 AM  
Blogger drock101 said...

I think the whole thing is a little silly. You might have just been bored one day and read into it to much. Box Elder is a real town and Stephen Malkmus is known for writing songs that are just a story like most good song writers do. That song probably hit home for alot of kids who just get sick of their home town growing up.

10:39 PM  

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