Monday, July 31
Your arts & entertainment endorsements for this week.
Pet Shop Boys, Fundamental/Fundamentalism (special-edition double CD)
Well, as expected, I like it, though perhaps not for the reasons I thought I would. I do like the fact that the Pet Shop Boys, after getting a decidedly mixed reception for the sidetrack they took into guitar-driven pop with their last album, have turned back to their synth-electronic roots. However, Fundamental isn't a return to the lavish, anthemic, club-ready songs of Very -- which, to be honest, I was kind of hoping for, since I've gone on record as saying that Very is the greatest pop album ever recorded; if anything, it goes even further back to the Actually/Introspective sound of the mid-1980s, which shouldn't come as much of a surprise given that Introspective producer Trevor Horn was brought back to produce this album.
Perhaps for that reason, there's a very brooding, almost dark vibe that pervades a great deal of the album, though that's probably more due to the fact that this is easily the most political album the Pet Shop Boys have ever created. And while politics is not a subject they've ever really gone out of their way to avoid, they've usually stuck to general, expansive themes that allow for a lot of interpretation; on this album, those general themes are still present (such as the theme of sexual liberation in "The Sodom and Gomorrah Show"), but there are also instances in which those themes have very explicit present-day applications, such as the manipulative properties of fear and paranoia ("Psychological") or the failure of violence as a means for solving the world's problems ("Twentieth Century"). And then there are songs that are blatantly, explicitly based on specific current events and unashamed of it -- "I'm With Stupid" is a bitingly funny take on the "special relationship" that has developed between Tony Blair and George W. Bush, while "Integral" is an angry response to the British government's controversial plans for a national identity card. The last track on the CD, "Integral" sounds like it could've come off the soundtrack for a modern-day film adaptation of the novel 1984, and it's probably the darkest and most foreboding way the Pet Shop Boys have ever chosen to end an album.
Which sort of begs the question, can an album be cuttingly political and danceable at the same time? Not always, if Fundamental is any indication -- there are a couple of club-ready tracks on here but they're mostly outnumbered by quieter tunes that aim more for "thought-provoking" than "pulse-raising." For that reason you're probably best off buying the two-disc edition that includes the Fundamentalism bonus CD, which has some terrific remixes of "Psychological," "Sodom," and "Flamboyant," among others. And I'm still hoping that the Pet Shop Boys will combine their lyrical skill with some big beats and release another Very before they retire. But this is still a really strong effort -- the only song I can honestly say I don't like is "Numb," which comes off as overdone and melodramatic -- and, if nothing else, it should cement the group's position as one of the most clever and intelligent voices in all of pop music.
Thom Yorke, The Eraser
Considering that Radiohead's last three albums were the widely varied Kid A, Amnesiac, and Hail to the Thief, I had absolutely no idea what to expect when a co-worker of mine lent me Thom Yorke's first solo album a couple weeks ago. The Eraser can be a difficult listen at times, though not in the same way that, say, Amnesiac was; it just may take one or two complete listen-throughs to adjust to the surprise of the instrumentation, which is almost completely electronic. Once you stop trying to categorize the music, though, and come to terms with the fact that, strictly speaking, it can't necessarily be described as "rock 'n' roll," it becomes easier to appreciate The Eraser as a unique, extremely evocative piece of work. There's some really fascinating contrasts between the music, which is every bit as spare and minimalist as some of the more electronic-driven tracks from Kid A, and the range of emotions in Yorke's voice; it's almost as if he set up the synths and drum machines in a deliberate effort to be interpreted as Kraftwerkian and detached, challenging listeners to stick with it and find something deeper. I wouldn't buy The Eraser expecting to fall in love with it on the very first spin, but it's definitely the kind of album that will reward the listener who's willing to stay with it a few times and pay close attention.
My favorite electronic group is Underworld, and while The Eraser doesn't really sound anything like Underworld, one of the highest compliments I can pay to the album is that it has some of the same traits I've come to really appreciate in Underworld's music: For one thing, many of the songs will start off a certain way and then end sounding completely different, and by the time you get to the end you realize the metamorphosis has been so gradual you don't even know how the music got from Point A to Point B. And Yorke, like Underworld, succeeds in disproving the myth that electronic music can't be emotional, even beautiful.
R.F. Delderfield, the "A Horseman Riding By" series: Long Summer Day (book one) and Post of Honour (book two>
It's been a while since I was as depressed as I was Sunday evening when I finished Post of Honour, the second in R.F. Delderfield's "A Horseman Riding By" series, which follows the fictional Craddock family from the patriarch's first arrival in rural Devon, England, after returning home from the Boer War all the way up to World War II. It wasn't that the book itself was particularly depressing -- though it ends as the people of England are preparing to be drawn into the horror of World War II -- it's just been a long time since I was that sad to see a book end.
My grandfather, who'll turn 81 in December, lent me those books probably years ago -- as a dedicated Anglophile, he really liked Delderfield's portrayal of life in the British countryside in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Granddad's health has been less than great lately, and when I spotted them on my bookshelf a few weeks ago, I thought what the hey, even though, in all honesty, the whole historical-family-saga genre of fiction has never been one in which I've been terribly interested. But the first book, Long Summer Day, drew me in almost immediately, and the very first thing I did once I'd finished it was to pick up Post of Honour. I can't quite explain what was so appealing about them -- it's not that Delderfield's prose style is awe-inspiring, and he does veer toward the melodramatic at times, though I guess in family sagas a bit of that is to be expected -- but I think it was the way he very skillfully portrays the Craddock family and their tenant farmers as British Everymen, with their struggles and crises symbolic of how the UK as a whole was yanked out of the triumph and security of the Victorian era into the violence and upheaval of the 20th century. It's kind of ironic, too, because while the family's story is seen primarily through the eyes of the patriarch, Paul -- who is described quite frequently as being entirely focused on his expanse of land in the Westcountry and trying to pay as little attention to the "outside world" as possible -- Delderfield lets that outside world and the historic events in it impact the Craddock farm a great deal more than other writers might. Whereas other sagas might focus mainly on petty, soap-operatic squabbles between families and family members, he takes some of those same domestic struggles and does an excellent job of increasing their importance by putting them in historical context, whether the issue at hand is women's suffrage, a world war, the encroachment of urbanization on the rural countryside, or whatever else. And, also notably, does so without a lot of trashy sensationalism. Even when events on the Shallowford farm are fairly calm, the characters are still very sympathetic and engaging, the kind of people you want to find out what happens to next.
I only found this out once I was already halfway through Post of Honor, but the Craddock family saga that had started out with two books apparently became a trilogy -- two years or so after the publication of the original two books, Delderfield wrote The Green Gauntlet, which takes the Craddock family out of World War II and into the postwar years. I'm hoping that this third installment won't turn out to be some tacked-on disappointment like, say, "The Godfather Part III," but either way I snapped up a copy on Amazon last night and am eagerly awaiting its arrival. And when I'm done reading it, I think I'll take all three books back up to Granddad and give him the third one as a gift -- seems like the appropriate thing to do.