12.31.2011

2011 Favorite Albums / 1. Florence + The Machine, Ceremonials



Florence + The Machine Ceremonials

Music Math: Kate Bush + Peter Gabriel + Annie Lennox + David Bowie

Best Tracks: "Only If for a Night," "Shake It Out," "What the Water Gave Me," "Breaking Down," "No Light, No Light," "All This and Heaven Too"

Representative Lyrics: "Regrets collect like old friends / here to relieve your darkest moments / I can see no way, I can see no way / And all of the ghouls come out to play"

Notes: Florence + The Machine have done something really significant with this album: they have distilled down the last 30 years of British pop music into a single cohesive disc. The songs have the operatic intensity of Kate Bush, the R&B/soul influence of Annie Lennox, the outerspaceness of David Bowie, and the accessible experimentation of Peter Gabriel, among many other audible influences. The lyrics, of course, are a bit on the maudlin/obtuse end ("What the Water Gave Me" is ostensibly from the perspective of Virginia Woolf just prior to her suicide), but the music is pure anthem. From the opening track's cascade of tinkling piano and harp, the songs build and build, layering instruments, vocals, and harmonies until they erupt into joyous, defiant, or mournful choruses.

Beau’s Critique: "This album makes me want to commit suicide."

12.30.2011

2011 Favorite Albums / 2. Foster the People, Torches



Foster the People, Torches

Music Math: David Bowie + A-ha

Best Tracks: "Helena Beat," "Pumped Up Kicks," "Call It What You Want," "Houdini"

Representative Lyrics: "All the other kids with the pumped up kicks / you better run, better run / outrun my gun / All the other kids with the pumped up kicks / you better run, better run / faster than my bullet"

Notes: You've probably only heard the one song radio played constantly, but the rest of this album is worth a listen. The songs have diverse sounds and arrangements, pulling in just about every instrument and the kitchen sink, mixing up rock beats with dance beats with R&B beats. Each song is an infectious pop miracle, so be prepared to hum them obsessively if you dare to listen. Bonus points to including a really long sample from The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess at the start of "Warrant."

Beau’s Critique:

12.28.2011

2011 Favorite Albums / 3. Oh Land, Oh Land

Oh Land, Oh Land

Music Math: (Björk - dadaism) + (Olivia Newton John - 1970s)

Best Tracks: "Perfection," "Break the Chain," "Sun of a Gun," "Lean," "Wolf & I," "White Nights"

Representative Lyrics: "He said, 'Sorry but you'll never gonna dance again' / But my feet just keep me moving / trying to break the chain"

Notes: The year's best art-pop album, Oh Land's debut owes a clear debt to the trail blazed by her Scandinavian foremother Björk but doesn't stray far from the sunny harmonies and major chords of traditional pop music. What buoys it all is her elfin voice, both reed-thin and velvety at the same time.

Beau’s Critique:

12.27.2011

2011 Favorite Albums / 4. Adele, 21



Adele, 21

Music Math: ((Amy Winehouse + Duffy) - drama - disappointment) + heartache

Best Tracks: "Rolling in the Deep," "Rumour Has It," "Turning Tables," "Someone Like You"

Representative Lyrics: "Bless your soul you got your head in the clouds / she made a fool out of you and she's bringing you down"

Notes: It's easy to see why this album tops most of the end of the year lists--it's bold, fearless, honest, and most of all perfectly written and sung. The songs on 21 capture what Marianne Moore said about art: that it is most universal when it is most subjective. By pouring her own experience into this album, Adele creating something everyone can identify with--and her voice, so beautiful, carries the rest.

Beau’s Critique:

12.26.2011

2011 Favorite Albums / 5. Panic! At the Disco, Vices & Virtues



Panic! At the Disco, Vices & Virtues

Music Math: (Panic at the Disco - pretension) + !

Best Tracks: "Hurricane," "Memories," "Trade Mistakes," "Ready to Go," "Always," "The Calendar"

Representative Lyrics: "It was always you falling for me / now there's always time calling for me / I'm a light blinking at the end of the road / blink back to let me know"

Notes: After losing half its members (including the primary songwriter & lyricist) a few years ago, I wasn't sure Panic would be able to recover. But they not only put out a good album, they put out an album better than their others. This collection captures the electro-rock spirit of the first half of A Fever You Can't Sweat Out while incorporating more straightforward pop into their arrangements. We saw them live this year and, though Brandon Urie was sick and almost lost his voice during the performance, they were still amazeballs.

Beau’s Critique:

12.25.2011

2011 Favorite Albums / 6. Robyn, Body Talk



Robyn, Body Talk

Music Math: 1990s Robyn + 20 years

Best Tracks: "Dancing On My Own," "Indestructible," "Hang with Me," "Call Your Girlfriend," "Get Myself Together"

Representative Lyrics: "My momma called me last night; she said when nothing else fits, pick up the pieces and move on / I see the flashing red lights, just can't make sense of the bits / it's like my mind is gone"

Notes: A friend of mine encouraged me to pick this up and the end of last year and it became a year-long favorite. Although it doesn't seem like it should be difficult to make good dance music, it's actually pretty rare to find classy dance music, which is basically what this is. There's a maturity and depth to the lyrics rarely found in this genre, but also a playfulness and willingness to experiment and push boundaries, cross genres, and take risks.

Beau’s Critique:

12.24.2011

2011 Favorite Albums / 7. Eliza Doolittle, Eliza Doolittle



Eliza Doolittle, Eliza Doolittle

Music Math: (Adele - melancholy) + Katy Perry

Best Tracks: "Moneybox," "Rollerblades," "Skinny Genes," "Back to Front," "Pack Up"

Representative Lyrics: "Singing with a broken string, tell me what you really mean / Do you know what you want? / While beating up on yesterday, I was on my rollerblades / rolling on, moving on."

Notes: Itty bitty cutie Eliza Doolittle has an accent so thick she can't sing through it (based on her name, guess which kind?). She's also known for rarely wearing pants in favor of very short skirts, which makes her like an automatic favorite of mine. These songs are light, hummable, funny, and cutely anachronistic, blending old arrangements (horns, strings, big band sounds, etc) with contemporary lyrics in the vein of Amy Winehouse, but to much different effect.

Beau’s Critique:

12.23.2011

2011 Favorite Albums / 8. Lykke Li, Wounded Rhymes



Lykke Li, Wounded Rhymes

Music Math: Björk circa Debut + 1950s doowop + Igmar Bergman films

Best Tracks: "Youth Knows No Pain," "I Follow Rivers," "Get Some," "Sadness Is a Blessing," "I Know Places," "Jerome"

Representative Lyrics: "Like a shotgun / needs an outcome / I'm your prostitute / you gon' get some"

Notes: This is one of the craziest sounding albums I've heard in along time. Li cribs from 1950s pop standards like "Unchained Melody" and groups like The Shirelles, then tosses them in a blender with tribal drums, tinkling bells, and buzzing synths, coming out of it with something that sounds intensely unique and immediately Scandinavian at the same time. Also noteworthy was her live iTunes session EP, which features stripped down versions of many of these songs--most of which lose the echoey backing vocals and allows you to hear her, just her.

Beau’s Critique: "This album makes me want to commit suicide."

12.22.2011

2011 Favorite Albums / 9. James Morrison, The Awakening



James Morrison, The Awakening

Music Math: ((Michael McDonald/Bryan Adams) - cheese) + Adele

Best Tracks: "In My Dreams," "Up," "Slave to the Music," "One Life"

Representative Lyrics: "But I can't help but shuffle my feet / Movin' like a zombie, chasing the beat / She lures me in, oh sweet surrender / Locks me down like a repeat offender"

Notes: This album snuck up on me, courtesy of free listening on Spotify, where it became my background-working music for a long time. Then it became driving music. Then I found myself humming it and singing it. If you could imagine a male, slightly more funk version of Adele, that's really what you'd find here--oh, and with a bit of Bryan Adams's raspy voice mixed in.

Beau’s Critique:

12.21.2011

2011 Favorite Albums / 10. Marina & the Diamonds, The Family Jewels



Marina & the Diamonds, The Family Jewels

Music Math: (Florence of Florence and the Machine + The Count from Sesame Street) + Bananarama

Best Tracks: "Shampain," "Are You Satisfied?," "Oh No," "Numb"

Representative Lyrics: "If you are not very careful / Your possessions will possess you / TV told me how to feel / Now real life has no appeal"

Notes: Although it came out a few years ago, Marina found her way into my life this summer and she never left me. While her lyrics frequently border on the inane, the music is fun and sort of silly and absurd as well, so it all evens out. I listen to this all the time.

Beau’s Critique: "Love her. She's the new solo Gwen Stefani for me."

12.20.2011

2011 Favorite Albums / 11. Mumford & Sons, Sigh No More



Mumford & Sons, Sigh No More

Music Math: Peter Gabriel + the soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou?

Best Tracks: "The Cave," "Little Lion Man," "Winter Winds"

Representative Lyrics: "I will hold on hope / and I will let you choke / on the noose around your neck"

Notes: I love this quirky little album of homages to bluegrass music. Plucky banjos, slappy basses, and strummy guitars dominate along with beautiful harmonies in the vocals.

Beau’s Critique: "I don't like this and he's ugly. I feel like I'm in Ireland or something."

12.19.2011

2011 Favorite Albums / 12. Fitz & the Tantrums, PIckin' Up the Pieces



Fitz & the Tantrums, Pickin' Up the Pieces
Music Math: (Amy Winehouse - problems) x church organ

Best Tracks: "Breakin' the Chains of Love," "MoneyGrabber," "L.O.V.," "News 4 U"

Representative Lyrics: “It's 6 a.m. spitting gray / Don't know why I let you treat me this way / I keep holding on to your middle finger / But now I know I gotta pull the trigger"

Notes: Aside from having possibly the greatest band name ever, Fitz & the Tantrums do classic soul straight up/no chaser. Backed by traditional arrangements and prominently featuring a church organ in most of the songs, FATT do very little to adjust the anachronism of their sound and their content (unlike Winehouse, who modernized her lyrics). These songs focus on the bread and butter of soul--heartbreak--and look at it from several different angles. Bonus: download their cover of The Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)," one of the best songs of the year.

Beau’s Critique: “It reminds me of like a guy Amy Winehouse. I like it, but it's not really my thing."

12.18.2011

2011 Favorite Albums / 13. Patrick Stump, Soul Punk



Patrick Stump, Soul Punk
Music Math: (Fall Out Boy – everyone except Patrick Stump) x Prince

Best Tracks: “This City,” “Spotlight (New Regrets), Run Dry (X Heart X Fingers),” “Everybody Wants Somebody”

Representative Lyrics: “Step 1: Drink / Step 2: Make mistakes / Step 3: Pretend you don’t remember / Step 4: Drink a little more / Step 5: I need to run dry”

Notes: Many of you know I was devasted when my favorite emo band for 14-year-old girls broke up a bit ago, but my wounds have been healed by this release, which gives amazing vocalist Stump the ideal platform for his frenetic and funky brand of pop-rock. His voice is fully unleashed and is the star of the show, trumped (maybe) only by the note that Stump himself played every instrument on the album. Crazeballs! I saw him live this year and he is, truly, one of the most amazing live singers I’ve ever heard.

Beau’s Critique: “I love his voice, but this album is kind of lame.”

12.17.2011

2011 Favorite Albums / 14. The Civil Wars, Barton Hollow



The Civil Wars, Barton Hollow
Music Math: (Peter Paul & Mary – Peter) + Ulysses S. Grant / Hell on Wheels

Best Tracks: “20 Years,” “I’ve Got this Friend,” “Barton Hollow”

Representative Lyrics: “I’m a dead man walking here / That’s the least of all my fears / Walk beneath the water”

Notes: Charmingly anachronistic duo The Civil Wars blend country, folk rolk, and bluegrass sounds with their perfect cross-gender harmonies. Both singers have beautiful solo voices, which we hear from time to time, but their real strength is their dueling melodies on tracks like “Barton Hollow,” which evokes the era of the actual Civil War more vividly than many elements of the war itself.

Beau’s Critique: “This album makes me want to commit suicide.”

12.16.2011

2011 Favorite Albums / 15. Peter Bjorn and John, Gimme Some



Peter Bjorn and John, Gimme Some
Music Math: (The Hives – Green Day) + The Cars + Wakko from Animaniacs

Best Tracks: “Dig a Little Deeper,” “Second Chance” (awesome video above)

Representative Lyrics: “When you flew out of the nest / you made a mistake / flew all the way back”

Notes: In their effort to be constantly different than they used to be, Peter Bjorn and John released this fun little disc of anachronistic pop songs that feel like they could have appeared in just about any decade previous. The energy on the album is consistently high and the album doesn’t stray far from exquisitely crafted pop hooks, backbeats, and lyrics that are alternately vacant and pithy.

Beau’s Critique: “I kind of like that song now.”

12.15.2011

Ed Madden on his new book Prodigal: Variations

When I was growing up in rural Arkansas, I remember being taught the story of Abraham and Isaac in Sunday school. The whole story is a real soap opera—the patriarch gets the servant pregnant, then his postmenopausal wife, who demands the servant and her kid be kicked out. There’s sex, jealousy, rejection and exile (and that odd subplot about strange men dropping in on their way to the big city, where they nearly get raped before the whole city goes up in flames.) But the central drama is a story about a father and son, a trip up the mountain where Abraham is going to kill his son Isaac because God told him to. Test of faith and all that. Over and over we were taught this story as an exemplum of great faith.

But it’s really pretty creepy, pretty horrifying. Your dad loves his god so much he’s willing to kill you. The poem that opens my second book of poetry, Prodigal: Variations (Lethe Press 2011), takes that story as its impulse, but reimagines it from the point of view of someone like Isaac. (“Sacrifice” also appeared in Best New Poets 2007.)


Sacrifice

When my father bound me, I submitted,

closed my eyes to the lifted knife in his fist.
Even now, the cords still hold my wrists,

rough ropes of love. My chest is bare,
my heart lies open. He loves his god more

than me. I open my eyes, watch my father
raise his fist against a bright and bitter

sky, no angel there to stay his hand.


In many ways, the book is a book about men—not just fathers and sons, but brothers,
friends, lovers. And for me it’s also a book about the stories I grew up with, especially stories from the Bible. In particular, the story of the prodigal son, with its promise of reconciliation, haunts the book. But if the book is haunted by what could have been, it finds its consolations in the here and now, in the rituals and relationships that sustain us.

One poem near the end is both tragic and hilarious. A friend of mine told me that his
mother, who has Alzheimer’s, has forgotten that she’d disowned him years ago for being
gay, and now the woman who rejected him is thrilled to see him.


Solace

Lily, Jack’s yellow lab, leans across the futon to look
at me, the casita’s latest visitor, new neighbor for the week,

then she sighs—the way that dogs resign themselves to something new—
thumps that thick semaphore of tail, and stretches, a back paw

against my leg as she sleeps—the way I fall asleep best,
my foot just touching Bert’s leg beneath the sheets. Meanwhile, the rest

of the world shudders on: sunlight spattering the shady lawn,
sirens pulsing on a nearby street, a cement rabbit pausing

at the back fence. If I speak of solace now, I don’t
mean comfort. At lunch today, Robert said his mother doesn’t

remember that she’d disowned him—the disease weeds the last few years
away. When he visits, she is almost loving, which she never

really was, he says. It’s not her, he says, or maybe it is.


This was a difficult book for me in some ways, grounded as it was in my alienation from
my own father and family and home. Ironically, when the book was launched in April at the Columbia Museum of Art, I was in the midst of a three-month stint at home, helping with my father’s hospice care. It was a big affair, a joint book launch with fellow poet and friend Ray McManus, and bluegrass gospel from a band called, of all things, Total Denial.

I know I retell stories obsessively. No version is the last one. Now the book is haunted by three months of something I could never have imagined, haunted by the possibility of all the book denies—-as in the title poem:


A man watches the road.
He will see me coming.

Even a great way off, he will see me coming.

12.14.2011

The Curse of the Anthologist

It's difficult to do anything in the world these days without a) someone complaining, b) someone else rushing to the defense of the maligned, and c) twenty or thirty unrelated parties commenting on why all the dramz is relevant/irrelevant/fascinating/ridiculous.

File this under c).

I've been looking through the Vendler/Dove disagreement with some surprise. But this won't be a blog post that questions Dove's editorial decisions or one that approves of/disqualifies Vendler's response. My personal take on the anthology and the review of it don't really matter; after all, who am I? I thought you'd agree.

But what I am invested in is the value system that created this conflict. It's situations like these, I think, that make the work of the anthologist a thorny venture. I think back to the days when Legitimate Dangers was first released--2006--and I recall many of the same arguments made. This isn't to say the arguments, such as issues relating to representation of diversity of race, gender, and other marginalized identities, are not essential ones; I'm just saying, "People, we're still having the same conversations." And that's a problem.

The anthologist carries the unnatural burden (it has been so proven) of satisfying everyone. This is a task Sisyphusian in scope. In fact, the only person the anthologist is sure to satisfy is him or herself--but even now, with Dove's situation, we see that, too, is not necessarily the case.

Vendler's perspective on the issue connects to a larger community of writer and critique who believe less is more. Fewer poets in the canon means closer scrutiny merited by only the absolute best poets of our time. This is an excellent perspective to adopt. If only we could establish, once and for all, the objective criteria of what is "the best."

Dove's perspective (if I may intuit it from her response) is that there are more poets whose work bears inclusion. I don't believe Dove sought to speak on behalf of The Canon. But in adopting the work of the anthologist, she is perceived (by some or all) to have done so.

Partly, I think this is because her anthology's title stakes a claim as an important evaluation of the work of the last century. These are big shoes to fill in a world where there are long standing assumptions about who those poets are.

My lingering question is: "Why do we bother to publish new anthologies if they will only include the usual suspects, whose work has been anthologized previously in other books?"

If that was the only goal of the anthology, we could all congratulate Norton on a job well done and leave it at that.

But many of us writing now, I believe, see value in adding to--not replacing, not supplanting, not necessarily criticizing--the established anthology gang. Vendler, in her review, allowed that some readers, especially young ones (!), might feel electrified by some of the work Dove included that isn't commonly found in other anthologies. But Vendler didn't believe this was a criterion that permitted the exclusion (purposeful or not) of the poets she (and others like her) expected to see.

It's that expectation that troubles me, and that has troubled me in all of the responses I've read to this particular anthology. And to every anthology ever produced. Especially when the expectation is voiced as "I expected to see X poet instead of someone like Y poet." If you felt this way, I'd hazard it's because you've seen X poet in other anthologies with a scope like Dove's.

But I'd also hazard you hadn't seen Dove's anthology before.

I believe it is the job of the anthologist to show us something new. Those poets who are regularly anthologized? Their work is taking care of itself. It will endure. The people who want it (expect it) can find it in any number of places. But the work on the brink of extinction--those poets not commonly anthologized, those poets Dove, as anthologist, feels need a second look--those are the pieces I'm most interested in.

I may not like them. I may not believe they are really worthy of inclusion in an anthology that, by its title, suggests it is a comprehensive look at a century of writing.

But I will value the opportunity to have made that decision for myself, rather than to have experienced, yet again, the same book with a slightly different title, a different editor, and some new cover art.

And if I disagree with Dove's choices, or another editor's choices, I won't disparage her or suggest she failed in her endeavor. I am, after all, but one person (see above: who am I?).

I will close the book, place it on a shelf, and wait for the next editor's unique perspective on poetry, to see what can be found there.

12.13.2011

2011 Favorite Albums!!

This year, instead of ganging up my favorite albums post into one loooong post, I'm going to unroll it one day at a time.

I winnowed the list down to just 15 albums (which was tough), so starting on 12/16, there'll be a daily post featuring one of the albums and my take on it.

12.06.2011

Andrew Demcak on his new book Night Chant

My newest poetry collection, Night Chant (Lethe Press 2011), began with the leftover poems that didn’t fit in with the tone of my first collection, Catching Tigers in Red Weather (Three Candles Press, 2007). Around 2009, I became interested in the idea of “hidden,” which logically leads to the idea of “discovery.” I was still experimenting with poetic voice and narrative in my work, (e.g. who is the speaker, to whom is the poem addressed, etc.) and playing around with burying poetic forms within line breaks. The poems in Night Chant all have very formal metrical structures and/or rhyme schemes, but the forms are embedded in the line breaks to conceal them. Once the true line is discovered, the reader can see that these poems are in the tradition of French syllabic verse. For example, here is the poem “Announcement” with its “true” lines revealed:


A baby’s pink squeal for the tit, its hunger*
insolvent, obstinate country. Or
the snarl of sated fox, the expunger,
after its banquet of rabbit femur.
Mountains open upon their dependents
a volcanic outrage. Magma aglow
like the mind’s light, orange-red, resplendent.
Over lifeless men, the screech of sea birds,
the fins of mermaids the drowning have heard.


*my sloppy division of syllables (count 11, the next line 9 = 20 for the two lines.)


The end rhymes are more noticeable this way and the ten-syllable lines become apparent. So began Night Chant.

One of the memorable poem sections of Night Chant (besides all the raw sex poems) is what I’ve been calling the “Dead Baby” section. These poems came as a reaction to the state of Florida announcing that it was illegal now for LGBTQI2-S couples to adopt children there. My kneejerk response was “If we can’t have our own children, then neither can they,” and I began to imagine all the social permutations and complications of birth.

I wanted to include my two longest poems, both e-chapbooks, Pink Narcissus (GOSS 183/Casa Menendez Press, 2009) and 672 Hours (Gold Wake Press, 2008) here, the former from what is considered the first gay art film, and the latter about my 28-day stay in a drug and alcohol rehab. Both of these poems for me relate to the “hidden” in the gay experience.

And because this whole book was shaping up to be a literary catharsis for me, I decided to base the title on the nine-day, Navajo healing ceremony, the Night Chant. The title worked perfectly: it meant “the hidden expression.”