Midnight Prayers

Dollar Store Novels for Free

Day 164: It’s Time to Face the Fact that Miley Cyrus Wrote (Recorded) a Good Song

So Miley didn’t write “Wrecking Ball”.  I know that, you (probably) know that, and Juicy J definitely knows that.  But you know who did (co-)write it?  Dr. Luke.  And do you know what else Dr. Luke (co-)wrote?  That’s right, he (co-)wrote “Since U Been Gone”.  Remember that genre-smashing, generation-defying anthem?  Remember how it convinced you that Kelly Clarkson had Britney power with none of the weird, swollen childhood baggage weighing her down?  Well those days are behind us, and all we have to show for them is Miley and her sledgehammer.

But, for all the hype, I’m not convinced that’s such a bad thing*.  For one, “Wrecking Ball” is a good song.  I think it might even be a very good song.  I even tweeted this admission:

Take away the video (maybe**), and I’m willing to argue it’s one of the best pop songs of the year.  Sure, it’s got the depth and nuance of a cinder block, but isn’t that why they called it “Wrecking Ball” in the first place?  It doesn’t matter if the song swings blindly because it’ll still cause a fuck ton of destruction.  Also, those ping-ponging synths are at just the right frequency, and the EDM chorus gives us the hollowest bass drop imaginable; it’s what that thing young people confuse for love might sound like if you shot it into space.

And if you’re still not buying any of this, check out indie-pop darlings HAIM covering “Wrecking Ball”.  They bring the song crashing back down to earth, and despite sounding great, it just doesn’t work.  They sound too put together, too in control of the world around them.  They’re far more deserving than Miley but decided to show up to a gunfight with a scalpel.  It turns out Miley was the only one who knew to pack a bazooka.

*I’m also not convinced it’s a good thing.  I’ve already written on her troubling practice of cultural cribbing, but “Wrecking Ball” is a good example of how she could let that part of her celebrity go.  It did get some good, and some important, discussions going, but I’m not convinced that the gleeful objectification of the bodies of black women is the best entry point for a national discussion on race.

**Hell, I’ll even argue for the video, not as one of the best of the year, but as something worth just a little bit of critical weight.  There’s something to be said about that kind of commitment to a vision of dystopian construction sex fantasies.  If we keep putting so much of our energy and focus into building things higher and higher, won’t we eventually need to repay the tools that tear it all down and free us from our own vertical greed?  (I never said it was a strong argument.  I just said it was an argument.)


Day 163: An Excerpt

In my first memory, I’m drowning.  Well, not right away, I remember watching my dad swim, his body gliding on the top of the water, the mechanics of it, how simple things like that can look.  He swam in college but never made the travel roster, sticking around all four years only because it was the only way he could get access to a pool.  I remember going back for an alumni day and watching his old coaches, hunched and creaking by then, try and remember who he was.  They didn’t even have a nametag for him.

But he kept swimming, even on that day in Hilton Head, with a storm blowing in and my mom headed back to the room.  The clouds looked like smoke.

I don’t remember how old I was.  It was before I knew those kinds of things, before people told me about those kinds of things.  I was just sitting on the side of the pool, waiting for my dad to carry me around, so I could swim, like he did, on top of the water, kicking furiously but moving at one pace, under control.  I can’t remember how I got close enough to fall in, or if I had jumped, but the next thing I remember is being at the bottom of the pool, looking at the sky refracted by the water, it started to look like a lid.  Then there was my dad, under the water but his eyes wide open, terrified, reaching down and pulling me towards the open air.

I don’t remember resurfacing, breathing again, but I still feel that drowning sensation lingering in every room I’m in, coming up sometimes, just away from my fingertips, like when I tore all the tendons in my thumb, and I felt like I was swallowing the entire stadium.

Day 162: On Repave, White Lighter, and Ensemble Records

Volcano Choir’s Repave is a very good record.  It’s both serene and challenging, gorgeous and destructive, the sound of a storm settling over an empty lake.  On it, we’re treated to all incarnations of Justin Vernon, from Wisconsin cabin dweller to sobering Kanye conscience, sometimes all in the same song, like in “Alaskans”, a song that makes schizophrenia sound like a cure rather than a disorder.  But even when it rumbles, Repave finds a way to flatten out and steady itself.  It’s a roller coaster that never drops, that builds tension it never releases.  It sounds like Vernon wants us to heal with him, to move on, but he probably has to burn down his own cabin mythology completely before we can trust that he’ll never go back.

Repave is also, according to its liner notes, an ensemble record, which means it belongs to more people than just Vernon himself.  Jon Mueller and two members of All Tiny Creatures are in there somewhere, but you’d probably hurt your neck trying to find them.  “Almanac” might be the album’s least Vernon-y song musically in that its instrumental wouldn’t feel all that out of place on All Tiny Creatures’ Dark Clock.  The only problem is that it’s also the only song Vernon seems completely detached from, as if he recorded most of his vocals in a different time zone.  Even when things come together in the end, it feels accidental, like a drunk driver getting a ride home from someone he met at the bar.  It wasn’t so much planned as it was handsome luck.

Across the bar, drinking a cranberry juice, is Typhoon, a twelve piece band from Oregon that very recently bested Justin Vernon at his own game.  Their album White Lighter is the kind of confident ensemble record you imagine Vernon hears when he listens to Repave.  It pours down then drizzles, floods and recedes, builds cabins for the sole purpose of burning them down.  And it’s also fucking huge, thematically ambitious, and a little bit of a mess.  “Young Fathers” spans generations, channels Arcade Fire, and ends in a dramatic, bar-sung piece of advice, “Learn all your mistakes/Passed down through generations”.  These aren’t perfect songs.  They won’t find their way to any air time.  But they’re exactly what an ensemble band should sound like, legitimately overwhelming without sounding excessive.

This is exactly what Repave got wrong; it never spilled over.  If Vernon wanted something as massive as the tidal wave on the album’s cover, then he needed to let the project swallow him completely.  He needed to be a cog rather than the machine’s operator.  White Lighter is so successful because the collaborators in Typhoon allow it to get pulled in so many directions.  Songs like “Artificial Light” and “Common Sentiments” don’t have a single, clear identity; they have about nine or ten.  This makes White Lighter an album that’s inherently about the struggle for artists to fully connect and successfully communicate their visions.  It’s about compromise and the layers of professional relationships.  The explicit intentions of the record don’t matter, just the energy between creative minds.  I wonder if Justin Vernon’s heard it.

Day 161: Kings of Leon Made a Really Good Record… And It Has A Ridiculous Name

Kings of Leon named their new album Mechanical Bull.  If you didn’t read that last sentence as a punch line, then you probably (a) like Kings of Leon a whole lot, (b) don’t know who Kings of Leon are, or (c) know who Kings of Leon are but don’t care about them enough to form an opinion.  While all these options are logical, most people probably fall in a fourth category, what I’ll refer to here as “(d)”, made up of those people who like Kings of Leon just OK.  People in this category understand why people love Kings of Leon but can also recognize why so many people don’t.  They get the Mechanical Bull joke.  And they’re all about to feel pretty fucking stupid for laughing.

I should come clean here and say I probably fall in the (d) category.  I like Kings of Leon just a step above OK, which is to say that I think “Closer” is a genuinely great song and Aha Shake Heartbreak a solid album.  I also think “Use Somebody” is about as passable as radio-gazing can get and that “Sex on Fire” is lyrically off-putting and kind of lazy, but, hey, so is Babel.  I’ve never thought of their success as particularly earned, but I’ve always understood it.  They make rock music for people who don’t particularly like rock and roll, who think “Baba O’Reilly” is called “Teenage Wasteland”.  They’re easy to digest, a lighter option for people who forget why Kurt Cobain wore flannel.  It’s what “Dad rock” should refer to.

And there’s nothing wrong with any of this.  Sure, songs like “Crawl” or “Pyro” would get accused of violating the academic integrity of an undergraduate songwriting class, but they’d also never be found guilty of anything.  There’d be nothing to pin them on because even when Caleb Followill sounds like he’s channeling Mick Jagger, he still comes off like someone who has never heard Exile on Main Street.

This might be what I struggle with the most when I listen to KoL, especially Only by the Night, the complete whitewashing of rock history they allow for, as if they are the first people to wield both blues chords and bass drums the size of churches.  I’m not sure I would feel this way if KoL weren’t as successful.  If, say, I was the only one I knew who owned Only by the Night, I’d probably love the record a whole lot more and find it’s vacuous heart haunting.  But that’s not how it worked out, and Kings of Leon were, very recently, one of the most popular, and therefore most important, bands in the world for a while, and they’ll always be remembered in that way.  They’ll be included in the definition of post-millennial rock.  They might even be pictured.  And they named their most recent album Mechanical Bull.  You’d be crazy not to be worried, right?

Turns out that no, fuck you, you’re crazy, because Mechanical Bull is really, really, actually good.  It might even be great.  I’m still comprehending it, the pace, the density, the organic songwriting.  It doesn’t sound like a Kings of Leon record.  It needs to be played in a bar, not in front of a strobe light.  I guess they must’ve called it Mechanical Bull for a reason.  It’s also, most notably, not unstuck from time; you can hear the history, those echoing good vibrations.  And then you can see Caleb Followill tearing a hole right in the middle.

And “Supersoaker”?  Are you kidding me?  They called a song that?  They called that song that?  That speeding, furious General Lee of a song?  I can’t tell if they deserve how good this record is, if they understand exactly what they’ve done, or if they just kind of, you know, got lucky.  It also doesn’t really matter because now they have this record, and if Mechanical Bull is what a majority of people think of when they hear the term “post-millennial rock”, I’m ok with it.

Listen to “Supersoaker” below:

Day 160: Caroline Reese and the Drifting Fifth with Your Gentlemen at The North Star

It’s probably selfish to see great bands in small spaces.  Not so much because there’s limited room but more because, after the concert’s over, there will always be a part of you that wants the bands to stay there forever, in that room, rather than graduate up to the sold out concert halls they deserve.  It’s the reason music snobs have started to treat bands like Matthew McConaughey treats high-school girls in Dazed and Confused, recklessly running through them in droves because they know the bands they love won’t be playing bar shows forever.  It’s also what made Monday’s show at the North Star in Philadelphia simultaneous feel vital and all too brief because I knew then and there it would be the last time I saw Caroline Reese and Drifting Fifth with any room to breathe.

I guess you should only see mediocre bands in small spaces.

The show itself was on the second floor of the bar and part of the Victorian Dining Room Acoustic Series, a fact I learned by stumbling into the pitch black concert hall downstairs and promptly being told I couldn’t be there by a waitress on her break.  Upstairs, everything was stripped down, the bands, the stage, even the walls were mostly barren save for a few bizarre paintings that didn’t seem to fit with everything else.  I arrived just on time, but, by then, every seat had already been taken.

The true headliners were a solidly impressive Jersey group that goes by the name Your Gentlemen and name-drops bands like The Smithereens and The Gaslight Anthem in their bio more as entry points than influences.  By paving pop thruways along bulging riffs, Your Gentlemen began to sound more and more like an alternate reality Manchester Orchestra where Andy Hull grew up listening to Jack White instead of Joy Division.  Ryan also had a nice emotional kick to his vocals, one that I’m sure would’ve grown nicely had it been surrounded by amplifiers, but even he took time out of his band’s set to admit the night belonged to the band that had opened for them, Caroline Reese and the Drifting Fifth, saying, “You guys are great.  We should’ve gone first.”  As terrific as Ryan and company could, and probably will, end up being, he was absolutely right.

Reese opened her set with “Secrets”, a song with a hook built to withstand radio static and lyrics that weigh enough to sink the sturdiest of cynics.  She followed up with a tranquil version of “No Snow”, another track from her most recent release, Slow Code, which apparently sounds great in any gear.  Later there was “Coffee and Tea”, the faded Polaroid that highlights Reese’s knack for potent storytelling, and “Just Like Old Times”, one of her newer songs (which she co-wrote with a friend) that copes with loss by wielding a James Taylor-like vulnerability as a candle rather than a shield.

Overall, Reese’s catalogue is deep and uniformly strong, grasping onto themes that manage to be both specific and common, personal yet relatable.  She plays the kind of music you can’t ignore, whatever the opposite of white noise is called.  Helping her out were the Drifting Fifth, made up of two dedicated role players, Mark Watter and Alice Terrett.  Both went beyond the usual call of hired help with Watter providing commentary on guitar and Terrett dropping the anchor on bass.  The two of them filled the comfortably tiny room easily, but it was Reese who you felt was playing in front of an amphitheater.

Day 159: Notes from a White Suburban Family on Vacation, Part 2

Washington Square is flooded with sunbathers.  A dog navigates the maze of bodies, tracking down a ball or maybe a small animal.  Something is making him run.  In the background there’s a hill with a tower standing at the top, holding its posture, a soldier among the trees.  My mom’s reading about the irony of the park’s Benjamin Franklin statue from a tour book when I hear someone playing a Frank Ocean song across the baking grass.  “We All Try”.  It’s the kind of music people might make love to then discuss after.

Earlier we left our car in a discount parking lot that had fortune cookie quotes stenciled at the base of each space.  Ours, for some reason, read, “You already found your true love.  Stop looking.”


John: What are you doing?

Dad: I’m letting the guy go.

John: Why?  He’s telling you to go. Go!

Dad: Sometimes you have to be courteous.

John: And sometimes you have to go, like when the guy tells you to go, you go.


Down on Fisherman’s Warf, we’re stalked by seagulls that move like beggars, beaks open, expectant, possibly hopeful.  But there’s a discomforting strangeness in seeing animals act like this, giving in to their weakest instincts.  You begin to understand how little our particular breed fits on earth, recognize how much we’ve mistaken ourselves for gods.  The birds might beg for food, but they’ll still fly away when someone yells at them.

The other colonizing force on the Wharf are street performers, throwing paint at canvas and rumbling through Bob Dylan’s catalogue the way he probably meant it to be played: in the glorious, conquering racket of a one-man band.  My mom is drawn, as she usually is, away from the noise and towards the youth entertainment, which, in this case, is a plump half-clown making balloon animals.  By the time I catch up, the balloon artist’s partially-painted face is twisting curiously, taking on a shape usually molded in hostile board rooms.  I quickly realize the half-clown is pointing this mask in the direction of a young girl, who is holding out a dollar bill in the same way a promoter might hand out a flyer, thinking to herself that as long as she hands it off to someone else, her job is done.

“Now, I told your parents,” the indecisive circus deserter starts, bending down the few inches it takes her to reach the little girl’s height, “that the modest thing to do is five dollars per balloon.”  Her words have that familiar ring of a lecture, not one you’d hear in a classroom, but on a playground, probably after you buried another kid’s head too deep in the sand.  The girl turns to her father, who is playing guardian to her tubular pink dog, and isn’t able to come up with a facial expression to represent what just happened.  She doesn’t have that type of muscle memory yet, the kind that causes wrinkles.  She doesn’t know, can’t know, what just happened.  She’s a grape trying to figure out how to be a raisin.

“I can’t live off of one dollar,” the half-clown continues, pulling the young girl’s adolescent blur into a sharp focus with every word.  “I’ve tried, but I just can’t.”


Later, when we’re settling in for dinner, I’m still reeling from the interaction we’d stumbled across.  The half-clown and the young girl.  I realize that this has a lot to do with how mad I am at the clown for what she did, for taking that experience from the girl, for not doing her job, for deciding not to pull a rabbit from a hat but to shove the hat down the rabbit’s throat instead.  Sitting at dinner, deciding what to order, I’m still really fucking angry.

And I’m not sure I should be.  For one, it’s not my story.  I walked up late and only saw the end.  Me being mad about this could be like anyone getting mad at George Wilson for killing Gatsby.  I should probably figure out the context before I permit myself such a strong reaction.

But even more than that, no one else seems to have been as affected by it.  Not even my mom, who is usually a crusader for all things moral, even if it means risking her kid’s enrollment in middle school when she tells the dean of students she has no respect for him, and who kind of just shrugged the whole balloon thing off, actually laughing about it a little.  Normally incidents like this one would have her recapping all day, finding new arguments, fresh reasons why everyone involved fucked up, believing, I often imagine, that if she could just picture the best case scenario, then maybe somewhere, at some point, that scene will play out just like she envisioned.  I open the menu and force myself to make a quick decision because everyone else is ready to order.


On our walk back to the hotel, we pass a homeless man camped out for the night, a wool blanket, the type the army issues, wrapped so loose around him that it’d be easy to mistake his body for dumpster overflow.  Only the top of his head is visible, and specks of gravel stick to his blanket like tiny pieces of armor.  Anywhere else they might look like bandages.

But this is San Francisco, and it’s harder to swallow this type of image here, the one of the homeless man.  In New York you get it, you can see how it could happen, the ratios are clear, the percentages precise.  You see crowds of people walking to their jobs, their families, their grocery store, and you understand that some of them fell down along the way and couldn’t get back up.  In a bigger city, a more crowded city, where the numbers make sense, it’s easier to just walk past a homeless person without feeling anything besides a sense of relief that he tripped instead of you.

Tonight it’s not as easy.  The streets are pretty much empty, save for our family, a few staggering twentysomethings trying to remember where they live, and the man sleeping on the ground, spooning with the wall of a Wells Fargo.  The ratios don’t make sense here, especially with the size of everything around us, all that vertical space left unsettled, the buildings’ dark windows and callous silence.  They’ll sleep well tonight.

Walking along the streets in San Francisco, you might stop believing in morality.  But that’s nothing compared to when you stop believing in math.

Day 158: Notes From a White Suburban Family on Vacation, Part 1

I get the feeling, while staying in San Francisco, that the city is only about 4/5 finished.  Viewing the fog-ducking skyline with my parents from the Golden Gate Bridge, the buildings move logically to a point, when suddenly they’re gobbled up by trees and other vegetation.  When new homes and other misshaped buildings begin sprouting up on the other side of the huddled green masses, as if nothing separated them from the rest, you start to understand San Francisco on a psychological level.  You realize that something is missing.

Even at ground level this holds up.  For every four established storefronts there’s one lacking an identity, questioning whether to become a German-Thai fusion place, a cardigan outlet, or just another dry cleaners.  Entire blocks still seem to be getting used to the idea of supporting real estate, with most hills sloping so sharply you worry they might shrug the houses right off and let them roll into the bay.  So much of the city still feels less than comfortable, and there’s a certain bewildered rudeness hanging around it that ends up making the whole experience feel like visiting friends who haven’t fully settled into their new house yet.  Maybe while the city was focusing on accepting all identities it forgot to figure out its own.

Down below us there’s a wind surfer riding along the wakes of passing boats, some of them freighters heading out to the ocean.  If he falls, there’s really no one who can save him, at least not easily; it’d end up being a big production, might even need a helicopter to come by and pull him from the tide.  What an attitude to have, to ignore all that risk.


When my brother finally joins us, I’m more than relieved.  You know the saying about arguing with a brick wall?  Well sometimes traveling with my dad can be like traveling with that brick wall, only he’s slower moving and more easily offended.  When he gets in tourist mode, my dad adopts the type of lingering walk that most people would associate with either an undercover cop or a serial killer.  Without a buffer, his pacing can start to feel a little like having to push a broken down car uphill and a lot like finding a lost child.  He becomes so intent on not missing anything that he ends up never making it to the end.  Most of his trips to museums turn out like a stoned college student watching Donnie Darko; he has to keep backtracking to make sure none of the important information slipped past him.

By the time we get my brother from the airport, I’ve already lost my dad a total of three times over the course of the day.  Once after we landed, again on the bridge, and, most alarmingly, just a few minutes before at a stop light where he fell asleep for around thirty seconds.  I would offer to drive, but his name is the only one on the rental.  Pulling out from the terminal, I’m at ease knowing I have someone else to share in the duty of keeping tabs on my dad’s distracted wandering.

Back at my cousin’s apartment, we find my mom asleep with a tall glass of white wine sitting untouched and warming itself on the table next to her.  She wakes up confused, not realizing the geography has changed from the dream she was having, and asks where we were, sounding as if she’d been looking for us for years, like the last time she saw us was on the side of a milk carton.


Mom: “What are you doing?”

Dad: “I have to make a U-Turn over here.”

Mom: “Why?”

Dad: “I was going the wrong way.”

Me: “We were going the wrong way?”

Dad: “Just let me drive the damn car.”


The Muir Woods, like most famous national parks, are fairly polluted.  Not with trash, the ground is pristine and the water, at least the little bit that remains during a drought, looked drinkable, but with people.  These types of places are starting to feel more and more like malls, destinations people seek out to dispose of time and molding conversation.  Tour groups barrel down walking trails like steamrollers, their tactless dialogue demolishing the illusion of nature they paid for at the entrance.  Escaping is a notion they’re too proud to chase down, and the image is clearer on their TVs anyway, so why did they even come out?

The Red Wood trees seem to notice this, too.  They huddle close together in clusters, sharing root systems built before this country became self-aware, closing themselves off from the aggressive banality passers-by.  A family discusses the price of gas, and the trees swim in memories, reels moving too quickly for the massive immobile beings to comprehend.  I’m reminded of my grandfather’s funeral.

We pass by a cluster of trees that survived a fire hundreds of years ago, their guts exposed, black like a smokers.  My dad knocks on the base of the tree, perhaps wondering if he could knock it over.  A particularly loud child asks his mom if the fire hurt the tree.  “I don’t know, honey,” she says calmly, surprising me with her honesty.  Even if she knew the answer, I wonder, would she have told him?

When you spend a day on a certain trail or group of trails, you start inadvertently spending a large chunk of time with the same people, begin recognizing them more easily, and maybe even share brief conversations if they speak English.  My dad loves these cursory relationships, consistently greeting faintly familiar faces with a timid, “How’s it going?”  It’s more of a reflex than a question that needs a response, which is why the 15% of people who actually acknowledge his query get him so flustered, and why those particular interactions usually end with him randomly confessing things like, “We had cereal for breakfast in our hotel room.”  He usually only plans through his first question, so if the conversation goes any longer, it begins to resemble the uneasy ramblings of an improperly prepared defendant.

In Muir Woods, the child with the unreasonably pitched voice quickly becomes our consistent acquaintance, partially because his family and mine inadvertently chose the same trail but mostly because he is so damn noticeable.  He has one of those voices that send a shockwave through your body the first time you hear it, the type of voice made for interpretive dance or playing the violin.  If it was weaponized, I’m fairly certain no one would ever fuck with the United States again.  We can hear it coming, all day, that voice, it’s behind every corner and then, improbably, around the next one.  It’s everywhere, a different type of invasive plant.  When we stop to watch an owl perched venerably on a branch, sure enough the voice isn’t too far off, finally departing, and calling out, “Bye Owl!  Good-bye Owl!”

“He doesn’t know how to say ‘Bye’,” the boy’s mother whispers, her voice a pebble lobbed in the direction of his tsunami.

“He doesn’t know how?”


Mom: “Keep your eyes on the road!”

Dad: “My eyes are on the road.”

Mom: “You almost hit these cars.”

Dad: “I saw the red light.”

Mom: “I don’t want to die up here.”


Later we escape into the hills in search of a bench left behind in memoriam of someone we didn’t know.  Up there it’s only us and columns of cyclists planning their next move.  The bench turns out to be a difficult find, because it’s made of rocks and not out of wood like we assumed.  When we finally stumble across it, all of us sit and admire the clouds settling over everything below, a lumpy comforter resting loosely on the highest tips of the forest.  On the bench we find a plaque, and on that plaque we read, “Give me these hills and the friends I love.  I ask no other heaven.”  Up in the sky, above the clouds and the very idea of weather, I can hear a lizard scamper through the tall grass.



Day 157: The Rolling Stone on John Legend

In the September 12 issue of Rolling Stone, critic Jon Dolan begins his review of John Legend’s Love in the Future with this:

John Legend’s fiancee, model Chrissy Teigen, recently said she never wears underwear. And who can blame her: Undies fly away like silken doves when the reigning king of hip-hop soul is in the general vicinity.

That change you just felt, the squirming in the pit of your stomach, the curling of your toes, was the health of our dear friend music criticism declining suddenly from an often beautiful and genuine extension of art to, essentially, the practice of recording then printing something your mother said about the genre of music you happened to be writing about that day.  This is to say that where once we looked for a point of entry into Jeff Mangum’s inscrutable B-sides, we will now only find clarifying questions about the most recent episode of Scandal and tupperware containers brimming with leftover macaroni and cheese.

With such a brutal blow to her well-being, music criticism skipped right over in-home nursing care and landed in an assisted living facility.  And soon, when we cry in the candlelight of her 7-day vigil, we’ll only be able to ask how, how could Jon Dolan do this to her?  He could’ve spared her, we know that.  All it would’ve taken was a simple, “Love in the Future is Keith Stone-smooth”, just something hyphenated, anything, like “Jay-Z”, it might’ve worked, and we could have saved her from this whole ordeal.  It might’ve even been like the end of The Matrix, when you think Neo is dead but he was just pretending to be an emotionless failure the whole time and is actually really pretty good at jumping into people and making them explode from the inside.  Music criticism could’ve come back stronger than ever.

But Mr. Dolan used the word “Undies” with a capital “U”, and now music criticism is decaying in a hospital bed somewhere in Newark.  If only Wesley Morris reviewed albums.

Listen to Legend’s “So Gone”, which samples The Dwells, below:

Day 156: On Arctic Monkeys, Miley Cyrus, and Cultural Cribbing

There’s been a lot of debate this summer about cultural cribbing in music, pop stars “borrowing” from genres and creative pioneers they don’t completely understand to turn a profit.  Most of this debate swelled around Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”, which, if it wasn’t a prevalent piece of our pop-cultural consciousness, could pass for a lavish high school art project on Marvin Gaye researched by watching his top 3 YouTube video results then reading the first paragraph of his Wikipedia entry.

Then everything got a whole lot uglier when Miley Cyrus’s tongue showed up at the VMAs and excitedly treated human beings dancing alongside her the same way Dennis Rodman treats foreign policy.  It got so bad that when she and Thicke dueted on “Blurred Lines” a few minutes later, you wondered if the inclusion of blackface was something seriously considered during the duo’s dress rehearsal.

The VMA performance was the worst form of cultural distillation, breaking down a vast, complicated history by latching on to, and misrepresenting, a single wrung of its DNA.  The spectacle of it all was probably meant to delineate some sort of artistic credibility for Cyrus but ended up outlining just how dangerous giving any form of creative control to a former child star who aspires to write “black” music (her words) can be.  For those who somehow managed to escape seeing it, imagine Anna Kendrick rapping “No Diggity” in the middle of the lawn mower scene from Mad Men and you’ll be about 50% there.

The backlash was instantaneous, from Twitter to the New York Times, and even the people with their heads in the right place (a.k.a. the ones who didn’t jump right to calling Cyrus a whore or Thicke a pedophile) were rightfully astonished that something this lacking in self-awareness made it to air.  It was like watching an in-the-moment, baiting Don Imus remark that you later found out had been heavily rehearsed and given the OK by execs who should have more respect for themselves.  It was just downright hard to look at, a truly ugly pop culture moment.

This brings me to last night when I sat down to listen to the new Arctic Monkeys record, AM.  I knew a little bit about the record, mostly that Alex Turner had told NME, “It sounds like a Dr. Dre beat, but we’ve given it an Ike Turner bowl-cut and sent it galloping across the desert on a Stratocaster”, so I was both excited and genuinely nervous to press play.  I knew AM would either be a great example of cultural cribbing done right or yet another argument against white people trying to draw influence from “black” music (Miley Cyrus’s words).

Then I pressed play on “Do I Wanna Know?”, the smokey swagger monster that opens the record, and quickly Googled the NME interview only to find that the copy and pasted Dre quote was just a bit misleading since it was followed by Turner saying things like he wanted the record to “sound less like four lads playing in a room this time” and, more to the point, “if you can find a way to manipulate the instruments or the sounds to the point where it sounds a bit like a hip-hop beat that’d be boss in your car, then I think there’s something quite cool about that.”

As it turns out, AM isn’t cribbing culture as much as its cribbing vibes, and even so, all the band’s reference points, from Ike Turner to Pharrell Williams, are touched on with the same kind of humbled respect Martin Scorcese shows Orson Welles.  AM gives its influences room to breathe, to appear as massive as they should.  It’s a record that manages to be respectful to the history surrounding it without ever feeling too nostalgic or derivative.  When fun. tried to do this, they got by on the magnetism of Nate Ruess’s voice, but AM is a different kind of record, a better constructed record, one that carefully explores the mostly uncharted center of the venn diagram between hip-hop and rock and roll.  It isn’t a fun. record; it won’t reach that kind of market or those kinds of iTunes numbers, but it’s certainly an accomplished one, a piece of pop culture that should make us feel less cynical about the idea of cross-cultural collaboration.

Listen to “Do I Wanna Know?” below:

Day 155: S.f.M. – The Weeknd’s “Live For (feat. Drake)”

On Take Care, Drake identifies himself as “living proof that you ain’t got to die to get to Heaven”, a claim, it seems, he’s still trying to fully explicate via his forthcoming Nothing Was The Same.  When it comes to Drake, Heaven is more of a status than a reward, something he can whisper in someone else’s girl’s ear or scrawl across a billboard in outsized gold letters but is best seen at a distance.  He’s not so much boasting on that line as he is realizing just where idolization has brought him.  He always dreamed of the pearly gates but never thought about what might be beyond them.

It’s this conflict of bravado that makes Aubrey’s collaborations with The Weeknd so enthralling.  A disembodied amalgam of pop phantoms and a fist-full of painkillers, The Weeknd plays a terrific Marley to Drake’s (less-miserly) Ebenezer (this isn’t a perfect comparison, I know, but Charles Dickens deserves it).  Take “Crew Love” for instance, their placid, beat-drop-teasing collab on Take Care, where we find The Weeknd doing coke off a keyboard in a dorm room (probably?) while Drake smokes weed comfortably in a planetarium, musing on his decision not to attend college.  Once again, we’re shown Drake in Heaven, but it feels different now that we know The Weeknd is stuck in Hell.

“Live For” isn’t much different from “Crew Love” in its casting, but the afterthought guitar line leaves little between the two actors, between Heaven and Hell.  For the first time, both Drake and The Weeknd sound like they’re in the same room.  An exorcism isn’t supposed to sound this good.  Listen below: