WordsDay: Literature

The oyster climbs the Great Chain of Being: Eleanor Clark’s Locmariaquer

“…But thilke text heeld he nat worth an oyster….” – Geoffrey Chaucer

The Oysters of Locmariaquer by Eleanor Clark (image courtesy Goodreads)

Anyone who reads Eleanor Clark’s classic The Oysters of Locmariaquer will come away from the book convinced of two things: 1) cultivating oysters is a complex and difficult task that might well suck the life out of one foolish enough to try to do so; 2) if the people from any place are up to the task of cultivating oysters, it is the Bretons. Clark’s book falls into that interesting category of nonfiction made famous by the great John McPhee. That is, Eleanor Clark, like McPhee, combines meticulous research (there is more in this book than anyone this side of an ichthyologist would want to know about the biology of oysters and the history of human/oyster relations) with personal narrative (there are stories of the lives of Breton villagers who are tied to the oyster industry – or to Brittany – that can move even the most jaded soul).

Of course, Clark antedates McPhee, and perhaps he owes her a debt for combining the scientific and historical with the personal in ways that can engross the reader and make one learn in spite of oneself. After all, Clark won the National Book Award for Nonfiction with this tale of Belon oysters and the Breton people who raise them in 1965, the same year McPhee published his first significant workContinue reading

Vive le France: 2013 has been a great year for Pop, and the French are leading the way

CATEGORY: MusicOnce upon a time the term “Pop” simply referred to popular music, and little effort was devoted to differentiating between styles. R&B, Rock & Roll, standards (Ol’ Blue Eyes and his ilk), Soul, whatever – it was all lumped together on AM radio and while you probably liked some things more than others, it was a mass media world and you didn’t really have the rigid demands of subcultural self-selection and boundary policing that came to be the rule later on.

Beginning in the late ’60s and early ’70s, though, the genrefication of popular music began getting serious, driven in large part by the emergence of FM radio. All of a sudden you came to understand that Rock was something different from Pop and that some music was Art while other music was Product. The illuminated musical elite, which listened to Artist, looked down on the unwashed Pop peasantry and thus ensued the out of control nichification that has dominated the last 30 years.

I don’t want this to sound like those snooty Rock-loving elites are the bad guys here, though. I mean, I’m one of them. In truth, their disdain for the Pop industry was well-informed. Pop wasn’t about authentic expression, it was, in fact, about corporate product. There might be a music genius involved, but that person was usually behind the scenes, helming the money machine and playing Svengali to a series of disposable faces chosen more for their look as their actual musical ability. Milli Vanilli and C&C Music Factory weren’t the first put-up jobs in music history and while he may have perfected the process, Simon Cowell didn’t invent cynical factory pop.

That’s your quick three-paragraph Reader’s Digest summary of how we got to where we are.

The saddest part of it all is that Pop has been branded for all time with an inherently pejorative taint by so many of popular music’s more intelligent fans. But let’s remember: The Beatles were a Pop band – probably the greatest one ever. The Who, as far as I can tell, were the ones that coined the term “Power Pop.” And it has to be acknowledged that a lot of today’s brightest stars are doing music that is unabashedly Pop in its sound.

While the difference between a Product and a Serious Artist, in the eyes of the intelligentsia, often boils down more to “I know it when I see it” than it does objective criteria, there are factors that are generally accepted as key to the evaluation. “Authenticity,” while it can subjective to the point of random, spiteful arbitrariness, is everything. You have to write your own songs. You have to play an instrument (even if you’re mainly a singer, fans are reassured when you strum away at the acoustic for a song or two in concert, as Mick and Bono have been known to do).

And you need to be in control of your career. Artistic and professional autonomy, these matter a lot. The people around you – managers and the like – they work for you, not the other way around.

As the header says, 2013 has been a great year so far for what I guess we’ll call “authentic Pop.” In some cases, we have to attach the word “Indie,” because doing so insulates artists from charges that they’re money-grubbing sellouts. That word is so incredibly powerful these days, too. I think a five dollar hooker could brand him/herself an “Indie Prostitute” and immediately garner widespread social and critical acclaim for the gritty realism and authenticity being brought to a profession that has never enjoyed proper respect from the corporatized mainstream media establishment/sex industry.

Of course, were that to happen, the commodification engines would spring into action, monetizing the perceived authenticity of the Indie Hooker, and invariably some would emerge as stars of the genre, meaning that instead of five dollars, a romp would cost you a few thousand large. At that point graduate students and junior tenure track faculty would begin jacking out largely incomprehensible neo-Marxian critiques of how Late-Stage Capitalism was appropriating legitimate cultural spheres of work and play, and in doing so invalidating the linguistic vocabulary of dissent and rebellion. #Hipster #AvrilLaVigneIsARealPunk #PostModernism #YouKnowI’mRight


The theme that’s hard to ignore, if you waste as much money on tuneage as I do, is the French Invasion. The CD that freakin’ everybody is raving about right now is Random Access Memories, the lastest from Paris synthpoppers Daft Punk. I’m still trying to onboard this one – I habitually dislike everything until I’ve heard it four or five times, and I’m currently halfway through spin #3. But the intelligence and craftsmanship are immediately evident, as is the duo’s thoughtfulness about its own influences. I could probably do without some of the overt Studio 54ishness, but the homage to Giorgi Moroder goes well beyond riff and deeper into a consideration of the path from youthful aspiration to fully realized stardom.

Also, my gods, is “Get Lucky” the most infectious tune you’ve heard all year or what? It actually makes me hate The Bee Gees just a bit less. Not much, mind you, but a little.

The other French band that gets a lot of attention is Phoenix. They blew the proverbial lidd off of Indie Pop with Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (2009) and this year’s Bankrupt! is a worthy follow-up. Critics don’t seem to love it quite as much (AMG gives it four stars instead of the four and a half that WAP earned), with the sense being that it’s a little more comfortable and not as ambitious. Maybe, but if so, that slight lack of edge is compensated for with a confidence and a polish that wasn’t always evident before.

Then there are a couple of bands that you probably haven’t heard of. First up is Aline, the Marseilles quartet responsible for Regarde Le Ciel. Insanely catchy, hooky Power Pop inflected by both an ’80s wistful Romanticism and a more stripped-down aesthetic owing more to late ’70s UK New Wave – it all adds up to perhaps the best French CD of the year to date. The fact that it’s all in French means RlC is going to have a hard time breaking through in the US, which is a pity. It’s a superb effort that you’re going to love even if you don’t speak a word of the Gallic.

Finally, there’s a band I only discovered recently: Exsonvaldes, who are so darned French they don’t even have an English language Wikipedia page (although some of their vocals are in English). They’re probably a bit less poppy, in the sense that we usually think of the term, with a noisier, harder edge on their sound (it’s even a little shoegazerish in spots) than the other bands noted here. But there’s a distinct ’80s influence and they wouldn’t be at all out of place on a bill with other Power Pop and Indie bands. And, most importantly, they’re driven by the rich sense of melody and structure common to all great Pop.

Of course, not all the great Pop this year hails from France. For instance, if you liked Pet Shop Boys style ’80s synthpop, you’re gonna freakin’ love Brooklyn’s Bear in Heaven.

And Manhattan’s The Postelles, who are following up their fantastic self-titled debut with …And It Shook Me, which is arguably an even better effort. I’ve argued that these guys are what all your favorite Hipster Pop bands would sound like if they’d get the fuck over themselves.

Finally, there’s Fitz & the Tantrums. Their debut was a wonderland of Motown and Stax influenced neo-Soul goodness. In an interview shortly before the new disc’s release, frontman Michael Fitzpatrick explained that while the debut was marked by a distinct 1960s sound, there was a lot of ’80s going on underneath it all. With More Than Just a Dream, he said, the dynamic was flipped, with the ’80s out front and the ’60s lurking in the background. The point is proven a few seconds into the lead track, and while this was not what I was expecting, and it took me a few listens to catch on, by the seventh or eighth spin it had become one of my favorites of the year so far. Put simply, it’s one of those CDs that gets in your head and you can’t get it out.

I’m expecting 2013’s back nine to be pretty cool on the Pop front, too. I don’t know if there will be more discoveries from le Francais, but I do know that Mayer Hawthorne’s new one is slated to drop on July 16, and if it’s half the record the last one was I’m going to be a very happy boy.

TunesDay: Phoenix and Aline are making 2013 a big year for French Indie Pop

We haven’t historically regarded the French for their rock & roll. Wine and cuisine, sure. Beautiful women, absolutely. But Europe’s greatest pop music has always tended to emerge across the channel. Then, in 2009, a little band from Versailles called Phoenix blowed up with Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix and one of the year’s hottest Indie singles, “Lisztomania.” Phoenix had been around for a few years, and music insiders were also familiar with bands like Rouen’s Tahiti 80, but never before had a French act been so much en vogue in the lands of the Anglos.

Now they’re back, with a new CD entitled Bankrupt set to drop this summer. The first cut is “Entertainment,” and if the rest of the disc is this wonderful they’re going to have another smash on their hands.

As is so often the case, when an artist from a previously unmined cultural outback (think Athens, or Seattle, or Minneapolis, if you will) breaks through, it opens the doors for others from the neighborhood. I find myself really, really hoping that another outstanding French act – Aline, from Marseilles – benefits from the rub. Their new release, Regarde le Ciel, is simply freakin’ marvelous.

Spread the love, spread the music. Happy TunesDay.

Dick Cheney hearts Osama bin Laden

by Dawn Farmer

Am i the only one who’s been wondering (for like nine years now) why Osama bin Laden seems to share foreign policy goals with a broad group of people i like to call Dick Cheney? He wanted the US to invade Afghanistan, and so did Dick Cheney. Remember when he made a campaign spot for John Kerry right before the election? Dick Cheney couldn’t have gotten better than that from Karl Rove. The tape before this last one had Osama bin Laden going on about global warming, confirming Dick Cheney’s message that environmentalism is the same as terrorism.

This last one though, this last bin Laden tape takes the cake.
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Nota Bene #115: RIP No. 32

“If you’re really pro-life, do me a favor—don’t lock arms and block medical clinics. If you’re so pro-life, lock arms and block cemeteries.” Who said it? Continue reading

Nota Bene #106: [no title due to budget cuts]

“Working for a major studio can be like trying to have sex with a porcupine. It’s one prick against thousands.” Who said it? Continue reading

ArtSunday: Amalgam

Here follow many of my favorite painters, illustrators and photographers. This comprehensive list
was lovingly compiled—be sure to click on the images or names to see and learn more. Enjoy! ∞

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Nota Bene #100: Il Planetario di Figaro

Wow, 100 issues of Nota Bene! Props to Russ for helping me for a while with this nifty little S&R feature. Never mind all that now, let’s get on with this issue. “What splendid buildings our architects would be able to execute if only they could finally be less obedient to gravity!” Who said it? Continue reading

Nota Bene #98: A More Glorious Dawn Awaits

“The man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors.” Who said it? Continue reading

Obama and racism around the world

As of last week, we here at S&R decided to yank the hood off of racist America during this Presidential election. To that end, we’re going to be exposing racism wherever we find it and shining a bright light into the dark corners where it hides. But the United States isn’t the only country that has a problem with racism among its various ethnic groups. Most of humanity has issues with the “Other” that people with different shaped eyes, different skin color, or different faiths represent.

And, as the first black candidate for President of the United States, there’s an excellent chance that Obama’s candidacy, and especially his Presidency (if he wins, anyway), would be an amazing opportunity for both the U.S. and the rest of the world to do some soul-searching about racism in their own societies. Continue reading


You just heard a Ronald Reagan speech from a president of France. It was an almost out-of-body experience for all of us.

— Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) after French President Nicolas Sarkozy spoke to a joint session of Congress, Nov. 7.

I have a partner in peace, somebody who has clear vision, basic values, who is willing to take tough positions to achieve peace. And so when you ask, am I comfortable with the Sarkozy government sending messages, you bet I’m comfortable.

— President Bush praising French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Nov. 7.

In view of everything we know now — the flawed intelligence, the miserable execution of the post-military phase — the French certainly were right.

— Rep. Tom Lantos, (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, who said that France was correct to refuse to back the war in Iraq.
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World War III under way; America hasn't noticed?

“Corporate America ought to be darned worried. If you are a major corporation with very sensitive technology, you have been targeted. Somebody is spying on you right now.” Todd Davis, FBI supervisor in Sacramento

There’s been a great deal of debate lately about spying – FISA and domestic spying issues, for example – and now the news that Blackwater is augmenting its army, navy and air force with its own CIA. While I’m routinely bemused by the conclusions we seem to reach (we’re about to approve a new Attorney General who doesn’t think waterboarding is torture, remember), I do welcome these kinds of discussions. The world of information and intelligence has been changing dramatically for years and our policy deliberations haven’t kept pace. It’s critical to think about what we know, how we know it, what we do with it, and the implications of not knowing it, because despite the fact that they’ve been awfully cavalier about the Constitution, our conservative friends are generally right in noting that there are bad guys in the world. In the end, the question really boils down to how can we best deal with the bogeys without becoming bad guys ourselves.

There’s one area that we aren’t talking about, though, and it’s a topic we ought to be very concerned with: corporate espionage. Continue reading

The miracle of Belfast, the horror of Zimbabwe, and the opportunity for France

Several days of rioting have greeted Sarkozy’s victory in France. He must be quite thrilled about this. In June there are parliamentary elections in which he must win a majority in order to ensure that he can operate unimpeded. The rioting is perfect marketing.

Part of Sarkozy’s attraction for the average French person was rioting taking place over the past few years amongst France’s disaffected youth and alienated foreign immigrants. He has promised stern action against this type of behaviour and to route out its causes. Trotting out images of burning cars in the days after his election – before he has even done anything – is a sure-fire way of getting fence-sitters to agree that only Sarkozy’s brand of determination can get things done. If the Left in France is to ensure its relevance it will have to tone down its rhetoric and stop telling people that he is a “fascist”.

Further afield, two nations demonstrate astonishing lessons for Sarkozy, France, Europe, and anyone else who wants to listen.

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Sarkozy’s French Election: when elephants fight only the grass gets trampled

There is an African saying that, “When elephants fight only the grass gets trampled.” It eloquently expresses the despair that ordinary people feel when the people who claim to represent their interests fight over them.

If you can cast your mind back far enough to August 2001, the world had a different hue. Tony Blair, a major Africanist, was working away at George W Bush – then still considered a buffoon who became the accidental president – and France was sufficiently aligned with Atlantic interests to have placed Africa on the agenda.

Africa, let’s face it, is a mess of conflicting ideologies, bad governments and hideous poverty. Some is the fault of outside meddling, some is self-inflicted, and some arises from the nature of the environment of Africa itself (big weather, big diseases, lots of space).

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Footloose (with the Facts), starring Mitt Romney!

Mitt Romney said a couple curious things Saturday. Fortunately for him, he did so at Regent “University,” which isn’t a place you’re likely to encounter a lot of critical thinking. The most entertaining assertion was this bit:

“It seems that Europe leads Americans in this way of thinking,” Romney told the crowd of more than 5,000. “In France , for instance, I’m told that marriage is now frequently contracted in seven-year terms where either party may move on when their term is up. How shallow and how different from the Europe of the past.” (Story.)

Mmmmkay. I’ve turned the Internets inside out and can’t find a scrap of evidence to support this claim. Continue reading