Review: Moonface’s “Julia with Blue Jeans On”

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Album CoverRATING: 5.0/5.0

Over the years, Spencer Krug’s creations have varied from abstruse instrumentals to straightforward pop rock, theatrically epic explosions to minimalist subtleties, and though I have not always enjoyed each piece, his willingness to stretch his musical gifts, to venture into lands unknown, despite the warnings of resident dragons, has not only made the best of his work possible, it is also why he is my favorite artist of this generation, and probably of any other. So when I first listen to a new album of his, I cannot help but wonder how it will stack up against the rest of his oeuvre. Will it have the energy of Wolf Parade’s “Apologies to the Queen Mary,” or the coming-of-age drama in Sunset Rubdown’s “Dragonslayer”? Will this new direction from the Moonface moniker carry him to success, or, like Moonface’s previous albums, lead him to fall flat on his face?

I struggle with how to give my answer the weight and emphasis needed to accurately depict my feelings; but, suffice it to say, when your favorite artist releases your favorite album to date, it is something pretty damn special.

I think what grabbed me first was the way he captured the soul of each song with nothing but a classically inspired acoustic piano and his own alluringly unique voice. In today’s music world, it is almost unthinkable to produce an album without drums, or bass, or even a guitar to flesh out the harmonies; and perhaps, without familiarity with these barer accompaniments, some might find it difficult to appreciate the genius that goes into doing it well. If you are one of these individuals, allow me to give you an idea: imagine trying to capture the richness of a sunset over the Pacific Ocean, but you can only use the shades of just one color to complete your masterpiece.

Sounds difficult, doesn’t it?

Well, that’s exactly what Krug did, and somehow, despite the dishonesty imposed by the restrictions, he imbued the portrait with more truth than any other might have done without the same restrictions. From the ominous arpeggios introducing the title track, to the almost lazy tones of “Dreamy Summer,” and the finishing movement in “Everyone Is Noah, Everyone Is the Ark” where he finds a way to match the intensity of his voice with a simple riff of five chords . . . in all of it he constructs the tantalizing harmonies he needs to transform the melodies from intriguing and pretty, and give them new life as ethereal and gorgeous.

If this album were nothing but melodies and harmonies, it would have earned itself a glowing review; however, interwoven with the majesty of the music are lyrics that are immanently personal, giving the listener an opportunity to, alongside Krug, fall in love with the namesake of the album. But this does not mean he just hands the listener every subtle meaning and nuance free of charge. More often than not, the power of these personal tales of love and loss comes from lyrics threaded with symbols and allegories, and what the listener gains from a careful absorption in the work is not only a tale of Krug and one of his girlfriends, but also an existential ode to love in this modern world.

So when he asks Julia “where [she] wants to be buried,” and she, in turn, asks for “the name of the town where [he] was born,” we are not receiving a mere oddity in some darkly twisted first date questionnaire. We are also given a glimpse into one of the great contrasts presented in existentialist thought: those who see the meaningless of a life which can only end in death, and those who see in our life something to be celebrated and affirmed. Later in the album, when he sings, “I regretfully withdraw my offer to try and improve myself,” he is not turning in his two week notice to Corporate America; he is turning in his notice to society, proudly declaring his current self to need no further work.

But alongside these mundane manifestations of grandiose sentiments, Krug also relinquishes his grandiose sentiments for a more mundane truth, most poignantly in the title track where he discovers that nothing is “more noble than a folded hand.” Here he resigns his search for divine and perfect beauty, whether in love or music, to the failed experiments of life, to the hiccups of our mortal journey which must be climbed over if we are ever to move forward. And despite the seemingly impassable mountains of failures, what he finds on the other side of them is a name worth singing, even if it is not God.

And what, pray tell, is that name? It’s “Julia . . . just Julia with blue jeans on.”

Krug delivers the fullest expression of this overarching philosophy in the track “Everyone Is Noah, Everyone Is the Ark,” where he bemoans the cruel bitches of fate, deluging us in their floods, leaving us to drown or build an ark of our own. The ark is the most robust symbol of the album, a picture of the defenses we build to fight off the waters’ cruelty, an image of the meanings we construct in the face of terrifying meaninglessness.

And of what are our arks made? What comprises each of the planks we nail down in its service? That answer is different for everyone. The beauty, the strength, of the symbol lies in its universality, that each one of us can build our very own ark, and then fill it with all we need saved from the turbulent waters: the trinkets from our past, the hopes for our future, and the beauty of our present.

However, for Spencer Krug, I feel certain that he has put aside at least one of those planks, if not the entire hull, for his beloved Julia.

Review: Passion Pit’s “Gossamer”

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GossamerPPRATING: 4.5/5.0

Gossamer is an album of electronic harmonies, chaotic and urgent instrumentation, and soda pop melodies. It begins with a vignette of modern day capitalism, an overt passivity coming through the lyrics with a pounding edge that subtly gives the listener to know they are not okay with it. Though the content of these lyrics serve as a stark contrast to the more personal subject matter of later tracks, it does well in providing a setting for the human tapestry of tragedy that follows it.

From here the album navigates the murkier waters of love and excess, and an existential dread shines through it all. In the song “I’ll Be All Right,” Michael Angelakos allows the human effort to squeeze validation from the mysterious Other when he sings, “I won’t let you go unless I’ll be all right.” The song is followed by “Carried Away” wherein he accepts the need for companionship, even when it contradicts his own lack of interest; however, it is toward the end of the album that he proclaims his own happiness despite all the reasons to be otherwise.

The energy of the album might, at first glance, seem contrary to the heavier side of its lyrics. Each track has the potential for sending any unwary listener into a spontaneously choreographed number as they float along the sidewalks of Fifth Avenue.

But if we are doomed to the fate of Sisyphus, should we not dance along the downhill path of the boulder? So buy this album and put some headphones on, because you only got so long to live.

Buy “Gossamer” on Amazon

I Was Wrong: Final Review of “The Adventures of Augie March”

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In a previous post, I remarked on the lack of narrative coherency I found in Saul Bellow’s “The Adventures of Augie March.” I do not stand here corrected, for the description was apt enough; but I do stand humbled. Like any great crescendo, the narrative took time to rise to itself; but, if not for the softness of its feet at the beginning, the ending’s crash and bang would not have had the power it did.

I have written elsewhere (not on this blog, but rather in the megabytes of philosophical wandering on my laptop) that art, though at times inspiring and uplifting, should not be chained by the idea of the “happy ending.” It is a reflection of existence, a crystallization of life’s  form given in large swathes of color, whether painted by pigment or word, and that is exactly what Augie March is: a reflection of life.

In the beginning of our lives, beyond our biological and molecular makeup, we are largely tabula rasa waiting for the concepts, experiences, and all else of life to write upon our brow. And so we, like a sponge, absorb everything around us without prejudice or judgment. Jumping from one thing to the next without ceremony or finesse, our lives lack narrative during these days, much like Bellow’s work did.

But as time progresses and patterns are spotted, we begin to weave tales of our lives from the cluttered fragments of existence. No longer do we take from the rawness of life, but rather we begin to give that same life as an offering to the order against which we hope our lives will measure favorably, and it is from that order that the narratives of our lives are composed.

This is exactly what Augie, the protagonist of the story, does, same as the rest of us. From the imposition of his childhood experiences, he builds an idea of the world, and then sets out to conquer the same in the name of his wants and desires. But, along the way, he comes to realize that the world has its own ideas concerning his life, and from this struggle is born the narrative of this well crafted work.

As I read books in print (I mostly read from a Kindle these days), I fold down every page in which I find passages I like. In the first one-hundred pages or so, I think I folded down two at most; however, by the end of the book, I felt I needed more than the mere two corners any single page has to fold over. Hell, I probably could have had hundreds, one for each of the words on the page, and still felt limited. And this feeling continued to increase up to the final paragraph, the narrative having reached the peak of its crescendo, whereupon the reader gets Augie’s final self reflection on the nature of life and how he fits in the mix:

“What’s so laughable, that a Jacqueline, for instance, as hard used as that by rough forces, will still refuse to lead a disappointed life? Or is the laugh at nature—including eternity—that it thinks it can win over us and the power of hope? Nah, nah! I think. It never will. But that probably is the joke, on one or the other, and laughing is an enigma that includes both. Look at me, going everywhere! Why, I am a sort of Columbus of those near-at-hand and believe you can come to them in this immediate terra incognita that spreads out in every gaze. I may well be a flop at this line of endeavor. Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didn’t prove there was no America.”

First Thoughts on “The Adventures of Augie March”

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I had hoped to have a short story for all of you, my gentle readers, today; however, a myriad of forces have aligned against me in that effort, first and foremost amongst these being my borderline obsession with making it perfect. It is one of only two works (the other being “A Puzzling Piece,” which is in my short story collection, Stories of Who We Are and How We Eat) which is inspired by a symbolic piece of imagery. I have an acute perfectionism which drives my writing with pieces of this nature, and so it will probably not be for another couple of days that I post it.

However, I still wanted to give you something to chew on; therefore, I will share with you my first thoughts on the book I am currently reading: The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow. I am about a quarter of the way through it, and, unfortunately, I am somewhat disappointed. Many critics have labeled this novel Bellow’s best, and, as an admirer of another novel by him, Herzog, I was excited to read Augie. However, it reads less like a novel and more like a series of disconnected scenes which lack narrative.

This is a weakness I find in most books which could be considered postmodern. Nowadays, it is fashionable in more artistic literature for the author to strip himself of the burden of narrative building and operate more as a painter of portraits who happens to use words rather than pastels. In so doing, each individual scene maintains a consistent whole, and is rather poetically given, but the transitions from one to the other, that which constitutes a “narrative,” are not treated with any kind of fluency and, as a result, the work loses meaning.

This is not to say that these portraits are not without artistic merit. Art can be defined a thousand different ways, but one of the more thoughtful understandings, in my humble opinion at least, is to describe art as a stylized reflection of life. And how we, as actors and characters on the stage of life, interact with life is often not so fluent as the flow of a well constructed narrative might suggest. We are all, from time to time, subject to jarring jumps from one episode to another, and the meaninglessness of existence is something we have all had to face.

But, even in real life, some measure of narrative is always present. If no other is readily apparent, our lives are, at the very least, chronologically ordered. Furthermore, language is restricted to the expression of some sort of narrative flow. In each word, a myriad of images and concepts portray the meaning that lies within; however, as soon as we go on to use two or more words, or write a whole novel of the same, some sort of narrative construction becomes necessary. Otherwise, the words become little more than a jumbled mess of sounds.

Allow me to point to two examples which do a fantastic job of loosening the constraints of the narrative while still maintaining enough of them that the book does not lose its meaning. The first is David Copperfield. Dickens is a master of narrative fluency and, in many ways, Copperfield uses a very tight structure. So there is not much to say here, but I would like to point out that Copperfield has almost no plot to speak of. It is merely a portrait of one man’s life from birth to an arbitrary point set in the future. But Dickens still maintains an easy narrative flow which takes the reader from one scene to the next with almost no jarring and disconnected jumps.

The other example is one I have already mentioned: Herzog, which is by Bellow himself. Herzog is a novel in which Bellow takes the bounds of the narrative to their extreme point, but stops before they break. For this effort, he writes what is one of the greatest novels written by an American. Not only is the book one of the most quotable works I have ever read (“Dear Mr. President, Internal Revenue regulations will turn us into a nation of bookkeepers”), but it is also one of the most intimate and insightful portrayals of man in modern America. And though Bellow pushes at the boundaries of the narrative structure in Herzog, he does not break them.

So what is it that a book like Augie can learn from books like Copperfield and Herzog? Just this: an author can forego plot, and even bend the rules of composition, but some semblance of a narrative structure must be maintained. Otherwise, your book will read less like a novel and more like a Sears catalogue.

Given that I have only read about a quarter of the novel, I still hope to be pleasantly surprised as I plow through it. But even if it continues on this disappointing path, I would like to give Bellow props for always having the courage to challenge the rules of writing. If all I had ever read of him was Augie, I probably would not be so admiring of this courage; but, having read Herzog, I know he had it in him to break the narrative structure just enough to make a great novel even better. Unfortunately though, even with the most gifted of writers, no one can consistently test those boundaries and not fail every once in a while.

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In December of 2012, I published a book of short stories titled Stories of Who We Are and How We Eat. When I first started this blog, I had hoped that, in addition to being a forum in which I could express my ideas and my art, it would serve to generate interest in my work. Unfortunately, it has not been going as well as hoped.

I know a lot of the novels self-published on Kindle lack originality, most being easily reduced down to “fifty shades of commercial crap,” but, if my work is anything, it is unique. Is it good? Well, that’s for you to decide. So, if you read my blog, please consider giving my book a chance. It might just surprise you.

Posts and pages in which you will find excerpts to my book:
Books by Julien Haller
Excerpt from Preface