LARB PRESENTS the November 2021 installment of “Real Life Rock Top 10,” a monthly column by cultural critic Greil Marcus.
1. ONETWOTHREE, ONETWOTHREE (Kill Rock Stars). “We didn’t have songs like ‘Fuck the System,’ like other bands had,” the late Marlene Marder, the guitarist for the Zürich female three-piece Kleenex-then-LiLiPUT once said. “We sang songs like ‘la, la, la’ and ‘di, di, di.’ At the end, it was also a political message to our situation in this town.”
In other words, you can’t dress up dada in ideological clothes; they’ll fly right off or suffocate whoever’s trying to wear them. That is the spirit taken up now by Klaudia Schifferle, for 40 years a signal painter, collagist, and muralist; Madlaina Peer, a theater designer; and Sara Schär, who works in cinematic music clearance — all of whom sang and played bass in punk bands in Zürich in the late ’70s and early ’80s — Schifferle in Kleenex/LiLiPUT, Peer in the Knownos, Schär in TNT — and all of whom play bass now (along with guitar and a couple of synthesizers for drums and keyboards). It’s all play — “We want flowers from outer space,” goes one chant, followed by, “We need flowers from outer space,” which really seems to up the ante, even if the last flowers from outer space I can recall are the ones dropping down on bushes in Phil Kaufman’s 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. There can be a hard bluntness to the way people whose language is Swiss-German write and sing in English, as ONETWOTHREE do; words can feel like clubs or slamming doors. The sometimes guttural vocals enforce a sense of lives lived and a future not trusted: a sense of self-defense. But it’s all play: in “Fake,” two or maybe three basses toss the rhythm back and forth as the singer rails against fake money, fake diamonds, fake politics, fake sex, but what you really hear is the chorus: “Wo wo wo wo wo, wo wo wo wo wo wo” — and what might stay with you is the contemplative tone, which trivializes both the fakes and the complaints about them. La, la, la, di, di, di.
The song I keep coming back to is “Oh Boy.” Bass, a simple beat, a one, two, three descending rhythm line met at the end by two slightly mocking notes, clicked on guitar and then whistled. After two-and-a-half minutes you might not mind going on for half an hour, the only lyrics: all three voices fading off with “Oh boy.” It could be a backing track demo for a number left off the Beach Boys’ Smiley Smile or a single by Young Marble Giants. Keep listening and you can see someone walking down the street at night, looking over her shoulder, then walking a little faster, not running. The only two words are what she says when she’s walked through her front door and locked it behind her. You can also hear it as a dare, all play: can we make a perfect song where nothing happens?
2. Morton Feldman, Give My Regards to Eighth Street: Collected Writings of Morton Feldman (Exact Change). A reissue of a 2000 volume of criticism and not so much you-should-have-been-there as I-wish-I-still-was reminiscence by a composer whose music was variously described as “indeterminate,” “chance,” “abstract,” but which might also be called disappearing — Feldman (1926–’87) famously decried people who played his music as “too fucking loud and too fucking fast,” but his prose has no problem being too loud or too fast. In a few lines, Feldman can say more about art and politics and their indeterminate languages as a lot of people have failed to do in entire books, and yet no matter how swift or did-he-really-say-that the writing maintains that wish for near silence and the slowest kind of stroll. As in this paragraph from “The Anxiety of Art,” dated 1965: “The revolution we” — in the ’50s the likes of John Cage, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Philip Guston —
were making was not then or now appreciated. But the whole American Revolution was never appreciated either. Not really. It has never been given the importance of the French and Russian Revolutions. Why should it be? There was no blood bath, no built-in Terror. We do not celebrate an act of violence — we have no Bastille Day. All it was, was, “Give me liberty or give me death.” Our work did not have the authoritarianism, I might almost say, the terror, of Boulez, Schöenberg, and now Stockhausen.
Luckily he wasn’t around to hear Stockhausen celebrate the terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001 as “the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos.”
3. Lindsey Buckingham, Lindsey Buckingham (Reprise). Supposedly this was recorded before Buckingham was kicked out of Fleetwood Mac in 2018 and before his heart attack in 2019. It’s hard to credit, especially after the damp rag of the album he and then–Fleetwood Mac bandmate Christine McVie released in 2017, which seemed to signal neither had anything left. Everything here sings with delight. There’s pleasure in music-making that gives Buckingham’s confident, all-the-time-in-the-world singing a lift right out of “Blind Love,” a doo-wop ballad that sounds like something he and his high school friends made up while cruising up and down the San Francisco Peninsula instead of doing homework. On “On the Wrong Side,” his voice goes up and high and scratchy. He seems to get younger verse by verse, years flying off the calendar backward to the beat.
4. Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, Raise the Roof (Rounder). The 2007 Raising Sand, the first collaboration between the bluegrass fiddler and bandleader and the dig-up-the-roots singer who once sang “Whole Lotta Love” for Led Zeppelin, was a huge hit and won every Grammy for which it was remotely eligible short of Best Liner Notes. It struck me as a dud then and it sounds like a dud now: polite, reserved, a soft handshake, the songs dead fish floating in a pretty lake. This leaps from the start, with a cover of Calexico’s “Quattro (World Drifts In).” From there it gets richer — a version of Bobby Moore & the Rhythm Aces’ 1966 post-doo-wop “Searching for My Love,” which sounds as if Plant has been singing it under his breath since he first heard it and as if Krauss has just heard it for the first time — and deeper, with the banjo player Ola Belle Reed’s 1978 (though 1928 is what it sounds like) “You Led Me to the Wrong,” Krauss’s fiddle making a John Cale drone and Plant navigating the curse in the lyrics as if he’s knocking on the door of an abandoned house. And deeper than that, and also lighter, half life, half dream: Krauss, and far in the background Plant, stepping through Geeshie Wiley’s 1930 “Last Kind Words Blues” so quietly it feels like they’re afraid they’ll wake it up.
5. Taylor Swift, “All Too Well,” Saturday Night Live (NBC, November 13). “Hey Jude” flipped: take a sad song and make it bigger — and as far as “Hey Jude” goes, and it’s not a high bar, better. Across 10 minutes, it got more interesting as it went along. Plus the most vivid presentation of Swift’s face as the American flag: the reddest red lipstick, the whitest white teeth, pale blue eyes.
6. Lana Del Rey, Blue Banisters (Polydor). The constant references to ’60s and ’70s hits, all seemingly from Los Angeles even if they weren’t, little flags that could wrap a listener in a web of affinities, are gone here. The album could be called “Let’s Get Lost,” for the Chet Baker recording, but the feeling is pure “My Funny Valentine.” If on this album one song dissolves into another, “Arcadia” seems like the most ambitious and realized piece: the clumsy pretentiousness of the words (“My body is a map of L.A. […] All roads that lead to you as integral to me as arteries”) dissolves into the abstractions of the singing, which can take you anywhere. You might hear the repetitions of “America” in the tune not as a kind of signpost, let alone a place or a fact, but as a receding idea, harder to make stand for anything worth mentioning every time it comes around. That might be the Lana Del Rey project, or merely what happens when the songs play: she makes a map and clears the ground.
7. Snail Mail, Valentine (Matador). With the kind fawning of profiles of leader Lindsey Jordan that make you wonder what’s up — it couldn’t be the search for the next Billie Eilish? — a dead letter.
8. Jah Wobble, Metal Box — Rebuilt in Dub (Cleopatra). The 1979 Metal Box by Public Image Ltd., John Lydon’s second post–Sex Pistols album, in the UK three 12” 45s in a film can, then a botched US release as an LP thrillingly titled Second Edition, then a CD in a little metal pill box, was and remains one of the most unsettling and self-consciously avant-garde works in any field since World War II. The avant-garde it signified, though, was one the group itself, with different musicians around Lydon changing over these last four decades, has pursued on its own, like people trapped in some kind of science fiction where the future is always slipping into the past. So as the bassist on a record where the bass was the leading instrument, Jah Wobble, one John Joseph Wardle with one of the more inspired pseudonyms of his day, the self-importance of the first word teased by the second — had an interesting idea, the same idea that in Jamaica in the ’70s led to the near erasure of decent albums like Burning Spear’s Marcus Garvey with time-cancelling masterpieces like the dub version, Garvey’s Ghost. Take the original tracks, elide and lengthen the rhythm lines, replace almost all of the singing with echo, making a sound that’s at once open and dank, and see what’s been lost. Which turns out to be nothing. Once PiL appeared onstage in New York, but playing behind a screen. Here the screen is the band.
9. Bob Dylan, Beacon Theatre, New York (November 21). Jann Wenner writes in: “Saw Bob last night on the Rough and Rowdy tour. He performs the new material with passion and intensity. Sings it beautifully and very movingly. Barely touches the catalogue and no greatest hits. Which is a relief. Physically he looked a bit frail on stage. Wasn’t seeing visitors because of covid.
“He doesn’t have the voice to sing his greatest hits. He had no beautifully worked out new renditions of a classic. What he is writing now is what he can sing well, and his voice is still a wonder. You don’t have to understand the words. And the new stuff is what he has to say now. I jokingly call it his ‘post dystopian period.’ His imagery, in some songs, is getting tougher, visceral, more brutal, somewhat like Ginsberg.”
10. Scott Ostler, “Packers’ Rodgers cancels himself,” San Francisco Chronicle (November 8). On Aaron Rodgers’s refusal to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and his speaking out “before the final nail gets put in my cancel culture casket”: “I have to agree that the cancel culture can be annoying and even dangerous. Do you know what those cancel culture vultures are trying to cancel? Voting access! Government health and safety regulations! The 2020 Presidential election!”