jason christoper hartley

April 27, 2006

The Dream Academy; The Anniversary; The New Pornographers

Filed under: Music — Jason Christopher Hartley @ 10:29 pm

Today’s mp3s you should listen to:
The Dream Academy – Life In A Northern Town (1985)
The Anniversary – The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter (2000)
The New Pornographers – The Bleeding Heart Show (2005)

I’ve really been on a boy-girl band thing lately. For most my life I liked either male vocalists or female vocalists, but not both at the same time. If it was a male, I tried to identify with what he sang. If it was a female, I tried to imagine how beautiful she must be. But to hear both types of vocals at the same time just seemed… confusing.

For some fucking reason, I love the male-female vocal thing now. I’m sure there some really interesting psychological explanation for this, but I’m at a loss to explain it. I’m sure it’s something sexual.

In my youth, the only time I liked the boy-girl thing was with the British one-hit wonder, The Dream Academy, and their solitary successful single, “Life in a Northern Town”, an apparent elegy to Nick Drake, released on their eponymous debut album in 1985. (Dontcha love the word, eponymous? Makes ya understand the cleverness of R.E.M. naming their singles album in 1988, “Eponymous”. Apparently there were others who also thought this was clever, because six more bands have named albums this since then.)

A current classic in the world of the boy-girl band is The Anniversary. The obvious choice is “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter”, from their first album, “Designing a Nervous Breakdown”, released in 2000. This is a song that my buddy Mikey-O got me into. I’ve kept this song in pretty regular rotation with my mp3 list, but I only recently downloaded the entire album.

My newest find in this sub-genre is The New Pornographers. Made up of a bunch of indie super-stars from Vancouver, their third and most recent album released last year, “Twin Cinema”, some say is their weakest, but the song “The Bleeding Heart Show” is without a doubt one of the best from their catalog.

I have no idea why all the bands I like today have the article “The” at the beginner of their band name.

The Dream AcademyThe New Pornographers
The AnniversaryNick Drake


“Fucking Voltron, man!” – A night at the Progressive Reading Series

Filed under: News & Politics — Jason Christopher Hartley @ 12:17 am

I haven’t been to many readings. In fact, the one I went to last Monday was only my second. The line-up was pretty impressive and I was excited to meet a few of the authors. Anthony Swofford was the headline attraction, but he ultimately didn’t show. I’ll admit this was a big disappointment, but in retrospect I think I should have known better. The guy’s book was made into a motion picture directed by Sam Mendes and he probably had better things to do like count money and admire his beard in the mirror. I was also really excited to meet Stephen Elliot, the author of Happy Baby, among other works, and David Rees, the madman behind Get Your War On.

The reading was part of the Progressive Reading Series, “A monthly literary benefit to support progressive congressional candidates nationwide”. These readings are hosted by Elliot and LitPAC, a political action committee behind it all.

This reading had scheduled the following authors:
Anthony Swofford, author of Jarhead
Adrienne Miller, author of The Coast Of Akron
David Rees, author of Get Your War On (fuck yeah!)
Jonathan Ames, author of I Love You More Than You Know
Paul LaFarge, author of Hausmann, Or The Distinction
Janice Erlbaum, author of Girlbomb

The reading was held at the Galapogos Artspace, a bar and performance space in Williamsburg. For the uninitiated, Williamsburg is the epicenter of hip and one of my favorite places to make fun of. The first stop on the L train once you’re beyond the East River is Bedford Avenue, the main drag through hipsterville. In high schools during the time between classes when student bustle through the halls, there’s always an apparent homogeny of style—everyone looks and behaves in a way that is no more than two permutations from a discrete set of current norms. Then cross-pollination between sects of style is where the uniformity subtly appears—the jock wears the studded leather belt of the goth who wears the obscenely baggy cargo pants of the rave kid who wears the Knicks jersey of the Jock, and so forth. Once you step off the train at the Bedford stop, the platform is the hallway of hipster high school between classes. Everyone has a hand-sewn skirt, colored-band tube sock wrist-warmers, semi-cheap quasi-chic sunglasses, loud sneakers, and bed hair. Oh, and everyone’s twenty-four and white. This isn’t to say I don’t like Williamsburg, because I do. I like any place that has creative energy, but I really have to laugh out loud sometimes. There literally are thrift stores that sell old shit that is more expensive than new shit. The Gap doesn’t sell the Ironic Uniform, so you have to pay premium prices for that blazer that’s just old enough to be a new classic, or whatever. Seriously, I could make fun of Williamsburg all day. You see, I am above hipness. This is the benefit of being lame—too arrogant and lazy to join the club, but not above mocking it. However, every once in a while that girl with the unwashed hair and chapped lips with mismatched socks drooping down over her low-cut Chuck Taylors is actually sorta cute.

Since the reading series is called “Progressive”, I suppose it would be a transgressive to have it held anywhere other than Williamsberg. The Galapagos Artspace is like many of the bars in the area. You walk down a dark hall (in this case, a mezzanine of sorts) wondering if you went the right way.

After I paid my cover, I saw Stephen Elliott standing at a table near the entrance. The reading was about to start, so I figured I’d better introduce myself before he got mobbed at the end with offers for hip after-parties. Stephen is bit on the shorter side, but solidly built. His arms and shoulders are muscular and an arm band tattoo around his bicep was peeking out from beneath his shirt sleeve. Something I should admit is that I’m a bit of a Nazi when it comes to handshakes. Any guy who doesn’t give me a solid handshake and look me square in the eye is a piece of shit. That’s pretty much my take on it. I’ve been told that all authors hate each other, so my hypersensitivity sorta had me expecting Stephen to be dismissive or impatient. But I was wrong! His handshake was solid and he looked me right in the eye. In fact, I was a bit envious of his hands—they were really good. I’ve been cursed with a permanent boyishness that makes me admire those masculine things that are out of my reach. This is why I joined the Army—to compensate for my lack of manliness. I’ve learned, though, that being a combat infantryman doesn’t actually make you any manlier. All I’ve ever wanted is for people to see me and think, Oh, he’s in the infantry! He saw action! Treat him with the awe and respect he deserves! But more often, the reaction I get from people is, That guy’s kind of a dick. But his skin sure was soft!

Stephen graciously signed the hard bound copy of Happy Baby I brought with me. He wrote a short note inside and his handwriting was virtually illegible. The fact that I could even figure out what it read is proof that the written word need not contain much actual information, but that context and colloquialism are some of the most important parts of communication. His crazy chicken scratch writing made it that much cooler. I liked imagining that the protracted suffering of his youth was being articulated in his penmanship.

[Stephen's psycho chicken scratch]
Stephen’s psycho chicken scratch

The bar was well stocked and the bar staff were attentive. I ordered a Guinness. It came in a tall, skinny pint glass, or beer flute I suppose you’d have to could call it. Guinness is something that is easy to fuck up depending on how adept the establishment is at finding the correct balance of nitrogen and carbon dioxide and the condition of the line from the keg to the tap. Amazingly, this was probably the best Guinness I’d ever had. I don’t know if this is an indictment of how bad the Guinness is at the bars I frequent, or if Galapagos actually just serves really good Guinness. It tasted so good, in fact, three of them had slid down my gullet before I knew what happened.

[the host Stephen Elliot]

Since Mr. Swofford was a no-show and I had now met Stephen, I was really just waiting to see David Rees. Janice Erlbaum read an excellent story called “Bead Lady Gets A Chirp” about her work with adolescent girls at a shelter. Her depiction of the girls communicating with each other through the two-way feature of their cell phones was priceless. Since she makes bead necklaces with the girls, they call her “Bead Lady”. You can read the entire story at her blog, girlbomb.typepad.com. Here’s my favorite part:

Brrip!
“Bead Lady up there?”
Brrip!
“What you think?”
(Silence.)
Brrip!
“Yo, give Bead Lady a shout for me.”
I duck my head so I can smile furiously behind my hair. I have been shouted at. I have been chirped. And you know us white people — we love it when you chirp us.

I believe Adrienne Miller read an excerpt from her book, “The Coast of Akron”, but to be completely honest, I didn’t pay attention to one goddamned word she said. Adrienne Miller is skinny as hell and I couldn’t stop staring at her. She’s clearly a very attractive woman, but her top was too tight for me to concentrate on anything else. She stood in a perfect and unmoving contrapposto the entire time she read. Her small breasts were as equally unmoving, firmly pressed against her ribcage beneath her red cellophane-tight, spaghetti-strapped top. My first thought was that she was entirely too thin. Then I thought about it a bit and decided it was probably pretty hot. Then I quickly went back to thinking that, No, she was in fact frightfully thin. I wondered what it was like to have sex with someone that thin. Would it be Ethiopian-weird, or don’t-fuck- me-too-hard-I’m-fragile-weird? I guessed maybe it could be cool because it would be easier to feel like the man in the situation. But is that really what guys think when they have sex with skinny girls? Why are we attracted to the skinny ones? If we’re attracted to features that are genetically superior, like athletic builds and healthy breasts, what’s with thinking beanstalk girls are hot? I was pretty sure I’d be able to completely fit each of her breasts in my hands. Despite her thin arms, her shoulders were broad, giving her upper body the overall appearance of a perfect square while she read. Her red top was also very squarish and then I realized that she looked to be composed entirely of rectangular shapes. Maybe it’s because I’m a geek and I’m fascinated by rudimentary shapes and spatial relations, but the geometry of her appearance was actually quite pleasing. If she were in a step-by-step drawing book, she’d be started out by sketching a few very satisfying rectangles and squares. She didn’t flinch while she read. It’s like she was a soldier. I started to feel guilty. She’s reading and all I’m thinking about is how tight her shirt is. But she knew what she was wearing when she put it on. So it wasn’t completely my fault I was fixated on it, right? William T. Vollmann said in an interview once that readings exist for two reasons only: for the gratification of the author’s ego and for the author to get laid. I wondered if this was true too for female authors and Adrienne just wanted to meet a nice guy. I didn’t see any harm in that. But I couldn’t get over the fact that I was certain she would put her writing before her appearance and would probably be pretty upset that all I remembered about her reading was how thin she looked and how tight her top was. (For the record, I immediately tried to buy her book a few days later, as a penance for being such a pig, and to at least have something to say about her writing, but alas, her book won’t be on bookstore shelves until May.)

[the skinny Adrienne Miller]

[Adrienne Miller's author photo I stole off Amazon]

A real surprise treat was Jonathan Ames. He read a story called “No Contact, Asshole!” about his experience being with a dominatrix and her transvestite boyfriend. The best line of the reading was this: “Then it ended the way these things usually end: Somebody gets a paper towel and you wish you were never born.” The story ends with him struggling with his feelings of guilt, but also the love he feels while playing with his young son and the other children in a municipal swimming pool while his son’s grandmother looks on. The story was funny as hell and Jonathan’s delivery was wonderfully deadpan, like Steven Wright, but bald and with blonde eyebrows. Jonathan is compared to David Sedaris a lot, but I found him to be more Bukowski-like, which is a good thing in my book. At the end of his reading, he made a very strange sound three times called the “hairy call“—something he said he and his friends would use to alert each other that they were being attacked by the normal kids. It sounded like a cross between a duck call and a Klaxon. Go to the previous link to hear the sound.

[the scatalogical Jonathan Ames]

Once David Rees took the stage, he was even better than I had imagined. He was a tall, white guy with dark, brown, parted hair that stood high, in the spirit Jim Jarmusch. He wore a brown suit, like the one I’m sure he wore to the interview he had for the cubicle-dwelling job I feel he might still have. For me, the hair is what really made it. He presented his comic strips on transparencies with an overhead projector. He read the captions exactly the way I imagined he would, and I have to tell you it was all very satisfying. It’s not like watching someone read is anything more than colossally boring, but there’s just something cool about seeing someone read their own work. I already know the Get Your War On comic strips pretty damn well, so it’s not like much of what he showed us was new to me, but all I was really doing was watching him—his body language, his tone, his inflection, his gesticulations. I already knew the message, I just wanted to see the actor. Maybe that’s why I paid so little attention to what Adrienne Miller was saying. I’ve never been a very good auditory learner.

[the wicked-funny David Rees]

Voltron comic 1, 18-FEB-02

Voltron comic 4, 18-FEB-02

Generals comic 1, 20-MAR-06

After the readings, I bought “Get Your War On II” and Jonathan Ames’s book, “I Love You More Than You Know”. While I got Jonathan to sign my copy of his book, I busted out a quick bit of shameless self-promotion and told him about my own book. He was nice and asked me what my experience was like publishing my first book. I told him I felt a little lost in the sauce, being with such a large publisher. He told no author ever thinks their publisher is doing enough for them. What’s funny is a few days later when I was reading his book, I realized that what he said to me, almost word for word, was in one of his essays. I wanted to call him up immediately to tell him how funny I thought he was for doing that, but I realized I don’t know him well enough to do that, and besides, I have no idea what his number is.

[Jonathan Ames's autograph]

I also was able to grab David Rees just as he was leaving. By this time I was slightly drunk and I felt no shame asking him to draw Voltron in my copy of his book. When you’re drunk, telling David Rees, “FUCKING VOLTRON, MAN!”, you think it’s quite hilarious, but later you realize you probably sounded like a dick. He had a hat on at this point, which I found very disappointing, because I wanted to have another look at his awesome hair. I also gave David my quick spiel about my book. Once he realized I was the guy who had a blog who got in trouble with the Army, his face kind of lit up and the recognition made me feel good. Again, I was too drunk or maybe just too dumb to realize he was probably thinking about Colby Buzzell or Leonard Clark. I wish more than anything I could have hung out with him, but he looked eager to leave.

[David Rees's autograph]

Once the readings were done, all the authors, even Stephen, left fairly quickly. I was hoping everyone would hang out for hours afterward, getting drunk and talking shit, but I guess this isn’t the case with readings. I stayed and had another Guinness. It was their loss, really. After the reading, the next act was a burlesque show hosted by a Freddie Mercury impersonator who juggled.

the burlesque dancers

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

The stuff I’m talkin’ about:

Happy Baby, by Stephen ElliottI Love Your More Than You Know, by Jonathan Ames
Girlbomb, by Janice ErlbaumThe Coast of Akron, by Adrienne Miller
Get Your War On II, by David Rees


April 24, 2006

Cursive; Tilly and the Wall

Filed under: Music — Jason Christopher Hartley @ 3:54 am

I have to admit something. I occasionally love the upbeat, the semi-saccharine, and other generally happy stuff I often pretend disgusts me. Like many things, I blame this on my parents. I think it’s because I was raised watching 1950’s musicals. It’s the weirdest fucking thing, but synchronized singing and dancing gives me inexplicable joy. Anyway, my dirty secret is that I sometimes love art with a positive message. The irony is that I have the utter inability to create anything so positive, but that’s another story.

I know I’ve pretty much always been a closet part-time appreciator of happy things, but it wasn’t until I returned from combat that I decided I would indulge in this feeling more often. Mostly, it comes in the form of music. I suspect that when you are a young, white suburban male, you cultivate your angst simply to have something to do. You listen to Nine Inch Nails religiously because it’s like pretending you have a wound just so you can lick it. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll probably never fully remove the smell of “stale incense and old sweat” from my life or abandon my angst-ridden roots. I just sometimes remember that my real roots are with Gene Kelly, Danny Kaye, and Julie Andrews.

On this note I would like to share some of my recent musical discoveries. Since I spend an inordinate amount of time on my computer, I am constantly looking for new music. Music has played a huge part in my writing, mostly in the form of indirect inspiration. And also background noise to help my wandering mind concentrate. Most of the early writing I did for Just Another Soldier was done while I listened to “De-Loused in the Comatorium” by The Mars Volta (the only CD I took with me), then later “Give Up” by The Post Service, and “Absolution” by Muse. When I returned and had a deadline to finish the manuscript, The Arcade Fire fueled my frantic days and helped keep at bay a lot of the sometimes- overwhelming anxiety I felt.

There are a lot of mp3s I plan on sharing with you, but for now I will start with something fairly appropriate. Cursive is a four-piece from Omaha, Nebraska and “The Ugly Organ” is there fifth full-length album, released in 2003. Their earlier work is a little too screamo for my tastes, but Organ has a maturity and complexity that satisfies my need for angst, grown up. “Art Is Hard” is lyrically a self-effacing take on the creative process through its absurdity and misery. Musically it feels to me like that last concerto played onboard a sinking ship you can’t help but dance along to in ecstatic commiseration.

Omaha must have the most incredible music scene. Or maybe it’s just Connor Oberst’s inexhaustible optimism flooding over the young musicians in the area. Like Cursive, Tilly and the Wall is another band born from kids in Omaha with boundless energy and delightful talent. Often eschewing drums for tap dancing as percussion, the 2003 album “Wild Like Children” gives me that feeling I usually only get when I see unlikely groups of characters burst into song and dance in film. Young hipster girls I wish I knew singing in chorus with young hipster boys I wish I could be as creative as—I swoon. I’ve always preferred rudimentary drumming over epic rock opera fifty-five piece ten-minute drums solos. The simplicity of the beats and sparse melodies put the focus where it should be—on the vocals. I know I shouldn’t have had to return from combat to know that it’s okay that it feels good to feel good, but damn, Tilly and the Wall makes me feel good.

Take a listen:
Cursive – Art is Hard (mp3)
Tilly and the Wall – Fell Down the Stairs (mp3)
Tilly and the Wall – Nights of the Living Dead (mp3)

The stuff I’m talking about: