Sunday, January 31, 2010

Just call him "Honest Mukul"

Mukul Asaduzzaman: 21st-century Abe Lincoln, only he's from Bangladesh rather than Illinois. (No smart-aleck remarks about the honesty or lack thereof displayed by more recent vintages of Illinois politicians, please...)

Nothing funny about this story; I just am always glad to run across stories of persons behaving virtuously.

In That Case, Where Did I Leave The Red Card? Dept

Key quote: "He said he had no idea how the red lacy knickers got in his pocket."

Now That's A Comeback Dept

demotivational posters
HT: deMotivational Posters

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Sally inadvertently reveals that she has been paying less attention in Texas history class than her father might have liked

Sally is talking to her grandmother on her dad's telephone as they drive through the Texas night...

SALLY: ...and we learned about Sam Houston and Sandy Anna.

DAD: Um, Sally, I believe that's Santa Anna.

SALLY [dismissively]: Yeah, whatever her name is.

Two books that you absolutely should read...

...unless you suffer from an unfortunate and deep-seated aversion to memoirs, especially memoirs that (unlike political memoirs) are actually written by the person who claims to be writing them.

Sophie Williams, Escape into Danger: A World War II Memoir (New York: Mir Collection, 2009).

Georg von Trapp [yes, the Sound of Music captain], To the Last Salute: Memories of an Austrian U-Boat Commander, translated and with an introduction by Elizabeth M. Campbell [Georg's and Maria's granddaughter] (Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 2007).

We begin with Ms. Williams.

I received this book as a gift from a co-worker of mine, who told me, "My friend has published a book and you have to read it." I thanked her for it and took it with me when I went out for lunch alone that day, figuring I'd read a few pages. A hundred and fifty pages later, having already missed one business meeting and being in severe danger of missing a second, I forced myself, with a mighty effort of will, to close the book and go back to work. I spent the rest of the afternoon failing miserably to get anything done, while wondering (in the middle of conversations nominally about software configuration) whether young Sophie had wound up with Aleksandr or Guido or Otto or none of the above, and how long it was going to take her to figure out that Herr Mannheim had hell's own crush on her, and, most of all, whether Sophie's mom and Tetya Valya and even (ludicrous as it seems) Sophie herself -- were they going to survive? Now, obviously, Sophie survives, because she wrote the book. But her retelling is so vivid, and the book so successfully transports the reader back into the world of Sophie's youth, that your imagination doesn't trust what the cold logic of your intellect is telling you. Sophie is so clearly in danger, that your imagination cannot accept that she is safe.

Sophie's is one of the all-time great stories, one of those true stories that no fictional writer could ever sell convincingly because some life goes beyond what art can imitate. It would be grossly irresponsible for me to fill this review with spoilers; but that very greatly limits what I can say, for the story itself is moving and thrilling and tense and emotionally complex. And there isn't much to say about the style, because Williams employs the perfect style for such a story: a simple, unpretentious, never-mannered diction that simply tells her story and stays out of the way. For this story you don't want a Nabokov or a Poe; you want a Hemingway. I have no idea whether Williams could have filled her book with stylistic beauties and flourishes that would stop you in your tracks and make you say, "Oh, I have to remember that phrase; it's perfect." I know only two things: (a) she doesn't, and (b) if she had, it would have been disastrous. The last thing this epic tale needs, is a style that constantly distracts you from the story Williams is telling by calling attention to the way in which Williams is telling it. Whether Williams chose the simple style deliberately, or whether she knows no other way to tell a story, is irrelevant: it is exactly the right style for this story.

Williams takes you back to the world of a teenaged Ukrainian Jewish girl caught in Ukraine's national nightmare of Nazi occupation -- yet the world Williams takes you back to, is not a nightmare world. Looking back sixty years later, with the wisdom of eighty years in her pocket, Williams manages to recreate for the reader the usually clueless but always charming teenager who was too busy falling in and out of love and friendship -- too busy living -- to be always dwelling on the Damoclean sword looming over her days. (Not, I hasten to say, that she never felt horror or fear. But the things that make life worth living...well, with death all around her, life kept breaking in.)

For example, Williams-as-narrator understands, and allows us to see, that Herr Mannheim could hardly decide whether he wanted to adopt Sophie or make her his mistress; his manner vacillates between the jealousy of a lover and the protectiveness of a father, and he clearly loved her passionately in both senses simultaneously. But Sophie had no clue; and his behavior is carefully painted through young Sophie's eyes -- we see as with double vision both how Sophie is interpreting his actions (for they are described from her teenaged perspective) and what his actions really mean (for we, the readers, are no longer teenagers ourselves). This is no mean feat for a first-time author writing in her fifth language.

In the end, however, I think it's the characters that most capture the reader's imagination and heart. Sophie's charm clearly had much to do with her ready acceptance of the people around her; slotting people into pre-existing classifications was not her nature as a teenager and is not her nature sixty years later as a narrator. As a consequence, she could see the individuals where other people would have seen labels; and her characters are both sharply and clearly drawn, and unlike any other characters you are likely to have met in literature. Williams makes clear the reasons that her father's first marriage was a disastrous failure and his second a lifelong success, for example, simply by setting down two conversations fifty pages apart: one in which her mother pours out her bitterness over her father's infidelities, and one in which her stepmother "Tetya Valya" tells, with immensely good-natured satisfaction, of having once temporarily thwarted them:
"...We are happy together. And this," [Tetya Valya] added with emphasis, "despite his occasional trespasses."

"His what? Trespassing means unlawful crossing of Soviet borders." I was perplexed and intrigued at the same time.

Tetya Valya laughed. "Your papa is no angel, that's what I meant. He has, or rather had a little black book where he kept addresses of the women he could visit while in Moscow. I found that book and obliterated certain entries. When my lovable Misha returned from his subsequent trip to the capital, the first thing he did when he stepped off the train was brandish his fist at me, saying with a grin, 'You spoiled my trip!' That's your papa." She shook her head with a little smile.
It takes a moment for Sophie to adjust; but only a moment, for she is no moralizer: her father was who her father was, her mother was who her mother was, Tetya Valya was who Tetya Valya was -- and Sophie loved them all.

To take another example: the most noble and honest and honorable and admirable character in the book, by far, is the Nazi senior officer Herr Mannheim. Is it possible that Herr Mannheim was responsible for atrocities that Sophie never knew of? I suppose so, though it is difficult to think so given his treatment of young Sophie and what we later learn of his family life, and certainly Williams gives us no reason to think that he was personally involved in such horrors as Babi Yar. What is clear, though, is that in all her own dealings with him, Sophie found him to be kind and gentle and protective and inflexibly honorable, even though Williams (looking back) knows herself to have been headstrong, clueless, and much less generous with her gratitude than he deserved. For the first time, I have read a book that describes in detail a Nazi officer, and have come away saying simply, "I wish I could have known that man."

A postscript to the review: I finished the book that first night, and came back to Marina the next day saying simply, "I have to meet this woman -- is there any way you can arrange for us to have lunch?" Lunch was duly arranged, and I have rarely spent a more enjoyable hour. Williams is in her mid-eighties now, but the lively charm that beguiled half the men she met still has all its force, and you are unlikely to meet anybody who more fully incarnates the phrase "joie de vivre." The world is a nicer place because Williams is in it; and how delightful to know that she has left behind this breathtaking and charming memoir to live on long after her friends lose her -- which God grant is not for many years yet.

I was going to follow that review up with a review of To the Last Salute, which is very similar to Escape into Danger in so many ways as to make them almost a two-volume compare-and-contrast gift set. But I think this post is long enough as it stands; and my kids are awake. So I'll come back later and talk about Captain von Trapp.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Well, that's one way to teach economics

I side with Hayek on this one -- Keynes was simultaneously one of the most intelligent men, and one of the most flatulently braying jackasses, of the twentieth century, and if you think that's a contradiction then you really don't have the slightest clue about what it is that determines whether a man will wind up wise or foolsih. (Hint: it ain't intelligence.)

But that's not why I'm embedding this video -- if it were, I'd be embedding it over on the political blog. I'm embedding it, and embedding it here, because, after a slow start (I beg you to give it time), this turns out to be a hilariously done rap video -- yes, I said "rap video" -- in which Keynes and Hayek get after each other, arguing about what causes boom-and-bust business cycles.


Look, the rappin' dudes are REALLY white in every sense (which of course Keynes and Hayek were), but the rap, which starts out about as lame as you would expect Keynes and Hayek to be, gets better and better as it goes -- the more wound up they get in the argument, the better they rap, which I presume was a deliberate artistic effect.

So without further ado, I give you Lord Keynes and "Freddie" Hayek.

Hat tip to Veronique over at The Corner.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Descartes' Proof That Blondes Do Not Exist... left as an exercise to the Gentle Reader.

Friday, January 22, 2010

And another doobie doobie doobie doobie doobidie day

That's two politicians whom I detest both slapped down seriously within the space of three days.

I consider that the universe is granting me a certain amount of ironic payback for a ballot choice it inflicted upon me some time back. Well done, universe. (I said more or less the same thing, about the same two guys, a while back; but this time I'm not being bitterly sarcastic.)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Why you don't amuse yourself by telling naughty jokes to young children who don't understand them

As every parent knows, it's because the child is stone-cold-guaranteed to repeat them. (You'll have to follow the link to see the child's letter because this blog is family-safe even when the naughty bits are written in #2 pencil.)

Paging Doctor Dolittle Frankenstein Dept

New rule: don't train your pet monkeys in taekwondo unless you're sure they really, really like you.

I Am Getting Ve..ry...Sleeee....pyyyy.... Dept

New list: "Things One Should Not Do In Front Of A Mirror"

First item on new list: "Practice hypnotizing people."

Cattle Transportation Win Dept

Some days you just have to be damn proud to be an Okie. (Thanks to Dan Kirtane, who for some reason thought I would be interested in this little item.)

Out of deference to the delicate sensibilities of city persons I have put the last picture in the series below the fold.below the fold.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Headline You Never Thought You'd See Of The Day Dept

Man Cited For "Rocking Out" To John Denver.

...I mean a doobie doobie doobie doobie doobidie day...

That's what it is. Though I won't say why on this particular blog.

I mean, I almost wore a tie to work in celebration. But I settled for a brown shirt.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

It's a mad, mad, mad, "unded" world

One, specifically, in which Christopher Lee fancies himself as a heavy metal star.

Hey, babe, sex, drugs and...Charlemagne????

Friday, January 15, 2010

I didn't remember coming up with this curse...

...but I still think it's a good one (originally directed at the engineer who thought manual "previous page" buttons were a good thing to put onto a laptop keyboard):

"May a thousand camels in succession use his face as a spittoon, and may they then each visit him a second time...walking backwards."

That's pretty good if I do say so myself.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Redneck Water Skiing Dept

Or, as Dave headlined it, "South Carolina: Land of Innovation."

And it's not just water-skiing those things are good for...

There, he fixed it

Granted, MacGyver probably woudn't have left the bait in the airplane to begin with, but still...this guy is my new hero.

HT: Dave, again.

Good Thing They Didn't Take The Elevator Dept

Presented without comment.

HT: Mister Barry

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A poem or two from Dorothy Parker

I was thrilled to discover another Dorothy Parker fan on the floor, when Jennifer Baker came over to remind us of Parker's answer when challenged to use the word "horticulture" in a sentence. Parker's instant response: "You can lead a horticulture but you can't make her think." So then we got to swapping Dorothy Parker one-liners, and eventually even a couple of Dorothy Parker poems. My contribution:
One Perfect Rose

A single flow'r he sent me, since we met.
All tenderly his messenger he chose;
Deep-hearted, pure, with scented dew still wet -
One perfect rose.

I knew the language of the floweret;
'My fragile leaves,' it said, 'his heart enclose.'
Love long has taken for his amulet
One perfect rose.

Why is it no one ever sent me yet
One perfect limousine, do you suppose?
Ah no, it's always just my luck to get
One perfect rose.
The Red Dress

I always saw, I always said
If I were grown and free,
I'd have a gown of reddest red
As fine as you could see,

To wear out walking, sleek and slow,
Upon a Summer day,
And there'd be one to see me so
And flip the world away.

And he would be a gallant one,
With stars behind his eyes,
And hair like metal in the sun,
And lips too warm for lies.

I always saw us, gay and good,
High honored in the town.
Now I am grown to womanhood....
I have the silly gown.

Monday, January 11, 2010

I was satisfied with merely telling Sean and Kegan that the plot of "Avatar" was just "Pocahontas In Space"...

...but Matt Bateman (warning: very non-Baptist language at the link) got a lot more empirical:

Since that's probably too small to read, I'll transcribe it:
In 1607 2154, a ship carrying Johnake Smithully arrives in the lush "new world" of North America Pandora. The settlers are mining for gold unobtanium!, under supervision of Governor Ratcliffe Colonel Quaritch. John Smith Jake Sully begins exploring the new territory, and encounters Pocahontas Neytiri. Initially she is distrustful of him, but a message from Grandmother Willow the Tree of Souls helps her overcome her trepidation. The two begin spending time together. Pocahontas Neytiri helps John Jake understand that all life is valuable, and how all nature is a connected circle of life. Furthermore she teaches him how to hunt, grow crops tame dragons, and of her culture. We find that her father is Chief Powhatan Eytucan, and that she is set to be married to Kocoum Tsu'Tey, a great warrior, but a serious man, whom Pocahontas Neytiri does not desire. Over time, John Jake and Pocahontas Neytiri find they have a love for each other. Back at the settlement, the men, who believe the natives are savages, plan to attack the natives for their gold unobtainium. Kocoum Tsu'tey tries to kill John Jake out of jealousy, but he is later killed by the settlers. As the settlers prepare to attack, John Jake is blaned by the Indians Na'vi, and is sentenced to death. Just before they kill him, the settlers arrive. Chief Powhatan Eytucan is nearly killed, and John Jake sustains injuries from Governor Ratcliffe Colonel Quaritch, who is then brought to justice shot with arrows! yo. Pocahontas Neytiri risks her life to save John Jake. John Jake and Pocahontas Neytiri finally have each other, and the two cultures resolve their differences. IMHO - Matt Bateman

I'll probably do a review of Avatar, but I'll have to do it over at the politics blog, because the fact is that Cameron took a wonderfully, astonishingly, richly imagined and incarnated world...and, being in a position to tell absolutely any story he could possibly tell in that world, from any genre, with any point, the thing he was most eager to do...was to create a pathetic far-Left revenge-fantasy in which he could with the greatest of glee kill off, on-screen, as many American Marines (carefully and explicitly and repeatedly identified as such) as his little heart desired. It's a nakedly, shamelessly, and bordering-on-mentally-ill hate-driven political piece. What a tragic waste of a genuinely breathtaking and exhilerating product of a towering and powerful imagination.

But to discuss it in detail requires the sort of post that I have banished to the political blog.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

The Devil's Dictionary: Logic (n.)

The art of thinking and reasoning in strict accordance with the limitations and incapacities of the human misunderstanding. The basis of logic is the syllogism, consisting of a major and a minor premise and a conclusion -- thus:

Major Premise: Sixty men can do a piece of work sixty times as quickly as one man.

Minor Premise: One man can dig a post-hole in sixty seconds; therefore --

Conclusion: Sixty men can dig a post-hole in one second.

This may be called the syllogism arithmetical, in which, by combining logic and mathematics, we obtain a double certainty and are twice blessed.

The Devil's Dictionary: Lock-and-key (n.)

The distinguishing device of civilization and enlightenment.

[The Peril notes that it is hard to have a high opinion of any place -- Houston, for example -- where, unlike the small town of his youth, it is necessary to have a working lock on the back door of one's home, which feature was absent from the young Peril's own home until he was at least fifteen or sixteen years old, even though he grew up on the main street in his home town.]

The Devil's Dictionary: Liberty (n.)

One of Imagination's most precious possessions.

The Devil's Dictionary: Liar (n.)

A lawyer with a roving commission.

The Devil's Dictionary: Leonine (adj.)

Unlike a menagerie lion. Leonine verses are those in which a word in the middle of a line rhymes with a word at the end, as in this famous passage from Bella Peeler Silcox:
The electric light invades the dunnest deep of Hades.
Cries Pluto, 'twixt his snores: "O tempora! O mores!"
It should be explained that Mrs. Silcox does not undertake to teach the pronunciation of the Greek and Latin tongues.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Bering Strait

I almost drove to Nashville today just to hear an hour's worth of of my all-time favorite bands, Bering Strait, which broke up several years ago before I ever got to hear them live, is getting back together for one evening tomorrow night to raise money for their old manager's medical bills. There were challenges to be solved because of my family situation, but I was going to solve them and go anyway; but in the end it occurred to me that spending a couple hundred dollars on gas in order to donate $15 to Mr. Kinnamon was sort of missing the point and that it would be far more in the spirit of the evening to just send the gas money in as a short, I was being pretty selfish. And once God had pointed that out to me...well, I'm sending 'em the money and not going, which will at least relieve the minds of those of my friends who were unhappy about the idea of my sleeping in the back of my pickup truck at an Interstate rest stop in the middle of a snowstorm. (Which was OF COURSE one of the major attractions of the whole trip -- do you know how long it's BEEN since I slept outside in the snow in my trusty old Eskimo-style sleeping bag??? [disconsolate sigh] -- but I understand that the female 50% of my acquaintanceship would have worried about my safety...I would say "about my safety and sanity" except they gave up on the sanity bit a long time ago.)

But I've been listening to all Bering Strait all the time for the last couple of days, and you know what? I don't think "one of my favorite bands" is right. I think it's pretty much my favorite band, full stop. And when I went back to look up the old blog posts in which I reviewed their stuff, I was appalled to discover that my review of their first album was sent to a mailing list rather than posted on my blog, and is irretrievably lost.

So, since I presume that Mr. Kinnamon continues to earn royalties whenever one of those two albums sells, and since I presume that most of my Gentle Readers like good music, and since I therefore conclude that everybody wins if every Gentle Reader buys every available Bering Strait (or alumna) album...because of all this, I'm going to do a full review of Bering Strait's entire body of work, including Natasha Borzilova's recent solo album (I'm still waiting for Lydia Salnikova's and will tell you when it becomes available). Express version:

Buy the original album, Bering Strait.

Also buy the second album, Pages.

Also buy lead singer Natasha Borzilova's solo album, Cheap Escape.

Also buy the DVD documentary, The Ballad of Bering Strait.

Short version:

Bering Strait was, in the end, too talented to fit into their commercial radio format. They did Nashville pop about as well (in my opinion) as anybody has done it, and songs like "The Trouble with Love" are very high on my all-time Nashville singles favorites list. But I think those of us who fell head-over-heels for the band, did so for the sake of the songs that never had a chance to get airplay on KASE 101. Their Grammy-nominated instrumental number "Bearing Straight," for example, is five and a half minutes long...guess what, no airplay. The leap-out-of-your-chair-and-commence-to-foot-stomp bluegrass number "Porushka-Paranya" is in Russian, and even though it was (I am given to understand) a crowd favorite in concerts...guess what, no airplay. Same with the delightful experiment in waxing and waning harmonic richness and intensity that is "Oy, Moroz, Moroz" Russian, guess what, no airplay. And the astonishing "Safe In My Lover's Arms," which I can only describe, very inadequately, as haunting Slavic-Appalachian fusion...well, once you've heard the song, you'll agree that the world needs more haunting Slavic-Appalachian fusion music, but also that no Nashville-oriented KASE clone is going to give haunting Slavic-Appalachian fusion any significant air time.

It seems obvious to me that what Bering Strait tried to do, was to include enough commercially viable music on each album to underwrite the cuts that were uniquely their own. And the commercial stuff should have done well; but then we all know that public taste is mysterious and unpredictable. I don't know why "The Trouble With Love" or "I Could Be Persuaded" didn't catch on with the public. Alas, they didn't, and the experiment failed, and the band members eventually went their separate ways. But they left us two top-notch albums, and based on Cheap Escape I'd say we can hope for plenty more music in the years to come, at least from Natasha and Lydia individually.

Now, for the rest of the post, what I thought I'd do is just arrange the cuts in the order of my preference, from the one or two that I generally skip past, all the way up to my very favorite cut, which, let's preserve the suspense, shall we? So, from #34 up to #1, here we go, countin' 'em down.


Four cuts out of the thirty-four just don't particularly work for me. Not that it's painful for me to sit and listen to them -- I wouldn't turn down the radio if they came on -- but it's just bland Nashville pop that I skip on the iPod because there are better Bering Strait songs to listen to. (But hey, thirty out of thirty-four is a pretty good batting average.)

#34. "It Hurts Just a Little" (Pages). Doesn't work for me. Sounds like they needed an extra song to fill up the album and had this one lying around.

#33. "Long Time Comin'" (Pages). Nothing objectionable, nothing memorable.

#32. "Like a Child" (Bering Strait). Nothing particularly wrong with it, but nothing particularly right with it, either. I think this particular recording may have sentimental value for the band members, as it was from one of their earliest live shows in the U.S. Doesn't have any sentimental value for me, though.

#31. "Cruel Man" (Bering Strait). A couple of nice lyrical twists ("He doesn't care about my pain, only brings it") but not enough to keep me from skipping ahead to one of the 30 better cuts.

Nice, solid cuts that I don't usually skip

#30. "Jagged Edge of a Broken Heart" (Bering Strait). A good, solid broken-heart country song, more Nashville than Austin. Some nice lyrical touches ("every night's a different shade of blue") but somehow the image of the "jagged edge of a broken heart" seems a bit strained.

#29. "Only This Love" (Bering Strait). A nice, pleasant, peaceful, unlabored little love song that would be nice to listen to on the front porch at sunset with the girl you've been happily married to for ten years or so sitting next to you on the front porch swing. Unless you find steel guitars annoying, of course.

UPDATE: When I first wrote this post, "October Blue" came in a #28...but the last verse has really grown on me and it has been promoted up all the way up to #18.

#27 #28. "Pages" (Pages). "We've made it this far; wonder what we'll make of the rest of what's to come?" Now take that basic sentiment, have a good poet rework it into a meditation cast in the metaphor of a book half-written, find yourself a really good country band that does nice tight vocal harmonies, and you have yourself a winner.

#26 #27. "I'm Angry" (Cheap Escape). I don't think Borzilova is still angry (I think I remember reading that she wrote this number before she was old enough to drink at any bar the band might play at), but she was plenty pissed off when she wrote this one, and it's got lots of edge to it. The girl isn't just a musician; she's also a poet (as in, she writes poems that are intended to stand alone rather than be set to music), and her solo stuff is lyrically hard-edged without commercial compromise. I don't know how many songs have tried to capture the feeling of being furious with the guy you're in love with yet not being interested in getting out of the relationship, but thanks to Borzilova there's at least one song that has captured it successfully.

#25 #26. "Something I Never Knew About Love" (Cheap Escape). There's no better way to clue you in to what this song is about than to simply quote the chorus, with which Borzilova opens the song:
I just found out something I never knew about love
It always tries to slip away
Things are only get worse --
That's what you said...
You never want to confuse the songwriter with the narrator, and I don't know much about Borzilova's personal history, but she does breakup songs awfully well. The album that begins with "I'm Angry" ends with a song in which she complains, in obvious bewilderment:
You gave up so fast
Guess I wasn't good enough
But I'll never know
Anyway, you're gone

#24 #25. "From Ankara to Izmir" (Pages). An instrumental jam session seven minutes long (well, 6:59). Doesn't have the energy that "Bearing Straight" does, but it isn't really supposed to; it's a much more meditative piece. You get the sense that it's late at night and the stage lights are low and the room is well and truly smoke-filled...this is country music that is straining toward soft jazz.

#23 #24. "Just Imagine" (Pages) -- thought for the first half of the first verse that it was a sappy paint-by-numbers utopia cut. But then it surprisingly turned out to be a broken-heart number with really nice three-part harmony and a pleasant melodic twist late in the chorus.

#22 #23. "What's For Dinner?" (Pages). A short little three-and-a-half minute instrumental, for which le mot juste is "fun." Whereas "From Ankara to Izmir" was their sort of "we could play in smoky jazz bars if we really wanted to..." number, this one is their "...but we're the same bunch that turned out 'Bearing Straight,' and we still got it" number. Not quite the lightening in a bottle that "Bearing Straight" was, but not every cut can be Grammy-nominated, and this one is plenty of fun. Which seems to have been the point; so, chalk this one up as a success.

#21 #22. "Fatal One Day" (Cheap Escape). To find yourself falling in love at the first few sights, but with somebody who doesn't seem to be particularly attracted to you in return...that's disconcerting and somewhat worrisome, and the music is accordingly pensive as she addresses the uncooperative gentleman. I particularly like the absence of false modesty in the lines: "Can't quite understand what seems to be the problem / Something's in the way of your attraction / But since we hardly spoke it must be on the surface / But that just makes no sense when I'm checking my reflection." [chuckling] For whatever reason, I find that delightful, especially since I'm sure Borzilova fully intended for us to note that the narrator's attraction to this guy is (at least so far) entirely "on the surface," though I don't think the narrator herself is meant to be aware of the fact.

#20 #21. "Last Touch" (Cheap Escape). My goodness, this girl can write lyrics. "I'm tied up with guilt to this man and this place...Lying to the one I don't love that is someone I can't live without...Somewhere between what I've done and what happens next..." The song captures remarkably effectively the complexity of emotion felt by the narrator as her marriage (or at least serious relationship) inevitably but slowly crumbles under the weight of an affair -- even while she knows the affair is just as doomed by the marriage as the marriage is doomed by the affair. ("To know that you're mine for an hour / feels like losing you for a lifetime.") And how refreshing to listen to a balladeer who knows in her bones that relationships that begin romantically wind up accumulating a lot of value and meaning in them that don't have anything to do with romance, and those additional values and meanings don't die obediently just because the romance has moved on to some Other Man. The music is simple; but relationships aren't, and...let's just say Borzilova didn't bother to dumb down the lyrics and emotions for the sake of airplay.

UPDATE: Naturally, despite the fact that I've been listening to this song for a year and thought I had it memorized, I listened to it again right after writing this post and thought -- "Hey, wait a minute...I think she's saying, 'Lying to the one I don't love that he's someone I can't live without,' not, '...that is someone I can't live without." I plugged in headphones, listened intently...well, son of a gun. And that changes the song, since "I can't live without him (even though I don't love him)" and "It's a lie that I can't live without him" are, um, sort of like, you know, direct opposites. Sheesh. And this is a bummer, because I like it better the other way; now it seems that she's sticking with him more out of guilt than because there's anything valuable left in the old relationship.

It also changes the emotional balance a little in another way: it heightens the fact that the narrator's defining characteristic is not confusion so much as it is simple dishonesty. Both relationships are doomed because she is lying to both men, and lying is a function of character, and character is destiny.

Hmmm...still interesting, but I'll have to let it sink in a bit. Might change the ranking of this one eventually. I'll leave it where it is for now, though.

Okay, the last time I realized that (a) I had misunderstood a word in the lyrics and therefore misinterpreted the song somewhat, and that (b) I liked the misinterpretation better...well, that was here, where I misread the Portuguese arrastar as arrestar. And it nagged at me enough that I eventually went and wrote my own lyrics. So I suppose I ought to write my own song about a guy who isn't really in love with his wife any more, and is in the middle of a passionate affair with his newly found soulmate, but there's still a lot he values about his marriage and family even though the romance is a more or less distant memory and...oh my God I'm channeling Mark Sanford!! Quick, quick, on to the next song!

#19 #20. "What Is It About You?" (Bering Strait). Boy, this one just almost makes it into the next category, except that every now and then I'll skip to another song. But usually not. Good, solid Nashville work.

Songs I never skip

#18 #19. "You Make Lovin' Fun" (Pages). Hey, they did a cover of something other than a traditional Russian folk song! -- and although when I saw the song title on the back of the album I thought, "Um...are you guys sure about this?", it turns out they knew what they were doing. They turned the number into a very characteristically Bering Strait song, and it works. They slow the tempo just a bit, add lots of legato in the vocals but stick a banjo (which of course God Himself can't play any way but staccato) underneath the smooth vocals for piquancy, and then of course they've got Borzilova/Salnikova doing the vocals. This one wavered back and forth between four stars and five and finally settled at five in the Peril playlist.

#28 #18. "October Blue" (Cheap Escape). I love the musical feel of the verses. The bridge doesn't quite work melodically as well as the verses do, but the drop-off isn't that big and I really like the interplay of instrument and voice in the verses. Also, I suspect that it helps that I've seen the sky over Kazakhstan in the fall; this is a song that feels set in Russia rather than Tennessee just because the sky, and especially the rather different shade of blue you get in the far north, defines the personality of the northern landscape so much more than it does in Tennessee or Kentucky or Oklahoma or Houston.

UPDATE: You know, in the last day or two this song has really grown on me. In the first version of this post "October Blue" was #28; it's now jumped up ten spots to #18. For some reason the last verse has started really hitting me more than it did at first. The point of the song, I should have said to begin with, is that the guy she's been in love with was briefly in love with her, too, but she can tell her charm is wearing off ("With all my ways memorized / I don't seem so new anymore"), and nothing she's tried has worked. So the last verse ends:'s all no use
I wonder, maybe I was born
To watch you run and follow you
So far I caught up only once
Under the vast October blue
Under the vast October blue
The image of catching up with him as a metaphor for getting him to fall in love, but then falling back behind in the race know, for some reason that's really started settling in. Too bad we can't do something about the musical weakness of the bridge...if this song were just the three verses and a poignant fiddle solo where the bridge is currently, it might start threatening for the Pantheon.

#17. "Cheap Escape" (Cheap Escape). Maybe I like this song better than most people because it reminds me a lot of my childhood and my family's way of making wonderful memories out of a life that never had much money in it. "Look / I found a couple of dollars under the lining / Oh, this could be great." In fact I'm the kind of guy who, when he's desperately in need of a vacation, comes up with idea of driving to Nashville for a one-hour concert as an excuse to get out of town, sleep in the back of the pickup truck, eat Russian-balogna sandwiches out of an ice this song works for me. I think it probably would work for other people, too, even those who like their vacations in Cozumel and Hawaii...but I don't know for sure.

#16. "I Could Be Persuaded" (Bering Strait). A lovely little falling-in-love country waltz. Simple and unpretentious and enjoyable. Alas for the disastrous fourth line:
I could be persuaded
To give my heart to you
If you promise not to break it
'Cause that's [oh, no, don't say "it's so easy to do"] so easy to do [aauuugghhhh! you said it!]
Really, that was my reaction the first time I heard the song. One of the very few genuinely lazy bits of song-writing out of what is otherwise a lyrically strong band. But once you get past that wince-able fourth line, it's a nice waltz.

(Your mission in the comments, should you choose to accept it: come up with a good fourth line to replace "'Cause that's so easy to do." Hint: try some word other than "do" -- "'Cause that's what men usually do," for example, is not an improvement. If you have to rewrite the third line as well, feel free.)

#15. "When Going Home" (Bering Strait). Situation: you fell wildly in love four weeks ago with a guy who fell just as wildly in love with you, and you told all your friends and family you'd found The One, and you flew to Austin to see him only to have it end as abruptly as it started...and now you've got between now and when your plane lands to figure out what the hell you're going to tell all the people waiting at home to hear how it all went. I don't know which band member came up with the idea for the song, but it's a great idea and they nailed it. (Imagine having three hours to "remember how forever felt / and then forget.") Oh, and the rest of the title phrase? "...when going home / feels like moving on."

#14. "Tell Me Tonight" (Bering Strait). As in, "Look, I know you love me; how come you keep not saying so?" Reminds me very much of the delightful dialogue in The Importance of Being Ernest as Gwendolyn strives womanfully to get "Ernest" to propose marriage so that she can accept him:
GWENDOLYN: Yes, Mr. Worthing, you have something to say to me?

JACK [in some confusion]: Well, yes, Gwendolyn, you know what I have to say to you.

GWENDOLYN [in deep exasperation]: Yes, but you don't say it.
So it's sort of the antithesis of the My Fair Lady number "Show Me"...

#13. "Matches" (Cheap Escape). I don't know what the memories are that the narrator intends to overcome and leave behind ("let me whisper screams I've kept all these years deep inside"), but this is a sure-handed poet at work, mixing a physical passage through a snow-bound landscape with an emotional passage into peace and health, in visually arresting images that leave you unsure (but it doesn't matter) where literal sense hands over the reins to metaphor. Or, rather, metaphor and literal meaning meet and kiss and weave in and around each other and what matters is the dance rather than the partners.

Look, I know I keep talking about Borzilova's lyrics, but that's because they're what sets her apart. The fact that she's enough of a composer to know exactly how to fit the music to the lyrics, and that God blessed her with a dark and expressive voice to breath life into them...well, those are bonuses. But we're talking about a lyricist who expects you to let phrases like, "I am cold / as the ice that is under my skin / (I) have no matches for the candle I carry within," sink in and take some time to work magic, and who has enough poetic skill to make it worth your while to cooperate.

#12. "Choose Your Partner" (Pages). There's nothing fancy about the idea, which is simply, "Life is happening and you're missing it; get away from the wall and join the dance." And while the music, in a nice 6/8, sets the mood exquisitely, still you wouldn't just hear the music and say, "Into the pantheon goes this song." But the goodness. A taste, from the opening stanza:
You sit all alone after sundown
You wait for your TV to run down
You slip off to bed
And fall off the edge of the same old dream
You wish you had someone to care for
Somebody that you could be there for
But time keeps on passing
And life is a habit you're scared to break...

#11. "I'm Not Missing You" (Bering Strait). This was the cut, on my first hearing of the Bering Strait album, when I realized, "Holy cow, somebody in this band has The Gift when it comes to lyrics." Consider the choice of telling detail in a verse like the following:
Got your sweater on
You know the one that I gave you that you never wore
Guess I'm better off
That you didn't like the color 'cause it keeps me warm...
A slow waltz in the time-honored tradition of proving that you miss somebody by saying how much you don't miss them; but I doubt anyone's done it much better than this.

#10. "Dear Diary" (Cheap Escape). The word "haunting" is overused, but this chronicle of a woman's attempt to deal with her lover's decision to break up with her, all but demands the term. A spare, sledgehammer-powerful song. Hard to imagine anything less Britney than this. (Britney Spears, you see, also had a song called "Dear Diary"...oh, never mind.)

#9. "I Could Use a Hero" (Bering Strait). Why, oh why, didn't this song climb way up the country charts? The back-and-forth between Borzilova and Salnikova on the verses, and the harmony on the chorus, and the violin soaring lonely above the urgent, not-quite-rock-tempo staccato of the base line, all put in service of lyrics that avoid the triteness of a typical Nashville lyric while still remaining accessibly rooted in pop culture...why wasn't this one a hit? I have no idea.

Songs that, if they come on the radio, I'll make everybody in the car stop talking until the song is over

#8. "Don't Stop" (Cheap Escape). I just love this song. Basically, the narrator is hopelessly and helplessly in love. I'm not sure I'd necessarily want to be in love with her, because if she had her way, the guy she loves would be the one who would be hopelessly and helplessly in her power rather than the other way around. That is, she believes in relationships with whip hands -- but she knows exactly who has the whip hand in this one, and it isn't her, and she isn't at all happy about it...but please God don't let the torture stop. "This heart refuses to resist...don't stop the torture, please!" The characterization is so deft, and the situation so clear and unmistakable...perfect.

Also, I have to say on a personal note, that the couplet, "On standby to disagree / And feisty just to be amusing" -- hey, as far as describing my high-spirited (and delightful) daughter Kinya perfectly in ten words or less, if that couplet doesn't do it, then it can't be done.

#7. "How Do You Do That?" (Cheap Escape). A delightful little piece that makes me want to just transcribe all the lyrics into this post and be done with it. In case you think Borzilova only does painful relationships, I give you this perfect image of a young woman dancing innocently and happily through her days on the wings of a perfect relationship with the perfect guy. The eye for the telling detail is here as well: "We're both late for work / but I've got your pockets for my freezing hands / this winter morning." Plus there's just something girlishly insouciant about the guileless lines, "Wouldn't you agree / I look better when I'm happy?"

And as always the music captures the mood of the lyrics perfectly.

The Pantheon

#6. "Ой, Мороз, Мороз (Oy, Moroz, Moroz)" (Pages). The band takes a simple old Russian folk song, starts it with a simple solo voice over a lone acoustic guitar, then begins to add layers of harmony and instrumentation. Four stanzas in, we've got three voices weaving in and out across each other and amongst a bandful of instruments driving the song forward with all the intensity of a lone rider far from home longing for the end of his journey, before the song fades back into a simple final stanza recapitulating the first one. This, my friends, is musicianship. You'll note, for example, that they have the musical tact to bring many of the new parts in halfway through a verse rather than mechanically stepping up parts between verses, and their use of instrumental bridges between the verses to heighten the mood is particularly effective.

On a personal note, I can tell you that this song, sung a cappella, is very very useful in the wee hours of the night when your housemates' three-year-old twins have woken themselves up with nightmares and need to be lullabied back to sleep. You pick one girl up in your left arm and one in your right, and you settle them with a head on each of your shoulders, and you waltz gently around the room while singing quietly, "Oy, moroz, moroz / nye moroz menya / nye moroz menya / moyevo konya." And by the last "moyevo konya" they're back which point you get to try to figure out how to put them back down into their beds without waking at least one of them up.

#5. "The Trouble With Love" (Bering Strait). This song just totally cracks me up. In fact, hang on a minute, because I have to go listen to it again...
So I said I had to have him
Then he stopped takin' my calls
When he was breakin' down my door
I didn't want him much at all
That's the trouble
The trouble with love

So I told him it was over
Said we couldn't be more than friends
One good-bye kiss, then another
There I was in trouble again
That's the trouble
The trouble with love

Seems like I'm either drownin' in it
Or just can't get enough
That's the trouble with love...
And not only do I defy you to listen to the song without smiling in amusement, I also defy you to listen to it without tapping your toes and/or attracting the attention of other drivers on the freeway.

#4. "Bearing Straight" (Bering Strait). This was the one that got nominated for the Grammy -- and yes, there are three songs that are better than this one. But it's a heckuva number all the same, allowing each member of the band multiple turns to step to the front of the stage and take the spotlight, and leaving no doubt that there's not a weak link in the entire ensemble. It opens as a furious, driving, pickin'-'n'-grinnin' showoff number for the lead guitarist and the banjo picker and the dobro, but then unexpectedly comes to an emphatic halt -- and turns into a slow, poignantly meditative piece that makes you (well, me, at least) think of mountain sundowns and a rocking chair well-earned by years of hard, honest labor. Once again the music dies away, and then the banjo quietly begins to set up a new beat, halfway in between the energy of the first movement and the calm of the second, and slowly the music builds back up to full strength and power before the band in effect fades off into the sunset, still playing away with all their energy and passion. It's almost six minutes and it's worth every second.

#3. "Real Fight" (Cheap Escape). Okay, I admit that there are other numbers on these three albums more musically and lyrically impressive than this one, and that my high ranking of this song is purely subjective. But I find it physically impossible to listen to this song without (a) trying to sing along with it and (b) failing because I keep having to stop to laugh. I don't know why I think this song is so hilarious (it's basic point is, "Okay, we're breaking up now, but as a parting gift I'm going to teach you what a real fight looks like," which doesn't sound funny but trust me on this one...). But I find it irresistible. The melody is just as quirky as the lyrics and the acoustic guitar lick that provides the musical signature for the piece, is hopelessly infectious. And how am I possibly supposed to resist a song whose opening two lines are:
Let's just admit that we're something that didn't work out
It's important that we both recognize your flaws
And on a more serious note, I think this song has a lyrical passage in it that goes to the heart of why Bering Strait, in the end, didn't make it commercially. I leave the lyrics to speak for themselves:
Some therapist could get rich off all the damage you've done
I'm guaranteed about twenty pretty awesome songs
But they don't get my music anywhere in this town
So I'll remain just as broke
But I will teach you a real fight
It'll be my last present for you-oo.

#2. "Порушка-Параня (Porushka-Paranya)" (Bering Strait). If you took a vote of my kids, this would be the champion Bering Strait song; indeed, as far as my kids are concerned, "Porushka-Paranya" laps the competition. I don't think I have ever -- not even once, not even now six or seven years after we first heard this song -- I don't think I've ever had this song pop up on the iPod playlist without having Sally and Rusty and Merry instantly let out a literal cheer of delight.

"Porushka-Paranya" is an old Russian folk song...sort of. As far as I can tell, it's a mishmash of three or four different old Russian folk songs that traded lyrics back and forth amongst themselves more or less promiscuously. I don't know whether Bering Strait reshaped the lyrics into their current form, or whether somebody else did, ten or fifty or a hundred years ago. (I suspect that Bering Strait tweaked them a bit; at the very least, they picked the best available version of the lyrics.) What I do know is that it was Bering Strait who realized that "Porushka-Paranya" was born to be Tennessee bluegrass, and turned it into a foot-stomper of a live number that...well, if you don't wake up and dance when this one plays, it's because you're dead, even if you don't know a word of Russian. Okay, I recently bought an old album by the Russian folk band Kukuruza, and to my surprise found the Bering Strait version of "Porushka-Paranya," except done by people who, um, aren't quite in the same skill class as Bering Strait. So let's give full credit (I mean this quite sincerely) to Kukuruza for figuring out what could be done with "Porushka-Paranya" -- and give credit to Bering Strait for actually doing it.

It remains true that when you turn Bering Strait loose on Kukuruza's rework of "Porushka-Paranya," what you get is a foot-stomper of a live number that...well, if you don't wake up and dance when this one plays, it's because you're dead, even if you don't know a word of Russian.

But not even "Porushka-Paranya" could make it to Number One. And this brings us to what is, in my opinion, the best song Bering Strait ever turned out:

#1. "Safe In My Lover's Arms" (Pages).

I don't know how to begin to describe this song, which is the first cut on Pages, and which I replayed at least five times before I managed to move on to find out what the rest of the album was like. If you remember the Sting/Alison Kraus song "You Will Be My Ain True Love," from Cold Mountain...well, start there. That's the only popular song I can think of that's even remotely like this astonishing piece. The instrumentation is provided by Salnikova's synthesizers in string orchestra mode, but this is a song that gambles entirely on Borzilova's and Salnikova's voices, and on their ability, without flourishes and on a simple minor-key melody, to carry a song by the sheer texture and richness of their sound. It's one thing to be able to hit exactly the right note; but to have a voice that through its timbre and tone can infuse a single long note with an aching sense of longing...only God can give you that.

For the entire first two verses the only beat is provided by Borzilova, over a single long sustained string chord. As the orchestra swells into the third verse and Salnikova's soaring soprano comes in above the dark, rich tones of Borzilova's melody, the longing in the song becomes almost numenous.

Look, here's the thing: I don't know what you're imagining right now from that description, but I can promise you that what you're imagining is not what you'll hear if you buy the album. All I can hope is that, having heard the song, you'll too be able to see what it is that I'm struggling hopelessly to capture here.


So there it is, from #34 down to #1.

Now go buy the albums. Don't just sit there; go git 'er done. Mike Kinnamon needs the money. And you need your life enriched by this music. Those albums, again:

Bering Strait (Bering Strait, 2003).

Pages (Bering Strait, 2005).

Cheap Escape (Natasha Borzilova, 2008).

The Ballad of Bering Strait (documentary, 2003).

Friday, January 01, 2010

Two Things We Know Dept

1. It's a male penguin.

2. This was a dare.

Good Point Dept

Smile Bear!
HT: (but be careful going to that site, as most of them are non-family/work-friendly).