1) Mendoza Line, "Lost in Revelry" (Misra)
From Georgia, the sound of people who expect nothing, don't even necessarily think they deserve more and nevertheless want everything: a lifetime guarantee and an airtight alibi, as the Tubes once put it; "A damn good disguise to live this one down," as they put it. With Shannon McArdle rising bar by bar out of the perfect picking of "Whatever Happened to You?" there is the sweetness of Brinsley Schwarz; there is the doubting undertow of Richard and Linda Thompson. The sound of people in love with each other and not trusting each other: On "We're All in This Alone" you could be listening to the Mekons, if the Mekons had come out of the U.S.A. At its unpolished best, as on "Red Metal Doors," the music moves by like traffic. Male and female voices throw the songs back at each other -- "Mistakes were made tonight," as they warble over fuzztone -- but there's no end to the game. And there is, on the back of the press release, in the form of a look back over the last few years, a manifesto:
"The seller," the band writes, "could not sell without guilt, the buyer could not buy without shame ... And after a certain period of buying, day after day, at the most exorbitant prices, all that we would never have wished to be given as a gift, the relationship between our shopkeepers and us began to seem surprisingly antagonistic. Were our merchants, it crossed our minds more than once, actually trying to kill us?" Then the band turns into the sellers, selling its music: "From the sad sacks who made it, to the sad sacks who bought it ... or has anyone doubted that the consumer has been viciously and systematically tricked all these years? Really? And did you really believe that the consumer himself didn't know?" The band finishes: "We must accurately reflect the real burden and real struggle of America, the essential question which only an American asks and only an American can answer: namely, what have you done with the relatively limitless freedom and prosperity which you've been given as a gift?" For people who named themselves for the batting average beneath which one sinks into oblivion to become one with, as Dostoevski put it in "The Grand Inquisitor," "those God forgets" (i.e., .200), they are beginning again from the beginning; the heartland may be wherever they happen to be playing tonight.
2) Christopher Hitchens, "For Patriot Dreams" (Vanity Fair, December)
After describing his attachment to New York and his return, following the destruction of the World Trade Center, to lecture "newly enrolled New School students, some of whose parents wanted them back in the heartland, that they'd be sorry forever if they abandoned the city at such a time," the British journalist, for whom "heartland" is only English for "unserious place where rubes live," turned his readers into just those rubes, asking himself, or rather asking his readers to ask him, "Shall I now take out the papers of citizenship? Wrong question. In every essential way, I already have." Or, as the guy with an American flag flying from his SUV and a FDNY cap on his head said when a kid asked him, "Gosh, mister, are you really a New York fireman?": "Son, in every essential way ..."
3) Loudon Wainwright III, "Last Man on Earth" (Red House)
Over these many years, a little of Wainwright has gone a long way. Inside his funny upper-middle-class folk music he's so naked about his embarrassments his forced rhymes can embarrass the listener -- maybe that's what goes a long way. But here gruesomely autobiographical tunes dig in, until you want more than anything for the singer to find his way out of his misery. You root for him to escape his loneliness, the shadow of his mother's death, his failures, his dodgy cult audiences, to get out of bed.
4) Neal Pollack & the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, "The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature" (Bloodshot)
The idea is good: In a package designed as a parody of the hallowed Harry Smith "Anthology of American Folk Music," Kelly Hogan, Sally Timms and Jon Langford spin old-timey fiddle spells as McSweeney's-designated parody of the great American writer reads his parodies of great American writer blather -- from the sound of his voice, because he had nothing better to do after being turned down for a part in "Swingers." Unbearable.
5) Robert Salladay, "Media Pack Keeps Condit on Tightrope" (San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 12)
On Rep. Gary Condit's appearance at a candidates' forum at the Branding Iron Restaurant in Merced, Calif.: "Condit offered only his now-famous Chiclet smile and silence to reporters' questions about the Levy controversy ... It had been another strange hour for Condit, who sat quietly during most of the luncheon, occasionally suppressing a smile at the assembled competition. That included Paul Yonker, a very intense-looking Vietnam veteran carrying a folded American flag. 'I believe it's time to go back to the moon,' said Yonker, a Republican rancher from Mariposa, which is outside Condit's 18th congressional district. 'They had a biosphere. It worked in the Southwest. Let's go to the moon. I believe in the flag amendment.' Others included Elvis Pringle, a Los Angeles record producer who said he wanted to build a space center in the Central Valley but offered absolutely no details; a college professor who talked so fast that he was almost unintelligible; a San Jose gas station manager who read ... his ... speech ... very ... slowly; and a former state assemblyman whose remarks consisted of quoting the Constitution and singing Lee Greenwood's 'God Bless the USA' in its entirety."
6 & 7) Buddy & Julie Miller, "Buddy & Julie Miller" (Hightone)
Country singers and writers, currently the toast of New York, and striking -- especially for Julie Miller's shredded punk vocals, which can keep the slickness of the arrangements at bay for only so long.
8) Mirah, "Cold Cold Water" (K single) and "Advisory Committee" (K)
Mirah, a Pacific Northwest singer who used to go by the unwieldy but untoppable name Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlya, is as modest as Chan Marshall of Cat Power, and more insinuating -- her high voice makes it unnecessary for her to spend the first moments of each number burning off her own pretentiousness. "Cold Cold Water" is haunting, but it could also be someone looking out the window and thinking of the Temptations' "I Wish it Would Rain." The song leads off "Advisory Committee," which is full of experiments with tone, tempo and orchstrations that leave their songs behind -- a record that feels as if it were recorded too soon.
9) J.F. Bizot, "Underground: L'Histoire" (Editions Denoël, Paris; available through amazon.fr)
The strangest item in this oversize compendium of mostly '60s-'70s lore -- mostly drawn from the pages of the magazine Actuel -- has to do with pictures the late Dutch photographer Ed van der Elsken made in Paris in 1952 and collected in his classic 1957 photo-novel "Love on the Left Bank." He frequented a bar called Moineau's, where then assembled a group of sometime artists and would-be revolutionaries who named themselves the Lettrist International: the "provisional microsociety" chronicled in Jean-Michel Mension's recent memoir "The Tribe." On the edges of their tiny milieu -- their table -- was an Australian siren named Vera.
Like many other men, van der Elsken was obsessed with her, shooting her dancing with Africans in nightclubs, undressing, looking at her breasts in a mirror. As in the picture of her on Page 21 of "Underground," her head thrown back theatrically, everyone looking at her as if she's crazy, van der Elsken dramatized Vera as the ultimate bohemian, saint of her own self-destruction, doomed to forever wander the paths of desire and folly -- until 1960, anyway, when as Bizot's puckish research proves she turned up on the cover of an album by ultimate professional San Francisco bohemian Rod McKuen. His "Beatsville" featured not only "The Co-Existence Bagel Shop Blues," "What Is a Fabian" and the fabled "The Beat Generation" (which in 1977 Richard Hell & the Voidoids turned into "The Blank Generation"), but also a painting of van der Elsken's Vera beaming her kohl-rimmed eyes at the would-be purchaser as an existentialist version of McKuen stared into his wineglass. She deserved better -- an appearance sometime in the '70s in the stunning van der Elsken photo of a naked couple fucking on their farm as, on a side road, a car rolls by oblivously, a picture that takes up all of Page 142 of Bizot's book. Which, for all you can tell, she got.
10) Cable TV in Hampton Inn & Suites, Columbus, Ohio (Jan. 8)
On nearly 100 channels there's no hint that it's Elvis Presley's 67th birthday (I missed the evening news, where Gov. Bob Taft, also born on Jan. 8, would have been mugging with Elvis impersonator Prentice Chaffin). But there is everything else. It's a utopia of repetition and reversal, repeats and revision, a nirvana of self-referentiality where you've long since committed half of what is set before you to memory, word for word, and are ready for everything else: a never-seen "Law and Order" starring Harris Yulin as a thieving physicist click a "Seinfeld" I can't tell if I've seen or not click click click one painful scene after another from "Saturday Night Fever" click the cliff-jump and click "Cheers" click "N.Y.P.D. Blue" click the final shootout from "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" ("For a moment I thought we were in trouble") click a relentless "Mad TV" trailer for "Leaving Metropolis," with Nicolas Cage playing Superman as a stinking drunk click Faith Hill searching for her birth mother click to the void: Shania Twain, surrounded by thousands of screaming fans and perhaps half a dozen cameramen, barking out "Rock This Country," cantering from one circus-like ring to another. Like a horse, she can count her steps but she has no sense of rhythm; she can't sing, but she can tease; she isn't pretty, but she appears representing so much money the idea is hard to form. To call the production cynically organized is to beg the question; sealed in silver Spandex, Twain's body is organized even more cynically -- but not as cynically as her brace of fiddlers. Sawing away on bodiless, digitalized instruments, they appear in the midst of this extravaganza of trickle-down glamor merely as a sign of the traditional: to prove that the old ways are the best, if that's all you can afford. By then it was past 2, I was ready for "Videodrome," but it wasn't on.