Provincializm #15: Oxford American Music Issue

This week's obligatory William Bowers bio comes straight outta The Oxford American: "Mr. Bowers has two words for writing: limited success; two words for the meaning of life: expensive pretending, and two words for himself; aimless contrarian. He is currently at work on his first novel and a collection of short stories about the omnipotence of fast food. He does features, interviews, and reviews for Pitchforkmedia.com, Magnet, and is also a music reviewer for The Oxford American. He has fiction forthcoming in Open City." Sure, whatever they said.


Dylan, Dalton & Neil: About to bohem-orrhage
photo by Fred W. McDarrah

Provincializm #15: Infomercializm

by William Bowers

Facts: Fred Neil entertained himself by watching squirrels try to access nuts that he’d taped to a window. Karen Dalton cooked and ate rabbits from a Colorado university’s psych lab. Percy Mayfield wrote depressive R&B about such subjects as water calling him to drown; one track’s titled “Life Is Suicide.” The Red Crayola considered Zappa and the Velvet Underground “Vichy-puppet right-wingers.” R.E.M.’s first producer was the house bassist at an optimistic North Carolina jazz club that even Thelonious Monk couldn’t pack. Jimmie Rodgers spoke yodelese even at home with his wife. Teddy Grace’s real name: Stella Hurt. Jesse Winchester was in a frat with Bill Bennett. Van Dyke Parks scored Polar Bears: Arctic Terror. Parchman Farm had an inmate band for 36 years, and Junior Kimbrough’s son played in it. Italy and Germany “worship American rockabilly.” The Roches are, like, Emily Dickinson triplets and fill me with penislessness-envy. This year’s Oxford American Music Issue is as enriching as the very best of its eight prior editions.

Unseemly disclosure: I’ve a piece in the issue, and I’ve had a turbo-felicitous relationship with the OA as a contributor since 2001. But don’t let my conflicted interests taint your impression of a volume containing: A) a piece about how Katrina may have nudged Barry Cowsill to not only kill himself but to have crafted his own memorial plaque, B) a fine reading of the Daniel Johnston cosmos, C) a survey of Pitchforkery re: Annuals, D) as many validating references to Dylan as to racist cops, E) roosters as a design element, and F) a 26-song disc so exquisitely sequenced and indie-rock-free that you might wish more blogs (and music junkies, reckon) back-looked.

I could lose vast McNuggets of the rest of my life overconsidering or quibbling with the articles, and have already blown two weeks attempting not to. When feeling particularly withersome on certain metabolic afternoons, I’d even posit that a compilation as strong as this year’s OA CD straight-up embarrasses even superb prose about those songs. (I’ve even pathetically deepened the disc’s role as a yardstick of personal fraudulence by telling three people who were curious about what I was listening to that it was “oh, a mix that I threw together.” You know, just something awesome I whipped up via the ol’ Winamp library. Larked it. Phhhbbbbt.) Lots of folks can crit-snipe a band that’s just-okay or bloated. But writing about Great Music, in its shadow, whew--Like, the part of me anticipating laundromat-day would gladly take some money to do one of those 33 1/3 tomes centered on a “classic” album, but the part of me skeptical about the whole endeavor of music-typing would fret that the check should be made out to Mosquito Von Coattails.

So yeah, I can’t find a way to parse this disc’s Various Artistry without admitting critical impotence, promoting intellectual dishonesty, or sounding like a rhetorical wind-tunnel. The music’s …“simply”…immediate, and its …”goodness”…speaks for itself. I’m supposed to know the value/purpose of cultural studies and entertainmenty criticism and all, but: so much music-writing accomplishes what, exactly, aside from maybe a kind of contextualization that lets us feel as if we can better access or attain or understand its power/genius/essence, etc? Even ambiguities that surface in the time-capsule articles evoke the poet Karl Shapiro’s line about how people who “know” “history” only know “the history of trying to know.” But wait, why am I processing my enjoyment of this CD as problematic? Because I’m an aspirant gabber, and this disc commands listenership, i.e. shutting up? Or because any “copy” that I could muster about the selections by Iris DeMent, Dan Hicks, or Zakary Thaks would be the result of a sagacious pose, camouflaging how pleasantly manipulated I am by them? For example, here’s my dumb/honest reaction to the anti-Sirenic, support-system ultimatum “Hammond Song”: I can’t believe I haven’t always loved this.

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