04 November 2007

Ultima Thule

My all-time favorite wordsmith / lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov (whose image on this blog appears left but is also captured right and captioned wrong - or maybe "write," anagramatically correct) was born into a White Russian family that fled the Red Revolution in 1917 when Vlad was 18. In 1922 in Berlin, his father was killed at a political rally, trying to shelter another man from an assassin's bullet. Perhaps these are among the reasons why EXILE and the AFTERLIFE are themes that echo throughout his writing. And perhaps this is why he liked to activate the arcane idea of Ultima Thule, "the northernmost region of the habitable world to ancient Greek geographers," to represent "a distant territory or remote goal or ideal" [http://www.libraries.psu.edu/nabokov/ zembla.htm]. In his memoir, "Speak, Memory," Nabokov called this "unreal estate." True North becomes a sort of imaginable but inaccessible celestial space. [I write this, by the way, having just witnessed Matt Lauer at halftime of the Sunday Night Football game reporting from the Arctic Circle]

I bring this up because last night I had a sort of vision of my own that leads me to concur with VN that distant northern lands may indeed approach heaven on earth. I saw Swedish pop singer Jens Lekman, whose wry wit, baritoned balladry, and lush orchestral soundscapes I've been enjoying for a short while. I thought that the show would likely be a fun, even whimsical experience but I did not expect Lekman to walk onstage smiling and trailing seraphim, a band of Scandinavian ladies (FIVE of them? SIX??) all in white. They played horns, strings, accordians, maybe a triangle ... and occasionally Lekman would quit strumming and defer to his DJ (the only other male on stage) and then he and the women would spin around gleefully in unison. Lekman's encore even included a solo cover of Paul Simon's "You Can Call Me Al," during which he coyly refused to sing the chorus. The crowd did it for him.

I don't mean to make this about the rampant adorability on stage (Jens included), because if I was drooling, I was thinking too. If an American singer leads a band of uniformly dressed women then he's Robert Palmer - and the women are ironic, objectified, and not really playing their instruments. Maybe it's the Social Democratic systems of Sweden and its neighbors - standard of living, health care, etc. There was unabashed joy on the stage last night. Now American rock bands can certainly bring joy about, but they wouldn't dare embody it, busy as they are with icy-cool posturing. [Yes, I've heard of the Polyphonic Spree]. The only other time I've seen vibrations this good was when I saw Architecture in Helsinki, another traveling co-ed indie rock bliss festival. Now they are from Australia, but their name is Exhibit B.

I know that 1) Norway has a really high suicide rate and 2) this association of "norths" with everything wonderful flirts with both Santa Claus and Hitler's eugenics. But risking traveling too far afield, I think, for better or worse, these might be Un-American activities. And speaking of dangerous generalizations and endangered gyrations, have you read or read about New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere Jones' complaint about the "whiteness" of indie rock ("A Paler Shade of White: How Indie Rock Lost Its Soul" in the 10/22 issue)? A provocative article indeed. He defends it here on his blog and a rebuttal can be found here from slate.com's Carl Wilson (which, by the way, is the name of the Beach Boy who sang lead on the gorgeous pet sound "God Only Knows").


kris said...

If I'm reading this right, universal health care = unabashed joy. I like it. Mr. Lekman and his band of merry pipers and fiddlers (and DJ) are the Q.E.D.

And, Architecture in Helsinki not only refers to Scandinavia, but in Australia what do they have? Socialized medicine.

Unlike the Polyphonic Spree, Lekman et al. didn't wear white robes, they wore white shirts. And their music was good, and not bad.

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bobichael said...

According to Sir Elton John, it was the sun and snow that made Valerie a woman, and it was a fatal drug overdose that killed “Tripping Daisy’s” Wes Berggren (whose surname seems to scream “son of ex pats from some unidentified Scandinavian country who was unfortunate enough to be birthed into the mid 90's Dallas rock and roll scene”) thus leading Tim DeLaughter (apropos name?) to form the symphonic pop group we now know and love as "The Polyphonic Spree," which has no relation to my favorite childhood hard candy. A spree is defined as a lovely frolic or outing, but it can also refer to a bacchanalian, where reckless amounts of drugs and liquor are consumed, oftentimes in the context of a large orgy. In this case, I would offer that DeLaughter, in his desire to find a cutesy name to honor his fallen comrade, ironically chose an appellation that could be read as encouraging dangerous combinations of polyphony, which was invented by monks of all people, with illicit substances, which were perfected by monks of all people. While “The Polyphonic Spree” undoubtedly teeter precariously on the line separating genuinely talented musicians and kitschy side-show freaks, they do have a theremin player, which should be enough to earn our respect. Also, I think white gi would be a more accurate description of what Jens and his band were wearing.

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