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Alabama Shakes

Alabama Shakes

Alabama Shakes formed in 2009 in Athens, Alabama, with Brittany Howard on lead vocals and guitar; Zac Cockrell on bass guitar; Heath Fogg on guitar and backing vocals; and Steve Johnson on drums, percussion, backing vocals. Their offbeat, highly idiosyncratic sound draws from blues, rhythm and blues, roots revival and, surprisingly, heavy metal bands like Led Zeppelin and AC/DC. But what drew me to their music was the crazy, raw and beautifully strange voice of Brittany Howard. Able to warp it rough and gritty, throw in shocking highs and lows, twist her phrasing into pretzels and come back to hit you in the gut again, Ms. Howard gives “distinctive” new meaning. And while their sample size is fairly small, at two albums, they don’t appear to be in the mood to ever produce the same old same old.

This is a band to keep one’s eyes and ears on for the foreseeable and very bright future.


New Poetry and the End of Purity

New Poetry and the End of Purity

Spinozablue welcomes Colin James to its list of fine poets. Please send us your feedback regarding his poem, the site in general, the world as it is and ought to be, or whatever else is on your mind.

Garden With Courting Couples. 1887. By Vincent Van Gogh
Garden With Courting Couples. 1887. By Vincent Van Gogh

Finished Franzen’s Purity a few days ago, and was surprised at the sudden drop off in the quality of the novel, especially when the character, Tom Aberant, narrates in the first person. It was, frankly, agonizing to get through, and I couldn’t wait for the author to get back to the story of Pip (Purity) Tyler, but that didn’t happen until nearly the end of the book.

From this reader’s point of view, the problem lay in his decision to focus on the love/hate relationship of Tom and Anabel, diving into their respective neuroses to a fault. While deep psychology wounds, torments and a character’s way of coping with them can sometimes make for a riveting story, there is such a thing as too much, for too long, without coming up for air. There is such a thing as being swamped by the neurotic, by the viciousness and cruelty of relationships, which, if there is no escape, no sense of learning from these things, no real attempt by either party to stop torturing each other, tries the patience of even the most sympathetic among us. Fish and guests and the three day rule on steroids, basically.

And the story of Andreas Wolf wasn’t much better by the end. His relationship with his mother was toxic. His relationship with Anagret was toxic. As was his ambiguous love/hate for Tom Aberant, and Tom’s for Andreas. Perhaps it’s just me getting older, but when I read novels, I want at least a few of the fictional characters I encounter to be “good company.” I want, preferably, the main characters to be people I’d enjoy being around and spend time with. Because you do, in a sense. You spend time with them, they’re company, at least for a time, and if the novel is moving, well-written, compelling, you will likely keep company with them after you put the book down for the last time. In the case of Purity, Pip, and to some degree, Leila and Jason were it for me, and Franzen chose others to focus on more.

Lastly, the sexual politics of the story seemed all too often tone-deaf as well. Franzen has taken some hits over time from some feminists for his depiction of women in his books, and I couldn’t help sensing that he was working through this in the guise of the story itself. It was as if he were carrying on a conversation, sub rosa, with those critics, both acknowledging some past errors and remaining defiant at the same time. Through his characters. Through their own battles. And this can sometimes work, but it typically requires sublimation of resentment and I think it was far too close to the surface.

Positives? Thought-provoking sections on the Internet and our loss of privacy, of the shrinking contours of private lives outside the Web, on social media, on the massive difference between public and private personas. And, as mentioned earlier, a truly beautiful section on the wilds of Bolivia, Pip’s wonder at her discoveries there. But, for me, the deep neuroses on display was too much to overcome.





Purity, by Jonathan Franzen
Purity, by Jonathan Franzen

I’m about 300 pages into Franzen’s new novel, Purity, and it’s truly hit its stride. It started out a little slowly for me, and I think he did too much telling, rather than showing, but readerly patience has paid off. At this point, and especially after his brilliant, almost ecstatic description of Pip’s sojourn in Bolivia, it’s more than clear that Franzen can build a compelling case for his world, its multiplicity of emotions, motives, betrayals and jealousies, and especially the internal twists and turns of his characters’ minds.

Even after 300 pages, it’s difficult to summarize the plot. But it’s basically the story of a young woman’s search for the father she never knew, and the search for metaphorical daughters by four slightly less central characters, two men and two women. Franzen’s larger context is our present day, with flashbacks to East Germany right before the Wall came down and its aftermath. The Internet, the Age of Leaks, Assange, Snowden, political and corporate malfeasance, ground the story in a larger reality. But it is the creation of a complex, forever interesting female lead that drives the story.

Pip — her given name is Purity, which she sees as a ridiculous burden — is young, smart, strong and at times vulnerable to the machinations of older men. And they to her. Because Pip also doesn’t seem to realize how deeply attractive she is to people who have lived life for a bit — male or female. Her self-image is generally too low to understand this, and Franzen suggests that her lack of popularity with people her own age affects her self-image almost to the point of neuroses. Older people want to be her, be with her. Young people her own age don’t get her and seem put off by her darkness and quick and frequent sarcasm.

Will write more about the book once I’ve finished it.


Clever Autumns With Parochial Zephers

Clever Autumns With Parochial Zephers

Odessa Port. 1898. By Kandinsky.
Odessa Port. 1898. By Kandinsky.

Looking at an old poem from decades ago. Trying to see if it still holds up. Some poets, like Yeats, revised even published works, changing new editions of their collections over time.

This isn’t really like that. But it is a return to some dark cove, some ancient lough, for reassessment and advice:


Clever Autumns With Parochial Zephers


Blindness and cacophony
Like time underwater

The yews tremble for their
Lovers on the mountain tops

Four beats to every heart
And roses for the poor

I believe the groans
Of doctors if
They’re out of work
Scrounging in the meadow

    For sustenance and rhubarb

If the play’s the thing
Why is the audience sleeping?

Give us reasons in the mist
To talk about the mail

Give us songs to sing
When supper is thrown to wolves and
Like twenty annual events

Some epiphany among the clowns
Before they taste their red makeup

    Before they fall off their red tricycles
Notch just one more scream
Along the highway

Along the road to verdant

Aren’t bitter marvels always fighting
Always shoving off spectacular ennui?



by Douglas Pinson


4 Non Blondes: What’s Going On?

4 Non Blondes: What’s Going On?

To avoid any conflict with the song by Marvin Gaye, Linda Perry and company renamed their beautiful, angsty, anthemic (1993) single to “What’s up?” But it’s all about that question from 1971, and about the knowing confusion, the justifiable frustration and alienation of the young. That’s at least how it sounds. One of the original 4 Non Blondes, Christa Hillhouse, says it’s a mistake to read too much into it. Linda was just playing guitar down the hall from Christa when she wrote it, and it was so good, Christa thought, she stopped having sex and ran down the hall to find her. It happened organically, naturally. The song writing. The questioning about that song. Linda Perry was afraid it had come from somewhere else, and asked Christa if she had borrowed some of it from others. And that’s a key. Good to great art often gives the appearance of pre-existence. That it must have always been, even to the author. This seems especially true with music — even more so with Rock and Pop. And if a song gets someone to stop what they’re doing in the bedroom, chances are pretty good it’s going to be special.

The title “What’s up” sounds entirely too friendly, casual, easy going and it doesn’t fit this song at all. At least to me. Ironically, when the song is covered by others, especially on talent shows, the powers that be seem intent on making it friendly and casual, as they try to remove the angst, the anger and the potential threat inherent in the lyrics and musical variations. The quickest way to do this, of course, is to remove the line that calls for a revolution. That’s a no no on TV. Unless it can be done in such a way that alters the meaning, like a “revolution” in product development, or in the way new content is delivered to consumers.

It’s an old story, already a shadow of itself. Rock used to have revolutionary powers, but was co-opted long ago. We’re several decades past that co-opting, and were already, give or take, two decades past it when “What’s up?” came out. So I listen to it with nostalgia and regret. I listen to it for a host of reasons, one of most important being to catch a spark of something that was once genuinely, authentically in the air. And the listener hears this, hears that spark and more. Catch fire.






Timbuktu. 2014
Timbuktu. 2014

One of the best films of the past year is Timbuktu, directed by Abderrahmene Sissako. Understated, beautifully shot and composed, it tells the story of a village, a people, caught in the arbitrary and repressive grip of a Jihadist takeover. The focus of the film, but never at the cost of the village’s story itself, is a small family on the outskirts of Timbuktu, making a life on the dunes. Kidane, the father, Satima, the mother, their daughter Toya, and the young shepherd, Issan. Perhaps because of their existence on the periphery, this small family had managed to avoid most of the cultural and social repression being arbitrarily imposed on those in the village, but a tragic accident changes all of that.

I was struck by the images, again and again. The incredible beauty of the desert, the dunes, the motion of people crossing them, running on the sand. But, especially, the scene of a soccer game, which is one of the most beautiful in any film in recent memory. The jihadists had just handed down yet another absurd and meaningless edict, this time outlawing soccer (football for them). But this didn’t stop the youth of this village from playing the game without an actual ball. The flow, the joyful resistance to arbitrary, ridiculous power, along with the expressiveness of the camera work, make for a classic scene worth the price of admission all by itself.

And then there was music, which had also been banned. Resistance lives within music as well. Primarily led by the women of the village, we see people risking their lives for that part of life that gives it meaning, sustains them, brings them closer together in memory and song. One woman is whipped for being caught singing the blues (in a gorgeous and moving performance), and her extreme bravery continues as she sings under the lash.

These are a people with tremendous courage and resilience, and the movie never shows them breaking or collaborating with the authorities. But it also hints that there is no way out and that this is just the beginning of the repression. This is just the beginning of a return to primitive visions of “justice,” where people accused of adultery are stoned to death.

Why do we believe in fictions that crush life? Why do we accept the word of those who say they speak for divine power? Of course, once we accept the fiction that divine power exists in the first place, we are all too susceptible to that. But it’s not inevitable that we would hand over our personal autonomy to other humans, just because they claim to speak for those fictions. Even believers should demand they prove their legitimacy, prove they can justify what they ask of us, at least within the context of that fiction. All too often, however, fundamentalists in all the major religions pull nonsense out of thin air, and can’t show that even the founders of those religions ever paid the slightest attention to their particular obsessions. Soccer? Music? Dancing? And, of course, Christian fundamentalists have their own list of totally arbitrary, puritanical obsessions never mentioned by their Christ. To me, if a religion does not affirm life and bring joy into the world, it has no purpose.

Life is tough enough all by itself. To add more chains is nothing less than insane.