Friday, August 27, 2010

Album Review: The Pretty Reckless

by Alexander Nagorski

Taylor Momsen talks a lot of shit. At only seventeen-years-old, the bohemian Gossip Girl star is desperate to be recognized as a serious adult musician. In interviews, she discusses how her “best friend is a vibrator” and jokes that she “fucked a priest once”. She bashes pop stars left and right in an attempt to squander the inevitable comparisons between her and musicians her age such as Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, and Taylor Swift. “I think the Disney bubblegum shit that the world is living on right now is pathetic,” she told FHM UK earlier this summer.

Recently, Momsen found herself in quite a bit of controversy due to a comment she made during an interview with Spin magazine. “People think pop is rock and the lines are getting blurred. Now Rihanna’s wearing fucking leather jackets and it’s really annoying,” she said. The massive amounts of criticism Momsen received for mocking one of the industry’s most prized “it” girls forced her to back-peddle and release a statement, which said that although “Rihanna is great,” the fashion of the rock star look is “the closest thing audiences have to rock right now” in this “very pop-oriented world.” Bold statement, Little J.

With all this talk of “real rock,” you’d expect Momsen to be the reincarnation of Kurt Cobain. Her band, The Pretty Reckless, is releasing their debut album Light Me Up via Interscope Records on August 31st, which Momsen (who co-wrote the entire record and serves as the lead singer) is using as a platform to elect herself as rock & roll’s savior. This “don’t call me a role model”, platinum blonde, raccoon-eyed, ripped corset-wearing, sullen teenager truly believes that her music will raise rock from the ashes of pop.

Now, I don’t necessarily agree with Cindy Lou Who’s claims about rock not having a significant place in today’s music scene, but I must say, this album backs up her self-declared role as adding a beat to the genre’s heart. As annoying and pretentious as she is, Momsen has come out with a record that is surprisingly terrific. She may be far from the new Kurt Cobain, but she’s nailed the vintage Courtney Love sound nearly flawlessly. Momsen’s raw and raspy voice, as well as her ability to rock out over guitar riffs as heavy as her mascara, could serve as a testing subject for vocal cloning. I wouldn’t be surprised if I found out that Momsen sneaked into the studio where Love was recording Hole’s less-than-worthy-of-a-comeback album Nobody’s Daughter and captured her vocal essence in a seashell necklace ala the sea witch in The Little Mermaid. Except in Momsen’s case, the seashell necklace would probably be a leather, spiked choker or a string of bones of Disney starlets that spells out “Told you I was better, mother fuckers.”

The explosive lead single, “Make Me Wanna Die,” bears enough angst that would make Amy Lee of Evanescence recommend Momsen for professional counseling. Whereas the majority of the album has more of a 90’s grunge feel to it, this track stands out as certainly the most radio-friendly due to its up-tempo, catchy, and anguished chorus. The follow-up single, "Miss Nothing," finds Momsen channeling her inner-Shirley Manson so convincingly that upon listening to it, I was hit with an overwhelming wave of nostalgia, causing me to immediately dig up my old copy of Garbage's "Version 2.0." The track is succeeded on the album by "Going Down," Momsen's cleverly crafted, diabolical response (or should I say "fuck you") to the controversy surrounding all the clergy convicted of molestation charges. After all, nothing proves you're an adult more than giving the middle finger to the church, right? Just kidding, Tay-Tay. Don’t unleash your knife collection on me (yes, she actually has one).

Lyrically, the album is just as strong as it is musically. Rather than creating a sappy, cliché “I love you” and/or “I hate you” record, Momsen writes (usually somberly) about larger scale issues ranging from death to religion to sex to substance abuse. Replace the frequency of the word “baby” in a typical pop song with the word “pill,” and you have a typical Pretty Reckless song. The pained, post-hipster persona that Momsen exudes is translated clearly through her writing. While there are certain lines that will make you let out a chuckle or an eye-roll, the majority of Momsen’s writing is shockingly rich with provocative metaphors and a confident story-telling quality. I say “shockingly” because Momsen doesn’t exactly strike me as someone who’s very good with words (exhibit A: every single one of her aforementioned quotes in this article).

What makes Momsen’s lyrics really work, however, is how blatantly honest they are. She’s clearly not afraid to spill her most intrinsic feelings into her songs. At times she’s scathingly pissed (“Since You’re Gone”), scared (“My Medicine”), vindictive (“Light Me Up”), and so vulnerable (“Nothing Left To Lose”, “Just Tonight”) that you temporarily forget how precocious she is and instead just want to give her a hug and tell her that things will all work out for the best. On this album, Momsen runs the gamut from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other, hitting every stop along the way. And while this track-listing may seem thematically scattered, the sophisticated musical accompaniment carrying these songs helps them flow and transition into one large, cohesive near-brilliant single entity. The tabloids can mock Momsen’s hurry to become a legal adult as much as they want, but Light Me Up displays a musical maturity that few musicians years her senior have accomplished.

The trick to releasing your frustration towards Momsen’s less than bring-home-to-mama personality is to let it out in a mosh-pit to her band’s music. As much as you might want to shake her and scream, “we get it, you’re edgy,” you can’t deny that Light Me Up is the most promising debut from a young, female-fronted rock band since (dare I say?) The Runaways. If Momsen can come out with music of this caliber at seventeen, I can’t wait to hear what she releases after a few more tortured, liquor-soaked years of rock-stardom.

Pre-order the album here
Check out the music video for The Pretty Reckless' "Miss Nothing":

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Joe Meno's "I Want The Quiet Moments of a Party Girl"

Aristotle wrote that one of the essential ingredients of tragedy was the hero’s realization – the too-late moment where he has an epiphany that if he had done something differently, then the series of consequences that become the tragedy could have been avoided. This theory has been supported by literature for centuries, but what happens if Aristotle’s definition is too narrow? A tragedy can be a tragedy without somebody making a mistake, and can occur simply because life sucks and the world is an ugly place.

Author Joe Meno agrees with me. In “I Want the Quiet Moments of a Party Girl,” a heart-wrenching story from his fabulous slap-you-in-the-face-with-loneliness collection Demons In The Spring (Akashic Books, ISBN: 978-1936070091), a couple is so staggeringly suffocated by tragedy, that they almost give up on taking that final gasp of air to resuscitate themselves.

The story begins with the male narrator describing the antics he and his girlfriend Sophie pull to entertain themselves. To some, the things they do would be considered immoral or strange (such as going to see guaranteed bad movies and yelling obscenities throughout the whole thing, only to ask for their money back at the end), but to the young couple it is their language of love. Their way of sharing and experiencing with one another.

This is not to say that the characters in this story come straight out of a romantic comedy, putting cake on each other’s noses and running around having pillow fights in their apartment while hysterically laughing before collapsing onto the bed in each other’s arms. What makes this duo unique is that they seem to have a solid understanding of the negative world around them, and rather than succumb to its bitterness, try to make the most of it.

“In our closet, Sophie has a collection of all the saddest things in the world. It is part of an art installation she has been planning for years, which we both know will probably never happen. On the weekends, Sophie drags me to all kinds of garage sales, yard sales, estate sales; it is her thing, looking for other people’s diaries, answering machine tapes, journals, letters, anything that tells someone else’s tragic story. She has boxes and boxes of that kind of junk, everything from war letters to miserable-looking family photo albums of people she has never met. When we first started going out, I asked her, “Why do you collect all this junk?” and she told me it was her way of understanding that life was one continuous tragedy. We were sitting on her small bed and I was just noticing the smell of her hair when she opened up a photo album from the ’70s and showed me a photograph of a girl who was maybe eight or nine at a zoo, standing beside a beautiful, velvety fawn. In the photograph, the girl was crying and holding her left hand. “It bit me,” Sophie whispered, pointing to a small white scar on the knuckle of her left hand. She kissed it and placed her knuckle against my lips. I felt like I understood something about her then, something that was both incredibly attractive and incredibly sad. I had never met anyone as sure of the imminent end of the world before, and for some reason I found it very reassuring.”

But in true Revolutionary Road fashion, the honeymoon period doesn’t last. The couple becomes overexposed to one another and the little ticks that once seemed endearing are now plucking the chords of each other’s last nerves. When Sophie becomes pregnant, the narrator is annoyed by her nonchalant attitude toward motherhood. “The only problem is that Sophie doesn’t act like she’s pregnant,” he says. “When I ask her when she plans on slowing down, when it is she’s going to begin to act like she’s having a baby, she just looks at me funny and shrugs, rolling her eyes, and then tells me to kiss off. Her hair is long and dark and she has a beauty mark just above her lip, and when she shrugs it makes you feel small and stupid for ever troubling her about anything.”

Sophie’s nonchalant attitude about a person growing inside of her ultimately fades, and the couple shares their excitement about starting a family, both with themselves and with everyone they know. “We are just past twelve weeks and so we have already told everybody that Sophie is pregnant; people at our jobs we don’t really know, people we think we despise,” the narrator says. The little ticks that seemed to be getting under one another’s skin seem to have disappeared, and the couple becomes the matured version of their previous selves.

And then the tragedy occurs: the narrator gets a phone call at work from Sophie that she’s bleeding and is going to the hospital. It is during the news of Sophie’s miscarriage that Meno displays his exquisite craft as a master of language. “What hurts is to find out we are not as special as we had always believed,” the narrator says in reaction to the devastating news. Meno’s choice of words are simple and eloquent, cutting right to the core of the sentiment being expressed as well as the heart of the reader. These moments of Lydia Davis-inspired minimalism are where Meno’s writing shines the most. His stories are sprinkled with beautiful brief sentences that provide more clarity than many writers achieve with full-length descriptive paragraphs.

After the miscarriage, the grieving couple is stuck in romantic limbo. They stop connecting both physically and emotionally because they remind each other of their loss.

“We try to talk to each other about it but the bad feeling is here to stay for a while at least. When Sophie is speaking to her mother on the telephone, I go around the house looking for anything that might remind us of what we have lost. I put the children’s books we have bought, toys, clothes, in a closet. I stare at the pile of stuffed animals and feel like I need to apologize to them, too, for some reason.
I notice Sophie sitting over her cardboard box of tragedies. Without a word, she yanks off her plastic emergency room bracelet and places it inside, then puts the top back on and shoves it into the corner.
When we finally go to sleep, we are too tired to say goodnight. I lie there feeling as if I have lost both arms and legs. Like something more important than my heart has been stolen from me. What can be more important than your heart? I don’t know. Whatever it is, it is now missing.”

But then something miraculous happens. The narrator hears Sophie running the water to prepare for a bath, which is when he realizes they haven’t even been naked together in longer than he can remember. He strips off his clothes and climbs into their tiny bathtub behind her, cradling his arms around her and holding onto her tightly so as not to lose the love they once had. He says “hello” to her and she says “hello” back. I’ll spare you the inevitable cliché imagery of the water they’re in cleansing their relationship or their nudity as a symbol of their vulnerability in exposing themselves to one another, but this gorgeous moment is tender and full of hope. Despite the suffering they’ve endured, Meno makes it clear that the tragedy they’ve endured will not be a death sentence for these two. Again, Meno’s minimalist language (the single most basic word, “hello”) successfully evokes pages of sentiment and feeling.

There is nothing that these two could have done differently to avoid the tragedy that came their way. What makes this such a profound love story, however, is how they wouldn’t let that tragedy signal their demise. They proved that their feelings were stronger than the obstacles life threw at them. Their love rose from the ashes it was incinerated into and emerged as a damaged but beautiful phoenix.

At first glance, Meno’s stories have a way of seeming dark and tragic. The key to seeing the light in this dark, however, is understanding that although his characters are consumed by tragic events, they always somehow survive and refuse to let these events define them. A miscarriage has the potential (and historical evidence) to shatter a relationship. In “I Want The Quiet Moments of a Party Girl,” it is not the miscarriage that is the focus of the story – rather it is the promise of resurrecting hope that the protagonists ultimately achieve that is what stays with the reader. The most crucial difference, then, between Aristotle and Meno’s definitions of tragedy, are that Aristotle believes that a tragic event must end with a crippled protagonist who cannot move forward due largely to regret. Meno, on the other hand, sees tragedy as a stepping stone, proving that sometimes it is the most heart shattering event that ultimately leads us to our personal salvations.

Illustrations by Caroline Hwang