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Linnea Quinones' Eyes
Ben Folds Five: The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner
If the purpose of having heroes were to literally model yourself after them, which fortunately it probably isn't, then it would be of questionable utility for my new hero to be a female eighteen-year-old Mexican-American San Diego State college student named Linnea Quinones who, thanks to Mexico's cultural reluctance to take women's soccer seriously inside their own borders, is also currently the goalkeeper for the Mexican women's national team. There are, realistically, no more than twelve countries whose women's soccer programs are mature enough for real international competition, but figuring, I presume, that inviting a few more would help the global development of women's soccer more than it would undermine the tournament, FIFA opted to expand the pool for the third Women's World Cup to a bracket-friendly sixteen. Mexico were the sixteenth, beaten in North and Central American qualifying by the Canadians, but slipping in via a second-chance playoff against the South American runner-up, Argentina. They were never expected to do well. Giving up a third-minute goal to Brazil in the second game of the opening double-header boded poorly, and the high point of their World Cup ended up being the brief span between the tenth minute, when Maribel Dominguez's implausible lob embarrassed an off-balance Maravilha to tie the score, and the twelfth, when Pretinha's second goal of three restored Brazil's lead, on the way to a 7-1 blow-out. The Mexicans never scored again, managing only nine total shots on goal in their three games. The second one was a 6-0 dismantling by Germany, and a deflated Italian team, eliminated from contention by earlier results, still beat them 2-0 in the third without appearing to exert themselves. Whatever notoriety has accrued to Linnea Quinones' face is due to the fact that in the TV coverage of Mexico's games it was rarely out of the picture frame, and if her name sounds familiar, it's probably because you saw it on her back so many times as she was retrieving balls from her own goal. Mexico's minus-fourteen goal difference is the worst in the tournament's short history. Quinones stopped thirty-five of fifty-one goal-bound shots, which is one fewer save, on five more shots, than the combined workloads of the US' Briana Scurry, Norway's Bente Nordby, China's Gao Hong and Sweden's Ulrika Karlsson. When the first round of this tournament has faded to a single image in my memory, I'm pretty sure it will be Quinones, bruised and muddy, late in the Germany game, climbing to her feet with the ball in her hands after another routine defensive miscue left her to salvage another wildly untenable position. The look on her face summarizes the psychological value of ritual competition as well as any public spectacle I think I've ever seen, a gaze from the point where futility and serenity merge, and the notion of hope becomes superfluous. She knows, I can see it in her eyes, that more people than she will ever meet in person are watching her on television, and that most of them aren't sufficiently sophisticated observers of soccer to tell which goals are her fault (the misjudged chip that dropped behind her for Italy's second goal is actually the only one I winced at) and which are not. Millions of strangers now believe that she is very bad at something she's actually very good at, which can't be high on the list of recommended experiences for a teenager. But if women's international soccer is going to spread and improve, somebody is going to have to show up and play on the losing side of these early disparities. It's a sacrifice, and the most inspiring thing about Linnea Quinones' expression, as she kicks the ball towards midfield and retreats to her goal line to await its inevitable return, is that I see no trace of martyrdom in it. At some level she knows, as do we, that this is only a game, but that's not why she doesn't lie down and cry. When you play a game, wholeheartedly, you agree to forget, for its duration, its essential pointlessness. That's why games matter, they allow us to practice facing death. This may be how childhood ends and adulthood begins, with one frozen moment in which the universe of causes and effects is reduced to a system simple enough to comprehend and attempt to control. The opponents will kick the ball toward her goal, and she will try to keep it from going in; for the time being, that is her role on Earth. The shots will keep coming for fifteen minutes, or maybe they'll keep coming for twenty years. To survive, you have to stop wondering which it will be. The last shot no longer exists, time collapses to just the next one. Every noble, courageous impulse you and I have ever had, every one we've felt and not quite understood and hoped it was noble and courageous, is there, glittering, in Linnea Quinones' eyes.
I am going to try to write a song for Linnea, but because I am far worse at writing songs than she is at preventing goals, and there's no eligibility loophole in the Eurovision rules through which I'm likely to end up representing The Independent Free State of the Piccadilly Circus Tower Records, most people will never hear it, even if it works. If an anthem in her defense is to have any chance of matching the scale of her apparent defeat, there are only a handful of eligible performers, and I can't think of any I'd trust to capture its complexity accurately. If we ease the requirement for television-magnitude celebrity a little, though, and take submissions from anybody with an active major-label contract, it occurs to me that Ben Folds might be able to do her justice. I'm surprised to find myself thinking this (not that there's any reason for you to care if I surprise myself), because as of Folds' second album, Whatever and Ever Amen, I pretty much thought that he'd allowed glib misanthropy to crowd every other discernible attitude out of his mind, leaving him with a large number of witty piano riffs clinging to a edge of a yawning chasm where sincerity and compassion ought to have been. Naked Baby Photos, the miscellany that followed, had a Beastie-Boys-style rap jam in the middle that I abhorred profoundly enough to never play the disc again. These two nearly retroactively ruined the first album for me, which I'd loved, so I had no plans to buy this third album, and I can't explain why I did. A lapse in concentration, I guess. Now that I have it, and casually love it, I'm loath to peer any closer, lest I finally notice a hundred reprehensible things I'd previously been able to overlook. But then, I'd given up on Ben Folds Five already, so at worst I'm back where I was, and anyway, for every band I lose there are six EPs from Perth waiting to console me. Heisenberg and Schrödinger only generate moral imperatives in physics and personal-computer configurations. (I'm half convinced that my cable modem actually contains a small probability-function cat.) (For extra credit, discuss the practical differences between "advanced theoretical physics", "system diagnostics" and "astrology".)
And either I'm still not looking closely enough, or Ben Folds spent some of Sony's money on a heart, because The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner ignores abundant temptations towards easy sarcasm and bitterness. On an earlier record, I think "Narcolepsy" would have been a relationship put-down, an exaggeration of boredom, but here it's an anticipatory confession that the narrator shuts people out, that it's his flaw and not theirs. "Don't Change Your Plans" is an affectingly frank farewell to a relationship that he realizes can never even get started. "Mess" is a conflicted autopsy of a failed relationship and a scary hypothesis that the only way to keep the next one from following suit is to commit to it only partway. I expect Folds to brandish whatever malady it is he's informed of, in "Hospital Song", but he trails off into a quiet piano instrumental without even revealing what the doctor said. The "Army"/"Your Redneck Past" diptych has enough slacker detail and pop culture to be a Real World soundtrack, and promises "There are a hundred ways to cover your redneck past" (which might as well be the Real World motto), but instead of leaving it at that, adds "Roots! / The funny limbs that grow underground, / That keep you from falling down: / Don't you think that you'll need them now?" "I thought about ... all the great ideas I had / And how we just made fun / Of those who had the guts to try", admits "Regrets", effectively apologizing for two albums of judgmental restraint. "Jane" is simple encouragement. "Lullabye" wanders off into silliness in the verses, but comes back to a sweet, uplifting chorus.
But Folds' skill with lyrics isn't why I want him to write my anthem for Linnea Quinones, it's his playing and arranging. On parts of the first two albums he wielded his piano ironically, very aware that indie trios aren't generally built like this, but by this third one either he's used to it or I am, as it no longer sounds self-conscious to me, less Randy Newman and more Joe Jackson, with a string quartet on many of these songs to invoke grown-up wisdom. Folds plays like Linnea defends, as if all the philosophical dilemmas were resolved long ago, and the only thing left is movement. The epic "Narcolepsy" oscillates between "Nadia's Theme" and the Muppets doing "Bohemian Rhapsody". "Don't Change Your Plans" sparkles and sighs in 3/4, "Mess" sways and simmers like Steely Dan covering Simon & Garfunkel's "The Boxer". The strings swell up to fill the spaces in the otherwise spare, moody "Magic". "Army" is the bouncy pop hit, complete with a shiny brass section (led by Fleming & John's John Mark Painter on sax and flügelhorn) that brings out the tuba-like inflections of Robert Sledge's bass playing. "Your Redneck Past" sounds to me like a cross between They Might Be Giants, Jellyfish and Gary Moore's version of "Shapes of Things". "Regrets" is jazzy and oddly evasive, like that party trick of singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" one beat behind the accompaniment (which, idiotically, is now the only way I can remember it). And "Jane" starts the deceleration towards "Lullabye's" hushed finale, which gathers itself for one last flourish, and then settles gracefully out of sight with entirely unexpected aplomb. The inclusion of an ornamented answering-machine message in the middle ("Your Most Valuable Possession") is a poor idea everybody should know better than, by now, but although each time through I think "next time, I'll skip this", so far I haven't. It sounds like it's from a slightly loopy relative back home (a tangible reminder of redneck past, perhaps), and it's only vaguely coherent, but the caller seems to care about Ben, and the call is reproduced straightforwardly enough that I can believe, if I want to, that he understands what this sort of love is worth. Ridicule is easy. Everyone is ridiculous at least half the time, and the grander the stage, the more ambitious the drama, the more ridiculous we become. The most immortal Art, in music and goalkeeping and life, can consist of weaving just a single thread of grace into the fabric of the absurd.
Owsley: Owsley
Will Owsley has toured with Shania Twain, which I would have superciliously counted as a strike against him until I actually heard some Shania Twain songs and was disconcerted to find myself mildly charmed. He was also Amy Grant's touring guitarist for a while, which I wouldn't have thought of as a resume entry to be proud of back when Amy Grant represented the nadir of syrupy Christian country music to me, but that was a long time ago, and although I resisted her mainstream pop makeover pretty stubbornly, I do now own two of her albums, and once, watching her in a video, the thought "Amy Grant is the sexiest woman alive" materialized in my head, and although I'm quite convinced that's crazy, and that was before I'd ever seen a Shania Twain video, I haven't been able to determine exactly why it was wrong. I don't find other people's religions as alienating as I once did, either, especially not the Nashville CCM cell that John Mark Painter (who drops by to help with string arrangements on one of these songs) has recently been dragging towards secular pop. Ben Folds was apparently instrumental in getting Owsley and Millard Powers together to form the Semantics, which also featured Ringo Starr's son Zak Starkey on drums, and while label horrors consumed that band, and Starkey wandered off to play with some of his father's friends, Powers is still around to help out with this, Owsley's long-delayed solo debut. I haven't heard the Semantics' one album, but if I close my eyes and forget about fact-checking, it's easy to imagine that Jon Brion and Jason Falkner's quartet The Grays was actually a trio, and Owsley was the other third, the shy bedroom-rock purist to counterweigh Brion's studio obsessiveness and Falkner's symphonic excess. Falkner's last solo record, Can You Still Feel?, I haven't succeeded in embracing yet, and Brion is still making his first, but this may be the album I was hoping one of them would make, anyway. Owsley clearly belongs to the same proud pop tradition as Squeeze, XTC and Jellyfish, an American Nik Kershaw maybe, but for the most part these songs prefer warmth to intricacy, less Queen than Velvet Crush. "Oh No the Radio" is choppy and gleeful, something like a blend of the Buggles, Madness and the dB's. The crunchy "I'm Alright" seems like the Offspring produced to gleam like Boston, but "Coming Up Roses" is swirly and methodical, an odd ahistorical experiment to see how it would have sounded if the late-period Beatles had tried to cover an early Psychedelic Furs song. Much of "Good Old Days" could be the Sundays with a male singer. "The Sky Is Falling" is brash power-pop, but "Sentimental Favorite" is sultry and plaintive, with waves of strings for emotional emphasis. "Zavelow House" swaggers like Dave Edmunds backed by the Knack. The piano on "Sonny Boy" is stiffer than it would be if Folds were playing it, and the chorus less understated, but the overall level of exuberance is similar. "The Homecoming Song" sounds to me like a great old Billy Joel song draped over a new Southern-guitar-pop skeleton. "Uncle John's Farm" seems like a reprise of something, but the smooth curves of "Class Clown" find a patch of unexplored ground in between Jules Shear and Michael Penn. I never find myself wishing, as I often do with Shear's songs, that Owsley would stick to selling them to other singers, but the idea of Amy Grant performing an album of these humble, expansive pop songs, once it occurs to me, is difficult to stop caressing.
McRackins: Comicbooks and Bubblegum
As happy as I am that Ben Folds has transcended sneering, since I think his talents have more valuable uses, the change does leave my musical world with a sneering shortage. Happily, there's a new McRackins album to fill the void. McRackins remain one of the most consistent bands in my awareness, which means that these fifteen songs pretty much all sound like Green Day, Too Much Joy and the Ramones brusquely mashed together, the same way the hundred or so other McRackins songs I have all do. Except the cover of "Good Girls Don't", which sounds like the Knack, only drunker. McRackins lyrics usually read like they were written by South Park characters, so a song about South Park (sample line: "Is Cartman's mom a crack whore?") is practically inevitable, and most of the others could be adapted with little ado (other typical insights: "Suckin' up sucks", "Don't blame me if I throw up on you", "We like (x3) we like to make to make records", "Well I know that I'm retarded / And you're my cretin girl" (amazingly, they get the apostrophe right), a sumo-wrestler portrait that begins "He was a big fat Hawaiian", a love song to a nurse called "Sick About You", and a punk homage called "Kid Stuff" that trivializes a dozen bands the way X's "I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts" tried to immortalize them). I keep collecting McRackins records not because I don't want to miss anything, but because my tolerance for any individual song of theirs has steadily shrunk. The first time through, each one still produces the same dizzy blast I originally found so appealing. The second time, at least for now, is still fun. By the third time through Comicbooks and Bubblegum, though, I'm getting edgy, and I don't know what happens the fourth time through because I never get there. One or two more albums and I expect McRackins will have reached the same artistic asymptote as Jackie Chan movies, which is that they entertain me quite effectively for exactly their running length, but not a second more. I still go to see Jackie Chan movies, so this isn't necessarily a complaint, but if circumstances ever force the reintroduction of sanity into my music spending, my McRackins allowance will probably be among the first up for review.
The Bonaduces: The Democracy of Sleep
It doesn't help, either, that I just discovered the Winnipeg quartet The Bonaduces, who sound to me like seventy percent a far smarter McRackins cut with twenty percent the much-missed (by me, at least) Caulfields and ten percent razor's-edge Fugazi. Their snappy cover of Flesh for Lulu's "I Go Crazy" on endearing records' John-Hughes-movie tribute EP was intriguing, not convincing, but I bought this record on the strength of their song titles, including "A Separate Lid Behind Closed Eyes", "The Second Annual National Depression Awareness Day Sleepover Party", "Bee-Sting Necklace", "Understudy to Abby Grey", "Lectern Made of Seashells" and "I Nominate My Kitten for the King of the Dead". Robert Pollard writes titles like this, of course, but he does it mainly by free association and rhythm divorced from meaning, so the most astonishing thing about these titles is that every one of them, even the one about the kitten, is derived from a substantive detail of a genuine story, most of them circling around one side or another of the intimate processes of fear, sickness and dying, rarely faced squarely by popular art, much less slashing, wiry punk-pop songs. If McRackins wrote a song called "Bomb Threat at Montgomery High", it would be buzzy and fast, but the lyrics would be totally prefigured by the title, something like "There's a bomb in somebody's gym locker, / The principal's on the loudspeaker" and whatever else almost rhymed. The Bonaduces' version has just as chirpy a chorus, but around it they actually string a story about what bomb threats do (or don't do) to the students lives and mood ("Dark news arrives on the announcements, / And narcoleptic bodies strewn everywhere / Vaguely stir at the chilling words / Before they retreat to the fog of the smokers' stairs. / They play it safe while the cameras are spinning; / The next day security goes straight to work, / Injudiciously jamming hands / In the marsupial pocket of my hooded shirt."). "A Separate Lid Behind Closed Eyes" is a hospital patient's meditation on the institution's self-defeating sterility, with the arresting observation "Indistinct wishes made on my behalf / Get rationed and assigned to specific tasks, / Like staving off nightmares, or dismissing random pains, / Or petitioning disaster to increase its pace." "The Second Annual National Depression Awareness Day Sleepover Party" is a second-order study of how people react to other people reacting to their own pain. "Sara's Black Pyjamas" is a harrowing explication of the experience of trying to rehabilitate a friend who attempted suicide ("The clocks are all exhausted now / From the weight of being watched"). "Carmen", a temporary respite, is a touching love story about house-sitters trying to reconcile their own lives with the ones they're borrowing ("Here we are, servicing these dogs and plants"), but "Bee-Sting Necklace" is back on topic, a twelve-year-old's haunting apology to a friend for not knowing how to cope with their allergy ("And if we're back outside and I'm overcome by stress... / We're ten feet from the hive and you're barefoot in a sleeveless dress. / If you were only wrapped in a flak jacket / And welder's mask I could relax."), and by extension with any vulnerability. "Understudy to Abby Grey" rues the impossibility of stepping into somebody else's role or life without losing touch with your own. "Lectern Made of Seashells" is about learning from your past (revolving around the ardent "I can't add days to your life, / But I could add life to your days"). "Eyes as Black as Blueberries" is a bedside vigil ("These cats just won't keep quiet / While I cut knots out of your hair. / They're indifferent to your dying / Though they can smell it everywhere."). "I Nominate My Kitten for the King of the Dead" comes from a story about re-reading old journals and finding that some of them capture crucial scenes from youth and some of them evoke nothing at all, and ends with a series of pleas and promises to not let go of friends until the last possible second. "Days Between the Stations" is a dream of recovery (and recovery maybe has to start in dreams) that accomplishes the remarkable feat of making "You rest your bad arm across my knees" sound heartbreakingly romantic. "The Songs We Knew Best" is another last-days address, music and remembered joys and realized regrets all blurring together. And "Damage Deposit", roommates surveying their old home one last time before leaving it, pulls together enough details from the other songs to suggest that they were all one story, after all, thirteen songs for thirteen months, or thirteen weeks, or thirteen stages of acceptance, of a group of friends trying to keep each other alive. Five successes and two or three failures. Or, looked at another way, two or three battles you've lost already, and five you'll lose later. Or, in the third way, two or three you won while you could, and five more you can keep winning still. Perhaps writing catchy pop songs about the ongoing delaying action against death is undignified, just like painting all the weariness and bravery of life into a goalkeeper's eyes is overwrought, and misapplied technique. But all victories over death are temporary, so of course the most decisive ones will celebrate either the things we lose, which thus escape our fate, or else the eternities crammed inside each living moment, the only place we are ever free of time. Soccer balls and songs and people and experiences fly towards us, and we try to keep them from getting past untouched. Tonight, that is our role on Earth.
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