Over at Odyshape, I posted the final of my 3 Part summer series exploring thirty great jazz albums from the 1980s, a decade often overlooked and poorly understood by plenty of jazz fans. And there’s more, of course.
Over at Odyshape, I posted the final of my 3 Part summer series exploring thirty great jazz albums from the 1980s, a decade often overlooked and poorly understood by plenty of jazz fans. And there’s more, of course.
Paul Shapiro, Shofarot Verses (Tzadik)
John Zorn’s long-running Radical Jewish Culture series can be exhausting even for New Thing adherents, as both music and formal conception. So with all due respect for Zorn’s own Masada songbook enterprise, let us thank the game piece master for giving Paul Shapiro’s “Rhythm & Jews” project the distributive muscle it deserves. Opening with solo alto and closing with a reed/skins duet, these mostly first take cuts raid the melody banks of both Yom Kippur services and Dick Dale 45s, using a ram’s horn for a Joe Zawinul-colored meditation (“Ashamnu”) and foisting Cuban rhythms upon Phrygian modes (“In Phrygia”). Give it the fuck up for Marc Ribot, who channels all his Mickey Baker/Link Wray/Magic Sam fantasies into one rambunctious whole, the blues/r&b whiplash to his own Live At The Vanguard Coltrane/Ayler abrasions. But it’s Shapiro’s tunes, his Junior Walker soul, his “active prayer” leadership qualities that carry the day. In this dreadful moment for liberal Zionism, here’s a world dance party - the chitlin’ circuit as overseen by kibbutzniks.
Spoon, They Want My Soul (Loma Vista)
Transference was nowhere near so muddled as second-guessers would now have it, but this still seems a welcome return to the unfussy 4/4 thwack these Can fans once honed. And that’s a feat, because there’s plenty of post-production chicanery, from the David Bowie funhouse swirl of “Knock Knock Knock” to the synthpop gurgle of “Inside Out”. Yet too rarely does attention to detail offer such streamlined results - white boy swagger complete with sexual politics free of retribution, if not regrets. Flipping through back pages and unbuckling belts, they lean on Dave Fridmann to better geek out on rock history, whether nicking a Spencer Davis Group bassline (“Rainy Taxi”) or keeping Austin weird by covering Ann-Margaret (“I Just Don’t Understand”). And while Britt Daniel’s no doubt proud of “auction off what you love / it will come back some time,” I’m a big fan of the philosophy behind “I don’t got time for holy rollers / but they may wash my feet”.
5 Seconds Of Summer, 5 Seconds Of Summer (Capitol)
Too many whoa-oh-ohs and not enough gabba-gabba-heys? Oh, you punk purist. Best not to think of these Australian cuties as anything more than a boy band who’ve calibrated their choruses to mime Blink-182 (or Sum 41, or gulp New Found Glory) riffage. Not enough cuts connect at the gut-punch level of “Don’t Stop,” and the two slow ones groaning with strings are to barf at. But surrender to their gumdrop G-rated charms and you’ll find catchily insistent melodies and loads of teen poetry (“You look so perfect standing there / in my American Apparel underwear”). And in between tales of fake IDs and kissing at the stop signs, they drop a lament as timeless as “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)”: “I’ll make my move when I get older,” by which they mean 18.
75 Dollar Bill, Olives In The Ears (self-released) bandcamp
In which an NY-based law clerk and a New Haven-born cancer diagnostic technician launch a lo-fi guitar/drum project inspired by Moorish griot wedding music, or so goes the press release. Sounds pretty dicey, no? And yet it works - even shreds. Maybe it helps that guitarist Che Chen once studied with Mauritanian master Jheich Ould Chighaly, or that drummer Rick Brown assembles his own rattletrap percussive devices like a latter-day Moondog. Maybe Arabic modes and desert blues translate easily to lo-fi guitar/drum projects, especially when two of the longer cuts were captured live in dingy cafes (just like Group Doueh!). Maybe nobody can go wrong covering Allen Toussaint’s “Yes We Can Can,” however lazed and rangy the arrangement. Received primitivism, if you’re fussy about things like that. Or how about Loren Connors with a backbeat and a head full of Tuareg?
Haitian Rail, Solarists (New Atlantis Records)
Too many jazz/noise/metal/whatsis outfits wimp out somewhere along the way, relinquishing improv for mere riffage or abandoning speed for mere noodling. But this is sorta what 1985 Black Flag was capable of detonating on those rare moments Henry Rollins stepped away from the mic: dynamic skronk via shitty amplifiers. Assembled from a host of other noise bands that no doubt mean something to noise enthusiasts (Hyrokkin, Many Arms, Deveykus), Haitian Rail finds new guy Dan Blacksberg delivering trombone blats while Mostly Other People Do The Killing’s Kevin Shea holds down death-surf drumkit duties. That leaves plenty of space for two guitarists: Nick Millevoi going Sonny Sharrock gonzo, Edward Ricart playing acid-slash bass. The second number (“song,” haha) is a slow one. The others all lurch unto the metalloid breach - guitar conflagrations, drone pocket-symphonies, percussive bloodied bliss, one roiling hot mess.
Shabazz Palaces, Lese Majesty (Sub Pop)
When the indulgences get dialed back a wee bit, or a fluttering synth hook offers just enough structure to hold a track together (“Motion Sickness”), or private meanings get transformed into rallying cries (“I’m havin’ my cake / and I’m eating cake”) - that’s when this abstruse-like-that studio trip reminds you why smart folks thought Black Up might be the future of hip-hop. Elsewhere, this Allan Kaprow / Octavia Butler mélange (really, how else would you describe an “astral suite of recorded happenings”?) erratically consigns hooks/chorus to the dustbin with the sort of anti-commercial bohemianism more gently foretold by Ishmael Butler himself in Butterfly guise. Hip-hop then and now could use more boho weirdos, more Afrofuturists, more albums like Black Up. But when you brag “all of our stories told in codes,” it’s thoughtful to offer a few more jokes as good as “call me Ish”.
"I’ve been wearin’ all black/ Since the day it started." That’s how Jenny Lewis opens The Voyager, even though her third solo album features the former Rilo Kiley frontwoman sporting a pastel-splashed pantsuit that would be the envy of any L.A. hipster (or Care Bear). It’s a depressive/celebratory yin-yang that exemplifies her welcome return to music after six years offstage. Recent interviews have hinted at tough times, with family loss and insomnia referenced as source material. But you wouldn’t assume a troubled backstory from the music — Lewis has channeled her grievances into a statement of life-affirming and ebullient guitar pop. [….]
From my SPIN review of the wonderful new album from Jenny Lewis, ‘The Voyager’. Read the whole thing here.
Søren Kjærgaard / Ben Street / Andrew Cyrille, Syvmileskridt (ILK Music) [Bandcamp link]
The Danish pianist deserves his top billing - Kjærgaard has assembled this American rhythm section four times for methodical explorations of silence and open-ended patterns. But empty spaces seem less important this time out, even if “Ballad No. 4” and “Beryllic Bell” conjure the austerity of nocturnes. More plentiful are cuts like the title track, surging freebop swing that finds the pianist splashing chords across forceful bass/drums before dropping jittery melodic lines, or the rubato clatter of Taylor-esque “Intersection No. 7”. Those titles suggest utilitarian workouts, and I’m not claiming every number will keep you perched on seat’s edge. But how about “Tripple Skip,” which may or may not deliberately echo “Skippy” but certainly pops Monkian, right down to Kjærgaard’s octave-spanning keyboard march. And then consider the circular motif that both opens and closes the album, master Cyrille dropping a bone-dry beat nearly old-school hip-hop in its serenity before the piano crawls along. Suggesting the drummer may well be this project’s engine and soul, a distinction Søren himself would no doubt be the first to note.
Brian Groder Trio, Reflexology (Latham Records)
New York-based trumpeter/flugelhornist comfortable in free ensembles yet committed to song form convenes trio for a tribute to Sam Rivers and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen’s 1981 Looking At Bird duet outing. But give Groder credit for acknowledging that no mere flugelhorn could fill the mighty roar left by Rivers - the vital addition of percussionist Jay Rosen allows both leader and bassist Michael Bisio to relax a little. It helps that all three collaborators are melodists (Joe McPhee-associate Rosen coaxes trills from his cymbals), which means even decidedly abstract lines dart out with the quick fragmentary logic of Anthony Braxton at his most direct. And for those who find the spartan interplay too, well, spartan, Groder’s old composition teacher Joanne Brackeen offers some relief in the guise of lone non-original “Haiti-B”: first a Strata-East bass vamp, than the drummer giving what for.
Bobby Hutcherson, Enjoy The View (Blue Note)
The vibraphonist’s heralded return to Blue Note after nearly forty years astray doesn’t exactly pick up where his mid-60s avant-inside run left off. Nor is this the itchy modernism of Hutcherson the Eric Dolphy sideman (Out To Lunch!) or the cool modality of Hutcherson the Grant Green sideman (Idle Moments). It’s closer to the bluesy soul jazz of Hutcherson the Grassella Oliphant sideman (um, The Grass Roots), vibes-driven neo-bop employing Joey DeFrancesco’s generous Hammond organ chords and Billy Hart’s good-humored syncopation to surround both the leader and pickup alto saxist David Sanborn, who sounds pretty happy to be here and also sounds pretty ok. Blue Note’s tasteful production continually douses every fire the participants set. But proto-fusion drum funk will have its say (“Hey Harold”), as will straight ahead-swing (“Teddy”) and pure melodic engagement (Sanborn’s opener “Delia”).
Dub Thompson, 9 Songs (Dead Oceans)
Anybody dismissing Parquet Courts as little more than the sum of their influences should steer clear of this teenaged Agoura Hills duo, who kick off their full-length with a shout-out to the drummer for This Heat. Smart alecks who name songs after distal end protrusions, they set aside antediluvian principles enough to allow for overdubbing, meaning they don’t sound much like a guitar/drums duo - ah, sweet bass lines (single-minded rocker “Mono” could be primo Delta 5). Their love song steals the organ setting from Max Romeo’s “Wet Dream” and goes “Baby, you’ve got no time for love”. Their funk song rhymes “dog races” with “sick faces”. Their song about Ash Wednesday has them feeling “like Jesus’s son” (where’d they get that one?). Acid-surf demo tapes left inside the dryer: the punk rock aesthetic strikes again.
Craig Leon, Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music Vol. 1: Nommos/Visiting (Rvng Intl)
After producing Suicide and introducing The Ramones to Sire under Richard Gottehrer’s watchful eye, producer/composer Craig Leon eventually left Max’s Kansas City for starchier venues - the last fifteen years have found him arranging microphones for Sony Classical and Deutsche Grammophon. But wedged between those gigs was this auspicious programming tour de force, in which John Fahey’s Takoma label tentatively opened its doors to punk-informed electronic minimalism. With used copies now fetching small Ebay fortunes and having long ago lost the rights to his original master tapes, Leon did what any self-respecting hardware specialist might do, which is re-record both 1981’s Nommos and 1983’s Visiting note-for-note using original studio transcriptions, meaning his arsenal of Rolands, Oberheims, ARPs and a Linn-drum prototype sound fuller than before. Sure, Leon’s Dogon fantasies are even less based in reality than Julius Hemphill’s. But those machine-like ostinatos and kosmiche washes remain iconoclastic. You may hear harbingers of industrial’s tin and din, or the cold Downtown pulse of Suicide itself (“Donkeys Bearing Cups”). And while “Visiting” proper wobbles along the thin line separating Cluster & Eno from Steven Halpern, “Region Of Fleeing Civilians” suggests Mercer Arts Center kids eating to the kraftwerk beat.
Sia, 1000 Forms Of Fear (Monkey Puzzle / RCA)
Having effectively ironed out her weirder flourishes, this poppy first-in-four-years return won’t endear itself to the alt kids who once pinned their hopes on “Breathe Me” or the club kids who banged to “The Girl You Lost To Cocaine”. But as Sia herself once opined, some people have real problems - if she still claims an ability to swing from any light fixture within reach, “Chandelier” itself mines adult gravity if not outright misfortune while detailing an around the way girl slogging headlong into alcoholism. Shutting out The Weeknd’s guest appearance on glitch-hop “Elastic Heart,” informing Frankie Valli that “big girls cry / when their heart is breaking,” and taunting “hit me like a baseball” like Lana Del Rey’s urbane auntie, she’s still the downtempo queen, although not exactly chilled out.
Miranda Lambert, Platinum (RCA Nashville)
Just because 2/3 of the Pistol Annies have been responsible for the best country albums of both 2013 and (right, ‘so far’) 2014 doesn’t mean we enthusiasts have narrowed our scope. On the contrary, Ashley Monroe’s Like A Rose and Miranda Lambert’s Platinum present markedly distinct pleasures. If Monroe’s precise nine-song offering barely broke thirty minutes, Lambert’s sixteen song whirlwind elbows aside an entire hour. And while the former applied formalist delicacy whether her narrators were robbing banks or getting kinky, the latter bursts forth with glorious intemperance, outgunning the competition via belly laughs and boasts - “by calculation, I’m way too much”. So she prances like David Lee Roth through the backyard swagger of “Little Red Wagon,” runs Tom T. Hall through Bob Wills on “All That’s Left,” brags like Kanye about her box office on the title cut, and gets downright “Strawberry Fields Forever”-trippy on “Two Rings Shy”. Yet lest you think this mere Nashville flash, our stealth progressive also delivers sisterhood blows against the empire, whether skipping Sunday services for a cold one or sticking tongues out at the patriarchy: only those recycling dumb blonde jokes will mistake “just go one shade lighter / you’ll acquire everything you need” for career advice. And in between tales of the perfidy of men, Lambert fairly aces a Music Row Bechdel Test, women talking to women about drink, kitchen sinks, and education taking the hit when your health insurance won’t cover The Pill. This is how you have it all - by fulfilling the schmaltzy code quota for one part of your audience (sepia-toned “Automatic”) before immediately addressing those same luddite fantasies with greater sass for another part of your audience (Opry-unfriendly “Old Shit”).
Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott, What Have We Become? (Virgin EMI)
Turns out The Beautiful South’s fortunes were more tied to Jacqui Abbott’s presence than anyone suspected, no doubt including Paul Heaton and even Jacqui herself. But while it’s lovely to once again hear those voices intertwine, a proudly non-imbibing Heaton at times trades in barbed observance for mere crankiness. The question posed by the title tune comes courtesy of an English mother addressing her “half-ton son,” some Soft New Britain where “pizza boxes block out the sun” and “chicken wings have replaced all the fun” - rather pat protests from the Christian Marxist who once identified the loss of a nation’s soul within postmodern architecture. But Heaton’s vision of one man’s England still registers the pain of fading ‘go home’ graffiti scrawled outside tenement flats, racism blues he effectively chases away with soul-inflected doo-doo doo-doo’s. Soul of a sort remains the key musical touchstone, from opening Martha & the Vandellas rattle to closing doo-wop shuffle “When I Get Back To Blighty”. And despite all the grousing about fatty foodstuffs, Heaton and Abbott still find plenty of appropriate targets, from the Queen herself to those identified as prisoners of their own tax returns. Of course, Heaton/Abbott are funnier about it: “Everyone around us agrees that / Phil Collins must die / Phil Collins must die”.
The most obvious points of comparison for this Dundalk anti-folk songpoet are such inspired Northern gobbers as Mark E. Smith and John Cooper Clarke, yet don’t let that fool you - where both Smith and Clarke at times bask in logorrhea, Lennon worries insistently and rhythmically over repetitive phrases, occasionally lapsing into gobbledegook because sometimes the sentiments call for a little barbaric yawp. Although he’s dropped numerous albums since this recently re-released 2006 outing, here’s where he shows off what he can do. Whether collapsing pub singalongs into “7 and 7 Is” (“Fireplace-Itis”) or spewing “the city of styrofoam cups” like punctuation, his twenty fragments sidle along unkemptly and with great musical variety, always suggesting something worth considering. Horn-bolstered “Stand Up For Your Hospitals” is his idea of a punk rallying cry. “What’s wrong with some colour in the street?” is how he confronts some anti-Nigerian bollocks. And while Lennon’s well aware that the circle of shit awaits us all, he can’t help but preach the gospel of working class magnanimity. He calls that one “Forgive The Cunts”.
Popcaan, Where We Come From (Mixpak)
One of the finer full-lengths to come out of Jamaica in recent memory arrives just in time for crisis point dancehall, still reeling from the life sentence handed down to Vybz Kartel and sagging under the bullying swagger of Aidonia and eyeball-tattooed Alkaline. Not that Andre Jay Sutherland didn’t come up through the Saint Thomas / Portmore ghetto or doesn’t boast an “Unruly Boss” chest tattoo himself - he’s no doubt seen more than you or me. But he channels social unease into party anthems rather than sufferation slogs, and his love for stateside hip-hop carries over into every Dre Skull-aided Auto-Tune hook and dubstep inflection (the latter surfacing on a Pusha-T-starring “Hustle”). So while his patois may prove too thick for Jamaican non-adepts, that fresh-faced melodiousness goes down smooth. When’s the last time a dancehall star talked about “Waiting So Long” to put a ring on their beloved’s finger? Or sold a sentiment like “Everything [Is] Nice” as if they really believed it, in between cautioning the U-Tech kids not to stress too much during finals week? In the pre-dancehall days, they used to have a name for this kind of thing: Lovers Rock.
Kasai Allstars, Beware The Fetish (Crammed Discs)
Congotronics fellas do like to stretch out, and 12 tracks / 100 minutes worth of, say, Konono Nº1’s DIY rattle doesn’t sound especially appealing. But while label mates and fellow Kinshasans Kasai Allstars may assemble performances upon familiar Konono foundations - xylophones, slit drums, thumb pianos fed through buzzing amplifiers - it’s the everloving electric guitar that establishes welcome melodic content while also anchoring the beat(s). Still pretty sparse stuff, vocal polyphony and all. Yet it proudly showcases the Kasai region in all its multiethnic Tetela/Luba/Lulua/Luntu 21st century glory, lissome guitars gently warning of “Yangye, The Evil Leopard” (lilting afropop) while also chiming “In Praise of Homeboys” (marimba fuzz-punk) and cheerily contextualizing “Down And Out” (murky Congolese dub crawl). And sometimes the guitars aren’t lissome at all, ie, concluding Congotronics vs. Rockers cut “The Ploughman,” which churns along in fuzzy indifference to questions of key.
Gilles Peterson Presents Sonzeira, Brasil Bam Bam Bam (Talkin’ Loud / Virgin EMI)
There are plenty of warning signs: French-born/South London-dwelling Radio 1 DJ assembles Brazilian notables, which in his mind includes the Wes Anderson-approved Seu Jorge, for a traipse across a continent-encompassing nation in quest of “Buena Vista meets club culture”. But don’t let that scare you off. True, one could do without the hushed wood flutes of the Mart’nália-aided “The Mystery Of Man,” while disco hounds won’t be the only ones disappointed by Marcos Valle’s update to ’83 smash “Estrelar”. Even the frosty “Southern Freeez” glogs along like a too-heavy-on-the-ice-cubes caipirinha. But Sonzeira the afro-Brazilian assemblage mostly honors the complexity of their nation’s musical and ethnic heritage by venturing far from familiar Rio into the realm of batucada, baile funk, and Bahian samba de roda, where the bossa nova is speedy, the accordions cook, and Elza Soares growls with old-world elegance. Best hook, delivered by Seu Jorge himself: “bam bam bam / bam bam bam / bam bam bam / bam-bam bam bam”.
— Socialist tripe. This book was written under union influence and aimed at our children to foster the idea of collectivism. The liberals and progressives all had a hand in this socialist propaganda piece. Fits in well with C Scope and Common Core. Liberals and Progressives are now aiming at your children, much the same that German Governments did in the 1930’s. Wow does history repeat itself or what? Do yourselves a favor and educate yourselves to what the collective socialist progressives are trying to do to you and your children BEFORE it is too late.
— This story definitely has an agenda. It is very cute, I must admit, but I would never read this to my child because it promotes values that I do not want to instill in my children. The cows (and chickens) in the story become discontent with living like every other cow lives. It is not enough that the cows are fed, live in a barn, and are well provided for…they want more! So they appeal to the farmer, refusing to do their part to contribute, until the farmer meets their “demands.” In my opinion, this story teaches children that making unrealistic demands is okay and, even worse, that you can act like a spoiled brat and get your way! Too bad the cows aren’t being grateful for what they have and trying to help less fortunate cows by welcoming them into their barn at night instead…then I might read this story to my children.
— Perhaps the book is amusing and filled with laughter but teaching our children how to strike and how to organize and create a Union is WRONG! We are a capitalist society. (You are buying this book from a company that is making $$$ right???
Let’s teach children how to be responsible, do the best they can and how to succeed such as the Little Engine that Could!! I DO NOT Recommend this Book!
— The book focuses on promoting strikes, fair labor practices and is really not appropriate for kids. I hope the author stops writing about leftist ideals and focuses on letting the children think for themselves.
— Yes, the book is funny. However, when one considers the messaging, the book has problems. First, it teaches kids that going on strike is ok, acceptable; let’s promote being pro-union, anti-management (anti-captialist?). Second, it teaches them a negative way to deal with conflict - just withhold something and you’ll get what you want. Third, nowhere in the book is the responsibility of the farmer mentioned - the farmer houses these animals, feeds them, and cares for them. The messages in this book are inappropriate for young children. Let’s wait until they’re old enough to have a class in labor relations.
— OK, the book is cute, but the reason that it has received such acclaim and honor is because it celebrates and encourages Union activity. Certainly the media would not have fallen in love with this book if farmer brown turned the ungrateful, inefficient and pampered cows into hamburger and drumsticks and replaced them with more appreciative, hard working, and efficient cows and chickens. Or would it have received the same media and literary praise if it showed that farmer brown had to move his farm to Mexico or lay off farm hands because the increased electrical costs caused by the cows and chickens made his farm uncompetitive?
— Cute book but there is a definite ‘labor’ slant to it. The book presents the cows as having a reasonable request and the farmer as being unreasonable. The graphics depicts the cows as being calm and rational while the farmer appears mean, angry and irrational. It neglects to show things from what may be the farmer’s perspective: The cows live where? The farmer’s barn. The cows eat and drink what? That which the farmer provides. These things are in fair exchange for the cow’s milk. What costs will the farmer need to incur in order to provide the electric blankets and the electricity to run them? What hardship will the farmer need to endure in order to meet the cows’ demands? How will this affect the farmers ability to house and feed the animals?
When the cows did not get their way, the chickens were brought to bear. (Farm animals of the world, unite). How does the issue get resolved? The farmer gets extorted and bullied into providing blankets and in return he gets his own typewriter back (didn’t the cows know that they should not touch things that don’t belong to them?)… And after all that, the farmer gets a demand from the ducks as well.(<quack> Where is our entitlement! <quack>).
— This book teaches collectivism….and the faster you hook up to that notion the faster you’ll be able to find it yourself, unless what you are is a “collective” socialist…then, you’ll have no problem whatsoever with this book…and what it “playfully” teaches…I’m sure Hitler used funny little animal stories too…..idiot!..I want what you have and if I don’t get it, I’m going to give you problems….redistribution and envy…that’s what it’s all about……and written by SEIU…..Service Employees International Union….get it? Idiot! just like all the 400 posts how great it is…until the cows come to your front door and pocket book demanding moo..re, moo..re, moo..re! Idiot! You’re probably a teacher too, right? Under the liberal studies umbrella! YouTube Click Clack Moo and read the posts by the teachers (also union employees)!
— from Amazon.com reviews of Doreen Cronin’s Click Clack Moo: Cows That Type.
“Political work ought to be concrete”: this is one of the rousing Soviet mottos recalled in Sergei Dovlatov’s novel, The Zone. Ironically, it is also what is said about good writing, and can one think of a more concrete contemporary writer than Dovlatov? Sentences compacted to aphoristic ingots: “One is born either poor or rich. Money has almost nothing to do with it.” Paradox, sharp wit, and swift one-liners: “Boris sober and Boris drunk are such different people, they’ve never even met.” Or: “What could I say to him? What do you say to a guard who uses after-shave only internally?” Fierce, precise snapshots, illuminated by absurdist flashes: “Cars streamed past us like submarines holding each other’s tails.” Dialogue almost Waugh-like in its tart comedy:
“You’ve just forgotten. The rudeness, the lies.”
“If people are rude in Moscow, at least it’s in Russian.”
“That’s the horrible part.”
Reading Dovlatov is a joyous, thrilling, usually hilarious experience, in large part because he has such a talent for making stories so concrete: he collects vignettes, loud portraits, bitter jokes, comic tales, absurd episodes, black anecdotes, and then delights in bringing them out of the ether of hearsay or memory and giving them new life in print. He captures, and he frees: his work bursts with this captured, freed life.
Dovlatov was not published in Russia during his lifetime. During the 1970s, he circulated his writing in samizdat and began to be published in European journals, an activity which brought about his expulsion from the Union of Soviet Journalists in 1976. He left the Soviet Union in 1978 and arrived in New York in 1979 to join his wife and daughter, part of the so-called “third wave” of Russian immigration. In New York, Dovlatov quickly became one of the most prominent and popular members of the Russian emigre community. He co-edited The New American, a liberal emigre newspaper, and worked for Radio Liberty. But mainly he wrote: twelve books in the last twelve years of his life. The Compromise appeared in 1981, The Zone a year later, Ours in 1983, A Foreign Woman in 1986, the same year that The Suitcase was published. These books were written in Russian and published by small presses, such as the Hermitage Press in Tenafly, New Jersey, or Russica, in New York.
Like everything Dovlatov wrote, Pushkin Hills is funny on every page, sparkling with jokes, repartee, and this writer’s special savage levity. But Dovlatov is also expert at what Gogol called “laughter through tears.” In Pushkin Hills, the almost Wodehouse-like escapades in the countryside are constantly menaced by the obligations and difficulties Boris has fled—how to be a writer in the Soviet Union, how to live amicably with his wife and daughter. “Officially, I was a full-fledged creative personality. In reality, I was on the edge of a mental breakdown.”
In its sly, sidelong, defiantly non-aligned way, Dovlatov’s work is always probing questions of freedom. It’s not simply that freedom might be frightening, novel, unreal; it’s that it might turn out to be not as free as advertised—or not free in exactly the way promised. And if you refuse to risk the potential “disappointment” of freedom by exercising it, you will, at least, avoid that disappointment. It’s why Boris fearfully defends, even to the point of absurdity, his non-existent status as Russian writer: when Tanya reminds him that he hasn’t been (and, seemingly, can’t be) published in the Soviet Union, he replies, “But my readers are here. While over there…Who needs my stories in Chicago?” Better, perhaps, to have always-unrealized potential than lapsed actuality.
Freedom is both actual and ideal, both concrete and metaphysical. There are enacted realities, like the rule of law, free speech, economic possibility and limitation, material circumstance—it should go without saying that these actualities are of enormous consequence in immigrants’ lives. But the emigre has also a strange, pure, almost metaphysical liberty: this, as Nabokov knew, is the portable, remembered world he or she brings with him from the old country. Nabokov’s emigre professor, Timofey Pnin, knows this portable, internal, untouchable, undisappointable world to be the cosmos you carry inside you—the stories, the people, the memories, the anecdotes and jokes, even the very dates of one’s national history; in short, the emigre’s entire cultural formation: “a brilliant cosmos that seemed all the fresher for having been abolished by one blow of history,” as Pnin thinks of it.
It is why Dovlatov is able to look at the single suitcase he brought with him from the Soviet Union and disdain the things inside it (the hat, the jacket, the shirt, the gloves). The things are not important. What are important are the stories these things drag with them, the very stories Dovlatov made into his book, The Suitcase, the stories that enliven every page of his writing. In this sense, things are not concrete; the impalpable stories are, made so by the great writer when set down brilliantly, vividly in print for generations of future readers. I don’t know if Boris quite understands this, at the end of Pushkin Hills; but we are very fortunate that Sergei Dovlatov did.
-- James Wood, “Sergei Dovlatov and the Hearsay of Memory,” from the afterword to Pushkin Hills, published by Counterpoint Press.