Reviews

Wake Up, Sir! by Jonathan Ames

Jonathan Messinger

Blair is an endearingly unsuccessful human being -- and writer-- out to craft the Great New Jersey Novel, thinking the Great American Novel beyond his reach.


Wake Up, Sir!

Publisher: Scribner
Length: 352
Price: $23
Author: Jonathan Ames
US publication date: 2004-07
Amazon

Jonathan Ames has a reputation to uphold.

As a columnist for the New York Press, he wrote personal narratives covering topics most of us would rather shove deep in our subconscious, and did so with all the reticence of a newsie. His most embarrassing -- and often sexually revealing -- moments were treated as headline copy for his cheeky, unblushing bulletin.

As a novelist, Ames has won praise from all corners of the literary world, from hard-line traditionalists like Joyce Carol Oates (who taught him at Princeton) to quirky lit heroes such as National Public Radio humorist Sarah Vowell.

And this is the space that Ames occupies: He is a writer whose style and chops are entirely in the tradition of the contemporary "great" authors. His wit and observational skill made Paul Roth praise Ames's first book as akin to Catcher in the Rye. Yet, he often trains his skillful eye on the true -- and therefore troublesome and humiliating -- nature of sex and deviancy. His tales have sated a whole new generation of readers looking for a writer who shares their neuroses, post-Woody Allen.

Ames has made himself both the cool nephew of the Ivory Tower scribes, and the rambunctious uncle of the Copy Shop scribblers.

Thus positioned, it should come as no surprise that his latest novel, Wake Up, Sir! is written in the British comic novel tradition, but deals with a neurotic, alcoholic writer trailed by an imaginary manservant. The writer, Alan Blair, flees the New Jersey home of his aunt and uncle first for Sharon Springs, NY, where he thinks the hot sulfur springs of upstate New York will quell the storm in his brain. He wants to retreat to the Hasidic enclave, rather than another rehab center. Blair brings Jeeves, his imaginary valet who shares the name of P.G. Wodehouse's famed butler, along for the ride. To the slightly askew writer, however, Jeeves is very real.

Finding no solace in Sharon Springs, and finding himself on the receiving end of a few nasty blows from a "human hill," Blair is drawn by invitation to Saratoga Springs, the home of the "Rose Colony," an old-fashioned artists' refuge. Here, the story takes off as Blair is introduced to a cast of characters so bizarre and maladjusted that he thinks he may have been interred in a sanitarium, rather than an artists' sanctuary. He then, by the nature of his enormous character flaws, goes about systematically destroying the thin boundaries of the colony.

At a stop in Chicago during his recent book tour, Ames said that when he was younger and found himself in dire circumstances -- often carousing with a "criminal element" -- he would plead internally, "Home, Jeeves! Home!" The hope was to call upon a responsible servant, perhaps Ames's superego, who would then take control of the wayward master's body and guide him safely away from the ruffians, and perhaps school him in civil behavior on the way home.

That is the genesis, and the gimmick, of the book. But Ames uses Blair's idiot pulpit to advance theories about homosexuality, Judaism and Hasidism, and the genesis of the artistic drive. He has plenty to say about all of it, and there's also no shortage of sex and sexual deviancy.

What stands out most, above all of this, is Ames's wit. Blair is an endearingly unsuccessful human being -- and writer-- out to craft the Great New Jersey Novel, thinking the Great American Novel beyond his reach. Ames pillories the selfishness of artists without condescension, which has the interesting effect of forcing the reader to enjoy these people, even if they are one-dimensional psychotics. Instead of belittling artists, Ames seems to think we should have as much sympathy for them as we would for the mentally ill.

There is a wonderful scene about two-thirds through the book when Blair takes off with his two closest inmate friends: the novelists Alan Tinkle and Robert Mangrove. Tinkle is driven nearly insane by his, to put it nicely, easily stimulated libido. Mangrove is a depressive who wears an eye patch over a perfectly useful eye; it's radical therapy to open his "third eye." After drinking down Wild Turkey and smoking Mangrove's medical marijuana, the three launch into Saratoga Springs in Blair's car, role-playing a science-fiction adventure wherein they adopt high-ranking positions in a "Space Navy." They seek out a fountain behind the public library, and drink from what they have convinced themselves is water replete with serotonin. Drinking of its waters, they imagine their brains chemically altered into states of happiness.

It's a beautiful scene of men behaving like boys, forgetting for the moment that their civilian lives -- when they are out of their Space Navy uniforms -- are a social shambles. Their friendship here is the innocent kind of childhood, and it clearly makes the men happy.

It is quintessential Ames: uproarious, ludicrous and something of a stretch. But it also seems to sum up the body of his work. The three men have serious troubles, troubles that both embarrass them to such a level that they must confess them. They are both ashamed and shameless. There are no simple answers, no ready-made quick fix for the deepest of neuroses. To work through them, however, seems to require a bit of good humor.

That's how Ames has burrowed his unique cubbyhole: He takes on the Great Topics novels are supposed to tackle, but does it with a Space Navy. He employs a sort of laugh-through-it-all approach; not at all a method of therapy or a hope for a cure. Ames, it seems, thinks these problems are innate in all people, and that it's foolhardy to convince ourselves we are unique in our disorders. We're all miserable wretches on some level, and we could all use a hand from a Jeeves now and again.

And if that's the case, why not laugh about it?

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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