Culture To Go

Elvis Costello and Bill Frisell

Deep Dead Blue

Warner Bros./Nonesuch (import)

In this seven-song concert, recorded this summer, Costello teams with guitarist Bill Frisell, a certified instructor at the John Zorn/Knitting Factory Institute of Swingless Jazz. Both Costello and Frisell have tackled the American songbook in recent years: Costello on the Kojak Variety and Frisell on the brilliant Have a Little Faith, where the guitarist covered songs from early American avant-gardist Charles Ives through Madonna. The two connect here over Charles Mingus's "Weird Nightmare" (originally from the Hal Willner tribute LP of the same name) and visit Lerner and Loewe's Gigi before closing with an original collaboration, the album's title track. Costello's compositions ("Love Field," "Poor Napoleon," "Baby Plays Around") could not be mistaken for popular highlights of his career, but what Deep Dead Blue mostly proves is that even the underappreciated orphans of his catalogue stand above most contemporary songwriting.

Frisell is on a short leash in the background, but he's up to his usual tricks with the volume pedal, wobbling and warbling behind Costello's quivering and crooning. Which reminds me that I'd like to punch whomever taught Elvis to "sing" (a talent first manifested on 1989's Spike and reaching heights of intolerability on The Juliet Letters). I am startled by his range, yes, and his voice is more expressive than it was in the bilious early years when I considered Costello only slightly less fallible than the pope. The ultimate question, then, is this: How can an album as good as Deep Dead Blue only serve to confirm that Costello's most germane work is well behind him? (Michael Tortorello)


BOOKS

Arthur Miller

Homely Girl, A Life and other stories

Viking

Miller once wrote about how taken he was with the fact that George Washington, Jefferson, and other founding fathers were deists who saw the world as a clock that God had wound once, then gracefully turned away from. Homely Girl, A Life includes his first fiction in many years, along with two previously published stories, "Fame" and "Fitter's Night," and it continues his lifelong labor of describing how people find themselves left to tick.

"Homely Girl" begins with its namesake's waking one morning to find her husband lying "heavier than usual"--that is, dead. What follows is a stream of thoughts that have occurred over the course of her life, during which we witness Janice's struggle to sync her Disraeli-like face with her sexual astuteness and and an equally wily body. For instance, "at parties she had many a time noticed how men coming up behind her were caught surprised when she turned to face them." Her understanding of the ironic juxtaposition of her staid face and her own sexual ardency allows her to see through popular ideologies of the day, as well through various lovers and family members.

"Fame" tells of a playwright struggling to maintain his spirit when he can't walk down a New York street without being recognized (a perhaps personally inspired story?); and in "Fitter's Night," Brooklyn Navy Yard shipfitter Tony Calabrese finds himself undertaking a potentially life-threatening job, for no reason other than to satisfy a previously unknown sense of dignity. Read together, this trilogy creates a random, and therefore accurate, sketch of human motivation. (Amanda Ferguson)

Sander Hicks

Cash Cow

Soft Skull Press

Can a 24-hour copy shop symbolize the American Dream gone askew? Well, in Sander Hicks's off-off-Broadway play Cash Cow, the idea certainly takes on a menacing charm. This clever, bitter allegory quickly reduces the staff of Infinity Copies to livestock: beef (for company profits) and teats (for consumer nurturing). The 24-year-old Hicks (a former Kinko's employee--surprise!) is a rising star in NYC's theater scene, having written and produced two original installments for St. Mark's Studio theater. And while Cash Cow is often burdened with his awkward Patti Smith imitations, the play eventually offers some poignant--and dare I say it--brilliant sequences.

Most of these center around Allen, a beatific 35-year-old copy machine whiz who hovers like an otherworldly celeb among his twentysomething coworkers. This avid Alice Cooper fan winds up emceeing his own open-casket funeral and poetically detailing his afterlife, where he un-copies, de-collates, and "tears apart perfect bindings." In the play's startling finale, the staff cashes in Allen's paycheck for a BBQ steak dinner, which they demonically feed to the customers. This twisted feast offers a thrilling glimpse of Hicks's potential to move beyond sophomoric, anarchy-zine dialogue and craft human characters out of a collated and processed world he so clearly dreads. (Josh Feit)

Karl Taro Greenfeld

Speed Tribes: Days and Nights with

Japan's Next Generation

HarperPerennial

Greenfeld's sociological diatribe locates the warts on the smooth exterior of Japan's no-crime culture. Its population includes 17-year-old motorcycle thieves hot-wiring everything in sight, a porn star named Choco Bon-Bon searching for the "perfect tuna" female, and the notorious bosozoku (speed tribes) of juvenile delinquents racing around in fancy cars and hot-rod motorcycles, wreaking havoc on quiet Japanese society and aspiring to join the Yazuka mafia. On the flip side we see members of the elite, dedicated bookworms only until their acceptance into the prestigious Todai (University of Tokyo)--after which they slack off into a decadent life of self-serving luxury. This isn't the Japan we've heard about in the media.

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