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Sexton, Hickey, Mercer, Rockwell

January 10, 2010

For anyone dissatisfied with the cursory 6000-word treatment of Charlie Sexton’s career in my previous post, I thought I should mention a couple of other things:

I cut off Sexton’s album chronology a little early: his most recent solo effort, Cruel and Gentle Things, came out in 2005.  At this point I have spent very little time with it.  It’s a very song-oriented album, weirdly reminding me a little of Dan Wilson’s Free Life of a couple of years back: lots of acoustic strumming, infrequent and economical solos, a sense of steady decorum and minimal urgency.  What it teaches us is that just as Sexton is not Bowie, neither is he Dan Wilson.  At this point Sexton is sufficiently skilled in the studio to do business as a producer of other people’s stuff; however, it sounds to me like he really benefits from having somebody around to complicate his life while he’s recording his own.

I also meant to give props to Sexton’s band circa Under the Wishing Tree, known as the Charlie Sexton Sextet; there were, naturally, only four of them at the time the album was recorded: Sexton himself, bassist George Reiff, keyboardist Michael Ramos, and drummer Rafael Gayol, the latter two late of the BoDeans.  (Gayol also played with my fellow James E. Taylor High School alum David Rice, another Austin-based musician too obviously destined for fame to ever actually become famous; see also Garza, Davíd.)  The Sextet’s ranks would later swell to five with the addition of the great Susan Voelz on violin; they then became the legitimately-six-membered Sexton Sextet after Charlie’s brother Will joined up.  Anyway, I persist in my assertion that Under the Wishing Tree is a pretty solid album, and I think the backing band deserves some credit for that.  So.

One last thing: as I was rereading the Sexton post to respond to Beth’s comment, it occurred to me that Dave Hickey has pretty much already covered all this stuff—in more places than one, but particularly in his essay “Shining Hours / Forgiving Rhyme” (which looks to Norman Rockwell and Johnny Mercer as two somewhat more convincing standard-bearers than Charlie Sexton probably is for the kind of art I’m trying to defend):

I decided that, if high art is always about context and exclusivity, the art of Rockwell and Mercer, which denies both with a vengeance, must be about that denial.  To put it simply: Norman Rockwell’s painting, like Johnny Mercer’s music, has no special venue.  It lives in the quotidian world with us amidst a million other things, so it must define itself as we experience it, embody itself and be remembered to survive.  So it must rhyme, must live in pattern, which is the mother of remembering.  Moreover, since this kind of art lacks any institutional guarantee of our attention, it must be selected by us—and since it aspires to be selected by all of us, it must accept and forgive us too—and speak the language of acceptance and forgiveness.  And since it can only function in an atmosphere of generosity and agreement, it must somehow, in some way, promote that atmosphere.

Thus, there is in Rockwell (as there is in Dickens) this luminous devotion to the possibility of domestic kindness and social accord—along with an effortless proclivity to translate any minor discord into comedy and forgiving tristesse—and this domain of kindness and comedy and tristesse is not the truth, but it is a part of it, and a part that we routinely deny these days, lest we compromise our social agendas.  We discourage expressions of these feelings on the grounds that they privilege complacency and celebrate the norm as we struggle to extend the franchise.  But that is just the point (and the point of our struggle): Kindness, comedy, and forgiving tristesse are not the norm.  They signify our little victories—and working toward democracy consists of nothing more or less than the daily accumulation of little victories whose uncommon loveliness we must, somehow, speak or show.

When I am President of the United States, the two preceding paragraphs will be carved into something big and indestructible and sustainably-quarried and will then be displayed on the National Mall—in front of the Arts and Industries Building maybe, roughly equidistant from the National Museum of American History and the National Gallery of Art.  Until then, you can and should seek it out in Hickey’s collection Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy, which is available everywhere books are available.

Okay.  Enough with the Sexton.  I hope to get back to The Birds soon . . . but here’s the news, kids: The Birds came out in 1963, and “TiK ToK” by Ke$ha is at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 right freaking now.  So guess what we’re doing next?  C’mon, don’t pretend you’re not excited . . .

5 Comments leave one →
  1. January 11, 2010 8:42 am

    I can’t pretend; I AM so excited. Because I have no, ahem, pokerface, unlike another (much, much better) artist who Ke$ha (which, WTF is with the dollar sign in her name? Is she some kind of Objectivist? Gross) is flagrantly ripping off.

  2. January 18, 2010 9:08 pm

    I am excited about your next post, and thought I am not familiar with Sexton’s music, I enjoyed the lengthy post about it. Also, I love Norman Rockwell. And finally Ke$ha was discussed by two commentators on NPR the other day and their point was it is totally derivative, has all the pieces to be a good pop song, but still sucks. the whole piece can be found here: worth a quick read.

  3. January 18, 2010 9:56 pm

    @ K — Rest assured the dollar sign shall be addressed! (The pokerface will get its own post at some point . . .)

    @ B — You are way ahead of me with that NPR link: I heard that piece and thought it was really interesting, particularly the comparison to Avatar (although I’m not sure I totally like this post-Planet-Money trend of NPR pieces structured like ostensibly unscripted conversations). I mostly agree with what the commentators (is that a real word? is there anything wrong with “commentors?”) say, and I’ll try to spell out the extent to which I don’t when Ke$ha and I finally meet on the field of battle. Soon!

    I have the suspicion that Charlie Sexton is not really ever going to be your bag, B, and to the extent that that reflects on your musical tastes, the reflection is, shall we say, not negative. On Rockwell we are in complete agreement. You are a Norman Rockwell for our times.

    Thanks K! Thanks B!


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