Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Hipper-Than-Thou Rock Critics

Books & Culture currently features an article by Mark Gavreau Judge entitled "Please Flush: Why Rock Critics Need to Re-Read Lester Bangs and JP II." You can read the entire article here.

Judge takes rock critics to task for their elitist attitudes. He begins his article:

"Let's impose a moratorium on rock critics. Now. A few months ago, I came across this line by critic David Dunlap, Jr.: "[The band] Windsor for the Derby has plenty of experience jumping subgenres … everything from slo-core to krautrock to electronica to its current flavor of Mancunian-tinged postrock."

Call me square, dismiss me as an oldster, but I think when you're referring to Mancunian-tinged postrock, it's time to hang it up. Pop music criticism has grown so insular, full of itself, hipper-than-thou, and, most important, aesthetically disjointed from the thing it claims to examine that we'd best start over ..."

Call me overly sensitive, but what's a rock critic to do? The problem is that for at least the last thirty years, the best, most creative, and most influential rock music has existed on the fringes. You won't hear it on MTV. And unless you live in one of the three or four genuine cultural outposts of creativity in the U.S., or have discovered the wonders of Internet radio, the non-obsessive music fan is simply not going to be exposed to it. I understand Judge's whining about "Mancunian-tinged postrock." It sounds like an insular, hipper-than-thou statement that is designed to inflate the ego of the rock critic and deflate the egos of the 98 percent of the world that has never heard The Stone Roses, Lush, or The Boo Radleys. But in fact there is such a thing as "the Manchester sound," and there is such a thing as postrock, and when you combine those influences, you may very well end up with something that sounds like Mancunian-tinged postrock. You could compare Windsor for the Derby to Britney Spears, an artist who is known throughout the world. But Windsor for the Derby doesn't sound like Britney Spears. They sound like Mancunian-tinged postrock.

Rock critics are, by and large, elitist snobs who write for elitist snobs. There's no getting around it. But the hipper-than-thou factor can be mitigated by the kinds of human connections that Judge promotes in his article. And I agree with him. I don't want to read album reviews that are more about the reviewer than the music. And I don't want to read a laundry list of musical sub-genres and influences, either, although a short list is usually helpful. What I do want to read is why I, the reader, should care about this particular album. What does it sound like, and what does it say? But you know what? Sometimes it sounds like Mancunian-tinged postrock, and any other comparison with a better-known artist/band will be wide of the mark. In those circumstances, I'd like to think that instead of whining, the serious music fan might check out the Manchester sound and postrock, and might eventually arrive at Mancunian-tinged postrock.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Jovial Company, Joe, and J.O.

As we do every year (24 and counting for me; longer than that for many other family members), we ventured down to Old Man’s Cave State Park to spend three days with Kate’s family over the Thanksgiving holidays. It was a wonderful time – thirty-five people hanging out in eight adjacent cabins, talking, eating and drinking, and hiking. Lots of hiking. For you non-Buckeyes, there is actually a corner of the state (the southeast one) that butts up against West Virginia, and that can be considered to be relatively scenic. It’s not the Grand Canyon, but there are canyons, and ravines, and caves, and hills that the natives somewhat euphemistically refer to as mountains, and miles and miles of unspoiled natural beauty. It is, in fact, one of my favorite places on earth, at least partly because of the wonderful memories I’ve accumulated there over the past 24 years. There are four generations of us now; the nephews and nieces are all grown up and have kids of their own. But they still drive from Chicago and Washington D.C. with the toddlers in tow to be a part of it. I think that speaks volumes. In this day and age we’re all a part of something remarkable – a functional family – and at the end of three days everybody still likes each other. I’m so thankful that I can be a part of it.

So we hiked at places called Conkle’s Hollow and Old Man’s Cave and Rock House and Cedar Falls and Ash Cave. My mother-in-law, who will be 90 next month, joined us for the paved hike down to Ash Cave. There’s something to be said for those hardy German genes.

On Saturday, my niece Heather and I ventured down to Athens, Ohio, the home of Ohio University, where I went to school back in the pioneer days. Okay, but it was the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations. Close enough. We strolled around the deserted campus, which will soon be home to my youngest daughter Rachel, and I realized that I will indeed look forward to visiting this idyllic little college town on a fairly regular basis. I picked up a few used CDs (Destroyer, Cat Power, Sandy Denny, Iron and Wine, Sparklehorse) on the cheap at Haffa’s in uptown Athens. Haffa’s opened when I was a student at O.U. in the mid-‘70s, and it’s still there. That was great to see.

Before we left on Thursday I received a very gracious e-mail message from Joe Henry. Joe Henry is a music producer, friend to the stars, Hollywood maverick, father, husband of Madonna’s sister, and the best singer/songwriter you’ve probably never heard. At any rate, I wrote about him in the latest issue of Paste because I really love his music, and he was kind enough to send me a wonderful reply. Sometimes I wonder if all the late nights and weekends spent staring at a keyboard even matter. And then I receive a note like that and I remember. If I can help a few people connect with such a talented artist, then I will be happy.

Finally, another friend, Jeffrey Overstreet, is about to publish his first book, entitled “Through a Screen Darkly: Looking Closer at Beauty, Truth and Evil in the Movies.” Y’all should read it. You can check out a review of JO’s book from Publisher’s Weekly right here.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Favorite Music of 2006

No, it’s not the end of the year. But we’re in the traditional dead time in which no self-respecting musician/band releases new music. So, working on the assumption that no masterpiece will be forthcoming when people are distracted by turkey and tinsel, I offer you my favorite albums from 2006.

In spite of the moaning from Corporate Musicdom, it’s actually been a great year for music, one of the best since the early ‘90s. Old farts like Paul Simon and Donald Fagen have released their best music in decades. Bob Dylan arose from his wheelchair and delivered another great album. Thanks to the Internet, the proliferation of new indie labels, and a DIY aesthetic, new musicians and bands can release the music they want, regardless of pressure from A&R types at big music conglomerates. As a consequence, all kinds of new and interesting sounds are readily available. And people, for whatever reasons, have mostly stopped buying albums from whoever happens to win the latest I Wanna Be a Star in Vegas reality karaoke program. All of this is cause for great rejoicing.


  • Go ahead and get it out of your system. Really, feel free to post a comment now, even before you read, along the lines of, “How can you say that is good/bad, I love/hate that album, what’s wrong with you?” After you do that, please keep in mind that these are my opinions. Your opinions may, and probably will, differ from mine.
  • No American Idol contestants were harmed in the writing of this post.

The Top Ten

10. The BellRays – Have a Little Faith

Take one singer with the biggest Afro you’ve ever seen. Give her Aretha Franklin’s voice. Then put her in a room with a bunch of guys weaned on Led Zeppelin, The Stooges, and The MC5. Except for one anomaly (“Third Time’s the Charm,” which sounds like Aretha Franklin fronting the Stax/Volt band), that’s what Have a Little Faith sounds like. I like Robert Plant as much as the next Boomer, but he’s no Aretha. And Aretha never did an Iggy Pop cover, either. That’s the strange mashup that characterizes this album, and it’s a wondrous thing.

9. Lambchop – Damaged

One of the most idiosyncratic of bands, Lambchop keeps its string of great albums intact. Damaged is ersatz lounge music that is anything but easy listening. Dripping with countrypolitan strings, Kurt Wagner’s music sounds, on the surface, like the backdrop to classic tunes from the likes of Patsy Cline or Ray Price. Eventually you decipher the enigmatic mumble, though, and discover oddly telling reveries about loss and regret, aging and death. Just like Patsy, Kurt Wagner falls to pieces, but he does it in a way that only he could do.

8. Iarla O Lionaird – Invisible Fields

Iarla O Lionaird, leader of Afro Celt Sound System, has the soaring tenor and warm brogue that melts hearts in every faux-Irish pub throughout America. But he’s not singing “Danny Boy”; he’s singing the traditional Gaelic songs of his native Galway. More impressively, he’s welded those ancient melodies to the decidedly modern beats of Beck and Royksopp and a wall of sound that recalls Sigur Ros and Mogwai. It’s a glorious din.

7. Donald Fagen – Morph the Cat

Donald Fagen is still too cool for school, and if sonically he has never really moved beyond the ‘70s Steely Dan classics Katy Lied and Aja, he’s at least updated the sentiments. This time out he explores the claustrophobic, fearful world of post-9/11 New York, and in the process creates a masterful song cycle about aging and death. Consider “Brite Nitegown,” an incredibly funky, booty-shaking song about the Grim Reaper, as Exhibit A in how to dance on your own grave.

6. The Decemberists – The Crane Wife

The major label didn’t hurt at all, did it? Colin Meloy still writes with thesaurus in hand, and he’s still hung up on the traditional folk music of the British Isles and esoteric historical themes. His band has also been listening to Emerson, Lake and Palmer and early Peter Gabriel and Genesis, and on the two twelve-minute prog rock suites here they feature everything but the rotating drum kit. It’s okay. They’re saved from Penultimate Pomposity by the idiosyncratic writing and by Meloy’s undeniable melodic gifts. “Yankee Bayonet” is as fine an anti-war statement as you will ever want to hear, even if its subject matter is the American Civil War, and the two prog-rock suites make me want to put on a cape. Ask my wife if that’s a good thing.

5. Birdmonster – No Midnight

The debut album has been greeted with lukewarm reviews. I don’t care. I still love it. It’s literate, it features a great, unhinged lead vocalist (operating in the fine tradition of Talking Heads’ David Byrne and Arcade Fire’s Win Butler), and it rocks like crazy. If The Strokes or Interpol had a lead singer who dropped the bored, ironic affectations and was actually involved with the proceedings, this is what they might sound like.

4. Scott H. Biram – Graveyard Shift

Biram is a one-man-band who does White Stripes/Black Keys minimalism one better. He handles lead and harmony vocals, CB radio, loudspeaker, breathing, harmonica, gut, all acoustic and electric guitars, Hammond B3 organ, homemade footstomp board, hi hat, tambourine, claps, hambone, table thump, special effects, and random noises. He doesn’t so much play the guitar as bludgeon it. He sings about sin and salvation, Jesus, weed, 18 wheelers, the wonders of inebriation, how much he hates work, wanting to find someone to love, and wanting to murder his lover. This is a raw and dirty tantrum, more Saturday night than Sunday morning, but there’s still a fascinating spiritual tussle at work here. It all ads up to amateurism taken to a breathtakingly belligerent, soulful level. If Hank Williams had grown up listening to Johnny Rotten, this is what he might have sounded like.

3. Jolie Holland – Springtime Can Kill You

Jolie Holland sidesteps the whole folk vs. jazz debate that characterized the reviews of her first two albums, and heads straight for the front parlor. Her music evokes images of a far different time; Woody Guthrie riding the rails during the Great Depression, maybe, or the years when a blues lament was more likely to be heard from the front porch of a tarpaper shack than a concert stage. But Holland’s lyrics – sultry, deeply sexual, intensely poetic – stand in sharp contrast to the sepia-toned nature of the music. She’s a marvelous writer. She’s also the best singer working today, period, and her phrasing is impeccable. Some have argued that her voice is an acquired taste. Only if you have to work really hard to listen to Billie Holiday.

2. The Hold Steady – Boys and Girls in America

Boys and Girls in America is great rock ‘n roll – the archetypal Americana of Bruce Springsteen and the ramshackle glory of The Replacements, all rolled into one. It features a songwriter who is dead set on writing the 45-minute musical equivalent of the Great American Novel. It’s sweeping and grand and desperate, full of hope and fear, and if you’re a longtime student of the genre, it will make you want to do cartwheels even at a relatively advanced age, because it will remind you of everything that is good and great about the icons, from Elvis, Lennon, and Dylan right into the present day. It’s almost perfect. And maybe next time Craig Finn can figure out a way to make rock ‘n roll about something other than sex and drugs. They’re great themes. But I suspect they’ve been done before. Once or twice.

1. Camera Obscura – Let's Get Out of This Country

Camera Obscura’s Tracyanne Campbell is a throwback to the Brenda Lee’s or Leslie Gore’s of the early 1960s. She’s sweet, she’s wholesome, and she’s slightly nondescript. That is, until you start listening to what she has to say. Let’s Get Out of This Country is the ultimate breakup album, and Campbell’s vocal sweetness masks a deep sorrow. She’s a wondrous writer, capable of touching deep wells of heartache, and on songs like “Lloyd, I’m Ready to be Heartbroken” and “Tears for Affairs,” her Everywoman delivery is all the more profound because of its universal appeal. These are breezy three-minute pop tunes about having everything you live for sucked right out of your soul. In short, it’s a perfect pop record, the kind that would have sounded great in 1962, and the kind that sounds just as great in 2006.

The Best of the Rest

After that it gets murky, but these are albums I liked a lot this year:

00100 – Taiga
Band of Horses – Everything All the Time
Beck – The Information
Beirut – Gulag Orkestar
Benevento Russo Duo - Play Pause Stop
Blood Meridian – Kick up the Dust
Solomon Burke – Nashville
Don Byron – Do the Boomerang: The Music of Junior Walker
Neko Case – Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
Johnny Cash - American V: A Hundred Highways
Dirty Dozen Brass Band - What's Goin' On
Johnny Dowd – Cruel Words
Bob Dylan – Modern Times
Elanors – Movements
Jeremy Enigk – World Waits
Melody Gardot – Worrisome Heart
Vince Gill – These Days
Gnarls Barkley - St. Elsewhere
Gomez - How We Operate
Steve Goodman – Live at the Earl of Old Town
Horse Feathers – Words Are Dead
Alan Jackson – Like Red on a Rose
James Hunter - People Gonna Talk
The Kennedys – Songs of the Open Road
Ray Lamontagne - Till The Sun Turns Black
Mastodon – Blood Mountain
Scott Miller – Citation
Van Morrison – Pay the Devil
Jim Noir - Tower of Love
Pernice Brothers – Live a Little
The Sails – The Sails
Silversun Pickups – Carnavas
Paul Simon – Surprise
Mindy Smith – Long Island Shores
Chris Smither – Leave the Light On
Bruce Springsteen – We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions
Sufjan Stevens – The Avalanche
Subtle – For Hero: For Fool
Sugarland – Enjoy the Ride
K.T. Tunstall – Eye to the Telescope
Derek Trucks Band – Songlines
TV on the Radio – Return to Cookie Mountain
Tom Waits – Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards
M. Ward – Post-War
Tom Ze – Estudando o Pagode

Best Box Sets/Reissues

Karen Dalton – In My Own Time
Brian Eno and David Byrne – My Life in the Bush of Ghosts
John Lee Hooker – Hooker
Willie Nelson – The Complete Atlantic Sessions
Gram Parsons – Fallen Angel
Andy Partridge – Fuzzy Warbles Vols. 1 - 8

Most Overrated Albums of 2006

They’re not terrible, and Kevin Federline is in no imminent danger of losing his Most Loathsome Album of 2006 crown. But in the absence of a new Coldplay album this year, I offer you:

T Bone Burnett - The True False Identity
Flaming Lips – At War with the Mystics
Grandaddy – Just Like the Fambly Cat
Lady Sovreign – Public Warning
The Raconteurs – Broken Toy Story

Most Likely Home-Schooled Hippie to Release Pretentious Twaddle

Joanna Newsom – Ys

Friday, November 17, 2006

Buckeye Nation

I am at work, munching on my sandwich during my lunch hour. People around me are singing. Normally staid, sober, middle-aged Ohioans are making fools of themselves, decked out in full Buckeye regalia, belting out the Ohio State University fight song, shaking pompoms and pennants, and cavorting like young bucks (and Bucks).

This is an odd time of year. Oh, I understand it. I’ve lived in Columbus most of my life, and these attitudes are deeply embedded in my DNA. I remember meeting St. Woody Hayes in line at Lazarus one day when I was a kid. Woody shook my hand and told me to study hard. I felt like I had touched the hem of God. I wrote a paper when I was in eighth grade on the topic: “Your Favorite Day.” My favorite day was November 23rd, 1968, a day in which the Ohio State Buckeyes, on their way to the national championship, demolished the Michigan Wolverines by a score of 50 – 14. That was the game in which Woody, already up by 34 points with less than two minutes to go in the game, went for a two-point conversion, and made it. When asked later why he had gone for two when he already had a clearly insurmountable lead, Woody replied, “Because I couldn’t go for three.”

When you grow up in central Ohio, certain eternal verities are deeply ingrained: the great enemies of freedom and the American way are Communism, godlessness, and the University of Michigan, and not necessarily in that order. It was only much later in life, in fact when I was an adult, that I dared step foot in Ann Arbor, Michigan and found that it was an attractive college town, and that its inhabitants were not horned and fanged.

So there’s this football game tomorrow. It’s a big game. It’s always a big game, The Biggest Game, in fact. But this time it’s even bigger. The Buckeyes are undefeated, and ranked #1 in the nation. The Wolverines are undefeated, and ranked #2 in the nation. The winner of the game will most likely go on to win the national championship.

I ought to care. And in some sense, I do. But I can’t help it. Every year about this time I get embarrassed to be in Columbus, Ohio. Because I also know that sometime tomorrow some unlucky or clueless person will have his car torched for the simple reason that it has Michigan license plates. People who have the audacity to wear Michigan regalia in Columbus, Ohio will be, on the bright side, ridiculed and belittled, and on the dark side, verbally and/or physically assaulted. After the game people will burn dumpsters and couches. Don’t ask me why. You win a football game, you burn the city down. Or, you lose a football game, you burn the city down. It’s just what we do.

The singing appears to be wrapping up now. I am going to attempt to hide in my cubicle and make myself as inconspicuous as possible. I made the mistake of wearing a blue shirt to work today. I didn’t think about it. I just reached in the closet and grabbed a shirt. I’m hoping that the minivan won’t be in flames when I leave for home in a few hours.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

U 218 Singles

On the front cover the "2" and the "1" are suspicously close together, so it looks like you're getting 218 singles for about $15. Which would be a good deal.

Instead, you're getting eighteen songs, sixteen of which you've already heard far too frequently, and which have already been packaged and re-packaged ad nauseum in various Greatest Hits configurations. For $15. That's not such a good deal.

I hate when bands do this, even if they are led by the Messiah. I like Bono. I respect what he has done in terms of AIDS and African debt relief. But I would respect him more if he and his bandmates would stop repackaging their music and doling out the new stuff in pitifully small doses. This is an album nobody needs, and it will probably sell gazillions of copies. Maybe, on the bright side, all the profits will go to African debt relief. You think?

Yusuf -- An Other World

You all know Yusuf, formerly Yusuf Islam, formerly Cat Stevens. Back in his feline days he was better than just about anybody at framing philosophical conundrums and spiritual questions as part of perfectly realized three-minute pop songs.

But that was a long time ago, and his conversion to Islam and his subsequent critical commentaries on western culture have alienated him from much of his old audience. And he hasn't exactly been prolific in the musical department, either, offering a few dour doctrinal discourses over the past three decades, and little else.

So An Other Cup is an unexpected return. To be sure, Yusuf is very much a Muslim, and he'd like you to know how important his faith is in his life. But a few didactic moments aside, I'm impressed by how warm and welcoming this album sounds. Yusuf's voice is virtually unchanged from the '70s, and that's a very good thing indeed. His melodic pop gifts are intact, as is at least part of the classic band that made Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat so memorable. Newcomer (for Yusuf) Youssou N'Dour adds stirring vocals. Most significantly, in songs like "Maybe There's a World" Yusuf allows us to see through the cracks, as he admits that he's not perfect, and that he's not the man he'd like to be. How about that? The humanity, long the hallmark of his early '70s recordings, is still there, and this time it's front and center. This is far from the man's best work, but it's really, really nice to have him back.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Joanna Newsom

Joanna Newsom, everyone's favorite fairy princess, has a new album called Ys (pronounced "ees").

I waver in my reaction to Ms. Newsom, but I vacillate between grudging admiration of her sheer audacity, and hoots of laughter over her ridiculously overwrought persona and songwriting. Fly away, my dearest darling, with your alliteration and your elusive, effusive allusions, on moonbeams and butterfly wings. Call me when you've found a voice and you've put away the damned thesaurus.

To be sure, we have entered the most indie sanctum when someone can alternately coo and shriek words like

you froze in your sand shoal
prayed for your poor soul
sky was a bread roll, soaking in a milk-bowl
and when the bread broke, fell in bricks of wet smoke
my sleeping heart woke, and my waking heart spoke

then there was a silence you took to mean something:
mean, run, sing
for alive you will evermore be
and the plague of the greasy black engines a-skulkin'
has gone east
while you're left to explain them to me
released from their hairless and blind cavalry

and then carry on in a similar manner for another sixteen minutes, all in the same song. This is an achievement of sorts, although I'm content to note it and move on to something else, very quickly. A doubter I will evermore be. Meanwhile, the harpist was a-pluckin', and the scene kids were a-swoonin', and the critics were a-pukin', all in the month of May.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

K-Fed, Instinct, and Block "O"

It's not just politics. Spin is everywhere. Within the past 24 hours:
  • I've received a new rap album from Kevin Federline, current but soon to be ex-spouse of everybody's favorite former Mouseketeer, Britney Spears. Federline's album has received the most universally damning critical reviews of any album released this year, and inspired quips such as "Other rappers might hesitate to brag about marrying into bling, but Federline isn't self-conscious about it" and "Here's a novelty: Playing With Fire is a concept album about squandering Britney Spears' fortune." Apparently at a loss for how to encapsulate Federline's shtick, his publicist notes in the breathless press release I received: "He enunciates well."
  • I've read about actress Denise Richards, who threw a couple laptops off a second-story balcony Thursday night. According to Richards' publicist, "To protect her safety, she instinctively knocked the paparazzo's laptops off a ledge." I love the "instinctively" part of that quote. It has been this way since early man first scrawled pictures of Power Macs on cave walls. You see laptops, you knock 'em off a ledge. It's embedded deep within our DNA.
  • I've been bemused by an ad for a local pizza establishment, which is advertising "Block O" pizza on Saturdays when the Buckeyes play football. A "Block O" pizza is a pizza with pepperoni in the shape of an "O" near the center of the pizza. Normally, this pizza establishment advertizes "edge-to-edge pepperoni." Here they put on one third the pepperoni and charge $2 more per pizza for the privilege. Brilliant. And go Bucks.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Rich Nathan on Evangelicals and Politics

Another political season, filled with the venality and viciousness of a middle-school cat fight, has come and gone. It is very difficult not to be cynical about the brokenness of our two-party system and its ever-expanding ties to special interest groups and big business. In the words of the immortal political pundit Pete Townshend, "Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss." I'm not sure any of it really matters.

But some things do matter. I'm not cynical about them. My former pastor Rich Nathan, whose scrunched up face appears in this week's Newsweek Magazine (why is it that magazines always find the most unflattering pictures of evangelicals?), had some interesting things to say last week in a talk/debate with Jim Wallis in Columbus.

Can I just say that I love this guy, and that his prophetic but measured words make more sense than about 99.99% of the people I encounter inside or outside church?

Take it away, Rich ...


It is a real privilege and pleasure to share a platform with Jim Wallis. My wife and I subscribed to Sojourners magazine before it was titled Sojourners back in the early 1970s. I think it was called Post-American back then and it was being published from Chicago, Illinois. As the old Virginia Slims advertisement used to go, “You’ve come a long way, baby!” My wife and I actually considered after college moving to Washington and joining the Sojourner’s community. So, I have appreciated Jim through his writings for over three decades.

Many of you don’t know me, so I will give you the briefest of autobiographies. I am a native New Yorker. I was raised in Queens, New York, in a conservative Jewish family. Like most Jews from New York, my family voted Democrat going back to at least the days of FDR. As a teenager, I participated in Vietnam War protests at the U.N. and in front of various corporations that were military suppliers for the Pentagon.

I became a follower of Jesus as a freshman in college at Case Western Reserve. It was through the witness of the woman who was to become my wife and, in particular, through the goodness and decency of her life, that Christianity became a credible option for me. And it was at a Passover dinner in 1974 that I surrendered my life to Jesus as my Lord and my Messiah.

Following that decision, I joined an evangelical church in Cleveland. And then, when my wife and I moved down to Columbus for me to attend law school, we joined a tiny non-denominational Christian community that has since grown and has become known as the Vineyard Church of Columbus. In 1987, I left my job teaching business law at OSU to become our church’s first senior pastor. I’ve been serving in the role of senior pastor of the Vineyard for the last 19 years.

So, in sum, I’ve spent my entire adult life inside the evangelical world. For those of you who are not familiar with what an “evangelical” is, we are people who take seriously what can be called “classical Christianity.” We really believe the historic creeds of the church – the Apostles, Nicene, and Chalcedonian Creeds. Like all classical Christians, we believe that God is a Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We evangelicals believe that Jesus Christ is God come in the flesh; that he was literally born of a virgin; that he suffered under Pontius Pilate; that he was crucified, dead, and buried, and rose bodily from the dead. We evangelicals believe that Christ ascended into heaven and that he is one day going to come back to judge the living and the dead. So we believe what classical Christians have always believed and taught throughout the 2000 years of church history.

And as children of the Reformation, we also believe that the Bible is our final authority for faith and practice.

Now, up until 1980 you could find prominent evangelicals in both the Republican and Democratic parties. Billy Graham was a model of bi-partisan influence. But in 1980 there was a shift in the evangelical world, and with the election of Ronald Reagan you saw evangelicals essentially line up behind one party – the Republican Party. In the last Presidential election, 75% of white evangelicals voted Republican.

During the 1980s and 1990s the most prominent television and radio evangelicals – people like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Kennedy, and James Dobson – began to influentially redefine evangelical political involvement as exclusively confined to the Republican political agenda.

But as I travel around the country and interact with a wide variety of evangelical leaders, I have discovered a changing landscape. I believe we are going to see an entirely new trajectory for evangelical political involvement over the next decade. Let me tick off five developments among evangelical leaders and lay people that I am particularly grateful for.

First of all, I am grateful that there is a broadening of the list of people who are now considered spokespersons for the evangelical movement. There are lots of us evangelicals who have found ourselves increasingly uncomfortable with the media’s selection of a few people of decidedly conservative politics who are regularly called our spokespeople. Whenever I hear this handful of people talk, I think, "This person doesn’t speak for me." When did anti-gun control through an expansive read of the Second Amendment become a Christian issue?

Don’t you hate it when someone’s views are 180 degrees out of sync with yours and yet they are called your spokesperson? You say, “When did I vote for them?”

I’m grateful that there is a broadening of who are considered spokespersons for the evangelical movement. Not only is Jim Wallis being widely quoted, but so are folks like Rick Warren, and Tony Campolo, and Miroslav Volf from Yale University, and Richard Hays from Duke. These folks wonderfully broaden the spectrum of evangelical influencers.

Second, I’m grateful that there is a broadening of the evangelical agenda beyond the two hot-button issues of abortion and gay marriage. Evangelicals are saying, “How did we ever allow ourselves to become convinced that the entirety of the biblical agenda for our political involvement can be reduced to just two things – abortion and gay marriage?”

Now, like most evangelicals, I am convinced that abortion is a huge issue for which we must take a radical stand in opposition. I believe that the whole trajectory of gospel witness calls us to an inclusiveness towards those we call our neighbor. So in the parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus asks: Which of these was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers? Evangelicals believe that we are called to be the neighbor of the least powerful in the world – the unborn, the woman who finds herself with an unwanted pregnancy, the severely handicapped, and the elderly. That is why we evangelicals virtually unanimously oppose abortion on demand, partial birth abortions, and doctor-assisted suicides. That is also why we evangelicals have stood with women through their pregnancies via the many pregnancy distress centers set up throughout our nation by evangelicals.

It is also certainly the case that we, as a society, must provide necessary support for women and children not only during the 9 months of pregnancy, but also after. But, I have to be honest with you and tell you that I was quite disappointed with the statement on abortion that is in the “Voting God’s Politics” brochure. While the statement regarding capital punishment is absolute and unequivocal, stating “our nation’s use of the death penalty should end,” the statement on abortion waffles and calls for “common ground policies that dramatically reduce the abortion rate.” We lawyers would say that the abortion statement contains “weasel words.” I believe the statement on abortion needs to be more absolute.

Having said that, I am so grateful that there is a broadening of the evangelical agenda that expands beyond abortion and gay marriage. There are many evangelicals coming out in opposition to global warming. There are more evangelicals speaking out about global poverty and the relief of Third World debt and AIDS. And I’m proud of the fact that evangelicals are taking the lead on some of the world’s most pressing issues. Specifically, it is largely the evangelical public that keeps the crisis in the Darfur region from being buried by the headlines of rising gas prices and falling tax rates. It is evangelicals who refuse to allow the President or the Congress to forget the Darfur region. And it is largely evangelicals who have kept global sex trade on the front burner for this administration. In fact, an evangelical organization called the International Justice Mission has led the way in fighting global sex trafficking.

Third, I’m grateful that evangelicals are moving away from our prior unreserved, unquestioning support for American military action around the world. Many evangelicals are now saying, “How did it come to be that we who claim to follow the Prince of Peace are stauncher advocates of war than any other demographic group in America?” And even those of us who do not come from a pacifist tradition, but rather a just-war tradition, have begun to ask, “How can some of our most recent wars be considered just?”

You know, St. Augustine, the father of the just war tradition, said that Christians may, on occasion, legitimately go to war. But we always do so with great reluctance and with tears.

Many of us evangelicals have asked ourselves, "Shouldn’t we Christians be the most difficult to convince of any group of people regarding the legitimacy of war? Shouldn’t we have the strongest presumption against war and require the government to have the highest burden of proof before we reluctantly, and with tears, go along with war?"

I am grateful that I am seeing a shift away from unreserved, unquestioning support for American military action among evangelicals.

Fourth, I am grateful that I am witnessing a shift among evangelicals towards the view that with God’s help, it is possible to change this world. The traditional evangelical view of the world is that the world is hopelessly fallen. Or to use the great 19th century evangelist, D.L. Moody’s line, “The world has hit an iceberg and the ship is going down. The only thing we can do is pull as many people as possible into the life boats.” So, for a century, many evangelicals have believed that it is an absolute waste of time to try to improve this fallen world, since to do so would be like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

But without being naïve regarding the fallenness of this world, or the difficulty of change, there are many evangelicals who are saying, "world change is possible with God’s help." In just the past fifteen years, we have witnessed the Roman Catholic Church rise up under the leadership of Pope John Paul II and throw off the chains of communism. We witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall. We saw the church rise up under the leadership of Bishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa; and we saw the fall of the apartheid government. Christians largely led the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine. It was Christians under the leadership of William Wilberforce who led the anti-slavery movement in the British empire. The American civil rights movement at its inception was largely led by the church.

I am grateful to see a growing hope among us evangelicals, that with God’s help the world can change.

And fifth, I am grateful that many more evangelicals are saying, "We are not going to be in the pocket of any political party." We have woken up from our naiveté and we recognize that pre-election day promises have not translated into post-election day action. So the evangelical vote is more and more up for grabs. And that is a good thing!

Now, having stated what I’m grateful for, I need to briefly share with you three cautions regarding evangelical political involvement. I want you to notice, by the way, that my talk has more positives than negatives. The Puritans said that one of the measures of the truth of a sermon was that there would be more positives than negatives.

My first concern is to warn churches and pastors against partisan political involvements. It is impossible to be a biblical Christian without preaching on and working for justice, for the poor, or caring for the earth, or committing ourselves to peacemaking, or committing ourselves to racial reconciliation, or being commitedly and consistently pro-life. But once churches and pastors begin to translate these broad value statements into very particular policy choices, we can unnecessarily divide the body of Christ and obscure the gospel message.

I am concerned that in many congregations people feel like they have to go through two conversions in order to receive Christ. First, they have to be converted to the church’s partisan political views, and secondly, they have to be converted to Christ.

I believe that it is generally best for pastors and churches to serve as spiritual advisors for those whose calling it is to engage in the political arena. We have many people in our congregation who are involved in politics on both sides of the aisle – both Democrats and Republicans. I hold up as personal models for me John Wesley and Charles Simeon, who taught the scriptures faithfully, who advised and prayed for and promoted biblical thinking among those involved in the political arena. But then they left it to groupings of Christians outside of the church and new societies such as the abolitionist societies to fight these issues through in the legislature.

I recently had very painful conversation with a Christian pastor here in town. His congregation is quite partisan and definitely leans in one direction politically. I asked my Christian brother about this, saying, “If someone was in your church and they were a sincere follower of Christ, but they disagreed with you about your political stands, would they feel marginalized in your church?”

He said, “Yes, they would.”

I asked, “Why would you do that to a member of the body of Christ?”

I’m concerned when partisan positions unnecessarily divide the body and obscure the message of the gospel.

I’m also concerned when churches don’t realize that the church uses different language than the language of politics. Let me tell you a story.

There was a great hero of the civil rights movement that many of you may not have ever heard of. Her name was Fannie Lou Hamer. Fannie Lou Hamer was the founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. In the summer of 1964, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party challenged the credentials of the lily-white Mississippi slate of delegates to the Democratic National Convention. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party offered an integrated slate of delegates, many of whom, like Mrs. Hamer, tried to register to vote in Mississippi, but were punished for it. In fact, Fannie Lou Hamer was jailed on a number of occasions, and tortured in jail, for doing such outrageous things as trying to register to vote in the United States.

Well, this conflict between the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and the white slate of delegates selected by the Mississippi Democratic Party was threatening the peace of the 1964 Democratic National Convention. President Johnson didn’t want the controversy to upset his ride to the White House, so he sent his Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, to visit Mrs. Hamer and to try to get her to back off.

Humphrey, who was the ever-happy warrior, went believing that he was just going to be talking to a typical politically motivated human being. So he asked Fannie Lou Hamer what she wanted. Now Fannie Lou Hamer was a woman who had been taken hold of by Jesus Christ. And Fannie Lou Hamer responded to Vice President Humphrey by saying, “What I want is the beginning of a new kingdom right here on earth.” Humphrey didn’t know how to deal with that statement. So he tried to explain things in political terms. He wanted Fannie Lou Hamer to understand that if he and Johnson were nominated, that they would work hard for Civil Rights, so she should compromise now and not push her slate of delegates.

Here’s Fannie Lou Hamer’s response:

Senator Humphrey, I know lots of people in Mississippi who have lost their jobs for trying to register to vote. I had to leave the plantation where I worked in Sunflower County. Now, if you lose this job of Vice President because you do what is right, because you help MFDP, everything will be all right. God will take care of you. But if you take the nomination this way, why, you will never be able to do any good for civil rights, for poor people, for peace, or any of those things you talk all the time about. Senator Humphrey, I’m going to pray to Jesus for you.

Churches ought to speak prophetic language, not political language. It is not wrong to speak the language of politics, the language of compromise and “half a loaf is better than none,” when we are in the political arena. But church is not that arena. In church we speak prophetic language, the language of kingdom absolutes and moral imperatives – the language of Fannie Lou Hamer and the prophets Amos and Jeremiah, and our Lord Jesus Christ.

My third concern is that we Christians, whenever we engage in politics, remember the third and last clause of Micah 6:8. You remember Micah 6:8. “He has shown you, O people, what is good and what does the Lord require of you? To do justice, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Christians in politics often focus on the first two statements, doing justice and loving mercy. But there is an atmosphere in which our doing justice and our loving of mercy needs to be practiced. One of the great dangers of any human being wanting to do justice is having a self-righteous, ugly, divisive, mentality, this sense of moral superiority in which the zealot for justice approaches the world: "Only people like me care about the poor. Only people like me care about the environment. Only people like me care about the unborn. Only people like me are really in touch with the true issues of the world."

What saves us from the awful stench of self-righteous, moral indignation is a commitment to walk humbly with God. We followers of Jesus can never approach the rest of the church or the rest of the world with some kind of triumphalism – we can fix everything; we can solve every problem; if people would just get on board with our agenda, the world would be healed.

God continually reminds us that we are limited. Life continually teaches us that there are issues and problems that go far beyond our wisdom and our resources. Real change is always much more difficult than we ever predict. And no one ever likes someone standing over them judging them.

But if we Christians come towards this world as servants, bearing the basin and the towel; if we commit ourselves to doing what we believe to be the will of God with humility; if we approach each other with humility and a willingness to listen and be persuaded; to learn and to be reconcilers; if, in other words, we “walk humbly with God,” then we will be faithful witnesses to Christ and will be used by him to be healers of this world.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Brian Wilson Action Figure

This one's for you, Jeff. And just in time for the holiday season.

Check it out.

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Universal Language?

More fodder from the Arts and Faith forum …The subject here is “music as the universal language.”

I don't think there is something inherent in the music itself that speaks to its hearers in a consistent way. Music is not the universal language. Or, perhaps better, music is a universal language that speaks with six billion tongues. I cannot tell you how radically different the same piece of music will sound to two equally sensitive, intelligent, spiritually attuned human beings. I have a good friend who experiences something approaching a spiritual epiphany whenever he slaps on Metallica. I hear the same music and want to stick a fork in my eye. There are genres of music I simply don't like, even though I know that millions of people find tremendous value in them. Music helps me understand what the word "joy" even means, and sometimes makes me want to worship God, and I've played that same transcendent music for people I love and I've met with uncomprehending stares.

That's not in any way to detract from the notion that music reaches people in remarkably powerful ways. It does, and I firmly believe that God uses it in countless good ways in peoples' lives. But there's no formula, nor are there instruments, melodies, chords, rhythms or any other components of music that universally communicate a specific meaning. I listen to music for a lot of reasons, and sometimes I'm simply looking to be entertained and mildly engaged. But sometimes something amazing happens. I apologize for quoting a review, but I'm too lazy to formulate this again, and it really does express what I'm trying to communicate:

"Lead singer/cherub Jonsi played his electric guitar with a bow, like a mutant cello, and made unearthly sounds with his voice. “Eeeeeuuuuu Syyyyyy Ohhhhhh” he sang on at least six songs, his falsetto soaring impossibly upward. It’s Hopelandic, a made-up language based on nonsense syllables and his native Icelandic, but I’d prefer to think of it as the angelic dialect of the heart. That mysterious phrase, repeated many times, sounded at various times like longing, yearning, grief, sorrow, joy, the unanswerable questions you hurl at God when your best friend dies of cancer, the wordless cry of joy when you witness the birth of your child, a thousand other moments of spiritual combustibility and incandescence that cannot be contained by cognitive knowledge and understanding. If it sounds trippy, it is. The gauze curtain that the band sometimes played behind, accenting shimmering shadows and spectral shapes, and the late ‘60s Pink Floyd freakout lightshow, only added to that impression. But that’s the territory explored by this band. It has nothing to do with objective communication, and everything to do with hotwiring the soul to the ineffable and the sublime."

Sometimes that happens. Those experiences in and of themselves can become idols, and the danger is in enshrining them and seeking them out rather than recognizing that they point to the author of all beauty. But those are incredibly meaningful experiences when they happen. That makes music pretty important, in my view. But good luck in trying to find the common musical denominator in those experiences.

I've had people express to me, on hearing such a view, that they find that it's steeped in relativism. I don't think so. I think it's kind of cool to love and serve a God who has found at least six billion ways to reach people.

And now, yet another take on “how can bad people create good music?”

There is a conundrum for me here and I can’t fully resolve it. If what you write is true, then the entire Miles Davis package – music, image, persona, personal life, whatever it was that drove his personal life – ought to come out in his art. You see that package, as a whole, as one containing serious moral flaws. And I do too. He was not a good man. The image that he portrayed is not one that I would encourage others to emulate. He engaged in behaviors that were certainly sinful. And, according to what you’ve stated above, all that badness should leak out at various points in what he created.

But here’s the conundrum: For me, this same vile dude created music that leads to the kind of transcendent experiences that I described above. I listen to Kind of Blue, the same album that has served as the backdrop to countless makeout sessions, and hear the angels. There is a song on that album called “Blue in Green,” a song co-written by Davis and pianist Bill Evans, another vile dude who has been a part of the recent conversation. I’ve listened to it hundreds of times, and it never fails to move me and startle me. It’s ravishingly beautiful. I could throw a bunch of other superlatives around, but none of them would really get at what happens. It’s something that draws me closer to God, that makes me want to worship the Creator. And it was made by sexist, violent, addicted, self-absorbed people.

All I can tell you is that personal history and worldview and image are real, that they’re significant aspects of any artist, and that they may not matter a bit in terms of how one hears the music. At least that’s my take on it.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Favorite Songs of 2006 (So Far)

With the advent of the iPod and its insidious Shuffle Mode, I find myself more and more focused on individual songs and less and less focused on albums. This is not necessarily a good thing, but it has led to a renewed appreciation of the song as a viable unit of musical goodness.

These are some of the songs that have meant the most to me this year. Most of them come from albums I like a lot as well, but a few of them are gems surrounded by dross. In no particular order, other than alphabetical:

1. Apples in Stereo – Beautiful Machine, Parts 1 – 4 – An eight-minute psychedelic freakout that reminds me of all that was weird and great about the late ‘60s.

2. The BellRays – Third Time’s the Charm – This is Stax/Volt soul forty years after the fact. And it’s great, although very different from the rest of the album, which is Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath thirty-five years after the fact.

3. Birdmonster – ‘Cause You Can – The Strokes, sped up, with a lead singer who sounds unhinged instead of bored.

4. T-Bone Burnett – Every Time I Feel the Shift – The best political commentary I’ve heard this year, with ominous Orc drums for accompaniment.

5. Camera Obscura – Lloyd, I’m Ready to be Heartbroken – Sad, lovely, and sweet in a Phil Spector Girl Group kind of way.

6. Johnny Cash – Like the 309 – Johnny sounds broken, old, and barely hanging on. Which he was. And that lends a certain creepiness to this death-haunted song, but also a great sadness, and a great dignity.

7. Catfish Haven – I Don’t Worry – A white guy from Chicago tries to sing like Otis Redding, and mostly succeeds. For this song, at least.

8. The Decemberists – Yankee Bayonet – Your basic jangle pop song about a soldier dying at the battle of Manassas, and the pregnant girl he left behind.

9. Donald Fagen – Brite Nitegown – The Grim Reaper as Funkmaster. Three verses, three different ways to die, and you can shake your booty to it.

10. The Gibson Brothers – We Won’t Dance Again – I am a sucker for cornball country schmaltz. This is cornball country schmaltz of the highest order, involving mournful fiddle, a sobbing pedal steel, and a deathbed confession of love. But it’s so sweet, and so unaffected, that I can’t help but cry in my beer.

11. Gnarls Barkley – Crazy – Pure fun. Probably the best single this year.

12. Gomez – See the World – Do you recall the era when Michael Stipe could both enunciate and still write memorable songs? This will help you remember in case you forgot.

13. The Hold Steady – Stuck Between Stations – Great lyrics, power chords, references to Jack Kerouac and John Berryman, and an ode to disaffected youth. What more could you want?

14. The Kennedy’s – Gypsy Rose – Actually a song by Dave Carter, but it’s gorgeous, and it has the kind of timeless feel that folks like Gillian Welch are able to conjure. The lyrics could be from 2006, or 1806. It’s also wonderfully chiming folk-rock in the tradition of The Byrds and The Searchers.

15. Scott Miller – Freedom is a Stranger – In the absence of Steve Earle and John Prine this year, I dub this one as the gravel-voiced record of 2006.

16. Iarla O Lionaird – A Nest of Stars – Sigur Ros meets The Chieftains. Beautiful. This song has ended up on every mix CD I’ve made this year. I don’t care. If you requested Cajun, blues, jazz, whatever, you heard it.

17. The Raconteurs – Steady As She Goes – Really don’t like the album. Really like this song. It’s great power pop.

18. Silversun Pickups – Little Lover’s So Polite – Yeah, I guess it was time for a Pixies and Smashing Pumpkins revival. I love the fuzzed-out guitars.

19. Paul Simon – Wartime Prayers – The heavy-handed gospel choir at the end ruins it slightly for me, but it’s hard to improve on “I'm trying to tap into some wisdom,/Even a little drop will do/I want to rid my heart of envy/And cleanse my soul of rage/Before I'm through.” How ‘bout that? Me too.

20. K.T. Tunstall – Black Horse and the Cherry Tree – The rest of the album can’t sustain the wonder of this single, but this song’s a beauty. Hook-filled, effervescent, and a marvelous “wooo-oooo” chorus.

What are your favorites?

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Art and the Artist

Over on the Arts and Faith forum, I'm in the middle of an interesting discussion about artists and the art they create. At question is the degree to which the life of the artist and his or her personal convictions should influence our understanding/interpretation of the art he or she creates. It's an ancient question, but it's also fun to revisit it. And my take is that although we cannot totally separate the artist from art, we should make every effort to view the art on its own terms. Although the artist is reflected to some degree in what he or she creates, it is not nearly to the extent that a presuppositional approach to art would have us believe. Presuppositional approach to art, you say? Er, what's that? It's pretty simple.

Here's where I'm coming from: good people can create bad art, and bad people can create good art. It doesn't always work that way, but sometimes it does. And to the extent that we confuse the person with what he or she has created, or somehow try to project the person into what he or she has created, we misinterpret art.

I also find that most of the time it's a moot point. I write about popular music, and I deal in three-to-five minute bursts of noise where it's often difficult if not impossible to discern an overarching worldview. Most of the time I have no idea what a particular songwriter believes, at least in terms of the Big Questions. Nor do I know how that songwriter lives his or her life, or what deep, dark secrets and sins he or she may be harboring. I simply don't know. And when I do know, the scenario usually goes something like this: "Hey, man, I'm 22 years old, and we formed a band and now we're out on the road, livin' out of a van, and we sit around in a crappy hotel room and drink beer until it's time to play a show, and then we play a show, and we pack up our gear, and get in the van and drive off to do it again the next day." There's not a lot of deeply intellectual, philosophical material to work with.

So I'm probably approaching this from a different standpoint than someone would who is studying a well known, renowned artist such as Van Gogh or Gauguin. Obviously there's a great deal of historical/biographical material available about those artists, and I can see why knowing that information could add depth and insight to a critical understanding of their work.

But I still balk at the idea of making critical judgments about art based on one's moral take on the life of the artist. Whenever possible, I believe these two things should be held far apart. Why? Because good people can create bad art, and bad people can create good art.

I have a friend, a wonderful writer who knows a staggering amount about jazz, who can't write objectively about Miles Davis because she strongly dislikes his exploitation of women and his mack daddy pimp image. Okay, I understand that and respect that. But in this case she's made the right decision not to write about his music, because his music is still great. A bad person created great art. And if you can't get past the person and write about the art on its own terms, then you shouldn't write about it. We're talking about instrumental jazz, a genre that, by definition, could not possibly communicate a worldview which supports the exploitation and abuse of women. So yes, I do fully appreciate how one's distaste for an artist could influence how one interprets his or her art. But the solution, in that case, is to step aside as my friend has done, and let somebody else review the finished product, which has nothing to do with her moral objections.

The entire CCM industry is based on the notion that because people are good (i.e., Christian), then the music they create is worth buying. It's a false assumption. It's equally false to believe that because an artist is bad (immoral), his or her art is somehow negatively impacted. And that's what I'm reacting to in this discussion. It's not always possible to check our moral judgments at the door, but whenevever possible we should do so, unless the art itself reflects the moral/ethical/philosophical beliefs of the artist. Then those beliefs are fair game for the discussion. But in popular music, I believe this happens far less frequently than is commonly advertised. "I feel stupid and contagious/Here we are now entertain us/A mulatto an albino/A mosquito my libido Yea" tells me precious little about the most deeply held convictions of the artist. And that's far from atypical. But it's still great rock 'n roll.