Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Last of the Breed

The album name overstates the case a little. Last time I checked the entertainment obituaries, George Jones, Ralph Stanley, and Charlie Louvin were still around (the octogenarian Charlie with a great new album, at that). So Last of the Breed, the title of the new 2-CD collaboration between Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and Ray Price isn’t entirely accurate. But why quibble? The fact is that these three grizzled amigos represent the best of a brand of country music that hasn’t really been in vogue since the Reagan administration, before Garth Brooks discovered wireless mics and Shania Twain figured out how to charge people to watch aerobics classes.

What Nelson, Haggard, and Price can do is sing, and even at their relatively advanced ages they can still swoop down to nail a bass note so soul-shatteringly lonesome and blue that you will want to start drinking hard liquor again even if you’ve sworn off the stuff. This is 180-proof honky-tonk hokum, full of Jesus and mama and old lovers who are nothing but gone, and if you can get past the schmaltz factor, what you will discover is that it touches on universal hopes and fears. You don’t need to be a hardcore country music fan to appreciate this music. You just need to have a heartbeat.

Twenty of the twenty-two songs here are about as old as the participants. Well, okay, not quite, but Harlan Howard and Lefty Frizzell were writing most of these classics in the ‘50s, and songs like “Heartaches by the Number” and “I Love You a Thousand Ways” would have sounded just as good and just as true in 1907 as they do in 2007. Age hasn’t diminished Willie or Merle one bit, and if Ray Price sounds a little frayed around the edges, that only adds to the poignancy of these sad, sad songs. Nashville old schoolers like pedal steel virtuoso Buddy Emmons and fiddler Johnny Gimble are around to lend their musical expertise. And the Jordanaires, seemingly missing in action since the death of Elvis, drop by to lend their trademark gospel quartet harmonies.

But mostly there is Willie. And Merle. And Ray. I don’t mean to be morbid, but if Johnny and June teach us anything, they teach us that this breed, regardless of their number, won’t last forever. So enjoy them while we’ve got them, still at or near the peak of their powers, still making radically unhip, out-of-time music. And try to avoid the liquor store on the way back from the record shop.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Paste #28

Paste #28 (February 2007) is out now. Those of you who want to be happier, wealthier, and more popular should pick it up. Why? Because The Shins are on the cover. The Shins will change your life. You've heard it from Natalie Portman. Now hear it from me. One listen to their new album Wincing the Night Away will result in instant bliss, the removal of any longstanding debt, and almost instantaneous connection to seventeen new soulmates. And exposure to even a few seconds of any Shins song can cure Stage 4 cancer. You don't want to miss out.

There's also a rundown/ranking of the best albums and films of 2006. Oddly enough, I mostly agree with the albums selected and how they are ranked. The list of films makes me realize how out of the loop I am in terms of quality cinema. The only foreign film I saw last year was Borat.

I have three articles in this issue, my Listening to My Life column (yes, it's still there, for the two of you who have wondered; it's just not on the back page), and two short album reviews.

There's also the usual CD sampler, this time with the worst Lucinda Williams song I've ever heard, both musically and lyrically. What's up with that? I sincerely hope it isn't representative of her new album.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

One Day When The Weather Is Warm

When I was nineteen years old I fell on my knees and gave my life to Jesus. It was the culmination of six months of impassioned 2:00 a.m. arguments in overheated dormitory rooms, of feeling alone and isolated, of being shaken to my core, of watching my family unravel to the tune of adultery and alcoholism and suicide attempts. It was based on an inarticulate groaning, a wordless acknowledgement of the inadequacy of my little storehouse of optimism and self-assurance. It was, in fact, surrender: I can’t deal with this. Here, you take it.

That was, wow, thirty-two years ago, and in the meantime I’ve learned precisely nothing more about optimism and self-assurance. All I know is that some people die tragically young, and other people grow old and die of the usual, horrific suspects: cancer mostly, but also heart attacks and diabetes, strokes and good old pneumonia. I’m no expert on these things, but I think you’d have to be a fool to feel much optimism and self-assurance about your future, at least on this planet.

I have diabetes, and in addition to swallowing four pills each day, I get to stick myself with a needle every night before bedtime. The insulin keeps me alive, and I’m grateful for big favors. But when I read about the long-term prognosis for this disease, I learn that what I have to look forward to probably includes heart disease, stroke, blindness, amputation of limbs, kidney failure, and nerve damage. It’s a nasty little fucker. Sorry if my language offends you, but if you’re going to swear, what better thing to swear at than the notion of your bad self becoming a blind amputee? So about the only thing I know with much certainty is that it’s going to get worse. Here’s that little piece of paper inside my personalized Chinese fortune cookie: “You will be Stump Man on a dialysis machine. You don’t have time to screw around.” So I’m trying not to screw around.

When I was a student at Ohio University I used to hang out with a goofy, Napoleon-Dynamite-looking guy named Jeff Treffney. The day I met him he told me that he had an enlarged heart, and that doctors didn’t expect him to live past 25. He was 21 years old at the time. Sure enough, right on cue, four years later he died, and his funeral was the first time I think I truly experienced that great, aching void that accompanies the loss of someone you cherish, and will never see again. I was a new Christian when I met him, and Jeff had been at it for, oh, two or three years, and he told me to memorize the following Bible verse: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.” Had he lived, Jeff would have been approaching “ancient” status by now. He would have been in his mid-fifties, old enough to start worrying about the big C and diabetes. But he didn’t. He died tragically young.

At his funeral a well-meaning pastor assured us that Jeff was in heaven, that his pain and suffering were over. I certainly hoped he was right. I prayed he was right, and I believed, as best I could believe, that he was right. But I wasn’t sure he was right. Jeff probably would have been disappointed in me. But then again, I’ve never quite understood the apostle Paul in that passage Jeff loved so well, either. If you’re absolutely sure of something, why do you need faith? I don’t need faith to believe that an exploding car bomb in Baghdad can end the lives of innocent men and women and children. I do need faith to believe that God can work good out of it anyway.

It’s ridiculous, this thing called faith, if I think about it logically. On one hand we have the vastness of space and the microscopic tinyness of my individual life, one of six billion people on one of the smaller, inconsequential stars off in an obscure corner of a galaxy, surrounded by billions of other galaxies. On the other hand we have the Creator of the universe, who is said to know and care about the most intimate details of my tiny life, including the number of hairs on my balding head. Impossibly, I get intimations that this is so. What are the chances? Only an infinite God would place bets given such infinitesimally small odds. And so I choose to believe, and acknowledge my uncertainty and doubt, and hope and pray for love and mercy. It’s what I need. And it’s what I hope I will believe even if I am lying in a bed, blind, without my legs. Then, if that dire day comes to pass, I will recite the same old mantra I’ve recited, sometimes faintly and halfheartedly, sometimes desperately and pleadingly, for the past thirty-two years: I can’t deal with this. Here, you take it. Hour by hour, day by day.

I recall with some sorrow and embarrassment what I experienced during my college years at Ohio University. I wish I knew then what I know now. And I wish I knew now what I’d like to know. But I’m holding on to the notion that I might know just enough. And, as I am wont to do, I play a song that mirrors my mood, one by the great Joe Henry, whose songs resonate with me regardless of current meteorological conditions, but which seem particularly appropriate on cold, dreary Midwestern winter days like this one:

One day when the weather is warm
I’ll wake up on a hill
And hold the morning like it was a plow
And cut myself a row
And I’ll follow it until
I know better, by God, than I know now

The apostle Paul states the same thing another way: “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” But I like Joe Henry better, and I believe, although I’m not entirely sure, that warm weather is coming.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Post-Rock Roundup -- Yndi Halda and Six Parts Seven

I am a sucker for post-rock serenity and bombast -- the slow, dirge-like buildups, followed by the cathartic payoffs where massed guitars create sonic tsunamis that threaten to wash away the winter snows that tend to dominate the landscapes of these morose, deadly serious musicians. The three best-known bands who work this genre -- Mogwai, Sigur Ros and Godspeed You! Black Emperor (formerly Godspeed You Black Emperor!; you know the winters are long when you find yourself playing with exclamation marks) have created a handful of masterpieces. Not surprisingly, they've inspired a horde of imitators, some very good (Explosions in the Sky, A Silver Mount Zion, Do Make Say Think), and some that try a little too hard to be different (Labradford, Trans Am, Cul de Sac). But give them credit for trying. Eighteen years after Talk Talk kickstarted the genre with Spirit of Eden, post-rock is still one of the most interesting and vibrant musical genres, and new bands are continuing to push and prod at the boundaries.

Two of them -- Canterbury, England's Yndi Halda and Kent, Ohio's Six Parts Seven -- have just released new albums. Both fit comfortably under the "post-rock" umbrella. And, not surprisingly given the amorphous nature of a label that has come to mean little more than "mostly instrumental music with electric guitars," they sound nothing alike.

Yndi Halda's debut album Enjoy Eternal Bliss will readily appeal to Sigur Ros fans. Four tracks spread out over sixty-six minutes should tell you all you need to know. These four lads not only have time to slowly build from whisper to wall of sound, but they have time to get quiet again, and then crank up the sonic fury again. Guitars and violins are the primary instruments, with cameo appearances from glockenspiels. Yes, this may be the glockenspiel's finest hour since Mike Oldfield recorded Tubular Bells. It's pretty and contemplative, then very, very loud and bombastic, just the way I like it. Although the lads go in for a bit of chanting, this is for all intents and purposes instrumental music; there is no accompanying Jonsi whalesong to liven up the proceedings. To that extent, it's a little monochromatic. But just a little. Enjoy Eternal Bliss is an impressive debut.

Even more impressive is Six Parts Seven's latest offering Casually Smashed to Pieces, the band's sixth proper album (not counting a split EP with The Black Keys). This is post-rock by way of the Applalachians, with banjo and lap steel vying for prominence with the usual guitars. I find the Americana influences particularly bracing, as is the fact that the band manages to squeeze eight songs into a little more thirty minutes. That's virtually unthinkable in this genre. Hooks? They must have used 'em all to go fishing in those mountain streams. These aren't so much songs as pastoral dreamscapes, and they float by so effortlessly that you'll be tempted to relegate this to full-time background music status. Don't. Instead, listen to the way the motifs weave in and out of this music, taken up first by guitar, then by pocket trumpet, then by lap steel. Listen to the contrapuntal layering of the instruments, the Bach Goes to County Moonshine vibe of these tracks. And then just sit back and let it wash over you and enjoy it. It's lovely music.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Music Headine of the Week

The music publicists are working overtime. Here it is:

Lesbian Comes Out This Spring

(for the April release of the debut album from Seattle heavy metal band Lesbian -- four flannel-shirted, bearded dudes, by the way)

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Holmes Brothers, Elliott Brood, Paula Fraser, John Reuben, Mas Rapido!

Other than the upcoming Graham Parker and Grinderman (Nick Cave) releases, these are the new albums that keep me pressing the Play button on the iPod.

The Holmes Brothers – State of Grace

The Holmes Brothers’ play a brand of country blues/gospel that really hasn’t been in vogue since the glory days of The Staple Singers. Here the brothers, along with guests Joan Osborne and Levon Helm, apply their trademark harmonies and funk rhythms to several sparkling originals, as well as covers from Lyle Lovett, John Fogerty, and Hank Williams. It’s not that difficult to imagine “Bad Moon Rising” transformed into a gospel vamp. But how about Cheap Trick’s “I Want You To Want Me”? Believe it. The wonder is that they pull it off, and pull it off marvelously.

Elliott Brood – Ambassador

Canadian sadsack trio Elliott Brood sounds like Being There-era Wilco – all banjos and ragged feedback – and writes songs about loners, drunks, and dead-end love affairs. Hey, I miss that side of Jeff Tweedy, and it’s a lot better than ten minutes of A Ghost is Born-era amplifier hum.

Paula Fraser/Tarnation – Now It’s Time

Paula Fraser was one of the last of the great 4AD artists, and like her old label mates Liz Fraser (Cocteau Twins) and Lisa Germano (Dead Can Dance), she had a crystal-clear soprano that was generally used in service of ethereal, misty soundscapes. Tarnation, her alt-country band, added some needed heft, however, and after a decade-long hiatus to pursue an unappreciated solo career, Paula’s back with her old bandmates. She still has a gorgeous voice, and she has a morbid streak to rival Nick Cave’s, but this time she has a great band to serve as a gritty foil to her macabre but airy songs. It’s beautifully spooky stuff.

John Reuben – Word of Mouth

Okay, John Reuben isn’t doing anything Beck hasn’t done for the past fifteen years. But Beck has his pasty face (as seen in Paste Magazine) plastered on the covers of music rags worldwide, while John Reuben is a relative unknown. But I love the musical mashup that Reuben concocts, banjos colliding with John Lee Hooker samples, strutting, in-your-face rhymes backed by Bootsy Collins funk bass and the most saccharine of Mantovani strings. And although Reuben is a sometimes hilarious smartass, there’s no denying the weight of his lyrical themes, as he wrestles with image versus reality, the hype machine versus the mundane and far more significant tasks of getting along with spouses, friends, and enemies.

Mas Rapido! – Pity Party

Mas Rapido! is NYC-by-way-of-Seattle duo Frank Bednash and Donna Esposito. Frank and Donna alternate songs on this noisy power pop outing. Frank is clearly enamored with second-generation Beatles knockoffs such as Badfinger and The Raspberries, and his half dozen originals are fine homages to those bands. But the real revelation is Donna Esposito, whose breathy, little-girl voice masks a sarcastic wit and edgy, suicidal sentiments. The killer riffs, courtesy of the aforementioned bands, The Kinks, and The Who, help to make the doom and gloom more palatable.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Elvis Has Left the Building

I’ve just completed Peter Guralnick’s massive, two-volume biography of Elvis Presley, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley and Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley. At nearly 1,200 pages, these books are clearly intended for the serious Elvis fan. And as music biographies, they are simply superb. Guralnick, without casting moral judgments, simply chronicles Elvis’s meteoric rise, long sojourn at the top of the cultural summit, and precipitous descent from the mountain.

By the time I started paying attention to music in the mid-1960s, Elvis was already past his prime. Upon his release from the army in 1960, he returned to the cultural spotlight as a romantic crooner, a schlockmeister, and the principal actor in a long string of bad movies. And, with the exception of a handful of worthwhile singles, he continued that way until his death in 1977. I missed the whole King of Rock ‘n Roll hype, and I never really understood what all the fuss was about. As far as I was concerned, Elvis was a cartoon character. He was Redneck Stud Man. He wore capes, like Superman and Batman, sang ridiculously over-the-top, embarrassing Vegas swill, and made middle-aged women squeal. Okay, I briefly considered the cape angle as a way to become a Chick Magnet, then dismissed it out of hand as absurd. And that’s the way I viewed Elvis. He was a buffoon, the surreal fantasy stud of a million bored Midwestern housewives. And I didn’t think much more about him.

Eventually, of course, I heard those fifties records. And I discovered, at least in part, what all the fuss was about. The guy had a voice for the ages, and when he used it on great material, as he did for most of the first four years of his career, he was a force of nature, a miracle. And his influence on popular music is incalculable. He was the great dividing line. After 1956 the musical world could be conveniently encapsulated as B.E. and A.E. All shook up was just about right. He was the earthquake that changed the way we heard music.

And all too soon he became an embarrassment – to those who loved good music, and, perhaps most profoundly, to himself. Guralnick’s books help to unlock that enigma, and show an enormously conflicted man – alternately kindhearted, mean-spirited, humble, self-absorbed, proud, and deeply ashamed. Elvis was capable of acts of great generosity, and he was also capable of the most flippant, uncaring insults. He believed his own hype, and yet he never quite felt comfortable in his own skin. Most disturbingly, he was a man who was defined by both his faith and his addictions, belting out “How Great Thou Art” in concert as if he meant it (and he probably did), all the while blasted out of his mind. His life was one big contradiction – the biggest star in the world circling the drain, watching his life become smaller and smaller with each passing year and each passing tour.

Elvis left the building quite a few years before he died. He checked out emotionally and never came back. I see parts of myself in him, and the contradictions that defined him are not unfamiliar to me. But he saddens me, this enormously gifted man. If I didn’t particularly like him before reading Peter Guralnick’s books, I like him now. His story is a peculiarly American tragedy, focused on the Bible Belt and conspicuous consumption, on the gaping hole in the soul that no amount of stuff, and no amount of adulation, could fill. He died as the King, seated on a porcelain throne, choking on his own vomit. No one has really worn the crown since him. I’m not sure why anyone would want to.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

New Blog

No, this one isn't going away. But I'll be contributing to a new blog on a fairly regular basis at Paste Magazine's web site.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Calvin College Festival of Faith and Music

Let me put in a plug for the upcoming (March 30th - 31st) Festival of Faith and Music at Calvin College. The 2005 conference was an absolute blast, a wonderful, thought-provoking time, and a great opportunity to hang out with several hundred artists, journalists, academics, and uber music fans, and to think collectively about what it means to be a Christian involved in the arts.

This year's conference promises to be even better, with musical performances by Anathallo, Sufjan Stevens, Neko Case, and Emmylou Harris, and many fine opportunities for conversation/dialogue with those folks, as well as David Dark (Everyday Apocalypse: The Sacred Revealed in Radiohead, The Simpsons, and Other Pop Culture Icons), Lauren Winner (Girls Meets God), Steve Stockman (Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2), Paste Magazine editor Josh Jackson, and many more. And me. Along with Michael Kaufmann, head of Asthmatic Kitty Records (Sufjan Stevens, Halfhanded Cloud, My Brightest Diamond, etc.), I'm going to be playing a Simon Cowell-like character, judging new music from a bunch of musical hopefuls, and awarding the lucky winner a slot onstage with Sufjan, Neko, and Emmylou. It should be great fun, and I'm practicing my scowl in preparation.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Lowbrow Protestants vs. High Church Aesthetes

In the circles where I run, it's been stated as an axiom so many times that it's virtually unquestioned. But I confess that I find myself perplexed by the whole lowbrow Protestant vs. enlightened Catholic/Orthodox/Episcopalian view of the arts that is often set forth as indisputable fact. I just don't see it. It may have been true at one time, and certainly Reformed theologians such as Francis Schaeffer and Hans Rookmaaker wrote a lot of books several decades ago that were intended to counter a dismissive view of the arts that probably once characterized Protestantism. But is it true now?

Yeah, yeah, I know. On one side of this debate we have Michelangelo and Bernini and Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy, and on the other side we have Carmen and Jesus Over the UN posters. But we also now have Marilynne Robinson and John Updike and Sufjan Stevens, artists of the highest order who are operating from a distinctly Protestant perspective. In other words, I don't think the assumed dichotomy is true now, and I don't think it's been true for a long time. We're now more than a generation removed from Francis Schaeffer and Hans Rookmaaker, and there is some evidence that their message stuck with the now balding, aging hippies who first heard it, and their children who have taken the pretty ball and run with it.

It's worth noting that many of the po-mo/emergent churches that are now all the rage take a very high view of the arts, and that art is an integral part of their worship services. The Cornerstone Music and Arts Festival (among others) attracts tens of thousands of (mostly) Protestants every year, who groove to their favorite bands and listen to lots of lectures about, you guessed it, the value of art. On a local, personal level, I am surrounded by church members and friends who have recording contracts, who display their paintings and sculptures in art galleries, who sponsor poetry slams, who own concert venues, and who write for national publications. And they are Protestants, and yes, even Calvinists to a certain degree, one and all.

Are there still more Protestants who don't give a rip about art than those who care about it passionately? Probably, but I'm not convinced that theology has much to do with it, and my guess is that there are also more Catholics, Orthodox, Episcopalians, Buddhists, and good old-fashioned Capitalist Consumer Materialists who don't give a rip about art than those who do. The solution, as always, is to look for and hang out with the people who do. But I'm not convinced that you'll find them more easily if you also look for candles and incense in the sanctuary.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Indie Superstars, and Other Conundrums

The morose, black-clad, cappuccino-sipping legions are about to get happy, or as happy as morose, black-clad legions ever get. Three of the biggest indie bands in the world are set to release new albums in the next few weeks. And soon the fiercely independent masses will genuflect in unison and proclaim their everlasting hipness. It’s a public relations dream and a logician’s nightmare: selling mass-marketed music to people who guard each shrink-wrapped disc and downloaded song as their closely guarded secret treasure, along with several hundred thousand other people who fit their demographic niche.

There was a time when “indie” was synonymous with “under the radar” – virtually unknown and unheralded. But a funny thing happened to “indie” in the early ‘90s. It became big business. Nirvana and Pearl Jam, the bastions of a very visible underground, sold a few million albums, and ever since then “indie” has been as prominent a marketing label as “Nike” or “Apple.” So when The Shins, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and The Arcade Fire drop their new albums in late January and early February, expect to witness some puzzling behavior. Hundreds of thousands of Zach Braff and Natalie Portman fans will rush out and buy the albums, secure in their knowledge that they and they alone (okay, along with one or two of their buddies) will have discovered the musical equivalent of the Holy Grail. They may even head to Best Buy or Wal-Mart to search for the treasure.

Don’t get me wrong. I like these bands. All three of them. And I don’t even wear black. But I am increasingly bemused by the lemming-like nature of “indie,” which used to stand for “independent.” So let me suggest that, along with your prized copies of Wincing the Night Away and Neon Bible, you pick up a copy of, oh, Merle Haggard’s Greatest Hits. How radically unhip would that be? I say go for it.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007


2007 will mark two important milestones in the life of the Whitman family. Kate and I will have been married 25 years. And Kate will experience one of those big “decade” birthdays, and since she was neither a teen bride nor a late-blooming wallflower, you can probably figure out which one. Thus, part of the holiday break was spent poring over travel guides and working out a tentative itinerary for the big blowout trip to Italy, which will coincide with both of our birthdays, and will be close enough to our anniversary without having to worry about snowstorms in the Alps. So, assuming ongoing employment and continued good health (knock on wooden prosthetic devices), we will ship the last kid off to college in mid-September, catch our breath for a bit, and then head out for a 16-day extravaganza. All by ourselves. No, you can’t come, but we’ll think fondly of you as we’re sipping vino and saying words such as “antipasto” and “gelato.”

This is where we’re thinking of going:

Venice (3 days)
Ravenna (1 day)
Florence (3 days)
Vernazza (Italian Riviera) (2 days)
Siena (1 day)
Assisi (1 day)
Rome (3 days)

Plus two days of travel time, and there you have it. This is something I’ve dreamed about doing all my life. And I can’t tell you how excited I am (although my kids can, and they’re ready to gag me if I utter one more word about it). I want to immerse myself in the culture. I want to take siestas. I want to talk with my hands. I want to have all my stereotypes blown to bits. If any of you have experienced Italy, I’d love to hear your recommendations, warnings, etc. We’re still in the preliminary planning stages, and it’s a long way off, but I’m already counting down the days.