Monday, April 30, 2007

Drawing Conclusions

True Story #1 – About ten years ago Kate painted our living room walls. They were transformed from a sort of pathetic, washed-out beige to a vibrant cranberry or raspberry or other red(ish) fruit color. I am perhaps not the most clueful artistic person on the planet, so with some pride I noticed that the color of the walls had changed, and I complimented Kate on the great new look. That’s when she told me she had painted the walls two weeks previously.

True Story #2 – It’s the night before the first day of school. My daughter Katryn comes downstairs in a new outfit. At least I think it’s new. But I’ve learned that it’s best to assume that the outfit selected for the first day of school is a Big Deal, and to make noises like I know it’s a Big Deal. “How does this look, dad?” she asks worriedly. “Do you think the other kids will like this?” I look at her. She looks great. “I think the other kids will love it,” I tell her. Katryn falls on the floor laughing. Kate and Rachel start laughing. It slowly dawns on me that I’ve been been drawn into a Let’s Pimp Out Dad prank. “These are pajamas,” Katryn tells me. “I can’t believe you couldn’t tell they were pajamas.”

So, with that kind of pedigree, it only makes sense that I would attend an art show Saturday evening. We drove around Grandview, got slightly lost, and eventually located the big old imposing warehouse where thousands of artworks awaited our discerning gaze. Out front several “art cars” were decorated from hood to trunk with seashells, plastic figurines of superheroes, and various doll parts. “What kind of a statement do you think they’re trying to make?” Kate asked me. I had no idea. I don’t know why people would affix Barbie torsos to cars.

We wandered inside and met our friend Emily. Emily is a painter who works with beeswax. She’s a very good painter, and has won a bunch of awards, so I have no doubt that what she does with beeswax is quite impressive. We looked at her paintings, where she had slathered beeswax on a canvas, and then painted it various colors. They reminded me of a psychedelicized version of the little critters I used to see when I looked in the microscope in ninth grade Biology. They were certainly amoeba-like, and certainly colorful. Now, let it be noted that I really like Emily. She’s a wonderful human being, and she loves art, and I love art, too, and I want to be totally supportive of anybody who pursues their artistic dreams and vision. So I was really hoping that it wouldn’t come to this. But it did. “What do you think?” she asked me.

Please, God, no. Not that question. I gazed thoughtfully at the paintings for a few seconds, thought about tossing in words like “Cubist” and “Pointilist,” realized that they had absolutely nothing to do with amorphous blobs, and then just decided to come clean and take the honest approach.

“I don’t know,” I told her. “I don’t even have a vocabulary to talk about this, nor does my brain register what is going on. I am the least visually oriented person in the universe. I am fortunate if my socks match. But I’m so glad you do what you do, and that you have an opportunity to showcase your work.”

It wasn’t much of an answer, but it was the best I could do. And Emily was very gracious about it. But it made me realize how much I need to learn, and how very much against the grain this kind of learning is for me. In the last five years or so I’ve read several art history textbooks, trying my best to rectify a glaring deficiency in my assimilation of All Things Worth Knowing. But it simply doesn’t stick. I get the Caravaggios mixed up with the Tintorettos, the Klees mixed up with the Kandinskys. And none of them help me with beeswax.

In a few more months Kate and I will travel to Italy, where there is some Serious Art. And so, in addition to brushing up on rudimentary Italian, and trying to grasp the finer points of Tuscan Chiantis, I’m going to work on trying to keep my Florentine and Venetian masters straight. It’s still a losing proposition. I wish I had more of an intuitive feel for these things. But as it is, I’ll probably insult the natives by conflating Leonardo daVinci and Leonardo DiCaprio, Titanic and Titian, The Sistine Chapel and Sixteen Candles. At least I remember the soundtrack to Sixteen Candles.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Pride (In the Name of Love)

Wednesday evening my daughter Rachel and I attended an academic awards banquet. Rachel is in the Top 10 of her graduating class (yes, we’re a mere three months away from dual college payments and what passes for abject poverty in suburbia), and the Kiwanis Club wanted to recognize the top scholars from the three Westerville High Schools. Kate, lucky Kate, got to work that night, and missed the rubber chicken and earnest speechifying.

Frankly, the earnest speechifying bummed me out. Aside from the usual God and country conflations, we heard speaker after speaker extolling the wonders of the Best and Brightest Assembled Before Us, the Future of America as Exemplified By These Fine Minds, and on and on. And were we parents exempted from the praise? No, indeed, we were not. We sacrificed, we gave of our time and money, we provided a nurturing environment. We were to be congratulated. My head grew three sizes between the entrée and the dessert.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my daughter dearly. She’s a great kid. And yes, she’s smart. But listening to these speeches, one would assume that the thirty assembled scholars had achieved something truly monumental. And here is what Rachel achieved: she worked moderately hard, at least some days, and almost by accident got good grades. Academics come easily for Rachel. She studied when she had to (and many times she didn’t have to), turned in her assignments on time, did well with the genes she’d been given, and grew up in a house that was filled with books and the love of learning, where mom’s and dad’s idea of a fun night is to sit across from one another and read. I’m not suggesting that Rachel played no role in the process. But what I am suggesting is that it would have been somewhat shocking if Rachel hadn’t ended up near the top of her class.

I am surely no expert on humility, and I like being praised as much as the next megolomaniacal egotist. So I understand the appeal of ceremonies like the one we attended on Wednesday. But I wonder about the wisdom of ascribing individual worth based on something that comes naturally and easily. We are blessed. Rachel is blessed. And I don’t mean that in some hokey, pseudo-spiritual sense. I mean it in the nitty-gritty, everyday sense that Kate and I love each other, and live in the same house and sleep in the same bed, and are educated, and can afford things like books and college tuitions, and Rachel has been the recipient of all those things. Am I thankful for those things? You bet I am. But I didn’t do it, and I didn’t make it happen, and neither did Rachel. We are blessed.

I’m reminded of one of those passages of Scripture that make us feel profoundly uncomfortable as self-sufficient Americans:

"Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, 'Come along now and sit down to eat'? Would he not rather say, 'Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink'? Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.' "
-- Luke 17:7-10

So you’ll have to pardon me if I have a hard time participating in the hearty backslapping and congratulations, the already-arrogant 18-year-olds confidently announcing their plans to attend Brown and the University of Chicago and Rice and Northwestern, all the self-sufficient kids who think they’re pulling themselves up by their designer bootstraps. Good for you, you scholars. But you’re riding on the backs of many others, and you were born at the right time in the right place, and you’ve had a thousand things go right for you over which you’ve had no control at all. You’re blessed, and you don’t seem to know it.

So am I, by the way, and one of the chief ways I am blessed is through my daughter Rachel. This is not meant to take away from that realization at all. But the best part of the night for me was the ride home. We listened to music, and she was just a normal kid again, and not a Future Leader of America. I plan on savoring the next three months.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Hungarian Rhapsody

The breathless press release described it thusly: “19 stomping selections by Hungarian jet-set fit-bit; Eastern Europe’s most vivacious sexual secret piles heavy psych/jazz/glam and funk onto a heaped spoonful dripping with the cream of the 70's Hungarian rock scene.”

“This could be good,” I thought. “Or at least interesting in a vaguely James Bond/Space Age Bachelor Pad way.” I confess that I’m not up on the ‘70s Hungarian rock scene, the Budapest beat, the Magyar musical milieu, none of it. So I don’t know this Sarolta Zalatnay, “Cini” to her apparent legions of fans in Debrecen and Miskolc. All I know is that in her recently released eponymous compilation she looks (or looked; most of the photos in the CD booklet appear to be vintage Carnaby Street circa 1966) like Nancy Sinatra, and that her go-go boots could walk all over you, me, and any random members of the Red Army who get in her way.

So I put on her CD. And it turns out that Cini is really groovy. Most of these songs, recorded in the early ‘70s, bear the unmistakeably dated sounds of wah-wah guitars and spacey flutes, Hungarian hippies trilling away behind what sounds like the soundtrack to Shaft or Superfly. But wow, Cini can sing. “Sracok Oh Sracok” she roars, and I have no idea if she’s pleading to a lover or calling for the dispersal of Soviet tanks, but whatever she’s doing she’s latched on to that throaty Janis Joplin rasp that is its own justification, and that can transcend even the most banal material. The PR guy got it right with those veiled Cream references, and, aside from those questionable Superfly moments, her band plays up a righteous acid rock/blues storm. And there’s something altogether delicious about taking one of the most tired, cliched American musical genres and transplanting it to a different culture. I don’t know if Hungary had a musical festival that was equivalent to Woodstock. But Cini should have been a headliner, and hearing these inscrutable songs stripped of their usual hippie lyrical connotations allows them to emerge in new and fresh ways.

I was expecting kitsch, and I got some of that. What I wasn’t expecting was a musical talent that could transcend the times and the setting. For those brave enough to risk the entry into a different country in a different era, Cini may offer some surprisingly clear musical lessons.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Rap and Venn Diagrams

I love the beauty and precision of a good logical argument. And I love good song lyrics, rich in metaphors and poetic imagery. And I'm particularly thrilled when they come together. As in:

I’m hot coz I’m fly
You ain’t coz you not

This, you may know, is the chorus to Mims' song "This Is Why I'm Hot." It's the #1 song in America.

Mims goes on to add:

For those who say they know me know I’m focused on my cream
Playa you come between you’d better focus on the beam
I keep it so feen the way you see me lean
And when I say I’m hot my nigga this is what I mean

That is just so feen. Still, the possibility for confusion exists. And if you find yourself in need of some logical remediation and poetry tutelage, Village Voice writer Rob Harvilla breaks it down for you, complete with Venn Diagrams and mathematical equations.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Joanna Newsom Gets Funny

I am not a Joanna Newsom fan. Spare me the pained outcry. I’ve listened, and I think it’s fine if you like her. But I don’t. On my good days I find her precious, and on my bad days I find her supremely annoying. But I’ll give her credit. She has a sense of humor. Her previous album was called Ys (pronounced “Ees”) , and her new live album is called Joanna Newsom and the Ys Street Band. Think of it as Joanna’s version of Born to Chase Unicorns, or perhaps The Wild, The Innocent, and the Fairy Princess Ballet. What’s the medieval equivalent of Female Boss? Duchess? Dowager? You go, m’lady.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Purple Prose of Poetic Publicists

I admit that I'm jaded. Every day the mailman drops off more music than I can possibly listen to, and each carefully packaged CD is accompanied by a breathless press release informing me that what I hold in my hands represents a seismic shift in musical history, that I as an individual and western civilization as we have known it are about to be shaken to the core, and that we will re-emerge as better, more enlightened human beings.

In other words, I'm used to hype. So it takes something special, something -- well, frankly bizarre -- to make me sit up and take notice. And so we come to chamber rock trio Rasputina's new album Oh Perilous World. Here's what the press release has to say:

""In Old Yellowcake" utilizes imagery of the destruction of Fallujah. This is coupled with the album's overall narrative of Mary Todd Lincoln as Queen of Florida, with her blimp armies having attacked Pitcairn Island, where Fletcher Christian's son Thursday emerges as a resistance icon, before the record's grand end and subsequent denouement."

Wow. Look, I'm going to listen. There aren't that many albums that promise an overarching metanarrative featuring Mary Todd Lincoln and her blimp armies, never mind Fletcher Christian's son Thursday. And the fact that this historical and literary arcana is somehow related to the fall of Fallujah is just too hard to resist. I'm secretly hoping for cameo appearances by Saddam Hussein and John Wilkes Booth as well.

So I'll let you know how it goes. But it's got my attention.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Old School Folkie Roundup -- Ron Franklin and Fionn Regan

Nothing against the Iron and Wine’s and Jose Gonzalez’s of the world, but I prefer folkies who are a little more on the earthy side. If I want hushed and ethereal I’ll listen to Sigur Ros’s whalesongs, which I dearly love, and then walk around the ol’ corporate American cubicle farm singing “Eeeeuuuuu syyyy ohhh” and other inscrutable but mesmerizing things that deeply impress the IT infrastructure architecture workforce. The truth is that sometimes I just want the straightforward goods – sweet fingerpicking, gravel-voiced singers, and tales of love gone bad and ridin’ the rails and busking on the streets. This is the territory Bob Dylan visited again and again on his first couple albums, before he got all visionary. He still drops by to revisit the old haunts from time to time. And these two folkies, young ‘uns both, have deeply imbibed of that old school homebrew.

Ron Franklin – City Lights

Ron Franklin, itinerant guitarist and mandolin picker, mostly calls Memphis home. So it’s not surprising that his music is deeply influenced by Stax Records and gospel, Delta blues and Elvis Presley; that cross-cultural pollination of every genre of American music that’s ever been worthwhile. He covers Chuck Berry’s “Thirty Days” and The Carter Family’s “Lula Walls.” And he writes a batch of solid originals that are raw, unpolished, and rocking in an acoustic juke joint sort of way. Studio legend Jim Dickinson plays keyboards, and Al Green compatriot Willie Mitchell produces. Is it good? With that pedigree, you bet it’s good. Is it great? Nope. Franklin’s vocals are nasal and flat, which works just fine for early Bob Dylan, but doesn’t work quite so well when your songs aren’t up to the caliber of “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” It’s a promising debut, but the jury’s still out.

Fionn Regan – The End of History

The only review of Fionn Regan I’ve read compared him to Donovan. Never mind that Regan is from Bray, Ireland. Yeah, I know. Ireland, Scotland, one of those kinda vaguely Celtic countries; it’s all the same, right? And never mind that Donovan eventually lost his mind to flower power and ended up writing songs about the lost continent of Atlantis and singing about electrical bananas and sunshine supermen. The man once wrote a song called “Epistle to Dippy,” for God’s sake, and he’s personally responsible for more unadulterated, fuzzily metaphysical hippie crap than any other “artist.”

So let it be noted that Fionn Regan sounds nothing like Donovan. He sounds like Mark Kozelek of The Red House Painters/Sun Kil Moon, and he plays guitar like Nick Drake. Look, that’s a pretty great combination. He’s been listening to a lot of early Dylan songs too, and he spins out great autobiographical folk narratives that wouldn’t have been out of place on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. He’s been reading Saul Bellow. His lyrics are weird, unsettling, packed with arcane details and startling metaphors and literary allusions. His debut is due out on Lost Highway Records at the beginning of June. I can already tell you that it’s going to end up on my year-end Top 10 list.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Matthew Ryan

Nobody buys Matthew Ryan records. First, he has one of those nondescript names that nobody remembers (it would help not to have two first names. So go with a pseudonym, Matthew; I recommend Ryan Adams). Second, he looks like a plumber, not a rock star. Third, he has one of those raspy, gargle-with-Drano voices that sound offputting and corrosive to people weaned on Clay Aiken and Faith Hill.

But he can sure write some great songs. He's released six albums in the last ten years, and he's getting better and better. His latest, called From a Late Night High Rise, is haunted by the death of a close friend and the news of his brother's sentence to thirty years in prison. It's not exactly upbeat material, but then again, that's not exactly upbeat news, and it's easy to find some 3:00 a.m. moments of pensive instrospection there that will break your heart.

Ever since Monday I've been listening to one of his old songs from his debut album Mayday. It's a scary, spooky song, and these are scary, spooky times. I listen to it and think about the ghosts that haunt the classrooms and hallways in Blacksburg, Virginia.

The dead girl mopes through a dead scene
With a cross-stitched lip she's picking at the seam
She's got bravado she says she's been
Featured in a few magazines
Now outside the bar Hank is straddling a police car
His fingers are purple and numb from circling a crow bar
Well twenty-four years have made it clear that things ain't ever what they appear

He says
I won't be going easily
No I won't be going lightly
And I won't be going peacefully
No I won't be going innocently

A sweet drink spiked with a speedball
A twenty-foot ladder and a ninety-foot wall
Dark shadows are gathering and swaggering down the hall

And I know
I won't be going easily
No I won't be going lightly
And I won't be going peacefully
No I won't be going innocently
-- Matthew Ryan, "The Dead Girl"

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

May '07 Paste

The May '07 issue of Paste Magazine (Issue 31) is out now. Every Baby Boomer's favorite bar band, The Hold Steady, is on the cover. This may be the best quote to ever appear in Paste:


"In England, where the set times are earlier, we see a lot more older fans, groups of guys who are 55 years old," Finn says.

"It's like A Hard Day's Night," concludes Polivka. "Only instead of teenaged girls chasing us, it's 50-year-old, mustachioed men."


Another great quote: "They're the band you go see when you feel like getting drunk on cheap beer, dancing and then loitering outside the venue, eating crappy pizza on the curb; they embody the half-tragic, half-ecstatic American adolescence every 33-year-old with a desk job wants desperately to re-live."

She nails it. Thank you, Amanda Petrusich.

But rest easy, kids, there's fun for you, too. The sampler CD is absolutely amazing this time, with tracks from Dinosaur Jr. (I had no idea they were still around; they sound great), Dungen, Nick Cave's new/old band Grinderman, sensitive folkies Great Lake Swimmers, the legendary and saintly Mavis Staples, Chris Knight (the best gravel-voiced rootsy songwriter not named Steve Earle), and Rosie Thomas. And two, count 'em, two tracks from The Hold Steady: "Massive Nights" from Boys and Girls in America, and a previously unreleased acoustic version of "Stuck Between Stations." Joseph Arthur's on there, too.

For those keeping score at home, my Listening to My Life column is on Winnipeg literary punks The Weakerthans, and I have reviews of the new Black Rebel Motorcycle Club album and a Fats Domino/Jerry Lee Lewis/Ray Charles DVD.

Joseph Arthur wrote a letter to the editor/"poem" that was published in Paste. He takes the magazine to task for being too safe and predictable, and gives the magazine a 2.5 star rating. That's okay. I listened to his song on the CD sampler, and heard some reheated blues riffs and some more "poetry." Two stars, I say.

Hey watch this
I can write
Prose and make it
Look like a

Or should I say
A fuckin' poem
Because then it
Will sound
More hip.

Hipsters. Gotta love 'em.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Virginia Tech

I thought about writing many things. I ended up writing none of them. At various points yesterday I wanted to smash my head against the TV set or curl into a ball and cry. Instead I prayed. That is, until I talked to my daughter at Kent State last night. She was upset, scared. I don't blame her. I made it halfway through the conversation before I started crying. I missed her, and I was glad that I was talking to her, and I told her so. Events like the ones that transpired at Virginia Tech yesterday leave us all feeling raw and vulnerable. And if you happen to have a kid strolling around on a college campus, those feelings are intensified.

Katryn passed along some thoughts she received in an email yesterday from her friend Ben, who attends college in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I thought they were worth sharing with you. No doubt some will find his thoughts idealistically naive. I will not be one of them.


On April 16 at 1:05pm reports from a shooting at Virginia Tech University are showing 22 dead and 28 wounded. A young Asian man opened fire in a residence hall early this morning. Later he walked into classrooms in the engineering building, taking lives at random with two
9mm hand guns. After leaving one particular room, the students barricaded the door before the shooter returned and tried to shoot more students through the door. Eventually he took his own life. Details are still slowly coming in.

As I sit in the lounge of one of the girls' residence halls, I can't help but consider my surroundings. A student sits on a couch across from me playing a game on his computer. A few girls pass through, both ask 'where did this happen?' before continuing into the hallway. A pair of housekeeping workers gathers trash and vacuums the floor. The two girls who have been sitting with me exchange shocked expressions of disbelief. 'I can't imagine...', 'oh my gosh...', '...this is so horrible', ' can this be happening?' one calls her boyfriend to pass on the somber news; the other quietly sheds the only tears I see from anyone.

I’m pretty close to joining her. I’m not exactly sure whether it's directly because of these events or because I know that within many college campuses, but especially outside them, people will look on these events, say 'how sad,' realize that it didn’t happen to them, and move on with their lives. This is the nature of our existence. Sad things happen every single day. Horrible, unspeakable things. Babies in Africa have AIDS. A man in Grand Rapids sleeps on the sidewalk. Little boys in Uganda watch the murder of their families and are brainwashed into becoming soldiers themselves. Little girls in Thailand are forced to have sex with rich, American businessmen. There are orphans in India. People can’t eat. Everywhere. Staggering numbers of soldiers, civilians, terrorists, bearers of the image of God, lose their lives on a daily basis in Iraq. Luckily none of those places are where we are. A prayer is said at the beginning of my 2:00 class after I mention the tragedy.

I was in sixth grade when the world learned of the massacre at Columbine. Afterwards there were lots of lectures from adults about school safety and being nice to the weird kids; wouldn’t want to get shot. I don’t recall hearing about true compassion or redemptive
community. As Bill Clinton offered his support to those affected by the Columbine shooting, his troops were finishing one of the largest bombing operations in the Kosovo conflict. People talked about violent videogames and gory movies, German death metal and Marilyn Manson, gun laws and gun rights. No one talked about the bombing of Kosovo.

In the days and weeks to come I expect to hear, and not hear, similar conversations. A new generation of sixth graders will hear them and attempt to figure out for themselves how to put it all together. A new generation of parents in their late 30s will make their kid throw away a nice chunk of his CD collection and bring Grand Theft Auto back to EB Games. I wonder. Will any parents block CSPAN2 on their cable? Will they tell their children that George W. Bush isn’t the kind of thing a good Christian boy or girl should be listening to? Will kids have to get up really early on a Saturday to slip a Harry Truman documentary into the
DVD player, keeping the volume down low so as not to wake their parents and get caught? Or will parents shelter their children from things that are much easier to boycott and publicly blame? Will they continue to condone or at least ignore how the actions they deplore when put into media format, have been put into real-life practice, or policy rather, by the very same government they tell their children to respect, be loyal to, even give their lives for?

Something tells me that the young man at Virginia Tech wouldn’t have described Marilyn Manson, Quentin Tarantino, and Charlton Heston as his role models; people whose behavior or words he should emulate. However, I do not doubt that he grew up in a nation which ultimately glorifies violence, no matter how many games they rate M for mature. Something
tells me he might have learned from his American History textbook, and from every president he was able to remember, that violence is an appropriate way to resolve a problem, expand your borders, or enforce an ideology. It worked against Great Britain, it worked against the Native Americans, it worked against Mexico, it ended slavery (right?) it worked against Spain, it worked in Hawaii, the Philippines, Colombia, Germany, Russia, Germany (again), Japan, Italy, North Korea, Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, Cambodia, Libya, Syria, Grenada, Iran, Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, Serbia, Afghanistan, and Iraq (again), so why
shouldn’t it work in Virginia?

The numbers are now up to 33 dead, at least 15 injured. In a scene of déjà vu, President Bush releases a short statement about the unfortunate incident and offers his condolences to those involved and his help to the university. Like President Clinton, he has no room and no foundation upon which he can speak of healing, forgiveness, compassion, or redemption, having necessarily set aside the teachings of Christ in order to embark on the path of personal, political, economic, and national prosperity.

It is up to us to begin the dialogue our federal government is unwilling and unable to have; a dialogue of understanding, compassion, and harmony between peoples of all nationalities, political leanings, religious sects, economic standings, and worldviews in order to address the real issues behind the countless atrocities that are taking place on this earth as we speak. We have the opportunity to redeem our culture of violence and work for peace and justice across the globe if we would only try.
-- Ben Robertson

New Reviews at All Music Guide

Umphrey's McGee -- Bottom Half
Devon Sproule -- Keep Your Silver Shined
Blitzen Trapper -- Wild Mountain Nation

Monday, April 16, 2007

A Biblical View of Work?

“Exactly what is a biblical view of work?” you might ask. Or you might not. But I ask that question about three or four times per month, usually when I’m stuck doing something I dislike or which bores me, and when I’m longing for some sort of supernatural intervention that will strike down all the Bean Counters/Mr. Spocks of the world I live in and elevate me, Mr. Liberal Arts/I Hate Science and Technology Except When It Plays Music to Most Awesome Employee status. That’s biblical, isn’t it?

Marcus Buckingham was something of a guru in my MBA program. We read three of his books – First, Break All the Rules, Now, Discover Your Strengths, and Go, Put Your Strengths to Work. And Buckingham’s central thesis is that teams should be filled not with well rounded people, but with a diverse group of unbalanced people — people who are investing all their energies in their areas of personal strength.

It certainly sounds good in theory. And now I see that my buddies Jeff and John have fallen under his sway. So I’ve thought some more about that central thesis. To some extent Buckingham’s ideas make sense, but I think they have to be taken with a large grain of salt. For example, there are jobs/tasks in any company that will not correspond to anyone’s idea of their strengths/passions. But they have to be done anyway. I’m spending about half my work life right now creating Visio diagrams showing servers, routers, firewalls, etc. Does this play to my personal strengths? Nope. And if you know of anyone who’s just salivating to do IT infrastructure architecture diagrams, let me know and I’ll gladly fob them off on Mr. or Ms. Passion.

This is my main objection to Buckingham’s approach. Show me a garbage man, er, sanitation engineer, who daydreamed at age 5 about tossing wilted lettuce and coffee grounds from a garbage can into a big truck. But somebody has to do it, and there are plenty of jobs — most of them, I suspect — that aren’t going to lead anyone to a heightened sense of meaning and purpose in life. If you can earn a living and put your kids through college and align your passions with a paycheck, then more power to you. But it seems to me that it is the lot of many people – Liberal Arts folks, in particular – to spend 40+ hours a work earning a living, and their time outside of work pursuing their passions and dreams. And, Mr. Buckingham’s advice to the contrary, perhaps that’s not such a bad solution.

Sometimes I wonder whether the mud-spattered feudal serfs in 13th century France dreamed about self-acutalization and aligning their passions and giftings to their careers. This seems to me to be a peculiarly late-20th, early-21st century American approach to life. And so I come back to that biblical view of work. I suspect that Buckingham’s thinking might be a small component of that, but so is Genesis 3, and working by the sweat of your brow, and encountering thorns and thistles along with the sweat. Buckingham doesn’t address those issues at all. And so I would like to suggest that a biblical view of work has to leave room not only for passions and vision, but also for the daily drudgery of doing what has to be done. What do you think?

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Book on Genesis

My memories of Genesis fans – the real, hardcore Genesis fans, circa Nursery Cryme, Selling England by the Pound and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway – are that they were more likely to be found in a dank basement playing Dungeons and Dragons and reading books about elves and dwarves than pursuing normal adolescent activities. This was Peter Gabriel’s Genesis – he of the winged Flying Nun headgear and the crazed, theatrical vocals – and his band followed suit, playing bizarre 20-minute prog rock suites about the apocalypse, spinning out impossibly knotty music even as the lyrics hearkened back to the glory days of Arthurian legends or made oblique references to T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” The people who ate this stuff up were not likely to play air guitar and pump their fists and jump off the couch.

I remember those fans. Okay, I was one of those fans. And I also remember the sinking feeling I experienced when I read that Peter Gabriel had left the band to pursue a solo career. I wondered what would happen, and I had an ominous feeling that it wouldn’t be good. What happened is summed up in a nifty little package the mailman dropped off yesterday, the new 6 CD/6 DVD box set Genesis 1976 – 1982. And you know what? It turned out just fine.

What happened was a paunchy, balding little dude named Phil Collins, who stepped out from behind the drum kit and took over some of the songwriting and all of the vocal duties from Gabriel. There are five albums here – A Trick of the Tail, Wind & Wuthering, … And Then There Were Three, Duke, and Abacab. A sixth disc contains B-sides and previously unreleased tracks that span that six-year period. And that arc traces the progression (or regression, as some would have it) from the geekyest of prog rock bands to one of the biggest rock bands on the planet. For the completists, I’ll note that the albums have been remastered, that they sound wonderful, that the 48-page booklet and the unreleased tracks are a nice bonus, and that the wealth of video/concert material on the DVDs is mind-bogglingly great. For the rest of you, I’ll simply note that this was a great band in a transitional period, and that they simply moved from strength to strength. Genesis was a very different band in 1982 than they were when Peter Gabriel left in 1975. But you’ll never convince this elf/dwarf fan that those four-minute hit singles were worse than the 20-minute suites. Those four-minute singles make me want to play air guitar and jump off the couch.

A Trick of the Tail and Wind & Wuthering, from 1976 and 1977 respectively, represent the last of the prog rock albums. Collins sounds so much like Peter Gabriel here that it is frightening. And if he hadn’t found his true voice yet, he was certainly channeling a great old voice, and the tricky time signatures and synth/mellotron workouts were every bit as bracing as they were on the early albums. … And Then There Were Three is the true transitional album, and the weakest of the bunch, as the band can’t quite decide whether to hold on to the old formula or branch out in a new direction. Duke and Abacab feature the monster hits – “Misunderstanding,” “Turn It On Again,” “Abacab,” “No Reply At All” -- that were both Top 40 blockbusters and FM rock radio staples. It all sounds marvellous – the prog rock material dense but accessible, the hits surprisingly complex and multi-layered.

And that’s the wonder of Genesis, circa 1976 – 1982. Let’s hear it for the paunchy, balding little dudes. They’re fabulous. The geeks became rock stars, and made certified hits featuring 13/8 time signatures. There is hope for all of us, and, while we’re waiting, plenty of great music.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

The Boys of Summer

You've got to love baseball in Cleveland in April. The warm spring breezes, the smell of newly mown grass, a lazy day in the sun. Oh, wait ....

My favorite moment of yesterday's game was the fan who jumped onto the field out of the right field stands, plopped himself down in the outfield and made a snow angel, and was then promptly arrested by security.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Festival of Faith and Music Concert Roundup

All right, here's my take on the music I heard at the Festival of Faith and Music. I'd love to hear others' takes as well.

First, let me note that there was far more happening musically than I was able to take in. There were, for instance, various Asthmatic Kitty folks other than Sufjan Stevens (Danielson Familye, Half-Handed Cloud) milling about, and they may or may not have performed music at some point. If they did, I didn't see it. I also missed The Psalters, and I would have enjoyed seeing them. But here is who I did see:

-- Anathallo -- I don' t know much about Anathallo. They were on a Paste sampler a while back, and I was underwhelmed. I haven't heard any of their albums. But I quite enjoyed their performance Friday night. There were, at various points, about twenty people onstage, most of them members of the Central Michigan University brass ensemble. Most of the members of Anathallo proper sang, and their harmonies were lovely. The songs themselves were quite unconventional -- no verse-verse-chorus structures here -- and for the most part flowed seamlessly. At times the transitions were a little too abrupt for me, but the music surprised me at every turn, and they made great use of the whisper-to-a-wall-of-noise approach so prevalent in post-rock music today. Two or three guys ran energetically about, playing percussion, and one guy derived great pleasure by arching his back, swinging with all his might, and thwacking a very large gong. Lean into it, dude. I was impressed, and I'll certainly be seeking out more of Anathallo's music.

-- Sufjan Stevens -- I don't know. I enjoyed the concert on some levels, but I tire of all the busyness, both with the onstage props and in the music. I've seen Sufjan four times in the last couple years, and maybe I'm just feeling burned out. But I'd bet any amount of money that he's feeling burned out. You can hear it in the frayed vocals, the high notes that he can't quite hit these days, and in some of the dispirited between-song commentary. Take a break, guy. This was the last show of what had been a long, worldwide tour for Sufjan. He played for more than two hours -- the longest show he'd ever played, or so he claimed. And, to be fair, there were many wonderful moments. I love Sufjan's music, and he played a wide selection of material from Michigan, Seven Swans, and Illinois, as well as a couple surprise songs from the Christmas album and his NPR radio appearance. It's great stuff. I wrote about why Sufjan's Illinois album was the best album of 2005 in Paste Magazine, and I'd gladly do it again. But there was an element of forced frivolity in the concert Friday night that honestly left me slightly depressed. There is such a thing as trying too hard. And, so in spite of all the inflatable Santa and Superman dolls that were being batted around in the audience, contributing to what I suppose is spontaneous hilarity on a Christian college campus, I felt a little sad. I greatly preferred Sufjan two years ago at this same conference -- quiet, subdued, almost beatific, making hushed music that made me want to do cartwheels because it was so beautiful and transcendent.

Liz Janes, Son Lux -- After the Anathallo/Sufjan concert, most folks went to watch the Danielson Familye documentary. A couple hundred folks, including me, wandered over to the chapel, and heard some more music. Liz Janes, who is Asthmatic Kitty label head Michael Kauffman's wife, didn't move a whole lot, strummed her acoustic guitar (and occasional ukelele), and simply wowed me with her voice and her songs. There was a sweetness about her demeanor that reminded me of Victoria Williams. She sang the old Jesus Freak song "I'm Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table," and followed that up with a cover of The Pixies' "Wave of Mutilation." She sang original worship songs. She sang Weezer covers. She did an a capella, soulful field holler thing that raised the hairs on the back of my neck. She was, in a word, great.

Son Lux is the nom de mope of a guy named Ryan Lott, who was the winner of Calvin's Bandspotting contest. I liked Ryan’s songs a great deal when I heard them as part of the contest, and I liked them a great deal when I heard them live. Ryan is apparently the kind of guy who records his tortured songs in the privacy of his bedroom. And Friday night was his first live performance, at least under his Son Lux moniker. And he did just fine. Better than fine. His lyrics are simple and direct, but his piano work, tape loops, and electronica blips and beeps add great depth, and his angst-filled vocals remind me quite a bit of Thom Yorke from Radiohead. You can check out Ryan’s music right here. I think you’ll be impressed.

I missed Sarah Masen, who followed Ryan’s set. By that point it was midnight, I was operating on three hours of sleep, and the old, gnarled body was starting to shut down. Sarah (whose name I spaced on both times I encountered her in person over the course of the weekend; she’s got to suspect not only an old, gnarled body, but encroaching senility) is a very talented singer and songwriter, and I’m sorry I missed her performance. I’m hoping that she covered Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” as I’ve seen her do in the past. But someone else will need to comment on Sarah’s performance.

Neko Case/Emmylou Harris -- Saturday was filled with workshops and artist interviews (Sufjan, Neko Case, Emmylou Harris). The only music I heard was Saturday night, when Neko and Emmylou performed before a large crowd at the Calvin Fieldhouse. There were several fun non-musical moments at the gym-turned-concert-hall (the best was finding out that the pleasant, middle-aged guy I’d been chatting with for half an hour was Jim Wallis’s brother), but at 8:00 the lights dimmed (these Calvin folks are punctual; they have a thing or two to teach the rest of the world), and Neko came onstage and rocked the (field)house.

Neko, for the record, is deceptive. She sounds like Tammy Wynette, but she writes songs like Joni Mitchell. No cliched, heartaches-by-the number approach for this woman. She has a big, big powerhouse of a voice, her songs resonate on multiple levels, and she can kick out the jams with the best rock band. In short, she was fabulous, the musical highlight of the weekend for me.

Then, after a short break, Emmylou came on stage. And after about five minutes, I was shaking my head, realizing that I was a part of some sort of mythical concert pairing that seemed too impossibly good to be true: Neko and Emmylou on the same stage on the same night. Are you kidding me? I’ve seen Emmylou a number of times down through the years. But she was better – her voice surer and stronger, her band the perfect complement to that sometimes fragile voice – than I’ve ever seen her before. She performed songs from throughout her long career, with the songs perhaps slightly skewed toward the Wrecking Ball, Red Dirt Girl, and Stumble Into Grace albums. But there were some delightful surprises – a superb cover of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” (with a slight change in the lyrics to accommodate the Christian audience; I felt like I could cry, indeed :-)), a beautiful rendition of Paul Simon’s “The Boxer,” and a stunning a capella version of the old country gospel standard “Bright Morning Stars” that closed the concert.

It was a fitting ending to a wonderful day, and a wonderful weekend. I can’t wait to return. Can we do this again? Maybe next week?

Thursday, April 05, 2007

In Defense of Relevance

"Relevance has been America's greatest vanity." - Sufjan Stevens

It was a bad time and place to be cool. “Relevance” took a critical beatdown at last weekend’s Festival of Faith and Music at Calvin College. Reluctant hipster and youth culture favorite Sufjan Stevens went to great pains to distance himself from the prevailing attitudes that have hailed him as a spokesperson for evangelicalism or “Christian music.” In his artist interview, Sufjan launched into a forty-minute diatribe against Christianity as it is practised in many American evangelical churches, and argued that he desires to point to what is irrelevant, which also happens to correspond to what is sacred and eternal. And music/cultural critic Kevin Erickson led a workshop in which he systematically dismantled the zeitgeist of Christian publication Relevant Magazine, claiming that the publication appropriates the “rebel” iconography and language of the ‘60s counterculture while simultaneously presenting the same conservative political and cultural agenda that has dominated evangelical thought for decades.

Me? I’ve never been cool anyway, so I mostly thought that what I heard was fine, in my own smug, unhip way. But frankly, there was a lot of smugness and finger pointing going around on all sides, so let me attempt to frame a response that I hope is non-polemical, and that values both sides of the relevant/irrelevant cultural chasm.

First, the excesses and ridiculousness of much of the evangelical church has been well documented, here on this blog, and in countless other places. It’s not hard to find people – many Christians among them -- who are supremely dissatisfied with what passes for the “evangelical church” these days, particularly as that term has come to be redefined and hijacked by America’s political leaders. Certainly an overreliance on “relevant” language and music, proven (by corporate business standards, that is) marketing techniques, and a consumerist approach that enthrones the worshipper rather than God are legitimate concerns of any church trying to make a go of remaining faithful to Jesus in 21st century America. If, by some miracle, you are a Christian and have managed to escape those tendencies, I recommend that you watch the movie “Saved” to see them in all their inglorious fulness. We wince because the portrayal is so accurate.

So yeah, Sufjan and Kevin have valid points. “Relevance” has been done badly. Relevance may not require a radical dependence on God to transform hearts and minds, and assumes that the culture can and must play a role in that process. And methinks that any publication that calls itself Relevant Magazine doth protest too much. It’s certainly the wrong focus, and it may miss the point entirely.

But what if … and hang with me here … what if we can’t escape the culture? What if the culture is as inescapable as the air we breathe? What if we have no choice but to reflect the culture in all that we do, including our worship? What would that look like? What should that look like? What if we, as Christians in 21st century America, are called to live out eternal truths? What would they look like? Would they look the same as the eternal truths that 7th century Roman Christians lived? Or 11th century Russian Christians? Or 1st century adherents of an obscure Jewish sect? What would change? What wouldn’t change?

Or, to bring it closer to home, or at least Grand Rapids, Michigan, what if Kevin’s do rag was as much a part of the culture that he lives and breathes as the ‘60s rebel iconography that he criticized in Relevant Magazine? What if the inflatable Santas and Supermans that Sufjan tossed offstage Friday night weren’t, you know, actually part of eternal verities, but had more to do with the culture in which he lives? Is it okay to do that sort of thing? As a Christian, evangelical or not? Is it okay to be ironic and kitschy, and thereby entertain the culturally aware masses? Or must one be the victim of one’s own remorseless logic and insist on irrelevance in one’s art, just as one insists on irrelevance in one’s worship and church affiliation?

“Relevance” is a synonym for “connection.” And connection ought to be a worthy goal of the body of Christ – connection with God, connection with one another within the church, connection with the wider world in acts of service and compassion. Clearly Christians can and do disagree on what constitutes bad, better, and best ways of connecting. But I would like to submit that “irrelevance” is nowhere near the top of the list, and that people and churches who are irrelevant find themselves operating ineffectively and in isolation. That doesn’t mean that anything goes, or that we shouldn’t critically examine what elements of the culture we do and do not incorporate into our Christian lives. But it does mean that, short of retreating to caves, we can and must interact with the culture in which we live. We don’t have to label ourselves as such, and it would probably be best if we didn’t, but that certainly entails being relevant.

Cattle and the Creeping Things

Biblical references, drug addiction, and mental illness typically don't go hand in hand. But I know some of these people. Maybe you do, too. And even if you don't, isn't it breathtaking that a guy can write brutal rock 'n roll songs like this? Something tells me you won't ever hear this covered on American Idol.

They got to the part with the cattle and the creeping things
They said I'm pretty sure we've heard this one before
Don't it all end up in some revelation
With 4 guys on horses, and violent red visions famine and death and pestilence and war
I'm pretty sure I heard this one before.
You in the corner with a good looking drifter
Two cups of coffee and ten packs of sugar
I heard Gideon saw you in Denver
He said you're contagious
Silly rabbit, tripping is for teenagers
Murder is for murderers
And hard drugs are for bartenders
I think I might have mentioned that before

He's got the pages in his pockets that he ripped out of the Bible from his bedstand in the motel
He likes the part where the traders get chased out from the temple
I guess I heard about original sin
I heard the dude blamed the chick
I heard the chick blamed the snake
I heard they were naked when they got busted
I heard things ain't been the same since
You on the streets with a tendency to preach to the choir
Wired for sound and down with whatever
I heard Gideon did you in Denver

She's got a cross around her neck that she ripped off from a schoolgirl in the subway on a visit to the city
She likes how it looks on her chest with three open buttons
She likes the part where one brother kills the other
She has to wonder if the the world ever will recover
Because Cain and Abel seem to still be causing trouble

She said: I was seeing double for 3 straight days after I got born again
It felt strange but it was nice and peaceful
It really pleased me to be around so many people
Of course half were just visions
But half of them were friends from going through the program with me
Later on we did some sexy things
Took a couple photographs and carved them into wood reliefs
But that's enough about me
Tell me how you got down here into Ybor City
He said: I got through the part about the exodus
Up to then I only knew it was a movement of the people
But if small town cops are like swarms of flies and if blackened foil is like boils and hail
Then I'm pretty sure we've been thru this before
And it seemed like a simple place to score
Then some old lady came to the door and said
McKenzie Phillips doesn't live here anymore
-- The Hold Steady, "Cattle and the Creeping Things"

Monday, April 02, 2007

Neko's Laugh

I am back from Michigan. I had a great time. I had an exhausting time. I want to sleep for about five straight days. I heard some wonderful music. I heard some inspiring thoughts. I networked with people famous, not-so-famous, and perhaps infamous. But I don’t really want to write about the conference, at least for right now. I want to write about my daughter.

This weekend I spent time with my daughter Katryn, 20 years old, home for spring break, and reluctantly embarked on a road trip with the old man. And that roadtrip certainly highlighted some of our differences. I am academically oriented, theoretical and abstract. Katryn wants to have fun, and has told me in fairly matter-of-fact terms that this Christianity business impinges on her ability to have fun, and that she’ll take a pass for the time being. On the downside, I think she’s missing out on a rich life. On the up side, I think it’s quite possible that she has more fun than I do, and not in the obvious hedonistic ways, either. She’ll see a situation and laugh at it, while I seriously evaluate it and analyze it. That, in essence, is what makes us different.

Katryn loves great music, and she has extraordinarily good taste in music, if I’m allowed such a boastful, proud papa claim. She’s less enthralled at the prospect of dissecting music, discussing it from every literary and theological angle imaginable. And the conference we attended was a mixture of both. Katryn is a joy. Katryn is a handful. She’s opinionated, she’s articulate, and she has little trouble communicating exactly what her current likes and dislikes are. This weekend some of her dislikes included arrogance, pompousness, intellectual pretension, and abstract thinking that seems to have no relevance to the real world. And that was just me.

Against that backdrop, my favorite conference moment occurred during a session in which Neko Case was being interviewed. Neko Case is a singer/songwriter, and a very good one. She records her alt-country/folk noir albums under her own name, and her rock ‘n roll alter ego contributes greatly to one of my favorite bands, The New Pornographers. How ironic is it that a member of The New Pornographers should appear at a conference about Christianity and music, you might ask? Pretty ironic, I’d say.

At any rate, the interviewer asked Neko a very convoluted, academic question, read a fairly extensive quote from William Blake, compared her lyrics to Blake’s poetry, and wondered if she had ever made those connections. Neko looked puzzled for a moment, then said, “No, not really, but it sounds cool.” And then she laughed; a big, hearty laugh that was not demeaning in any way, but that probably took in the absurdity of an aging punk with dyed hair sitting center stage at something called The Festival of Faith and Music. I think that laugh was my favorite part of the conference. My serious, sensitive side was probably a little taken aback by it. The side of me that wants to be a better father told me that I’d better get used to it, or something like it, and that if twenty years hadn’t done the trick yet, we had some more time to work it out.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved the conference, I have great, great respect for the interviewer, and I’m sure I’ll have more to say about what I learned in the days to come. But my best times this weekend took place in a minivan, during the twelve hours it took Katryn and I to travel from Columbus to Grand Rapids, and from Grand Rapids to Kent, Ohio, where I dropped her off at Kent State to conclude her spring break. We didn’t talk about the difference between propaganda and art. We listened to Neko Case, whom we both love, and we cranked up the volume and rocked. It was challenging at times. But mostly it was cool.