Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Unfiltered Camels and Jack Daniels Roundup

It’s been a mediocre year for the usual Americana suspects. Lucinda Williams and Son Volt delivered disappointing efforts, and Emmylou, Neko, Gillian, Buddy Miller and John Prine have been missing in action. Except for the ever-delightful Patty Griffin, the latest from The Avett Brothers, Devon Sproule’s wondrous Keep the Silver Shined and Ryan Adams’ surprisingly consistent Easy Tiger, nothing has really wowed me. Until the last few weeks, that is. Steve Earle’s latest, Washington Square Serenade, due out in a couple months, is a fine return to form. And these three albums, all made by relative unknowns, make me remember why the genre will always be one of my favorites. They are gems, one and all, but they’re not polished gems. These are songs honed around kitchen tables filled with overflowing ashtrays and covered by stains from whiskey glasses. And these voices are rough, ragged, and just about perfect.

Chris Knight – The Trailer Tapes

Chris Knight’s four alt-country/rock albums are very fine, but nothing prepared me for the power of the utterly unadorned Trailer Tapes. Originally recorded as demos in his single-wide Kentucky house trailer in 1997, Knight brings a ravaged voice, a fine eye for detail, a compassionate heart, and a sardonic wit to the proceedings:

You say you're from college
But you don't seem too bright
You just brung a switchblade
To a pistol fight

These are tales of small town losers and drifters, little-girl ballerinas who turn into strippers to make ends meet, women who murder their abusive husbands, lost good ol’ boys adrift in big-city canyons. It’s just Chris’s acoustic guitar, his brutal songs, and that plaintive rasp, which is a dead ringer for Steve Earle. But it’s no crime to do a Steve Earle impersonation, particularly when you’ve been doing Steve Earle better than Steve Earle over the past four or five years.

Diana Jones – My Remembrance of You

Diana Jones, like Gillian Welch and Iris Dement, has the uncanny ability to write original songs that sound like they originated a couple centuries ago in some backwoods West Virginia holler. There’s an untamed blue yodel to her voice that will be offputting to some, but she can sit and sing for a spell on my front porch any time. And the eleven original songs here are gorgeous; plainspoken and straightforward, but probing the depths of complex relationships and an unnameable angst:

When you see me sliding fast
When you see it come over me
You don’t need to swear and break down the door
You just need to use the key
And lay me down

Mother Maybelle never sang about that stuff.

There’s no question that the image makers have been at work here. Diana’s got the thrift store Dust Bowl dress, and the hair pulled back in the prim bun. But some things can’t be faked. And in a world where “country” masquerades as aerobic instructors in Stetson hats, it’s great to hear the real deal.

Tandy – To a Friend/Did You Think I Was Gone?

Tandy is Brooklyn singer/songwriter Mike Ferrio and an ever-shifting lineup of bandmates. Named not after the Radio Shack folks, but after a character in Sherwood Anderson’s bucolic Winesburg, Ohio, the band’s been around for ten years, released a few albums, and probably sold a few hundred of them (and by a few hundred I mean a few hundred; none were printed in batches larger than 500). The two albums here, one old (2004) and one new, should go a long way to erase that anonymity.

Aided and abetted by Ana Egge and the great Malcolm Holcomb, Ferrio sings like John Prine, plays looselimbed, ragged country rock, and writes some of the damndest lyrics I’ve ever heard. That Sherwood Anderson reference is surely deliberate, because Ferrio perfectly captures the stifling boredom and ennui of smalltown life in tiny, telling details:

The Dream Superette sells soda, beer and cigarettes
They got bread and ice and plastic cars and almost everything
They got AC and TV and CDs in there
And action man toy handcuff sets
I’m waitin’ in the parking lot for the fuckin’ phone to ring
And a bus goes by on 29 headin’ for the interstate
Leaves a black cloud that hangs there in the air
If I hurry up I’ll catch me one ‘fore it’s too late
By tomorrow I could be anywhere

I’ve been in that store. You probably have, too. There are over two hours of music here, and not a minute is wasted.

Monday, July 30, 2007

If I Were You

I've been listening to Chris Knight's The Trailer Tapes pretty much non-stop all day. Knight's a great, gravel-voiced folkie with a twang, Bob Dylan with a Stetson, but unlike Dylan he's considerably more plainspoken, if no less intense. He's got four good alt-country/rock albums that are well worth your time, but these trailer tapes (yep, recorded in the living room of his single-wide in Slaughter, Kentucky) are something else again, raw and plaintive and stripped down to the bare essentials, including the lyrics. It's just Chris, his acoustic guitar, and his piercing words. Here are some of them:

If I were you
I would gladly loan to me
A dollar or two
So I could eat yeah and maybe
Get just one good night of sleep
But I'm not
And I'm stranded like a castaway in this town
And you seem so unwilling to help a fellow
When he's down

If I were you
Thats what I'd do

If I were you
I wouldnt be out on these streets
The whole night through
Yeah I'd have a job
And a pretty wife that
I could come home to
But I don't
And I have twenty cents left to my name
And you're the only one left here
That I have to blame

If I were you
Thats what I'd do

Sir it's not my way
To take from you
The things I haven't earned
Wish I could go back and heed
The lessons I have learned
But I can't
So you gladly put your money
In this sack
Yes sir this thing is loaded
And I have the hammer back

If I were you
That's what I'd do
If I were you
That's what I'd do
-- Chris Knight, "If I Were You"

Friday, July 27, 2007

Good News for Led Zep Fans

If I were granted two wishes, my first would be that I could be just like Jesus. The second would be that I could look and sing like Robert Plant circa 1971, which would allow me to wail like a banshee, grow my hair long and curly (enough of this pathetic furze), and walk around with the top three buttons of my shirt unbuttoned and not incur startled looks and chortles.

For others like me, there is good news.


Comprehensive Two-CD Led Zeppelin Collection FeaturesTwenty-Four Remastered Studio Tracks; The Very Best of Led Zeppelin Available In Multiple Configurations

Remixed And Remastered Deluxe Reissue of The Song Remains The Same
Soundtrack Includes Previously Unreleased Tracks

The Song Remains The Same Landmark Concert DVD In Limited Edition,HD-DVD And Blu-Ray Disc From Warner Home Video

Available November 13 and November 20

(Los Angeles, July 27, 2007) -- After nearly forty years, Led Zeppelincontinues to inspire generations with their groundbreaking blues-infused,guitar-driven rock 'n' roll. Arguably the biggest rock band in the worldthroughout their 12-year reign, they remain one of the most influential andinnovative groups in music history. With over 200 million albums soldworldwide, their catalog is one of the most enduring bodies of musicalcomposition to come out of the 20th century.

Available November 13, Atlantic Records/Rhino Entertainment will honor theRock & Rock Hall of Famers with the release of Mothership, a 24-track,two-CD comprehensive collection that spans their illustrious career. Alleight of the band's classic studio albums are represented here, with thetracks being personally selected by Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, and John PaulJones. Mothership includes landmark songs such as "Whole Lotta Love,""Immigrant Song," "Kashmir," "Rock And Roll," "Dazed And Confused," and"Stairway To Heaven." The set will also include new liner notes by famedrock writer David Fricke.

Available at all physical retail outlets and www.ledzeppelin.com,Mothership collectible packages will be available in multipleconfigurations:

+ Standard Package -- 2-CD set ($19.98 SRP)
+ Deluxe Edition -- 2-CD/ 1-DVD featuring the premiere-version (90minutes) of live performance footage culled from the Led Zeppelin DVD($24.98 SRP)
+ Collector's Edition -- 2-CD/1-DVD ultra-deluxe, collectible limitededition ($TBA)
+ Vinyl Edition -- 4 LPs, high-end, audiophile quality vinyl withcollectible memorabilia ($74.98 SRP)

Originally released in 1976, The Song Remains The Same soundtrack album ofthe concert film features songs from the band's three-night stint atMadison Square Garden in July 1973. On November 20, The Song Remains TheSame soundtrack gets the deluxe reissue treatment, with the band membersoverseeing the remixing and remastering of the original release. The newversion of the soundtrack includes six songs that were not on the originalrelease -- "Black Dog," "Over The Hills And Far Away," "Misty MountainHop," "Since I've Been Loving You," "The Ocean," and "Heartbreaker," plusnew liner notes by Academy Award-winning director Cameron Crowe (AlmostFamous).

Slated for a simultaneous release, Warner Home Video debuts brand-new DVDeditions of The Song Remains The Same, now for the first time with all 14songs from the original concert. The DVD features newly remixed andremastered sound, 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound, and boasts more than 40minutes of added bonus material*, including never-before-released performance footage of "Over The Hills And Far Away" and "Celebration Day";plus performances of "Misty Mountain Hop" and "The Ocean"; a rare 1976 BBC interview with Robert Plant and Peter Grant; vintage TV footage from theDrake Hotel robbery during the New York concert stand; and a Cameron Croweradio show.

The discs will be available as follows:

+ Deluxe Edition DVD -- ($19.97 SRP*)
+ Deluxe Edition HD DVD and Blu-ray -- ($28.99 SRP each*)
+ Limited Collector's Edition -- 2-disc set includes collectible vintage T-shirt with original album artwork design, soundtrack CD, lobby cards,reproductions of original premiere invites, tour schedule, and more ($TBA*)

"We have revisited The Song Remains The Same," says Jimmy Page, "and can now offer the complete set as played at Madison Square Garden. This differs substantially from the original soundtrack released in 1976, and highlights the technical prowess of Kevin Shirley, who worked with us on How The West Was Won. When it comes to The Song Remains The Same, the expansion of the DVD and soundtrack are as good as it gets on the Led Zeppelin wish list."
For additional information regarding Mothership or The Song Remains The Same soundtrack, please contact Lellie Capwell in Rhino Entertainment'sMedia Relations Department at 818-238-6246 or Lellie.Capwell@rhino.com.

For additional information regarding Led Zeppelin: The Song Remains TheSame DVD, please contact Ronnee Sass in Warner Home Video's Media RelationsDepartment at 818-977-6439 or Karen Penhale or Suzie Cornell at CarlSamrock Public Relations at 818-260-0777 or karenpenhale@cs-pr.com orscornell@cs-pr.com.

MOTHERSHIP Track Listing:

Disc One
1. Good Times Bad Times
2. Communication Breakdown
3. Dazed And Confused
4. Babe I'm Gonna Leave You
5. Whole Lotta Love
6. Ramble On
7. Heartbreaker
8. Immigrant Song
9. Since I've Been Loving You
10. Rock And Roll
11. Black Dog
12. When The Levee Breaks
13. Stairway To Heaven

Disc Two

1. Song Remains The Same
2. Over The Hills And Far Away
3. D'Yer Maker
4. No Quarter
5. Trampled Under Foot
6. Houses Of The Holy
7. Kashmir
8. Nobody's Fault But Mine
9. Achilles Last Stand
10. In The Evening
11. All My Love


Disc One

1. Rock And Roll
2. Celebration Day
3. Black Dog*
4. Over The Hills*
5. Misty Mountain Hop*
6. Since I've Been Loving You*
7. No Quarter
8. The Song Remains The Same
9. Rain Song
10. The Ocean*

Disc Two

1. Dazed And Confused
2. Stairway To Heaven
3. Moby Dick
4. Heartbreaker*
5. Whole Lotta Love

* Not on original soundtrack release


I haven't heard the previously unreleased material, and, in general, more Zeppelin is almost always a good thing. But it should be noted that of the three officially released live albums, The Song Remains the Same is by far the worst. I look forward to hearing the new material, but I doubt that it can fully redeem what was an uninspired effort.

In contrast, The BBC Sessions has some great live material, and a couple songs that are available in no other place. And the quite belated How the West Was Won, from 2003, is finally the live album set that Zep fans have clamored after for decades. It's one of the best live albums I've ever heard, and it's what should have been released instead of The Song Remains the Same way back in 1976.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Lindsay Lohan and Change

A noted alcohol/drug counselor on what Lindsay Lohan needs to do:

""Whatever you have done in the past, do a 360-degree turn and go the other way," Sands said Wednesday."

This is much harder to do than it sounds.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


We interrupt this musical lovefest to bring you an important announcement: people get sick. And when they get sick, sometimes you want to bludgeon your head against the wall.

Four people I know and love have gotten sick within the past couple weeks. And they’re very sick. My friend Fred had a mental breakdown, and will be hospitalized for the foreseeable future. My cousin Pam was diagnosed with breast cancer. My niece Sheila was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. And my dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

In theological terms, these events often precipitate a crisis of faith based on theodicy, or the problem of evil. Basically, the argument goes like this: if God is so good, then why does such horrid shit happen to people? It’s a fair question, and if you’ve never lain awake at 3:00 a.m. and asked it, you will. Just give it time, because time is the great leveler of the just and the unjust, the blithely optimistic and the cynically jaded. I used to ask the Big Theodicy Question a lot. I don’t do it as much anymore, partly because I’ve experienced the reality of the goodness of God many times, partly because I’m perhaps not quite as stuck on myself as I once was, and am content to leave some mysteries alone. But maybe it’s just the nature of time. Because when you live long enough you get plenty of practice at this sort of thing, and although it never gets any easier, it does get more familiar. You find yourself sniffing, “what, a mere four life-changing catastrophes at one time? Mere child’s play.” But then there’s that 3:00 a.m. sucker punch, when you find yourself wide awake and staring at the ceiling. The questioning seems less intense. The sadness doesn’t, though.

On Monday I visited Fred over my lunch break, then headed back to the “real” world of Network Infrastructure Architecture. Fred sees theological significance in numeric patterns right now. At 12:15 I was contemplating the nature of the Trinity with Fred (sparked by his observation that there were three of us sitting around in a waiting room, drinking three cups of water), doing my best not to break into tears. At 1:15 I was in the middle of a meeting where people were shouting at one another, on the verge of apoplectic seizures because the Interactive Voice Recognition application did not work!!!! Instead of picking up a telephone and calling an insurance agent, people can now use the Internet and stare intently at an insurance company website and say “I want to talk to an agent,” and an agent will call them back. But it wasn’t working!!!! And people were ready to have coronaries over it.

I wanted to shout back, but I had nothing I wanted to add about Interactive Voice Recognition. I wanted to scream, “What’s wrong with you people? Don’t you have a clue about what is important and what is not important?” I didn’t. I bit my tongue, and did my very best Technical Writer Engaged with the Technical Proceedings impression, acting for all the world like I would toss and turn at night, deeply concerned because the poor, perplexed customer couldn’t talk to his computer monitor. But that’s not what I tossed and turned over later that night. I tossed and turned over Fred, and Pam, and Sheila, and my dad.

We are so fragile, terminal cases one and all, and the fucking Interactive Voice Recognition application isn’t the only thing that’s broken. Our bodies and our minds are broken. The whole world is broken. There’s nothing new or insightful there. This is an old, old story, dating back to a garden and a serpent, but it’s played out in countless variations every day, all over the planet. But sometimes the planet gets smaller, and less abstract. Sometimes the problem of theodicy is a local one, and becomes Fred’s problem, or my dad’s problem. I pray for mercy, for wholeness, for healing. I don’t know how else to pray. I pray for the ability to care, not to become jaded in the face of overwhelming need. And I pray for the ability to juggle those overwhelming needs with the ridiculous activities that take up our time and energies, for the ability to focus on Interactive Voice Recognition software when I think we should be working on trying to develop our God and Suffering recognition radar. I’d like to develop a project plan for that one. But there is no plan, or if there is, it is an inscrutable one. All I know is we’re all on the critical path, and I’d like to finish a little less broken than when I started.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

5-Star Albums of 2007?

Yeah, I know, I just wrote that there haven't been any.

But there is one. The problem is that you can't buy it because it doesn't even exist in any official form. It's the debut album from Son Lux. If/when Ryan Lott finds a label for it, it will be my album of the year. It's a dark, brooding, uplifting, soaring beautiful mess of electronica and Radiohead angst and Bible verses. It's Lectio Divina with a beat. In the same way that Lectio Divina focuses on a small portion of the Scriptures, and that portion unfolds in new ways as you encounter it over time and in different circumstances, so too Ryan's music cycles through a phrase, a sentence, repeated again and again as the music shifts and shimmers behind him. It's brilliant. You'll hear truth and beauty in a whole new way. You should buy it. When you can.

Monday, July 23, 2007

A Down Year for Music?

It's been a year without masterpieces, the critical consensus moans. And the critical consensus is right. The Shins didn't change our lives, and Modest Mouse disappointed. Arcade Fire came through, sort of, and certainly didn't embarrass themselves. But nobody's released a certifiable 5-star album thus far in 2007, at least to my ears.

So has it been a disappointing year in music? Not at all. If no one has released a perfect album, many artists have come close. Here's a list of albums that are in 4- to 4.5 star territory for me, all of them released in the past seven months (or, in a few cases, about to be released). If I wouldn't take them to the mythical desert island, I'm still happy to have them near at hand, close to the CD player in the suburban den.

Panda Bear — Person Pitch
Frog Eyes — Tears of the Valedictorian
Devon Sproule — Keep the Silver Shined
Richard Thompson — Sweet Warrior
Arcade Fire — Neon Bible
Loudon Wainwright III — Strange Weirdos
Future Clouds and Radar — Future Clouds and Radar
Hallulujah the Hills — Collective Psychosis Begone
Antibalas — Security
The Clientele — God Save the Clientele
Graham Parker — Don’t Tell Columbus
The Weakerthans — Reunion Tour
Patty Griffin — Children Running Through
Wilco — Sky Blue Sky
Ryan Adams — Easy Tiger
Dungen — Tio Bitar
The Twilight Sad — Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters
Rickie Lee Jones — Sermon on Exposition Boulevard
Michelle Shocked — ToHeavenURide
Joe Henry — Civilians
Peter Case — Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John
The Mendoza Line — Thirty Year Low
Grinderman — Grinderman
John Reuben — Word of Mouth
Steve Earle — Washington Square Serenade
John Vanderslice — Emerald City
The Safes — Well, Well, Well
Damien Dempsey — To Hell or Barbados
The Broken West — I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On
Linda Thompson — Versatile Heart
The Bad Plus — Prog
The National — Boxer
Metric — Grow Up and Blow Away
Do Make Say Think — You, You’re a History in Rust
Pentangle — Now is the Time
Spencer Moore — Spencer Moore
Miranda Lambert — Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Galactic — From the Corner to the Block
Mavis Staples — We'll Never Turn Back
The Frames — The Cost
John Abercrombie — Third Quartet
The Avett Brothers — Emotionalism

And I'm still holding out hope for the new Radiohead and New Pornographers albums.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Steve Earle -- Washington Square Serenade

Some preliminary thoughts on an album that won't be released for a couple months ...

This is a very nice album, and a fine return to form.

Steve Earle is one of my favorite singer/songwriters, and the string of albums he recorded following his release from prison and his newfound sobriety in the mid-'90s right up through the early years of this decade rank among the most dazzling runs anybody's ever committed to recorded media. Train a Comin', I Feel Alright, El Corazon, The Mountain, and Transcendental Blues are all in 4- to 5-star territory, and showcase both his poetic sensibilities and his uncanny ability to integrate folk, country, bluegrass, and raging rock 'n roll into a volatile stew. When he was on, he was brilliant.

But a funny thing happened around the turn of the new millenium. George W. Bush was elected president, a blow from which Steve Earle still has not recovered. And like many of his peers (one of whom actually recorded a song called "Fuck George Bush"), Steve started to mistake vehemence and obnoxiousness for social protest. There have been exceptions (check out the latest albums from Chris Smither or Graham Parker for examples on how to do it right), but the protest music spawned by the current administration has reached a new nadir in terms of articulate argument and wit, and Steve Earle was right at the head of the lobotomized class. Jerusalem, the follow-up to Transcendental Blues, had its moments, but ultimately drowned in a sea of cliches so earnestly banal that they hadn't been uttered since the High Holy Days of the Summer of Love. And The Revolution Starts ... Now was even worse, and was lowlighted by the misogynistic, leering "Condi Condi." Instead of one of our finest songwriters, Steve sounded like a petulant 14-year-old who had just figured out that he could yell "Fuck" in public and draw attention to himself.

He's not brilliant on Washington Square Serenade, but he's much better. A move from Nashville to New York City, a new wife (alt-country singer Allison Moorer, who also sings on the album), and a broader social perspective have all helped. There's still plenty of pointed commentary on songs such as "Oxycontin Blues" and "Down Here Below," but this time Steve's adopted the much more comfortable role of Champion of the Downtrodden. There are no presidents or presidential advisers in fingerpointing sight. Steve claims that his new urban setting has affected his music, and that the new album is much more beat-centered than his previous work. I honestly don't hear it. It sounds like a Steve Earle album to me, which means that it mixes ballads, sturdy roots rock, twang, and some great male/female country duets. If there's anything lacking, it's the crushing piledriver of a rock song like "NYC" or "The Unrepentant" from earlier efforts. But it's a minor quibble. Steve Earle is back, and it's great to hear him engaged without foaming at the mouth. Washington Square Serenade is far from his best effort, but it's a good one.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Paste #34

Paste #34 (August, 2007) is out now, with a cover shot of Jack and Meg White in all their red and white glory. There’s more White Stripes glory on the inside, too, and my bud Jason Killingsworth conducts a quite insightful interview with the band, wherein Jack expounds on big capital-letter themes like God and Truth as well as engages in the usual musical shop talk.

There’s a great feature article on Bad Religion frontman Greg Graffin which explores the conundrum of how a frothing-at-the-mouth punker can also be intrigued by early 20th century Appalachian music and earn a Ph.D. in Biology from Cornell. And there’s a heartwarming article (hey, she appeared on Oprah, okay?) on one of my favorite singer/songwriters, Lori McKenna, who has found a way to raise five kids and still record a handful of great albums.

You want album reviews? There are about fifty of them. Movie reviews? Check. Book reviews? Check. Video game reviews? Got those too. Humor, pathos, incisive commentary, flippant obnoxiousness. It’s all here. Plus a CD with 21 songs from the most eclectic record collection imaginable. For $6.95. That’s right, the price of one Jersey Mike’s Italian Sub. Ridiculous, I say, and less caloric.

I have a column on The Summer of Love and suburban lawnmowing (yes, there is a connection), and reviews of new albums from Luke Brindley and Linda Thompson.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Case for the Cases

It’s possible that there are people named Case who are tone deaf and who couldn’t put together a rhyming couplet involving the words “moon” and “June.” But I haven’t found them. So here’s a handy rule-of-thumb: if you find an album by anyone with the last name of Case, buy it. Here are three reasons why, from best known to least known.

1. Neko Case

Neko Case is the best musical redhead in the world (sorry, Bonnie Raitt; Danny Bonaduce, you weren’t even in the running). Possessing a voice that is a force of nature, equal parts Patsy Cline and Patty Griffin, Neko could sing the Tacoma phone book and I’d be happy. But she’s also a wonderfully evocative and enigmatic songwriter. Last year’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood was one of the most widely hailed albums of the year, and with good reason. Her songs are as memorable (and frequently as inscrutable) as the title would suggest.

My true love drowned in a dirty old pan
Of oil that did run from the block

Of a Falcon Sedan 1969
The paper said '75
There were no survivors
None found alive

That’s how one of them starts out, before evolving into a very non-linear fever dream. It’s country music from the Twilight Zone, where all the truckstop jukeboxes play Hank Williams and mid-‘60s Bob Dylan, and where the nightmares roll off the tongue like poetry. Her previous albums The Virginian, Furnace Room Lullaby, and Blacklisted, are just as good. And don’t miss her in The New Pornographers, the best, quirkiest power pop band going, and whose new album Challenger is my most anticipated release of 2007.

2. Peter Case

I’ve been writing about Peter Case for Paste Magazine. And that’s allowed me to plunder an extensive back catalogue that is an embarrassment of riches. I started with Peter’s old early ‘80s band The Plimsouls, who made great roots rock, and one certifiable jangly guitar classic in “A Million Miles Away.” Then I moved on to the vast solo catalogue, where Case occasionally rocks, but more frequently alternates between early ‘60s Bob Dylan folkie protest mode and mid-‘70s confessional singer/songwriter mode. He’s adept at both, but I’m particularly drawn to the confessional songs, where Peter displays a knack for great metaphors, and a penchant for nailing the particular malaise of our times:

Mixed up kid is here to join the crowd
The ones who only fit where they’re not allowed
You’re out on the streets and feelin’ blue
Travellin’ light
With a hole in your soul that the wind blows through

Then there’s “Cold Trail Blues,” an existentialist crisis disguised as a deceptively lovely folk song, wherein Peter expresses the conundrum of every person who has ever wavered in his or her faith; when it’s 3:00 a.m. and you’re wide awake, and the prayers and unanswered questions are pinballing off the ceiling, and you’re faced with the certain knowledge that the person you are is not the person you intended to be:

It’s almost like you never came
I swear I almost lost your name
Once you meant so much to me
I thought your love would set me free

Cold trail blues
I could use
Any kind of sign
That you’re still on the line

He’s a great, criminally ignored songwriter, and his new album Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John, due out in a couple weeks, is ongoing proof that all you need is one guy, a guitar, and a batch of songs that will break your heart.

3. Ann and Phil Case

Ann and Phil Case live outside of Dayton, Ohio, where they work regular jobs, go to church, and live the shy, retiring midwestern life. Occasionally they venture out and record some of the most breathtaking old-time country duet records you’ll ever hear. They’ve just released The Old Step Stone, so there are four of those records now, and each one is chock full of Phil’s delightfully unassuming guitar, mandolin and clawhammer banjo work, Ann’s gorgeously soaring folk soprano, a wagon load of angelic harmonies, and songs that would have fit in perfectly on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.

Taking their cues from The Carter Family, The Delmore Brothers, and The Blue Sky Boys, Ann and Phil harmonize like Gillian Welch and David Rawlings and make music that conjures up images of dirt roads and Model Ts, general stores and revival tent meetings. They sing old hymns, murder ballads, and lovesick laments, almost all of them from early 20th century Appalachia. And yes, they do it as well as Gillian and David, and yes, that’s high praise indeed. Don’t look for them at Wal-Mart or Best Buy, but by all means look for them, starting right here.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Nick Lowe on Parenting

English rocker Nick Lowe became a father at age 56. This makes me smile.

I know people who keep Mommy Blogs who lovingly document every breast feeding and potty training moment. That's great, and I'm happy for them, and their ecstatic child-rearing epiphanies. Truly. It's just that their experience doesn't match mine. Nick Lowe's does. And here's what he has to say.


CNN: I understand you have a 2-year-old child now?

LOWE: Yes, he suddenly turned up, quite unexpectedly. Well, not entirely unexpectedly.

CNN: Does that give you new energy or drain your energy, having a little one around?

LOWE: Well, it's an absolute drain on the energy. He's a blooming nuisance, let's face it. There's a tremendous amount of nonsense talked about the joy of childbirth. (mock anger) But especially [for] someone like myself who's led an almost entirely selfish existence up until this time -- I came and I went as I pleased, I answered to nobody -- and all of a sudden along he comes, AND his dear ma-ma. Suddenly, I have to worry about what THEY'RE doing ahead of myself! This is outrageous.

(laughs) He's absolutely super. I adore him, of course I do. But it is strange how nature has it, that you fall in love with this creature because if you didn't, you would just sort of chuck it out or leave it by the side of the road or something, because they're such a nuisance and tiresome. But instead, you can't remember any of the horrible stuff. There I am, changing nappies with a whistle and a smile on my face, which I never, ever thought would happen. ...

So it is quite late in life, along comes my boy. His name is Roy. Royston for posh, but Roy he will answer to.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Spencer Moore -- Hot New Talent

There is something to be said for delayed gratification. I've been thoroughly blown away by the eponymous album by Spencer Moore. In a year in which folks such as Ralph Stanley, Charlie Louvin and Porter Wagoner have taken the youngsters in cowboy hats to school (a one-room schoolhouse, no doubt), Moore fits right in with the educational theme. He's got an ancient, craggy voice that oozes more soul than any ten Nashville hats/aerobic dancers of your choice, and he sings blood-chilling mountain ballads like "The Lawson Family Murders" and "Little Rosewood Casket." Spencer played a tent show with the Carter Family back in the thirties, and Alan Lomax tracked him down with his field recorder in the late fifties, but this is the first album he's ever recorded. He is 88 years old.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Million Dollars Bail

For George W. Bush and Scooter Libby ...

She dialed 911 but the cops didn't come on time
They found her on the marble with a bullet through her eye
He was weavin' back and forth, foamin' at the lips
So they took him in for questioning and inked his fingertips

There's two kinds of justice everybody knows
One for folks up on the hill, the other's down below
Everyone is talkin' 'bout the night he spent in jail
Today he's free out walkin' on a million dollars bail

They said she was a single girl who lived a double life
He met her at the hatcheck stand and took her home that night
And no one knows what happened; no one else was there
No trial date was ever set; no one seems to care

There's two kinds of justice everybody knows
One for folks up on the hill, the other's down below
Everyone is talkin' 'bout the night he spent in jail
Today he's free out walkin' on a million dollars bail

They tell us all the world is small, and life is sellin' cheap
Anything can happen when you're walkin' in your sleep
The court took charge and eyed the facts; they were set at one cool mill
Calls were made and debts were paid, the lawyers worked with skill

Eternity is longer than one night inside a box
And if you're heading for the jailhouse, now's the time to pick the locks
But there's a sentence passed on every soul; someday we all must die
When the question's not who pulled the switch but how you lived and why

There's two kinds of justice everybody knows
One for folks up on the hill, the other's down below
Everyone is talkin' 'bout the night he spent in jail
Today he's free out walkin' on a million dollars bail
-- Peter Case, "Million Dollars Bail"

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Death of Local Radio

Switching it over to AM
Searching for a truer sound
Can't recall the call letters
Steel guitar and settle down
Catching an all-night station somewhere in Louisiana
It sounds like 1963, but for now it sounds like heaven
-- Son Volt, “Windfall”

It occurred to me a while back that I never listen to the radio. This is an odd thing for a music reviewer to admit, but there you go. I simply never turn it on in the car, or when I’m at home, although I’m listening to new music all the time. And it’s a bit of a sad realization, because I grew up with the little white earbud of my aqua transistor radio more or less permanently affixed to my ear, right up until the time when underground FM radio and real stereo receivers supplanted the AM Top 40, and then I listened to Chicago’s WXRT for my daily musical fix. But not anymore.

To paraphrase Homer Simpson, they’ve got music on computers now. And when I’m not attempting to crawl out from under the pile of new CDs from music publicists, I’m inclined to tune in Seattle’s KEXP or Santa Monica’s KCRW, Philly’s WXPN, or Laura Cantrell’s old time country radio program out of Jersey City’s WFMU, or Paste’s own Internet radio station. I don’t touch that dial because there’s no dial to touch. The old boundaries and categories have disappeared. And the losers, for me at least, are every radio station in or around Columbus, Ohio.

I don’t mean to badmouth Columbus. It’s a nice, liveable city full of straight-shootin’, friendly midwesterners. And the radio scene isn’t nearly as bad as it is in many other places. There’s a good-to-great NPR station that plays a nice assortment of world music and earnest folky singer/songwriters. There’s an okay “indie” station that plays new music about 25% of the time, in between bouts of The Cure and Nirvana. And there’s the usual assortment of old sixties and seventies hippies, Nashville hats, former American Idol contestants, robodivas, and misogynistic thugs that fill out the Buckeye musical spectrum. It’s not great, but it could be, and is, a lot worse in many other cities. But I’ve discovered that I have little reason to seek any of it out. In the world of Internet radio and iPods and instant playlists, it’s too easy to play my own private DJ, spinning the hits on WHIT, man, where the music is guaranteed to please.

But that’s only part of the story. With the exception of that NPR station, which is run by people who sound like they’re actually engaged with the music they play, local radio isn’t local at all. It is dominated by bland, faceless non-personalities whose playlists match exactly what you’ll hear in Indianapolis, Indiana or Tampa, Florida or Omaha, Nebraska. They could be anywhere, or nowhere.

One of my favorite musical memories involves a former Columbus DJ whose nom de rock was Rick West. Rick worked for the local “underground” FM station in the late seventies, right at the time when the station’s format was changing from the chaotic musical free-for-all that had characterized its early years to the much more narrowcasted format of non-stop Eagles, Boston, and Fleetwood Mac. And Rick wanted none of it. On the first day of the new and “improved” format (ironically, the new format’s slogan was “more variety, all the time,” thus presaging the era of Reagan doublespeak), Rick barricaded himself in the studio, locked the door, got stoned, and played Captain Beefheart, Albert Ayler, and Bill Monroe back to back to back. Twenty minutes into the proceedings a manager found the spare studio key, and Rick was summarily relieved of his duties. But for those twenty minutes local radio was in full flight. Rick West, whoever and wherever you are, I salute you.

Not much has changed in the intervening thirty years. There are still outposts of light, and now you can find them on the Internet. And the iPod, file sharing, and good old sampler CDs in magazines now make one of radio’s former primary purposes – exposing listeners to new music -- largely superfluous. I miss Rick West. But I don’t miss the Columbus/Tampa/Omaha playlists, and I don’t miss the dumbing down of all that used to be exciting and vibrant. In the meantime, I’ll focus on my iPod. Can’t recall the call letters because there aren’t any call letters. But it still sounds like heaven.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Chicago Tribune on Paste

Paste Magazine has once again made The Chicago Tribune's annual list of their 50 favorite magazines. Here's what the Tribune had to say:

"Paste continually surprises with elegantly designed, thoughtfully written pieces that ponder the direction of the culture. "

You can read the entire article here.