Wednesday, January 30, 2008

I Can't Hear You

In theory, music reviewers approach every new album as a piece of freshly created art, with no preconceptions about the quality of what they are about to hear. And if you believe that, I have a stupendous new Christmas album from Barry Manilow to sell you. The reality is that we bring all kinds of preconceptions and life experiences to the proceedings, and sometimes they mess with the music. Sometimes it’s impossible to hear the new notes because of the racket from the past that is playing in our heads.

Take Shelby Lynne as a case in point. Shelby Lynne is a fine singer and songwriter, and I’ve enjoyed her previous albums, which have featured a heady mixture of counry, folk, blues, and Southern soul. But when I heard that Shelby Lynne was going to release a covers album featuring the songs of Dusty Springfield, the alarm bells went off in my head. Dusty Springfield meant Burt Bacharach, and Burt Bacharach is the single most wretched songwriter in the universe. Yeah, I know. A lot of people love Burt Bacharach. He’s in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, an award that is mystifying on several fronts, not only because he’s the King of Schlock, but also because he was almost always paired with a lyricist who routinely came up with gems like “Why do birds suddenly appear every time you are near,” a sentiment so ludicrous that I want to sic Alfred Hitchcock on him every time I hear it. The roster of singers who have had hits with Burt Bacharach songs is enough to send me into a full-fledged depression: Dionne Warwick, Christopher Cross, Neil Diamond, B.J. Thomas, The Carpenters, The 5th Dimension, Perry Como, Tom Jones, and Herb Alpert. And yes, Dusty Springfield, who made the most of the mediocre material. But, by and large, it would be difficult to come up with a more wretched list of “artists” to represent what is, or has ever been, wrong with popular music.

So, back to Shelby. It’s possible that Shelby’s new album, Just a Little Lovin’, really isn’t a ploy for future work in Vegas if this singer/songwriter thing doesn’t pan out. But I can’t really hear her. The din is too loud in my head.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Athens on a Spartan Budget

See, we have no money. Okay, we have a little. But we also have two kids in college, one of them in midtown Manhattan, which appears to be slightly more expensive than, say, Westerville, Ohio.
So we went to visit the other kid, the one in Athens, Ohio, on Saturday. Our goal was not to spend money. Or very much. And we didn't. And we still had a lot of fun.

We heard Columbus funketeers The Urban Jazz Coalition. For free. And although their source material was mostly funk-lite (Spyro Gyra, Chuck Mangione), they considerably funked up the proceedings, and got as down and dirty as Spyro Gyra will allow. It was a good time. Then we listened to African American students read "poetry" and espouse how they were not gangstas and hos. Actually, it never entered my mind, but it was good to be reassured, albeit in an angry, confrontational way. We ate good Turkish food at Salaam. Not free, but not very expensive either. We drank coffee at Donkey, and kibbutzed with the couple next to us, who were playing Trivial Pursuit. We went to Casa Nueva, suffered through mediocre Columbus rock band The Whiles, and eventually hit the jackpot at midnight when Southeast Engine came on stage. Man, I love those guys. They make beautiful, loud, soulful music, and they're pleasant human beings as well.

Then we drove home. By 3:30 we were in bed. So much for the quiet life of the empty nesters.

Oh yeah, it was great to see Rachel as well, who is loving college life.

Just Like My Dad Did

My dad fell and broke his hip and his shoulder a couple weeks ago. He was in the hospital for a few days. Now he's in a nursing home. He may or may not be getting out in a month or so. It's very strange to visit him in this place. His days are consumed by learning how to walk again.

Because life is one big soundtrack for me, I play certain songs over and over again because they remind me of my life, and the lives of others. This is the song I've been playing lately. It's by a guy named Mark Kozelek, who for some unfathomable reason calls himself Sun Kil Moon. It's really a song about dads. And the kinds of arguments little kids used to get into at the bus stop (Cassius Clay vs. Sonny Liston). And doughnuts. And murder. But mostly it's about yearning and loss. I can't stop playing it. It's called "Glenn Tipton" (former guitarist for Judas Priest, although, really, the song has nothing to do with Glenn Tipton or Judas Priest). It's really a beautiful song, and you can listen to it here:

Cassius Clay was hated
More than Sonny Liston
Some like KK Downing
More than Glenn Tipton
Some like Jim Nabors
Some Bobby Vinton
I like 'em all

I put my feet up
On the coffee table
I stay up late watching cable
I like old movies
with Clarke Gable
Just like my dad did

Just like my dad
Did when he was home
Staying up late,
Staying up alone
Just like my dad did
when he was thinking
Oh, how fast the years fly

I know an old woman
Ran a doughnut shop
She worked late serving cops
But then one morning
Baby, her heart stopped
Place ain't the same no more

Place ain't the same no more
Not without my friend Eleanor
Place ain't the same no more
Man, how things change

I buried my first victim
When I was nineteen
Went through her bedroom
And the pockets of her jeans
And found her letters
That said so many things
That really hurt me bad

I never breathed
Her name again
But I liked to dream
About what could have been
I never heard her calls again
But I like to dream

-- Sun Kil Moon, "Glenn Tipton"

Monday, January 28, 2008

Girl's Night Out -- Catherine Russell, Amy Winehouse, Shelby Lynne

Catherine Russell – Sentimental Streak

I’ve just been complaining about the glut of standards albums in the marketplace these days. Well, here’s one that works because it trades the stuffy academic approach for the raw vitality of a southern juke joint. Russell, daughter of longtime Louis Armstrong musical director Luis Russell, has the jazz pedigree and the sultry voice, but what ultimately sets this album apart is the song selection, which is surprising, earthy, and often funny. Eschewing the obvious choices, Russell digs deep into the back catalogues to pull out Bessie Smith’s “Kitchen Man,” a wondrously carnal stew spiced with double entendres, and Alberta Hunter’s “You For Me, Me for You.” Hoagy Carmichael’s “New Orleans,” although much better known, takes on an elegiac quality in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Russell isn’t a belter, and she’s singing songs associated with some well-known belters. But the usual jazz quintet accompaniment is augmented by Dylan protégé and producer Larry Campbell on mandolin, guitar, violin, and pedal steel, and the end result is a fine, rootsy amalgam of jazz and R&B.

Amy Winehouse – Back to Black

She should have said Yes, Yes, Yes, and maybe the current stint in rehab will help. I hope so. But I keep coming back to this album. It is beautifully, soulfully sung. Amy absolutely nails the Phil Spector Girl Group songs, but the nostalgia factor is surprisingly, effectively mitigated through the intensely personal nature of the songwriting. Mark Ronson’s production may be indebted to all those old school Stax/Volt records, but Aretha and Otis never sang anything remotely like “What kind of fuckery is this?/You made me miss the Slick Rick gig.” It’s the forceful, indomitable personality that puts this music across as much as the refurbished Motown and Stax instrumentation, or that brassy powerhouse of a voice. The demons are strong, but Amy gives evidence that her own force of will may be stronger. Here’s hoping that it works out that way in real life.

Shelby Lynne – Just a Little Lovin’

When I was a teenager I worked as a busboy at the Holiday Inn in Crete, Illinois. Every Friday and Saturday night the lounge band, featuring the incomparable Holly Denise, would hold forth, performing tastefully unobtrusive covers of The Carpenters and Helen Reddy and Dionne Warwick from 10:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. By the end of each evening I was tastefully, unobtrusively nearly suicidal.

Shelby Lynne is a very fine singer. On Just a Little Lovin’ she’s channeling Dusty Springfield, another very fine singer, and, except for the omitted “Son of a Preacher Man,” she covers most of Dusty’s best songs. Phil Ramone’s production is so understated as to be almost non-existent, and Shelby coos these songs softly, just like Holly Denise, injecting just enough sultriness to keep the piano player awake and almost involved in the proceedings. She’s impeccably, tastefully boring as hell. This isn’t Dusty in Memphis; it’s Shelby at the Holiday Inn Lounge in Crete, Illinois. Make it stop.

Friday, January 25, 2008

The New Great American Songbook?

Between the late 1920s and the early 1960s a handful of American songwriters, many of them associated with Tin Pan Alley, crafted a body of work that has proven to be an almost inexhaustible well of creativity. Among them were Harold Arlen, George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, Hoagy Carmichael, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, and Jimmy Van Heusen. Together – whether writing for Broadway, Hollywood, or their own bands – they created what has come to be known as the Great American Songbook, the set of acknowledged standards that formed the backbone of popular music for almost half a century. It is impossible to imagine jazz without these standards. For that matter, it is impossible to imagine the careers of Frank Sinatra or Barbra Streisand without these standards.

Or, God forbid, Rod Stewart. And therein lies the problem. At their best, the songs of the Great American Songbook were a touchstone by which we could evaluate musical innovation. Because we all knew and loved Julie Andrews, and because we could all hum “My Favorite Things” (from Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music) in our sleep, we were better able to appreciate the amazing stylistic leaps when John Coltrane played the song. The melody was there, but so too was Coltrane’s perennial searching, searing approach, exploring every musical nook and cranny in extended improvisations. It was raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens and the sound of a musical pilgrim seeking mystical union with God. It was extraordinary. But at their worst – and let’s just take Rod Stewart’s four interminable standards albums as a prime example here – they represent a cynical attempt to cash in on nostalgia, an Easy Listening primer on how to eviscerate great songs and pickle them in their own sepia-tinged brine.

I don’t mean to pick on Rod. Okay, yes I do. But Rod has plenty of company. There have been great jazz singers, and they have recorded luminous, incandescent takes on these well-known standards. But the likes of Michael Bublé and Madeleine Peyroux and Jane Monheit do little to inspire hope in the future of the genre, and their pleasant, safe-as-milk interpretations are bland enough to be both unobtrusive and wildly popular. You don’t play this music in a club. You play it softly in the background at the corporate board meeting.

The reality is that these standards haven’t represented the vanguard of popular music for almost fifty years now. Elvis came along, and The Beatles, and Bob Dylan, and the focus changed from vocalists as stylistic interpreters of others’ songs to vocalists as singers of their own songs. The singer/songwriter was and still is in the ascendancy, and the vocal interpreters have been largely relegated to playing the lounge at the local Holiday Inn. But not entirely, because a funny thing happened around the turn of the millennium. Nostalgia became big business again, and countless jazz musicians rediscovered the hoary standards. So did Rod the Mod, and Bublé and Peyroux and Monheit, and Michael McDonald, and Queen Latifah, and Harry Connick Jr., and Aaron Neville, and Gladys Knight. Almost all of those albums are politely pleasant. And almost none of them are worth a damn. Would you pay to hear the clerk at your favorite retail establishment chirp “Have a nice day?” So why would you pay for fading, over-the-hill or never-been-to-the-hill musicians who chirp the same?

But maybe things are changing. There seems to be some evidence that the stranglehold of the Great American Songbook is about to be broken. When jazz pianists Brad Mehldau and Robert Glasper play Radiohead and Nick Drake (okay, we’ll allow the Brits into this songbook as well), there’s something new and exciting going on. When pianist Ethan Iverson of the decidedly unconventional The Bad Plus pummels a Black Sabbath metal anthem, or plays the changes on a Nirvana or Pixies tune, there is some evidence that the old standards are giving way to something different. It’s too early to call them new standards. And perhaps they will never be accorded that status. The music world is too fragmented for the term to have much meaning these days. But I hear the same things I heard when Coltrane first played “My Favorite Things.” The music serves as a touchstone for countless fans who wouldn’t know Hoagy Carmichael from a Hoagy sandwich, but who know Kid A and Doolittle by heart. It’s a breath of fresh air. And it leaves me feeling uncharacteristically optimistic, a feeling that may hold until Rod decides to release Interminable Standards Vol. 5.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Snowflakes, Beamers, and Existential Crises

It snowed last night; perhaps up to an inch. And when it snows in Columbus, Ohio, people become insane. For starters, they forget how to drive. What is normally a 25-minute commute to work becomes an hour and a half commute because people resolutely refuse to move faster than 5 miles per hour. And so this morning I sat stalled on the “freeway,” surely one of the more mocking titles for a highway ever invented. I waved to my neighbor in the Beamer one lane over. Neither one of us was moving, and I was just trying to be friendly. He looked right at me, and he didn’t wave back. He looked down instead and appeared to be absorbed in The Wall Street Journal. I cranked up the Radiohead in the minivan. It was jittery, paranoid music that didn’t really help on a morning like this, when your neighbor doesn’t wave back, and you wonder what’s wrong with your bad self. Kate tells me that I ought to pray for people who make me feel invisible. “Asshole,” I thought. Then I prayed for the blessed asshole, beloved of God.

Yesterday was Martin Luther King’s birthday. I was gloriously free from work, free at last, thank God almighty, although I ended up getting a lot done anyway. We spent some time with some new friends in the morning, then Kate and I went out to lunch together, to a real restaurant and everything. Otherwise I wrote and wrote and wrote, pretty much the entire day. I checked off several items from the reviews To Do list, sent off the reviews, got almost immediate feedback about what a wonderful reviewer/writer/human being I am, and generally felt good about the universe and my place in it.

Then this morning I sat in traffic, waved to my asshole neighbor, and arrived late to work to find a frantic email informing me that the arrows on my Powerpoint slide were confusing, and that even though the tip of the arrow clearly extended right into the middle of the Q2 2008 box, the CIO still thought the delivery date was sometime in 2009. “Redo the arrows,” my boss told me. “Teach the CIO how to read,” I wanted to respond. I didn’t. I bit my tongue. Good thing.

It is one of those days. Objectively life is good on almost every front. Objectively work is good, too. I have a relatively non-stressful job that pays me a salary that allows me to send two kids to college simultaneously. I have a boss who is supportive and understanding, and who is both a good manager and a nice human being. She shows me photographs of her toddler. I show her photographs of my two co-eds. She xeroxes copies of the articles I write for Paste and pins them up on her office door, and she introduces me as her illustrious writer/friend. I would be a fool not to recognize that this is a good thing, and that most people would be thrilled to have it so good. And I do recognize that.

But I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to redo the arrows, which were fine in the first place. I don’t care about the arrows. I want to write about music. I want to daydream during the interminable technical discussions and write a poem called “Ode to a Cisco Node” in my head, in which I do for routers and servers what John Keats did for Grecian urns. I sit in these meetings and watch people get apoplectic over firewalls. “We’re more and more susceptible to a security breach,” they say, their faces reddening at the thought. I think about breaches, which in turn leads me to think about breeches, which in turn leads me to think about pantaloons. Soon I am off in my head constructing a swashbuckling pirate tale. This is the way it goes, pretty much every day, and I have to force myself to put on the alert, pensive face that suggests that I lose sleep at night over possible security breaches. I don’t. I’ve been faking it for twenty-six years now. But apparently I can pay attention long enough to mimic the technobabble and use it in sentence constructions in seemingly coherent and grammatically correct ways. And they pay me a lot of money to do so.

I don’t know. Most days it’s okay. Most days I can find a sort of minor pleasure in sorting through the technobabble and triumphantly spitting it back in terse, technically correct, active-voiced prose. Not today, though. Today I think about how much time I will waste dealing with those stupid arrows. And I think about that asshole in the BMW, who is probably somebody’s boss, thankfully not mine. I want to write “Ode to an Asshole” on my lunch break. Maybe I just did.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Searching for Bobby Fischer

In 1972, I was the worst player on a high school chess team that was on its way to winning the Illinois High School Chess Championiship. This was actually a fairly big deal at the time, probably only because my high school sucked at all the major sports. I played chess because I thought it was kind of fun in an inconsequential and entertaining way. The captain of our chess team played chess because he had no life. He was actually very, very good, but he was painfully socially inept and ravaged by acne, and he spent all his free time poring over thick books with titles like Modern Chess Openings and Fred Reinfeld’s masterwork The Complete Chess Player. At least our captain told us that this was a masterwork, and he assigned two hours of homework from it every night. “Learn the strategies for exploiting the queen’s rook pawn,” he would tell us. I never did. I didn’t care that much, and to this day I am woefully inadequate in exploiting the queen’s rook pawn. It also probably explained why I was viewed suspiciously by my chess-playing teammates, kept on only because I bothered to show up occasionally for practices and as an alternate at meets.

While we were triumphantly ascending the Illinois high school chess ranks, a man named Bobby Fischer was beating the pants off an evil Russian Commie named Boris Spassky. Bobby Fischer was our hero. He was American, and brash, a new breed of Chess Superstar who actually courted, and received, media attention. Boris Spassky was the reigning world champion. And Bobby Fischer, at 29, stunned the world, or at least the minute portion of it that cared about queen’s rook pawn strategies, by winning the championship in a series of dramatic matches in Reykjavik, Iceland.

It was an admittedly small circle, but in our circle this was bigger than the Miami Dolphins, who were on their way to winning 17 straight games and capturing the Super Bowl as the NFL’s last undefeated team. Bobby Fischer wrote a book called My 60 Memorable Games and we all dutifully bought it. It was full of inscrutable nomenclature like N-QB3. That was a great move. Frankly, after I bought it I wondered why I had done so, and I never read it, let alone studied it. My chess days were clearly numbered. But Bobby Fischer was the King.

It turned out that he was definitely the White King, too. Fischer, who died earlier today in Reykjavik at the age of 64, ended up as a very sad man. Who knows what quirks and idiosyncracies can be explained away by genius. And without a doubt, within his sphere of expertise, Bobby Fischer was a genius. But he was also a bigot, a racist, and a hateful, angry man who lived a lonely, reclusive life. On 9/11, while the rest of the world looked at the big hole in the Manhattan skyline in stunned, sorrowful silence, Bobby Fischer rang up a radio station to hail the "wonderful news" of the terrorist attacks on the United States, and to launch a profanity-laced anti-Jewish tirade. He once blamed the disturbing downturn in the worldwide elephant population as a Jewish conspiracy. He was, in fact, crazy as a loon. And not nice crazy, either. Nasty crazy.

He was probably the greatest chess player the world has ever seen. He won millions of dollars playing a game that he considered to be life itself. He was, sadly, a disturbed and unpleasant human being. May he rest his peace, and may the King have mercy on his soul.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

In Good Taste

My sense of taste is apparently significantly atrophied.

I have friends who are connoiseurs of coffee, beer, and wine. They discuss the alluring complexities of Ethiopian dark roast and the tangy zest of Jamaica Blue Mountain. They debate the merits of Belgian Trappist beers and blonde ales. Don't even get me started on the wine discussions.

I'm a McDonald's man, myself. They don't serve beer and wine, of course, but they do serve coffee, which is generally labeled "Coffee (S/M/L).” It contains caffeine, which is a desired ingredient when I show up for work at 7:20 a.m. It tastes okay to me, but I don’t really savor it, roll it around under my tongue and search for the hint of blueberries. It tastes like coffee.

And yet I know many people who would be horrified by such an admission. It is akin to some sanctimonious bore pontificating that all rock ‘n roll sounds like irritating noise, and I would be horrified by that statement as well. Those are the people who need to hear Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, or a Skinny Puppy album, I think malevolently. You don’t like irritating noise? Try this. Just trying to be helpful. So I get it. I understand the tendency to smirk and to roll the eyes. “You just need to learn to be more discriminating,” my friends tell me as they extol the wonders of Guatemalan Antigua Los Volcanes. “You need to look for the chocolaty overtones.” Sure thing. And I wish I could. But I’m sorry. It tastes like coffee. No chocolaty overtones. No piquant nuttiness. Just coffee.

Some of this is undoubtedly due to the fact that I have nuked my taste buds, and that I have seriously undermined my ability to discrminate between, say, skim milk and single-malt Scotch due to decades of gastronomic abuse. I sip the Ethiopian dark roast. “Zest” is not the word I would use. "Zest" is nineteen jalapeno peppers on a burrito. But this just tastes like a Medium coffee at McDonald’s.

I wish I could do better. Alas, I fear that I am a hopeless case.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Jacob Golden -- Revenge Songs

I’ve never been divorced. I don’t know what that feels like. But I’ve sat up some late nights with friends who are going through the living hell of relational breakdowns and breakups, and I think I have some idea of the messy ambivalence that accompanies those hypercharged days, the anger and self-loathing and sense of relief that seem to co-exist, impossibly, in the same human beings.

Jacob Golden’s U.S. debut Revenge Songs captures that ambivalence just about perfectly, and it’s the first great album I’ve heard in this still new year. It’s easily the best breakup album I’ve heard since last year’s bitter flameout from The Mendoza Line, Thirty Year Low, and it just may stand a chance of joining the pantheon of the Great Divorce Albums: Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights, and Beck’s Sea Change. It’s that good.

Golden’s lo-fi approach (he’s fond of doing “field recordings” in parking garages) belies a meticulous attention to songcraft and arrangement. First single “Out Come the Wolves” opens the album with a flurry of surrealistic Dylanesque imagery, all centered on disintegration and destruction, before morphing into heavenly Simon and Garfunkel harmonies on the chorus, then morphs again into a furiously strummed coda replete with vocal counterpoint. It’s not exactly the approach of a garage rocker, but it is a stunning start, both angelically sweet and menacing. And the album doesn’t let up from there. Golden’s pure choirboy tenor, most evocative of Art Garfunkel and the Buckley’s, is the perfect vehicle for these songs of self-doubt and recrimination. And although the subject matter is prime fodder for countless Emo mopesters, Golden transcends all the cliches through his straightforward honesty and his undeniable melodic gifts. There are echoes of The Shins and a sixties folk-rock aesthetic everywhere, but James Mercer never penned a set of lyrics as perceptive and as self-loathing as these:

I never said that I had any answers
I never claimed to be the better man
I’ve got no integrity to cling to
I don’t have myself a backup plan
For twenty some odd years I’ve made a mess of things
I’ve lost most of the friendships that I’ve made and
I’ve burned a lot of bridges and it hurts me still to say
but I never intended it that way

That’s from a song called “Zero Integrity,” and it’s only one facet of a remarkably complex album that also takes in the reeling, kaleidoscopic emotions of bitterness, sorrow, confusion, anger, recrimination, and, astonishingly, joy and thankfulness for a relationship that is ending. The album’s been out in the UK for about a year, but it will be released exclusively through Barnes and Noble on February 5th. It’s the most human thing I’ve heard in months. And you’ll be singing along with the heartbreak.

Monday, January 14, 2008

I Love New York (For Three Days)

Four would probably put me over the edge. But three is just right. And since we had three days -- Thursday afternoon through Sunday morning -- I did just fine.

Kate and I moved our daughter Katryn into her new abode at 34th St. and 8th Ave., across the street from Madison Square Garden and three blocks down from the Empire State Building. She'll be spending the second half of her junior year of college taking classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology. So we spent a fair amount of time unpacking, organizing, and shopping for little details like toilet paper and laundry detergent. You can buy jewelry pretty much on every street corner of Manhattan. Toilet paper is a little harder to come by.

New York presents its own logistical nightmares. How does one buy food, for instance, that isn't pre-cooked and served in a restaurant? And having bought the food, how does one transport the bagged groceries twelve insanely busy city blocks back home? So we worked on that with Katryn, and did some "How To Read a Subway Map" lessons. And after three impossibly inadequate days of preparation, we took our shuttle bus back to the airport and left her on her own. You think it's hard to leave your kid on the first day of school? Try dumping her in the middle of Manhattan.

But it's good. And our time was good. We visited the Museum of Modern Art, and ogled the Van Gogh's and Monet's and Picasso's. We visited something called the Museum of Radio and TV, and watched TV. I don't know what I was expecting -- perhaps something more interactive like the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame. But we watched TV for a while, realized that we could be doing the same thing back in our hotel room, and left after an hour. We ate some great New-York-style pizza in the Theater District. We ventured way downtown to Katz's Deli, where we had Reuben sandwiches that were a foot high. We ditched the kid on Friday night and met up with musician Ryan Lott (Son Lux) and his wife Jennifer, and had a wonderful dinnertime conversation. I bought some hard-to-find CDs at Other Music, the coolest non-mainstream (they don't call it Other Music for nothing) music store on the planet. We watched the ice skaters at Rockefeller Center. We walked and walked and walked, because that's still the best way to experience New York.

And then we came home. New York is still an incredible city, beautiful and brutal. I love visiting the place, and I can't imagine living there. And now my kid is living there. If you're the praying type, pray that Katryn makes the transition as seamlessly as possible. And pray for mom and dad, who just took Dropping Your Kid Off at School to a whole new level.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

TTL SHT and Human Beings of Infinite Worth

If you polled music critics, probably 8 out of 10 of them would tell you that their favorite review of all time was J.D. Considine’s 1986 review of the debut album from the band GTR, which was one of the most overblown faux-metal screechfests ever committed to recorded media. The album was called GTR. Considine’s succinct summation: “TTL SHT.”

I’m in the approving 80%. I love that review. It’s funny, it’s snarky, it’s a great send-up of the album title, and it communicates enough to tell you not to waste your time.

There is, in fact, a not-so-subtle competition at work among many reviewers to write the snarkiest, most biting reviews. It’s virtually the first and only commandment of the music website Pitchfork. But it’s hardly limited to Pitchfork. It’s everywhere. It’s the basis for most standup comedy. It’s what often establishes “hip cred.” It’s snobbery as an art form, and when it’s done well, there is an undeniably delicious appeal. Who doesn’t like to feel superior to somebody else? And wittily superior at that?

There’s only one problem: as a Christian, I’m not supposed to behave that way. There is, for example, this choice little tidbit from Chapter 4 of the Book of James: Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor? (James 4:11-12)

The obvious defense here is that critiquing (note: not equivalent to“criticizing”) a work of art is different from critiquing the person who created the work of art. And I believe that. I couldn’t do what I do if I didn’t believe that. But I also know that the boundaries are fluid, and that it’s remarkably easy to fall into the lazy, default mode of bashing fellow human beings – “brothers,” if you will. Sisters too. I will readily admit my tendencies to do that. But here’s the thing: I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to play that game, and if that means being perpetually labeled as unhip or without an “edge” or whatever other terminally uncool label applies, then so be it.

Does that mean that I’m going to start writing only positive reviews, or that I’m going to couch everything in terms of “Band X are probably wonderful people who love puppies, but their latest album is just a teensy bit not-so-great?” Nope. I’m not going to do that. Puppy lovers can still create art that sucks. They are, in fact, probably more prone to do so.

Oh, stop. You see how challenging this is going to be. But in all seriousness (and this primarily applies to people who know me and are actually known to spend time with me), if you see me crossing the line, let me know. It’s an issue I want to take seriously, and I don’t want the lazy default mode to dominate my life.

Son Lux

About a year ago, Michael Kauffman (head of Asthmatic Kitty Records, home to Sufjan Stevens, Castanets, Half-handed Cloud, etc.) and I were asked to officiate in a contest called “Bandspotting” that was part of Calvin College’s 2007 Festival of Faith and Music. It was like American Idol in that we got to judge a lot of musical unknowns and wield extraordinary power over the lives of musicians looking for their big break (okay, at least some kind of break). It was unlike American Idol in that we didn’t get to make any snarky comments from the peanut gallery.

The winner of the contest was a kid named Ryan Lott, who goes by the nom de mope of Son Lux. Ryan is a classically-trained pianist who is enamored with Kid A-era Radiohead. He sings in a sort of hushed rasp, throws in some Rachmaninoff sturm and drang, and then slices and dices everything via tape loops, lots of sampling (everything from fairly standard hip-hop beats to operatic divas) and electronic blips and beeps. I got to know Ryan a litle bit, and over the course of 2007 he passed along new music to me and kept me apprised of his move to New York, search for the right label, etc.

So now the cat, or perhaps asthmatic kitty, is out of the bag, and I can share a little more. Pitchfork is all over his debut album, called At War With Walls and Mazes, and which will be released on Anticon Records on February 26th. Anticon is known primarily as a wildly eclectic and erratic hip-hop label. This is not that, although it is wildly eclectic. The Pitchfork article (and accompanying MP3 download) does a nice job of conveying Ryan’s sound. What it doesn’t tell you is anything at all about what’s going on with the songs themselves. I was immediately struck by Ryan’s use of Scripture (and lines clearly derived from Scripture) throughout these songs. Ryan starts with a biblical verse, a fragment of a verse, a spiritually-charged word – and repeats it over and over again, like Rosary beads. And listening to the same scrap of truth repeated, sliced and diced, taken out and examined from all sorts of musical angles, I finally got it. This is the musical equivalent of Lectio Divina, the spiritual discipline of meditating on a small segment of Scripture and soaking in that truth in all of its ramifcations. And here this classically-trained indie kid had found a way to do it via Radiohead and Rachmaninoff.

The music is quiet, and it’s thunderously beautiful. I think it’s a fabulous album, and I encourage you all to pick it up when it’s released in a few weeks.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Dulce Et Decorum Est

I've been listening to Matthew Ryan's fine upcoming album Matthew Ryan vs. the Silver State. Matthew, a longtime favorite, includes a song this time out called "Dulce Et Decorum Est," which is an extended riff on the great World War I poet Wilfred Owen's devastating poem of the same name. Here it is, because it never hurts to be reminded of these things. Owen, by the way, was shot and killed on November 4th, 1918. He was 25 years old. The news of his death reached his parents on November 11th, the day the armistice was signed to end the war.

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep.
Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod.
All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.[1]
-- Wilfred Owen, "Dulce Et Decorum Est"

[1] From the Roman poet Horace, "It is sweet and right to die for your country."

Friday, January 04, 2008

Campaign Songs

Now that the Iowa Caucuses have taken place, it's time to resurrect the noble tradition of campaign songs. This one is still my favorite, and as timely and truthful and prophetic as ever, although I can't really imagine any sane politician adopting it.

Strikes across the frontier and strikes for higher wage
Planet lurches to the right as ideologies engage
Suddenly it's repression, moratorium on rights
What did they think the politics of panic would invite?
Person in the street shrugs -- "Security comes first"
But the trouble with normal is it always gets worse

Callous men in business costume speak computerese
Play pinball with the Third World trying to keep it on its knees
Their single crop starvation plans put sugar in your tea
And the local Third World's kept on reservations you don't see
"It'll all go back to normal if we put our nation first"
But the trouble with normal is it always gets worse

Fashionable fascism dominates the scene
When ends don't meet it's easier to justify the means
Tenants get the dregs and landlords get the cream
As the grinding devolution of the democratic dream
Brings us men in gas masks dancing while the shells burst
The trouble with normal is it always gets worse
-- Bruce Cockburn, "The Trouble With Normal," 1981

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Best of 2008?

It's never too early. Although it's saying something -- perhaps about my age -- when all but the first two are reissues of old music. Some contenders, based on what I've heard:

Malcolm Holcombe -- Gamblin' House -- Imagine a bi-polar homeless man wandering onto the set of Austin City Limits, swigging from a bottle of Jack Daniels, and declaiming poetry like Dylan Thomas. With dobro accompaniment.

Eric Lindell -- Low on Cash, Rich in Love -- A very fine blues/R&B workout, with gritty vocals, and superb guitar work that hearkens back to Stevie Ray.

Fairport Convention -- Unhalfbricking/What We Did On Our Holidays -- Look, you've got Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson in the same band. It's ridiculous that these albums were ever out of print. But soon they won't be, and you should revel in the original music, as well as the new bonus tracks.

Sneaky Pete Kleinow -- Anthology -- Sneaky Pete played pedal steel for all the SoCal Sensitive Singer/Songwriters in the '70s, as well as his original group, The Flying Burrito Brothers. This is a compilation of his best work.

Van Morrison -- Re-issued versions of Avalon Sunset, Back On Top, It's Too Late to Stop Now, Sense of Wonder, Tupelo Honey, and Wavelength, with lots of previously unissued bonus tracks.

Most Ironic Upcoming Title: Amy Grant -- Sleepytime Worship: Casting Crowns Lullabye Renditions. Because nothing says engagement with the living God like a nap.