Friday, May 30, 2008

Tribe Called West

I love this stuff. This is the first photograph showing the first contact with a previously unknown Amazon tribe. It was taken just a few days ago. The tribe members appear to be shooting arrows at the airplane. Little do they know.

What will our tribe share with them? The Spear(e)'s, Britney and Shake? Sylvester Stallone? Versace fragrances for men and women? Wii Archery? Christianity? Scientology? The benefits of laissez-faire capitalism (AmazonWorld, coming Summer of 2015)?

It used to be that the doctrine of Manifest Destiny dictated that it was incumbent upon the white man to "civilize" the rest of the world, and to force the unruly heathen to adopt what was best for them. Hopefully we've learned a few lessons in the meantime. But I wonder what will happen. Here, in 2008, we've encountered people who know nothing of Walt Disney or Hugh Hefner, Jesus Christ or L. Ron Hubbard, George W. Bush or Anheuser -Busch. What will we do?

With or Without Them

Deep sigh. There is an escalating trend among record labels of not releasing advance copies of albums. Take, for example (or, technically, three examples), the reissued versions of U2's first three albums -- Boy, October, and War. So you know what you do when you need to review these albums for, say, an August issue of a print magazine that has a May deadline, and the albums are nowhere in sight? You write about your old scratchy vinyl copies of those albums. You say "Wow, I sure love those old, scratchy vinyl albums." You comment on U2's proclivity to remix their old music, sometimes almost to the point of non-recognition (see the remixed Zooropa and Pop tracks on the Best of 1990 - 2000 compilation for examples), and you acknowledge that the new versions of the old albums may sound very little like the old albums in your collection. You say that you don't have the slightest clue what the rarities/outtakes/B-sides sound like. You say you can't review what you can't hear. And you say that print magazines move on, with or without the help of record labels. What else can you do? But you say it in print, just so people know. It sucks.

Yo, Adrian, That Needle Stings

This is currently posted on my church's blog. This stuff is too good to make up.

"As some of you already know, I am putting together a triathlon of sorts with [name]. It involves the participant bicycling for 40 miles, watching 11 hours of Rocky movies and getting a permanent tattoo. The event is happening this August 9th."

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Folkie Roundup -- Johnny Flynn, Bon Iver, Chris Knight, Drakkar Sauna

Some new folkie releases that have impressed me …

Johnny Flynn and The Sussex Wit – A Larum

English boarding school alum, former choirboy, and erstwhile Royal Shakespeare Company actor Johnny Flynn goes slumming on his debut album, adopting a Dickensian ragamuffin persona that is so engaging that you quickly forget that he’s never gone dumpster diving in his life. There are echoes of Trad stalwarts throughout – Martin Carthy and Mike Waterson in the singing, Bert Jansch in the supple guitar work – but Flynn is no retro iconoclast, and his biting social commentary owes more to Billy Bragg than Billy Billington. The Sussex Wit, Flynn’s backing band, unleashes a frenzied Pogues approximation behind him. Alarum – a Shakespearian term for general mayhem – is a fitting title for an impressive debut.

Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago

I’m late to this party, but I’m still glad I crashed. Bon Iver is the nom de mope of Wisconsin folkie Justin Vernon. His independently released debut album is still the highest-ranked release of 2008 according to the review aggregation site

Which, frankly, makes me want to hate it. The backstory is enough to gag a moose: sensitive folkie breaks up with girlfriend, retreats to deserted cabin in the vast primordial wilderness, ventures out periodically to shoot next week’s dinner, and spends three months in isolation exorcising his romantic demons via a gently strummed acoustic guitar and quavering falsetto. He’s sensitive, he’s rugged, and he’s got the Paul Bunyan beard to prove it.

And so it is with some consternation that I admit that the album is actually pretty good. Not great, but good. When Vernon picks up his ax, er, guitar and starts crooning in that wounded falsetto, it’s easy to forgive the hype. The songs – full of bleary fatalism, regret, anger, and resentment – sound conflicted, immediate, and honest. This is what real people feel when they are in the midst of a devastating breakup. The vulnerability is only heightened when Vernon resorts to his best trick; double and triple tracking his vocals to produce a sort of ghostly wilderness choir. And yet it has to be said that Vernon’s impressionistic lyrics are embarrasingly awkward at times. “This is not the sound of a new man or crispy realization,” he sings on the closing denouement “Re: Stacks.” Sorry, but that sounds like a crispy realization to me. Still, what’s here is impressive; a quietly desperate Valentine to damaged human beings sung in an eerily lovely, damaged voice.

Chris Knight – Heart of Stone

This is album number six for Slaughters, Kentucky native Chris Knight, and he does what he’s done the previous five times out: write and sing like a young Steve Earle before Steve left the narratives of small town scrappers and losers behind him to take up the larger concerns of the big city and big-city politics.

Chris Knight doesn’t care much for big cities or politics. His hometown, pop. 200, is all that’s left of what was once a thriving coal mining community. The coal is long gone, there aren’t any jobs, and now Jethro and Ellie Mae are liable to be cooking up a batch of meth out on the bucolic Back 40. The rootsy twang that dominates most of these songs will call to mind Ryan Adams in mode, but the songwriting is sharp, detailed, and acerbic, and if you’ve heard this music a thousand times, and you have, you haven’t met these characters before. Best of all is the devastating “Crooked Road,” the tale of a man who has lost his son to the mines and his wife to sorrow, and who now travels the circuitous mountain highways, trying to get somewhere, anywhere, all the while cursing everything in sight:

Damn these hard times
Damn the coal mines
Damn these good dreams gone cold
And while I’m at it
Damn this crooked road

Chris Knight is the best Steve Earle acolyte going, and for the past half decade he’s been better than Steve Earle.

Drakkar Sauna – Wars and Tornadoes

Drakkar Sauna -- Lawrence, Kansas folkies Jeff Stolz and Wallace Cochran – have impressed me with their first two albums of original material, which have a timeless Weird Old America quality that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Harry Smith Folkways compilation from the ‘30s Dustbowl. Here the album’s subtitle proclaims that they “Faithfully Sing Songs of the Louvin Brothers,” and that’s what they do, offering nine by-the-book covers of the songs of Ira and Charlie Louvin, who pretty much defined Weird Old America. Thanks to the early ministrations of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris in my life, I’m on a mission to collect every Louvin Brothers recording and every Louvin Brothers cover I can find, so this album fits the bill quite nicely. The performances are reverent, albeit a little too close to the originals to warrant much attention.

Still, the greatness and strangeness of these songs – equal parts gospel piety, fire and brimstone sermonizing, and hypersensitive insecurity – cannot be overemphasized. “Honest darling, I’m not teasing when I say you are the best/Don’t laugh, don’t laugh” Ira and Charlie wrote on one song. The next they were threatening nuclear conflagration for all unrepentant sinners. Drakkar Sauna capture the ambivalence and incongruity just fine.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

First Church of the Anti-Christ

Somewhat predictably, my review of the Aradhna album Amrit Vani has generated a few outraged comments at the Christianity Today website. God knows real Christians don't sing in a language other than English, and don't try to be culturally relevant to people in other parts of the world. If the King James Bible was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for the heathen in India. But I'm more heartened by the comments of those who seem to get it, and who find value in this wonderful music.

How the Other .0000001% Lives

We spent the weekend in a mansion in Barrington, Illinois outside Chicago. That's not it, but there's a passing resemblance. There were at least 12 bathrooms. I tried to pee in every one. It was a territorial thing.

The mansion was owned by a friend of a friend of my sister-in-law, or something like that. The friend of a friend lives in one of her other four houses, not the one we stayed in. They only come to the Chicago mansion for two weeks at Christmas time, presumably to see snow (they live in California the rest of the year) and to count the bathrooms. I don't know. The rest of the year they let other people, including apparently friends of friends, stay in the mansion. It was nice of them, although in truth I can think of better uses for multiple millions of dollars. Still, it was nice of them. This past weekend it hosted about 20 members of Kate's extended family, who all congregated for a triple graduation party for the Ott family. My nephew Jacob graduated from high school. My nephew Jonathan graduated from college. And my sister-in-law Alice celebrated the completion of her Ph.D.

It was nice being with Kate's family. It always is. It was weird staying at that mansion. There is something about the American suburban mindset that is deeply disturbing, even as I find myself immersed in it. We stroll our Westerville, Ohio neighborhood and encounter neighbors who are attempting to sell their suburban homes. We sometimes ask them why. And they tell us: the kids are grown. We don't need this four-bedroom, 2.5 bath house anymore. We nod understandingly. It makes sense. And then they tell us they are moving to a new 7-bedroom, 5-bath house in the country, with indoor pool, tennis court, and detached equestrian barn. It's an investment. It's time to enjoy life. Some day there will be grandkids, and they will need a place to stay. Maybe the grandkids will bring their friends along. Maybe the grandkids will join a soccer team, and the entire soccer league will need a place to stay. Who knows?

I hear the most ridiculous reasons. But the reality is that some people apparently don't know what to do with their money. So they look for novel ways to spend it. It's the American way.

We went to church at Willow Creek Christian Fellowship, smack dab in the middle of McMansionville. It's the grandaddy of all megachurches, and some 20,000 people show up every weekend. I was all set to hate it, but I didn't. I liked it. The auditorium was vast, the seating was plush, the coffee shop(pe) had a fire roaring in the fireplace, the food court was hopping before the 9:00 service, and it all had all the faux-Americana trappings of Disneyland, including an indoor waterfall. Mickey and Minnie didn't greet us at the door, but Millie did, and Millie made sure we knew which wing of the compound held the children's classes. We took the monorail to communion. Okay, no we didn't, but to say that I was in a cynical mood before the service started would be an understatement.

The service was warm, intimate, personal, and moving -- everything I was not expecting. We sang a couple rocked out versions of old hymns. We prayed for one of the pastors, whose 12-year-old daughter has leukemia, and he sat up there and cried while the assembled McMansionville hordes prayed for him. We prayed for George W. Bush, which nearly led to convulsions in my plush seat. We prayed for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Kim Jong Il, admittedly two firsts for me, and we prayed for peace on the planet, believing that that is what God desires. Mostly we prayed and worshipped. Bill Hybels, the pastor, was the anti-televangelist -- low-key, humble, surprisingly open and vulnerable in admitting his and his church's mistakes. I pretty much became an instant fan, although he would rightly tell you that he's not looking for fans.

I'm glad I went. I'm glad I stayed in that mansion, if only because that's where Kate's family was hanging out, and it's always worthwhile spending time with them. I discovered that I still love the Loop. No great surprise there. And the 7-hour drive each way gave Kate and I a chance to catch our breath and reconnect after several weeks of almost non-stop activity. Oh yeah, I'm married to you. Nice to see you. And it was.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Living Proof

If all goes well ("if" being the operative word here) I will be signing a book contract within the next month or so and spending virtually every free moment of my late summer and fall working on a book about Bruce Springsteen. It could all fall through, so I'd rather not reveal any details at this point, but it's also exciting, and it looks very promising. The preliminary discussions with the publisher have gone well. I like them, and they appear to like me. We'll see what happens.

I don't know Bruce Springsteen. I met him very briefly, a long time ago, and shook his hand. He's spoken precisely two words to me: "Thanks, man." But like a lot of obsessive Bruce fans, I feel like I know him, and his songs have connected in ways that go deep down, and that consistently remind me of important truths about what it means to be a man, and alive to my family, and the town I live in, and the world I live in. I think he's the best and most important songwriter of my generation.

I'd have a difficult time naming my favorite Bruce Springsteen song. So maybe I should write a book about a bunch of them. That would be nice. Bruce has been a lot of things -- romantic hoodrat in a leather jacket, rock 'n roll icon, folk protest singer. And husband and father. So I'm not sure if this one is my favorite, but it's the best damn gospel song of the '90s, even if Bruce doesn't know it, and it's way, way up there in the Springsteen stratosphere:

Well now on a summer night in a dusky room
Come a little piece of the Lord's undying light
Crying like he swallowed the fiery moon
In his mother's arms it was all the beauty I could take
Like the missing words to some prayer that I could never make
In a world so hard and dirty so fouled and confused
Searching for a little bit of God's mercy
I found living proof

I put my heart and soul I put 'em high upon a shelf
Right next to the faith the faith that I'd lost in myself
I went down into the desert city
Just tryin' so hard to shed my skin
I crawled deep into some kind of darkness
Lookin' to burn out every trace of who I'd been
You do some sad sad things baby
When it's you you 're tryin' to lose
You do some sad and hurtful things
I've seen living proof

You shot through my anger and rage
To show me my prison was just an open cage
There were no keys no guards
Just one frightened man and some old shadows for bars

Well now all that's sure on the boulevard
Is that life is just a house of cards
As fragile as each and every breath
Of this boy sleepin' in our bed
Tonight let's lie beneath the eaves
Just a close band of happy thieves
And when that train comes we'll get on board
And steal what we can from the treasures of the Lord
It's been a long long drought baby
Tonight the rain's pourin' down on our roof
Looking for a little bit of God's mercy
I found living proof
-- Bruce Springsteen, "Living Proof"

That's from a 1992 album called Lucky Town, which was a critical and commercial bust. Many people view it as Bruce's worst album. But I'm a better human being every time I listen to that song. Sometimes this faith business strikes me as absurd. I'm just one screwed up guy living on a planet of six billion people on one of the more obscure stars off in a corner of an inconceivably vast universe. I feel pretty insignificant, and I need all the mercy I can get. And I've seen living proof, too. I can't wait to write about that song, and many others, in more detail.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Stay Positive

Tiny little text etched into her neck it said
"Jesus lived and died for all your sins."
She's got blue black ink and it's scratched into her lower back.
It said: "Damn right I'll rise again."
Yeah, damn right you'll rise again.
-- The Hold Steady, "Your Little Hoodrat Friend"

That's Hold Steady lead singer/songwriter Craig Finn with a fan named Bruce.

The first single from the upcoming (July 15th) Hold Steady album Stay Positive can be found right here. To say that this is my most anticipated album of the year would not be hyperbole. It would be true.

And, in what may be a sign of the impending apocalypse, I will be writing about Craig Finn and this album in an upcoming issue of Christianity Today Magazine. I tried to warn them. This band writes about drug abuse, casual sex, and Catholic guilt, pretty much in equal measure. But it's the Catholic guilt that stays with me. Except this is an evangelical Protestant magazine. Wish me luck.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

McCain Predicts Iraq War to be Over by 2013

Right here. Inspiring, isn't it? There's a goal the country can really rally around.

Personally, I hope he keeps making speeches like this. Now if only he could add "McCain Predicts Recession/Depression Over by 2018" and "McCain Pledges to Cap Gas Prices at $11/Gallon" to the mix.


That's a money tree. I'd like to plant one in my back yard. It needs to bear fruit. Immediately.

I find myself in the ridiculous position of complaining about money. Why? Because I have a good job that pays me well, I have a part-time job that doesn't pay well (music writing), but that pays something, and my wife has a good job that pays her well. Together we ought to be able to, say, make the mortgage payment, which is not an extravagant one.

But it's increasingly difficult. The biggest variable here is two kids in college at the same time. As in we will spend approximately $42,000 in 2008 to send the kids to school. They are not going to fancy private schools. They are going to state schools. And I'm looking at 2009 and I don't know how we're going to do it. They have one and three years to go, respectively. We saved what we could. And now that's gone.

There are never-ending, unrelenting demands and requests for money. Some of them -- bills of all kinds, cars breaking down, various parts of our house falling apart -- we can't ignore. Some of them are are legitimate requests from good people who represent good causes we'd like to help. And we can't. Because we have no money.

And I find myself increasingly frustrated. I don't want my life to be driven by money. This is not how I want to live. I want to be generous. But I work for an employer who keeps finding novel and creative excuses not to increase my salary, in spite of stellar performance reviews. I look at the price of gas, which has doubled since I started working for that employer, and the price of food, which has risen by more than 60% since I started working for that employer, and the price of everything else, particularly the price of education, which has skyrocketed. And for the life of me I don't understand how I'm supposed to do this. I'm using all my vacation days this year speaking about music at various universities and conferences. You know why? To earn money. I enjoy it on some levels, but one thing it is not: a vacation. It's a lot of hard work. And I can't earn nearly enough to compensate. We're losing ground, rapidly.

I know, I know. It could be a lot worse. And it could be. I know that. I'm thankful for my 1.5 jobs, and for Kate's job. But it's stressful, and we're going backwards. I'm thinking about using the techniques I saw when I lived in the ghetto: use all your spare cash to play the lottery, and buy the kids a bag of Cheetos for dinner.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Mogwai -- Young Team

Chemikal Underground Records is reissuing Mogwai's debut album Young Team on May 26th, with the requisite remastering, extended liner notes, and bonus disc featuring live tracks and outtakes.

I have a love/hate relationship with Mogwai. The whole from-a-whisper-to-an-ear-splitting-shriek approach of post-rock is sounding a little tired to my ears these days, and Mogwai hasn't done much to keep my interest over their past couple albums. But give credit where it's due. Young Team arrived in 1997, at the very forefront of the post-rock movement, and heavily distorted guitars had never sounded so unspeakably lovely and grating, often within the same song. Quiet, pastoral piano interludes are punctuated by shards of sheer noise, scraps of found conversation float in and out of the mix, and the guitars simply sound massive; no more so than in the newly remastered version of the album. The overhaul was needed, and this album sounds fabulous.

This is a highlight of '90s music, and if you missed it in '97, now would be a great time to discover the pleasure and the pain that is Mogwai.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Gospel According to Jethro Tull

Between 1971 and 1973 Jethro Tull released three albums – Aqualung, Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play. Those albums made me question everything. They were a bad influence. My mom, if she were alive, would probably tell you that those albums turned me into a cynical atheist druggie. And she’d be at least partly right.

In 1971 I was in tenth grade. Having persuaded my parents to let me quit the Catholic schools that I had attended for eight years, but unable to convince them to allow me to drop my religious affiliation altogether, I was unwillingly escorted to weekly Catholic CCD classes. CCD stood for Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, which was a high-falutin’ term for high school education classes for Catholic kids who didn’t attend Catholic high schools. And I couldn’t escape. Every Sunday evening my dad dropped me off at Greg and Terri’s house. And I and a group of my friends spent two hours getting educated. And how.

Greg and Terri were English teachers at my high school. They were husband and wife. They had a last name, but we weren’t supposed to refer to them by their last name. They were Greg and Terri, and they were probably all of about 24 or 25 years old themselves, and they were the leaders of our little band of nomadic spiritual searchers, which was called TAG, which was short for Talk About God. Very hip. And we did talk about God. We also smoked pot with Greg and Terri, which sometimes made us philosophical, sometimes silly, and usually we would put on Jethro Tull’s Aqualung album and ponder the total heaviosity of it all.

And Aqualung quickly achieved total heaviosity for all of us. This is what Ian Anderson sang:

When I was young and they packed me off to school
and taught me how not to play the game,
I didn't mind if they groomed me for success,
or if they said that I was a fool.
So I left there in the morning
with their God tucked underneath my arm --
their half-assed smiles and the book of rules.
So I asked this God a questionand by way of firm reply,
He said -- I'm not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays.
So to my old headmaster (and to anyone who cares):
before I'm through I'd like to say my prayers --
I don't believe you:
you had the whole damn thing all wrong --
He's not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays.
Well you can excomunicate me on my way to Sunday school
and have all the bishops harmonize these lines --
how do you dare tell me that I'm my Father's son
when that was just an accident of Birth.
I'd rather look around me -- compose a better song
`cos that's the honest measure of my worth.
In your pomp and all your glory you're a poorer man than me,
as you lick the boots of death born out of fear.
I don't believe you:
you had the whole damn thing all wrong --
He's not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays.

We would listen to that, and then Terri would look up from her stoned reverie and pronounce, “Okay, Talk about God!” One could argue, perhaps somewhat convincingly, that this was perhaps not the kind of spiritual fodder that was likely to produce holiness and reverence. But we ran with it, and had some relatively unconnected, lethargic conversations about how God was seen in nature, you know, in a beautiful sunset, and how God wasn’t about form and pomp and circumstance and all that boring bourgeois shit (Greg and Terri being the kind of people you could say “shit” around), but was rather really into freedom and, you know, love and beauty.

Greg and Terri would nod approvingly and smile. It was a happy time.

So by my junior year I was a big fan of the TAG group. That was the year Thick as a Brick came out, and Thick as a Brick was the mother of all rock albums, a forty-five minute magnum opus, a genuine concept album that consisted of, dig this, one song that had like multiple suites. It was symphonic. It was breathtaking. It was about God only knows what. Naturally, it was prime fodder for our TAG discussions.

In truth, although we all knew that Thick as a Brick was a concept album, none of us could ever quite figure out the concept. It started out like this:

Really don't mind if you sit this one out.
My words but a whisper – your deafness a shout
I may make you feel but I can't make you think.
Your sperm's in the gutter - your love's in the sink.
So you ride yourselves over the fields
and you make all your animal deals
and your wise men don't know how it feels to be thick as a brick.

We thought that line about sperm was some pretty daring shit, and concluded that God would probably approve. But beyond that we really weren’t sure what to make of lines like “So where the hell was Biggles when you needed him last Saturday?” We researched Biggles, looking for the esoteric clues that had been hidden from us all these years by the stuffy, bourgeois clergy.This was The DaVinci Code of its day. Nothing. Biggles appeared to be a made-up name. Nevertheless, we continued to listen to Thick as a Brick, pretty much every week, and we contemplated its anti-war message (that much we were pretty sure of), and considered how much God hated the U.S. presence in Vietnam.

TAG, Year 3, was the year of A Passion Play, the most overtly religious statement from Jethro Tull yet. Greg told us that it was about hell, which seemed reasonable since the word “hell” appeared in the lyrics about 47 times. So we contemplated this rock ‘n roll version of Dante’s Inferno (Greg and Terri again coming to the rescue and reminding us that in addition to their theological insights, they were also English teachers). Ian Anderson sang:

Flee the icy Lucifer. Oh he's an awful fellow!
What a mistake! I didn't take a feather from his pillow.
Here's the everlasting rub: neither am I good or bad.
I'd give up my halo for a horn and the horn for the hat I once had.

They don’t write ‘em like that anymore. Well, this was heavy stuff indeed, hats and feather pillows and nasty old B.L. Zebub himself, and we had a ripping good time dissecting the theological implications. Greg had also located a seemingly endless supply of Acapulco Gold, which helped set the mood.

And that was my high school religious education. I went off to college as a full-blown atheist, ready to argue at the drop of a hat (bishop’s miter or otherwise) with any foolish, naïve Christian who crossed my path. A few years later, having begun to understand my own inability to fix my fucked-up life, I played Aqualung again. Ian Anderson sang “I don’t believe you, you had the whole damn thing all wrong/He’s not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays” and it sounded completely different. This time it actually sounded like it might have something to do with my life. I don’t know what happened to Greg and Terri. I never saw them again.

Gamma Slamma

Here's the full press release for Paste at the Gamma Awards.


Paste Magazine Takes Top Honors at 2008 Gamma Awards

Paste Wins Second Consecutive Grand GAMMA Award, 5 Gold Awards, 2 Silver Awards, 2 Bronze Awards

-- Decatur, GA (May 9, 2008) – Paste magazine took home top honors for the second consecutive year, “The Grand GAMMA Award,” along with nine other awards, at the 19th Annual GAMMA Awards. The GAMMA Awards are put on by MAGS, the Magazine Association of the Southeast, to recognize excellence in magazines based in the region. Paste’s impressive showing at the GAMMA Awards comes on the heels of their 3rd consecutive PLUG Award win for “Magazine of the Year,” their Eddie Award for “Best Entertainment Magazine” and their recent nomination for a National Magazine Award.

“We are both thrilled and humbled that our colleagues at MAGS have bestowed upon us such a broad range of honors,” said Paste Editor-In-Chief Josh Jackson. “From our content and design to our expanded offerings on the web, we’ve been working hard in many areas to make Paste even better. To be recognized in all of these areas only fuels our passion to keep going.”

Paste’s honors at the 2008 GAMMAs include:

Grand GAMMA Award - Magazine of the Year
Gold - Best Website
Gold - Best Cover (Modest Mouse)
Gold - Best Feature (Trumpet Child)
Gold - Best Single Issue (Can Rock Save the World?)
Gold - General Excellence
Silver - Best Series (Can Rock Save the World?)
Silver - Best Essay (Can Rock Save the World? – Josh Jackson and Tim Regan-Porter)
Bronze - Best Essay (Bob Dylan – Andy Whitman)
Bronze - Best Feature (Greg Graffin – Steve Olson)
Honorary Mention – Best Feature (Lori McKenna – Josh Jackson)

“Paste achieves what so many publications aspire to," a judge noted. "It manages to be edgy without being alienating , and opinionated without being snobby." For more information, or to speak with a representative from Paste, please contact: or 212-255-8455 x 237.

Paste Magazine is the fastest growing independently published entertainment magazine in the country. Called “the best among American music titles” by The Wall Street Journal, a 2008 National Magazine Award nominee and recently named "Magazine of the Year" at the 2008 PLUG Independent Music Awards for the third year in a row, Paste provides thoughtful analysis on the best in film, books and other aspects of popular (and alternative) culture. Paste is the premier magazine for people who still enjoy discovering new music, prize substance and songcraft over fads and manufactured attitude, and appreciate quality music in whatever genre it might inhabit. Now in their sixth year, Paste has grown quickly with international distribution in over 12 countries. Paste is available on newsstands all over the U.S. and Canada.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Ratings Creep

Andy Gibb, I salute you.

It’s Monday, it’s raining, and that may be influencing my mood. But here’s the deal. I’m checking out, a wonderful music resource that compiles thousands of reviews of recently released albums and then assigns each album a composite rating based on the average review score for that album. And I’m noticing that every album released and reviewed this year falls somewhere between 50 (Average) and 87 (Very Good). I find reviewer comments like “a great disappointment” and “a major step backward” for albums that are rated “65” and “71” respectively. And I don’t get it.

To the extent that numeric/star ratings are used, they ought to serve as convenient shorthand for prospective music buyers. If I’m reading a review, I want to know whether an album is worth purchasing. And I rely on these ratings to provide at least a handy guide to what might be worthwhile. But if the worst album is “Average,” and if the vast majority of albums are “Good” or “Very Good,” then I wonder what value these ratings actually serve. Maybe I’m in the minority, but I think most albums are average, a small minority of them outright suck, a few more are bad to mediocre, a few of them are very good, and a very rare few are exceptionally good, even masterpieces. In other words, I operate assuming that the Bell Curve is a fairly accurate model of the distribution of musical quality. It’s simply not helpful when 80 percent or more of the albums released are deemed to be “pretty good.”

To that end, let me note the dearth of 1- and 2-star reviews. I don’t know if critics are afraid to say that a given album isn’t very good. I don’t know if critics don’t bother to review the genuinely crappy albums. I don’t know what the reasons are. But I can assure you that I hear my share of 1- and 2-star albums, and that well over half the albums I hear are simply nondescript blahfests, recapitulating lyrical cliches and overcooked musical motifs that have already been done a million times. It’s time to resurrect the 1- and 2-star review and restore it to its rightful place in the critical universe. Maybe too many critics have been reading and believing those PR releases that accompany the albums.

Nelsonville Arts and Music Festival

You can have your Coachellas, your Bonaroos, your Austin City Limits Festivals. And you can swelter with 200,000 other people if you want to, and sit half a mile from the stage and watch a Jumbotron screen and pretend like you're having a musical epiphany.

Me? I'm heading to the hills this weekend for the Nelsonville Arts and Music Festival, a nice, cozy three-day celebration of, well, arts and music, where you can get right up next to the stage and hang out with the musicians afterward if you want to.

That's the Avett Brothers pictured above. They're probably the big-name headliners of the festival (along with Akron/Family and Bettye LaVette). See? I told you. But in my world those folks are some pretty great musicians, and the prospect of seeing them along with a couple dozen more artists who roughly conform to the Alt-country/folk/bluegrass template makes me really happy. There'll be Tommy Ramone, who used to be in The Ramones, playing punk bluegrass. There'll be Southeast Engine, by far my favorite semi-local band, and the best under-the-radar indie rock band I bet you've never heard. There'll be Justin Townes Earle, whose dad Steve did him no favors by dubbing him "Townes" and passing along his last name. But Justin does just great on his own, and I'm looking forward to hearing his old-time honky tonk music.

I'm going to pick up my daughter Rachel at Ohio University, eat some great Indian food (because what's a great country/folk/bluegrass festival without a little Lamb Vindaloo?), and then head up to Nelsonville for some father/daughter bonding time, yee haw. I'm looking forward to it.

Friday, May 09, 2008


A friend of mine, Denes House, wrote yesterday:

There is no tragedy so horrible that governmental corruption can't make it worse. The tragedy of Myanmar is not that Western nations don't care about the poor or those devastated by natural disasters. We've given! We're ready to go! The tragedy of Myanmar is that the world's poorest nations are governed by the world's most dangerous thugs. And that's not a freakish coincidence. Pray for Myanmar. But pray that God would bring down the vicious dictators who would turn tragedy into holocaust through their inaction and paranoid grip on power.

Amid reports that more than 100,000 people may have lost their lives in last weekend's cyclone comes today's disheartening news that the first United Nations humanitarian aid flights have been turned away by the government of Myanmar. According to the U.N., they won't try again. The world is ready to respond, and respond generously. But you can't distribute food and medicine and safe drinking water if the government confiscates it on the runway. And that is what has happened.

So screw the government. Here is one way you can still help to keep people alive. Please read the post "Calling All Churches" at my friend John's site. I will certainly vouch for John's integrity, his heart for southeast Asia in general and the orphans of southeast Asia in particular, and for his ability to connect with the people who can actually do something and make a difference in this desperate situation. The contact information is included in John 's post. Please be generous. Thank you.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

War and Peace

I am slowly, very slowly, making my way through Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. It’s a daunting task, one I’ve started before, but this time I’m determined to make it. Still, several factors make this difficult.

First, the names. There are more than 500 characters in War and Peace, most of them bearing names like Anya Dmitriovronsky Putinsvetlanaskayaverarovich (who should not be confused with Anya Dmitriovronsky Rasputinsputnikskaya) and, well, the head hurts within a remarkably short period of time.

Second, the dinner soirees. This was Russia in the early 19th century. It was cold and bleak, and they didn’t have the Internet or superhero movies. So, really, what else could they do but eat and drink? Still, these counts and countesses yammer on about the most inconsequential things, all the while sipping their port and Madeira, curtseying and bowing and scraping and observing labyrinthine and inscrutable rules of etiquette that I don’t begin to understand.

Third, the insufferable meekness and docility of the women. I know it’s wrong to read one’s contemporary culture into a work from the distant past. Russian women of this time weren’t out there in front of the White Palace burning their bras and smoking ciggies and agitating for control of their own uteruses (uterii?) But can we have just a little spark of life from the women? Just a little? Something more than mouselike peeping accompanied by curtseying? Please.

Fourth, the daunting history. Before tackling War and Peace, again, I slogged through a massive history of the Napoleonic Wars. I am as ready as I am ever going to be, and I now understand, sort of, the intrigues that surrounded the assassination of the Duc d’Enghien and Czar Alexander’s abortive alliance with the Prussians. But this stuff is still about as invigorating as reading Livy and Tacitus, but the names are harder to pronounce and remember.

Fifth, the French. As in the language, not the people. I understand that all good, hip, cultivated Russians in the early 19th century spoke French. It was their equivalent of buying Deerhoof and Vampire Weekend albums. But there are times when the French runs on, untranslated, for line after line, as in “Comrade, pass the borscht, and la Police et les Jésuites ont la vertu de ne jamais abandonner ni leurs ennemis ni leurs amis.” My thoughts exactly. Look, those two painful quarters of college French were a long, long time ago. I am going to struggle with anything more complicated than “Frere Jacques, frere Jacques, dormez vous.” It is, to put it mildly, la challenge.

So I’m creeping along, adrift in the peace, waiting for the war, and hoping for some good, bloody action pretty soon. I am sorely tempted to watch the movie instead. I really love Audrey Hepburn, and I bet she sneaks in a ciggie or two while hiding out in the salon.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008


Has anyone else noticed that Bill Clinton is looking more and more like a creature out of Dawn of the Dead? Or at least Shaun of the Dead?

Really, this is the face of a man who lurches when he walks and who lusts after human flesh. Never mind. We already knew that about Bill.

Gamma Awards

I won a Gamma Award, which is very cool considering that I didn't know a) that there were Gamma Awards and b) that I had been nominated for a Gamma Award.

But here's what Josh Jackson wrote:

"Paste won a slew of awards tonight at the Gammas (celebrating the best magazines in the Southeast), including Magazine of the Year. But one of them I'm particularly proud of — a bronze award for Andy Whitman's essay on Dylan. One of the best reasons we saw to start Paste was to share Andy's writing with the world, and it's great to see his work recognized. Congrats, Andy.

Josh Jackson
Paste Magazine
Signs of Life in Music, Film and Culture"

These folks have been nothing but kind to me, and here's more evidence.

I'm thrilled for Paste, and I'm kind of hoping that I get a little bronzed Gamma Ray Gun in the mail sometime soon.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Centro-Matic/South San Gabriel

Former Mott the Hoople singer/songwriter Ian Hunter once released an album called You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic. It’s an aphorism that Will Johnson has taken to heart. Johnson is the leader of two bands, South San Gabriel and Centro-Matic. Although the bands are (mostly) comprised of the same members, they could not be more different. South San Gabriel plays sprawling, ruminative folk and alt-country; music dominated by acoustic guitars, cellos, and atmospheric pedal steel. Centro-Matic plays loud, distorted, lo-fi rock ‘n roll, a sort of Guided by Voices meets Modest Mouse mashup. And, just to keep things interesting, Johnson also occasionally records under his own name.

Confused? Let Misra Records help you sort it out. On June 3rd Misra will drop Dual Hawks, a double CD featuring 11 songs from South San Gabriel and 12 songs from Centro-Matic, the 14th and 15th albums Mr. Johnson has released during this prolific decade. It’s a somewhat questionable approach because the two albums, taken singly, are rather monochromatic affairs. What Johnson does he does well, and the South San Gabriel songs are appropriately atmospheric and lovely, and the Centro-Matic songs are appropriately bracing and ragged. But the two CDs, back to back, do point up the inherent problems with this approach. The South San Gabriel songs, always pretty, become somewhat soporific over the course of forty-five minutes, The Centro-Matic songs, always raw and visceral, start to blend together after a while. Shuffle Mode on your CD player may be the solution.

Johnson is, to put it mildly, a solipsistic songwriter, lost in his own mystical lyrical connections, so don’t come looking for straightforward narratives:

Strangled by the cellophane in the story of her life
She got theirs and they got mine
Eighteen tubes of butane running corporation fairs
It’s discount-like and out of time

That’s the way opening Centro-Matric track “Rat Patrols and DJs” starts out. Sure thing, dude. Number nine, number nine. But the obfuscation is presented in such a hook-filled, power-chord-buttressed way that it sounds just fine. He could be singing random words (and there is some evidence that he might be) and it would still sound great. On the other side of the schizophrenic schism, South San Gabriel opener “Emma Jane” is both much more lyrically focused and more musically sprawling; an impressionistic wash of acoustic guitar and cello that is simply begging for a hook.

It’s an impressive if frustrating approach, one that constantly highlights Johnson’s failures as well as his obvious gifts. His music deserves a wider audience, and this magnum opus just might be the logical place to start. But remember Shuffle Mode. It will help.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Iron Man

The entire appeal of superheroes escapes me. I never wanted to fly or leap tall buildings in a single bound. Belch and talk at the same time, sure, at least when I was 11. But I've honestly never given much thought to what the world might be like if I had superpowers. Hence I probably have little interest in watching guys in capes defeat nefarious criminals. In general, guys in capes scare me. I remember Genesis and Yes from the early '70s.

So I thought Iron Man might be a Black Sabbath documentary. It's not. It's a superhero movie. I haven't seen it. But I just found out this fun fact this weekend, when the movie opened to great fanfare and much box office success. I had seen a few cryptic references to an upcoming movie called Iron Man. I had secretly hoped for an Ozzy Osbourne biopic. I am disappointed again.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Guilty Pleasures

We all have ‘em. Admit it. You do too. It’s not as big a problem with iPods, unless you happen to share your playlists with your friends. But with vinyl albums and CDs, they’re out there for all the world to see, displayed on the shelves. So if you’re like me, you do what any self-respecting music lover would do: you hide them behind various kitschy knickknacks and brick-a-brack that your wife purchased at vintage stores, and you hope that no one looks behind the lava lamp. Let’s just say that there are certain albums that push the Hopelessly Unhip meter way over into the red.

But look, I’m empowered, I’m strong, and I can take it. No more hiding albums behind the lava lamp. I am Andy; hear me roar.

John Denver – Poems, Prayers and Promises

I had a college roommate who looked just like John Denver. He played guitar. He sang John Denver songs, including the one that made all the girls swoon, the one that goes “You fill up my senses like a night in a forest.” God, I wanted to puke. You fill up my nostrils like the stench from a rotting corpse.

And for a long time I hated John Denver, the tree-hugging muppet. For a while there he had his own television show, just like Tony Orlando and Dawn. Both shows sucked. I secretly rejoiced when he was arrested for DUI. I wanted him to be eaten by a shark when he was out there diving with Jacques Cousteau. But a few years ago, long after his death, long after the college roommate jealousies had disappeared, I pulled out Poems, Prayers and Promises. That’s the album with “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” I like that song, even if the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah River are in western Virginia, not West Virginia. That’s the album with “I Guess He’d Rather Be in Colorado.” I listened in Ohio and thought he had a point. There are a few other good songs as well. I now proudly display this album on the shelf, for all the world to see.

America – Greatest Hits

They were CSN&Y Lite. Instead of writing about four dead in Ohio, they wrote about muskrats in love. “Don’t cross the river if you can’t swim the tide,” they told us, sensible water safety advice that I wanted to withhold from John Denver. They had the laidback hippie SoCal sound of the early ‘70s, they harmonized beautifully, and they wrote a bunch of inane pop tunes.

None of the official releases can hold up. But I’m telling you, this Greatest Hits album is chock full of inane, sweet goodness. The lyrics are inconsequential, unless you think “Oz never did give nothin’ to the Tin Man that he didn’t already have” borders on profundity. But “Lonely People” still sounds like the best song Neil Young never wrote, “Ventura Highway” really is a laidback hippie anthem, and “Sister Golden Hair” still holds a sentimental spot in my heart, mainly for the girl who got away from the guitar-playing clutches of my John-Denver-loving college roommate.

The Cars – The Cars, Candy-O, Panorama, Shake It Up, Heartbeat City

There is a school of music criticism that holds that you can’t be any good if you sell 10 million records; that popularity, in and of itself, is the death knell for creativity and innovation because the great unwashed masses don’t know jack about quality.

You know what? I don’t care. The Cars sold millions of records. They’re still a mainstay on Classic Rock radio. And the five-album run they had from the late ‘70s through the ealry ‘80s can hold up against anything released during that time period. Elvis Costello and Talking Heads get all the critical acclaim, but The Cars took New Wave and turned it into the perfect music for summertime cruises, releasing a couple dozen almost perfect pop tunes full of massive hooks, anthemic choruses, Ric Ocasek’s deadpan imitation of Lou Reed, and inventive guitar/synth interplay. Panorama is the only semi-weak link here, and it’s still decent. Everything else is very good to great. It’s time for a critical reevaluation of this band.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Southeast Engine

I have a love/hate relationship with Pitchfork. As the foremost indie music site on the web, the Fork wields extraordinary power over the lives of the musicians/bands it reviews. A positive review can break a band wide open. Just ask Arcade Fire and Sufjan Stevens. A negative review can sink a band faster than you can say "cutout bin" (or whatever the MP3 equivalent of that might be). The writing tends to be snarky, hipper-than-thou, and riddled with obscure references to cultural touchstones known only to the writer and four of his hipper-than-thou friends. Sometimes they even get around to discussing the music. And sometimes they get it right.

And so, in an inscrutable act that we won't ponder too deeply, Pitchfork actually got around to reviewing the now 8-month old Southeast Engine album A Wheel Within a Wheel today. And, wonder of wonders, they like it.

I like it, too. I've written about it before, right here and here. It's a terrific album, and they're a bunch of nice guys, so I'm hoping that the PFork treatment translates to some much deserved recognition. In the meantime, they've produced the best alt-country/indie rock album that I bet you've never heard. You could remedy that, you know.