Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Gourds -- Haymaker!

There's a band out of Austin, Texas called The Gourds. I've loved them for years, but I always find myself somewhat tongue-tied (or keyboard-tied) when I try to describe them and their music. A couple of them have skanky ZZ Top beards, beerguts, and look like they should be driving big rigs. They have an accordion player named Claude. They have two lead singers who do very passable imitations of Levon Helm and Rick Danko from The Band -- merely two of the best rock vocalists ever. They play a sort of swamp rock/boogie/Cajun/country conglomeration that doesn't fit easily within any of those niches. And the songs? They sing about flatulence, Star Trek, weather girls, Schoolhouse Rock, and Catwoman. All of which would lead you to believe that they're a sort of weirdly adolescent, pop-culture-obsessed novelty act, which they are, but then they turn around and knock you out with a perfect unrequited love song that sounds so real and honest and desperate that you'd swear the lyrics were written in blood.

They have a new album called Haymaker!, which will be out right after the beginning of the year. It's probably their best album in a long career of good and very good albums. It's raw and soulful. There's a little more of a Cajun influence and a lot more classic Levon Helm hillbilly wail this time around. There are songs about do rags. There are songs about otherwise unknown people named Thurman. There are songs about fossils. And there are great love and unrequited love songs. They do what they've always done, only better. Right now it's at the top of my Best Albums of 2009 list. Yeah, I know. But I'll still bet that it won't move off the list.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Shawn Phillips

I wrote about Shawn Phillips a few years ago in Paste Magazine. He was my musical hero in high school, one of those great but largely unknown musicians who quietly assembled a magnificent body of work that almost nobody heard. Naturally, he was the perfect find for musical snobs, of which I proudly claim my membership.

I was thrilled when my Paste article eventually ended up on his website.

Shawn wrote very good songs, but he usually saved his best trick for the end of those songs. That trick involved an impossibly gorgeous falsetto that kept soaring up and up, and then up some more just when you thought he couldn't possibly go any higher.

He does it on this song, too. It's not much of a video (although it gives you plenty of time to contemplate that amazing hair; I'm still envious). And it's long, but it's worth it. And listen for that trick.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Protest Music, 21st Century Style

One of the fringe benefits of the Bush administration is that it has led to a resurgence in good, old-fashioned protest music, the kind last heard during the halcyon days of the Vietnam War. We went through the lethargic ‘80s and ‘90s, watched the fall of Communism and got fat and rich thanks to our high-tech stocks, and there just wasn’t much reason to kvetch and moan, outside of an occasional dustup in Kuwait or Kosovo. Strictly small potatoes. Now, thanks to Iraq and Afghanistan, Hurricane Katrina, and the implosion of the stock market and everybody’s retirement savings and/or jobs, the glory days have returned, and songwriters are once again aiming their barbed pens right at the heart of darkness. This is a good thing, although the rest of reality kind of sucks. But we take the good where we can find it.

On the flip side, it should be noted that most protest songs (yes, even from the glorious sixties) are boring, hamfisted, and have all the subtlety of a sledgehammer used to extract an irritated tooth. And so it’s also worth stating that the oughties, or whatever decade we’re in, have also represented the very nadir of protest song writing, as evidenced by Steve Earle’s misogynistically sneering “Condi Condi” (Oh Condi, Condi I’m talkin’ to you girl /What’s it gonna hurt, come on give me a whirl/Shake your body now let me see you go) and virtually the entire Neil Young catalogue from this decade, which has featured gently persuasive tracks such as “Let’s Impeach the President.” Ah, the wrath of the peaceful hippies.

But here are three musicians/bands who have done it well. Todd Snider and Chris Smither are smartasses, but they’re humorous smartasses, and their wit ultimately wins me over. The Decemberists are oblique and idiosyncratic enough to get by with what turns out to be a pretty powerful anti-war song, and it’s impossible not to sing along with that “la de da” chorus at the end. Who knew that the Apocalypse would turn out to be a musical?

Will Rogers said he never met a man he didn’t like
Wait, let me back up and make sure I got that right.
He might have liked every man he met, that’s true.
But he never said he liked every man that he knew.

I met a woman with a Midas touch,
I never could get her to touch very much.
I met a man of opportunity,
He never offered any of it to me.
I met a soldier at a recruit booth
Said he’d make a man out of me and stole my youth.

Working for a man who could not stop lying,
Drove us all off a cliff and called it flying.
That ain’t flying.

Most men flying seem to understand
That a man technically hasn’t flown ‘til he lands
If you’re coming into land and you crash and die,
All you really did for sure was get too high.

You ever get too high?
No. Neither have I.
But I will have to, to prove to you guys
I’m so turned around I could calm up a riot.
Fighting for peace? That’s like screaming for quiet.

I don’t know what I’ve been told
Might meet a little fox in an atheist hole
I don’t know what I’ve been told
I don’t know what I’ve been told
I don’t know what I’ve been told
I don’t know for sure, I’ve just been told
-- Todd Snider, “Mission Accomplished (You Gotta Have Faith)

We’re gettin’ edgy, we better find a war
There must be somethin’ worth fightin’ for
Peace is so peaceful, it ain’t no way to survive
When nobody hates you
Nobody knows you’re alive

We got the guns, we got the army too
They like to fire, they want to sing for you
Wham, bam, slip-slidin’ away
You know the less you got
The more you’re gonna pay

You want it, you get it, we got what you need
You ain’t got to sweat it, we gonna make you bleed

We got some freedom, we got the iPod store
We got the savior, you couldn’t ask for more
Take it or leave it, that’s the key for today
But if you leave it, you get it anyway

You want it, you get it, we got what you need
You ain’t got to sweat it, we gonna make you bleed

It’s a coda, you ain’t supposed to laugh
It ain’t a joke, it’s an epitaph
It’s the rise and fall, that’s the name of the game
We got the land of the free,
The blind leadin’ the lame
We got the land of the free,
The blind leadin’ the lame
-- Chris Smither, “Diplomacy”

Sixteen military wives
Thirty-two softly focused brightly colored eyes
Staring at the natural tan
of thirty-two gently clenching wrinkled little hands
Seventeen company men
Out of which only twelve will make it back again
Sergeant sends a letter to five
Military wives, whose tears drip down through ten little eyes

Cheer them on to their rivals
Cause America can, and America can't say no
And America does, if America says it's so
It's so!

And the anchorperson on TV goes...
La de da de da

Fifteen celebrity minds
Leading their fifteen sordid wretched checkered lives
Will they find the solution in time
Using their fifteen pristine moderate liberal minds?

Eighteen academy chairs
Out of which only seven really even care
Doling out the garland to five
Celebrity minds, they're humbly taken by surprise

Cheer them on to their rivals
Cause America can, and America can't say no
And America does, if America says it's so
It's so!

And the anchorperson on TV goes...
La de da de da de-dadedade-da
La de da de da de-dadedade-da

Fourteen cannibal kings
Wondering blithely what the dinner bell will bring
Fifteen celebrity minds
Served on a leafy bed of sixteen military wives

Cheer them on to their rivals
Cause America can, and America can't say no
And America does, if America says it's so
It's so!

And the anchorperson on TV goes...
La de da de da de-dadedade-da
La de da de da de-dadedade-da
La de da de da de-dadedade-da-dedadeda-de de dadede-daaaaa
-- The Decemberists, “16 Military Wives”

Monday, October 27, 2008


This is probably of limited value given my international readership (it's a joke; laugh), but in case any of you are considering a roadtrip to the heart of Buckeyeland, Aradhna will be playing a concert at Hughes Hall on the Ohio State University campus on Thursday, November 20th. The concert is free, although donations are accepted and appreciated. Aradhna is sponsored by International Friendships and Friends of Aradhna, the second organization being a high-falutin' title for, well, people named Don and Andy.

All donations will be used to support Freedom Firm, an organization dedicated to abolishing human trafficking. If you're nearby, or even if you're not, come out to support a great cause and hear some wonderfully contemplative, uplifting worship music. And I don't write that lightly. There's very little contemporary worship music that I would describe as either "contemplative" or "uplifting."

Friday, October 24, 2008

Celine Dion

In a head-scratching and soul-stirring move, Sony Music has sent me not one, but two new Celine Dion albums. The first, My Love - Essential Collection, features seventeen beloved Celine classics, among them one-of-a-kind titles such as "The Power of the Dream," "The Power of Love," and "A New Day Has Come." The cover, featuring Celine in an unbuttoned white blouse, finds the chanteuse staring moodily down into her cleavage. The power of the dream, indeed. And if essential isn't good enough for you, Sony has also issued My Love - Ultimate Essential Collection, which splits the goodness between two discs and 26 tracks. This time the cover shows Celine in the same unbuttoned white blouse, but the wider shot reveals what the first cover does not: Celine is actually, inexplicably, standing half naked while holding a camera. As you might guess, there are several additional and equally essential tracks, including "Where Does My Heart Beat Now?" (hint: right above the camera, and right below ... ah, never mind)

I find the marketing curious. I don't pay much attention to Celine's music, so I will admit that I expect nothing more than the usual robodiva scale trilling and overemotive schmaltz. But the covers baffle me. If I had to guess, I would guess that Celine's music appeals primarily to young women. But the covers suggest a concerted effort to woo young men. And maybe it will work. The images are, ah, arresting. But I just can't see many young, virile dudes belting out the love theme from Titanic. But it has me curious, and at least somewhat interested to see if there might be an upcoming My Love - Definitively Ultimate Essential Collection box set.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Frightened Rabbit -- Head Rolls Off

Frightened Rabbit -- Liver! Lung! FR!

Don't drive on the sidewalk. It's a commonly understood traffic rule that can get you arrested if you violate it. My father found it out the hard way less than a year ago when he tried to pick up a prostitute. Do your propositioning from the street. And it's a hard truth that Frightened Rabbit frontman Scott Hutchison seemingly understands all too well. Like the great John Updike short story "Transaction," a clinical and dispassionate account of a loveless sexual encounter, Hutchison's songs plumb the depths of love as the mere exchange of bodily fluids. And unlike John Updike, he can really sing.

Frightened Rabbit have a brand new live album called Liver! Lung! FR!. It's apparently a Scots thing. I find the album name as inscrutable and as mildly irritating as the name of the band itself. It's essentially The Midnight Organ Fight album minus the electric guitars and a couple of the short song interludes. And that's both good news and bad news. Minus the anthemic, arena-shaking crescendos (quite possibly the best I've heard since the first few U2 albums), these songs are forced to stand on Hutchison's mournful brogue and acoustic folk bluster. And they stand just fine because they are great songs, and because The Midnight Organ Fight is easily one of the best albums released this year. Stripped to their basic components, Hutchison's songs come alive in new and surprising ways. Jesus is just a Spanish boy's name/How come one man got so much fame? sounds not so much like irreverent smartass protest as the cry of a lonely man who wouldn't mind finding something more substantial upon which to stake a life.

There's disease and dis-ease, self-loathing and hollowness and sham promise everywhere in these songs. "The Modern Leper" finds Hutchison comparing himself to an untouchable, not because of physical symptoms, but because of his grotesque heart:

A cripple walks among you all, you tired human beings
He's got all the things a cripple has not, working arms and legs

"Keep Yourself Warm," a song that drops the F bomb no less than twenty times, ought to be required listening in church marital counseling sessions:

I'm drunk, I'm drunk, and you're probably on pills
When we both have the same diseases it's irrelevant, girl
Do you really think you'll find love in a hole?

It takes more than fucking someone to keep yourself warm

Most revelatory of all is "The Twist," not the classic Chubby Checker tune, which ratchets up the self-loathing and desperation to near unbearable levels:

Twist and whisper the wrong name
I don't care and nor do my ears
Twist yourself around me
I need company, I need human heat
Let's pretend I'm attractive and then you won't mind
We can twist for a while
It's the night, I can be who you like
And I'll quietly leave before it gets light

Okay, maybe the Sunday School class might not appreciate it. But there's profound truth there, and an ache that is palpable. Songwriters are rarely so vulnerable, or so transparently disarming. The Midnight Organ Fight is an album about fighting for hope and human connection in the midst of a world obsessed with hollow image. Stripped to its bare essentials, Liver! Lung! FR! explores those same themes with even more stark results, and shows that Frightened Rabbit can transfer the studio magic to the stage. They display every evidence of being a terrific live band. I'll let you know. I'm seeing them in Columbus tonight.

Monday, October 20, 2008


I am not a gearhead. I always consider myself fortunate whenever I'm able to pour the coolant into the car and it winds up in the right compartment, and not where the oil is supposed to go. Just last week, in fact, I managed to pour the coolant into the correct receptable, but failed to attach the rod that props up the hood into its Proper Slot(TM) when I was finished, and thereby jammed the hood into a permanently semi-open position where it could neither be opened nor closed.

Still, I've had two car geek experiences in the past week that have left me feeling warm and automotively competent.

The old semi-reliable minivan finally broke down permanently (that the hood could never be opened again was somewhat of a factor) after ten years and 150,000 miles, so we bought a new Mazda 6 on Thursday. It looks like the one pictured, right down to the color. It's billed as "sporty family sedan," which sounds like an oxymoron, and probably is, but it's kind of fun to be in a car that goes from 0 to 60 in under two minutes. We bought it at the Ricart Auto Mall, a legendary local institution that consists of a dozen or more car dealerships, all owned by Fred Ricart, and which stretches for about a mile in every direction. There were cars, and nothin' but cars, as far as the eye could see. Now, the coolest thing about the Ricart Auto Mall is that it has its own Test Track. One doesn't take one's prospective new car out for a test drive on the local roads. No sir. One takes it to the Ricart Test Track.

So we did. First, the negatives: I was really hoping that they would issue me a helmet. Nope. That didn't happen. Second, the straightaway was just too short to really push that new prospective auto, and I was hoping to open it up to, say, at least 120 MPH. Nope. So I revved it up to maybe 45 MPH. The positives: those orange cones. I was zigging and zagging, cornering and maneuvering like a seasoned pro. And the orange barrels were positioned just perfectly, and posed significant driving hazards. You smack that new car into an orange cone, and it's no big deal. But you smash into one of those orange barrels and you severely dent a car you don't own yet and probably incur the wrath of Fred Ricart. I was sweating profusely, but I managed to avoid collisions while still squealing the tires. It was great fun.

So that was one gearhead adventure. The second occurred yesterday, following the memorial service for my dad. My cousin Mike was in town, and Mike is a serious gearhead. He owns a semi-fleet of rebuilt and refurbished classic Porsches from the 1950s and 1960s. So Mike and I talked Porsches. "Do you prefer the 911 to the 914?," I asked him, and "Is there a better mid-engine roadster than the Boxster?" I could tell he was impressed. Here was a side to his bookish, nerdlike cousin he had never seen before. So he enthusiastically told me his many and varied opinions about classic Porsches.

I didn't have the heart to tell him that I know these things because of Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed, a video game that allows me to race virtual Porsches along the French Riviera and over the Pyrenees. That game has caused some problems for me, particularly in the transference of virtual driving skills to real-world driving skills, such as when I've tried to take a corner in the minivan on two wheels. But I didn't tell him. I played along. And I think I went up a notch or two in his estimation.

In any event, I'm feeling greasy and savvy and ready for the open road. We have a lot of orange barrels on actual highways in Columbus. Unfortunately, they typically limit the speed at which one can travel to about 10 MPH.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Tell Tale Signs

I must relinquish my tenacious hold on Son Lux's At War With Walls and Mazes and simply admit that Bob Dylan's Tell Tale Signs, the eighth installment of Columbia's Bootleg Series, will be the best album of 2008. These songs are, by the way, the leftovers, the ones that Bob and/or his producers didn't deem fit for inclusion on the official releases of the past twenty years. Which again simply proves that there is the rest of the musical world, and there is Bob Dylan. I'll put it this way. With Vol. 8 there are now 8 multiple CD sets of Dylan leftovers. And if Dylan had only released those leftovers, he would be the greatest and most important songwriter of the past 50 years. Sorry, Ryan Lott. I hope you don't mind giving up the top spot to someone of that magnitude.

As most people here know, I'm not a fan of Daniel Lanois' heavy-handed production, so it is a great, great pleasure to hear some of the more familiar songs freed from their sonic sarcophagus. Unwind the gauzy sheets from that mummy and you find that he can still rock and carry a tune. The live tracks bite and sting. The alternate versions of the previously released songs are, almost without exception, more raw, more urgent, and simply better than the versions that appeared on Oh, Mercy, Time Out of Mind, and Modern Times. And the previously unreleased songs? There are two songs here -- "Red River Shore" and "'Cross the Green Mountain" -- that are as nuanced and deeply layered and insightful as anything Bob Dylan has ever written. Awash in rueful regret, full of tender expressions of love, they reflect the hard, beautiful stuff of real life, and they are astonishing. And Bob Dylan left these songs on the cutting room floor.

The man simply has no peers. He plays in a world that celebrates youth, and he can still school the kids at the ripe old age of 67. Long may he howl.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Christmas '08 Holiday Roundup

The frost isn’t exactly on the pumpkin. Here in central Ohio we’ve yet to have a frost. Still, the new Holiday (as in Christmas, not Halloween) albums are beginning to arrive, and I’ve heard a few I’ve actually enjoyed. Given the normal Christmas album fare, this is a remarkable statement. You might enjoy them, too.

Tony Bennett and The Count Basie Big Band – A Swingin’ Christmas

Tony Bennett is 82 years old now, and that impeccable voice is most certainly frayed around the edges. So give a slight edge here to the Count Basie Big Band (and arranger Bill Holman in particular), who reimagine these hoariest of Christmas carols and bastions of department store Xmas schmaltz as something surprisingly new and bracing. Bennett and the Basie Band cheat a little. Most people wouldn’t consider “My Favorite Things” (okay, it’s got the brown paper packages tied up with string) and “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm” as holiday classics. But they’re great standards, and Tony still sings standards as well as anyone. More importantly, the Basie Band arrangements breathe new life into even the most tired of songs, and the stacked, muted horns and Monty Alexander’s understated piano swing truly convey the Basie spirit. Tony? That frayed voice still swings like crazy, and conveys whole worlds of nuanced soul. Who else could turn the trite sentiments of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” into a sort of plaintive prayer?

The Boxmasters – Christmas Cheer

The Boxmasters are the vehicle for actor Billy Bob Thornton’s musical alter ego. Unlike similar vanity projects, Thornton actually has some musical talent, and his band is surprisingly good. Billy Bob hangs out with Dwight Yoakam, so it’s not particularly shocking that he brings the Merle Haggard/Buck Owens Bakersfield vocal swagger to the proceedings. More unexpected is the British Invasion jangle, courtesy of guitarist Michael Bulter. This is territory that has been covered by Austin’s Derailers for many years now, and if The Boxmasters aren’t quite up to those exemplary standards, they’re not that far off. More traditional material such as “We Three Kings” and “Silver Bells” sounds stiff and forced, but Thornton and his bandmates really hit their stride (or, more accurately, their lope) on John Prine’s “Christmas in Prison” and on Elvis Presley’s mournful chestnut “Blue Christmas.”

The Fleshtones – Stocking Stuffer

Garage rock yahoos The Fleshtones have been banging out three chords and a backbeat for 25 years now, and it’s probably too much to expect anything close to respectful veneration on a Christmas album. In any case, the resulting smorgasbord of ‘50s rockabilly classics and obscure R&B holiday fare certainly doesn’t qualify for anything that will please the devout. Representative song titles are “Super Rock Santa,” “Champagne of Christmas,” and “Christmas with Bazooka Joe.” Don’t come looking for “O Holy Night.” That said, these garage rock anthems are loud, boisterous, and lots of fun. Most surprising is the closer “In Midnight’s Silence,” in which the bashers actually get somewhat quiet and reverential and sing “the Son of God is born.”

Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer – American Noel

Portland, Oregon folkies Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer recorded eight (mostly) original songs for a series of holiday compilation CDs put out by a northwest department store chain. The results are compiled here, and from such inauspicious beginnings emerges some truly homespun greatness. Dave’s untimely death in 2002 derailed this promising duo, but their obvious strengths are on full display here; beautiful high harmony singing, superb interplay between Dave’s guitar and banjo and Tracy’s fiddle, and some surprisingly moving, poetic songwriting. Non-originals “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” (performed here as an Appalachian bluegrass workout) and the Dickens-era social protest of “The Ditchling Carol” are superb choices, the latter sounding as relevant today, in the age of foreclosures, as it must have sounded in Victorian England. And Dave’s original songs, particularly “Footsteps of the Faithful” and the title track, are altogether lovely and gentle things, front porch ruminations on the role of faith in an increasingly frightening world. Like Dave’s life, it’s all over too soon, and not a second is wasted.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Kiss My Ash

This is an urn. It looks remarkably like the kind of vase you could buy for $29.95 at Target. But when you buy it from a funeral home, and it is used to contain ashes, not flowers, it costs $1,000.[1]

So here are a few tips for those of you who may one day die. Yes, this means you. These end-of-life lessons can be useful.

1) Spend the $50 per year to buy a $5,000 life insurance policy. Suck it up. This will pay for your burial. Your kids will thank you one day.

2) Don't change your will three times during the last year of your life. This confuses people, especially lawyers.

3) If you ignore the previous warning and still decide to change your will, try not to leave your assets to someone who is already dead. This further compounds the confusion, and is likely to lead to lengthy proceedings that will only result in further wealth for the lawyers. Lawyers love this stuff. They actually start salivating when they encounter a will that designates that all the stuff goes to a stiff. Everybody else hates it, though.

4) If you are going through serious illness, don't designate someone that your kids have never met as the person with ultimate authority to make all medical decisions. This leads to weird conversations such as:

"Should we take him off of life support?
"I don't know. We have to consult with Bobby."
"Who the hell is Bobby?"

5) Finally, if you earn money and/or spend money, try to keep some sort of coherent financial records that extend beyond writing cryptic notes such as "Pay Property Taxes" on the back of a discarded pizza box. If you have a checkbook, keep a record of the checks you write. Elementary addition and subtraction skills are also handy. Work on your organizational and mathematical skills now if you need to.

[1] We need a solution, we need salvation
Let's send some people to the moon and gather information
They brought back a big bag of rocks
Only cost 14 billion
Must be nice rocks
-- Larry Norman, "Reader's Digest"

Monday, October 13, 2008

Best of 2008 Compilation

Mix tapes used to look like this. I've made a gazillion of 'em in my time, and spent untold hours meticulously placing needles on the grooves of record albums and pushing the Play and Record buttons at just the precise moment to avoid having to record the sound of the needle hitting the grooves.

Now I have that wondrous iPod, and creating mixes is a breeze. I do this every year, although I've now expanded the operations so that what started out as a single tape, and then became a single CD, is now a 3-CD set. And since I'm now receiving new music that will be released in January and February of 2009, it's probably a fairly safe time to compile the Best of 2008 edition. So here it is. If you'd like copies, send me an email message at whitmana (at) hotmail (dot) com with your snail mail address. I'll be happy to mail off the set to you, although it may take me a while to get around to doing so.

In no implied order other than alphabetical, this is my favorite music from 2008:

Disc 1

Adele – Hometown Glory
Alabama 3 – Mao Tse Tung Said
Amos Lee – Won’t Let Me Go
Anathallo – The River
Beaujolais – Contemptual You
Black Francis – When They Come to Murder Me
The Black Keys – I Got Mine
Blind Pilot – Ovieto
Bob Dylan -- Cross the Green Mountain
Bon Iver – Re: Stacks
The Botticellis – Up Against the Glass
Centro Matic – The Rat Patrol and DJs
Chris Knight – Crooked Road
Damien Dempsey and The Dubliners – Rainy Night in Soho
Darrell Scott – American Tune
Dewey Cox – Royal Jelly
Ezra Furman and the Harpoons – We Should Fight

Disc 2

Firewater -- Borneo
Fleet Foxes – White Winter Hymnal
The Fleshtones – First Date (Are You Coming On To Me?)
Frightened Rabbit – Floating in the Forth
The Frontier Brothers – Technical Electronic Personic Robot (T.E.S.S.)
Gretel – Can I Still Come Over?
The Grip Weeds – Salad Days
Hacienda Brothers – A Lot of Days Are Gone
Hayes Carll – She Left Me For Jesus
Hayseed – God Shaped Hole
Headlights – Get Your Head Around It
Jacob Golden – Out Come the Wolves
Johnny Flynn and the Sussex Wit – Tickle Me Pink
Jolie Hollard – Palmyra
Josh Garrels – Jacaranda Tree
Kasey Anderson – Hometown Boys
Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson – Sweetest Waste of Time

Disc 3

Lambchop – National Talk Like a Pirate Day
Lucinda Williams and Elvis Costello – Jailhouse Tears
Marco Benevento – Atari
Matthew Ryan – It Could’ve Been Worse
MGMT – Time to Pretend
Old 97’s – No Baby I
Ray LaMontagne – Let It Be Me
Scott Kempner – Beyond the Pale
Sloan – Emergency 911
The Spinto Band – Later On
Sun Kil Moon – Harper Road
The Ting Tings – That’s Not My Name
TV on the Radio – Halfway Home
Unbunny – Water and the Spanish Tongue
Vampire Weekend – Oxford Comma
Waco Brothers – Harm’s Way
Watermelon Slim – Archetypal Blues No. 2

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Genesis 1970 - 1975

My review for Paste ....


So this is it, the Mother of All Prog Box Sets, the one that will send the snarling punks scurrying to buy mellotrons and shimmering wizard robes. The bare details: 7 remastered CDs, 6 DVDs, and a book. Skipping the forgettable Genesis debut album From Genesis to Revelation, this box chronicles the Peter Gabriel years, and the Peter Gabriel albums: Trespass, Nursery Cryme, Foxtrot, Selling England by the Pound, and the 2-disc The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, and adds a seventh disc of previously unreleased rarities and outtakes. It presents five video hours of the band in 2007 Boring Old Fart Mode, sitting around the studio and chewing the fat about the grand, weird days. And it features more than three fabulous hours of concert footage from the early ‘70s, the days when Gabriel wore winged bat headgear, was frequently engulfed in a wart-covered amorphous blob costume, and could occasionally be found on stage with mixed fruit on his head. The fact that these comic and nightmare visions could be seen on The Midnight Special, an early ‘70s music revue that usually featured the likes of Helen Reddy and Tony Orlando and Dawn, is all the more delightful.

First, the bad news: Trespass still isn’t very good, and except for the rousing closing track “The Knife” continues to sound like an awkward, uncertain band in search of its identity. Furthermore, the 2007 Old Fart video footage is overkill, and will only appeal to the most obsessive completists who long to know the minutiae of the band’s recording history. The good news: Genesis became a very good band very quickly, and everything else in this set is as good as this genre ever gets.

Nursery Cryme (1971) and Foxtrot (1972) laid out the basic template: complex, multi-part musical suites driven by Tony Banks’ keyboards and Gabriel’s theatrical, impressionistic songwriting. Unlike contemporaries Yes and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, Genesis never really pursued a souped-up approach to classical music, and the prodigious instrumental technique was never an end in itself, but was always used in service to the songs. And the songs themselves were wondrous and weird; tales of childhood oppression, murder, ghostly apparitions, suicide, and, in the 23-minute “Supper’s Ready,” nothing less than the apocalypse and the end of life on Planet Earth. It’s not all grisly mayhem, though. There’s a peculiarly English (and sometimes merely peculiar) sense of whimsy that pervades these songs and that lightens the otherwise dystopian worldview. Gabriel presides over the madness, his evocative voice sounding ancient and craggy even while still in his twenties.

Selling England By The Pound (1973) and The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (1974) are the twin pinnacles of the Prog Rock genre. The former is a sometimes pastoral, sometimes raging amalgam of offbeat humor and literary allusions, as quintessentially British as Monty Python, weird as hell and utterly captivating. The latter, a 2-disc set, is a supposed concept album with a concept so impenetrable that it’s best to forget the whole narrative line and simply concentrate on the wonders of the music. And the music is the best Genesis ever produced; slyly quoting The Drifters, of all people, on the title track, surging menacingly on “In the Cage,” floating as gently as a lullaby on “Carpet Crawlers,” and imploding on itself on the entire, nightmarish second disc. This is Genesis at the peak of its powers, and it’s no wonder that Gabriel left after this album. There was nowhere else to go.

That messy departure – the stuff of legend to Genesis fans – has been the source of unending debate for more than thirty years now. Genesis Mach II, with Phil Collins firmly at the controls, went on to record arguably better and inarguably more popular music during the late ‘70s through the ‘80s. Peter Gabriel went on to an equally impressive solo career. I’m content to call it a draw, and to admit that Gabriel made wildly inventive music, and that Collins created some of the best pop music of the era. But this box set is supremely impressive, and is among the best box sets ever released in terms of both the quality of the original material and the scope of the video and musical extras. For those who stubbornly cling to the belief that musical virtuosity is not a crime, and who still hold to the silly notion that guys with mellotrons and flutes can actually rock, Genesis 1970 – 1975 is an affirmation of all that was good and great about those silly wizard robes.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008


On September 11th, 2001, Bob Dylan released a new album called Love and Theft. It tended to get lost in the shuffle of other events that were transpiring at the time; something about airplanes crashing into tall buildings. But there was a song there called "Mississippi" that seemed to capture, in its enigmatic fashion, a whole world of beauty and malaise and regret, of time passing, of a shift in the order of things. Bob Dylan is always doing that, and he happened to do it on a day when the world changed.

On the day that my dad died, which happens to be today, Bob Dylan is releasing another new album called Tell Tale Signs. It's a 2-disc set of outtakes and previously unreleased tracks, and it's a masterpiece. Nobody but Bob Dylan leaves masterpieces in the can. Fortunately, he doesn't leave them there forever. This particular 2-disc set features two different versions of the song "Mississippi," each of them very different from the version that appeared on Love and Theft.

This song spoke to me on 9/11. It speaks to me again today:

Every step of the way, we walk the line
Your days are numbered, so are mine
Time is piling up, we struggle and we stray
We're all boxed in, nowhere to escape

City's just a jungle, more games to play
Trapped in the heart of it, tryin' to get away
I was raised in the country, I been working in the town
I been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down

Got nothing for you, I had nothing before
Don't even have anything for myself anymore
Sky full of fire, Pain pouring down
Nothing you can sell me, I'll see you around

All my powers of expression and thoughts so sublime
Could never do you justice in reason or rhyme
Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long

Well, the devil's in the alley, mule's in the stall
Say anything you wanna, I have heard it all
I was thinking about the things that Rosie said
I was dreaming I was sleeping in Rosie's bed

Walking through the leaves, falling from the trees
Feeling like a stranger nobody sees
So many things that we never will undo
I know you're sorry, I'm sorry too

Some people will offer you their hand and some won't
Last night I knew you, tonight I don't
I need something strong to distract my mind
I'm gonna look at you 'til my eyes go blind

Well I got here following the southern star
I crossed that river just to be where you are
Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long

Well my ship's been split to splinters and it's sinking fast
I'm drowning in the poison, got no future, got no past
But my heart is not weary, it's light and it's free
I've got nothing but affection for all those who sailed with me

Everybody's moving, if they ain't already there
Everybody's got to move somewhere
Stick with me baby, stick with me anyhow
Things should start to get interesting right about now

My clothes are wet, tight on my skin
Not as tight as the corner that I painted myself in
I know that fortune is waiting to be kind
So give me your hand and say you'll be mine

Well, the emptiness is endless, cold as the clay
You can always come back, but you can't come back all the way
Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long
-- Bob Dylan, "Mississippi"

My Dad

My dad died this morning about 6:30 EST.

It's weird. I'm at work. I need to lead two meetings today, the first at 9:00 a.m. Life goes on, although I may have a hard time catching up with life today. But I took all my bereavement time last week, when we all thought he would be dying/dead. Please pray for my family, particularly my sister Cathy, who is angry and hurt at my dad's lack of interest in her life, right up until the very end. I'm doing okay. Thanks.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Mercy Now

I know the economy is melting down, and that eventually I'm going to need to turn my attention to the fact that I now have a lot less money in the bank, and that I may not be employed much longer. But for the time being I'm content to focus on my father, The Man Who Would Not Die.

He was supposed to die Tuesday evening, after we took him off life support. He didn’t. He’s still ticking, although there’s no evidence of brain activity, and his body shows an alarming tendency to twitch spasmodically. We taped his eyes shut because it was too spooky to watch them roll around in his head. And so we’ve waited. My sister Libby, her waiting time now up, will fly back home to California today. My Columbus sister Cathy and I are headed back to work. We figured we’d have him buried by now.

We had a good week anyway. We laughed a lot, and cried a little. We spent time with funeral home staff members, lawyers, doctors, and nurses, but we still had a lot of time left over to reminisce, to compare memories and to try to make some sense out of the chaos of a home that featured an alcoholic, crazy mother and a philandering, adulterous father who would grab his car keys and drive away whenever the butcher knives appeared, my mother’s weapon of choice to torment the kids. He ran away from us all his life. Now he can’t run anymore.

He’s left behind a mess. His estate, such as it is, was left to a former roommate who is now dead. His latest will, which was supposed to designate my Columbus sister Cathy as the recipient of his home, was never signed, and so the good State of Ohio gets to figure it all out. My dad’s house apparently goes to the estate of the former roommate. Whoopee. I’m washing my hands of the whole affair, even though technically I’ve been named as the executor of his will. It’s what I told him I would do, and would not do when he told me he was leaving the house to his roommate. I refuse to execute injustice, at least if I can help it.

My dad was not the kind of man with whom most sane, healthy people would want to spend time. He was mean-spirited, abusive, self-centered, and couldn’t remember what I did for a living or the names of my daughters. He remembered the name of my wife, Kate, because she looked good and belonged to the right gender. He took all his retirement savings and used it to buy love. It didn’t work. The various exotic dancers and prostitutes who spent time with him over the last twenty years of his life were happy to take his money, but left him as soon as the money was gone. He lived profoundly alone, except for periodic visits from my sister Cathy, who is more kind than I am, and who endured his abuse and cooked and cleaned for him. She is now being denied any part of his estate for her troubles.

He tried, early on, to be a good dad. I have positive memories as well, more than my younger sisters do, in fact. He spent summer and fall evenings tossing baseballs and footballs with me. He taught me how to play chess. He helped me with my homework. And he’s gone missing for the last forty years of my life, even though we’ve mostly lived in the same town. His primary pursuits have been women and gambling, in that order. He’s lost at both. We’ve kept up the pretense of family to some extent. Once a year he has come to our house, eaten Christmas dinner with us, opened our presents, and gone back home. He doesn’t want to be there. Some years he’s brought exotic dancers along, and seventeen Christmas presents, all for the exotic dancers.

I’m thankful for the good, early days. I’m saddened for the person he became. I said my goodbyes to him last week. Now he lies in a hospital bed in a vegetative state, a husk of a dirty old man. This is who he is, or was. I pray for God’s mercy. The hospice workers call me, a hint of judgment in their voices. They don’t ask me what I know they want to ask me: why aren’t you here? I’m not there because there’s no one there. There hasn’t been anyone there since my dad was without oxygen for several minutes after his heart attack more than a week ago. There hasn’t been anyone there for almost forty years. But I pray for God’s mercy. It’s what my dad needs. It’s what I need, too.

An Almost-But-Not-Quite-Dead Rootsy Playlist

Fixin’ to Die Blues – Bukka White/Bob Dylan
Please Don’t Bury Me – John Prine
He Stopped Loving Her Today – George Jones
In My Time of Dying – Blind Willie Johnson/Led Zeppelin
T.B. Sheets – Van Morrison
To Daddy – Dolly Parton
O Death – Ralph Stanley
The Angels Rejoiced in Heaven Last Night – Gram Parsons/Emmylou Harris
Sing Me Back Home – Merle Haggard
Cold, Cold Ground – Tom Waits
Hospital Vespers – The Weakerthans
Mercy Now – Mary Gauthier

My father could use a little mercy now
The fruits of his labor
Fall and rot slowly on the ground
His work is almost over
It won't be long and he won't be around
I love my father, and he could use some mercy now

My brother could use a little mercy now
He's a stranger to freedom
He's shackled to his fears and doubts
The pain that he lives in is
Almost more than living will allow
I love my bother, and he could use some mercy now

My church and my country could use a little mercy now
As they sink into a poisoned pit
That's going to take forever to climb out
They carry the weight of the faithful
Who follow them down
I love my church and country, and they could use some mercy now

Every living thing could use a little mercy now
Only the hand of grace can end the race
Towards another mushroom cloud
People in power, well
They'll do anything to keep their crown
I love life, and life itself could use some mercy now

Yeah, we all could use a little mercy now
I know we don't deserve it
But we need it anyhow
We hang in the balance
Dangle 'tween hell and hallowed ground
Every single one of us could use some mercy now
Every single one of us could use some mercy now
Every single one of us could use some mercy now
-- Mary Gauthier, “Mercy Now”