Thursday, December 31, 2009

Holy Handouts

I know approximately 1,438 people who need money, not counting me. That's just in my immediate circle of friends. On an average day, I would estimate that I receive ten requests for money. Almost all of them are for good people and good causes. And I feel bad. I have no money to give. I need money myself.

I feel particularly bad when the people asking for handouts are friends, and the money they are asking for is to support causes that I very much want to support. This recession has been brutal on so many levels. It's not only about layoffs and reductions in services. It's also about good people who may not be able to continue doing good. But sometimes it's overwhelming. There are 8,752 mission trips, publications, orphan homes, homeless shelters, and homes for victims of sexual abuse out there. And a few more sisters, nieces, and nephews. I wish I could support them all. I really do. I can't, though.

Pundits can call it a jobless recovery if they like. It doesn't look like much of a recovery from where I sit.

Monday, December 28, 2009

A Very Personal, Highly Idiosyncratic Musical Overview of the Aughts

This is not about American Idol, Kenny Chesney, Radiohead, Sufjan Stevens, Beyonce, Wilco, or The Arcade Fire. If, for the past ten years, you’ve followed popular music beyond the narrow confines of Top 40 radio, you already know the big albums and the major musical trends of the decade. This is not about that. The Aughts were ushered in by a cavalcade of short-lived (sometimes all too literally) rap stars, pre-fab boy bands, and pop divas, and they will be ushered out by a cavalcade of rap stars and pre-fab artists who made their names by covering classic rock and Motown tunes on TV. Now that’s innovation. During the intervening ten years Pitchfork became the de facto arbiter of all things hip, and hyped a bunch of tuneless bands with animals in their names. MTV continued to have nothing to do with music, preferring instead to pump out reality shows of has-been rock stars dating D-list actresses. And Rolling Stone steadfastly held its ground, holding out for a Beatles reunion. To all of them I bid auld lang syne, and good riddance. I’m more interested in what happened in the margins, in those places where musical taste was not a fashion or lifestyle accessory, and where certain albums and songs intersected with my life and informed my understanding of what was happening around me.

So here’s a strange and idiosyncratic musical overview of the decade that was. Much of the music that was most meaningful to me was made by people who are not household names, perhaps not even in their own homes. But they made music that thrilled me, challenged me, and made me believe, all over again, in the everlasting value of three chords and a backbeat.

The Next Dylan, Twice Removed

The “new Dylan” tag has historically been a curse, the musical equivalent of appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Anybody remember Steve Forbert these days?

But since I’m inordinately fond of Bob Dylan, I tend to pay attention to these labels. The Aughts featured their share of nasal upstarts, but the most promising Dylan acolytes were Dan Bern, Ezra Furman, and The Tallest Man on Earth. Bern drew out his vowels and wrote epic nightmares on albums such as New American Language and Fleeting Days. Furman’s debut album Banging Down the Doors was a bracing, poetic yelp and snarl. And Swedish troubadour Kristian Matsson, who records as The Tallest Man on Earth, delivered a fine surrealistic opening salvo on 2008’s Shallow Grave.

It should also be noted that the original of the species is doing just fine, at least when he’s not attempting to croon Christmas carols best left to Bing Crosby. Dylan’s late-career renaissance continued throughout most of the decade, with two very strong albums (Love and Theft and Modern Times), and yet another Bootleg Series release (Vol. 8) that proves that Dylan leftovers and throwaways are far better than most artists’ Greatest Hits albums.

Jazz Finds a New Canon

I have nothing against George Gershwin or Cole Porter. They were marvelous songwriters. But their songs have formed the backbone of jazz for more than eighty years now. Do we really need another interpretation of “Someone to Watch Over Me”? Do we really need to give Rod Stewart another excuse to plunder the Great American Songbook?

And so it was a great pleasure to watch jazz musicians adapt during the Aughts. Pianist Brad Mehldau championed the music of Radiohead and Nick Drake. Punk piano trio The Bad Plus covered Nirvana and The Pixies, and deconstructed The Bee Gees. Jazz found a new canon, and if the old standards will never entirely go away (thank God), there was ample evidence that the genre was evolving, assimilating the great music of the near past, just as it always has.

The Soundtrack to Mortality

My father, father-in-law, and mother-in-law died this decade, as did assorted aunts and uncles, cousins, brothers-in-law, friends, and children of friends. There was a time in my life when it seemed like most of my spare time was taken up by weddings. I have apparently now crossed that threshold where funerals have supplanted weddings as the unhip way to pass the time. And time is surely passing. As a cousin pointed out to me at the funeral of her father and my uncle, “I guess this means we’re on deck now.” Whee.

Maybe it’s for that reason, or maybe it’s because I’ve always had a morbid streak a mile wide. In any event, I probably played Regard the End, by the curiously named The Willard Grant Conspiracy, more than any other album this decade. Nobody bought the album. It was a morose Americana meditation on death by drowning, ghosts, and Old Testament judgment and dread, leavened by a few glimpses of sweetness and hope. And it was a superb album that met me right where I lived, and that immeasurably helped me cope with loss. Robert Fisher’s craggy voice sang of shame, of pain, of missing what is gone and what isn’t coming back, and it was a soothing balm for the soul.

By Any Other Name

Mark Kozelek was my great musical discovery of the decade. I missed the Red House Painters albums in the ‘90s, dismissing them as morose whining. My loss. I discovered them during the Aughts. It was a good decade to discover Mark Kozelek. He started off good and got ridiculously great. Old Ramon, the 2001 swan song from Red House Painters, was Kozelek’s most accessible work yet, substituting melody and, gasp, choruses, for the unremitting drone. Ever the iconoclast, Kozelek released a batch of odd covers throughout the decade; songs ostensibly written by the likes of AC/DC, John Denver, Modest Mouse, and Yes, and sounding nothing like the originals and wholly like Mark Kozelek.

But he saved the best for last. Changing the name of his performing/recording band to Sun Kil Moon, Kozelek released two albums that will, if I have my way, someday be recognized as lost masterpieces, 2003’s Ghosts of the Great Highway and 2008’s April. By the way, the key word here is “lost”. No one probes the recesses of memory, of lost time and lost relationships, better than Mark Kozelek. He is, to pull out an obscure literary reference, Marcel Proust with a guitar. Those memories and relationships form the warp and woof of his worldview, and the tapestry he weaves is stunning in its longing and beauty. Musically, Kozelek alternates between gentle acoustic picker and Neil Young Godfather of Grunge mode, unleashing winding electric solos. But the longing, the yearning, is a constant, and it is a palpable reminder of why he is one of the most distinctive and worthwhile artists of the decade.

Great Scots

You can have your Brooklyns and your Portlands. For my money, the best music scene of the Aughts came out of Glasgow, Scotland. Belle and Sebastian and Camera Obscura continued to release delightful pop mini-symphonies. Mogwai balanced massive, sculpted guitar noise with surprisingly tender sentiments. The Twilight Sad, The Fratellis, Glasvegas, and Franz Ferdinand released a dozen soulful, soaring indie rock near masterpieces. Alasdair Roberts and Trembling Bells built on the foundation of traditional folk music and took it down some engaging, completely idiosyncratic byways. And Frightened Rabbit, one of the few animal bands that remembered how to engage in emotional catharsis, released three albums that heralded a new and potent folk-rock hybrid.

Heaven’s Garage Band

After the great but unheralded Minneapolis art punks Lifter Puller fizzled at the beginning of the decade, singer/songwriter Craig Finn and bassist/guitarist Tad Kubler relocated to Brooklyn and formed The Hold Steady. It was hard to envision what a change of scenery might mean. The band’s debut album, Almost Killed Me, didn’t sound appreciably different from what Lifter Puller was doing all along. Kubler rocketed power chords to the back of the bar, and Finn declaimed his hipster poetry, rattling off literate tales of losers and desperate hedonists.

So what happened? On the surface, not much. The sound didn’t change radically. Finn sang a bit more and declaimed less, and Franz Nicolay added vintage E Street Band keyboards. But at some point – either on Separation Sunday or Boys and Girls in America, take your pick – Finn became the best songwriter in rock ‘n roll, and the band itself became a juggernaut, the embodiment of all that was great about all the earnest schleps who actually seemed to believe that rock ‘n roll was a kind of salvation. In the process, they made transcendent music, a wondrously muscular and poetic concoction that delighted the classic rock fans and indie kids alike.
Heaven’s Choir

If the angels form bands (no heavenly hosts allowed; these are strictly small guitar, bass, and drums cherubim/seraphim combos), then I hope they sound like Sigur Ros. I hate the label “post-rock” (what?), and I hate the fact that these Icelandic Vikings have spawned a less-than-heavenly host of imitators. But there was no other band this decade that left me in such gaping, open-mouthed wonder. They went for the jugular every time, building their epic songs from the ground up, from sedate, ethereal beginnings to majestic, thunderous crescendos. It’s the “post-rock” formula, of course; one they pretty much invented and perfected. But the secret ingredient was the ravishing beauty, best encapsulated by Jonsi’s wordless (sorry I’m not seriously going to consider Hopelandic as a language), soaring falsetto. They made a glorious din; five albums worth this decade.

Models of Consistency

They weren’t always great, but they were always good, and they stayed good for a long time. There were others who released better individual albums, but these folks put out quality albums again and again, and they made music that considerably brightened a decade.

Andrew Bird
The Black Keys
Bonnie “Prince” Billy
British Sea Power
Buddy Miller
The Clientele
The Decemberists
Drive-By Truckers
Eleni Mandell
The Handsome Family
Iron and Wine
Jolie Holland
Kathleen Edwards
Loudon Wainwright III
M. Ward
Matthew Ryan
The Mountain Goats
Neko Case
The New Pornographers
P.J. Harvey
Patty Griffin
The Pernice Brothers
Richard Thompson
Sam Phillips
Sonic Youth
Sufjan Stevens
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists
The Thermals
Todd Snider
Tom Waits
TV on the Radio
Watermelon Slim
The Weakerthans
The White Stripes
Yo La Tengo

Artist of the Decade

Nobody – and yes, that includes the crotchety curmudgeon from Hibbing Minnesota – wrote better songs this decade than Joe Henry. He released four albums in the Aughts: Scar, Tiny Voices, Civilians, and Blood from Stars. They’re all essential. Just buy them. I’d like to think that, in twenty or thirty years or so, when the musical wheel turns and the world reassesses all that has been ignored, these albums will be recognized as the masterpieces they are.

Joe Henry has been making albums for twenty years now, and almost nobody buys them. If you like Tom Waits, you might like him. Like Waits, his songs are densely layered, heavily percussive, prone to careen off in unexpected directions. Unlike Waits, he can really sing, and his nasal, ring-a-ding croon emerges somewhere between Elton John and Frank Sinatra. His songs are jazz and folk and blues, all rolled into one, and given a woozy, off-kilter spin to suggest that he’s the lead singer for the house band at some Holiday Inn on Pluto. Jazz greats like Ornette Coleman and Brad Mehldau and Don Byron like to record with him. So do alt-country bands like The Jayhawks. So does the supremely gifted Victoria Williams, whose vocals are even more idiosyncratic than Joe's. So does guitarist Marc Ribot, but he plays with everybody. He occasionally employs operatic divas to provide accompaniment for lines like “Because there was no gold mine, I freed the dogs and burned their sled." Good luck trying to find a label for the surrealistic dreamscape that is his music. I'm content to just call it great. As an added bonus, his lyrics also happen to be jaw-droppingly wonderful, and work more often as standalone poetry than those of The Poet of a Generation. His songs are as consistently, restlessly challenging and rewarding as contemporary music gets.

So maybe I’m bitter, sitting here in my coffee-stained T-shirt. I don’t know why the rest of the world doesn’t recognize this incontrovertible truth. Maybe it’s the nondescript name that keeps people from discovering music that is anything but nondescript. Maybe it’s as simple as the fact that Joe Henry’s songs don’t fit into an easily defined box, and are too genre-busting to slot within the confines of today’s narrowcasting world. Whatever it is, Joe Henry is the Dylan that scarcely anybody knows.

I interviewed him five or six years ago, right before the release of his album Tiny Voices. He had woken up shortly before I called, and he had just returned from dropping his kids off at school. It was delicious to imagine this dutiful father and devoted family man returning to his notepad after making sure that the kids had their lunch money in hand, jotting down lyrics about widows of Central American revolutionaries, junkies, and rape victims, reveling in apocalyptic imagery involving bombers and tanks and beauty queens and circus freaks selling lemonade. He was writing the kind of shadowy, surrealistic nightmares that Dylan hadn’t explored since “Desolation Row,” and I imagined that he was doing it in his pajamas.

I don’t know if that’s literally true, of course, and Joe Henry wasn’t telling. But maybe that’s because he’s the master of the oblique, of the truth that resides in between the lines on a page, of the indirection that conveys as much in what isn’t said as in the black and white lyrics in the CD booklet. His song “This Afternoon” is a masterpiece of impending dread, of ominous detail piled atop ominous detail, and he never once gets around to saying what actually happens. But you have a pretty good inkling, and it isn’t good.

As an added bonus, he just might be the producer of the decade as well, and during the past ten years he’s worked with artists as diverse as Elvis Costello, Ani DiFranco, Teddy Thompson, Aimee Mann, Mavis Staples, and Mary Gauthier, and has almost single-handedly revived the careers of Solomon Burke, Allen Toussaint, and Bettye Lavette.

It’s a staggering body of work. Do yourself a favor and check him out now, before the musical wheel turns.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

R.I.P. Connie Hines

Man, tough year for celebrity deaths. Connie Hines, a distant co-star to a horse on '60s sit-com "Mr. Ed," has died.

“She was a girl married to a fellow listening to a horse. Her biggest line was 'lunch is ready,' ” co-star Alan Young said. "The rest of it was reacting to it. Connie never complained. How many actors would react that way?"

It's funny how the media affects one. I'm sorry for Brittany Murphy and her family. But I never connected with her. But I was in love, to the extent that 8-year-olds can be in love, with Connie Hines. I wanted to marry her and raise Palominos. May she rest in peace.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Favorite Albums of 2009

The usual disclaimers apply. I’ve made no attempt to calibrate what I like against the rest of the culture. This is what I like. If you don’t like it, that’s fine. But if it doesn’t appear on the list, it either means a) I didn’t hear it, or b) I heard it, but didn’t like it better than the 100 or so albums that appear here.

Oh, another thing: ten means ten. Yeah, I listed a bunch of Honorable Mention albums. That means I cheated a bit. But over and over again I’ve seen people pissed off at these kinds of lists, with indignant lists of their own comprised of the 100 or 200 artists who should have appeared in the Top 10. But ten means ten. Really. And I promise that I counted.

10. Lucero – 1372 Overton Park

Continuing on in the grand tradition of The Replacements and The Hold Steady, Lucero offer 12 ramshackle, raw bar band tales of scruffy losers and outsiders. There’s great Stones-like riffing. There are Memphis horns. There’s a raspy-voiced poet. What’s not to love?

9. David Bazan –
Curse Your Branches

Bazan breaks up with Jesus, barely hangs on with his family, and writes a wounded song cycle about it, full of anger and confusion. These aren’t merely the most harrowing songs in a career noted for its vulnerability and honesty. They are also the best crafted songs musically, a career high point in the midst of a life low point.

8. Mount Eerie – Wind’s Poem

Phil Elverum wins the award for combining the most disparate sounds of 2009. Writing songs of epic length, Elverum concocts a mixture of soothing ambience that wouldn’t have been out of place on a David Lynch soundtrack and grating, industrial noise, a sort of black metal lullaby. But good luck sleeping. Beneath the clang Elverum coos disturbing verses about mortality and disintegration. Beautiful and strange.

7. Florence and the Machine - Lungs

The best pop album I heard this year. Part Kate Bush pagan priestess, part Amy Winehouse R&B belter, Florence Welch unleashes 13 delectable tracks on her debut, some perfect pop/punk confections (see “Kiss With a Fist”), some so woolly and esoteric as to defy categorization entirely (see “Cosmic Love”). All of them are marvelous; there’s no filler.

6. Dave Perkins – Pistol City Holiness

Stevie Ray lives, sorta. Dave Perkins has backed everybody – Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, and most of the CCM contingent in Nashville. But he steps out here and rips off a brilliant blues/rock hybrid, spraying guitar notes, howling his literate laments and prayers, and engaging in inspired interplay with a red-hot band. This is the blues with a social conscience and a spiritual bent. And with a sense of humor. “I would hang with the Baptists if they could get that girl for me” is still the funniest line I’ve heard all year.

5. Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society – Infernal Machines

Big band music like you’ve never heard, mixing Ellington arrangements with tape loops and fuzz-toned guitar solos. Argue leaves plenty of room for the soloists, who are incendiary, but the arrangements are still the highlight here. This is big band music the way Duke and Mingus used to play it, but thoroughly immersed in modern sounds and sensibilities.

4. Aaron Strumpel -- Elephants

In the CCM world, the Psalms have often been used as set pieces for over-the-top emoting and Big Hairdos and Big Smiles for Jesus. Aaron Strumpel strips them back to the basics – tribal percussion, chanting, and occasional wailing, rediscovering the Lament in the Psalms of Lament in the process. Utterly striking and original, Strumpel’s music accentuates the soul in both the music and the words.

3. Various Artists – Fire In My Bones

This 3-CD set spans sixty years and almost as many stylistic shifts in African-American gospel, offering the best available overview of the music. There's nothing polished to a studio sheen here. These are the unfiltered sounds heard in church services throughout black America, and as such it comes closer to worship music than most of the more sanitized imitators. Raw, raucous, and uplifting, this is music for Sunday morning, Saturday night, and everything in between.

2. The Felice Brothers – Yonder Is the Clock

The Dylan/Band comparisons are inevitable, but look – Bob Dylan and The Band made some of the best and most timeless music ever. So Ian Felice sounds like Bob Dylan; specifically, like the mid-‘60s electric Dylan on “Chicken Wire,” and like the early ‘60s folkie Dylan on “Cooperstown.” And The Felice Brothers sound like The Band circa The Basement Tapes. You got a problem with that? I don't.

1. Joe Henry – Blood From Stars

An album about love – human and divine – delivered by a song-and-dance man fronting a jazz/blues combo. And a profound meditation on the intertwined natures of darkness, grace, and change. Joe Henry is the finest songwriter in contemporary American music. His catechism – thirteen songs in this case, bordered by a prelude and an epilogue – teaches me new things about myself, and love, and marriage, and God, every day.

Honorable Mentions

A.C. Newman – Get Guilty
Alasdair Roberts – Spoils
Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion
The Antlers – Hospice
Antony and the Johnsons – The Crying Light
Arctic Monkeys – Humbug
The Avett Brothers – I and Love and You
The Bats – The Guilty Office
Bibio – Ambivalence Avenue
Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears – Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is
Brandi Carlile – Give Up the Ghost
Buddy and Julie Miller – Written in Chalk
Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career
The Clientele – Bonfires on the Heath
Dan Auerbach – Keep It Hid
Dan Deacon – Bromst
Dave Rawlings Machine – A Friend of a Friend
The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love
Dinosaur Jr. – Farm
Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca
Early Day Miners – The Treatment
Eleni Mandell – Artificial Fire
Frank Turner – Poetry of the Deed
Fuck Buttons – Tarot Sport
The Gourds – Haymaker
Gretel – The Dregs
Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
Hallelujah the Hills – Colonial Drones
I Was a King – I Was a King
Ike Reilly – Hard Luck Stories
Imogen Heap – Ellipse
James Blackshaw – The Glass Bead Game
Josh Garrels – Lost Ahimals
Justin Townes Earle – Midnight At the Movies
Kevin Devine – Brother’s Blood
Laura Gibson – Beasts of Season
Leonard Cohen – Live in London
Levon Helm – Electric Dirt
The Low Anthem – Oh My God, Charlie Darwin
Madeleine Peyroux – Bare Bones
Manchester Orchestra – Mean Everything to Nothing
Marianne Faithfull – Easy Come, Easy Go
Maxwell – BLACKsummers’night
mewithoutYou – It’s All Crazy! It’s All False!
Mos Def – The Ecstatic
The Mountain Goats – The Life of the World to Come
Muse – The Resistance
Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
Passion Pit – Manners
Patrick Watson – Wooden Arms
The Receiver – Length of Arms
The Rural Alberta Advantage – Hometowns
Russian Circles – Geneva
Sondre Lerche – Heartbeat Radio
Southeast Engine – From the Forest to the Sea
St. Vincent – Actor
Sufjan Stevens – The BQE
Telekinesis – Telekinesis!
Trembling Bells – Carbeth
The Twilight Sad – Forget the Night Ahead
U2 – No Line on the Horizon
Watermelon Slim – Escape from the Chicken Coop
Why? – Eskimo Snow
Wild Light – Adult Nights
Will Gray – Introducing Will Gray
Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Mars Volta

There is no excuse, really. These guys represent everything I hate about prog-metal hyperventillation. They shriek. They change time signatures about every eight seconds. They write indecipherable lyrics that might involve sci-fi themes, might involve horror themes, and might merely involve poor communication skills. It's really hard to tell. But they have decapitated heads on their album covers, and the decapitated heads emit a glowing light from the eye sockets, so I'm guessing there's a horror/sci-fi connection. God only knows.

The thing is, they're an astounding band. Every time I'm ready to write them off -- and I assure you this occurs just about every time I look at an album cover or read the song titles -- I'm stunned by the musicianship. These two guys put Rush, Yes, Frank Zappa, Santana, Return to Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Metallica, Led Zeppelin, and Andres Segovia through the blender, and out comes some of the most outlandish music I've ever heard, all played at breakneck tempos. So yeah, you have to put up with some H.P. Lovecraft allusions, and titles like "Take the Veil Cerpin Taxt" and "Miranda That Ghost Just Isn't Holy Anymore C. Pisacis (Phra-Men-Ma)." Sure thing, dudes. Cedric That Title Just Bites Like Cerberus E. Pluribus (Wot-Tha-Fuk). I don't care. I love 'em anyway.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

David Bazan's Breakup Album

With the threat of hell hanging over my head like a halo
I was made to believe in a couple of beautiful truths
That eventually had the effect of completely unraveling
The powerful curse put on me by you

When you set the table
When you chose the scale
Did you write a riddle that you knew they would fail?
Did you make them tremble
So they would tell the tale
Did you push us when we fell?

If my mother cries when I tell her what I discovered
Then I hope she remembers she taught me to follow my heart
And if you bully her like you did me with fear of damnation
Then I hope she can see you for what you are

When you set the table
When you chose the scale
Did you write a riddle that you knew they would fail?
Did you make them tremble
So they would tell the tale
Did you push us when we fell?

What am I afraid of?
Who did I betray?
In what medieval kingdom does justice work that way?
If you knew what would happen
And you made us just the same
Then you my Lord can take the blame
-- David Bazan, "When We Fell"

David Bazan is breaking up with Jesus. The former CCM star and mouthpiece for Christian indie rockers Pedro the Lion is calling it quits. It's been nice. Maybe we can stay friends, J. But I can no longer call you Lord and Savior.

That's a message that is repeated over and over again on Bazan's latest album, Curse Your Branches. It's not the only message, though. There's also the one about what a screwup David Bazan is, stumbling home drunk, wrecking his marriage, letting down his little daughter. Curse Your Branches is many things: theological diatribe, combative response to family and "friends" who want to label him as lost, finger-pointing missive to all the naysayers and Pharisees. But mostly it's an apology for being a jerk. And because it's made by David Bazan, it's an eloquent apology, open-hearted, vulnerable, angry, and very sad, all set to the most varied and layered music the man has ever made. It's a hell of an album, and I mean that in both the best and worst senses of the term. It's a series of beautifully written, painful songs about a man dragging himself and those he loves through the beshitted back alleys of a desperate life. It's one of my favorite albums of the year, if "favorite" is still an appropriate term to use for something so voyeuristic and heart-rending.

Predictably and sadly, it's been met with confusion and judgment on the part of Bazan's former audience. I suppose that's what we do best; be confused and judge people. You'll have to pardon my cynicism. Apparently I'm not a fan of the former fans.

But the former fans -- at least some of them -- are fairly vocal. When Curse Your Branches was named by Christianity Today Magazine as one of the best albums of 2009, the backlash started immediately. How could a so-called Christian magazine call an album by a self-labeled agnostic as one of the best albums of the year? Isn't Dave Bazan a drunk? How can we reward people who sin when that music may be heard by our young, impressionable children?

I don't know David Bazan, although I've been around him. He shows up at Calvin College's Festival of Faith and Music, listens, takes it all in, talks openly to anybody who wants to chat with him, and typically puts on one of the best shows of the weekend. He's a guy who has been wounded by the Church, and who has undoubtedly made some bad decisions along the way. Welcome to the human race, Dave. You are loved, dude. That's all I got. Sorry. Well, that and you made a hell of a painfully good album. I hope it gets better for you.

In the meantime, those of you who appreciate great songwriting, and who don't mind some theological wrestling, would do well to listen to Curse Your Branches. For what it's worth, I can't imagine not asking the questions David Bazan asks.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Meaning of Christmas

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.
-- Isaiah 9:2

The worst Christmas I can remember occurred sometime in the mid-1970s. I don’t recall the precise year. I was home from college for Christmas break. My younger sisters were in early adolescence. My mother was in late alcoholism. My father may or may not have been around. I can never recall him being around during those years.

The presents were unwrapped. There was a turkey thawing in the kitchen sink. My mother was passed out on the living room couch. There would be no Christmas dinner, or, at best, there would be an evening trip to whatever burger joint had managed to stay open on December 25th. I didn’t really care about the presents. Or maybe I did, because I also recall that I hadn’t received the only present I really wanted. I wanted the new Pink Floyd album. My parents bought me Joni Mitchell instead. It was already a long afternoon, and it promised to be a much longer evening, so I retreated to the relative safety of my bedroom and slapped on Joni’s Blue album. I didn’t know the music, but some of it seemed to resonate. “I wish I had a river I could skate away on,” Joni sang, and I wished I had one too.

At some point during the evening there were shouts and curses and broken plates, carving knives that never touched a turkey, but which attempted to touch human flesh. My mother wasn’t just a drunk; she was an angry drunk. And she sported by chasing people around the house with knives. Shortly before she would have stabbed my sister I slugged her. I hit her as hard as I could, right under the jaw. I’m not a boxer. I don’t know how to deliver an uppercut. But it stunned her long enough for me to round up my sisters and get them in the car. We drove off to a motel. I didn’t have any money. I was a poor college student. I didn’t know how I was going to pay for any of this. We didn’t pack. We didn’t have any underwear, or toothbrushes. But we had ourselves, and that was enough.

I became a Christian right around that time. “Became” is really a euphemistic term because I’m still becoming a Christian, and there’s so much I still get wrong. But if “became” meant surrendering, flying the white flag of incompetence and sorrow and utter, overwhelming terror, then that’s what I did. Here God, please fix this. It’s too fucked up for me.

And God didn’t fix it. It got worse. My father’s absences and marital infidelities continued. My mother’s alcoholism and violence escalated. My sisters endured abuse. And in a results-driven world, I was sorely tempted to give up on God. What good are you? I mean it. Literally. What good are you? What good do you do? I’ve asked those questions again and again during my life. There’s a nice theological term that encapsulates the groaning: theodicy. Basically it comes down to this: If God is good, and all powerful, then why do the human beings He supposedly loves have to deal with such overwhelming shitstorms? In personal terms, behold your beloved child, delivering an uppercut to the woman from whom he suckled, so that she wouldn’t commit murder. Why? How is this evidence of overwhelming good and power?

I know Christians who tell me they don’t doubt. They are as alien to me as four-headed, purple Martians. I can’t imagine a life of faith without doubt. I can’t even envision what that would look like. And if you haven’t yet experienced the utter disconnect between an all-loving, all-powerful God and the unfathomable sorrow of a completely broken world and your completely broken life, I have only three words for you: just you wait. You will. You’ve just been lucky up to now.

Why not just give up, then? Why not throw in the Motel 6 towel, or wherever the hell you spent that wretched Christmas night? The only answer that I can give, the only rationale that makes sense to me, is that in the midst of the unanswered questions, in the midst of the real pain that I have experienced and that I have inflicted on others, there is some evidence that God is in the business of fixing me. And even the path toward wholeness is confusing. It’s full of sidetracks and detours, two-steps-forward-and-three-steps-back days and months and years, stupid choices, regrettable words, pompous declarations and arrogant pronouncements, and, sometimes, a greater inclination to get outside the Kingdom of Me and really care about others, a movement toward what is good and true and life affirming, a rejection of escape and numbness in favor of life in all its prickly, scary, glorious in-your-faceness, a greater awareness that all of it – this whole beautiful, fucked up planet and all the people on it – is a gift, a source of pain, yes, and a source of great joy.

Lord have mercy. Literally. What good am I without Him?

There’s been a fair amount of academic debate about the actual time of the year when Jesus was born. Most scholars seem to favor the early spring, perhaps some time in late March or early April. But we celebrate his birth in late December. If you prefer, you can hold on to the view that the date was changed to rope in the pagans with their winter solstice celebrations. I’ll hold on to the notion that the light dawns at the very peak of darkness and desperation. At the darkest time of year, Christ comes.

According to the liturgical calendar, this time of year is called Advent. It is a time of waiting in darkness, waiting for the light to dawn. We are not good at waiting. I am not good at waiting. God hasn’t fixed everything. I look back at my life, and there are some real sorrows there. Some of them I had no control over. They just happened. And some of them are my own doing, and some of them were done in the process of becoming a Christian. During Advent we sing the carol “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” It is a song of yearning, of longing. Come fix this. Emmanuel means God with us. And because God is with us, with me, the old, tawdry life must and will change. I believe that more than ever. I am becoming.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Christianity Today's Best of 2009

There's our winner Sara Groves, looking like Molly Ringwald.

Christianity Today offers its take on the best albums of 2009.

These wouldn't necessarily be the albums I would select, but I think it's a fine list, and it's further evidence that CT is breaking out of the CCM box. I was happy to participate.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Evolution is So Overrated

Dinosaurs are extinct because they couldn't evolve. Dinosaur Jr. is alive and well because it can't evolve. You win some and you lose some. Too bad for the stegosaurus. Two opposable thumbs up for music fans.

Stubbornly stagnating in the same late '80s scene of sweet melodies, slacker sentiments, and skronky, overdriven guitars that they pretty much inaugurated, guitarist, singer, and songwriter J. Mascis and sidekicks bassist Lou Barlow and drummer Murph just keep on bashing out the same old same old. After a nineteen-year hiatus, the original trio re-united in 2007 with Beyond, and followed that up with the stellar and non-odious Farm, released earlier this year.

It's good to have you back, guys. And it's like you never left. Mascis is a ridiculously great guitarist, a hyperkinetic Neil Young who revels in the ragged glory and the grunge, but who can also race up and down the fretboard. He makes me want to jump on the couch cushions and play air guitar, a prospect that ought to have my wife and daughters concerned. And Lou and Murph are rock solid in their support roles, and Lou's softer, more introspective songs are the perfect foil for J.'s hypercharged antics. But what is most astounding is that after some significant and lengthy detours -- Mascis with the revamped Dinosaur Jr. and The Fog, Lou with Sebadoh, Murph God only knows where -- they are so easily able to recapture the synergy that made them such a thrilling, formidable band in the first place.

For old hippie dinosaurs like me (alas, still roaming the earth), weaned on Clapton and Hendrix and Page, and wholeheartedly sick of the mopey synth bands that dominated the early-to-mid '80s, J. Mascis was and is a revelation, the guy who connected the dots between the pantheon of the '60s/'70s guitar gods and the latter-day deities such as Kurt Cobain, Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo in Sonic Youth, Kevin Shields in My Bloody Valentine, and Joey Santiago in The Pixies. Those early Dino Jr. albums -- most notably You're Living All Over Me, Bug, and Green Mind -- were almost perfect distillations of slackerdom, but I never quite believed the ambivalent sentiments, either. Slackers didn't play guitar like that, like there was a real urgency in their getting off the couch, like they were on fire. But that's how J. Mascis played.

And so it's been a surprise and a delight to discover the same elements at work in the last two albums from the reunited band. They're older. I don't know if they're wiser. But if they've changed, they haven't changed the music much; maybe a little clearer production, that's all. Otherwise, the rhythm section locks in, and J. lets it rip. It sounds fabulous. It rocks. Across several musical epochs, dinosaurs still roam the earth.

Thursday, December 03, 2009


I don't have time to write much these days. But I'm always thankful for music writing that finds the human connection behind the usual song-by-song commentary. Here's my e-buddy Joel Hartse on Radioheads "Idioteque," from the 2000 album Kid A (Radiohead lyrics in bold):

There is another student in my graduate program who has similar interests to mine—we’re both studying, in part, the results of the worldwide spread of the English language. Which, by the way, is no longer interpreted Kipling's celebratory colonial way—thank God we’re spreading civilization and Shakespeare—nor even in a triumphantly liberal “the world is becoming flatter and more democratic and we can all communicate” way. Lately it feels more like a “there’s no escape from the dominiation of a single language and culture threatening to transform everything in its path into a combination KFC/Pizza Hut staffed by Disney characters singing Britney Spears songs where businessmen have meetings (in English) on their iPhones about price fixing and building factories on wetlands" kind of way. Mobiles working. Mobiles chirping. Take the money and run. Take the money and run. Take the money.

“Suddenly, I feel like everything we're doing is worthless,” my classmate said to me as we were leaving a seminar. I know what she meant.

You can read the rest of Joel's commentary here.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Stefanie Spielman

People in Columbus, Ohio are crazy. They worship muscular young men between the ages of 18 and 22. If the young men keep their noses clean and do and say the right things, they are set for life. The muscular young men may or not end up playing in the NFL. But at some point the football career ends, and that's when the real community payback starts -- the business careers, the celebrity commercial endorsements for local establishments, the inspirational speaking engagements at high schools and churches. Once a Buckeye, always a Buckeye. You bleed scarlet and gray, you keep your name out there in front of the public, and the green can be rolling in for life.

But sometimes reality intrudes. Chris Spielman was an All-American linebacker at The Ohio State University. He was an All-Pro linebacker with the NFL's Detroit Lions. Now he's a sports commentator for a local all-sports station, and a football analyst for ESPN. He lives in Upper Arlington, a suburb just west of the Ohio State campus, where he is revered as a hero.

His wife Stefanie, and the mother of their four children, died yesterday of breast cancer at the age of 42. Stefanie was first diagnosed eleven years ago, and she kept beating the odds, and the cancer kept coming back. Five times it came back, and this time it got her. During those eleven years, she spoke all over the world, sharing her hopes and her fears, openly and candidly, and she raised almost 7 million dollars for research to combat the same fucking disease that is now threatening my sister. So I feel a bit of kinship with her. And with Chris. And maybe, in some small way, with the whole city of Columbus that is grieving today.

I don't know Chris Spielman. I've never met him, although, like many people in Columbus, I feel like I know him because he's omnipresent in the community, and he's not shy about expressing either his love for Ohio State or for his wife and family. When Stefanie was first diagnosed, Chris quit playing football to be by his wife's side. Stefanie went through chemotherapy treatments and lost her hair. Chris shaved his head. He has been with her every step of the way. I'm sure, like everyone else, he has bad days, irritating personality quirks that get on peoples' nerves. But the only Chris Spielman I've ever seen is someone I deeply admire, and not because of anything he ever did on a football field.

Columbus is crazy about football. And the irony is not lost on me that Stefanie died during Michigan week, and that the news of her death is filling Columbus papers the day before the big game with the hated Michigan Wolverines. Maybe some days you bleed scarlet and grey, and other days you just bleed red. Maybe some days you can't shake that blue feeling, even if blue is a big part of Michigan's identity. Maybe this is the day that a few people in Columbus wake up to realize that some things really are bigger than football.

I don't know. I can't sort all that out. I do know that I'm praying for Chris Spielman and his kids. I can't imagine what they're going through. Tomorrow I'll probably scream and yell and bleed scarlet and grey, and do my part to cheer the Buckeyes on to victory. Today I'm thinking it's okay for me to feel blue for some people I never knew, but whose lives mean something to me anyway. Let today be Stefanie's day.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Manly Pursuits

In a discussion about great books for boys and young men, someone recently recently referred me to a website called The Art of Manliness. It includes articles on How to Use a Handsaw, How to Exit a Room Like a Man (stride manfully? I'm just guessing here), Three Essential Campfires, The Best Guns for Self Defense, and An Introduction to the Art of Gambling. I have missed out on all these gender-defining moments, with the possible exception of walking. Hence the poor, snivelling shell of a man that some of you see fairly regularly.

I do know that I am surrounded by Men. They run power tools continually (the current favorite is the Leaf Blower, which, true to its name, blows leaves around; I prefer the more primitive rake, and I'm usually done in less than half the time. This is good, because leaves don't particularly excite me or generate feelings of enhanced virility). They build fires; big, roaring conflagrations in their back yards, as if they were trying to survive in the wilderness instead of gulping beer behind their tract homes. They may own guns and/or gamble. I don't want to find out. They occasionally corner me in conversation. "How 'bout dem Buckeyes?" they say, or "What's your handicap?"

I never know how to answer these questions. Weak chin? Propensity to exaggerate? There are several, actually. But that's not what they mean. I try to escape as gracefully as I can. "Oh aitch," I typically call out, and make hand signals. That usually gets them going, as they complete the "eye oh" cheer with their own hand signals. They can go on that way for a while, and I can usually return to reading, or learning how to bake, or whatever feminine wiles I'm pursuing at the time.

I don't think any of them read. They know that when the can turns blue, the beer is cold, and that's enough.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Rose Above the Sky

A new post on my Image Journal blog, right here.

Tristram Shandy

Lord have mercy.

Has anyone read this novel/satire/autobiography that never quite gets around to telling a life story? I'm halfway through, and I alternate between thinking it's some of the most brilliant prose I've ever read and wanting to throw the book across the room in utter frustration and disgust.

Here's the deal with Laurence Sterne's masterpiece: It presumes to tell the story of the titular hero, but wanders off at every turn because the narrator Tristram, who has a very interesting name (the subject of which can be compared with and contrasted to more normal Christian names), is loathe to complete a thought (thought being the essence of what makes us human, as opposed to dogs, who, although they bark, and barking can be loosely construed as a kind of thought, cannot be categorized (viz. Berkeley) as True Human Thought). Bark, however, is one of the constituent elements of the tree, with elms being particularly prevalent in the district of Yorkshire where our non-story is set, and setters being a particular type of dog, who cannot be properly said to think, as Tristram, our oddly-named hero, most certainly does. I'm sorry, where was I?

Sterne goes on like that, although in a considerably more erudite and roundabout fashion, for six hundred pages, tossing in the occasional quote in Greek, French, or Latin, cramming his non-linear prose full of classical allusions, inserting parenthetical asides and learned treatises on obstetric medicine, noses, and medieval warfare, and anything else that comes to mind. Our young hero is conceived (or is he?) on p. 1, but coitus interruptus postpones the happy event, as do Sterne's thoughts, and he doesn't return to the birth of our hero for another two hundred pages. In the meantime he wanders, throwing in dazzling wordplay, puns, and some of the funniest, lewdest humor imaginable. This from a mid-18th century clergyman.

I'm tempted to call it post-modern fiction, but of course that couldn't possibly apply to a stodgy English rector and his mid-18th-century literary filigree. Whatever it is, I'm determined to finish it. It's the most peculiar thing I've ever read.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Russian Circles -- Geneva

Chicago instrumental trio Russian Circles play music that is a rough triangulation of Sigur Ros, Mastodon, and Rush (but without Geddy Lee; yes, this is a good thing). Their latest album Geneva is their best yet, and finds the band seamlessly merging those disparate influences. The former metal wankery is dialed back here in favor of more textured music featuring cellos and ethereal guitar feedback. Still, this is a far more visceral and muscular band than Sigur Ros and many of the other post-rock acolytes, primarily because drummer Dave Turncrantz is a madman. I'm very impressed. Think of it as post-rock with balls, or pretty, soaring rock 'n roll, with the emphasis on rock. Bonus points, too, for avoiding the whole quiet-to-shriekingly-loud buildup that plagues most post-rock. There are pummeling songs here, but they drift by so effortlessly that one isn't aware of a formula.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Rock and Chauvinism

My thinking right now is that The Felice Brothers' Yonder Is The Clock is duking it out, bareknuckle style, with Joe Henry's Blood From Stars for my favorite album of 2009. The gospel comp Fire In My Bones is coming in a strong third, with the likes of Lucero, Dave Perkins, Aaron Strumpel, The Antlers, Darcy James Argue, The Clientele, and Leonard Cohen lurking in the shadows.

The common denominator? They're all guys. Well, Darcy James Argue has some women in his big jazz band, and a couple of the Bubbas have their token female backup singers, but still ...

It's not that I believe that none of the women have made good albums in 2009. They have. I'm particularly fond of the latest efforts from Imogen Heap, Florence and the Machine, Eleni Mandell, Gretel, Laura Gibson, Camera Obscura, Madeleine Peyroux, Trembling Bells, Marianne Faithfull, St. Vincent, and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. It's just that I don't like any of them as well as I like the motley, testosterone-fueled group listed at the top. It's puzzling, possibly indicative of underlying psychological trauma.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Other Andy Whitman

Sometimes (okay, 2-3 times per day) I google my name. And it's a little startling when one encounters the following:

Boxing racketeers, loose-hipped blondes, chiselers - these were all part of Andy Whitman's life - and so were jim-crow hotels, cops, tenements, and hatred.

Not really, but I'd like to meet that guy. If you'd like to read more about him, you can do so here.

Revenge of the Mutant Spambots

Recently a spambot (I assume; God help any human being who writes this way) left a comment for me on another site stating:

Hi all. There are two types of people-those who come into a room and say, 'Well, here I am!' and those who come in and say, 'Ah, there you are.' Help me! Help to find sites on the: travel auto loanauto insurance quotes. I found only this - phoenix university stadium. the penalties for the specific years which may be the alsofile not worse.Again, it does at the sale of district and taxes when the few improvements are punished to fighters. Steve retained from clause to government they have owed into returns where it would be necessary to pray an article who is next with the matter and the bruises, but attaches in a correct tax, on a buyer filing insurance.Subject to the proof of the property appraiser, the contributions choose that the bill of the loan is a scholastic means in which there is a frugal attorney month.Whatsoever, the prevalence of recipients applies help huge to the hours and there are two ultimate contents. With love :eek:, Morgance from Montenegro.

There are also two types of spambots: those which spam randomly, and those which appraise the chocolate of the feather boa near the taxable scholar. Steve-o!

Now, this is all fascinating stuff, but I'm not totally sure what Morgance from Montenegro is selling. And that's what's most puzzling. Usually, once one digs beneath the nonsense, one can discern some sort of motivation pertaining to the spending of hard-earned cash. Click on a link, embedded somewhere in the nonsense, for the solution to your employment woes, miraculous penile enlargement, etc. Or maybe that's just me. But here Morgance simply seems to be spewing random words. And I have noticed similar comments more and more frequently. Have the spambots run amok? Have they started generating their own comments without human interference or intervention? Are they threatening to take over the world, whereupon we will all grape the conflagration to the simpering platypus? It makes you wonder, doesn't it? What is happening?

Music and Romance

Back about, oh, 1981, I attended a Daniel Amos concert with Kate, later my wife, then a cute but unknown young woman. I was feeling the need to, uh, disciple her. Yeah, that was it. But I wasn't really sure who she was.

Midway through the concert Terry Taylor and the boys played "New Car," a song from their then new album Doppelganger. The chorus of the song goes:

I'm a King's Kid
I do deserve the best
I want ... a new car!

The kids in the row in front of us left en masse. They just picked up their Bibles (they were the kind of kids who brought Bibles to concerts) and bolted. I guess they were offended by the perceived mockery of the gospel. I looked over at Kate and noted that she was laughing. Ding, ding, ding! This was the correct response.

Over the next few months I figured out that Kate was kind, smart, beautiful, and wise. Well, one of the four was readily apparent. The other three took some time. But Daniel Amos really helped to seal the deal. That was 28 years ago. Terry Taylor, wherever you are, I owe you a car wash.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Favorite Albums of the '00s

Here's my current take. This could change, as early as tomorrow. I'll try to add some commentary in the days ahead.
It might be worth noting that "Favorites" does not translate to "Best." "Best" would imply some overarching knowledge of the music released in this decade, and I don't have that knowledge. It also would have to account for cultural impact, general popularity, musical innovation, and all those other factors that typically cause reviewers to agonize long into the night. I didn't agonize over this. I also didn't think about jazz, classical, or several other genres of music I like a great deal, but which seem out of place in a list like this. For better or worse, this is a pop/rock/indie list. It's what I focus on the most, although hardly exclusively.

Here's the methodology I've employed: I thought about the music I've played the most, and that has meant the most to me. Hence "favorites." Some of the albums are integrally bound up in personal events in my life, and therefore hold a special meaning that wouldn't apply to anybody else. I'm okay with that. Some of them were hurled out into the great void and barely caused a ripple, selling perhaps a few thousand copies. If you're looking for ripples, read about Britney and the still dead Michael Jackson. But this is the music, minus a few jazz combos and symphony orchestras, that has meant the most to me this decade:

1. Joe Henry -- Tiny Voices
2. Bob Dylan -- Love and Theft
3. The Hold Steady -- Boys and Girls in America
4. Arcade Fire -- Funeral
5. Sigur Ros -- ()
6. Sun Kil Moon -- Ghosts of the Great Highway
7. Beck -- Sea Change
8. Ezra Furman and the Harpoons -- Banging Down the Doors
9. Southeast Engine -- A Wheel Within a Wheel
10. Various Artists -- O Brother, Where Art Thou? Soundtrack
11. Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell -- Begonias
12. Eels -- Electro-Shock Blues
13. Sufjan Stevens -- Illinoise
14. Lupe Fiasco -- Food & Liquor
15. Jamey Johnson -- That Lonesome Song
16. Art Brut -- Bang Bang Rock 'n Roll
17. Frightened Rabbit -- The Midnight Organ Fight
18. Godspeed You! Black Emperor -- Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven
19. Camera Obscura -- Let's Get Out of This Country
20. The Decemberists -- The Crane Wife

Honorable Mentions

Joe Henry -- Civilians
Joe Henry -- Blood from Stars
Son Lux -- At War With Walls and Mazes
Outkast -- Stankonia
Bettye Lavette -- I've Got My Own Hell to Raise
The Strokes -- Is This It?
Neko Case -- Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
The Thermals -- More Parts Per Million
Willard Grant Conspiracy -- Regard the End
Buddy Miller -- Universal United House of Prayer
Jolie Holland -- Springtime Can Kill You
Al Green -- Lay It Down
Nick Cave -- Abbatoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus
Josh Garrels -- Jacaranda
The Clientele -- Strange Geometry
Patty Griffin -- 1000 Kisses
U2 -- All That You Can't Leave Behind
El-P -- Fantastic Damage
Kathleen Edwards -- Back To Me
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists -- Hearts of Oak
The New Pornographers -- Twin Cinema
Over the Rhine -- Ohio
The Black Keys -- Rubber Factory
Interpol -- Turn on the Bright Lights
The White Stripes -- White Blood Cells

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Only a Flesh Wound: Bob Dylan as Sadistic Boxer

Andrew Ferguson, music critic for The Weekly Standard, throws a haymaker at the fans of Bob Dylan:

If you needed more evidence, the release this month of Bob Dylan's Christmas album, Christmas in the Heart, should close the case. Dylan fans are like Baby Huey dolls, those inflatable figures with the big red nose and the rounded bottom, weighted so that when you punch them--punch hard, punch with all your might--they bounce right back, grinning the same frozen, unchangeable grin.

We can only make a guess how Bob Dylan truly feels about his fans. But it can be a good, strong guess. He's been punching those Baby Hueys for a long time, hard.

It's not too unusual for a performer to lack respect for his most worshipful admirers; he hears himself as they do not, knowing how far short of his hopes his performance invariably falls, despite their wild applause. Sometimes an artist will even hold his audience in contempt, though he's careful, for business reasons, to keep the contempt at least thinly concealed; Abstract Expressionist painters come to mind. But not since Don Rickles at the height of his powers--the second greatest artist of the past 50 years, some believe--has a performer taken delight in actively abusing the people who pay money to enjoy his act. And when Rickles did it, the people were supposed to laugh, and did. When Dylan does it, the fans pull their chins and think hard. Then they pop right back, Baby Huey-like, and start explaining.

Most Dylan fans I know -- even the hard-core supporters -- would admit that Dylan's career has been a mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous, that he's made some 5-star albums, some 1-star albums, and a bunch somewhere in between. He is the most maddeningly inconsistent genius in the musical world. And I use that word carefully, because he is a genius. Sure, there are people who think he can do no wrong. Some of them apparently reviewed that Christmas album. But Dylan has been defying expectations and doing whatever he wants to do forever, and long before the Self Portrait debacle of the early '70s that Ferguson sees as a defining moment. You think the people at his mid-'60s electric concerts were booing because they liked what was going on? In any case, he's been written off (yes, even by well-known music critics; a little more research would be helpful) so many times that I'm sure it doesn't faze him.

I know this. He can follow up a stinker of an album with a stone-cold masterpiece. And he's fully capable of chasing "It Must Be Santa Claus" with songs of great profundity and depth. He's done it again and again. I don't think that means we have to be automatons/Baby Hueys and uncritically laud whatever the man does, so in that sense I'm sympathetic with Mr. Ferguson. I do think it means we need to give him space and grace to fail. There have been several absolute nadirs in his career, and they've now spanned close to forty years: Self Portrait, Dylan and the Dead, Knocked Out Loaded, and now Christmas in the Heart. You know what? I wouldn't bet against him next time out.

He is, by the way, contrary to Ferguson's disavowal, the greatest songwriter of the 20th century, and that has nothing to do with a nostalgic yearning for the halcyon days of yore, as the author claims. I was five years old when he made his first album, and I don't particularly relish the memory of learning how to tie my shoes. The author mentions Virgil Thompson and Cole Porter. Nice songwriters. Maybe I missed the film footage of their roles in changing western civilization. I saw what Dylan did.

Monday, November 02, 2009

The Problem With Lists

So, Paste has published their Top 50 Albums of the Decade list. And they got it so wrong. Where is Joe Henry? Bob Dylan? Nick Cave? Tom Waits? Andrew Bird? The Bad Plus? Neko Case? Buddy Miller? The New Pornographers? Bettye Lavette? Sun Kil Moon? Ezra Furman? Robert Glasper? Al Green? And the list goes on and on, probably well past 50.

I'm also scoffing at some of the "artists" who made it on to the list. Conor Oberst, the Singing Sheep, in the Top 10? Scandalous. Outrageous. Wrong. And baaaad. Evil, even.

But witness the power of music. I can just about guarantee that in the coming days Paste will be swamped with comments on this list, and that the outraged commenters will nominate, oh, probably five or six hundred albums that should have appeared on that Top 50 list. This is because music is powerful, there's a lot of it, much of it is good, and people respond quite viscerally to the albums/songs that have become intertwined with their lives.

It's totally baffling to me why Joe Henry doesn't have three albums in the Top 50 of the decade. I'm not kidding. He doesn't even merit a mention. And part of me really doesn't understand, because those Joe Henry albums are so wise, so beautiful, so far above, both musically and lyrically, some of the common pop pap that does show up, that I want to rend my nice, new business casual shirt and gnash my teeth and consign the lot of Paste critics who voted (minus myself; one has to have standards) to the outer darkness of Rolling Stone and/or Pitchfork. What the hell is wrong with these people?

The thing is, occasionally I remember that my exquisite tastes are not shared by everyone, and that some of those everyones actually appear to be astute, thinking human beings. Behold, I tell you a mystery: I do not run the universe. Damn. I hate that. I really do. So watch the comments roll in. Tally up the votes. Count how many albums actually get nominated for the Top 50. I'll chalk it up to the wonders of music, and that it remains a powerful force for beauty in the world, even as I shake my head in disbelief.

Paste's Top 50 Albums of the Decade

Paste has posted their Top 50 Albums of the Decade list. Guess who's #1?

Friday, October 30, 2009

Lucero -- 1372 Overton Park

This may very well end up as my favorite rock 'n roll album of the year. For those familiar with Lucero's previous work, 1372 Overton Park may come as a sonic surprise. The earlier roots/alt-country influences are nowhere to be found, replaced here by no-frills bar band rock 'n roll. It's the kind of thing The Replacements excelled at during the '80s, and Ben Nichols and company prove themselves worthy heirs to that PBR-soaked tradition. The horn section -- an object of worrisome concern among some longtime Lucero fans -- is actually a great addition. Think The Boss circa The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, and you'll have your sonic bearings. Nichols is a wordy, hyperkinetic motormouth, and the band backs him up with gritty guitar work, slamming drums, and yes, swaggering horns a la The Big Man.

This is intelligent music that rocks like crazy, and Craig Finn and The Hold Steady have some worthy competition for the Best Boss Acolyte of 2009 award. And they've recorded an album that is a far sight better than what The Boss has delivered this year.

Sleep Clinic

I have sleep apnea, which means that, untreated, I stop breathing several times per night. You can imagine how much fun that is. So I am privileged to wear a CPAP (Continuous Positive Air Pressure) mask, which looks a lot like the one modeled by our winsome friend shown here. Lots of air blows into my nose, pumped in there through the attached hose/snout, and generated by a big, honkin' grey box of a machine that sounds like a jumbo jet. It all results in the ultra-sleek, incredibly romantic evening wear shown to the left. How you doin', baby?

Oh well. It's better than the alternative, which is death. Barely.

So last night I got to hang out at the Ohio Health Sleep Disorders Clinic. At the sleep clinic they wire you up real good. Not only do you get to wear the mask/snout, but they smear white goo all over your body, and then attach various wires and electrodes to the goo. Then they hook all the wires up to another machine, and tell you not to move and to go to sleep.

I thought about busting out with my mask on, dragging my wires and electrodes behind me and roaming the surrounding suburban neighborhoods. It was the perfect night for it. Hi, kiddies. 'Tis now the very witching time of night, when churchyards yawn, and hell itself breathes out contagion to this world. How you like me now?

I didn't. I pulled the covers up over me like a good boy/elephant and tried not to move. It was a long night. I didn't sleep much, but I hope the hour and a half or so will provide enough data to evaluate the current state of my non-breathing. I look forward to doing it all over again in a couple more years, assuming I keep breathing.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

New Car

We bought a 2010 Honda Civic last night. With alloy wheels and moonroof. My wife will drive it. She's always wanted a moonroof, and we're not getting any younger, so it seemed the time to spring for a moonroof.

Because it is a sacrosanct rule that the wife always gets the new car, everybody else shifts accordingly. I get the 2009 Mazda 6, previously driven by my wife. My 23 year-old-daughter gets the 2004 Chevy Cavalier, previously driven by me. It had better last her through grad school. The 1995 Geo Prizm (no, they don't make 'em anymore), formerly driven by my 23-year-old daughter, now sits in the driveway, waiting to be driven by my youngest daughter when she's home on school breaks and needs to get to work.

It is actually this vehicle that started the snowball rolling. The Geo Prizm is a two-tone (blue and rust; blue because that's the original color, rust because it's now mostly rust) monstrosity that is the official scourge of our suburban neighborhood. The defrost, heat, and AC don't work, which means that the windshield fogs up quite menacingly whenever there is a hint of moisture in the air. It is only safe to drive about 4 days per year in Ohio. It is also truly an ugly car. When my testy neighbor complains about the length of my lawn, I tend to park it on the street, close to his mailbox. Just being neighborly, praise God. Perhaps I need to read the post below again.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Jerk Factory

The trouble with contemporary Christianity is that a massive bait and switch is going on. "Christianity" has essentially become a mechanism for allowing millions of people to replace being a decent human being with something else, an endorsed "spiritual" substitute. For example, rather than being a decent human being the following is a list of some commonly acceptable substitutes:

Going to church
Spiritual disciplines (e.g., fasting)
Bible study
Voting Republican
Going on spiritual retreats
Reading religious books
Arguing with evolutionists
Sending your child to a Christian school or providing education at home
Using religious language
Avoiding R-rated movies
Not reading Harry Potter.

The point is that one can fill a life full of spiritual activities without ever, actually, trying to become a more decent human being. Much of this activity can actually distract one from becoming a more decent human being. In fact, some of these activities make you worse, interpersonally speaking. Many churches are jerk factories.
-- Dr. Richard Beck

I watched the popular television show The Amazing Race last night. One of the competing couples, wholesome Barbie and Ken lookalikes, had made it a point throughout the race to emphasize their faith in Christ. They were racing for Jesus, and trying to win a million bucks for Jesus, presumably on the understanding that their local church would receive the $100,000 tithe. They were smiling and happy, confident in their abilities. Then they hit a bump. Barbie needed to go down a big, scary, nearly vertical water slide to continue in the race. She balked. It was too tall, too fast. She was afraid of both heights and water. Ken encouraged her. Remember, baby, I mean sister, a million bucks is at stake here. You can do it. Then he, umm, exhorted her. Come on, you've got to do it. I mean it. You've got to do it. Now! Then he got behind her and forcibly tried to push her down the slide. Barbie fought back, kicking and screaming. Then she cried. Then she pouted. "I wish I was back in Nashville," she whined.

She never went down the slide. Barbie and Ken finished last, and were eliminated from the race. At the end, summing up their achievements, Ken stated, "I don't hold it against Barbie. There is freedom in forgiveness." Well, yeah. But here's the deal, Ken: you're an abusive jerk. And Barbie is a pampered, whiney, jerkette. Praise God. Or better yet, don't, at least not in front of a camera. It's better that the watching world isn't aware of your life-changing faith.

Dr. Richard Beck, Psychology professor at Abilene Christian University, writes persuasively about the lengths we go to as Christians to avoid the nebulous but incredibly challenging task of living less like jerks. We substitute activity for deep spiritual change. And when I say "we," I mean we, meaning you (if you're a Christian) and me. I understand the appeal of Dr. Beck's laundry list. I once spent an evening in seminary getting drunk and reading 100+ pages that distilled the arguments on whether the apostle Paul was writing to churches in north Galatia or south Galatia. I'm thinking that north Galatia won in the long run. I could be wrong. I know I lost.

And really, as much as I cringed when I watched the interpersonal debacle unfold between Barbie and Ken last night, I felt a great deal of empathy for them. They're broken. He's got anger issues, she's a passive-aggressive princess, and they just happen to love Jesus. They're a lot like you and me. It would take someone far more versed in Church history and polity than me to address all the factors that contribute to a Christian culture of busyness that never quite gets around to addressing systemic life changes; in less fancy terms, how to be a jerk less frequently. I'm content to leave it as the product of settling for the good instead of the necessary. There's nothing wrong, per se, with any of the activities Dr. Beck lists. They simply don't address the deep spiritual wrestling and surrender that needs to take place before real change can come. That can be a real-life horror movie, and most Christians don't approve of horror movies.

In the meantime, I'm going to advocate the radical, anti-evangelistic practice of shutting up, at least for me. I can't control other people, which is one of those deep spiritual lessons I'm still learning. Today's commandment: I say unto you, shut up and be less of a jerk. I can fantasize about how it would have applied on a television show last night. I'm fairly certain that it's a commandment that I need to heed today.

Bob Dylan - Christmas in the Heart

It strikes me that the way one hears this album is very much dependent on the assumptions one brings to the holiday table. Some reviewers give Bob a pass for his charitable inclinations. And certainly donating the proceeds to charity is a noble gesture. Other reviewers have given him a pass because, hey, it's a Christmas album. 'Tis the season to be jolly. Still others have reveled in the contrast between the polished schlock (backing choir consisting of the heavenly host) and the gruff bark of Dylan's "singing."

For what it's worth, I have nothing but admiration for Dylan's charitable goals. And yeah, it's a Christmas album, but that's admittedly a genre that doesn't do much to inspire holiday cheer in me in the first place. However, I do take issue with those who find value in the overproduced schlock/ragged yelp contrast. At its best (e.g., the early albums of Tom Waits), bombastic and ragged can work wonderfully together. The impossibly romantic strings and Waits' gravelly musings could conjure a world of poignancy and sadness. This was love on the wrong side of the tracks, and Waits' cast of losers was illuminated movingly by the raw vocals and the sometimes saccharine nature of the musical accompanment. Waits' cover of "Somewhere (There's a Place For Us)" from Bernstein's West Side Story was such a moment. This was the high melodrama of the Broadway musical, all right, but it was being performed way, way off Broadway, and it was sung by someone who sounded like he was launching his big aria while holding a brown paper bag and slouching against a dumpster. It worked, and it worked beautifully. But it worked because of the inherent tension in the songs, because the desperate optimism and hope of Bernstein's music and Sondheim's lyrics met the dead end of Waits' shattered vocals.

In contrast, Dylan sounds like your old, sloshed uncle banging away on the family upright piano and belting out some familiar carols, with the added "bonus" of production and accompaniment right out of a Cecil B. DeMille biblical epic. It's a horrendous idea horrendously executed, incompetence meeting unvarnished hokum. Sorry to be such a Scrooge, but your holidays will be so much brighter if you just skip the music. Donate the money to the charity of your choice.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Country Music in the Aughts

I don't follow mainstream country, so I have no idea what's happening in Nashville. That said, I think there are many artists in the aughts who have made stellar country music. "Country," in this case, refers to any music that has a twang, and that roughly falls into the general categories of country, alt-country, and roots music. If it sounds like country to me, it is, regardless of marketing demographics.

Favorite/Best Artist of the Decade

Buddy Miller, without a doubt. He's been consistently excellent, whether recording solo albums, recording duets with wife Julie, or contributing as a sideman to the work of countless other artists. If Buddy's involved, chances are it's good-to-great. He's got the Richard Thompson (another country artist, although his country is England) triple threat going: great songwriter, great guitarist, great singer.

Close, but No Honorary Stetson: Gillian Welch, Neko Case

Kids to Watch

Okay, some of them aren't kids. But they've all emerged in the past ten years. Here are some upstarts who have contributed to a fine musical decade: Kathleen Edwards, Justin Townes Earle, The Avett Brothers, Devon Sproule, Hayes Carll, Kasey Anderson, Lori McKenna, Mando Saenz, Mary Gauthier, Ryan Bingham, Scott Biram, Southeast Engine, Holopaw, Deadstring Brothers, Dexateens, The Felice Brothers, Heartless Bastards, Lucero, and Two Cow Garage.

The Old Farts Still Have It

Kudos to Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle (minus half the material recorded during the Bush administration; GW was not kind to Steve's creativity), Loretta Lynn, Paul Burch, The Bottle Rockets, Calexico, Old 97's, Willard Grant Conspiracy, Son Volt, Dave Alvin, Chris Knight, Drive-By Truckers, James McMurtry, and Webb Wilder. Some are a little longer in the tooth than others. But they've all been around for multiple decades, with no real diminishment of quality.

Most Disappointing Artist of the Decade

This will be disputed, no doubt, but Lucinda Williams takes the black ribbon. She's recorded one very good album (World Without Tears), one mediocre album (Essence) and three stinkers (West, Little Honey, Live at the Fillmore). She can still muster up a wondrously raw, plaintive sound. But she's forgotten how to write songs.

Favorite Albums

Buddy Miller -- Universal United House of Prayer
Gillian Welch -- Time (The Revelator)
Neko Case -- Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
Thad Cockrell/Caitlin Cary -- Begonias
Kathleen Edwards -- Back to Me
Willard Grant Conspiracy -- Regard the End
Jamey Johnson -- That Lonesome Song
Chip Taylor/Carrie Rodriguez -- The Trouble With Humans
Emmylou Harris -- Stumble Into Grace
The Felice Brothers -- The Felice Brothers
Southeast Engine -- A Wheel Within a Wheel
Devon Sproule -- Keep Your Silver Shined

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

What a curious film.

My only real criticism of the movie is that it wasn't what I thought I was going to see. I expected whimsical. And when the kid has just broken up with her boyfriend, and is feeling blue, and you say, "hey, let's go to a movie," I can tell you that you're hoping for something that Where the Wild Things Are was not. In spite of the dozens of toddlers and little tykes around me, this was not a children's film. I can't imagine what the little ones thought, but my guess is that the real-life scenes might have inspired more nightmares than the monsters on the island.

That said, I thought the film was a warm meditation on the frightening hazards of being a kid in a big, scary world. I thought Dave Eggers' script and Spike Jonze's images did a fine job of communicating what life is like in a post-Edenic universe. The yearning for something that had been lost -- on both Max's and Monster Carroll's parts -- was palpable. I'm not suggesting that Eggers and Jonze were making a movie from a consciously Christian worldview. They just happened to get the tone exactly right. The idyllic little model village that Carroll constructed, and its subsequent smash-up, were the strongest images in the film for me. For what it's worth, I didn't find the neurotic whining of the monsters particularly bothersome. I work with neurotic monsters like that every day.

Still, there are problematic elements in the movie. It’s based on a well-known children’s book, and one thing this film was not was a children's movie, although I think it's a fine film for anyone, say, ten years old or older. Why is this a big deal? Well, because it's been billed as a kids movie, and because I saw a lot of parents with toddlers and young elementary age children with them in the theater. And those kids seemed to alternate between being upset and bored. Who could blame them? What young child is going to be able to take in the concept of the end of the universe and a dying sun? If it's confusing for Max at 9, imagine the fun images in the heads of 4- and 5-year-olds.

That's my struggle with the movie. It wants to play it both ways -- kiddie romp and weighty film that addresses the uncertainties of broken families and, God forbid, the impending apocalypse -- and because of that it works well for adults. But those damn muppet costumes are going to fool a lot of parents. And some of them are going to be understandably unhappy. We need a new rating -- E for Existential Dread. G or PG doesn't even begin to cover the issues.