Thursday, February 26, 2009
As we did two years ago, Michael Kaufmann (director of Asthmatic Kitty Records) and I are currently listening to a batch of new songs recorded by various performers/bands who are trying to win a contest called Bandspotting. The winner gets to perform at the conference. The good news: the music is, almost uniformly, amazing. The bad news: we have to pick a winner. This is, in all honesty, far more difficult than writing a feature article or an album review. There's great indie rock here. There's outstanding chamber folk. There's superb singer/songwriter fare. There's a guy who howls the Psalms to an unholy racket, and I mean that in the best possible sense since it seems unlikely to me that the guy who wrote these sacred blues laments was doing so to the accompaniment of saccharine pop music. I know it's a cliche to state that everyone's a winner. In this case, it happens to be true. It is such a heartening experience. And damn difficult, too.
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
In the meantime, I'd encourage you to check out the blog of my friend Josh Hurst. Josh has rounded up the thoughts of various music critics as they reflect on U2 and what the music has meant to them. It's a good and inspiring read.
I get frustrated with Bono. I love him, and he makes me crazy with his over-the-top pronouncements. I also don't know of a celebrity, past or present, who has done more tangible good for the world. But reading the thoughts assembled on Josh's blog, I'm reminded again of why the band is so beloved, and why I myself cherish this music.
Peter Case has enriched my life for about thirty years now, first as the lead singer/songwriter for The Plimsouls, then as a superb solo artist. His songs have spoken to me as powerfully as any artist, and he has a particular knack for nailing the distinctive conundrums that will be familiar to people who desire to follow God, and who regularly get tripped up by their own humanity and their propensity to follow their own wayward tendencies instead.
I just found out that Peter underwent open-heart surgery a few weeks back. He's recovering nicely, and that's very good news, but the medical bills associated with the surgery and his recovery are, of course, astronomical. And, in a story that is all too common in the musical world, Peter does not have medical insurance.
Yes, you can help. Yes, so can I. In the interest of cutting off some potential objections and the snarky comments about the stupidity of not having medical insurance, let me note that I've come to a renewed appreciation of this dilemma in the past couple weeks. It's one thing to moan about the several hundred dollars per month that you have to shell out for medical insurance through your employer. It's quite another thing to be without an employer, or to be self-employed (welcome to the wonderful world of musicians). Then that several hundred dollars per month rapidly becomes several thousand dollars per month, and when you're faced with the prospect of maybe, if you're lucky, raking in more from ticket sales than you spent on gas to get to the next gig, then things like medical insurance tend to fall by the wayside.
In any event, Peter could use your help. A number of musicians and friends have formed a benefit organization called Hidden Love Medical Relief to raise funds to help defray Peter's medical expenses. A benefit concert is also in the works. I'll let you know once I hear more details.
I woke up in the dark
My covers on the floor
Stripped of all my dreams and my pride
The vast black night that conquered me
Was coming back for more
Until I turned and saw the angel by my side
We kept the secret hidden deep inside
Hidden love, unbidden love,
And all the tears we cried
Though I've loved you for a long time
It can't be denied
Someone sees the dreams we hide
-- Peter Case, "Hidden Love"
Monday, February 23, 2009
In any event, the Treehouse is aptly named. There is a large tree that protrudes up through the middle of the floor in the performance area. It's kind of cool when you aren't trying to watch bands perform. It's fairly intrusive when you are. I had a hard time seeing around the massive trunk.
I caught Frontier Ruckus and Southeast Engine, my first time for the former band, and maybe my fifth or sixth time for the latter. Frontier Ruckus, from Lansing, Michigan, played a short Americana-laced set; all banjos and keening vocals, with occasionally unexpected trumpet and musical saw peaking through to set them apart slightly from the other thousand bands plying their rootsy trade. They were decent; nothing to get overly excited about, but I liked the trumpet and musical saw. Southeast Engine was out promoting their new album From the Forest to the Sea, and it's another great one. Adam Remnant is a very, very fine songwriter, and I love the mix of cracked, world-weary vocals and early Elvis Costello and the Attractions musical accompaniment. Those who love poetic, biblical imagery and songs about being a sinful asshole loved by God will find much to admire. Fans of bands such as Vigilantes of Love, Pedro the Lion, and Sixteen Horsepower should take note. I left before The Coke Dares and The Kyle Sowashes took the stage. It was 11:30; time for all good middle-aged-slouching-toward-senility music writers to be in bed.
Saturday morning we ventured down to Athens, Ohio, home of Ohio University, and current residence of my daughter Rachel. She's doing well, and it was great to see her. We ate lunch at a place called Bagel Street Deli, where the winsome young coeds behind the counter were making sandwiches and singing and boogieing along to a song blaring over the speakers. The song? The Brazilian Girls' "Pussy Pussy Pussy Marijuana." Ah, Athens. It's amazing to me that in the space of 85 miles and an hour and forty-five minutes one can travel to a different universe than the one I normally inhabit.
After lunch I ventured over to Donkey Coffee and Espresso, the best coffee house in Ohio. I had a great hour and a half conversation with owner and proprieter Chris Pyle, who also doubles (triples? quadruples?) as music impresario, record producer, and rock 'n roll band member. There aren't that many people in my life who will throw out statements such as: "True or False, R.E.M. is the second greatest American band ever." Chris is one of those people. We had a great time, talking about music and life, more or less in that order. The guys from Southeast Engine (Athens natives) stopped by, too, and it was fun to hang out with them and debate the merits of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks. Then I wandered over to Haffa's Records, where the guys behind the counter were debating whether Elvis Presley was the third-best rock 'n roll performer ever. It must be something in the water. These conversations never seem to occur in Westerville, Ohio. Ortho Weed 'n Feed vs. Scott's Turfbuilder, yes, but not Elvis Presley or Van Morrison.
Kate and Rachel and I took a long walk around the campus and environs, and eventually ended up at Salaam, a Turkish restaurant, for dinner. There a woman belly danced with a sword on her head. I studiously looked down at my Lamb Kofte and tried not to look at the belly, although the sword was a little worrisome. It was exactly parallel to my jugular vein. She was a pro, though, and finished her performance with nary a slip. Thank God.
We drove back home in a snowstorm and made it to church on time yesterday, bright eyed and bushy tailed and ready to take on fourteen toddlers in Sunday School. It was a fun weekend.
In a world full of massive egos and jerky behavior, Buddy Miller is a seriously great singer and guitarist, a humble and self-effacing human being, and an all-around nice guy. He's played guitar for just about everybody (currently Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, and Patty Griffin), he's made five stellar solo albums, and several duets albums with his wife Julie, who complements Buddy's vocal and instrumental gifts by writing some of the best songs you'll ever hear. Separately and together, they are magic.
When I go don't cry for me
In my fathers arms I'll be
The wounds this world left on my soul
Will all be healed and I'll be whole
Sun and moon will be replaced
With the light of Jesus' face
And I will not be ashamed
For my savior knows my name
It don't matter where you bury me
I'll be home and I'll be free
It don't matter where I lay
All my tears be washed away
Gold and silver blind the eye
Temporary riches lie
Come and eat from heaven's store
Come and drink and thirst no more
So weep not for me my friend
When my time below does end
For my life belongs to him
Who will raise the dead again
-- Buddy and Julie Miller, "All My Tears"
But not yet. Please pray.
Friday, February 20, 2009
Joltin' Joe and the Hospice Bed
Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys -- The Tiffany Transcriptions
Bruce Springsteen -- Working on a Dream
Southeast Engine -- From the Forest to the Sea
Thursday, February 19, 2009
Excuse my non-suavity: why the hell would you do this? Why would you interview someone when you don't have any jobs for which you might want to hire them? Well, I asked that question, in slightly more polite form. And here's what I was told: We want to have a corral full of qualified candidates once the job market opens up.
So I've been part of the general cattle call. Moo. There's nothin' out there, folks. Nobody's hiring. And when I say nothin', I'm not exaggerating. I guess technical recruiters need to keep busy, too.
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
This Friday (2/20) offers the indie extragavanza of The Kyle Sowashes (you have to admire the chutzpah of a guy who names a band after himself), Frontier Ruckus, Southeast Engine (pictured above) and The Coke Dares (basically terrific Bloomington, Indiana band Magnolia Electric Co. without Jason Molina) at Andyman's Treehouse, 887 Chambers Rd. There will be many beards.
I've written about Southeast Engine several times here. They're celebrating the release of their new album From the Forest to the Sea, which I review in the next issue of Paste. You need to see them. As an added bonus, you get three other bands, two of which I can vouch for. Frontier Ruckus is a terrible name for a band, but they sound great, and incorporate banjos and trumpets into the same Americana songs. And The Coke Dares are amazing, and remind me of what Guided By Voices would sound like if Black Francis/Frank Black was fronting the band. I'm not sure about Kyle, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt for his cojones.
Next Saturday night (2/28) we get Boston band Gretel at Cafe Rumba on Summit St. just south of Hudson. I've written about Gretel, too. Reva Williams (also pictured above) is one of my favorite songwriters, period, and she'll bring her big, soulful voice and poetic songs of angst and dis-ease. For those of you who like songs written from a distinctly Christian sensibility, but which are a million miles removed from CCM, you're in for a treat. You'll also hear musical saw.
Come on out and join me if you're able.
I keep coming back to this album (Come Back to the Five and Dime, Bobby Dee, Bobby Dee). Pitchfork criticized it for being too minutely focused on Bobby Driscoll. AMG faulted it for being a concept record with a muddled concept.
I'd say that both the PFork and AMG reviews are partially correct. There is a strong, almost obsessive, focus on Bobby Driscoll. And the references to Driscoll and his career/life are so obscure and insular that it's very possible to hear those references as muddled. There are, for instance, numerous references in the album to "pieces of eight" and "doubloons." I'm sure that for many listeners those could create some WTF moments. They make sense if one happens to know that Driscoll played a major role in Disney's Treasure Island. But Ferree doesn't spell it out, and he assumes that the listener is already familiar with the minutiae of Driscoll's life, or that listeners are willing to do a little research. Those are probably faulty assumptions.
But there's something doggedly thrilling about this album, akin to a three-page footnote in a David Foster Wallace essay, or Faulkner rambling on about Mississippi in a five-page run-on sentence. This album is either a work of genius or the most wrong-headed, misguided music you'll hear this year. I'm more inclined toward the former view, although I'll readily admit that it's a challenging and sometimes unrewarding listen. I've never heard anything quite like it, these glam blues, and although I hear the Jack White and Bowie and Freddie Mercury influences, I'm most impressed by the fact that Benjy Ferree has made an album that is, in many ways, without precedent. I'd probably give it five stars for its sheer uniqueness and for the doo-wop existential dread of "Fear," and then knock off a star because of those faulty assumptions.
Monday, February 16, 2009
You can also stream the show live from the website linked above.
Every day you see one more card
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part
-- Tom Petty, "The Waiting"
At a certain point -- and it doesn't take all that long in this economy -- you've done everything you can do. You've contacted every employed person you know, you've filled out all the online applications you can fill out, and you've searched every job search site that can be searched. At that point you sit back and wait.
And the waiting really is the hardest part. My job interview this morning was canceled. The recruiting person has a sick kid, so we've rescheduled for later in the week. It's okay. It's given me a chance to rehearse my spiel in my head, and to pray for a woman I don't know and her sick son. There's merit in that. And I have two other interviews scheduled for later in the week as well. That's good, I keep telling myself. So I changed out of the monkey suit, and I headed for the den, where I do my waiting. Now I sit waiting for the phone to ring. I wait for an email to pop up, and hope that it's not another advertisement for erectile dysfunction medication. At least the email pops up.
In theory, this time should provide me a welcome respite from writing about database capacity planning and database stored procedures, and should offer a fine opportunity to write about the things I actually like to write about. In reality, it's hard to focus on music when I'm not sure how the bills are going to be paid. I need to revise a long article about Bruce Springsteen that I've written for Image Journal, and instead I keep thinking about the Boss I don't have. I've done remarkably well during my first five-and-a-half days of Life Without A Job. I've been in good spirits, I've been able to focus on others, and I've honestly experienced a measure of peace and joy. This is the grace of God. Today I'm not doing as well. I'm simply waiting. And the waiting is the hardest part. It's time to take it on faith. So wish me faith. And hope and love.
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
It's been a curious mixture of grovelling and showmanship. I have to remember which is which (e.g., whether the word "cool" is improper or expected in a given conversation; same with "database capacity planning" and "blood of the Lamb"). I'm thankful for new opportunities. I'm astonishingly upbeat. I've learned how to say "Frode Stromstad" in the proper Norwegian way. And I'm thankful to God, and I'm not just saying that for the benefit of the Conversative Christian Radio Personality.
Thank you all for your prayers and support.
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
This morning I was laid off from my IT consulting company, the casualty, along with about 40 other consultants who were twiddling their thumbs, of an economy where nobody wants any consultants. It wasn't a surprise. I've been twiddling my thumbs since the beginning of the year, waiting in vain for something to open up. Nothing did. And companies, damn them, won't continue to pay peoples' salaries when they're not doing any work. There are only so many online training courses one can take. So I'm now highly trained in project management methodologies and business analysis use cases, ready to join the unemployment line.
It's happening all over, I know. My situation is no different from that of millions of other Americans. And I've been through this before. It actually gets really old really quickly. What may be new this time is that there don't appear to be any jobs for which to search. That's what's particularly scary. For those of you who are praying types, I'd appreciate your prayers. This does afford me a fine opportunity to learn, once more, that God is in control. It's fairly evident that I'm not.
Bobby Dee, in this case, is Bobby Driscoll, who starred in Disney's Peter Pan (among others), hit puberty, suffered a bad case of acne, was dropped by the studio, developed a nasty habit of sticking needles in his arm, and died destitute and unknown at the ripe old age of 31. Ferree tells his story in some detail, dropping obscure references to Driscoll roles and Disney plots, but he abandons the biographical ephemera long enough to get metaphysical, and that's when he's great. "Fear," the single that no one will hear, is terrific in its evocation of surrealistic existential dread, whipped up into a '50s doo-wop froth and capped by some fine Bowie glam histrionics. It's a brilliant song, the kind of thing Franz Kafka and the Dung Beetles might have sung around the oil-drum fire on some street corner in Philly. If "Fear" is the unmistakeable highlight, Ferree does himself proud on the more straightforward glam tunes, and his Marc Bolan impersonation is one of the best I've heard. It's all a little too insular and minutely focused to connect universally, but there are moments of real transcendence and beauty here. Bobby Dee is strange, quirky, and musically bracing. It's got no chance, but prove me wrong and check it out anyway.
Monday, February 09, 2009
Here's a piece I wrote about Ronald a couple years ago in Paste Magazine.
Ronald Koal wanted to make rock ‘n roll. But more than that, he wanted to be a rock ‘n roll star; lounge in the back of limousines, cavort with groupies, and acquire an expensive drug habit. He ended up with two out of three; just another addicted musician with his fifteen minutes of local fame, a handful of sycophantic hangers-on, and a broken-down van for his band’s gear. The limousine never materialized. But during those fifteen minutes he made brutally powerful, transcendent rock ‘n roll. His story is mirrored in a thousand towns and cities across America. He was the charismatic kid with great talent who never quite got his act together, who never caught that one big break, who was one step away from the big-label contract and the big-money tour. And in this case, it killed him.
In 1980, when Ronald Koal formed his band The Trillionaires in Columbus, Ohio, anything was possible. The New Wave movement was in full flower, and in the glorious, heady days between the rise of punk and the ascendancy of MTV, all the old rules were tossed aside, A&R shills at the big record labels were befuddled, and anybody and everybody tried their hand at rock ‘n roll. Art school dweebs, computer programmers, and Playboy bunnies all rushed to fill the breach, and eventually ended up in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame. And so it seemed like a reasonable gambit for a brash, precocious, gender-conflicted kid from the suburbs of a Midwestern cowtown.
The early gigs were legendary. Sporting a Mohawk, heavy eyeliner, and a half dozen costume changes every hour, Koal was part Bowie androgynous pinup and part Jim Morrison shaman, howling his poetic confessions, offering up angst-ridden psychic dramas that were frequently disquieting in their intensity and ferocity. The Trillionaires camped it up behind him, mixing homages to surf instrumentals and lurid Grade B sci-fi soundtracks with furious Clash-inspired punk. But this was Ronald’s show, and Ronald played the rock star to the hilt, a new Ziggy Stardust for the Buckeye Nation. “Get up and shout/Get up and sing/Destination Zero,” he sang, casting his arms wide, a nihilistic evangelist, and his audience, crammed shoulder to shoulder, often standing outside in the rain, looking in to a packed bar, did exactly that. “He’s the most magnetic, electrifying rock ‘n roll singer I’ve ever seen,” a friend marveled at the time. I didn’t disagree. There were rumors of a move to New York, tours with The Ramones or The Talking Heads, an impending multi-album deal with Sire or Stiff Records. “Catch him now before he ends up playing the big arenas,” everyone said, and I did – forty, fifty times over the course of a couple years. And he was almost always great, although there were the occasional lapses of interest, evidence of boredom, and moments of cynical malaise that surrounded the rock ‘n roll circus.
His first album, Ronald Koal and the Trillionaires, came out on the Columbus-based No Other Records in 1982. The label name came close to being prophetic. Who knows what all the factors were, really? A peripatetic career far removed from the rock ‘n roll movers and shakers, a lack of distribution, and mediocre production probably all played a part. But aside from a few positive reviews in indie magazines, the album sank without a trace.
And something broke at that time. Koal, who always alternated between bouts of supreme arrogance and debilitating self-doubt, fired and hired band members willy nilly, stopped writing new material, and showed up wasted at gigs or missed them altogether. He continued to play to local crowds, but his moment had passed, and the numbers dwindled. He moved to New York City in the late 1980s, quite belatedly, and tried to connect with a new audience, but the New Wave that he tried to crest in on was long played out. A solo album, White Light, with its obvious Velvet Underground influences, emerged in 1990. It was another great album that no one heard.
No one really knows what happened after that. Koal moved to Germany in the early 1990s, met and married a local fraulein, and set up shop in Berlin, where he played a few gigs. The marriage didn’t last, the gigs dwindled, a new album failed to materialize, and Ronald Koal put a bullet in his brain sometime during the early morning hours of May 8th, 1993. He was 33 years old.
There are probably hundreds of musicians like Ronald Koal, human detritus washed ashore by bad choices or just plain hard luck, and unless you lived in or around Columbus, Ohio, it’s unlikely you’ve ever heard of him. Some would argue that he doesn’t merit the attention, that he was just another has-been, a loser who couldn’t adjust to the sometimes harsh realities of life. I remember instead his early gigs, the promise of greatness, the delicious, breathless anticipation of seeing unbridled creativity and passion spark and ignite. What is left are memories, ephemeral and fading, too few songs, the unanswerable questions that always seem to reside in the sobering gap between what was and what might have been.
Last night I hung out with that guy. Thanks to my dad's death (is it any wonder that this kind of guy reads the obituaries?), my childhood friend David and I have reconnected. David has a house full of old monster movie posters, dinosaur models, Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Blob figurines, Star Wars parephernalia, robots, and grotesque rubber masks. I haven't really seen David since late childhood. He was, inexplicably, a nice guy, albeit a guy who certainly lives in his own little bubble of a spooky, disfigured world. He has found a way to woo a woman and sire a child, both of whom also appear to be obsessed with his interests. It takes all kinds. I was glad to see him. I think.
This year I don't hate myself as much as usual. Although the Grammys will always be a celebration of style and popularity over substance, there were several performances I actually liked, among them Radiohead's/The USC Marching Band's (best performance since Fleetwood Mac's Tusk) take on "15 Steps," Justin Timberlake and T.I. (now there's a phrase I never expected to type), and Paul McCartney's surprisingly sprightly version of "I Saw Her Standing There."
There were the usual headscratching mashups (Stevie Wonder and The Jonas Brothers? Sugarland and Adele?), but overall I thought the performances were more interesting and varied than usual. The awards? I don't really give a rip, although if somebody has to win these things, it might as well be Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. I think Alison Krauss has won something like 173 Grammys now. It's hard to fault someone, though, who sings and plays so well, and is so self-effacingly shy. And Robert Plant! I'll even let it slide that I've had Raising Sand for something like two years now.
Friday, February 06, 2009
Artist Most in Need of an Editor/Sane Voice of Reason to Say "Ack! That's a Horrible, Bloated Idea" and "No, No, You Need to Pare It Way, Way Back"
1) Ryan Adams
2) Robert Pollard
3) Bill Mallonee
4) Bruce Springsteen (kidding; but less so on the last time out)
And the winner/loser is ... Robert Pollard.
I have varying degrees of respect for all the candidates, and downright love and affection for the last three. Still, the former Guided By Voices frontman is the easy winner here, primarily because his three going concerns (Boston Spaceships, Circus Devils, and solo Bob) churn out new albums on the order of one per month, and because every one of them has a couple inspired moments surrounded by utterly mind-numbing, pointless lyrical and musical swill. Pollard's latest solo effort The Crawling Distance is typical. It's his umpteenth record of the past year (honestly, I've lost count). It's got the usual jangly guitar riffage inspired by the British Invasion. It's got songs with inscrutable titles ("The Butler Stands For All Of Us," "By Silence Be Destroyed"), and lyrics that split the difference between non-sequiturs and vagueness. It's got great hooks that meander off into plodding noodling. It's got occasional memorable lines that never hang together long enough to suggest a broader meaning and context. It's a mess.
I miss the guy who used to only put out two puzzling, infuriatingly inconsistent, and frequently great lo-fi albums per year.
Tuesday, February 03, 2009
And that made me wonder about the albums that you and I might consider as the most disappointing albums we've ever heard. To be a Disappointing Album is not the same thing as to be a Horrendously Bad Album. We expect some albums to be Horrendously Bad, and they are, and we don't really care. The entire Ratt catalog comes to mind, briefly. But Disappointing Albums elicit a special pain. We like the artists who create them, and we want to like the work they create, but for whatever reasons, we can't find it within ourselves to muster much, if any, enthusiasm for the misguided mess we hear.
Here are my candidates for Most Disappointing Albums. What are yours?
-- Bruce Springsteen -- Working on a Dream
Bruce tries to croon. Bad idea. Bruce sings about finding true love at the checkout counter of the supermarket. Stupid idea. Bruce tries to write an outlaw tale that sounds like something Weird Al Yankovic would come up with if he was writing a parody of an Ennio Morricone soundtrack. Mind-numbingly misguided idea.
The Sex Pistols – The Great Rock ‘n Roll Swindle
They put it right out there in the title, but still. The concentrated venom and rage of Never Mind the Bollocks … gave way to this? A disco medley of Sex Pistols “hits”? A French version of “Anarchy in the U.K.,” complete with accordion solo? Sid Vicious’ transcendently awful rendition of Sinatra’s “My Way”? It’s hard to exaggerate just how far that middle finger was extended to the fans. This is a band that had to break up. No one would have bought a third album.
Bob Dylan – Self Portrait/Dylan/Down in the Groove/Dylan and the Dead
It’s a four-way tie for the Voice of a Generation. Bob Dylan has left more unreleased masterpieces in the can than any other songwriter has written masterpieces. But periodically he feels the need to short circuit his magnificent career by releasing tediously uninspired performances of his own songs (see that album with The Dead) and addled covers of contemporary songwriters such as Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon and easy-listening pop classics (“Let It Be Me,” “A Fool Such as I”).
The Pogues – Peace and Love
The Pogues had set the bar so high with Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash and If I Should Fall From Grace With God that a letdown was inevitable. Still, when it came, the crash was mighty. Shane MacGowan seems distant and uninvolved, the other songwriters aren’t able to pick up the slack, and the playing seems lifeless and dispirited.
Fleetwood Mac – Fleetwood Mac/Rumours
I’m being blasphemous, I know. I don’t care. I think Lindsey Buckingham is a pretty good songwriter. And I can’t stand Stevie Nicks, the Embraceable Ewe, and I’ll probably never get over the direction Buckingham and Nicks steered my favorite band. Yeah, yeah, they sold 50 million records and made a bunch of classics. Not to my ears. I loved the obscure but entirely praiseworthy Danny Kirwan/Bob Welch band that preceded this one. Check out Future Games and Bare Trees and listen to the band when they were at their peak.