Monday, June 29, 2009

The Halfway Point

Not content with year-end lists, many music critics now offer their thoughts at the halfway point. Here are mine. For what it's worth, I think 2009 has been a fabulous musical year, with quality and innovation bursting forth in every genre. In typical fashion, my list is all over the place. That's because I like music, all kinds of music, and I see no reason to compartmentalize my listening habits.

My #1 album isn't out until August 18th. Sorry about that. It just happens to be the best album I've heard so far this year. When it comes out, you should buy it.

1) Joe Henry -- Blood from Stars

Three masterpieces in a row now from the best songwriter you've probably never heard. This is weary lounge music for 3:00 a.m., jazz from another planet, with lyrics that can stand on their own as poetry.

2) The Antlers -- Hospice

Maybe it's because I suffer from seasonal depression (basically all four seasons, but November through March in Columbus, Ohio, when the sun doesn't shine, is particularly brutal). Maybe it's because I'm a sucker for the pensive folk songs of Bon Iver. But this a terrific and terrifically depressing album, perfect for bedroom philosophers.

3) Aaron Strumpel -- Elephants

If you would have told me six months ago that one of my favorite albums of the year would be based on the Psalms, I would have told you that you don't know me very well. Long the purview of schlockmeisters and saccharine hacks, Aaron Strumpel has stolen the hymnbook of ancient Israel back for the regular folks, including folks like David (the original blues harp player) who bitch and moan and cry out in pain. This album wails. Add the tribal chanting and the horn section cribbed from avant-garde jazzbos The Art Ensemble of Chicago and you've got something very rare and special indeed.

4) Two Cow Garage -- Speaking in Cursive

Okay, it came out in late 2008. But I didn't hear it until a few weeks ago. Raw punk energy, some cowpoke guitar licks, and a lead singer/songwriter who gargles with Drano and reads T.S. Eliot. What's not to love?

5) The Decemberists -- The Hazards of Love

Oh boy. This is bound to be the most divisive album of the year. They're prissy literary wanks to begin with, and they up the ante this time by recording a no-singles, 17-song suite/concept album about, wait for it, a woman named Margaret who is ravaged by a shape-shifting animal; her lover, William, who is desperate for the two of them to be reunited; a forest queen; and a villainous rake. Umm, yeah. Me? I love it. But I love all those Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span albums from the late '60s/early '70s, too, and this one is very much a part of that tradition.

6) The Receiver -- Length of Arms

Columbus kids make good. If Radiohead had continued in the prog-rock direction of OK Computer, this is what they might sound like in 2009.

7) Dave Perkins -- Pistol City Holiness

Raw, visceral blues, equal parts Stevie Ray guitar pyrotechnics and steamy Delta stomp. And some pretty great and funny lyrics, too. Witness "Preacher Blues: "I would hang with the Baptists if they could get that girl for me." That's some love and desperation.

8) Darcy James Argue -- Infernal Machines

Big band music for folks who like Jimi Hendrix and Parliament Funkadelic. This is unlike any jazz I've heard before.

9) Antony and the Johnsons -- The Crying Light

Is it chamber music for the cabaret? An Off-Off-Off-Off Broadway musical? Whatever it is, Antony Hegarty has made a lovely, contemplative, heartbreaking album, his voice soaring and mournful, the strings tracing the pensive themes of memory and loss, holding on to color in a world of fading grey. This is a beautiful album.

10) Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears -- Tell 'Em What Your Name Is

Pure funk and soul, a la James Brown. I didn't think they made music like this anymore. I was wrong.

Honorable Mention

Akron/Family -- Set "Em Wild, Set 'Em Free
Alasdair Roberts -- Spoils
Allen Toussaint -- The Bright Mississippi
Alligators -- Piggy and Cups
Animal Collective -- Merriwether Post Pavillion
Bonnie "Prince" Billy -- Beware
Brandi Shearer -- Love Don't Make You Juliet
Bruce Cockburn -- Slice O Life
Buddy and Julie Miller -- Written in Chalk
Burnt Sugar -- Making Love to the Dark Ages
Castanets -- Texas Rose, the Thaw and the Beasts
Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women -- Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women
Devon Sproule -- I Don't Hurry for Heaven
Diana Jones -- Better Times Will Come
Dirty Projectors -- Bitte Orca
Gasoline Heart -- Cucumber Riot
The Gourds -- Haymaker!
Gregory Alan Isakov -- This Empty Northern Hemisphere
Gretel -- The Dregs
Grizzly Bear -- Veckatimest
Hermas Zopoula -- Espoir
I Was A King -- I Was A King
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey -- One Day in Brooklyn
Japandroids -- Post-Nothing
Joe Lovano -- Folk Art
John Doe and the Sadies -- Country Club
Kevin Devine -- Brother's Blood
Laura Gibson -- Beasts of Seasons
Leonard Cohen -- Live in London
The Lonely Forest -- We Sing the Body Electric
M. Ward -- Hold Time
Madeleine Peyroux -- Bare Bones
Marco Benevento -- Me Not Me
Marianne Faithfull -- Easy Come Easy Go
Marissa Nadler -- Little Hells
Mono -- Hymn to the Immortal Wind
Neko Case -- Middle Cyclone
No Through Road -- Winner.
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart -- The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
Passion Pit -- Manners
Patrick Watson -- Wooden Arms
Pine Leaf Boys -- Homage au Passe
Son Volt -- American Central Dust
The Soul of John Black -- Black John
Southeast Engine -- From the Forest to the Sea
St. Vincent -- Actor
Strand of Oaks -- Leave Ruin
U2 -- No Line on the Horizon
The Von Ehrics -- Loaded
Wild Light -- Adult Nights
Will Gray -- Introducing Will Gray
William Elliott Whitmore -- Animals in the Dark

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Secret, Unpublished Job Market

One of my colleagues in my MBA program is now selling herself as a "career coach," and has sent me an email message advertising an upcoming seminar. One of the topics to be discussed is "Accessing the Secret, Unpublished Job Market."

What this suggests to me is that deep in the bowels of, say, The Pentagon, or perhaps The Louvre, there are technical writers still working, clandestinely employed on documenting our transition to socialism, or whatever it is the important people are up to these days. They're probably not paid well, but at least they're all paid the same. And this sounds much cooler than The DaVinci Code to me. I think I'll go. You think I'll be sharing the secrets with you poor, uninformed schleps? That's what the Pay-Per-View blog is for. A guy's gotta find some way to earn a couple extra dollars. But I'll say this: that dude is creepy. If I look like him after the secrets of the unpublished job market are revealed, you have my permission to fire me and ensure that I am never hired again.

Monday, June 22, 2009

No Through Road/Two Cow Garage

The albums come in never-ending waves. They blur together. Sometimes they stand out. And when they do, I try to tell you about them. Here are two that have stood out in the past couple weeks.

No Through Road -- Winner.

Yes, the period is part of the title. Thank you, TV on the Radio and latest album Dear Science,. Punctuation is your friend.......

No Through Road hail from Adelaide, Australia, where apparently the music world is stuck in a 2002 timewarp, and where all the cool kids are listening to Interpol and The Strokes. That's okay. I like Interpol and The Strokes, and this band recaptures the sound really, really well. "Party to Survive," the video shown above, sounds like a lost track from Is This It?, and a great one at that. "Berlin Wall" and "Your Fall" are just as good, and the album careens right along until it flames out on the final track, the 10-minute, feedback-bedraggled "(this isn't) Rock 'n Roll." It's technically true. It's mostly noise. But there's a lot of great rock 'n roll along the way.

Two Cow Garage -- Speaking In Cursive

In a more just universe, Columbus' own Two Cow Garage would be playing the big summer festivals. Instead, they detonate their killer live shows night after night in front of mostly indifferent fans in dive bars in the Midwest.

Sounding either like Steve Earle fronting The Replacements or Paul Westerberg fronting Drive-By Truckers, take your pick, these four lads rock and lope, but mostly they bash the hell out of their instruments and sing their rough and ragged but literate tales of the lost and the losers, kids who were raised on Jesus and Disney movies and meth labs, bored and lethargic and intermittently, furiously committed to busting out of their dead-end farm towns.

In Micah Schnabel the band has not only a thoroughly captivating, gravel-voiced singer, but a fine writer who piles up little cinematic details that somehow manage to capture a whole lifetime of beauty and waste: "She wore a Led Zeppelin T-shirt, a Virgin Mary tattoo/On her left shoulder like a badge of honor, but faded green to blue." That's the start of the disarmingly desperate "Sadie Mae." Damn, dude, you had me at the first line.

There are thirteen songs here and thirteen winners; raw, jagged slices of visceral rock 'n roll that redefine both the words "poetry" and "slam." Speaking in Cursive is Album #4 in an ongoing series of criminally ignored releases. It's one of my favorite albums of the year, and it needs to be heard.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

100 Most Essential Folk Songs

The good folks at Kent State University's WKSU recently polled their listeners in search of a master list of "The 100 Most Essential Folk Songs." The results are shown below.

There are the usual problems inherent in any such list, mainly the definition of "folk" and its inevitable overlap with other genres. Gram Parsons, folk singer? Really? "Like a Rolling Stone," folk song? You've got to be kidding me. It's also dominated by old fogies, and one suspects that the listeners aren't spending much time with Bon Iver or Fleet Foxes. That aside, it's a pretty good, representative list, and certainly includes most of the acknowledged highlights.

The 100 Essential Folk Songs

Song -Written OR Performed by
  1. This Land is Your Land - Woody Guthrie
  2. Blowin’ in the Wind - Bob Dylan
  3. City of New Orleans - Steve Goodman
  4. If I Had a Hammer - Pete Seeger
  5. Where Have All The Flowers Gone - The Kingston Trio
  6. Early Morning Rain - Gordon Lightfoot
  7. Suzanne - Leonard Cohen
  8. We Shall Overcome - Pete Seeger
  9. Four Strong Winds - Ian and Sylvia
  10. Last Thing On My Mind - Tom Paxton

  11. The Circle Game - Joni Mitchell
  12. Tom Dooley - The Kingston Trio (Trad)
  13. Both Sides Now - Joni Mitchell
  14. Who Knows Where The Time Goes - Sandy Denny
  15. Goodnight Irene - The Weavers (Trad)
  16. Universal Soldier - Buffy St Marie
  17. Don’t Think Twice - Bob Dylan
  18. Diamonds and Rust - Joan Baez
  19. Sounds of Silence - Simon & Garfunkel
  20. The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald - Gordon Lightfoot

  21. Alice’s Restaurant - Arlo Guthrie
  22. Turn, Turn, Turn - The Byrds (Pete Seeger)
  23. Puff The Magic Dragon - Peter, Paul and Mary
  24. Thirsty Boots - Eric Andersen
  25. There But For Fortune - Phil Ochs
  26. Across The Great Divide - Kate Wolf
  27. The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down - The Band (Robbie Robertson)
  28. The Dutchman - Steve Goodman
  29. Matty Groves - Fairport Convention (Trad)

  30. Pastures of Plenty - Woody Guthrie
  31. Canadian Railroad Trilogy - Gordon Lightfoot
  32. Ramblin’ Boy - Tom Paxton
  33. Hello In There - John Prine
  34. The Mary Ellen Carter - Stan Rogers
  35. Scarborough Fair - Martin Carthy (Trad)
  36. Freight Train - Elizabeth Cotton
  37. Like a Rolling Stone - Bob Dylan
  38. Paradise - John Prine
  39. Northwest Passage - Stan Rogers

  40. And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda - Eric Bogel
  41. Changes - Phil Ochs
  42. Streets of London - Ralph McTell
  43. Gentle On My Mind - John Hartford
  44. Barbara Allen - Shirley Collins (Trad)
  45. Little Boxes - Malvina Reynolds
  46. The Water is Wide - Traditional
  47. Blue Moon of Kentucky - Bill Monroe
  48. No Regrets - Tom Rush
  49. Amazing Grace - Odetta (Trad)

  50. Catch The Wind - Donovan
  51. If I Were a Carpenter - Tim Hardin
  52. Big Yellow Taxi - Joni Mitchell
  53. House of the Rising Sun - Doc & Richard Watson (Trad)
  54. Kisses Sweeter Than Wine - The Weavers
  55. Tangled Up In Blue - Bob Dylan
  56. The Boxer - Simon and Garfunkel
  57. Someday Soon - Ian and Sylvia
  58. 500 Miles - Peter, Paul and Mary
  59. Masters of War - Bob Dylan

  60. Wildwood Flower - Carter Family
  61. Can The Circle Be Unbroken - Carter Family
  62. Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound - Tom Paxton
  63. Teach Your Children - Crosby, Stills Nash & Young
  64. Deportee - Woody Guthrie
  65. Tecumseh Valley - Towns Van Zandt
  66. Mr. Bojangles - Jerry Jeff Walker
  67. Cold Missouri Waters - James Keeleghan
  68. The Crucifixion - Phil Ochs
  69. Angel from Montgomery - John Prine

  70. Christmas in the Trenches - John McCutcheon
  71. John Henry - Traditional
  72. Pack Up Your Sorrows - Richard and Mimi Farina
  73. Dirty Old Town - Ewan MacColl
  74. Caledonia - Dougie MacLean
  75. Gentle Arms of Eden - Dave Carter
  76. My Back Pages - Bob Dylan
  77. Arrow - Cheryl Wheeler
  78. Hallelujah - Leonard Cohen
  79. Eve of Destruction - Barry McGuire

  80. Man of Constant Sorrow - Ralph Stanley (Trad)
  81. Shady Grove - Traditional
  82. Pancho and Lefty - Townes Van Zandt
  83. Old Man - Neil Young
  84. Mr. Tambourine Man - Bob Dylan
  85. American Tune - Paul Simon
  86. At Seventeen - Janis Ian
  87. Bridge Over Troubled Water - Simon & Garfunkel
  88. Road - Nick Drake
  89. Tam Lin - Fairport Convention (Trad)

  90. Ashokan Farewell - Jay Ungar and Molly Mason
  91. Desolation Row - Bob Dylan
  92. Love Is Our Cross To Bear - John Gorka
  93. Hobo’s Lullaby - Woody Guthrie
  94. Urge For Going - Tom Rush
  95. Return of the Grievous Angel - Gram Parsons
  96. Chilly Winds - The Kingston Trio
  97. Fountain of Sorrow - Jackson Browne
  98. The Times They Are A Changing - Bob Dylan
  99. Our Town - Iris Dement
  100. Leaving on a Jet Plane - John Denver

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Last Hurrah of the Music Industry?

From the AP:

A federal jury Thursday found a 32-year-old Minnesota woman guilty of illegally downloading music from the Internet and fined her $80,000 each -- a total of $1.9 million -- for 24 songs.

Illegal downloads of musical files will cost a Minnesota woman $1.9 million, a jury has decided.

Jammie Thomas-Rasset's case was the first such copyright infringement case to go to trial in the United States, her attorney said.
Attorney Joe Sibley said that his client was shocked at the fine, noting that the price tag on the songs she downloaded was 99 cents.

She plans to appeal, he said.

Cara Duckworth, a spokeswoman for the Recording Industry Association of America, said the RIAA was "pleased that the jury agreed with the evidence and found the defendant liable."

"We appreciate the jury's service and that they take this as seriously as we do," she said.

Thomas-Rasset downloaded work by artists such as No Doubt, Linkin Park, Gloria Estefan and Sheryl Crow.

This was the second trial for Thomas-Rasset. The judge ordered a retrial in 2007 after there was an error in the wording of jury instructions. The fines jumped considerably from the first trial, which granted just $220,000 to the recording companies. Thomas-Rasset is married with four children and works for an Indian tribe in Minnesota.

Buy a 50-inch high-definition TV for your kid. Plug it in, and hand him the remote control. Then say, "If you turn this on and watch the picture, you're going to be fined millions of dollars. You make $7.25 per hour at Taco Bell? Too bad."

That's the fine predicament that the dearly beloved Recording Industry Association of America finds itself in these days. Everybody knows it's wrong to download music for which you haven't paid. The poor, suffering artists deserve to eat, same as your taco-stuffing kid, and, by God, the fat cats at the big labels deserve their 90% of the cut, too, I suppose. But try explaining to your taco-stuffing kid[1], who also happens to have iTunes, and a flash drive, and friends in the dorm who have iTunes, and who has somehow inexplicably ended up with 20,000 songs on the ol' laptop, that it's a bad idea to download music for free. What was that rationale, again?

"Just don't do it," you tell them. "Put down that remote control. Pay no attention to that big shiny screen, or that Power button."

Given the current exigencies -- the presence of the big screen, the remote control in hand, the power most definitely being ON -- it's getting increasingly difficult to convince anyone that they shouldn't press that magic button. I know a lot of musicians. And I sympathize with their predicament, really I do. I honestly believe that they deserve to make a living doing what they do best. But perhaps, dear RIAA, it's time to rethink what "making a living" might look like. And perhaps you might earn just a smidgen more sympathy if you didn't sue some poor social worker for $1.9 million for downloading 24 songs. That's $950,000 per album. Must be nice songs.

Changes in technology have always driven the market. New ways of doing business are created. Old ways of doing business fall by the wayside. Anybody bought a set of Encylopedia Britannicas or an 8-track tape player lately? The smart musicians and the smart music labels have already figured this out. They're promoting the music online, offering complimentary tracks for download, marketing new music in unconventional and creative ways. And, astoundingly enough, in spite of the dire warnings that the sky is falling, there are still many musicians who are able to earn a more-than-comfortable living. But as long as the RIAA is calling the shots, there will still be those proponents of the equivalent of hard-bound encyclopedias and 8-track tapes, ready to sue the shit out of any poor schlep who dares to push the magic button and listen to the pretty sounds.

I love music. And I love musicians. But I can't help hoping that this is the last hurrah of a dying music industry. Some things deserve to die. The RIAA is one of them.

[1] Disclaimer: "Kid" in this case is purely hypothetical. Yes, I have kids. They don't work at Taco Bell.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Forgotten Detroit

It's stunning, really. You don't have to travel to Rome to view ancient ruins. You can just head up I-75 and get your fill.

The photos at Forgotten Detroit are sobering, and sad, and beautiful. This is what happens when a once-great city is left behind. That's the waiting room of the Michigan Central train depot, abandoned since the trains stopped rolling in 1988. There's a ghost town just a few hours north of me. The stories in those walls are mostly untold. There's nobody to tell them.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Jim Carroll, Catholic Boy

A couple things come to mind when I read that a writer has made a rock 'n roll record. First, I expect the lyrics to be better than average. They should be. Writers presumably know how to communicate in insightful ways. Second, I expect it to suck. This is because the ability to write weighty content does not translate to good rock 'n roll, and often results in unlistenable, pretentious twaddle.

I've been writing elsewhere about Jim Carroll, teenaged junkie and prostitute, basketball star, Pulitzer Prize nominee, and one hell of a writer. Jack Kerouac thought enough of Carroll to proclaim, "At thirteen years of age, Jim Carroll writes better prose than 89 percent of the novelists working today." His book The Basketball Diaries was the stuff of legend, a flat-out hallucinogenic, disturbing masterpiece about leading a double life at the ripe old age of 15; basketball hero at a posh NYC high school, on his way to scholarships and accolades, and heroin addict who hustled gay men to support his habit. So when Carroll decided to make a rock 'n roll record, which he did in 1980, I was both intrigued and skeptical. It was bound to be a fascinating ride. But would it sound any good?

It turned out to be just fine. That debut album, called Catholic Boy, was and is one of the great records of the early '80s, an adrenaline shot of anger and despair and black humor, smart enough to obliquely reference Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor, visceral enough to encompass overdoses and gangland murders, and buttressed by immortal power chords. It was as if Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe had gone to Harvard, double majored in journalism and philosophy, and then joined the Velvet Underground and plugged a guitar into a stack of Marshall amps. The album's most famous song, "People Who Died," was all over the radio in late 1980, and the day after John Lennon was assassinated radio stations were inundated with requests for Carroll's litany of heartbreak and despair. It earned him a shot on Saturday Night Live, and his performance is still one of the most memorable from a long and distinguished list of great musical acts that have appeared on the show.

He's never bettered Catholic Boy, although he's made a handful of albums since then. And if "People Who Died" is the undeniable highlight, the whole album is still revelatory, the perfect merger of a smart guy, a world falling apart, and the anguished howl that resulted. I'm still particularly partial to the title track, shown above. That's because I'm a Catholic boy, too, born and raised, and I don't know if anyone has better encapsulated that peculiar package of hope and guilt, the promise of heaven and the weight of the world. I love this stuff; music, lyrics, the whole desperate shebang.

I was born in a pool, they made my mother stand
And I spat on that surgeon and his trembling hand
When I felt the light I was worse than bored
I stole the doctor's scalpel and I slit the cord

I was a Catholic boy,
Redeemed through pain,
Not through joy

I was two months early they put me under glass
I screamed and cursed their children when the nurses passed
Was convicted of theft when I slipped from the womb
They led me straight from my mother to a cell in the Tombs

I was a Catholic boy,
Redeemed through pain,
Not through joy

They starved me for weeks, they thought they'd teach me fear
I fed on cellmates' dreams, it gave me fine ideas
When they cut me loose, the time had served me well
I made allies in heaven, I made comrades in Hell

I was a Catholic child
The blood ran red
The blood ran wild

I make angels dance and drop to their knees
When I enter a church the feet of statues bleed
I understand the fate of all my enemies
Just like Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane

I was a Catholic boy,
Redeemed through pain,
Not through joy

I watched the sweetest psalm stolen by the choir
I dreamed of martyrs' bones hanging from a wire
I make a contribution, I get absolution
I make a resolution to purify my soul

I was a Catholic boy,
Redeemed through pain,
Not through joy

They can't touch me now
I got every sacrament behind me:
I got baptism,
I got communion,
I got penance,
I got extreme unction
I've got confirmation
'Cause I'm a Catholic child
The blood ran red
The blood ran wild!
Now I'm a Catholic man
I put my tongue to the rail whenever I can.
-- Jim Carroll, "Catholic Boy"

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Saving Private Whitman

I just finished Martin Gilbert's massive history of World War II, called, surprisingly enough, The Second World War. I read tales of heroism, deceit, and unimaginable evil. And it's the unimaginable evil that sticks with me. On page after page I read variations of "On [date], [number] of Jews were deported from the ghetto in [city_name] to [concentration_camp_name]."

It was, and is, mind-numbing. But when my mind thawed, I felt incredible rage. And when I feel incredible rage, I do what any self-respecting, aging computer nerd in the early 21st century does: I took my Medal of Honor video game down from the shelf and re-enacted the D-Day landing scenario, shooting scores of Nazis with my hair-trigger mouse button. It's bravery from the comfort and privacy of the den. I'll get to the dishes in a minute. Right now, I'm going in.

Nazis are evil people. No, really. They are. And if you doubt that, just turn on the news. They're still at it, still shooting people at places like The Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. But there are many evil people in the world, and some of them are not Nazis. Some of them kidnap little kids and sell them as sex slaves. Some of them round up homeless people in Columbus, Ohio and recruit them to hold advertising signs on street corners, and pay them $10 per day for the privilege. And it occurs to me that if my faith means anything, I need to get out of the den. Shooting virtual Nazis doesn't really solve anything. I'm not always sure what it means to engage the suffering of the world, to hit back at evil with a big roundhouse of love, but I suspect I need to take my swings in the real world. I think, above all, that I'm going in.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

MP3 Me

My buddy Hayseed invited me to play along via Facebook, but since I don't do Facebook, I'll do it here. Here's the deal:

Repost this note (if you want) and (at the very least) tag me. I want to see the results.

Once you've been tagged...

(1) Turn on your MP3 player or I guess your music player on your computer if you don't have an MP3 player.

(2) Go to SHUFFLE songs mode.

(3) Write down the first 15 songs that come up -- song title and artist -- NO editing/cheating, please.

(4) If you have the Red Hot Chili Peppers on your iPod, you are disqualified from playing. You should be ashamed.

Okay, I made up #4. Here's what came up for me:

1) Rococo -- Bela Fleck and the Flecktones
2) Vampires and Failures -- Grampaboy
3) Cheap Ain't Cheap (For Crying Out Loud) --
Scott Miller
4) Cello Sonata No. 4 in C Major, Opus 102, No. 1, Andante -- Ludwig Van Beethoven
5) Holland -- Sufjan Stevens
6) I Don't Care Who Knows -- Catherine Russell
7) Remembering Gamble -- Pierce Pettis
8) Gypsy Rover -- Boiled in Lead
9) Campus -- Vampire Weekend
10) New Brighton Promenade -- The Boo Radleys
11) I Can't Remember -- Vigilantes of Love
12) Cold Roses -- Ryan Adams
13) Another Morning -- American Music Club
14) Stumbling to Bethlehem -- Patti Scialfa
15) Classico -- Giant Sand

Gasoline Heart -- Cucumber Riot

There are a million Springsteen-influenced roots rock bands. But not all of them are good. And virtually none of them offer their music for free. So you should take advantage of the fact that one of the good ones, Orlando, Florida's Gasoline Heart, is offering their new album Cucumber Riot for free, right here.

This is no-frills rock 'n roll, no apologies offered or needed. The guitars ring, the drums slam, and the lead singer hyperventilates while screaming and growling well-written odes to love, lost and found. It's an old formula, but when it works (and it works here), it's just about the best sound in the world. You ought to pay money for this. But in this case, you don't have to. And no, I have no idea why cucumbers might incite a riot.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

What's In A Name?

Words are freighted with all manner of cultural connotations. When I first became a Christian, or a follower of Jesus, or whatever it was that I became, I was surrounded by young men and women who called themselves "Jesus People." This was in contrast to "Christians," who, theoretically, were old, stodgy folks who hung out in the midst of stained glass and hardwood pews and whose faith didn't make much of a difference in their lives. In contrast, the Jesus People were totally sold out to Jesus. They understood and were committed to the gospel in ways that other people were not. They were going to change the world for Christ. One particularly virulent strain of Jesus People -- one that I hung out with and lived with (in communal homes, naturally; the biblical way) for eight years -- called themselves "a New Testament Church." After two thousand years, a group of brave, enlightened hippies in the inner city of Columbus, Ohio had finally got it right.

I am being sarcastic, of course, but I still understand the impetus behind such labels. There is always a fair amount of hubris behind such activities, but there is also a good and noble desire to reclaim lost territory. Now I am hanging out with second-generation Jesus People, and this time some of them call themselves "Followers of Christ." To them, "Christians" are warmongering Republicans who occasionally appear in pulpits and presidential offices, and who use and misuse the Bible to further their own ungodly ends. It is certainly possible to disagree with this view, of course. I'm merely noting it to convey the stereotype that the "Followers of Christ" are trying to combat. But it is a little like bearing the name "Judas" or "Adolf," two good, sturdy names with long histories in Jewish and German culture, respectively. Once the name is notoriously ruined, it is difficult to go back to it, and one longs to change one's name to "Dylan" or "Logan" or something else. And for some of the people I know, the "Christian" label is forever tainted with undesirable associations in the culture at large. It creates automatic barriers. Some of the barriers -- dying to self, and living for Christ, for example -- need to be there. They are part and parcel with the gospel. But others do not. And the impetus behind the label change is a desire for the stumbling block to be the gospel itself, not the cultural baggage that has come to accompany it.

The Church -- and by that I mean the historic group of Christians who have comprised it -- has always been in motion; always adapting, always correcting. I don't really care if people call themselves "Christians" or "Jesus People" or "Followers of Christ." I care that they live like Jesus. I see these label changes as relatively minor ripples in the bigger pond of dying to self and living for Christ. That's the hardest thing to do, regardless of what you call yourself. Certainly since the time of Constantine that living and difficult transformation has been readily subsumed under the easier but sometimes deadening impact of "the Christian culture." The label changes shake it up a little bit. They remind us of what we're supposed to be about. I think that's a good thing.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Joe Cocker Decrypted

With the 40th anniversary of Woodstock coming up, I thought it was worth noting that decades of dedicated investigative work have now resulted in the decryption of Joe Cocker's legendary performance of The Beatles' "With a Little Help From My Friends." At last the truth can be revealed: "Lord, I know you're a guy. Put on this turban." See, it was a Christian song all along, and nobody even knew it at the time. Oh baby, hoggify.

Chuck Berry

It's all rather passe these days to praise the work of '50s rock 'n roll icons. The 50th anniversary of Buddy Holly's death merited some attention earlier this winter, and Elvis remains a perennial subject of derision and awe, but for the most part the first generation of rock 'n rollers is seen as a quaint reminder of a bygone era, as contemporary as a trip to the drug store soda fountain for a chocolate malt.

And so it was with some surprise that my recent re-exploration of the music of Chuck Berry revealed an artist who still sounds supremely relevant. Chuck, of course, has his share of '50s cultural reference points -- hamburger stands, jukeboxes, long-distance phone operators, American Bandstand shows and Coupe de Villes. In those ways he is perhaps the quintessential '50s rocker. But there is also a timeless and utterly American quality to many of his best songs that extends from his love affair with fast cars (The Beach Boys and Bruce Springsteen obviously took some notes) to the universal celebration of the end of the school and work day, that magical moment when the drudgery is finished and it's time to cut loose and live.

More significantly, Chuck Berry, more than any early rock 'n roller, retained his connection to Chicago blues, and perhaps for that reason his music still sounds utterly contemporary. Chuck, after all, appeared on Chess Records, the label of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, and although he undoubtedly took his music in a new direction, he still retained the old-school rawness and grit. It's particularly evident in the piano work of Johnny Johnson, the bass work of Willie Dixon, and the slamming drum work of Fred Below, legitimate blues stars in their own right, who sublimated their substantial egos in favor of laying down the barrelhouse rhythms that propelled these rollicking and often sharply observed vignettes of America on the cusp of change. Lyrically, these songs are poignant, funny, and sometimes devastatingly acerbic (hint: "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" didn't really have much to do with the protagonist's eyes). But musically it's that rhythm section and Chuck's signature guitar licks that are unmistakable. Sure, it's rock 'n roll. These are songs that pretty much define rock 'n roll. But underpinning it all is the blues, and that's a highway that travels a straight line from Muddy and the Wolf through Chuck through The Rolling Stones and The Beatles right on down to The White Stripes and The Black Keys. It's the most constricted and constrained music in the world, and it will never grow old because the real life is in those rhythms, in the grit.

The Great Twenty Eight, shown above, is still the definitive collection. It's a compilation that's been around for decades, and it's still the best, most concise primer on Chuck Berry's music. Every track is essential. The DNA of rock 'n roll is right here -- girls, cars, the celebration of youth culture, the longing to bust out of the routine, the drab, and to make one's mark as an individual. "I dote on myself, there is that lot of me and all so luscious," Walt Whitman once wrote, and Chuck Berry took those sentiments and wedded them to a backbeat and the most distinctive guitar work in the genre. It's marvellous music. And it deserves to be heard in 1959, more than 50 years after Chuck caught Maybelline at the top of the hill.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009


Back in Nixon's day, when all pseudo-hippies were listening to Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, a small cadre of would-be Hobbits discovered the wonders of the folk tradition of the British Isles. One Hobbit (let's call him Pippin; what the hell) found the wondrous album Liege and Lief by Fairport Convention, and passed it throughout the Shire, and soon the little folk were skipping merrily throughout suburban Chicago, singing "hey-nonny-nonny."

More albums followed. What We Did On Our Holidays and Unhalfbricking by Fairport Convention, Below the Salt and Parcel of Rogues by Steeleye Span, Bless the Weather and Solid Air by John Martyn, great but unheralded releases from Tir na Nog and Nick Drake, and, most crucially for this post, Sweet Child, Basket of Light, and Cruel Sister, by Pentangle.

The Hobbits got suckered in by the "fol-de-rol-diddle-a-day" choruses, but I'll give you the straight skinny. Yes, Pentangle borrowed liberally from the Trad songs of the British Isles. But they also borrowed from Delta blues, jazz, psychedelic jambands, and Indian sitar masters. In short, they were utterly unclassifiable. They had a cult following, but they never achieved a huge commercial breakthrough. They were probably too eclectic to pursue it seriously. Honestly, what do you do with a band that records old English murder ballads, Charles Mingus covers, and Furry Lewis blues tunes on the same album? What do you call that? I don't know. "Great" works for me.

I've been listening to much of this music again in my post-Shire life, this time courtesy of a boxed set called The Time Has Come. It was released a couple years ago, and I enjoyed it then, but I simply can't get enough of it now. There is so much goodness here that it is astounding. Pentangle had the requisite pure folk thrush in the person of one Jacqui McShee (every Trad band had one; see Sandy Denny and Maddy Prior for comparison's sake). Jacqui was just fine. But the real fireworks occurred instrumentally. Pentangle had two superb but very different guitarists in John Renbourn and Bert Jansch. Renbourn had the Trad folk background; Jansch wanted to jam on blues riffs. They were both spectacular in their own ways, and when you see a Pentangle song that is 13 minutes long, you can be assured, for once, that the band will be at its best, because Renbourn and Jansch will have plenty of space to solo and then duel with one another. Terry Cox on drums and Danny Thompson on bass essentially comprised a jazz rhythm section. They were five indomitable talents, and it couldn't, and didn't, last all that long. It was inevitable that they would split up and go their separate ways. But from 1968-1973 -- the period of this 4-CD boxed set -- they were one of the best, most creatively searching bands in the world. You owe it to yourself to check out this criminally overlooked band. This is timeless music, and it sounds as great today as the day it was recorded.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Woodstock, 40th Anniversary Edition

Before most of the hippies kick the bucket, we will have to suffer through the ignominy of the 50th anniversary of Woodstock. That will no doubt be a mindblower, man, when it occurs in 2019, and will find the former idealists, now Republicans, in their dotage, but still flying the freak flag and hearkening back to the glorious days of yore.

In the meantime, the 40th anniversary is coming up in just a couple months, and there are plenty of ways planned to nudge you farther along the free love --> capitalist consumer continuum. To help set the mood, Rhino is re-releasing the original soundtrack to the Michael Wadleigh documentary film that made every pre-adolescent kid, including me, long to be a rock star and to try the brown acid, which, although not specifically too good (according to the warning from the stage), was still apparently good enough to make nubile young women dance naked and wave their hands in the air. It was an image that worked for me.

So let's get it out of the way: yes, Woodstock was a landmark cultural event. Two years after the Summer of Love, and long after Haight-Ashbury had descended into anarchy, the film crews captured the commodification of hippiedom, the precise moment when the counterculture became the mainstream culture. After Woodstock, and for at least the next decade, every high school and college in America was dominated by the street(s) that spawned a movement. We thought it was the corner of Haight and Ashbury. Instead, it was just Madison Avenue, and there were tie-dyes and peace-sign earrings to be had at every department store in the land.

The music? You know what? It wasn't very good. Listening to the two hours of music here, forty years removed from its original context, it's apparent how badly most of these legendary bands performed. It was, without a doubt, intimidating to perform in front of 400,000 people. It was, I'm sure, tough to compete with almost half a million people zonked out of their minds, and thunderstorms, and power outages. But, aside from Santana and Sly and the Family Stone, who turned in incendiary sets that still sound great, most of these performances are disappointing. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young couldn't harmonize worth a damn, and when CSN&Y can't harmonize, there isn't much else to recommend. The Who, who were arguably the best rock 'n roll band in the world at the time, turned in a completely lackluster and ragged version of Tommy (or at least the little bit we get to see in the movie and hear in the soundtrack). John Sebastian, formerly of The Loving Spoonful, sounds like a stoned dipshit. Jimi Hendrix, whose version of "The Star Spangled Banner" closed the festival, surely captured the sounds of bombs bursting in air, but thirteen minutes of bombs bursting in air now sounds like, pardon the pun, overkill. Joan Baez sounds like her lower lip is quivering with indignation, and Country Joe and the Fish still have to be the luckiest band in the world, an otherwise undistinguished and completely forgettable bunch who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. The numerous stage announcements still retain their historical charm, and I still think it's impressive that Wavy Gravy and company found a way to whip up breakfast in bed for 400,000. But, in general, this soundtrack has not aged well at all.

If you haven't seen it, watch the documentary, if for no other reason than to see the naive but admirable idealism. Don't take the brown acid. And don't take any of it particularly seriously. Utopias, this side of heaven, are not a good bet. Altamont, where the counterculture fell apart, took place only four months after Woodstock.

The Rural Alberta Advantage -- Hometowns

I've never been to Alberta, and I've certainly never been to rural Alberta, which I suppose is pretty much the whole province outside of Calgary and Edmonton. I'm not sure why it would be advantageous to hail from there. More moose sightings, perhaps. But Hometowns, the debut album from The Rural Alberta Advantage, a trio of non-antlered bi-peds who have now migrated to Toronto, makes the case that the windswept prairies are a prime impetus behind their creativity.

Here's the good news and the bad news: Hometowns sounds remarkably like Neutral Milk Hotel. That means you get the kind of furious, barely contained folk punk that NMH perfected on albums such as In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, and that means that at times it's very good indeed. You also, per the inevitable Jeff Mangum comparisons, get a lead singer in Nils Edenloff who sings in an off-key nasal yelp. Minus the Salvation-Army-band-on-acid influences that add much needed texture and variety to the NMH albums, Edenloff is left only with that yelp, a bevy of songs that reference western Canada, and the stalwart work of drummer Paul Banwatt, who bashes the hell out of his drum kit on every song. It's not quite enough, although it's impossible not to be impressed by the prodigious racket.

God knows Edenloff wants you to know where he's from. "The Ballad of the RAA," which kicks off the album, recounts the band's journey from Alberta to Toronto. "The Deathbridge in Lethbridge" namechecks a small Alberta city and its most famous landmark. "Frank, AB" references a mining disaster in the town of the same name. "Edmonton" leaves the rural prairies behind and explores the big city. At times the Neutral Milk Hotel influences are overpowering. "Drain the Blood" is an almost note-for-note recapitulation of NMH's "Holland 1945," complete with overamped guitars and my-skull-is-gonna-explode vocals. But Edenloff is at his best when he tones it down just a notch, as on the ramshackle folk rumble of "Rush Apart," a fine approximation of an early Dylan hootenanny. The album peters out toward the back end, but the first half dozen songs throw down the gauntlet, and constitute the best sustained folk punk attack I've heard since the last Ezra Furman album. The yelp will be offputting to some, but I'm impressed with the raw materials here, and I look forward to hearing what these transplanted Albertans will do in the future.